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.
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.
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.