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.
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!