SCG Daily – The Mental Edge

For the final article in this Daily Series, I’m going to respond to something my roommate wanted to see awhile back. He mentioned that he noticed the little things people will do in a game that aren’t necessarily related to the game state itself, but nevertheless can generate match wins out of thin air. In other words, he wanted to know what he could do to win a game in real life that couldn’t be done on Magic Online.

For the final article in this Daily Series, I’m going to respond to something my roommate wanted to see awhile back – and by that, I don’t mean my body smeared in oil lounging in a hot tub [Great… no sleep for me tonight. – Craig]. He mentioned that he noticed the little things people will do in a game that aren’t necessarily related to the game state itself, but nevertheless can generate match wins out of thin air. In other words, he wanted to know what he could do to win a game in real life that couldn’t be done on Magic Online.

On one hand it’s bluffing, but it’s really much more than that. It’s about understanding that most opponents you face are constantly trying to glean every advantage they can from your actions and appearance – deliberate or otherwise. Thus, if you can manipulate said actions and appearances to attempt to communicate something false (or even better, something true that helps you more than it does them) then you are generating advantage. Eventually, you can force him to make a wrong decision – and because you’ve anticipated it for several turns, you’ll be in the perfect position to capitalize.

I’m going to use examples from my own personal experience to help illustrate what I’m talking about. I’m obviously doing it that way because I’m conceited and love to talk about myself, but more to the point it helps because I understand in these cases the totality of the circumstances. Chances are that if you do them verbatim, they’re not going to work because 1) they’re up on this site and 2) your opponent may or may not respond the same way. However, if you take the principles that lead to these decisions and incorporate them into your style so that they become natural, I guarantee that you’ll amass yourself some wins.

The most obvious things to manipulate are inquiries into the game state. You know that guy who always asks, “Cards in hand?” whenever he draws a discard spell? Well, for one, don’t be that guy. Always be observant, paying particular attention to how many cards are in the opponent’s hand so that you don’t have to ask. But two, your opponent has no idea that you aren’t that guy. So pull things like that.

I remember I was in an 8th/8th/8th draft back during OLS, the worst Limited format in all of history. My opponent was B/u and knew I had Persecute in my deck since I had turn 4’ed him with it the previous game and hit, among other things, a Nightmare and a Plague Wind. Nice deck. So on my turn 2 I draw, stop what I am doing, and ask in a confident tone of voice, “Cards?”

That turn, on his main phase, he Dark Banishes my Vine Trellis so as to respect the Persecute instead of dropping a Wind Drake and laying a clock down as fast as possible. I obviously do not have the Persecute and instead lay The Best Man Ever, a Trained Armodon. I actually win that game, somehow beating a turn 6 Nightmare, but I guarantee you I couldn’t do it if he had saved the Banish for something that mattered.

Now, will your opponent always be a giant donkey and fall so extremely for your mild bluff? Of course not. But it’s not like you have to pay a tax for trying. You don’t lose anything by asking how many cards he has in his grip, then doing some mild acting and hand-shuffling as if pretending you’re fixing to wreck him. It’s just a natural reaction.

Something similar happened at the recent St. Louis PTQ for Prague. I hit a turn 2 Transluminant (no White mana), and my opponent turn 3s out a Silhana Starfletcher. Now, obviously you swing here regardless, but there’s a special way in which you can eke out your bluff to be more effective. First, don’t sit and think before you swing. If you actually have a trick, you wouldn’t have to think about it; killing an opponent’s third-color-Starfletcher is easily worth most tricks. Secondly, what you can do before you swing is to stack your lands together to represent the trick that would make the most sense. In this case, Wildsize is wonderfully appropriate, because not only would getting hit with it actually wreck him, it’d generate card advantage for you and be a perfectly acceptable way of spending your third turn (as opposed to, say, Seeds of Strength, which would time walk you and not force through any damage). So represent the Wildsize. Finally, and this might have been the kicker, I ask, kinda timidly, “no green untapped, right?” and then “cards?”

The green is crucial. If I don’t actually have the trick, I will gladly trade my Transluminant for some kind of Giant Growth. But if I do, and I spend a Gather Courage or whatever only to have him respond in kind, I have just Time Walked myself and got nothing for my investment. Therefore, I am much more inclined to fear a trick from him if I have one myself, since I’d have to play mine first anyway. Thus, by representing fear of the trick, I project that I have one myself.

That Tranny got in there for six points of damage before becoming a little birdy.

The thing about tricks is this: don’t stop representing them if you succeed in a bluff the first time unless it makes sense that you’d want to do something else with your mana. If the next turn he dropped a land and Ursapine, I’d swing into that bearl with absolute impunity. They’re not going to risk him for two points of damage—not when they took the bait earlier!

At that same PTQ, however, came an opportunity of even grater variety. I kept a fairly solid three-land hand on the play that featured a Courier Hawk as an early drop and some gaseous tings in the four-slot and up. One of those cards was Seed Spark.

Sadly, I stalled on land for a little bit and my opponent mounted quite the offense, to the point where it was worth his time to Pillory my Hawk in order to force through some damage with a Daggerclaw Imp and some dorks on the ground. The crucial turn came when I peeled the fourth land. It was a Plains.

Now, what I want to happen is to play the land and say Go. From there I nuke his Pillory, block his 1/1 and his 2/1 on the ground, and trade the hawk for the Daggerclaw Imp. That’s a four-for-two with a significant tempo advantage attached that will probably end the game right there. But there is a problem.

I kept the hand. Any time you’re on three lands and miss two land drops without playing anything else, you’ve got some goodness in the four-slot. So if I pass, it would beg the question, “what the hell is he doing?” Seed Spark would invariably jump to mind, he wouldn’t walk into it, and I’d have a much harder time recovering from the tempo loss missing land drops tends to bring to the table. If, on the other hand, I drop one of the men in my hand, I am still taking three, plus one from the Imp/Pillory, and could always lose the guy to removal. This doesn’t significantly better my situation, and I still have the same problem with Seed Spark next turn plus an additional 1 life point from the Pillory that I have to worry about for no reason.

The Solution?

I draw my card, see it’s a Plains, and make some comment along the lines of, “Oh my God, it had to be a Plains, nice three of your splash color. Can’t get another Forest to save my life, I swear. Go, Jesus.”

This accomplishes several things. Number one, it makes my opponent feel confident in his chances. Number two, it makes it seem like I am not paying attention to the game state. Number three, it makes him want to end the game quicker because he thinks he might get wrecked if I have time to draw out, potentially preventing a play along the lines of “tap my little guys to Convoke something broken.” So obviously I wreck him with the Seed Spark, untap, and bash head with my hand, much of which I can obviously actually cast.

So how do you know when to make a play like this?

The key lies in strategic superiority, to hearken back to yesterday. You have to consider how you’re going to possibly win this game. Now obviously plays that rely on a bluff are inherently very risky, so you have to quantify when it’s going to be worth your time. In this case, I was fighting an uphill battle and was probably going to lose if I made the simple, “fair” play of laying down a man and passing. This play, though, gives me options. If he sees through my bluff? Great, I still Spark the Pillory at his end-step, save myself a damage, and have a decent answer to his Imp. I didn’t kill his guys with the tokens, but they’re still sitting there just in case. But if he doesn’t see it? He loses, plain and simple.

A perfect example of this I talked about in my Heartbeat report for a PTQ in Nashville back in January. I am getting demolished by a Rock player. He has a Withered Wretch out and has resolved two Duresses and a Cabal Therapy, so he knows that I have a Cunning Wish and a Moment’s Peace in my hand. I have eight lands in play, and a Heartbeat of Spring that I laid down there a few turns before to give myself more outs on the peel, and to keep it away from Duress/Therapy. On my turn, I draw Fact or Fiction and pass.

Now, I am in a bad way, but I know something that my opponent does not: I have a Hunting Pack in my sideboard. Due to the nature of Extended Heartbeat, it’s really hard to win off an empty hand barring a) the gassiest FoF ever and a stupid opponent or b) Deep Analysis. So the Pack is definitely my best option. But once again, my opponent doesn’t know that.

He swings with his Wretch, plays a Bird of Paradise, and sacrifices it to Therapy.

Here comes the play, boys.

Now, strict Magic theory might say that the best player here is to, in response, Wish for Pack, Peace, Flashback Peace, and Pack for 5 guys. But this has a giant problem. It’s game one, which means he hasn’t sided out Pernicious Deed, and he has three cards in his hand. He presently hasn’t had time to cast said Deed because he was on three land (if he casts it, he lets me know it’s coming and still can’t kill Heartbeat, plus he leaves only two open to Wretch and I might could rip DA/Nostalgic Dreams and win right there. If, on the other hand, he busts Deed immediately, he wraths his team). So I can’t go off in response or risk losing my only out.

But I can’t just sit there either. Even though he doesn’t know it, Cunning Wish is much more valuable than FoF right now. I’m going to need an awful lot more than one Fact to get me to the point where I can combo him. But in his mind, Cunning Wish is just going to go get Fact or Fiction or Early Harvest, neither of which help me out very much. But the kicker is, it’s what he knows I have in the grip. So it’s what he’s going to name. Unless I do something about it.

The play?

He Therapies. I say, “I may have a response.” I grab the FoF in my hand and bring it close enough to the table where my opponent can see it. I tap two lands very tentatively, then untap and say “no, nothing.” He, thinking I didn’t realize he could see the FoF, obviously names it with the Therapy, making some remark to the tune of “thanks” as he rips it out of my hand. He then passes, whereby on the end step I Peace, flash it back, wish for Pack, and Pack to the tune of twenty power worth of guys. I bring, and he dies.

My opponent: “you should never put that deck down.”

I don’t illustrate that scenario to make myself look slick. I point it out because sometimes, you can’t just play your cards. You have to actively seek out ways to beat your opponent that in some cases may not involve the actual game state at all. You have to find a strategy, and then carry out that strategy using every resource at hand. Do that, and you’ll be winning a whole hell of a lot more games.

Thanks y’all for reading yet another Daily from me this far. I love writing these things. Keep the comments up in the forums; I really appreciate it.