Recurring Nightmares – Situational Awareness

I like to go for a walk on my lunch break when the weather is nice, to get me out of the monotony of office life. On those occasions, one of my frequent stops is at a local tattoo parlor, owned and staffed by good friends of mine. It’s a very different work environment from what I’m used to, but more importantly the people there (both the staff and the clientele) are never dull, and I always find myself entertained.

I walk into the shop the other day to find Brandon, the desk clerk, talking to a pair of gentlemen I estimate to be in their 40s. They’re both well-built guys, and the conversation is a little more aggressive than I’m used to experiencing. Brandon is doing his best to placate the gentlemen, who are trying to book a tattoo appointment for them both and four of their friends, and who want the appointment to be very soon.

“Well, we can’t take six people with a tattoo design this big as walk-ins, so we’ll need to book you an appointment. We’re booked out until about mid-July. When do you need the tattoos done by?”

One of the two men, who already sports a pair of full sleeve tattoos, replies “We need them done by July first.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry man, there’s just no way we’ll be able to fit in six tattoos this size that soon. That’s only a week away.”


The pair storm out of the shop and the rest of us all stare bewildered at each other. Ben, one of the proprietors of the shop commends Brandon on his handling of the situation, as things got a little heated and he kept his cool.

We all make a few comments about the odd pair, and then go about our business. Dave, the piercer, and I start talking about the tattoo he’s about to receive—a brontosaurus riding a skateboard—and the tension recedes.

A few minutes later, another odd pair enters the shop. This time, it’s a pair of police officers, with badges and guns prominently displayed on their belts. The two approach the desk and Brandon greets them.

“Hello, I’m officer such-and-such. I’m with the Department of Homeland Security. Has anything out of the ordinary happened this morning?”

As strange customers with weird tattoo requests and unreasonable expectations are unfortunately not out of the ordinary, Brandon responds with a no.

“Did you by any chance have a pair of guys come in earlier looking for this tattoo?”

He holds up a piece of paper, and I can tell from the reaction of Brandon and Ben that this is the tattoo that our friends from earlier had asked about.

“Oh, yeah!” Ben says. “There were two guys in here asking about that a few minutes ago! Honestly I barely even looked at the drawing, I just saw it would make a crappy tattoo and figured I’d end up re-drawing it anyway so I ignored it. It just looked like a dude from a video game or something to me.”

I took a closer look at the drawing. It was an anime-styled character, carrying a shotgun in one hand, and an explosive device in the other. It had some script written on it next to the character:

For the Cause
July 27, 2014
Destiny USA

Strange, that date is in the future.

The officer asked Ben about the script. “Didn’t you think that was odd?” Ben replied, “Honestly, we see so much script that at this point I don’t even read it. I just see letters, and even then just shapes. I read it, and thought that it was a little odd that some guys wanted to get a tattoo for working at the mall (Destiny USA is our local megamall), but I see weird and stupid stuff all day.”

The officer went on to explain that the two men who were in the shop when I arrived were police officers as well, and were covertly posing as domestic terrorists to test the situational awareness of places like tattoo shops and home improvement centers—places that could be points of interaction prior to an event occurring. Many of these guys are very proud of the organizations they’re involved in, and are looking for memorial tattoos or organization symbols prior to a violent act. Having an idea of what kind of thing they should be on the lookout for, and knowing the proper people to contact should they have a run-in with a real life situation like the one these officers simulated, could be the difference between stopping something before it happens and seeing the aftermath on the news. Before they left, the officers gave the shop a brochure that outlined the concerns they raised, and had a number for the shop to call if anything were to happen like the test. When the door closed, we were all once again stunned into silence, and we took a few minutes to consider the implications of what these officers had told us.

Finally, I broke the silence. “Holy ****! You guys just got Punk’d by Homeland Security!”

The message here is that the best defense against a terrible action is vigilance, and awareness of the potential signals of that event prior to it actually happening.

Our stakes, thankfully, are much smaller, but situational awareness is no less useful in our own endeavors than it is in matters of National Security. There are subtle cues and hints that our opponents give off that allow us to pick up information beyond the board state—though some of these clues actually are the board state—and afford us marginal advantages in the information war.

Consider the first interaction you have with your opponent, typically while shuffling before the match. Are you idly chatting with that opponent? Are you joking, talking about the previous rounds, or how poorly the event is being run, or where the best places to get food are? Is that the best use of that time and banter?

Magic is a social game. People want to talk to you, because a match completely devoid of any rapport between the players is boring and uncomfortable. I’m not the most outgoing person ever, but I do make an effort to relax my opponents through small talk before we get started playing. Sometimes this works, sometimes my opponent is not interested in small talk, but either way I’m going to try. This is for information as much as it is tension relief. Occasionally an opponent will give out some small signal or tidbit that gives you insight into the deck they’re playing, or the familiarity they have with the format at hand, or their level of competitiveness that can inform you on how to approach the match. I try to focus the conversation on my opponent, asking innocuous questions and allowing them to talk about themselves. Everyone enjoys talking about themselves, so you might as well let them. You give them the rope, and let them decide how far out on the ice they want to walk.

This isn’t to say that my only goal is to glean information. I’m genuinely interested in the experience of playing Magic at an event, and the cast of characters at the event is a rich part of that. Still, I’m not going to pass on an opportunity to leverage a small bit of information that can help me in a match to extend the length of that experience, if given the chance.

More information is available when you finally touch Magic cards for the first time in a match—during the decision of whether to keep a hand of seven, or to mulligan the hand to six new cards. When your opponent is making this decision, what are you doing? Are you looking at your own hand? Are you deciding whether to ship your two-lander or to knock on the deck for the third land? Are you watching the match next to you, which has already begun? Or are you focused on your opponent, and trying to read his reaction to the cards he’s looking at?

When I’m on the draw, I don’t pick my cards up until I see what the opponent’s decision is. Their facial expressions during this decision tell novels worth of information about their feelings about the hand. You can get a read on the confidence they have in their opener based on eyebrow movement alone. Read them like the open book they typically are, and you’re immediately winning the information war. This method is still useful on the play, as you are often met with an opponent who will try to save precious seconds by looking at their own hand while you’re deciding for yourself. I’ll often focus my attention on the opponent before I ever even register what cards are in my hand, waiting until I get an impression from them before making my own mulligan decision. There is time, so take it.

When I draw a hand of cards at the beginning of the game, I do my best to remain passive at all times when considering whether to keep or mulligan. In fact, even when I know my hand is the nuts or an auto mull, I still deliberate for some amount of time, in order to mask the quality of my hand. We’re mere seconds into the round, and no one has played a single card, but your situational awareness is already being tested.


I’m playing UR Splinter Twin, in a pseudo-mirror against RUG Twin. It’s game three—our first game was a blowout when he resolved a large threat I couldn’t handle, and our second was a blowout in the opposite direction as I locked him out with Blood Moon. My opponent is on the play and leads off with a Misty Rainforest. I play Island and Serum Visions. On the end of my first turn, he cracks the fetch and finds a Breeding Pool, putting it into play tapped. He plays a Steam Vents untapped, and casts Tarmogoyf.

This sequence of events should throw up red flags to you.

I just finished saying that our second game was focused on a resolved Blood Moon. The threat of the enchantment is a known quantity for my opponent, and yet given the opportunity to fetch a basic land to play around the Moon, he chose not to. Something is fishy. He spent his second turn paying 2 life to put a 2/3 Tarmogoyf into play. My mind runs through the following analysis:

He didn’t fetch a Forest with his Misty, though he knew he was casting ‘Goyf on his next turn, and he’s aware that I play Blood Moon. This means he either doesn’t play a Forest (possible but unlikely), or he has it in hand. If he had it in hand, he would have fetched a Steam Vents so he can play the ‘Goyf without paying any more life. That means he must need the blue mana for something, which means he probably has a Cryptic Command in hand.

He played a Steam Vents untapped to play the ‘Goyf. That means he either has a basic in hand and he’s trying to commit me to playing a relatively dead Blood Moon (possible) or he’s out of lands in hand and has no choice if he wants to commit to a board presence (about equally as likely). We’ve basically ruled out the basic being a Forest, and a Mountain does nearly nothing, so the most likely scenario is that he has either an Island in hand or no land in his hand.

Given that he fetched a blue source with his Misty, I get the impression that he’s more likely on no lands in hand than on an Island, since if he has the Island he’s 2/3 of the way to the requisite mana for Cryptic, and there’s only 1 or 2 lands left in the deck that don’t cast it. He can afford to fetch the Forest, because it lets him fully play around Blood Moon.

Combining all of this information, it seems most likely that he’s on no lands in hand, which makes him fully susceptible to Blood Moon, and means I’m likely to be well ahead if it resolves.

Because of this analysis, I determined my best line was to kill his relatively unthreatening Tarmogoyf on my turn with Flame Slash, so he would be forced to either dig for a third land or deploy another threat on his next turn—either way, likely giving me a window to resolve a turn 3 Blood Moon. This was exactly what happened, as he played a second ‘Goyf and missed his third land drop (confirming my suspicions), leaving me free to play a Blood Moon on the third turn that effectively locked him out of the game.

Had I not put so much thought into the way my opponent played his lands, I could have spent more time digging for the combo, or leaving up counterspell mana, or perhaps I would have left his Tarmogoyf in play, and by doing so given him the opportunity to leave Remand mana up during my third turn (which would have put his second ‘Goyf outside Flame Slash range). Instead, I analyzed the situation based on my interpretation of why he made the decisions he made, and effectively played the game with Mindslaver active on all his relevant turns. I didn’t know the contents of his hand, but the manner in which he delivered information gave me some insight into what he didn’t have in hand, and let me create a plan around that info.


You sit down for a draft at your local game store. The player to your left is a regular, who has an outspoken and well-established preference for playing blue in every format. They’ve repeatedly declared they’ll force blue in any given draft format, because it’s just the best color bar none.

Your first pack:

Your decision: take the rare, leaving you out of the base color of the guy you’re feeding, assuming they’re going to force blue, or take the (arguably) better card in Aerial Formation, ensuring that you’ll be cutting the player to your left in packs 1 and 3.

Depending on the stakes of the draft and some of the specifics of the tournament itself (play within pods, etc.), I’m likely to take the Aerial Formation, because it’s a good enough card to pull me in the blue direction on its own, and we also have a shot of train-wrecking an opponent. Why shouldn’t we use the opportunity to teach a lesson in forcing colors when you don’t have to?

Your draft goes well, and you settle into a UG deck with a reasonable amount of early defense and fliers. In round two, you get paired against our blue-forcing friend from the draft table. After leading on a Forest, it becomes clear that you’re playing a mirror match. You have a high quality deck, and knowing that you were feeding him in 2/3 of the draft, you’re relatively sure that your card quality is greater than his. In the first game, the board stalls on the ground when you’re both at high life totals. You play draw-go for a long time, looking to break through the stalemate. Each draw step, you mentally cross your fingers, hoping you can draw into any of your fliers or the Aerial Formation you’re looking for. Your opponent exclaims “Finally!” as he draws his card for the turn, and quickly passes. Unfortunately you know what’s coming. At the end of your turn the opponent casts Hour of Need, and uses it to break the stall and win the game.

You’ve seen 2 out of every 3 cards your opponent has drafted. You have seen no significant bombs outside Hour of Need, and he has seen very little of the part of your deck that circumvents what he’s shown you. Based on the reaction of the opponent to drawing Hour of Need, it’s safe to assume this was his out to the situation, and there isn’t much else he was looking for.

You go to the sideboard. Given that your opponent’s deck didn’t seem capable of winning through a stalled ground outside his topdecked evasion spell, you consider your options. Hard removal is not a concern, there were no Setessan Tactics cast in the game, and your higher card quality should give you an advantage during a long game—as long as you can dodge his Hour of Need.

You decide to board in a Thassa’s Rebuff and a Countermand, and resolve not to cast either until he puts the Hour on the stack. You note that your opponent does not even glance at his sideboard.

Games two plays out like the first, only this time you’ve drawn a turn 3 War-Wing Siren and are able to chip away at the opponent’s life outside the stall. Eventually you draw Aerial Formation and win the game with it.

Though your deck fired on all cylinders for game 2, you get off to a slow start in the final game. You’re stuck on two lands for a pair of turns, while your opponent deploys a reasonable curve. You’re forced to make some unfavorable trades to stay in the game while you desperately wait to draw lands.

On turn six, the board is reaching parity, though you’re still a little behind. You’ve managed to hit your land drops up to five, and this turn you finally put your Siren into play. Your opponent casts an Arbor Colossus, and you’re forced to burn your Thassa’s Ire on it. You scry, and see Countermand on the top of the deck.

Given how the games have played out so far, you run through the following analysis in your mind:

On one hand, we’re behind on board and on mana. We need to find lands to be able to cast multiple spells in a turn, which we’ll need to do if we ever want to get ahead in this game. Countermand is effectively a blank spell unless our opponent tries to cast Hour of Need. If we’re in defense-against-Hour mode, we have to keep up Countermand on every turn, which means we won’t be able to advance our board at all, which puts us in losing position. On the other hand, we currently have one flying blocker, which means he needs to keep up five mana if he wants to kick it once. Even then, he only does 4 surprise damage. Any time we see him leave up five mana on his turn, we can leave up four on our own. If we don’t take the Countermand, we’re sending it to the bottom of the deck which basically amounts to discarding it. We will never see the card again this game. It’s now or never. Our third option is to ignore the threat of Hour, focus our attention on War-Wing Siren and get aggressive, trying to close out the game before he draws it. This unfortunately plays into the Hour of Need just as much, since we’d need it to be a 7/9 just to not die to an Hour for 2. We can rule out the aggressive line.

We have a hand full of spells to clog the board if we can just buy time, and he’ll be forced to continue to play creatures as well to avoid stalling the board (which gives us the advantage, given our resolved flier and our game plan). If we don’t scry to the top, we’ll lose our ability to interact with the single biggest threat in his deck. Despite the decision being worse in the short-term, you decide to keep the Countermand on top, playing to the strategy you arrived at during sideboarding.

The game goes long once again, and this time when the excitement shows on the opponent’s face during his draw step, you know to leave up mana on your turn. He goes for the Hour during your end step once again, and you calmly tap four mana and counter his spell. With no more obstacles in your way, you close out the game and match in short order. Your opponent loudly complains about how he flooded out.

Had you not recognized that the first game indicated a pattern of how the match could develop, you may have considered Hour of Need to be a lucky topdeck or a spell you didn’t need to respect in further games. Had you undervalued the impact counterspells could have (since they’re typically not ideal in draft games), you may have left yourself without a reasonable axis of interaction with the powerful opposing spells. Your awareness of what was actually important in the match, compared to focusing on details that were noise in the signal, allowed you to correctly make a decision in-game that seemed poor in the moment, but was ultimately correct given the expectation you had for the way the match would play out.

These examples demonstrate where acute awareness gives a subtle shift in decisions or plans, but there are many more obvious examples, as well—things like catching or missing on-board tricks, remembering or forgetting triggers, awareness of the opponent’s life total, cards in hand, tracking if they’ve played lands, etc. These are easy ways to gain or lose ground in a game, and they’re things that are so ingrained into the structure of a good player’s mind that become second nature. Of course, there’s a darker side to this, which is to ensure your opponent isn’t doing anything nefarious while you’re distracted. A solid sense of cognizance helps detect and deter those who intend to cheat or steal, and is your best defense from being taken advantage of.

Magic is a game of information, as much as it’s a pure numbers game. It’s not always simple to see the benefits of capitalizing on the information you’re absorbing when you compare it to a tangible board presence, but being aware of your surroundings can create opportunities to capitalize on small margins. It won’t always allow you to come back from an overwhelming disparity in position, but it will give you an edge in close matches, and will allow you to construct lines of play that will push the pendulum in your favor.



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