Who’s the beatdown? That is the most fundamental question in any game of Magic. Figuring out your role is crucial to determining what strategy to employ. Get it wrong, and disaster will likely follow. Get it right, and you have a shot. Generally speaking, the aggressor in a matchup will be the player who is forced to take a proactive approach. Their goal is to mount an offense and find a way through the opponent’s defenses. The control player on the other hand will take a more reactive approach. They have inevitability, and are favored to win if the game goes long enough. Their first priority is to survive. But Magic is not a simple game—it is filled with nuance and exceptions.

Earlier today I was watching the live coverage of Pro Tour: Hour of Devastation. William “Huey” Jensen was on camera, piloting a Red Green Electrostatic Pummeler deck vs. Pierre Dagen on Mono Black Zombies. Pierre had a great start as he got to untap with Diregraf Colossus in play and draw a bunch of extra cards with Cryptbreaker. Over the next few turns he proceeded to build what seemed to be an insurmountable board presence. Insurmountable that is, until Huey found a copy of Larger than Life for his Electrostatic Pummeler, and attacked for lethal.

Earlier this game, Pierre had taken a conservative line and not attacked with his creatures one turn. Whether this was correct or not you will have to decide for yourselves. My guess is that Pierre thought he had enough inevitability that it was better to play it safe, but as it turns out, Huey did have outs, and it’s possible that Pierre would have been better served by trying to end the game in short order.

There’s something comforting about the conservative approach. If you play carefully and never let your guard down you can take away your opponent’s outs, one by one, without ever having to take any risks. Sometimes that’s a valid strategy. A lot of the time however, there will be cards in your opponent’s deck that you are not equipped to deal with, and you’ll be just a few lucky topdecks away from losing a game in which you were ahead. In such a game it’s important to minimize the time your opponent gets to find their outs. One draw step can mean the difference between victory and defeat. Today’s article is about just that. Today’s article is about turning the corner.

Decks with reach aka Burn decks

One of the easiest ways to lose a game even after you’ve stabilized the board is to direct damage burn spells. Cards like Lightning Bolt and Kolaghan’s Command can deal damage to your opponent without you having to worry about blockers or removal spells getting in the way. They provide a form of “reach” and let the beatdown player get the last points of damage through in order to win the game. Different decks have different forms and different amounts of reach, but no deck focuses more on these cards than Burn. We can learn a lot about when to turn the corner by playing against Burn decks.

A typical game against Burn consists of them spending the first few turns playing creatures like Goblin Guide and Monastery Swiftspear, before using their burn spells to deal the rest of the damage. Because your life total is so precious in this matchup, the other player will tend to prioritize killing any potential creatures over playing out their own. Once this is accomplished and the first onslaught has been evaded however, you will have to come up with a plan for how to not succumb to their burn spells. If you don’t have access to haymakers such as Batterskull or Umezawa’s Jitte, your best bet is to kill them before they kill you.

Normally this would mean just getting them to zero as soon as possible, but because they play haste creatures it’s wise to keep those in mind as well. Games against Burn often come down to them needing to topdeck to deal a few more points of damage, and it would be preferable if we make those outs as few as possible. The tricky part is when you both have a creature in play. Let’s say that you played a Gurmag Angler on your last turn, and now it’s staring down your opponent’s Goblin Guide. You could attack, and hope to race the opponent before they find enough burn spells to kill you, or you could hold it back to block their 2/2. If you attack, you will take at least one hit from their Goblin Guide, but if you don’t attack, they will have more time to find their burn spells. In this type of scenario you will have to look at the specifics of that particular game—there is no universal answer. Your life totals and the cards in your hand and deck will help you reach a conclusion.

While the Burn matchup is fairly straightforward, that is not true for all matchups. To use myself as an example, I usually take the control role when playing Goblins against other fair decks, such as Delver or Stoneblade. Few decks in Legacy can compete with Goblins when it comes to card advantage in the late game, so we’re usually favored going long. Unfortunately however, things don’t always work out the way we want them to. Goblin Ringleader is bound to miss some amount of the time, and we won’t always find the answer to our opponent’s threats. In those games, it’s good to be able to change roles and try to race the opponent. But racing can be difficult if you have to start from square one. The odds of succesfully racing them are much better if you’ve gotten in some damage earlier in the game.

Keep an eye out for good attacks even when you’re not the aggressor. Those extra points of damage might come in handy later down the line. Knowing your role in a matchup is important, but focusing on it too much can lead to tunnel vision. I know this all too well from personal experience, as this is something I have struggled with in the past—to the point where I’ve missed free attacks because I wasn’t looking for them.

Combo decks

Combo decks are not quite like other decks in Magic. While there are many different forms of combo, one thing they have in common is their ability to win the game in a single turn, seemingly out of nowhere. Because of this, your window of time in which to interact with them is smaller than in other matchups, and you often have to decide between keeping up mana for a counterspell and tapping out for a threat on your own turn. In order to make this decision you need two things; familiarity with the combo deck and a plan for how you’re going to spend your next few turns.

Familiarity with the deck you’re playing against is crucial. If you know approximately on which turn it will be able to go off, you can more accurately guess if and when it’s safe to tap out. You still need to consider this particular game and its various factors (an opponent who mulliganed to five is probably less likely to combo off early than one who kept seven cards), but simply having a feel for how fast a deck you’re playing against will improve your chances a lot.

When deciding whether to tap out to deploy a threat or to pass the turn while keeping mana for a counterspell it’s important to consider future turns as well. It’s easy to fall into the trap of waiting if you feel that tapping out comes with too great a risk. But if the matchup requires you to play a threat sooner or later you need to plan for when to do so. If not this turn, when? Sometimes all you need is another land drop in order to be able to both play a threat and keep up mana for a counterspell in the same turn. Other times you need two more turns in which you also draw back to back lands. In the first scenario it’s probably fine to wait a turn. In the second one however, waiting isn’t realistic, and you need a good reason not to play your threat. Having a plan is the difference between playing it safe and playing scared.

This is incidentally why creatures with flash are so good against combo decks. If you can wait until their end step to play your creatures, you don’t need to worry about tapping out (unless they can combo off at instant speed). Snapcaster Mage and Vendilion Clique are the two most obvious examples of such creatures, but my favorite is from a few years ago, when some RUG Delver players used to sideboard Sulfur Elemental against Storm.

Wrap Up

Switching roles in Magic is a tricky endeavor. It’s good to have a plan, but you should always keep your eyes open and be willing to adapt. You never know when a better opportunity is going to present itself.

Sandro is a Magic player from Stockholm, Sweden. He’s been playing Goblins in Legacy for years. Follow him on Twitter @SandroRajalin

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