Intuition And Face-Down Men, Or: Getting Back Into Magic For The Team Limited Season

Little did I realize that I was quitting Magic just in time to miss the Limited format that was most likely to favor my style of play, since my style of play could best be defined as intuitive (or at least that’s the best polite way of describing it). Starting with two unknowns presents a lot of options, and includes the element of gambling and daring to the game… Things which follow intuitive modes of thought rather than simple rationale. And since morph combat is going to be important, I’ll give you a spreadsheet of all the morph creatures and some thoughts on intuition.

It’s been some time since I have written a Magic article, strategy or otherwise, and there is an excellent reason for that: quitting tends to remove one’s informed opinions on the matter. The short version of that story would involve playing my first Pro Tour with Seth Burn and Kevin An as”Scarecrow,” followed by drifting away from the game for several months in favor of”real-world employment” and Vampire Live-Action Roleplaying. The White Wolf Camarilla Club is the MODO of roleplaying, and my interests in Magic disappeared right after I gave it one last try in an Extended qualifier with a mono-blue Merfolk deck of my own design… And conceded in the last round of a tournament I could very likely have won, so a teammate could make the Top Eight (and blow it, it turned out), then going down to the World Trade Center to storytell the LARP I co-run with my friend Neil Buchalter.

Somewhere along the way, I stopped being a Magic player, searching for the other parts of my life that I felt to be valuable. Under the theory of”another run at the Top Eight with my Fish deck is the most fun it’s ever going to be again,” I quit and hadn’t looked back until just recently… When Seth and Kevin decided to dig me up for the Pro Tour. And while I technically played Magic during Onslaught and caught the whole Tribal/Morph theme thing, with Scourge out and the complete Onslaught block available for the Team Limited season, it’s time for me to learn this all over again. All of which has led me to this article, talking about the various aspects of morph and how to solve the puzzle of what lies beneath that 2/2 for 3.

There are two approaches to this puzzle, and both of them require access to complete knowledge of what the potential options are. For that reason, and my own benefit as someone trying too late to grab a hold of this, I have assembled a very simple Excel spreadsheet of what can be morphed for how much mana in each color. Considering the approaches are based on perfect knowledge either way, it’s good to have on-hand a simple cheat sheet of all the options, especially since even experienced players can find themselves forgetting an option and wishing they hadn’t later. Starting with this perfect knowledge of morphs, we have the two methods of decision-making: Intellectual thought (via risk/benefit analysis) and intuitive thought (guesswork and decision-making based on outside information). Limited is a tricky format for Risk/Benefit analysis, even when you know all of the options, because of the rarity issues: You will be wanting to discount options like Blistering Firecat and Soul Collector when you make your decisions unless you know your opponent has them already, or you will compensate for these unlikely possibilities and perhaps give too much ground when you should be fighting for tempo and attempting to trade morphs.

While Booster Draft and Rochester Draft go a very long way towards solving this problem, especially when you can remember the specifics of what you saw going around, Team Sealed Deck provides a large card-pool of unknown information… Instead of one Onslaught rare, your opponent has access to six, and that desire to work the unlikely but not impossible into your decisions will continue to make calculated answers a painful task. Instead, I’ve come to find an intuitive approach to morph-guessing to be the most useful, since all things are possible but you have more information at your disposal than just”It is turn 4, he is attacking with his morph into my fresh morph with RRGG at his disposal – should I block?”

After all, there are key pieces of information that are not in that equation:

1. What is my opponents’ demeanor telling me about his attacking creature?

2. What is my opponents’ path to victory in this game?

3. How is my opponent trying to shape the game to work in his favor?

Little did I realize that I was quitting Magic just in time to miss the Limited format that was most likely to favor my style of play, since my style of play could best be defined as intuitive (or at least that’s the best polite way of describing it). What you can do for how much mana is one thing, but making a decision based on your opponents’ quickness to attack with their creature or their play style is another thing, since these face-down mystery men add a whole new element to the game of information-brokering… and Limited as a game of”chicken.”

Many articles have been written about what you can learn from body language in Magic, but Limited can give the most valuable information, simply because Constructed works more nearly with perfect information: the Sligh deck’s face-down creature is probably Blistering Firecat, the White/Red mage who casts a face-down 2/2 on turn three is probably Astral Slide with Exalted Angel, and decks tend to be well-known except at the very beginning of a Constructed season (and in many cases even then). Limited games where your opponent seems flustered or frustrated are a lot more telling than Constructed, as there are higher expectations for the consistency and performance of a Constructed deck… if it’s turn 2 and your opponent plays their land and seems nervous but not too worried, you might assume that they don’t have their fourth land or a”good” Morph to play and this is the reason behind their abnormal state.

Of course, this all brings up the topic of what is normal – and therefore this whole topic is moot if, for example, your opponent is an excitable thirteen-year-old. You can set standards to gauge behaviors with, and the tournament-attending populace of Magic players will provide a fairly comfortable normal range of behaviors and tells, while the higher-level players will try very hard not to give away information (but will inevitably have repetitive patterns that can be traced). Determining the baseline from which to gauge the behaviors you are watching can take time to develop, and doesn’t in and of itself let you know when the method itself is in question (as in the case of acting and giving intentionally-forced responses in order to send false tells). An attentive player can learn a lot from the simple act of sitting down and shuffling with an opponent – but inevitably, unless you know that person well you are going to be relying on a standard set of assumptions. Any show of emotions, including an innate (and artificial) lack of emotions, can provide information: How they sort their hand, lands, and permanents; the quirks they keep to go with the standard phases of the turn (do they draw a card a particular way some times but not others? Maybe they want to topdeck a land, or a spell); how close to hand they keep their dice or pens.

Try watching your opponents’ eyes, or breathing patterns, or talking habits, and compare them at various points during the game. What does this tell you? It’s an interesting question, especially when you move on to looking to your own particular habits. But then, all of this has been covered before as informational analysis theory – and while we are accepting informational analysis theory as useful during Magic tournament play, we haven’t yet hit the point of this article, which is to look specifically at the reason this theory is so applicable during this particular Limited season. We have perfect information, so why aren’t we using it strictly for making informed decisions? The answer is in many ways a simple one tied in with the function of Morph itself: the elements of mystery, chance, and risk.

The Morph function has a high element of surprise to it, especially considering the clever people who make Magic cards were kind enough to make high-power and low-power Morphs for us. Yeah, it’s pretty obvious that a turn 3 Exalted Angel will unmorph and fly over on turn 4, but why is this considered to be obvious?”Because everyone does it that way” is not the correct answer, when the morph mechanic inherently includes the potential for gaining card advantage in the battling of unknown creatures… would you give your opponent four life to destroy their mystery creature? An Exalted Angel unmorphed to fly over and attack when the opponent has a morph out is removing the option for two things: first, for the opponent to take your bluff and block with a creature that will be dying, and secondly the chance to see their reaction to your morph’s attack, letting you get a sense of what their morph is from their reaction. Yes, an unblocked Exalted Angel is very difficult to race, but wouldn’t it be worth weighing the fact that none of your opponents’ options can trade with it while they are tapped out… And getting a sense of how willing they are to call your gambit given their half of the hidden information?

Starting with two unknowns presents a lot of options, and includes the element of gambling and daring to the game… Things which follow intuitive modes of thought rather than simple rationale. Morphs start out vulnerable, as generic 2/2s for three mana, and this vulnerability can be played on when your opponent thinks you might have a Shock or Swat for their creature of unknown value. Does your opponent have a good reason, due to the threat of killing their leading creature with an easy removal spell, of keeping the better morphs in their hand for their second or successive morph-drops? Do you? If either of these are true, does the other player realize this, and if so… Can you do the opposite to gain the initiative? If both of you know your first miss as good as dead, having a sense of whether your opponent will kill it anyway or believe you have played with respect for that knowledge can gain a tremendous advantage.

This last aspect is what I mean by knowing your opponents’ path to victory to the game – gaining a sense of what plays are correct and incorrect based on your opponents’ potential spells. Against Green/Red, you generally don’t want to block their morphs randomly, as they are in many cases inexpensive and almost all of those inexpensive ones trade with a 2/2. But if you could trade a Disruptive Pitmage for your opponent’s Towering Baloth, wouldn’t you?

(Of course, the obvious thing here is to write down all morphs your opponent plays during each game, but there are better ways to gain information about the game state than limiting yourself to”known” options and walking right into unknown cards just because you like the odds.)

If your opponent is Blue/White and you are Red/Green, you know that in general your morphs can take out their morphs, and they have very little removal to negate your creatures, so pretty much all of your unknown creatures have an added difficulty for them to block… And in case they do, you have no reason not to play the game”straight” and lead with morphs in the general order of your ability to unflip them. From the opposite perspective, you want to run your 2/2s into their 2/2s as much as possible, so unless you want to drag the game on longer (which is not to your benefit unless you have an aerial advantage) it pretty much doesn’t matter what morphs you play on the first few turns if you don’t have any combat-strength ones like Daru Lancer. If both players are playing their expected roles, though, it’s pretty cut-and-dry guessing which creature is which size and working accordingly… And at least one of these players may want to buck the expected role, since that expected role leads to them losing the game. Blue/White’s first morph is pretty much going to be sacrificial to gain information and force the opponent to spend the turn’s mana unmorphing their creature, if the flying creatures plus chumpblocking plan is to be expected to work out, unless they have a three-mana flier to drop instead and work to their goal… But Blue/White gains an advantage by being unpredictable.

The third topic, of how the opponent is trying to shape the game in their favor, is the obvious combined with the nonobvious: obviously, the opponent wants to gain tempo and win the game, whether that tempo comes from speed advantage, card advantage, or some other esoteric source (like a Wave of Indifference or Choking Tethers to alter the combat math). The nonobvious thing is coming out of a bad situation intact, by being unpredictable and forcing the opponent to react in an unexpected way to a situation, and in many ways comes down to bluffing: If your opponent believes that you have a Wave or Tethers to change the math that is”obviously” in their favor, they may react to that belief accordingly to win what would otherwise be a lost game because they failed to conserve life points. Misrepresenting obvious but false information, such as the nonexistent kill, can provide time to catch up by making an opponent overly cautious… But if it’s telegraphed, it is going to be true as often as it is not, and if it is something the opponent can prevent they will often attempt to. I’m not saying that making”bad” decisions has its rewards, but I am saying that due to the unknown nature of morph it is possible to represent a game-state that is different than it actually is and open up whole new avenues of feint and counter-feint that previously were left unconsidered.

Recognizing the truth and a well-designed feint is very difficult even when you know what to look for – and again we come to the topic of intuitive rather than known information for clarification. A white mage attacking aggressively with their first morph may be broadcasting Daru Lancer or some other creature that will survive the combat (even if it’s just something innocuous like Daru Mender or Gravel Slinger to squeak out of morph combat alive), and therefore this broadcast danger of aggressive habits might be useful to develop for when it’s actually a Crude Rampart and you don’t want to tell the opponent that your morph creature doesn’t unmorph for four or less mana… And likewise is something that an attentive player may pick up on.

All I know is that is going to be a very interesting Team Limited season. Team Sealed Deck truly lets morph shine as a potentially threatening and emotion-laden mechanic, which allows non-game information to be applied to Magic strategy in a fluid and instantaneous way. And if that’s not different than your run-of-the-mill Magic experience, I don’t know what is.

An aside to Ted Knutson and his recent”Love’s Labour Found” article: Thanks for all the kind words, but most of what picks up in my writing is an act. As contradictory as it is to say, I’m usually rather humble when I play Magic… Or at least when I remember to be, which is never when I’m casting Merfolk in Constructed like I was meant to be. I’ll note that I did take offense at the suggestion that I’m undesirable to the ladies, though… One Bennie Smith fake tournament report, and my reputation just goes right down the crapper.

Sean McKeown

[email protected]

“And my lady is a peach among fruit,

She’s sweet and furry on the tongue;

And while I may not be getting any older

She keeps me feeling young…”

–Paul Emerson Leicht,”Unrelated Verses”