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Breaking Through – Attention to Detail

Over the years, I have read a lot of Magic related literature. I have watched countless matches, either live or via video, played in thousands of drafts, and even top 8ed my fair share of events and yet in all of that time, I have maybe seen a hundred or so games influenced by an actual mind trick. Mind tricks absolutely come up, but my problem with them is that they take the brunt of the media coverage when it comes to ways to improve your game outside of the obvious. That is to say that deck techs, technical play help, and sideboard guides are all well acknowledged as being an integral part of the game, but once you get past that, mind tricks seem to be all the rage.

It makes sense after all. Mind tricks lead to great stories and they make everyone feel a little tingly inside, hoping that some day they might get to pull off some equally impressive feat. Beyond the Hollywood headlines that mind tricks create though, are actually a lot of great and helpful tips that will help you win much more often, and much less controversially, than the oversung mind tricks. I am far from able to tell you all of the tricks, as I lack some of them myself, but I can tell you that mind tricks are overrated, and focusing on any one of the other points soon to follow will be much more worth your time.

Some of these are simple but underappreciated, while others are just downright ignored, but all of them can be crucial on the path toward improving your game. All of these have less to do with playing the cards and more to do with playing the individual sitting across from you, but they are not mind games. Instead, these will allow you to both ascertain information from the opponent and hide information of your own. Of course Playing tight is always going to be priority number 1, so focus on that, but paying attention to the details while you play could just win a close one for you that you may have otherwise lost.

Opening Hands

It might seem like your opening hand is just a ritualistic glance at the tools you will be working with to start the game, but if you actually take the time out, it can be so much more than that. There are essentially two different methods that I am OK with when it comes to how you handle the opening hand ceremony, but far too many people perform neither method and are throwing away whatever value was there to be gained.

Information versus Time. That is basically what separates the two methods in my opinion, and most methods that aren’t one of the following provide neither. Consider a typical beginning to a game of Magic.

Both players shuffle up, present, lay out their 7 cards, and then pick them up to evaluate. Player A (us for this example) sees 3 lands and 4 spells so he keeps while our opponent also keeps. The game starts as normal. It may not seem like it at first, but you first opportunity to form an edge at all was just glanced over with nothing being gained.

At the very least, you should be using this time to your advantage. If you open up your hand and study it, determining a rough path for your first few turns, analyze which lands to play, etc, you have at least used what is typically otherwise dead time, to actually advance yourself strategically. Your opponent was bound to tank on his hand anyway, so instead of blankly staring at your cards, use the time to do something effective. I personally don’t use this method, but this should be a bare minimum for players during their opening hand.

Because advanced players tend to be able to process and analyze their opening hands and turns a little faster, the time advantage they might gain during opening hands is less important. What I prefer to do, is not touch my hand while my opponent is evaluating their hand. This is best on the draw, but even on the play, if I see my opponent picking up his cards, I will take a second to look at him while he decides. You would be surprised at the amount of information that is given off at this point in the game.

The game has not started yet, so any defense shields the opponent has against information seeking are potentially not online yet. This leads to a lot of “tells” that while they will not give away specific cards most of the time, will give you important clues. Something as simple as a biting of the lip could be a sign, but everything from the time it takes them to decide, to the way they shuffle their hand around, could be rife with information. Occasionally this information is less valuable as the player might be trying to get into your head, but those situations are far between in my opinion. Just observe while you can and enjoy any and all information that might spring forth as a result. Even if nothing comes of it, you maybe wasted 30 seconds of an hour long match.

Public Information Anticipation

Constructed Magic has a lot of different aspects about it compared to limited. You tend to have more control over the direction of the game and you actually get to execute a game plan as opposed to limited which (while not always the case) is a simpler state of affairs and tends to move solely in one direction, toward a winner. Because constructed has so many “games within the game” though, it is very important you know what cards you are playing with and have goals in mind for each of them.

It baffles me then, when a player draws his [card]Tarmogoyf[/card] off the top and immediately reaches for both graveyards to check how big the Green monster is. Of course your opponent knows that you just drew a [card]Tarmogoyf[/card]! You offered that information on a silver platter in fact. Sure, maybe you are just going to play it right away, but what about those times you don’t? What if the card you drew is something like [card]Cruel Ultimatum[/card] a turn or two out from being able to cast it. That scour through your graveyard to check for a creature might just dissuade your opponent from countering your [card]Baneslayer Angel[/card] this turn, as they can anticipate the [card]Cruel Ultimatum[/card] in your hand.

Of course you can always use this information as a weapon and “trick” the opponent, but chances are that if you are doing any of these things right now, it is simply as a result of being lazy rather than being tricky. You know that there are [card]Tarmogoyf[/card]s, [card]Mind Twist[/card]s, [card]Cruel Ultimatum[/card]s, or [card]Fireball[/card]s in your deck, so keep track of relevant information as it pertains to those cards at all times. Even if you can’t mentally keep track, at least have the sense to check the relevant information frequently so as to throw the opponent off of your scent a little bit.

If you are picking up each players graveyard once every two turns, that [card]Tarmogoyf[/card] you drew might be a little more masked, as you are simply repeating habit. Know what public information is going to be relevant before sitting down to play your match and do your best job to keep that information from hurting you in any way.

Consistency in Reaction

This situation is quite similar to the [card]Tarmogoyf[/card] scenario, except it can often be worse as it gives away information relevant to the game state more often. Let me set the stage for you first. You are playing UB Control against a ramp deck, You played a Curse on your turn and passed the turn with 3 mana open, before setting your hand down. Your opponent casts a [card]Solemn Simulacrum[/card] and you either:

A) Don’t pick up your hand before declaring that it resolves.
Or
B) Pick up your hand, flick your cards a little bit, and then say it resolves.

Both of these situations can be correct, but they can also be terribly wrong, which is more often the case. The issue here comes down to a matter of consistency. You basically need to do whatever action you intend on doing every time a spell enters the stack. If you always pick up your hand before analyzing whether or not to counter it, then fine, proceed with that plan but you need to make sure that you actually perform that action every single time. Because if you slip up and fail to look at your hand the first time you are without counterspell in hand, the savvy opponent is going to pick up on that, similar to f6ing on MtGO.

Take the time to figure out which ways you feel most comfortable responding to questions, spells, or game states, and practice doing so consistently. It is fine that you don’t pick up your hand, if you in fact, never pick up your hand other than to actually cast a counterspell. That is to say, not when you are thinking about countering the spell, but once you have decided that you are going to counter it, and you simply need to reach for the counterspell to make it official. This goes for removal spells or combo finishes as well. Do not allow the opponent to figure out what is going on in your hand and in your head and just keep your interactions with them consistent.

Decisions Decisions…

Your opponent has just cast [card]Mind Rot[/card] targeting you. You instantly discard the 6 mana spell in your hand and then think about the other discard choice. After some time in the tank, you discard a forest as well. What just happened?

Well, for starters, your opponent probably just figured out that you have a mana light hand. The nature of the way you discarded, along with the content, and the order you discarded them in, all paint a wonderful picture that is not too hard to see for the opponent. You pretty clearly have a mana light hand which explains the speedy discard of the 6 drop and the tank before discarding your 4th land lets say.

Whenever you have multiple decisions to make in a short time span, figure out the answer to as many decisions as possible before presenting anything. This includes discarding multiple cards, choosing multiple targets, resolving multiple modes of a spell, or anything similar. By making some decisions before others, you are offering up so much information and gaining nothing (unless done intentionally, but again, this rarely happens).

There is actually no reason to stagger your discarded cards from a [card]Mind Rot[/card] unintentionally. You are simply conceding that getting rid of one of the decisions makes the second easier to the point where you need a physical representation to aid you in that. Choosing to discard that 6 drop instantly can and should still happen, but there is no reason to give the information to your opponent. Decide that it is going and then maybe slide it to the back of your hand while you decide what else goes (shuffle the cards before actually discarding). It only takes a small additional commitment and you protect yourself quite well this way.

Wrap Up

How you present yourself and interact with your opponent is one of the most crucial and under-explored areas of the game. This article does not do the topic as a whole anything close to justice, but hopefully it alerted you to a few things you didn’t realize you did.

It is true that most opponent’s will not be looking for the information you might give off, but there are some that do. Besides, just because your opponent is not playing to the best of their ability does not mean you should take a vacation either. Consistency. Consistency. Consistency. And that goes for playing the same against all opponents regardless of perception, which is a topic for a different day. I hope to see everyone in Salt Lake City this weekend! Good luck and thanks for reading!

Conley Woods

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