Reading an Opponent: The Narrative of the Game

Wednesday, January 19th – What’s the narrative of a game of Magic? Bing Luke writes an insightful article on controlling the information flow from you to your opponent and vice versa, which can make or break games of Magic.

Magic is a game of imperfect information. No doubt Magic would still require significant skill even if we knew the contents of our opponent’s
hand and deck, but there’s the additional difficulty that there are some things that only our opponents know (what’s in their hands) and
information that neither player knows (what’s on top of our libraries). Last article, I briefly touched on how
significantly overrated it is to read an opponent for some hidden information by interpreting his eyebrow furrows and breathing changes. The more
important skill is being able to divine information from his hand, his plays, his deck via the actual cards he plays, and the actions he takes. Logic
and experience can process this information to peer into the depths of the unknown.

The Value of Uncertainty

The mere existence of uncertainty causes plays we wouldn’t take and can reduce our win percentage, although it’s balanced by the fact that your
opponent is in the same boat. The primary goal is to decrease the information gap between what your opponent knows and what you do not.  

In the simplest and most well known example, consider a Limited game where after a large, mid-game salvo, you’re left with a superior but unstable
board position and in a position to alpha-strike for an exact win. Your opponent, however, has one card unknown to you that he’s drawn in the last two
turns. If you alpha, and he has nothing, you’ll win, but if he has almost any trick, your forces will be decimated. If you hold back and play around
the potential trick, however, you’ll introduce the possibility that he draws out of it.

From a perfect information perspective, your position is excellent: you have two paths to victory, one that results in a guaranteed win; the other one
results in probable victory. Added to that, the only thing keeping you from certain victory is the slim chance that he has drawn a relevant out in one
unknown draw. If he has it, you hold back; if he doesn’t, you attack. Done.

In the real world, you know he probably doesn’t have it, but you don’t actually know. He’s not trying to pull a trick; he knows
you know it’s probably a land. Even if it’s a land, however, he has increased uncertainty by not playing it. There are countless articles analyzing how
to handle this situation, summarized by questions like “How many outs does he have, and what’s the chance he drew one?”, “If I
hold back, how likely is it that he draws out of it?”, and “Even if he does have it, can I effectively play around it, or will I be in the
same situation later?” If you make the correct call, you’ll come to a solution that is probably the right one, but even then sometimes
you’ll attack when he has it and hold back when he doesn’t. Thus, even the smallest, most transparent action of holding back a land can create
enough uncertainty to bump the win percentages for your opponent.

Reading the Narrative

The cards your opponent plays, and the way he plays them tell a story about the game. Most of this story is readily apparent to you. He attacks you
with a Sky-Eel School. Why? Because he wants to deal you three damage and win the game by bringing you down to zero. Some of this story can reveal his
positioning in the matchup.

Hellbent, she attacks with an Auriok Edgewright into your Moriok Reaver (an example expertly analyzed in Noah Weil’s article.) Why? She
may believe she’s the beatdown and is willing to deal you two damage at the cost of three. Some of the story can reveal information otherwise
hidden to you. He passes with three cards in hand and six mana available. Why? Either all three cards are blanks or perhaps more likely, one of those
cards is a Darksteel Sentinel.

By taking all the information available, you can piece together hidden information from this narrative to inform your plays. She’s attacking with her
Edgewright? If you decide she’s claiming the beatdown position, maybe you decide to take the trade. He passes with six mana up? Maybe you don’t
make an attack where Sentinel would wreck you.

At Worlds Day 1, I was seated at the table next to Raphael Levy and Dave Williams. Dave was playing a U/G Genesis Wave deck that relied on accumulating
a critical mass of mana producers to fuel huge Genesis Waves (featured in a deck tech). Dave was
on the play and had a turn 1 Joraga Treespeaker. Raphael played a Plains and passed. Dave untapped, leveled the Treespeaker up, and ended his turn,
prompting Raphael to say, “Come on, do I really look like a Condemn guy to you?” Dave immediately responded, “You don’t look
like a guy who’d be playing White Weenie without a one-drop.”

Maybe it was a given to Dave that Treespeaker is so important and the damage so unimportant that attacking isn’t even a consideration, but even
still, David was constructing a narrative on what Raphael was playing based on the action of one turn. He had settled on White Weenie and U/W Control
as the most likely, though was favoring against aggro.

Similarly, I was recently playing in a MODO Standard event with U/B Control. While MODO replays are invaluable for scouting, it didn’t help me
for my first round. I won the die roll and game one ended quickly as my opponent mulliganed, played a Swamp on each of his first two turns, then
scooped on his turn 3 following my Jace Beleren.

How should I have sideboarded? There are two common decks that play at least two Swamps: Vampires or U/B. Because U/B only plays 3-4 Swamps, whereas
Vampires plays significantly more, this by itself would point strongly towards Vampires.

Another key piece of information, however, is that my opponent made no plays his first and second turns. While it was somewhat unlikely that
my opponent is U/B and drew exactly two Swamps as his only lands, it was significantly more unlikely that my opponent was Vampires and had no plays
despite making land drops. Not only that, but it had to be a hand he was comfortable keeping even after mulliganing. (I don’t know, maybe you
keep Swamp, Swamp, Dark Tutelage, Dark Tutelage, Arc Trail, Lightning Bolt versus an unknown?)

While I wasn’t 100% certain, I sided as if I were playing the mirror and leaving just a few cards to hedge against aggro. He still knew way more
of my deck, but I did chip away at his informational advantage.

Reading Land Drops

In the current Standard environment, you have access to a lot of excellent lands that fulfill a number of roles. The Worldwake manlands have incredible
utility but essentially cost a mana by entering the battlefield tapped. Fetchlands offer fixing but in limited color combinations. The Scars of
Mirrodin duals are excellent but come with a quick fuse; free for the first three land drops but hampering your late-game development. The M10 duals
are the opposite: hard to play untapped early, but costless late.

This particularly reminded me of a couple of very good discussions regarding reading land drops in a world of Ravnica shocklands and Ninth Edition
painlands: by Benjamin Peebles-Mundy here and by
Stephen Flavall,

quoted on the forums by me here
. These are deeply insightful looks into a part of the game that often gets glossed over.

Lately, I’ve been playing a U/B Control list on MODO similar to the Guillaumes’ Worlds finals decks.


(A quick aside on some card choices. Frost Titan is not as good as Grave Titan for sure but is necessary protection against Memoricide. Mind Rot is
tech evangelized by a small child for
Valakut and control mirrors.)

Similar to the shockland-painland-basic environment, there are distinct preferences to how you play lands. Creeping Tar Pit usually comes down on turn
1 or 3 when paying a mana to do so hurts you the least. Darkslick Shores also comes down as soon as possible to mitigate costs (as anyone playing the
deck can tell you, there’s nothing more infuriating than untapping with a Grave Titan in hand and five land only to topdeck a Darkslick Shores). Basics
are generally played next, followed by Drowned Catacombs. Tectonic Edges are generally played as late as possible to protect against opposing Edges or
Spreading Seas. Fetchlands mostly are treated as basics since they don’t fix mana but are worth sandbagging if you foresee Brainstorming.

There are definitely reasons to deviate from this (for example, if you’re trying to protect Tar Pits from Spreading Seas), but all other things being
equal, land drops are made in this order because it costs the least in terms of mana development. (In the examples linked above, lands were played in
the order that cost the fewest life points.)

This means that you can almost Peek into your opponent’s hand based solely on the lands she plays and in what order. If she plays Creeping Tar
Pit, Darkslick Shores, Darkslick Shores, Island, Drowned Catacombs exactly, it’s more likely that she started with more land, as she was able to play
them out in an “ideal” fashion. If she plays a Tectonic Edge on turn 3 on the other hand, you can read her as being relatively land-light,
and a Darkslick Shores on turn 4 almost certainly came off the top.

In the Quarterfinals of Worlds, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa was playing U/B Control against Jonathan Randle’s U/W Control. They had split the first
four games and were entering the rubber game with Jonathan on the play. Jonathan kept a risky one-lander that had the benefit of a Preordain and some
relevant early plays including a Mana Leak and a Leonin Arbiter that could pressure opposing Jaces. Jonathan ripped a land turn 2 to play the Arbiter
but missed on his turn 3 draw. He calmly tapped a land and declared Preordain.

Paulo hesitated and started fiddling with his cards, pondering the Mana Leak in his hand. After twenty or so seconds, he countered the Preordain and
must’ve been elated to see Randle pass without playing a third land. Randle got stuck, while Paulo pulled away in mana advantage, leading to an
inevitable victory.

What happened? Jonathan’s first land drop was a Glacial Fortress, basically the last colored land you look to play. His next play was a Plains,
but at the very least, the land drops say that if Jonathan isn’t light on land, he was at least light on blue mana. No one but Paulo can say what
went into casting Leak versus holding it, but the lands must’ve been a clue.

What the hell is he doing?

Sometimes your opponent will make a play that just doesn’t make sense based on your understanding of how the game is going. It’s incredibly
easy to chalk this up to incompetence, and often it is, but assuming a competent player, it can clue you into an important shift in the narrative.

I forget where I came across this story, but the setting is a Zendikar-Worldwake draft. Hero was beating down with a Vampire Hexmage when his opponent
(Josh Utter-Leyton?) played a Journey to Nowhere. Hero’s first thought was to sacrifice the Hexmage, forcing Opponent to exile one of his own
creatures. Hero then realized that this play made no sense for a player of opponent’s caliber and that the possibilities were either A) Opponent
made a misplay completely against character or B) Opponent had a Kor Skyfisher in hand, would pick up the Journey to unlock his man and kill
Hero’s Hexmage for free. Hero decided B was the correct read and let his Hexmage get locked down.

Gerry was telling me of a punt he made playing U/R Pyromancer Ascension/Scapeshift combo in Extended. He was able to push through a Scapeshift to hit
his opponent for eighteen but lost the fight over a lethal Lightning Bolt. He said that his punt was not casting Lightning Bolt on a previous turn
before to avoid a counter battle. From the opponent’s perspective, that Lightning Bolt might’ve been a little fishy. Certainly, it’s easier
to discount a Lightning Bolt when you’re at twenty as opposed to when you’re at two, but a good player might’ve been able to read that play as “I
need you at eighteen, so I can kill you with a Scapeshift and seven lands” and put up a fight.

Manipulating your narrative

Reading your opponent is only one half of the game. The flip side is manipulating your plays to increase the information gap in your favor and prevent
your opponent from accurately reading your narrative. These generally fall into two categories: Obfuscation and Deception.


The goal with obfuscation is to play in a manner that reduces the amount or quality of information available to your opponent.

In Pro Tour Yokohama, Mark Herberholz was playing a blue control deck against a R/G deck. His opponent had a Radha and during one attack phase said,
“Add two red mana.” Mark knew that he couldn’t just add the mana without letting both players pass priority with the trigger on the
stack, called a judge, and the result was that Mark cast Extirpate on a Bogardan Hellkite in his opponent’s graveyard with the Radha trigger on
the stack, nabbing the one in his opponent’s hand.

While some of this can be chalked up to superior rules knowledge, it was really a missed opportunity for obfuscation. The opponent suddenly declaring
the trigger tipped that it was significant, and having six other mana available let Heezy get the read on Hellkite. What he should’ve done was make the
trigger completely ordinary. If he said “Swing with Radha, trigger” every attack, it would’ve decreased the chance of a successful read
when he had it and possibly introduced the chance of Mark “calling” at a time when he didn’t, reducing the effectiveness of
Extirpate. A change in behavior can signal to your opponent something significant, and figuring out why can reveal a key piece of information (e.g.,
now I have a Hellkite ho ho ho).

In Scars Draft, if you have a Darksteel Sentinel, and your opponent has a four-toughness blocker, why wouldn’t you attack, even if you
don’t have a trick? (Okay, maybe you don’t attack into Dispense Justice). Sure, your opponent blocks every time, but if you hold back, then
swing out of the blue one turn, your opponent is going to start thinking about what prompted it.

Similarly, you want to reduce the number of “What the hell is he doing” moments your opponent has. I was playing game three of a U/B mirror
match. I Duressed my opponent on turn 1, leaving him with Stoic Rebuttal, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and some lands. He Duressed me back, taking a Jace
and leaving me with Island, Duress, Preordain, Tectonic Edge, Grave Titan. He cast Spreading Seas on my black source, stranding my Duress in hand. In
the two turns since he’d Duressed me, I drew a big Jace and a Mana Leak. On my third turn, I Preordained and found the fourth land, a Swamp.

So now the board was him: three lands, hand containing Stoic Rebuttal, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, some lands, and some unknown cards. I had two lands on
board (one tapped). My hand was Duress, Grave Titan, Mana Leak, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Tectonic Edge, Swamp.

We both knew that whoever lands Jace first is at a substantial advantage. My two answers were Duress and Mana Leak, although if I Duress now, he can
hold up a counter for my Jace. If I can get him to play his Jace into my Mana Leak, however, I can untap and play my Jace while he’s tapped out.

Following the Preordain, either land drop will give me Leak mana. I have to play the Tectonic Edge; playing the Swamp is not a consideration. If I play
the Swamp and pass, I create a What the Hell moment for my opponent. He knows I have a Duress, and he knows I need to stop his Jace. The only possible
way Swamp, go makes sense is if I drew into Mana Leak and was hoping to catch him with his pants down. If I play the Tectonic Edge, however, it plays
into the story that while I had an answer to Jace in Duress, I couldn’t draw a black source in time. Maybe he still plays around Mana Leak, but
I’m way ahead if he doesn’t.


Obfuscation is a means of hiding the narrative. Deception, on the other hand, means fabricating a narrative with your plays to misrepresent the
contents of your hand or your deck (but not misrepresentation in the way that’s against the rules). This story has to be consistent with the
information available. Your true intentions are somewhere in there, but if your alternate story is compelling enough, your opponent may misplay by
misjudging the contents of your hand or the flow of the game.

In the examples I linked to above, Peebles suggests casting successive Savannah Lions off of a Forge[/author]“]Battlefield [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author] despite having a hand full of land.
Painlands are the least efficient way to make that series of plays, so it implies you have no other lands, and thus it implies that your hand is full
of gas. If you succeed, your opponent may fear the contents of your hand and play more cautiously than your threat-light hand deserves.

Luis Scott-Vargas recently related a story where he kept a land-heavy hand containing a mana Myr (also on the internet, but I don’t remember
where). He played the Myr turn 2 but chose not to play a land turn 3. By doing so, he represented that he was short on mana, thereby making the Myr a
juicy target for removal. In actuality, the Myr was of no real worth to LSV, and a removal spell would have far more valuable targets.

A common factor of both these plays is that they involve plays that are suboptimal (as opposed to the obfuscation examples which were essentially
costless). Peebles takes unnecessary damage. LSV skips a land drop. The cost isn’t necessary to create deception, but it does make the fake narrative a
lot more compelling for an opponent to buy into.

The Human Element

As much as I discounted reading an opponent’s body language, an opponent’s reactions are important and can factor into a read.

Timing tells can be significant both in real life and online. In a topdeck war, it’s very easy to process how important a drawn land is (i.e.,
it’s not), whereas drawing a trick can sometimes create a complicated decision tree requiring careful consideration. It’s very easy on autopilot
to say draw, go when it’s a land, but this will all come back to haunt you if you hesitate when you draw a non-blank. Good players will try to
conceal this, either by waiting a bit when they have drawn a blank or by considering beforehand what will happen if they draw certain cards.

In the Paulo/Randle situation, Paulo didn’t just sit idly while he considered countering that Preordain. He was shuffling his hand and a couple
times made a move towards his lands, as if he had decided on the counter, only to pull back and return to shuffling. It’s possible that move
baited a reaction from Randle that said “This Preordain is important to me” and that Paulo picked up on it, consciously or no.

Physical tells are just another piece feeding into the narrative of the game and can’t wholly be ignored. It has to fit, however, into the
overarching goal of putting all the pieces together into a coherent narrative that explains what your opponents are doing, why they are doing it, and
how to attack it. On the other side of the coin, being aware of the information you make available to your opponent can give you opportunities to
stymie his efforts to do the same.