Unorthodox Plays (and When to Make Them)

August 8, 2020

6 minute read

Max Gilmore

GP Story Time!

Late into Day 1 at a 2017 Legacy Grand Prix, I was playing against a known and highly-skilled Legacy aficionado. It was a DRS/Daze Mirror, and I was on the draw in Game 3. After we both open on mana dorks, he slams a turn two . " it," I respond. "WHAT?!" he exclaims, shocked. "You kept in on the draw? You're so bad!"

After dispatching him and moving to 7-1, I relished in the thought that I might know more than the Legacy hivemind. You see, while people were still parroting adages that one should cut on the draw, and that is bad in fair matchups, I had adjusted my way of thinking. If fair decks are playing on-curve threats that threaten to win the game on the spot, access to a or two on the draw isn't the worst thing, and is a lot more reasonable than when the scariest thing your "fair" opponent could present was a .

In Round 15 of the same GP, another interesting situation arose. My Delver opponent and I had both mulliganed to 6 cards, and he led on + . My hand was pretty bad, and I wasn't going to win most games that play out normally from here. Instead of playing a fetchland, passing, and hoping to resolve and protect a turn two , I just fired off a on my opponent's land.

This, readers, is commonly known in the Legacy community as a Bad Play.

If your opponent leads on and you spend your turn ing their land, you effectively reset the game, except now your opponent gets to start with a Leyline of the Delver.

If your opponent follows with another land, and god forbid another , you may as well just sign the match slip. Setting yourself back by an entire on-board Delver is pretty disastrous, and you just did it to yourself! Why would someone do that?

Here's the secret: Losing the game by a little isn't any better than losing the game by a lot.

Seriously, you get zero match points either way. If the scripted game where both players make the orthodox plays is likely to end up in your opponent's favor, then perhaps the right play is to make a high-risk / high-reward play and hope it ends up in your favor.

Back to the against an opening . I took the risk. My opponent didn't have a land and I won easily. There was a solid chance they had a backup land, where I would have looked like a fool, but I don't think I was winning the game where I looked smart, either.

An Aside on Stifle

The thing about community consensus with regard to sideboard plans, card evaluations, or play patterns is that they can be exploited.

Let's use as an example:

starts as a powerful and scary card. People are respecting it heavily, adjusting their decks and play patterns to invalidate . Regardless of whether or not you have it in your hand, or even in your deck, your opponent is respecting . Drawn copies start rotting and feel pretty bad to see, and you realize that you're getting the benefit of your opponent playing around without actually having to run it. You cut the card and benefit massively, as your opponents play around a card you aren't even running! Others catch on and stop playing , too. The density of people playing drops off and players stop playing around . You put it back into your deck and start racking up the wins.

is at its worst when the community consensus is that it's good, and at its best when the community consensus is that it's bad. Fun stuff.

Wasteland Game Theory

Let's return again to the against an opposing . For the reasons outlined in the "Leyline of the Delver" paragraph, the consensus is that this play is bad. You should generally not here, and your opponent should not you when you open this way.

Therefore, if you open on a , your land "should" be safe from , allowing you to untap and cast your on turn two, hopefully fixing your land-light hand and making your draw fully functional. These are the rules of engagement, and deviation on either side is blasphemous.

This means that people will open in this risky way a disproportionate amount of the time, rather than making a safer play like opening on , because an opponent "shouldn't" punish them for it.

When you realize this, you can start punishing the opening Delver sometimes. Please note that sometimes doesn't mean always, or even usually, and if you think you have a good enough shot at winning the game in an orthodox way, you should probably do that instead.

MPL member and Delver master Autumn Burchett has been burned by the opposing enough times, that in a Twitter discussion about the play, they said they basically never even open on in their one-land hands anymore when they have the option to instead. Making sure not to lose to the bad play - no wonder they win so much!

A Doomsday Scenario

Today, another such situation arose. I decided to enter my first ever league with , and ran into a Omnitell list. Between , , for , , and just the standard -> kills, the matchup felt hard. After sneaking out a win Game 2, I was on the draw for Game 3. My hand looked very strong. It had a quick win with multiple pieces of protection. While it did have a , it didn't have a land. I figured if I hit a land in the top two cards (a 51% chance), I was a heavy favorite to win the game, and if I missed, I was probably toast. Given how hard the matchup felt, I thought that most six card hands would probably play reasonable Magic, but not enough to actually win what I perceived to be such a tough matchup.

I kept, missed on land, looked stupid, and lost. The reality is that even though I didn't cast anything (outside of a failed ), keeping that hand probably gave me a better shot to win the game than a mulligan would have.

A Word of Warning

The tricky thing about making unorthodox (i.e. bad) plays is figuring out when it's actually right to make them. My biggest concern about writing this article is for people to see it as an endorsement to make wild plays for the sake of being different, and that is not what I'm advocating here.

I'm advocating for you to not be afraid to take a risk when you need to. Don't be afraid of looking stupid if it goes wrong. If the orthodox play(s) will likely result in a narrow loss, taking a risk to convert that into either a crushing loss or cheesed win is a play worth making.