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Measuring Your Opponent

In almost every game of Magic, a player makes a play that looks like a mistake. What do you do when it looks like your opponent has made a mistake? Do you play around a potential trick, or go for the jugular and try to punish them? Each player has their own way of dealing with this situation. In the end it comes down to a simple question: How much credit do you give your opponent?

At 11-1 in Grand Prix Boston my opponent attacked his Scavenging Ooze with one +1/+1 counter on it into my Linvala, Keeper of Silence. There were a couple creatures in the graveyards, we both had a few cards in hand, and the only other creature in play was my persisted Kitchen Finks. My opponent had no white producing lands in play, and from what I had seen in game one he was playing a stock GBw Rock deck. I could think of two reasonable options. My opponent had Disfigure, which would be unusual, but not unreasonable, or my opponent forgot Linvala prevents him from activating his Scavenging Ooze. What would you do?

If I block and my Linvala gets Disfigured, how bad is it for me? If I don’t block and he has Disfigure, will I be able to make favorable blocks next turn? If I take the damage and he doesn’t have Disfigure, will him bluffing through 3 damage be relevant? These questions went through my head. Given my hand, if I block and get my Linvala Disfigured, I will be behind, but still very much in the game.

Besides these in-game factors, do I think my opponent is someone who might forget what Linvala does? He is 11-1, but he made a couple suboptimal plays in game one. I don’t recognize him, and he seems a bit nervous. Also worth considering is context. This is a Grand Prix, which means I will probably face a few strong opponents and a greater number of less experienced opponents, even on Day Two. Should I give my opponent credit or has he made a mistake?

After weighing the evidence, I chose to block. He tried to activate his Scavenging Ooze, and it died. Whew—this time I made the right call.

It is virtually impossible to say what the right play was in that situation. If the 3 damage from Ooze would be irrelevant, then blocking would be wrong. If I was losing to Disfigure no matter how I played, then blocking would be right. But in this case, neither was true, landing me in the gray area where measuring my opponent was critical.

Next weekend, at the Pro Tour, Sam Pardee told me about an interesting game against Boros Burn. His opponent had two cards in hand, plenty of lands, and two Ash Zealots in play. Sam played Master of Waves and passed the turn. His opponent cast Skullcrack, untapped, and attacked with both Ash Zealots. His last card had to be another Skullcrack right?

Or perhaps Sam’s opponent forgot that Skullcrack makes protection from red irrelevant in combat. Even if his opponent had a second Skullcrack, casting the first one at an irrelevant time didn’t make a lot of sense. Maybe he was trying to fool Sam into blocking? Sam chose to play around the second Skullcrack, and keep his Master of Waves out of combat. However, Sam’s opponent played his last card later that turn and it wasn’t a Skullcrack. Sam went on to lose a long game because he traded off his Elemental tokens.

In this case, giving his opponent credit did not pay off, but given that at a Pro Tour the average opponent is relatively strong, I like his play even though it didn’t work out.

Earlier this year at GP Sacramento, I played against Robert Berni. We had an insane game one in which I had no way of removing his Whip of Erebos. However, my deck was powerful, including two copies of Hythonia the Cruel, so I was able to stay in the game. After something like twenty turns, I had the opportunity to monstrous my second Hythonia to put him in a tight spot. He needed to have been sandbagging at least two threats to be able to survive my attack the next turn. Did he have that kind of discipline?

In the dark, I think it is best to use an “innocent until proven guilty” mindset. Robert had made no plays to suggest that he was anything other than a good player. In this situation, I didn’t need to go for the win right away, so it was best to give him credit and play around some sandbagged threats. Instead, I opted to go for it and lost as a result. It’s dangerous to assume your opponents are poor, because if you run up against a strong player, you will get blown out.

Some people take next-leveling to the extreme. Micheal Bonde is one such wild man. When Owen Turtenwald asked Micheal Bonde how many cards he had in hand, he famously declared the number, as well as exactly what they were. Owen discovered he was telling the truth after he played exactly those cards. The next game Owen again asked how many cards Micheal had in hand. “Three. Scourge of Geier Reach, Spectral Flight, and Blasphemous Act.” Did he really have Blasphemous Act? Owen did not buy it, played out his creatures, and lost to Blasphemous Act. I don’t know if I could ever pull off something that crazy, but getting the correct measure of the opponent’s sanity would have helped in this case. (Apologies if I got the details wrong, heard this story third-hand.)

While correct sequencing and analysis of game-state come first, when choosing between two lines of play that both have merit, one can gain an edge by measuring the opponent’s level of awareness.

Two Standard Decks

This weekend I played Mono-Blue in ChannelFireball’s World Magic Cup Qualifier in Oakland. I didn’t Top 8 (or come close) but if I could play it again, I would play the same 75. My friend Neil Oliver made Top 8 with a very similar list. Given the upsurge in Rabble Red I highly recommend Mono-Blue for your WMCQ. This is my current list—if it’s not broken, don’t fix it:

I’ll be streaming Standard this Thursday from 8 p.m.-11 p.m. PST at ChannelFireball’s Twitch page, be sure to tune in! Along with Mono-Blue, I just have to try this RUG Burn brew that 4-0’d a Daily Event in the hands of YU-KI:

RUG Burn

We’ll see how it does! See you on Thursday.

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