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Information Puzzles
Chad Ellis

You are playing Mercadian Masques block Limited. Your opening hand has a Forest, a Mountain and a Plains. What virtual information do you have and, assuming your own hand gives you no preference for playing the lands in any particular order, which land should you play first?

Sometimes virtual information starts on day one, and the Legates are one example. If your opponent isn't holding a Legate it doesn't matter much what order you play your lands (unless you feel there's some information to be gained by hiding one of your colors), so we have our familiar matrix:

No Legate
No Difference
No Difference
No Difference

Your virtual information is therefore that your opponent is holding one or more of the three Legates she'll be able to cast against you (as well as the appropriate land), since, if she doesn't, your decision doesn't matter.

There are a few ways to proceed from here. I would reason as follows: both the Saprazaan and Deepwood Legates are good, while the Kyren Legate is pretty weak. There's a huge difference between a free 1/3 flyer or pumpable creature and a free 1/1 with haste. I don't even sideboard the Kyren Legate, let alone run it maindeck. So I would play the Plains first. She's less likely to be able to take advantage of it, and if she does, she doesn't get as much out of it. Similarly, if I had no knowledge about my opponent's deck or style I would probably play the Forest next, especially if the match was sealed, where my opponent would be less likely to be running a lot of swamps, making the Deepwood Legate less powerful.

Naturally a lot of things can affect this. Your hand may be better able to handle one Legate than the other, or you may simply have a two-drop to play of your own. The example is simply meant to illustrate the logic behind generating virtual information.

You are playing Oath of Druids against a very aggressive Red deck. During game one, your opponent showed you Jackal Pup, Goblin Cadet and Goblin Patrol, but you managed to win. In game two, going first, he opens with Mountain, Cursed Scroll. What reasonable guesses can you make about his hand?

We can start with the obvious negative analysis: he doesn't have any two-power one-drop, or even a Mogg Fanatic, since any of those would be a superior first turn play to Cursed Scroll. But what information can we draw that might help us plan out our next few turns?

First of all, the signal that a deck like this doesn't have a turn-one play that can attack for two is usually that it mulligans. That leaves us with a couple of possibilities; either he kept a weak hand or he kept a good one that is quite unusual. If he kept a poor hand this may become apparent soon enough; furthermore, if his hand is weak we probably have some leeway, so it is worth anticipating an unusual hand, trying to predict what that might mean, and seeing if there are any decisions we might make to take advantage of it.

Here things get a bit vague in practical terms, as your analysis will depend a lot on what you know or suspect about your opponent's sideboard. The Cursed Scroll, however, should be a clue. Great against creature decks, the Scroll is normally quite weak against a deck like Oath. Keeping Scrolls in while (possibly) boarding out his aggressive creatures might suggest a sideboard shift into a more straightforward burn deck, perhaps with a full complement of Price of Progress or other tricks.

What does this mean for us? Again, it's probably too much to try for a specific plan in a matchup of two fictional decks. But we can probably conclude that our opponent's hand (and quite likely his deck) is very creature light and therefore most likely burn heavy. This could mean, for example, that instead of searching for an Oath we would look for creatures, especially Spike Feeder, or other strategies more appropriate for fighting a burn deck than the creature-heavy one we faced in the last game.

And now a fairly complicated example from a hypothetical Limited matchup, where virtual information might lead to a fairly unusual play…

You are in a very difficult G/W vs. G/W/u matchup that will decide the outcome of a two-on-two draft. In game one, you crushed your opponent from a quiet board position via Overrun. Game two, your opponent's Cephalid Broker came out and enabled him to take control of the game. You thought you were going to win with another Overrun, but in addition to the tricks you'd already seen (Embolden, Chastise, Guided Strike, Muscle Burst), he showed you Moment's Peace and killed you next turn.

When you complained to your teammate about all of his tricks, he said, "Well at least you don't have to worry about Prismatic Strands. Unless he first picked one, there were none in the draft." Your friend's memory is excellent for things like this, so Moment's Peace is at least the only fog you have to worry about.

Now it's game three. You're at nine and your opponent is at six. Your board consists of a ten land, six Bear Tokens, and an Elephant Token. Your hand holds Overrun and another land. Your opponent's board is twelve Squirrel tokens (courtesy of a Nest you finally managed to destroy with Venomous Vines). He has nine untapped land but only one Forest (the other died with the Nest), which he has been unwilling to tap because his Moment's Peace is in the graveyard and he clearly fears your Overrun. (He doesn't know you have it in hand.) Both of your graveyards have over ten cards.

You draw for your turn and get a Rabid Elephant, which you play. Now you have an attacker his army of weenies can't deal with so easily, although it will take some time to punch through if he chumps with Squirrels, and he might have Chastise anyway. Then on his turn he draws, immediately plays the card he drew (a Forest) and plays a 7/7 Metamorphic Wurm, tapping both of his Forests and leaving two Plains and two Islands untapped.

What information (virtual or otherwise) do you have about your opponent's hand, and should it affect your play?

One obvious possibility to consider is permission. Will your Overrun resolve? A first step towards answering this question would be negative analysis based on the last turn. Rabid Elephant is a pretty powerful spell in the matchup. Unless your deck has some truly amazing spell (other than Overrun, which he can already "counter" with Moment's Peace), he would probably have countered it if he could. But only probably…if he felt like the game was more or less under control, he might have decided to manage the Elephant with his tokens, knowing that Metamorphic Wurm would be entering play soon.

What about his own turn? He gave up access to Moment's Peace in order to cast the Wurm. Would he have given up access to Fervent Denial as well? I doubt it. The combined fact that he didn't use Fervent Denial to counter your Elephant and tapped down to four mana in order to cast the Wurm strongly implies that he doesn't have it in hand, even if he has one in his deck. Of course, this doesn't matter much now, since he can't cast it. The same is true for Syncopate, which you can pay for. The only danger is Circular Logic or Envelop. Either one could be waiting, and would help explain why he was willing to tap out of Green mana.

So negative analysis doesn't really help...fortunately it doesn't really have to. What if he does have permission? Let's see if there's any virtual information to be had about permission. Here the matrix is a bit different than what we've seen in the past:

Syncopate (you can pay)
Circular Logic or Envelop
Fervent Denial (He can't cast it)
No Permission
Play Overrun

Clearly if he has permission he can't cast (Fervent Denial) or that you can pay for now but might not be able to pay for later (Syncopate) you should seize the available window. Furthermore, if he has permission that can stop the Overrun (i.e. Circular Logic or Envelop) you should still walk into it. Why? Well, with Moment's Peace waiting in the graveyard your Overrun isn't really a bomb once he untaps. If you wait to cast it and he has the Logic or Envelop, he'll probably get to choose which spell he uses to neutralize it.

So, it's unlikely you'll get a better chance; you have to go for Overrun while your opponent's options are limited. Let's assume it resolves. You now have a 6/7 Elephant, a 6/6 Elephant, and six 5/5 Bears, all with trample. Your opponent can absorb six points with his Metamorphic Wurm and twelve points with his Squirrels, but you are attacking for 42 points, more than enough to finish him off, even if he has Embolden.

Is there anything else in your opponent's hand that would make him play the Wurm without hesitating? With Moment's Peace in the graveyard and plenty of chump blockers, he could probably afford to wait a few turns for one of the many forests in his deck.

Embolden won't do it. What about Chastise? If he Chastises for six life and blocks another eighteen, he still dies. But wait...if he has Chastise, he has another play. He can block your Elephant token with his Wurm and block your Rabid Elephant with all twelve Squirrels. That will pump it up to a monstrous 30/31! Chastising it will gain him enough life to neutralize the damage from the Bears. He loses no creatures, you lose your two best, and as if that wasn't bad he'll simply kill you on his turn!

Now, it is totally possible that he doesn't have Chastise. He might simply fear the Elephant, or he could have been waiting with the Wurm for so long that he just forgot about the need to keep G open for Moment's Peace. But if he doesn't have it, you win. That means you have the virtual information that he has it.

So what do you do? Well, the Elephant was causing the problem, so let's look at a matrix:

He has Chastise
He doesn't have Chastise
Attack with Everything
Wrong (and lose)
Leave Rabid Elephant behind
Right (and win)

Suddenly the answer is simple...you attack with everything except the Rabid Elephant! Now he can Chastise the Elephant token, going up to twelve. The Wurm blocks one Bear, leaving 25 points of Bear damage for twelve Squirrels. He takes thirteen, and dies. The difference is that attacking with the Rabid Elephant only adds six points to your offence but lets each Squirrel reduce his life loss by two rather than one, while living instead of dying!

This example clearly has an element of Magic the Puzzling to it, and I won't pretend that it was inspired by an actual game. But crazy situations do arise in Magic games and players must be ready for them. In this case there are two reasons why you should look for just such a possibility. First, if you attack, the match is over. Either you kill him or he will most likely kill you when he counterattacks. So the situation is worth investing some effort in! Second, your opponent made a controversial move, tapping out of green mana with access to Moment's Peace against an opponent with Overrun. Once you eliminate permission as an explanation (by resolving Overrun), you have every reason to be suspicious that something is up.

Hugs 'til next time,
- Chad


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