Typically, I think people overrate having a read on your opponent, or saying that that player had some kind of physical tell, and the purpose of this article won’t be to explain that if your opponent has a nervous twitch that he always has the counterspell. Instead, I have found it to be much more useful to focus on that player’s decisions and to put yourself in their shoes.
This may be the single biggest mistake that I see new players make, and it has to do with giving away mana tells and not picking up on opposing mana tells. This is most useful in draft, because in Constructed you usually have a large number of lands that produce multiple colors and therefore it is much easier to disguise what is in your hand.
Player A plays a Swamp and says go.
Player B plays a Plains and a [ccProd]Favored Hoplite[/ccProd]
Player A plays a Forest.
Let’s say player B has an Island and a [ccProd]Fate Foretold[/ccProd] in his hand, he knows that in the entire set of Theros there isn’t a single card that can make him regret casting that [ccProd]Fate Foretold[/ccProd] and so he is able to deal more damage, use his mana for the turn, and dig 1 card deeper into his library. Look at the situation one more time, but imagine player A plays a Swamp on his second turn.[draft]pharika’s cure[/draft]
Now if I’m the player with the [ccProd]Favored Hoplite[/ccProd] and my opponent has two Swamps in play, I’m going to think much harder about what to do, since if I go for my [ccProd]Fate Foretold[/ccProd] and he has a [ccProd]Pharika’s Cure[/ccProd] then I could get completely blown out. The upside is very small—just 1 damage for the turn, while the downside is losing both my cards and dealing 0 damage. I could easily imagine attacking for 1 and then casting the [ccProd]Fate Foretold[/ccProd] after combat, since if he didn’t want to kill my creature when I tried to deal damage with it, then he may not have any removal at all.
Let’s say player A has one Swamp in play and a hand of SEVEN lands, he’s pretty much done for. But choosing to play a Swamp on the second turn of the game instead of going on autopilot and to play the most number of different colored lands you can, you represent a card and gain some immediate tangible value. That’s why when people can play around things, they often do. Magic 101 would dictate that you play as many different lands as you can in the early game, because it allows you to represent the most number of different cards while also allowing you to play all the different cards in your deck if you were to draw them. With [ccProd]Pharika’s Cure[/ccProd], it’s the only reason to put two Swamps into play on the first two turns of the game. So knowing when to represent it, disguise the fact that you have it, and spot when an opponent might have it is important.
In some games of Cube recently, I have seen some pretty extreme examples of mana tells. I was watching someone stream and they started out with Island go, Island go (choosing to hold up [ccProd]Remand[/ccProd]), and on the third turn of the game they played a [ccProd]Stomping Ground[/ccProd] tapped and said go. So for two turns this person did not cast any spell and left up exactly two basic Islands, this screams some kind of countermagic or a weak hand where the [ccProd]Stomping Ground[/ccProd] had to be drawn precisely the turn it was played.
One thing I learned from Reid Duke before I went to play my Top 8 match for Pro Tour Gatecrash was about a specific timing tell. Reid told me that if my opponent ever thinks for an excessive amount of time in the early turns of the game to consider that he may have a [ccProd]Domri Rade[/ccProd] in his hand, since that’s the single card in his deck that requires the most decision-making and has the widest number of possible outcomes when cast.[draft]domri rade[/draft]
In a recent Cube draft video, I just blurted out on the second turn, “I bet my opponent has [ccProd]Grim Monolith[/ccProd] in his hand,” because he was taking a very long time to make a decision that is usually quite simple. [ccProd]Grim Monolith[/ccProd] is another card that is unique in that it’s very good when you can use it to jump the curve, but if you use it to cast a spell and it doesn’t work out, you’ve lost that investment until much later in the game.
One of the best times in the game to pick up on a timing tell is right as the game starts when the opponent is considering their options about keeping and making a turn 1 play. Assume you’re playing against Mono-Black Devotion and the opponent snap-keeps their hand, now assume it’s their first turn and they think for close to one minute before playing a Swamp and a [ccProd]Thoughtseize[/ccProd]. This tells me either they had a different turn 1 play, they were considering holding the [ccProd]Thoughtseize[/ccProd] for later, or they also have a [ccProd]Temple of Deceit[/ccProd] in hand and weren’t sure whether to put the tapped land into play or to cast Thoughtseize.
This type of thinking can be used for other situations as well. If you know they’re on Mono-Black Devotion and they start off with a Swamp and pass without thinking very much, you can almost guarantee that they don’t have a [ccProd]Thoughtseize[/ccProd] or a scry land in hand.
One thing I try to do to disguise the fact that I have a tough decision in the early turns of the game is to give my hand a thorough examination and decide what I’d like to do before I even say that I’m going to keep my hand. This makes my opponent think that I may have had a tough mulligan decision and it hides that I was unsure as to what to cast on turn 1.
This part of the article was hard to write without sounding very condescending. The best times to ignore tells are when you think your opponent’s deck or your opponent is very bad. One good way to know when to ignore tells if if the card quality in the draft was very poor and you believe that all of the decks are weak. Let’s imagine in the first example I used that your deck is quite poor and you’ve already played two games against your opponent and his deck is bad, like really bad. It’s so bad you’ve seen him cast [ccProd]Fleetfeather Sandals[/ccProd], [ccProd]Asphodel Wanderer[/ccProd], and a [ccProd]Loathsome Catoplebas[/ccProd] with no green mana. Now the situation is the same, you have [ccProd]Favored Hoplite[/ccProd] with [ccProd]Fate Foretold[/ccProd] in your hand and the opponent has two Swamps untapped, except that now you’ve played two games having never seen the [ccProd]Pharika’s Cure[/ccProd] and you suspect that him having put two Swamps into play might just be a product of mana/color screw, meaning that it’s more important than ever to try and get in as much damage as possible before he starts to draw lands and play out his full hand of spells.
Not only is it useful to ignore tells when you think your opponents deck is bad it is also very good to ignore tells when you know that your own deck is bad. If you know your deck is horrible and you will almost assuredly lose a long game where both people get to play a good number of spells and you’re forced to interact, it’s crazy to turn down the possibility of having a nut draw. In these situations I would definitely cast the [ccProd]Fate Foretold[/ccProd] and I would call it gambling.
I would choose not to cast the [ccProd]Fate Foretold[/ccProd] if I thought that I could win the game easily despite giving up a damage and my second turn, this will come up in a ton of games. If I ever thought I could lose because I gave away the 1 damage then I wouldn’t hesitate to cast the card, you won’t always be able to tell each game apart. I can’t get these choices right as often as I’d like, but with practice and intuition you get closer with each one.
Every decision that the opponent makes gives away some amount of information, some of it is useful and some of it can be very harmful to put too much stock into. If I play a [ccProd]Grizzly Bear[/ccProd] on turn two and it dies to a [ccProd]Shock[/ccProd], then I would think that my opponent just had a convenient time and target to cast the [ccProd]Shock[/ccProd], there is very little to be gained from this exchange. If my opponent casts a [ccProd]Hero’s Downfall[/ccProd] on my [ccProd]Grizzly Bear[/ccProd] then I would be very suspicious as to why he was using such an all-purpose removal spell on a creature that looks like it won’t affect the outcome of the game too greatly. This might make me think my opponent has a hand of all removal and wants to preserve his life total.
If my opponent has to use two copies of [ccProd]Lightning Strike[/ccProd] to kill my [ccProd]Horizon Scholar[/ccProd] then it’s pretty obvious that he has very few ways to block or remove it and that this is an extra effective threat against this opponent. In general, [ccProd]Horizon Scholar[/ccProd] is a bit of a bland, average card that you play often but isn’t a high pick or anything special, based on an exchange like this I would try to sideboard more of them into my deck.
I watched someone streaming a Cube draft online and one player cast a [ccProd]Tinker[/ccProd] for a [ccProd]Sphinx of the Steel Wind[/ccProd] and the opponent conceded on turn three at 20 life with a Plains, Forest, and Mountain in play. Later in the match, the first player had [ccProd]Tinker[/ccProd] again and was considering what to go get with it, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to fetch out [ccProd]Myr Battlesphere[/ccProd] or [ccProd]Sphinx of the Steel Wind[/ccProd]. I found this pretty surprising since if you know your opponent just concedes on the spot to [ccProd]Sphinx of the Steel Wind[/ccProd] then I’m pretty sure I would go get that. If I were the player with the [ccProd]Tinker[/ccProd] and my opponent just gave up immediately, then I would assume that my opponent has no outs to it. If my opponent in the first game instead chose to play out the remaining four turns of the game and let the game end naturally, then I might suspect that he has some outs to it, like [ccProd]Oblivion Ring[/ccProd], [ccProd]Path to Exile[/ccProd], or [ccProd]Swords to Plowshares[/ccProd]—but simply throwing in the towel at the mere sighting of a Spinx is a tell that he actually can never beat it.
My number 1 piece of advice to you is to watch the opponent and try to put yourself in their shoes and figure out why they are doing the things they are doing, but don’t forget you have decisions to make as well.
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