How Do I Lose?

Recently there have been a few articles on other sites focusing on fundamentals. One of the major points in any of these articles is that you should have a plan for how to win the game that informs your decisions throughout the game. This seems rather obvious, but it is not difficult to lose focus and simply play on auto-pilot generating plays that looked at in isolation might make sense but are at odds with one another given the way the game has progressed.

When formulating such a plan, you usually ask yourself, “How do I win?” Sometimes the answer isn’t clear, and we have to guess at which line of play ends favorably for us. Still, it is important to ask the question and have the answer dictate our future plays. We are much more likely to win that way then by making plays that are not cohesive.

Just as important as this question should be, “How do I lose?” It is one thing to know how to win, but questioning how you lose can fill in some of the details or determine which of competing plans should be utilized. Personally, I don’t utilize this question well enough, which is part of my reason for writing this article.

In order to highlight the importance of this question, I have a few personal examples for you. The first scenario comes from playing in the final round of the Legacy Open in Charlotte. The winner of the match would likely finish in the money, while the loser would go home with nothing. I was playing UWR Delver against UW Miracles. During game three I finally hit my third land which allows me to deploy the Geist of Saint Traft that’s been in my hand. I identified resolving the Geist as my means to win. In addition to the Geist, my hand contained a Ponder, Spell Pierce, two Daze, Wear//Tear, and a Force of Will. In addition I have a Sword of Feast and Famine in play and know that my opponent’s hand is Force of Will, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and Terminus from a previously resolved Gitaxian Probe. His board is five lands and a Sensei’s Divining Top.

In attempting to resolve the Geist, I am confronted with this article’s pivotal question, “How do I lose?” He predictably casts Force of Will on my Geist pitching the Jace and leaving only the Terminus in his hand. I am able to Force back but need to figure out how I can lose from this position in order to determine what card I need to exile. The obvious answer is that I lose if he can answer the Geist. The Terminus in his hand represents one answer, but if he finds a sixth land and attempts to hard-cast it, a single Daze keeps me safe. If he doesn’t find the land he either has to keep what he draws in hand to protect the Terminus from discard due to the Sword or lose it. Either way I am pretty safe from hard-cast Terminus with one copy of Daze.

Another option he has is to find another copy of Terminus and Miracle it or find Brainstorm to put back the copy in hand to in turn Miracle it. I am unlikely to beat this play unless he activates his Top too many times, in which case the Spell Pierce becomes live and I can use it with a Daze to counter it. The odds of this happening are slim so should not count on it. I also cannot beat a Supreme Verdict. In either of these situations I want to keep the Ponder to allow me to find another threat.

Lastly, there is Entreat the Angels. In the previous game I was able to win on the back of Dazing an Entreat for 3. Between games he commented that choosing 3 was greedy, and he should have played around Daze. Thus, I could anticipate him playing around one Daze but likely not the second. As such I should want both Dazes. If he does play around double Daze, making a single Angel, I can keep Ponder to find another threat after the Angle and Geist trade. This scenario is not much different from the above case of a Miracled Terminus or Supreme Verdict, though less likely.

Putting these situations together, the weakest card in my hand is the Spell Pierce as it only helps me if I untap without anything major happening on his turn. Double Daze effectively serves the same role for the more pivotal turn while I’m tapped out. Ponder can help find more counters if I still have a Geist and another threat if not.

What did I do? I was too short-sighted and didn’t think about Entreat. Believing a single Daze was enough to hold off the Terminus in his hand, I pitched the second copy. I then felt sick when he Miracled Entreat for 2, playing around the single Daze. I then compounded the mistake by not attacking, thus placing myself behind in the damage race.

Lesson: Think through all the ways you can lose before acting!

The second scenario comes from a Standard match where I was playing Mono-Black with a light Green splash against BW Midrange. My board consisted of Erebos, God of the Dead and two Underworld Connections. My opponent had a recurring Obzedat, Ghost Council along with a Whip of Erebos and his own Connections. He is at 7 while a Gray Merchant of Asphodel that died with its trigger on the stack put me back up to 12. In determining whether or not I can attack with Erebos, I go through the pros and cons. I believe if I attack this turn he will have to leave his Obzedat back to block the following turn unless he draws another creature. He also wouldn’t be able to attack with the Obzedat if I don’t attack with Erebos unless he thinks getting in 2 damage with a Sin Collector, which I believe to be the only creature in his graveyard, is worth it. Such a play would also force him to spend a turn Whipping back Obzedat where he would not be able to attack in to an untapped Erebos while also providing me a chance to permanently get rid of the Ghost Council with an instant speed removal spell.

As far as I could tell, the difference between attacking and not attacking is dealing him 5 damage while I take 4 and his taking 0 to my taking 2 or 4 depending on whether or not he attacks with Sin Collector and Obzedat. The recurrent damage from Obzedat is taxing the amount of time I have, so I feel like I lose by providing him too many turns of Ghost Council drains. I shorten the number of turns he has by attacking. However, I need to properly account for the Whip. As I mentioned earlier, I was fairly certain Sin Collector was the only creature left in his graveyard after multiple activations of the Whip. While deliberating on my attack plans, I think about asking to see his graveyard, but convince myself it’s unnecessary, that I already know what I’m going to find. I believe I’ve already figured out how I lose, by giving him too many turns, and choose to attack.

Ultimately, my hubris got the better of me. I died when he Whipped back the Erebos I had Thoughtseized from him on turn one of the rather protracted game dealing me exactly lethal. How did I lose? To a creature returned with Haste from his graveyard. Had I known this was a possibility? Yes, but I dismissed it without fully assessing the possibility. Had I followed through and answered the question completely I would have looked at his graveyard and realized to attack was to give the game away.

Lesson: Make sure you know the answer to the question! Taking the time to get it right is worth it, as the decisions points that come up which require you to ask it are likely the ones where the game is one the line.

My last example is from a Theros limited game. My opponent was at 6 with a large monster in play, tapped, that would kill me if it gets in one more time. He also had a freshly cast random dork of insignificant size. I had a 2 power flier and a 2 power ground-pounder. I drew my 6th land to turn on a Sip of Hemlock. I asked the first question, “How do I win?,” and came up with put him at 4 by aiming the Sip at his potential blocker then attack for 4. Seemed easy enough.

I then turned to the follow-up question, “How do I lose?” He had a few mana available and 1 card in hand. If his last card was Savage Surge, he could untap his monster to eat my ground guy and crack back for the win. Could I play around this line? Yes, I could attack for 2 in the air, leaving back a blocker, and also killing one of his two guys. This would force him to find an answer to my flier or die to it my following turn.

What did I do? I decided to go for it and got blown out by Savage Surge. The lesson here: Listen to what your answer tells you!

So next time you are in a tight spot trying to figure out what line to take, remember to ask yourself, “How do I lose?” With the answer in mind, you should be able to navigate the your way through the most perilous path to victory.
Thanks for reading.

-Grant Christopher