Limited Lessons – Bluffing in Limited

Read Nick Eisel... at StarCityGames.com!
Tuesday, April 1st – A few weeks back, Patrick “The Innovator” Chapin walked us through some of the Jedi Mind Tricks available to the Constructed Magician looking to gain an edge via the mental game and the bluff. Today, Limited guru Nick Eisel spills the beans on running the bluff in the forty-card formats… Enjoy!

“I never knew you had to calculate so much at cards. You are officially never invited to our game again!”
Martin Landau in Rounders

While the above is a quote from a poker movie, I think it also has implications concerning Magic. For those of you who haven’t seen the movie (which is a huge misplay in my opinion), the quote is in response to Matt Damon’s character talking about how you want to play the man rather than the cards. The subject of playing the man rather than the cards is one that is also very valuable in Magic, and also interestingly enough hasn’t been covered much in strategy columns.

Recently Patrick Chapin wrote an excellent article on Jedi Mind Tricks which I loved, and which also got me to thinking about how bluffing relates to the Limited form of Magic. Surely the implications aren’t as strong as in Constructed where you can represent cards you don’t even have in your deck just because everyone reads decklists on the internet these days. While Constructed is definitely the format of choice if you want to be a big bluffer, there are plenty of moves in Limited, and today I want to share some thoughts on those.

Letting their Guard Down
The first subject I want to talk about isn’t really a bluff so much as a way to gain extra value in your matches without really doing anything but starting friendly conversation.

I remember back to when I was first becoming popular as a writer here at StarCityGames.com, and people were starting to recognize my name when we’d play at a PTQ or Grand Prix. Often they’d compliment my articles or say something along the lines that they knew who I was and that my primary area of focus in Magic is Limited. Immediately I knew I had the upper hand because these players were likely intimidated, at least to some degree, and this could cause them to make some mistakes due to nervousness or a misread. They were also likely to give me far too much credit for having cards that I didn’t if I represented them correctly. It’s been said plenty of times that Kai Budde and Jon Finkel won plenty of matches simply because people played terribly against them either out of fear, nervousness, or just because they felt completely outmatched. Remember guys, everyone is just a person when it comes down to it, and while some people are far better at this game than the rest of us, they are still very beatable and it’s important to not get intimidated. The point is that I never really had to work too hard to get people to let their guard down and start making lots of mistakes against me because of my image in the community. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not completely dreaded or anything, but I’ve won more than my share of matches due to nervous opponents who just couldn’t get their act together.

Even though I didn’t have to work too hard in the actual matches to achieve this result, it got me to thinking about the implications this would have for any player. Since most of you probably don’t have your own Magic column, you’ll have to resort to different avenues of attack in order to get your opponent to let his guard down.

The first and probably easiest way for you to get an edge on someone is to make a “friendly assault.” While that word is kind of a contradiction in terms, the concept is that you want your actions to appear completely friendly despite your ulterior motives.

There are plenty of ways to use this first technique, but almost all of them revolve around starting a conversation with the intent of gaining information from it, or getting the opponent’s guard down. So how should you go about this exactly?

Since Magic is a game played with people, you have to think about how people are exploited in the real world through means of communication. Whether it’s through advertising or a clever salesperson or phrase, everybody loves a compliment and will drastically change their demeanor towards you if you give them one.

When I was a young writer I noticed rather quickly that my natural instincts wanted me to soft-play people who were complimenting my articles or Magic skills, and that I needed to make sure that I didn’t do this. My brain was actually going against my desire to win by trying to convince me that I shouldn’t be so tough on these people who were being so nice to me. Hopefully you can see how someone who is unaware of this could be conned.

After some thinking I realized that the average player can gain quite an advantage simply by complimenting his opponents in a subtle way. This isn’t groundbreaking news I’m sure, but I’ll bet it’s also not something that you’re employing regularly at tournaments.

Since I don’t want my image as a writer/name in the community to impact the situations I’m going to describe, I want you to imagine an aspiring PTQ player for the examples I’m going to give.

First, this aspiring pro sits down against an unknown player. Maybe he decides that starting a conversation is a good idea because his opponent seems like the type that wants to talk and will likely give up too much information by doing so. I also want to mention that I’m not going to cover the guys who really know what’s up because you obviously can’t exploit them with these types of tactics, and they will likely limit communication with you or end up manipulating you through your own words. That’s far too complex for the scope here, so we’ll still with the average player who is plenty vulnerable. So our pro starts a conversation, and maybe talks about how the draft went and throws in some details to the effect of “Man, I can’t believe X card went so late in pack 2, did you see that?” You can really direct a conversation in your favor if you know how to structure it correctly, and your opponent will likely reveal something about his draft if you ask the right questions. This would be best in a local store type of setting, since most PTQs are Sealed (nobody is going to want to talk about the Top 8 draft with you, trust me), and not too many people at the Pro Tour are going to be amused by this tactic, nor will they likely fall for it. There are such occasions of course, and you’d be surprised how often you can get even a solid player to fall into a trap like this.

In a Sealed environment you can just talk about the format as a whole and see what your opponent responds with. “Everyone here is playing Green today… it’s really sick because X card is so good.” They may talk some about their deck or their experiences which can give you some info on their deck. They may say something related to the above statement that gives you the idea that they have trouble dealing with big creatures. I remember one PTQ in particular where my opponent described an entire situation where he was way behind on board.

“So you lost that one, I’m guessing?” I said.

“No, actually I came back to win!”

“Wow, really? How’d you do that?” I continued.

At this point my opponent realized he’d said to much and attempted to change the subject. What actually happened was that in the situation described he could’ve only gotten out with something like a Slice and Dice or Starstorm, and by saying all of that he practically told me that he had one in his deck. It’s also worth noting that this information is almost always reliable because you’re just having a conversation and your opponent is unlikely to make up some huge story (unless he’s a master, and we don’t attempt this kind of weak ploy on masters) just to convince you he has one card. After all, we’re just being friendly, right?

After game 1 there are even more ways you can use conversation to gain an edge, because you can compliment your opponent’s deck, or even just a few choice cards he played on you.

“I like your deck… Violet Pall has been excellent for me so far.” The aspiring pro might say.

People love to be praised or complimented, and will likely take their game down a notch because you make yourself friendly, or they may become overconfident. A word of caution here is that you don’t want to overuse this and compliment everything, and you also don’t want to be obvious about it. I’m not sure how else to say it except that subtlety is pure gold here. Of course, you can also do things like Chapin mentioned in his article, where you evoke responses based on body language, and by game 3 you’ll have a great idea whether they have that Broken Ambitions, or Neck Snap, or nothing at all.

I’ve probably been far too long-winded in this section, but the overall idea is that you can use conversation to soften up your opponents. If they feel like the two of you are friends, they are likely to focus less on their gameplan and more on talking and enjoying the social aspect of tournaments. Getting their guard down also makes them more likely to make mistakes, which is obviously what you want to happen.

One thing you definitely don’t want to do in regards to this section is to seem like a jerk or overly uptight and concerned with the game. If you do that then you make people want to beat you even more, and they will focus all of their energy on doing so instead of on the score of last night’s football game or whatever other topic you think they may be interested in distracting themselves with. I especially love the guys who think that they’ll seem more intimidating if they somehow find a way to brag about all of the Top 8s they’ve made. Doing this almost always has the opposite effect as your opponent will likely think you’re arrogant and just want to smash your face.

The Attack Bluff
As far as I know, Mike Turian is the one who really brought this aspect of Limited to the forefront. I remember drafting with him back at CMU and watching him constantly attack his 2/2 into a 3/3 with no tricks in hand just because he knew his opponent couldn’t block. While I think a lot of people implement this into their game in situations where it’s a utility creature that obviously isn’t going to block, you can definitely step it up a notch when you know you’re against someone who will understand the meaning behind your attack. Basically you need to bluff more against solid opponents because they are unlikely to call.

The basic rules are as follows. Don’t bluff bad players because they’re much more likely to not care, or not even realize that you’re representing a trick, and block anyway. Don’t bluff very good players because they may see right through your ploy, read you for a bluff, and pick you off. Everyone else is pretty much fair game.

When deciding whether or not you want to bluff and attack with your smaller guy into their bigger one with no tricks in hand, you have a few things to think about. First and most obviously is the question of what tricks you could possibly cast with the lands you have in play (also try to only bluff Common tricks as most players don’t think deeply enough about the game to put you on an Uncommon or Rare). Next is the relative value of the creatures involved, the lesser the value of your creature the more likely you should be to attempt a bluff. After that you have to determine how likely it is that your opponent is going to block, and since this is usually the early turns of the game it will be based almost entirely on how good their creature is and how the tempo of the game will likely go.

Another key point that most good players already realize is that you should think about this on your opponent’s turn so that you’re not giving yourself away. If you actually had the trick you were representing in hand you wouldn’t really have to think too hard about attacking, would you? So you want to untap, draw, make sure nothing has changed with your draw step, and then get your bluff on quickly. If you decide you do want to think about it then you need to balance this by thinking when it’s obvious that you’re going to attack, and that may be hard for some people to do all the time. I prefer to think on my opponent’s turn and then make my attack quickly whether I have the trick or not.

Keep in mind that better players realize the value of “Time Walking” you by making you spend your turn casting a trick. So you have to evaluate whether he’ll block just because he thinks you have the trick and he wants it taking up your turn anyway.

All in all, this is a pretty complicated subject and it really varies from situation to situation, so I can only give general guidelines to think about.

There are definitely some tricky situations that can come up regarding this topic in relation to LLM. The most interesting case I’ve talked with anyone about is regarding Lys Alana Huntmaster. With most “utility” guys you should definitely bluff attack with a smaller guy, but the Huntmaster is interesting because you have very little idea of how good it is going to be for your opponent in any particular game 1. If it’s game 2 or 3 and you’ve seen a bunch of Elves then I would say to go for a bluff attack in most situations with your 2/2, as long as that guy isn’t absolutely crucial to your long-game. The reason is obviously because you know Huntmaster is very good in your opponent’s deck and he’s not only unlikely to block with it, but also you may not be able to get through later after he’s made some tokens and every point of damage will count. If it’s game 1 you have a different issue, because your opponent could just be running it as a Hill Giant with maybe 3-4 Elves he can hope to get lucky and trigger with. In that instance he is blocking because the Huntmaster’s value isn’t nearly as high to him.

The best advice I can give you is to lean towards bluffing when you’re facing a Huntmaster because more often than not it will be too valuable for your opponent to block with. If he’s GB then I would certainly bluff attack.

Overall, you want to consider this at every possible opportunity and not just the obvious ones. Even if you don’t make the bluff every time, you need to be thinking about it and consider how important that extra damage may end up being. If you’re either going to get crushed or landslide victory anyway then it’s probably not worth it, but if it could be close at all you really need to consider taking risky measures that could end up bringing you out on top.

Online Bluffing
One bluff I’ve seen used online is the Tap, Untap bluff. This is when you tap lands like you’re going to cast a removal spell or a counter, and then you untap. This move can be used in a few different ways, and it will also be interpreted differently depending on who you are playing against.

A good player will usually read the Tap, Untap bluff as a complete bluff. He will think you’re just messing around and that you actually don’t have it. If anyone has experienced the opposite of this I’d like to know, because I’ve been owned a couple of times by this bluff simply because I can’t believe they’d have it and not use it in a given situation. A bad player may be convinced that you have it, but I’m not sure how much value you can gain from that.

The best spot to use this is against a good player when you actually have the card because they are more likely to believe that you don’t have it because of this silly bluff. So if your opponent casts a spell that you don’t care so much about and you have Broken Ambitions you should probably tap some lands like you’re going to counter it, think for a few seconds and then untap those lands and let it resolve. This is especially effective if you can do it twice because there’s no chance anyone will believe you have it after bluffing it twice.

Another online move you can make is to think for a while at random points where you could have something. Say your opponent has a 2/2 out, and you have mana for Sentinels of Glen Elendra, and he passes the turn without attacking. You should consider taking a decent amount of time on his end step to act like you’re considering whether or not to cast the Sentinels or not (this is of course best if you plan on not doing anything again on your next turn because if you tap out then he’s going to assume you don’t have it). On the other hand, if my grip was action-light and I actually had Sentinels but no play for the next turn I would instantly go through my opponent’s end step and then pass again, representing that I don’t have Sentinels so that he will walk into it.

If you’re noticing a pattern it’s simply that you want to sit down and consider how the average opponent will think during a game. Then you want to make a plan that will have you doing the opposite of what he is thinking to have him completely guessing. In this case, taking time means you could have Sentinels, while if you zip through his end step you may convince him you don’t have.

A similar bluff can be executed with Neck Snap if you have the mana for it and have no turn 4 plays. If you instantly pass the turn after playing your fourth land there’s a good chance that a strong player will not attack into it. This one is a bit iffier, as you may take time to think and then still pass with Neck Snap up.

I could go on for quite some time about small moves you can make to possibly increase an edge on Magic Online, but hopefully you get the idea by now. The one thing you really want to watch is the timing with which you do things. Usually when someone is playing Magic Online, they are focused pretty closely on the speed at which you are doing things because they are impatient and want to play their cards. They will likely notice small or large gaps of time that go by, and if you can represent different things by using time intervals then you stand to gain a lot.

Some Interesting Examples
There are plenty of ways which you can represent having something you do not in Limited Magic. Most of these are situational, so I can’t really go through every case and say “Okay, here is how you represent having Fistful of Force, which is different from how you represent having Tarfire.” What I’m going to do instead is go over a couple of cool examples of Limited bluffs and misdirection that I remember.

The first comes from GP St. Louis of last year. The funny thing about this is that I totally didn’t intend for it to work out like it did, but it got me to thinking about ways you can misdirect your opponent so that he possibly screws up. I was playing against Bill Stark late in Day 1, and we are low on time in game 3. I can’t really remember details of the game, but the format is RGD Sealed so graveyards are relatively important with Dredge being involved.

We’re both trying to play very fast at this point to avoid getting a draw, and so on one turn I say “Go,” and then say “can I see your graveyard?”

At the time I really just wanted to see what he’d cast so far, since we’d seen almost all of each other’s decks in game 1 and I wanted to see what good removal he still had left.

He paused on his upkeep for me to give back his graveyard and then said “That’s a nice move, Nick.”

I was kinda confused because I didn’t understand what move I was making. Then I remembered that he had a Stinkweed Imp in his graveyard. So the move he thought I was making was to ask to see his graveyard so that he would forget to Dredge. Anyway, I wasn’t actually being that shady, I was just playing fast, but it got me to thinking that you can do some things that are perfectly within the rules to distract your opponent from the game situation. These may not entirely be ethical, so for those of you that don’t want to use them you need to at least realize what someone could be doing so, and make sure that you don’t let it mess you up.

The second situation I’m going to talk about is the best bluff I’ve made in recent memory. Let me set the stage.

Some friends and I were doing a 3on3 OLS draft on Magic Online just for something different to do. I’d like to mention that our esteemed editor Mr. Craig Stevenson was also involved in said draft, and on my team. [And much fun it was too — Craig.]

I’m playing against a friend who is decent but not great at Magic. He often thinks on the first level, and is capable of putting you on a card but going no further than that. My friend’s deck is UW and almost entirely fliers, while I am GR with lots of big ground guys.

It’s game 3, and he’s winning the race with fliers when he drops out a Noble Templar to stop my ground. My board is a 5/5 Glowering Rogon, Bonethorn Valesk, and some other dudes. Since Templar is a 3/6 I can’t really win this race, unless I draw my Slice and Dice or find some other way to get past it. So I draw Titanic Bulvox on my turn and the wheels start turning. I’m at six lands also so I can only play one spell this turn (I forget the rest of my hand), and I can’t even unmorph Bulvox next turn because I only have one Forest and not enough lands.

Remember earlier how I said my friend is essentially a “level one” thinker? If so, then maybe you can see how to exploit this situation even with only the small amount of information given.

I decide that I might be able to win if I can get my Rogon through this turn and then alpha strike if he has nothing, or possibly topdeck something to win. So I lay down my morphed Bulvox before combat, to make him think that if he blocks with the 3/6 he will lose it to an extra point done from Bonethorn Valesk when I unmorph my mystery guy. So I attack and he instantly takes it, and then I end up drawing a removal spell and go on to win the game simply because I got the five points through on this key turn with a stone cold bluff.

What’s important here is that my friend could’ve easily won this game if he just took the time to think about the situation on a deeper level. If he put himself in my shoes, why in the world would I ever play my morph before combat if I didn’t want him to block? If I wanted to kill the 3/6 I would certainly just attack and then make the morph, to unmorph after combat to finish his guy off. The fact that I revealed the morph before the attack should’ve sent off a huge warning sign in his head that my intent was to get through unblocked.

This may not have been the best bluff in the world, but it illustrates the important concept that you need to think about the situation from both sides of the table. What do your opponent’s actions likely mean? What are his intentions? How can I trick him into thinking that my intention is something else? These are all excellent questions to have going through your head during a game, and by thinking a level above the opposition you will capitalize on lots of situations that other players wouldn’t

I hope you enjoyed this, and it’s possible I’ll do a second segment in the future as there really are a lot of areas in Limited where you can gain an advantage simply by outthinking someone.

Nick Eisel
Soooooo on MTGO
[email protected]