From MTG Arena to Paper – Reading an Opponent

Perhaps the biggest difference between playing Magic on MTGA and in-person is the fact that you have to sit face-to-face with your opponent, and as such deal with all the consequences that comes from such an arrangement, on both a social and a gameplay level. We addressed a lot of the social aspect in a previous article – etiquette about touching your opponents’ cards, not eating or listening to music while you play, etc. – but that article didn’t get into the gameplay side of face-to-face Magic and reading an opponent.

Playing while sitting across from an opponent changes a lot about the way you will play. Not just mechanically, as now there’s no digital rules engine to handle interactions for you, but also when it comes to little things like the way your opponent plays, if they give away information with their body language, if they have tells while bluffing, and that sort of thing. 

Conversely, your opponent is also able to glean that information from you, and if you’re a newer player, you’re coming in at a disadvantage. You might not even be aware of behaviors that broadcast or signal information to your opponent – things like the way you draw your card each turn, the way you hold your cards in your hand, even the way you pick up a pen to change the life totals!

Today, we’re going to talk about all of this, and discuss ways you can minimize information bleed while also gaining as much advantage as possible by observing your opponent during a match. When playing in person, you’ll find it’s not just about the cards on the table, and the best players in the world are able to leverage a huge advantage over their opponents by “having the read” on them. Let’s get you started off down that same path. 



Header - A Quick Note

Before we begin, keep in mind that a lot of this advice is aimed at players taking part in spikier, more serious or high-stakes tournaments. When you go to play at FNM, the atmosphere is usually casual and chilled out, and you don’t need to and shouldn’t be as hard-nosed as this article suggests. 

Bluffing and information bleed and things of this nature are important when the stakes are high, but won’t make you many friends if you’re just mucking about at a casual LGS tournament. By all means, practice your observation or bluffing skills, but don’t make the mistake of becoming a super-serious try-hard in a casual environment. Save it for the bigger tournaments. 


Header - Unconscious Clues

Humans communicate extensively without words. Nonverbal communication is a big part of the way we interact, and while not everyone is adept at picking up on things like body language, split-second emotional responses and the like, the sooner you learn to observe these things in an opponent, the better off you’ll be. 

The best piece of general advice I can give you here is to watch your opponent. Watch how they react when they draw a card for the turn. When they hit the tank and start thinking about a play, what do they do? Do they fidget nervously or sit still? Does that change? In the general course of a game, do they play very swiftly or are they deliberate – and when a tough decision comes up, does their pace of play differ?

Every opponent is different, and so it’s difficult to say “if your opponent does X, it means Y.” The thing to observe is changes in their behavior. If an opponent doesn’t rush their plays, and then all of a sudden draws a card and rushes into a weird attack, you don’t need me to tell you they’ve probably drawn an important card you should be careful of. Those are the sorts of situations you need to pay attention to, however, so you can draw the correct inferences. 

As a game begins and progresses, try to get a bead on your opponent’s “default” style of play. Whether they’re fast or slow, rushed or contemplative, communicative or stoic, questioning or impassive. Then, compare that with any changes they make to their style as the game continues. Again, every opponent is going to be different, but when a major shift takes place in your opponent’s play style, something is very likely going on. 


Header - Minimizing Information Bleed

Likewise, a skilled opponent will be sure to watch you for the information you give away while playing. It’s very difficult to give away absolutely no information during a game of Magic – even famously inscrutable players like Huey Jensen can sometimes be read – but you can do your best to minimize what you give away to your opponent. Here’s a list of tips to remember while playing that will help you keep precious information to yourself. 

  • Get into the habit of playing every turn in a similar manner. After drawing for the turn, take a second in your first main phase to appraise the board and think about the actions you might want to take, even when you think (or are sure) you don’t even want to do anything. This doesn’t just give you an extra chance to notice stuff you might have missed, it also helps you play consistently and disguises your intent from your opponent. Even if you draw five lands in a row, pause and “think” to at least make your opponent wonder if you drew something this turn.
  • Never give an outward response to things like a card you draw or a game action your opponent takes. Don’t look excited, frustrated or anything in between. Again, it’s changes in playstyle that clue people into key moments of gameplay – be neutral and impassive at all times. Even when you draw badly, don’t let it get to you – play consistently.
  • The reason paper players shuffle cards around in their hand is to disguise the order in which they drew them. You should do this too. If you draw a card and then immediately play it, you’re telling your opponent you just drew it and didn’t have it previously. This is irrelevant a lot of the time, but if your opponent learns they didn’t need to have played around the card you played because you just drew it and didn’t have it in hand, that can influence the way the game progresses. 
  • Make a habit of things like checking your graveyard, asking your opponent how many cards they have and pausing before letting things resolve. Doing these things even when they’re irrelevant will disguise when they are relevant from your opponent. For instance, if you never check your graveyard, then draw Snapcaster Mage and immediately start digging through it to look for a card to flash back, a cluey opponent will immediately start playing around the Snapcaster Mage you just drew – whereas if you look through your graveyard every now and again anyway, they won’t have that information.
  • Speaking of your graveyard, I personally like to fan mine out in groups of five, where every card is visible at all times. Some people like to arrange it in a column (like you would when building a limited deck), and that’s fine too – my advice is not to put it in one big pile where you can’t see the cards. Being able to surreptitiously look through your graveyard without making it obvious is more important than you might think. 
  • Be careful when answering questions your opponent asks. You must answer any question about free information honestly – “how many cards in hand? What are the life totals?” At higher-stakes tournaments, you don’t have to answer questions about derived information – “how big is that Tarmogoyf?” – and while you can refuse to answer, you can’t lie. You can say whatever you want about hidden information. For example, if your opponent asks you if you have a counterspell in hand, you can lie your pants off – or not, if you want to play mind games. 


Header - Bluffing

Bluffing is a big part of Magic. It’s uncommon in Magic for players to pull off complicated and masterful bluffs that boggle the mind, however, and it’s not something you should worry about on a hugely deep level. It’s more common, for instance, to pretend you have a combat trick and attack your 2/2 into their 3/3 for two free points of damage, but it’s not often that opponents will set up some convoluted long con that results in you getting your pants pulled down. It can happen, but you don’t need to be on your guard for it 100 percent of the time. 

However, when your in-paper opponent makes that bluff attack with a 2/2 into your 3/3, you have an advantage you wouldn’t have on MTGA. You can look your opponent in the eye, you can observe the way they hold their cards, you can evaluate their demeanor and figure out for yourself if they’re bluffing. 

In this situation, many players who do hold a combat trick will unconsciously ready it in their hand. They may stop shuffling cards around, or hold the combat trick in a different way, or give away any number of other tells as to whether they have it. Look carefully for this, and you might learn if your opponent is bluffing or not. 

Of course, then there’s the next level – good players might pretend to be unconsciously readying a card, when they’re holding nothing but lands. It’s up to you to deduce whether they are play-acting or not. In my experience, most average Magic players don’t have the acting chops to pull off bluffs like these, so if I suspect them of a badly acted bluff, I’ll block and try to punish them. 

Again, the key to noticing bluffs is to observe changes in an opponent’s behavior. If they’ve been playing one way all game, then switch to another way at a critical juncture, they’re either completely next-levelling you (unlikely at an FNM) or they’re unable to mask their excitement about being about to blow you out (much more likely). There isn’t a huge amount of specific advice to be given here – everyone plays differently – but make sure you at a minimum keep a close eye on your opponent while they play. 

As for disguising your own bluffs, it comes back to some general advice I’ve already offered you – play as consistently as possible. Announce your attacks in the same way every turn. Allow your opponent the same chance to respond to your plays. Take the same amount of time every turn to think (or “think”) about your lines of play. React in the same way to every card you draw, regardless of whether it’s a lethal burn spell or your fourteenth land. Doing this will already gain you a huge number of percentage points in high-stakes Magic. 


Finally – and this may fly in the face of everything I’ve said here – don’t worry too much about reading your opponent, about information bleed, about bluffing, and all the rest of it. This article is definitely aimed at people looking to play higher-level Magic, and it’s by no means absolutely necessary for enjoyment of the game. 

In fact, many people may find it actively stands in the way of having a good time, as it’s too serious or hard-nosed or nasty. In this case, read the room, chill out, and remember it’s just a game. If you’re up against someone similarly spiky, great – enjoy the battle of wits and hone your skills as a card shark. If someone is looking to just play and have fun, however, consider not being so cold-blooded and calculating. 

The reason I say this is because I gained a bit of a reputation when I first started playing for taking casual games too seriously, going into what my friends called “demon mode” as I sat impassively and tried to play mind games while jamming at FNM. I don’t recommend it – it puts people off. Again, save these sorts of skills for the big games. 



Next week, we’ll be addressing another element of in-person Magic that doesn’t directly involve the mechanics of playing the game itself – trading! It’s a huge part of Magic, given that it is, after all, a trading card game, so be sure to check back and learn what you need to know to trade at your LGS. See you then!


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