Last weekend at Grand Prix San Jose, I played turn one Mardu Hateblade, turn two Chief of the Scale, turn three Seeker of the Way. My opponent tapped three mana on my end step. I picked up my Seeker and moved it toward the graveyard. My opponent cast Douse in Gloom targeting Seeker and I put it back into play and passed the turn. Gotcha!

Although solid technical play is the most important, acting is a subtle part of Magic that can be game-breaking.

In another round I played turn-two Seeker of the Way on the draw against Mountain, Plains, Leaping Master. My opponent played Plains, considered attacking, decided against it, played a morph, and passed. I played a land and attacked with Mardu Charm and Feat of Resistance up. My opponent blocked, unblocked, and blocked again with his morph. The obvious play was to haumph his morph by casting Mardu Charm to either make two 1/1s or kill his Leaping Master.

However, my opponent’s play was quite strange. Why did he employ a no-attacks, no-blocks strategy with his Leaping Master? It would have been very unusual for me to choose to trade my Seeker for his Leaping Master if he attacked, but apparently he didn’t even want to give me the option. Also, his hesitation before blocking raised a red flag. Hadn’t he decided what his block would be the moment he declined to attack with Leaping Master? Was he putting on an act?

If I gave him credit, I could play around Ruthless Ripper and cast Feat of Resistance for protection from black. I didn’t want to trade my Seeker of the Way for a Ruthless Ripper. I looked at my opponent and thought, “He’s got the Ripper. He’s trying to play me for a fool!” However, I decided this was going too deep. I made the obvious play and cast Mardu Charm. He revealed a black card to his Ruthless Ripper and I got blown out.

Ah, so frustrating! I felt like a chump for falling into my opponent’s trap and not following my read. However, I think I made the right play, even though I got punished.

Avoiding Traps

The most important rule to consider when deciding whether or not to trust your read is to play the odds. Even though I had a hunch that my opponent’s morph was Ruthless Ripper, I also had to consider the possibility that it was Dragon’s Eye Savants or a generic morph. In both of these cases, Mardu Charm was correct. I chose to play the odds, rather than my hunch.

If I could guess right every time I would always follow my hunches. However, I know I am pretty bad at guessing blind, and so is everyone else. If I had known my opponent was Mardu, not Jeskai, I might have cast Feat of Resistance. If I had more experience against my opponent, I might been able to see through his hesitation, and realize he was trying to trick me. But, in the absence of solid evidence, I think it is better to play percentages, rather than try to game the opponent.

Laying Traps

When trying to pull one over on the opponent, the most important thing is to know the format inside and out. If your opponent plays the odds, the fewer tricks you represent, the more likely your opponent is to fall into your trap. In the early game, I often slowroll my land-drop until after combat for this reason. If you wish to entice a block when you have three lands and Awaken the Bear, you should wait until after combat to play your fourth land so you don’t also represent Dragonscale Boon. Similarly, if you have a morph, four lands, and Dragonscale Boon, you should wait until after combat to play your fifth land so you do not also represent unmorph. If your opponent plays the percentages, they will see less risk when fewer blowouts are possible, and fall into your traps more often.

This is why cheap tricks are so awesome. Last weekend when an opponent had only one red mana available, my teammate cast Valorous Stance with buyback thanks to Soulfire Grand Master. What followed was the most brutal Collateral Damage that ever was, or will be. Collateral Damage was the only the only trick the opponent could possibly have, so statistically the play was relatively safe. I think we took the correct line, but the opponent did an excellent job of masking his trick by representing as few tricks as possible.

Another way to represent no tricks is to play out lands in the late game. It is sometimes punishing to hold more than one land in hand, but rarely punishing to hold exactly one. For this reason, many people hold exactly one land. Playing out all of your lands can lure the opponent into a false sense of security, and your last card will be devastating.

Sometimes it useful to represent tricks you do not actually have. In Fate Reforged/Khans of Tarkir Limited, representing Kill Shot, Sandblast, or Whisk Away is a great way to save some life. If you have no play, pause for a second to represent a decision between casting something and holding up a Neck Snap. If your opponent is smart enough to notice, and dumb enough to believe you, you may just buy the time you need.

In summary, play the odds when attempting to avoid traps, and be mindful of what you represent when laying your own. May the blowouts always be in your favor.

Thanks for reading,
Nathan Holiday


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