First there’s the rule sheet. Then there are initial quarries with starter decks. Then you’re playing for 10’000$ of price money. If only you try, your skills as a Magic player will rise faster than anyone would expect, even if you only play Duels of the Planeswalkers. That being said, while there are the excellent and immaculate (TM) guides from Top Tier Tactics to help you with deck building, you are suddenly left alone when it comes to actually playing. Okay, enough of the farces; Here’s a handy list of also handy tips to push your gameplay from “not bad” to “no longer just paying the other guys’ prices at FNM”. Of course, everything depends on the current game state and you’re free to submit your own tips if you have any.
1. Tick tock – watch the clock!
The clock is a simple concept in Magic: It measures one player’s damage output against the other’s life points, assuming that nothing changes. The clock is what makes it a good idea to hang back with your 1/3 to block an opposing 2/1, because your opponent would kill you much faster than you can kill her. Every turn, calculate how much damage you and your opponent will / would take, including possible chump blocks and at what life totals you will remain. If you heavily overpower your opponent, feel free to whack away and put her on the defensive. That being said, consider your clock to be one turn shorter to account for surprises and changing board states, unless of course you have a major surprise in hand. Also, it’s probably not a good idea not to let yourself drop to three points of life if your opponent controls a Mountain.
2. Stay in the game
Everyone forgets triggers sometimes, it happens. The best you can do when it happens is to push yourself to remember it next time. (Side note: If an ability does NOT say “you may”, then you must execute it when you notice you forgot about it even if a turn has passed, up to possibly rewinding the game to a previous state. Don’t let it happen to you.) At all times, keep note of what is going on on the board, and run through these questions in your head:
- What phase is the game currently in?
- Did anything trigger upon entering this phase or a previous event?
- Have any properties changed? What is my clock, what is the opponent’s?
- What abilities and triggers can I and my opponent use?
Likewise, the stack is a curious beast that ultimately wants to be your friend. Learn what it does and why. (Example: Heroic triggers after a spell has been cast and will resolve before it. Lightning Strike your Favored Hoplite if you must, he won’t care.) Whenever you feel yourself losing track, take a step back and make sure you’re getting everything. Announce and use abilities and stat changes even if it seems mundane, like announcing that Tarmogoyf has grown to 4/5 or that Master of Diversion targets a creature in their already tapped out board. If you don’t, you or your opponent will only end up forgetting about it, making the game worse for everyone.
3. Given lemons, burn down some houses!
So your opponent has dropped a 6/5 and you only have some chumpsicles and five health points to speak for yourself, without the ability to rush her down. Best keep sending expendable creatures into its way to keep it from hurting you, right? Wrong. Unless you literally have an infinite, yet time-limited way of producing blockers like Heliod, God of the Sun, it is almost always the right choice to multiblock and kill a fatty as soon as you get the chance. Sure he will only kill one creature a turn if you ignore him now and eliminating him would take three, but ignoring it and eventually changing your mind will cost you far more creatures. Of course, that doesn’t apply when Omenspeaker shows you two Doom Blades, but you get the point.
4. 1 < 2 (mostly)
This applies less in DotP due to screw-equalising free mulligans, but it’s still a common mistake that a lot of players make: They mulligan like absolute wusses! “This hand isn’t great, but if I mullian, I’ll lose a card!” they think. Let me ask you, is it worse to be holding three dead lands all game or to start with one card less? It all depends on your specific deck, but consider Wing’s mulligan discussion* and the following rules which I use for generalising mulligans (assuming that you play with Paris mulligans, where you redraw one fewer card after a mulligan):
- Never keep hands with zero, one, six, or seven lands, ever.
- If your hand has two lands in it, expect that only every third draw that you make is a land, and only keep the hand if it’s clearly worth it. (Hand contains some cheap fixing and/or draw plus some cheap plays. We do not trust the two land hands.)
- Similiarly, if a hand with five lands doesn’t convince you right away, toss it. Think through what you’ll be doing and expect every second draw to be land. It sounds drastic, but that’s how bad five lands are. Also, ask yourself whether you can use the mana effectively with your deck.
- With three or four lands, a hand would have to be pretty bad to make you not keep it. For instance, toss it if there are only high-cost cards that won’t swing the game around and no early plays.**
- With each mulligan, these rules weaken since starting with less than six cards is a huge disadvantage. Also consider who is on the draw; If you are on the play, do not trust the two land hands.
5. Do what you must, not what you can
Imagine the following: It’s a lategame topdeck war, both you and your opponent are on ten lands, her board position is slightly better, and you have drawn another basic Island. You drop it, your opponent draws Worldspine Wurm and wins the game. Suppose that you don’t play the land. Your opponent will also draw the Wurm, but she will hesitate; If you haven’t used what you drew, couldn’t it very well be a Cancel you’re holding? That moment of hesitation could be all you need. If nothing else, your opponent will hesitate in that scenario, which she would not if you had just revealed your card. Afterwards, you obviously draw Ulamog and win the game. Aside from bluffs, dead cards can be used for discarding as a cost, getting up some presence after a board wipe, and as food. If you have enough mana to cast everything currently available and exactly one land in hand, get into the habit of not playing it until you have to. If you topdeck another land you still have something to bluff, if your topdeck is a nonland one mana costlier than you can currently pay, drop the land and cast it. (Take with a grain of salt; It’s rarely a good idea to intentionally skip your land drop if you’re at four mana and most of your bombs cost six.)
* Ah, Innistrad, place of zombies and vampires. And of horribly pronounced technically-German words.
**Deck building 102: Make sure that you always have something to do early on and don’t include too many high-cost cards that won’t swing the game around.