During the course of a normal turn in a game of Magic, you're going to play a Land, cast a spell, and likely attack with some creatures. What might not occur to you, however, is the order in which you perform these actions, and how you can gain some advantage over an opponent by sequencing your turns correctly. Magic is a game of information. The more information your opponent has, the better decisions they can make. The less information they have available, the more likely it is that they'll make a mistake and give you an edge in the game. This week, we're going to discuss how to keep your opponent in the dark.
The simplest application of this principle comes in the form of Instant spells. Simply put, anything that can be cast as an Instant should typically be cast during your opponent's turn, either during combat, or during the End step. Creatures with Flash like Wolfir Avenger, for example, make for a really great combat trick. Your opponent attacks with their team, you flash in the Avenger before blockers are declared and block to kill their best attacker. If you'd cast it during your own turn, of course, they would have known not to attack. Likewise, once they've seen you cast a Wolfir Avenger, then anytime you leave enough mana up to cast another one they'll want to play around the possibility, which can sometimes dissuade an attack step entirely and save you some precious life. When is it correct to play a Flash creature during your own turn? If your opponent controls a Werewolf like Mayor of Avabruck, it can be a good idea to cast your Flash creature during your own turn to prevent the Werewolf from transforming. Also on occasion, especially if you're running low on life, you may actually benefit more from dissuading the attack by casting your Flash creature during your own turn, rather than trying to surprise them in combat.
What about non-creature spells? Your rule of thumb for casting an instant-speed spell is going to be 'at your last opportunity.' If you're holding a Forbidden Alchemy, for example, you should usually wait until your opponent's End Step to cast it, as this is your last opportunity before your turn. Think Twice is another great example of a spell that should almost always be cast during your opponent's End Step. By leaving your mana up during your opponent's main phases, you are representing a Counterspell of some variety. Clever opponents will try to play around your Mana Leaks and, by waiting until their End Step to cast your Instant spells, you're forcing them to do just that. Whether you have a counter in hand is irrelevant, as long as your opponent thinks you might, and you have the mana to cast it. That said, can it be correct to cast a Forbidden Alchemy or Think Twice during your own turn? Absolutely. As above, if you're going to stop a Werewolf from transforming, cast away. Alternately, with draw and dig spells like these, if you're about to miss an early land drop, you may want to cast during your Main Phase for the chance to draw into a Land. This will come up fairly frequently with a land-light draw in a Control deck, for example. You want to hit all your early land drops, so if you keep a 3-land hand, you may end up having to draw/dig during your Main Phase to hit a land for the turn.
Now on to removal, which is a bit trickier a subject. Instant removal, like Doom Blade can be a powerful tool when used correctly, but can easily present opportunities to misplay. With a Doom Blade in hand, your opponent has six Plains untapped and is attacking with a 3/3 Champion of the Parish. Do you take out the Champion, or do you save your removal in case of a Sun Titan? You don't want to eat 3 damage, but what if they have a big creature in hand that they're waiting to cast? As I said, these situations are a bit trickier than the other examples as your life total is on the line. If the 3/3 Champion is going to kill you, then it's obviously important to kill him, but what if you're sitting comfortably at 20? In most cases, if the life loss is not going to be game-ending, then I find it best to take a little extra damage to gain additional information before casting your spells. By taking the damage, you're suggesting that you don't have removal for it, and this may draw bigger threats out of their hand. In case they don't drop a bigger threat, you can always cast your removal at the end of their turn, which cost you 3 life in this case, but netted you the advantage of stopping them from casting larger threats for a turn. As far as when to cast removal spells on your own turn, the key is usually going to be whether or not it helps you in combat. Removal in combat can be devastating in the right situation, so you always want to keep the options in mind. Say you're attacking with Primeval Titan and the opponent is blocking with Grand Abolisher, Loyal Cathar, and a 3/3 Champion of the Parish. If after blockers are declared you cast your Doom Blade on the Champion, you've not only saved your Titan, but cleared out three opposing creatures at the cost of a single card. Finally, it can be prudent to simply clear out a blocker before attacking in order to get some extra damage through. This is a fairly common situation, and when to do it varies so wildly from case to case that it's hard to say when it is correct to do so.
Utilizing Your Second Main Phase
With Instants out of the way, we get to another crucial aspect of denying your opponent information. In most casual play that I've seen, the first Main Phase is where the action is. Players play their land, cast their spell(s) for the turn, then move on to combat. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, but by playing your Lands and spells in the first Main Phase, you're giving your opponent more information to work with while they're dealing with combat. Take the above example with Doom Blade, where you have a Sun Titan in hand and a 3/3 Champion of the Parish on the board. By casting your Titan before combat, you're letting the opponent know exactly what's on the line when it comes to taking combat damage. Preventing 6 damage next turn seems much better than preventing 3 damage now, but without that information, they may well have spent their removal spell on your Champion which, incidentally, you could just bring back with your Sun Titan. As with removal, playing land and casting spells during the first Main Phase should ultimately be decided by whether it can help you in combat. If you stand to gain no advantage in combat by acting in your first Main, simply wait for your post-combat Main Phase to do your thing. Your opponent will not know whether you've missed your land drop or what you plan to cast, plus it leaves up mana to represent combat tricks like Titanic Growth, making for more difficult decisions while they decide what to block.
Along the same lines, it can be useful to shuffle your hand during the game. If you've watched footage of professional players, you've probably seen them shuffling their hands incessantly. While this level is unnecessary, it can be helpful to draw your card for the turn, then shuffle it into your hand before you decide what to do. Many times I've seen someone draw their card for the turn and immediately reveal it to be a land and put it into play. This doesn't hurt, but it lets your opponent know that you drew no action that turn, which can influence their decisions later on. If they've seen your hand with something like Gitaxian Probe, you can keep them on their toes by shuffling your draw into your hand before deciding what to do. If you don't need a land that turn, you might keep it in hand to represent something else, like a counter or removal for them to play around.
Ultimately, denying your opponent information is easy, if you're in the habit of doing so, and it nets you untold benefits over the course of a game. If you can wait to cast your Think Twice, do so, and let the opponent think you have a Mana Leak instead. If you have a Doom Blade, don't just blast the first creature you see, rather wait to see if a more desirable target comes along. Don't reveal your tenth land when you draw it, shuffle it into your hand and represent something more sinister to your opponent. And, of course, unless it's going to influence combat in some way, forego your first Main Phase for the second, and force your opponent to make uninformed decisions as often as possible.