Last week, I mentioned how technical play is more important than anything else by far, and you actually don’t need anything else to win at a game of Magic. This doesn’t mean, however, that the “other” approaches are useless - I talked a bit about them last article, and now I’m going to elaborate a little more. The focus this week will be how to trick your opponent.
When you’re trying to trick your opponent, the most important thing to do is to sell him an alternate reality. When we make most decisions, whether in Magic or in real life, we don’t make them based on reality but on our perception of reality - what appears to be true is more important for our decision making process than what actually is. You can influence reality itself with technical play, but you are also capable of influencing your opponent’s perception of reality, which will often lead to the same or even better results. The very first example I came across comes from our 1996 World Champion, Tom Chanpheng. Let’s take a look at his decklist:
You probably don’t know what most of those cards do, but that’s not important - just go read Sleight of Mind, there is one in the main and one in the board, mainly to deal with Gloom. Now go look at the mana base... yep, no Islands.
When I first read about this, I heard that he had forgotten to register Adarkar Wastes in his deck, and was forced to play without them. Later on, though, another theory reached me, one that said Tom had done that on purpose. According to those people, if his opponents knew he had Sleight of Mind, they wouldn’t board Gloom in - perhaps they wouldn’t even play stuff like the Bad Moon that was in their hands. In this case, why would he event want to cast Sleight of Mind? It was much better not to have any rotting in his hand. For this to be the case, though, he needed to convince his opponents that the reality was “I’m boarding in Sleight of Mind”, and the best way he found of doing that was simply showing it to them that he had it, be that before the tournament or actually arriving at the table with a face-up card.
Whether this is true or not, I do not know - I’m inclined to believe it is not, but the mere fact that it could be true showcases the power of selling them on a different reality. In this article, I’ll talk about some more situations in which you can use that to trick your opponents.
The Pen Trick
The pen trick is the one thing I’ve already mentioned last week - basically, it consists in moving towards your pen, or removing the pen cap, or grabbing it and moving to change your life total in a way that convinces your opponent that you’re going to take the damage when he attacks. Then, when he does attack, you do something very devastating before blockers. You can see that in this 2007 World Championship Finals video, Patrick Chapin versus Uri Peleg. You can’t see the full motion, but at around 1:20 you can see that Chapin moves towards his life total and then draws his hand back, and a while later Uri attacks into his Hellkite.
Note: It might be that it was profitable for Uri to attack even if he believes Chapin is bluffing - maybe he just can’t beat a Hellkite, for example, or thinks he can easily beat one. In any case, it’s still an interesting example to analyse.
Why does the Pen Trick work? Because they want it to! Most “alternate realities” are hard to sell, though the actual degree varies. Of all the factors that correlate to them believing your story, the most important one - even more important than how good you are at selling it - is how much they want to believe in it. I remember when I was reading the D&D rules a very long time ago (might have been AD&D), on the section on “bluff checks” they had different modifiers based on whether the target wanted to believe you or not - if they did, then they’d get a penalty at catching you. The example they gave was something akin to “No, really, this jewelry isn’t stolen, it’s cheap only because I need the money” - in this case, the person would be more inclined to believe it, because they’ll feel better about themselves if they do (as opposed to admitting they’re buying stolen jewelry). In Magic, it’s no different - if they want to believe it, it’s going to be easy to make them do so.
So, what it is that everyone wants to believe in a game of Magic? Why, that they’re winning. As such, if you create a reality that has them as the winner, then they will be way more likely to believe it - they get a -4 penalty on their bluff check, if you will. In the Pen Trick case, we want to attack - as such, a scenario that lets us do exactly that is very welcome. You can see that Uri Peleg ponders for over a minute on whether to send his guys or not - he wants to do it, he just needs a little incentive, and he promptly sends everyone in once Chapin gives him that incentive.
The Judge Question Trick
During the first GP Columbus, Paul Cheon was playing an Esper deck (God knows why) against Richard Feldman’s BG rock deck (likewise - perhaps they were just sold out of Protean Hulks). After playing game 1, Paul calls a judge and asks “what is the creature type on the tokens from Deranged Hermit?”, to which he gets the answer “Squirrel”. He then sideboards four cards in. Richard Feldman cleverly deduces that Paul is bringing in Engineered Plagues, and therefore that the logical course of action is to just take out his Deranged Hermits and level Paul. The conclusion? Paul didn’t have any Engineered Plagues, and was then able to beat Feldman now that his best card in the match was sitting in the sideboard.
Here, again, we see the power of an alternate reality - in this case, one in which Paul was bringing in four Plagues. Feldman had no real reason to want to believe in Paul, so he had to try a different way of convincing Feldman, and he managed that by asking the question to the judge, because why else would anyone do that? Sometimes, you don’t even need to be as explicit as Paul was - you can just go away from the table, ask a question, and then come back and make a play as if you’d just found out that it works. This also works well because it plays on people’s egos - if I just left the table to ask a judge, are you really going to be the guy that asks again? I don’t recommend overdoing this, though, since that’s not really what judges are there for and they might get annoyed at you if you do it too much, but doing it once a year or so isn’t going to harm anyone.
The Represented Mana Trick
During PT San Diego, Luis was playing Naya against a Jund guy, and at some point his opponent had Putrid Leech in play. Luis had a 2/2 Wild Nacatl and an Arid Mesa (but no Mountain), so it is conceivable that his opponent would not attack with his Leech, fearing a Lightning Bolt. However, Luis wasn’t sure his opponent would even make the connection of Arid Mesa -> Mountain (3/3 Nacatl) -> Bolt when pump, so he had to find a way to make sure his opponent would see that possibility. What he did? He sacrificed his Mesa during his own turn to get a Mountain, and passed with that land untapped. That Mountain was like a slap on his opponent’s face - he couldn’t possibly not notice it. This helped creating the scenario of “I have Lightning Bolt and I can play it if you attack”, and his opponent ended up just passing the turn.
One of the biggest resources you have to represent a different reality is your lands - what you tap, and most importantly what you leave untapped, is always going to be registered somewhere on your opponent’s mind. Imagine, again, that you’re playing Ramp - if you have Galvanic Blast, then you always want to lead with a Red land if possible, since you might want to play it on turn one. Now you might be thinking “If you do not have the Blast, though, then you still want to lead with the Red land, because it tells your opponent that you might have it, whereas Green tells him you don’t”, and thought that seems right, the correct play most of the time is to not lead with the Red land if you don’t have Blast. Why? Because leading with Red will rarely change their play (you might or you might not have it if you start with Red, what are they going to do, not play their t1 Delver/Birds/Champion?), but the moment they play it and you do not Blast at the end of their turn, they know you don’t have it. If you lead with Forest or Rootbound Crag, then they have no way of knowing if you didn’t have the Blast or if you just didn’t have access to untapped R on turn one, and it might be a couple turns before they find out that you in fact don’t have it. Also interesting to note that, if you do have Blast but know you’re not going to use it (or something akin to that, say a t1 Tragic Slip against an UB deck in Limited), then just don’t lead with the land that casts it, you have no reason to and it’ll help sell the idea that you don’t have it.
The Land Drop Trick
The land drop trick (yeah, I tried to come up with cool names for those... I did not succeed. At least they get the point across, I guess..) consists in purposely skipping a land drop so that your opponent misvalues your cards because they don’t know the situation. Imagine you’re playing Wolf Run against a Blue deck, and then you lead with Rampant Growth on turn two. By turn three, you have three lands in play, and your hand is Galvanic Blast, Inferno Titan, Rampant Growth, 3x Land (yeah you’re very unlucky). Now, if your opponent has any counterspells, you want him to counter the Rampant Growth, so you want to sell to him a different reality - in this case, the “I need this land” reality - the way you do that is by playing the Rampant Growth before you play your land.
This operates on the same basic principle as the pen trick - they believe it because they want to believe you’re easy prey, since beating an opponent who has no lands is very convenient. By the same token, if you don’t want them to counter your Rampant Growth, then you should usually play your land before you play it - that will make it seem like you want it less. Of course, as with anything, if your opponent is particularly good you can try to “level” him and do the opposite, but that’s on you...
The Gifts Trick
Gifts Ungiven is a wonderful card when it comes to tricking people, and, though I’m sure there are many different things you can do with it, two come to mind as the most prevalent and most likely to succeed. The first is, again, to Gifts in response to what they do - you have information that they don’t (your hand), and they have no way of knowing if you actually need that Remand you picked or if you already have one in your hand. This is not only Gifts Ungiven’s prerogative - you should do the same with any card drawing. If your opponent taps out for a spell and you have four mana, a Think Twice and a Mana Leak, then Think Twice first. If you have two Mana Leaks, then actually make an effort in the direction of convincing him you drew that Mana Leak - something subtle, mind you, I’ll have none of that knocking on your deck nonsense. Most of the time, an eyebrow raise or a smile coupled with shuffling the cards in your hand (you do shuffle the cards in your hand when you draw them, right?) will suffice. If you do it right, your opponent is probably a) going to be a little tilted and b) going to run into your second Mana Leak the following turn. If you have a Mana Leak and actually draw a second one from the Think Twice, then you’ve hit jackpot and he is drawing dead on catching you - just make sure he knows you played it from the top and he will 100% play into the second one the following turn. If you can make it look like you just drew that one too, he’ll probably drop from the tournament in disgust.
The ultimate Gifts Ungiven trick is not that one, though - it consists in searching through your library and quickly pulling two cards you do not really want, while then agonizing a little bit (SUBTLE, remember) over the last two and, ultimately, “deciding” for the two you were planning on getting all along. To do that, you need to know the four cards you’re getting before you cast the Gifts, but you should try for that all the time anyway, and if you execute it properly then you will sell them the idea that you really want the first cards you pulled, and there is a way higher chance you will get the two you actually want (though, of course, sometimes it can’t be helped - if they are at three they’re not giving you Lightning Bolt no matter how much you act like you don’t want it).
While we’re on the topic of choosing multiple cards at once, another opportunity for tricking them happens when you have to discard multiple cards at a time, such as Thirst for Knowledge. As a general rule, the first card you discard is the one you want less - if my opponent Thirsts and quickly discards a Vendilion Clique before agonizing and discarding something else, then I’ll most likely think he has another one in hand. You can use that somehow to manipulate your opponent - for example, you can quickly discard a land and then think a little before discarding the last one - that will tell your opponent that you likely need that land, or you’d have discarded both instantly. Just make sure that every time you do that, it’s on purpose - insta discarding a Clique and then thinking when you actually have a second Clique is horrendous, if you think there is no opportunity to trick them (as should be most of the case) then just think and discard both at once.
The Squadron Hawk Trick
This is one of my favorite plays ever, so it’s possible I’ve already talked about it; last year, at GP Singapore, I was playing the Caw Blade mirror in one of the later rounds and at some point in the middle of the game I played Squadron Hawk and grabbed only two from my deck, despite not having a hand size problem. Later on, we got to a point where I had two cards in hand - in my opponent’s mind, two Squadron Hawks - and he tapped out to play Jace, only to be met by Spell Pierce. Then, the following turn, I played my third Hawk and grabbed the fourth from my deck. With this play, I lose a small % (the chance of actually drawing the Squadron Hawk that wouldn’t have been in my deck otherwise) but if it works (as it did), then it pays off in spades, since I gain a huge advantage from the deception. The reason this play sells the story so easily is exactly those % points that you lose from leaving the Hawk there - surely I know it’s better to grab all the Hawks, so logically if I did not do it then it must mean, to my opponent, that I do not have any left in my deck. Most of the time people say they played “badly to confuse their opponents”, they actually had no clue what was going on and were just making mistakes because they are bad, but sometimes it’s worth to sacrifice a little bit to completely throw them off information-wise.
Another example of that comes from Gerry Thompson, whom I recall once attacked into his opponent’s 5/3 (the one that gains First Strike, from Shards of Alara) with a ⅓ Court Archers. The guy thought for a while and took the damage, and post combat Gerry played Resounding Thunder to kill the 5/3. Now this sells the reality that Gerry has a pump spell in his hand, because, if he didn’t, why wouldn’t he kill the guy first and hit for two? Why risk the block and then miss the two damage? From his point of view, though, the likelihood of the guy blocking was so small that he was willing to sacrifice this small percentage to make his opponent convinced, for the entire game, that he had a pump spell.
The Sideboarding Trick
If you’ve ever watched me play, you’ll notice that, many times in my Limited matches, I sideboard some cards for the same cards - usually land, since you have multiples of those and they can’t hope to track the card in your pile. The reason I do this is because some people play differently (and rightly so) depending on whether you sideboarded or not. If you do nothing, then they’ll probably not play around a Fog effect or Ancient Grudge, for example, since those are usually maindeck cards; if you side in two cards, though, all bets are off, they could be anything. It’s such a minimal cost for you that I believe it’s worth doing a lot of the time (though I don’t always do it - if I have in the main cards that are usually sideboard material, such as Urgent Exorcism, then I won’t do it, for example. And sometimes I’m just lazy/think it’s not worth it). Sometimes you can even “accidentally drop” a card from your deck as you sleeve it out (for example, a Frightful Delusion that got them game 1), and then promptly shuffle it in your sideboard and sleeve it back to your deck. A warning, though - multiple times I’ve tried to do this and ended up de-sleeving a Double-Faced card, which kinda sucks.
In Constructed this is less common, since you’ll always sideboard (in fact, in Lincoln there was a match in which I boarded 0 cards - it’s the first time I remember it happening, I guess I just don’t play enough combo), but you can usually do that between games two and three, to give the illusion that you’re changing something. If you got beaten by a random card that you did not expect, then sideboard two cards in, even if you have nothing - it’ll give them the impression you’re bringing in answers. In Limited, for example, if you get your equipment Grudged game two, then sideboard two cards out game three and bring them back again - maybe they think you’re taking out your artifacts and take out their Grudge too, people love any opportunity they can get to outsmart someone else.
Another trick you can do with Sideboards is to just shuffle every card in and then take 15 out - if you have any sort of transformational sideboard, or if you could have any sort of transformational sideboard (i.e. any combo deck), then it’s usually right to do so, because it’ll leave them in the dark, as opposed to when they see you boarding in 13 cards, or 2 cards (just make sure you don’t forget anything there - I’ve done this before, and then you end up drawing Flashfreeze against your UB opponent and it’s not pretty). You don’t even have to be playing combo - if they board in 7 or 8 cards, then there is some stuff that they just have to have, whereas if they shuffle everything in you have no way of knowing.
The Lands before Spells trick
If you’ve ever seen me play anywhere, then you have seen this trick in action - it consists basically in arranging your lands before your spells, so that they have difficulty in seeing your important cards (the creatures), and therefore play badly. It takes a little bit of training for you to not be confused yourself, but it’s definitely worth it, since from then on it’s going to be automatic for you and you’ll get a small edge in every match you play.
I’m kidding, of course... No, really. The reason I play with my lands before my spells is obviously because I was taught to play that way, and I’ve always played that way. Lately, though, some people have been vocal about it, which baffles me - you see, to me, this is not a factor at all and I would never have mentioned it if people weren’t bringing it up - if my opponents play with their lands before their spells or otherwise, it makes absolutely no difference in how I play. I’m fairly certain that I have never lost a game because they played one way or another - the method itself is certainly not confusing.
The argument that the relevant cards are away from you is true, but so is the one that you’re not going to miss anything relevant even it’s far from you. In fact, I’d argue that, for this purpose, my method is actually better... you see, you’re never going to forget their creatures - they are important. You don’t need to constantly being reminded of them due to physical proximity, you are reminded of them because you interact with them. No one has ever attacked their 4/4 into a Shivan Dragon and said “oh, I forgot you had played Shivan Dragon, it’s sitting on the back” - you can’t forget Shivan Dragon. Now, that Celestial Colonnade your opponent played on turn one - that you can forget. The Llanowar Elves that was inconspicuously grouped with the lands on the back and jumps in for a surprise block? That you attack into. We often don’t pay enough attention to lands - there are usually more lands than creatures, lands are way more similar among themselves than creatures, and lands are grouped way more closely than creatures, so it’s easier to miss them, and by placing my lands before my creatures I’m actually helping you in this regard - yes, out of the kindness of my heart.
And that’s not even to mention control mirrors... no one would honestly look to my face and say their Wall of Omens is more relevant than their lands in the 5cc mirror. I don’t care about your stupid Wall, I want to see if you have Mana to play Cruel Ultimatum and Cryptic Command in the same turn.
And then there is cheating... you see, one of the easiest ways of cheating has got to be with your lands - casting a spell you can’t cast, for example. If your lands are on the back, then it becomes harder to spot. No one is going to be like “tap my Merfolk Looter to draw a card... oh wait, it’s a Delver, oops” - you know if they have a Looter or not and if they’re using it. But with lands? It’s very conceivable that someone goes “tap UGWW to play Wrath of God” but it’s actually UGGW so that they keep 1W open for Celestial Purge, for example. Not taking damage from your pain land? Much easier if they’re on the back, and so on.
So, does this mean I think my way is better? No, not really - as I’ve said, I think it doesn’t matter and they’re both the exact same. However, if you do believe that it matters, then I think there are some solid arguments to be made in favor of lands before spells been the “cleaner” one, and stuff that doesn’t consist of “ but I have to stretch my arm farther when I want to Doom Blade his creature!!!11!1” at that.
Before I leave, two disclaimers: first, the tricks in this article are not going to work against everyone. If you suspect your opponent is smarter or more experienced than you, at least in this capacity, then just focus on playing normal Magic. Second, sometimes, you go to great lengths to convince your opponent you have a Giant Growth, and when they believe it you feel like a genius. Then you immediately draw the Giant Growth, and now you feel like an idiot because, not only was all your work undone, it was also reversed - you’ve actually done work to convince your opponent that you have a card that you truly have. This will happen from time to time, and yes, it sucks, but I hold no responsibility over it!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this, see you next week!