A jolt of anxiety runs through you when pairings go up. You’re playing Racer X, who just came back from Top 8ing the last GP. You’re in trouble. He’s really good.
In a game of Magic, all opponents are equal. Any single person can beat anyone else. But if you play enough, you know some opponents are more equal than others.
A number of top players have famously said there is only one correct play on a given turn. That’s probably true. What’s more interesting is when that correct play depends, not on the cards, but on the opponent. In other words, notwithstanding exactly the same cards in play, do you make a different play against Player A than Player B?
You have to. If you don’t change your play based on who’s across from you, you’re missing an opportunity. The whole point of this game is that the cards are not static. What is good in one game is bad in another. Magic requires a context-based approach, where you make a reasoned play based on the whole picture, rather than any individual piece. Your opponent is a big part of that whole.
Competitive environment opponents have a range of skill. For those with competitive aspirations, being able to adjust based on the skill of those opponents is a useful ability. Learning to beat bad players isn’t too tough. It’s defeating your betters that require more mental gymnastics. Hopefully the five tips below make that hurdle a little more surmountable.
1. Stay the Course
The first tip realizes that people already do play differently against good players. They just go in the wrong direction.
It’s okay to a have a healthy respect for your opponent. But that doesn’t mean you should deem their skills god-like. Far too often, you’ll see someone put their opposition on better cards or better draws than anything logical. If you put your opponent as unbeatable, where does that put you?
This translates to their play going from normal to reckless, or passive. They’ll keep longshot hands, thinking the stars need to align to have any chance of winning. Or they’ll timidly wait for their opponent to tap out before casting anything, for fear the top player will (naturally) have the perfect counter.
If you have the opportunity, ask Brian Kibler or Luis Scott-Vargas or Mike Turian about this. Ask them how many wins they’ve gotten in their lifetime simply because their status intimidated their opponent into a self-fulfilling prophecy of loss. The best players won’t loom their credentials over their opponents…but if their opponents come with pre-conceived notions, the best players will certainly take advantage.
It’s okay to be nervous if you sit across from a “name” player. You’re probably in for a big fight. But if you’ve done your playtesting and know the format, you have a decent chance of winning. You may be at a disadvantage, but that’s all the more reason to maintain your skills. If you are at a disadvantage, why make things even tougher?
You don’t have to get fancy or wild to win. Playing a normal game is often good enough. Admittedly the rest of the tips are about getting a little fancy. But these are bonus maneuvers. No matter what else, never sacrifice your fundamentals.
Technically this isn’t altering your game play. But foundationally it’s one of the most effective ways to defeat stronger opponents.
Low-level Magic is about raw power. Craw Wurm > Earth Elemental > Scathe Zombies. Finesse is nice and all, but if you and your opponent just run dumb monsters into each other, whoever ends with the biggest one will win.
High-level Magic is about information. Acquiring, interpreting, and utilizing information. Reading your opponent, interpreting your ongoing draft, deciphering sideboarding, metagaming, and so on. Those good players are good players, in part, because of their ability to use information-based skills to maximize advantage. They see connections that less experienced players miss.
Scouting gives those less experienced players a chance to balance the scales. After you’re done asking Mr. Kibler how many wins he gets from intimidated opponents, ask him how many rounds he gets to play before everyone in the room knows his entire deck.
Your local PTQ may not have someone of those credentials, but there are almost certainly strong players somewhere. If you want to defeat them, your first step is knowing what they’re bringing to the fight. Pairings are public information, right? If there’s a player you want to track, look for your table and look for theirs. When your round is over, go to their table and observe. If you’re done quickly enough, watch how they sideboard.
This is, honestly, a grotesque advantage. Your opponent’s themes are an open book. They can bluff a Wrath all day long, but if you know for sure they have no sweepers maindeck, you’re way ahead. You can also do this to anyone at the same Swiss level as you, e.g. all the 4-0s. Skip lunch and start targeting your biggest threats.
3. Hold Back the Play/Draw
The decision to play or draw depends partially on your own deck and partially on your opponent’s. For game one, unless you’ve been scouting(!), you’ll make your choice only knowing half of the information. That changes for games two and three.
But there’s a corollary. Sometimes your opponent makes the play/draw decision. And sometimes what you sideboard depends on whether you’re on the play or on the draw. Good players know this.
Despite that, people love to inform their opponent as soon as possible whether they will be playing or drawing for the next game. “I’ll play next time,” the player says frostily as they pick up their cards after a frustrating loss. Why tell them so soon? Have a little patience.
This means a couple of things. First, while sideboarding, you always want to know what your opponent is going to do. You can casually ask your opponent their choice. 99 times out of 100, “Oh, I’ll play first.” You: “Yep, good choice! You seem to know what you’re doing.” And then side in that Mind Rot.
If it’s your choice, don’t say a word until those decks are presented. You may get casually asked during sideboarding, and maybe 90 out of 100 times your opponent is just making conversation. But regardless give them the standard answer: “I haven’t decided yet.” Anything else just gives away your edge.
4. Intelligent Bluffing
Let’s say your skilled opponent just tapped out for Bloodline Keeper. You have a Villagers of Estwald and four mana out. Against anyone of any reasonable skill, you should attack in this situation every single time. Maybe you have Ranger’s Guile or Spidery Grasp, maybe not. But you know your opponent 1) values his rare and 2) is aware of the cards in the format you could have.
The essence of a good bluff is an understanding of your opponent. Any skilled player will know the tricks of the format. They’ll know the common ones and obscure ones and be able to narrow down the range of your holdings. This is your opportunity for advantage.
Bluffing against softer players is a waste of resources. They’ll be playing low-level Magic and see 3/3 > 2/3 and make the obvious play. Good players run through a lot more permutations, and that can cause them to reach the wrong conclusion.
Thus your goal is to feed them wrong information. Since good players know Magic is so information-based, they are always on the lookout for extra specks of data. Feed them something, be it a weird attack, a weird non-tapping of mana, or whatever, and they will interpret that to the conclusion you want them to draw.
Lifetime, one of the plays I’m most proud of occurred during a triple-Mirrodin Sealed PTQ. My talented opponent led with a strong creature. I didn’t play anything because I had a Barter in Blood that I wanted to maximize. But my opponent knew enough about the format that if I played a fourth land and passed, he would have put me on Barter right away. Instead, at three mana I simply declined to play my fourth land.
My opponent read the information as mana screw rather than a snare, and sure enough I tagged two strong creatures with the Barter, and it was a game-winner. Against a weaker opponent, I may have just played the fourth land and passed, allowing them to think my hand was full of Craw Wurms, if they thought anything of it at all.
5. Very Intelligent Bluffing
False tells are basically higher-level bluffing. Instead of giving false information with the cards in play, you give false information with your mannerisms. This naturally requires an even higher-skilled opponent to detect.
Here’s a basic example: You’re playing red and getting murdered in Innistrad Limited (this comes up a lot). Your opponent has an overwhelming board presence against your nothing. You can’t win.
You certainly can get the bleeding over and done with, but why not use the opportunity? Give the impression that you have an out like Blasphemous Act. Mutter quietly to yourself, slam the deck, slow peel, etc. Pretend there is some card that will dramatically change the board state. You’re not talking to your opponent; you’re beseeching Lady Luck. Your opponent? He’s eavesdropping.
You won’t draw the card because it doesn’t exist. But your ever-observant opponent will think about what you were hoping to draw. And maybe play differently for the next few games.
The opposite of course is if you do have the Act, don’t spill the beans. Pretend to go through the motions of drawing, as if the outcome was a foregone conclusion. You’re imprinting the idea that if your opponent has X number of creatures in play, the game is effectively over. It’s not true, and that’s why you’re happy your opponent is thinking it.
Again this only works on higher-end players. This stuff can get really subtle, and frankly the average player is far too concerned with their own cards to worry about yours. But against those players who look for this stuff, the good players, it can work wonders.
Another trick in this vein is the placement of cards in your hand. A lot of players, far too many, sort their lands and non-lands in their hands. I never understood this, but you can bet top players notice it. As soon as someone draws a card and puts in their right or left half, the astute player has a good read. When flip cards and split cards were common, anyone with an open pair of eyes could see exactly when their opponent drew one.
If you want to throw your opponent off, you can do a random placing of cards in your hand. When you draw a land, you can read it intently and stare at the board. Drawing a land and asking to see their graveyard may screw them up. There are plenty of ways to confound opponents. They’re very good at reading your draws, so you need to be good at keeping them guessing.
Ultimately the skills you need to beat a good player are the same you need to beat anyone else: a solid technical game and an ability to exploit the opportunities that arise. Good players simply present different opportunities. Look for them and soon enough you get to give other people that anxious jolt.