Innovations – How to Jedi: The Mental Edge in Magic

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Monday, February 25th – Gaining a mental edge while dueling is one of the forgotten arts of Magic. With so much emphasis placed on technical perfection, it is easy to overlook the power and potential of well-executed mind manipulation. In this fantastic article, Patrick shows us a few of the techniques he employs in order to beguile his unsuspecting opponents…

In fictional reality of Star Wars, the Jedi mind trick is a Force power. Jedi who know the power can, by using the Force, influence the actions of other “weak-minded” sentient beings.

Jedi typically perform this ability with a wave of the hand and a verbal suggestion (for example, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for”). If the trick is successful, the victim will reply by restating the suggestion (“These aren’t the droids we’re looking for”) and will immediately think or do whatever the Jedi suggested. The hand wave may not be required to use the power; in the films, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn both perform the wave first when using the trick, as does Luke Skywalker.

– Wikipedia on Jedi mind trick

Those aren't the cards you're looking for...
The Jedi Mind Trick is the Holy Grail of Magic’s mental side. Yes, the actual Holy Grail, as in there is absolutely nothing higher. This is that which is pursued, chased by so many, but captured and executed properly by so few.

Michael J. Flores has had much to say on the topic of how to get an edge in Magic. He comes from the same school of thought as I do regarding the idea that there is no great play (regarding technical play). There is just the right play and all the others.

Here’s an excerpt from Mike Flores on gaining an edge in Magic, from Introduction to Advantage: Three Ways to Get an Edge:

“The Actual Edges:

In my experience of Magic, there are only three possible avenues to get an edge:

1) Forcing Bad Play
2) Deck
3) Operational catch-all / Operations Management

Please note, again, that there are no “great” plays. There are no heroic plays that allow you to steal victory where a lesser player would have lost. No. Unless the opponent tosses the game in the graveyard himself, all your amazing plays are doing is propelling you towards your correct limit, where the player who is supposed to win actually does.

This is a somewhat unfortunate wording that tries a little too hard to express how technical play is a science, not an art, and there is a right answer. What it fails to convey, however is that there are great plays, at least in the sense that people watching you will tend to remember their greatness. The key to a “great play” is usually one of a couple of things.

1. A very complicated or difficult-to-conceive line of play. Of course this is subjective, but so is the word Great.

2. Choosing a seemingly worse play on the strength of obtained information. An example of this would be getting a read on your opponent and allowing the information obtained to influence your line of play. If you know your opponent has Profane Command in his hand, sometimes it is better to make a play that would normally be incorrect, if not for your “information.”

As a note: Flores has suggested that I not advocate PTQ players try to use information gained in this way, as the vast majority of PTQ players do not get reliable information, reliably. When you get a bad read on your opponent, it is usually worse than not reading at all, so if you are going to try to read your opponent, you should really go ahead and do it right. I will talk about how to do this better below. I am of the opinion that PTQ players should do this. How else are you going to learn if you don’t try?

3. Forcing Bad Play. This sort of Great Play is when you use the power of your mind to manipulate an opponent into engaging in a lesser line of play. Examples include leading your opponent to a false read, clouding your opponent’s mind, and tricking your opponent into thinking a substandard strategy is better than it is.

Choosing the deck you play is one of the greatest skill testers you face, but it is a subject that is covered extensively elsewhere and is not totally relevant to our discussion today.

One note, though, regarding deck choice and Jedi Mastery. When a Jedi chooses which deck they will bring to the fight, they take into account not just how the deck should do against the field, but also how it will actually do, taking into consideration the players involved.

For example, Dredge may have deck advantage versus the field as a whole. However, there is not much room to improve your percentages on the back of Great Play. Your percentages are already as good as they are going to get, so it is up to you to lose as few percentage points as possible to technical misplay.

I have used enough Next Level Blue examples for the season, so for a counter example, I suggest looking at Death Cloud. Death Cloud is an excellent example of a deck that has fine percentages against the field as a whole, but also allows for room to play. See, with Death Cloud you have more opportunities to do the three things listed above, to lead towards Great Plays.

Even Dredge has the potential of complicated and hard-to-see lines of play, so there is always that sort of great play, but Death Cloud also allows board positions where there are multiple ways to play a game that offer better percentages depending on what the opponent has. As such, if you can read your opponent, you can choose and play accordingly.

Forcing Bad Play is certainly possible with Dredge, as it is a very easy deck to play poorly against. However, your options are often constricted in this regard, as your opponent often has perfect information and your plays are typically scripted. Usually a Dredge player’s best bet is to cloud the mind of the opponent so as to block their ability to understand a situation.

Death Cloud, on the other hand, allows for more opportunities to mislead the opponent or get them to play less than optimally. This doesn’t mean Death Cloud is better. In fact, it is actually the opposite by default. The truth is, if you are rolling dice, Dredge might be the best in the format. However, if you are better than the people you are playing against, there are other choices that will actually give you higher EV.

Operations is a subject not covered nearly enough. I wish Tom LaPille, Richard Feldman, and Adrian Sullivan would each do a piece on how to improve your operations. They are all great teachers that could help provide a fresh look at this crucial aspect of Magic. As it has been, most of the operations work discussed as of late has come from Flores and Kyle Sanchez (a very enlightened speaker on the subject).

Operations includes things like shuffling the top of your library when you activate Sensei’s Divining Top so as to not allow the opponent to know the cards relative to how they were last turn. For more on Operations involved in Next Level Blue, look here.

While these following examples of tighter Operations are not Jedi Mind Tricks, it should be understood that a Jedi performs these actions properly. It is not great play to do so, it is merely wrong to not.

1. Do not play land as you draw them (not even mixing them into your hand), revealing to your opponent that your hand has not changed. This is not a hard and fast rule, just a generality.

Sometimes, it can actually be useful to mislead your opponent with this technique. For instance, if you may take a minute to decide whether or not to mulligan. Let’s say you have a keepable hand, but you are mana flooded. You may say something along the lines of “We’ll just have to get there.” Then knock on your library acting as if you need to draw something in order to be able to play.

Then when you draw a card, if it is a land that you can play this turn, assuming there is not a compelling reason to play another land, just slam it onto the table as though you it was the perfect card to draw this turn. Don’t even mix it into your hand. You have represented before your draw that your position is a certain way. This play could actually reinforce the idea in your opponent’s head that the position you represented is actually the one they are dealing with.

A good use of this technique is when playing against Pickles with a deck that is capable of making powerful plays, but can’t deal with creatures well… a combo deck, maybe. Let’s say you’re mana flooded and have some action for later, but don’t plan on making a play on turn 3. If you act as though your hand is insane, but you just need to draw land, then windmill a land into play from the top of your library, your opponent will be more likely not to tap out for a morph against you turn 3, despite it actually being safe for them to do so.

Their respect of your hand could lead them to want to hold open Rune Snag, etc. You typically don’t want them to know the actual strength of your hand, as it lets them plan accordingly.

That said, sometimes you want to let your opponent deduce information about your hand and have it turn out correct. For example, let’s say you know that your opponent isn’t going to be able to stop your hellbent Demonfire in two turns. You may want to count your mana and ask him what his life total is, suggesting that you have the Demonfire that you actually have. Then when you kill him with it two turns later, he will secretly think that he had a read on you. Then, in game 2 you may find yourself in a position where your opponent can try to go off next turn, but with a lower percentage of success, or wait a turn and go off for sure. You count your mana, again asking his life total (though this time you don’t actually have the Demonfire). Be subtle! If well executed, your opponent may think that they have a read on you and think that they have to go off next turn, even if it means only a 70% chance of success.

See, if they actually knew you didn’t have the Demonfire yet, it might be a better play to wait a turn and win for sure. However, if you can get them to value the misinformation enough to think that you have a Demonfire for sure, they may take a like a play that has a 30% chance of failing (or whatever). You will still probably lose this game, but a 30% chance of winning in certainly better than having one more turn and just hoping to draw the Demonfire.

See, it is play like this that starts to cross over from Operational Play to Jedi Mind Trick. In fact, many Jedi Mind Tricks are in reality just using Operational Play to cover up what you are actually doing, which is misleading or confusing the opponent. In fact, typically, a Jedi Mind Trick will involve choosing a lesser line of play, either from a strategic standpoint, or an Operational one, on the presumption that the advantage you will gain from this move on a mental level will be greater than the cost on the physical one.

2. Do not read spells you draw but not read lands. I see a lot of people will shuffle the cards they draw, but when they draw a land, they don’t spend much time reading it. They know its applications. However, the Profane Command they drew will invoke a different reaction. It is fine to read cards you draw. In fact you should, as you may see something you otherwise would have missed. The key is to disguise this activity by occasionally reading basic land, especially when you aren’t going to play it that turn.

Also, sometimes you should take a mental snapshot of what you drew and then think about it extensively while doing something else, such as looking at your opponent’s graveyard (better when you draw a Cryptic Command than when you draw a Tarmogoyf).

Everyone has run this to some degree, but take it a step further. For instance, when you have no cards in hand and you draw a land. Read it. Ask your opponent a question, such as “how many cards in your hand?” or “you’re only at 10?” Then move your eyes back to the text box of your land. Then take a moment to remember a birthday party you attended as a child. You may not realize what all you are doing, but your body will subtly behave in ways that are difficult to fake consciously, such as a gentle rolling back of the eyes up and to the left. Then your opponent will have new information to base their decisions on.

Information that is wrong.

3. Speaking of looking at the graveyard, don’t do it when and only when you draw a card that makes it relevant. That would be a tell, one of the original Magic tells. Instead, try to keep a good grip on the graveyard situation on a regular basis, checking every few turns, regardless.

Sometimes you will draw a Tarmogoyf and you won’t know how big it will be. This is okay, but if you are honestly not sure whether or not you will play it and it will depend on how big it will be, then you need to do a little work to obtain this information without letting your opponent know what you are doing. It is one thing to let your opponent know that you have a Tarmogoyf. It is much worse to reveal that you both have a Tarmogoyf and another play that may cause you to not want to play the Goyf, such as a Pernicious Deed.

So how do you get the information you need without letting your opponent know you are getting it or need it?

Misdirection. Some of my favorites include:

– Ask your opponent, “Do you have it?” Look them in the eye then look at the back of the cards in their hand then back into their eyes. Then look at their graveyard, pausing for a split second on a business card, such as Counterspell or Death Cloud. This will suggest that you are trying to obtain information about their hand, rather than the graveyard. Usually, people in this predicament will then focus so much energy on masking the contents of their hand, they will not focus on what information you may be gaining from other sources.

– Look at the life totals on your pad of paper. Then suddenly ask “Wait, you are on 16 or 14?” (When you know they are on 16). They will say 16, then look at their graveyard and pause for a split second on all their fetch lands.

– Ask “How many are you playing?” Then look at their graveyard and mumble a little, like “let’s see, you could also have…”

You get the idea. The point is, it is often very useful to say something pertaining to anything other than what you are doing to draw focus to that subject. Then whatever physical action you take, such as reviewing graveyards, seems to be in support of that subject.

There are countless other examples of Operations Management and clever plays you can use to exploit people thinking you are just managing your play, rather than forcing bad play from your opponent. Still, I only have so much room in this article, so I will move to a couple full blown Jedi Mind Tricks and humbly request my fellow writers to continue with the subject of Operations another day.

Now the good stuff. Jedi Mind Tricks. Force Manipulation. Using your sheer force of will to control your opponent’s mind.

First up, the “Long Kill.”

One of the greatest moves available to a Jedi is named after one of the greatest manipulators of the Force to ever carry a lightsaber, regardless of its color… Mike Long.
Favorite Magic Format - Emperor

I was playing CMU Academy in Pro Tour: Rome a decade ago and eventually was paired with an opponent armed with a Dreadnaught/Reanimate/Pandemonium deck fueled with 4 Lion’s Eye Diamonds and 4 Yawgmoth’s Wills.

The Academy deck I was piloting only had 2 Stroke of Geniuses (one for me and one for you, as Erik Lauer was fond of saying). Four Time Spirals ensured that this was plenty, as if times got tough, you could just reset things.

However, I had a peculiar game in which I cast Time Spiral twice on the first turn, but could not go off. I eventually had to pass to my opponent who tried to turn 1 kill me, but I had the Force of Will. Nice format.

So, I start Time Spiraling again and eventually Time Spiral two more times, still not able to find a Scroll Rack, a Vampiric Tutor, anything. Eventually, I Stroke myself to try to find my one Mind over Matter or a way to retrieve it. I succeed, but end up not having enough mana to kill my opponent until next turn. I have to pass.

He tries to kill me again, but I do not have a Force of Will. I know what I have to do. I do the only thing I can do, I Stroke myself as hard as I can with my last Stroke. I now have no roads to victory left short of concession. I need to find a Force of Will, and this is the only way.

I obtained a full grip and easily countered his Yawgmoth’s Will. Now it was my turn. I untapped. I played a Scroll Rack. I asked my opponent how many cards were in his library. After he counted, I added 66 mana to my mana pool. Next I cast Vampiric Tutor and just looked at my opponent. He looked at me, so I said “I am just going to Scroll Rack for it. You only have 50 cards left in your library, right?” With that he scooped up his cards and we went to the next game.

This is, of course, a move made famous my Long in Paris, 1997, with Pros-Bloom against Mark Justice.

Long story short (no pun intended), Mike only had one Drain Life in his deck and as he was in the process of going off, he eventually had to remove it from the game to Cadaverous Bloom in order to cast Infernal Contract. This didn’t faze Mike for a second. He knew he had to do it, and immediately knew that in order for him to win he would have to make Justice believe that Long had already won.

Long just went through the motions and did everything the way you do it when you are going to win. He was so convincing in his charade, Justice, one of the greatest players of that era, conceded, thinking that it was purely academic at this point.

A derivative of this play is to use the threat of it to obtain information from your opponent. For instance, let’s say that you have a Pyschatog that has just become lethal. Your opponent has no blockers, but cards in hand. You attack, but in order to kill your opponent, you would have to go “all in,” leaving yourself vulnerable to removal.

In that case, you may want to consider a line of play where you ask your opponent his life total. Then make a public show out of counting your hand and graveyard. When it adds up to enough, ask “so that’s game, right?” You would be amazed how many players will concede from that position.

It is usually too risky to go all in like that when they could have a Smother or something, but a concession is a sure thing. If they don’t concede, then you have gained information. A good player will not concede from that position as they will know that you can’t really afford to go all in, but if you are playing against someone of a weaker will, you may be able to deduce information about them when you ask them if that is game. If they appear to be trying to be clever and say something like, “so you are discarding all your cards?” This may be a tell that they have an answer.

Stop Painted Cardboard Horse Cruelty today!
Switching gears a minute, I would like to share a move I was discussing with Mike Jacob yesterday. Let’s say you are playing against a weak-willed Goblin player. You are, of course, on Next Level Blue, so you are not thrilled with this proposition, but fortunately you aren’t just Dredging, so there is room to play.

Your opening hand is Tarmogoyf, Trinket Mage, Vedalken Shackles, Island, Island, Flooded Strand, and Pithing Needle. This is a fine hand, although there a couple of ways to play it. See, the default play is to play a fetchland and retrieve a Breeding Pool, so as to save you 2 points of damage for your turn 2 Goyf.

That may be the right play much of the time, sure… however, there is another play. There is another way.

The Jedi would not be content to merely play the technically correct play. He would test the waters first, before ever playing a land. For instance things may go down like this:

The Jedi looks at his grip, Sees what he must do, and then stares into the eyes of the Goblin player. After 20 seconds or so the Goblin player may get uncomfortable. At the first sign of discomfort, or any emotion actually, the Next Level Master says something like “Why are you so easy to read? You are going to play turn 1 Wooded Foothills and pass.

The Goblin player may not be able to help his body’s involuntary reaction. If he has Wooded Foothills in his hand and no one-drop, he may glance down at his hand without realizing it. be careful. If the force is strong in your opponent, they may use this opportunity to mislead you.

However, if you have a sick read and suspect that your opponent actually has the Wooded Foothills in his hand, you may want to drop the Island and cast Pithing Needle, hoping to mana screw him.

Remember, in order for this technically sub-optimal play to be correct, you have to be sure enough that your opponent has a Wooded Foothills and that it will be relevant to risk it. The majority of players who try to execute such a play will fail. However, if you want to be a master, you have to be able to at least try such a move when you feel it is appropriate.

Another tactic I employ is to begin a conversation with my opponent regarding his deck. I talk about cards he has in his deck, like Rune Snag and Cryptic Command, and watch for any sort of body language that is trying to tell me anything. Then I play a spell that my opponent would surely counter if he could. Then if he counters it, the “tell” I witnessed is catalogued as evidence of strength, that he has permission. If he does not, the “tell” is categorized as a sign of weakness, that he doesn’t have permission. Then when I am deciding whether to lead with the best spell in my hand or the second best, I can try to continue the discussion with my opponent to try to illicit a reaction from his body. This information will help clue me in to the contents of my opponent’s hand.

This is one reason I prefer decks that cause games to go long. This means there will be more time for me to “learn” my opponent. Usually, by game 3 I will have learnt enough about my opponent’s tells that I will be able to Glasses of Urza them at will. The key is to cause an interaction that will cause the opponent to have to think about your words. It is not his words you are concerned with, however… it is his body language. Different mannerisms mean different things to everybody. However, if someone touches their nose, looks down, touches their ear, smiles, stutters, whatever, it may be in reaction to the thoughts that you are forcing them to process.

How do you fight this? If your will is far superior to the person trying to Force Manipulate you, then you can actually turn the whole thing around to your advantage, subtly suggesting misinformation.

However, your will isn’t going to dwarf everyone. Sometimes you will face another Master. Sometimes you will face someone on a higher level than you. How do you shield your mind from such attacks when you are out of your league regarding command of the Force?

If I were to suggest one technique that all aspiring Pros learn it is how to break rapport. If you suspect that you cannot out-will your opponent, and want the fight to be on the field of technical play rather than mind control, then it is vital to break rapport. You must not interact with your opponent the way he wants.

For instance, if he asks you questions about the game state, such as cards in your hand, life total, anything, do not get into the habit of answering. You must tell him the truth, but do not just answer “five,” etc. If your opponent has a command of the force greater than you, you may not even realize what they are really doing, but if you take small steps to cloud the interactions you can limit his ability to read you. For instance, when they ask you how many cards in your hand, ask how many lands they control before you answer.

Maybe you don’t answer out loud, you just show them the backs of your cards. Maybe you just say “Yes.” Maybe you say “just seven” (when you have seven). The important thing is to not “just” answer. It is so, so important to not get in the habit of doing what your opponent wants, even if it is just answer their question. If you make it easy for your opponent to obtain information from you about anything, it makes it easier for your opponent to obtain information from you about everything.

If your opponent tries to get a conversation going with you and you feel like they are out of your league with regards to their command of the Force, then ignore them, behave randomly, spout nonsense, act bizarrely, whatever… just don’t do what your opponent wants. If you are out of your league and facing a Jedi with a greater mastery than you and he asks you if you are having fun, ignore him. Don’t acknowledge him. Or say something that has nothing to do with what he said, such as “how many cards in your hand?”

This may seem rude, but if you are dealing with a Jedi Master, these are the sorts of techniques that you must be able to employ to shield yourself.

If he talks about a card that may or may not be in your hand, don’t answer him. Avoid conversation with a Jedi out of your league, at least while the match is still in progress. Anything you say can and will be used against you. The hope is to move the game more and more towards a technical struggle where you are both just playing cards. If you don’t interact with him, his powers are greatly limited.

They say you can’t con an honest man. Remember that when you are playing a Master. If you stop trying take advantage of your interactions and focus on negating them, you will limit your opponent’s ability to “con” you, as it were.

Do not trust this man
Remember, this last section is not so much how to play as a Master, but rather how to protect yourself when you are out of your league. It is fine to hold conversations while playing, and very useful when you having greater Force than your opponent, but you have to know your limits. There is nothing wrong with denying an opponent just about any and every attempt to interact with you outside of the game.

Don’t lie to your opponent about the game state or anything like that, and make sure they can find answers to questions like how many cards are in your hand. You have a duty keep public information public. That said, don’t do what your opponent wants. When you let him manipulate you, even if it is just answering a simple question, you give up more and more control over your will.

There is so much more that can and should be said on these subjects, and this is only a small taste of what is possible when you learn to Manipulate the Force. Still, this article is already double length, so I should go for now.

I would like to thank everyone who voted for me for Writer of the Year. It means a lot to me. I also want to congratulate Richard Feldman, Tom LaPille, Chris Romeo, Abe Sargent, and Sean McKeown. I am not sure how Evan Erwin and Mike Flores didn’t win awards, but everyone knows how much they contribute and we all greatly appreciate you two.

See you guys next week.

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”