In Development – What’s Your Read?

In the fifth round of last month’s PTQ, we were in the middle of resolving mulligans. By “we” I really mean “my opponent,” as I’d reviewed my opening seven, decided it seemed sound, and placed my hand face down in front of me with a concise, “I’m good.”

My opponent checked his seven…and stopped to think. He stared. He put the cards down. He picked them up again, screwed up his face a bit in concentration, and then finally decided to mulligan. As he was shuffling up for his six, he asked me, “Do you think it’s right to mulligan a hand with five lands and two spells?”

You might call that a “tell.”

I’m not especially good at reading my opponent, and as a consequence don’t spend a lot of time looking for tells (real ones, I mean). Instead, I tend to play as if my opponent were some sort of Bayesian average of all opponents in similar situations.

It is not, as we say, one of my strengths. However, as we’ve discussed before, if it is one of your strengths, wouldn’t you like to learn that it is and spend more time cultivating it? At the same time, if it turns out you’re not much good at it, wouldn’t you like to plug any critical gaps and then move on to something you are good at?

Yes, today is a Magic Effectiveness Project (MEP) piece.

Today I’m going to discuss “reading” your opponents. There is no one skill of “reading” – and, in fact, it probably breaks down into at least two distinct major skill sets, where we may be good at one and not so great at another. Using information gleaned from the first big MEP survey and examples from high-level tournament play, I’m going to talk about these flavors of reading.

Your “job,” such as it is, is to read all about ‘reads’ with an eye toward understanding whether one of those flavors is one of your strengths, and an area where you can grow your game by leaps and bounds instead of by inches.

A reminder about strengths

One of the essential ideas that I’ve acquired from the nice people at Gallup is that we tend to have trouble recognizing our strengths. The reason is just that they are something we have an affinity for, something that comes so naturally to us that we tend to assume it’s just easy. I have a coworker who thinks linear algebra is intuitive, but is consistently perplexed by biology.

…and if both of those seem tricky to you, that doesn’t make you dumb, it just means that your cognitive strengths are far more suited to other tasks altogether. I have a very good friend who can’t find his way through either science or math, but can bust out Middle English and other arcane languages like nobody’s business. In fact, he’s so good at it that he has a book about it.

So a strength is something for which you have both aptitude (you’re good at it) and affinity (you like to do it). A Gallup-style strength isn’t one of these skills I just mentioned, but something higher-level like “Context.” As we go along through the MEP results, I think we’re starting to see something similar at work…but more on that later.

Since we are talking about strengths today, I’m not going to spend a lot of time lingering on how we can avoid being read – that is, getting rid of our tells. If we were to talk about a strength that really lends itself to not being read, we might want to focus on stoicism.

But that’s a topic for another day. In the meantime, just pay attention to how the “victims” of these reads are giving up information, and keep it in mind as you play.

People watching

Perhaps it sounds silly to name one of the categories of reads “people watching.” Aren’t all reads fundamentally about watching your opponent?

Well, sort of. As you’ll see, some are about watching the other player and tracking what they do. Others are about engaging interactively with your opponent to acquire information from them. Finally, there is a line of reading that has very little to do with your people watching skills.

This category – people watching – is about how we pay attention to our opponents and casually pick up cues to hidden information, such as their cards in hand or their intent. In the world of the imagination, picking up tells via watching works like Cal Lightman on Lie to Me. The person does their thing, then you tilt your head to one side and loudly declare that they totally have a Lightning Bolt in hand and they’re planning on bluffing countermagic if you look like you might cast something.

The reality is less magical and more practical, and it breaks down into two parts – mechanics and emotions.

Reading mechanics

Here’s a snippet from the glacial Karsten-Leong match in the quarterfinals of Worlds 2005:

So if you were ever wondering where that godawful flick-flick-flick continuous shuffling habit came from, there you go. My preference is an obscuring shuffle followed by putting my hand down until I need the cards.

Many of the MEP responders who say they read players talked about tracking a player’s mechanics – that is, the actual motions they make when playing the game. This includes things like sorting the cards in your hand, or immediately playing a card that you just drew off the top of your library without any intermediate shuffling to hide the fact that you just drew it.

If you were Ding Leong’s opponent in that quarterfinals match, and it was your inclination to watch his mechanics, you’d quickly notice that he was flicking some category of card to the right of his hand. You could then watch him play a land from that part of his hand, and soon enough you’re able to track how many land versus nonland cards he has in hand.

And – this is the important distinction here – this happens all without having to develop any kind of feel for the specific details of the person you’re playing. You don’t have to watch their eyes, or see if they react to their card draw. You just need to track what they do with their cards.

The other major targets for the “mechanically inclined” reader are pauses and mana. A big pause at end of turn or after drawing a card gives the reader information about what cards the opponent has in hand…and the lands that opponent leaves untapped also spell out the opponent’s available options. There can also be “special case” mechanical reads, such as catching someone reading one of their own split cards during Ravnica and Time Spiral blocks.

If the idea of knowing where the lands are in someone’s hand strikes you as a no-brainer, you may have a strength in this area of observing and recalling your opponent’s actions. You can try to cultivate and enhance that skill by picking new traits to try to pick up on. For example, can you figure out the CMCs in your opponent’s hand based on how they’re sorting their cards?

Reading emotions

Consider this moment from the quarterfinals of Pro Tour Valencia 2007:

If you were just playing the “what do I lose to?” game here, you’d name Enduring Ideal, the win card in Andre Mueller’s combo deck. Both Randy and BDM agree on Enduring Ideal as the correct card to “name blind” on that Cabal Therapy.

So why did Sam Stein name Solitary Confinement?

There’s some logic to the idea that Sam wanted to name a card that might trip up his game plan, but if so, he still has a lot of options. Solitary Confinement, Pernicious Deed, and Form of the Dragon were all in Andre’s deck and all represented cards that would put a massive damper on Sam’s aggro plan.

The cue was something that, unfortunately, you can’t really hear in the coverage. As Andre plays out his turn two, he asks Sam, “Can you kill me next turn?”

For many of us, this would be random noise, but for Sam, cued to pick up on all sorts of tells, it carried a lot of information. It meant that Andre was deciding between the play he eventually made – casting an accelerator – and a play that would make it relevant whether or not Sam had a kill the following turn. Translated, that can also be said as, “Whether or not Andre needed to spend this turn buying himself another turn.” Seen that way, there was only one card that absolutely bought Andre another turn.

Solitary Confinement.

So that’s what Sam named, and suddenly Andre found himself with one less fewer to work with and a giant horde of angry robots cruising across the board to kill him.

This side of the read is for the person who is, in the classical sense, a good listener. If you, like me, are inclined to treat comments like, “Can you kill me next turn?” as conversation meant to lighten the mood, then this isn’t one of your strengths. On the other hand, if you’re constantly trying to evaluate what someone meant by what they said, then you might want to spend time applying that skill to linking people’s comments and conversation during play with what they have in their hand, and what their game plan is.

There are a lot of opportunities to exercise this skill, and many of them come up outside the strict bounds of the individual games themselves.

Imagine you’ve just been seated for round three at a PTQ. You and your opponent are both 2-1. Your opponent complains about their loss last round to Faeries, and what a pain being timewalked by [card]Mistbind Clique[/card] is.

What deck might they be playing?

What if they complain about how Faeries is stupid because it’s “all about getting [card]Bitterblossom[/card] down.” What are they playing then?

In the same vein, if your inclination is to listen and evaluate like this, pay close attention to how people refer to the hands they’re disposing of when they mulligan. Do they just flat-out tell you how many lands it had? Do they talk about casting costs? What can you learn from that?

Note that this is all about active listening, but not about engaging with your opponent (which is, ironically, what Andre Mueller was probably trying to do when he accidentally gave up the goods in that video). If you’re the type of person who likes to chat ‘em up, that’s…

Working the crowd

Check out this excerpt from the quarterfinals match between Brian Kibler and Evangelos Papatsarouchas at Pro Tour Austin 2009:

Brian Kibler is an animated guy. He makes big, expansive gestures (seriously, go back and watch the opener to that video, as the camera pans down toward him). He chats with his opponent through the entire match, discussing their experiences at the Pro Tour, other games, how things might have gone differently in that last game.

Honestly, it’s fun to play with someone this good natured and lively. It makes for a good match.

But amidst all of the banter, two interesting exchanges happen.

In the first excerpt, Brian asks Evangelos if he has anything good coming off of the second Hypergenesis, and Van lets him know there’s an Angel of Despair coming.

In the second excerpt, a similar question from Brian gets Evangelos to let him know he has a Progenitus in hand.

Say what now? Van just told him what he had in hand? Twice? When it might conceivably impact which card Brian chose to play first off of Van’s Hypergenesis?

This is what we might think of as the “proactive” version of the emotional read. Instead of catching the tidbits of material that your opponent lets slide as they speak, you create a bridge between the two of you. It’s a lot like being the “good cop” in a stereotypical police negotiation. You create rapport, get the other person comfortable with the back and forth, and then should you happen to ask them something they perhaps shouldn’t answer, they might just answer anyway.

Lest this sound like a pure tactic, keep in mind that the only reason Brian can do it so easily is that he’s genuinely interested in interacting with the person across the table from him. As Keith Ferrazzi tells us, successful contact building requires an actual interest in the other person.

This is why I’m pretty chatty during mulligans. It’s a chance to reconnect with people I know and get to know more about new opponents. But I get quiet during games because I’m not as much of a natural connector as Kibler.

Once again, this is going to be a difficult trait to force…but if you find that you already tend to be chatty throughout the match, and you’re a decent enough listener to create a genuine back-and-forth with your opponent, you may want to try throwing in the occasional question aimed at finding out something helpful about your opponent’s cards or game plan, just to see what you can harvest.

Of the various reads described so far, this one is probably the hardest to see coming and block out, at least for most people – so if you already have some affinity for this approach, it’s worth trying to cultivate it.

The procedural read

So far, the reads that we’ve covered feel like what we mean when we talk about “reading” and “tells.” You’re watching your opponent or chatting them up, picking up on their physical and emotional cues.

However, a lot of players don’t want to have anything to do with this kind of read. As one MEP responder said, “Reading people is very difficult and requires a lot of practice, so I don’t listen to most people when they say they’re really good at it.” That’s my bias, too – I bet a lot of us aren’t nearly as good at these reads as we think we are. And, per the Gallup idea, those of us who are good at it don’t think we are.

But let’s set this all aside to look at an entirely different kind of read, one that can feel like it’s based on the person. That’s the “procedural” read, and it comes in two flavors – logical and historical.

The logical read

Let’s return to that quarterfinal match from Worlds 2005:

Now, that feels like an excerpt from Lie to Me. Frank’s right there, the protagonist in our Magic-themed police procedural, tilting his head sideways, staring at Ding Leong, and just calling out the cards in Ding’s hand.

The thing is, Karsten isn’t paying attention to how Ding’s flicking his cards or what Ding is saying. Frank isn’t really chatting him up, either.

Instead, Karsten is running a logical evaluation of what cards Ding is likely to have in his hand. He’s seen a couple turns without any action from Ding, and, if Frank assumes that Ding is a reasonably rational opponent – a fair assumption in the top eight of Worlds – then he can start to evaluate which cards in Ding’s deck wouldn’t be worth playing given the board state.

Now, Frank’s excellent party trick of naming the exact cards in Leong’s hand is made possible by dint of his having full access to Ding’s deck list, but the principle holds even in normal, non-top-eight play. Consider pretty much any tournament report by our own PV, or any of the videos by LSV. They walk through the possibilities in a level of detail that might make you believe it was added after the fact – except that the videos clearly put the lie to that idea.

Doing this kind of read “in the wild” requires a fairly thorough, or perhaps obsessive, understanding of a format the likely cards in a given archetype. It also requires the ability to mentally model the contents of your opponent’s hand as you plan your own plays, and this doesn’t just mean “have a general idea of what they have” but “be able to construct and maintain a specific hand in your mind.”

If you’re already inclined to make educated guesses about what cards your opponents have, and can usually “unravel” those guess to explain why you made them, you may be on track to cultivating this style of read into a robust strength – and you’ll have an excellent party trick the next time you top eight an event.


We’ll end on this clip of future Hall of Famer Gab Nassif and future Pro Tour Paris winner Ben Stark at Pro Tour Kobe in 2004:

Those are games two and five, respectively.

Much like the logical read, the historical read is something that you could easily do on MTGO or any other online game, even without access to their physical tells, the things they say, or the ability to talk with them.

In AI, there’s this thing called a Hidden Markov Model (HMM). It’s not worth going into detail here, but HMMs are basically computational tools that try to figure out “what happens next?” for situations where the underlying rules are hidden (thus the “Hidden” in HMM).

Lest this seem tremendously esoteric, the point is that this is what you’re doing if you’re running a historical read on your opponent. This is what Nassif was doing in his fifth game against Stark. Knowing how Stark got locked out of game two and having watched him play out the games in between, Nassif formed a relatively solid evidence base – a set of rules – to help him figure out “what happens next?” when Stark started off with such a seemingly mediocre first turn in game five.

How quickly do you figure out what your opponent’s next play is going to be? Not just what a generally likely next play is, or even what cards must be in their hand, but actually how your specific opponent is going to respond to the board state and whatever you just did? As I mentioned above, I’m not particularly good at this – it’s not my strength, and I treat each opponent as a sort of aggregate of all likely opponents. But if you find that you rapidly form an idea of what your current opponent will do, then you may want to push to develop this strength.

A recap, and a suite of skills

The simple take-home from today’s piece is that there is no one “skill of reading your opponent.” It’s a suite of distinct abilities, many of which have nothing to do with each other. The upshot of all this is that you may find you’re good in one aspect of reading, even if you aren’t particularly suited to another.

After all, there’s no shame in being either a Karsten or a Stein instead of being both at once.

magic (at) alexandershearer.com
parakkum on twitter

21 thoughts on “In Development – What’s Your Read?”

  1. I think what I took from these videos is: jesus christ, BDM, will you be quiet for three consecutive breaths?

  2. Amazing article. Having all of these different types of reads with not only video but text examples to go with them was incredibly well put together and, as a direct result, extremely easy to understand. Highly informative, interesting, and even entertaining. I will be coming back to this article frequently, to work on each of these techniques and to check up on how I think I did post-tourney. Great read – probably one of the best general play articles I’ve ever read. Looking forward to your next!

  3. The weirdest part for me was the lack of card sleeves in the videos. I’ve only been playing competitively since lorwyn and sleeves have basically been the standard gear; you cannot not use sleeves. Seeing those $20 rav duals being played unsleeved made me cringe. Does anybody know what year was the mandatory-sleeves rule actually put in place?

    Otherwise, a great article as always!

  4. Very good article. Glad to see such a well researched piece that doesn’t copy the model that so many other magic articles often follow (deck lists with descriptions or trading analysis for instance). Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy all well written content but its very nice to read more unique content

  5. @nicol_bolas:
    They required them to desleeve for that Worlds tournament because of camera glare

  6. There is no mandatory sleeves rule, but all of your cards, if unsleeved, need to be in the same condition in order to prevent having “marked” cards.

  7. Every article should strive to be like this. Follow this layout, use videos for reference, and be concise with the points.

    Needless to say, I love it!

  8. great article, this is exactly the sort of thing I want to find when I look at CF articles, I can follow a metagame easily enough, but pieces like this are timeless and make much greater improvements to your gameplay.

    I’ve been getting very into the psychology of magic lately, experimenting with bluffs, reading tells, and distracting mannerisms (several of my friends now think less of me due to my willingness to act like a crackhead while playing a draft). As a result of my experiments so far I have learned a few things:

    1) there is no substitute for correct gameplay, knowing that your opponent dosent have an answer to your turn two kalastria highborn wont stop you from getting blown out by a topdecked arc trail. Be careful to use the information you get wisely.

    2) any decent magic player is going to play the psychology game a little. If you aren’t skipping your 7th, 8th, and 9th land drops during a draft, when you know the most expensive card in your deck has cmc 6, you are loosing games you don’t need to. spend a few moments looking at your hand when your opponent moves to declare attackers, whether that hand has two burn the impure or six islands, if your opponent thinks you have a burn spell that can pair with one or two of your blockers to bring down their game deciding bomb, they might not attack with it, which might give you an extra turn or two to get the cards you need.

    I could go on for pages about all the little tricks I have learned, but nobody would read a comment like that.

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  11. this is top notch content. the videos are blocked at work but i will be revisiting this article as soon as i get home. thanks.

  12. “I treat each opponent as a sort of aggregate of all likely opponents”

    This seems incredibly wrong to me, mostly because of the fact that the inherent benefit in having a read on your opponent is absolutely useless when you assume they are anything but a unique entity. What I mean by this is that if you have a strong read, assuming that they will do something similar to an average opponent will likely either throw your read off or hurt your chances for a another strong read. It seems fine if you do not have a read, but in that case, what are you trying to do with this assumption?

    I guess none of this applies at very high level events where your average opponent will make very few mistakes, but this theory just will never help you win a PTQ or get a win day 1 of a GP, because most of those players will make lots of mistakes, and in that case you will just assume they didn’t make the mistake and thus don’t have it, when they do.

    That came out a bit weird, but basically, if you cannot read them, don’t try, because an incorrect read is worse than none.

  13. I just assume that my opponent has the best card available to him within his archetype in deck to deal with the current situation. I determine the probability of him having said card in hand, and my likelihood of winning if he does and does not based on my play options.

    For instance, when pilotting an aggressive deck, I run the odds of my opponent having a sweeper, then determine the minimum amount of pressure necessary to cause him to expend it, if he does… then question whether I have enough available tempo to win before he gets to cast said sweeper… then ask myself if I need to overcommitt to win this game, or if I can win it by holding back for the sweeper my opponent may or may not have based on the power of his threats etc.

    Ultimately, I play from a mindset of fatalism, always aware and playing around the worst possiblilities, but without emotional involvement

    I assume my opponents will play perfectly. This has never caused me to lose, but has brought me many wins.

    As for physical and mental reads, rather than strategic reads… I can typically pick up on their levels of energy. If they appear confident and cool, more likely to have an answer. If they appear eager, they have a win conditions… nervous, they probably have neither… angry… their deck isn’t functioning as intended, etc.

  14. Thanks so much for posting this article, it was an amazing and amazingly informative read! I’ve always felt semi-comfortable making reads on my opponent and playing with their heads as well, so this topic is of extreme interest to me. If you can keep articles as in-depth and insightful as this coming you will quickly become my favorite author!

  15. Well, that was pretty amazing. I’ve read a lot of Magic content, and I think that compares favorably with anything I’ve ever seen.

  16. Thomas Rickarby

    I think I am actually pretty good at reading players but pretty bad at giving away tells. I read a playtest partner in the way up to an extended PTQ for vendillion clique – he was incredibly suprised. And this is a man that has played in several high level competitions, including a top 8 at worlds.

    Funny story – we have this joke at the store about Koth. When you are ready to play him you ask other people what time it is in a casual manner and then you say no – that’s wrong, it’s hammer time! Anyway, I was playing against mono-red at a nationals qualifier with BUG (a variant list of rug with black instead of red). My opponent went to tap his lands and I just knew he had a Koth and was thinking about playing it and whether I had a mana leak or not. So I asked him what time it was and when he gave me answer I said no, it’s hammer time. That little stunt meant that he didn’t play Koth that turn but waited another turn instead, giving me an unexpected edge because my hand was mana leak free!

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