SCG Daily – The Five Senses of Magic: Sight

Noah rounds of his intriguing series on the five senses of Magic with Sight. Are things always as they appear?

When talking about sight in Magic, what’s really being discussed is information. Information isn’t everything in Magic, but often it’s enough. Your eyes give you quite a bit of knowledge, if you know what to look for.

Pairings go up and you head to your seat. Your opponent hasn’t arrived yet, so you use the time to count your cards, maybe make sure your deck is un-sideboarded. Good use of your time, right? Unfortunately, it’s risky. What if your opponent or his confederate is standing behind you, watching you look through every card in your deck? Kind of cuts into the surprise value. Any time you expose a card before a game starts, you give them an incredible strategic advantage. Which is not to say you can’t use that for your own ends, but more on that later.

Players give off a ton of clues about their cards, their plans; anything and everything. As an observant player, you have a big task. You have to identify the incoming data, and you have to interpret what it means. Sight is your main tool to the first half. Your eyes are a link to your brain for the second.

B.F. Skinner, pioneer of the behavioral science and master of the art of conditioning, had a very simple truism. I couldn’t find the exact quote, but the essence is “People tend to repeat behaviors they are rewarded for, and discontinue behaviors that aren’t reinforced”. It’s simple and brilliant.

People don’t, as a whole, like to expend effort. Constant cognitive and behavioral shortcuts are engaged by everyone, every day. This is certainly true in Magic; witness the prevalence of “okay” instead people saying what they actually mean. In addition, players have often systems and shortcuts they engage for themselves, to make play more simplistic.

A guy draws a card and places it in exactly one space in his hand, in between card one and three. Why would this player actually expand extra effort to place a card in a particular place, instead of just at the very front or back? Obviously, because he’s rewarded in someway for the behavior. Maybe that spot in his hand has a special significance… say, where the other lands are. If it’s easier for him to be able to view all his lands in one place, so be it, but try not to ignore that rather crucial piece of information.

When a player does anything, there’s a reason for it. It might not be a very good reason to you, and it might not be a particularly impressive reason for victory’s sake, but there’s a reason to the acting player nonetheless. Being able to see those actions, and figure out what they mean, is the essence of Sight in this game.

Why does your opponent seem to be sweating bullets over mulligan decisions? Why is he looking at his graveyard? Why is he looking at your graveyard? Why does he look so damn calm about your army of monsters? Perhaps he’s stoic, or perhaps there’s a Tourmillion Sauvage looming.

Magic is a fun, interactive game. Playing your cards blithely unaware of your opponent’s actions is a nice way to generate surprise, but perhaps not an effective way to actually win games. An exhaustive list of tells would be beyond the scope of this article, and pointless besides: the same action can mean very different things, depending on the specific player. Sometimes lands go on the right, sometimes on the left. Your goal is just to keep your eyes open and look for information to process, for this game or the next.

At a certain point in a player’s development, observation becomes an ingrained skill, although some people do it better than others. Presumably, as you’re a good player and you hang around good players, your opponents are watching you. Why not give them a little show?

If I may list a very obsolete deck, here’s one played at a PTQ from the previous extended season, courtesy of G$:

4 Psychatog
1 Meloku the Clouded Mirror
4 Force Spike
4 Counterspell
3 Mana Leak
3 Circular Logic
3 Engineered Explosives
4 Smother
4 Thirst for Knowledge
1 Coffin Purge

4 Flooded Strand
3 Bloodstained Mire
3 Seat of the Synod
3 Watery Grave
1 Vault of Whispers
1 Oboro, Palace in the Clouds
1 Sacred Foundry
1 Cephalid Coliseum
2 Swamp
5 Island
2 Stalking Stones

4 Duress
4 Ghastly Demise
3 Kataki, War’s Wage
2 Haunting Echoes
1 Echoing Truth
1 Chainer’s Edict

When people asked me what I was playing that day, I truthfully answered: four-color Psychatog. Perhaps that Sacred Foundry looks out of place, but it was a great help with Engineered Explosives, and certainly easy to search into play. Amusing to run a Psychatog deck with no Polluted Deltas, but there you go.

I was playing a practice game pre-tournament with a buddy, and that Foundry slipped out of my grasp and landed on the table (new sleeves, blech). And it occurred to me, if I had to show an opponent one card out of this particular deck, that Foundry surely would be it. I mean, Boros Deck Wins was a popular choice for the season, and everyone knew the manabase of that one. Then I considered, why not show them that card on purpose?

A quick consult with head judge Dave Noble confirmed, yes indeed, it was a legal maneuver to accidentally on purpose reveal a card during shuffling, assuming said card was randomly integrated back into the deck. Brett Allen, who’s three-times-clever and nine-times-devious, suggested actually building an entire Boros deck and splaying the whole thing on the table during shuffling (new sleeves, again). Then, through prestidigitation (obv), switch up the fake deck for the real one. Shuffle the hell out of the real one, and present the registered sixty. My poor opponent would be so flummoxed he’d probably mulligan to four and keep a double Circle of Protection: Red draw, the sucker.

Dave Noble valiantly quashed that idea, probably for the best. In truth, the deck did not do well. For one, I received the list the night before and did not have the time to learn this deck’s particular intricacies. I probably should have done that instead of working on silly misinformation schemes, but hindsight and all that.

My point with presenting this story isn’t to encourage crafty, extravagant subterfuge plays. 90% of the time you’re going to do more harm to yourself, focusing on the inconsequentials of your own theater. Another 5% of the time it won’t even matter; if an opponent had no idea about the lists of Boros Deck Wins or Psychatog, misinformation would be meaningless. My only suggestion is to keep your eyes open for that last, rare 5% where you can actually corrupt a person’s observation process. Little things here and there. After examining your graveyard from a drawn Vigor Mortis, have your opponent count the cards in his library. Place a certain land in your hand so it looks like something special. Anything to mix up your intentions just a tiny bit, so those observers at least have something extra to chew on. I forget, is Magic a card game played with people, or the other way around? Either way, it’s a good time.

Finally, five excellent books and movies, in no particular order:


*The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
*Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
*A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin
*Night by Elie Wiesel
*Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane


*The Shawshank Redemption
*Kill Bill, vols. 1&2 (but especially 1)
*The Silence of the Lambs
*Cool Hand Luke & The Hustler (tied)
*Mortal Kombat & Bring It On (tied)

Thanks for reading.

Noah Weil
[email protected]