Facing the Double Drops
Picture yourself a Magic player. Okay, you’re here, so you probably don’t have to picture that. Odds are, you’ve also probably gone to a tournament or two, so you know a little bit about the way those work. You’ve sat behind your desk or at your table at home and pored over your collection, and you’ve spent the countless hours and had the agonizing headaches when you made the decisions about the final cards to cut. And so, I’ll just tell you to bring back those memories, and picture yourself at a tournament, with the fifty minutes ticking down, a handful of cards, and in front of you, two untapped Islands.
What do you do?
At this point, there’s obviously a number of things I haven’t told you: How much mana you have, whether your opponent has cards in hand, and what your respective life totals are, but the crux of the problem still remains: Two untapped Islands is one of the most intimidating combinations of available mana that have ever come up in the long history of Magic, and it is the mark of the best players to know how to handle that situation.
The ability to handle this and other choices is, in a large part, what makes your deck strong, and you a skillful player, and while every deck will handle this stop differently, the choice will usually end up boiling down to two or three answers: forge ahead, be patient, and in some cases, try to get around it somehow.
The first case is probably the simplest. Follow the example of All-In Red and nearly every mono-green creature deck ever: Play out your hand, lay it all on the table, and something will eventually get through. Even the best blue deck still has the limit of its mana, and they will run out of counterspells. The theory behind this strategy is solid, and Wizards had printed a number of cards in recent years that facilitate it: Hell’s Thunder and Hellspark Elemental can still get in for damage even when they’ve been countered, and they’re cheap enough to be played when your opponent can only counter once or twice. Staggershock, with rebound, punishes an opponent who doesn’t counter it, and if they do, they’ve countered what amounts to a much less powerful bit of magic. Cards with kicker and X costs allow you to make decisions about exactly how much you want to commit to a single strike, and controlling how much you invest in certain spells will allow you to draw out counterspells, if you want, or just power through any resistance.
The second case takes a bit more finesse. If you are playing a similar control deck against an opponent, chances are you are each going to be careful about committing your creatures and mana. In this situation, you need to be mindful about your hand size getting away from you. It is laudable for you to be keeping your options open, but having to discard down every turn because you and your opponent have reached a standoff is going to make for long, frustrating, and very repetitive games. Cards like Ponder and Preordain will let you set up for the long haul, and at the same time keep your momentum strong. Then, cards you’ll probably see your opponent using, Counterspell, Negate, Mana Leak and the like will keep your opponent from getting away from you, in theory. Finally, you need something to just edge yourself a little ways ahead, so things like extra mana in the form of a Everflowing Chalice you proliferate a few times, or a Helix Pinnacle you pump up with all the mana you’ve got left over.
Finally, the last case is the trickiest. Usually, this revolves around taking advantage of options, rather that choices, something Wizards has sworn they have been trying to limit in recent years. Their efforts haven’t really been successful, but the results have been interesting. One way of getting around the counterspell is to use abilities that function without needing spells. Zendikar block had a ton of these, with landfall triggers all over the place, because neither the trigger nor the result usually relied on a spell. Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle, for example, turned Mountains into Lightning Bolts, a nifty little trick that turns an ordinarily frustrating topdeck into something extraordinarily useful. Similarly, any planeswalker, but especially powerful ones like Gideon Jura give you an option of a strong once-per-turn ability that can only be countered by a few, very rare effects in the game. Another way to do this is to use cards that perform more than one function at once, like Cryptic Command or Mistbind Clique. The former always performs two functions, but they vary based on the situation, and the latter always performs the same function, but its effectiveness varies based on when you play it. Either way, the idea is the same: By doing more than one thing at once, you can move faster, hinder your opponent harder, or hinder them and help yourself at the same time. When you keep your options open like this, it becomes harder for your opponent to predict how you’ll react to a given situation, even one where they might otherwise have the upper hand, and thus, you’ve turned their “make you think” tough spot back on them.
Now, other players might be tempted to tell you to play the player more actively, but it’s discourteous, if not flat out illegal, to make the game harder for your opponent in most other ways. It’s wrong to misrepresent the game state, and somewhat condescending to only remind your opponent of their “may” triggers after they’ve missed them, for example. Better to let them take responsibility for their game, and only call them out through a judge, and if there really is a problem. Your mind, likewise, should be focused on your game, and by making your strategy clear in your own head from the start, you’ve already taken a good first step.
That’s all for now. Until next we meet in the Multiverse, travel well.