Now that I have covered most of MD5 drafting, I’d like to turn my attention back to the things that can make small differences in games. Maybe these”fundamentals” (as the StarCityGames.com page calls them) will only increase your odds by a few percentage points but that can add up. Let’s say your mulligan decisions increase your odds of winning by 5%, attacking properly increases it by 5%, proper playtesting boosts your chances by 7%, and identifying some of your errors and preventing them gives you a 6% edge. You have just increased your chances of winning by 23%. This may seem extreme, but it isn’t far off. On a long enough timeline, if you keep plugging holes in your game, your losses will exclusively be to bad luck. A lot of people would disagree, but the luck factor in Magic is actually fairly low.
You may think it odd to take lessons from someone whose success at the game has been moderate at best, but I did all these things to reach the level I did. I played in dozens of PTQs, not even realizing how bad I was before I got onto the train. These articles aren’t for low to medium level pros who want to top 8 a Pro Tour (though it wouldn’t hurt some of them to polish up these aspects of their game). These are for the frustrated PTQ player who is looking to make his way onto the Tour.
Today’s topic was briefly discussed in The Art of the Attack. However, I now feel it is a topic worth discussing on its own. Bluffing is a fundamental part of Magic. Players who don’t employ it are robbing themselves of a slight edge. Players who can’t identify them can lose games they had the tools to win.
When to Bluff -“So like I said, the Professor’s bet is $20.”
The ideal times to bluff are when attempting to call your bluff would have a major adverse effect on your opponent, should you not be bluffing. Okay that was a mouth full; here’s an example: Let’s say you are playing Onslaught Block limited. Your opponent just tapped out to play a Hystrodon. You have a Morphed Daru Healer. You have six land on the table, two of which produce Green. You want to attack here. Sure the Morph may be irrelevant, but what if it isn’t. Your opponent doesn’t want to lose his Hystrodon to a Treespring Lorian and not even trade. Even if you have Primal Boost, it is a very bad trade for him. He will let this Morph through almost every time.
Onslaught Block is a cop-out example. Morph allowed for so much more bluffing. This type of bluff can be used anytime it is unfavorable for the defending player to trade his creature for a pump spell.
There is a little known aspect of bluffing that transcends Constructed and Limited. That is the bluff that forces bad blocks. Early in the game, the threat of burn or pump will dissuade the opponent from blocking. Later on, it can encourage it. If you can get your opponent to believe you have a card in your hand that you don’t, it can win you the game. This goes back to Ben Stark’s old maxim: If the only way you can win is to draw x, then play like you have x in your hand. There is a corollary to that. If the only way you can win is if your opponent plays around x, then play like you have x in your hand.
This also relates to Joseph Crosby’s quote,”I never realized how badly people play when you put pressure on them.” If you, through your style and pace of play, can convince your opponent you have the Searing Flesh/Shrapnel Blast/Predator’s Strike, then do so. Act confident and play fast. If you don’t waste time pondering attacks and always look like you have the answer, your opponent, particularly if he knows the card is in your deck, will often make bad blocks playing around that card. This can often tip the game in your favor.
Avoid Making Bad Bluffs – “The second rule in a crisis situation: If you are going to bluff, you must be prepared to have your bluff called.”
Low percentage bluffs can not only lose you the game if called, but will be called by any good player. A low percentage bluff is one that, even if you aren’t bluffing, won’t hurt the opponent too much. For instance, let’s say you have a Tanglewalker in play and you attack into a tapped out opponent with Cobalt Golem in play. He has no Artifact Lands, but you know there are at least two in his deck. Your opponent should block every time here. If he winds up trading for a Predator’s Strike or even an Echoing Courage, it is worth the chance to get rid of that Tanglewalker. It also gets the pump spell out of your hand, so the Walker is easier to deal with later.
The last bluff listed in the last section should be employed with great care. In truth you will want to reserve this strategy to a last ditch effort. If you can win the game without doing this, you should probably venture down that road. Or, if you go for the overpressure bluff and it is called, you lose the game. That is a little something we like to call”attacking for the loss.” Good players can spot this one a mile away. Be careful.
Reading a Bluff -“You ain’t got the guts.” *bang*”Anyone else want a limp?”
Bluffing is great. It can give you slight edges in certain situations, but what can win you or lose you a game is properly reading bluffs. There is a story Jordan Berkowitz likes to tell from PT: Yokohama. He was at seven and his opponent was at six. Jordan had two Mountains and five Plains in play. His opponent had a Stonewood Invoker in play and eight Land. Jordan had no defense for this card. His opponent attacked. Jordan tapped his five land then quickly untapped them and asked,”effects before damage?” His opponent thought about it, and apparently thought back to the Pinpoint Avalanche he had seen earlier and decided not to pump the Invoker. Jordan drew his card for the turn, a Mountain, played it, tapped the right mana, cast Akroma, Angel of Wrath, and won the game.
Anytime your opponent does anything, you should say to yourself,”Why is he doing this?” It doesn’t matter how small or big the action is. Every action has a purpose. A reason the actor acted. Discovering this motivation is what is known as a”read.” Reads are complex. The best way to improve this skill is just logging hours of playing with all different sorts of opponents. No two people have the same”tells” (tells are the give away to allow correct reads). In the above example, Jordan was probably fairly confident that he was facing a weak opponent. A player like Finkel or Huey would have seen right through that ruse. Of course Jordan is a great player in his own right. Were he playing against one of those players, he likely would have found a better way to represent the Pinpoint Avalanche that didn’t exist.
Jordan’s opponent made a grave error. He should know that Jordan was good enough to wait until the pump to respond. The very act that caused the opponent not to pump should have clued him in that Jordan was bluffing. You have to get yourself into your opponent’s mind. Jordan was hot off of a third place finish at PT: Venice. Jordan is also a fairly arrogant player. He makes this quite obvious, so it’s not a hard thing to read. Jordan’s opponent should have realized that Jordan would think he is a fool and read his moves accordingly. But Jordan won that battle of wits. He played his opponent for a fool and he was right.
Reads are tough. Not only is it hard to master that art, but if you misread a player it will likely mean the game. The best practice until you are quite confident in your reads, is to play the numbers game. I am not sure if Jordan’s opponent knew he had Akroma, but if he did, his play was certainly wrong from a numbers standpoint.
By not pumping, he leaves himself in quite a bit of trouble. He has to keep attacking for just two as long as Jordan has 3RR open. This means Jordan gets three more turns. If he has Akroma in hand, he is all but guaranteed to draw the ninth land. He can’t tap any many for anything else because the lethal creature will get Avalanched. His best course of action here is pumping. Jordan is more likely to have the uncastable Akroma in hand than the Pinpoint, which likely would have been used earlier in the game.
Great Moments in Bluffing History -“And I can sum it all up in just one word: courage, dedication, daring, pride, pluck, spirit, grit, mettle, and G-U-T-S, *guts*. Why, Ted Striker’s got more guts in his little finger than most of us have in our large intestine, including the colon!”
Star City’s own Chad Ellis is one of the craftiest players I have ever watched. When he was in his prime he was likely one of the top 10 players in the U.S. Of all of Chad’s great plays, this one sticks out in my mind as one of the best (Excuse any errors in the story, but the point gets across in all of them):
Chad was playing the High Tide mirror. It was Chad’s turn 4 and he looked at a hand of six lands and one spell. He had his three land on the table from the previous turn. What could Chad do with all that land? Why he turned them all into counterspells, of course. Chad intentionally missed his turn 4 land drop. Now Chad’s opponent thought he was facing a man with seven spells in his hand. Chad’s opponent never attempted to go off the entire game. Eventually, after making every land drop for the rest of the game Chad eventually drew into the tools to go off. Chad saw his road to victory, took his chance, and successfully bluffed his way out of a land flood.
Our next story involves another Star City writer. However, this time he is on the receiving end. Gabe Walls was in a playtest match against everyone’s favorite curmudgeon, Jon Becker. Jon was playing the whole game like he had Complicate. Gabe read this and saw his chance to get it out of his hand. Gabe had eight land and a Zombie Warchief on the table. Gabe tapped six land and cast Nefashu. Becker, seeing the two lands untapped, tapped three mana and hard cast Complicate. Gabe tapped the last two mana and said,”pay.”
Proper bluffing and accurately calling bluffs can go a long way to improving your game. This concept may seem advanced, but it really is a fundamental part of the game. Getting in those free points of damage, convincing your opponent your hand is stronger than it is, or just not letting your opponent get anything by you can mean the difference between a win and a loss. Just remember, to win a match your brain has to be working at all times.