Playing in Position

In reading and listening to the post-PTDTK commentary offered on SCG, I was struck by hearing both Ari Lax and Gerry Thompson use the phrase ‘out of position’ whilst analysing matches. This innocuous fragment of language stood out not because of its importance, but because it is a term borrowed from another game. No, not Hearthstone. Jeez. This phrase comes from poker.

Language shifts and changes over time, and vernacular is adopted and abandoned with comical rapidity. What is ‘swag’ now was ‘so random’ in 2009, and for a couple of weeks I spent in Nottingham, everything was ‘acecakes’. However, unlike arguments about which of the Dragonlords is the swaggliest, the terminology of poker actually has some applicability to Magic.

Both games share more than cards. There is hidden information (your opponent’s hand), probability (what will be drawn and when), and variance. Sweet, sweet variance. Big-name MTG Pros like Eric Froelich and David Williams are also big names on the Poker scene. Strategic concepts, however, do not cross over as easily as the games are mechanically very different. So why would brilliant magicians like Gerry, Ari and myself find this particular phrase useful?

Playing in position is a big deal in poker. If you are ‘in position’, you get to bet after your opponents. If you are out of position, your opponents get to bet after you. Going second is very important in poker because you have more information on which to base your decision – specifically, you have information about what your opponent just did. However, in Magic, going second often puts you behind.

So the analogy here is not about acting first or second. It is about being able to control your opponent’s choices. In poker, if you act in position, you can always choose to end the round of betting. You can fold, you can check, or you can call your opponent’s raise. You can also choose to raise and continue the action, but you have several options to conclude that round. If you play out of position and act first, the only way to end the round of betting is to fold. So the player going second has vastly greater control over what happens in the hand. They also have additional information – specifically, they know what their opponent has just done.

In Magic, there are plenty of ways to control your opponent’s choices. My favourite example at the moment is deciding when to cast Fleecemane Lion into Silumgar’s Scorn. You get to decide when your opponent is given the opportunity to counter it. Tapping out to cast it into their two blue sources gives them the best chance to play Scorn (they don’t need to have a dragon) and does so when it is likely the only spell that they could cast. On turn four into three blue mana, they might be able to dissolve it, but then you can play a second two drop. There is no rule about which of these will always be correct, but the important thing to remember is that as the proactive player, you are able to decide if and when your opponent is able to interact. You are determining their choices.

For the same reason, control decks need instant speed card draw. If they tap all their mana to draw cards or play a threat, their opponent can spend their next turn using all their mana without fear. They want to wait (in position) to see if their opponent casts a threat worth countering. Creatures with flash break this pattern, as does drawing two with Abzan Charm in the end step. The control deck can counter these, but then they are out of position, tapped out and unable to interact.

These lines of play crop up frequently, but there are some Standard creatures that can blow your opponent’s position out of the water. The last one will surprise you!

The first is Whisperwood Elemental, a powerful card that has fallen from favour with the rise of Siege Rhino. Whisperwood can snowball out of control quickly, not only netting 2/2s but allowing you to upgrade some of these into the very best creature-based threats. However, for this to happen, it first needs to survive.

When Whisperwood ran amok in Standard, it was often important for Abzan Control players to hold open mana. If they tapped out to play Read the Bones or Courser of Kruphix, the next turn they would have to spend mana to deal with the Elemental, and still be facing a Manifested card. They give up position (having the option of killing the Elemental before its Manifest trigger) by tapping out.

Likewise, Whisperwood is the last threat you want to play into open mana, as losing your 5-mana creature to a Hero’s Downfall costs you on tempo. Without making Manifests, you have a pretty unexciting 4/4 for 5. You give up position by allowing your opponent to spend just two mana to undo a spell that cost you five. Whisperwood making sweepers like Crux of Fate worse is also part of the appeal, reducing the lines of play open to your opponent.

The second creature worth considering is Dragonlord Dromoka. A big flying lifelinker seems pretty terrible against control. Even though it can’t be countered, they can just cast things in response, untap and then kill Dromoka. Right?

When a control player holds up mana and passes the turn, they have decided how they want to interact with you – through instant-speed spells. When you play Dromoka, you invalidate their counters. Their removal must be used immediately, but can’t kill your biggest threat (Dromoka). In their next turn, they have to tap mana to do it, opening a window to resolve the next threat. They often can’t even use Crux of Fate profitably as they have to choose between killing Dromoka or everything else.

The moment you put Dromoka on the stack, you vastly reduce the options available to the control player. You have forced them out of position. In poker, this means you can control the size of the pot, the amount of information available to your opponent, and the aggression with which the hand is played. In Magic, you can control the possible responses available to your opponent, invalidating some of their cards and forcing them to tap mana at inopportune times.

Activated abilities (Fleecemane Lion, Den Protector, Warden of the First Tree) can also do this, as are flash creatures, hexproof threats and instant speed card draw. Or just cast Dragonlord Dromoka… Green decks have rarely had this many tools to fight against Control.

Whilst there may not be a clear place for Dromoka in Standard right now, just casting it changes the pace of a game. Likewise, losing your Whisperwood Elemental before it triggers swiftly alters who is in position, who is controlling the available lines of play. Picking the right option is not as simple as card advantage and tempo – it is also important to consider how your decision now will position you in the turns to come.