This weekend I hopped in one of the online sealed PTQ qualifiers. My pool was loaded with power, and I built a powerful, greedy deck. I felt good about my chances to win at least four of five matches and qualify for the actual PTQ. But one misplay in the first game cost me a win, and before I knew it I was 0-2 drop. I certainly ran into some bad luck to lose so easily with this deck, but I gave away a game and that always hurts in a game with such slim margins. Here’s the deck I built:

Unred Dragons

Creatures (17)
Warden of the First Tree
Whisperer of the Wilds
Kolaghan Skirmisher
Glade Watcher
Dutiful Attendant
Dragon-Scarred Bear
Misthoof Kirin
Marang River Skeleton
Frontier Mastodon
Herdchaser Dragon
Acid-Spewer Dragon
Monastery Loremaster
Salt Road Ambushers
Vulturous Aven
Dragonlord Ojutai
Necromaster Dragon
Noxious Dragon

Spells (5)
Crux of Fate
Foul Renewal
Hunt the Weak
Explosive Vegetation
Sandblast
Lands (18)
Evolving Wilds
Blossoming Sands
Jungle Hollow
Forest
Swamp
Island
Plains

Sideboard (14)
Encase in Ice
Roast
Cunning Strike
Silumgar Butcher
Tasigur’s Cruelty
Duress
Kolaghan Skirmisher
Naturalize
Shape the Sands
Goblin Boom Keg
Ojutai’s Breath
Void Squall

Seems like a strong sealed deck, right? You don’t get wins for free though. And in my first game, one bad decision spelled my doom.

Here’s the situation. On my fourth turn on the play, I am at 18 life to my opponent’s 20. I cracked Evolving Wilds on turn one for Plains. She dashed Screamreach Brawler on turn two. Each player’s hand as I know it is on the side. I already played the Island as my land for the turn but have not yet gone to combat. My Evolving Wilds is the only card in either graveyard. My morph is Misthoof Kirin.

game state

You would feel pretty good about your chances in this situation, right? It probably doesn’t matter what you do, right? How can you lose? Well, a good way to start is to get casual and fail to assess your risk of losing. So, what do you do in this situation?

We can narrow down the decisions right away. You want to cast one of the four mana spells this turn. The only other option, besides using no mana and repesenting Sandblast or Whisk Away, is flipping the Misthoof Kirin. Three damage and a blocker back on defense is valuable, but you really need, at a baseline, to cast Explosive Vegetation and get black mana for Crux of Fate, or use Hunt the Weak while the coast is clear.

As you’ve already played a land, your three choices for the turn are these: Do you cast Explosive Vegetation? Do you cast Hunt the Weak to kill her morph? Do you attack?

To assess these questions, you should asemble all the information about your opponent’s plan that is available to you. What do you know here? She’s on red-black, dashed Screamreach Brawler on turn two, and then chose to play a morph instead of the Brawler on turn three. Dashing on turn two doesn’t necessarily mean anything, if she had nothing else to do. But she is red-black, and those are the dash colors. So she’s probably trying to kill you as efficiently and explosively as possible.

If she were a red-black control deck, getting in two free points of damage early but setting up for the long game, why not cast the Brawler on turn three? You played a morph, so a 2/3 is probably a strong response. This pattern suggests that your opponent is trying to win fast and will do more damage more quickly with the morph than a 2/3. That almost certainly means the morph has a cheap megamorph cost. Assuming it is red or black, that means one of four cards: Kolaghan Stormsinger, Atarka Efreet, Ire Shaman, or Silumgar Assassin. Stormsinger is possible (maybe she plays Gore Swine next turn and gives it haste), but Atarka Efreet is by far the most likely megamorph for this situation. You want to kill it before it flips, and for that matter, you want to kill the rare megamorphs before they flip as well.

I of course did none of this analysis. I attacked with my morph (she didn’t block), cast Explosive Vegetation and passed. She smacked me for seven with Atarka Efreet. Big surprise. That put me to eleven life, and I died two turns later to one more efreet hit and Sarkhan’s Rage. Totally predictable if I had thought about it more.

pyl_whammycollection

But assume you read the situation, decided the morph was 70% Atarka Efreet and 25% one of the other three possibilities, and 5% something that wouldn’t get flipped any time soon. Do you use Hunt the Weak to kill it while she is tapped out, and hit for three? Do you attack first to see if she will trade, and then Hunt the Weak after attacks if she doesn’t, giving up a point of damage in exchange for a chance at trading creatures instead of using a removal spell? Do you hold back your morph to block, or flip and use the vigilance?

Dash decks use a lot of mana. Dashing a Goblin Heelcutter each turn will prevent your opponent from developing her board. That means any creatures she has on board are extra-valuable because they present repeatable damage sources that don’t cost cards or mana (other than a megamorph cost). Therefore, the best play is generally to keep her board clear when you can. Use Hunt the Weak before attacks, deal three damage, and plan to drop Dragonlord Ojutai next turn. She can’t hope to race Ojutai by tapping out each turn to dash. Either she has to use a removal spell or set up a block, both of which require her to reduce the pressure on your life total. Ojutai will buy you time to vegetate and use Crux of Fate if necessary. Ojutai might also just win the game in short order.

When you get casual and think you can’t lose, that’s when bad things happen. Knowing what is likely to happen, how you could lose from a given situation, is invaluable. That’s why you want to learn a format, any format. To make informed decisions. That’s how you win, and that’s why I lost.

Brendan McNamara (MTGO: eestlinc, Twitter: @brendanistan) used to play Magic in the old days. His favorite combo was Armageddon plus Zuran Orb. After running out of money to buy cards and friends who were willing to put up with that combo, he left the game. But like disco, he was bound to come back eventually. Now he’s a lawyer by day and a Dimir agent by night.

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