In Magic, players often discuss three separate facets of winning: Deck construction, playing the game, and how the cards fall. Articles and books have been dedicated to both achieving just the right construction of a deck and in the tricks of playing. Occasionally, you even hear talk of influencing the more random elements of the game – and sometimes, when just the right card is topdecked, some will refer to that as a”Jedi Mind Trick.”
The one aspect of Magic which is overlooked by this triune theory is the interaction between players. Magic is a game with humans who play with human beliefs and human errors. When properly managed, this part of the game can be as important as each of the others. Let me give you an example from my past:
It is the Extended season from a couple of years ago. I take my Sligh deck to a large local tournament in Charleston, West Virginia. Traditionally, I play Sligh in Extended almost exclusively. My Sligh deck, at the time, had a lot of slower, more controllish elements, like Arc Lightning, Phyrexian War Beast, Starke of Rath, and so forth.
High Tide decks have been dominating the Extended season. I do not change any cards in my deck before heading down to Charleston with a couple of friends (Ben and JR). At one point in the two-hours-plus drive, JR asks me what changes I have made to my deck. I respond simply,”None.” JR then proceeds to tell me about how Sligh decks across the country have had to step up their aggressiveness to compensate for the quick combo-kill of the High Tide decks.
I remind JR that we do not know the Charleston metagame. I also tell him that since High Tide was already a bad matchup, I’d rather focus on playing cards that help versus Rec-Sur and Green fat, which were also bad matchups for Sligh. After asking JR how much putting Goblin Cadets or something in will really help me in the long run, he realizes that I will not move from my position. I will play my deck as is.
We arrive just in time to register our decks, and during the five regular rounds, I go 4-1, securing a 2-0 record versus High Tide. My only loss was to a good build of Rec-Sur that played all of the”Sligh-Stoppers”: Four each of Spike Feeder and Wall of Blossoms. In the quarterfinals, I defeat another High Tide deck, and then redeem myself by beating the Rec-Sur deck I lost to earlier. So my supposedly bad Sligh deck is in the finals versus a High Tide deck I had swept in the Swiss earlier.
It is a best-of-five match, and I lose the first game badly. I side in my typical weapons versus High Tide or any other straight blue deck – four Pyroblast and four Ancient Tomb. After a close win in the second game from my two of my War Beasts, he begins the third game with a second-turn Chill. If you ever played red during that time, you know how much of a pain Chill could be. That was why the Ancient Tombs had been sided in. They either combat Chill or sped up the deck – either task being particularly valuable. I had a Tomb in my hand, so the Chill wasn’t too much of a hassle.
Until he dropped a third-turn Chill.
Staring at two Chills with a Mogg Fanatic in play means your opponent essentially has eighteen more turns to win. There is nothing worse than that sinking feeling that you are going to lose a finals to a deck you have already beaten simply because he got a stupidly lucky draw. I mean, he hadn’t even cast an Impulse or Frantic Search in order to find the Chills.
So I do what many others would do: I silently gathered mana and Pyroblasts and waited. My opponent felt safe behind his double-Chill wall, so he wanted to make sure he was completely set up before trying to go off. He felt – and I agreed – that should he fail to go off after trying, that the window might be open for me to steal the game. I was able to cast a War Beast under his searching and counter-magic, since I had faked out a counter with a Cursed Scroll. I got him down to eleven or so before he Capsized my War Beast, then my Fanatic, so I had no threats, and he had counters a-go-go.
So I folded my hand into a nice little stack of seven cards, laid my head down in my arms, and pretended to no longer care. I kept one of my eyes barely open, and everybody watching the match had thought I simply had quit trying to win. A couple of turns later, he is about to go off. He draws, and activates his Scroll Rack for eight. He lays a land and taps six mana. I know what is about to happen, so I immediately look up and tell him,”Stop!”
“Count the number of cards in your hand.”
“Do it; count them for me.”
“One, two… Seven, eight.”
Did you catch it? He played a land and still had eight cards in his hand. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, he had gotten sloppy with the Scroll Rack and had drawn an extra card off of it, while I was spying from my borderline fetal position. Why did he get sloppy? Because as far as he was concerned, I had quit the game, and his overconfidence had allowed him to be sloppy.
Both Ben and JR have told me on numerous occasions that it was the best moment in Magic they have ever seen.
Oh yeah; the judge just gave the guy a warning, not a game loss, and of course he won that game, and the following game as well. My record against this guy for the day, prior to the game where he cheated, was 3-1, but the judge essentially told me I had to win the next two to win the tourney, and I was unable to rally.
But that’s not my point.
My real point is to illustrate how psychology can affect a game or a match. Getting a lucky topdeck should not count as a Jedi Mind Trick. Instead, using (legal) tactics to get your opponent to misplay is how the term should be used.
I remember an article The Ferrett (obligatory reference to the editor) wrote a long time ago in which he talked about this very concept. (Which one? – The Ferrett, who wrote a whole bunch of ’em) Ignoring that players are emotional creatures is fatal; folks who play multiplayer have learned this a long time ago. Allow me to continue to illustrate this point again:
During Rath Cycle Constructed, a friend and I went down to Columbus (everything is downhill when you hail from Morgantown, West Virginia) for Pro-Tour Qualifier: Rome. I was bored, and paid him to take me, since I rarely play in block events. I built a deck the previous night, which I called”Sligh-Sphere.” It was your basic Sligh deck with Spheres of Resistance to slow down your opponents.
Go ahead and laugh. In hindsight, I kinda want to as well.
Anyways, I do not know anybody in Columbus, so I decide ahead of time to go as a scrub. I build my deck and choose play it sleeveless. I wrap it in a rubber band. (Had the judge been called on my deck for playing with marked cards or whatever as the day wore on, I would have sleeved it then with the extra box of new sleeves I had tucked into the bottom of my bookbag.) I even tried to dress scrubby. I borrowed a pair of cutoffs from a friend and put on an old white T-shirt. I wanted my opponents to laugh and scoff behind their backs at the”newbie” who was playing with them.
I won versus some guy who must have thought he was the greatest player ever, because he kept talking to his friends about how he was going to win, and what deck he would play in Rome. He was playing Trade-Awake, and I beat him easily in game one. He sides in Bottle Gnomes, figuring that he will just crush me post-sideboard and move on. Instead, I go first-turn Jackal Pup, second-turn Maniacal Rage and run through a variety of blockers – Gnomes, Wall of Blossoms, even one Tradewind. I would lose to White Weenie, defeat a guy playing Eladamri’s Vinyards which allowed me to play a turn 2 Rathi Dragon in two consecutive games, defeat a White Weenie deck (barely) after Wastelanding all of his mana sources, except for two Reflecting Pools, and lose to yet another White Weenie deck. (I went 3-2 and dropped, because 4-2, with my poor tiebreakers, would not make final 8.)
I may have won that first match of the day due to my scrubbish exterior (I hadn’t even shaved for a few days). My opponent showed me his sideboard afterwards, and he had Capsizes.
“Why didn’t you side in the Capsizes?” I asked.
“I didn’t think I would need them.”
Of course, I had four Rathi Dragons, four Maniacal Rages (the original Rage), which would have been card advantage – plus a host of cats, pups, goblins and wizards that could have been bounced for tempo advantage. But my opponent was so cocky, even after losing a game, that he didn’t think about his sideboard – he just swapped on autopilot.
Which helped me win that match.
Lesson: Psychology works.
Everybody has noticed this at one time or another. Maybe you try to bait a counterspell by casting a minor threat first, before a major one. This is key in-game psychology.
But I am talking about those Jedi Mind Tricks that affect the game from the outside. Dressing as a scrub and pretending to fall asleep are just two tricks. While many of these will not work at the local card shop, because people know you, I love to pull them at random events.
Here are some other things I have done in the past:
Dress in a suit and tie: People just are queasy when they are around someone who looks different. If you walked into a business meeting with black leather and dog collars, many people would be uncomfortable. At a Magic tournament, some people will be slobs, some won’t have bathed in months, and some will have nipple piercings (Insert random Ferrett comment). But nobody is wearing a coat and tie. This can really disturb some people. A few other people also have a built in deference for authority. Wearing the jacket makes you authority, and you can beat these people more easily.
Dress in a judge shirt: Lots of people wear shirts that have Doppelgangers, Angels, and so forth on them. And no one fears the”Pre-Release Staff” T-shirt, either. But wear a judging shirt from, say, a PTQ or state championship, and some players will be intimidated by you… Even if you bought it off eBay.
Act gay: A lot of people are offended by gay people. Use this by acting gay (although do not go over the top, because then people might see through your faÃ§ade). While you certainly cannot paint all gay people with one broad stroke, there is a stereotype out there. People who act that stereotype are assumed to be gay – rightly or wrongly. Many straight men will have such a fear of you actually touching them (seriously! straight people are so silly) that they will completely forget about the game. This is possibly the most powerful thing any player can do in order to discomfort some players. I have gotten automatic wins in the past by doing this, and I even once had a guy concede to me, because he did not want to play against me!
(Note: My gay friends have said that this is a really funny and effective technique and are not offended by it at all. If you are offended, and you are straight, then, accordingly to one of those friends, you need to lighten up.) (I gotta go with him – and frankly, if this stratagem actually works, it works against idiots – The Ferrett)
Hiding your eyes: Have you ever played against that annoying guy who is wearing a ball cap and dark sunglasses? Remember how you couldn’t see their eyes and tell what they were doing? Eyes are a key give away for people as they play. We often do not even realize how important the eyes are until you cannot see your opponent’s anymore. So try playing with sunglasses and ball cap, and watch your opponent squirm!
Playing with all foils/premier cards: This used to be an intimidating technique. Your deck would be foil and premier cards. Even basic lands were Guru, APAC, Euro, et cetera. However, we all have a story about some random guy who may have had an all-foil deck, but who was a complete idiot. With a higher ratio of foil cards, plus a growing list of foils in print, this factor is not as vital as it once was.
Use scrubby versions of cards: Would you rather lose to a 7th edition Opposition or a Urza’s version? Which would you rather play? Exactly. I once went so far as to play an all-white bordered deck, except for a few key expansion cards from Prophecy and Invasion. This can help another image, although it is rarely effective on its own.
Always use the same version of a card in multiples: I think that this is a cardinal rule of competitive Magic. I swear I see it broken all of the time from people who really should know better. Fancy foils and alternate Portal versions and the full set of APAC Forests may be nice for the local scene, but for higher level events, use all the same picture from the same set. Even for basic lands. This is so that your opponent never gains any additional information.
I realized this when I played a Nether-Go deck, and my opponent saw two non-foil Nether Spirits in the first game. When my opponent saw a foil one in the second game, I saw the light go on in his head, and I realized how stupid I had been. I gave away a very crucial piece of information – namely, that I am playing at least three Nether Spirits. At the time, with two schools of thought on Nether-Go, one played the full compliment and a single copy of a beatdown card, while the other ran a couple of Spirits, and a couple of other defensive cards. By seeing three Spirits, it suggested that I had no other creatures to on which to rely for defense.
Have you ever had a land or creature bounced, only to play another copy in your hand? And then realized that by doing so, your opponent now knows one of the cards you have in your hand. Do not assist good opponents at a Qualifier or Grand Prix by allowing them extra information.
Use something cool as tokens. (Note: I got this idea from Wakefield’s dinosaurs, and it is not original to me). I used plastic grey army men as counters for a while. Beer bottle caps also work well. But the best markers I have found are bullets. I picked up a box of .45 caliber bullets from a friend who had sold his pistol and still had the ammunition. Nothing says love like adding another bullet to the table.
The niftier your tokens, the more distracting you can become. This can often cause more people to watch your match, which can make some players nervous. I once played a guy in the Top 8 of a PTQ who couldn’t hold his cards steady, he was shaking so much from the audience’s presence.
Well, I’ll stop there at five pages. Hopefully you have gained some ideas concerning various Jedi Mind Tricks that you can pull. Psychological attacks can be very effective; I would, however, steer clear of any that could back fire. You do not want to make someone even more intent on beating you. Therefore, I have always steered clear of being obnoxious or a bastard. Use what works for you though, and don’t forget that Magic is so encompassing – that who you are and what you do will sometimes win you games as well.