Do they have it?
Anyone who has played limited has probably found themselves asking this question at least once. However, it’s not a very useful question to ask. First of all, it can’t be definitively answered. Second of all, it isn’t always the most important question when deciding what line of play to take. So, what questions should you be asking instead?
What do I think they have?
Before you decide whether or not to play around something, it’s important to figure out what you’re playing around. You should try to learn all the playable common combat tricks in a format. Red has fiery impulse, chandra’s fury, titan’s strength, and smash to smithereens out of the board, blue has disperse, bone to ash, calculated dismissal, and negate, black has unholy hunger and dark dabbling, green has titanic growth, might of the masses, and aerial volley out of the board and white has celestial flare, enshrouding mist, and mighty leap. While uncommon and rare combat tricks exist, they’re far less likely, and usually not worth playing around unless you’ve seen them in previous games, they are the only things that explain the opponent’s behavior, or the only way you lose the game is if they have that exact card.
When trying to figure out which of these tricks you think they have, look at their behavior. If they have 3 guys, they’re in green, and they’re attacking with their 3/2 into your catacomb slug but not their 2/2, they probably have might of the masses. If they attack both in, they’re telegraphing titanic growth.
Additionally, look at their past behavior. If they could have blown you out with a specific trick earlier, but didn’t, they probably don’t have it. They could have topdecked it, but those are long odds. If they let you resolve grasp of the hieromancer on your 2/2 last turn despite having red mana up, they probably don’t have a fiery impulse in hand.
Now that you know what they might have, you need to ask yourself the next question.
Do I care if they have it?
Sometimes, it pays to play around cards. Other times, playing around something can cost you more than it’s worth even if they have the card you’re worried about, so you may be better off taking the same line of play you would take if they didn’t have it at all. This brings us to our next question:
What does it cost me to play around the trick the whole game?
The most common “do they have it?” moment is when you’re being attacked and have to decide whether or not to block and risk eating a combat trick. So, how do you play around that? Do you just never block, or do you have some sort of long term plan like playing more blockers or leaving up removal? If the answer is the former, you should consider just running into the trick.
Another common “do they have it?” moment is playing around countermagic. If your opponent passes the turn with islands untapped, and you’re considering passing the turn or playing a less important spell to play around countermagic, ask yourself, what does the game look like if they keep leaving up mana and you keep doing nothing, or playing unimportant spells instead of that one spell you really want to resolve and are holding back? If the answer is “I slowly lose the game”, just play it.
Next, you need to ask the opposite question:
What happens if they have it and I don’t play around it?
Sometimes, this means getting 2 for 1’d, or even losing the game. Other times, this means losing a hurloon minotaur to a combat trick. Play accordingly.
And the final question:
Can I win if they have it? Can they win if they don’t have it?
Play to your outs when you’re behind, and play around your opponent’s outs when you’re ahead. Even if you’re 90% sure they have it, if you can’t win while playing around it, then run into it and hope for the best. And if your opponent can only win if the last 3 cards in their hand are all titanic growth, then play around triple titanic growth.
And now for the *real* final question:
How would you summarize this article to someone who skimmed through it without reading any of the un-bolded text?
Memorize all the common tricks in the format. Figure out which ones they might have based on the decisions they’re making. Figure out how much it will cost you to play around it. Figure out how hard you get blown out if you don’t. Play conservatively when you’re ahead, and riskily when you’re behind.
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