A Paskins Masterclass – How To Swindle Your Opponent

Dan Paskins, the Red mage personified, brings us an entertaining article on the noble art of swindling your opponent. Don’t worry, Dan hasn’t defected to the Dark Side… there’s no cheating here. Rather, Mr Paskins takes us step-by-step through the methods required to force your opponent into bad play.

This week, how to swindle your opponent. First of all, the scenario:

You are Dan Paskins (yay), playing in the first round of a PTQ of a sadly now defunct format, Ravnica Block Sealed. The first game isn’t going very well, with the situation being as follows:

I had in play a Veteran Armourer, a Ghost Warden, and a Golgari Rotwurm with Mark of Eviction on it. I was on four life, and had ten land in play and three in hand.

My opponent had Helium Squirter with two counters, a 3/4 Trophy Hunter with a counter on it, a 4/4 Greater Mossdog with a graft counter on it (all tapped) and a Silhana Starfletcher (untapped). He was on fifteen life, and has five lands in play (all tapped), with two cards in hand.

I drew my card for the turn, and it was a good one – Razia, Boros Archangel. But almost certainly too little, too late.

What is the correct play?

Magic is sometimes described by people trying to explain it to the confused as a cross between chess and poker. I know that a lot of Magic players play poker. I’d be interested to know how many play chess. Personally, I think that the skills required for chess and Magic are much more similar than those for Magic and poker, but that is almost certainly a reflection of no more than which games I enjoy playing.

Anyway, there are three pieces of chess strategy that I know which I think are directly applicable to Magic, which might be of interest if you are aiming to get better at either game. (There is probably also a lot Magic theory could learn from chess theory on tempo, but it is probably best for everyone that I’m not going to explore that.)

The first piece of advice is the simplest, and probably the one most likely to cut out mistakes in tournament play and other stressful situations. It’s one that every young chess player is taught.

While you are thinking about which move to make, sit on your hands.

It sounds silly, but if you are sitting on your hands, then you have an extra few seconds when making your mind up about attacking, blocking, choosing to counter a spell, starting your turn and so on. This means that you are less likely to forget to play effects at the end of your opponent’s turn, to make an attack or block without thinking about it, or any of the other mistakes which come from playing too quickly. To take one easy example, if you have a Spectral Searchlight which you want to remember to use before drawing a card, then sitting on your hands during your opponent’s turn makes it far more likely that you will remember to use it before drawing a card and missing the opportunity.

There are some players who need no encouragement to play a little slower, and it may be that actually sitting on your hands is inconvenient (it is hard, for example, to look at your cards). If, however, you can find an alternative automatic routine which helps you to catch yourself and give yourself enough time to think at times when you find yourself making careless mistakes, then you’ll find the results encouraging.

The second piece of advice is to try to see the game from your opponent’s point of view. Chess players will often get up and walk round to the other side of the table – for obvious reasons this isn’t possible in a game of tournament Magic, but if you can think about how the game looks from the other side of the table, you will often get insights into what your opponent is trying to do and possible opportunities.

It is amazing how different a chess game looks just by observing it from the other side of the table – the prominence of different parts of the board changes, and some plays become clearer while others become harder to imagine. You’ll easily be able to see the same if you try looking at a game of Magic from each side in turn while testing, all the more so as Magic, unlike chess, is a game of hidden information. Even without knowing what cards players have in their hand, you think differently and look out for different things if you have Forest, Stomping Ground, Mountain in front of you and Kird Ape and Scab Clan Mauler in play than if you are sitting opposite and have two Plains and an Island in play. The first player is likely to spend more time thinking about how to use the burn spells in hand to finish off his opponent, while the control deck mage will be thinking about when and how to remove the opponent’s creatures and get control of the game.

(Like I said, easier to demonstrate with the cards in front of you than in print).

The swindle is slightly more complex. It is used in chess when you have an inferior board position and/or are behind on material, and the aim is to engineer a situation that provides the biggest opportunity for the opponent to make a game-losing mistake, even if with optimal play on both sides the line of play chosen will lose the game.

One very basic example of the swindle in Magic terms is when you are about to lose, and decide to attack with all your creatures, in the hope that your opponent blocks wrongly and allows you to kill him or otherwise gain some enormous advantage.

Which takes us back to the scenario.

No matter what I do, if my opponent doesn’t make a mistake, then I am going to lose. All he has to do is to give flying to all of his creatures with counters (using the Squirter) and attack. I can only block one at most with Razia, and the others will kill me. It doesn’t matter what cards he has in his hand, what I might draw in future turns or anything like that. There isn’t really any more to this scenario.

Which means I need to try to find a swindle.

I could decide not to play Razia and pass the turn with four cards in hand and ten mana untapped, in the hope that my opponent will decide not to attack with all his creatures in fear of some instant speed threat that I might have. There is no particular reason to think that this will work, as he attacked on the previous turn when I had untapped land, and it is hard to imagine what threat I could have.

Or I could play Razia and pass the turn. This has the advantage that I have a blocker, but with only two untapped mana, the odds are still that my opponent will decide to attack and try and finish me off.

The play that I think gives the best odds for a swindle is as follows. Play Razia, and attack with Razia and the Rotwurm. The correct response is, of course, not to block, take the damage and then attack back and finish me off. However, deciding to take eleven damage and potentially lose if I have Might of the Nephilim is a pretty tough one, it is more likely that my opponent would choose to block with his Starfletcher, which looks like a risk-free block.

The next part of the play might be obvious to you, but I thought it was clever. If my opponent blocks, I can tap my Ghost Warden to give the Starfletcher +1/+1, and then redirect its damage via Razia to the Squirter, killing it. End result, dead Starfletcher, dead Squirter. I can then chump block when I am attacked next turn and live on 1 life, and untap with Razia in play and at least some chance of winning the unwinnable game. With an active Trophy Hunter, I would still need some help, but I’d drawn nearly all my land (not that I’m bitter), and it gives a much better chance than any of the other options.

I checked with my opponent, and he hadn’t seen this play, and would have blocked Razia with the Starfletcher.

What’s that? He “would have” blocked? What actually happened?

I didn’t make this play. I drew Razia, I was still sulking about how many land I had drawn (thirteen land and only six spells!) and I played Razia and attacked with everything. About one second after declaring attackers, I saw the play which I explained above.

Should have sat on my hands, y’see.

Take care

Dan Paskins

Next time: Red Decks.

Bonus section: Swindles and Hall of Fame.

When I refer to swindles in this article, it has nothing at all to do with cheating. Swiping your opponent’s queen off the board while playing chess is not a swindle, and nor is drawing extra cards or any other form of cheating when losing a game of Magic. Swindling your opponent by playing for a situation that gives him the chance to make a game-losing error is admirable; cheating to win games is not.

The issue of what to do about cheaters in Magic has been revived with the introduction of the Hall of Fame. I’m not going to discuss the particular case of Mike Long, because cheating in the early years of the Pro Tour wasn’t restricted to one individual, and because there is a bigger issue here.

Several people, when explaining who they voted for, have given a priority to “community builders” – the good guys who played fairly and made contributions to the game above and beyond their skill at winning games on the Pro Tour. Others explained when casting their votes for Bob Maher that his suspension was early in his career, and that in fact it is to his credit that he owned up to cheating. I think that they’re right.

What bugs me is that the way that those eligible for the Hall of Fame are decided includes some who are clearly undeserving, while excluding some of the good guys. For example, Trey van Cleeve was on this year’s ballot. No Pro Tour Top 8s, 100 lifetime Pro Tour points, banned for cheating, no contribution to Magic in his time as an active player that I am aware of.

Not on next year’s ballot is John Ormerod. John has 91 Pro points, 2 Pro Tour Top 8s (one after the disqualification of one of the Top 8 for cheating), a Grand Prix Top 8, has been a National Champion, was part of the deckbuilding team which helped Kai Budde win multiple Pro Tours, has written some excellent articles, has always been generous with advice and decklists (as our editor will testify). [Yup. Good man all round. – Craig.] And perhaps most importantly, despite having been at or near the top of the game since his Pro Tour Top 8 in 1997, John doesn’t and didn’t cheat. He didn’t stack his deck, he didn’t try to bully his opponents’ into making mistakes… he just played the game fairly, which meant that sometimes he lost to the cheats. Without the losses against the cheats – or, indeed, if he had won a few more games by cheating – then John would have been eligible for the Hall of Fame.

Amongst the exceptional players who are eligible for the Hall of Fame next year, John almost certainly wouldn’t finish in the top five. But he should certainly be amongst the ranks of players who are on the ballot.

I have two suggestions for eligibility to be on the Hall of Fame ballot. First, that any Pro Points gained by a player who is later disqualified or banned for cheating are not counted. It’s tough on Olivier Ruel, wouldn’t have penalised Bob Maher, and would take some players like Trey van Cleeve, who got their points while cheating, off the ballot.

Second, I would either drop the number of Pro points required for eligibility, or find some way of counting things like being National Champion or helping to design Pro Tour winning decks. The people voting are factoring in “contribution to the community,” and they are right to do so.

I’m now a bit old for role models, but about ten years ago players like Dave Price and Chris Pikula, who I hadn’t met, and John Ormerod, who I had, were examples to me of why winning Magic by cheating wasn’t winning at all. The Hall of Fame should be about celebrating the best players who won because of their superior skill, and who gave back to the community in a whole range of different ways, to help make sure that the people just starting out playing tournaments and trying to get to the top do so the honest way.