Lately I’ve been talking a lot about choices in deckbuilding, so today I want to change it up a bit and talk about a really important concept in gameplay. I touched on this briefly in my three-part series on threat assessment, but I think it’s a topic that’s important enough to warrant its own article.
Information is one of the most valuable things in the game of Magic. It’s part of the reason why Gitaxian Probe is currently banned in Modern, and the lack of complete information is why Magic strategy is conceptually closer to poker than it is to chess. In Magic, there are three general types of information available to us as players. I’m going to pull the definitions directly from the MTR because it contains a great definition of the concepts, even though tournament rules are not generally enforced for casual play:
Free information is information to which all players are entitled access without contamination or omissions made by their opponents. If a player is ever unable or unwilling to provide free information to an opponent that has requested it, he or she should call a judge and explain the situation. Free information consists of:
• Details of current game actions and past game actions that still affect the game state.
• The name of any visible object.
• The number and type of any counter.
• The state (whether it’s tapped, attached to another permanent, face down, etc.) and current zone of any object.
• Player life totals and the game score of the current match.
• The contents of each player’s mana pool.
• The current step and/or phase and which player(s) are active
[…] Players must answer completely and honestly any specific questions pertaining to free information.
~ Magic Tournament Rules, 4.1
It stands to reason that if you’re directly aware of the presence or absence of something in-game (like a creature on the battlefield), you can use that information to decide to act or not act. This is fairly obvious, and most players are able to grasp this concept fairly easily. I’m not going to go in-depth about this at the moment, but stay tuned because we’re going to revisit this a little further down.
One of the ways you can gain access to more free information is by utilizing the tools that are available to us to outright look at it!
Some effects let you Peek behind the curtain to gain access to information you don’t normally have access to. These can be incredibly powerful effects which you can sometimes use to inform your decisions.
Derived Information is information to which all players are entitled access, but opponents are not obliged to assist in determining and may require some skill or calculation to determine. Derived information consists of:
• The number of any kind of objects present in any game zone that are not defined as free information.
• All characteristics of objects in public zones that are not defined as free information.
• Game Rules, Tournament Policy, Oracle content and any other official information pertaining to the current tournament. Cards are considered to have their Oracle text printed on them.
[…] Players may not represent derived or free information incorrectly.
~ Magic Tournament Rules, 4.1
Playing at casual and competitive* EDH tables, it’s not often that you’ll have someone tell you that something is derived information. At Regular Rules Enforcement Level and below, all derived information is considered free information. This is why at a modern PTQ you might not get an answer when you ask someone about their Tarmogoyf’s power and toughness, but you’ll commonly get the answer if you ask at a Commander table. Game states are complicated enough that refusing to help someone do combat math results in confusion and incorrect life totals more often than not, so I wouldn’t recommend trying to rules lawyer with this, even if prizes are on the line.
*I use the term “competitive” here in the cEDH sense, not in the Rules Enforcement Level sense. Competitive EDH is still generally played at Regular REL or below, despite the name.
Private information is information to which players have access only if they are able to determine it from the current visual game state or their own record of previous game actions.
• Any information that is not free or derived is automatically private information.
~ Magic Tournament Rules, 4.1
This is really what separates average players from good players – the ability to “determine [hidden information] from the current visual game state or their own record of previous game actions”.
When someone is attacking you with a Shivan Dragon and you’re considering whether or not you want to block with your Vault Skirge, your decision is often based on how much damage you’re willing to take. In a total vacuum, you’re probably thinking about whether losing your Vault Skirge is worth preventing the 5 damage. If your opponent has a combination of mana sources that can produce RRR, you should be mentally adjusting your calculation and determining if losing your creature is worth taking 8 damage, because they can activate Shivan Dragon‘s ability 3 times. If they’ve got 7 mana available and at least 1 card in hand, we might use some of our knowledge of the format to arrive at the conclusion that they’re capable of casting Dictate of the Twin Gods after blockers are declared and activating Shivan Dragon’s ability twice, revising the potential damage total to 14.
Your opponent doesn’t have to tell you what they intend to do in the future, and you’re not entitled to know the contents of their hand, so it’s impossible to know with certainty whether they’ll use their open mana to activate Shivan Dragon’s ability, but you can put yourself in their shoes and decide what your optimal play might be if you were in their position.
Beyond that, if they don’t activate Shivan Dragon’s ability after you’ve declared no blockers, you’re given additional information about their future plans. You now know that in your opponent’s mind, they’ve done a cost/benefit calculation and decided that leaving 3 mana up will provide them greater utility than spending the 3 mana to activate Shivan Dragon’s ability. You now know that they need that 3 mana for something, but you don’t know what. It might be more creatures or sorceries like Wheel of Fortune in their second main phase, or it might mean that they’ve got some instant speed action like Chaos Warp that they’re not ready to cast yet.
If they don’t cast anything with the mana before the end of their turn, you’re effectively able to eliminate the sorcery-speed spells from the list of possibilities.
If they don’t cast anything before their next untap step, you’re able to assume that they either didn’t realize that they could activate Shivan Dragon’s ability (misplay), they didn’t feel the need to use the instant-speed spell they wanted to leave mana up for, or the conditions of the game changed such that casting their instant speed spell was impossible or unfavourable. Again, it’s not always possible to know exactly which is true, but the concept I’m trying to illustrate is:
Time is one of the most reliable ways to increase the amount of information you have about the game. As the game plays out, your opponents make decisions that provide you with information that you can use to make informed guesses about the information that is hidden to you.
Actions speak louder than words
What other kinds of information can we gain by analyzing our opponents’ actions and inactions? I’m glad you asked! There are mountains and mountains of it:
Is the coast clear?
We all know what it can be like sitting across the table from a control player with 7 cards in hand. “How many counterspells do you have in your hand?” you might ask. “7,” they reply, knowing full well that they’re within their rights to outright lie about the contents of their hand – a private zone. When you’re determining whether or not they’re likely to counter something you absolutely need to resolve, you can combine your knowledge of the number of cards in their hand (free information) with how many open mana sources they have (free information) to determine their ability to counter something at any given time. Fewer cards in hand or fewer available mana restricts their options for the type of counterspell they’re physically able to cast.
Beyond that, you can use your knowledge of their deck, if possible, to inform your decision as well. If you play against them regularly, you might know that – despite playing blue, they only run 2 counterspells that could potentially counter what you’re planning on casting. If you don’t play against them regularly, maybe you got to riffle through their deck while resolving a Praetor’s Grasp and were able to obtain the same information.
Lastly, it’s definitely a good idea to look at recent situations where they had the opportunity to act but didn’t. Did anyone else in the pod manage to get away with something that they probably shouldn’t have, like drop a huge threat or even deal with a key piece of your control player’s machine? How did the control player react? Did they deliberately request priority and go into the tank, or did they pass immediately? These are situations where the control player should rationally act. If they didn’t, you’re able to determine, again, that they’ve either misplayed, they don’t actually have a counterspell in hand, or they feel their counterspell would have greater utility if they wait than if they play it right away.
Do I bolt the bird?
Spot removal is one of the most important things you can have in your hand at any given moment in a game of EDH, so you should never be in a hurried rush to cast it. There are some creatures that fall into the “kill on sight” category, like Animar, Soul of Elements or Kaalia of the Vast. These are creatures that – if left unchecked – can single-handedly run away with the game or enable explosive plays. If your opponent casts Kaalia and you’ve got a Swords to Plowshares in your hand, sometimes it can be pretty tempting to get it out of the way immediately.
Is this correct, though? In very specific situations it might be, but if you do, you’re giving up all of the information you’d gain by waiting a little longer. I play a ton of control, and when I’m presented with these types of things, I like to put a deadline on it that represents the last opportunity I’ll have to act before it becomes a serious problem. When someone casts a Kaalia, the deadline is generally at the end of the first main phase on its controller’s next turn. If they’ve got a haste enabler and they’re still pre-combat, the deadline moves up considerably. If I let it go beyond that, I can still use my spot removal, but they will have gained a benefit that I can’t measure in advance, and taking Kaalia away after that point might not put the genie back in the bottle.
If my mana is in short supply (which is usually is, in my decks at least), I might move that deadline up to the end of the opponent’s turn just before I untap, so I don’t have to play my next turn totally revolving around my ability to leave W up to cast this Swords.
In the case of Animar, (if I know they’re not playing Ancestral Statue/Purphoros combo which kills everyone at the same time), my deadline might be a lot further down the line. After all, is an arbitrarily large Animar actually a threat if I’m not directly staring down the barrel? Blowing this Swords early might prevent Animar from attacking one of my opponents, which helps me achieve part of my objective of winning the game. My deadline for dealing with non-combo Animar is probably something like “in the combat where Animar is being declared as attacking me”.
However you set it, I find the idea of a “must cast by” deadline to be extremely helpful with any kind of reactive spell. It helps you remain patient and maximizes the information you have available to you, and allows you to pivot and cast it on a bigger threat if one comes up with a more pressing deadline.
What did you tutor for?
Last week I wrote quite a bit about unconditional tutors, and I definitely downplayed how good they are. Conditional tutors (ie. those that specify a specific characteristic of what you can search for) always require you to reveal the card so your opponents can verify that it meets the search criteria. Because Demonic Tutor and its ilk don’t put any specific criteria on what you can search for, they don’t require you to reveal that information to your opponents! By this point in the article, you should realize the strategic advantage to doing this. In my next article we’re going to talk about signals, and we’ll get into this a little more, but for now I’d like to talk about ways you can guess at what your opponent might have tutored for.
First, try to step into their shoes and view the board from their perspective. Is there something putting pressure on them like an opponent with a grudge or a stax piece that interferes with their key strategy? If so, they’re probably searching for removal or potentially an alternate way to win the game that doesn’t rely on the resource that is being denied. Is there a control player that’s likely to interfere with their ability to deploy their combo? If so, they’re likely tutoring for combo protection countermagic or ways to force their combo through, like Silence or Grand Arbiter. Are they stumbling on access to mana? If so, they’re probably searching for high impact lands or mana rocks.
There are a few situations where you can be fairly certain, like when they cast the spell or play the land immediately after tutoring for it, or if Demonic Tutor is their last card in hand when they cast it, but a large percentage of the time this one is still going to be a guessing game. Guessing at it in your head is a great exercise, but be extremely careful about what you say verbally while they’re searching. What you say could influence their choice and increase their ability to play against you.
Information is so valuable. I wish I could cover 1000 more examples of information you can glean from other players, but in the interests of brevity I like to stop giving examples once I’ve illustrated the core concept of my article. That being said, I’d love to hear from you guys with respect to your methods! Next week I’m going to hammer out my thoughts on signals, which is the other side of this coin, and a robust discussion about information will absolutely help me piece together my thoughts for that.