Yes, there’s a ton of variance that’s built into the game and that variance can certainly rear its ugly head (or beautiful head, depending on what kind of variance it is!) from time to time. But variance isn’t what determines whether or not a player consistently succeeds or fails. That requires tight, technical gameplay and a player utilizing their full set of skills and abilities, with a bit of variance sprinkled in to help them across the finish line.

The other thing I love about Magic is just how much the mind plays an enormous part. If you mentally approach a game, match, or tournament with the wrong mindset or focus on the wrong things, you can sabotage yourself before you even cast a card. If you react to a win or loss in the wrong way, that can derail your ability to perform going into your next round. There are so many various little challenges and obstacles a player encounters during a single game of Magic that staying in mental and emotional control and avoiding the dreaded tilt is absolutely essential to playing well and winning.

But there’s also another element to the game of Magic, a game within the game. Mind games.

Whenever I do my Q&A’s over on /r/Spikes at Reddit, someone inevitably asks about mind games:

  1. Are mind games important?
  2. Do mind games actually provide any kind of real, worthwhile advantages?
  3. Are mind games unethical and unsportsmanlike in Magic?
  4. Should you be actively looking to play mind games with your opponent?

1) Are mind games important in Magic?

Back when I used to play Magic regularly and competitively, I always wanted to find ways to improve and to become the best player I could be. That naturally led me to find resources to improve my game. One of those resources was Patrick Chapin’s book Next Level Magic. In it, he leaves behind a brilliant quote that touches on the topic of mind games in Magic:

“Magic games are generally decided by tight technical play, not mind games. It is generally better to spend your time and energy playing excellent Magic rather than practicing mind tricks on people.”

Magic is won or lost based on how the cards interact with one another: creatures attacking and blocking, spells killing or destroying permanents, spells countering and altering other spells, etc. You can do an incredible job of bluffing and psyching your opponent out, but if you make poor technical decisions during the course of a game and if your cards interact poorly with your opponent’s cards, then more often than not, you’re not going to win.

2) Do mind games actually provide any kind of real, worthwhile advantages?

When I think of mind games, I think of specific kinds of behavior: facial expressions, body language, using certain kinds of language, saying certain things, the tone of voice you use when speaking, etc. Is there a real, tangible, worthwhile advantage to be gained by behaving a certain way toward your opponent to throw them off? Well, I think that depends on the context.

Knowing and understanding what kind of player you’re playing against is the best starting point. If you’re a high-level player and you’re playing against a field of inexperienced players, then mind games can provide some real advantages, as they don’t have the experience within the game yet to pick up on what you’re doing. If you’re playing in a high-level tournament against seasoned, experienced players, then it’s safer to assume that those players would sniff it out.

Not only does the skill level of your opponent come into the equation, but also the temperament of your opponent. For example, players like Paul Rietzl, Reid Duke, Josh Utter-Leyton, and Luis-Scott Vargas are stoic and mentally strong when playing. You very rarely, if ever, see them lose their cool during a game, regardless of the situation. You’re wasting valuable time and energy trying to psyche out players like that. But as we know, there are certainly players that have close to zero mental and emotional control where the slightest thing can tilt them off and send them plummeting into the sewers. Players like that are easier to mentally manipulate, and there’s no question that how you behave, how you speak, and how you interact with them can make a difference in determining how they play and the decisions they make. Having said that, this leads into the third question:

3) Are mind games in Magic unethical and unsportsmanlike?

In a game like poker, mind games are the game. That’s where poker is won or lost. That’s where the real skill of the game comes into play. In poker, there’s an element of ruthlessness involved where being cutthroat and manipulative toward your opponent is needed and necessary in order to succeed. Magic is different. In Magic, the players and the community tend to encourage the opposite—being cordial toward your opponent, treating other players with respect and dignity, playing and acting with sportsmanship, and fair play. The concept of being outwardly unpleasant and unfeeling toward your opponent is pretty much looked down upon.

This is where a big difference of opinion tends to become part of the discussion. If you know that your opponent is temperamental, lacks control, and is a loose cannon, is it unsportsmanlike to try and tilt them off? If your opponent is a nice, cordial, friendly person and behaves kindly towards you, is it unethical to try and act deviously to manipulate them and gain an edge? Well, that depends on you. It depends on what your priorities are as a Magic player and what matters most to you when playing games of Magic.

Personally, I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer. Once again, context is important. Tournament Magic is competitive, and in competition, you have to be tough. You have to be willing to be ruthless and receive a bit of ruthlessness as well. Competition never is, and never should be, for the faint of heart.

But there are consequences. By all means, go after your opponent if you know they’re temperamental, lack emotional control, and tilt off easily. Do your best to send your nice, cordial, friendly, kind opponent off the deep end so that you can disrupt their ability to play their best. Just understand that other players may form a certain opinion of you and your character for doing so. If you’re willing to live with that and don’t really care about other’s opinions, then more power to you. But it is something you’ll need to consider.

Is that worth it? Is a reputation for being nasty and relentless toward your opponents worth whatever success you might get from it? Is having a community of players that behaves positively and politely towards each other more worthwhile and valuable than having a community of players who are always at each other’s throats during games so that they can gain a competitive edge? Again, in my view, there is no right or wrong answer. Only you can answer that for yourself.

4) Should you look to play mind games with your opponent?

There’s no question that mind games can be effective. We’ve seen many instances where players have behaved a certain way towards their opponent and gotten a very noticeable edge from it. Ultimately, it comes down to a cost/benefit analysis. In Magic, do the benefits you might get from playing mind games outweigh the benefits you would get from just focusing on yourself and your own game? Personally, I don’t think they do. Like Patrick Chapin said, games of Magic are won much more by playing tight and playing smart—not fooling your opponent. In general, I personally believe that you’re much better off spending your valuable time and energy being focused on yourself—focused on your own game, your own decisions, and your own frame of mind.

I’m definitely curious to know your thoughts on this topic. Please, sound off in the comment section and let me know what you think.

Thanks for reading, and all the best!