BLUFFING AT 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!