When it comes to playing winning Magic, timing is everything.

Instant Gratification

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Magic Academy is a column designed to help newer players get up to speed by teaching them more about the game and showing the resources available on the web for learning more. The column is written in linear fashion, like a book, so each lesson builds on material learned in previous articles. So, if you're new to the column, you can either start at the beginning or just check the articles so far to see where you'd like to begin. To see the column's table of contents or learn more, just go to the Magic Academy Welcome Page.

This column is written for players that can at least muddle their way through a game of Magic. If you're completely new to the game and don't know how to play at all, we recommend starting with playmagic.com and then returning to Magic Academy. Once you know the basics of getting through a game we'll take it from there!


The letter G!reetings and welcome to Magic Academy. My name is Ted Knutson and I will be your host on this delightful weekly journey from ignorance into bliss. This is my first time helming a weekly column here at magicthegathering.com, but many of you may already know me from my coverage writing, from my work over at StarCityGames.com, or because like Underdog's Savoir Faire, I am everywhere. Those of you that don't know me have just been introduced, so it's all good. Yes, I'm happy to meet you too.

Wizard_MentorAs Scott Johns pointed out in his article last week announcing this column, Magic Academy is designed to take those who know a little about Magic and eventually make it so they know a lot about Magic, getting you to the point where you're comfortable with your game and able to read this and other Magic sites without getting completely left behind. To be more specific on where we'll be starting, this column assumes that you can at least muddle your way through a basic game of Magic. If you're completely new to the game, the best way to get started is to either get a friend to help you or go to playmagic.com and download the demo, then get out there playing as soon as possible.

As part of the column's design, we're going to start off slow and try to cover basically every important topic in the game at one point or another, one at a time, in order. This means that the early columns in this series may be simplistic for many of you, but they are designed to ease the learning curve of the game and make the transition from neophyte into journeyman as easy as possible. In order to hook the more experienced players among you, I will also be including additional reading materials (when relevant) at the end of each article, so that those of you looking to do some reading outside of the class can fill your bellies with the writings of our Magic forefathers. Additionally, I'll be watching for chances to cover some of the great (and not-so-great) plays from Magic's past when they apply to the topic at hand each week, which should be fun for even the most grizzled veterans.

One final note, though the rest of the early articles are completely linear, we started this topic slightly out of order just to help get the ball rolling. Anyway, enough with the introductions. You're here to learn, and learn you shall.

Timing is Everything

A smiling player sits down across from you at Friday Night Magic, shuffles up his deck and draws his seven cards. He then cheerfully proceeds to play a Mountain and cast Shock, targeting your dome (slang for "you!").

Another player in another match has Watchwolf on the board and Lightning Helix in hand. His opponent has two Watchwolves in play, so he chooses to Lightning Helix one of the Watchwolves and pass the turn without attacking. The opponent casts a Galvanic Arc on his remaining Watchwolf, killing the opposing Wolf, and bashes with his 3/3 first-striker for the rest of the game.

In yet another match, player 1 has a Prodigal Sorcerer and a Llanowar Elves on the board and is at two life, while player 2 controls a Mons's Goblin Raiders and a Grizzly Bears. Player 1 kills the 1/1 Goblin on his own turn and then passes it to player 2. Player 2 then attacks back with his Grizzly Bears, which player 1 chump blocks with his Elf so that he doesn't die. Another turn, another do-nothing card for player 1, and he's forced to pass the turn back with no action. Player 2 simply attacks again on his own turn and player 1 is now forced to block with the "Tim" (the enchanter, Prodigal Sorcerer's traditional nickname), and then ping the Bear so that the two creatures trade.

If you're still new to the game, there's a good chance you don't know some or even all of those cards mentioned, and some of the plays may seem complicated to think about for now, and that's perfectly reasonable. For now just stay with me and I think you'll find it all falls into place. As to cards, any time you see a card mentioned on this site, you can click the name to pull up an image of what the card does, which is particularly handy when you're so new to the game that everything looks new.

The plays above are just three in a myriad of scenarios where the actual play made might be the right one to make (it's also possible they are wildly wrong, but we'll get to that eventually), but the timing of the plays made could have been much better. One of the keys to becoming better at the game of Magic is learning one key lesson: In Magic, like life, timing is everything.

The problem with these plays is not that they are wrong in the details – it could be that Shocking your opponent on turn one is correct (this is mildly unlikely, but at least possible with a deck running heavy burn), and it's even probable that using Lightning Helix on one of your opponent's creatures is right. Instead, the problem comes with doing these things on your turn. Both Shock and Lightning Helix are instants, meaning you can cast them almost any time. The same is true for activated abilities on cards like the classic Prodigal Sorcerer, or Selesnya Guildmage, or Meloku the Clouded Mirror, or basically any permanent with an activated ability that doesn't say “only do this when you can play a sorcery.” Look around… they're everywhere.

The reason we wanted to start the column with this lesson is because learning to save your instant spells and abilities is one of the most common things beginning players miss. The point to all this is that you can play these spells or abilities practically any time you want to, both on your turn and on your opponent's. While playing them immediately might be the right play in some situations, it is far more likely that playing them later is much better. There are numerous reasons for this, but a few deserve particular mention.

  • First of all, by waiting to play instants until later in the turn cycle (this is the time from one untap step for you until the next untap step and includes your turn and your opponent's turn), you give yourself more information with which to cast your spells. Should your opponent make a play you find distasteful, you give yourself a chance to respond to it, something especially useful if your hand holds answers to your opponent's spells. This is a play that would be unavailable if you cast Lightning Helix on your own turn. In fact, the best players will often allow their opponent to attack and damage them with a creature they are planning to kill, just to make sure that opponent doesn't cast any better targets later in the turn that they would rather kill instead. By waiting you get to make a more informed decision.

  • Additionally, by not casting your instants or tapping your Prodigal Sorcerer on your own turn, you create uncertainty for your opponent. Now they have to worry about whether you have a removal spell or a combat trick. This uncertainty can create a surprising number of good circumstances for you. It may force opponents into playing more conservatively than they would otherwise, which lets you draw more cards, thus giving you a chance to win damage races or to obtain answers that might not already be in your hand. And sometimes you won't have that removal spell, but since you've shown you can be patient, your opponent may have to play around the possibility that you do have some answer they fear!

  • One additional boon waiting to cast your instants or use your fast effects provides that might be too subtle to grasp in the early stages of your Magic career is this: It gives your opponent the opportunity to make mistakes. Magic is a game of imperfect information and the key to winning often comes from maximizing what you know and minimizing what your opponent knows. By not playing your instants until the last possible moment, you give them less information to work with, perhaps inviting them to make incorrect plays that they might not make if you had cast your spell on your own turn. Mistakes from your opponents are something you'll need a lot of if you plan to play winning Magic.

This is not to say that waiting is always the right thing to do – there are times where you want to get a spell in under countermagic or while your opponent is tapped out. As you learn more about the game and become a better player, you will come to recognize these situations, but waiting is a pretty good thing to keep in mind until then. When in doubt, it's often best to hold tight and keep your options open.

"When in doubt, it's often best to hold tight and keep your options open."

With these lessons in mind, let's return to our opening scenarios and reconsider them. The first situation is pretty simple… even if you should decide it is your God-given right to burn your opponent to a flaming crisp with every spell in your grip (and if you do, you might want to check into counseling for pyromania), it makes sense to do so not during your own turn, but instead do so at the end of your opponent's turn. (In truth, it probably makes the most sense to hang on to the Shock and use it on an opponent's creatures, or to simply wait until a later turn to target your opponent with it, but if burning your opponent is what makes Magic the most fun for you, go right ahead.)

In the second scenario, suppose that you hang on to the Lightning Helix instead of casting it, and simply pass the turn. Then when your opponent tries to cast Galvanic Arc on his Watchwolf, you kill it in response, fizzling the Arc, saving your own creature, and still killing one of your opponent's creatures. You actually end up getting your opponent to waste an extra card this way and it leaves you in a far better position on the board, all because you decided to wait and cast your spell until absolutely necessary.

In the Tim situation, it can be tempting to fire your little pinger at any viable target you can kill as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, doing this often wastes opportunities you have to make better plays. If you don't kill the 1/1 goblin on your turn, one of two things is likely to happen. Either your opponent won't attack because he doesn't want to trade his Grizzly Bears with your Llanowar Elves, or he will attack with both of his creatures and drop you to one life, but you will get to use the blocking elf and a ping from the Sorcerer to kill the Bear, and then kill the Goblin next time around without having to lose your Tim. You're down to one life, but now the opponent's board is clear and you've still got Tim on your side to help keep things under control.

Classic Lesson in Action

Craig Jones, PT Honolulu 'o6
These may sound like very basic steps, and they are, but they matter at even the highest levels of play. In game five of the semifinals at Pro Tour—Hawaii, Craig Jones provided numerous examples of waiting to cast his instants at exactly the right time, and one of them became a classic. With his life total rapidly dwindling, Jones drew a Char on his own turn and then passed it back to his opponent, Olivier Ruel of France, with no action. Ruel couldn't quite kill Jones with an attack, so he pushed just enough creatures into the red zone to kill Jones on the next turn. However, at the end of Ruel's turn, Jones cast Char at Oli, dropping the Frenchman to three and setting up the possibility of drawing a burn spell to put it away before Ruel's creatures could finish him off. The result was “the $16,000 Lightning Helix” off the top of his deck, doing exactly the three remaining damage needed, resulting in what was easily one of the most exciting scenes in Pro Tour history. (You can see the great moment yourself by clicking here (16MB zip).) After the match, Ruel immediately tried to figure out if he would have played any differently if he knew Jones had been holding Char, showing once again how information dramatically affects Magic.

Until next time, stay on target and pretend you are Luke making your last fateful pass in the Death Star trench run:

Wait for it…

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