Magic is difficult. It’s also incredibly beautiful.
I recently posted on Twitter a very tough Thoughtseize decision:
(or http://imgur.com/etnXpEn )
The matchup is Grixis Death’s Shadow mirror, and we are playing after sideboarding.
I thought long about it and to this day I am not sure of the right decision. There is so much going on. Preliminary read:
Reid Duke wrote a masterpiece article on Thoughtseize a long time ago I couldn’t recommed it higher:
Read that first, and than take some time to reflect on the decision above.
In our case, understanding what to take involves identifying all the ramifications for every possible card we could take, followed by weighting those ramifications and making a decision.
So, to start, let’s walk through the immediate consequences of taking any of the cards:
1) Lightning Bolt
This would allow us to play Death’s Shadow a few turns earlier as a 3/3 or smaller, instead of waiting for it to get bigger. It would also allow us to go even lower on our life totals later in the game, since a possible kill sequence in the mirror is the dreaded bolt-snap-bolt, which puts a premium on staying at 7 life or over. Taking a Bolt would give us more leeway there, but it’s not a huge deal since most lists only play one or two copies of Bolt. There is also the hidden mode of him casting a Lightning Bolt to lower his life total and increase his Death’s Shadow, but I don’t see it being relevant given the rest of his hand. For all those reasons, I am going to discard right away taking the Lightning Bolt.
2) Serum Visions
Our opponent only has one land in hand, just like us. Taking Serum Visions could hurt his ability to find the second land and gives us a tempo advantage. In case he does topdeck the land early, we would still hurt his ability to dig for anything he deems important. Note that Serum Visions is above average when the opponent has information about our hand.
3) Thought Scour
Taking this also limits his ability to find another land, although considerably less so than Serum Visions. The main advantage of taking Thought Scour would be to slow down any future delve creature.
4) Death’s Shadow
Death’s Shadow is the signature creature of the deck and only threat our opponent has in hand. With a fetch land, Thoughtseize and two cantrips, we can assume our opponent wouldn’t have much trouble going below 13 life by his third turn. Taking it out would mean we are less likely to be under pressure soon, leading to a longer game.
Terminate is a direct answer to our own Death’s Shadow, but, most importantly, is often the only answer for one of the delve guy (Tasigur or Gumag Angler), which otherwise dodge Fatal Push, Lightning Bolt and Kolaghan’s Command (another temporary “answer” to consider is nihil spellbomb, but we can rule it out as a big factor here since our opponent is already very pressured to use his mana early).
Now he have to put ourselves in our opponent’s shoes and analyze what he would take from our hand – with the kicker that we have to weight that they know that we know their hand! There are too many variables and it’s impossible to know for sure what they would take, but I’d consider the three strongest candidates to be Terminate, Snapcaster Mage and Serum Visions, depending on wheter they value higher our ability to, respectively, i) answer a delve guy/death’s shadow (and likelihood of us finding a fourth land); ii) get ahead on cards; iii) swiftly find a second land. This comes down to stylistic choice and his interpretation on how the matchup is supposed to play. All factors considered, I’d wager on him taking a Snapcaster Mage given their current hand, since it’s the most powerful card in abstract, but if they topdecked a Tasigur they could very easily take the Terminate.
Note that taking out Thoughtseize presents two additional small advantages: it limits the opponent’s ability to lose life and play his Death’s Shadow, and protects the contents (not only the cards) of our hand.
So what do we do with all this information? Well, we have to figure out what this game is going to be all about. Should we try to: win a tempo game? Leave opponent without immediate threats? Mana screw our opponent? Take away the answer to a topdecked Delve creature? Prevent the opponent from winning with a topdecked Delve creature? Get ahead on card advantage? Or rather, should we just stay open?
More broadly, is this game going to be about early game tempo; lining up threats and answers; long term card advantage; or staying flexible and just get the most net ammount of advantages in all of those aspects?
First step is to figure out is the odds of opponent drawing a second land by turn 2, to see if there is any merit on trying to mana screw him. Despite Grixis Death’s Shadow running a low 19 land count, there is still over a 75% of him hitting it if we account for the fact that he has two draw steps and one Thought Scour to use. This number is just too high to make Serum Visions a reliable option for us. We can do better. For the same metric, I am going to rule out Thought Scour – his hand has enough action to allow a quick delve creature even without casting Thought Scour.
Second, we need to consider if there is any other way to capitalize on a tempo start. For instance, if we took away a card that affect the board, we could maybe restrict our opponent to only casting discard spells and cantrips in the first turns while he run away with an on-board advantage. However, I don’t think this is possible here. The opponent has his own threat and two removal spells, even though both can be a bit awkward for him (we could wait to play our Death’s Shadow out of Bolt range, or restrict his mana with Terminate). This is just too much, and taking any of those three cards would still mean he could use the other two to reclaim tempo. Pluse he could easily use his Thoughtseize to prevent us from using tempo in a meaningful way.
Third, we need to understand the importance of Terminate in the matchup. The main factor here is that most versions only run two copies, so taking one out right away could be huge, considering the opponent is both far away from 4 mana and doesn’t have immediate access to Snapcaster Mage. But note that valuing Terminate highly doesn’t immediately lead to the conclusion that we should take his Terminate, since stripping the Thoughtseize is a way for us to protect our own Terminate.
Fourth, it’s important the understand the role of Death’s Shadow in the matchup. Despite being a great card, the truth of the matter is that Death’s Shadow don’t stay alive that often on board. I think the main consideration of taking it out here would be to allow us to save a Terminate for a delve guy. Since I had 3 fatal pushes in the deck to deal with a Death’s Shadow, and am not immediately pressured to handle it, I’d rather wait to use the one mana removal spell. Otherwise they could be a dead draw and I’d be wasting the potential of this Thoughtseize.
Finally, we need to properly assess all the advantages of taking away his Thgouhtseize. I went a bit into it already and I think it’s safe to conclude that taking away the Thoughtseize gives us the most ammount of “net” advantages, but it doesn’t direct the game to any particular route. My conclusion is that while resolving Thoughtseize does a lot to our opponent, it doesn’t cripple us in any way. Specifically, his Thoughtseize wouldn’t stop us from winning with a delve guy. Regardless of what a card they take, we still would be able to cycle and Serum Visions at least once to dig for the delve guy.
Ultimately, I chose to take Terminate. This is because my experience in the mirror matchup is that Death’s Shadow is an easy to kill card, while the delve creatures are extremely relevant for their everlasting presence. So Terminate is huge deal. I decided my own Terminate wasn’t as valuable as his because I already had Snapcaster Mage, so I was confortable in letting him take it away with this Thoughtseize. If the game dragged on, there is a chance I would find 4 lands and flashback my Terminate, after all. Plus, since I am on the play, there is a larger incentive for me to try to ride a creature to win while he scrambles to find an answer, whereas a game where we both sit back and topdeck cards would favor his position of being on the draw.
If there were a multitude of answers for delve guys in the typical decklist, I would instead take out his Thoughtseize and try to win a game by capitalizing the card advantage provided by my Snapcaster Mage.
However, my approach isn’t without risks. Maybe I don’t find a delve creature early enough. Maybe I don’t find a Fatal Push and am forced to waste a Terminate on his Death’s Shadow, clearing the way for him to topdeck a delve creature.
I am aware have a bias in magic of taking the line of play that leads to a hard to answer threat on board. This is because most of my significant success in the game came that way. But it doesn’t mean it’s always correct. I had an old playtest partner that would always try to play long games and I could bet blindly that he would make this game be about Snapcaster Mage above all else. Whenever I see myself tempted to make a line that leads to the plan of “hope my threat goes unanswered” I get self-concious if I am actually doing the right thing or if its my bias talking. This Thoughtseize was particularly difficult for me for this reason.
In conclusion: taking away Thoughtseize would be the safest option, but Terminate could be the right one if we are confident that the matchup really does revolve around sticking a delve guy on board.
It shouldn’t matter to our analysis, but if you are curious, the game played out exactly like I hoped. I soon found a Gumag Angler that they couldn’t kill in short time time, while I dispatched his Death’s Shadow right away. But maybe I think it wasn’t the right decisition for that match: in the third game, my opponent showed Dark Betrayal (which is not a commonly played card), meaning I overvalued his Terminate!
So even with all this careful analysis; even if we did nail our interpretation of the matchup; even if we theoretically made the right play given the information we had; weel, it still could end up as the wrong play because the opponent got smart and creative with his deck building choice.
Magic is difficult. It’s also incredibly beautiful.
Bonus: was casting Thoughtseize even the right play? If we wanted the most ammount of information before making a decision, we could lead with Serum Visions first (trying to find a second land), than cycly Street Wraith and only play Thoughtseize on our second turn. We could also cycle Street Wraith on our first turn before casting Thoughtseize. What do you think?