"If you can't beat a card don't play around it."
Being able to beat a card is a funny thing. For instance let's say that you're playing a U/W deck in Modern against Scapeshift. You're deciding whether to attack with Restoration Angel and Mutavault or just Restoration Angel. If you attack with the Mutavault you'll be tapped out. Alternatively you can bluff Mana Leak with your one card in hand.
If your opponent plays Scapeshift you're just dead. They have a Prismatic Omen and six land so you'd die on the spot. Does this mean you should just attack with the Mutavault since you "can't beat Scapeshift anyway?"
No! You can beat Scapeshift!
If you don't attack with the Mutavault and they know you have Mana Leaks they might not play their Scapeshift until they draw a seventh mana. They might just draw a land next turn and do it but they also might draw a Sakura-Tribe Elder Search for Tomorrow Explore Serum Visions etc. There are a lot of scenarios where they might want to just play around Mana Leak and give you one more turn. One more draw phase is all it takes to give you a chance to draw Cryptic Command.
However if attacking with the Angel leaves them at five life they can't actually play around Mana Leak since you have five damage on the table. If you have one they're just beat so if they have a Scapeshift they have to play it. Since they can't not play it you can't play around it and generally would want to knock them to three with the Mutavault (which at least lets you keep Sakura-Tribe Elder from giving them another draw step).
The classic example of this experience is when you're deciding whether or not to attack with a creature smaller than your opponent's creatures. This "bluff attack" puts a creature of yours at risk of dying to try to sneak in an extra couple points of damage. A particularly bold example is attacking with a Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage into a Skymark Roc.
Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage is almost surely one of the absolute best creatures in your deck. Let's say this is game 3 and your opponent has already seen Giant Growth Common Bond and Swift Justice. Would they block?
Obviously this depends on a number of factors like the rest of the board players' hands body language etc. This could be a brilliant attack or a foolish blunder. Interestingly even when it's a brilliant attack you might lose because of it. Even when it's a foolish blunder to attack you might win because of it. This is exactly like playing poker where you're dealing with probabilities and the right play only gives you the best chances (which might be a different set of circumstances than you would get paid from the worse line of play).
At level zero you can't possibly attack with Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage into the Skymark Roc without having a trick because you're risking so much for two points of damage (and in a game where you might just take over the game with the Guildmage in a few turns). However since you so very clearly can't possibly afford to make this attack unless you have it then the Skymark Roc player isn't supposed to block right? Of course if they aren't going to block then aren't you supposed to make the attack?
Part of what makes the above example more interesting is the relative value of the Skymark Roc to the opponent. Skymark Roc is one of the relatively few cards in the same league as Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage. It's very possible that they're relying on that card for their game plan this game.
Look at the attack from their perspective. Once you've attacked they now have to ask themselves if preventing two damage is worth risking most of the game. After all they know you have lots of tricks that make sense in this position. But if they know that you know they aren't supposed to block here maybe they're supposed to block...
How do you get out of this game of leveling? Are you just supposed to "trick" them? Are you supposed to figure out if they will think you have it or not and then act? This is where most people are asking the wrong questions.
Merely asking yourself if they will think you have it reveals an underlying vanity. It reveals a desire to outsmart the other person above winning.
Part of why Mike Turian and Mark Herberholz were both considered the best player in the US at varying points in their careers was their ability to bluff attack at exactly the right frequency. Being a "beatdown player" actually has a lot of depth to it including knowing when you can actually sneak in damage that might matter and when you're risking meaningful material for little more than vanity.
For example why attack with a vital creature that if blocked reduces your chances of winning a lot (let's make up some numbers and say from 50% to 33%) when you're planning on taking over the game with the Dragon in your hand? If you're planning on winning with the Dragon how much does it really matter if you knock them from eighteen to sixteen? Whereas if you need that creature to buy yourself sometime to draw land to eventually drop the Dragon what are you risking and what are you gaining?
Really players are just drawn to these types of plays because they want to feel smart. They may have seen Paulo or Kibler pull of the same attack an hour ago so why not do the same thing?
As always context is everything. What are the chances they block? It's easy to imagine that in this scenario the extra two points of damage might contribute a very trivial increase in your chance of winning. Perhaps even as low as 1-2%. Are they really over 90% to not block? Even if you think they're 95% to not block how certain can you really be that you are evaluating the probabilities correctly?
We can't really always evaluate exact percentages or anything but we can ask ourselves:
1. What are we risking?
2. What do we stand to gain?
3. What are they risking?
4. What do they stand to gain?
Let's imagine a slightly different scenario where you're actually trying to nickel and dime your opponent. A couple fliers here a couple tricks there maybe finish with a burn spell and the extra two points might be worth as much as a card or even an extra turn eventually.
The value of what it is you are actually risking fluctuates as well. For instance anyone that has ever attacked with a creature before casting a Day of Judgment type card is familiar with this play. After all even if you think they're likely to block you risk nothing by attacking and might gain a couple points of damage. Everything is going to die anyway.
Likewise let's imagine that your opponent might be taking over control of the board very soon. You might decide there's a good chance that your ground creatures will never do another point of damage this game. You have a flier in hand that you're hoping can do some more damage so that the Lava Axe in your hand can finish the job. Now you aren't risking nearly as relevant as material.
After all at some point the little ground creature you're risking is worth little more than a chump blocker. It's very reasonable to think you might be headed in direction where that extra chump block is worthless such as when they have a Baneslayer Angel in hand and are waiting on their second white mana.
On the flipside sometimes to call would cost your opponent very little. For instance let's imagine that instead of Skymark Roc your opponent has a Dead Revealer that hasn't been unleashed. Now will they block?
There's a far greater chance because even if you do have the trick it's quite possible that they evaluate the 2/3 body as being worth less than the trick itself. After all the 2/3 is going to be outclassed by the 3/3 Centaurs in a few turns anyway while the trick might always be golden. In fact if you get to keep holding the trick what's he supposed to do next turn? Not block with his next creature?
5. What's your opponent seeing?
This isn't just what do they physically see with their eyes on the table and in their hand. We must ask ourselves what they must see when they look at the game are evaluating it. What makes sense to them? Why would they think you are attacking? What would they deduce? For instance when your opponent needs a Day of Judgment or they're dead it's often quite easy to block the two points of damage Snapcaster Mage is trying to deal. On the other hand if they attack with a Snapcaster Mage and you have three 2/2 fliers it makes perfect sense why you'd attack anyway.
That scenario isn't much of a bluff but it reveals some of the underlying game that is going on. Before taking an action where you don't know for certain what your opponent's response will be but that deals with multiple possible outcomes (some better than others) you want to put yourself in their shoes. What must they be thinking and what will be their read on the situation?
Properly evaluating when to "bluff attack" is more than just evaluating how important the creature you'd be attacking is to you and evaluating how much the extra damage matters. It's also about evaluating if the other person cannot block. This is a crucial step that most players skip because they're so preoccupied with the question of "does my opponent think I have the trick?"
6. Is it even possible for them to fold?
Remember just as we cannot play around things we can't beat anyway the same is true for our opponents. It doesn't matter how much you convince them you have the trick—if they're dead to it they can't play around it and the bluff is doomed.
Returning to the above example let's imagine that our opponent with Skymark Rock is at two life. If you attack with the Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage in this position while he's tapped out he will be very very certain that you have a trick. However that isn't what's actually important is it? While he might be certain you have the pump spell meaning you "tricked" him he still has to block. After all if he doesn't block he's just dead.
Where the example becomes more interesting is when he's at three life. After all now he actually can afford to not block right? The thing is what is he actually playing around by not blocking? If you have Giant Growth Common Bond or Swift Justice he's just dead if he doesn't block. While not blocking was how he'd "play around" these tricks if he had more life when he's low enough playing around them now means actually blocking.
This isn't the same as "not being able to play around it." In fact he actually can play around Giant Growth. The way he does this is blocking. The last thing we want to do is bluff our opponents into making the right play.
In addition to these six related questions that we should ask ourselves it's important to remember when to ask them. The time for such questions is not your first main phase. This is a major systemic flaw in almost everyone's game and one of the biggest differences between pro and amateur players.
Returning to the situation above again let's say the opponent tapped out to play that Skymark Roc on turn 4 while the Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage player has three mana open and a tapped Guildmage. Most players will pause a moment then untap their Guildmage draw their card and evaluate what course of action to take.
That's throwing away win percentage.
Just because we're talking about bluffing that doesn't diminish the importance of tight technical play. The tight play is to evaluate what your play is going to be based on the information you currently have on the opponent's turn and then after you've decided what the tentative plan is you untap draw and ask yourself "Does this new card change the plan?" This is a critical step that even advanced players will sometimes forget. Tunnel vision is a very dangerous thing and having a plan also means asking ourselves if each piece of new information changes the plan.
If you do the thinking in response to the Roc they don't know you're thinking about whether to attack or not. After all you have mana. You could be considering playing that Common Bond on their end step because you really want to cast a four-drop on your main phase.
Pausing a moment then untapping is very nearly the same as just snap untapping since so many people do it and do it ritually (often pausing the exact same amount of time every time they have nothing). Once you move all the way to your precombat main phase then tank and come out of the tank with "attack" the natural implication is that you were thinking about whether to attack or not.
When you actually do have the trick you might decide that you want to sell the bluff that you are bluffing a little bit by "thinking" during your precombat main phase and then nervously attacking. This is a relatively risky approach however. You have to be pretty sure that you're the exact number of levels above your opponent in the rock-paper-scissors game that you think you are or else you're just leaking information that they can use to properly evaluate their course of action.
This is the perfect example of a play that can be the right one small percentage of the time (where it looks brilliant) but is probably done wrong at least five times as often as it's done right (and is probably more costly on the average when it fails than it is rewarding when it succeeds). While there are occasionally times where games can be won by tactics involving mind games tight technical play is the correct strategy.
Strategy is your approach in the abstract.
Tactics is your approach in a specific context (which very often involves sticking to your strategy).
Returning again to our example the tight technical play in the abstract is to think in response to our opponent's Skymark Roc (or on their end step at the very least). A good guideline to remember is that the tight technical play generally is the one that preserves the most and best options while denying our opponent the most and best options. Once we use words like "best" everything is subjective but this rule of thumb can still point us in the right direction.
For instance gaining information helps us evaluate which options of ours actually are the best. Likewise we want to deny our opponent's information as it helps them evaluate which of their options are the best. In this case they have the option to block or not to block. Waiting until our precombat main phase to think gives our opponent information that they can use to evaluate which of their options actually is the best.
Another example of a classic mistake made over and over (and that will be made over and over forever) is the playing of a land before one decides what they want to do that turn. We have all been there. You draw a card for the turn and you have only one land in hand so you put it into play and then evaluate what you want to do for the turn.
That's throwing away win percentage.
Consider us with five cards after we draw two of which are land one tapped and the other not. We had a three-drop and a reactive card but just drew a four-drop. First it could be a disaster if we instinctually play our tapped land that we were planning on playing before we drew the four-drop.
However even if we stop ourselves and tank over whether or not to play the tapped land and the three-drop or the untapped land and the four-drop it reveals the flaw in just auto-playing your land in the world where we only have one land in hand. You certainly don't want to tank every turn but if you only ever think about land to play when you have multiple land you could play your observant opponents will gain this information about your hand over time.
Learning how often and when to bluff attack is certainly the sort of thing that comes with experience but you'll gain experience faster and more efficiently if you're asking yourself the right questions. It's invaluable to practice against stronger opponents (there's basically nothing in the world better for improving your game) but by definition no more than half of people can be doing this at a time.
What you can do is focus on understanding their actions. Why are they doing the things they're doing? What will they do next? Eventually it can be worthwhile to delve into the space of trying to understand their thoughts but understanding their actions is the real game.
Reading body language can be very valuable but the better the opponents you face the more it becomes about logic as the information you're getting from your opponents becomes increasingly less reliable. In this vein it's important to remember that what works against one opponent won't necessarily work against another. Also we're dealing with probabilities not absolutes so something working against someone on Friday doesn't mean it will work on them Saturday.
More games are decided by tight technical play than all other factors combined.
As we strive to improve our ability to win at Magic it's important to remind ourselves of this truth from time to time. Even when we are deciding whether to bluff attack or not we should train ourselves to go about it the technically tight way. The point is to win not to outsmart the other person.
Ok I'm just about out for today. I want to address a couple things first briefly.
First of all I am super looking forward to the fifth Magic Cruise January 20-27th of next year. This Caribbean cruise includes the first ever Prelease at sea. Details can be found here!
Second you better believe I am on the Sphinx's Revelation train in Standard. That it's the same colors as Jace and the Angels is just too much. I have a feeling the format is going to take some strange twists in the next couple of weeks though. I know U/W has been gaining popularity and U/W/R has been on top of the format for weeks but Thragtusk is just too ridiculous. How are we supposed to not play it?
What does Standard's top ten even look like these days?
The first Standard Grand Prix with Return to Ravnica is this weekend in Charleston. All this Modern and Limited stuff has been cool but it's time to get down to business. These Jaces aren't going to activate themselves!