In Magic there is a strong draw to feel like you have outplayed your opponent. Psychologically, it is more appealing than a game in which you seemed to
just have a better draw, a good matchup, or some other means of victory.
Unfortunately, what it looks like to outplay your opponent rarely makes it truly seem like you did. When you consistently play better, your opponent is
often unaware that they are being outplayed. The plays that make it clear you have outplayed them are much rarer since they typically involve some trap
being sprung or a mind trick being played.
Such tactics form a very small part of your repertoire as a player. The vast majority of games are decided by who plays more fundamentally sound Magic. Who
sequences their lands and spells to use their mana most efficiently, who saves their removal for the most opportune times, or who identifies their role in
the game and sideboards more effectively.
These fundamentals create small advantages that compound over time to create a significant edge. There are hundreds of tiny decisions that are made over
the course of a game of Magic, and if you make five more correct decisions than your opponent, your edge will be tiny, but if you make fifty more than your
opponent, your edge will be huge. Leveraging these small edges is not a particularly sexy way to win a game of Magic, but it is the most effective and the
The issue is that many players tend to look at the traps and mind trick side of things when they think of one player getting outplayed by the other. These
plays tend to be huge blowouts that completely change the texture of the game, which makes them more impressive and thus, more memorable.
Moreover, the decision to leverage these plays to gain a huge edge often comes at a considerable risk. Still, the draw to create those moments and the
stories that come along with them is enough to seduce even experienced players. I liken it to the desire to swing for a home run on every pitch, rather
than going for base hits. The best batters only swing for home runs when the pitch is especially easy to hit. They are opportunistic but not reckless. So
too are the best Magic players.
The most common manifestation of this desire that I see is when players unnecessarily hold excess lands in their hand. They fail to recognize that the
value of having those lands in play, while small, is still almost always higher than the value you gain by bluffing your opponent.
Consider that this typically occurs in a lategame situation, where both players have often expended many resources and are for the most part playing off
the top of their decks. If your opponent is savvy enough to take into account what you may have drawn, they will likely also be able to deduce that any
relevant cards that you could have drawn, you would have played, and thus still conclude that your cards are worthless. Rarely does the situation occur
that there is a card that you could have drawn, would not have played, and would change your opponent’s line of play to cause him/her to lose the game.
When you find that moment, it will be glorious, but the search for that moment will cost you many games over time.
Those lands could prevent you from playing an X spell for the maximum amount, prevent you from deploying the cards gained from an expensive card draw spell
in the fastest manner, or prevent you from activating certain abilities from a card you draw. These are all very small considerations, but they are
certainly larger than the bluff, so for the most part, you should just deploy your lands.
Even more extreme, I have seen players hold a possibly relevant creature or other spell in order to hold up the mana to bluff a trick. It is easy to
remember the several games where that creature did not do much, but there is almost always a short sequence of draws that will punish you for holding back.
Maybe you draw a few good spells in a row that you then play instead and that 2/1 would have been able to attack and/or block for some value.
This is a much more likely result, but it is an edge that lacks flash. It is the Magic equivalent of working a walk. Walks are so boring that it took
nearly a century for baseball players, coaches, and managers to accept that they are actually quite valuable. Home runs, on the other hand, are awesome
enough that they often make you forget about the three times you struck out.
The primary lesson here is that the best Magic most often deals with maximizing the value of the cards you have. Only once you have extracted as much as
you can from your hand and board should you try to extract value from bluffing phantom cards. The fundamentals are fundamental for a reason. They are the
most important skills and are the skills on which the vast majority of games are won and lost.
So when is bluffing warranted? From the last paragraph we may deduce that bluffing is the only option once you have extracted all possible value from our
cards through normal means. This typically means that you have failed to navigate to a winning position and instead are in desperation mode. Indeed you
will often see the best players bluff in very poor spots and need something dramatic and unexpected to happen in order to win the game. In these situations
you have little to lose, and the value of the flashy play that creates a big swing is higher.
Even more extreme, bluffing is warranted when you have absolutely nothing to lose. Attacking your 2/2 into a 1/3 when your opponent has no means to cast a
relevant spell (no mana untapped and/or no cards in hand) has no opportunity cost unless the 1/3 may be able to profitably attack if you do.
It is telling that I had to qualify that condition as much as I did. There are so many ways that such a play can be punished, and you have to be sure.
You may argue that searching for these opportunities does no harm, but every ounce of mental energy in a game of Magic is precious, especially when
compounded over the course of a tournament. The working memory has a finite capacity, and overloading it leads to a decline in ability to remember more
important information, as well as critical thinking.
We practice in order to relegate as much as possible to other parts of the brain, leaving the working memory free to tackle only the most complicated
in-game decisions. Wasting these precious resources on a low value tactic like bluffing is a very poor allocation of mental resources.
Ultimately, what I think this desire to make amazing plays comes from is the notion that emulating the best players is the best way to improve. This idea
is correct in a sense, but it is tainted by the fact that lesser players gain a distorted view of what the best players are doing when watching tournament
Coverage of tournaments tends to emphasize the amazing because it makes for better entertainment. It does not emphasize the one hundred tedious plays the
top players make to put themselves in that spot, or the one hundred times they declined the amazing play because it was incorrect. It also does not show
you the thousands of hours of practice these players put in to hone their fundamentals to the point where they can even expend the mental energy to
recognize when to go for such plays.
Making the fundamental play time and time again in order to win five extra games out of 100 is not only difficult, it is a time consuming process. It is
easy to believe that what separates the top players from the average is an innate capacity for greatness that you simply have to try your best to mimic. It
is comforting to believe that there is only one step between you and greatness, even if that step is large.
In reality, it is a long sequence of small steps. Innate ability certainly plays a role, but we all have the tools to maximize our talents. It may be
disappointing to accept that maximizing your talent is such a dull, tedious process, but that is why loving the game is so important. It helps you wade
through the monotony.
The difference between you and the pros is not the capability for jaw-dropping plays; it is the discipline to make the unexciting play nearly every time
because it is correct. If you want to accurately emulate the best, focus on making the solid, straightforward best plays. After all, every win, no matter
how it is earned, is worth three points. Win as many as you can. Leave the flashy stuff to the kids at the kitchen table.