Getting Nassty – Adjusting to the Opponent’s Style

You Duress your opponent on Turn One on the play in a game on Magic Online. You see six lands and a Condemn: you of course take the Condemn. Later in the game, he plays a Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Brainstorms with one white up. In play you have a Sedraxis Specter and five lands (no color problems) and in your graveyard you have a second Specter. In hand you have your own Jace MS.

The Read

Your opponent kept a loose hand so you assume he’s bad. He probably figured it wasn’t worth bouncing the Specter because you could unearth the other one anyway. You don’t bother unearthing and send the Specter, planning on casting Jace after combat. He slaps down a Condemn, forcing you to waste your Jace legend ruling his. As it turns out, you were playing against Nationals Top 8 competitor Gerrard Fabiano.

Playing against someone can often give you a read on whether they are a good or bad player. With that information you can make reads on the player differently or make plays that involve them not seeing something. However, good and bad are not the only ways to classify players. Gerrard didn’t keep a loose hand because he’s bad; he kept a loose hand because that’s his style.

Just because someone would “rather lose than mulligan” doesn’t mean they are a bad player: it simply means they do one thing differently than others. Thus, it is more effective to classify players in styles rather than playing ability. While it is generally considered bad to play differently from everyone else, it can make you a lot harder to play against. I once asked Luis who the hardest person in the world to play against is. He answered, “Gabriel Nassif, because he plays so differently.”

Simply looking at PV’s mulligan article here (Part 1, Part 2), you can see that many of the best players in the world mulligan very differently. Not only do some mulligan more than others, but they like very different types of hands. Some people don’t mind keeping slow hands as long as they have a good mix of lands and spells. Other players like one land hands that have a chance to be very good with appropriate draws.

While the way people mulligan is one way to classify players, there certainly are many others. One thing that heavily bears on players’ classifications is how much Magic Online they play. Ask any professional poker player and they’ll tell you they play very different against online players, so why don’t Magic players? Just as online poker players have seen more hands than players who don’t play online, Magic Online players have simply played more. Because they have so much experience, they often play tighter and play more by the book. Online players also tend to mulligan a lot more. This has to do with convenience more than anything else. No matter how much people deny it weighing into their decisions, shuffling is a nuisance. In real life, a mulligan takes a good three minutes and a lot of effort. On Magic Online, it’s a click away. Since the cost of mulliganing is lower on Magic Online, people do it more. Then, when they go to real tournaments, they take their mulligan theories with them. Practice how you play.

Different styles

Martin Juza plays a ton of Magic Online. Like most Magic Online players, he plays tight and mulligans a lot. It got to the point where he mulliganed so many hands, to save time in testing I would simply concede any game where Martin kept his seven. If I had a chance of winning, he probably would’ve mulled. If Martin has a seven card hand and misses a land drop on turn two, you can assume he has the nut one lander. If Gerrard Fabiano misses a land drop on turn two, you can’t conclude anything.

On the other side of the coin are players like Gabriel Nassif or Conley Woods. Gabe and Conley often make very creative plays, but sometimes miss something simple. Against them, if your only out is for them to make a simple mistake, don’t be afraid to go for it, even though they are very good players. Players like this don’t punt that often, as they obviously still play tight enough to do well in tournaments, but they do tend to make more mistakes than the average player of their level.

Another difference between players is how aggressively they play around cards. Some players simply play as though their opponents have nothing. If you are playing against someone like that, spells become more powerful. In fact, you can even board in instant-speed tricks more aggressively because you know your opponents won’t play around them. While board cards are usually used for the matchup your playing against, there are cards that are better against certain types of players.

Against players who play around too much, it is often effective to keep cards in your hand. Your opponent will simply try to play around everything, and end up falling victim to simple creatures. Ben Lundquist is a good example of a player who plays around a lot. In a feature match found here against Lundquist at Nationals, LSV took advantage of this tendency. Luis carefully saved his tricks to force Lundquist to constantly play around them. Lundquist used his life total as a resource for as long as possible. When the time came where he had to block in order to not die, Luis was ready to punish Ben. He got a Torchling with Strength in Numbers and then an Eron the Relentless had to trade in combat without having regeneration mana open. By playing to Ben’s weakness and convincing him that he could afford to play around everything, Luis managed to win a game in which Ben drew better than him. If Ben had simply blocked more aggressively earlier, Torchling and Eron would have easily taken over the game.

Conventionally, decisions about when to mulligan, when to play around cards, and how loosely to play are what distinguish “bad” from “good” players. Specifically, “bad” players don’t mulligan enough, don’t play around anything, and play looser. However, some “bad” players actually over-mulligan or play around too much. It is much more important to get a sense of how your opponent plays than how well they play.

Another obvious distinction between players is the types of decks they play. I lean towards playing combo decks. Players like Guillaume Wafo-Tapa almost always play control. While you can obviously figure out what people are playing pretty quickly anyway, knowing what hands to keep for game one is pretty big. Whether it’s your local ringers or the major pros, if you know what people lean towards before a match, it can be a huge benefit.

Just as important as knowing your opponents’ style is knowing your own. Just as you should try to exploit your opponents’ style, your style can be exploited if it is overly consistent. In addition, if you only play one type of deck, you will get punished when that type of deck is not viable.

In one conversation I had with LSV, I suggested that I should just only play combo decks since I’m significantly better at them. He pointed out, “Wafo fell off the train because of his obsession with control. Do you know how insane it is for that to happen to someone that good?” What was going on? Recently Wizards has made a push to print better creatures and worse control spells. As a result, control simply wasn’t good enough in enough of the tournaments last year for Wafo to make the train, no matter how skilled he is with it.

Even in Limited, it can be detrimental to force control. In Zendikar, many pros tried to do what they usually do in Limited: force card draw, fatties and removal. They proceeded to lose every game to Steppe Lynx and Plated Geopede. Those who were willing to adapt and realize that control simply wasn’t viable were successful, and those who didn’t adapt continued to lose. Poor Guillaume was probably taking Kalitas over Welkin Tern (not that anyone we know did that at Worlds *cough*LSV)

At Pro Tour Amsterdam, I played Scapeshift combo. I knew perfectly well about the Doran deck and knew it was good, but decided I would be more comfortable playing Scapeshift. This was a bad decision. The Doran deck put up a dominant record and was not hard enough that I couldn’t play it competently. If I had simply played a deck that was slightly out of my element I could’ve put up a much better record than I did. My 2-3 record was worse than the worst record of the 10 or so people who played Doran.

Playing out of character is a huge element of being a successful Magic player. As mentioned earlier, if Ben had simply played around one less card against Luis, he could’ve won. A good example of someone who did a good job of playing out of character is Martin Juza. At a team draft at Pro Tour Amsterdam, Juza was playing a blue-white deck against David Ochoa (Web)’s black-blue deck. In Game One, Web played two Liliana’s Specters. Juza brilliantly boarded in Obstinate Baloth to counter the Specters. As a result, he beat Web in Game Two. While I characterized Juza as a player who mainly just plays tight, I thought this was quite a creative play: playing out of character won Juza the game.

Whether it’s mulligans, deck choices, or how much you play around stuff, a balance is usually the way to go. If you find you are either in the Gerrard camp or the Martin camp on mulligans, you may want to reevaluate. If you always play control, you might want to learn how to play combo and aggro better. If you are playing around nothing or playing around everything, you might want to think about it. Take a close look at your game, and work on becoming a solid all-around player.

15 thoughts on “Getting Nassty – Adjusting to the Opponent’s Style”

  1. these are the types of articles I wish weren’t printed. This is all stuff I figured out a long time ago… Now everybody knows it.

    Damn you!

  2. Side in Obstinate Baloth from sb against Lily discard is a no brainer… pretty sure good sideboarding is in character for Juza

  3. It’s not a no-brainer in a deck that can’t make green mana. I don’t think I’d’ve done it. That said, I have sided in a sphinx of jwarr isle in a mono-r zendikar draft deck against an opponent who showed multiple spreading seas g2 (I thought he might board them out in g2, against mono-r, so I didn’t bring in the sphinx until the third game)

  4. Very insightful article Matt. You did an excellent job of showing the differential between what can be construed as “bad play habits” and what could actually be in fact personal play style. I have seen many players fall in to the trap of missinterpeting their opponents play style perferences as their opponent being “a bad player”. This assumption has frequently come back to bite said players in the ass. I hope we can see more articles that discuss this topic in further depth from you in the future.


  5. Keeping a 6 land hand, missing something obvious, or playing around cards when you aren’t supposed to aren’t “play styles”. They are weaknesses. Just because a player is good doesn’t make him perfect. Why are you trying to pass off brutal mistakes and poor play as “play style”? The only thing I can think you are confused about is the inverse relationship between fun and correct play. loose play is more fun 70% of the time. 30% of the time you just die horribly. Martin juza’s “out of the box move” seems fine, but you act as if its some crazy move to take out his 23rd card for a free win/dead card baloth. The card could’ve been a merefolk spy!

    Really though, the point I want to make clear is there is always a correct mulligan or play based on given information. You either make the 100% right play based on given information, or you don’t. There is no preference. The fact that few to none of us are capable of doing the mathematical calculations required on the spot or on time is irrelevant.

  6. I don’t agree with “spike614” that there is always a 100% “best” play. The only way to know that is to use hindsight — to look back and criticize plays. Sometimes, you can make a very good play and still lose because of it. The play was good based on the information you had at the time, but in retrospect it didn’t work. With your “100% or nothing” mentality, you’d always be looking at replays and criticizing those plays — that is actually worse for your game.

    I totally agree that playstyles exist. All of the players Nass mentions here are world-class, so it is hard for us to criticize them as “wrong.”

    Personally, I choose to draw first in limited almost all the time. This catches me a lot of flack, and I’ve even had opponents ask me (mostly good-naturedly) “why are you doing that?” Still, I win a lot of tournaments and my track record is quite good — so I consider that part of my play style. I’ll play 18 land and draw first in limited. That doesn’t mean that the opposite is “bad” or “wrong” though!

  7. Yes, it is absolutely incorrect to draw first if you did not draft your deck in a style that most matchups you’ll want the card. Why would I criticize a correct play based on correct information just because I got unlucky and lost? I did not say that, you did. I merely pointed out there is always a correct play based on given information. Not only did you fail to show any logic or evidence to support your disagreement, you didn’t offer any evidence or reason to support your claim that “playstyles exist”.

    Make note that I agree with the majority of Matt’s article, you should always be aware of your opponents and your own strengths, weaknesses, and preferences (aggressive/defensive). However, I think it is important to distinguish this from “style” which is completely different, usually wrong and/or awesome.

  8. Back at “spike”:

    I guess I just disagree with your premise. It is that kind of attitude that Pat Chapin has been talking a lot about lately in his articles. You are basically removing any element of creativity, personality, or style to the game. In your world, every player should be a robot; your essentially saying there should be no variance in how a particular situation should be handled.

    I disagree. The whole point of this article is to show you how many of the players (whose decks you probably netdeck) have very different ideas about how to evaluate cards, play certain scenerios, and build decks. Nass is trying to show us that it is a good thing to both embrace the parts of the game you feel most comfortable with, but also to be flexible situationally.

    Through trying to always find the “optimal” play instead of thinking creatively, you are just feeding more and more into the stereotype of the MTGO “tight” player who can top-8 a PTQ, but has literally no idea why a play is good or what a deck actually does.

  9. @ Spike & Eric.
    I think you guys are both kind of missing the point here. IMO there IS always an ‘optimal’ play. but this article is actually pointing out that there is a difference between ‘optimal’ and ‘tight’ play. To find the best play in any given situation you need to address all known information. This article is basically saying that ‘known information’ is not just limited to board state, life totals and cards in hand, but also any information you have about your opponent’s play style as well as any info you know they know about yours.

    We don’t play magic like robots because we aren’t. That doesn’t mean there isn’t always a best play. it just means that no player is completely perfect and you need to take that into account when making your own plays.

  10. We got a good description of two axes of player assessment: inclination to mulligan and degree to which a player plays around potential threats. The concept of “creative” play wasn’t spelled out well enough. For one thing, I am not sure under what circumstances it’s appropriate to characterize a player’s play as creative. Furthermore, I am not sure what the consequences are of doing so.

    I think that accumulating a set of categories under which players may be categorized is a great thing. But not if we only get the circumstances of application of a particular value within a category. We also need to know the consequences of attributing the value. Something along these lines was suggested in the lines about “forfeiting in testing if he kept his hand” and “if the player is more worried about the potential than the actual, then keep certain cards back can be more powerful than playing them.”

    A nice batch of articles with advice of the form “if someone plays like this, then do this” would be useful.

  11. “Through trying to always find the “optimal” play instead of thinking creatively, you are just feeding more and more into the stereotype of the MTGO “tight” player who can top-8 a PTQ, but has literally no idea why a play is good or what a deck actually does.

    This doesn’t make sense – the optimal play I refer to includes all known information, not just technical statistical information based on deck lists, hand size, and life totals. You’re implying that technically tight play for some reason is at odds with playing the player, which is not true at all. I would even argue that if you play like a robot you typically will make awful mistakes that are statstically correct. To elaborate and answer oviov, there is always a best play, and it will be influenced by information provided by your opponent. You may choose to use guess, gut, or read information, but any action they take should clue you in on their plan for victory, and you need to adjust your line of play accordingly. This tight play doesnt require you to be supernatural or a robot.

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  13. Oh, come on. Saying there are no playstyles in M:TG is like saying there are none in chess. It’s even more prominent than in chess – because you don’t get to customize your pieces. Yet, despite there only being one set of chess pieces with scripted moves, playstyles are evident in the top players. This is true in chess, a game of unlimited information, and in poker, a game of very limited information. So there is no logical reason it wouldn’t be true in M:TG also (which is in the middle), and a wealth of anecdotal evidence to suggest that it is. M:TG is a game that highly rewards situational awareness – which it would not do if the “optimal” play was not at least partially determined by factors outside the game – such as those pointed out in mr. Nass’s article. Very good article.

  14. @Spike

    While there is technically usually an optimal play that gives the highest win percentage (barring any situations that give rise to a mix up), figuring out the win percentage for each line of play is pretty much infeasible in most sufficiently complicated situations (for example, the mulligan decision). Because of this, there are a number of situations where the best line of play isn’t really agreed upon as the win percentage for each are probably very close. How a player makes decisions in these situations that are up for debate can be considered their play style.

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