Sequencing 101 for Magic: The Gathering
I don’t know about you, but I can remember back to when I first played Magic – we’re talking circa 1995. I’d spend summer afternoons at my friend’s house slinging [mtg_card]Craw Wurm[/mtg_card],[mtg_card] Llanowar Elves[/mtg_card] and [mtg_card]Thicket Basilisk[/mtg_card]. I’d go digging for [mtg_card]Channel[/mtg_card] and try to bust out the biggest Fireballs I could.
I can remember exactly how I’d play, too. Everything I cast was during my first main phase. And understandably, I didn’t win much.
When I finally came back to the game a few years ago, I eventually gained the basic understanding of how to actually play Magic. I learned that it’s a game of concealing as much information as possible while acting with as much information as possible.
Having two main phases and cards that enable you to act at instant speed permit you to pursue these dual objectives. This dynamic is what prevents the game from being Checkers and instead, more like Chess. It’s one of the many reasons why Magic is as great and as fun as it is.
In Magic, what you have is a world of possibilities for how you sequence your actions, and of course, sequencing is where games are won and lost. In this week’s article, I’ll walk through each spell type and indicate scenarios in which it’s most ideal to play them so that you can improve your sequencing and play more efficiently.
When you don’t have attackers on board, your first main phase is generally no different than your post-combat main phase. In this scenario, creatures without flash are cast during your first main phase.
When you have attackers out, you will typically move through your combat phase before playing any more creatures, unless the creature you’re looking to cast has a triggered or activated ability that can have an immediate impact on combat (e.g., [mtg_card]Rubblebelt Boar[/mtg_card]).
Creatures with flash are almost always played at instant speed on some phase of your opponent’s turn, depending on whether or not you’re aiming to be proactive or reactive.
For example, playing a creature such as [mtg_card]Vendilion Clique[/mtg_card] on your opponent’s draw step is a proactive play. You’re finding out exactly what your opponent has in hand on their draw step, and you’re taking away the biggest threat.
On the other hand, playing a card such as Dream Eater after your opponent declares attackers is an example of a reactive play. Or if you’re the attacker, flashing in [mtg_card]Archangel Avacyn[/mtg_card] after your opponent declares blockers (to give your team indestructible) is both a reactive and a proactive play.
An overwhelming majority of hand disruption spells can only be played during main phases. However, you’re typically only going to cast these spells pre-combat.
Doing so allows you to gain as much information as you can before you begin turning your creatures sideways. If you’re playing against a deck that runs [mtg_card]Settle the Wreckage[/mtg_card], you generally want to hold that [mtg_card]Duress[/mtg_card] until you’re ready to swing for fatal damage, so that you can pluck the Settle from their hand at the perfect moment.
As I mentioned above in the Vendillion Clique example though, you should always recognize opportunities to play hand disruption on your opponent’s draw step. For example, I currently play Humans in Modern, and I’m not afraid to activate [mtg_card]Aether Vial[/mtg_card] and play [mtg_card]Kitesail Freebooter[/mtg_card] after my opponent untaps.
When I played Bant Eldrazi, a similar play was “flickering” my [mtg_card]Thought-Knot Seer[/mtg_card] on my opponent’s draw step to exile the best card in their hand.
Sequencing for casting planeswalkers first depends on whether or not you’re playing against a blue-based control deck. If so, you need to identify what your primary goal is in that turn.
If your primary goal is to resolve the planeswalker, you need to move through combat first in order to force your opponent to spend mana to play their removal. The idea here is that they will spend mana on some way to mitigate or eliminate the damage of combat, and by the time you get to your second main phase, they won’t have an answer or enough mana to counter your planeswalker.
If your primary goal is to get damage through, then play the planeswalker in the first main phase.
If you’re not playing against a control deck, you typically want to play the walker in the first main phase so that you can activate its abilities and impact the current board state.
However, there may be situations in which its best to first go through combat and get your opponent to commit more blockers than they normally would if you had a planeswalker on the battlefield. It all depends on what your objective is in a given turn.
Card Draw Spells
Most card draw spells are instants, and as such, it’s usually best to play them on your opponent’s end step. Playing a card draw spell at any other time is only ideal when you’re digging for something that you need at that moment.
Enchantments and non-creature artifacts
Enchantments and non-creature artifacts should generally be played during the first main phase if they can have an impact on the ensuing combat. Otherwise, play them post-combat. Be sure to recognize situations in which playing an enchantment post combat would have a stronger impact.
Instant-speed removal should typically be played on your opponent’s turn, whether it’s during their end step or during combat. Remember, if your opponent has a creature with an ability that triggers at the beginning of combat or when declaring attackers, you need to play that removal accordingly.
Of course, playing instant-speed removal on your turn is fine if you need to make room for an attacker, or if you’re aiming to play around counterspells.
Sorcery speed removal is generally going to be played during your first main phase. However, there may be situations in which you want to play the removal after your opponent’s creatures are marked with damage from combat.
Play them in the post-combat main phase, unless you need them to cast something or activate an ability before the post-combat main phase.
This guide isn’t meant to cover all scenarios – it’s meant to serve as a general set of guidelines for sequencing. You’re likely going to come across dozens of high-level interactions in which you’ll find exceptions to these guidelines, but until you do, it’s best to try to work within them.
When it comes to sequencing, take the time to know all of your options in a given turn, and do everything you can to make your opponents’ decisions as difficult as possible.
Thanks for reading.
– Jeff Sheerin, MTG Pro Tutor Scribe