Legacy Weapon – Reading Your Opponent’s Brain

Most people pick up social skills through experience. For aspergian-type minds, like the many that play Magic, human interaction is a problem to be analyzed. What type of behavior is most likely to elicit a smile? What smiles are the artificial kind, and why do people make them?

Understanding social situations this way is similar to reading a tell. When someone gesticulates, or stiffens, it means something, and figuring out why is the key to reading their mind.

This means that a lot of getting better at Magic psychology is practice. GGslive is a fantastic tool, but not for reading purposes. Every game I watch I wish there were three cameras so that I could see both player’s faces and the board position at the same time. At least the players are miked, sometimes. In the end, your buddy at the kitchen table is not going to act like an opponent in the win-and-in round. He won’t tense when you play your threats, or relax when he draws his answers. The only real way to practice, then, is in tournaments.

A way to speed up the process is by studying poker. Mike Caro’s Book of Poker Tells is old, but hardly outdated. The way he analyzes poker psychology, analytical and full of pictures, is simply the best way to go about it. While I’ve been unsuccessful at getting Magic players to read it, hopefully a bit of him survived the translation here.

Stop Acting and Start Thinking

A player is more likely to be relaxed and talkative when they have something. He is exuding strength. On the other hand, a player will put on his poker face, stiffening, when he has nothing. He thinks that he has to act or be seen through. This, in turn, makes him easier to read. Convenient, eh?

The main mistake many people make is to think that bluffing is about acting. In actuality, they should be focusing on telling a complete story. The best example of this that I can think of is Antoine Ruel’s “I don’t have a Force Spike” in the tog mirror way back in ’05.

This video at 21:40 features the bluff I’m talking about, and is well worth the watch (or re-watch).

As in poker, the best bluff will begin on turn one, and develop in such a way as to tell a consistent story. In the example above, Antoine could’ve shocked himself for two on turn one to hold up Force Spike and then tried his best to look bored with his hand, but that doesn’t actually work. As Luis Scott-Vargas has been touting, a counter that’s represented must be respected. By not representing a Force Spike with his actual play, Antoine was able to reap big rewards.

In this year’s States I was piloting RDW against a Fauna Shaman brew, staring down a freshly summoned Masticore, a Trinket Mage, and an opponent with two cards in hand (one being a Brittle Effigy). I had a lowly Geopede in play with two Mountains and a Kargan Dragonlord in hand, and was wondering exactly how I was going to win the game. A common bluff is to drop the Mountain and crack in. In poker, speed can be a sign of strength, and I think Magic players over-emulate that sometimes. Instead, I went deep into the tank before realizing my opponent couldn’t afford to “call” me here without losing his board position to any burn spell at all. Even if he read me as bluffing with ninety percent certainty, it was still incorrect to call. He chumped with his Trinket Mage, and I ran out and leveled up a Kargan, leaving me with lots of live draws, and him in an awkward position of having to constantly discard and play around the burn I had represented. Eventually, I won that game.

All of Magic’s skills are interconnected. Bluffing is more successful when you know what cards are in their hand or deck, so you know what they can or cannot play around to avoid losing the game. Bluffing a card they don’t care about, or want to get out of your hand anyway, is not sound strategy. Thus, to be an adept bluffer you must learn to read well and know what your opponent is afraid of. Fortunately, Magic players tend to be very expressive. Some writers have recommended practicing your poker face or frowning intently at every card. I’ve never tried masking my tells, as not every opponent is trying to read them. Rather, I spend my energy reading the opponent.

This lazy attitude to concealing my hand has hurt me against the world’s top players. When I played against Saito, I noticed that he got a lot of information just by waiting. Basically, when I cast most of my spells he would nod, or after a period I would assume the spell resolved and continue with my turn, my mind on the rest of the game. However, after one of these long pauses, I moved to pass the turn and he told me he wanted to counter my spell. If he didn’t know I had no other plays, would he have countered the spell? Who knows. The point is, against a better player, it’s correct to ask if the spell resolves each and every time, as otherwise they might glean information as to the rest of your hand. Here, I was tired and lazy, and it cost me.

I play a lot of combo and aggro control decks, and so I’ve gotten pretty good at reading control opponents in particular. The most basic read I do is to see how much pressure my control opponent is under. When I play a threat, I look at his face. Magic is a very complex game with many lines of thought. When faced with a threat, an opponent might frown or look to his cards for answers. If the threat matters, his outs will change and he might have to develop a new line of play. If, however, he calmly lets the card resolve, then he probably has some type of answer. In most cases, there will only be one or two ideal answers to a given situation, which makes playing around them easy.

If your opponent is nervous, figure out why he’s nervous and punish the weakness. If he’s strong, start thinking about where the confidence comes from and what you need to do to win the game. Knowing when to flood the board with threats or to hold back is huge!

When I don’t have enough sleep, I stop reading my opponent’s signals. A recent example of this was at the Starcitygames Legacy Open in Nashville. I kept a loose hand of Faerie Macabre, Jitte, double Force of Will, Submerge, and a couple land against Jessie Hatfield playing GW Survival. On the first several turns we played land-go, until he dropped a Noble Hierarch. I drew for the turn, and my hand had added Vengevine, Aquamoeba, and Basking Rootwalla, with three lands in play.

Now, let’s slow down and think about the game state. Both of us are fairly practiced Survival players, and we both kept hands without Survival, meaning the hands should look fairly similar, with both players trying to play the control role. His was also missing a source of white. Since this was game three, his slow start probably wasn’t afraid of Vengevines, Survival, or a creature rush. Also, he probably expected a source of white sooner, so an Enlightened Tutor is almost a certainty.

So we can put him on:

Enlightened Tutor Faerie Macabre
Enchantment Destruction? (Qasali Pridemage/Wispmare)
Creature control? (Swords to Plowshares, Shield Sphere, a Vengevine draw missing an outlet)

However, I was somewhat tired, and played into Faerie Macabre. Instead, my play should’ve been the rare Rootwalla-go, setting up to hardcast Vengevine and saving the ‘moeba to pitch to force. Fortunately, my hand was better positioned for the control role, and took the game from my tighter opponent. Not proud of that one.

A tell can be slight, even a simple element of timing. An opponent might chump with his poison creature just a tad too quickly, implying a [card]Corpse Cur[/card] in hand. Most of the time, your opponent plays in such a way that the cards in their hand are obvious if you put some thought into it. Working at this skill will make you look like a master with Cabal Therapy and Meddling Mage, but being able to list off your opponent’s hand for strategic or pscyhological reasons is always useful in some way.

One tell that transfers over from poker is when an opponent leaves up countermagic mana, but appears disinterested in his hand and the game until asked whether or not a spell resolves. Then said opponent, realizing he has a chance to bluff, looks to his cards, suddenly interested in what he has to work with. This tell is quite profitable in poker, usually on players in good position to steal the blinds, and is highly accurate in Magic as well. When explained, it seems basic, but any tell will seem so in retrospect.

Running the Chats

The mental game is an aspect of Magic that I’ve only recently achieved respect for, and it can be approached from a number of angles. The most obnoxious is to get your opponent thinking about anything but the current game at hand. This is usually accomplished through a series of inane questions or comments. Sometimes I’ll ask questions about my opponent’s play, working in cards that I’ve read them on and watching them struggle not to further reveal the contents of their hand.

While I’ve never met him, it seems to me that Mike Long was a practitioner of this, and I imagine he managed to tilt many an opponent. See the following video, paying special attention to Mike’s irritating comments, and the look of Mark Justice’s moral at the start of the game and near the end.

Mike isn’t just prattling, he’s working on Justice’s psyche. In the early game, he makes several statements about other games, anything to get Mark not thinking about the game at hand. When Mark Coercions him, he drums his fingers on the table. Even if Mark took the right card with the drumming or without it, little distractions add up, and can combine to make an opponent tilt.

Mike doesn’t let up near the end of the game, either. Statements like “you should just concede” or “dead Mark” work their magic, and Mark Justice scoops up his cards before seeing the combo all the way through. In the next game, Mark is reported to have scooped when Mike had no win conditions left. This is the power of psychology.

I’ve been impressed with the mental games of three pros in particular. Both Brad Nelson and Patrick Chapin took my “running the chats” in stride, completely stonewalling me out. To a practitioner of the stonewall defense, an inane question does not deserve an inane answer, or any answer at all for that matter. Rather, talk was reserved for in-game questions only. Since playing them, I’ve used the stonewall defense (or /ignore) multiple times, usually when an opponent becomes more animated while I’m trying to resolve mulligans. Against chatty opponents, I think it’s the right play. Naturally, focus is an important aspect of any magic player’s mental game.

Running the (supposed) Cheats

A side benefit of all these distraction techniques is that it allows players like Mike Long to run cheats easier.This style of play is still practiced by some today, and while I’m not familiar firsthand, I’m told that it does happen. Recently, PV commented on how, once it’s rumored that someone is a cheater, their every move becomes suspect. A good example of this is the story of someone asking a player’s hand count, and him responding with the wrong number. After the match, this turned into a supposed cheat. The idea is that when asked how many cards he has in hand, the cheater will give an incorrect response, like five instead of four. If caught, he will apologize and say he was mistaken. If not caught, he will realize that his opponent is not paying attention to his hand size, and will be free to draw extra cards. While you should watch your opponents carefully, this type of behavior actually benefits the known cheaters. Rather than focus on the game, now the guy is worried about watching his opponent’s every move. If you think your opponent is drawing extra cards, just call for a card count. That’s what judges are for.

Clearly, there are some pros and cons to using the distraction method. On the one hand, you might experience some short term success. On the other, people might mistake you for a cheater, even if you aren’t one. This means that an opponent will be even more distracted, as they’ll have to expend some of their focus looking for cheats. In the long term, though, Magic is a much more intimate game than most people realize, and being seen as a cheater will alienate you from working with the best players. Currently, I have a strong network of players to test with, and this is in some part due to my not being insufferable to play against. Where is Mike Long now, after all?

Pace of Play

Another way of cracking the opponent’s mental game is through changing his pace of play. A recent example comes from round two of a 5k in Boston, where I was piloting vampires on my way to the Top Eight.

My opponent was playing RW control. While my friends typically chuckle and say “must be nice” at this point in the story, it was actually something of a nightmare matchup.

Anyway, in game one I didn’t read my opponent for day of judgement, so I flooded the field. He dropped a Cunning Sparkmage (trouble) into Koth (oh yes trouble) into Hoarding Dragon fetching Collar (right here in River City.) At the end of my opponent’s turn, I went deep into the tank. I was holding Gatekeeper of Malakir in hand, and realized that the only way I could win the game was for him to miss his Dragon’s trigger, so I played accordingly. I started by upping my speed. My opponent, relieved that I was playing faster, sped up to match me.

“Random dude.”


“Gatekeeper kicked.”

“Sac dragon.”

“Attack Koth.”

“Koth dies.”

At this point I read the Dragon to verify the may-ness of its ability, and my opponent tried to put the collar in hand. Nothing doing. I think the amount that a player is inclined to rules lawyer is directly proportionate to how much he pays for his plane ticket. In this case, I rules lawyered two hundred and sixty dollars worth, which is equivalent to zero niceties. I’m not too proud of this game, but it was my only out, and I played for it. If my opponent hadn’t let me control the speed of the game, he would have definitely remembered his trigger.

A much more tired me would lose in a similar way the next day. Call it irony, or maybe (Mark) justice.

-Caleb Durward

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