The Three Steps To The Last Ten Percent, Part 1

Say Kai Budde and Jon Finkel sit down across from each other playing identical decks. Who will win? The luckier one, most likely. Now, say Kai Budde and Random Scrub sit down across from each other. Most likely, Kai’s going to win. But if Random Scrub #1 and Random Scrub #2 face off, who will win now? The one who knows psychology.

I know you all are anxiously awaiting the results of my storyline trivia contest, but one contestant has not yet contacted me. Contestant, you know who you are; if you’re reading this, please email me right away!

However, this doesn’t mean that I can’t produce an article this week! Today, I’m going to be discussing how best to win in Magic. Novel topic, eh?

The way I see it, winning a game of Magic involves 30-60%* luck, 30-60%* skill, and 10% psychology.

Now, you can work to solve any of these problems: To deal with luck, you need to design your deck to minimize the amount of influence happenstance has on your deck. For instance, make your deck very consistent, say, with sixteen one-drops, eight two-drops, four three-drops, eight removal spells, and twenty-four basic land. Or you could work with card-drawing spells to insure that your hand is relatively the same at any point during the game. Skill is just a matter of practice and learning from your mistakes.

Both of these areas make fine fodder for articles, but I’m going to deal with the third area of winning: Psychological advantages.

Say Kai Budde and Jon Finkel sit down across from each other playing identical decks. Who will win? The luckier one, most likely. Now, say Kai Budde and Random Scrub sit down across from each other. Most likely, Kai’s going to win.

Now say Random Scrub #1 and Random Scrub #2 face off. Who will win now?

There’s no great difference in skill, and the luck factor is about the same. Where will the difference lay? I believe that the winner will be the one with the most information about the other. You always have an advantage if you know what’s in your opponent’s hand or what deck he’s playing or what his sideboard is. The key to winning this information (and therefore the game, in this situation) lies in psychological analysis of everything your opponent does.

Let’s start from scratch. Pairings are posted for the next round and you take your seat first. Your opponent walks up to your assigned table. What’s the first thing he does? Does he introduce himself? Does he open with the question,”Are you {insert your name}?” in order to make sure he’s in the right place? Does he start with a”How are you?” Any of these actions fall under what I would call”normal” behavior – but even from the outset, you can begin to accumulate information about your opponent. When he sits down, notice his actions. Does he immediately begin to pile shuffle? You know you’re playing against a serious opponent if this is the case. The same goes for the Booster Draft opponent playing with transparent silver sleeves. Does he watch his cards, being careful to account for every one, not making conversation before the round? Chances are, you’re in for a quiet match against a serious player whose mission is to beat you and move on.

On the other hand, maybe your opponent is playing without sleeves. That and an above-seventy card deck are the first signs of a newer player that probably won’t cause much difficulty skill-wise. If he’s playing with sleeves, notice them. Do they look old and well-used? You know that the player sitting across from you has been playing for at least as long as he’s owned those sleeves. If they appear to be five years old, this ain’t no newbie! The issue of brand new sleeves is a little murkier – they could be the sign of a player who cares very much about the presentation of his deck, or they could be the sign of a player having just bought his first set of sleeves. The judgment call is yours to make.

Now, this whole process of absorbing information about sleeve quality will take you only seconds, but already your mind is ticking on what you’re up against, and this information could be invaluable during the match. Will he notice that I can ping his creatures with my Chainflinger? If his sleeves are five years old, probably yes. If they’re new, you don’t know for sure, but you have some idea. As you can see, you can get a lot of information out of just looking at the sleeves on his cards. But, there’s much more to this psychological advantage than that.

The next area I would suggest observing would be your opponent’s shuffling technique. I’d say that repeated pile shuffling is a sign of a more serious player, whereas throwing the cards together from one hand to another is a more casual sign. Also notice how much small talk your opponent makes. The most important sentence I’d be listening for is the oft-heard variant of,”Well, congratulations on another match win,” or,”This is my first tournament in months!” or, my favorite,”I didn’t have a deck today, so I bought this preconstructed deck and threw in some of my own tweaks.” These are signs of a weaker player, one either without confidence or without a tremendous amount of skill. Of course, it’s important to understand your skill level in order to compare yourself to your opponent, but this is definitely a start.

Should these phrases be absent, I’d give a safe bet that this isn’t a terrible Magic player. He might be, but I’ve noticed that many people like to excuse their shortcomings in any field; that is, if you’re playing against a player who knows he’s bad, he’s likely to make an excuse before you begin to play in order to make it seem that it’s not his fault when he loses. Of course, there’s the age-old adage:”If you expect to lose, you will.” If you’re the sort of player I’m describing here, my advice to you is don’t show it. Have confidence in yourself, and it will work its way into your gameplay. You also won’t give away your skill level as I’ve described thus far in this article.

So you’ve seen sleeves and attitude. You have an idea of the player’s past… But what’s really important is the present. Your goal is to utilize all your resources in order to win the game (well, assuming you’re not there just to have fun). That means you’re going to have to start putting this psychology to use. And this is where the three steps I mentioned in the title come in.

The three steps to psychological Magic in Daniel Crane Book of Strategy are:

  • Know your enemy

  • Know yourself

  • Be your enemy.

If you can master all of these fields, you can master the last 10% of playing Magic. I’ve been working on this psychological mastery for years, and I still haven’t gotten it down pat; it is not an easy task. But the first step towards improvement is admitting you have a problem. If you’ve never given thought to any of the topics I’m about to discuss, it’s important that you start doing so. Even if you’re the luckiest and most skilled player alive, without these psychological skills, your gameplay will always be only 90% of what it could be. And, if you have been thinking about these items for a while, it can’t hurt to give them a second look as you finish reading this piece.

The first (and most important) step in the psychological advantage is knowing your opponent. (We’ll talk about this item today – because there’s a lot to it! – and save the other two steps for next week.) You’ve already begun this if you’ve studied your opponent’s mannerisms before time begins. The process continues after the round begins.

There are three areas you should keep your eyes on while still focusing on your game. (It is, of course, the latter condition that is the hardest to meet if you want to catch everything your opponent gives away… But practice makes perfect.) They include your opponent’s face, opponent’s hand, and the board and its consistence. Let’s take these in reverse order.

The makeup of the board can be an important clue as to the skill level, experience, and deck construction of your opponent. There’s a player at my local shop who, when playing with Nether Spirit or Squee, would always place that card on top of his library, helping to remind himself to deal with the creature during his upkeep before his draw. Running against such an opponent is bad news: It means that he’s already mastered Step Two, knowing himself. Additionally, he’s so used to playing with that deck that the act of utilizing his creatures is almost an unconscious one.

Additionally, if your opponent arranges his graveyard so that he can see every card in it (as opposed to a big pile), you can guess that he’s playing either with graveyard recursion/manipulation, flashback, or threshold. Also notice in what order your opponent puts cards in his graveyard. If he casts Innocent Blood with a creature on the board, his creature goes to the graveyard before the Innocent Blood. However, if he casts the Blood and puts it directly into his graveyard and then chooses a creature to sacrifice, you know you’re not playing with the most rules savvy opponent.

Also, I’ve found it useful to note land distribution. Are the lands of your opponent in neat stacks according to name or color produced? If not – that is, if they’re simply plopped on the board – how many tapping mistakes does your opponent make? One of my friends throws his lands any which way for most of his games and not infrequently has to back up to tap for spells correctly. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that players who deftly deal with randomly placed lands are much more comfortable with their decks and are therefore much more dangerous opponents.

Observing the board position of cards is something that can be accomplished with a glance, which can be renewed at any time during the game. There are key times, however, when your eyes should be on your opponent’s hands. The most important of these times is during the draw step. So many times, I’ve seen an opponent draw a card and begin to play it immediately before returning it to his hand on second thought. I now know that that card is a land. Additionally, if he moves it to the other side of his hand, there’s a good chance that there are more lands on that side of his hand as well. Keeping an eye on these cards and the other cards in hand will help you keep track of how many”business” spells your opponent has. Here’s the first real measure of advantage you can gain from this psychological analysis… But it’s certainly not the last.

When combining watching your opponent’s hand with watching your opponent’s face, you gain the most advantages. For instance, the classic example remains that if your opponent draws and his face lights up in triumph or is cast down in despair, you have a fair idea of what your nemesis has just drawn. More subtly, you can notice where your opponent looks after drawing. Does he examine your side of the board? He’s likely to have drawn a spell affecting your permanents. Does he look at his own side? Perhaps he drew an enhancement spell. Does he look off to the left and act as if he’s working out math in his head? Chances are, he drew a spell to affect combat damage. If he asks how many cards are in your hand, he might have drawn a win condition that he’s afraid of having nullified or a removal spell of his own to be used for either your hand or cards that could be replaced by what’s already in your hand. Your opponent’s face can give you tons of information about what he’s planning. Even if he suddenly takes on a very unexceptional stare, chances are he’s consciously trying to hide one emotion or another, giving you yet another clue as to what he has in his hand.

There truly is a lot of information that can be gleaned from your opponent without seeing any of his cards. So much, in fact, that I think I’ve reached the limit of this article – I don’t want to make it an epic undertaking. So, I’ll conclude the last two steps of psychological advantage next week. I’ve gotten through the most important part today, but to get that last 5% or so of advantage, don’t forget to come back next week!

Daniel Crane

[email protected]


* – Based on the deck design.