If you missed part one of this series, I would definitely recommend reading it before getting into this one. I’ll be touching on a lot of the same concepts today.
What did we learn last time?
In the last episode, we explored a few ways to analyze signals that our opponent is constantly giving off. I tried to key in on a few things to look for during the course of a game that can help an observant player make educated guesses about the information that is hidden from them.
In this episode, we’re going to use that knowledge to be more conscious of the signals we give off throughout the course of a game. It really is the other side of the information coin. If we can assume that people are looking for signals during the game, there are definitely things we can do to mask our true intentions. When you get really good at this, you might even be able to mislead or manipulate your opponents into acting a certain way.
Appear weak when you are strong…
You didn’t think I’d make it through a whole two-part series on strategy and not quote Sun Tzu, did you? Appearing weak when you’re strong can be one of the toughest things to do in Magic. When you’re playing against an observant opponent, they’re probably going to divine your lines of play and other hidden information pretty easily. One of the major themes we’ll be dealing with today is controlling the amount of free information our opponent has access to so they’re forced to make inaccurate assumptions about our capabilities.
One of the best ways to do this is with explosive mana rocks. People often talk about the early-game impact of things like Sol Ring and Mana Crypt, but they really only address one aspect of these cards – how they play on turn one. Mana Crypt is pretty obviously way better than Sol Ring because it maintains your ability to spend coloured mana, but there’s another use case for it (and all net positive mana, for that matter).
Forcing your opponents to misjudge your capabilities
If you’ve got two or three lands and a Mana Crypt in your opening hand, it can be awfully tempting to roll it out on turn one. Unless you’ve got a two- or three-drop that you’re able to play turn one, this isn’t always the optimal play. Sure, it allows you access to four mana at the beginning of your main phase on turn two, but are you prepared to deal with the consequences? You’re opening yourself up to a 50% chance at taking 3 damage on your second upkeep for no real benefit. What’s worse is that you’re giving your opponents access to the information that you’ll have 4 mana on your second turn before you absolutely have to. This gives them a whole extra turn to prepare for whatever you’re going to do. It allows them to keep mana open (where they might normally tap out to advance their board) for interaction, and reduces your chances of resolving whatever you plan to cast.
In the absence of decks that are packed with Thorn of Amethyst-type and Trinisphere-type effects that can punish you for waiting, your best bet is to use Mana Crypt like you would a Ritual or Simian Spirit Guide. Thinking about it as a spell that nets you mana for a specific application means that – unless you’ve got a damn good reason for casting it on turn one, like chaining it into another mana rock or casting something like Trinket Mage – withholding it until the last opportunity to cast it before you need it is generally correct. Sometimes that’s turn one, and sometimes it’s not. Whatever you do with it, absolutely do not ignore the signal you’ll be sending to your opponents about your ability to make actions in the game.
With that established, it should be fairly obvious that rolling out one half of an established combo can be a generally bad idea. If you’ve got an Isochron Scepter and a spell (other than Dramatic Reversal) to imprint on it, and a Paradox Engine with access to only 5 mana, two of which is from mana rocks, is it a good idea to cast the Scepter or the Engine onto the board? It’s definitely not a good idea to drop the Paradox Engine unless you have a way to win right away. Paradox Engine sends the signal to your opponents that you’re getting ready to win on the next turn, and if they’re rational they’ll take all the steps they can to throw up roadblocks for you.
Casting the Isochron Scepter is a slightly different story, though, because it sends a drastically different signal to your opponents. Casting Isochron Scepter onto a board where you only have two mana from non-land sources sends the signal that you’re casting it for value. People might give you the side-eye thinking that you’re holding up a Mana Crypt that might allow you to combo off, but if they let it resolve they should be breathing a sigh of relief when you imprint an Into the Roil or Chain of Vapor – especially since you can’t even activate it with only one mana left. Isochron Scepter, in this case, is much more likely to survive the turn because you’ve suppressed the signal that suggests you’re getting ready to combo off. It gives you a little incremental utility until you draw into more non-land mana sources or a couple more lands that will enable you to cast Paradox Engine and follow it up with a spell to get the Engine running.
This is also why I love cards like Metalworker – I can use it to send a strong “I’m going to win” signal because people don’t know just how much mana I’m able to make off of it. I do this when I want people to burn through their interaction to clear the way for my actual game-winning play. If they try to play the odds and let it survive a turn, sometimes I’ve just got grip full of artifacts that will absolutely bury them for it.
…and strong when you are weak
We’ve covered off appearing weak when you’re strong, but what about appearing strong when you’re weak?
Last week we talked a little about countermagic, which is a funny thing. If you counter someone’s spell, you’re down a card and probably some mana. If you make someone think you’re going to counter their spell, and they don’t cast it as a result, you’ve achieved the same effect without spending a card or the mana. When people first start playing control, I often see a lot of posturing. “If you attack me, I’ll counter everything you do for the rest of the game,” the new control player says. I always laugh this off because it’s not practical, possible, or even productive to actually do something like that, so it’s effectively an empty threat. If I suspect that a control player has it out for me, I’ll wait to deploy my threats until they’re low on mana, or low on cards (which is an inevitability for people who play like this). Rather than focusing on what they say, I’m focusing on the free information that I have available.
The logical assumption here should be that bluffing only partially involves what you say and the threats you make in-game. When you’re playing against an observant opponent, a more effective bluff involves controlling the free information they’re inevitably looking at.
If we’re talking about bluffing countermagic, it’s extremely important to pay attention to the number and types of mana you have available. People are looking at this in-game and actively making decisions based on it! Why wouldn’t you try to screw with them a little? UU sends a strong message that even new players understand. Quite often, though, if I’m activating Nin, the Pain Artist (targeting Nin), I’ll choose an X value that doesn’t require me to totally tap out, even if I don’t have a counterspell in hand. If I’ve got RUU5, I’ll choose to only draw 5 cards when I could draw 6, because it tells people I’ve got Dispel or Swan Song if they want to try to Swords Nin in response to the activation. There’s an opportunity cost of +1 card advantage here, but if it prevents someone from interacting with Nin, I’m guaranteeing +5 instead of gambling for +6.
What’s more effective than threats?
With your body language, there are also things you can do to confound an observant player’s information gathering attempts. One of the things I like to do is play with my hand face-down on the table, and when play passes to someone who I think is likely to make a strong play (say, to try to win the game), I pick up my hand to look at it, and rearrange my lands and mana rocks. You don’t have to say a word, but if there’s anything that will make someone think twice about going for the win, this is one of those things. I wouldn’t do this every time, but this kind of body language can make a really strong statement.
Another thing you can do (provided you don’t go overboard), is to ask people to play out complex plays step-by-step. An observant player will worry that you’re trying to pick the moment where interaction is going to have the biggest impact, and they might play things a little less aggressively to give you fewer opportunities to blow them out of the water. Don’t go overboard with this, because tournament shortcuts are essential to the natural flow of a game. If someone is demonstrating a single iteration of an infinite loop, you pretty much have until the end of the first iteration to actually interact or let them be on their merry way.
Similarly, when you’ve got priority, try not to make it obvious when you have zero interaction in your hand. It’s okay to stop and think while you’ve got priority, and it’s also okay to stop and look like you’re thinking about something. If you don’t have anything to think about, toss a question out that would be relevant if you did have interaction:
“How many cards do you have in hand?”
“So you’ve got BBR available?”
“We’re in your postcombat main phase, right?”
These questions are great ways to toss out false signals to all of your opponents, not just the one you’re trying to bluff.
Isperia had just dropped Avacyn, Angel of Hope and was in a pretty dominant position. They had played a Gilded Drake to take Meren’s Avenger of Zendikar the turn earlier, and neither the Gilded Drake nor the Avenger survived until the next turn. Meren had a few plant tokens in play (with not enough experience counters to reanimate Avenger immediately), and Titania was doing stone cold nothing. Isperia was putting on a big show about countering things, and I had a suspicion they actually had a counterspell in hand. I’ve got a Necromancy that could put me way ahead if Isperia doesn’t counter it, but they’re a pretty good player. I know that the line I want to take is to target the Gilded Drake in Isperia’s graveyard and take their Avacyn, so I’ve got to send a strong signal to mislead them so they won’t counter my Necromancy.
“Titania, can I see your graveyard?”
I rifle through Titania’s graveyard and find nothing of value.
“Meren, can I see yours?”
I rifle through Meren’s graveyard, finding nothing of value except the Avenger. I hand the graveyard back to Meren with the Avenger sticking out slightly.
“What does it do?” Isperia asks.
“It’s an enchantment that creates a reanimate trigger on ETB,” I reply.
“What are you targeting?”
“Does it resolve?”
“Sure, have your Avenger,” Isperia says, dismissively.
“ETB target Gilded Drake.”
Isperia immediately figures out what’s going on, and says “Oh, well in that case I counter it,” as he shows me his Force of Will.
You can do this in any number of ways, but they all essentially boil down to highlighting pieces of free information that you think are likely to draw an emotional response (or a lack of emotional response, as in the example). I touched on this briefly in my three part series on threat assessment, but it’s worth repeating. Exceptional EDH players know how to push people’s buttons, and they know when they have to distract people a bit to avoid pushing those buttons.
If you’re playing against good Magic players, you have to be really conscious of the amount of information you give them, and what decisions they’re likely to make once they have access to that information. Between controlling and obscuring that flow of information, and mastering some verbal and non-verbal techniques, it’s entirely possible to have a ton of influence on a game without expending any resources at all.
What kinds of things do you do to send or mask your signals? Do you have any great stories of in-game subterfuge or manipulation you want to share? As always, hit me up in the comments!