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Bluffing and the Mind Games of Magic

When you’re playing Magic, or any game for that matter, you tend to feel most confident when everything is going your way. You have the right cards to curve out smoothly and the correct, efficient answers to deal with opposing threats. All the elements of the game feel easily within your control. 

 

 

Yet, as we all know, there are plenty of times when things don’t go your way.

Your opponent’s draw may be as good or better than yours. You may not necessarily have the right mix of cards to power through your opponent’s strategy. In these situations, players often need to be creative with their play to give themselves the best possible chance to find a way to win the game. 

Today’s article will discuss the when and why to implementing bluffing into your gameplay and how it can be a useful strategy for improving your play. 

 

Header - What's Bluffing?

“Bluffing” is a strategy in which one player tries to deceive another player in regard to their intentions. 

 

 

For example, when playing a betting game such as poker, a player with a weak hand may make a large bet to represent having a stronger hand than they actually have. The large bet signifies a strong hand and the opposing players may decide to fold their better cards, and a potentially winning hand, as a result. 

Magic, like poker, is a game played by humans with lots of unknown information. Every single turn, players are presented with information and decisions they use to the best of their ability to select and make plays within the game.

 

Header - When Should You Bluff?

Typically, bluffing is implemented in a situation when a player has a losing hand, but players with strong hands may also bluff having a weaker hand. Remember, bluffing is deceiving an opponent about your game play intentions in hopes they’ll take make plays that benefit your strategy. 

If a player already has the winning hand, there isn’t a huge need for them to bluff in order to let the game run its course. 

 

Wrath of God

 

There are certainly opportunities where a player can undersell the strength of their hand in order to incentivize an opponent to overextend. For instance, if a player has Wrath of God in hand and they choose not to cast it, they’ll often signal to the opponent that they doesn’t have a sweeper. The opponent may then decide that the coast is clear and overextend, thus making themselves more vulnerable to a Wrath. 

The bluffing player uses a bluff to convince the opponent they don’t have a Wrath and the opponent makes plays that are make them even more vulnerable as a result. In a betting game, an analogous example might be to simply check, or limp in, to disguise a strong hand in hopes that your opponents raise (overextend). 

There are opportunities to bluff in different ways in order to misrepresent either the strength or weakness of your cards to deceive and influence an opponent’s actions. 

In Magic, bluffing is an important skill because it gives a player the opportunity to win a game where, if the opponent had perfect information, they’d see the coast was clear and simply win the game.

If your opponent believes you’re holding cards that can foil their plans or win the game outright, they may select a more cautious line of play. This allows you more time to top-deck a card that can help turn the tide of the game. Every new card you draw changes the actions you can take, so gaining access to an extra draw can dramatically change who’s favored to win. 

 

Lightning Bolt

 

A very basic, straightforward example of bluffing can be in a matchup between a burn player and a control player. In the early turns of the game, the burn player is able to leverage the tempo and efficiency of their burn spells to put the control player down to three life. 

However, the burn player runs out of gas and draws two lands in a row. If the Burn player plays out these lands, it shows the blue player that they don’t have relevant spells to win the game with. However, by holding the cards and concealing what these cards actually are, the blue player is confronted with a choice. Should they tap out to play more threats (and thus risk losing to a Bolt in response) or take a more cautious line and hold up Counterspell?

 

Counterspell

 

If the blue player holds up Counterspell (while the burn player doesn’t have a lethal response) instead of deploying threats or tapping out to draw more cards, it potentially gives the red mage more time and an opportunity to cobble together a win with some extra draw steps. 

Inversely, the Burn player could have lethal damage. The blue player could have no way to prevent it, but by holding up two Islands to bluff a Counterspell, the red player may choose not to cast their game-winning spell when they have the chance, giving the blue player additional draws to find a solution. 

Bluffing is particularly useful and important in Limited formats because racing (trading damage back and forth with combat) is a common play pattern, with most decks built around efficient creatures rather than typical combo or control archetypes. 

 

Grizzly Bears

 

There are many opportunities to attack a smaller creature into a larger one that could potentially block profitably. However, if the opponent chooses not to block, the attacking player will have squeezed out some extra damage that’s likely to matter in a racing situation. There are plenty of reasons why an opponent might not want to make a profitable block. For example, it’s perfectly plausible that having a smaller attacker going up against a larger blocker could go poorly if you have certain combat tricks in your hand. 

 

Giant Growth

 

If your opponent tapped out for a six-drop 4/4 flying Dragon on their turn and, on your turn, you send an innocuous 2/2 into the red zone all by its lonesome, it signals to the opponent that something fishy is going on. In a sense, the block feels “too good to be true” since, if you don’t have a combat trick of some kind, the larger blocker will gobble up your attacker. Your opponent will likely understand that the block feels too good to be true and will start to think about what card you could be representing to turn the combat in your favor against their Dragon. 

The question becomes: how likely is an opponent to make the profitable block available to them versus how risky is the block if you have certain types of combat tricks? 

Unfortunately, every play is informed by the unique context of a game and there’s no easy answer to this question It’s a big part of what makes Magic such a fun and interesting game. There are lots of opportunities to gain an advantage by bluffing. These bluffs may even help create some wiggle room to overcome situations where your draws don’t line up and can’t win the game on their own. 

 

Header - Mind Games

Magic, at its core, is a mind game. We use knowledge we’ve learned from previous play experiences and apply them to new contexts and situations. Each of our opponents are doing the exact same thing too. Sure, there are situations where you don’t have a ton of control over what cards are drawn, whether you hit your land drops and such. However, there’s also plenty of situations where you do have opportunities to make choices and plays that let you take the game into your own hands. “There are opportunities to bluff in different ways in order to misrepresent either the strength or weakness of your cards to deceive and influence an opponent’s actions.”

In all of Magic, there are few things as satisfying as finding a way to win a game where, if you lined the cards up you actually had, you’d lose. However, you’re instead able to forge a way to victory. The notion of outplaying an opponent stems from finding a way to win the game with what should’ve been a losing hand. 

I find this to be even more true when playing Magic in cardboard form than online, where body language can also be used to help sell a bluff. As is the case with other bluffing games, opponents will often look for visual cues to help them decide if a play is a bluff or not. How confidently a player is able to sell a bluff will also come into play when the opponent decides whether to believe or disbelieve a bluff or lack thereof. 

One talented player once told me that when he’s playing competitive Magic, he always tries to get an opponent thinking about things that don’t matter. For instance, if he has no cards that can interact with the graveyard, he’ll make a point of subtly looking at cards in graveyards or asking to see an opponent’s graveyard. 

 

Misdirection

 

Since he’s paying attention to graveyards, it leads an opponent to start wondering, “Why does he care about the graveyard?” or “What cards could he have that interact with the graveyard?” Any mental energy an opponent spends thinking about something that doesn’t matter is misdirected from focusing on things that do matter. It may even be the case that an opponent will start playing around some graveyard-centric card that isn’t even in his deck! 

A player might also ask an opponent “how many cards are left in your library?” to suggest they’re contemplating a line of play that involves running an opponent out of cards in their deck, even if that’s not a route to victory they’re even planning to take. 

All of these are examples of misdirection, where one player gets an opponent to focus on things that don’t matter rather than things that actually matter. 

 

Profane Command

 

One particularly tricky mind game play I heard about that inspired a great deal of awe from me involved Profane Command

In a tournament, the spell’s caster was racing and confidently tapped out to put Profane Command on the stack and announced, “I’ll choose the two modes: deal X damage to you and I’ll give all of my legal targets fear.” Then, they attacked for exactly lethal damage with all of their creatures, prompting a concession from the opponent. 

 

Chameleon Colossus

 

Editorial Note: This Profane Command scenario has raised some discussion on social media since this article was published about the difference between a lie, a bluff and word games when it comes to Magic: The Gathering at a level of competitive play. Several level 3 judges (the top level of certified judge, qualified to make rulings at professional and pro play levels) have weighed in and want to warn that this route of play is a dangerous slippery slope for the person casting the Profane Command. We want to give this section an opportunity to highlight how thin the line between skilled bluffs and potential cheating is, so here’s what the judges are saying:

This strategy of play is not something we (judges) recommend. Magic is a game played by skill, knowledge of the rules and across many language barriers, even at the highest levels of play. The current interpretations of Competitive Rules/Infraction Procedure Guide philosophy’s frown on verbal red herrings. A bluff in magic should interact with areas on the board that are “hidden/private information”, basically information that your opponent can’t see or doesn’t have access to (such as your hand), hideaway land cards, etc.) What matters to judges is that the player actually did their best to communicate their actions to their opponent, in a way that would match reasonable expectations. Any deliberate way to deviate from that clarity might give a judge the idea that the player was trying to obscure the game state and might end up in an investigation to see if the player was cheating.

Players don’t have to explain to their opponent the strategic implications of their own actions, to identify lines the opponent might not have considered or proactively explain the fine details of the onboard interactions, they must ensure their opponent and themselves have a shared understanding of what the game state looks like and clarify any misunderstandings they might suspect.

The most prominent take away “There is room for bluffing in Magic. That room isn’t in the way you phrase your actions.”

The caster of Profane Command controlled a Chameleon Colossus (which has protection from black and is an illegal target for Profane Command) and the opponent had exactly one potential blocker (that could have legally blocked). Instead, the opponent conceded the game because they didn’t realize in the moment that the Colossus was not a legal target for Profane Command, even though they could’ve blocked to prevent lethal combat damage.

The thing I find so amusing about this example is that the caster of Profane Command is able to trick the opponent without actually lying or making an illegal play. The caster specifies that all “legal” targets are being targeted and the opponent infers an illegal target, the Colossus, also has fear (and thus can’t be blocked) and concedes in a situation where if they blocked, they would’ve won the game. 

Such a play wouldn’t work online because the Colossus would be explicitly been shown as not having the fear ability and thus it would’ve been obvious for the opponent to block it. 

The caster of the Profane Command never said the Colossus had fear (in fact, he explicitly said he was selecting all legal targets and not illegal targets) but the opponent inferred the Colossus could not be blocked and scooped. 

 

Invisibility

 

Since player’s aren’t visually present to sell body language or misdirection while playing online, selling a bluff can be more difficult, but it’s still possible to do it in a variety of ways based on what an opponent is able to see, based upon the actions we are able to perform. 

One way you can sell a bluff is to expend some clock to make it look like you’re carefully thinking over what you should do or not do. It creates the illusion that a player is thinking through multiple options, when in fact that player may only have one (or zero) good options available to them. Since the opponent doesn’t know the concealed, imperfect information about exactly which cards are in your hand, they may assume your cards are much better than they actually are and adjust their play accordingly. 

Another way I see bluffs sold in online Magic occurs when an opponent moves to combat, selects creatures to attack, and then pulls them back to create the illusion that they need more time to “think it through.” In some cases, the maneuver is earnest (a player may realize the coast isn’t as clear as they thought) but often it’s a bluffing tactic. 

An opponent may also tap their lands for mana while they have priority, only to just untap them to represent having a spell to play even if they have no spells to play. Alternatively, a player can set a stop on an opponent’s upkeep or end step to signal they have an instant in hand they might want to play (even if they don’t). 

So, despite not being able to use body language or suggestion (asking to see an opponent’s graveyard or giving all “legal” targets fear), there are still plenty of legitimate ways to help sell a bluff in online Magic with game actions that signal your real or false intentions. 

Regardless of what a player may do to make their bluff more or less convincing, it boils down to the fact that the game action forces the opponent to make a choice. In the example of sending a 2/2 into the red zone against a 4/4, you have perfect information of your own hand and know your own intentions (whether you have, or lack, a combat trick), but your opponent does not. The reason a solid understanding of when, how and why to bluff is important because it’s a way to create game play situations where you force your opponent to make decisions based on imperfect information. 

 

Reckless Assault

 

A lot of players tend to associate bluffing with risky, reckless or loose play, since having a bluff called usually comes with a high cost. If I take a risk to bluff a combat trick and send my smaller creature into a larger blocker and my opponent calls my bluff and blocks, I’ll lose a creature without any upside. It obviously feels quite bad to bluff and be called. 

However, it may also have been the case that, given the circumstances, it’s actually riskier to not attempt a bluff, especially in games where a player is in an unfavorable position. Good bluffs are the ones that are made in situations where it’s difficult or unlikely that an opponent will call them. 

When thinking about whether or not a bluff is likely to be called, I like to put myself in the opponent’s shoes and ask: how would I feel if an opponent made the same attack or play against me? How likely would I be to make the same call if the roles were reversed? 

So, rather than thinking about bluffing as something that only reckless or loose players like to do, it’s often helpful for more risk averse players to think about the strategy as a calculated risk and look for opportunities to make bluffs that have a high probability of not being called.

Making too many bluffs (especially bluffs that are likely to be called) can certainly lead to a lot of losses and hurt your game. Inversely, not recognizing an opportunity to make a bluff that probably won’t be called can also hurt your overall game. Bluffing in a game is a skill, and like all skills, it takes time and familiarity to perfect. Understanding when is an ideal situation to make a bluff, and also which types of bluffs are likely to work or fail in context, are all facets of playing Magic that come with experience. 

“You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em. Know when to fold ‘em.” 

Bluffing is one of the primary gameplay mechanisms that informs how Magic, or any other game, is played. Understanding how and when to implement this strategy into your play is a great way to improve your play quality. In general, people tend to be risk averse and prefer comfortable situations to uncomfortable situations. In a sense then, the player making the bluff tends to be in an advantageous position. 

It feels bad to attack and get called. Inversely, if they block and you have “it,” they’ll feel bad. It’s harder to call a bluff than it seems. In particular, a bold bluff is harder to call, since the cost of calling the bluff can be much more catastrophic than the risk of being called. 

Sure, the bluffer might lose a 2/2 without making any tangible headway. However, the risk of blocking with the Dragon and having it bite the dust to a measly one-mana Giant Growth is often more impactful on the outcome of the game than the 2/2 was ever likely to be if it stayed home. 

Would you want to risk your potentially game-winning Dragon over two lousy points of damage? The beatdown deck could only have one answer to the Dragon – a pump spell in their hand (which is 100 percent predicated on whether or not the opponent calls and puts the Dragon in harm’s way). The Dragon’s controller may already winning the race too. Furthermore, the Dragon could be an important offensive tool in the turns to come. There are always a lot of other factors that come into play when deciding whether a bluff is likely succeed or fail based on how likely your believe your opponent is to call the bluff.

Generally speaking, the person making the bluff tends to be advantaged over the player who has to call the bluff when it’s strategically solid. To bluff is to take a risk, and as the adage goes, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Part of becoming a better player is understanding not only when to take a risk, but also which risks are likely to yield positive returns. 

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