Everything you do in a game of Magic tells your opponent something. If you have an aggressive posture, your opponent will know that you probably have something to swing the race in your favor. If you Doom Blade their 3/2 in Limited, you probably have a slow hand with more removal spells. If you leave red up every turn, then you might have a Lightning Bolt you want to cast at instant speed.
Good players understand this concept, and work to interpret the signals their opponent is sending while at the same time minimizing the signals they send. Great players, however, aren’t content with simply not sending a signal—they work to send the wrong signal, because they know that having the wrong information is much worse than having no information at all. Much like the characters of Inception, their goal is to reach into their opponent’s mind and plant an idea that, if executed, will further their own game plans instead of their opponent’s.
Planting an idea into your opponent’s head to get them to make the play you want requires you to make a play that only makes sense in the context you’re trying to represent. For you to be able to do it, you have to think, “what would I do if those specific things were true?” Your actions have to make sense in the context you’re trying to convey.
If you want to represent a pump spell, then you must attack as if you had the pump spell. One mistake, for example, is to attack with only one creature when it’s clear that if you did have a pump spell, you’d attack with multiple creatures. Only by fully embracing the scenario can you convince your opponent that it’s real—whether it is worth it or not is for you to decide on a case-by-case basis, but you shouldn’t do things halfway.
Planting an idea in their mind will often require a material sacrifice, which can then be turned into an intangible advantage when they believe the scenario you’ve manufactured. Your hope is that, in the future this intangible advantage turns into a tangible advantage that is worth more than what you gave up. You have to believe that misleading your opponent as to the nature of the situation is worth more than what you’re paying.
If you can’t convert this intangible advantage into a tangible one in the future, then you’ve accomplished nothing. It’s not enough to get them to believe you—you have to know that, by believing you, they will play in a way that benefits you. If they believe you but it doesn’t change how they play (in the direction that you want), then that’s not worth it. You judge that by putting yourself in their shoes and thinking, “if they believe that this situation is real, what are they going to do about it? Will it change their plans in any way?” If the answer satisfies you, that is the time to go for it.
Fully convincing your opponent that this scenario is real is hard to do, but it’s possible, and the great players do it with art and skill.
Create a Scenario Where They Lose the Game
The best way to convince someone to make a play you want them to make is to threaten to win the game. People are terrified of losing, and they feel awful if they lose a game they could have prevented, so they will go out of their way to not lose. Sometimes, threatening to win the game is the best way to get them to make the play you want.
Let’s look at the Estratti versus Martell bluff:
This is a famous play, so you might have heard of it already. The game is at a spot where Martell is going to untap with a hexproof Beguiler of Wills that is likely going to take over the game. Estratti attacks and casts a pump spell, and then taps 2 mana in a way that suggests he’s going to cast another (which would then be lethal). He is then stopped because Martell hasn’t declared blockers. Martell, thinking that Estratti messed up and that he’s about to die, blocks the Fiend Hunter. It turned out Estratti didn’t have another pump spell in hand and had nothing to do with those 2 mana he meant to tap—he just really wanted Martell to chump block.
This play worked because Estratti managed to convince Martell—in a totally legal and fair way—that he was going to kill him. Because if you aren’t killing your opponent, why would you play a pump spell on an unblocked creature in a UW deck? Why would you tap the extra 2 mana?
In a normal situation, Martell would never block, because the Beguiler of Wills is so good and he’s so unlikely to die versus a blue/white deck. To get him to block, Estratti had to represent the ultimate threat and had to threaten the one thing that was more important than the Beguiler—he had to threaten to win the game. He spent a tangible resource (his pump spell, which can even fizzle Beguiler for a turn) for an intangible gain (planting the idea in Martell’s head that he was going to die if he didn’t block), and he was handsomely rewarded for it when it resulted in Martell losing his best way to win the game.
Create a Scenario Where They Win the Game
This one is a little bit trickier, but just as effective. People are very scared to lose the game, and the best way to make sure you don’t lose is to win right away, so the prospect of winning the game is attractive. Everyone wants to win, so if you present someone a path to victory, they will usually go for it even when they don’t necessarily have to.
One of my favorite Magic examples comes from a game a friend of mine was playing in which he was at 1 life with a board of Sensei’s Divining Top and Dark Confidant, and his opponent has a Tarmogoyf in play and a Counterspell in hand. On his upkeep, my friend uses Sensei’s Divining Top and then plays the last card in his hand—a Stifle, attempting to counter the Dark Confidant trigger. His opponent, smelling blood, uses the Counterspell on the Stifle. My friend then proceeds to reveal a land to the Dark Confidant trigger, draws Threads of Disloyalty, and plays it on the Tarmogoyf, winning the game.
Now, you could argue whether the opponent should have countered the Stifle or not—maybe he should have, maybe he shouldn’t have. The player to analyze here is my friend, who recognized he could present his opponent with a scenario where he would win the game immediately, and that would perhaps be too good to pass up. By casting the Stifle in a spot that doesn’t make sense unless you’re going to die, that player successfully planted the idea that, if the Dark Confidant trigger resolved, they would die. And he knew that if he managed to plant that idea, then the opponent would spend their counterspell on the irrelevant Stifle, allowing them to resolve Threads, and immediately convert the intangible advantage of misleading the opponent into the concrete advantage of stealing the Tarmogoyf.
Another scenario is to purposely miss your land drop to cause your opponent to overextend. I remember a game of Limited where Guillaume Wafo-Tapa had a third land in hand and a sweeper, and then didn’t play his third land on turn 3—his opponent took the bait, played more creatures, and got them all swept away.
When your opponents miss land drops, your first instinct is “wow, I’m going to play everything I can so I can kill them before they recover.” When they are playing lands and not spells, however, then you think “hmm, why aren’t they playing any spells? Something is wrong here.” By purposely withholding a land, you are planting the idea that, if your opponents overextend, they will be able to win an easy game—they will never have to deal with this bomb you have in hand because you will be dead before you can cast it.
Create a Scenario Where the Cost Is Visible
Sometimes you can fool your opponents just by acting a certain way—for example, when Yuuya Watanabe acted relieved and quickly played a topdecked Dismember when he had another Dismember in hand all along, but if you can manage to throw something away in the process, it will strongly reinforce the idea that the scenario you’re presenting is real. When you make the decision to throw away material to plant an idea into your opponent’s mind, you know the costs and the benefits, but they don’t—they only see the costs. You can use this to your advantage, as the opponent is much more likely to believe a specific scenario if they see you paying costs that you would not have to pay if that scenario wasn’t true.
I remember hearing about a play that Brad Nelson made, I believe at GP DC. Brad had a hand of 2 Day of Judgments and a Wall of Omens. Normally, you’d play Day of Judgment and then Wall of Omens, but Brad did it in the reverse order—he played Wall of Omens and then cast Day of Judgment in the same turn.
This made his opponent believe Brad had drawn the Day of Judgment off the Wall of Omens—after all, why would you ever play it before if you were planning on clearing the board anyway? If Brad had to topdeck the Day of Judgment, then clearly Brad couldn’t have a second in his hand. The fact that Brad played the Wall first makes this scenario so believable that you can hardly fault anyone for falling for it—a different spot than if you just “act like” you topdecked Day of Judgment. His opponent then proceeded to play all his creatures, and Brad killed all of them with his second Day of Judgment.
This is another spot in which the player is spending tangible resources—he threw a Wall of Omens away—to get intangible gains (planting the idea that he does not have another Day of Judgment in hand). To Brad, the idea was worth more than the Wall of Omens because he would be able to kill more creatures with his sweeper at a later time. If his opponent had, for example, no cards in hand, then conveying this idea would not have been worth a Wall of Omens because it would not have changed the way the opponent played in a way that favored Brad enough to be worth it.
Another example happened when I was testing for Nationals many years ago against a Top/Counterbalance deck. My opponent kept his hand, and played a turn-2 Counterbalance. Since Counterbalance wasn’t very good without Top, I decided to let it resolve and deal with a potential Top later on, which was the more powerful individual card. On turn 3, he played Sensei’s Divining Top, which I countered. He then played another Sensei’s Divining Top in the same turn. I asked him “did you draw two in a row?” and he replied, “no, I had both in my opening hand.” I asked why he hadn’t played it on turn 1, and he replied, “so that you would think Counterbalance wasn’t a threat.” That’s exactly what I thought!
By withholding his Top, my opponent loses a little bit of time—he has to cast it turn 3, after all—but he gains by conveying the idea that the Counterbalance isn’t threatening, because who wouldn’t play a turn-1 Top if they had it? My opponent accepted the small tempo sacrifice because he knew that the act of not playing Top turn 1 would convey information to me, and he knew I would use this information to make a decision in a direction that he wanted me to go. With his play, he successfully planted the “I don’t have Top in hand” idea in my head, and not only got his Counterbalance to resolve, but he also got me to spend a counterspell on a redundant threat, neither of which would have happened if he played a turn-1 Top.
You Must Leave Them an Out
Sometimes you manage to convince them that a certain situation exists, but they can do nothing to stop it, so they act as if they were wrong, which is not what you want. If you create a fictional scenario, you have to make sure your opponent is able to do what you want them to do. This is the equivalent of attacking a 2/2 into a 4/4 when they’re at 4—sure, you will sell them the idea that you have Giant Growth, but they will block even if they believe you because they have no other option. Planting the idea by itself does nothing—it’s only good if you manage to reap the rewards from that in the future. You might succeed in planting the idea, but it doesn’t do anything for you if your opponent can’t act on it.
Take, for example, the match between Ross Merrian and Patrick Sullivan that was recently mentioned in an article by Mark Nestico:
If you look at this match from Patrick Sullivan’s perspective, you realize that one thing must happen—Ross has to tap that Wasteland. Without Price of Progress dealing 6, there’s not enough mana/damage in hand to end the game. The only way to make Ross tap out is to create a scenario in which he fears for his life—a scenario where he thinks he has to destroy that Sulfuric Vortex.
Patrick accomplished this by playing in a rather suicidal way—he went down to 1 life when he didn’t have to (he could cast Flame Rift next turn, after all), which sold Ross on the idea that he was going to kill him. He even sacrificed a fetchland main phase when he didn’t have to, to sell the idea he didn’t care about his own life total and to convince Ross he had more stuff to play. So Ross took the bait and destroyed the Vortex, at which point he died. So far, so good.
Upon further analysis, however, I think both players had better options in this situation. The main problem was that Patrick failed in one of the most important points—he didn’t leave Ross an out. Assuming Patrick has the burn to finish him off, then he will finish him off regardless. With Ross at 9, Patrick can have either Lightning Bolt + Lightning Blast + Grim Lavamancer, which is 9, or Fireblast + Fireblast + Lavamancer, which is 10. The other scenario (Bolt + Bolt) is already only 6 damage, so even if Sulfuric Vortex deals damage, Ross won’t die. This creates a scenario in which, even if you succeed in convincing Ross you can kill him, he has no outs for it, and therefore should not act to try to prevent it. On top of that, Patrick created a scenario where he can actually survive a turn with Block + Lavamancer if Ross sacrifices his Pridemage, which further disincentivizes the activation as the damage from the Pridemage actually matters.
To my mind, the best possible play here is one that leaves Ross an out, and there’s a way to do this—it’s to simply not play Chain Lightning. Instead, you sacrifice Wooded Foothills, cast Flame Rift (putting Ross to 9 and you to 1) and kill Ethersworn Canonist with Lavamancer (you can also not sacrifice Foothills and not kill Canonist immediately, but the main point is to not cast Chain Lightning).
This creates a scenario where Ross can actually survive Bolt + Blast or double-Blast if he kills the Vortex, which strongly incentivizes him to do it. When he taps out, you then Lavamancer the Canonist if you haven’t already, and play Price of Progress + Blast to kill him. The fact that now Ross doesn’t need the Pridemage or the Vortex damage in any way, as he has plenty of lethal attackers, is yet another incentive for him to destroy it at the end of the turn.
Sometimes, You Can Give Them a Little Push
In certain situations, it pays to help your opponent visualize the scenario you want them to visualize. This can backfire tremendously if you misjudge your opposition, but if you can hit the sweet spot where you help your opponent but they do not realize you’re doing it, then you’re golden. Patrick sacrificing Wooded Foothills to make sure Ross would destroy the Vortex is an example of this—he didn’t have to, but he wanted to nudge Ross in the “right” direction.
I remember a match at PT San Diego where Luis’s opponent had Putrid Leech and Luis had an untapped Wooded Foothills. Luis didn’t want his opponent to pump the Putrid Leech, so he wanted to represent Bolt, but he didn’t know whether his opponent would associate untapped Wooded Foothills with Bolt, so what did he do? He fetched on his main phase and then passed with a Mountain up. That led his opponent to believe he was looking to cast a red card, and so his opponent did not pump Putrid Leech.
You can also be more direct, though that is less likely to work. Once I was playing FNM and my mono-red opponent had 4 mana in play and 2 Hellspark Elemental in his graveyard. I had a Cryptic Command I wanted to use to Fog, but I really wanted to get both Hellsparks and I wanted him to tap out. My opponent tapped 2 mana and unearthed the first one, and I wanted to prompt him to Unearth the other as well, so I simply asked him, “you have another one of those in there, right?” He looked, said “yes,” and then unearthed the second one as well, so I tapped both. Would he have done this if I had not asked him about it? I don’t know, but I’d like to think my question helped.
Those are all specific scenarios, of course—each case is unique when it comes to this type of thing. But hopefully with this article I was able to convey the general process of putting a thought on your opponent’s mind, and then you can adapt it to whatever situation you’re in.