Deep Analysis – One Game

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We all know that Magic is packed with intangible, incremental gains and losses. Players show their true colors time and again, bluffing and counter-bluffing all the while, attempting to throw their opponent off their game. By highlighting the true level of complexity that is found in one single game, Richard shows us how we can charge those tiny credits to our accounts. This is one of the best articles I’ve read for a while… an instant classic. Enjoy!

At GP: Columbus I was 8-0-1 coming into Day 2 and paired against Paul Cheon. I knew who he was, and he knew who I was, and we started off with some light banter before shuffling up, getting our game faces on, and starting to battle. As we went through our sideboarding motions after game 1, Paul cocked his head to the side and wondered aloud, “What’s the creature type on Deranged Hermit? Elf, right?” He called a judge over to verify this, then continued sideboarding. Now expecting Engineered Plague, I added in my enchantment removal and shuffled up for game 2.

Paul Cheon did not even play Engineered Plague at that tournament.

There are all sorts of little edges you can gain in Magic beyond the confines of the tabletop. Mike Turian apparently once said that you could disqualify yourself from having played a “perfect” game of Magic by so much as blinking at the wrong time; like it or not, the way you act as you play influences your ability to succeed. If you’re bad at it, then you have “tells” that give the opponent bonus information about what’s in your hand, what you’re planning, and what you do and do not realize about the game state. If you’re good at it, though, you can convince your undefeated Day 2 opponent at a Grand Prix to side in his enchantment removal for an enchantment that doesn’t exist.

Today I’m going to walk you through one game. One game, at a theoretical PTQ, where I pause at every step of the way, and think about all the different ways I might accidentally give myself away, throw the opponent off, or figure out what he’s up to based on the way we are acting. I will doubtless miss a good many of these interactions, but hope to illuminate quite a few for those who are not in the habit of thinking about them. After all, there’s a lot more to a game than the cardboard interactions.

The Setup

In this scenario, I’m neither a writer nor a “name” player – I’m just a PTQer who travels to tournaments a lot but only Top 8s every once in awhile. I’m not really known outside my hometown, and have never played at a Pro Tour.

I have brought Guillaume Wafo-Tapa Mono-Blue Control from the Top 8 of GP: Krakow to a PTQ. It is the third round, and I am 2-0. My opponent is Rob Jones, a fictitious player whom I recognize as a frequent PTQ Top 8er. I don’t know Rob personally, nor have I ever played against him, but I do know that he will play any kind of deck; I cannot count on him to play combo, control, beatdown, or anything else. Note that knowing a player has a predisposition for a certain type of deck (for example, if I ever sit down across from Wafo-Tapa himself, there’s an absurdly good chance that I’ll be boarding in my Boils for game 2) is about the only way you can make a guess as to the his deck choice before the first turn of the game. Trying to draw conclusions from things like the large Blue mana symbol on his deck box or the color of his sleeves is generally foolish – for all you know, it’s his friend’s deck box, or he bought it because he wants everyone to think he’s playing Blue, or he likes to play Blue at FNM but hates it at higher-profile tournaments, or he put those bright red sleeves on a U/B control deck…really, these aren’t tells so much as misinformation.

So Rob and I sit down. It’s time for the first play of the game. What do I do here?

Do I speak up? Ask Rob where he’s from, how long of a drive it was to get here? Do I keep quiet?

Some people will use the pre-game banter as a way to try and put the opponent off his game…but Mike Long-style tactics are a can of worms I don’t care to open up here. Really, the reason I bring up the pre-game banter is that how I act in the pre-game will be the baseline my opponent uses to read my tells later on.

If I’m very happy and chatty, keep my opening hand immediately with a smile on my face, and then get progressively less and less chatty after each draw step beyond the first two, my opponent can infer that my draws have been crap. That’s not good.

On the other hand, being chatty early on can make my bluffs more successful later in the game. If my opponent reads me for a laid-back, happy-go-lucky kind of guy, then later on when I’ve been sweating his impending Greater Gargadon and I topdeck a land – but make sure my eyes light up with excitement in the same way they have when I had legitimate good fortune at other points in the match – he may not go all-in on it and kill me, believing I have topdecked the Slaughter Pact that will blow him out if he goes for it. It’s a lot tougher to pull that kind of stunt when I’ve been quiet and unemotional from the start. If I’ve been Somber Emo Kid the whole match, when I draw that land and suddenly become visibly animated, it’s going to be pretty obvious that I’m in a last-ditch bluff situation.

Both because I’m a naturally chatty guy, and because Rob is a solid PTQ player but not a Pro (who tend to be more practiced at reading bluffs), I’ll run the chats. I ask him where he’s from, how long the drive was, and so on. He seems vaguely disinterested.

In chatting with him as we shuffle, do I mention I recognize him as a top PTQ player?

This is an important point, because mentioning it gives him a hint as to what kind of player I am. Whenever a PTQ opponent I (Richard Feldman, the writer) do not recognize tells me he reads my articles, I immediately learn some important information about him. For one, I know that he reads StarCityGames Premium – meaning he is abreast of the top tier of publicly-available Magic information. (I’m not just being boastful there, either – it’s the plain truth.) That means that once I learn what deck he is playing, I can guess that the level of technology in it will be relatively modern. If Star City writers have unanimously rejected Willbender in Pickles maindecks, for example, I can more reasonably expect my opponent’s morph in game 1 to be either Brine Elemental or Vesuvan Shapeshifter, and nothing else.

Likewise, if I (not Richard anymore, but rather the PTQ player starring in this article) mention to Rob that I recognize him, he will know that I am a traveler who PTQs enough to stay abreast of who Top 8s a lot. He can infer from that that I know a fair bit about the latest technology, so really, I’d rather he think me some donk who has made it to 2-0 by getting lucky. I’ll keep quiet for now, and maybe chat more with him about his PTQ successes after the match.

The Opening Hand

We roll the die, and I win it. I draw my seven cards; Rob waits for me to finish mulliganing before looking at his.

My opening hand is Remove Soul, Venser, Cryptic Command, Ancestral Vision, Faerie Trickery, another Trickery, and another Cryptic Command. Zero lands.

What’s the play?

“Mulligan, derf.”

Yeah, I’m going to mulligan this hand, but how should I act when I do it? Honestly, against this particular opponent, it’s not likely to matter. Some opponents will stay with subpar hands if you convince them you’ve kept a garbage six-card hand, on the logic that if your hand sucks, the only way they’ll lose to you is if they mulligan a lot. However, that bluff operates pretty much independently of how you act with your opening seven, so if you’re going to throw them away, you can pretty much throw them away right away without losing any kind of edge.

As Rob is almost certainly too experienced to fall for any of that opening-hand bluff nonsense, the only reason you would want to do some acting here would be to give him the impression that you’re bad at bluffing. Why would this be desirable? Say you deliberately go for a poor bluff here, like “Oh God, this hand’s so bad, you could beat it if you kept anything!” and Rob makes a mental note of the incident (while ignoring it completely in terms of mulligan decisions). Over the first couple turns of the game, your hand is revealed to be completely fine, and Rob can be even more sure that you were going for a greedy bluff earlier. Again, he makes a mental note.

Now say Rob’s got a Gargadon coming in twelve turns later, and you don’t have the answer. Having established that you are a greedy bluffer, sayings something like “Oh God, now you’re just going to sac everything to the Gargadon and destroy me” can send a signal to Rob that you are, once again, trying to lead him into doing the wrong thing. Assuming he reads it as another one of your boneheaded bluffs, he may think you do have the Slaughter Pact and are trying to get him to sacrifice all his permanents, causing him to hold off on the Gargadon and give you more time to topdeck an actual answer. You can hardly expect double-bluffs like this to work every time (and for the love, please don’t try them against rookies), but you really can influence Rob’s decision in your favor by inserting this misinformation.

At any rate, I mulligan.

My six-card hand is Urza’s Factory, Think Twice, Teferi, and three Snow-Covered Islands.

I’d have to be pretty greedy to think I can get a five-card hand that’s better than this, but my opponent doesn’t know that yet. I can sit here and ponder the hand, maybe frown or squint at it a bit as though I’m considering going to five… but in this situation, that could easily backfire. Sending a message that my hand is deficient in some way is not going to give my opponent misinformation when it actually is deficient. This hand does not do much in the early game, and the last thing I want to do is to encourage my opponent to value hands more highly that can quickly capitalize on a weak draw on my part.

On the other hand, he doesn’t really know how my hand is deficient. For all he knows, I am bursting with Rune Snags but lack a third land. If I knock on my deck after keeping, I will definitely be sending a signal of mana screw; nobody really prays for a topdeck on the first turn of the game unless it’s a land. This might cause him to lead with a “bait” spell instead of his best turn 2 play, as I will have Rune Snag mana open – even though all I will be able to do with it is Think Twice. Once again, though, if he sees through this, he will make a mental note that I am a greedy bluffer for the future.

I think I can get some value out of thinking for a bit and then keeping, so I do it. I even knock on my deck for good measure.

Rob mulligans quickly and keeps his six-card hand quickly.

The Early Game

I play my Island and pass. Even though most of them are lands, I make a point of flicking through the cards in my hand while looking at them, as though working out all the different plays I can make with the huge payload of spells (ahem) I have to work with here. However, I do glance at Rob’s hand as he goes to draw his card for the turn. You never know when someone will try to pull extra cards on you.

Rob draws, plays Treetop Village, and passes.

Treetop Village is a pretty ambiguous first-turn play. A number of different archetypes run it, so I haven’t really gotten any new information yet.

I draw another Island and play Urza’s Factory. Why Factory instead of one of the three Islands in my hand? A lot of players will maximize their colored mana sources when they can, and will hold things like Urza’s Factory until the later turns (if for no other reason than to withhold information from the opponent) unless it’s the only land they can play. I’m really, really trying to convince him I have a Rune Snag here.

Rob draws and plays Yavimaya Coast plus Wall of Roots.

Here, I stop to think. Remember, I am playing the part of a mana-light player holding Rune Snag here, so I have to act as though I might counter the Wall of Roots. Under most circumstances, I’d just let it through without a second thought… but remember, I’m theoretically manascrewed here. If my hand really depends on Rune Snags catching his permanents, and I don’t have enough lands to cast multiple Snags in one turn, the mana he gets from Wall of Roots could cause some real problems for me. Still, I don’t want to think about it for too long, so I give him the thumbs-up and say “sure,” after only a second or two.

Now I’ve narrowed down his archetype a bit. Most likely he is with either the U/G Faeries deck that made Top 8 at GP: Krakow, or he has a vaguely old-school Scryb & Force variant. At any rate, given my knowledge of his performances, I can safely assume it is not just a silly pet deck that made it through the first two rounds on luck alone.

I cast Think Twice on his end step, and plan to relax my shoulders a bit no matter what I draw. As I know I’m going to make my next land drop, I want to make it look like I’ve topdecked my third land here, in order to perpetuate the myth that I’m holding action. The card I draw off Think Twice is yet another Island.

My draw for the turn is Cryptic Command. I play the Island and again stop to think, telegraphing that I am holding both Phyrexian Ironfoot and countermagic, and am debating whether or not I should play the 3/4. I “decide not to,” and pass the turn.

At this point you might be thinking to yourself that I am doing an awful lot of work for not much gain. However, when the alternative is being lazy and getting no gain, you get even less out of hand-waving away these tactics than you do from at least trying them out. If nothing else, you’ll get a better idea for when your opponents are trying to bluff you, and can use that to your advantage even if you ultimately decide that Jedi Mind Tricks are not for you. Really, though, how many matches do you think Paul Cheon turned around on the way to his victory in Krakow on the back of minor bluffs like these?

Back to the game. Rob draws, plays Yavimaya Coast, and passes.

The fact that he neither played a creature nor activated Treetop Village tells me that Rob is holding an instant or a creature with Flash that costs more than two mana (he could have activated Village off Wall of Roots, attacked, and then cast Rune Snag on my turn using the Wall a second time). I’m probably looking at either Venser or a Faerie of some sort, plus a potential Rune Snag.

So, do I flash back Think Twice on his end step? Sure. At worst, I run into Rune Snag, Faerie Trickery or Venser, but having him blow any of those cards on a mere flashed-back Think Twice is not nearly as bad as what they could do to my Teferi or Cryptic Command later.

I flash the Think Twice and draw Pact of Negation. While we’re still on his end step, he taps his three lands to summon Pestermite and untap a Yavimaya Coast. The fact that he declined to use the Wall to cast it (in order to have GGU open on my turn instead of GU) indicates that he has no further three-mana Flash or Instant spells in his hand. That’s very handy information to have; now I know he doesn’t have Scion of Oona, Psionic Blast, or another Pestermite.

I draw another Island and play it. I now have Cryptic Command mana up, but no particularly exciting targets. I pass back.

Rob draws, plays Forest, and activates Treetop Village without hesitation. He has Yavimaya Coast and Wall of Roots open, so if I go to Command him and tap down his attackers, there’s a good chance I will lose the Command to Rune Snag.

However, is that acceptable? Next turn I have Teferi with Pact of Negation backup. Teferi will eat his Village if he attacks with it again, and the Pact will defend against one piece of countermagic. I don’t know how much countermagic Rob is holding, but it would be a lot worse to lose Teferi to a second Rune Snag than Cryptic Command right now.

However, a closer look at Rob’s mana situation reveals that this is not a real concern. He has exactly enough mana this turn to beat with Treetop Village and keep Rune Snag mana open, meaning next turn he won’t have enough to repeat this sequence and have mana open for two Rune Snags. That means I can definitely play Teferi next turn, defend him with Pact of Negation, and keep my Cryptic Command in hand to bounce whatever he resolves using the turn I give him by tapping out to pay for Pact in my upkeep.

So I take five and make no play. Rob passes the turn, still as calm as ever.

The Midgame

I untap, draw Remove Soul, and play another Island. Here, I can perpetuate my earlier Ironfoot bluff; a 3/4 would be good here, and as I’ve been bluffing Rune Snag for quite awhile (and would have the mana to cast both), Ironfoot with Snag backup would make a lot of sense. However, I’m clearly going to play Teferi here, as I don’t actually have an Ironfoot. At this point, acting like I’m debating between playing Ironfoot and keeping mana open would be a mistake; since I’ll ultimately choose to keep mana open, I’ll be telegraphing Teferi more than ever by indicating that I’ve chosen a play I think will be better than summoning a 3/4 with Rune Snag backup.

Instead, I’ll just pass the turn quickly, abandoning my previous bluff.

Rob draws, thinks for a second (for the first time so far), and uses Wall of Roots to play Loxodon Warhammer with Treetop Village and Yavimaya Coast open. What happens if I let it resolve? Well, if he plays a land and equips it to the Pestermite, I’ll blow him out with Cryptic Command. If he doesn’t, though, then I’m in big trouble if he Rune Snags my Teferi. I can Pact back, but then I’ll be defenseless next turn when he has Treetop Village, Pestermite, and Warhammer to my Teferi. A 3/4 does not look so impressive when the opponent has a 6/4 Trample Spirit Link to battle it with.

In other words, I need to counter the Warhammer. I Cryptic Command it in Dismiss Mode, and he has the Rune Snag. I grudgingly Pact back, drawing Think Twice off the Command. He attacks me to 13 with the Pestermite, then plays Faerie Conclave.

I pay the upkeep on Pact, then draw another Island. With nothing to do, I pass back.

Rob draws, plays a Forest, animates both of his manlands, and attacks me to 6. Things are looking grim.

I untap, draw another Island, play it, and pass.

Rob draws, plays a Forest, animates his lands, and comes in with the team. Naturally, I play Teferi and eat the Treetop Village, falling to two from the aerial beats. I play Think Twice on his end step, drawing Faerie Trickery.

I untap and draw another Island. That’s not going to do it. The flashback on Think Twice reveals another Island, and I lose.

An Alternate Telling of This Game

“I got flooded.”

Magic is so simple!

See you next week,

Richard Feldman
Team :S
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