In last week's article I asked what topics people wanted to hear me write about and the three that got the most votes were: (1) post-rotation Standard, (2) finance, and (3) general Magic theory. Since only a handful of cards from Khans of Tarkir have been spoiled, I will hold off talking about post-rotation or finance until we can get a better picture of what the future is going to look like. So today I would like to discuss a general Magic theory topic I've wanted to discuss for a while now: bluffing.
"Bluffing" is a tactic employed by a player who has access to hidden information that the opponent does not have access to, in which the player attempts to deceive the opponent into thinking the hidden information is something other than what it actually is. In Magic, as in many other hidden information games in which not all players have access to the same hidden information, bluffing is an invaluable tactic that the best players will know how to employ to their advantage. Similarly, the best players will also know how to minimize the effectiveness of opposing bluffs.A Misconception about Bluffing
A common misconception about bluffing is that it mostly has to do with body language and other physical tells. We hear people say "I had the read" or "I could tell by her body language she was bluffing," but in reality most bluffs have more to do with board positioning and in-play decisions than with extra-game information.
Among pro players, the term "Hollywood" is often used to describe the theatrics associated with trying to sell a bluff. The term is usually applied condescendingly because more often than not it highlights a person's misunderstanding of how to most effectively bluff. We've all seen it. The player acts all dejected, after playing their fourth land and passing, shaking their head as if to say "Geez, all I have are a bunch of lands and no spells to cast!" They might as well turn the Divine Verdict in their hand face up and stick it to their forehead because they've made it abundantly clear to everyone within a ten foot radius that they're holding Divine Verdict.
People often fail to ask themselves key questions before attempting to sell a bluff by employing over-the-top "Hollywood" theatrics. For instance, if you kept a seven-card hand and led with a mediocre three-drop and then passed with two Plains and two Forests untapped, WHAT HAND DID YOU KEEP??? If you're trying to convince me that the rest of your hand is more lands, then you're basically trying to sell me that you kept a hand consisting of six lands and a mediocre three-drop and have since drawn nothing but more lands. In other words, you are trying to get me to believe that you are a terrible player and that this particular game is a mathematical anomaly in that you continue to draw nothing but more lands. The alternative possibility is that you have Divine Verdict (a common removal spell) and want to use it to kill my awesome four-drop rare creature that I just played on my last turn...
Hmmm... should I attack? Or should I continue to play creatures until he is forced to tap out to cast blockers? Tough decision. #NotActuallyToughPicking Your Spots to Bluff
When attempting to bluff, especially if you are going to oversell it with Hollywood theatrics, the most important piece of advice I can give is to pick your spot carefully. The more setup you've invested into the bluff, the more likely it is to work. A spur of the moment bluff sometimes works, especially if it has other factors working in its favor (as we will discuss in the following sections), but they are often easier to Snuff Out. For instance, if you've been leaving two mana open each turn for the past three turns, it is much more believable that you have some interactive instant in your hand that costs two mana (Doom Blade, Counterspell, Vines of Vastwood, or whatever other spell is appropriate to the matchup).
Another point about picking your spot carefully is that you want to get paid off for your bluff. For instance, let's say you're a talker when you play Magic and whenever the opponent is about to cast a spell or make an on-board decision, you point out what appears to be their best play. For most of the match they make the play you suggest (not necessarily because you suggest it but simply because it is in fact the best play from the given board state). Then late into the match on a pivotal turn you make a suggestion that seems obviously correct for the opponent but actually falls into your trap because you're holding the trump that will turn the game in your favor if they make that play. If you're giving away percentage points all match by assisting your opponent in finding the best line, then you really need to make sure you get paid off by baiting them on a key turn when it counts. If you don't, then all you did was help the opponent beat you. I don't recommend this style of play, but I've seen it work effectively. Mike Long was an expert at it in Magic's early days, back when he was dominant.
While Hollywood-type theatrics are often considered a "Bush League Tactic" and generally only work against lesser skilled opponents, I will on the rare occasion employ such a tactic. When I do, it's usually very subtle and if the opponent picks up on it at all, they will feel as if they caught a glimpse of a tell as opposed to sitting front row at a Broadway musical. For instance, I draw my card for the turn and quickly glance out of the corner of my eye at my graveyard before looking back at the board and thinking about my play. I then make my attack and the opponent has to figure out what I have in hand that would cause me to make the otherwise strange attack that I made. One of the few cards I could have that would make the attack a good attack is Snapcaster Mage. So if the opponent noticed my momentary glance at my graveyard, he or she might then be convinced that I did in fact draw the flashback wizard.
Given the above bluff, there is much more to consider than just "he saw me look at my graveyard, so he'll fall for the bluff." For instance, is it even possible for him to beat a Snapcaster Mage? If not, then even if he's 99% convinced you have it, he'll still have to play as if you do not have it. Also, is it even advantageous for you to sell him on you having Snapcaster Mage? For instance, if the unknown card in your hand is Lightning Helix and the relevant card in your graveyard to flashback is Lightning Bolt, then selling him on Snapcaster Mage actually hinders your chance at gaining an advantage from the Lightning Helix in hand because now he is playing around a three-damage spell. Lastly (and admittedly, least important but still marginally relevant), if you get snuffed out, is this the moment you want to reveal your range? In other words, when you play out the last two cards in your hand and the opponent sees that neither was a Snapcaster Mage, then future bluffs of a similar variety will have a lower success rate because now the jig is up.Bluffing in Position
I said in the beginning that bluffing has more to do with the board than with body language, so now I'd like to discuss some examples of using to the board to bluff effectively, or as I like to call it, bluffing in position.
People often associate the clause must attack each turn if able as a strict downside with no upside. For instance, Mogis's Warhound would admittedly be an overall stronger card if it did not contain the clause, but the clause is not a downside 100% of the time. In some scenarios it is a bonus. Take the following scenario:
I have a Grizzly Bears and you have a White Knight. I attack with my Grizzly Bears into your White Knight. You can be fairly certain that I have some type of trick to win combat because: (a) the bear will straight up die to the knight in combat without a trick, (b) the knight is likely expendable enough such that in a high percentage of cases, it is worth it to you to trade your knight for my trick, considering the tempo you would gain by having me spend my third turn casting the trick instead of another creature, and (c) the bear will likely provide enough utility later in the game such that risking losing it just to get two damage in is not worth it, especially considering the high likelihood of the block as explained in [b].
Now instead of Grizzly Bears, let's say I have Mogis's Warhound. The hound is a fine second turn play, especially when I'm going first. You then trumped it with one of the few two-drops that blocks it profitably in combat ( White Knight). I then have no choice but to attack into your knight with my hound because the card does not allow me to do otherwise. Given this forced decision, the opponent is much more likely to make the block because there is an added possibility: (d) he has no trick and is just going to lose his dog to my knight in combat because the dog has to attack each turn if able. In this scenario you have positioning on the opponent such that even if they would not want to block your Grizzly Bears with their White Knight, they will still block your Mogis's Warhound with the White Knight and thus fall victim to your pump spell trick that they would not have fallen victim to if the Mogis's Warhound "drawback" did not offer you positioning on the opponent.
In the above scenario, it can hardly be considered a "bluff" because attacking is mandatory, but I wanted to highlight the thought processes in order to demonstrate the following position bluff:
I play Fleecemane Lion and then you play Courser of Kruphix. I then attack with Fleecemane Lion. Do you block? In order to answer correctly, you should ask yourself the following: (a) What could he have? Answer: Selesnya Charm, (b) How many? Answer: four, (c) If I block, will he even use the charm or would he rather play another creature? Which would I rather him do? (d) If I don't block, how relevant will the three damage be? Answer: usually pretty relevant, (e) Am I ok with trading charm for courser? Answer: If I'm holding Polukranos or Desecration Demon in hand, I probably am.
So let's say you block. I then play Loxodon Smiter and pass the turn. I had a "free attack" because some percentage of the time you will not block and some percentage of the time you will block, depending on your answers to the above questions. If you block, then it accomplishes essentially the same result as if I did not attack because post-combat I played a 4/4 that holds your 2/4 back from attacking me. And if you do not block, then I got three free points of damage in. So it is clearly correct for me to always attack in that scenario, even if you block 99% of the time.
Knowing that it is a "free attack" (or to put it another way, knowing that I am in a prime position to bluff because the reward of the bluff working (e.g. three damage) far outweighs the risk of the bluff not working (essentially the same board state), an astute player would be very inclined to block unless losing the courser to the charm is way too devastating. For instance, maybe you're holding Domri Rade and you really need to set up the Domri + Courser combo next turn. I've been known to snap off some of the riskier-looking bluffs simply because I've identified the positioning the player is in. On camera such plays often make a player look like a genius. "Wow, what a read! He soul-read him and knew he didn't have it!" In actuality it has more to do with accurately understanding the risks and rewards of both sides of the board state and acting accordingly, as illustrated by the above examples. Nevertheless such plays have the incidental side effect of making games more interesting to watch.Reading the Opponent (a.k.a. setting up the "the bait bluff")
Bluffing in position is definitely the bluff that is utilized the most, especially at higher levels of play, and is really the one that needs to be understood more than any other kind of bluff because it deals primarily with math and being able to calculate risks and rewards from both sides accurately in order not to give up percentage points unnecessarily. Another kind of bluff, however, requires going beyond the board and, in some sense, accurately sizing up your opponent. While most successful bluffs (at least in high level magic) do not actually fall into this category, an untrained eye will often lump most of them into this category. I call these bluffs "reading the opponent" bluffs, or sometimes "bait" bluffs.
If you are playing against a less experienced player and find yourself in a tight spot, sometimes throwing in a bit of theatrics to sell the bluff will help, but in my experience such theatrics are just as likely to derail the bluff. So even against a less experienced player, I tend to remain stoic and let the opponent make their decisions based on in-game factors.
When reading the opponent and gauging what sort of bluffs will work and won't work, there are a few readily accessible tips that don't always hold true but are good starting points for identifying a player that is more susceptible for falling for a lower level bluff but that a higher level bluff might Backfire by going over their head:
- Do they needlessly play creatures pre-combat?- Do they play their land first before thinking about their play?- Have they made any obvious mistakes?- Did they make no indication that they were aware of their mistake afterward?- Did they use their premium removal spell on your first creature instead of conserving it?- Have they made little indication that they are playing around spells you might be holding?- Do you get the sense that they are generally unaware of the important aspects of the game state?
If the answer to some of these questions is "yes" then trying to make a complex bluff that requires the opponent to play around specific cards or to make an unorthodox line of play likely won't succeed at the same rate it would against a more experienced player. In contrast, lower level "bait bluffs" have a higher success rate.
For instance, you're in a race situation and you have no way to deal with an opposing Stormbreath Dragon, but you can outrace it with a pump spell if you fade a single attack from it. So maybe you play a planeswalker and +/- its loyalty to four, thus conveniently keeping it exactly within striking distance of a single dragon attack.
Another example would be "baiting" a removal spell by playing a less important creature first before playing the more important one. If the opponent has shown willingness to burn premium removal spells early, then save the best for last, once all their removal has been exhausted.
If you get the sense that they are trying to set up a level one play of "Giant Growth my Grizzly Bears" to defeat your White Knight, then maybe you take the damage this turn and then next turn you leave open Dispel mana and trump them, now that you know what they appear to be up to.
Some would not consider many of the plays in this category to be "bluffs" at all, but given our definition from the beginning ("bluffing" is a tactic employed by a player who has access to hidden information that the opponent does not have access to, in which the player attempts to deceive the opponent into thinking the hidden information is something other than what it actually is), this is in fact what we are doing, albeit in a more elementary way.
For instance, when baiting the removal spell, you are essentially making them think "this is my best creature in hand" when in fact it isn't. Similarly, when baiting them into attacking the planeswalker instead of you, you're essentially saying "this walker is the more relevant aspect of the game state than my life total" when in fact the pump spell hidden in your hand proves it isn't. And when you set up the counter-trick with Dispel, you're essentially saying "here is your opportunity to 'get me' in combat with your Giant Growth" when in fact you are instead about to 'get the opponent' with your Dispel.
In all of these cases, you are misdirecting the opponent into thinking the hidden information in your hand is something other than what it is, and in these three cases in particular their success rate is largely contingent on your read being accurate that the opponent is less experienced. Hence it's instructive to watch out for the list of identifying marks discussed in this section if you plan to employ a bait bluff.Conclusions and Further Reading
There is much more to bluffing than just tricking your opponent through Mind Games or soul-reading the opponent based on a gut feeling. The best bluffs are well-positioned, are paid off more often than they are punished, and take into account both the board state and the opponent. More important than the theatrics used for selling the bluff is the sound reasoning behind making the bluff. What are the risks? What are the rewards? Am I in position to make a bluff? Is my opponent? What are the risks and rewards of calling an opposing bluff?
Hopefully this article has helped you to better conceptualize the art of bluffing as it pertains to Magic. Hidden information is a central aspect of Magic, so knowing how to leverage such information to your advantage through bluffing is a crucial element of good technical Magic play. Likewise, knowing when and how to keep your opponent from leveraging their hidden information against you is just as important. The goal of this article was to help shed some light on this topic in order to help you improve this aspect of your game.
If you're interested in more articles that aim to help you improve your skills as a Magic player, here are three more articles I've written on related topics:
Five Tips for Stepping Up Your Game (12/20/2013)
Multilevel Thinking 1: Theory (8/9/2012)
Multilevel Thinking 2: Exercises (8/16/2012)
If you have any questions or you have a story you'd like to share about bluffing or calling an opponent's bluff, I'd love to hear it in the comments below!
Craig Wescoe@Nacatls4Life on twitter