Off Topic: Psychological Warfare



The brain is a peculiar organ. With all of today’s technology, the human mind remains a mysterious wonder. Magic is very much a game of intellectual skill. As tournament level Magic grows, having a competitive edge becomes more important. Free access to the Internet and Magic Online has decreased the secrecy of deck technology. Therefore, the game has come down to a Battle of Wits. Jedi mind tricks have surfaced the last few years. Mind tricks are meant to trick an opponent. For this article, I will Negate the moral or ethical dilemma behind the practice. Mind tricks are merely psychology put into practical use. Ready or not, the usage of psychological warfare will only increase as it spawns from infancy.

Filling in the Blanks

The mind has the natural tendency to make meaning out of information even when pieces are absent or incoherent. As a little mental exercise, please read the following.

Olny srmat poelpe can raed tihs.
I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rg hit pclae. T he rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh? yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt! if you can raed tihs psas it on !!"

It is from a piece of popular spam that people email to each other. The email is a hoax, but the paragraph demonstrates a person’s automatic response for comprehension. Actual scientific studies have shown people can read words with missing letters quite easily because the mind automatically fills in the gaps.

Players can take advantage of this phenomenon. I never said people fill in the gaps correctly. Patrick Chapin demonstrated this during a match by announcing the following.

Profane Command, you lose six life and all my legal targets gain fear.

The opposing player made an incorrect assumption and lost the match. When Patrick Chapin attacked with his Chameleon Colossus, the opponent assumed he couldn’t block the green shapeshifter. For more information, check out Riki Hayashi’s excellent article: The Riki Rules – Profane Bluffs. I doubt such scenarios will occur often enough to warrant mention. The important part to me about the Profane Command example is the information. Magic is about controlling how information is presented or hidden. Hiding information is the reason players continuously shuffle the cards in hand. The shuffling keeps information hidden. The process has always made sense to me. Back in my days of playing canasta with my grandfather, I was always amazed at how good my grandfather was at the game. One day I discovered one of his secrets. I noticed one day my grandfather watching where I pulled my cards from in my hand. A person playing canasta naturally keeps cards in hand in numerical order. By watching where the card was pulled from, my grandfather could deduce what cards I held in hand.

A powerful advantage is preventing an opponent from filling in the blanks. In a game of Magic, many players reveal information unwittingly. A player with a Counterbalance and Sensei's Divining Top reveals the top card. Before the player draws the next turn, the opponent looks at them and puts them back on top in a different order. The mistake made was the opponent didn’t shuffle those cards. I saw the order drawn and the placement of each card. I knew something was drawn. Also, I knew there was a two mana spell sitting on top of the library. People playing with the top get lazy. Those three cards should be shuffled. I’ve noticed the same mistake with Brainstorm. Instead of putting those cards in hand and two on top, most players look at the top three cards, two cards get put on top, and one is kept in hand. Those three cards should be tossed in hand, shuffled, and then two cards placed on top of the library.

Hidden information has been covered extensively. One common mistake I haven’t seen covered is players living off the top of the library. An example would be a player short on land and praying they can draw a mana source. As soon as the desperately needed land is drawn, it is immediately slapped onto the battlefield followed by a sigh of relief. I can deduce the opponent is short on land. Knowing my opponent is light on land, I might be more tempted to use my land destruction. To keep the land shortage information hidden, a player should place it hand, shuffle, and then play the land. The process prevents me from deducing a land was drawn. The same holds true with playing the spell drawn. A player quickly playing the spell drawn can give away information. There are too many ideas of what an immediate playing of a spell could mean. A possible scenario: the player has high casting cost spells in hand and needs something to play. Nonetheless, playing anything before putting the card in hand is a mistake.

Going Mental

Magic is a intellectual game. As such, people are susceptible to mental tricks. Magicians have been making a living on Sleight of Hand for centuries. A magician’s best tool is the distraction. There are reasons for why magicians use good-looking models in extravagant outfits. Talking to an opponent is a more obvious method. Besides the ethical implications, it works. The goal is to break the focus of an individual. A normal individual can only focus for 10 to 30 seconds at a time. To remain continually focused, a person must constantly reinforce a thought or process. A good example is a person jogging. A jogger must constantly reinforce the thought of “keep going”. The thought must be reinforced over and over. Breaking a person’s focus can be easy. Unfortunately, Jedi mind tricks only work on the weak minded. I’ve worked with a number of individuals over the years. Some people can handle distractions and others simply can’t. When working with certain co-workers, I don’t talk to them. It isn’t because I hate them. Those co-workers simply can’t work with distractions. My main problem with distractions is the method will only work on less formidable players.

A widely known tactic for a job interview is mimicry. The ploy is to mimic the interviewers body language and attitude. It is to promote a false sense of security or can make a person likable. Mimicry works in many different social situations. Mimicry is also a learning method thought to be hard-wired into the brain. One of the ways children learn is mimicry. Swear around a two year old and one will quickly learn how adapt kids are to mimicking. Again, the weaker minded may be susceptible to such a tactic. Stronger minded individuals will just shrug off the attempt. A better strategy at mimicry is the old adage of monkey see monkey do. People will often copy what someone else will do unconsciously. This can be seen at a crowded crosswalk. As people wait for the walk signal to appear, a mischievous individual could take a step off the curve a few seconds prematurely. Unwittingly, a number of individuals will follow. I’ve used the method a couple of times in retail. When customers are around, I will walk over and grab something like a soda. A few seconds later, I will see the customer grabbing for a soda. The trick can be used to make an opponent miss an upkeep trigger. As soon as an opponent untaps, I can reach over to straighten my library. The move often has the opponent reaching for a card and missing the upkeep step. With the ploy, I have made multiple people miss the chance to put counters on an Æther Vial.

The Psychological Advantage

A lot of Magic games come down to tight technical play. Two of the most difficult cards to play correctly are Cabal Therapy and Meddling Mage. Playing the two cards can easily lead to zero net gain. Fortunately, I am playing against human beings. People give away a lot of information. The three main areas to gain information are in the eyes, body language and in a person’s speech. The tone of voice or how a person responds can reveal hidden information. A highly disgruntled utterance can give the tell something good is in hand. Gauging a person’s vocalizations comes down to Intuition. A player with a good sense and observation can deduce a lot from a disheartened response. Body language is very similar because I can gauge the response. I watch for a shift of body weight, nervous shuffling of cards, tapping of fingers, or an increasing in twitching of the legs. A good poker player may be able to mask some of these tells. However, the eyes are more difficult to control. When a person processes a thought, the eyes will usually shift or focus on important aspects. As I play a Cabal Therapy, I don’t just utter my response quickly. I let it sit there for a slight moment. I take in a person’s response to the resolving spell. The eyes will often focus on a specific card in hand for a moment. The card the opponent hopes I don’t name. If the opponent is giving me a poker face, a simple question can reveal the information needed. So...do I name Tarmogoyf or Natural Order? The key is to say it slowly leaving a moment between naming the cards in question. Even if the opponent folded his/her cards down on to the table, the eyes will often shift on naming the card.

I could expand upon the psychology of Magic. Unfortunately, the road is paved with sometimes, often, usually, sometimes, and most people. Sometimes the above material will work. Sometimes those tricks will not work. What I hope other writers expand upon in the future is Magic is about playing against people. As such, psychology can be used to a player’s advantage. The moral implications can be debated. Is it ethical? I will let the Magic populace argue about the implications in the forums. The more important implication here today is whether the practice of mental tricks is practical. Properly gauging a person is very intuitive. The question I wonder about is how much of the practice of using psychology can be taught.

The Pursuit of Happiness

In college, I was a freshman orientation leader. One of my pieces of advice was if a person is suffering academically the student is not interested in the subject. Sounds simple, but I have found in life people constantly fool themselves. I have met a number of students who were doing poorly. After some probing, the only reason the student was in a certain major is because the student thought it would lead to a good job. Sometimes the student was only pursuing a career in medicine was because the parents wanted the student to be a doctor. In reality, the son or daughter didn’t even want to be a doctor. I always found it remarkable how often pre-med students would stumble upon the same revelation in the last year of college. Once I convinced the underachieving students to the idea of switching to a different major, those students performed exceptionally. When people pick a Magic deck on purely a metagame choice, I believe it to be a bad idea. Player’s should still pick a competitive deck, but the deck should be something the player enjoys. I always found it interesting when good players performed poorly with certain archetypes. After some conversation, the player related the only reason for playing the deck was because the deck was theoretically the best deck.

With this in mind, I am putting down my writing pen. My life has become increasingly chaotic and I no longer have the time. Most of all, the writing is having a less desirable impact on my life. Originally, I was going to end the Off Topic column a year from when I started. What can I say? Life can’t be planned. The article writing has been incredibly enjoyable. Interestingly, I learned more about Magic and myself than I thought when I began this journey. Writing a Magic article has been one of those things I think everyone should try at least once. I relate it to being a waiter, working with the general public, or trying to play an instrument. Until a person experiences those areas, a person can’t truly appreciate the difficulty, dedication and hard work.

With that said, good luck, good game and good night.

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