Frank Analysis – The Reverse Land Bluff

As I am writing this, I am already in Dublin. I’m looking forward to the Pro Tour, and I’ve been testing together with some of the other ChannelFireball guys in a fine locale. None of us know all the Theros card names yet, which makes it difficult to discuss draft picks. I’ve heard various outrageous nicknames people have been using to describe cards:

[card]Erebos’s Emissary[/card] -> [card]Wild Mongrel[/card]

[card]Karametra’s Acolyte[/card] -> [card]Gilded Lotus[/card]

[card]Hopeful Eidolon[/card] -> [card]Baneslayer Angel[/card]

[card]Nylea’s Disciple[/card] -> [card]Obstinate Baloth[/card]

[card]Sedge Scorpion[/card] -> [card]Swords to Plowshares[/card]

[card]Warriors’ Lesson[/card] -> [card]Ancestral Recall[/card]

[card]Breaching Hippocamp[/card] -> [card]Snapping Drake[/card]

[card]Baleful Eidolon[/card] -> [card]Shriekmaw[/card]

[card]Dragon Mantle[/card] -> [card]Fireball[/card]

[card]Opaline Unicorn[/card] -> Charlie

[card]Boulderfall[/card] -> [card]Bogardan Hellkite[/card]

[card]Triton Fortune Hunter[/card] -> [card]Jace Beleren[/card]

[card]Chronicler of Heroes[/card] -> [card]Mulldrifter[/card]

Let’s just say that some of these make more sense than others…

Although Standard and Theros Limited have been shaping up to be filled with powerful decks, exciting synergies, and funky nicknames, I am not at liberty to discuss strategies yet.

Instead, I will talk about lands today. I will explain when it is correct to play lands from your hand and when it is correct to hold on to them. I will also touch upon a counter-intuitive technique that I call the reverse land bluff, which comes down to bluffing a land by playing a land.

But to explain the reverse land bluff, I need to start at the basics.

The Situation

Consider the following situation. You are piloting a deck whose curve tops out at 6. Right now, it is turn eight, and you have made land drops up till turn six. So, you have six lands in play. You have only two lands in hand, and no other cards. The question is: Do you play a land?

My answer would be the cautious, and obviously correct, “it depends,” but that’s not very helpful. So let me explain what it actually depends upon.

Reasons not to play a land

Obviously, as your deck does not contain any cards that cost more than six mana, the seventh land probably won’t help you cast any additional spells over the course of the game. But more importantly, there are various benefits to not playing the land:

• Protection against discard spells. If your subsequent draw step is a [card]Counterspell[/card] and your opponent then casts [card]Mind Rot[/card], you can toss out your two lands and keep your [card]Counterspell[/card].

• Protection against [card]Armageddon[/card]. This most likely only comes up in formats like Cube, but having excess lands in hand will help you recover after all lands are destroyed.

• Fuel for cards such as [card]Wild Guess[/card] and [card]Trading Post[/card]. If you have spells in your deck that allow you to discard cards for some effect, then it will pay off to plan ahead and save some lands.

• You may have forgotten about an 8-drop in your deck. If you pass with six lands up, and subsequently draw an eight-mana card, you feel really stupid. This does come up in Limited games from time to time if you don’t make a mental note of what the most expensive cards in your deck are.

• Bluffing potential. This is arguably the most important benefit to holding on to lands. The more cards you have in hand, the more uncomfortable your opponent will feel about it. Your opponent won’t know whether the unknown cards in your hand are lands, [card]Counterspell[/card]s, [card]Doom Blade[/card]s, or [card]Giant Growth[/card]s, and might play more carefully as a result. Your opponent may also cast a dead [card]Thoughtseize[/card] out of fear.

Reasons to play a land

There can also be various benefits to playing a land in the situation I sketched above:

• You may draw an X-spell, such as [card]Rakdos’s Return[/card].

• You may draw a card-draw spell, such as [card]Divination[/card], and then a 5-drop creature off of that [card]Divination[/card].

• You may draw a card with an activated ability, such as [card]Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage[/card], for which you would like to have access to eight mana on the next turn.

In fact, it may actually have been a mistake to not play the seventh land on the previous turn. You will regret that if any of the following things happen:

• You draw a [card]Divination[/card] on the next turn, and then a 6-drop creature and a land off of that [card]Divination[/card]. To cast that 6-drop, you need land drops on each of your first nine turns.

• You draw [card]Kessig Wolf Run[/card] or [card]Raging Ravine[/card] (which you’d like to activate twice) on the next turn.

• Your opponent casts [card]Stormbreath Dragon[/card] and activates the monstrosity.

• Your opponent draws [card]Chittering Rats[/card]. This is an example from a while ago, but it was a relevant interaction in Mirrodin Block.

The Usual Solution

Altogether, the decision to play a land or not is a balancing act between bluffing a trick and having enough mana for cards you might draw.

Usually, the best way to solve this dilemma is to go for a middle ground: keep one land, and only one land, in hand. If you draw a land, then you play it and you’re back in the same situation. If you draw a spell for which you need the land, then you can play the land and (unless it’s a card-draw spell) never be short on mana.

In my experience, many experienced players will play this way. They will generally keep exactly one land in hand.

Bluffing

But if everyone plays this way, it becomes predictable.

Frequently, I can deduce with reasonable certainty that the last card in my opponent’s hand is a land. As a result, in the mid-to-late game when my opponent has one card left in hand and plenty of lands on the board, I rarely worry about instant-speed combat tricks or removal. I can be pretty sure that he’s holding a land.

On the other hand, opponents will also expect the last card in my hand to be a land. It’s important to not be predictable, and there are two ways around this.

The first, and more common, way is to keep two or more lands in hand whenever possible. Especially in decks without card draw or X-spells, this is a good solution. When I have multiple unknown cards in hand, my opponent may be worried that at least one of them is a [card]Brave the Elements[/card], [card]Searing Spear[/card], or some other trick.

The second, less common, way is to play your last land if you’re actually holding a [card]Giant Growth[/card] or [card]Doom Blade[/card]. This reverse land bluff is essentially a double bluff. It’s a play that is not very common, but you can really get people with it.

Examples of the Reverse Land Bluff

Example 1: Suppose that you’re on 2 life, you have several lands in play, your only creature is a 4/4, and your opponent has two 2/2s. So, if one of the opponent’s creatures connects, you are dead, and your opponent knows that. You start the turn with a land in hand and draw [card]Doom Blade[/card]. If you pass the turn without playing a land, then your opponent may be afraid of an instant-speed removal spell and may not dare to attack. However, if you play the land and pass the turn, then you can implant the idea in your opponent’s mind that the last card in your hand is a land. As a result, he is likely to attack with both of his creatures for what he believes will be lethal. Surprise! You have the [card]Doom Blade[/card] after all and wreck him.

Example 2: Years ago, at a Grand Prix in Copenhagen, Martin Juza was playing the [card]Reveillark[/card] combo mirror match against Gabriel Nassif. It was a long, drawn-out game, and they got into a creature standoff. Nassif was slightly ahead, but had been drawing into a land clump. At some point, Nassif drew his card, sighed, played his tenth land or so, and passed the turn with one card left in hand. Juza, on his turn, had access to his entire combo ([card]Reveillark[/card] along with [card]Body Double[/card] and a sacrifice outlet). A [card]Faerie Macabre[/card] from Nassif could break it up, but Nassif had just played a land, and Juza expected the last card in Nassif’s hand to be a land. After thinking for a short while, Juza decided to go for it. He sacrificed his [card]Reveillark[/card], and Nassif showed the last card in hand: It was Faerie Macabre after all. This exiled Juza’s path to victory, and Nassif ended up taking the match. Juza may have been much more cautious if Nassif had not played that tenth land. Nevertheless, it’s hard to get away from the first gut response of, “he only has one card—what is the chance it is exactly [card]Faerie Macabre[/card]?”

Example 3: Suppose that you’re playing mono-red against a blue control deck. Your opponent is at 5 life, and you have [card]Searing Spear[/card] and a Mountain in hand. You pass the turn because there’s no point in walking non-lethal burn into countermagic. Your opponent passes the turn without making a play. You draw…[card]Skullcrack[/card]! However, you need to be careful not to get your lethal burn spells countered. The correct play here, in my opinion, is to play the Mountain and pass. By playing the Mountain, you lull your opponent into a sense of safety: he will expect that the remaining cards in your hand are a Mountain and a burn spell, so he may feel safe enough to tap out for a big card draw spell. Surprise! You have the double burn spell after all and win the game in response. In fact, this is exactly the line of play that USA team member Jason Gulevich made at the World Magic Cup; the relevant part of the game can be found here. (There was also an interesting judge call right after. It is worth pointing out that Stanislav Cifka was honest throughout and only appealed at the request of his teammates.)

I hope you got some new ideas out of this. Play a land to bluff a land—trust me, it can work, and it shows that Magic strategies and mind-games run very deep.

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