I've always treated my tournaments like learning experiences. From the deck you chose to play to the specific card choices to the plays you made, there's no shortage of things you could have done differently. Ask around and you might even hear of some other stories you could learn from.
We don't often talk about the intangibles in Magic since it only seems like those things matter in the rarest of circumstances. Well, after the last few weekends, I'm seeing it pop up more and more. Or maybe I'm just paying more attention.
Either way, I found some cool scenarios that deserve talking about.
Selling It, Part One
In my lifetime, I've made a bunch of plays that I consider good and few that I consider great. To set the stage, I want to talk about one of my greatest.
Grand Prix Atlanta 2008 was Shards of Alara Block Sealed deck, and I opened a mediocre pool that would have played off-color cyclers if I had them. Instead, playables 19-23 weren't pretty. In one of the earlier rounds, I was paired against Jon Sonne. Some may remember him, but I expect that many won't. Suffice it to say that Jon is/was quite good at Magic, specifically Limited.
We were playing a Naya mirror, and he got off to a much better start than I did with a turn 2 Druid of the Anima, turn 3 Algae Gharial, and turn 4 Rakeclaw Gargantuan. My deck had no way to really deal with the Gharial, but I quickly developed a plan.
I attacked with my only creature, a Court Archers, into his untapped 5/3, and he went into the tank. He said, "I don't think you have it," but then elected to take the damage anyway. He rightly deduced that it wasn't worth the risk to block since he was probably winning regardless.
Now, if you're in Jon's spot, it really looks like I have a pump spell. Otherwise, why wouldn't I just use the Resounding Thunder pre-combat and get in my two points? For the next few turns, his Gharial didn't get into combat for fear of the pump spell I had, which saved me close to ten damage.
Unfortunately, a string of lands on my part and some nice draws on his (Ajani Vengeant, Resounding Silence for my Bull Cerodon) led to my demise. Still, it was pretty impressive to make that game actually close. Despite losing, I was incredibly proud of myself. In a game I was almost certainly going to lose, I found a way to give myself a chance of winning that the cards wouldn't have given me.
It's one thing to attack a 2/2 into their 3/3 Cedric Phillips-style and assume they won't block. Being able to warp your opponent's reality and make them see things that aren't there is another thing entirely. By attacking first then using my removal spell, I created a very powerful illusion that I had a pump spell since I'd much rather use that to trade with the 5/3 than a removal spell.
If he hero called and blocked, I could use the Resounding Thunder before damage. All I lose out on is two damage, which may or may not matter, but given the composition of my deck and the fact that I was probably going to lose anyway, I didn't think I had much to lose.
Selling It, Part Two
At the lone WMCQ I was able to play in, I was in game 3 of round 3 in a pseudo Mono-Black Devotion mirror. I had it mostly locked up, with two tapped Pack Rats and two untapped Pack Rats with eight life. I was tapped out except for two Mutavaults, while he had four cards, five lands including two Mutavaults, and two Gray Merchant of Asphodels. He hadn't played a land yet.
After thinking for a while, he fired up both Mutavaults and attacked with all four of his creatures. Since I'm at eight, I clearly have to block something, but if I block two things I risk losing my entire board to a Bile Blight. I'd be at a low life total, while his would still be relatively high, plus he seemed to have a lot of gas in the tank considering he was missing land drops.
My only options to play around were Sign in Blood (targeting me) or a Bile Blight, which would decimate my board. It was a close call, but ultimately I chose to play around Sign in Blood, mainly because if he had Bile Blight or wanted to represent it more, he would have played a land first if he had it. By disguising his hand a bit, he actually gave me more information, and I safely made the block that played around Sign in Blood, and therefore, won me the game.
If you're going to sculpt your gameplan around these pseudo-bluffs, you've got to make it convincing. I know it might not be something you think of right away, but you have to be able to sell it. The longer you take, the easier it might be for your opponent to sniff out your ruse. If you suddenly take a long time or do what my opponent did and not fully represent Bile Blight, then you might be in trouble.
Selling It, Part Three
Round 11 of the last Invitational featured two world class players, Tom Ross and Reid Duke, battling deep into the tournament. In game 2, Reid gets off to an excellent start partly because he was on the play, but Tom attempts to capitalize on his situation by representing a pump spell he doesn't have.
Check out the video at around 20:10:
Attacking into a Courser of Kruphix isn't that crazy of a play. However, what Tom does on the next turn is pretty genius, especially against someone like Reid who Tom knows will be able to figure out exactly what Firefist Striker targeting Elvish Mystic means.
Tom went on to lose this game, but he did win the match. Afterwards, you gotta imagine someone in Reid's spot thinking, "What isn't this guy capable of?" Tom got in at least ten points of damage from that 2 turn bluff, and part of it was because he found a way to make it even more convincing on the following turn.
"Hey Tom, how's your matchup against Jared?" Patrick Sullivan asked before the Top 8 of the Invitational started.
"It's close." Then Tom added, "I think he's scared of me though."
As I was leaving the tournament site Saturday night, Jared asked me, "What am I supposed to counter against Tom? The creatures or the pump spells?"
The matchup was Tom Ross's Infect deck against Jared Boettcher's Sneak and Show. Sometimes a simple mis-assignment of role can be deadly, and in this case, it was Jared being scared of Tom and his explosive deck. He seemed to forget that his deck was pretty explosive too!
Jared decided that Show and Tell was too much of a liability since he didn't think he could beat a Blighted Agent. However, I think Jared needed Show and Tell to be faster, and with one counterspell it should usually be good enough. If they cast Blighted Agent and have the kill next turn, your one counterspell might still be able to stop them. If that's the case, you might as well be casting Show and Tell to threaten lethal on the next turn. One counterspell is still probably good enough, plus you're forcing the issue with Griselbrand or Emrakul.
Instead, Jared talked to Harry Corvese, who recommended that Jared become the control deck with Pyroclasms and Blood Moons. Those cards seem like they would be ineffective at times, which makes your Plan A better than your Plan B. I think Jared should have done light sideboarding, if any.
Unsurprisingly, Jared got swept using his control strategy. He would have been much better off doing what he was doing to people all day, which is jamming his combo and hoping it's good. Sometimes you lose a bunch of matches in a row to the same dude and you lose sight of what's important though.
As I told Jared, "He's probably more scared of you than you are of him."
Getting The Read
A few months ago, Brad Nelson and I had a rather heated debate while in Portland. I caught wind from Todd Anderson about a play that Brad thought was brilliant, but given Todd's retelling, I thought was Bush League at best.
Here's the scenario (in which I might get some details wrong, but the overall point stands):
Brad is deep into game 3 with Temur Twin against an opponent playing Abzan Midrange. He has a Deceiver Exarch in play with Splinter Twin in hand but needs to decide whether to commit to playing a longer game or trying to win on the spot with the combo. Obviously, if Brad goes for it and his opponent has a removal spell, it sets him very far back.
He couldn't tell if he had the removal spell or not, so he thought about the way the game played out for quite some time. Then he hurriedly tapped four mana and almost slammed a card on top of his Deceiver Exarch. The whole time, Brad was watching his opponent's eyes, trying to gauge a reaction.
Brad said he saw a flash in his opponent's eyes, which gave him the answer.
Which do you think it is?
Say you're playing poker and you're in a hand heads-up and your opponent makes a big move. Their hands are trembling, which in theory, is a sign of weakness. They're scared, right? Well, as it turns out, it's basically the opposite. A bluffing opponent will do their best to seem calm and collected.
Is that applicable to Magic?
I think it depends on the player.
One who understands that if Brad has the Splinter Twin, he's dead, won't necessarily be scared of Brad casting a Twin. When I'm in that spot, I'm often resigned to my fate and not feeling nervous or excited. My hands certainly aren't trembling. If Brad runs the same thing against me, I probably wouldn't move, and a flash in my eyes certainly wouldn't be happening since there's nothing to be alarmed about.
On the flip side, if I do have the removal spell, I might be eager for Brad to walk into my trap, anxiously awaiting him to go for it. When he does go for it, I might want to pounce on that opportunity to blow him out.
In my opinion, a flash in that scenario probably means that my opponent has it.
Oddly enough, Brad took it to mean the opposite and he went for it. Even more oddly enough, he was right and he won the match on the spot.
I think a large part of this depends on the player's mindset. Brad's re-telling of the story indicated that it was just the flash that gave all that information away, but perhaps Brad's subconscious was at work there too. They had played three long games and Brad's subconscious knew what to look for, even if Brad didn't.
I agree that the flash in his opponent's eyes meant something. My advice to Brad was that it likely won't mean the same thing for every person, at least as far as Magic is concerned.
Have you ever played against someone who complained about how lucky you were getting the entire game, meanwhile they were crushing you? What about playing against someone who is sheepishly crushing you, but always scared of what you could possibly have?
You might be able to tell if your opponent thinks they are weak or strong, but you might never know if that means you're winning or losing. In poker, it's easier to indentify if your hand is likely the winning one, but that's not the case in Magic. What someone thinks is strong might actually be weak given the context of the board, matchup, or your hand.
You might be able to sniff out "this guy thinks he's weak," but don't think for a second that you should act as if they are unless you know for sure.
Don't Be Exploitable
At the Open Series in Atlanta two weeks ago, Infect was the talk of the tournament. Brad Nelson and Todd Anderson both piloted the deck to Top 8 finishes. Matthew Webster, who decided to play the deck independently, was the third Infect pilot in Top 8.
We didn't get to see Brad on camera until the Top 8, but it was worth the wait, even though a mistake may have cost him the finals. How Brad used his countermagic was fantastic throughout the Top 8.
Imagine this scenario:
1) Your opponent casts a spell you must counter. You tank for a little bit just to be sure, then eventually counter it.
2) A couple turns later, your opponent casts a spell you must counter. You tank for a little bit just to be sure, then eventually counter it.
3) A couple turns after that, your opponent casts a spell that you should almost certainly counter, but you're out of countermagic. You tank for a little bit in the same manner as the other two times, but eventually "let" it resolve.
In this situation, since you've reacted the same way all three times, it's probably safe to assume that you do have a third counterspell. They might suspect you don't, but everything else is telling them you do, depending on how obvious it was that if they had to counter your spell.
Consider the other scenario:
1) Your opponent casts a spell you must counter. You snap counter it.
2) A couple turns later, your opponent casts a spell you must counter. You snap counter it.
3) A couple turns after that, your opponent casts a spell that you should almost certainly counter, but you're out of countermagic. You "tank" for a little bit but eventually let it resolve.
That's the bluff that most people try to sell, and the difference in reaction between when you have it and when you don't is a large tell. If you react the same way each time, there is no time for your opponent to exploit you and derive extra information based on your actions.
On top of that, if they lead game 2 with a Delver of Secrets and you give the same pause but actually aren't holding a counterspell, that could set the pace of game 2 all on its own.
There is some merit to playing things wildly different, like in the second scenario. If the spell in Step 3 they are casting isn't a must counter, but you think they think it is, and your opponent is a Reid Duke-caliber player and will assume the faux bluff means you don't have a counterspell, they could be walking into trouble if Step 4 ever happens.
That said, there is a rather large risk by deviating, like in the second scenario. You might be trying to set yourself up to blow your opponent out, but that's contextually more or less powerful than responding the same way every single time and not being exploitable. Reid basically does exactly that, disguising his hand every single time.
Any change in demeanor is exploitable if your opponent knows what to look for.
Brad generally mixes it up, depending on his opponent, their rapport, and where he thinks the game is going. For the most part, Brad excels in playing his opponents and not letting the cards decide who wins. I don't think he has mastered the intangibles by any means, but he's one of the few players who is capable of thinking outside the box.
I love this topic since it's one that typically generates the best Magic stories. If and when I think about more of these scenarios (and more about them in general), I will certainly revisit the topic again. I'm pretty sure that it will mostly involve watching Tom Ross and Brad Nelson play more Magic though.