Magic is one of the most complex and dynamic games on the planet. It has been said by great players of the game that it is nearly impossible to play even a few turns in a row perfectly, let alone an entire game, match, or tournament.
With regard to Magic play, I no longer cling to the delusion that the platonic ideal of perfect play is attainable for players.
The game is simply too variant in nature, and plays often end up being game winning or losing depending upon which cards are by chance subsequently drawn from the top of a random deck. Now, is it possible to make plays that will work out favorably more often than not? Absolutely.
I get a chance on a weekly basis to play and observe many games of Magic being played. I have also formed and facilitate a weekly playtesting and practice group for Magic at my local game store in my home state of Michigan, where I work with players to help them refine their skills and reach their best potential as players.
While I have already stated that I believe that aspiring to achieve perfect play is an unrealistic endeavor, the aspiration to hone one’s own abilities a necessary and worthy cause for any player looking to get better and meet higher personal goals at competitive play.
In today’s article, I will share some of the common technical pitfalls and weaknesses I see in tournament players’ decision making and provide explanations for how to remedy these problems through better and more thoughtful decision making. In particular, I will be discussing how to better assess situations where you ought to be bluff attacking.
The Chump Attack
Mike Jacob once told me a story about a game he watched Mark Herberholz play a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
Mark’s opponent was at two life and had no cards in play, drew for the turn, and played a 3/3.
Mark had a 2/2 in play and drew for the turn, getting another 2/2. He attacked with his 2/2, which obviously elicited a block (as it was lethal), and then Mark embarrassingly played his second 2/2.
After the match, MJ asked Heezy, "What were you thinking with that attack?!"
Herberholz chuckled and responded, "What, bro, you never heard of the rarely seen chump attack!?"
The reason I believe that the story is true is that MJ did a very convincing Herberholz impression, which was pretty hilarious in its own right.
In the story, Herberholz makes a bluff attack (which isn’t uncommon in Magic), but the problem with his "bluff" is that there is a zero percent chance that his opponent won’t call it. If his opponent doesn’t block, he will lose the game because the attack is lethal. Therefore whether or not Herberholz has a trick or not, a block is going to take place.
The fact that Heezy doesn’t have a trick and is bluffing in a situation where his opponent must call the bluff makes this scenario a chump attack.
Obviously, I will not be advocating chump attacking in this strategy article. However, there are a few very important tidbits that a savvy reader can take away from this story.
The first one is that while Heezy has clearly made a miscalculation about his odds of getting away with a bluff in this instance, it is important to note how willing he is to be aggressive by attacking a smaller creature into a bigger blocker with only the threat of a combat trick to back it up.
The Bluff Attack
Patrick Chapin once told me that the players who are widely accepted to be the best Limited players in the world are also the ones with a reputation of getting caught bluff attacking the most. The reason isn’t that they are bad at selling the bluff attack but rather that they do it more than other players.
The truth of the matter is that the vast majority of Magic players do not bluff attack nearly as often as they could and should be.
Bluff attacking is a really important skill in competitive play (and specifically in Limited play), and succeeding can often be the difference between winning and losing a game.
Bluffing in Magic is very similar to bluffing in poker in the sense that generally when one is bluffing you are trying to turn a losing hand into a winning one through a little bit of guile and cunning.
For instance, if I have a 2/2, my opponent has a 3/3, and I don’t have a combat trick I have a few options available to me.
The first one is to not attack.
The second is to attack and bluff like I have a trick.
There are risks and rewards associated with each.
If I don’t attack, I am telegraphing to my opponent that I do not have a combat trick (which is useful information moving forward), and I also concede the opportunity to sneak in two extra points of damage.
If I attack and they block, I risk losing my 2/2 for no gain.
The key is to properly assess the risks and rewards to determine whether or not making such an attack is likely to succeed and a necessary risk in the overall scheme of winning the game.
There are many games where a player is behind and those extra two or three points of damage that can be seized early on in the match via bluff attacking through a powerful blocker are basically the difference between having a chance at stealing the game and losing on the spot. For instance, if my hand is not great, I might need to take some risks in order to get damage in so that I have live draws later on (like burn or evasion spells) to push through the last few points.
The catalyst for this discussion was a lengthy conversation that I had with a friend of mine about Draft archetype preferences. My friend said that he always forces U/G or U/B midrange-control strategies because he doesn’t think the aggressive strategies are very good.
I said that I’ve had a ton of success with various white-based heroic decks and that when I lose matches it tends to be to decks that are very aggressive. My friend responded to this by saying that his opponents usually just played a bigger creature and then he lost because he couldn’t attack anymore.
The same friend and I were both playing Sealed at playtesting night and were sitting next to each other building our decks. I was putting together a very average controlling U/B deck (that was the best my packs could muster), and he commented that I was lucky and my pool was much better than his. I was pretty much finished with my deck, so I took a look at his pool.
He was trying to stitch together some Four-Color Green abomination. Upon inspection of about fifteen seconds, I noted that he had a very above average aggressive R/W deck. Not just above average, but very good.
"Just play this deck." I said and put it together. He hemmed and hawed but sleeved it up anyway.
When we actually sat down to play the games, it became pretty clear to me why he felt that aggressive decks are worse than midrange or controlling decks. He would play his cards as long as he had a combat trick or was ahead, but every single time he didn’t have a trick or was behind, it became extremely clear by his body language and his passive play.
I realized that a big part of the problem with my friend’s play was that he was not only not looking for opportunities to utilize bluff attacks, but that even when good opportunities presented themselves he was simply unwilling to seize them.
The Anatomy Of A Good Bluff Attack
Very good Magic players look for good scenarios where they can execute a bluff attack and are likely succeed because they choose the right moments and sell their bluffs well.
The key to knowing when to bluff attack is pretty simple in theory: analyze a board state and try to deduce whether or not your opponent can afford to risk making a block.
Let’s start with a pretty easy example.
Vigilant, but not blocking.
If I untap and attack with my Bears, what are the chances that my opponent is going to be willing to risk losing an A+ card like a Serra Angel to a pump spell? The second thing to think about is this: can my opponent afford to block and risk losing the powerful Serra Angel?
Not all risks and rewards are created equal.
In this example, the payoff for calling the bluff correctly is that the defending player gets to kill a free Grizzly Bears (not very exciting).
Chances are that in a situation like this the decision to make the risky block is more difficult than the decision to bluff attack!
After I won Grand Prix Boston-Worcester, a bunch of Magic players all went out to dinner and were battling my Top 8 Draft deck against Cedric Phillips’s Top 8 Draft deck. At one point a scenario came up where Conley Woods attacked a 2/2 into Cedric’s Serra Angel and Cedric declined to block.
Michael Jacob said, "Does his deck even have a combat trick to punish you for making a block there?" And Cedric smartly replied: "It doesn’t even matter. I can’t afford to risk it here."
While it might be difficult to muster up the courage to make a bluff attack in a tournament game of Magic, it is equally difficult to call that bluff on the defensive side of the coin.
Since players don’t bluff attack as often as they should, most players see a 2/2 coming in the red zone against a potential 3/3 blocker and assume their opponent must have the trick.
The key to a bluff attack is to attack in a situation where your opponent is unlikely to block but where a block would be advantageous for them to make.
Bluff attacking isn’t just limited to Limited play. I got a chance to play a bunch of Vintage games with Steven Menendien last weekend when he was in Ann Arbor. We split a sixteen-game set of Vintage (he was on U/R Delver, and I was playing BUG Control). In one of the games we played, early on he had a Young Pyromancer and an Elemental token, and I had a Dark Confidant.
He chose to attack with only the Elemental token for one damage. I pointed out that he should have attacked with the Young Pyromancer. He said, "I don’t really want to trade the Pyromancer with the Dark Confidant."
If I wouldn’t want to trade, he should’ve attacked.
I said, "That may be so, but I wouldn’t trade my Bob with your Pyromancer at this juncture of the game." He thought for a moment and said:
"Yeah, but I don’t know that for sure."
"If you were in my position at this juncture of the game, would you trade your Bob for my Pyromancer?"
"No, probably not."
I ended up winning the game at two life.
Lastly, remember that desperate times call for desperate measures. Sometimes selling a bluff is literally the only way that a player will be able to win a game of Magic because they are behind or their cards are outclassed.
I remember doing a team draft back in Ann Arbor a few years ago where Ari Lax was watching a losing effort from a teammate. The player had the opportunity to try to work out a bluff attack but instead passed the turn, letting his opponent untap. To Ari, the lack of initiative was basically the exact same thing as conceding the game on the spot.
If you don’t even want to try to win the game, why not just forfeit? If the only way to win is to attack, you should attack.
Bluff Attacks That Are Actually Chump Attacks
It is important not to get carried away with bluff attacks and venture into the unfortunate land of the chump attack.
A chump attack, as we discussed earlier, is any time that you make a bluff attack that is very unlikely to work and thus results in the attacking player losing material at no cost to the blocking player.
Let me give a pretty obvious example of a bluff attack.
I am on the draw, and on my first turn I play a Merfolk of the Pearl Trident.
On my opponent’s second turn (on the play) she plays Grizzly Bears.
Chump Attack 101
Your opponent is going to accept this block nearly every single time because the stakes are so low. Even if I have a Giant Growth to kill the Grizzly Bears, it doesn’t really matter one way or the other. So what? I would gladly trade a soon to be worthless Grizzly Bears for a Giant Growth.
Remember that as a game progresses, the value of small creatures like 1/1s and 2/2s goes down as players deploy larger and more powerful creatures to trump them. On the other hand, the value of Giant Growth goes up since it allows players to potentially trade the combat trick with a more powerful creature.
Generally, you don’t want to bluff attack into creatures that are worse than the combat trick that you would be likely to trade for them.
2/2s, 1/3s, 1/4s, and 2/3s are exactly the types of cards that you don’t want to bluff attack into because they are very likely to illicit a block from the defending player. If I have an Omen Speaker and you have a Satyr Hedonist, I will block nearly every single time on turn 2 because whatever you do to pump the Satyr is more valuable than my Omenspeaker.
A good rule of thumb when determining whether a bluff attack is likely to succeed or fail and be a chump attack is to ask whether or not you would be willing to block in your opponent’s situation. If you wouldn’t be willing to risk a block in the same situation, chances are that neither will your opponent.
Another good question to ask yourself when figuring out whether or not to risk a bluff attack is whether or not you have a chance to win the game if you don’t make the attack. There are a lot of games where the opponent is trying to stabilize the board and needs a specific piece to live through the turn (especially on turns 2-5) and if you don’t sneak in that extra damage, you’ll fall too far behind. If you’re unlikely to be able to win without the damage and it seems likely they won’t block, it’s usually worth making the attack.
Remember that most people assume you have a trick when you attack, which will often discourage them from calling your bluff and making a block.
Sell Your Bluff
Ask any avid poker player about what it takes to be a good bluffer and you are likely to be told that good bluffing is a kind of art form.
Here are some tips that I have picked up over my many years playing Magic that help to sell a bluff to sneak in some extra damage and swing a game your way.
The first thing is just like in other games you need to sell your bluff to ensure that your opponent believes that you have the thing that you want them to play around. Whether it’s Giant Growth, Fog, Counterspell, or burn, if you give them a reason to doubt that you have it, there is a greater chance they will call you out.
One big pointer that is very helpful for selling a bluff is to be ready beforehand.
If your opponent plays Serra Angel and passes the turn and you draw a card, tank for 45 seconds, and dejectedly attack with your Grizzly Bears, you are more likely to get a block than if you untap, draw, and swiftly charge your Grizzly Bear into the red zone.
Attacking was an easy decision because you have a combat trick. You didn’t even have to think about it, and you aren’t worried they’ll block.
It’s good to utilize time on your opponent’s turn to think about what you’ll do next on your turn. If you get into the habit of using your opponent’s time to formulate your own moves, it makes it easier to sell a bluff as a natural attack.
Obviously there are multiple layers to bluffing and calling. Sometimes I like to look dejected and tank before attacking when I actually have the trick in order to get my opponent to block.
However, in general if you represent a trick and are confident, it will make your opponent think that you have something and that they should not block in this situation.
Here is another helpful trick that works more often than it doesn’t.
If you don’t want your opponent to block, you should be patient and confident and let them take as long as they want to decide. Being patient and waiting implies that you are giving them time to talk themselves into making a block because you have a trick; most likely if they are on the fence, they are less likely to block in this scenario.
If you do want them to block, pick up your pen and score pad and say something like "so you take two?" in a way that demonstrates you are edgy, anxious, or nervous and are trying to move them along to not block. A lot of times even if a player wouldn’t normally block in a situation, if they sense that you don’t want them to block, they will make a risky block anyway (in this case, to your advantage).
Although there are lots of different things you might represent when you are attacking, I have found that just being confident tends to be quite effective all around. If you have properly identified an opportunity where your opponent should not block and attack, chances are that they will not block.
Properly utilizing bluffing is a fundamental part of Magic that is underutilized by the vast majority of players.
Think about this: statistically speaking, you will only have the better hand half of the time. How do you got about winning a tournament when you only have the better hand half of the time?
The answer is that one must find ways to win with worse cards and tactics like bluffing. Gaining advantages that are not free is a big part of how great players win more games than average players.
Sure, it is possible to beat players who have a much weaker understanding of the rules, strategies, and interactions even with worse cards. However, if you want to beat other good players with the worse hand, sometimes the only way is to take calculated risks.
Magic is difficult, and in a tournament every single game matters a lot with regard to finishing in the Top 8. It’s often a daunting task for players who don’t have a ton of experience with bluffing to suddenly risk an important game 3 in a match for Top 8 on a bluff.
However, most Magic players also draft, playtest, and play games that are not in tournaments with friends during the week. I strongly recommend using this playing time to work on seizing opportunities to implement the bluff attack from your arsenal of tools and tactics. If you’re a player who doesn’t typically bluff attack very often, I think you’ll be surprised to find just how effective this technique is and how often it is successful.
Also, keep in mind that once you get a reputation as a player who is willing to bluff attack, players will be more apt to call you, which typically is a fantastic thing because it means that people will call your "bluffs" when you are not actually "bluffing."
One final thought on the subject of bluff attacking:
Generally speaking, I think there is more pressure put on the player to call a bluff attack than is put on the player making a bluff attack. The reason being that the risk/reward in an effective bluff attack scenario does not favor making a block. The reward is killing a 2/2 and not taking two damage, and the risk is losing a Serra Angel for one mana.
It is only a bluff attack if you don’t have a trick. However, in many scenarios it is correct to attack a smaller creature into a bigger one regardless of whether or not you have a trick.
It is hard for me to consider calling a poker player who doesn’t bluff a great player.
The same goes for Magic. Bluffing is a part of the game, and utilizing it properly and refining your ability to do it effectively will make you a better player and increase your chances of winning.