Poker players understand that bluffing is an inherent part of their game. In Magic, when player A attacks player B’s larger creature, she will generally think: “what trick does my opponent have?” rather than “does my opponent have a trick?” The fact that people do not regularly discuss and consider bluffing naturally makes the act of bluffing more likely to be effective. Once a player acknowledges that you are capable of bluffing, you will need to reevaluate its value.
When to Bluff:
1) When there is no risk
The most common time that you should incorporate bluffing into your game is when it is of zero risk to you. Imagine that you are playing an Abzan mirror match in Standard.
When you attack with Satyr Wayfinder, you bluff Abzan Charm. Regardless of whether Charm is in your hand, or if you are even willing to cast it this turn, you should attack with Satyr Wayfinder. There is a greater than zero chance that you will get in a free point of damage! If the opponent were playing a deck with haste creatures then this decision would not be automatic. This is easier to determine in Constructed than Limited.
You can extrapolate the logic from this previous example to Draft and Sealed situations. Imagine a combat situation:
Here there is definitely some risk of attacking without a combat trick. The worst-case scenario is that the opponent blocks and then attacks back for 8 damage. Before you decide to bluff, look at the game from your opponent’s perspective. If your opponent is at a relatively low life total, the risk of dying is significant enough that the opponent is basically committed to blocking regardless of whether she believes that you have a combat trick.
The most reasonable scenario to attack your Eldrazi Devastator into your opponent’s is when they are tapped out and at or near 20 life. It’s possible that the opponent will take 8 in order to block the subsequent turn with available mana and spells. It is important that you have some sort of potential recourse if your bluff is called—either have enough of a life total to endure 8 damage yourself, or a blocker, say another Eldrazi Devastator.
2) When you are losing by a lot—what do you have to lose?
If you are way behind it may be time for desperate measures.
If you are dying to an unstoppable air force in two turns you may as well put your opponent to the test and attack on the ground. You will often see players who are about to lose make a desperation all-out attack. Bluffing in these situations is unlikely to ever decide a game in your favor, yet it can still be valuable to learn how your opponent reacts to such an attack for the next game.
3) Middle-to-elite-level competition
The definition of a bluff involves one player getting her opponent to think about potential cards and consequences. Therefore it is unlikely that you will be able to bluff a beginner player. There are quite a few cards to remember when playing—a new player is understandably not going to know all of them. In my own experience the best players to bluff are the archetypal PTQ-&-IQ-Top-8-pins-on-the-playmat player, the type of player who sits down and starts bragging about their results, unprompted. These players are terrified of looking foolish and eager to outmaneuver you.
4) When your opponent has a bomb creature untapped
This situation will most often occur in Limited—players are overly attached to their bomb creatures. Obviously the rarity of cards should be completely irrelevant to the game and we should strive to think purely logically if our goal is to win—but frankly, it’s natural to be irrational. If my opponent has only a Dragonlord Ojutai available to block I am extremely tempted to attack. Against Ondrej Strasky at Worlds this year, during Standard, I attacked my manifest into his untapped Dragonlord Ojutai, threatening to flip a Stormbreath Dragon. When your opponent has a high risk at stake and a small reward to gain by blocking it is the perfect time to attack. Being at 20 life, the 2 damage from the manifest was unlikely to decide the game (it did not, he won). Nevertheless I am happy to take my free damage where I can get it.
5) Morphs and manifests
As long as the morph and manifest mechanics are in Standard there will be plenty of opportunities to bluff your opponent. Part of the reason that Deathmist Raptor and Den Protector are such a dynamic duo is that a facedown morph could be either. Any time that your Deathmist Raptor gets countered it’s a huge victory, making any future Den Protectors even more valuable AND more likely to resolve. Playing a face-down Deathmist Raptor on turn 5 and perhaps looking through your graveyard first may contribute to the illusion that it is a Den Protector.
Try your best to sequence and play your lands in such a way to represent the most possible and plausible combat tricks. If you have the choice of leaving up only a Forest or a Swamp in Magic Origins Limited, leave up the Forest. The threat of Might of the Masses is much more likely to make your opponent think twice than Touch of Moonglove. Along the same line of thought if you have the option of leaving Forest, Forest, Swamp or Swamp, Swamp, Forest untapped, choose the former. This way you are able to represent the possibility of Titanic Growth AND Might of the Masses rather than just one trick.
This attack involves a little background, in that in the previous game I cast Feat of Resistance. This attack is a semi-bluff—if my opponent blocks with Longshot Squad on one of my morphs there is a 50/50 chance that it is Sidisi’s Pet, which I can unmorph to save and then cast Debilitating Injury on Longshot Squad to finish it off. I thought that the potential reward of Dragonscale General was so great this turn that it was worth all potential risks. Additionally it would likely be difficult to trigger Dragonscale General as the board grew more clogged or as I took more damage.
This attack is very risky in that if my opponent blocks I have no recourse. I could have simply played Monastery Flock this turn and settled in for a long game to be conservative. I would not necessarily make the same attack into a Highspire Mantis because of what I stated earlier—players are irrationally attached to rares in Limited.
This game was extremely close—every last damage mattered on each side. One reason that I decided to bluff in this instance was that if Ochoa decided to block it would not decide the game. I could flip up a Sultai Emissary and manifest again. It is crucial that Ochoa was at a high life total (13) when I attacked, if he were much lower he would not be able to risk taking lethal damage.