his week, I’m going to be talking mainly to my more novice readers. (More veteran readers need not despair: I’ve got a swell, and fairly complicated, new format next week.) “Casual players” catches an awful lot of subsets. Some of these people are very good players who simply don’t go to tournaments. Others go occasionally. Still others are too new to have made a choice one way or the other. Often, players in that last group have little sense of why their decks win or lose, why some strategies succeed brilliantly why others fail miserably.
Like the owner of a dying plant, you can see your deck needs something. But what? (I tried an oatmeal metaphor here in the first draft. It didn’t take.)
My conversations with readers over the years has taught me there are as many reasons for struggling as there are players. But I can draw some generalities. After the Big Three Lessons – that is, once a player has learned to thin a deck down to sixty cards, and once that player has learned that multiple copies of cards helps with consistency, and once that player understands the basic concept of a mana curve – there is still one big lesson that often goes untaught: the importance of instants, and how to play them.
It’s not just about saying “play instants to make your deck work better.” After all, even if you know your plant (or oatmeal…hang these metaphors!) needs water, you don’t necessarily know how much. Instants are finesse spells. They’re tricks, and they’re interactive. You can’t play them the way you’d play a sorcery, any more than you could use equal amounts of fertilizer and water. (On your plant, not your deck. Yes, we’re still using the metaphor. Try to keep up.)
I’ll run you through five principles to bear in mind as you consider, build with, and play instants. Naturally, all this applies just fine to instant-speed effects, as well (e.g., megacyclers like Decree of Pain, or creatures that come out at instant speed like Mystic Snake.) But for the sake of examples, we’ll stick to card type this time around.
These cards and principles work in duels or in group games. Once you’ve studied these, consider replacing some of the gargantuan sorceries in your deck with a bit of speed and finesse.
Principle #1: Save your resources at inconvenient times.
This is the no-brainer, the classic strength behind instants: you can do them when you need to. A card like Darigaaz's Charm can do all sorts of things to save a creature – pump it, kill a blocker, or bring it back from the dead – at times when you absolutely need to do it to keep in the game. Other examples are too numerous to list comprehensively (and I don’t try that on any of these), but I particularly like those instants that protect both your on-board resource and your hand, by replenishing themselves as Shelter and Confound do.
Principle #2: Bluff your enemy.
Bluffing with mana open is the domain of many Counterspell mages; but I have something else in mind here. Tapping out is a sign of weakness in Magic. Well, all you military philosophers ought to know what Sun Tzu tells us about tricking our enemy into overconfidence. That’s why alternate play cost spells like Reverent Mantra can be so amazing. Unless such spells are infesting the most recent set (and they haven’t been around since the days of Masques block), most opponents won’t be expecting them. Dig back into your box, or trade for cards you may not have heard of: Misdirection, Pyrokenesis, Invigorate, and many more. (Once you find a searchable Magic card database, just type “instead” into the rules text box and select instants. That should give you a manageable list.)
Principle #3: Seek card advantage on defense.
This is less about saving your cards than it is about ensnaring your enemy with a neat little trick – sort of a blend of the first two principles. Your creatures all tapped out on defense? Steal one of the attackers with a Spinal Embrace. Or rouse one of your own with a Gerrard's Command. Or play another low-cost instant (say, Swords to Plowshares) and then follow up with a stormy Wing Shards to completely devastate a three-creature attack.
Principle #4: Play instants at the end of your (last) opponent’s turn.
Imagine a fierce match, with the board shifting position constantly – creatures slugging it out, trampling over each other, shooting each other down, dying in hordes, staying alive against all odds, and then going down to unforeseen tricks. It’s turn 42 and your graveyard is way bigger than your library. Your opponent is beginning to think this may come down to a milling victory.
You’re holding Bone Harvest. What do you think is going to look better?
(a) playing it during your first main phase, and not getting either draw until your turn comes around again, or
(b) playing it during your opponent’s end of turn, and almost immediately drawing your two best creatures?
"Instant" does not mean you should play it instantly.
This is the classic test of a mature player – do you wait until the last possible moment to play that instant, or do you rush it because you think sooner is better in every case? In fact, I’d go so far as to say that once you’ve learned this principle, you’ve vaulted over a huge percentage of Magic players. (The tournament set that knows this lesson well is a tiny proportion of the Magic community.) Many, many blue tricks – Capsize, Whispers of the Muse, etc. – are far more effective at the end of a turn than in the middle of yours. If you take nothing else from this article, take this to heart: instant doesn’t mean you play it instantly.
Principle #5: Move thoughtfully and slowly.
This comes right off of the last one, and takes it up another notch. Some of the most powerful instants begin to look a lot like sorceries in their upper-right hand corner: costly. For a true game-breaker – say, Tsabo's Decree – you have to have six mana at your disposal. But that doesn’t mean that you automatically play the Decree at the end of your opponent’s sixth (or seventh) turn. Like a first kiss, you have to put off that moment of satisfaction for as long as humanly possible, preferably until after you’re 40 years old and have a sustainable career. (Whoops, got mixed up with the time capsule letter I’m writing my daughter. Carry on.)
Of course, once you try to slow down your Tsabo's Decree (or Inferno, or Decree of Savagery, or Spelljack), you may find yourself losing a lot. Is that your deck telling you that Anthony Alongi is horribly wrong, and you should never listen to him again?
Perish the thought. It’s your deck telling you that you haven’t learned the first three basic lessons well enough yet: get down to sixty cards. Put multiple copies of cards, or at least similar effects, in your deck. Work a mana curve, with early and late game plays. (That last one is usually the problem, if you find you can’t be patient in the late game.)
Yes, we’ve come full circle. All of these lessons work together. You’re surprised?
To finish us off this week, I’d like to share a deck a friend of mine is putting together. (Normally I wouldn’t do this to him, but he asked me for help; so I get the right to embarrass him and foil the surprise in our play group.) He’s building a Zur's Weirding deck using Wellwisher. (Those of you who have been with me for a few months will understand the irony of that second card’s presence.)
At first, we tinkered with various builds using stuff like Bloodline Shaman and Genesis. There’s also a three-color build you could do, using Words of Worship as a fairly scary lock. Zur's Weirding goes with a lot of stuff.
But then I started thinking, what if you didn’t care about what your library gave you at all? Or at least, you didn’t care about that as much as you cared about what was in your little “out of game” box. I mean, I’ve been dying for our play group to see a real Wish-based deck. Zur's Weirding seems like the perfect fit, doesn’t it?
I didn’t bother with a sideboard for Living Wish – that’s not the theme this week! (Besides, next week we’ll have plenty of creatures to talk about.) Naturally, you can consider all sorts of paths to victory (Thorn Elemental, Morphling), stopping certain legends from getting played (Multani, Maro-Sorcerer; Alexi, Zephyr Mage), and of course enjoying certain land-based solutions (Maze of Ith, Yavimaya Hollow).
As you throw this sideboard list together – or build your own, since I know some of the cards are hard to find – think carefully about what each instant brings to the table. Replacing all of the sorceries in your decks with instants isn’t enough (and often, such an extreme isn’t a good idea). You have to know when and why the instants play better.
Once you add the right amount of water, your plants will turn to a tasty mush, and your oatmeal will grow beautiful flowers.
Or something like that.
You may reach Anthony at firstname.lastname@example.org. Regretfully, Anthony cannot help with decks any more. But he loves hearing from fellow players on just about any other topic. He also checks the message boards regularly for reader ideas and comments.