Last week, I showed you how to make a play that influences the way your opponent thinks in a direction that favors you. Today I’m going to talk about how to defend against those plays—how to recognize when you’re being manipulated and how to prevent it.
It’s important to note that this is my approach to it, which doesn’t mean it’s the right approach for everyone. I’m a logical player—I analyze situations and plays, not gestures and faces. It’s possible that, for someone whose skill set is the opposite of mine, this is not the correct approach, but I think my approach is valid for the great majority of players.
#1: It’s Not About Pride
If you take anything from this article, let it be this—calling a bluff should never be about pride. Calling a bluff makes you feel smart, and falling for a bluff makes you feel stupid, but in the end, that doesn’t really matter. You have to understand that it’s okay to be bluffed and that falling for a bluff is not something to be ashamed of. In fact, a lot of the time, it means that you played correctly. I have more respect for someone who falls for a bluff that makes sense than for someone who successfully calls a bluff when they shouldn’t have, and the person who follows logic will win out in the long run, even if they fail in this particular spot.
When faced with a potential bluff or mind game, players ask themselves the question “is my opponent bluffing?” and then try to best assess the situation and decide whether yes, they’re bluffing, or no, they actually have what they represent. They isolate the scenario and turn it into this mini-game where they either win or lose based on correctly reading the opponent, and then focus so much on winning the mini-game that they ignore what it means for the real game. The problem is that you can never be 100% accurate, and often the consequences can be disastrous if you are wrong, whereas the benefits can be negligible if you are right.
Most of the time, deciding if the opponent is bluffing or not is not necessary. As a result, do not concentrate your efforts solely on trying to solve this part of the puzzle—chances are you can’t anyway. Instead, you should perform a risk/reward analysis. Don’t worry so much about whether they are bluffing you or not—worry about what’s going to happen if they are. Ignore all your emotions and ask yourself these 4 questions:
- If my opponent is bluffing and I call, what happens?
- If my opponent is bluffing and I don’t call, what happens?
- If my opponent is not bluffing and I don’t call, what happens?
- If my opponent is not bluffing and I call, what happens?
As a general rule, if you’re in a good position, you want to minimize the risks you take, so you should not make a play that could lead to a disastrous scenario. If you’re in a bad spot, then you need every little thing to go your way, so you can take more risks and accept potentially bad outcomes.
Let’s take the most basic bluffing scenario there is—you’re tapped out, your opponent attacks their 2/2 into your Serra Angel, holding a freshly drawn card. You’re at 20 life and they’re at 4. Do you block?
Let’s analyze what happens:
- If they are bluffing and you call, you eat their seemingly irrelevant 2/2.
- If they are bluffing and you don’t call, you take 2 damage.
- If they are not bluffing and you don’t call, you take 2 damage.
- If they are not bluffing and you call, you lose your Serra Angel and you maybe lose a game you would never lose otherwise.
So, the answer here is “no, you don’t block.” Is your opponent bluffing? I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter. Blocking here is bad because when it gains, it gains very little, and when it loses, it loses the game. Option 4 is so much worse than all the other options that I can’t even quantify how sure I’d have to be that they have nothing to block here—it’s possible that even if they have no cards that I don’t block, just to be sure. Even if you’re 95% confident they don’t have it, there’s basically no reason to block other than the satisfaction of catching them. In the end, you should take the 2 damage (or 4, or 6) and let your opponent walk away with the satisfaction of tricking you while you hold the match slip and the 3 match points.
A situation like this happened at PT Theros when I was playing the Mono-Red Devotion deck against a Mono-Red Aggro deck. I led with a Mountain, and my opponent played a 2/2 Rakdos Cackler. I then played Mountain and Frostburn Weird. My opponent then untapped and attacked.
I looked at the board and thought about it. My thought process went something like this:
“Ok, so in this spot, my opponent is attacking no matter what. What can he have? Shock, Magma Jet, or Lightning Strike. Most lists play around 8. Does my opponent have one? Maybe. But I don’t think he wants to use it—I think he’s just hoping that I don’t block—he wants to play a 2-drop. If I block, he’s probably not even going to cast a Lightning Strike if he has one. He’s just trying to trick me into taking 2 damage for no reason. He thinks I’m a fool! I’m not going to let this kid get away with 2 free damage.”
So, I blocked. My opponent cast Magma Jet and passed. I then stared at my hand of Burning-Tree Emissary, Ember Swallower, Ember Swallower, Stormbreath Dragon, and Nykthos. By the time I drew a fourth land, I was already too far behind.
So, where did I go wrong here? I was asking the wrong question. I was trying to figure out if my opponent was trying to fool me or not. I took it personally, and I was emotional—I didn’t want to be deceived. What I should have done was simply taken the 2 damage, congratulated my opponent on a successful attack, let him play a 2-drop, and then cast a turn-3 Ember Swallower and followed that with more monsters. In the grand scheme of things, the 2 damage wouldn’t have mattered—being bluffed wouldn’t have mattered. I made a play that could basically only lose, because I asked “is my opponent bluffing me?” instead of “what happens if he is?” and when I turned out to be wrong, it was devastating.
Point #2: Don’t Play Around What You Can’t Play Around
OK, so you’ve established that you’re in a spot where your opponent could have a certain card, or they could not have a certain card. The next question you should ask yourself is “can I play around it?”
Last week, I said that if you are trying to bluff, you should always leave your opponent an out. To defend against bluffs, you should recognize if you do have an out. The simple concept here is to identify that something doesn’t matter if you can’t do anything about it, so you just have to hope you’re wrong. In the Ross Merriam versus Patrick Sullivan example, Patrick successfully convinced Ross he had lethal burn in hand, but Ross should have realized that if his assumption was correct, he wouldn’t be able to win anyway, so he should have just assumed he was wrong.
The scenarios don’t have to be so drastic. Take, for example, a Bant mirror in Standard. Player 1 plays a turn-2 Sylvan Advocate, and player 2 plays their own. On turn 3, player 1 attacks… and player 2 takes the damage! This is a sequence that I’ve seen from high-level players. The reason it’s so weird is that the card you’re trying to play around, Dromoka’s Command, will kill Sylvan Advocate whether you block or not. Clearly, if they have Dromoka’s Command and want to use it, they’ll use it before combat to pump + fight. There’s no reason to play around Dromoka’s Command by not blocking because you simply can’t play around Dromoka’s Command in this spot (though it can be justified if you have something else in play, like an Oath of Nissa in your GW deck with Chandra).
Point #3: Only Play Around Something if it’s Going to Lose Value in the Long Run
Even if you can afford to play around something, you don’t necessarily want to. Let’s say my opponent attacks a 2/2 into a 3/3 in Limited—can I play around it? Of course, I can just take 2 damage. But do I want to? Usually not. There’s this idea that if you successfully play around a card, it’s going to vanish—but it’s still there, and it’s still going to be good. Often, the threat of having a Giant Growth in your opponent’s hand is worth more for them than actually casting it.
Your concern should not be that the spell is going to do something—it’s always going to do something. Rather, you should analyze whether it’s going to do more now than at a later time. If the answer is “yes,” then you play around it, and force it to be used in a less profitable scenario in the future. If the answer is “no,” then go ahead and make them use it now. In most early-game situations, you want to make them cast it because that card is not going away, so you might as well get it out of the way, and chances are what it’s killing now is less important than what it would kill in the future.
If my opponent attacks their 2/2 into my 3/3, I’ll usually block, because the Giant Growth is going to get roughly average value in this exchange—I can’t stop it from getting the same value later on, or potentially more value. If my 3/3 is Aboshan, Cephalid Emperor, however, then if I block I’m letting Giant Growth trade with Aboshan, which is good for my opponent. I can play around it by simply not blocking and in every turn after this I know Giant Growth will be worse. If I have an instant-speed removal spell in my hand, or a trick of my own, then I might not block because I know the Giant Growth is going to be worth less in the future as I have ways to deal with it.
Point #4: Do Not Make Inferences from Forced Plays
Sometimes you’re so eager to “solve” things that you take inference from plays that would have been made no matter what. In my mind, I think of those plays as “forced plays”—plays that you have to make because the worst possible outcome is neutral for you. In those spots, anyone would make the play, so the fact that the play was made means absolutely nothing.
For example, you might have heard of the famous Antoine Ruel versus Kenji Tsumura Force Spike bluff—a game state in which the sequence goes like this:
This is a well-known play because, according to most people, Ruel made Kenji believe he did not have Force Spike. Mike Flores once wrote a whole article analyzing the play and calling it “perhaps the greatest bluff in the history of the Pro Tour,” highlighting the turn-1 tapped Watery Grave as a way Ruel managed to bluff not having the Force Spike because in theory if he did have it, he would have played Watery Grave untapped (or a different land).
The problem with this train of thought, of course, is that this was the Top 8. The players had their opponents’ deck lists, and Ruel knew that there were no 2-mana spells in Kenji’s deck that he would possibly Force Spike. As a result, playing a turn-1 tapped Watery Grave is a “forced play” from Ruel’s side—there’s simply no reason to do anything else. Therefore, the fact that Ruel did it means absolutely nothing, and Kenji should not (and likely did not) draw any inferences from it.
There are many other examples of forced plays. The Rakdos Cackler attack that I mentioned before, for example, is a forced play, because there’s no reason to not do it since the Cackler can’t block anyway. Attacking with Rakdos Cackler in this spot is forced because the worst possible outcome (a block) is still neutral for the attacker, so you’re freerolling. Since the attack can never harm you, everyone would attack, so the fact that the opponent did attack doesn’t mean anything regarding whether they have a pump/burn spell or not. Similarly, attacking with your 1/4 vigilance into their 2/2 is a forced play—it’s free. Attacking with your Sylvan Advocate when it can’t possibly die in Standard is the same.
Point #5: Make Sure They Are Consistent in What They Represent
Usually, when bluffing, people will only consider a small window of the game rather than the whole sequence of turns that led to this point. They make a play that makes sense in this situation, but doesn’t make sense in the grand scheme of things because if they did have card X, then they would have played differently in at an earlier time. This happens most often when people are trying to bluff an attack, but they only attack with 1 creature in a spot where if they had the pump spell, they would clearly have made a much bigger attack.
Imagine a scenario in which your opponent has a Dark Confidant and a Liliana on 2 counters. You have 4 lands in play, and Restoration Angel, lands, and Dispel in hand. Your opponent reveals Tarmogoyf for Dark Confidant, uses the plus ability on Liliana, plays a Treetop Village and, after thinking for a while, passes the turn without playing the Tarmogoyf.
In this scenario, the fact that your opponent passed the turn with no play when you know they have Tarmogoyf indicates Terminate or another way to deal with your Angel. They don’t want you to kill Liliana, and they think holding up 2 mana is worth delaying Tarmogoyf for a turn. Therefore, perhaps you should wait on your Angel so that you can Dispel their Terminate the following turn. This makes sense because there’s no reason for them to not play Tarmogoyf otherwise.
The whole sequence, however, is not consistent with them having Terminate. If your opponent did have Terminate, they would have attacked with Dark Confidant. It seems to me that they tried to represent Terminate and thought “well, if I had it, I wouldn’t play Tarmogoyf, so I won’t” but didn’t realize that, if they had it, they would also attack. This is not something you forget when you have Terminate in your hand, but it is something you forget when you’re only representing it. It’s obviously a complicated spot with many variables, but in this situation I’d be very likely to play my Restoration Angel and attack, even if I know I can’t Dispel this turn.
You should also see if they are consistent about it in the future. It’s common for someone to represent something, get you, and then forget about it. Once you believe they have Giant Growth, you will play the game around it, but they will not—if they don’t have it in hand, chances are they will not even remember why you took 2 damage at the start of the game to begin with. When you put your opponent on a card, make sure to check if their future behavior is consistent with having that card, or you’re going to play the whole game around something they don’t have.
I know this doesn’t cover every possible mind game you can fall for (and some are actually impossible to defend against), but I hope this article gives you an idea of how to identify a bluff or mind game and how to play against it so that you can adapt the next time you run into one!