Baghdad Bazaar: Tips and Tricks--Exploiting MTGO



Any game produced and played on a computer can be exploited. It's simply the nature of the medium.

Despite many valid concerns voiced over the years about the atrocity of buying both real-life and digital Magic cards, the instability of Magic The Gathering: Online (MTGO)'s servers, and several others, MTGO continues to be a legitimate method for honing your current Standard deck against the metagame or for just finding an opponent for a quick showdown at 2 a.m. With a rigidly-enforced rules system, MTGO continues to teach new players the subtleties of activated vs. triggered effects, turn structure, and even those annoying little state-based effects.

But in a game defined by incremental advantages, knowing how to use even MTGO itself against your opponent can become just the needed edge.

MTGO ploys go beyond simply knowing the ins and outs of the phases or even which cards work better in which formats (Kokusho in 2HG, etc.). Ultimately, they can get the inner workings of the MTGO program to work specifically for you. And just like a real-life player knows to watch the eyes of his opponent, online players have a few tricks up their sleeves as well.

Don't misunderstand my intent; I'm not suggesting you can or should try to cheat in Magic Online. But while it's cheating in a real-life game to peek at an opponent's cards (unless he's dumb and uses mirrored shades), it's not cheating to see that he only has two cards left in his hand and from there gauge the probability of his holding a game-deciding Damnation. This is the sort of analogy I'd like the reader to keep in mind.

Now let's see exactly what I mean...

1. Stops.

Let's begin with one of the most obvious, yet useful, of all the MTGO "tricks"... paying attention to stops. "Stops" are essentially MTGO's shorthand for passing priority during phases. In a real-life game, most players abbreviate each turn's structure anyway--simply drawing and passing for your turn skips the first main phase, combat phase, second main phase, and end-of-turn priorities. You can imagine how long each game online would last if you had to physically pass priority during each and every phase. Hence, the MTGO creators decided to use "stops."


This will ruin a day or two.

Check out the diagram a little farther down, if you're not already familiar with stops. Although you'll automatically receive priority after a spell or ability, stops tell the game when to make sure you keep priority even when nothing's happened. (The best place to always have priority is during your opponent's end-of-turn step--it's the best time for a quick Think Twice or to use an untapped Wellwisher.)

The trick with stops is not so much setting them up for your decks as it is watching for which your opponent has set. Essentially, the MTGO program is handing you an advantage on a silver platter, and it's up to you to whether or not you use it.

Let's say, for example, that you notice the game always pauses for two seconds during your draw phase while "Waiting for YourOpponent." You should start worrying very quickly. Particularly if he's playing mono-Black--he's likely planning to power out a Myojin of Night's Reach (which has happened to me as early as turn 2). And believe you me, a Black Myojin can ruin your day (especially in Two-Headed Giant, which I usually play). If not a Black Myojin, he still might be using a Quicken/Mind Sludge combo or a Telepathy/Extirpate synergy, one of my personal favorites.

Simply knowing what win condition he could have in his deck will affect the way you play, whether it's emptying your hand as quickly as possible or holding onto that Word of Seizing a turn longer.


Stops: just as important to set up
properly as to watch for studiously.

Different stops will, of course, imply different things about an opponent's deck:

  • During your Upkeep: This could mean he's using an Icy Manipulator to tap down your key lands before you can cast sorceries.
  • During your Draw Phase: As mentioned before, this suggests all sorts of nasty discard strategies.
  • During your Beginning of Combat Phase: He might be using a Master Decoy or a similar card to tap down your creatures before you can declare them as attackers.
  • During your Declare Attackers Instants Phase: Watch out for something like Gilt-Leaf Ambush, as this is the only point he can cast it and also declare the tokens as blockers.
  • During your Declare Blockers Instants Phase: This is the perfect time to see if you Giant Growth an attacker before Devouring Lighting it, netting a 2-for-1 deal.
  • During your End of Turn: This is actually pretty commonplace. After all, this is the perfect time to slap an another counter on a Molten Slagheap or to spend leftover mana on a removal spell before one untaps.
And one more thing to watch for: a lack of stops. If your opponent is sitting on two untapped Islands but the game skips immediately to his turn when you press F6 (i.e. pass priority for the rest of your turn), it means he's also F6'd. Meaning that he doesn't have any Counterspells, Mana Leaks, Boomerangs, Shadow of Doubts, or other nasty UU cards currently in his hand. You can breathe easy for another turn.

Or, sometimes, it means he just hit the wrong button. There is always that too.


2. "Print Screen."

It's that little button near the top-right of your keyboard (usually), and it can save your butt.


Love that button.
Perhaps you've just Peeked someone's hand and don't want to spend time writing down all seven cards. Perhaps someone's just Disenchanted your Telepathy, and you want to save what you can see of your opponent's hands. Perhaps you're even so lucky to Extirpate a key card and are presently staring down someone's entire decklist.

"Print Screen" (usually abbreviated "PrtSc") literally saves a snapshot of your screen for whatever sinister purposes you might have for it. Although, in this case, it's usually nothing harder than opening up MsPaint (usually under "Start Menu"..."All Programs"..."Accessories") and clicking "Edit"..."Paste" to place the image on the canvas. (It's also Ctrl-V for all you high-speed computer nerds out there.) Save it to your computer or discard it when you're done; either way, it may save you the trouble of guessing whether that was three copies of Sudden Death you saw in his decklist or four.


3. 2HG Peculiarities.

If you're a faithful Two-Headed Giant (2HG) player, you've probably noticed a few differences between the format in "real life" and online. In real life, two players share a turn and all inherent phases, declaring attackers and blockers at the same time across one gigantic battlefield. Online, it runs more like a 2-vs.-2, with four individual turns progressing in clockwise order. Life is the only element shared, and this is usually set at the older 40. (Bennie Smith explains the online version is all "old-school.") Still, it's better than nothing; and I've grown accustomed to the online format's own peculiarities.

Remember, however, "peculiarities" can be made to work for you.

a. Individual Life.

One of the biggest differences to be aware of is the game's inability to calculate individual life. Read the following rule, cut-and-pasted straight from the current Comprehensive Rulebook concerning the 2HG format.

606.9a If an effect needs to know the value of an individual player's life total, that effect uses the team's life total divided by two, rounded up, instead.
Apparently, MTGO has never read the rulebook. Thanks to some singular programming, MTGO uses your combined 2HG life total whenever resolving effects. Meaning your individual and combined life totals are both 40 at the start of the game. (Yeah, I know...figure that one out.)


MM LIFE NOM NOM NOM
Consequently, a Beacon of Immortality increases your combined life total not from 40 to 60 (as it should), but all the way to 80. (Two or more cast in a single game often forces concessions.) Also, a Beacon targeting your opponents, preceded by a quick False Cure, is an instant-speed win condition--instead of simply halving their combined life total, as it should.

Here's a list of other cards that are particularly powerful because of this fact:

These cards are just as, if not more, pertinent for the Three-Headed Giant format, since "half your life total" now equals 30 instead of just 20. However, I personally stay away from the laggy, disconnection-filled land that is 3HG.

(A quick aside: Test of Endurance seems to be the only card in existence that can properly calculate your individual life total, waiting till you hit a collective 100 before going off. Meaning that a Beacon/Test combo is not quite as easy of a win condition as you might think. Weirdness.)

b. Individual Decking.

Observe this rule, once again cut-and-pasted straight from the current Comprehensive Rulebook.

606.8b Players win and lose the game only as a team, not as individuals. If either player on a team loses the game, the team loses the game...

Example: In a Two-Headed Giant game, a player attempts to draw a card while there are no cards in that player's library. That player loses the game, so that player's entire team loses the game.
Again, however, MTGO has decided to "do its own thing." (Something we describe in the Army as "the wrong answer.") In the online form of 2HG, when a player tries to draw off an empty library, only he loses. Again, weirdness. MTGO is probably the only time you'll see a single, lonesome player carrying on his 2HG crusade against two eager opponents.

Keep that in mind, however, before bringing your "AWSUMORZ MI11ING DEK" to the 2HG table. Unless it's built around Forced Fruition, it's going to prove rather underpowered. Especially when a single, remaining opponent begins tutoring for Darksteel Colossuses out of his 312-card library.


4. The Timely Concession.

Remember what I said about one player being able to continue on his own in 2HG? In the worst case scenario, this trick is nothing more than a way to irritate your 2HG opponents for an extra turn before you both die. At other times, however, it marks the difference between a crushing defeat and a clever victory.


Let's say that your teammate's brutal Elf deck is only one turn away from swinging for the win. Let's also say that "your" opponent's Mind's Desire deck finally goes off, and he spends the next ten minutes performing his annoying infinite loop before finally targeting you with all 56 copies of Tendrils of Agony. Good game, right?

Hardly. Just right-click and choose "Concede." All spells targeting you will be countered on resolution, thanks to the sudden absence of their target: you.

You'd be surprised with how many game plans I've befuddled with this simple action. Often, the player with the stormed spells is out of mana and out of options, and my friend completes the win in his next combat phase. This is about as close to a free, one-shot Time Stop as you can get.

Would it work in a real-life 2HG tournament? No. Is it fun to do on MTGO? You bet. Additionally, you should see a Reverse the Sands in 2HG when you concede in the middle of its resolution. The game becomes confused and sets everyone's life total to the highest. Quite a useful trick if your teammate can bring home the bacon.

(Sadly, this trick is only useful against spells, as it no longer negates combat damage. If you concede before combat damage is on the stack, your teammate is considered responsible for blocking; and if you concede after, the damage is already assigned to your entire team.)


5. >4 Copies.


She wished for yet another
Deed, but not for an
opponent to use it on.
Here's one I'll bet they didn't teach you in school...using more than 4 copies of any non-basic land card in a non-Freeform game. You're half-right if you guessed the trick involves one of the many Wishes, although trying to cram a few extra copies in your sideboard won't suffice. MTGO simply won't let you start a game with over 4 copies of any particular card.

The set-up is really quite simple. When creating your game, click the "Options" button at the bottom before you hit "Okay" or select your deck. Instead of whatever shows up under the "Event Timer Options" category, choose "Untimed" instead. No more "Magic Online prevents access to the collection during timed games" messages. Now your entire library is your favorite Wishes deck's toolbox.

In real-life tournaments, this isn't even conceivable--Wishes can only ever tutor for cards in your sideboard. But on MTGO, on the other hand...ah, like I said. It's the nature of the medium. Don't be surprised, however, if a fifth Vindicate forces an opponent to...uh...mysteriously lose their connection.

(Just be sure you have a few extra copies of whatever it is you want in your collection. Although if those "extra copies" are of foil Pernicious Deeds, you have way too much free time and money on your hands, and you need a good slapping.)


6. Individual Card Bugs.

Bugs are as much a part of MTGO as any other computer program--more so, some may say. At the same time, bugs can be beneficial. To wit, during one flawed update, half of the partners in 2HG games could mysteriously see their teammate's hands alongside their own. Apparently, someone spoke up, and the "bug" was incorporated into regular play; now each 2HG player can see his partner's hand without having to ask. (It makes sense, after all--in real life, your partner's hand would also be visible.)

You can either let bugs work for you or against you. Sometimes, the edge comes from knowing which cards don't work exactly as expected, both for your own and your opponents'. Here are a few examples:

  • Research//Development
  • The Development side from this Ravnica split card used to be one of the best bugged cards, particularly in 2HG. (Notice I said used to be...MTGO programmers finally caught on.) When it worked as intended, both opponents would have the option of letting the caster either draw a card or put a 3/1 elemental into play, times three. However, while bugged, the card also gave the option to the caster's teammate--obviously against the spirit of the card. Essentially, it was an Instant-speed Concentrate or a super-cheap Feral Lightning, whichever you preferred. And as long as the bug lasted, it was worth taking advantage of.
  • Grafted Wargear
  • This bug was more a reason not to use this card. Until the bug was fixed, unattaching Grafted Wargear would cause you to sacrifice--not the creature--but the Wargear itself. Consequently, no one used it (even the hardcore Johnnies), as a simple Terror on the equipped creature could turn into a 2-for-1 trade.

    This card didn't even make
    sense in real life...

  • Warp World
  • I'm probably one of the few who even tried abusing this card online and hence noticed the bug. Until recently, Warp World wouldn't count any tokens that were "shuffled" into the deck as well, meaning comboing with Mogg War Marshall was "right out."
  • Bushi Tenderfoot
  • It may say "bushido 2" once you flip it, but that doesn't necessarily mean it'll have it.
  • Overblaze
  • Works on anything but an enchantment. Because no one uses enchantments anyway.
  • Ghostly Prison
  • This often crashed games when an opponent tried to pay the 2 requirement. Supposedly, it's fixed now.
  • Chains of Mephistopheles
  • I hear there's something going on with this card. Like an emergency banning. Just saying...
Obviously, not all of these are bugs you can necessarily abuse. Some of these are just bugs to watch out for when putting a deck together, until the bugs are fixed...which often takes a while.


If you're an avid MTGO player, perhaps you've already seen a number of these tricks being used. If not, feel free to incorporate them into your game play. Build a few decks around them. Bring those incremental advantages to bear. And if you've seen or used any I haven't covered, please let me know! The forums are there for a reason.

And while you're at it, go ahead and wear those mirrored shades. No one can see them online.

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