The Three Steps To The Last Ten Percent, Part II

You have to know your deck and your strategy all the way to the marrow. Once you know yourself well enough not to ask,”What am I going to do now?” you can focus on asking the question,”What is my opponent going to do now?” And that’s what wins games.

Before I get to the arts of knowing yourself and being your enemy, I’m excited to announce the winner of my Magic storyline trivia contest! Ben Palmer (the replacement for the tardy Jamie Holzhauer) was the only contestant to answer the Final Jeopardy question correctly, giving him a winning score of 126. Congratulations, Ben!

The Final Jeopardy question, which each contestant was given 30 seconds to answer, was:”What people was eradicated by Baron Sengir?” Only Ben came up with the correct answer of the An-Zerrin.

And now, to conclude last week’s article….

The seconds step to gaining a psychological advantage (in my book, at least) is to know yourself. When you have complete mastery over yourself and your play, you will be able to play better. Last week, we dealt with knowing your enemy. That’s a reactive strategy, allowing you to better know how to handle situations.

However, if you’re not much of a gambler, always knowing the best play at any time will help you rely less upon guessing your opponent’s reaction and more upon the ability to force a reaction of your choice.

You often hear that the key to victory is practice used to improve your skill – that skill, however, won’t win you a game if you don’t know how to use it. Of course, the elementary concept of gaining skill assumes that you will apply that skill, but this basic assumption will only go so far. Only when you know everything about yourself, including your deck, its functions, your play style, and its effects, will your skill best be represented on the Magical battlefield. Let’s take these one at a time.

Your deck is probably the most important thing you bring to a Magic tournament. However, unless you’re using a deck that”plays itself,” you’re going to need some intimate knowledge of that deck – or at least of similar lists. The first thing to do is to memorize the decklist… But not in such a fashion that you can reproduce it on paper for registration; you need to know your deck so well that you can recite the deck out loud without hesitating. Once you know your deck this well, you’ll be able to know what your chances are of getting a particular card during a particular turn. Knowing that you have four copies of a card in your deck, with eight card drawing spells of various searching depths, and using your knowledge of what you’ve played so far, you can determine your chances of getting a particular card soon, at least to the point of”good” or”bad.”

I use this method often with my control deck, keeping in mind, for instance, how many Wraths I have in my deck, how many card-drawing spells I’ve played, and the probability that I’ll draw cards off of Shadowmage Infiltrator. Based upon this knowledge, I can usually accurately determine whether to let a slightly overextending opponent continue to play creatures (figuring I’ll draw a Wrath) or to counter the creatures as they come.

Knowing your deck also involves your deck’s”behaviors.” This basically means that you know how your deck works. If your name is Daniel Crane, your current deck of choice counters all important spells, destroys missed permanents directly, and wins in the late game. Knowing this, I’m able to develop a strategy and to use it each time I play. If I handed my deck to Joe Shmoe, he might not realize that Absorbs are cast before Undermines, that Wraths kill creatures instead of Vindicates, or that you don’t have to cast Shadowmage Infiltrator until Turn Bazillion… But since I know all of this, because I know what my deck will provide if I let it, I’m able to play my deck to the best of its ability. Your deck is a resource waiting to be tapped (no pun intended), but you have to understand your deck before you can realize its full potential.

Once you know how your deck works and how best to use the sixty resources you’ve put in it, you can then develop a play style. Knowing this play style well is almost as important as developing it properly (which I won’t get into in this article). The reason you want to be familiar with how you play the deck is so that you can repeat good plays over and over again. Once you know your opponent, you can use what information you have to add to your play style, which should be variable enough to allow for a bit of modification. Once you know yourself well enough not to ask,”What am I going to do now?” you can focus on asking the question,”What is my opponent going to do now?” And that’s a big step.

Your play style, of course, directly affects your opponent’s courses of action. If your play style is to let him do his own thing while you search for your win condition, it’s likely that he’ll commit all his forces in the estimation that he can overwhelm you when you’re not looking. Understanding these repercussions may lead you to alter your battle strategy – although this deviance in planning should be allowed under your flexible play strategy in general. Having command of your full faculties, such as knowing what to do should your opponent play a creature that has protection from your color (if such a creature is viable in your type), your options will be limited only to good ones.

Naturally, this bleeds into one of the most difficult yet beneficial aspect of conquering the psychological aspect of Magic: Being inside your opponent’s mind. Using all the other knowledge you have based upon topics already discussed in this article and the previous one, hopefully you’ll be able to guess your opponent’s next important move before he makes it.

Now, in order to best fulfill the role of both you and your opponent, you have to overestimate your opponent. If you are a skilled player, assume your opponent knows just as much as you and will see every combat trick that you see. If you’re less skilled, I would suggest keeping my eyes open for surprises while allowing a margin of error on your part when planning for the future.

Part of knowing that your opponent is at least as good as you is assuming that not only has he memorized this article, but he could have written a much more comprehensive one to go along with it. In other words, you know what’s in your hand, and you should assume that your opponent does, too.

You should also assume that he knows what you’re thinking. This done, you can make the best decisions based upon what’s concrete instead of relying on luck or trickery. I’m sure that if I played against Zvi, I’d probably lose even if he played with his hand face up the whole time. Why? Because he’s a better player than I am. Similarly, if you know can beat your opponent even though he knows what’s in your hand by doing x, then x is your best choice. If y is your best choice assuming he won’t notice that your Chainflinger can kill of his blocker, do x. Assume he notices it.

Also assume that he knows that he could kill you this turn if he draws a Fiery Temper to discard to his Narcissism, coming in for the kill. If he draws and doesn’t attack, assume he doesn’t have a Fiery Temper. Also know what your opponent doesn’t want to see. If the last card he wants to see you draw is Wrath of God, think about what you’ll do if you don’t draw the Wrath – because if you do, then it’s a no-brainer what to do. Of course, keep in mind what you’ll do if your opponent draw the one card he’d love to have – and you might know this by understanding your opponent’s least favorite reaction.

Of course, if your opponent changes during the game, follow his lead. If he starts out as a cool, calm player… But as soon as he realizes you have countermagic, he becomes a sullen and sour brat, then understand the most unsettling thing you can do to your opponent is counter a spell. It’s more of a Jedi Mind Trick, but if you counter an unimportant spell it might give your opponent, especially one in this state of mind, the notion that ever card in your hand is a counterspell. You want your opponent to think this (as any permission player knows), so taking advantage of this personality flaw is also taking control of the game.

And then, of course, there’s the deck matchup. Although this isn’t exactly knowing your opponent, knowing your opponent’s deck and how it fares against yours is fairly important. With the prevalence of the Internet, you should at least have an idea of the contents of your opponent’s deck just by seeing a few cards. Of course, following the school of non-assumption, never be surprised to see a new card – I just wouldn’t expect Book Burning as much as a Fiery Temper in a burn deck, although either is certainly possible. Once you have an idea of what’s in your opponent’s deck, you should be able to apply that knowledge to what you already know about how your deck fares against it. Control generally has trouble with lots of little creatures – but maybe your deck is running four Wraths of God, four Kirtar’s Wraths, and four Routs. In which case, I wouldn’t worry a bit about creature decks. On the other hand, creatureless decks would give you fits, and I’d advise knowing your exact battle strategy against just such decks.

This area is where an intimate knowledge of your sideboard comes in, for sometimes it’s all we can do to look to Game Two and hope that our sideboard helps us out!

Now, like I said in Part I, these tips won’t win you games if you don’t practice enough to make you competitive. As the title suggests, these psychological battles are only 10% of the game of Magic – but in order to compete as well as you can, you’ll need to master them in addition to the more traditional Magical strategies.

Hopefully, this guide will point you in the right direction. It’s worked for me, but if you need to modify the suggestions I’ve made, you should definitely alter them to fit your style. These two installations aren’t a perfect representation of the psychological world of Magic… But it’s a start. And if nothing else, I hope to have at least sparked your creative juices in order to make Magic not only a game based on skill and luck, but also one more widely understood as a form of psychological warfare. I, for one, am all for taking the game to a new level!

Daniel Crane

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