Decoding Magic: Understanding Deception

This week Michael looks into a more drilled down and focused aspect of plan recognition in games of Magic: deception.

Happy Monday! Hopefully your weekend was nice; now you’re back at your office / desk / tablet / laptop and ready to continue building on what we learned last week when we covered plan recognition in Magic.

This week we’re going to look into a more drilled down and focused aspect of plan recognition and understanding of intentions and planning ahead: deception.

How do we recognize it?

How do we do it?

Is it even worth it?

A warning / public service announcement first though; this week’s article is mostly for players who already understand how to play fundamental, quality Magic and want to add additional dimensions and depth to their game. Before trying to incorporate the principles contained in this week’s article into your game—be it deception recognition or deception perpetuation—make sure that your understanding of the fundamentals of competitive Magic is sound. The first reason is that playing sound Magic will provide much more in terms of adding to your overall win percentage. Seriously, I can’t stress enough how much more important it is to understand Magic at a sound fundamental level before trying to assimilate anything in this article.

The second reason is that you actually need to understand how competent Magic players play and think in order to both identify how to deceive your opponent and how your opponent might be deceiving you. That’s a huge part of deception that often gets overlooked—you have to understand your adversary’s biases and tendencies before you can ever hope to deceive them. Any good deception preys on a person’s preconceived notions and biases and uses those against the player.

There are reasons for this; for instance, if you don’t know your opponent’s tendency when it comes to the "called bluff block" (or the attack into a superior creature to get in extra damage representing a trick of some sort in hand regardless of the actual presence of one), you’re going to look a bit foolish when you go for it against an opponent who 100% snap blocks every time. Also, against a less experienced player, they may not even understand that you’re presenting a trick and simply see you attacking your inferior creature into their superior blocker. If you knew your opponent’s tendency is to block, you’d not have tried such a bluff. Conversely, if you know your opponent is overly cautious and plays around every possible card, this is essentially free damage at no opportunity cost.

There’s a huge difference, and it all depends on an understanding of your opponent.

There are different levels of understanding at play here too. First, you have a general understanding of a competitive Magic player’s mindset when it comes to most situations. This again goes back to having an understanding of sound fundamental concepts; you can reasonably expect a competent opponent to react to a situation as any good player would. While you don’t know the player personally, gauging their abilities throughout the game and match will determine how competent they are, which will allow you to make educated guessed on how they’ll react to your moves.

Second, there are opponents you’ve played numerous times. These are your friends, fellow FNMers, and even regionally local competitive players if you frequent the PTQ circuit. This gives you extra depth of knowledge of their tendencies and how they react to specific situations. There isn’t a huge difference in how this affects your ability to perform some deceptions, but knowing exactly how your opponent thinks through constant repetition will open up new options in terms of deceiving your opponent.

Additionally, they’ll know your usual tendencies and habits, which again will open new avenues as well as they will "know" what certain actions of yours indicate and they’ll "know" how you’ll react to their actions. This will give you extra options over the course of the game, but keep in mind that your opponent will pick up on these deceptions eventually and the effectiveness will wear off somewhat.

Basically, if you know your opponent is competent, you can generally predict their actions and responses to certain actions you take.

The biggest part about deception is the realization of the risk vs. reward inherently associated. Basically, there is always risk / reward associated with deception; if there wasn’t, it would just be a sound play. There has to be risk involved with deception; therefore, it can be reasonably assumed that deception is, at its core, a calculation. "How much reward am I getting out of this if it works? How much risk is there that it doesn’t work? How big is the punishment if my deception is sniffed out? Is it worth the risk?"

Passive vs. Active Deception

At the base level, there are two different flavors of deception: active and passive. The biggest difference between the two is that active deception seeks to get the opponent to believe that something exists that isn’t really there while passive deception seeks to create ambiguity about the presence of something that is there. When people think about deception, they’re usually thinking about active deception, or where someone is trying to get someone to believe a story that isn’t true. However, passive deception is also important to know / recognize as it happens more often than active does.

Passive deception happens when someone looks to create confusion about what they’re up to / contents of their hand. They aim to feign confusion or consternation in order to lead their opponent to believing they either 1) don’t have a specific card / type of card or 2) weren’t expecting something that they were expecting all along. An example of this is:

Granted, the "I didn’t know my life total" ploy is a bit on the shady side, but this demonstrates what I’m talking about in regards to passive deception. Terry Soh feigned ignorance of his knowledge of the game state to deceive Frank Karsten. To break this down further:

1. Terry had to know that his opponent was going to be wary of a trick based on the current game state.

2. Terry feigned ignorance of his life total to convince Frank that his plays were made with the knowledge that they weren’t going to cost him the game and that he didn’t need a trick because the crack back attack wasn’t going to be lethal.

3. This caused Frank to assume that Terry didn’t have the trick because, in Terry’s mind, he didn’t need it to live through the turn. If Terry was at nine, Terry wouldn’t have died to the incoming attack; since Terry convinced Frank that he thought this was the case, Frank deduced that it was more likely that Terry just didn’t have a trick.

You’ll see that the deception wasn’t active; he wasn’t trying to convince Frank that something was there that wasn’t. He was simply trying to create ambiguity in regards to Frank’s understanding of the game state. He knew that Frank was a competent player (obviously, given the stakes of the game and Frank’s reputation) and knew the sequence of analysis that Frank would put into the decision. While, again, I think feigning ignorance about one’s life total is a bit shady, Terry was able to walk Frank directly through the decision making tree that would lead him to the decision Terry wanted him to come to. This was only possible because Frank was a great player who would make decisions accordingly.

Another example is something that occurred to me at a PTQ during the reign of Stoneforge Mystic and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. I was playing against Ben Friedman (who was rocking Esper Stoneblade) with my RUG Deceiver Twin deck with Fauna Shaman. I can’t remember the exact sequence of events, but I do know that I searched up a Deceiver Exarch with Fauna Shaman in response to a removal spell on the Shaman. I had the Splinter Twin in hand as well.

At this point, I was about 50/50 to just go for it the next turn. I know if I get it, I take the match (this was game 2); I also know that even if I don’t get it, I still have the rest of this game and another game to recover and take down the match.

After I got Exarch and the Shaman died, Ben seemingly went into the tank. He then passed the turn, and I cast the Exarch to tap down one of his three remaining lands. Again, he went into the tank, looking incredibly unhappy about his options. He looks as if he wanted to counter the spell, presenting Mana Leak. He let the spell resolve and allowed me to take my turn, again looking like his cards smelled like rotten eggs.

Now, I’ve seen acting before, and I know not to trust my opponents; however, I was already 50/50 to go for it. I had the seventh mana source in hand to play around Mana Leak, which is what I put him on if he wasn’t Hollywooding. The ambiguity Ben created pushed the decision ever so slightly into the "go for it" side; of course, he had Go for the Throat the whole time. I played it off as if I hadn’t been gotten, but I knew I’d fallen for exactly what he was trying to convince me of. I was embarrassed (even typing this I feel embarrassed, to be honest), and I’m sure that me beating myself up the rest of the match ended up costing me as I got grinded out in three games.

You see, Ben wasn’t trying to convince me of a story; he was just trying to get me to doubt my own knowledge of the game state. This type of deception happens all the time—people try to hide information all the time. However, if you take that a bit further, understanding your opponent’s reading of the game state, you can create enough ambiguity in their thought processes so that they play into your hands. As cliche as it is to do when discussing deception, I’ll quote Sun Tzu on this one:

"Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him." – Sun Tzu

Much less cliche is quoting "The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making" by Scott Plous:

"When people have enough experience with a particular situation, they often see what they expect to see . . . "

When a solid Magic player has a ton of experience in a situation, they’re going to see things as they expect to see them; if you change the equation even slightly, you’re creating that ambiguity that can often work to your benefit. There’s not much risk involved here, as the worst that can happen if you get found out is that they decipher your intentions and make the play you were trying to get them to avoid. If you’re concerned about your opponents and their ability to passively deceive you, simply ask yourself if you’re seeing what you want to see instead of what’s really there. I saw what I wanted to see: the lack of a removal spell. I got what I deserved: a loss.

Mr. Plous puts this a bit more succinctly than I do:

" . . . before making an important judgment or decision, it often pays to pause and ask a few key questions: Am I motivated to see things a certain way? What expectations did I bring into the situation? Would I see things differently without these expectations and motives?"

I was motivated to see the lack of the Go for the Throat because the lack of which would cause me to win the game. Frank was motivated to see Terry’s ploy as legitimate because, again, it won him the game if he was right.

Active deception is a completely different animal though. With active deception, one wants their opponent to buy into a specific reality that doesn’t actually exist rather than simply confusing them.

There are many ways to do this, some more risky than others. Sometimes, though, you have no other option due to your insufficient draw in a particular game. The great thing is that if you’re able to skillfully execute an active deception, it’s the same thing as having virtual card advance!

What do I mean?

Let’s take a simple example. Everyone who’s played Standard in the past couple of years knows that four open mana, at least one of which is white, means that Restoration Angel is coming down. If, for instance, you put a Hallowed Fountain into play untapped as your fourth land, your opponent is very likely to believe that you have the Angel regardless of whether it’s actually there. Your opponent is now playing around a card you don’t actually have while you still have the full contents of your hand to leverage; you’ve essentially just drawn an extra card. The risk is obvious (the two life that you didn’t need to spend could be the difference later on in the game if they don’t buy it), but the benefit could be greater. Even if it means that they don’t attack with a Flinthoof Boar, you’ve just saved yourself one life.

Let’s take a look at some types of active deception.


This bleeds over a bit into just sound play; distraction is getting an opponent to focus on a card or strategy to expend the resources it would have taken to answer a more powerful card or strategy. A small example of this is casting a "bait" spell, something powerful enough to warrant a counterspell that taps the opponent out only to cast a follow-up spell that’s much more of a problem.

This past week at FNM a situation occurred that could be classified as a small example of distraction. I was playing U/W Control against Bant Hexproof. My hand was especially heavy on counterspells and light on removal of any kind (this was game 1). I had the play, and I countered his turn 2 Invisible Stalker. Turn 3 my opponent cast a Gladecover Scout (of which I had no answer to); I Dissipated it, only to have him follow up with a backup Invisible Stalker. (My thought was that the deck doesn’t have many creatures to begin with and that his hand was probably stocked with auras that would have killed me regardless; it could have been a mistake though.)

This is commonly referred to as "baiting out the counterspell," but it extends a bit further than that. For instance, you could use a strategy that elicits a reaction from an opponent in order to give you the ability to slam a specific card that offers a completely different strategy but is going to win the game by itself. An example of this is Jund against U/W/R Flash; Jund can drop a turn 3 Huntmaster of the Fells that is going to require the opponent to do something on their turn, giving Jund the ability to slam Garruk, Primal Hunter.

Huntmaster was threatening to end the game relatively quickly by dealing the full twenty points in three turns. The U/W/R Flash player made a play to keep that from happening (even killing the Huntmaster); in turn, the Jund player plays a card that will also win the game but in a completely different way. This is a great example of getting the opponent to focus on one aspect or strategy so you can follow it with a more powerful threat.

Now, there’s really no deception involved in curving from Huntmaster on 3 into Garruk on 4, but it demonstrates the point of how presenting an aggressive clock can cause a reaction from the opponent that gives you an opening to resolve a bigger spell. Another example from years past is Matt Costa GP Baltimore-winning Delver list with Jace, Memory Adept in the sideboard. Everyone knew what Delver would present: cheap threats backed by cheap spells meant to prevent interaction from the opponent. Or it could just drop Geist of Saint Traft. The deck won by turning all of its cheap interaction into essentially Mending Touches and burn spells by clearing out blockers and keeping the opponent off kilter.

Control decks (read: U/B Control) in those days had quite a bit to worry about from Delver; even if they stopped the Delver plan, they still had the hexproof plan to deal with (Invisible Stalker, Geist of Saint Traft). They had to have specific answers at the right time. Costa could play the game out as normal, presenting hard-to-answer threats, and if by chance U/B could deal with those, they would be unprepared or caught off-guard when Costa dropped Jace, Memory Adept. Again, Jace did nothing to help the initial strategy but would win the game all by itself. Once Jace became a known commodity after GP Baltimore, the effectiveness of this "ruse" dropped, but for that tournament it was solid.

It’s difficult to see these types of things coming unless you recognize that your opponent is trying to attack a specific resource of yours. Last week I touched on the matchup between Gerry Thompson and Joe Bass (U/W/R Flash vs. Esper Control) as covered by [author name="AJ Sacher"]AJ Sacher[/author].

In this, GerryT was presenting the threat of card advantage in the control mirror through his Sphinx’s Revelations in order to get Joe to expend his counterspells while playing out extra copies of Boros Reckoner to try to get Joe to expend his removal. Gerry was presenting that his plan was simply to play his efficient creatures and back them up by casting Sphinx’s Revelations; Joe was countering those spells and removing the creatures, just as Gerry was trying to get him to do. Gerry was trying to distract Joe from his true intention, which was to resolve a Boros Reckoner and target it with Harvest Pyre. Instead of being aggressive to force his opponent into expending resources, Gerry was presenting what is usually a must-counter spell (Sphinx’s Revelation) in order to expend Joe’s options.

Pay attention to how your opponent is playing into your spells. If it seems like you have all the answers at the right time, think about whether they could be trying to distract you from a bigger threat. It’s incredibly difficult to do, but the benefit is that once you identify what they’re really up to, you can focus everything towards stopping that and ignoring whatever else it is they’re doing. Even though I can’t find it now, I remember GerryT talking to Travis Woo about a match online; Travis bemoaned the match, only to have Gerry state "your deck was basically Borborygmos Enraged and air," meaning all Gerry had to do was stop Borborygmos from hitting the battlefield and the rest of the cards were irrelevant.

Analytical Leaping

This is the deception type that works best against good / great players. In fact, I’d argue that this actually doesn’t work against less experienced players, so you need to make sure you know that your opponent will follow the line of thought you think they will. Let me explain:

Normally, information processing is a matter of "information received; information processed: conclusion reached." You tell your opponent that you’re dead to a removal spell; they process that and conclude that having a removal spell wins the game. Pretty cut and dry, right?

Well, if we’re playing a U/W/R Flash deck, the context has changed. No longer is it as simple as hearing a piece of information and processing it at face value; now there’s a bit of a logical leap involved. Now, usually we don’t just say "I am dead to a removal spell" to our opponents even when deceiving them. However, let’s say that we’ve put on this elaborate ploy where we go into the tank, head in hands and everything, muttering to ourselves. Let’s say that, in the course of this mumbling, we make sure that it’s audible when we say "but if he has the Putrefy I’m dead" or something close to that before attacking / blocking (whatever the case may be).

Now our opponent is left to process this; it’s just "remove the creature, win the game" if they process that and take it at face value. However, the opponent isn’t a robot and must consider if you have the counterspell or any other trick. This is where your deception comes in; you’ve given them a piece of information that causes them to perform a specific sequence of analysis that tells them exactly what you want them to believe: that you have no counterspell.

It may not even be important for this particular situation; you may need that counterspell for the Garruk, Primal Hunter in their hand but are short on lands, meaning that holding up for Dissipate is constricting your options to progress your own game plan. The removal spell is irrelevant, but the story you’ve just convinced your opponent of (that you can’t stop a game winning spell if you wanted to) will come in handy when you’re ready.

This is what I refer to as causing the opponent to go analytically leaping. It’s incredibly effective (if done right) against skillful players because you didn’t tell them to believe something—they told themselves. They did the thinking themselves; in their mind, you didn’t try to convince them that you didn’t have the counterspell, as that isn’t even what you were referring to. They came to that conclusion themselves because they’re a good player.

You were "concerned with a Putrefy"; even if they don’t have the removal spell, they’ve still thought through your statement and have convinced themselves that you can’t counter the Garruk, Primal Hunter. This will leave them tapped out and give you that opening to resolve a Jace, Memory Adept that they now have no way to pressure, whereas Garruk would have provided a steady stream of pressure and gas.

This only works against opponents who you know will perform logical reasoning and analysis. Against a less experienced, less tactical player, you can say all you want about the Putrefy; they won’t make the connection with the counterspell and will play as usual. "They have blue mana; I can’t cast this spell." You’ll be left holding up mana for that Garruk and unable to produce your own pressure or presence in the game.

Another example of this would be something as simple as not playing your fourth land in a U/W/x deck against a creature-based deck. Less experienced players would smell blood in the water and try to win before you reach your fourth land, detecting a weakness (lack of lands). The analytical leap would be an opponent sniffing out that you have a Supreme Verdict (because you kept your seven-card hand against their deck that was known to you) even if you don’t have one. The risk here is obvious; if they still go for it, you’re now facing down a large board presence of which you have no answer and you cost yourself a land drop against a deck putting pressure on you.

However, if your ruse caused your opponent to convince themselves that you have a Verdict they need to play around, you’ve saved yourself some damage and pressure and have given yourself time to draw into an answer for the threats they’re presenting.

The bluff attack fits in here as well; by attacking with an inferior creature, you’re giving your opponent a bit of information. They then convince themselves that you have a trick. Otherwise, why would you attack? This is why this doesn’t work as well against less experienced players—they won’t consider the possibility of a trick and will just see a beneficial combat if they block.


I’ll repeat what I said at the beginning. Sound knowledge of Magic fundamentals is vastly more important than any type of deception you could possibly portray; even if you do passively deceive your opponent and confuse them about the board state, if you aren’t able to play sound Magic to take advantage of that artificial "fog of war," then you’ve just wasted time and possibly resources. Sound fundamentals is around 95% of the equation. Deception is just something to give extra percentage points at the risk of getting caught (and burned) by good opponents.

Now, don’t mistake what I said; I’m not suggesting you flat out lie or mischaracterize the game state. I’m not suggesting cheating. I’m simply talking about ways to convince the opponent of something you want them to believe or ways to get the opponent to doubt what they already believe. You’re not going to win entire tournaments based solely on your ability to perform good deception, but it will give you extra points here and there against sound opponents.

There’s no such thing as a perfect deception either; there will always be signatures that you’re deceiving your opponent. If you’re good, though, you’ll know how to minimize these signatures or possibly even use them to your advantage.

Keep these principles in mind during your next tournament. When you find yourself in a tight match against a sound player, see if you can start incorporating a bit of deception into your repertoire. Base the deception on the understanding that the player will respond to your actions as a competent player would and have a plan in place when they react accordingly. Again, Sun Tzu gives great advice:

"Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate." –Sun Tzu

This weekend I’ll be heading out to the StarCityGames.com Open Series in Baltimore to play some Standard and Legacy; if you see me there, come up, say hi! I always love talking to people willing to make it to the end of these articles!

Michael Martin

@mikemartinlfs on Twitter

Mikemartinlfs (at) gmail (dot) com