Buckle up, folks. Today we’re going to talk about one of my favourite topics in all of EDH. It’s one of the most important threat-assessment skills you can master. In strategy games, you often see people talk about thinking two or more turns ahead. That can be pretty tough to do in a game with as many moving parts as Magic, but you can generally get a general idea of what’s coming up. Today, we’re going to talk about the point in the game where the writing’s on the wall – someone is about to win.
Getting Better at Seeing it
If you find that your problem during gameplay isn’t so much stopping someone from winning as it is recognizing when it’s about to happen, I can really only recommend one thing to do: read up! It’s time to pull up primers, articles, and podcasts about Magic. Learn what types of signature strategies exist in colour identities, under certain commanders, or even involving key pieces. Dig up primers and single card discussions and weird rules interactions. When you’re confronted with something you’ve never seen before, look through forum posts about people complaining that they can’t beat it and read all the replies that give recommendations. You might find out that the new Karador deck in your meta typically sticks to including its removal suite on creature-based ETB effects like Reclamation Sage. This kind of discovery might lead to adding something like Hushwing Gryff, Torpor Orb, or even Humility to your deck to ensure that you’re not drawing dead when Karador is preparing to deliver a death stroke to the table.
As much as I write about Magic, I find that most of my personal growth in the game comes from reading.
When it’s You
This can be a pretty exciting thing. Everyone likes winning, so let’s talk about the times when you look at your hand, tally up your resources, and decide that you have a pretty good chance of closing out the game within two turns. You’ve either got a combo ready to assemble, some kind of critical mass of creatures, or maybe you’ve got the table locked down to the point where activating Tezzeret the Seeker’s -5 ability is totally good enough.
Don’t Get too Excited
Once upon a time I was playing in the Oath of the Gatewatch Game Day, piloting 4C Jeskai Ascendancy Storm. I made my first few land drops and curved perfectly into turn 2 Rattleclaw Mystic, turn 3 Ascendancy, and was ready to go off on turn 4 for the win through a combination of Slip Through Space, Expedite, and Treasure Cruise / Dig Through Time. I top-decked another Rattleclaw Mystic on my turn, and my heart starts racing because it’s time to put the game away. I play the Rattleclaw Mystic followed by about 15 spells, and a bystander asks us to pause the game while he calls a judge.
The judge comes over and the bystander explains that he just noticed (once I cast Expedite on the newly cast Mystic) that I’ve been tapping it to float mana without having given it haste before that point in the game. My heart sinks. Not only have I screwed things up big time, I’ve created a massive advantage for myself and created an irreparable game state that the judge can’t back out. My face goes flush, and my heart is beating faster now. I stop storming off and swing in with my two Mystics. One eats a Murderous Cut, and I scoop.
Getting excited is pretty natural, but just be aware that the physiological reaction can prevent you from thinking clearly, sequencing correctly, and tracking triggers. Tyrone Cabral, a level 2 judge from Winnipeg, MB, pulled me aside after the match and reassured me that it’s a difficult deck to pilot and that kind of misplay could happen to anyone. He told me that there was plenty of time left in the round so I should go for a quick walk around the building to get some fresh air and reset my nerves. It helped immensely, and I went on to have a great rest of the tournament. This was some of the best advice I’ve ever been given as a player.
Just remember to breathe.
Take Stock of Available Information
When you slow things down, it generally gets much easier to look at each permanent on the board and consider how they might impact your turn. It also gets easier to think about the derived information you have access to, like the cards that have been revealed off of Oracle of Mul Daya or conditional tutors. While other people are playing their turns, we can pay attention to whether they’re casting spells or not casting spells, how much mana they have available and how many cards they have in their hand.
In general, we’re looking to get a feel for where everyone is at in the game.
Don’t Get Cocky
Wow, do I see this everywhere in the EDH community. I think this is one of the natural consequences of the Rules Committee’s emphasis on creating “memorable games”.
This is a trap I see people fall into in deck construction as well. Back when I played Vorel of the Hull Clade, I put my decks together with the sole purpose of making a creature as big as I possibly could. I went way overboard on the counter doubling theme at the expense of things like evasion and responsiveness. I did this because I wanted to be able to make a show of force with this deck. Fact is, it’s generally much harder to deal with (and much easier to create) a 20/20 with trample than it is a 100/100 without trample. Sometimes focusing too much on style points means that you’re actively ignoring the things that make your deck function well.
People will often forego modest early- and mid-game plays because they want to maximize the splashiness. If they’ve got an Isochron Scepter and Impulse in their hand with no rocks but enough mana to cast it on turn 2, they’ll sandbag it. They’re dreaming of the next two topdecks being Mana Vault and Dramatic Reversal. Casting Impulse every turn might not be the sexiest thing you can do with an Isochron Scepter, but it can absolutely swing the advantage of the game your way if your other combo pieces aren’t on the horizon.
Bolster Your Victory
If—after taking stock of all available information—you determine that your opponents likely have outs to your attempt to win, it could be time to start bolstering your victory. Think about the ways that your deck can prevent people from interfering with you. This takes the form of tax effects, Silence effects, protective countermagic, or even increasing your own resources so that you’re able to do more things on a single turn.
At the end of the day, we don’t play this game in a vacuum. It’s generally correct to assume that one of your three opponents will have something to stop you, so when the end is in sight you might need to wait just a little bit longer to ensure victory.
When it’s Them
This is really the bread and butter of this topic. Throughout the course of the game you should be constantly considering your opponents’ potential paths to victory. This involves using your knowledge of their deck (or making educated guesses) to determine their optimal tutor targets, combat tricks, interaction, and whether they are capable of dealing with things that might impede your progress. If you’re tracking these things effectively, it should be fairly obvious when they’ve shifted from moving the pieces into place to pushing the big red button.
How you play when the fat lady’s on in five can be just as important as how your opponent plays, so let’s take a look at what you should (or shouldn’t) be doing.
Make Sure your Other Opponents See it too
I’ve talked about this in a couple articles in the past, but being vocal about who the Big Bad is at the table is a habit that all EDH players should get into. You can’t do everything by yourself in a 4-player game, and a gentle reminder that it’s not the right time to tap out is sometimes all it takes.
I was once up against a Karador player at a casual table with an empty board. I’d never played against him before or seen what his deck was designed to do. He cast Carrion Feeder, and I removed it on his end step without a second thought. “Why would you waste your removal on that?” he asked.
“Because I know what you’re going to do with it,” I replied.
“This isn’t some degenerate deck,” he shot back, visibly annoyed.
“That’s good, I suppose. A degenerate deck needs free sac outlets really badly, so you won’t miss this one much.”
I took this opportunity to talk to the other opponents about Reveillark, Saffi Eriksdotter, Pattern of Rebirth and the other kill-on-sight pieces that are central to the typical Boonweaver combos. Sure enough, Karador was playing that combo and was hoping to fly under the radar.
Once my opponents knew what to look for, it meant that I wasn’t the only person at the table who was capable of shutting him down. Out come the Grafdigger’s Cages and Ground Seals and Angels of Jubilation, and we’ve got a game where nobody gets blindsided by a combo they’ve never seen before.
Never Give Up! Never Surrender!
I play a ton of control in EDH, so for those of you that don’t, I need you to know one important thing before we proceed: I’m only able to control a multiplayer game if I’m able to successfully obscure my intentions. This means that it can be tough to assess whether I’m a threat or not, but it also means that if a player is in the process of activating their doomsday device and I’ve passed priority on the last dozen spells, it doesn’t mean I’m a passive observer in the game. When someone is in a position where they’re ready to win, continue to make your decisions in a way that you think will give you the best chances of winning. If you scoop, you’ll never know if I’m picking my moment or if I’m bluffing.
The simple fact that there are more players in the game means that the odds-on favourite player to win needs to expend more resources, tutor for more protection, and potentially fight through more interaction to actually put the game away. Scooping prematurely simply advances the game in a direction that it might not have advanced.
Pick Your Moment
Again, as a control player I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. If the other players in your pod are effectively and accurately assessing threats, strong-arming them into burning cards to stop the Big Bad can be a huge benefit to you. This is one situation where you can use your position in a round of priority to your advantage. If you know for certain that someone just tutored up a counterspell and one of your other opponents tries to win, a quick pass of priority really puts pressure on them to use that counterspell. It might even make the Big Bad think that they’re going to win a counter war, allowing you to swoop in for a massive card-advantage blowout. The decision to not act—at times—can be even more powerful than the decision to act.
As deckbuilders we’re given the opportunity to make a ton of important choices throughout the game, and being able to identify when the game is nearing completion is hugely—massively—important. How do you make that assessment? Is it through player behaviour, board presence, or both? As always, hit me up in the comments!