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As previously announced, we will be publishing articles by Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa originally posted on Substack for everybody to enjoy as a taste of what’s to come on the MTG Arena Zone Premium section!
One of the biggest barriers for Magic: The Gathering as a spectator sport comes from the fact that our best plays aren’t necessarily flashy or even recognizable by the general viewer. When a soccer player or a gymnast does something amazing, it’s almost always obvious to everyone that it was amazing. When a League of Legends player makes an outplay that wins their team the game, you can usually identify it because it looks very cool.
In Magic, the defining play of the game might be completely invisible – it could be, for example, playing around a card that never even comes up. This is neither flashy nor exciting, and it creates a scenario where the most famous play in Magic aren’t necessarily the best plays, but the ones that are actually flashy and exciting, such as “OH MY GOD LIGHTNING HELIX” or Nassif spreading out his Cruel Ultimatum mana before his draw step.
For this article, I decided to talk about the plays from Magic’s history that I think are incredible – not necessarily flashy, sometimes even subtle, but masterful nonetheless. I wanted to feature plays that focused on the person making them, rather than on mistakes committed by the opponent, and I wanted plays that were on camera so I’d be able to provide full context.
I have no doubt that there have been many great plays in history that I’ve never even heard of, so this isn’t meant to be a comprehensive Top 5 or anything like that. I’m sure there’s some recency bias on my part as well, but these were the plays that came to my mind when I thought of the “best plays ever”, and I believe there are important lessons to be drawn from each of them.
That said, let’s get started!
Play 1: Yuuki Ichikawa’s Golgari Charm
Yuuki Ichikawa (Jund Planeswalkers) vs Jackson Cunningham (GW Aggro), Top 8 of Pro Tour Magic 2015
You’re Yuuki Ichikawa, and you’re being attacked by a 5/5 trampling token. You have a 4/4 Scavenging Ooze in play (with fodder in the Graveyard – at least three creatures), and your card in hand is Golgari Charm. What do you do?
This play from Ichikawa has two key components: the first is identifying what is going on, and the second is figuring out a plan to beat it.
Normally, the obvious play would be to simply pump your Ooze into a bigger creature and eat the Wurm. However, something has to be off, because if this was the correct sequence, then clearly Cunningham would not have attacked. So, as Ichikawa, you have to think, “My opponent made a play that is horrible into my obvious play, therefore they probably have an answer to my obvious play, because there’s no way they missed this.”
This train of thought will lead you towards possibly Selesnya Charm, which I think is a relatively obvious sequence. In the case of this game, I believe the Charm was already being played around from the turn before, but even if the Charm was freshly drawn the attack should give it away.
The follow-up, however, is far from obvious, because even if you know about Selesnya Charm, how do you beat it? If you make your Ooze big, they can just Selesnya Charm you. If you don’t make your Ooze big, then it will just die in combat.
Make your Scavenging Ooze big enough to trade with the Wurm token, but no more. By making it a 5/5, Ichikawa is offering Cunningham a choice: Cunningham can pass for damage and guarantee at least a neutral outcome (assuming Ichikawa also passes); but then he could end up in a scenario where his Wurm token might just trade with the Ooze and he doesn’t use the Selesnya Charm at all. So, understandably, he uses the Selesnya Charm to exile a creature with power 5 or greater and he’s met with Ichikawa’s counter-play of Golgari Charm to give every creature -1/-1. From how quickly Ichikawa played that, you just know he was already thinking about this sequence from the start.
The Golgari Charm makes the Ooze a 4/4, which fizzles the Selesnya Charm altogether, after which the Ooze can pump itself back into a 5/5 and eat the now 4/4 Wurm. The fact that the Voice of Resurgence token also dies when the Wurm token dies (since it had -1/-1 from the Golgari Charm) is just icing on the cake.
Should Cunningham have played around it? It’s hard, but I think so, and this is mostly because of the Mutavault.
If there’s no Mutavault in play, then “making my Ooze only a 5/5” isn’t really a tell. This is because Ichikawa still has priority before damage, so he can just pump more if he wants, and also because the Selesnya Charm is basically face-up in this spot – and everyone knows it’s face up. Therefore, if Cunningham elects not to use the Selesnya Charm, it’s not unreasonable for Ichikawa to just let damage resolve and trade, rather than run into the trick that he knows is there.
Can you imagine a scenario where Cunningham lets the trade happen, ends up losing the long game, and Ichikawa doesn’t have the Golgari Charm to begin with? We’d then be talking about Ichikawa’s masterful bluff in this article instead.
So, from Cunningham’s perspective, the “make my Ooze only a 5/5” play in itself is not necessarily a sign that they have Golgari Charm – they could make this play even with a blank in hand if they are sure you have Selesnya Charm. Much more telling, however, is the fact that Ichikawa actually had an alternate sequence that plays around Selesnya Charm.
He could simply activate Mutavault and double-block (which is the line that LSV, not knowing the card in Ichikawa’s hand, mentions during commentary). This play guarantees the trade whether Cunningham wants it or not, rather than leaving up to Cunningham to decide.
The fact that Ichikawa chose not to do this while still playing around Selesnya Charm in some capacity should send warning bells off in Cunningham’s mind and, while he might not think about Golgari Charm specifically, he should know that something is up and that Ichikawa is hoping for an outcome that is better than simply trading (which, again, he could have guaranteed if he wanted). He does get an extra life out of the deal this way (since he gets an extra Ooze activation), but you need to have a lot of confidence that your opponent is going to get every little thing “right” to make such a risky play when the reward is a mere one life.
In reality, I don’t think Cunningham ever really thought about it – he played the Selesnya Charm almost immediately and then was stunned for minutes after the Golgari Charm was played. It’s possible he didn’t even know all the modes on Golgari Charm, but it was clear that he never considered the fact that his Selesnya Charm could fizzle.
So, what makes this play so good is that Ichikawa not only identified the threat, but he also found a way to play around it that turned the game on its head, and all it required was a completely plausible course of action from his opponent. Even if his opponent doesn’t take the bait, the final outcome is trading Ooze for Wurm and gaining an extra life, which is better than he could achieve by double-blocking.
Play 2: Jean-Emmanuel Depraz’s Soaring Thought-Thief
Jean-Emmanuel Depraz (UB Rogues) vs Yoshihiko Ikawa (Jeskai Mutate), Top 8 of the MPL Gauntlet (2021)
You’re in a pretty bad spot: your opponent has a lethal threat and, even though you have a blocker this turn, you have nothing else for future turns. So, what do you do here?
If you’re Jean-Emmanuel Depraz, you attack!
Jean-Emmanuel *spoiler alert* goes on to lose the game anyway, but this doesn’t detract from what was in my opinion a phenomenal play. Here, JED is in a situation where he can just block the Phoenix to stop himself from dying, but then he both gives it away that he doesn’t have anything and he puts the game in an unattainable position moving forward.
By attacking, Jean-Emmanuel puts himself dead on board to the Phoenix (that can pump to deal lethal damage). However, is his opponent gonna go for it? JED had a clear, face-up line to survive this turn (leaving the Soaring Thought-Thief back to block), and the fact that he did not leave it back communicates to his opponent that he has an answer to the Phoenix. His opponent then has to risk going all-in and basically wasting his turn, or deciding to play something else instead. Very understandably, he makes the play of playing something else, and is punished by Depraz’s Disdainful Stroke.
Good bluffs leave your opponent an out, but the very best bluffs are the ones that leave your opponent an out that happens to be their best play, and this is absolutely the case here. I don’t believe Ikawa made the wrong play – I think he made the best play in the spot he was in – and that is part of why JED’s play is so good. It’s not even relying on the opponent making a mistake; by simply attacking, he’s making it so that his opponent’s best play is advantageous for him. There is a risk of just dying, of course, but blocking there will likely just lead to dying next turn instead, whereas by attacking he gave himself a much better chance to win the game.
Play 3: Arne Huschenbeth’s Cling to Dust
Arne Huschenbeth (UB Rogues) vs Javier Dominguez (Temur Adventures), Top 8 of the Kaldheim Set Championship (2021)
You’re in Arne’s seat and your opponent plays Ox of Agonas. What do you do?
Arne’s play is a little different from the other plays in this article because it has no psychological aspect to it – he doesn’t rely on any help from his opponents; instead, he just makes a very good and unconventional play himself. It’s the kind of play you might find in a magazine puzzle, for example. It is, nonetheless, a very very good play that most people would not have found unless they were explicitly exposed to it before, and even then they might not have found it (the casters didn’t, for example, though they were quick to catch onto it as it happened).
The situation is basically this: Javier plays an Ox of Agonas, and Arne wants to stop that from Escaping. If Arne just counters it, Javier, as the active player, will have priority, and will be able to Escape it before Arne can exile it with Cling to Dust.
Arne’s solution? To create another effect on the stack.
By using Drown in the Loch on the Edgewell Innkeeper, Arne makes sure that by the time the Ox hits the graveyard, the stack is not clear, which prevents the Ox from being Escaped (since that’s a Sorcery-speed ability), giving Arne the time to exile it. It’s an elegant play that might have actually won him the game.
Play 4: Samuelle Estratti’s Bluff
Samuelle Estratti vs Tom Martell, Pro Tour Dark Ascension (2012)
This match requires a bit of context – the format is Limited, and Tom Martell has in play a card called Beguiler of Wills.
As you might see, this is a card that is very hard to beat. Watch how Estratti accomplished that:
If you’re as lost as the commentators as to what is happening, the gist of it is that Estratti attacked for 5 and immediately used a +2/+2 pump spell and started tapping another two mana. Martell is on 8. At this point, Martell interrupts and says he has “not blocked” yet, and Estratti is a little taken aback.
Except it was all just a show – Estratti knew Martell hadn’t blocked anything, he just played his pump spell pre combat, and he didn’t have another one. By doing that, and by threatening to play a second (and lethal) pump spell, he put the fear of dying into Martell’s mind, who then obliged and blocked with his game-winning Beguiler of Wills.
Estratti’s play is perfectly legal, and it was the exact amount of showmanship and constructing a plausible scenario while knowing your opponent was good enough to pick up on it and act to prevent it in the only way they could (in this case, by chump blocking with their card that was going to win the game).
Play 5: Patrick Sullivan’s Price of Progress
Patrick Sullivan (Burn) vs Ross Merriam (Maverick) – SCG Open (2015)
You’re Patrick Sullivan and you find yourself in an awkward situation against Ross Merriam’s Maverick deck. Your opponent is at 13 and your hand is Chain Lightning, Scalding Tarn, Flame Rift, Price of Progress, Fireblast. You’re at 6. What do you do?
Patrick’s play is pretty cool. He starts by killing the Canonist (which he needs to do to be able to do anything else), and then he fetches + Flame Rifts to put himself down to 1.
This prompts Ross to tap his Wasteland to activate Pridemage and destroy Patrick’s Sulfuric Vortex at the end of the turn, which lets Patrick cast Price of Progress for 6 and Fireblast for 4, which kills Ross.
If Ross doesn’t tap that Wasteland, he can just use Wasteland on himself and take 4 less damage from the Price of Progress, so the 2 damage from Sulfuric Vortex would not have been enough. For Patrick to be able to win, the Price of Progress has to deal the full 6 damage, and the only way that happens is if Ross feels threatened enough that he has to use Pridemage on Vortex.
I struggled a bit deciding whether to include this scenario in the article, because, even though this play looks amazing, it wasn’t actually Patrick’s best play in this scenario, and it only worked because Ross messed up. The other plays in this article also only worked because the opponent messed up, but they actually created a scenario in which the other player should mess up, whereas this one does the opposite.
That said, I decided to include it for two reasons. One, because I wanted to talk about it – this play comes up a lot if you search for “best plays in MTG” and I think it provides a valuable lesson. Two, because I think the train of thought that led to the play was very good, even though the play itself wasn’t perfect. Most people seem to either say Patrick is a genius for coming up with the only line that won or that Patrick did nothing and Ross is entirely to blame for this outcome, and I think neither of those is a fair description of what happened.
It is true that Sullivan’s play is not the perfect play, but to me it is a play that shows a great macro-level understanding of the game. The key to this play is to know that, if you don’t beat your opponent this turn, you’re not going to win the game anymore, and for that to happen you need them to tap their Wasteland to use their Pridemage. Sullivan acknowledged this and found a way to make this happen by threatening Ross enough that he feared for his life, and that is where the genius of his play lies. He created a scenario in which Ross felt the need to act, and the hardest part about this play is knowing that you have to do this to begin with, and being willing to drop to 1 life with the Flame Rift to do it.
The problem lies in the execution, because, the way things happened, Patrick just didn’t leave Ross an out – Ross figures out he has to play around something, but his play ends up not playing around anything. Still, this is very easy to say when we’re analyzing the match in our homes with infinite time – we need to remember that both Patrick and Ross had to come up with plays in a relatively quick time frame, which is why I put more weight on the macro aspects of the play than the micro execution.
In this situation, Ross is at 9 life, so he can be killed by Lightning Bolt + Fireblast + Grim Lavamancer activation (which is 9 damage) or by Fireblast + Fireblast + Lavamancer Activation (which is 10 damage). In both these scenarios, it doesn’t matter whether the Sulfuric Vortex deals 2 damage or not, because there’s no difference between 7 or 9 life. If Patrick has two Bolts, then that is only 6 damage (he doesn’t have the mana to activate the Lavamancer at that point), so again there’s no difference between being on 7 and being on 9.
So, the way Patrick played, it’s optimal in all cases for Ross to leave the Sulfuric Vortex on the battlefield. Destroying it plays around nothing.
With that said, is there a better play available? Because, if there isn’t, then your best shot is just to hope your opponent messes up. But it turns out that yes, there is one. The key is constructing a scenario where Ross can actually play around something by destroying the Vortex, and you do that by not casting the Chain Lightning.
The way this scenario goes, the damage from the Chain Lightning is actually irrelevant, because the Grim Lavamancer activation deals enough damage to replace it. All the Chain Lightning does is make sure to expand the range of things that kill Ross to a point where he can no longer play around them.
Consider a scenario where, instead of playing Chain Lightning on the Canonist, Patrick Sullivan plays Fetchland and Flame Rift then passes. Now Ross is at 9 life (same as before), but there are now possible combinations of cards that actually kill Ross. The Lavamancer always has to kill the Canonist, but if Patrick has either Lightning Bolt + Fireblast or double Fireblast, destroying the Vortex at the end of the turn is the only way for Ross to survive. Without the Chain Lightning in the equation, playing around these combinations becomes a real possibility for Ross, whereas with the Chain Lightning he’s just dead to them anyway. If Ross does destroy the Vortex at the end of the turn, then you can just Lavamancer the Canonist and play the same two spells to deal the same ten damage.
There are two big lessons here. The first one is that, if things look hopeless, you must put the fear of death into your opponent – make them think they are going to lose the game unless they do something. This is what Estratti did, and it’s also what Patrick Sullivan did. The second lesson is to make sure that there is something for them to do that actually bails them out. This is what Patrick didn’t do, but Ross failed to account for anyway. It would be the equivalent of the Estratti bluff in a scenario where the attacking creature had flying – even if you convince them to fear for their life, they cannot stop what’s about to happen anyway.
So, those are the five plays I selected for today. I think they can all teach us valuable lessons about how to win games that feel unattainable, either by exploiting our opponent’s fears and hopes or by having a deep knowledge of our decks and the rules of the game.
See you around,