The Anatomy of “The Bluff”

In the quarterfinals of Pro Tour: Nagoya, Terry Soh pulled off one of the more impressive and memorable plays in recent Pro Tour memory, using a stone cold bluff to get Frank Karsten to make a game-losing mistake. In a stunning look at the mental game behind the scenes of the highest levels of Magic, Terry dissects the game situation that led to that awesome play, and shows you both how to set up bluffing situations to exploit your opponents and how to protect yourself against them.

It’s been a month since I returned from PT: Nagoya, yet I can still hear words spreading around my region regarding about my “bluff”. People have been asking again and again about that play, regardless whether it was right after the Top 8 match, or weeks later after I returned to Malaysia. Magic is a game of inches. Every single decision matters, and if you can make it happen, you obviously want to make your opponents play the game the way you want it to happen. Occasionally, you have to do something to make the bait look tempting enough – to lure your opponents into falling for it, and that’s what we call bluffing.

Bluffing has been one of the fundamental elements of the game since Magic was invented. Oddly enough, because of the knowledge and a deep understanding of the cards available in the format by a most pros, bluffing is considerably more likely to work at higher skill levels in the game, provided you send the correct signals and don’t overplay your hand. Sometimes, however, it is absolutely necessary to make a certain bluff in order to win the game.

I’m not going to go through all the elements of bluff theory today, since it’s very practical and there’s no promise bluffing will work 100 %. Instead, I’ll go through what happened in the Top 8 match in PT Nagoya to give you an insight into what’s going on in the minds of two players playing in such a competitive level event, and trying to gain an edge with psychological games. Since I’m going to go through things turn by turn this could be a little boring, but I believe that if you follow it thoroughly (or even better – if you could watch the video coverage and read this at the same time), you’ll definitely learn something. Some writers tend to write about their road trips, hotels they stayed in and stuff. I would never include that in my article since I believe you read what I write to gain knowledge about this game and to improve, not how a Magic player flies from place to place and the hotel he stays in. I simply just skip those parts when myself was browsing through those articles. Hopefully what I have to say here will help make you a better player.

I shall start with Game 4, since I made plenty of successful bluffs in that particular game. I curved out well with a first turn Akki Avalanchers, second-turn Cruel Deceiver. My opponent, Frank Karsten went first and dropped a turn 3 Kabuto Moth. Stumbling on my development of damage with such a nice curve, I had no choice but to cast redundant creatures that can’t get past an active Kabuto Moth. However, the good news is that he dropped to 16 from my small critters, since the Moth is not going to trade with em. I played my third creature (Brutal Deceiver) and passed the turn. Frank lays his fourth land and passes the turn as well. Here comes the decision making part:

Turn 4

I drew another creature and didn’t have the fourth land. Now, Frank had passed the turn without dropping any creature on board, that gives a strong signal to me that either his hand is choked with lands, or some mixture of fatties and lands, or he had something up his sleeve, since I knew that he had drafted 2 Candles’ Glow in his deck (that’s the advantage and disadvantage in Rochester Draft). My hand contains a Swallowing Plague, so if I drew the fourth land, I could have swing with my creatures, losing one of them in the process and proceed to burn the Moth out with it, with the risk of a Candles’ Glow. However I don’t have that luxury of considering that move, since I didn’t draw the fourth land, hence I had to cast another redundant creature (a Villainous Ogre) and ended the turn.

Turn 5

Frank drops the fifth land, cast a Harsh Deceiver (which he most probably topdecks, since he would have cast it on turn 4 otherwise) and passes the turn. Again, I stumble on lands drop. Should I have hit both land drops on turns 4 and 5, I could win easily. I cast a freshly drawn Thief of Hope and pass the turn again, since there’s no way I could ambush with my team.

Turn 6

Frank for sure has the sixth land. He plays a Moss Kami, which threatens my route to victory because I have no way to deal with it (there’s no Rend Spirit or Befoul in my deck). He ended the turn with a solid board position on his side. I draw my card and it’s a Mountain, which I haven’t seen in ages! I play it down and casts my Frostwielder, hoping to set an inevitable clock since my chance are pretty slim here with all quality creatures on Frank’s side. I figured out by pinging him every turn with both Thief of Hope and Frostwielder, once his life drops low enough, I could alpha-strike him for win.

Turn 7

As usual, Frank lays his land. He thought for a while eventually swings in for 5 with the Moss Kami, dropping me to 15, plays a Burr Grafter and passes. I didn’t draw a land again, which put me into a desperate situation for an out. My hand has several creatures, Distress and Swallowing Plague. I’ve decided to cast my Distress to clear the last card in his hand, which is a feared Candles’ Glow! The remaining two-mana was used to play a Hearth Kami, bringing me to 16 life and Frank to 15 life.

Turn 8

He draws, swings with his Moss Kami, bringing me to 11 life, drops a Kami of Old Stone, done. Of course I remember to ping him with Frostwielder at the end of turn (In fact, let’s just agree that Frank loses 1 life every turn to Frostwielder, so I won’t need to repeat that boring sentence every turn). I drew a land, and my hand currently has a Gibbering Kami, land and a Swallowing Plague. I peek at the top card using Cruel Deceiver’s ability, and it’s a land. Now I have to figure out whether I should cast the Gibbering Kami or pass the turn. Let’s analyze my options in this particular situation.

How do you play this?

1) Cast the Gibbering Kami, done. While this play would make full use of the remaining available mana, you are showing the path for your opponent to deal you at least 5 damage in his next attack step. The positive side is that you play another creature that turn and are ready to use the Swallowing Plague in your hand for 4 points next turn, since you know the top of your library is a land.

2) Pass the turn without doing anything. This play looks simple but is actually complicated. Now try to put yourself in my position though you are me (Terry Soh) and try to think as Frank Karsten. Would “Frank Karsten” attack into your Cruel Deceiver ? The answer is most probably not, if you pass then turn. It simply because Frank knew that Terry had stumbled on land a couple of turns, so there’s no way the cards in Terry’s hand are redundant. If Terry passes the turn without doing anything, that means Terry got the land he was looking for on top of his library.

Hence I decided that passing the turn will be the better route, since I could buy myself some time. Either Frank attacks into my Cruel Deceiver and loses his Moss Kami, or leaves the Kami behind for at least a turn, which gives me 5 extra life. Either way, it would be beneficial for me.

Turn 9

Karsten draws another quality creature here, Kitsune Blademaster. He thought for a while, then surprisingly, passes the turn without attacking! I was so surprised and happy (well, of course I didn’t show my expression about that). Had he attacked with anyone, I would have just absorbed the damage since blocking is never good for me at that point, as he has an active Kabuto Moth there. Every point of damage counts. He would have won that game if he simply swings with any one dude from his side. Okay, now it’s my turn to draw the land I had peeked last turn. I drew my sixth land, peeked, and it’s a Soulless Revival. There were two options available for me this time.

1) Cast the Gibbering Kami, done.

Again, you get to use up your mana for the turn. I didn’t choose to go this route simply because I had another plan fluttering around in my mind, and it’s here that I set up the bluff.

2) Pass the turn with a look filled with confidence.

Now, I knew that my top card of the library is not a land but a Soulless Revival. Yet I pass the turn confidently. Again it sends the same signal I gave to Frank last turn.

Advantage: If Frank holds his army back for another turn, I get more time in the game. Since I have inevitability, the advantage is certainly in my grip.

Disadvantage: I look like an idiot if Frank calls it right. Not only did I waste my whole turn, I turned down the opportunity to cast the Gibbering Kami in my hand. And he gets to deal tons of damage to me.

After considering both the advantage and disadvantage, and looking at myself through Frank’s eyes, I decided to take the risk. The main reason I’m pretty convinced that Frank would leave the fattest creature (Moss Kami) behind because I assume that he would most probably wouldn’t risk his Moss Kami.

Let me explains this a little better. Frank is a player full with experience and play skill, and his opponent (that’s me) has only attended a couple of premier events. In addition, I live somewhere unknown in the Magic community. For my own opinion, Frank has most probably been thinking that this kid from Malaysia would not take such risk under the spot lights, since he traveled all the way to Japan and wouldn’t want to risk his match for such a risky play where a better player would read him. That’s exactly what I wanted him to think. Maybe my call is wrong, but I just have to give it a try based on my own assumption, as I’m the only one that could help myself out in that situation. I remember reading one of Chad Ellis article regarding bluffs some years ago. It says that the better players could always gain an edge from the ability to read their opponent. Now I want to abuse this “tactic” and turn it into a favorable play for me.

Turn 10

As usual, Frank got to do whatever he wants to do, since he went first in the game. He chooses to attack with Kitsune Blademaster and Harsh Deceiver, leaving the Moss Kami home. Bluff number 1 has succeeded. He reveals a land on top for an additional damage from his Deceiver, and I take four damage in the process. He played a Konda’s Hatamoto and done.

My turn now, and I draw the Soulless Revival. I play the Swallowing Plague for four, targeting his Kabuto Moth. You might been thinking, “why didn’t Terry continue with his bluff?”

Simply because I don’t think Frank will keep his Moss Kami on the bench again and I don’t have much time to cast anything if I don’t do it right now. Frank is trying to kill me as fast as possible here, while maintaining a certain amount of defense to keep himself alive. His armies are getting larger as he draws creature after creature each turn. The Swallowing Plague here will definitely eliminate one creature from his side, and I predicted he would sacrifice the Burr Grafter to save the Moth, since he’s gonna take the game within a turn or two as long as the Moth continues to mess up with my combat math. He might have just let it die if he gets greedy though, since he could soulshift it back later on with the Burr Grafter.

Regarding of the bluff, I had to be realistic about the percentage of success. I had tricked him once, and if this continues, he would had try to call it since my life had dropped lower from the previous attack. The guaranteed life boost from the Swallowing Plague is essential, plus I get Thief of Hope’s triggered ability. As expected he saves the Moth with Burr Grafter. No attacks from me yet, since I couldn’t kill him right away.

Turn 11

Frank swings with Kitsune Blademaster and Moss Kami since I’m tapped out, and thus unable to do anything with my Cruel Deceiver. I calculate for a while, trying to figure out what is going to happen during the next combat phrase. Eventually I settle down on chump blocking the Blademaster with my Hearth Kami, since I have Soulless Revival and Gibbering Kami in hand. During my turn, I cast the Gibbering Kami, bringing the life totals to 8 to 9 in Karsten’s favor and pass the turn with 2 lands untapped and a Soulless Revival in hand, waiting for the right opportunity.

Turn 12

This is the decisive turn of the game. Either I will lose on this turn or turn 13, or I could grab the victory with some trickery. Karsten swings with Kitsune Blademaster, Harsh Deceiver and the big fatty, Moss Kami. Time to analyze the situation.

1) I have to win on my next turn

Based on the cards on the board without counting my Soulless Revival here, I have to chump block two of his creatures in order to survive, since I only have 8 life left, and given the fact that the top of his library should be a land, since he attacked with a such a low power creature and it could untap after attacking only if on top of his library is a land. Thus I am sure the top card of his library is a land.

But wait – the Soulless Revival here gives me a window to save one of my creatures instead of sending two creatures of mine to the bin. That gives me the opportunity to alpha strike him the next turn, since it would be my last possible chance to win the game and the match, simply because his clock is much faster then my pingers.

Pesky Moths.

2) In order to sneak in the extra damage I needed, Kabuto Moth has to be tapped.

Okay, the plan is to lure him to tap his Kabuto Moth, making him down a blocker, then I could cast the last two spirit spells and alpha strike him for the win. But the question is, how could I possibly convince him to do so? Well, nothing looks more attractive than a win for him. Now, I have to create a situation where it makes him feels like he could win right there, but actually I’m the one who is going to win once he goes for the throat.

3) The “bluff”

The plan is to create a bluff that gets him to tap the Kabuto Moth, so I win. I’ve been thinking for like five minutes figuring out the situation. Finally I’ve concluded that if Kabuto Moth taps, I win. If not, I will definitely lose on the next attack from Frank. I opt to block his Blademaster with my Gibbering Kami, taking at least 6 damage ( Moss Kami + Harsh Deceiver )

If Frank’s top card is a land, that’s 8 damage in total with Kabuto Moth. He taps two mana and activates the Deceiver’s ability. Before he even reveals the top card, an idea suddenly comes across my mind. That idea is to bluff him that I’ve done a mistake in my calculation on both our life total, since it’s 8 and 9 life that we both have. Since the life totals are so close, I try to take full advantage of it.

“I have 9 life, right?” was my question to the judge.

“You have 8 life,” was the reply from the judge.

With a stunned look, I’m like, “I have 8 life?”

I’m not very sure whether it’s a good bluff or not, but all I know was that I tried my best. It immediately puts Frank into an alert situation, since I should not make such mistake at such high competitive play level. He thinks for a couple of minutes and begins agonizing. Here’s the dilemma for Frank:

1) Bluff

2) Double Bluff


While the miscount of life total might represent a bluff, Frank has to figure out what the purpose of the bluff is or whether it’s a real mistake. The main question Frank has to answers is: why did Terry do so? Does Terry try to cheat me so that he could live another turn simply because he had done a mistake by miscalculation of life totals, or he does he take the risk, hoping for the best that the top card of my library wasn’t a land, and when the land was revealed, he’s trying to save himself from lethal damage? In this case, I would call that a bluff, since this scenario was created to save himself another turn without any tricks from cards.

Double Bluff

After considering the first scenario, now Frank has to consider other options available. Does Terry have an Arcane spell to save himself from lethal damage? That should be the biggest question here for Frank, because if Terry has the Arcane spell, not only could Frank not win on that turn, he also has one less blocker, as he had to tap the Kabuto Moth to push through the 8 damage and go for the win. The double bluff was created due to the scenario created by the first bluff. It’s the total opposite of what the first bluff wants to do. The first bluff hopes that Frank does not tap the Moth. The second bluff requires Frank to tap the Moth so that I can win the game on my turn.

Frank thinks for a long time before deciding which bluff to call. At that point, I’m trying hard to figure out what I could do to further convince Frank to fall for my trap. Finally, another idea appears. I quickly hold up my pen and paper, ready to record down the 7 damage and asked, “Damage”? The purpose of that move is to convince Frank that I would like to stack damage as soon as possible, since the Moth is still untapped and I would live with one life remaining. But the goal behind the move is the totally the opposite – I desperately want the Moth to tap.

Frank seems to receive the signal of the “flaw” within my bluff, since I look desperate to stack damage. If you’re watching the video now, you could see that once I said, “Damage?” Frank immediately says no, and pumps one of his attackers within the next five seconds.

As I’ve explained, I survive the turn with one life thanks to my Soulless Revival and the Thief of Hope trigger, returning a Gibbering Kami to my hand. I draw a Wicked Akuba next turn, calculate, calculate again, cast two spirits and attack for the win. Good Game.

The most important rule I would like to remind readers of here is NEVER trust your opponents. Whether he looks real stupid, or you had yet to see him in any premier events before, never trust them regardless what they do, because you might falls into their bluff. Play out the game in whatever way you think is best for you. Ignore all of your opponent’s action.

Thank you for reading, and I hope you learned something about the world of trickery within our beloved game of Magic: the Gathering.