Play Patterns: Discard

It’s about as iconic as “Bolt the Bird.”

Turn 1, Thoughtseize

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It’s the perfect turn 1 play for G/B decks. Control decks have their Serum Visions, Chord decks have their Birds of Paradise, and G/B decks have Thoughtseize. At the cheap cost of one mana and two life, you get to look at your opponent’s hand and take any non-land spell. The ability to trade one-for-one is exactly the kind of interaction many decks are looking for. What’s even better about discard spells compared to most one-for-ones is that it trades as early as turn 1 and can take spells that would otherwise be difficult for you to deal with, breaking the color pie philosophy. For example: while B/R decks struggle severely against enchantment card types, discard spells provide the perfect solution.

Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek are the most popular discard spells because they hit the largest portion of the cards played in Modern. When sequencing these two spells, it’s important to start with IoK (Inquisition of Kozilek) since it has more narrow applications. Leading with Thoughtseize could put you in the awkward position of taking the only spell IoK could have taken. A perfect example of this would be if you Thoughtseize against Tron and see Expedition Map, two Tron Lands, two Forests, Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, and a Karn Liberated. You want to take the Map to keep them off Tron but that now means IoK is dead in hand. By leading on IoK, you’ll increase the spell’s impact in the game.

Alongside the one-for-one trade, you also have the ability to poke holes in your opponent’s hand. If you take their only threat, you may have bought enough time to win the game yourself. Against Elves for example, you can take them off their one payoff, like an Archdruid or Ezuri, and leave them with a bunch of 1/1 Elves that aren’t winning the game on their own. If you take your opponent’s one removal spell, you’re eliminating the only way they can deal with your creatures. If your opponent has two Tarmogoyfs and a Terminate in hand, take the Terminate. The key to poking holes in your opponents hand is ignoring  redundancy when possible and taking the card that sticks out the most.

Poking a hole in their hand could also mean taking them off curve. Perhaps a Birds of Paradise, while light on lands, was meant to curve into a number of different 3 drops like Knight of the Reliquary. By taking the Birds of Paradise and leaving them with no play on either turn 1 or turn 2, you’ve gained a significant amount of tempo advantage.

While taking a card from your opponent is great, the power behind discard spells are actually two-fold: on one hand you get to take a card from your opponent, and on the other hand you get the information of everything else you didn’t take. The information is actually where most of the power lies in these spells. Yes, you get to take the best card in your opponent’s hand, but “best card” is completely subjective depending on what’s in yours.

Like a chess master you can begin to line up the next 3-4 turns and predict exactly how they are going to unfold. You can sequence your threats against your opponent’s interaction and line up interactive pieces against your opponent’s threats. The information can be lethal. With discard spells it’s very important to think turns ahead of where you are now. Having this kind of foresight can help you navigate the game in a way that benefits you the most.

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Remember that their’s no need to take what looks the scariest at face value or what your opponent thinks is the best card. If it’s something you already have an answer to, you can easily ignore it and utilize your discard elsewhere. In an earlier example I used Birds of Paradise and Knight of the Reliquary as a way to illustrate poking holes in your opponent’s curve. In general, your opponent may value Knight of the Reliquary much higher than Birds of Paradise. If you can afford to take advantage of the tempo gained by leaving your opponent without a turn 1 or 2 play, then there’s no reason to take the Knight. There’s a chance you’ll be able to get down multiple threats before the Knight can even be cast. If you had taken the Knight, simply because it’s the “scariest” card, then you will have allowed your opponent to be mana efficient in their early turns. Sequences like this can win you many games, all based on the information given to you through discard.

To demonstrate the power of turn 1 discard, here’s a scenario from a game I played against a Ponza (land destruction) deck.

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My options here are between two pieces of ramp and two pieces of land destruction. I can’t take the Chandra because her CMC is greater than 3. My opponent has a pretty redundant hand that lines up nicely against discard.

Before I make my decision I need to consult my hand. I have two interactive spells and a pretty good clock in Tarmogoyf. Because G/B decks don’t interact with instants and sorceries as well as they do permanents, I decide I’m going to take the Stone Rain. Even though Molten Rain represents 2 damage, it’s also harder to cast. Stone Rain can be cast with one more land regardless of what it is while Molten Rain requires a specific draw. Before my opponent takes their first turn, I’m already picturing how turns 1-3 are going to happen. In my head, the game continues like this:

(Opp.) Turn 1: Forest, Utopia Sprawl on Forest

(Me) Turn 2: Forest, Abrupt Decay the Sprawl

(Opp.) Turn 2: Foothills, Birds of Paradise

(Me) Turn 3: Catacombs into Overgrown Tomb, Liliana minus to edict Bird

The reason for playing Liliana is to not only continue attacking my opponent’s mana sources but to also ensure I can play all the cards in my hand. If they do find the mana for Molten Rain, I will still be capable of casting Tarmogoyf on turn 4, whereas I may not be able to cast the Liliana. Chandra is also a very scary threat and I want to pressure my opponent’s hand before they are able to cast her.

By putting myself in my opponent’s shoes, I can play out the game from their perspective, get inside their head, and use it to my own advantage. The game jumps tremendously in my favor when I get to have all the information, and take a card from my opponent, before my opponent even gets a turn. Much of the power behind these spells is having an understanding of what your opponent is trying to do and what their game-plan is, so you can determine how best to stop it. Even if the line of play is obviously bad, it’s a good exercise to play it out in your head anyways. Doing so will help you evaluate what plays are good and which are non-optimal.

The game draws on exactly the way I wanted to. My opponent eventually found the red source for Molten Rain, but my Liliana and Tarmogoyf were already in play. My opponent then found a Tireless Tracker but my Liliana had recouped enough loyalty to dispatch it. My Tarmogoyf runs away with the win and my opponent never gets the chance to cast their Chandra.

There is a lot of information to digest from this turn 1 play and how it affected the rest of the game, but there’s no doubt in my mind I won because of it. One of the main reasons I kept my hand was for Abrupt Decay. It’s one of the best ways I can deal with Blood Moon. Upon looking at my opponent’s hand and seeing that they didn’t have one, I knew I could put it to use elsewhere. So not only did I get the information of what was presently in hand, but also of what wasn’t there and I didn’t have to play around.

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It’s almost always appropriate to play discard turn 1, but there can be situations where this is not always the best time to use it.

Against decks with a lot of cantrips (cards that replace themselves like Serum Visions or Street Wraith), discard doesn’t really give you the information you’ll need to navigate the game beneficially. The cantrips represent cards that you don’t know about, making them hard to evaluate. This typically makes them bad takes and lends more value to discard spells after the cantrips are played.

When playing against Storm, their turn 1 will almost always be a cantrip. If you see a hand full of Serum Visions and Sleight of Hands, you’re not getting the whole picture. You’d much rather take the Pieces of the Puzzle, Gifts Ungiven, or Goblin Electromancer that they draw off the cantrip. The only time a cantrip can look like a juicy target on turn 1, is when the opponent is light on lands and is relying on the cantrip to dig for more. Now don’t misunderstand me, if you have a discard spell into a threat against Storm, this is most likely the best line to take, but lets look at a scenario where we don’t have a turn 2 threat against Storm. Upon looking at this hand, ask yourself what you would do turn 1?

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Like an impulsive reflex, many players will answer with Blooming Marsh and IoK turn 1. But why? What’s driving a player to take this line?

The answer, is most likely habit. Much like the Chord decks play their Birds, and the Storm player plays their Serum Visions, it’s the best turn 1 play for the deck. What else are you doing on turn 1 anyway? The upside of turn 1 discard is fantastic, but we should also ask ourselves what the benefits of holding onto them are.

With this hand, on the play against Storm, I’m much more inclined to play the tap land on turn 1 so I can play two discard spells on turn 2. I can benefit more from them after my opponent plays their turn 1 Sleight of Hand or Serum Visions. There’s also the potential for future draws to take into account. What if I draw a Tarmogoyf?

Getting down a threat early against Storm is incredibly important to win the game. If I do draw a Tarmogoyf after playing the tap land turn 1, I can then deploy it, and have multiple options available to me on turn 3. If they played an Electromancer, I can IoK and then Abrupt Decay it or Liliana edict. If they simply passed, and are possibly representing Remand, I can first cast my IoK to see how I need to sequence the rest of my spells.

If we take the line of turn 1 discard and tap land on a subsequent turn, we’re playing a bit shortsighted. If we then draw a Tarmogoyf, decide to play it, and delay the tap land until turn 3, your options become very limited. Remand becomes effective against your discard with only one black source, Liliana isn’t castable, and Abrupt Decay may not have a target that turn. If we hold the Tarmogoyf for turn 3 by playing the tap land and second discard spell turn 2, we’ll have taken a turn off our clock. Allowing the Storm deck one more turn could mean the difference between a win and a loss.

While turn 1 discard may certainly feel like the best/only option with this opening hand, you can see the possible trickle of consequences from doing so. Your opponent isn’t going off turns 1 or 2, so there’s no rush. Typically holding onto discard until the turn before a combo player is looking to go off can be the best time to cast it. They’ve done all the leg work to set up for next turn and now you can set them back efficiently. Again, I’m not saying it’s always beneficial to hold your discard back, most of the time it’s not, but it is important to recognize the situations where it is.

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These awkward scenarios with tap lands can put you in a position where you have to choose between a discard spell on turn 1 or a threat on turn 2. Is it worth it to play a discard spell on turn 1 if it means losing your second turn?

While it can be difficult to evaluate the loss of value your discard spells will have the longer you hold onto them, skipping your second turn is a hard sell. There’s very little any deck can do on turn 1 that you would’ve wanted to take with discard anyways.

Obviously you can feel a bit punished if your opponent then goes turn 1 Expedition Map off Urza’s Mine, but if my opponent’s deck is unknown, I’m prioritizing a Dark Confidant on turn 2 over my IoK turn 1. IoK could very well have the same value on turn 3 that it would’ve had on turn 1 whereas skipping my second turn and delaying the Confidant is a measurable loss of 1 extra card drawn and 2 points of damage at my opponent.

A hand with multiple fetches and shock lands can also put you in a tough spot where you have to decide between going to 15 life on turn 1 or 18 life on turn 2 with Thougthseize. Two life doesn’t always matter in the long run, but would Thougthseize be playable if it instead read, “Lose 5 life?” Probably not.

This is another scenario where it can be okay to skip the first turn by fetching on the opponent’s end step or playing a shock land tapped to save some life and gain some information from the opponent’s turn 1 play. Again, the loss of value for not having played Thoughtseize turn 1 is hard to evaluate, but 2-3 additional life saved for not playing it can make a big difference in some matches.

Many of these lines are of course dependent on your opening hand and the match-up. Sometimes you have to go to 15 on turn 1, or sometimes you have to risk losing your second turn. The point is to learn to be patient; ask yourself if turn 1 discard is actually the best line to take and not simply the one that’s obviously available to you.

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Sometimes discard spells can seem useless when you’re top decking late into the game. Maybe your opponent is empty handed, or you desperatley needed something that affected the board state instead. This is part of the downside of running discard spells and is the reason decks aren’t loading up on 12 different discard effects. We want to play enough to see them early in the game, but not so many that we are constantly drawing them when they don’t matter. Typically you’ll see these numbers range from 4-7 discard effects.

There are some cases though, where late game discard can still be advantageous, so long as you know how to use it. When you are playing against a control deck, you can use a discard spell to clear the way for a threat.

Let’s say your only card in hand is a fetch-land you’ve been holding onto just in case you draw a Tireless Tracker, and your control opponent has 2-3 cards in hand. You draw Thoughtseize. Do you play it?

You may think that it’s a simple one-for-one trade and a way to ensure they don’t pull too far ahead on cards. You may also think, “What else am I doing this turn?” so you go ahead and cast it. They Cryptic Command in response. Counter-Draw.

Was this worth it?

Not really.

They cycled a counterspell, essentially tapping themselves out, but you couldn’t do anything to take advantage of that. They keep the same amount of cards in hand, and you are down another card for no value.

Lets say they instead reveal 2 lands and an Opt.

Now was it worth it?

Again, not really.

You see that your opponent is out of gas and the coast is clear, but you have no follow-up to take advantage of it. As soon as your opponent goes to draw for their turn, your perfect information is wasted.

The impulse to cast it can be strong, but by doing so you’ve wasted its potential for future use. Remember this isn’t a Serum Visions or Birds of Paradise, the card gains value if you can choose the right moment to cast it.

Now let’s say you instead wait another turn and voilà, you draw Tireless Tracker. Now you can lead on Thoughtseize to clear the way for your threat and the potential 2 clues with your fetch-land. Without the Thoughtseize, you’d be casting Tracker blindly and praying it resolves instead of knowing it will resolve.

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Discard is one the most powerful tools our decks can utilize. Trading one-for-one early in the game and gathering information to help guide our future plays is how many matches can be won. Practice playing out your hand before the game begins to determine what the best line is, taking into account all possible draws and sequences. Remember that while turn 1 discard is incredibly powerful, it may not always be the best line to take.

Study your opponent’s decks. Your discard isn’t powerful if you don’t know what your opponent is trying to do, and don’t know what to take. Learn to put yourself in their shoes and become the Affinity player, the Storm player, or the Tron player, to know how they plan to defeat you and how you can best stop it.

Finally, learn to have patience. Whether this means waiting until turn 2 or 3 when appropriate or holding onto discard to force threats through counter magic. Don’t be impulsive or habitual. If you can properly determine the correct moment for execution, at the cost of 1 black mana, you can tip the scales in you favor.

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