[MTGS Classics] You Filthy Liar

What can you do to get an edge on the competition at a sealed event like the Lorwyn prerelease? Sneaky bluffing is one way! Here's a classic on bluffing for advice on sneaking a win out of an untenable situation.

No introductions, no friendly chat to make you feel at ease. I'm throwing you at the lions right away. You've done a triple Time Spiral draft and are now facing your round one opponent. Here's the game so far.

Turn 1 - Opponent: Plains
Turn 1 - You: Mountain, suspend Keldon Halberdier
Turn 2 - Opponent: Mountain, Benalish Cavalry
Turn 2 - You: Forest
Turn 3 - Opponent: Attack for two, Plains, play Tivadar of Thorn, end of turn you play Ashcoat Bear

It's now your third turn. Your hand: Forest, Forest, Mountain, Thallid Germinator, Nantuko Shaman, Squall Line.

Do you attack with the Bear?

Such a simple situation. It happens all the time. And yet these kind of decisions are quite complex. There are a lot of things to consider, and little time to do so. If you think for three minutes before turning the Bear sideways with trembling fingers, I don't like your chances.

Let's discuss bluffing in Magic.

Gains and Losses

What is it worth?
As with nearly all actions in Magic, especially those involving a certain amount of risk, the first two questions you have to ask are:
  • What can I gain by doing this?
  • What can I lose by doing this?
Bluffing, by its very nature, involves risk, and therefore these questions apply here. Let's start with the first one. What is there to gain? Let's look at the situation above. The gain is quite simple. Two damage. Now, two damage in Magic has, in fact, no absolute meaning. We have to be more precise: we're talking about two damage out of twenty life. That's a fairly unspectacular gain. What is there to lose? The Bear. Result: unspectacular. A 2/2 creature is worth more than two to the head. After all, you wouldn't play a card that said: "1G - Instant - ~ deals two damage to target player."

A simple analysis, right? However, it is flawed. Can you spot where my reasoning went wrong?

I'll get back to this later. Now, I'll discuss the second relevant aspect.

Turn the Tables

There are two more important questions to ask. They are:
  • What can I gain by doing this?
  • What can I lose by doing this?
Sound familiar? Except this time, you have to ask these same questions from your opponent's point of view. And we're not talking about the bluff, but about calling the bluff. What can your opponent gain or lose by calling the bluff? Following the same mindset as above: he can gain two life, staying at 20 rather than 18, or he can lose Tivadar of Thorn.

The stronger a card is, the weaker it gets?
But what exactly does "losing Tivadar of Thorn" mean? It becomes clear that this has no meaning in the abstract: it depends on the game, most importantly on the opponent playing red. (With "opponent" here referring to your opponent's opponent - I don't want to make things too simple.) In this case, obviously, yes, and a red creature just might arrive in, say, two turns. So clearly the Tivadar is worth a lot in this particular game.

This, of course, was obvious. The reason I elaborate about it is because the same logic has to be applied to every single card. This is the first reason the gain/loss analysis with the Bear was flawed. Everything needs to be put into perspective. Even a simple second turn Bear can mean many different things, depending on the game state. In this case, your opponent has a 2/2 Flanking and a 2/2 First strike, neither of which it can block. This makes your Bear entirely irrelevant for defense. Simply put, in this game, your Bear is worth nothing unless it attacks. Assuming you don't bluff, the only way it'll attack is if your opponent allows you to attack; that basically means swinging with all his creatures. Meaning: he wants to do a damage race and he's confident to win it. And it definitely looks like he's right.

The only way you're going to win the damage race is by hitting him for every possible point of damage. And that includes attacking with the Bear now. Which brings us to the second point where the original analysis was flawed. The gain is not just two damage. If your opponent falls for your bluff, it usually means he has accepted the fact that you have a combat trick in your hand. You swing for two now, and play Thallid Germinator. Now your opponent won't keep Tivadar in defense to hold back the 2/2s - although it could perfectly well do that! Simply put, by bluffing the combat trick now, you "create" the trick in your hand, allowing for more attacks later. Be aware though that your opponent might call your bluff later on if he feels his possible loss at that point is acceptable.

The Caller's Advantage

In the double gain/loss analysis above, there is still one more inaccuracy. What does your opponent lose if he calls your bluff, but you have the trick? I said he can lose Tivadar of Thorn, and discussed what exactly that means. But that's still not correct. It should be "he loses Tivadar of Thorn versus your loss of the combat trick". It means we are still talking about a trade, which always lowers the stakes considerably for the player who has to call the bluff. In this case, I'd say it's still much more likely he won't block, considering the enormous value of Tivadar in this particular game, but in general this is a very important factor. In fact it directly leads to the following rule:

When your opponent represents a combat trick, call it.

There are tons of exceptions to this. But this is the general rule, and not blocking should be the exception, while quite a few players seem to think it's the other way around. If your opponent has a trick, it doesn't happen often that you can play around it all game. He will at some point get you with it. Some tricks are very narrow, or devastating when you get hit by them fully, and are worth playing around. But the majority isn't.

The consequence for bluffing is that it should only be done when the loss versus gain ratio for your opponent is huge; it has to make up for you spending a combat trick plus the odds of you not having it. The other reason to bluff is if you have nothing to lose. Frequently a player who has lost the game will do one last alpha strike, on the off-chance that his opponent screws up. These plays are usually easy to see through, but it's still better than conceding right away. If you have nothing to lose, you should go for every little chance to steal the game.

There's More

Bluffing becomes a lot more dangerous when your opponent has mana open and cards in hand. Chances are he has a trick or removal of his own, meaning he can safely trigger your bluff, knowing he can answer a potential trick. The same is true if you aren't bluffing and you really have the trick. (Unless that trick is Stonewood Invocation of course.)

Then there's the question which your opponent has to consider, and therefore, which you also have to consider from your opponent's point of view.
  • What can he possibly have?
It's clear that bluffing a card which doesn't exist isn't going to help. Similarly, bluffing a rare (in Limited of course) isn't very useful, since it's unlikely that you have it - unless your opponent has seen it the game before. Usually you want to represent several cards. In the example above, the possibilities include Strength in Numbers, Thrill of the Hunt and Might of Old Krosa. The more cards that could possibly help you, the more likely it is that you have one.

One final aspect I should mention is the skill level of both players involved, and how you estimate each other's skill level. This is what really sets bluffing apart as a game in the game. Your opponent might be so bad he doesn't even consider a trick, or so good he doesn't fall for it. On the other side your opponent has to consider if you possibly didn't even see the attack was suicidal, or if you felt so confident to attack anyway. The battle gets psychological at this point.

Theory is Boring

So let's play a game. Again the format is triple Time Spiral draft, and again you're in green-red. (Hey, I like that combination!) You have won game one on the back of Verdant Embrace, so your opponent gets to start. Here are your opening seven:

Forest, Mountain, Mountain, Spinneret Sliver, Flowstone Shambler, Coal Stoker, Verdant Embrace

A great hand, and the Embrace is looking for an encore performance!

Turn 1
Your opponent starts with Swamp, suspend Corpulent Corpse.
You draw Flowstone Channeler and play a Mountain.

Turn 2
Opponent plays Plains and says go.
You draw Strength in Numbers, play Forest and Spinneret Sliver.

Turn 3
Another Swamp, and Trespasser il-Vec comes down.
You draw Penumbra Spider. Attack (18), Mountain, Flowstone Channeler.

Turn 4
Your opponent plays Dark Withering off Trespasser to kill the Channeler, and adds a Plains.
You really need the fourth land now but instead you draw and play Undying Rage. The attack with the now 4/4 Sliver brings your opponent to (14).

Turn 5
Opponent has a Swamp and swings (14). Nothing else.
You draw the much needed Forest. You attack and your opponent has Return to Dust for Undying Rage (12). Nice sideboard tech. You play Forest, Penumbra Spider.

Turn 6
The suspended Corpse comes into play. A Plains is discarded to the Trespasser and the attack brings you to (8). He plays Swamp, Chronosavant, emptying his hand, but the pressure is on you.
You draw Thelonite Hermit.

This is the situation now:

You are at 8 life, your opponent is at 12.
He has Chronosavant, Trespasser il-Vec and Corpulent Corpse in play. The latter two are tapped. He has no cards in hand.
You have Penumbra Spider and Spinneret Sliver. Your hand is now: Coal Stoker, Verdant Embrace, Strength in Numbers, Thelonite Hermit

What do you do?

First, let's consider how the game will normally flow from here. You can play Coal Stoker and the Morphed Thelonite Hermit. Your opponent attacks with Corpulent Corpse and Trespasser il-Vec, pitching the card he drew (that is assuming he drew nothing relevant) and bringing you to 2. You then attack with everything; assuming he blocks Coal Stoker, you can deal him 10 damage thanks to Strength in Numbers, but you die next turn.

A quick note about the "he draws nothing relevant" assumption. You have to make this assumption. If he draws another relevant card (creature or removal, or Fortify, whatever) you will lose. Therefore, you simply exclude this possibility - it is not relevant to determine your play.

So, you lack two damage. The only way you can deal it (considering the cards you have) is with an attack this turn. You could deal two damage by attacking with both creatures, but then you lose the Sliver if he blocks it, and you don't have enough power for the next turn. So you'd have to attack and he wouldn't block. But why would he not block?

If you hold Sulfurous Blast and he blocks your attacking creature, his board is gone. He has no hand either, so he loses almost guaranteed. He can get the 'Savant back, but that costs a turn, and it's almost certainly not going to save him. This is quite a strong reason for him not to block.

But you also have to consider his alternative. What are his chances if you have Sulfurous Blast, even if he keeps his Chronosavant? You will keep the Spider, which can block it twice, and probably be able to play those cards in your hand.

On the other hand, he does not know about the Coal Stoker + Morph and Strength in Numbers in your hand. There's no way he can see that much damage coming.

Now, the big question is: how should you attack?
A) With the Sliver.
B) With the Spider.
C) With both.

I'll tell you in advance that there is no clear-cut answer; there are things to say for and against all three options.

A logical viewpoint to start would be: how would you play if you had the Blast? The answer is C. You would attack with both, expect the Sliver to be blocked and get two damage through, and wipe the board. So C seems like the logical answer. However, a disadvantage is that attacking with both creatures might be too simple. Especially if your opponent is playing quite fast and rarely thinking long, he might just do the logical thing (throwing the 'Savant in front of the Sliver) without thinking it through. And oddly we want him to overthink the situation here!

A solution to this would be to be more subtle, and just attack with the Sliver. This is sure to make him think. Attacking with everything might seem like a move of despair to him; attacking with just the Sliver is weird. Hopefully it will make him think about your two red and two green lands... and the Blast. Note that optian A technically makes no sense - but I'd say it has a better chance of succeeding than C.

And then there's option B. There is another aspect to this situation. If he blocks your Spider, you get a black Spider in return. So if you had something to kill the Trespasser, say, Grapeshot, the black Spider would neutralise the Corpse and his only threat left would be Chronosavant, which can be chumpblocked. So attacking with the Spider plays into another possibility - he may think you want to turn it black! Which would also lead him to the conclusion not to block it.

Option B changes the math somewhat, but the end result is the same. Above, I assumed Chronosavant would stay back (and block our Coal Stoker later on). This was logical, because the Spider didn't attack. Attacking into it would have no effect considering the game would be over one turn later. However, if you attack with the Spider, he might attack with the 'Savant. You'd have to block it with Sliver or the Morphed Hermit, then attack with Stoker, Spider and the other 2/2, which with Strength in Numbers again amounts to 10 damage.

So which play is the best? It depends on your opponent. Which bluff do you think he will fall for? The "this is just too weird" bluff A? The more obvious "I want it painted black" bluff B? Or the "look, I have Sulfurous Blast" bluff C?

What this example illustrates most of all, is that Magic is a game beyond the cards. As they say... it's all in your head.

- Tahn


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