Many articles have already been written about card choices and deck techs for Infect (see Tom Ross’s articles for instance), so I chose to write about decision making when playing the deck. It is largely based on my experience with Infect in Legacy, but most of it also applies to Modern. In fact, the first concepts mentioned here can be applied to a lot of proactive decks.
I believe this topic is fairly undocumented compared to its complexity. It is easy for new players to understand what the deck does, however it can be hard for them to know how to use their resources (cards, mana, life) depending on the situation. In general, guidelines help when experience is lacking, so I structured this article as a list of guidelines, starting with general concepts and how they apply to the deck in particular.
1 – Take time to evaluate each situation
Even after years of experience, I think Infect cannot be played without thinking about each situation carefully. Very few plays with this deck can be done without making the effort of evaluating the situation thoroughly.
The main reason is that Infect allows your opponent to interact with you in many different ways, which makes the decision tree of each situation rather unique and often large. Even if each decision in this tree can be simple, focus is key to ensure everything is taken into account.
Secondly, your creatures are fragile and your deck has a lot of different pieces (creatures, lands, pump/protection spells) so all these interactions can end up in a blow-out if you are not careful. Again I’m not necessarily talking about the complexity here, but rather about the fact that the consequences of being sloppy are generally very bad when you play Infect.
In addition, these interactions are often concentrated within a few turns only, which punishes laziness even further during these turns. I do not believe however that the deck requires more mental energy than the average deck, because the games tend to be shorter, even the grindy ones. It’s generally a lot of mental energy concentrated in a short period of time.
In summary, you have to make decisions and build a plan. In order to do so, you have to ask yourself at least the following questions:
– What do I want to achieve by doing this?
– How am I going to end-up at the end of the turn or next turn if it works? If it doesn’t?
– What is my opponent going to do?
With Infect it is rare to know the answers of these questions for sure, so you often have to evaluate the likelihood of each outcome. This requires focus too.
2 – Trust the deck, and embrace uncertainty
Not believing that the deck can win can easily make you get lazy or sloppy. It is also easy to blame the deck when you do not win at the beginning, and not believing that it works reinforces this feeling. Finally, ‘trusting’ the deck makes you less likely to rush decisions and choose a plan because you are impatient or because you are afraid to lose, in particular when you can go ‘all-in’ but the correct decision is to grind and hit your opponent 2 poison per turn.
The deck is very powerful, and has a lot of ways of ‘controlling’ how your opponent is trying to interact with you. It may look fragile, but results show that the deck is able to win big events. Similarly, control decks look scary to play against because of the many ways they can interact with you, but Infect can grind these decks, in particular when they do not have a real draw engine – I provide more details about this below.
However, it is also important to accept that Infect players are rarely certain that a play will work when they make it, they rely heavily on their estimated likelihood of outcomes. This uncertainty is a key component to accept when playing Infect. Similarly, like most proactive strategies, there are games you cannot win, in particular when your opponent has the right type of interaction at the right time for the entire game, and this is nothing to be frustrated about. I believe the deck is very powerful and gives you enough ‘free wins’ to largely compensate for these games.
On this note, a lot of players shy away from proactive decks because they cannot handle the feeling of being ‘controlled’. They hate it so much that it often turns into a perception bias which makes them think that this situation happens a lot more than it actually does. It feels a lot more comfortable to play control decks for instance, because when you are winning you feel in control for many turns. Additionally, when playing control decks, it never really feels like you are out of the games as losses take longer to materialize. I believe it is important to be conscious of this bias which most of us have before picking up Infect, so it becomes easier to trust the deck and control emotions during ‘frustrating’ games.
3 – Remain cold, pride is for fools
Another emotion to ban when playing Infect is pride, even more so than with other decks.
Firstly, because it can affect your choice of strategy, just like the ‘fear’ mentioned above. It is a lot more exciting to kill your opponents in one turn with Invigorate and Berserk than going after them 2 poison per turn with an exalted trigger. However the only thing that matters is winning the game, so the only thing to consider is whether the decision you make has the highest probability of making you win the game at the end. This obviously applies to all decks, but I think it is particularly easy for people to fall in this trap with Infect as it has a very high ceiling: the most powerful plays are extremely powerful, so you are more tempted to make these plays even when they are not right.
Secondly, you may be tempted to punish your opponents when you think they are bluffing. We do not like being lied to because we feel like fools, so we are tempted to catch opponents when we think they are bluffing. But once again the only thing that matters is to finding the sequence of decisions that will make you win the game: catching an opponent bluffing does not make the win greater, so you should not let this temptation affect your judgement. This often translates into another dangerous bias by which players overestimate the probability of an opponent bluffing because they want to catch a bluff or are too worried that they may look like fools if their opponent is successfully bluffing.
4 – Grind until you can’t
In this section I am providing one way to structure your decision making when playing Infect, in particular during the attack phase. As your experience grows, such structure becomes obviously more flexible.
Against decks with little or no creature removal, it is almost always correct to use your resources to kill as quickly as possible. These decks often have a fast clock, typically combo decks, so it is important to be faster. Additionally, the chance of losing a creature is smaller so your pump spells are more reliable.
For decks with removal, I believe the right approach is to grind by default. Before wondering whether you should use any kind of resource, card or mana, it is preferable to assume by default that you are going to poison your opponents over several turns. You preferably do so at least 2 poison per turn so you do not get raced, even though their clock is generally slower than decks without removal.
The grind should continue unless the odds of winning are lower if you keep grinding. Most of the time, you stop grinding when at least one of the below occurs:
A – You have a window where you can use pump spells to kill faster and it is likely to be safe
B – The situation gets worse if you wait any longer
Situation A often happens when you are too fast for your opponent, or when your opponent has to take risks because they are under pressure, typically tapping out because they do not have a choice and cannot interact this turn.
Opponent tapping out for a creature or planeswalker
It is sometimes possible to set-up situation A, i.e. to corner your opponent and go for the kill. This typically happens when playing ‘blow-out’ cards like Stifle or Crop Rotation, which makes your opponents think they are safe when they are not.
Opponent’s only untapped mana source is a fetchland and you have Stifle
Opponent’s only untapped mana source is a non-basic land and you have Wasteland
Opponent tapping out for a creature or planeswalker because you have no threats on the board, but you have Crop Rotation in hand
Another way of setting up situation A is to hold on to your creatures and play them all in one turn, so your opponents do not have enough mana to play all their removal.
Playing against Punishing Fire decks
Playing against Molten Vortex: they need both enough cards and red mana
Situation B often happens when your opponents run out of removal, and have no choice but starting using their mana to cast other spells to race or replenish their hand. It also happens when your opponents take the risk of tapping-out because they evaluate that their chance of winning is very high if they survive this turn. This is particularly true against opponents with a good experience playing against Infect, and who are aware of the ability of Infect players to grind them to death.
You can recognize situation B by paying attention to what your opponents are doing and wondering why they use their resources (mana and cards) the way they do. This will also greatly help you understand what type of interaction that they have in hand, if any.
Opponent playing threats with an Ancestral Vision on 1
Obviously situation B also happens when you are about to lose and you are forced to try and use your resources aggressively. This includes situations where you can lose suddenly because of combos or lock pieces.
Choosing this ‘grind by default ‘ mind-set has a couple of additional benefits. First, it grinds your opponent’s patience and concentration, making them more likely to make mistakes. Secondly, it is less resource intensive, and it prevents you from wasting your pump spells. Pump spells have to be used with care as they are both a resource investment (card and mana) and in many cases a way to protect your creatures. Not playing resources aggressively also means that your opponent is more likely to make the first move to interact, which is beneficial as the player putting the first spell in the stack first is virtually one card down.
The risks of the grinding strategy are mainly falling behind and not using your mana efficiently and be ‘bottle-necked’. However, given how cheap and powerful your spells are, these are not the hardest components to control.
We discussed when to grind, but knowing how to grind is even more difficult and could be the subject of an article in itself. It comes down to evaluating the value and purpose of your resources depending on the situation. Whenever you choose to grind and however you do it, the only obvious advice is to fight hard to keep a creature alive until your next attack phase.
5 – Build and sideboard accordingly
Whether you net deck or build Infect yourself, the result will be somewhere in the spectrum between builds really good at grinding and builds with more cards to set-up ‘situation A’ blow-outs. The classic blow-out cards include Stifle, Crop Rotation, Wasteland and Daze, to a lesser extent. The list continues in the sideboard with Teferi’s Response or Krosan Grip in some situations.
I personally think that the grind mode of Infect is so strong that the deck does not necessarily need ‘situation A’ cards. Additionally these cards add variance in your draws, so there is obviously a trade-off between consistency (which is good when grinding) and the ability to blow-out your opponent with more high-risk/high-reward cards.
The same applies when sideboarding. You choose a post-board plan and adjust accordingly. This explains why, for instance, Vines of Vastwood can be one of your best card or a card you side out depending on the match-up.
These are high-level guidelines and need to be adapted depending on the situation. I hope however that they can be useful for people to get started with the deck. There is so much more to say about this deck, so try it and join the discussion!