Improving your playing skills
I’ve designed this guide for anyone who wants to get better at playing Magic, and specifically on Duel of the Planeswalkers (DOTP). (If you play Magic but not DOTP, there is still a lot of strategy that will apply in this guide; click on the “First Strike” section on the right and read on from there.) This guide will also be a reference point for all other guides I write for this game. Beginners and casual players will probably benefit the most from this. Advanced players may find much of what I say obvious to them, but may pick up a useful tip here and there. I will cover a lot of the mistakes that are often made by beginners, not to poke fun at them, but to help them understand how they can improve. I will also cover more advanced techniques that can be used to gain small advantages here and there. Magic is all about making the most out of every single card that you draw, and every little thing matters.
If you are reading this guide as part of the background for the Duels 2012 game, you can read the “Setting up your Options” section which is relevant to D12, then skip to the “When to Mulligan” section. From this point on it’s general strategy advice which is still relevant.
I have played Magic for about 15 years and feel that my experience in both constructing and playing decks can be of value to others.
I use the usual shorthand to refer to the 5 colours in Magic:
B = Black
G = Green
R = Red
U = Blue
W = White
If you want more information about a card, copy its name and paste it into the search box on this website: gatherer.wizards.com/Pages/
When I refer to multiples of the same card, I use this format:
3x Forest means 3 Forest cards.
I include references to expansion packs 1&2 but this guide can still be used by those without them.
This guide assumes you know how to play Duel of the Planeswalkers. If you are totally new to Magic or are unfamiliar with the controls, please play the tutorial and read the extensive help files within the game first. If you do need help with anything, feel free to contact me.
Setting Up Your Options
Before you start, there are some things you can to do help yourself in the options. From the main menu go to Help & Options, then Settings, then Gameplay Settings. Then going through them in order:
1. Display hints – This is up to you, it may help while you are learning the game, but after that I suggest turning this off.
2. AI Skill Level – Only relevant while you are playing against the computer. If you want to unlock everything as quickly as possible, choose the easiest setting (Mage). If you want more of a challenge bump it up to medium (Archmage) or hard (Planeswalker). The main differences I have noticed is that the computer allows itself more time to think the higher the difficulty goes and I believe it tends to get less of its more powerful cards on lower difficulty settings. Other than this it doesn’t have much impact on the game.
3. Hold priority – This means whether you want to always wait to press Y to show you are finished during your turn. Against the computer it’s fine to set this to off to speed things up. Against a human opponent, set it to on. The reason for this is that when the game instantly shows you are done, the opponent then knows you have nothing in your hand you can cast at that point. By pressing Y yourself each time, you need not give away this useful information.
4. Zoom played cards – When you first learn the game it may be useful to have this set to on so you can read each card as it is played to get used to them. Once you have a feel for the game, this will just slow things down. You can always press X and then zoom in on a card being cast if you’re not sure what it is.
5. Combat animation – This is purely visual, it shows the creatures up close doing the damage to each other. This is kind of cool to begin with, but in the end it just slows the game down, especially when lots of creatures are attacking. I’d say turn this off to make duels run quicker and not make human opponents sit around while you keep pressing Y after each lot of damage!
6. Browse entire library – If you turn this on, it will let you look at your whole deck instead of just the cards you’re allowed to get using cards such as Rampant Growth. Keep this turned off to make things easier on yourself, after a while you’ll get to know the contents of your deck well enough to know what’s left in there.
7. First sort hand by – This is down to your preference, just affects the order cards appear in your hand at the bottom of the screen.
8. Then sort hand by – Same as above.
9. Auto-assign damage – If turned on, the computer decides for you how to assign your combat damage between multiple blockers. It’s best to turn this off, the computer often makes bad decisions for you. You can then choose the order your creatures deal damage. You basically choose the order for the blocking creatures, and your creature goes through assigning enough damage to kill each one in turn until all its power is used up.
10. Simplified targeting – This is designed to stop you accidentally doing bad stuff to yourself or your cards in play. This may be useful to start with, but once you know what you’re doing I recommend turning this off. There will be situations where you want to do unusual things, such as using a Prodigal Pyromancer to kill itself in response to an opponent casting Persuasion on it so that they can’t steal it from you. When this happens, you don’t want to be rooting through the options in the middle of a live game while your timer ticks down. As long as you are careful you won’t do anything stupid.
11. Auto Resolution – This is a handy new addition that saves a lot of time. It makes it so that many abilities that trigger (such as life gaining artifacts) happen immediately, instead of having to wait for the timer to go round. They have chosen these to be the ones that it is usually pointless to respond to anyway, and thus is speeds the game up considerably. I recommend turning this on.
Unlocking the cards and the decks
If you’re playing on DoTP 2012, you can skip this section.
You can choose which deck to use by pressing Y on the main menu to bring up your deck manager. You only start with two, the mono-red Hands of Flame and the mono-green Teeth of the Predator. You can also press X on a deck to see its contents, which is a good idea before you start with a deck so you see how it works. You’ll notice there is no land, the land is automatically added when you start playing so that you have enough (or so the computer says!) for the cards you are using. Once you unlock more cards, you can come back here to add or remove them. You cannot currently remove any of the core cards that you start with.
To unlock cards for a deck, you can either beat the computer in the campaign mode or in a custom duel. Winning games over Xbox Live also works. If you want to unlock all the cards quickly and easily, first set the AI skill level to easy (Mage) and then choose Custom Duel. Push left or right to choose your opponent. The easiest ones to beat are usually Teeth of the Predator if you have decent flying creatures in your deck, or Thoughts of Wind if you’re mainly using ground creatures. Before you start, press X to set the options. Set your life to 40, opening handsize to 9 and your opponent’s handsize to 5. This will give you a big advantage, you can Mulligan more easily, and you don’t have to discard down to 7 cards, only to 9. The computer will often be short of mana due to having only 5 cards and combined with their fundamental mistakes you should beat them easily time after time. You can usually just allow the computer’s attacking creatures through and your 40 life total will sustain you plenty long enough to kill them. You unlock a card after every win and it is added to your deck, although it isn’t announced on-screen like it is when you win a campaign battle. Every few games edit your deck to remove the weaker cards (see my other guide “Deciding which of the unlocked cards to add to your deck” to help with this).
To unlock more decks, you need to win campaign battles. A little Magic deck icon is beside the opponents you need to beat to get these. Pick the deck most suited to beat your opponent each time, and you can move in all the cards that will specifically help you against that deck. You can’t otherwise make this easier on yourself like you can with the custom duels, except by putting it on easy AI skill level. If you still don’t have a promising hand after a Mulligan, just quit and restart so you give yourself the best chance before the game starts.
Once you have unlocked a new deck in the campaign mode, you can then go back to custom duel and unlock all the cards for that deck. By doing this each time you will make the campaign battles easier on yourself as you will have the best choice of cards to beat each opponent.
Here is the deck choices I suggest for each stage of the campaign, using the best available deck to give you a good matchup:
1. Teeth of the Predator
2. Teeth of the Predator
3. Wings of Light
4. Wings of Light
5. Teeth of the Predator
6. Hands of Flame
7. Wings of Light
8.Thoughts of Wind
9. Wings of Light
10. Wings of Light
11. Eyes of Shadow
12. Eyes of Shadow
13. Ears of the Elves
14. Ears of the Elves
15. Ears of the Elves
16. Ears of the Elves
Expansion pack 1 campaign (assuming you’ve beaten the original campaign)
1. Scales of Fury
2. Eyes of Shadow
3. Scales of Fury
4. Eyes of Shadow
5. Mind of Void
Expansion pack 2 campaign (assuming you’ve beaten the original campaign)
1. Ears of the Elves
2. Wings of Light
3. Mind of Void
4. Teeth of the Predator
5. Ears of the Elves
6. Wings of Light
7. Mind of Void
8. Teeth of the Predator
Beating Sorin Markov
This is the most difficult opponent you have yet faced on DOTP so I will write a mini guide here to help you with him.
Go to your Deck Manager, move over Teeth of the Predator and press X to edit your deck.
Once you begin your duel with Sorin, check out your starting hand. You want to have a Troll and a Hammer in it. I recommend using a Mulligan and restarting the duel until you have at least one of each of these in your starting hand and at least 2 Forests.
Your strategy is to get the Troll and the Hammer out as quickly as possible, make this your priority. Everything else just cast for defence if you have the time. Don’t worry about attacking unless you can really afford to.
Get the Hammer equipped on the Troll, and attack as soon as you have the mana needed to regenerate him (if he is likely to be blocked).
Keep attacking every turn with the Troll. Just keep everything else back for defence. The life gain from the Hammer should keep you alive against him. He only has one way in his entire deck to get rid of your Troll, his one copy of Anowan. If he is lucky enough to get this out, you’ll be OK as long as you can win before you run out of other creatures to sacrifice.
As soon as you can also get a Blanchwood Armor on your Troll, that should be enough to easily get the win. The damage is too hard for him to stop with the trample, and the life gain will mean he has no chance of killing you anymore.
Keep attacking with the Troll until you win! If he lucks out and kills your Troll with Anowan (sacrifice anything else you can first!) or another way, just try again. This worked for me and worked really easily, fighting him any other way I found a serious uphill battle.
Choosing your deck against human opponents
If you’re playing on DoTP 2012, you can skip this section.
There are now 14 playable decks available (8 originally and 3 in each expansion pack), and when you play against someone online you do not know what deck they will be playing. This means you have to decide beforehand what deck to use and what cards to add to it beforehand.
You will get enjoyment playing with every deck, and by doing so you learn about how each of them works and will then be able to play better against them. I highly recommend doing this.
If you would prefer to stick with one deck, at least initially, then there are several things to consider. I have split them into the following categories for simplicity. I have overgeneralised, but it is a good starting point.
Power: The decks are not in my opinion well-balanced against each other. They all have a chance, but in the long run some tend to do better and some worse, even with skilful play. I have split them into high (most powerful), medium (average) and low (weaker).
Difficulty: This is the amount of experience and skill needed to play the deck well. Of course every deck will perform better with more skilful play, but some decks are much more likely to go totally wrong if you make some bad decisions. I have labelled such decks as high, the rest as low.
Mana Problems: This is how likely you are to run into problems with the land you draw, either by not drawing enough or in multicoloured decks not drawing the right types of land. High indicates a lot of risk of this, medium means less of a risk, and low means fairly safe.
Strategy: The decks vary in how they play, and they may work better or worse for you depending on your play style. Generally speaking decks are either aggressive, which means they go for the throat and try to win quickly, or defensive, in which case they play more for the long-term by controlling the game. I have split the decks into these categories, adding ‘very’ to the extreme cases. Choose one which fits your own play style.
Hands of Flame: low, low, low, very aggressive
Teeth of the Predator: medium, low, low, very aggressive
Wings of Light: medium, low, low, defensive
Thoughts of Wind: low, high, medium, very defensive
Eyes of Shadow: high, low, low, defensive
Ears of the Elves: high, low, medium, aggressive
Claws of Vengeance: low, low, high, aggressive
Scales of Fury: high, low, high, defensive
Relics of Doom: medium, low, medium, aggressive
Cries of Rage: medium, low, medium, very aggressive
Mind of Void: high, high, medium, very defensive
Heart of Worlds: low, low, medium, very aggressive
Heat of Battle: medium, low, low, defensive
Eons of Evil: low, high, high, defensive[/sblock]
When to mulligan
In regular Magic if you don’t like your starting hand of 7 cards, you can choose to mulligan. If you do so, you shuffle your cards back into your library and draw a hand of 6 cards. If you are still not happy, you can reshuffle again and draw a hand of 5, and so on down to 1 card. Realistically if you mulligan to below 5 cards the chances of winning are very slim.
Duel of the Planeswalkers is slightly more forgiving, it allows you one free mulligan before your hand size starts reducing. This means you can be slightly more free with when you take a mulligan, but I don’t advise being too keen to do so when your opening hand is at least reasonable. Here are some tips to help you analyse your opening hand:
Look at how much land you have, what type and what you can search for
For a mono-colour deck, if you have at least 3 lands in your hand I would almost always choose to keep that hand. Even if you have as many as 6 or 7 lands, it is better to know that you will be able to cast everything you draw that game rather than risking mulligans and then not even finding enough land. Believe me you will hate yourself! With 3 lands in your opening hand this will usually prove enough along with the land you will draw to see you through the game. You may be happy to keep a 2 land hand if you have a lot of cheap and effective spells in your hand and are happy they will give you a good chance while you wait for more land. Otherwise, with 2 or less land, I suggest a mulligan.
With a 2 or 3 coloured deck, you need to look at not just how many lands you have but also how many of your colours you have. You ideally want to have a land for each colour, or a way to get any missing colours by cards such as Rampant Growth or Civic Wayfinder. So for example in Scales of Fury, if you have:
Forest, Rampant Growth and a Swamp or a Mountain- you will know you can get all 3 kinds of land into play on the second turn so this hand would be one to keep.
2x Forest and 2x Rampant Growth- you will be able to eventually cast both your growths and fetch all 3 land types.
Forest, Mountain and Civic Wayfinder- you don’t have guaranteed access to all 3 land types but as long as you draw a land of any type within your first 3 turns then you will be able to cast the wayfinder and fetch a Swamp; this is an acceptable risk.
Think about how your first few turns will work and if there is a decent chance you will have all 2 or 3 colours that you need. If so, go with that hand. If the hand does not offer this but has 3 or more land and several good spells you can cast while you wait for a chance to fetch the remaining land type, particularly removal spells, it may be worth the risk rather than taking a mulligan and getting a worse situation. If most of the spells in your hand require the colour that is missing with no way to fetch it, this will be a very risky hand to play and you may be better trying a mulligan.
With some multicoloured decks there is more importance on getting 2 of a particular land. Ears of the Elves and Cries of Rage both require 2x Forest to play a lot of their spells, and Mind of Void requires 2x Island for most of its blue spells. Bear this in mind when examining your opening hand.
Examine the strength of the cards
Imagine how this hand will play out over first few turns. With lots of cheap and effective spells in hand, they are much more useful initially than high mana cost spells that will sit in your hand for a long time. Use this at your discretion if you are already on a borderline case of a mulligan due to being short of lands or missing access to land types. If you have a strong hand and need only 1 more land to get going with it, you should consider keeping a 2 land hand.
Are you playing first or second?
If you are playing second, it is more acceptable to keep a hand with a lower land count since you will get to draw a card on your first turn giving you more chance to find another land.
Once you are down to 6 cards, you should start to lower your expectations. Probably any reasonable 2 land hand will suffice, or a 1 land hand in a mono deck with a lot of cheap spells. Once you get down to 5 cards or less, take anything that looks half decent. You want to avoid getting this far if at all possible, as the card disadvantage puts you way behind your opponent.
When you play spells and abilities in Duel of the Planeswalkers, unlike regular Magic, it is decided for you what lands to tap by the system. It often makes the wrong choices. This can lead to not having the correct mana left for other spells and abilities in the 2 or 3 colour decks. Although you have no direct control over what land gets tapped, there are some things you can do give yourself a better chance:
1. Cast spells that require exact mana costs first (ones with just coloured mana symbols and no number that can be paid with any colour).
Example: I have in play 2x Forest, 2x Mountain and a Plains. I want to cast a Wooly Thoctar (RWG) and a Rampant Growth (1G). I should cast the Wooly Thoctar first since the system cannot tap the wrong lands when casting it, guaranteeing I have a untapped Forest to cast my Rampant Growth. If I mistakenly cast the Rampant Growth first, there is a chance the system will tap 2x Forest to do so and then I am screwed.
2. Hold back a land to help you cast a second spell.
Example: I have in play a Mountain and a 2x Forest. In my hand I have a Mountain and 2x Dragon Fodder (1R). I should cast a Dragon Fodder before I lay my Mountain, then lay my Mountain, so I will definitely be able to cast the second Dragon Fodder. If I mistakenly lay the Mountain first, the system may decide to tap 2x Mountain and then I am screwed again.
3. Do things in an order that will certainly leave you the correct mana.
Example: I have in play a Mountain, 2x Forest and a Swamp. I want to cast a Rampant Growth (1G) and a Dragon Fodder (1R). The correct way round is to cast the Dragon Fodder first, as it cannot accidentally 2x Forest since it only requires 1 additional mana. If I mistakenly cast the Rampant Growth first, the system may screw me one final time by tapping my Mountain along with the Forest leaving me unable to cast Dragon Fodder.
Life Gaining Artifacts
I will cover this issue here to avoid repeating myself on every guide relating to DOTP. There are 5 types of standard life gaining artifacts, they are all 2 to cast and there is one for each colour. They grant you 1 life every time a spell of the corresponding colour is cast.
My opinion on these is that they are not worth it, end of story. In fact I think it is unfair that they are included as everyone will assume they are good and put them in their deck, which in my opinion is a mistake. You could make an argument for putting them in against the computer when you know what deck they are playing if it overlaps with your own colours; but against an unknown human player deck they are really not worth it.
I realise I am in the minority in this opinion, and the majority of people do use these. I’ll make my case here, and leave you to come to your own conclusions.
1. They dilute the deck.
By including any unlocked card, you are effectively reducing the amount of times you will see every other card that is already in the deck. This means that to earn its keep, the card must be very strong and work well with the other cards/themes in the deck.
2. Gaining life doesn’t help you win.
When you have your opponent on the ropes and need that final card to finish them off, or if the opponent is struggling for land and you need to press your advantage, drawing one of these does nothing but give the opponent more chance to recover.
3. Gaining life doesn’t provide answers to threats.
Unless you gain a really substantial amount of life, using a card just to gain some life doesn’t go far enough. Some example where life gain alone are worth it are such past cards as Zuran Orb and Ivory Tower. Otherwise, if you are losing a duel then you need permanent answers to threats such as removal spells or blockers, not menial life gain.
4. If you cast them early in the game you use up mana you need to develop your position; late in the game their life gain will be negligible.
5. If you spend time laying out these artifacts and then get hit with discard, their effectiveness will drop even more. And if Mind of Void is running you out of cards, it couldn’t care less how much life you gain.
6. Life gain is good when its the side effect of something else, but otherwise it has no effect on the state of play.
Creatures with lifelink and cards that give you life while impacting the state of play like Corrupt can be very effective. But if nothing is happening except you gaining that life, you have made no impression on the state of play. You’ve not provided a threat to your opponent, not dealt with any threats they have, and the opponent’s card advantage from you playing these artifacts will slowly but surely erase the life you have gained. The only argument against this is that it helps against direct damage from red or black; but without knowing the opponent’s deck you are putting your life gaining artifacts in blind and so they may not even achieve this goal.
Know the decks
It’s very important that to make the best decisions you should be as familiar as possible with the contents of the decks. I’m not suggesting you learn every card in every deck, but be aware of what each deck can do, and how many copies they have of important spells. Some examples:
1. I’m using Teeth of the Predator. It’s my third turn and I’ve just played my third Forest. I went first so my opponent only has two lands in play, both untapped Islands. He has a Cloud Sprite in play that he cast first turn. From that, I deduce he is playing Thoughts of Wind since no other deck has that card in. I have a Troll Ascetic in my hand that I want to play but I’m worried it will get countered. I know that the opponent only has two cards in his deck that can counter a creature for two mana, 2x Remove Soul. So there is a pretty decent chance that he hasn’t got one in his hand, so it is probably worth the risk. If instead he had three Islands untapped, this also gives him 4x Cancel that can counter my creature, giving him 6 cards. There is a much greater chance he has one of those cards, so I am probably better casting a weaker creature, tempting him to counter that instead.
2. I’m playing Ears of the Elves and my opponent has used an Evolving Wilds to fetch a Swamp. This means he must be playing Eons of Evil since the only other deck with Evolving Wilds in is Heart of Worlds and that is white and green. He casts a Wanderer’s Twig, leaving himself tapped out and unable to use it currently. I have a Naturalize in my hand and I wonder whether it’s worth using on the Twig. As I know the deck well, I know that the only artifacts and enchantments in the whole of his deck are the Twigs, so there is nothing to save my Naturalize for. So I can safely go ahead and use it. If I want to do this, I should do it now while he is tapped out so he can’t activate it in response.
3. I’ve already got 2 creatures in play and I’m thinking of casting a third to press my advantage as my opponent hasn’t cast any creatures yet. I know my opponent is playing white and may have Wrath of God in his hand. How worried should I be? Let’s look at various scenarios:
(a) My opponent has played just 4x Plains. It is very likely, but not certain, he is playing Wings of Light. Drawing that many Plains and not playing any other colours is quite unlikely in any of the multicolour decks. I know this deck has access to just 1 Wrath of God. It’s fairly unlikely he has drawn it, so I’m probably safe to cast another creature.
(b) My opponent has in play 2x Plains, a Forest and a Mountain. He is clearly playing Claws of Vengeance which has access to 2 Wraths. I checked out his library size at the start of the game, he had over 90 cards. This means the chance he has one of the two Wraths is pretty small so I am probably OK to cast my third creature.
(c) Same as above, except my opponent started with 72 cards in his library. With a smaller deck the chance he has a Wrath is much higher so I would probably think he is trying to make me over commit and I hold my creature back for now.
(d) My opponent is playing Claws of Vengeance since he has a Plains, a Forest and 2x Mountain. Although he probably has 2 Wraths in his deck, since I know it needs 2 white mana to cast, it looks like he doesn’t have the correct mana yet so I may be best to press my advantage. Be careful, as this may be a bluff however!
(e) My opponent is down to very low life and will soon be dead. There is probably no need to lay another creature since he will be dead anyway if he can’t find his Wrath. I should not overextend myself, so I should save my creature in case he does cast a Wrath.
4. I’ve figured out my opponent is using Eons of Evil and he has just a Swamp and an Island untapped. I have a creature I want to cast. I remember he does have some counterspells in his deck, but what could he currently cast? I know the deck well, so I realize he could only cast Countersquall which can’t target creatures. So I am safe to play it. If I wasn’t so sure I may have made the mistake of holding back the creature when there was no need to.
5. My opponent is using Scales of Fury. It’s late in the game, and I have just Terror in my hand. I don’t want to use it on any creatures currently out, but may really need it later. I have all the land I need, so I should start collecting as much land in my hand as possible. Since I know my opponent has Blightning in his deck, I’d rather have surplus lands to throw away than be forced to discard my Terror if he draws his Blightning.
6. My opponent is playing Heart of Worlds. He’s attacks me with two Fledgling Griffins which are 2/2 and currently not flying. He has just one Forest untapped, and I have a Hill Giant (3/3) that could block them. As I know his deck has no Giant Growths (in fact nothing at all for just G to cast) then I am safe to block one of them with my giant and know he won’t be killed. Without that knowledge, I may be scared into letting needless damage through.
7. My opponent is using Mind of Void. He has just cast Denizen of the Deep (11/11) on his turn which is going to finish me off next turn if I don’t kill him. He has 7 life and just one Island untapped. I have 7 Mountains, and in my hand I have Lava Axe, Incinerate and Volcanic Hammer. If I know his deck well, I realise that the only spell he can cast is Dispel which can only counter instants. Therefore I should cast the Lava Axe and Volcanic Hammer. If I make the mistake of using the Incinerate thinking he can do nothing about it, that may cost me the game if he does have Dispel in his hand.
8. My opponent is using Eyes of Shadow. He has 7 cards in hand. I have Baneslayer Angel and Angel of Mercy in my hand. Normally I would want to cast the best creature I have available in a situation, but I highly suspect my opponent has at least one way of killing creatures in his hand from knowing his deck. Especially as he hasn’t used many in this game. So I may decide to cast the weaker Angel of Mercy first. This causes my opponent to either use a precious kill spell on my weaker creature meaning there’s more chance the Baneslayer will survive when she comes out, or else let me have my weaker Angel which is better than a fairly certainly dead Baneslayer.
When creatures with first strike are involved in combat, they all get to deal their damage first. Then the surviving creatures without first strike get to deal their damage.
This is often simple enough; a 2/1 first strike creature blocked by a 2/2 creature will kill it and not be killed itself. But there are situations and results that are not so obvious.
1) Ganging up to kill a first strike creature
A creature with first strike can still be hit back by creatures it can normally kill, as long as there is enough of them to absorb the first strike damage and leave some who will then kill the first striker.
Example: I’m being attacked by a Youthful Knight (2/1, First strike) and I have in play 3x Elvish Visionary (1/1). If I block with all three of my creatures, then the knight can use his 2 first strike damage to kill 2 of them, but this must leave the third one alive to deal its one damage back to the knight.
Think to yourself when ganging up the best way the opponent can spread their first strike damage to avoid getting hit back afterwards, and make sure that in every case enough creatures survive to kill it in return.
2) Knock-on effects
Although the creatures without first strike deal their damage after the first strikers, they won’t always deal the amount you would first expect, since creatures killed by the first strike damage may cause some changes.
Example: I’m being attacked by an Elvish Champion (2/2, All other elves get +1/+1 and forestwalk) and 2x Elvish Visionary (1/1, but pumped up to 2/2 thanks to the champion). I have in defence a Youthful Knight (2/1, First strike) and a Venerable Monk (2/2). I’m at 2 life. At first glance it may seem like there is nothing I can do, one of the 2/2 creatures will get past my blockers. But if I block correctly, I can survive. I block the champion with my knight, and one of the visionaries with my monk. The first strike damage from the knight is dealt with first, this kills the champion. This instantly drops the visionaries back to 1/1. Now my monk is able to kill the visionary it blocks and survive, and the remaining unblocked visionary is down to 1/1, so I take only 1 damage. If I’d blocked the other way round with the monk blocking the champion, I would have died.
Example: I’m being attacked by a Goblin Piker (2/1) and a Hill Giant (3/3). I have in defence a Nekrataal (2/1, First strike) and a Mortivore (Power and toughness equal to the number of creatures in all graveyards, B: Regenerate) which is currently 2/2 as there are 2 creatures in my opponent’s graveyard. At first glance it seems impossible to kill both attackers, but if I block correctly I am able to. I block the piker with the nektrataal and the giant with the mortivore. The nekrataal deals his 2 first strike damage, killing the piker. The mortivore now jumps up to 3/3 because there is an extra creature in the graveyard. Now the non-first strike creatures deal their damage, and my mortivore can kill the giant.
Using Removal Spells
Removal spells are spells which… remove things, usually by killing them, so are often known as kill spells. These are usually among the most powerful cards in each deck, as killing a particular creature can easily be the difference between victory or defeat. They are also usually very cheap for what they can do, for example Terror costs just 1B but can wipe out almost any creature in the game, at any time, no matter how much was paid for it.
Because they are so valuable, you should be as sparing as possible with them. You want to get the very most out of each removal spell, so this usually means holding onto it until just the right time. If you use it too early to get rid of a small creature that isn’t bothering you much or remove a small blocker for the sake of a few damage, you will be kicking yourself when the big guns show up and a Flameblast Dragon is making you his toasted sandwich. Before you use any removal spell, ask yourself whether the thing you are killing is enough of a threat to justify it. Knowing each deck well is a huge advantage, as you will have an idea of whether the creature you’re looking at is one of its best or if there are far scarier things to come.
Generally speaking, the more removal spells you have in your hand, the more generous you can be in handing out death to creatures. If I have 2x Terror in my hand and am getting beaten up by a Grizzly Bears (2/2) and can see no defence in sight, I may consider using one of my terrors knowing I have another in reserve to keep me going. However if I only have one in my hand, I would be extremely reluctant to use it unless I really had to, as I may never see another terror for the whole game and bigger creatures are very likely to need killing.
The same applies to cards like Naturalize, do not waste it on something that is causing you no bother or a life gaining artifact. Most decks have a really nasty enchantment or artifact that may show up, again learning the contents of each deck helps a great deal.
Some removal spells have a limited range of things they can kill, such as Shock which deals 2 damage and so cannot on its own kill anything with toughness 3 or more. But you still want to make the most out of it. Killing an Elvish Champion could win you the game, whereas killing an Elvish Visionary to get a couple of damage through probably won’t.
You should note this very important rule in Magic: once an ability triggers or has been activated, it exists independently from the thing that made it, and killing the source won’t stop the ability from happening.
Example: My opponent taps his Prodigal Pyromancer to do 1 damage to my 1/1 creature. If I try to stop this happening by now using Terror on the Pyromancer, the Pyromancer will die, but the ability will still happen and my 1/1 will still die. To prevent this from happening, I need to kill the Pyromancer either before he loses summoning sickness, or before I cast my 1/1 creature. It’s too late once he’s been tapped to use his ability.
Example: My opponent casts Nektrataal. His ability says “When Nekrataal comes into play, destroy target nonartifact, nonblack creature.” This ability triggers as soon as he hits the table. If I try to stop it happening by casting Shock on the Nekrataal, again the Nekrataal will die, but his ability has already triggered and the targetted creature will still die. In this case, the only thing you can do stop the ability is to counter the Nekrataal to stop it entering play, or respond by saving your creature with Unsummon etc.
Blocking and Chump Blocking
When you block a creature, you ideally want to kill that creature without losing your own, or at least trade creatures. But sometimes you need to use a creature to block a creature just to keep the damage off you, even though you won’t kill it. This is called chump blocking, because it is often a small creature (like a 1/1) blocking a big creature (like a 4/4), so the small unfortunate guy is the chump.
There is an art to chump blocking, and it should be employed sparingly and carefully. Here are some guidelines:
1) It is usually better to gang up and kill a big creature with 2 or more of yours rather than chump block with each of them over several turns.
Example: I have a Grizzly Bears (2/2) and a Trained Armodon (3/3) in play and my opponent is attacking with a Craw Wurm (6/4) and I’m at 6 life. Clearly I have to block with something, so my choices are to gang up and kill it or chump block. If I chump block with the bears this turn and then next turn with the armodon (assuming I don’t pick up anything else useful) then the turn after I will still be looking for more chump blockers and have to deal with the wurm. But if I gang up and kill it now, the wurm will be gone for good and I have a chance to get back into the game and on the offensive. Be warned though in situations like this that they may be packing a Giant Growth and planning to make the wurm survive even a double block.
2) Don’t chump block too early. Leave it until you really feel you have to. You can be doing damage back in the meantime, or you may be able to chump block a bigger creature later.
Example: My opponent has a Hill Giant (3/3) in play and I have a Grizzly Bears (2/2). We are both on 20 life. My opponent attacks with the giant, knowing that without some trick I can either take the damage or lose my bears. If I panic and block now, it would be a mistake. This is a common beginner’s error of worrying about their life total too much. It is better to take the damage, then assuming nothing else happens in the meantime I can attack him back with the bears. Then he attacks me back with the giant for another 3, I attack him back for another 2, and so on… at some point I decide my life is getting too low and then I chump block. I have saved myself the same amount of damage (3) but in the meantime I could have done as much as 8 or 10 damage to him.
Example: Same situation as above, except I am at 12 life and my opponent is at 20. Unless I draw something to help me I am clearly going to have to chump block sometime soon, as I know my opponent has a lot of direct damage that could finish me off. But I decide to let the creature through as per the previous example, hoping to do some damage in return before I drop too low and have to chump block. So I attack him back, and then on his next turn my opponent casts an Earth Elemental (4/5). I am glad I didn’t chump block too early as not only did I get a little bit of damage in but I can now chump block the bigger creature and prevent 4 damage to myself instead of 3. This may be crucial.
Example: My opponent has in play an Elvish Warrior (2/3) and 3x Elvish Visionary (1/1). I have in play just a Grizzly Bears (2/2). I’m at 15 life. My opponent attacks me with just the warrior, not giving me the chance to kill any of the smaller elves. If I chump block now it would be bad for me, because I have then opened up the path for the other 3 elves to attack me every turn, so I’ll be taking 5 damage a turn instead of 2. The best thing to do is keep letting the warrior through until you really have to block, that way you are keeping your losses to a minimum and again you save the same amount of life when you do chump block, whether straight away or late on.
3) Don’t let your creatures become useless due to poor foresight.
This is another very common beginner’s mistake. If you a choice between attacking with a creature (with no creatures than can kill it in defence) or leaving it to block, consider whether you actually will block given the current creatures that will be most likely attacking you. If you won’t, then just attack or else your creature will end up doing nothing and may as well not be there.
Example: My opponent is attacking me again with his Hill Giant (3/3) and all I have is a Grizzly Bears (2/2). I let the giant through as I don’t want to lose my creature. It passes to my turn. Should I attack? That depends on whether I intend to block next turn. If I have just picked up a Giant Growth then maybe I would leave it for defence. But say I pick up nothing useful, and think “I better keep the bears for defence” and pass the turn. Then my opponent attacks again, and I think “umm I better not block I’d rather take the damage”. So my bears have done nothing, not attacked when they had the chance, not blocked, so may as well not be there. Many players repeat this scenario turn after turn.
Example: My opponent has a Ravenous Rats (1/1) in play, and I have a Drudge Skeletons (1/1, B:Regenerate). I have 3x Swamp and I want to cast Mind Rot (2B) on him. Say I cast the spell, thinking I’ll keep the skeletons back for defence. It passes to my opponent, and he attacks with his rats. As I am tapped out, I think “oh dear I can’t regenerate them, better not block”. So the skeletons have done nothing. Instead, what I should do is first attack with the skeletons. Almost certainly my opponent will let them through rather than lose his rats as you have the mana to regenerate. Then I can cast my spell. I won’t have the skeletons for defence, but since I wouldn’t have blocked anyway at least I have scored a point of damage by attacking.
When to Use Instants and Abilities
Beginners often make the mistakes of being in too much of a hurry to use their instants and abilities and end up giving away an advantage by doing them too soon. As you can do them at any time and in response to anything else that happens, try and work out the very best time you can use them. This is usually the latest time that they will still be effective. There is usually no need to use them right away.
Example: My opponent has a Trained Armodon (3/3) in play and has been beating me up with it as I have no creatures, and I’m on 10 life. I’ve just drawn a Terror. Instead of using it right away, I wait and see if I can get any more advantage out of it. I pass the turn to my opponent. He then casts Blanchwood Armor on the armodon, boosting it to 7/7 (he has 4x Forest in play). Now I can kill it and take the armor with it as a bonus. But I still wait, to see if can do any better. Now he attacks, and he casts Giant Growth on the armodon raising it to 10/10. He has no more mana and nothing in play that can do anything further, so now I play my Terror to kill the armodon. By waiting until the latest time (in this case before the creature deals me damage) I have managed to gain a card advantage by disposing of 3 cards instead of 1. If I had got too excited and used the Terror as soon as I picked it up, I’d have missed out on this advantage, and if he had instead just attacked with the armodon, I can still stop the timer with X before it runs out during the blockers step and use my Terror without losing anything. (Exceptions: If I was playing against a blue deck and they tap out to cast a creature, I may want to use the Terror in my turn to stop a possible counterspell. Or playing red against a green deck, you may similarly want to take the opportunity to kill a creature while they are tapped out and cannot cast a Giant Growth to save it from your Shock or Incinerate).
Example: I have 2x Drudge Skeletons (1/1, B: Regenerate) in play and my opponent has a Grizzly Bears (2/2). I want to attack with both my skeletons to get one damage through. Many players regenerate both their skeletons at this point, since you have to do so before damage is dealt. This is true, but there is no need to do it so early. So I attack with both skeletons, and see which one gets blocked. I then regenerate the one that gets blocked during the blockers step, so I have saved the mana from needlessy regenerating the other one.
Example: I am being attacked by an Elvish Warrior (2/3) and I have a Drudge Skeletons in defence and only one untapped Swamp. It is important that I block first with the skeleton and then regenerate it (again, at the last time it is still useful). If I make the mistake of regenerating before he attacks, or during the attackers step, he may respond to my regeneration with an Eyeblight’s Ending which will then kill the skeletons. He could do the same when I regenerate after blocking, but the Elves will not deal me damage since they have been blocked (it doesn’t matter if the blocker is later removed).
Example: I am playing against Hands of Flame and I am down to 3 life. I have a Bottle Gnomes in play. A lot of players panic and sacrifice the gnomes to gain 3 life at this stage. However, there is no need. You can sacrifice them at any point, even in response to an Incinerate which is threatening to kill you. If you do that, you will gain the 3 life, then the spell resolves and does you 3 damage leaving you alive. If you do sacrifice it out of panic, they can respond to that with their Incinerate which will then resolve first and you will lose before you can gain the 3 life. You can continue to block with the gnomes, and if you need the life to survive the attack you can then sacrifice it, and the creature still counts at blocked. There is no need to sacrifice the gnomes unless it is about to die through combat or a spell, or if combat or a spell is about to kill you.
Example: I have a Prodigal Pyromancer in play. I make the mistake of tapping it during my turn to do the opponent 1 damage. I pass the turn to my opponent, who then casts a Lightning Elemental (4/1, Haste) and attacks me for 4 damage. It would have been better to leave the pyromancer untapped and keep my options open. The opponent would then most likely not cast the elemental, in which case I can use the pyromancer’s ability just before my opponent is about to end his turn (in his second main phase) and get my damage through, with no loss of advantage.[/sblock]
Dealing with tokens
Tokens are permanents (usually creatures) that are generated by cards and act very much like creature cards when they are in play. But if they leave play for any reason, either by being killed or returned to a player’s hand, they get removed from the game. They do not sit in graveyards and cannot be put into your hand. You can use this to your advantage in several ways:
1) My opponent has cast a Broodmate Dragon (4/4, Flying) which puts a 4/4 flying dragon token into play as well. I have an Unsummon in my hand. It is better to use it on the token, as it will cease to exist upon trying to be put back in my opponent’s hand. If I used it on the dragon card instead, he could cast it again.
2) If I have the choice between killing a 1/1 token or a 1/1 creature card, it is usually better to kill the token. Most players will instinctively kill the creature card, thinking it it better because it is “real”. However, by doing this you put that card into their graveyard, whereas the token just disappears. Putting creatures into their graveyard can be a bad thing, as they can then get them back to their hand with Raise Dead etc which they can’t with the token. There will be exceptions, such as if you want to increase the size of your own Mortivore, but on the whole it’s better to leave the card in play and remove the token when they are of equal threat.
3) If you have the choice of which of your tokens dies, it may be advantageous to keep more of the same type alive when playing against Ears of the Elves.
Example: I’m playing Scales of Fury and I have in play 4x goblin token (1/1) and 2x saproling token (1/1). My opponent attacks me with 2x Elvish Warrior (2/3) and I want to block them with one token each. It is best to use the saproling tokens to block them with, since if my opponent later casts Coat of Arms the 4 remaining goblins will jump up to 4/4 each, whereas if I had 2 goblins and 2 saprolings left they will only be 2/2 each. On the flip side, if you are playing Ears of the Elves and you have a choice of tokens to kill, try and keep the total of each type of token down so that it has less effect when you cast your Coat of Arms.
Not Giving Away Information
One of the most common mistakes made by beginners is to give away information to their opponent when there is no need to. You should try to keep your opponent in the dark as much as possible. The more information they have, the better equipped they are to make decisions. Here are some rules you can follow that will help you guard against tipping your hand:
1) Attack with your creatures before you do anything else. Use your second main phase to lay your land and cast any spells you wish to cast.
The reason for this is that it will usually make no difference to you whether you lay your land or cast spells before or after combat, but by doing so before combat you are giving away information to your opponent. If you lay a land they don’t have to wonder if you have picked up enough land, the spells you cast will use up mana that you may need during combat for an instant or a creature ability such as regenerating, and the opponent may rethink their blocking strategy or use instants more effectively using the information you have given them.
There are exceptions to this rule, such as:
You may need to lay a land to give you enough mana for the instants you might want to play during combat or to pump up a creature such as Nightmare.
Casting a creature with haste that you want to attack with that turn.
Cards that will help you during the combat phase such as Glorious Anthem or Elvish Champion.
Discard spells such as Mind Rot are sometimes better cast before you attack so your opponent doesn’t know what you will do when he chooses which cards to lose.
In these cases you would do them in your first main phase, and leave everything else you want to do until your second main phase.
Example: I have in play 3x Forest, a Troll Ascetic and a Grizzly Bears. In my hand I have a Forest, Giant Growth and Giant Spider. If I straight away play my Forest and cast my Giant Spider before attacking, I then don’t have any mana available for my attack in case I need to regenerate my Troll Ascetic or to play the Giant Growth. I have also shown that I have my fourth land available when my opponent couldn’t have known that, and I already had the mana I needed for combat (unless I needed to regenerate twice) so there was no need to lay it yet. The opponent may be more willing to waste a removal spell on a lesser creature if they think you are short of land.
I lose nothing by attacking first, then if it turns out I don’t need the mana in combat, playing the Forest and casting the Giant Spider afterwards. Also, the opponent may consider using a card such as Terror to kill the Grizzly Bears, but if you play the Giant Spider before attacking then he certainly won’t do that, if anything he will save it for the spider. You have given the opponent more information to make a better choice. Always give the opponent every chance to make the wrong choice.
2) Don’t get trigger happy with your spells.
If a spell requires you to make choices such as choosing a target for Terror, think it through first and be sure that it’s what you want to do and decide what you want to cast it on before you press A. If you make the mistake of pressing A and then changing your mind and cancelling the spell without casting it, the opponent gets on-screen information telling them which spell you were thinking about. They then know it is in your hand, giving away vital information.
3) Don’t give away what deck your are playing until you need to.
As there are now 14 decks, there is a lot of overlap between the colours. The lands you play in the first few turns will either tell the opponent what deck you are playing or narrow the possibilities down. If it makes no difference to you what order you play the first few lands from your hand, you can get a small advantage by keeping the opponent guessing as to what deck you are playing.
Example: I am playing Mind of Void (blue/white) and in my opening hand I have 2x Island and a Plains. I have no white spells in my hand. Since I cannot cast anything until I have all those 3 lands in play, it is better to lay both the islands in my first two turns. That way the opponent doesn’t know which of the 3 decks containing blue I am playing. Once I have the two islands in play, they may worry I am playing Thoughts of Wind and have access to Remove Soul and Negate which only cost 1U to play and be scared to cast a spell or try to bluff me with a weaker one. When it comes to my third turn I can play the Plains. They will then know I must be playing Mind of Void but they may have already altered how they play just because of the order I played my lands.
Bluffing is a concept most often associated with games such as Poker where the opponent has no information about the strength of the cards in your hand and must use their wits and probability to make a decision. However, a lot bluffing can be successfully be used in Magic because the opponent usually can only speculate as to what is exactly in your hand. Here are some examples:
1) Later in the game when you have plenty of land in play, start holding back lands in your hand.
Your opponent will have to worry that they are potential threats, whereas if you lay them all down and they can see you have zero cards in hand, they know they can calculate everything they need to know with no fear of the unkown. This is especially important when playing blue, as the threat of counterspells causes players to seriously reconsider their strategy and may hold off from casting a powerful spell for some time. Never empty your hand late in the game unless you really need to. Additional lands held back can also be used to be thrown away if you are forced to discard to protect another card in your hand, or later discarded to your own Seismic Assault or Razormane Masticore.
Example: I am at 8 life and my opponent is at 4 life. My opponent has a Hill Giant (3/3) in play and I have an Elvish Warrior (2/3). He picks up a card (now his only one) and then attacks with the Hill Giant. I know that he has Lava Axe in his deck, and if this is what he has just drawn then unless I block he will be able to kill me. But if it just a land or a weaker card, I may be better to take the damage and attack back with my creature to put him on 2 life and having to stop attacking. I have a difficult choice, and if I call his bluff and I am wrong it could cost me the game. However, if he had just picked up a land and laid it down before attacking, I know he cannot possibly kill me so I know I am safe to take the damage.
Keep the cards in your hand secret as much as possible.
Example: I have one card in my hand, a Forest. I pick up a Civic Wayfinder. It is better to cast the wayfinder first if possible, search for a land, then play a land, rather than play the Forest from my hand first. If I do it the first way, as far as my opponent is concerned I have searched for a land and laid that land, and my remaining card could be anything. But if I do it the second way, I have shown that my last card is a land, and holding back the land I just fetched won’t work as a bluff because the opponent knows it can only be a land.
2) You can make it look like you have a particular card in your hand, even if you haven’t.
Example: I’m playing green/red and I have a Goblin Piker (2/1) in play and have just drawn my only card, a land. My opponent cast an Air Elemental (4/4, Flying) in his last turn. If I attack with my creature, my opponent may assume I have picked up either a Giant Growth or Incinerate, since otherwise my attack is foolish. They may consider as it’s only 2 damage it’s not worth the risk of losing their big flyer and let it through. So I have scored 2 free damage with a useless card in my hand. This is risky tactic, if the opponent either calls your bluff or doesn’t even think about these possibilities and blocks, you will lose your creature and look very stupid. So the situation and judgement of your opponent will dictate whether it is a good risk.
However, a bluff like this may be your only way to win.
Example: The situation is the same as above, except I picked up a Lava Axe, I am at 4 life and my opponent at 7 life. If I don’t win this turn, I will be killed by the Air Elemental. The only way I can win is to pretend I have a Giant Growth or Incinerate and am trying to get him to block so I can kill his creature and save myself. So I keep my card in hand, and attack. He may let it through so as to not risk losing his game winning creature, which is just what you want him to do. Then you play your Lava Axe for the win. If he calls your bluff and blocks you will lose, but without trying this bluff you have lost anyway so at least you are giving yourself a chance.
Sometimes a bluff can be risk free.
Example: My opponent has tapped out to cast a Wall of Air (1/5) and has nothing else in play. I have a Grizzly Bears (2/2) in play. I can safely attack with the bears, pretending I have a Giant Growth. The opponent may let it through since he has no mana to stop you at doesn’t want to risk his wall, if he does you’ve scored 2 free damage. If he decides to block and calls your bluff, your bears survives and your opponent has nothing with which to attack you back, so you’ve lost nothing for the effort. You can even double bluff in a situation like this, you may indeed have a Giant Growth in your hand but you don’t want to use it yet. You can attack, you may score 2 free damage as before, if the opponent blocks you need not use the Giant Growth, and this may fool the opponent into thinking you don’t have one in your hand when in fact you do. They may then underestimate your hand in future turns. Keep your opponent guessing as to what is in your hand.
3) You can make out you are a worse player than you actually are, without causing yourself a disadvantage. If you assume your opponent is aware of the strategies mentioned in this guide, then you can play on that.
Example: On my opponent’s second turn he tapped both his lands to cast Rampant Growth. Now it’s my turn, I have a creature ready to attack, and a land I want to play and then another creature to cast. If you’ve read the rest of the guide you will realize that usually you want to attack first, then play your land and cast the creature afterwards, to avoid giving away information. However, when the opponent cannot actually make any decisions which will affect your turn, the order becomes irrelevant. I know he has nothing he can block with and cannot cast any spells. This means I can do things in any order and it can’t possibly adversely affect me. So I can lay my land, cast the creature, then attack with my first creature. This makes it look like I’m less of a strategic player than I actually am. If I continue this during the game, sometimes doing things in the correct order but doing things out of order when the opponent cannot interact with what I am doing, I may lead him to believe I play erratically and foolishly, and I may catch him out later when he becomes too complacent. If my opponent fails to notice the psychological trap I am setting, then I’ve lost nothing either, since I’m still doing everything I want to do on my turn.
Just like in Poker, a bluff only works if your opponent is intelligent and knowledgable enough to even realise that you are bluffing them. Someone who pays no attention to how many cards are in your hand or whether you may have tricks up your sleeve will not likely fall for these bluffs. So this means evaluating your opponent’s skill level.
Playing to Win
There is a motto I use when I am close to losing a game of Magic. Some chance of winning is better than no chance of winning. I will explain this with an example:
I’m playing with Hands of Flame against Teeth of the Predator. I’m at 4 life and my opponent is on 6. I have in play two Goblin Sky Raiders (1/2, flying) and my opponent has a Spined Wurm (5/4) and a Trained Armodon (3/3) ready to attack. He has also tapped out, except for one Forest, to cast another Spined Wurm this turn which can’t attack yet.I have no cards in my hand, my opponent has 3. I have 5 Mountains.
My opponent attacks me with both the Wurm and the Armodon, and both my Raiders are untapped and ready to block if needed. Obviously I must block at least the Wurm here or I will die. So I have two realistic options.
(a) Block both the attacking creatures with a Raider each
(b) Block the Wurm with one Raider and take damage from the Armodon
At first glance, it would seem safer to take option (a). If I let the Armodon through he may use Giant Growth and then I’ll be dead. But I would chose option (b) instead. Here’s where my motto comes into play.
If I block both creatures, I’ll have nothing left in play, and no single card I draw next turn could do enough damage to kill my opponent. No creature I draw will be able either to stop the obvious attack again on his next turn with all 3 creatures. So effectively, by blocking both creatures, although I have avoided the risk of losing right away to a Giant Growth and have kept my life total up, I have effectively conceded the game.
By playing through the above scenario in my head, I realise that if I take option (a) there is no way I can ever win. So I see if there is a way I can win, no matter how little chance there is that it will happen. Any chance is better than no chance.
So I consider option (b). Can I win that way? The answer is yes, if the top card of my library is Lava Axe or Claws of Valakut. By keeping one of my Raiders alive, I’ll be certain to be able to attack with that for 1 damage, and the Lava Axe or the Claws on the Raider will do the remaining 5 damage. This is a long shot, but it is better than no shot. If you do this enough times, instead of making the play that means you will definitely lose, eventually you will pull the card you need and get a win out of a seemingly lost situation.
Obviously this is a very specific situation I describe, but time and time again you will come across other situations that are basically equivalent; you have two choices of action, one of which means you cannot win, and one means you have a slight chance of winning. Make sure you pick the right one!