The Chump Block – Thoughts on Thinking

Grand Prix GP Columbus July 30-August 1, 2010
Monday, July 5th – I don’t normally care for strategy articles. Magic has been around for quite a long while, and there are about a billion articles on the subject of bringing your game to the next level, tournament preparation, etc. Every time I read an article that advises me to get plenty of sleep before a big tournament, I punch my computer right in the face.

Here goes: I’m going to attempt to do something that I have yet to do in my (admittedly not very illustrious or long) career as a writer. I’m going to write what is known in the Magic universe as a “strategy” article. I don’t’ normally care for strategy articles; Magic’s been around for quite a long while, and there are about a billion articles the subject of bringing your game to the next level, tournament preparation, etc. Every time I read an article that advises me to get plenty of sleep before a big tournament, I punch my computer right in the face. However, since I don’t particularly have anything else I want to write about — M11 is still only about half spoiled, and I don’t particularly want to speculate on cards or devise decks when there still might be super bombs that haven’t been spoiled yet, nor have I really developed anything that I feel merits discussion — that leaves me with little option.

I hope you’re preparing yourself, because you’re in for a bumpy ride.

People assume a lot in Magic, probably the number one thing being the notion that their opponent is trying to the best of their ability to play perfectly. Perhaps “perfect” is the wrong word here and “efficient” might be a better choice. In either case, there’s something truly human about wanting to get the most out with the least amount of investment, and when our opponent does not play their most efficient game, it forces us to make assumptions about the reasoning for their not doing so. This train of thought usually leads us to infer what might be in their hand and/or the game plan they have in mind. An example:

Our opponent levels up their Halimar Wavewatch twice, and could level it up once more but instead opts to leave two conspicuous Blue mana untapped. Why would they do such a thing!? Clearly, in this scenario, our opponent is representing having something in their hand. Perhaps Fleeting Distraction, perhaps Eel Umbra, or more likely since they specifically left two Blue mana open, Deprive. What about:

Your opponent is playing a G/W tokens deck, and has a fair bit of mana amassed, along with a few Eldrazi Spawn tokens. He goes to cast Jaddi Lifestrider, but instead of tapping all 5 of his lands in play, he opts to tap down four and sacrifice a token, leaving a lone White mana open. Only a fool wouldn’t realize that he a Smite or Puncturing Light just waiting to strike down some fearsome attacker.

My point here: what if he tapped that way simply to make you think that he had those cards? If your opponent is sitting there with a handful of lands, than the threat of his having those answers is far more valuable than putting a third level counter on his Wavewatch or having another random Eldrazi Spawn. The thought of sacrifice for no profit is a hard concept to accept, but that mere fact can cause you to severely impact how you opponent assesses your situation. There is certainly a chance that it has no impact whatsoever if you have an answer to his supposed answer, or perhaps it’s just as important to assume he has nothing, a “well, if he’s got it, then he’s got it” mind set. More than likely, however, this double-agent knowledge will be able to help him in subtle ways, as you bend over backwards in order to avoid a blowout by the card that you “know” they have.

Another example of using your opponent’s judgments against them:

You opponent has Thopter Foundry/Sword of the Meek combo assembled (pretend this is a couple of months ago) but no tokens out yet. You have a Tezzeret on board, and want to go get the lone Pithing Needle in your deck so as to stop the combo, but you really don’t want your planeswalker to die. If you use Tezzeret’s ability where X=1, your opponent will almost surely know to start plopping Thopters on the table in response to the ability; he will undoubtedly try to think of all the one-casting cost artifacts that you could be going to get, go through the relatively short list of them, and invariably come up with the dreaded Needle that you intend to stymie him with. My advice? Search for something that costs two or less. Your opponent will try to think about all of the various two-drop artifacts that you could be hoping to get, probably assuming that you will go to fetch whatever half of the combo you yourself are missing, never guessing that you in fact spent an additional loyalty counter just so you wouldn’t give away any information. Again, this gambit is not foolproof. He could potentially see through your ruse and still make tokens in response, but in the end, by sacrificing an additional loyalty counter you end up taking literally only a single point more of damage (assuming that he then kills Tezzeret). More often than not though, I imagine that you will trap those players that constantly try and wait until the very last moment before making any decision (those attempting to “play perfectly”), but by the end of your turn, it will be too late.

This idea of sacrificing-for-nothing-but-really-for-something has a shorter name: bluffing. I have a confession to make. I bluff A LOT. I would venture to say that I bluff much more than most players, but in reality I have no reasonable way of knowing how often some people bluff (which is sort of the point). Bluffing is much more of a strategic ploy in Limited where the potential card pool of combat tricks is much higher and is a great way to not only sneak a few extra points of damage in, but also to slyly put that idea of “he has card X” in your opponent’s head. It comes with a significant amount of risk, but that is why I find that my opponent is almost always willing to simply take the damage instead of calling out the bluff. How is this paradox possible? Because people find it hard to believe that their opponent is willing to simply sacrifice for nothing.

Please, don’t go out and immediate attack your 1/1 into your opponent’s 5/5. There are a couple of tips on maximizing your ability to psyche your opponent out that you should consider first. By far the most important rule is that you should be sure that your opponent cannot outplay your trick. Generally, this means don’t try anything silly in the face of open mana and cards in your opponent’s hand. If your opponent is prepared to deal with your combat trick, and you don’t even have one, things are probably going to be looking mighty awkward. I feel like this is a fairly obvious point, but I make it just so that I cover all of my bases.

There are two aspects on bluffing that I really want to make sure I hit home, and both of them take a little bit of preparation. The first is about confidence. When there’s a clear cut play that you know you are going to make, it doesn’t take a whole lot of time for the average player to make that play. I say average player, because there are clearly some players that take a million years to make any play; for the most part, however, whether to play the lone two-drop in your hand on turn 2 doesn’t take a whole lot of mulling over. Put another way, undue hesitation can be detrimental to the successful bluff attempt.

If you’re going to sit, mulling over the possibilities of what to do, you’re undermining yourself in two ways. First, you are implying to your opponent that you have multiple options that your mana could go toward. If they feel that they could in some way profit even if you have the trick, perhaps by gaining a large amount of tempo in forcing you to commit your mana to the combat phase rather than developing your board, then you are in a big pickle. If, on the other hand, you have a trick that you would gladly prefer to play, it doesn’t take a whole lot of self-convincing in order to attack. Often, I decide well in advance whether I can afford to bluff and when the time comes, I untap, and almost immediately send my guy or guys into the red zone. You would be surprised how effective the air of extreme confidence is when barreling into what would seem to be inevitable doom.

The second related point is about value and knowledge of the cards. The better your opponent is, the more thinking he is going to do before deciding whether or not to block. He will think of all the possible cards that you could have and try to deduce which one or ones may be in your hand, weighing the impact of each before deciding to commit to a course of play. It’s therefore important, especially as you face tougher and tougher opponents, to be specific in the bluff that you are attempting. If you just randomly attack, and there is literally nothing in the card pool that you could have that would necessarily blow me away, than I will probably block you even if I suspect you have a combat trick. When I attempt to bluff, it is almost always with the pretense that my “trick” will gain me value. Might of the Masses is a bad trick to bluff that you have unless you are running a far inferior creature into his much better monster as it only 1-for-1s him. Affa Guard Hound and Eel Umbra are two examples of good tricks that also happen to gain you a lasting advantage. It is these tricks that your opponent’s will be most wary of, and that you should therefore attempt to imply.

Therefore, the more articulate you can be with your finesse, putting an idea into your opponent’s head, the more likely that you will be able to capitalize on it. If I attack you and I have 2 of every color mana available to me, you might be inclined to block just to see what I have and get the trick out of my hand. But if I lead you to believe that I have a very specific card, you will be less likely to be willing to fall victim to it, especially if it leads you to think that you will lose value. Attacking with Jwari Scuttler into your Lagac Lizard with only Blue mana often means I almost certainly have an Eel Umbra in hand. This might not be the best example, as perhaps getting 2-for-1’d in this situation is okay if you’d rather have Eel Umbra enchanting such a underwhelming creature rather than something else, but I wanted to use a scenario where that was really only one possible trick that could be used to gain value.

I’m not advocating going out and making ridiculous decisions willy-nilly, subsequently shooting yourself in the foot and blaming it on me. The concept that I’m trying to convey is that Magic is more about just the game going on with the cards on the table. There’s a lot you can do to gain an advantage in the mental war that is constantly being fought, and while these options and opportunities to do so are not always available, I hope that reading this have provided you with perhaps a little bit of insight into some subtle improvements that you can make toward your game.

I originally had about twice as much information – a whole other section – but I wasn’t as happy at how eloquently it came out. Quite a few vague terms were bandied about so I reluctantly decided to cut it, putting it in my pocket to pull out on another rainy Magic day. That being the case, I’d love to know what you thought of this attempt at Theory, either via e-mail or in the forums. I promise I won’t hate negative responses, but please, constructive criticism only.

Thanks for reading.

Zach Jesse
ZoochZ on MTGO
[email protected]