7 Tips to Improve Your Modern Game

As much as I oppose the notion that a play can be “correct” or “incorrect” in a game of Magic, I wouldn’t disagree that mistakes can, undoubtably, be made.  In fact, its the ability to minimize your own mistakes and capitalize on your opponents mistakes that delineates the best players in the game.  As tournaments run longer and fatigue sets in, this can be more and more challenging to do.  Today, we’re going to look at a few generalized plans that are proven to give an edge to an informed pilot.  Keep in mind, while the advantage in a game of Magic can come from the ways in which your cards match up to your opponent’s, there is quite a bit of value that can be gained purely by understanding the best way to sequence your plays, tap your mana, bluff, or similar.  Your cards are only as good as your ability to play them effectively.  In order to do that, you’ll need to keep a few things in mind…

1. Attack First

This one is commonly understood by longtime players, but something I see many new players overlooking quite frequently. Unless it impacts the results of your attack (ie. casting Noble Hierarch for an exalted trigger), there is often little reason to ‘show your hand’ until the second main phase.  This is relevant for a few reasons…

  1. If you are holding a removal spell, tapping out during your first main phase will limit your ability to use it as a combat trick during blocks. These types of plays can be game changing.
  2. If you plan to cast another creature on your turn, doing so before combat will make your opponent’s blocking decisions easier.
  3. Your decision on what to cast could change based on how your opponent chooses to block or what they do during combat.

Take, for example, a situation where your opponent is at 5 life.  You have a 4/4 on board and a 5/5 in hand and your opponent has a measly Birds of Paradise in play.  Birds could block the attacking 4/4 and die, leaving behind two creatures that will need to be dealt with in the next turn, or can be spared to block the 5/5 during the next turn in hopes of drawing a piece of removal for the 4/4.  Neither situation is great but, depending on the expected contents of your opponent’s deck, you’ll likely have a preference.  If you cast your second creature after attacks, you are depriving your opponent of that information until after a vital blocking situation has occurred.

2. Know Your Meta, Predict Your Opposition

Though Modern is incredibly diverse, with some experience, you can make an informed guess about what your opponent is playing after their very first turn.  As a control player, I am quite familiar with the Affinity match-up and it becomes abundantly clear that I’m in one when my opponent starts the game off by dropping their entire hand of zero-mana artifacts.  I’d consider this a favorable match-up for Control but I have lost enough times to Etched Champion to know that I’ll need to maintain awareness for this card during these games.  Because a card like this is virtually immune to one-for-one removal spells, I will remind myself of the value of my counter-magic when I am determining whether I would like to cast Logic Knot or Path to Exile to deal with a Steel Overseer that my opponent is trying to resolve.

A better example is a card like Blood Moon.  This type of spell can single-handedly lock many decks out of the game and there are quite a few decks in Modern that aim to cast one as soon as possible.  Ponza typically does this by playing either an Arbor Elf or Birds of Paradise on the first turn to have access to three mana on turn two.  If you were lucky enough to win game one against this deck, be prepared for this very predictable line in game two.  With that in mind, you’ll need to keep a hand that either has ample basic lands or a one-mana removal spell that can buy a turn by removing your opponent’s mana dork before they are able to untap with it.  Once again from the perspective of a Control pilot, I know from experience that a Logic Knot is not enough to count on here as the redundancy of terrible things that can happen when my Ponza opponent has three mana (ie-Stone Rain and Molten Rain) makes it extremely likely that I will be given no opportunity to find two blue sources in enough time to stabilize.  As a side note, fetch-lands are quite effective in this situation as they can either find a basic vs. Blood Moon or be sacrificed to their own effect when targeted with a land destruction spell.

Playing lots of Magic is a great way to develop a thorough understanding of the metagame but, in addition to doing so, I might recommend spending some time on MTGGoldfish.com to look through the published decklists that are released twice weekly from MTGO 5-0 results.  Beyond that, know your enemy!  I’d argue that the best way to develop an understanding of how to beat a deck is to pick it up and play with it.  Borrow one from a friend, proxy up a list, or rent one on Manatraders.com (promo code “CardKnockLife” for 14% off ;)).

3. Hold Lands

We all flood out at times.  This isn’t always the mark of death in a game that goes long so long as you are able to make your opponent think that you are holding reactive spells that may either prevent them from resolving their threats or keeping their most valuable creatures around.  If you draw and play a land off the top of your deck when you’ve got zero cards in hand, your opponent never has to question the security of their spells.

Keep in mind the highest converted mana cost of spells in your deck and remember that a land in hand (with the exception of lands that enter tapped) can be played and utilized on the turn that you were to draw something useful.  For that reason, there are few instances where you get more value from a basic land in play versus one kept in your hand to represent a Counterspell, for example.

This is even more relevant when you expect that you are playing against an opponent who is packing discard spells like Thoughtseize or Kolaghan’s Command.  In the case of Thoughtseize, your opponent certainly won’t be inclined to cast the spell if you’re ‘hellbent’.  If you are holding a basic, that land just became a free Shock.  If your opponent plays Kolaghan’s Command during your draw step after you’ve just picked up something relevant off the top of your deck, you can kiss it goodbye.  With an extra land in hand, your decision on what to discard becomes infinitely more clear.

4. Take the Damage

Often times, a few points of life are well-worth knowing what your opponent will do in their second main phase.  If your opponent is privy on my first tip, “Attack First”, you’ll be forced to make a decision on whether or not you can sustain the damage from that attack in order to keep mana open to deal with something worse later.

As an example of this imagine that you are holding a single Terminate against an opponent who has just declared a Tarmogoyf as an attacker.  The Goyf is threatening three damage which may represent life loss that you’ll regret later on.  Is this more important to you than your opponent resolving Dark Confidant in the second main phase and drowning you in card advantage?  Sometimes the answer is yes but more frequently I find myself taking the damage to ensure that a crueler fate does not await me in the second main phase, especially, if I am holding a Counterspell or some sort of non-creature permanent removal to use against something like Liliana of the Veil.

Perhaps a more clear cut example lies in the question “can I sustain a few turns of attacks from a 1/1 creature in order to spare my removal spell for a larger threat?”

5. Maintain Awareness of Hand Size

If both players have the same amount of lands and nothing else in play, it is often the player who has more cards in hand that holds the advantage.  Magic is a game of resource advantage.  This is what makes cards like Cryptic Command so valuable.  If you can deal with a single card of your opponents by using a single card of your own, this would be considered a one-for-one trade.  That’s fair, even.  If you can deal with an opposing spell by casting a reactive spell that also draws a card to replace itself, you’ve found an advantage.  Now, that is to say nothing of the mana invested in each of those spells which certainly factors into the equation, but as a general rule of thumb, card advantage is a good thing.  This should come as a surprise to no one.

Beyond interactivity, understanding how much ‘gas’ your opponent has left in the tank is important.  This comes up quite often against Burn.  Since most of the spells in this particular deck deal three damage (Lava Spike, Lightning Bolt, Lightning Helix), it is important to consider that the number of cards in your opponent’s hand could be multiplied by three to roughly represent the amount of damage you may be susceptible to.  If your opponent has zero cards in hand, the most damage that you are likely to take in a single turn would be four (Boros Charm) so maintaining five or more life in this instance will be important to your survival.

  

Damage is often referred to as a clock.  A Burn opponent will eventually draw enough burn spells to kill you so the clock is always ticking.  It is important to keep track of the number of cards in your opponent’s hand to know how much time is left on your clock to finish your opponent before you are killed by them.

6. Know Your Deck and Have a Plan

As obvious as this may seem, we often go into a match-up lazily following the lead of the cards we draw and what our curve allows at any given point in time.  It is important to consider how your deck is most likely to win against a given opponent and play to those outs.

A game between Jeskai Control and Tron is a great example of this.  Against aggressive decks, spells like Lightning Bolt and Lightning Helix are pointed at opposing creatures so that the Jeskai pilot can survive until the late game and resolve something bigger and scarier than their opponent.  In the Tron match-up, however, everything Tron plays is bigger and scarier than in Jeskai so the Jeskai pilot assumes the role of the aggressor.  Though the Jeksai player may pack spells like Ceremonious Rejection to slow their opponent, the most effective plan of action is to deal as much damage with burn spells and Snapcaster Mage attacks as possible before the opponent casts big creatures like Wurmcoil Engine or Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger.  If your opponent is at just three life, it doesn’t matter than Karn Liberated is exiling your lands because you’ll only need one red source to Lightning Bolt them to death anyways.

If a Jeskai pilot does not understand this role, they may go into the match-up with the intention of going toe to toe with their opponent’s threats.  This is a losing battle in this case.  Casting two Lightning Bolts to destroy a Wurmcoil Engine should clearly illustrate the futility of that plan.  This concept is as important in piloting the deck as it is in sideboarding between games.

In general, when things are looking tough, ask yourself “how can I win from this position?”  There may be one card left in your deck that could actually keep you in the game.  When determining how to block or utilize the spells that are left in your hand, you’ll need to remember their role in the plan that you’ve conceived.  For example, if you make a block, it may spare you some life points but is the creature that you’re losing integral to your ability to draw what you need and win the game in the next turn?

7. Don’t Over-Sideboard

We’ve all got match-ups that we fear in this format.  For me, it always seems to be Tron.  That deck has my number no matter what I chose to play.  The most demoralizing thing about this match-up is how quickly my opponent is able to assemble their Tron lands and cast an impossibly large threat against me.  As often as I sink into my chair after my opponent casts Expedition Map off of a turn one Urza’s Tower, I also feel quite relieved if, in the second game of the match, my opponent leads with a Grafdigger’s Cage against my Snapcaster Mage deck.  There’s no doubt that this card causes issues for Snapcaster Mage, but I would ALWAYS prefer it to my opponent assembling Tron on turn three.  In any case, its unlikely that Expedition Map was boarded out for Cage, but something had to be cut from a deck that is primarily land tutors and threats and the fact that my opponent opted to play a preventative card rather than a proactive one provides me more time to do what I need to do to win the match.

In a second game you’ll like want to remove the spells that were useless during game one.  Consider that a savvy opponent will expect this and take advantage of this window of opportunity.  If a player is expected to board out removal spells against a deck that played no creatures during game one, the door is open for a creature like Baneslayer Angel to take over with no opposition in the second game.  Be prepared for this!

Conclusions

Players will learn many of these concepts from experience and, as diverse as Modern is, this will likely take some time.  Players like Caleb Scheerer who are notoriously deadly with their deck of choice (in Caleb’s case, Storm) demonstrate the importance of experience.  Caleb is able to leverage his understanding of his own deck and how it fares against each different opponent.  Its not enough to merely know Storm itself, but to study the other decks that exist within the meta to predict what they will do to hinder your own plans to combo off with Grapeshot or Empty the Warrens, for example.

Magic is incredibly rewarding but ridiculously complex and very difficult to play.  Enjoy the game.  Learn through failure and celebrate your successes.