A lot of Magic writing focuses on improving at gameplay. When do you cast Thoughtseize? How do you sequence your lands? What’s your plan for winning this matchup? Noticeably absent is discussion about some of the outside-the-game things you do that lower your chances of winning a given match. Normally, phrases like “outside the game” imply cheating in some regard, but that’s not at all what I’m talking about in any form or fashion.
I’m talking about information you give away, or edges you throw away over the course of a game that can help your opponent figure out how to beat you. Most of the time, you are completely oblivious to this kind of information you’re just handing out. In fact, I’m positive that I commit a lot of these same infractions myself—I just don’t know it because humans are notoriously poor at self-evaluation, which means that what I’m writing is hypocritical. Still, knowing about these kinds of edge leaks can still help you figure out how to avoid or mitigate them.
#1) Telling Your Opponent What Deck You’re Playing
This may seem pretty obvious. It’s probably a bad idea to sit down and say, “Hey, opponent, I’m playing UW Control. You should mulligan that hand with a bunch of Lightning Bolts and Dismembers in favor of a more proactive hand.” I don’t suspect many players do this in a competitive environment.
But there are a lot of ways you tell your opponent what you’re playing without actually telling them. I would say at least a couple of times per tournament, I get to sit down and know what my opponent is playing (or at least have an educated guess) based on clues they give me.
Here are some ways you do it.
• Life totals from previous rounds
If I sit down and pull out a piece of paper that has life total information from other rounds, you can learn a surprising amount from it.
Does my life total go down a lot in increments of 1? I’m playing a fetchland-heavy deck.
Does my life total go up 3 and the opponent’s down 3 at various points? I’m playing Siege Rhino.
Does my life go up in increments of 1 and my opponent’s down in increments of 1? Zulaport Cutthroat. I’m playing Rally.
Am I hitting in chunks of 2, 3 and 5? Probably Bant Company. Chunks of 5? Dragonlord Ojutai. Am I taking my opponent down to 13 life and then just winning immediately? Temur Battle Rage + Become Immense or Atarka’s Command.
• Telling your opponent about your previous rounds
If I tell my opponent that I went to time last round, they can derive information about what I’m playing from that. Some decks just almost never go to time, but other decks do it frequently. Even something simple like telling your opponent who you’ve played over the course of the tournament can matter.
To provide an example, in the last round of GP Oklahoma City, I was playing for Top 8. My opponent was playing Elves, but I actually didn’t know going into the round what he was playing. As we were shuffling up for the match, he told me that he beat Brad Nelson playing for 9-0 Day 1. I’m friends with Brad and I knew that he had lost to Elves playing for 9-0.
• Poor shuffling techniques
Shuffling toward the opponent is something many people do, and doing this just shows cards in your deck to the opponent. You should always watch how your opponent shuffles their deck and yours very closely to make sure they aren’t doing anything shady, and to ensure they are fully randomizing it. I’m not trying to see cards in my opponent’s deck while I do it, but sometimes it can’t be helped.
It may seem like this information doesn’t matter too much, but it does. My opponent once dropped a Zulaport Cutthroat on the table while shuffling up for a match, showing me that they were on Rally. I was playing a Jeskai Black deck that had an almost unwinnable game 1 vs. Rally. The only way I could ever win was to overwhelm them with Monastery Mentor. Because of that information, I kept a very risky 1-land hand on the draw with both of my Monastery Mentors. I drew the lands I needed and won the game because of it. I would have never kept that hand if I didn’t know I was playing against Rally.
#2) Ignoring the Clock
I want to preface this segment by saying directly that it is cheating to manipulate the outcome of a match by abusing the clock. This means you can’t slow play or stall to run out the clock if it is advantageous to do so. Play the game fairly and play at a reasonable pace.
But that doesn’t mean the clock is an irrelevant part of game play. In most tournaments, a draw is the same as a loss. Most players don’t seem to know this, as they are often quite happy to receive a draw, but in tournament play, a draw is very rarely better than a loss. In fact, it’s often better in big tournaments to lose than to get a draw, because a draw means nothing and will put you in a situation where you’ll constantly play against other people with a draw all tournament, and that is a poor place to be with some decks.
There are a number of ways to use the clock to your advantage.
Start caring about the clock from the start of the round. A lot of times, people play slowly and carelessly for the first 35 minutes of a round, then they look up, see 15 minutes left, and start to panic that they won’t finish the match in time. Avoid this by caring about the clock from the very start of the match. This is especially important when playing slow, grindy decks like Jeskai Black, Rally the Ancestors, Legacy Miracles, etc.
Cut out things that unnecessarily slow the game down. Cast Pia and Kiran Nalaar? Let your opponent take their turn while you pull the tokens out of your deck box. If you’re fetching and casting Crackling Doom, announce the spell while you find the land out of your deck and let your opponent take their turn while you shuffle up. Little things like this can save 10 minutes in a round. It really irks me when my opponent fetches, casts a spell, and then makes me wait 30 seconds for them to finish slowly shuffling before allowing me to take my turn. They can just shuffle on my turn and save time.
Concede games when you’re dead. This is a hard one to do, but sometimes it is clear the opponent is going to win game 1 but it may take another 10 minutes for them to do it. In that case, it is in your interest to actually just concede immediately to save time and ensure that you will have time to play the other 2 games before the clock expires.
#3) Giving Away Information from Body Language
When I play Magic, I stare at my opponent’s face for a large portion of the match. Unless I need to analyze the board or study my hand, I watch my opponent’s face. There is a lot of information to be learned from doing this. There is also a lot of information you give away by not paying attention to your own body language.
The key mistake people make is to flash an angry expression, grimace, or slump their shoulders when they draw a poor card, or alternatively, sit up in their chair, or flash excitement in their eyes when they draw a good one. I know I’m sometimes guilty of this. From watching past feature matches on camera, I’d noticed that I often roll up my sleeves when I drew a card that’s going to affect the game in a big way. It’s as if I’m saying to my opponent “game on!” But there’s no reason for me to give this information away.
Not only is getting mad when you draw poorly just not helpful in any way to doing well in Magic, it’s also telling your opponent that you drew a poor card, which can mean the difference in a match. If you’re holding 3 cards in your hand, your opponent might be scared of attacking you for lethal out of fear that you have some tricks. But if you’re telling your opponent that your draws have been bad with your body language, you’re just inviting them to kill you instead of buying time for you to actually draw the cards you need.
Bonus: #4) Not Calling a Judge
This is kind of a weird one. This is also not something that I personally am very good at doing. But it’s important. There are a number of people who cheat at Magic via cheats of opportunity. They’ll cast a spell off a painland and not take damage from it unless you call them on it. They’ll fetch and “forget” to mark down the damage. They’ll grab a Prairie Stream off of a Bloodstained Mire. If you forget to gain life from Soulfire Grand Master, they won’t remind you. That sort of thing. Granted, these are also things that honest, legitimate players do all the time by virtue of legitimately forgetting or making a mistake.
Every time your opponent messes up in a way that’s directly beneficial to themselves and has the potential for abuse, you should call a judge. Not to try to get your opponent a game loss or fish for a win or anything like that, but because if they are cheating in this fashion, they will always get away with it unless enough people call a judge enough times. The first few times will just be warnings. An honest player will almost never have this escalate beyond that. A dishonest player will do this sort of thing over and over again, and rely on the goodwill of their opponent to not call a judge. It may only happen once or twice a match, but that adds up. Maybe it means one more match win per tournament or every other tournament. One more match win is enormous. One more match win per tournament would mean I’d be a Gold Pro closing in on Platinum instead of Silver closing in on Gold.
Not many things make me angry, but seeing cheaters prosper does. It’s hard to call a judge on everything because then you look like an ass. But if we make it a point to all do this and not take offense when our opponent’s do it, maybe we can clean things up a bit. I’m guilty of not calling a judge often enough because I don’t like being the bad guy, and being the kind of person who calls a judge on every infraction makes you look bad, but we need more of it.