Decoding Magic: Reading Intentions & Hand Contents

Michael provides a framework for building an understanding of an adversary’s intentions & plans in a game of Magic by looking at the totality of their actions.

Today we’re going to learn how to read minds.

No, not in the Hollywood "listen to your thoughts" kind of way.

We’re actually going to learn something useful; we’re going to learn how to use information provided to us by our opponents to improve our gameplay and ability to win in Magic. First, however, we’re going to need to learn how to decipher and understand it.

In every single match of Magic, there are innumerous lines of play on both sides of the table. Decisions are made, committed to, and then reconsidered and shifted with the flip of a card. It is a lot of information to take in and can honestly be a bit overwhelming. I know that I have games where I go into my own little bubble, lost in trying to figure out the best play to make at the expense of considering what it is my opponent is actually up to. In this article, I’m looking to provide a framework on how to build an understanding of an adversary’s intentions and plans by looking at the totality of their actions.

Prior to getting into this, I do want to state that throughout this article I make the baseline assumption that we understand the format we’re dealing with. By this I mean that by default we understand common decks and cards contained within those decks. This is where I could digress into the importance of playtesting but in the interest of succinctness, I won’t. Suffice to say you need to playtest to before you can possibly expect to read your opponent!

There is a structure involved when looking at a goal that someone (for the rest of this article, I’m going to simply refer to this generic "someone" as either our opponent or our adversary) is trying to achieve. Let’s start there: what is the goal of every single Magic player going into a round of Magic? 

To win, of course!

However, there’s so much that goes into that. There’s a structure to it. Our opponent is first going to need to break down the overall gameplan into their intentions going into the match; those intentions are going to be made up of smaller individual plans. In order to execute those plans, the opponent is going to need to perform a series of actions that lead to the completion of that plan. Actions can play into multiple plans as well.


Goal <- Intention <- Plan <- "Intentional" Action

Let’s start applying this to Magic. In any given game of Magic, you can be reasonably certain that the shared (but opposing) goal of both players is to win the game. That is the overall goal in any given game of Magic (we could always look towards higher goals, say to make Top 8 with the goal of qualifying for a higher tournament; let’s just stick to the game at hand for the rest of this article though). Understanding that we can start breaking down the subcomponents of that goal.


Intentions come in two different forms: intended intentions and keyhole intentions. Intended means that the person with the intention wants you to know their intentions and keyhole simply means that they don’t. There’s diversionary intentions as well (i.e., they’re trying to hide their intentions from others). In Magic, we’re generally dealing with keyhole/diversionary intentions in that our opponent doesn’t want to provide you with their intentions. It’s going to be up to us, the good guys, to figure that out for ourselves.

If our goal in any given game of Magic is to win the game, then our intentions are the vehicles by which we want to accomplish that goal. It’s essentially the next level down in terms of what someone wants to happen. Intentions are somewhat generic, but they provide so much information that it’s necessary to try to figure them out and how our opponent’s actions fit into these intentions.

For instance, let’s take a look at a common matchup in Magic, control vs. aggro, from the control side of the table.

What’s the goal?

To win.

What are the intentions within the game?

The first is to not die. The second is to stabilize. The third is to win after shutting down the opponent’s avenues of victory.

These are very overarching and generic (and I’m certain not all-inclusive either), but that’s the point. First, the control deck needs to focus on getting out of phase 1 (the early game) without dying or "virtually" dying; this flows into the second intention, which is to stabilize the board. After this, the control player eventually needs to win the game through whatever win condition they’ve added to their deck.

This should be nothing new to most seasoned players. The control vs. aggro matchup has been happening for many years now and will continue to occur. However, this is important groundwork to lay for our understanding of intention recognition and how this helps us predict our opponent’s actions in any given game of Magic.


Making up each intention is multiple dynamic plans; these plans are the method in which our opponent wishes to accomplish their intentions.

Again, back to the control vs. aggro game. In phase 1, our intention is simply to not die. We know that if we can get out of the early game alive, we’ll have time to get to the second and third intentions: stabilization and winning. We’re going to have to figure out how we’re going to do this though; we’re going to need plans. These plans are dynamic in that with each card that gets drawn and played the plan is going to have to shift in some way. However, the overall plan should remain the same. 

For instance, our initial plan is to hit each of our land drops, as we can’t do anything without lands. We start out with three lands in our opening hand, so the plan is good to go. Now, let’s say we don’t draw a land by our fourth turn but drew a Forbidden Alchemy; multiple plans have just changed or been adjusted. First, your plan for making land drops now involves casting that Alchemy, whereas before it didn’t. Also, the plan you would have had for that Alchemy (draw into a Supreme Verdict to progress the "do not die" intention) is now gone since you need to take a land out of the four cards. This is just one example of how plans are dynamic and subject to change on any given turn.

So let’s take that first intention of not dying. What should we plan to do in order to facilitate that?

1. Make our land drops.

2. Maintain a life total above zero.

3. Keep the opponent from resolving spells of which we have no answer to (think planeswalkers, artifacts, enchantments, hexproof creatures)

4. Dispose of threats before they overwhelm us (dispose can mean kill or invalidate, say through a Wall or superior creature)

The list could probably go on, but I want a broad set of plans to talk about. Each of these plans serves at least one of our intentions (in this case, not dying). Making our lands drops is something that serves to progress all three of our intentions, as we’re going to need mana to keep from dying, stabilize, and win. Also, the "not dying" intention is something that persists throughout the entire game; just because it is the first thing we start out with doesn’t mean it stops being an intention just because you’ve begun to stabilize.

Intentional Actions

Finally, we have intentional actions. By this I mean the things a player does in order to progress their plans (and eventually intentions/goals). This is by far the most critical one of the three components of goals even though each action represents such a small piece of the puzzle. Why?

Because they are the only pieces of information we’re going to get out of our opponents in a game of Magic.

Our opponent doesn’t want us to know their entire plan; they might be ok with you getting the general idea (for instance, when our opponent plays a turn 1 Goblin Guide, they know that you can figure out that their intentions involve killing you before you stabilize), but they’re not going to reveal their plans, much less all of their intentions. It’s going to be up to us to figure that out.

Our opponent actually provides insight into their gameplay every time they perform an action. They don’t have a choice. It may not be incredibly obvious, but each play serves to progress one or more plans which serve to achieve one or more intentions. Since our opponent isn’t going to tell us what their plans and intentions are, the individual actions they take will serve as a guide while navigating the game state. 

The individual actions make up a code; it’s up to us to break that code given the indicators given by our opponents.

An analogy is the game Clue. You start the game with a specific set of clues known to just yourself. With each passing turn, if played correctly, players should pick up more and more individual clues with the purpose of eliminating all other possibilities and coming up with the end result. This is done in at least two different ways. First, you play out your turns and see how the opponents react; then, if you’re especially astute, you can also pay attention on your opponents’ turns to what they’re guessing to gain an understanding of what they have/don’t have. This has the potential to give so much more information than just zoning out during everyone else’s turns and just paying attention during yours.

That’s what I’m trying to get you to do in Magic!

Our opponents are providing us with treasure troves of information if we’d just reach out and grab it. The problem is that most people don’t seem to understand how to interpret that information. So let’s go about learning about how to do it.

Let’s Put It All Together

So we’ve learned the structure of a goal from the top down. Again, its:

Goal -> Intention -> Plan -> Intentional Action

We know what the goal is: to win. We know each individual action taken because we’re observing them as they occur. If we can fill in those middle two, we’re golden! Those middle two pieces will reveal not only why they’re doing what it is they’re doing but also help to reveal the tools that they have to work with!

Basically, instead of working from the top down, we need to work from the bottom up. We can observe actions; what we need to do with them is to put them in context of the game up to that point in order to eliminate uncertainty about the plan our opponent is currently working to achieve.

This is going to involve persistent observation of the game state and our opponent’s actions. Think of each action as a small glimmer of light that shines on a portion of the darkness that is our opponent’s mindset, contents of hand, and intentions/plans. Each action eliminates a bit of ignorance about what our opponent is up to, and understanding how all of this fits into the Goal/Intention/Plan/Action framework will allow us to use that to our advantage.

Keep this in mind as well; when a person commits to or performs an action, they have given up some number of alternative actions in order to perform that one. They’ve given up options. This means that out of all available avenues to take this is the one that they feel will achieve the appropriate goal. This is their priority for this turn. If we can then determine what other options were given up in order to achieve that action, we then have insight into out opponent’s priorities (essentially, this is the way we’re going to determine their goals/intentions).

Case Studies

Alright, alright, enough with the technicalities; let’s explore this in action.

Your opponent turns their Dragon Hatchling sideways into your tapped-out board in an M14 Draft match. You announce that you have no blocks or responses and allow them to pump for presumably four damage due to their four Mountains.

"Pump once. Pump Twice. Pump three times. Take three."

You stop writing on your life pad, as you’d already deducted four points from your life total. You look at the board, look at his side to confirm he has one more Mountain, and adjust your life total.

Let’s take a look at the actions they’ve taken in the context of total options:

Action Taken: Passing the turn with one Mountain untapped.

Option#1 Given Up: Activating Dragon Hatchling for one additional damage.

Option#2 Given Up: Potentially casting something in hand that costs one red mana.

Our opponent has some priority that outweighs one damage (or possibly casting a one-drop). We can quickly think through these possibilities:

Possibility#1: They have an instant-speed removal spell (Shock).

Possibility#2: They have an instant-speed trick (Smelt).

Possibility#3: They’re bluffing an instant-speed removal/trick.

Possibility#4: They forgot to activate Dragon Hatchling.

Obviously this list changes with context. If it’s game 1, we can essentially eliminate #2 as Smelt isn’t something that is maindecked in a format with the limited amount of artifacts available. Since our opponent attacked and pumped thrice before leaving one mana untapped, we can eliminate #4 as well.

We must now determine which of the other options is 1) more likely and 2) more relevant. Even if option 1 is the most likely, if your attacks that turn would be the same regardless of the presence of Shock, then there’s no reason to waste time considering it. However, if we deem that option 3 is the most likely but we lose the game based on the presence of Shock if we attack incorrectly, then relevancy will likely take precedence over probability. We don’t actually go through these calculations consciously, but this is the decision process we go through even for something as minor as a Mountain left untapped.

Now, context is incredibly relevant when considering both options given up and possibilities. The way we determine context is by the same perceptual monitoring that is part of the core structure of goal/plan recognition. Since we’re constantly perceiving the game state, we’re able to determine context "on the fly."

For example, let’s say that we’re actually in game 2 and game 1 was a long, drawn-out affair that you won by grinding out your opponent using Trading Post. You have that Trading Post in play during your opponent’s turn when they pump their Hatchling. Your opponent passes, and on their end step you have to decide how to use Trading Post. Now the context has completely changed. The possibility of Smelt rises drastically, while the possibility for Shock remains relatively the same (I can’t imagine someone boarding out Shock in M14 Limited); the extra percentage points for Smelt are then taken from the "bluff" and "forgot" possibilities since now it’s more likely they actually have something.

When considering the "bluff" option, one has to consider what the implication is that they’d be bluffing. In other words, their priority over everything else is to get you to believe that they have a Shock if they’re bluffing. Why? If we’re an Ajani’s Chosen / Blightcaster deck with Dark Favor and have two 2/2s and our opponent’s at seven life, it makes more sense that this is the case. The possibility of the bluff rises, but remember that this doesn’t drop the possibility of them actually having the Shock. If the two options are roughly equal (i.e., the probability is the same), the determining factor is going to be the relevancy. If our opponent has the Shock, do we lose if we "go for it?" Does it just delay the inevitable? Is the tempo and card advantage loss going to not even matter because of your follow-up play?

All of this because of the one Mountain left untapped.

Let’s look at an example from Legacy.

Round 10 of the Legacy Open in Somerset, NJ pitted Chi Hoi Yim against Jonathan Kurpaski. Kurpaski is playing Death and Taxes against Esper Deathblade. I’m going to focus on the game from the point of view of the Death and Taxes side of the table.

Quick Note: I didn’t watch this game live, nor did I see the replay before I wrote this piece. I’m avoiding looking at Chi Hoi Yim hand since it causes hindsight bias and I find that to be dishonest when trying to do this.

On our first turn, we play a Flagstones of Trokair. Right away, since our opponent presumably knows Legacy, they know we’re playing Death and Taxes of some variety. They know we play Aether Vial. They know we didn’t cast Aether Vial (even though we kept our seven-card hand). They know we play Mother of Runes; they know we didn’t cast it. This tells our opponent that our hand is probably stocked with good two- and three-mana cards, a removal spell or two, and possibly Wasteland / Rishadan Port. Look at how much information we just gave away simply by playing a turn 1 Flagstones and passing.

Our opponent takes their first turn. Verdant Catacombs, activate, find Underground Sea. Before they even cast a card, we know that they’re playing blue; this tells us to be wary of Force of Will right off the bat (and to a much lesser extent Misdirection). We must also concern ourselves with Daze, though that is less of a concern with decks that play blue and black. The black tells us that they’re probably either Esper Deathblade (or Esper Stoneblade), Shardless BUG, Storm, or Reanimator.

What else does this land tell us?

Remember, we gave away our deck on turn 1. A deck that runs the full set of Wastelands. And yet they fetched out an Underground Sea. What could this tell us? My initial thought is that their hand is either land-heavy enough to withstand an early Wasteland or the color requirements in their hand are so great that they don’t have the option of fetching out a basic land. Some other options are a complete lack of basic lands or possibly Stifle for an upcoming Wasteland. Or they could just be hoping we don’t have it. Keep these things in mind.

The Thoughtseize that our opponent casts doesn’t reveal too much information beyond revealing that they’re probably not Storm, as Thoughtseize isn’t typically a card that deck maindecks. When we reveal, our hand contains:

Stoneforge Mystic
Umezawa’s Jitte
Serra Avenger
Serra Avenger
Phyrexian Revoker

Our opponent selects Stoneforge Mystic. What does this tell us?

Take a second to think about that. Come up with two or three pieces of information we could learn just from that selection before moving on beyond the picture of the kitten below.



Things this means or could possibly mean:

1. Our opponent doesn’t want us fetching Batterskull. The fact that Umezawa’s Jitte is in our hand and our opponent didn’t take it indicates that either 1) they can’t beat a Batterskull, 2) they don’t want us gaining card advantage, or 3) their hand is full of counterspells and they don’t want Stoneforge Mystic hitting the table and invalidating them (there are probably more indications here as well). Whatever the reason, it’s obvious they don’t want that Batterskull in hand because . . .

2. They probably don’t have another discard spell. If they did, they could just let us resolve Stoneforge Mystic and take the Batterskull the following turn, getting rid of it permanently.

3. Our opponent either has a way to deal with Jitte, doesn’t care about Jitte, or Batterskull is so far and away unbeatable that they have no option but to take the Stoneforge Mystic.

4. The last option is that they simply took what they believed to be the best card in that hand, which is also feasible.

So in just one turn, we’ve drilled down our opponent’s potential game plans from literally anything available in Legacy to a couple of deck possibilities and a rough outline of what their hand might contain. We have a list of possibilities due to our narrowing down of all possibilities based on our opponent’s actions. Future turns and plays will be weighed against our initial observations to determine which are the most likely; in other words, every single action our opponent is taking is revealing a little piece of their game plan, eliminating just a little bit more uncertainty as we decipher their plans, intentions, and even contents of their hand.

Turn 2:

Based on what we know so far and the contents of our hand, our options are casting Revoker, casting Jitte, or using Wasteland. Remember, our possibilities in terms of decks our opponent could be playing includes two combo decks and two control decks; as such, we don’t really know what to name with Revoker, and Jitte isn’t at its best (we can presume that based on the fact that our opponent let us keep it as well). We can either disrupt their mana with Wasteland or get Jitte on the board while they’re tapped out.

We Wasteland (which I agree with here; the coverage team said that they didn’t like Wastelanding against Deathblade, but as we can see at this point we had no "better" option and didn’t really know that our opponent was on Deathblade yet) and pass the turn.

Our opponent draws and plays a Flooded Strand. We now know they’re not Shardless BUG because of the availability of on-color fetches for any three-color combination, meaning Shardless BUG doesn’t need or use Flooded Strand. We can’t say for sure they’re not combo still, as those decks use various fetchlands, but we’re drilling it down quickly.

Our opponent fetches out another Underground Sea and casts Deathrite Shaman.

Again, this tells us more information.

1. Our opponent doesn’t care about Wasteland because they had/have more lands and they have Deathrite Shaman to make up for lost lands. I can reasonably expect that they have at least one more land in hand as well based on the fact that . . .

2. They’re playing Esper Deathblade (now we know for sure based on the presence of both Flooded Strand and Deathrite Shaman in addition to the Underground Sea) and that deck typically has a higher land count than other decks in Legacy.

3. They are aware of the presence of Revoker in our hand and are playing the Shaman regardless; this might not mean much other than the fact that they want to make better use of their mana, but it’s something to keep note of (again, since our opponent is very aware of our upcoming play). This could mean a counterspell or removal spell (countermagic is something to note because our opponent took the Stoneforge Mystic, which would have invalidated the counterspell).

Let’s take stock of what we’ve learned in just the first two turns.

Our opponent is playing Esper Deathblade; this typically means having less nonbasics than usual but makes up for it with a slightly higher land count (this is important to note while playing a deck that cares about disrupting our opponent’s mana). They’ve walked into a Wasteland due to the presence of more lands and a Deathrite Shaman that they’re probably going to want to lean on. They care more about Batterskull than Jitte. They probably don’t have another discard spell in hand and also probably have at least one more land. The possibility still exists that their hand is full of countermagic as well due to the taking of Stoneforge, but this is less likely now that we know what they’re playing.

We could continue investigating the game, but I’m not here to break down an entire game; I’m simply pointing out the sheer amount of information we can gain by observing our opponent. Again, we’ve cast nothing and played two lands, and our opponent has played two lands and cast two spells. That’s it, and look what we’ve learned.

Now that we know what our opponent is playing, we know that their plans generally line up with the plans outlined for the control deck earlier in this article. They’re going to want to survive any pressure presented, counter/remove any spells they can’t deal with otherwise, and eventually stabilize and win. So far, they’ve disposed of one threat (Stoneforge) and are still hitting land drops. Since our plan is to disrupt and amass a board presence too difficult to deal with, we’re going to want to continue disrupting before they’re able to stabilize. If we can’t, we’re going to have a tough time winning. We’re going to have to sequence our plays accordingly (in other words, that Revoker is a great place to start if we can cast it the next turn).

(You can continue watching the rest of that game to see how it plays out.)

Let’s try that with Standard.

Same weekend Standard Open round 10 between William Jensen Elves deck and John Remeika’s R/G Aggro deck. I’m going to look at this from Remeika’s side of the table since this is a good demonstration of how to do this when we don’t know the deck our opponent is playing (remember, this is the first tournament where the Elves deck had a decent showing).

Our opponent wins the die roll. He plays a turn 1 Temple Garden untapped and cast Llanowar Elves Fyndhorn Elves Elvish Mystic. He kept his seven-card hand and played a turn 1 mana accelerant. What does this tell us?

First, since the accelerant is Elvish Mystic, it tells us that our opponent is likely not a three-color deck; if it was, they have better options in Arbor Elf and Avacyn’s Pilgrim (since the Temple Garden already revealed the presence of white mana). This isn’t a guarantee, but it’s something I’d keep in mind. Past that, a turn 1 accelerant in Standard isn’t telling us much yet, so right now we’re looking at an aggro-to-midrange creature-based G/W deck.

We draw, play a tapped Rootbound Crag, and pass the turn. This doesn’t reveal much to our opponent because a number of decks play Rootbound Crag.

Our opponent untaps, draws, and plays a Sunpetal Grove (yeah, this deck is probably just two colors). They then cast . . . Elvish Archdruid. Ok, we know that at this point Archdruid hasn’t seen play in tier 1 decks. However, we’re in round 10 of the Standard Open within reach of the Top 8, so this isn’t some janky deck. Also, our opponent is Huey Jensen.

So what does this tell us? Well, our opponent is playing a G/W Elves deck. Since there isn’t a critical mass of cheap, aggressive Elves to build around in Standard, this isn’t a deck that wants to swarm the board and attack. This is likely building towards something, and we should probably disrupt this mana if at all possible. The fact that we didn’t have our own turn 1 play has put us really far behind.

We can deduce that if our opponent is trying to fast ramp into something that they’re probably playing all of the one-mana accelerants and powerful stuff to ramp into. Typically, these decks are at their weakest if their mana dorks don’t live to cast the powerful spells in the deck, leaving them stranded in hand. While we don’t know the full contents of the deck, we do know that we’re in a ton of trouble if that Archdruid lives.

So we’ve deciphered:

Goal: To win.

Intention 1: Mana ramp.

Intention 2: Present a giant threat much earlier than normal that should win the game.

Our opponent is currently executing intention #1, and the plan is to play lands and mana creatures to progress that intention. The action is them casting Elvish Mystic into Elvish Archdruid. We want to prevent them from reaching intention #2 by stopping them within intention #1.

Again, my goal isn’t to break down the entire game, so I’m going to stop here. You’ll notice that with Standard since the format is much slower than Legacy that deciphering opponents’ plans, intentions, and tools is going to take longer than it does in Legacy. We can only use the information our opponent gives us, and in Standard information takes longer to be put out from our opponent.

If you want a great breakdown of an entire game from the viewpoint of focusing on a single game plan, check out [author name="AJ Sacher"]AJ Sacher’s[/author] Premium piece on a Gerry Thompson match that for some reason people claimed that Gerry played poorly. You can see in this breakdown that Gerry was focused solely on a plan and was giving out signals that his opponent could deduce and decipher to figure out that plan. (I’ll be honest, I don’t think Joe figured it out as much as he got slightly lucky to have the correct tools to deal with it once Gerry "went for it"; however, the plays such as "don’t Sphinx’s Revelation while you’re tapped out, wait until you untap to cast it" should have been a huge red flag!)

Also, there’s been a ton of reflection recently on articles from the past; I was reintroduced to an article that I’d forgotten about roughly halfway through writing this. It would be wrong of me to not mention The Basics of Playing the Game: Paranoia Is Good by Peter Jahn, as it looks into the same points as well.

I’m approaching five thousand words at this point, so I’m going to cut it off here. I know for a fact that I need to do more of this analysis within my own games of Magic since my mind tends to work too quickly and I typically just let it do its thing without stopping it and forcing to it process more than just what it’s used to. Next week I want to build on these lessons by looking into deception within games of Magic and across entire matches. Tune in next week for that!

Until then!

Michael Martin

@mikemartinlfs on Twitter

Mikemartinlfs (at) gmail (dot) com