TWoo Cents – How to Win When You Draw Terribly

You can win this game. Don’t think about how far you are behind. Don’t think ahead to what you’re going to say to your friends in between rounds. Don’t start counting all the lands you have in play and in your hand out of frustration. Don’t secretly hope to draw one last land on the last turn of the game so you can complain more. No. Try to win this game. You can do it. The best players will find a way. Even if you draw terribly, don’t say that you “should” lose this game. There are no “shoulds.” The universe has no intentions and the cards have no intentions. You will simply win or lose and the power lies in your hands and your opponent’s hands.

If I sound like I’m exaggerating I am. A little bit. You can’t win every game. But it’s important that you believe you can win and will win while you’re playing. If you play confidently you will play comfortably and you will play better and you will win more. Don’t trust me. Don’t take my word for it. I will explain.

I have to start at the beginning, and it starts with body language. A game of Magic is not a series of interactions between cards but a series of interactions between two players. It is a duel between two humans. In this duel there is luck and there is skill. The skill in Magic is intertwined with luck. Within the luck of the random draw there is hidden information. Within skill there is control over information and your opponent. Before you can learn how to control information you must learn how to get it. Before you can learn to control your opponent you must learn how to control information.

Getting Information (Reading your opponent)

Magic is easy if you know what your opponent is holding. There are two ways to figure this out. The first is rational deduction based on your opponent’s in game actions. The second is a little more fun. Consider this simplified scenario: It is the second turn and you have


Your opponent is playing a Zoo deck and there is a 45% chance that they have a Path to Exile. So there is a 55% chance that the coast is clear for you to win right now. But if you go for it and they have the Path to Exile you lose on the spot. If you wait and they have the Path to Exile, you will draw the Thoughtseize or Chalice of the Void to protect your combo and you will win with a 20/20. It’s a guessing game. What do you do?

The Objective Right Play

A computer isn’t going to be able to glean information from your opponent outside of how they play their cards. It’s not going to be able to get a “read” on your opponent. The information that its opponent has is hidden and there is no way to get it. So the computer is going to make a 20/20 100% of the time and win 55% of the time. This is playing the game objectively and, arguably, 100% correctly. But you still lose 45% of the time. This is how you can make a play that is “right,” and you can defend it afterwards, but it turns out to be “wrong.” This happens to us all the time. You can probably think of a time where you were playing an important match and didn’t play around a card. You thought about playing around the card, but you decided rationally and statistically that you shouldn’t. Then you lost to that card and your friends said, “It’s okay, you made the right play.” Well, you did make the right play, objectively at least.

The Subjective Right Play

You are not a computer. You are going to be able to glean some information from your opponent. Maybe a little, maybe a lot. Imagine you are perfect at reading your opponent. Based on their body language, you always know what they have. You will make a 20/20 the 55% of the time they don’t have a Path to Exile, and you will wait the 45% of the time they do have a Path to Exile. You will win 100% of the time. This is always making the subjective right play. Is this possible? No. No one bats 1000. But the closer you get, the more matches you win.

How do I read my opponent?

Reading your opponent is not a science. At best it is a skill, at worst it is an art. I can’t offer you anything concrete but I can give you my own stories and theories. And I will speak in generalities.

Magic players focus, as they should, on their technical play. But they play the game emotionally and they project whether they think they are winning or losing.

How your opponent acts when he thinks he’s winning:

When your opponent thinks he is winning he is going to be acting confidently. He is going to be sitting up, he is going to be playing (relatively) quickly, he might be leaning towards you and he might be on the edge of his seat. His voice will be low and steady. He will be comfortable speaking. He might act excited or he might act calm. He will maintain a focus on the game. If your opponent is doing these things he has the metaphorical Path to Exile. You can ask your opponent “Do you have it?” and their answer won’t matter. Players don’t have momentary tics. They wear their cards on their sleeves as permeable moods.

How your opponent acts when he thinks he’s losing

When your opponent thinks he is losing he is going to be projecting negative emotions. He might act angry, irritable, depressed, or resigned to defeat. He might be taking a long time to make decisions. He might not be talking and if he is, he might sound nervous. He might sigh. He will slump in his chair. He will set his hand down and watch the next match. If your opponent is doing these things he will not have the metaphorical Path to Exile.

The Emphatic Draw

At the beginning of a crucial draw step (and this could be as early as the first turn), your opponent might jerk the card off the top of their deck in desperation. They will rip it with such veracity that it snaps against the top of their deck. This is the emphatic draw. What are they telling you? They are telling you that they NEED something. There are two times in Magic that you NEED something. The first is when you are about to die. If your opponent emphatic draws when they are about to die this doesn’t tell you much. The second is when you NEED a land. It’s a desperate feeling, keeping that two-lander, and here you are on your third draw stop STILL trying to draw it. YOINK! It’s a land. You try to mask your relief and make sure to shuffle it in your hand so your opponent doesn’t see that you just drew the land you played. And somehow they still know to vindicate your land instead of your creature. HAX!

Based on your opponent’s overall behavior you will be able to tell what cards they are holding and act accordingly. If you are being given information, use it. Punish your opponent. Pounce on them.

Controlling Information

You know that opponent we’ve been talking about who is giving away all kinds of information? The ugly truth is that to someone else, YOU are that opponent. And just like you can read them, they can read you. They do it intuitively. So cut it out. Stop giving away stuff for free. Don’t give up anything. You will be punished for it. Actually, you have two options for controlling information. You can play like a robot and give up none. OR… OR… and this is really sneaky. You can give your opponent the wrong information! We call this bluffing and playing dead.

How to act when you’re winning
Say it’s a Zendikar block draft and you are holding a Summoner’s Bane or an Arrow Volley trap and it’s that crucial fourth or fifth turn that could determine if you win or not. You want your opponent to think you have nothing and play around nothing. How do you do this? By projecting the body language of a losing position you give your opponent the (false) information that you have nothing. Act frustrated. Sit back in your chair. Act disinterested. Put your hand down on the table, cross your arms, and watch the next match. Your opponent will be busy thinking about how sorry they feel for you then BAM they are down three cards to an Arrow Volley Trap.

How to act when you’re losing

Say you won the last game with that Summoner’s Bane or Arrow Volley Trap. It’s game three and you kept 5 lands, Makindi Shieldmate, and Sphinx of Jwar Isles. This is a reasonable keep. Somehow, it is the fourth turn and you have drawn 4 more lands. This is reason for frustration. Don’t get mad and don’t give up. Don’t count those nine lands and two spells (already did). You CAN win this game. You WILL win this game. You only need to a buy a couple turns for your bomb to take the game over. How? Your opponent knows you have Summoner’s Bane and Arrow Volley Trap. Sell it. On your fourth turn, flip through all the lands in your hand. Look at them as if they were spells. Consider which one you might play as if they all cost four mana. Come close to playing that spell. Really think about it. No. Not now. Pass the turn. Pass the turn verbally and confidently. Lean towards your opponent and flip through the cards in your hand. Keep flipping. Keep coming back to one card. The moment, and I mean the MOMENT, your opponent reaches for his lands, reach for that card in your hand. Hold that card tight like it is precious to you. Don’t overact if you don’t have to. But believe it’s a [card]Summoner’s Bane[/card]. Your opponent might hesitate, and he might play conservatively. He might pass the turn. Why not? At this point, it’s rational of him. You can’t keep up four mana all game, especially if you’re losing 2 life a turn to a couple of bears. And maybe you just bought yourself the two turns you needed to win the game off of your Sphinx. If you can control information, you can control your opponent.

Another thought: players are trained to distrust their opponents for good reason. Your opponent is never going to help you. And your opponent knows this. So if you want your opponent to wait on his Vampire Hexmage, stare at it as you pass the turn. Make it obvious that you want him to use it. If you do want him to use it, pass the turn quietly without trying to draw any attention to that Vampire Hexmage. Guide your opponent around the battlefield with your eyes. Tell them what you want them to do with a look or the absence of a look. This is reverse psychology in action.

How you hold your cards

Go get an opening hand of seven cards. I’ll wait.

You’re playing a match against a real opponent. Now put a card into play as if it were a creature. You looked at the card, you looked at your lands and tapped them, and you put it onto the battlefield. How did you grip the card? If you are like me, and if you are right handed, you either gripped the card by the top right corner or by the side in the middle. You probably snapped the card as you put it down, either using that top right corner the top middle.

Now play a card as if you were Doom Bladeing a Frost Titan. First you look at your card. You raise it. Then you lower it and lock eyes with the Titan. You hold that glance a moment. Then you look at your lands, then you tap your mana. Then you go to play the spell while looking at the Titan. This time you might have held the card differently. You might have held it by the bottom right corner. This made it easier for you to extend your arm towards the Frost Titan so you could physically touch it with your Doom Blade. This is how we use targeted removal.

Now, imagine you are Lava Axeing your opponent who is at ten life. You look at your card, you like at your score sheet, you look at your opponent, you look back at your card, you look at your lands. You tap them, and you Lava Axe them. This time, you might have held the card as if you were Doom Bladeing that Frost Titan. You also might have first gripped the card in the top left corner, extending your arm fully towards your opponent, now gripping the card between two fingers at the bottom right corner, thumb up, pointing it right at their face like you’re holding a gun.

You’re lucky if your opponent does all these things, and even if he does you might not notice. Even if you notice, it might not matter. It will only give you information if your opponent decides not to Doom Blade right now or decides not to Lava Axe right now. It only matters if your opponent changes his mind. So change your mind. Control your opponent by controlling their information. Glance at their creatures like you’re ready to pull the trigger. Make them wait on that Armored Ascension. Make them think you have cards you don’t.

If you are playing Jund and you want your opponent to make a bad block, act like you’re going to Lightning Bolt them at the end of their turn. Go down the checklist and do all the things you would do if you actually had the Lightning Bolt before changing your mind and deciding to wait. Look at the card. Look at your score sheet. Be sly about it. Trust that your opponent will follow your eyes. Look at your opponent. Look back at your card. You might have sold it already and if you go too far you might give it away. But if your opponent thinks you’re bad, you can’t mess up. Telegraph it if you have to. Tap your Savage Lands, look at your opponent, and grip your card in the top left corner. Then change your mind. Untap your land and start your turn. Your opponent might make a terrible chump block when he is at five life, and that chump block might win you the game.

Want to know the greatest Magic-related compliment I have received in my life? I don’t care- I’m going to tell you. My friend Bo told me, “When I play against you I can never tell if I’m winning or not.” Nothing he said could have made me prouder. I wish it was true all the time, but my control is limited. Let me tell you a story about me. I hate losing. Maybe more than I like winning. If I finish a tournament by losing, I’m unsatisfied. Unless I win a PTQ, unless I win a Grand Prix, unless I win a Pro Tour, I am not satisfied. Well, earlier this year I was blessed enough to top 8 a grand prix with Living End. Here I am, tooting my own horn again. But this is important. I haven’t played in many Grands Prix. I don’t expect to play in more than one a year ever unless something changes radically. So, I can’t expect to win a Grand Prix. I got the closest I will probably ever get in that tournament, and I came up short. I had a chance to hold that trophy, and the opportunity slipped into eternity. I wanted that reality. I may never have a chance for a similar reality. So I revisit the last game of that match all the time. I remember all of my important losses. Never my triumphs.

The game was simple. Simple enough that I can tell you in its entirety. I was on the play, playing Living End, against Adam Yurchick playing Dark Depths. He had Urborg, Vampire Hexmage, and Dark Depths by his second turn. Before he could kill me with his 20/20 I had an opportunity to get to three mana and play Violent Outburst. I didn’t have it, and I lost. Did I play this game perfectly? It was a mere three turns, and my plays might have been “objectively right”. Maybe I should have mulliganed. But if I didn’t, there is still something that I could have done. It wasn’t a given that Adam even made that 20/20. He said later that he thought I didn’t have it. He was right. There is something I could have done. I could have SOLD Violent Outburst. I could have MADE him wait. I tried. But the look of defeat on my face was unmistakable. I know it looking back. I really tried to sell that Violent Outburst but I couldn’t. I didn’t believe it. I had an opportunity to control Adam’s information and to control him. If I had, maybe I would have been a Grand Prix champion. The stakes are great here. This is serious.

Making your opponent suck at Magic

I thought about leaving this section out but I need to learn to not care about what people think about me. For those of you who are sensitive, you will hate me. But this stuff is real, so I’m going to write about it. The truth hurts. For the men in the room, follow me.

There are two ways to control your opponent. You can control their information or control their emotions directly.

Let’s take a walk back to when I was fifteen. You’ll be able to relate. Somehow, I am in the finals of a Nationals Grinder. I have qualified for the JSS, but nothing this “real.” Nationals is the big time. It is a big match, and I know I can win it. I have the cutting edge technology for this tournament: the white weenie deck with Hokori, Dust Drinker and Damping Matrix. My opponent is playing Tooth and Nail. One of us is waking up early to play in Nationals. One of us is watching from the other side of the ropes. Right now, nothing else matters. Sitting to my left is my brother Elliott and to my right is Mike Thompson. These are the players whose opinions I respect the most. They are the best players I know. And I know if I make a mistake they will know immediately. They will want to say something to help me, but they can’t. So it’s game three and I’m starting to feel the pressure of eyes. You know the feeling. I’m slowing down. I’m getting nervous. I’m not comfortable or calm anymore. I’m in a fog. I’m thinking about the crowd. I’m thinking about what they’re thinking about. I’m losing my focus. The game starts, and I’m on the play and I’m so nervous that I play a Plains and pass the turn, stranding the [card]Savannah Lions[/card] in my hand. It wasn’t even a “mistake.” It was a rookie freaking out. It was someone losing the ability to throw to first base and breaking some old woman’s nose in the crowd. I see it immediately, and Elliott and Mike see it, but they can’t react. I have to keep playing the game. Two damage becomes four damage becomes six damage becomes eight damage. I watch. But the game isn’t over. On the pivotal turn of the game I am in position to kill my opponent on my next turn. I just have to stop him for one more turn. He has Urza’s Tower, Urza’s Power Plant, and three forests. He is going to complete the tron next turn and be in position to Oblivion Stone or Tooth and Nail back into the game. Except I am holding some cards. A Damping Matrix and an Orb of Dreams. The Orb of Dreams is a sideboard singleton. It isn’t good. It’s cute, and I know it, but this is before I know how to grind games and refine decks. I play with the cards I want to play with. The obvious play is for me to play Orb of Dreams. It prevents him from using both Oblivion Stone and from having the mana for Tooth and Nail. But I go into the tank. I am so f***ng nervous. I can feel the weight of the eyes. I think forever. I think about what Elliott and Mike are thinking about. I wonder what they would do. I come back to the match. And somehow I play the Orb of Dreams. But I almost didn’t, and that would have been a mistake that would have haunted me forever.

This is called playing scared. Being rattled. You have experienced this before. It can happen to anyone, no matter how good you are. It’s a terrible feeling, and it happens to us through external factors. If we learn how it happens to us, why can’t we make it happen to our opponents?When I’m winning the most of my matches it’s because I’m making my opponents play the worst Magic of their life. It sounds dirty. Maybe it is. But it works.

So how does someone end up playing scared? It happens when someone is outside of their comfort zone. If you make your opponent uncomfortable he will play worse.

Listen to my pre-match ritual from my last couple tournaments. I do this as a way to not have to fight through the crowd to see my pairings but it has other consequences. While the pairings are going up I’m getting pumped. I’m thinking about what my record will be after I win this round. I’m turning my swag up (like it). I’m getting in the mindset that I am simply better than my opponent and it doesn’t matter what they do. I wait for the crowd to die down around the pairings so I can comfortably find my seating. I take my time to my table where my opponent is already shuffling his deck. Time is ticking and I can see him looking around, hoping I don’t show up. Sucks for him. He is let down the moment he sees me and I interrupt his shuffling by announcing his name, then my name, and shaking his hand as I stand above him. Then I sit and bring my deck out and shuffle as he waits. I make him wait. I do this so I don’t feel rushed pre match. But it sets the tone for the match in my favor. Or maybe it doesn’t. I can’t say for sure.

If you think your opponent is playing slowly or is trying to peek at your deck, call them out. Call a judge on them. It’s important to do this early not just to manage the clock or uphold the rules, but to make your opponent uncomfortable. They will play worse. They will start to feel the eyes. If they want to talk, be dead silent. If they want to be silent, talk to them. When they start to slow down, speed up so they notice the contrast. They will begin to struggle. If your opponent makes a mistake, ask them about it. Point it out to them. Rub it in, but do it subtly. You can make your opponent play scared. You can rattle them. Your name doesn’t need to carry an aura in order to do it.

You can do this while being courteous and you can do this without making enemies. You play the matches to win, and you make friends in between rounds. If you feel bad about trying to make your opponent uncomfortable, that’s fine. Don’t do it.

At Grand Prix Seattle I played against one Ari Lax. He called a judge on me for slow play about four turns into the game. I was playing slowly and I had to change my pace with the judge watching. Suddenly I was playing outside of my comfort zone and making all kinds of mistakes. I made tactical mistakes and mind-numbing operational mistakes such as Deny Reality into Rain of Tears targeting the same land and Primal Command targeting Mutavault. It was frustrating. If not for him calling a judge on me I would have played comfortably and I might have won the match. But you know what? That was the first time I met him and he is now a friend. I don’t care. He won the match and I don’t hate him.

Some people are really good at this. Gabe Walls is. He almost did it to me at San Juan. His banter was constant. I can’t even put a finger on what he was doing but it took me out of my comfort zone. I have enough experience that I haven’t felt the eyes in a long time, but it was really close with him. I’d like to go back and watch the match if I could. He did little things. He ignored me pre-match and bantered with the coverage reporter. He called out my plays. And he had a “name.” The name carries weight, and I believe that it is part of how players like Finkel became dominant. I don’t want to take anything from these players’ skill. They were/are the absolute best, but if your name is Luis Scott-Vargas by the time you sit down your opponent could already shaking.

I can’t tell you how excited I was to write this article. I put everything into this. Really poured my heart and soul into it. You can probably tell just by reading it. I think this stuff is sooooo important haha. Wow, look how absurd my writing style is becoming. And why not? If it’s readable and it makes sense, go for it. Grammar is convention. We can change convention.

Anyways, take this stuff and apply it to tournament Magic. Read your opponent, control their information, and control them. It is as important as “technical” play. It will win you games and matches even when you draw terribly.
As for me, Amsterdam is coming up. LOOK FOR ME!


118 thoughts on “TWoo Cents – How to Win When You Draw Terribly”

  1. Absolutely amazing article. No other way to put it, easily the best I’ve read in a long time.

    There are simply just not enough articles on mind gaming. I love reading people and situations, its one of my favorite parts of magic, and its nice to get some more insight in it

    Very very well done.

  2. That article was crazy good. I have been floundering around the PTQ circuit, and have been working almost strictly on technical play. This article shows me I really have alot to work on. Thank you Mr. Woo!

  3. Thanks for the article mate, you are one of the best writers on this site.

    Oddly enough, I find myself out of the comfort zone when I am losing against people I should be winning against. Playing in a legacy tournament a few weeks back I lost to non-combo elves while playing zoo, and i was super nervous the whole time. Pride always comes before a fall, I suppose.

  4. Wow awesome article! Dude you really gave me something here, a whole new dimention for me to explore and up my game. Thank you!!

  5. As bad as it sounds I always try and make my opponent play badly. I will always play slowly and constantly be talking with them and joking around. Most of the time these things work. However, the longer the tournament goes the better the players will be that you play against so these things will fail.

  6. I only wish the people I play against are good enough at the game to use these tips on. Most of the people I play with play by the computer strategy, so any tells or bluffs I try don’t work. They don’t even play around Cancel or Mana Leak, Doom Blade or Fireball. It’s frustrating sometimes.

    Also, I’m right-handed and, no matter what card I play, I always grab it by the bottom-right corner. If it’s a creature I put it onto the table. If it’s a targetted spell I’ll either tap the top-left corner to the creature I’m targetting or I’ll point the top-left corner at my opponent if I’m targetting my opponent. I’ll have to pay attention to this type of action from now on, though.

  7. Loved it.

    havent read an article that got me thinking so much about previous games and situations ive been in since… well… ever

    im diggin the articles, something i find as a little diffrent read compared to most, keep it up.

  8. This is one of the best strategy articles I’ve ever read. Lots of little things in here that are certainly true, but have somehow never occurred to me in 10 years playing this game. Thank you.

  9. What can I say… great article. I hope tho it doesn’t sent a bad precedent for alpha-male tactics at the table. There is a fine line where it crosses over into poor sportsmanship.

  10. This article was the tits! I can’t wait to apply some of these things asap! I’m actually hoping for bad draws now just so I can practice!

  11. What the heck? You guys need to just play the game and stop trying to mind trick your opponents. You are the reason most of the QUOTE better players UNQUOTE are considered to be jerks.

  12. To clarify, I think most actual pros are classy. I’m talking about perennial PTQ top 8’ers and such.

  13. I think I learned more from this article than I have from a Magic strategy article in years. I’m pretty sure my jaw dropped when you pointed out the way we grip certain cards to indicate their function, because yes, we absolutely do that. Awesome article…I feel like I have to read it another few times and commit it to memory.

  14. Well, unfortunately, plastic mania, like it or not, mind games or ‘jedi mind tricks’ are a big part of any competitive game/sport: baseball, poker, magic, mma, boxing… the list goes on and on. And whether we as players like it or not, if we wish to be competitive in this game, we must sharpen out mental game, either to use it to our advantage or to have our defenses up and ready. So to that end, I say thank you TWoo for the insightful and intelligent article, and I hope you run well in Amsterdam. Good Luck sir.

  15. This article…just wow…unreal. Has to be one of the best I’ve read possibly ever definitely in a very long time. I can completely relate to your best magic compliment portion of the story as I had a friend tell me that during a few tournaments I did well in he couldn’t tell if I had won or lost after the match because I had 0 emotion. It made me think differently about my mindset going into matches etc. Anyways…yeah this article is being cc’d to everyone I know who plays at any kind of competitive level.

    p.s. WRITE MOAR

  16. I saw you play once in an Extended PTQ in Seattle last season. You were playing Living end. It was the last mast of swiss and when i was watching you had a great pressence in the game and it made your opponent respect you. I believe he was slightly blown away when you killed his Vendillion Clique with a resurrected dead shot minotaur but that is lving end. I love the article and your play style, Good Luck in Amsterdam

  17. Sheer brilliance. And well timed, too. I’ve been thinking a lot about this stuff lately, and it really helped.

  18. Thanks, really great article, it really cemented many things that I already do subconsciously, but now I can rethink and refine my non-technical play. I wish other players would write about this stuff.

  19. Even after hearing you tell me all of this stuff in person over the last year, I am still blown away. This is not close the best article I have read in a very, very long time.

    Something has changed in your game, Travis. I’ve known you for what, 6 years now? I’ve started to see a change in the past year. It’s not “the fire,” it’s not the deck choice, it’s not some ascended state of mind, it’s not really anything at all I could put my finger on before. But, maybe what you described in this article is it.

    Go win Amsterdam. This is your moment.

  20. You tell us how to read our opponent and then you tell us how to send false signals.
    But if we read an opponent that is sending false signals, it’s bad.

    So I’d say that sending false signals is good for competitive play, but trying to read your opponent is bad because he can be sending false signals.

  21. This will absolutely be a huge boon against people I was perfectly capable of beating anyway. I never have to play in fear in the 1-1 bracket of a PTQ ever again!

  22. Much better. You have set a bar for your articles from now on. I will say this is as personal and honest as I have seen from you.

    Good Job.

  23. re false signals,

    I always unwittingly appear nervous when I’m playing regardless of whether I’m winning or losing and I’m sure people get overconfident from it.

  24. “If you think your opponent is playing slowly or is trying to peek at your deck, call them out. Call a judge on them. It’s important to do this early not just to manage the clock or uphold the rules, but to make your opponent uncomfortable. They will play worse. They will start to feel the eyes. If they want to talk, be dead silent. If they want to be silent, talk to them. When they start to slow down, speed up so they notice the contrast. They will begin to struggle. If your opponent makes a mistake, ask them about it. Point it out to them. Rub it in, but do it subtly. You can make your opponent play scared. You can rattle them. Your name doesn’t need to carry an aura in order to do it.”

    Oh, you’re such a DOUCHEBAG. So that’s a “pro” tip? Nice.
    I don’t have problems with readings and giving false readings, but tilting your opponent on purpose is being a DOUCHEBAG , no matter how you look at it or try to justify it…

  25. The best article in a long time? Are you serious?

    This was a bunch of entry level poker skills cuppled together with How to be a Douchebag.

    How is that the best article ever? God gods people.

    “Yea, let’s put our opponents on tilt so people believe even more that Magic players are the bottom of the nerd pile! Good strategy!” We play with these people all the time. On the basketball court, on the baseball diamond. We call them Douchebags. In Magic they go by the same name.

    Play the game, have fun, respect your opponent. Respect is given until it is no longer earned.

  26. Interesting read. I have used some of these ideas although inadvertently. At local venues I often tilt players just because I am rather boisterous and overconfident and have a history of winning the random Thursday drafts.

    I do recall one time, this had to have been years ago, but I was paired against Stephen Menendian in the 2nd or 3rd round of a vintage event. I saw the pairings and was excited to play against him as I will always take the chance to play against any higher caliber player. As I sit down, Stephen is nothing but nice and introduces himself and what not. Someone in the match next to us looked over and said something along the lines of “You know who you are playing against? That is Stephen Menedian, the best f***ing player in vintage.” Me, being a smartass responded to him, “I don’t care who it is, he is a Meandecker and playing Oath. Who has the advantage here?” Mind you this did nothing to tilt Menedian but it did shake up the other player some and it settled my nerves quite a bit. My poor fish deck was still stomped.

  27. Thank you for this article. I watched some of your Youtube videos months ago that covered similar information, but having it restated was actually quite helpful to me.

    This is enough to make me want to read every article you post. Please continue.

  28. Love the first half of this article, didn’t like the 2nd half so much. Felt like reading some AJ Sacher “look what a douchebag I am” piece. I mean, I get it: you’re writing for the competitive-level players. That’s cool. I guess my issue isn’t with the pro players adopting this style, but rather the average schmuck down at FNM turning into Spikey McStaredown and actively trying to tilt everyone, every match, because they believe that makes them more like a pro player.

  29. In my opinion, the best article I have read in Channel Fireball. Much of the information here is true and very applicable to real life situation.

  30. Good Article,
    The only nitpick is that the “Objective right play” should take into account the chances of winning the game if your opponent doesn’t have the path but you wait anyways. This is kind of like gauging the chances of hitting a flush by only figuring out the odds of hitting it on the turn and not accounting for the river. I realize it isn’t really your writing style to muddy up your main point with detail that doesn’t get to the point though so not really a big deal.

  31. This is a great article. And for those of you who don’t like it, you might as well get used to it, because it’s definitely happening. Like Travis said, you don’t have to be a jerk to do it, and in fact you should be very careful not to. But as long as you’re not being a jerk, the only time you should not use this advice is if you happen to be playing an opponent who isn’t observant enough to gather the information you’re presenting, maybe at FNM or something like that. In real matches, people notice this stuff, even if they don’t consciously realize how they know it. Might as well use that to your advantage.

  32. Fantastic article, Travis. About halfway through I said to myself, “I already like Travis Woo’s articles and videos, but this is one of the best articles I’ve ever read.” Very well done!

  33. Wow, a couple bomb articles today. I love reading about the mind games part of magic. This should be your niche. Do another one on the greatest Jedi mind tricks you’ve ever seen….including ones that failed.

    Running good guys…..running damn good!

  34. Travis,

    Ive known you for some time now, and every time we interact, whether it be via IRL testing/conniving, or just reading your articles, Im just pleased that I have the privilege to be aroudn you and gain some of the knowledge that you have to share.

    This article was simply one of the best pieces of magic writing I have ever seen. Gavin is 100% right, in the last year, you have transcended to understanding this game we play at a completely different level. I feel as if we are watching a master being born. Amsterdam is yours son.


  35. I really enjoyed this article as i am a big fan of mind tricks, they add that “human” element to the game that, due to the advent of magic online, is slowly disappearing.

    The “how i hold different cards” example is pretty much spot on, and depending on who your opponent is, it may be even better to try and conceal information, rather than stealing it from him.

    However, if you feel the need to make an opponent tilt just to have a small advantage, i really think you shouldn’t do it.
    There’s no doubt it could help to win the game, but magic tournaments are not only about winning all the matches you can at any cost, they’re events where the main purpose is to have fun and spend a good time, and playing against that kind of opponent can really ruin your mood for a while.
    At high-stakes competitive events (GP, PT, nats) it’s probably not gonna work, because most of your opponents are really good and know how to defend themselves against it, and at low-level tournaments like FNM, event PTQs, if you do it then you can really pass off as a giant douchebag, and for all the right reasons.
    It’s still very subjective matter, we’re all different after all.

  36. This is a fantastic article, almost like if Mike Caro was writing a condensed book for MTG players. Very well written, insightful, and detailed.

  37. I agree with the minority of posters who think that calling a judge to deliberately mess with your opponent is not only a dick move, but should get YOU reprimanded by the judge instead.

    Call judges when they’re really necessary so that the rest of us who have actual problems don’t have to wait so long since you’ve wasted their time.

  38. Travis… unbelievable man. Best article I’ve ever read on CF. This is up there with the all-time great MTG articles, easily in my personal top 5. Should be required reading for anyone looking to grow beyond FNM level play.

    LSV: give this man a raise. More articles like this and I would happily pay double what I pay @ SCG to read your strategy content.

  39. Interesting read. Though I can’t say I would much enjoy making my opponent uncomfortable, as I like to beat my opponents when they are at their best, it is an interesting thought. I’ve been guilty of being vulnerable to such ploys, so I don’t think I would mind doing it to make people using that ploy fidget in their seats.

  40. While I’m unlikely to try most of the “put your opponent on tilt” tips, I have to say I felt this article was pretty solid overall. First and foremost the “way you hold your cards when you play a land/removal spell/creature” was amazing. I happen to be a little too “emotional” in pretty much everything I do in life so I’m probably giving away my entire hand most matches to a player like Travis. If nothing else this helps me realize it and take steps to correct it.

    Even the parts I didn’t like at the end have value because now I’ll know what to look for when people are “trying to put Nina on tilt”. It’s much easier to laugh at them and call them out when you know what specific behaviors to look for.

    Thanks Travis, hope you keep up the good writing and I honestly hope I never play you in a game that counts since I get the impression you’ll beat me regardless of draw 🙂

  41. How are holding your cards differently, changing your posture, and shifting what you make eye contact with considered DBaggery? I didn’t see anything in the article that said you need to do anything outlandish to put your opponent on tilt. Was a very good article.

  42. Have any of you who are talking about this article as incredibly amazing ever played poker? I thought there was a big overlap between the two games, but judging by the responses, most people here aren’t aware of some of some of the simplest things about poker. That being said, most of it is good advice, though with the huge caveat that a lot of the techniques presented will fail when you try to use them against high level competition.

  43. One of the best articles I’ve ever read. I can definitely remember a lot of games where I have been the target of some of these techiques. Whenever the stakes are high, I seem to start playing “scared”, and that REALLY affects the quality of my game. So thank you mr. Woo, for a very well written, educational and eye-opening article. I will certainly try to put some of this into good use. The “reads” seemed a little risky, but I suppose they are possible.

    As a side comment regarding the people who think this is being a douche, I don’t think so. All of this can be done with great politeness. Believe me, I’ve been the target of that and will look to do it myself in the future.

  44. I’ve always had a problem with controlling how I look. I’m aware of how I look when I’m frustrated but can’t seem to control this. Very annoying.

    I need to work on those small ticks when playing. This article is a great read. 🙂

    Regarding playing slowly. There is a fine line between playing slow and stalling. Fortunately, I don’t get rattled when a judge comes over to watch. But sometimes, I don’t call a judge too often and have had games go into a draw because opponent was playing slowlly. :\

  45. Showing up late, using commanding positions to make them uncomfortable, talking when they dont want to and silent when they want to talk, and taking forever to shuffle your deck when the opponent has already presented their deck and you have fully and completely randomized your deck already are all douchebag moves.

    Just my op, of course, but its amazing how many people do this stuff at PTQ and local store events when your playing for basically nothing. Of course, I think even the pro-tour level is peanuts but thats just my take on it.

    For all the people who try to tilt their opponents with this type of stuff, just ask yourself…how much more profitable would playing competitive magic be if you didnt do this stuff and players were free to enjoy their matches more, thus leading to more people playing the game and larger prize pools? Sure, YOU might lose a 1/2% of winning edge but wouldnt it be worth it in the long run as you attract more people to the game?

  46. Your insight is on the same level as many established players, your articles have less fluff (but are still entertaining as hell) and you know how to write. Looking forward to more of your stuff.

  47. Mr. Woo, Doom entreats you to present an article with failed mind tricks. And how they helped or didn’t help your game.

    To the people that believe that competitive magic should be played with your preconcieved notions of the game rules, please, stuff it.

    Let’s not devolve into that discussion, shall we?

  48. The article is nice, but not special. People that will snap this one up will be very eager to ‘add another dimension to their play’ without understanding a bigger picture. While it’s nice to be able to utilize little tricks, you can’t beat solid practice and a cool head.

    As far as the whole psychological aspect, look up the term ‘swindling’ in chess. These kind of ‘psychological freak-out antics’ are nothing new.

  49. As many above me has said, this was one interesting read.

    On the ethical merits of messing with your opponent’s mind, I think it boils down to asking yourself an honest question: “What price am I willing to pay to win?”. When Alberto Contador saw Andy Schleck break his chain he chose to sprint away to eventually take over the lead of Tour de France 2010, the media was in uproar. Was it illegal? No, but it lacked a fundamental respect for the sport and for the concept of competition. When you signal a Path to Exile that you don’t have I believe you’re acting within the confines of the game, but when you call out a judge about a slow pace that isn’t actually true just to tilt your opponent, that’s taking it too far. Use what you can to your advantage, but don’t abuse the power of authority to give you an edge unless it’s justified.

    Great article though.

  50. This is one of the most ridiculously awesome articles I’ve ever readed. Totally brilliant, and I thank you for your effort on writing it!

  51. When I read your writeup of GP Oakland, I figured I would regularly dislike you and your articles, even though you seemed personable enough at the tournament. I’ve gradually come around, and this article was just superb. Great work.

  52. Outstanding!

    This demostrates the awesome power of cross-specialization. I suspect you (Travis Woo) have either played your share of poker, or enjoy profiling as a hobby. My experience has been that these skills, applied to any craft, can enhance them immensely. Your actions can begin to seem like Magic (no pun intended), because you are using skills and signals that most people aren’t even aware exist.

    I must add one important point which is an implicit prerequisite to using these skills: You wouldn’t dare begin trying to apply them until you’ve got your fundamentals absolutely solid. You must be able to distinguish the right play from the wrong play as second nature first. Otherwise, attempting to think about these secondary facts will require brainpower that is still required for another task, and your game will suffer rather than improve.

    An excellent article – thank you so much for contributing.

  53. Great article….as a fairly new player to MTG(just about 3 months now), this is helpful and insightful. Especially with my first FNM tournament tomorrow.

    But to everyone who’s knocking the strategies, lighten up. However you want to look at it, Magic is about two people facing off in a battle of skill and luck. The purpose is to WIN, not to lose. I’ve played just about every major sport and trash talk and mindf**king your opponets is useful. It gets them flustered. They start thinking too much or not at all. They make bad plays hoping to shut you up. And when it fails, they make even worse plays. Yea you don’t have to start with the “Yo mama” jokes or get personal. But hey, calling out a player whose taking forever? Yea I don’t feel like being there all night either. Calling out a player for trying to peek your deck? You show me yours, I’ll show you mine. When a baseball player is accused of stealing signs, you can bet he knows he’s gonna get drilled in his next at bat. When a defensive end throws an intentional late hit on the quarterback, you can bet he’s gonna get chop blocked and stomped on the next play.

    I’m all for fair and honorable play. But my definition of fair and honorable does not mean make it easy for my opponet to win. If I can make him/her mess up by adding a choice comment here and there, I’m going to. If I can slouch a bit after a good draw and make my opponet think I’m not working with much, I’m going to.

    Anyways, just my two cents

  54. Pingback: MTGBattlefield

  55. Yep. This article rocks.
    It’s almost more about life than about magic.
    I loved the read!
    Keep up the great work.

  56. Someone called this article “the tits”…? While I have no idea what that is supposed to mean, this article is an excellent piece of work, congratulations.
    Now, if someone could teach how to read whether opponents are truly expressing their positive/negative emotions or just trying to mislead you…

  57. An article that didn’t ever have me skipping sentences looking for the interesting bits. I am a big fan of this sort of theory and it’s really awesome to see some of this stuff put down in writing.

    Have a blast this weekend.

  58. Mbah, don’t know why you are so delighted…
    Ok, mindtricks are a part of the game, but a very small small part.
    Before trying to be a jerk 100% of the games, let’s start to improve EVERY relevant aspect of the technical play! You will not improve with tricks and spending your mental resources in “contolling your opponent”. You will win almost always with TIGHT plays and correct (mathematical) decisions.
    You know, I have seen 99% of players heading the route of tricks, then getting hunted by their stupid “I am better than you”, “I will win at any cost” mindset.
    Take for example, LSV, or Leyton, or Ochoa, or Nelson, and many many others… do they win
    because they “make rattle” the opponents??

    Please… go back to tight and solid play. You will be happier and a more sporting player.
    As a side note: ok Woo seems a good player, but has he really won anything up to now??
    I think this “tricking route” will easily take away the focus of his plays. And again, the unsporting conduct is behind the corner.

    Don’t get you fooled!

  59. This article helped me a lot. I may not use the tilt tech personally, but it is valuable to have writers discuss these tactics so that I can better defend myself against them. Please, don’t hold back.

  60. Hello newbies: look at your hand, now back to me, now back at your hand, now back to me.

    Sadly, it isn’t a bolt, but if you stopped your tilt it could look like one.

    Look down at your scoresheet–back up–where are you? You’re in Day Two, because of the bolt your land could look like.

    What’s in your hand?–back at me–I have it, it’s a topdeck, worth two tickets to that PT you love.

    Look again, the tickets are now diamonds. Anything is possible when your man writes like Travis Woo. I’m on a horse.

  61. “If you think your opponent is playing slowly or is trying to peek at your deck, call them out. Call a judge on them. It’s important to do this early not just to manage the clock or uphold the rules, but to make your opponent uncomfortable. They will play worse.”

    A lot of people are taking this wrong way in my opinion. This isn’t dbaggery. If you’re calling a judge on random people for no reason other than to rattle them, that’s dbaggery. if you’re calling a judge on some guy that’s playing shady, I’d like to shake your hand.

  62. Travis, I complained previously at your writing/content and style…. This however was probably the best article I have read on the site. A wonderful and evocative narrative with situations that were easy to visualise. Thanks a lot.


  63. Wow… one of the better strategy articles I have read in a long time. It was riveting from beginning to end. Thanks for writing this article.

  64. What an amazing contribution to the the Magic strategy literature! It really opened my eyes to aspects of play that I had never really noticed before..it feels like the first time I read “Who’s the Beatdown?” and similar must-read articles.

  65. I never comment on articles, but this is a great one. Thanks for this.

    Also, Thoughtlaced probably had one of the best responses I’ve ever read…good one, sir.

  66. Great article. Reminds me of a PTQ last summer where I was playing this kid who was only fifteen or sixteen (I was twenty), but he tilted me like no other. He just kept calling me “cool guy” and making sarcastic comments about my tokens, my sleeves, my deck, my card choices. I was probably the better technical player, but I lost that edge when I started getting angry and embarrassed. Knocked me out of contention.

  67. Sorry for the double post, but now I’m reflecting on all the times I played scared. In my first Pro Tour I played against a guy with similar mannerisms to how you describe yourself; showed up for the match late, cocky, took his time. He kind of eyeballed me like he knew I was a scrub and this would be an easy match. It was disconcerting. I felt like the inferior player the whole match, so I played like the inferior player.
    At the end of game three, he’s comboing off, shows me three cards in his hand and says, “I have these, so I win, right?” In my mind I was already going to lose this match, so I agreed with him and packed up my stuff. I didn’t spend thirty seconds thinking about whether or not he actually could win the game, it sounds stupid, but I was on tilt.
    After the match, he goes, “First Pro Tour right?” I say yes, he gives a sly smile and nods before walking away.
    I still wonder if he actually had the win.

  68. Great article. It really was!

    About the second part of it I have to go back to Kant, the good old philosopher saying in some words that “the human is the goal, not the means”.

    What some people have called as douchebaggery, I’m not totally sure, but being a nuisance only to get a small advantage is low. Very very low.

    As another comment said. Sitting across an “idiot” at a bigger event can really ruin the day. And I believe that the line between the small nuissance-non-idiot aproach and the big-enough-idiot is very fine and easily crossed.

    So please. Just don’t.

  69. great article. Learning to play more techincally is what makes people better players rather then the deck choice as a whole. I play jund simply cause I love the mind games you can do to people. Especially now its so easy to make them think your a bad player, they can’t win once they think that way its great. People assume I always have that blightning, pulse, bolt whatever the deck is so easy to bluff with. Thats my favorite thing about jund, the mindless hate it recives when they’ll never know they threw me the win.

  70. Thanks a million for this fantastic article! In particular I want to praise how you highlight how you can rattle your opponent while being polite, and how rattling your opponent and befriend him/her as a person are not mutually exclusive goals.

  71. Agree with Gavin. I’ve known you since JSS 8-9 years ago and you have really taken off in the last year or so. Seeing you go from “that kid with Menacing Ogres” or “Elliot’s brother” into what/where you are today has been great. You’ve really stepped it up and I’m happy for you.

  72. A good article on playing to win. The naysayers are partially right in point out that this won’t make you any friends at an FNM. There is a point to that, you need friends in life. Some people can take the deception as part of the game and still be your best bud afterward, some people will hate your guts for manipulating them in this game of deception. Having friends helps you win at some point. People to practice with, develop ideas with, borrow cards from in a pinch at the big event.

    At some point though the stakes get much, much higher than your local draft. At some point if you want to walk away with the purse you need to put everything on the shelf that doesn’t help you win. That moment in your life could be a match with 100k on the line, or it could be something actually life-threateningly serious. You never know when its going to come, and sometimes it pays to be ready.

    It’s nice to see a good article on the philosophy of the game. Keep em coming.

  73. Really good read! I must admit, I’m guility with some of the things mentioned especially getting nervous when people start watching my matches and getting frustrated when i don’t draw what I need to 😀

  74. This article was fine, even though the writing style did take a dip to make it happen. For future reference though, if more people could NOT call a judge just to get ahead in a game that would be pretty cool. Using the judge system to throw your opponent on tilt is shitty.

    From an experienced players standpoint however, the other stuff you do to throw your opponent on tilt should not work on an experienced player. If you come late and take forever to shuffle your deck, that’s fine with me. Want to shake hands while you stand there? Sure, go for it. I’m not sure how that makes you the dominant person. I know you were not certain if those aspects worked or not, and I do not think they do.

    Another thing I would like to add, these “mind tricks” do not work on players that just use math to calculate their odds and completely leave themselves out of the game. When you have to play that person, all your mind games will be a waste of time, and you’ll be scratching your head wondering why you lost when you just played worse because your game isn’t the same as theirs. You focused too much on the mind game.

    We had articles like these pop up last year too, and everyone at first praised people for their “mind tricks” that were talked about in the articles. It comes down to fundamentals though. Articles like this are just a passing craze.

  75. You’ve got a point David, but have you ever heard the saying that when your a hammer all your problems look like nails? I really think you need to get a feel for when you can play your opponent, and when you just have to play the cards. Its a little extreme to assume that every competent player will never fall for a “mind trick.” You can’t assume that every tool you have is good for every situation, and I don’t think the article advocates that. You can play the game by the numbers, and still make the best use of you and your opponent’s body language. Good reading ability shouldn’t replace solid game theory, and I really don’t get people thinking that practicing one will simply make you worse at the other. Diversifying your tool set never seems like a bad idea.

  76. I know a ptq grinder that uses all of these techniques. He showed up late and then tried to shake my hand with a dominating, condescending greeting voice. I didn’t shake his hand or say hi and he didn’t say anything for the rest of the match…

    I guess my point is if you try to mind trick someone who is either aware of your actions and also trying these mind tricks, it’s going to be an awkward match.

  77. last section is what separates a great player from a player who might win matches but will never win the PTQ

  78. “last section is what separates a great player from a player who might win matches but will never win the PTQ”


    Knowing the meta, knowing how to play versus your opponents, technically correct play, and a good amount of luck wrt mana screw wins you the PTQ far more often than being a jerk to people to throw them off of their game. Case in point is Michael Bernat. One of the best guys in the Chicago area. Doesnt do any of that BS and he has a bucket full of PTQ wins.

  79. Great article…..The whole time reading I was literally sitting on the edge of my seat…definitely an article to be proud of…good job.

  80. I agree with Chris.

    I don´t like when players instead of “play the game, have fun, respect your opponent” try to gain advantage being annoying.

    Using this tactics is low on the moral department IMO, and that´s exactly why i play EDH, and other casual formats instead of going to regular tournaments: a lot of players are trying to win using every edgy resource they can. I don´t dig that.

    It´s simply a card game. Those who are obssessed with win no matter what should ask yourselves if it´s worthly acting like jerks.

  81. The thing that I like so much about this article is that it highlights the idea that Magic cards are just a medium for what is really a mental battle. Various players summon resources from various parts of their life to try to defeat their opponents. This is the reason that winning is enjoyable. Winning with a deck you created is a symbol of your whole personality, and victory is an expression of your abilities. While winning a magic game is only a small victory in terms of life’s possible goals, it is one of the few mediums that allows you to sit across from a single opponent, call him/her an opponent, and put your personality into the ring in competition. Thanks for helping me to better understand the best competition around.

  82. “Magic cards are just a medium for what is really a mental battle”

    Man, this is becoming ridiculous.

    The article teaches how to be a jerk calling judges to annoy opponents, and people made nerd poetry comments about a card game with birds and goblins.

  83. I really liked this article. It’s full of good advice both on what to do, and what to watch out for. Personally, I wouldn’t deliberately try to put an opponent on tilt, but I’m sure it has happened unintentionally, both by decent players who thought I was bad, and then got upset at losing to me (possibly because of underestimating me), and by weaker players who had heard I was good. Of the two, I feel like being underestimated may be a bigger advantage, but obviously that’s hard to achieve once people know who you are.

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