Coruscant Boarding School

Sadly, very few people consider psychological warfare to be part of Magic. Sure, bluffing comes up in the occasional article but most people just play their cards, optimize their match-ups and make good plays in-game. Now all of that is very important and you must have these skills if you want to be “good” at Magic, but Magic is so much more complex than just having the cards. When your opponent goes in the tank on a tough decision then that’s you chance to “help” him/her out and suggest what they should play next and completely alter their thought patterns on the decision. One of the things I’m good at that I’ve transferred to Magic is that I have a good memory (and you should too). So, go and memorize all of the decks in a format including variations, all of this allows someone to in certain/most situations to make predictions about what an opponent will do next. So you say that anyone can do that? You’re right, but most people will only name cards that they’re scared of and don’t rattle off a list of all the outs that may exist in the opponent’s deck while telling their opponents why it’s a good or bad play. This can send a player completely back into the tank with the thoughts “What should I do?!? My opponent wouldn’t be telling me this unless he/she was prepared!” then the game continues when you start pressuring them to make a play and they start making mistakes (both big and small) that you can capitalize on. You can also start this train of thought by telling them exactly what you’re going to do next turn (don’t always tell the truth about it); this will make them over-think the situation. Unfortunately, you have to tell the truth sometimes otherwise your opponent will always call your bluffs.

On a side note, I recently was at a PTQ playing Jund and easily bluffed one of my opponents by simply saying after it “looked” like he was done with a tricky double-block “Blow you out with Bolt or Terminate?” to which he replied “Do you have it?” and I said “I don’t know, is that how you block?”. This caused him to completely reassess what he had considered a “safe” block. You do have to read your opponent for this to see if it’ll work but it’s fairly easy to set up a bluff in future games by asking if you blow them out then have them leave everything the same then actually having the answer that you said you had.

Another key to bluffing is suppressing your physical mannerisms that could betray how you feel about the current situation and only using mannerisms that support whatever your bluff is. While I’m sure that you knew this already, there’s one more thing I should cover: if you can’t seem control these mannerisms all the time then tailor your bluffs accordingly and let your opponent see your tells when you normally can control yourself then blow them out later. Sometimes you’re going definitely win or lose a game, this is a prime time to let yourself get “caught” bluffing, show that you don’t bluff or “give” away information that you want your opponent to have; while this isn’t very useful in Game 3 it’s very useful in Games 1 & 2 (1 especially). A notable incident of this for me was at a couple weeks ago at SCG San Jose:

I was playing a Naya Shaman deck in round 3 against Elves. My opponent got a great start while I was stuck without Red Mana. This seems unfortunate, but what I was careful to show my opponent were cards in the GW Quest deck and make comments like “if I had a Quest Turn 1 then you’d have lost.” so after he crushes me Game 1 then we go to sideboarding and he boards in bad cards against Naya (but good cards against Quest) and I board in good cards against Elves and I wreck him with Cunning Sparkmage and Arc Trail which he isn’t ready for.

This is a great example of turning a bad situation (being mana-screwed) and using it to confuse and misdirect your opponent to get an advantage in the following games.

Another part of bluffing is that you almost never concede a game. There’s always the off-chance you’ll draw runner-runner or something of that nature. However, there are some times when you should actually concede, but most of the time when you concede you’re doing it because you’re frustrated. You should never concede on your opponent’s terms only concede on your own terms.

When is it ok to concede a game? Here’s when:

1. In response to an effect that allows your opponent to gain information about your deck when you are already going to be dead no matter what you do in the next couple turns. You never want to give your opponent free information about what you’re playing.

2. NO OTHER TIME. The above situation is the only time that you should concede. There may be a situation at some point in a subsequent game that you have an effect that will keep you alive and blow out your opponent completely. If you look at the Pro Tour Amsterdam coverage there is a feature match that is won by Fog. Also, playing out a game will allow you to glean information about your opponent’s deck that could be useful in the rest of the match. And you never know, you might draw a ton of amazing cards and have your opponent draw blanks and make mistakes.

Now I’m going to go somewhat off-topic to explain about one of the most useful skills that you can possess in Magic or in almost anything.

Serenity. No, we’re not talking about the Firefly series. Serenity is a state of mind that will allow you to go through most situations without tilting or making dumb decisions due to being frustrated. An important note is: the Serenity that I’m referring to is a very much internal state, you can do anything you want visibly (you could be provoking your opponent by talking too much, acting like you’re beaten, being friendly or angry, etc.), but you have to maintain being completely calm (and logical) inside (this is also extremely useful outside of Magic whether in other games you play or in any situation in real life).

My personal opinion on this is: it’s the most useful skill you can learn in your life so go learn it if you don’t already have it.

And please don’t count on your opponents making mistakes because after all, “There is nothing more useless than an impossible wish”.

Alaric Stein

Level 1 Judge

@PlatypusJedi on Twitter

Bonus points if you can catch all of the references that I made during this article.

12 thoughts on “Coruscant Boarding School”

  1. I really enjoyed this article, but in regards to concessions, do you not concede if there are time constraints, like if it increases your chance to win the match by conceding then so that you have time for more games?

  2. I’m all for playing the mental game but… seriously…

    “I was playing a Naya Shaman deck in round 3 against Elves. My opponent got a great start while I was stuck without Red Mana. This seems unfortunate, but what I was careful to show my opponent were cards in the GW Quest deck and make comments like “if I had a Quest Turn 1 then you’d have lost.””

    That’s just being a douchebag. Not showing him Naya cards is one thing, but comments like that only make you sound like an idiot. Many of the tactics you suggest may give you a slight edge over an inexperienced opponent, but outside of that will only make you look bad.

  3. @Alexander I did mention that but not specifically. I said that “You should never concede on your opponent’s terms only concede on your own terms.” In retrospect, I should have mentioned that specifically. Thank you very much for your support 🙂

    @D.K. My opponent was not an inexperienced player (he’s a regular in the local PTQ circle) and was in the same group as Matt Nass (who Top-4ed that event with an identical deck as my opponent). I’ll fairly admit that I can be an extremely mean player Competitive REL events because I’d rather win. I don’t break the rules in any way. I can say anything I want that doesn’t break the Player Communication rules. Have you heard of a Vintage event that LSV played in at one point? His only kill was Burning Wish for Tendrils but he forgot to register Tendrils so he would get a lethal storm count then say “Burning Wish for Tendrils, kill you?”, sadly he made it to the finals of the event before his opponent asked to see a Tendrils and then he conceded because he couldn’t win. You can say anything you want about hidden information and there isn’t a penalty, it’s part of the game.

  4. Alaric,

    This should be published to more sources. With the “push under the carpet” aspect of the game’s mental game and the influence of “big creatures, you should play them more” on the rise, said tactics of “mental magic” is in need of re-introduction to all.

    as an old man told me after playing a game, “magic is like poker. never wear aviators, and always chew bubble gum.”

    Thanks for the worldly advise,

  5. Alaric,

    No sense continuing this debate as obviously we don’t see eye to eye on the issues at hand. I’m not suggesting anything about breaking rules; I’m aware it’s all legal.

    Believe me, I’m all about playing Magic because of the competitive side of the game more than anything else. But Magic is a game. If it were not fun, no one would play it, despite the tournament structure. There are plenty of ways to win or gain a psychological advantage without having to make obnoxious comments or lie about things that you can since you did not have to state them to begin with. If everyone played the game like that, which the promotion of these techniques implies you feel should be the case, the game would no longer be fun. Thus (while again I’m all in favour of other ways of psyching your opponent out) I feel this is greatly detrimental behaviour.

  6. D.K.

    Thank you for the comments.

    I can understand your point of view on all of this but I don’t think this takes much of the fun out of the game. It does create another game before the “real” game of Magic actually starts. While I can understand how this “sub-game” might not be fun, it usually doesn’t happen and only lasts a short while. I bringing up this “sub-game” of misinformation because I feel that Magic has become far too much about simply having a better deck, a better match-up or just playing well being the only things that matter in Magic.

    Hopefully I haven’t made you stop reading my articles forever.


  7. @D.K

    While i am not one who lies who does things such as this in order to attempt to win, i do feel that trying to read said bluffs and lies makes the game more entertaining. When an opponent pulls something such as the example you pointed out earlier, i congratulate him on the mindgame he/she has performed.
    It’s a different way to play, and it’s learning to play through/around the mindgames that can make magic that much more fun of a game.

  8. @DK
    I’m not sure I even entirely see your point, intentionally “lying” or bluffing a different deck is hardly different than bluffing counters in my eyes, and pretty ingenious if you can get away with it. It may be “unfun”, but I would argue that that’s less relevant, and less true, the more competitive the level.

    I love this! Bluffing is one of my favorite parts of magic, probably because I rarely get to play poker in person, and this really details it well. Being able to bluff an entirely different deck, and recognizing when it’s possible and to your advantage, is pretty impressive.

  9. While I dont go out of the way to show specific cards to opponents to make them think Im on one deck, I will do this on a smaller scale by maybe playing out Land A instead of Land B on turn 1 if I have no play either way…Its just like not showing cards when you know you are going to lose, why give them information they dont need…this is especially true with tech…if you dont need to let somebody know you are running something dirty, then dont.

    As for Aleric’s specific example…I think even without the bluff the SBing would have been forced to be in favor of GW as GW is far more commonly played than Naya these days..the only other option the guy had was to SB very minimally which might have been better, but who knows.

  10. @Lunarsoldier

    Thanks very much for the comment!

    In regards to me actually mentioning GW Quest: I wanted to be sure that the thought was firmly in my opponent’s mind. I agree that he still probably would have boarded into his anti-Quest package but I felt I could make those comments, improve my chances that he would board against Quest and not tip him off to the fact that I was not playing Quest (there are times that you want your opponent to “figure out” what deck you’re playing without any help otherwise they’d be suspicious.

  11. I loved this article. Why? Because I’m all about using every legal tactic to gain an edge in a competitive game. The bottom line is that I play kitchen table magic for fun, but once I enter any kind of competition, or am training on modo, it’s my job and fun is winning. I like this approach because it has a very poker like mentality to it. What people recognize in poker, that is recognized by the great players of Magic, but less so by the not so great players, is that you are playing against people, not just an opposing deck. You have to take every factor into account and use any legal means available to gain an edge in order to gain true success and always remember, haters gonna hate. I’d rather take down a tournament and have people think I’m a douche than lose under any circumstances. Again, I really liked this article, I’m looking forward to your new stuff. I wish I was still on the west coast so I could drop by the store and pick your brain further.

  12. @Adam

    I’m going to write about balancing Judging and Playing and the perks of both next. There’s a lot more there than one would expect or know about off-hand.

    Also, Thanks for the support! Feel free to yell at me with any ideas for future articles (I don’t have any ideas after this next one!!! I need to be inspired).

    Hope you make it back to the West Coast at some point or that I make it to PT Philly in September.


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