Here I Ruel – Bluffing in Magic


Bluffing is usually a pretty useful weapon when you’re gaming. Take poker, for instance. You can bluff to steal a pot or to gain an image at the table, and it can help you win big. However, most risky bluffs at Magic will get you two or three damage in, but they can cost you a game if you get caught.

When is it worth the risk, when should you bluff, and what are the bluffs you can afford doing?

Bluffing in combat

Let’s first consider bluffing during attacks, which is the one you’ll be facing more often in Limited. The first thing you should wonder is what conclusions your opponent will make from your attack, and how he will react to it. For instance, let’s say you have a 3/3 and they have a pair of 2/2 and you have another 3/3 in your hand, which you are planning to play during your second main phase. If you swing with the 3/3, the probability they block is low. Or at least the better they are, the lower this probability gets. Indeed they will expect you to have a combat trick or removal, and therefore the risk they lose 2 cards for 1 is pretty high. Also, they will often consider the option that they can swing back with their guys if you don’t play a big guy during your second main phase, which will make them want to take 3. If this bluff does work, not only have you given 15% of the damage needed to take the game, you will also have them thinking you are holding a trick for quite a while. Then you will have to keep in mind that they will be likely to play around that supposed trick for the rest of the game, if not for the rest of the match. It doesn’t necessarily mean that bluff will be needed again, but that you should keep the right mana up for cards you could have had at that time, and as long as possible try and hide the info that you didn’t have it.

But the main reason why this type of bluff is good is that even if you get caught, it won’t have much of an impact on the game, as it will only result in trading a 3/3 for a 2/2.

However, trying to bluff when attacking into a bigger creature is usually pointless. Indeed, what do you do when your opponent attacks with a 2/2 into a 5/5? You will often simply block as any Giant Growth or Lightning Bolt type spell would only result in a 1 for 2, which will even be a 0 for 1 in case of a bluff. The only moment when this type of bluffing becomes useful is when the game looks so hopeless that only an amazing turn of events could give you the win. Let’s take a simple case. Your opponent has way enough guys to kill you in two turns but shouldn’t be able to kill you in one. On the other hand, you have only a 2 power guy, he is at 7 and has a 4/4 unblocked. The only card left in your deck which could change the course of the game is Lava Axe. Then just swing.

He’ll block 95% of the time and even if he doesn’t, you only have another 5% chance to draw the axe for a total of 0.25% chance to win, so what? When it is your only chance, just go for it. Sometimes, even if you don’t even know yourself what card you may be bluffing, you’ll have to hope your opponent is thinking of one that you may not be.

A bit earlier, I was saying that the better the opponent was, the higher the chances for bluff to work were. To put it simply, the best player you can face will think of all the cards you may have, and chances that he finds a reason not to block are pretty high. On the other hand, the worse player you’ll find won’t be thinking, “what is the trick?” but rather, “does he have a trick or not?” This reaction will result in the player thinking there is a 50% chance you’re bluffing, and 50% you’re not, meaning the risk it doesn’t work is pretty high. Even though most players will go for a safe play, it is important to think that the worse the opponent, the less you’ll want to take the chance.

To take an example, I was playing the other day in Swiss rounds of a M11 Sealed deck tournament and faced a guy whom I thought was good. I had this pretty strong GW aggro deck with Garruk and Overwhelming Stampede, but it needed early aggression in order to be really efficient. I opened with Infantry Veteran and he had turn two Blinding Mage. Since my hand was slow and I needed some early damage, I didn’t think much on my turn, played a Forest and swung with my 1/1. He thought and told me “I don’t think you’re running a card as bad as Giant Growth, so I block.” I was playing Giant Growth and his play was horrible, but still it was my fault for overrating him and taking that chance for one damage. In the end he won the game finishing at one life, meaning I would have won either I had stayed home or if he hadn’t blocked. There are just people you don’t want to try and bluff, and it is not always easy to recognize them; and that is why I generally recommend not trying your chance unless the benefit can be huge.

Another thing which is important about bluffing concerns the timing. The more you think before attacking, the more you make your opponent think you may be bluffing. If you think, even for a couple of seconds, that you just shouldn’t attack, your opponent is very likely to realize it, no matter if this happens to him consciously or not. Therefore, I’d recommend to try and anticipate possible bluffs on your opponent’s turn. Actually, this is advice which goes far beyond the bluffing area only. If you want to get faster at Magic, one of the best things to do is to start thinking on what you’re going to do next every time your opponent has the priority for more than just a few seconds.

Bluffing outside combat

There is an interesting bluff technique which doesn’t cost a thing and which can have an impact on the next games. Actually, this is a technique you can only use when there is at least one game left to play.

It simply consists of not conceding. Let’s say for instance you’re playing in M11 Limited and you have a Mountain on the board. In theory, Fireball would win you the game at any point, but you’re not playing it and there is no way you survive without it. Then bluffing will simply be a matter of attitude, not of playing anymore. Try and keep in your eyes the fire of someone hasn’t given up on the game. Show some intensity on your draw step and make them understand you’re up to something. Then in the next game, maybe will they be less offensive and do worse blocks just so they don’t get killed by a card you don’t even have in your deck. If you have the same attitude in Scars of Mirrodin draft when you’re blue and the only way you could possibly win against their bomb is Volition Reins, just act the exact same way. Then maybe will they board in useless answers to the card, or keep from playing their best permanents if they are not absolutely necessary.

On the other hand though, if you do run Day of Judgment, Fireball, or any card that could turn the game around, try not to be too obvious about it, even if it is the last game. For instance, if you’re opponent has 3 guys for a total of 9 power and you’re at 12. You want and need that Day of Judgment so much that you don’t really have your best poker face, then you draw a land. Then you can be sure that if your opponent has drawn another guy, the probability of him to hold it safely is now much higher. Then maybe you could draw your Wrath to simply end up dying to the creature he was holding.

Then the more cards you have in hand, the more uncomfortable your opponent will feel about it. This is why it is often good to hold unneeded lands in hand. However, beware of holding some which could actually be useful. For instance if you have two lands and a three mana card you’re not willing to cast at the moment in hand, and 4 lands on the board, you should play one if you run a six mana spell. In the same way, if you play a spell that draws multiple cards, what is the most expensive card combination it could get you? Will you have enough lands to cast them?

Then we can’t talk about bluffs without talking about countermagic. Bluffing them is not too difficult, but there are various ways to do so. The first one is to pretend you could play something on your turn, but choose not to. Just take a little time, touch your lands possibly (all the visual aspects of bluffing are only to be done if you can act naturally, otherwise you get spotted a little too easily), and pass. Then maybe on their next turn they’ll go with their second best spell even if you don’t have a thing. Another way to do it is to take some time when the opponent casts a spell. You don’t need to take an excessive amount of time, but just to have to exact same reaction you’d have if you did have a counter. Also, if you notice he doesn’t think you’re countering, it doesn’t mean your bluff is over, but rather it is actually good news. Just stop him and tell him you might have a response to his spell before allowing it to resolve. Same goes against a player who plays two spells at once because they can’t think of a counter (classic in case of Spell Pierce, Disrupt, and other unlikely counters). Just ask them which spell they are playing first.

All those plays have no immediate impact, but it will influence their next choices. Will they play their best plays when they can? Will they simply pass if it’s their only spell and wait for bait, play their second or third best card to see if you look concerned or just not give a crap? You can’t know, but it still doesn’t cost a thing to try and influence his decision.

Bear also in mind that the mana plays an active part in bluffing. If you’re RU in SoM draft and pass with a Mountain untapped, your opponent will naturally consider you could play Galvanic Blast on his turn. Even if you don’t have it in hand or in your deck, having a fast look at the board before untapping doesn’t cost a thing. In the same way, if you can keep two mana untapped and choose to keep UU instead of RR or a more natural UR which could have allowed you to play many more spells, it will only be natural for your opponent to think of Stoic Rebuttal.

Leading your opponent into thinking you’re bluffing

One of the best ways to bluff is to make your opponent think he realizes you’re bluffing. When he will actually think it came to his mind, he won’t realize you’ve been manipulating him.

Yeah, just like in Inception.

Once you’ve mastered all the previous techniques, this one is infinitely simple. Remember all the things I told you not to do? Just do them! Think and show hesitation before attacking, don’t even look like countering is an option when the opponent’s spell is not a threat, don’t hold too many cards in hand etc.

Let’s get back with the example of the 3/3 against double 2/2 combat. This time, you have Lightning Bolt in hand. If you have the Bolt and a Forest in hand, pretend you’re going to put the Bolt into the land zone and change your mind for Forest. Then hold your 3/3 as if you’re debating whether to attack, and then reconsider, and leave him. Think for another two seconds or so, and swing.
The later in the game and the more you’re in bad shape, the better it works, as it only amplifies the impression you’re making desperate attacks in order to find a way out.

To conclude, I’d recommend paying a lot of attention when bluffing, as it can often cost a price not worse the risk, but also the cost that bluffing has in terms of time. When all these little things become natural, they take only a few seconds a game, but until they do, it is very important to pay attention to the clock and to focus more on other aspects of the game in order to play a little faster.

However, there are lots of bluffing techniques which don’t involve any risk, and if you can master them it will make you a better player.

I wish you all a very good week, and thanks for reading!


29 thoughts on “Here I Ruel – Bluffing in Magic”

  1. Bluffing is indeed an important aspect of magic. It really does make a difference if you’re able to act naturally when doing things. You’ll end up taking less damage, pushing a bit more through and constantly make your opponent guess.

    Psychological warfare is always fun = /

  2. Ummm…. Not impressed with this article. There were a lot more places to take the bluffing. but you chose to stick with something sooooo simple.. Combat tricks and counterspells? Really? I’ve seen 9 year-olds bluff the giant growth. It’s not hard. It’s a basic skill that even the most simple player masters easily. While it certainly is important to keep your poker face together, that’s only because it’s a game of deception and resources, holding as many resources as possible. So while the article may be useful, it is not going to last even a month. The issue is that this is one of the skills that simply playing A LOT of magic teaches you.

  3. Nice read. As I’m normally a very deliberate and slow player, I find it difficult to make time for bluffing. I will usually spend some time thinking when my opponent plays a spell and I have countermagic mana open even if I don’t have the counter, but that’s less because I’m trying to bluff and more because I want to be able to take that time to think when I do have the counter without giving too much information away.

    One situation I love to bluff in is Legacy if I’m playing a tempo oriented deck with Dazes. Often, I would like to slow my opponent down a turn by making them play around Daze and leave an extra mana open when they cast their spells. Sometimes, I would even prefer they play around it even when I have a Daze in hand, as setting my land drops back a turn would be more awkward for me. To get them to do this, I’ll often think for a moment when they cast an early spell and maybe start to pick my island up but decide otherwise. Opponents will often think I’m just unaware of the information I’m giving away and assume I must have the Daze and that they should play around it. This can be put to great effect in any deck that typically plays Daze, even if the specific list isn’t actually playing any.

  4. Some parts are to take the pen to write life points before they consider to block, often they will just let it happen as they are influenced by your action.

    Another nice action is to read the cards in your hand “obvisious”, even if its just a land.

    I even asked for a judge to ask a question from a card that wasnt even in my hand.

    That are “bluffs” that work wonders, just do something thats totally “special” and the story will be epic to tell.

  5. great article.

    also, before bluffing, you have to realize that bluffs work a lot better earlier in the game when opponent’s life total is higher, he is more willing to take the dmg than get blown out on board.

    the higher the risk of your opponent dying from your attack or the lower his life total is, the harder it is to just bluff in some dmg.

  6. Had a buddy, with his Jace TMS, choose to let the opponent KEEP his top card after fate sealing, when the guy had a fetch on board……the guy thought if he said keep, it must be a land or a useless card, in fact it was a really strong card…..he used the fetch, only to shuffle away his only hope. Epic. Good job “Monk”….keep it up! Shane

  7. @Smac
    Classic example of a bad bluff. Actually one of the worst kind.
    So you he let it on top, the other player shuffled and still has a chance of ripping the spell he wanted. What if he forgets to crack his fetch or sees the bluff? Then your buddy is screwed.

    The other option is to put the spell on the bottom. If we are talking about constructed he probably has more than 1 copy of the card and can easily rip the same card from the top.

    So ironically if ONE of the spells is on the bottom and he doesn’t shuffle, he is more likely NOT to hit another copy than if you bluffed and he shuffled all the copies back randomly into the deck. So all your buddy accomplished was putting himself in a position where he is more likely to get blown out.

    And it’s really telling that you hail his play as epic.

  8. So the guy correctly called your giant growth bluff, and won an otherwise unwinnable game because of it, and you call HIM bad?

  9. @Brady

    Partially agree with you.

    The guy saw the bluff, but saw it in the form of “Giant Growth is a bad card, and you are a pro, so you are not playing it”, which is very very wrong. If we are talking about M11 Limited, Giant Growth is a very good combat trick. Definitively I wouldn’t block, knowing all the risks, even a Mighty Leap would be a possibility.

  10. “So the guy correctly called your giant growth bluff, and won an otherwise unwinnable game because of it, and you call HIM bad?”
    I’m not sure either my play was bad or not, but the game was looking so bad at that point that I thought I had to try something. On the other hand, taking the risk to trade a Blinding Mage for a Giant Growth or Mighty Leap when you’re on 20 is pretty bad. The guy himself played ok, but that very play was really bad when you consider the impact of Blinding Mage against a WG deck.

  11. On blocking with Blinding Mage there… If Oli is auto-attacking every time there blocking is probably correct, because he simply won’t have the trick most of the time. But against most players most of the time it’s probably best just to take 1, since losing your Blinding Mage is pretty devastating. His reasoning about Giant Growth doesn’t hold up obviously.

  12. Its very hard to say that someone calling a bluff is horrid without knowledge of their hand at the time. Often time you can call that bluff if your next 3 turns you will be tapped our and playing powerful cards.. if you have weaksauce.. its much harder

  13. I would never block an Infantry Veteran with my Blinding Mage while at 20 life and opp had untapped lands of any color (Mighty Leap, Giant Growth, Diminish, Stabbing Pain, Thunder Strike, etc) Too many ways to get behind a board you currently dominate. I do think it’s a misplay to block there, even if it turned out to be a good block…^^

    I really have to try the put the Lightning Bolt on the land area, then go back and put the forest… That should make some opponents wrinkle their faces…

    Overall, very pleasing and instructing article

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  15. @Basstastic

    actually its called knowing your opponent. I had the card that could stop it in my hand however I took the risk of getting rid of the fetch so it was not used at a later time to give him a better chance of the card on the bottom being put back onto the top.

    I am a fairly decent magic player. I Bluff sometimes and I do it very well.

    And I knew the person I was playing.

    so thank you for calling me a horrible player because any good player with a fetch on the board and you let them keep a late game fateseal 99% of the time they will assume its a land. And will use the fetch to try to get somethign worth it.

    so overall, yes. I made a good play. And played off of statistics and what the odds of someone fetching after I fatesealed is.

    us CPAs in training play a lot of the game on statistics

  16. Theirs “bluff” potential when the potential “gain” outweights the potential “risk”.

    If you fetch with the “good” card on top theirs simply no “gain” doing that compared to the other way.

    It might be a nice “Bluff” for show, but its actual a bad move no matter how you look at it.

    But in the end, if you win, nobody cares, its just the fact that this move was not optimal and could easily make you lose a game you would never lose …

  17. when he is on top decking mode your sitting on a path of exile playing mono black vampires and he is on top deck mode sitting witha land I use jace to reveal a vamp. noct. and I know what he will do since he is desperate I made him bury his own card. If he drew it and played it I would have gotten rid of it anyways. I understand what you are saying. But It was a risk to save from using a path of exile.

    To me a good move. To everyone else at our shop. A good move.

    And that includes some very high rated players including one with pro points and another top eighten’ once or twice.

    The point of this blog is not to just rant on something someone did a long time ago and won the game anyways no problem. The point is to comment on the original article. Which my friend did in reference to how bluffing can be good sometimes.

    And in that case it worked.

    bluffing is a risk. The term bluffing is exactly what I did. There is no safe bluffing. Say you do not have a giant growth in hand and swing with the 3/3 into two 2/2’s. He blocks with both. Guess what. Your bluff didn’t work. He one for one’d you.

    Go look up bluffing in a dictionary. Because THERE IS NO SAFE BLUFFING. So what I did was fine. And I feel a good reference as well to a bluffing situation.

  18. @ Mwicher: Your original story should have explained better that the only reason for the fate seal bluff with Jace was to get rid of his fetch land.

  19. But if he was top decking, why wouldn’t he want to blow the fetch to thin land anyway? Why do you need to risk something to get him to use it? Unless that one life was important… To me though, fetch on board or not, if his top could swing the game, you better believe I’m burying it.

  20. @ Jeff
    Because he could use it later to shuffle the next time Jace did leave a card on top.

    So, if he had sent it to the bottom, opponent gets random card now (with Nocturnus on bottom), and later, random card after Jace leaves one on top in the future, plus any random cards after Jace bottoms in the future.

    By leaving it on top now, if opponent fetches, he just gets random card now plus any random cards after Jace bottoms in the future. Slightly less chance of drawing his outs.

    It’s a bit of a high risk move, because there’s always the chance your opponent either understands this reasoning as well and calls your bluff from time to time or he just forgets to use his fetch. Couple that with the fact that the gains are very marginal, and the bluff doesn’t always make a lot of sense. However, since he had the answer in hand anyway and probably knew his opponent a bit, I could see it making sense in this scenario.

  21. ultimately that is all it came down to is knowing part of your meta. Decks and opponents. I had the answer. If I left that on top and forced him to fetch yea he burys it and he might pull that bloodwitch which puts jace into a buy time mode since PoE wouldn’t do anything. Or I leave it say he don’t fetch, then I have a chance at seeing the next card being say a bloodwitch and burying it then he might not use the fetch considering no one knows what might be coming next for him.

    Its a different bluff. Risky. But most bluffs are. basstastic, try not bashing what ended up being a good payoff because I won the game off it. You wanna play a safe bluff go listen to the sermon at your local religious facility and pay your offering. Because that is a much safer move. Sometimes you take a risk to try to get ahead somehow.

    fdsaf your right. ultimately it was trying to get rid of some source of anti control to the fate seal. And it is a higher risk with marginal payoff absolutely.

    Its just a scenario of bluffing thats all adds flavor to the article

  22. nice article.

    But I have one question.

    >In the end he won the game finishing at one life, meaning I would have won either I had stayed home or if he hadn’t blocked

    This mean Blinding Mage have no impact on the game if he didn’t block and survive in the combat?I think u just get advantage in tradeing giant growth to Mage,and you explained about impact of Blinding Mage against a WG deck in comment.So the trade not seems to be cause of your lost.

    Sorry I’m japanese and my english is poor so I might not understand your article, and this comment is might be not clear.

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