At the Gathering: Be the Spell, Danny

Two Mages square off on a far away plane. They are using every resource available to them. Or so one believes. In fact, one Planeswalker has already won this battle, his opponent just doesn't know it yet. It's beacuse he is leveraging an advantage on an axis his opponent has not even considered. He is fighting the mental war.

Do you ever sit back and wonder exactly how you lost that last game of the PTQ? You replay the game over and over, and you can't see a way you could have won. "Oh well, bad beats," you tell yourself. But what if your opponent was playing a game you weren't even aware of, and that is the reason you lost? Welcome to the land of the Mind Trick. Contained in this article are a number of tips and tricks for improving your win percentages. They are not spell progression tactics, nor are they game rules. These are not the tricks of playing Magic, these are the tricks of playing your opponent.

Note: This article is intended for competitive Magic. The tips contained herein are best used in a tournament environment. While you could certainly use them in a casual setting, it is not the recommendation of this article, and you should do so with caution. It may cause hard feelings on the part of your friends.

Great at Surprise Parties
The Pen Trick: It's the beginning of Combat. You're opponent is deciding what to attack with. When you're opponent says "declare attackers," you pick up your pen. This leads your opponent into believing you have no trick or gimmick (usually not true) This goads your opponent into attacking suboptimally, sometimes with creatures they wouldn't normally attack with. You then are free to use whatever trick you have to gain an advantage. Here's an example from the Big Leagues. The following plays happened in the final round of the 2007 Worlds Championships in New York City, between Patrick Chapin and Uri Peleg, as written by Patrick Chapin:

Game 4 was the one Uri said that almost cost him the match. At one point, he had Doran the Siege Tower, Riftsweeper, and two Birds of Paradise. He was planning on not attacking with the Birds of Paradise so that he could play Cloudthresher if I had a Hellkite.
I ran one of the original bluffs of Magic. He motioned that he was about to attack, so I picked up my pen, subtly suggesting that I was going to be taking damage. Uri said that this convinced him that I did not have the dragon. Turns out, I had the Dragon, killing Doran, and causing the Birds to now be tapped from attacking, but without dealing damage.

Now that is a thing of beauty. There's a prime example of running this bluff to perfection. I have personally used it more than a few times, only to watch them run some critters into a SURPRISE THRESHER! You can use this trick to convince your opponent to make all sorts of misplays, mis-attacks, and in general bad ideas. The pen trick is one of the easiest and most natural tricks to use, and should be one of the first that you add to your arsenal.

Track difficult to obtain info: There are a lot of cards or mechanics that require information that is difficut to obtain discretely. Threshold, Dredge, Life from the Loam, Tarmogoyf, etc. These are all public information requirements, but it's not necessarily easy to track or remember. Let's use the example of Tarmogoyf.

Example 1: You have just drawn Tarmogoyf (Congrats, by the way). What do you do? If you answered "Look at my opponents' graveyard" you have answered incorrectly. You want to do anything but that. Nothing says "Look, I have something that involves your graveyard" more than looking at your opponents graveyard. Ask them anything else. Then, in your main phase, ask them how many of [insert spell they've played here] they have played. Look at their graveyard to make sure, then, while you're there, count the number of card types. Depending on what spell you asked about, they may now think you have something relevant to that card, not Tarmogoyf.

Example 2: You have not drawn Tarmogoyf (Sad Panda). You are playing at least some potential of Green. Even if you aren't playing Tarmogoyf, on occasion, ask about their graveyard. They'll assume you have Tarmogoyf in your hand, or, if they know your hand (Thoughtseize) then in your deck. You would be amazed at how some perfectly competent players will go on full tilt playing around a card you don't even have.

Land playing/Windmill draws: I never windmill a draw unless I have to. For instance, feel free to windmill slam your Counterbalance reveals, or your Bob reveals. That's enjoyable and sometimes off-putting to your opponents, especially if they end up well for you. However, most of the time, I put the drawn card into my hand, shuffle it around, then play. Even if I draw a land that I play. This way, I'm not giving away info to my opponent. Sometimes, you can do the exact opposite. While playing 5 Color Control, I will frequently windmill slam my fourth land from the top of my library. Why would I give away such information? Because it makes my opponent believe that I have Cryptic Command, and in fact a hand full of gas, and all I really needed that 4th land to cast it. They will often play around Cryptic Command for a turn or two, at least. That gives me two turns to draw into something game changing.

Consequently, I always ask opponents to windmill in critical situations. They'll usually oblige, because it makes for pretty epic games, but if it doesn't get them there, I have now obtained more information to potentially swing the game in my favor. Unless you're high-fiving your buddy (Or Gab Nassif in the semifinals) just say no to windmilling.

Showin' mah O-face!
Mulligan Mind Trick: The force is strong in the mulligan. It is this area where you can really mess with your opponents mind. There is so much info going back and forth, and it's a great chance to manipulate your opponents assumptions. Even better, your opponents won't even know they've been had until well into the match, and they've played multiple turns with the wrong information. Let's look at some common bluffs.
1) The underpowered bluff. This is when you open a monster hand, but look perplexed. Consider mulliganing, take some time, and end with "Guess we'll have to try to get there" They will assume you have a substandard hand, and be open to a steamrolling.
2) The overpowered bluff. This is the exact opposite. You look at a hand, decide to keep it, and then, no matter how average it is, slap the cards face down in front of you emphatically, and make your O-face. What, you don't know what an O-face is? It's when you draw a Crazy-Go-Nuts University hand, and you go "Oh, Oh, OhOhOh!" For a better reference, go watch "Office Space"
3) The stone cold read. I've often used this against careless opponents with their cards, or opponents I've surreptitiously scouted. Look them dead in the eye, and call out a card in their hand. Then, tell them why it's a dead card against you. You can actually talk your opponent into mulliganing this way. I had one opponent who would lay out his selected amount of cards, then pick one up, and flash it towards me while using it to scoop the rest of his cards up into his hands. On occasion, I talked him into mulliganing by calling out the card, and showing him how it was so terrible against me. You can also often use this without any info if you're feeling really confident and/or playing well enough to pull it off. This trick is tough, but if it works, man, what a beating.
4) The no-look. I never look at my cards on the draw until the opponent has resolved all of their mulligans. I don't want them to get any sort of information or advantage out of my face. Consequently, when I'm on the play, I'll often try to read my opponents hand before I make my decision. I'll even ask them "So, how's your hand looking?" to try to get some info. Casual conversation is your friend.

Fake Tells: Let's say you have ample burn in hand, and you know you will be able to kill your opponent, even through all of their counters and protection. What do you do? If I still have to win another game, I ask them their life total, then make a decent show about counting my mana, their life, run some numbers through my fingers, etc. Then, when I kill them later, they believe they have a read on me. So, when the next game comes around, and I have three land and a shock in my hand, I do the same thing. I can't kill them, heck, I doubt I could even mildly annoy them. But, they believe I can kill them. They believe they need to play defensively, because I may be about to kill them. And that belief may just buy me the time I need to cast runner-runner Demigod's of Revenge and win after all. Magic is a game of unknown quantities, and making your opponent believe that they know those qualities, and have them be wrong, is a huge advantage.

Another way to handle this trick is to "give away" some obvious info. Say you're running Faeries, and you have 6 land open. Before you pass your turn, ask your opponent to wait a second, and count your mana "Blue, Blue, Blue, Colorless, awesome." You may seem like you are absent-mindedly counting mana, but your opponent is going to believe that you have Cryptic Command in hand. Whether you do or not, they will probably play around it now. You can do this with just about any card, mumbling out the info for the mana, or mumbling "Champion the token, tap their ... two mana open" They're thinking Mistbind Clique. Most players are eager to assume you are a terrible player. Let them.

No one ever reads me. Frown
Read the cards you draw: All of them, even if it's crap, and for at least three seconds. Get in the habit of drawing every card the same, and reacting the same, regardless of the actual card. Why? Well, when you see a player reading a card, you generally assume it's a spell. No one reads Mountain. Consequently, when you see them glance and ignore, it's usually an indicator that it's a land, probably basic. Ever watch the World Series of Poker? Notice how they make their bet exactly the same, whether it's A-K suited or 3-5 off suit bluff? That's because they are trying to keep their opponents from getting a read on their hand. Reading every card you draw in Magic is the same premise. It prevents your opponent from deducing accurate information. You can even take this bluff to even greater advantage. Let's say you are playing 5 Color Control. You draw a card. It's Cloudthresher. You glance at it, place it face down, and then promptly ask two questions.

1) How many cards in hand?

2) May I look at your graveyard?

Now, watch your opponent go on tilt trying to figure out what you drew that could mess with their graveyard. More than likely, they will believe you have some sort of sick tech. (Puppeteer Clique, perchance? Memory Plunder, maybe?) And they will now spend their mental resources trying to figure out if the previously awesome play is now a bad play. Or, consequently, ask a question that leads them to believe you just drew the best spell you could against them.

Pointless notes: I know a lot of players who still track life totals by die, or worse, they trust their opponent to do it for them. Please, invest the $.38 at Wal-Mart to but a notebook and track life totals. Even at FNM, it can make the difference between 2nd (and a shiny new scepter) or 3rd (and no shiny scepter.) So, with that in mind, one way to put your opponent on tilt is extra notes. If I'm doing a tournament report, I'll frequently keep notes about spells played and damage sources. And if I'm feeling particularly devious, I'll keep other, random notes about absolutely nothing if I think it will help. I've seen more than a few opponents become so concerned with breaking my secret "code" of notes that they start playing rather substandardly. It's even better when they ask me what my code is, and I refuse to tell them. These are usually very technical players, sometimes a bit OCD, and they have to know. Their mind gets so focused in that they go on autopilot for Magic while trying to break me. This one can be a little tricky, because if it distracts you from the game more than your opponent, it's not worth it. I rarely use this one, unless I have a strong belief it will work. Otherwise, it may not be worth it.

The Sith's "Darth Long" Bluff: Also known as the "I Can't Win, so You're Going to Have to Concede" bluff. The best way to teach you this bluff is to show you how it's done. I can't do it any better than they already have. So, here are a few historical examples:

First, the original, recapped in all it's glory by Michael J. Flores, Resident Genius, himself:

The most famous and important bluff in the history of Magic was just that, a true bluff, a stone cold bluff. In the finals of Pro Tour Paris, Jedi Mind Trick master Mike Long took his "Wishing Well" Prosperous Bloom deck to that last table, up against the first real star of the Pro Tour, former US National Champion Mark Justice and his B/R beatdown deck. In one of the games, Long was able to represent critical mass with his mana and cards engine, looked across the table to Justice, gave him one of those "These are not the droids you are looking for" faces, and asked if he, come on, really had to go through the motions. It looked automatic, so the accommodating Justice conceded into the next game. The problem? Long couldn't have actually won.
You see, Mike Long's deck was a particular kind of combo deck that used Squandered Resources and Natural Balance to generate a short term mana advantage in order to bring out Cadaverous Bloom, which would then convert cards to mana at a 1:2 profit. From there he could then convert mana back into cards back almost 1:1 with Prosperity. So long as Mike had Blue mana (one Blue mana for each Prosperity), he could draw, Draw, DRAW from his deck, make a ton of mana (specifically Black mana) and win with the lone Drain Life. That's right... the lone Drain Life. You see, Long was under a ton of pressure from Mark's aggressive and disruptive deck, and was forced to remove his Drain Life earlier in the game to get the engine started. Did Justice not know Long's list well enough? Did he, like so many other victims, buy into Long's easy voice and seductive command of the present? Did he not realize that the Drain Long should have been looking for was already removed from the game? No one knows the reason for certain, but Justice packed up the cards on Long's stone cold bluff and the record books remember Long as the godfather of competitive combo decks, the winner of the first foreign Pro Tour, and for our purposes, the engineer of the single most significant bluff in all the annals of Magic: The Gathering.

Holy Cow! In the Finals of the first ever Foreign Pro Tour even! If I can impart one piece of advice that you will actually heed, it is this:

Wear Sunscreen

But a very close 2nd would be to make your opponents win games. Make them combo out, you never know when they might make a mistake, or even worse, be stone cold bluffing an unwinnable game. Do not let the dark side cloud your judgement with their tricks. Make them win it. There are a number of players who have accidentally lost games with the new ELVES! deck by going infinite with Glimpse of Nature still triggering. Boom, deck gone, can't draw, you lose an unlosable game. For more examples see Riki Hayashi's article from November 18th.

And now, example number two, courtesy of Patrick Chapin:

I was playing CMU Academy in Pro Tour: Rome a decade ago and eventually was paired with an opponent armed with a Dreadnaught/Reanimate/Pandemonium deck fueled with 4 Lion’s Eye Diamonds and 4 Yawgmoth’s Wills.
The Academy deck I was piloting only had 2 Stroke of Geniuses (one for me and one for you, as Erik Lauer was fond of saying). Four Time Spirals ensured that this was plenty, as if times got tough, you could just reset things.
However, I had a peculiar game in which I cast Time Spiral twice on the first turn, but could not go off. I eventually had to pass to my opponent who tried to turn 1 kill me, but I had the Force of Will. Nice format.
So, I start Time Spiraling again and eventually Time Spiral two more times, still not able to find a Scroll Rack, a Vampiric Tutor, anything. Eventually, I Stroke myself to try to find my one Mind over Matter or a way to retrieve it. I succeed, but end up not having enough mana to kill my opponent until next turn. I have to pass.
He tries to kill me again, but I do not have a Force of Will. I know what I have to do. I do the only thing I can do, I Stroke myself as hard as I can with my last Stroke. I now have no roads to victory left short of concession. I need to find a Force of Will, and this is the only way.
I obtained a full grip and easily countered his Yawgmoth’s Will. Now it was my turn. I untapped. I played a Scroll Rack. I asked my opponent how many cards were in his library. After he counted, I added 66 mana to my mana pool. Next I cast Vampiric Tutor and just looked at my opponent. He looked at me, so I said "I am just going to Scroll Rack for it. You only have 50 cards left in your library, right?" With that he scooped up his cards and we went to the next game.
Another Master, showing us how it is done. He just straight bluffed that man out of his boxers. One more time, for those of you playing along at home. Make your opponent win the game.

Protection from Mind Trick (Stone face):These tricks are useful, and you too can become a master. But eventually, you will encounter someone greater. The Darth Maul to your Qui-gon, or the Obi-wan Kenobi to your Anakin Skywalker. You will be the student someday, and they, the teacher. You must know how to protect yourself, because the force cannot help you. There are two things you must bear in mind if you feel you are overmatched.

1) Play as technically perfect as possible. You can not trust any information you obtain from them. They are probably lying, and you won't be able to tell the difference. So, play as perfect as you can. Ignore their bluffs, their supposed tells, and play your heart out, Danny. This is your best chance. You cannot beat them through the force, so it must be a battle of spells that determines this victory. By doing this, you are eliminating one of their advantages. While this may not give you an edge, it will remove a disadvantage. And a coin-flip is better then a 40/60 split.
2) Break rapport. Do not get suckered into their simple conversations. Remember above when I said that casual conversation is your friend? Well, now it's their friend. Even if it seems related to Magic, do not fall for it. Allow me to give you a real, actual conversation I have had as a player. Names have been changed to protect the innocent. I will still be me, but I will call my opponent PChapin, because the idea of me beating Patrick Chapin is preposterous and unbelievable, and also completely false. We've only met once, and we didn't play Magic. We did hang out for like 5 hours on a patio. Mostly, I just want another chance to use his name in an article, because I heard if you mention him in three sections, he appears just like Beetlejuice.

(Note: the following exchange happened very quickly, rapid-fire even)
Me: Cards in hand?
PChapin: 4
Me: Life total?
PChapin: 13
Me: Mana untapped?
PChapin: 2 Islands, one BoP
Me: Do you have Rune Snag?
PChapin: Yes, two... Crap.

Very nice, eh? The other trick I've seen here is they get you talking casually about how "techy" your deck is, and what new changes you've made. You are giving away your secrets, because you want to feel validated or popular, but they could care less. They want to know what to look out for, and what to counter.

So, there you have it, the secrets of the Magicians revealed, just like a cheesy Fox special.

This is Jeff Phillips, reminding you: Don't Make the Loser Choice.


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