Win More, Lesson One: Start By Winning

Hi all,

I want to share with you all how to win more. Primarily, I suppose I am a Modern writer, but this lesson will help you win more at Magic in general. The concept of “Start By Winning” is a deck-selecting, opening hand-mulliganing, and game-playing philosophy I have adopted since attempting to become a more competitive Magic Online player, and it has really advanced my level of play.

What’s more is that it has boosted my enjoyment of the game immeasurably.


The first deck I remember copying was called “Wrath of Titania.” This was before “netdecking” had even gained meaning. There may have been a few Angelfire sites out there with various brews, but otherwise the concept didn’t exist. Instead, I found the list in a Duelist magazine. Does anyone even know what that is anymore?

The deck was beautiful. The opponent was completely controlled by artifacts until I played [c]Wrath of God[/c] and [c]Titania’s Song[/c] in subsequent turns. Sometimes the song would be followed by [c]Armageddon[/c]. This was in Type 2, as Standard was known then.

Basically, this type of deck really appealed to me for many years. A lot of Modern players are really attracted to this strategy: don’t let your opponent do anything until whatever absurd card wins the game for you. Whether it is playing enough hateful white enchantments, discarding enough cards from your opponent’s hand, destroying enough of their lands, or locking them by some other means, you will encounter this behavior in the Tournament Practice room roughly one out of three (if not more) games.

Don't let your opponent do anything.
Don’t let your opponent do anything.

Present Day

Have you ever tried this strategy? How did the games go? If I had my guess, I would say none of the games appeared remotely close. Either:

  1. Your opponent conceded at the first sign of [c]Wrench Mind[/c], [c]Runed Halo[/c], or maindeck [c]Molten Rain[/c].
  2. You succeeded in preventing your opponent from finding any enjoyment from the game.
  3. Your opponent applied pressure and left you likely with very little on the board because they answered your attempts to control them.

Whenever you see a deck that you think is interesting, measure how easy it is to build versus its success in actual tournaments. If it is cheap to make and is not placing in tournaments, then it should no longer be interesting. Still, these decks are rampant in the Tournament Practice room, and apparently this practice is not going well for them. The decks continue to be absent from dailies results.

The problem with the “control everything” strategy, particularly in Modern, is the power level of early plays. A simple early [c]Delver of Secrets[/c], [c]Monastery Swiftspear[/c], or in some cases [c]Young Pyromancer[/c] is all the pressure the opponent needs to kill you, even if it takes many turns to do so. Their lands are untapped during your turn, meaning they can interact with the ways that you try to stop them.

The calligraphy of combat is written with strokes of sudden blood.
The calligraphy of combat is written with strokes of sudden blood.

I have been on both sides of the one-drop beatdown. While experimenting with Modern decks such as Bogles, Eggs, Mono-Red Burn, and Ad Nauseam I would often get destroyed by a turn one [c]Delver of Secrets[/c]. At the same time, I was trying to figure out why the lists that were working succeeded. I have tried many times on this site to articulate why certain archetypes like Gruul Beats and Mono-Green Infect performed well at certain times.

Finally I think I’ve figured it out: their fundamental approach is to start the game in a winning position and remain there.

Many Modern decks do not have this design. Decks in Modern aim to assemble specific combinations of cards or to prevent the opponent from winning. Players would do much better to take the upper hand right away. If you don’t start winning until you have [c]Angel’s Grace[/c] and [c]Ad Nauseam[/c], or [c]Slippery Bogle[/c] with two auras on him, or Urza Tron, then you are doing yourself a disservice in a significant percentage of your matches. You are starting the game severely behind your opponent, disadvantaged, and with the hope that your pieces come together. If they don’t, and your deck has a back-up plan, then your deck is most likely diluted.

Instead of crossing fingers and hoping to achieve a winning position by turns 3 and 4, what I’m telling you to do is to play a solid early beater and maintain the winning position. Early beaters include [c]Wild Nacatl[/c], [c]Goblin Guide[/c], [c]Monastery Swiftspear[/c], [c]Delver of Secrets[/c], [c]Glistener Elf[/c] and possibly even [c]Steppe Lynx[/c]. With no investment of mana during your turn, you can easily carry these creatures to victory quickly.

Once you have your victory condition and the requisite mana placed in your deck, I find that the best cards to support your win are those that serve either the purpose of protecting the win or speeding up the win. Consider some of these examples:

  • In Infect, [c]Vines of Vastwood[/c] and [c]Giant Growth[/c] deal colossal amounts of damage or protect your creature from [c]Lightning Bolt[/c], [c]Abrupt Decay[/c], or [c]Path to Exile[/c].
  • In Zoo, [c]Boros Charm[/c] protects your creatures from spot removal and mass destruction, or it deals four or more to the dome.
  • [c]Monastery Swiftspear[/c] is easily supported by any instants and sorceries. Even playing a couple of [c]Lightning Bolt[/c]s targeting your opponent can save Swifty from a [c]Lightning Bolt[/c] your opponent may have!

When your win conditions are beaters, cards like [c]Mutagenic Growth[/c] and its kin serve both to protect the win and to win faster.

Nothing quickens the predator's blood like the unfamiliar scents of new hunting grounds and the mewling cries of new prey.
Nothing quickens the predator’s blood like the unfamiliar scents of new hunting grounds and the mewling cries of new prey.

Applying The Philosophy

I’ve shared Infect decks with you before. If you want a [c]Delver of Secrets[/c] deck, literally look at any results page from the past several months, and you can find a few. Lately, though, my weapon of choice has been a JohnnyHotSauce Zooish Burnish… thing. I don’t know what to call it, but it’s pretty darn good.

[d title=”HotSauce ZooBurn (Modern)”]
4 Bloodstained Mire
2 Copperline Gorge
2 Mountain
3 Sacred Foundry
3 Stomping Ground
4 Wooded Foothills
3 Windswept Heath

4 Eidolon of the Great Revel
3 Ghor-Clan Rampager
4 Goblin Guide
4 Monastery Swiftspear
4 Wild Nacatl

Other Spells
3 Become Immense
4 Boros Charm
3 Gut Shot
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Mutagenic Growth
2 Searing Blood

2 Chained to the Rocks
3 Destructive Revelry
1 Gut Shot
3 Path to Exile
3 Rest in Peace
2 Searing Blaze
1 Searing Blood[/d]

This is by far my favorite deck I’ve ever played on MTGO.

I also happen to be starting out relatively successfully with it. I’ve been in two finals of Player-Run Events, winning the first, and I’ve gone 4-0, 3-1 twice, 2-2, and 0-2 in dailies for an overall 9:6 match record in ticketed events.

Giant double-striker on turn 3, here we come!
Giant double-striker on turn 3, here we come!

I have strayed from the original list in the following ways:

  • JohnnyHotSauce originally played 9 fetches, including 4 [c]Arid Mesa[/c], and 8 shocks. Honestly my mana-base is unacceptable. It hasn’t cost me a game that [c]Windswept Heath[/c] can only fetch shocklands yet, but it has been awfully close. I should play the full 8 shocks and 4 [c]Bloodstained Mire[/c], 4 [c]Wooded Foothills[/c], and 1 [c]Arid Mesa[/c], as it would be functionally identical to his mana-base.
  • I removed the 3 [c]Dismember[/c] from the sideboard in place of [c]Path to Exile[/c]. [c]Dismember[/c] is clearly better overall, but I felt like I had too little to side in against Burn, particularly when on the play. Between [c]Goblin Guide[/c], [c]Gut Shot[/c], and [c]Eidolon of the Great Revel[/c], there are simply too many cards to side out that need good replacements.

Beyond those, I have forced myself to stay true to the original list. It is tiresome to hear reviews of decks after the reviewer has gutted them out of some key cards. I want eventually to test something in place of the [c]Rest in Peace[/c] cards, whether they are [c]Pillar of Flame[/c], [c]Jotun Grunt[/c] or other similar pieces. This change would allow me to get back to the original [c]Dismember[/c].

You serve Phyrexia. Your pieces would better serve Phyrexia elsewhere.
You serve Phyrexia. Your pieces would better serve Phyrexia elsewhere.

This deck is the epitome of start winning and then either protect or speed up the win. An early [c]Wild Nacatl[/c] or [c]Monastery Swiftspear[/c] can go the distance over the course of many turns, protected by removal, pump spells, and [c]Boros Charm[/c], or you can randomly KO people on turn three (happens a lot!) with [c]Become Immense[/c] and [c]Boros Charm[/c], double striking with a 9/9.

Hopefully you can look forward to seeing me more with the deck. I will write about its match-ups and sideboarding plans in the future, but I really just wanted to use it here to illustrate the effectiveness of the start-by-winning mindset. I hope that you’ll try it out because I know you won’t be disappointed.