Wednesday, December 12, 2007

How to win Mental Magic

No, this will not be a primer for the “Mental Magic” format developed and used by avid players with nothing better to do, but rather, it will address the fundamentals of winning the game within the game- the psychological battle between you and your opponent. So many times people with inferior decks are able to win games simply because they have a talent for exploiting their opponent's uncertainty or mental state regarding the game. This bodes well for those of us that know the tricks, but can spell disaster for the hapless player who believes the game can only be won by a better deck, and fails to factor in the importance of the mind. Much like in the days of chivalry, having the better weapon means nothing without the dexterity to wield it. If you sternly believe that you have the best deck in the format, but somehow still lose games and you're not quite sure why, pay close attention- it could ultimately be rooted in your ability (or inability) to win the Battle of Wits with your opponent.

Does this all mean that the smarter player will automatically win more games? To argue that point would be sinfully reductionist, and I refuse to align myself with statements such as these. I will say, however, that to a certain extent there is a great deal of validity in the argument, and because of that, it deserves further analysis. Looking at the issues objectively, this Exploration will hopefully reveal ways to become a smarter player without actually changing your Intelligence Quotient.

The first thing we can do fundamentally is try to apply what we already know about card games to Magic. The best place to start is the most widely known and played game of luck- Poker. Though everyone on the World Poker Tour knows that the game is inherently based on luck and odds, they still seek ways to beat those odds. The best of them will tell you outright: the only advantage you can gain in a game of Texas Hold ‘em will come from your opponent. “Poker tells” are some of the best ways to gain an edge in games of chance, and apply to any situation where luck is a factor. The following are the top ten tells, and how they can be applied to help win games of magic.

1. Watch your opponent's eyes.
Everyone knows that eyes rarely lie, and professional poker players take many different precautions to avoid being given away including wearing sunglasses, visors, or looking down at their chips the entire game. Unfortunately (or fortunately) for Magic players, the eyes can give away so much more in a matchup than we would like, and there aren't many ways around it. Because each game can drone on for upwards of 20-30 minutes, it becomes almost impossible for us to avoid giving things away with our ocular orbs. Things to watch for in games of Magic with regard to the eyes and what they mean:

-Length of time looking at cards: usually a player will spend more time looking at cards that will benefit them. Think about the amount of time you spend staring down that island you rip from the top as opposed to the Sower of Temptation and tell me otherwise. I know that my job as a player is to be constantly monitoring my opponent for his or her reactions to every little aspect of the game. I know what's on the field, so why would I look at it? If your opponent spends a lot of time looking at a particular card, it's likely because they are trying to think of a way to deal with it, or figure out when the right time to do so would be. Rarely will a player stare at your lone Calciderm unless he or she is trying to decide whether it's worth it to play the mass removal spell they've been holding and risk being caught with nothing to answer with when you play more creatures after the blast.

The ways to avoid being a victim of someone reading your eyes is to send mixed signals to throw them off, which requires a conscious effort, but which is altogether important to becoming a better player. If you already have cards in your hand when you draw, don't look at the card until you place it in with the others. By doing this, you don't give your opponent an obvious idea of how good the draw was.

Watching your opponent's eyes, as well as keeping tabs on what your own ocular orbs might be giving away is the gargantuan first step to playing better mental magic.

2. Watch for facial expressions.
Distinctly different from the eyes, facial expressions can give away just about anything; but it's more difficult to extract information from expressions than it is from the eyes. Facial expressions in poker lead to things called “tics,” which are, for the sake of simplicity, facial expressions that are controlled subconsciously by emotions. The easiest tics to pick up on are the ones that have obvious connections to emotional states, and those are listed below:

- Raised eyebrows (typically a sign of being surprised or taken back by something)
- Wrinkling between eyebrows (typically associated with anger or confusion)
- Licking or biting lips (nervousness or feeling beaten)
- Hands on the face (almost always means “this is my only hope”)
- Flipping through cards (various meanings, but each person has only one reason for it- find out what that reason is with your opponent)
- Putting cards down on table when not searching through library (see weak is strong/strong is weak argument for more)
- Biting nails (your opponent is doing one of two things- hoping you have nothing so they can win next turn, or hoping you don't kill them while they dig for answers to an obvious loss for them on the table)

Familiarity with the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) will make you an expert in reading your opponent, essentially giving you what seems like a telepathic advantage. For those of you that don't have time to study it, the list above and proper application of it will give you a good enough base to set you apart from at least half of the field.

3. Weak is Strong/Strong is Weak.
This is quite possibly the tell that is most commonly used- and is known by just about everyone as “bluffing.” Typically, the only thing that is difficult to read about a bluff is whether or not it actually is a bluff. In this instance, you tend to psych yourself out by way of paranoia. You ask yourself questions like “what if he isn't bluffing?” “What if he's trying to make me think he's bluffing?” “What if he's bluffing the bluff?”

To borrow the line from Henry Winkler, “no, he pretends to fake, he fakes the fake, he thinks about faking…”

The truth is, you can never really fake a fake. If you get the feeling you're being bluffed, you almost always are. Understanding the weak is strong/strong is weak relationship can help you avoid being beaten by the bluff. Here are some things to watch for:

- opponent suddenly becomes “unaware” of things going on in a game
- opponent is constantly asking you what life you're at
- opponent puts his cards down on the table and doesn't look at them

… means: your opponent wants you to think he or she has lands and nothing more to offer. This is the essence of “weak is strong,” and it attempts to lure you into a false sense of security. Other things to watch for are:

- opponent is overly assertive in voice, and pretends to have absolute control over the game
- opponent starts naming cards that might be in your hand to make you uneasy
- opponent tries to intimidate you or make you play faster

… means your opponent is trying to steal the game or force you to make a misplay. If your opponent seems to be launching a challenge, respond and try to outplay him with whatever that thing you have in your hand might be. In all likelihood, you'll end up on top because your opponent was expecting you to get intimidated and hold back.

4. Watch for Anxiety.
Anxiety can be a combination of bodily functions, actions, or expressions, but is typically difficult to miss if you're paying close attention to your opponent. Poker pros will be able to spot anxiety in other players when they know the other is feeling ready for confrontation (raising the pot). Anxiety is common in players with good hands, because they are worried about misplaying it or having to discard it (hint).

Some anxious behaviors/actions:

- expanding the chest
- biting nails
- raised blood pressure (the vein on your head actually gives this away)
- inability to sit still
- dilation of pupils
- deeper breaths

5. If his hands are shaking, it's not because he had too much coffee.
Trembling hands are another sign of anxiety, and almost always mean your opponent's hand is so heavy that he can't hold it. Make some plays that force some of those cards out of it, because you will be able to take full advantage of any anxiety your opponent may have. This is how you play a control game with a non-control deck. Take advantage of the signs your opponent gives you, and you'll see how easy it is to win games of magic even with sub par decks.

6. Pay attention when your opponent checks life totals.
Anytime someone checks life totals, it's because they're doing some kind of math. Depending on the matchup, it's fairly easy to guess what the math is, which allows you to capitalize on knowing what the play is. In aggro vs. control, an aggro player might count life to see if it's worth incinerating a blocker or if the damage should be held and sent straight to the dome later. They might also be calculating the amount of damage that can be done before a wrath hits the table. In either case, the aggro player, by counting life, gives away that the card in hand is not a land because they're trying to think of when the best time to play it would be. This is one example of how to use this technique, but its actual depth is something that you will only be able to master after years and years of seeing the same situations play out.

7. Peeking at the hand is always good news.
If an opponent Peeks at their hand randomly, but particularly after you play a spell, it means someone is about to win. If you're playing a spell against a control player, and they Peek at their hand, they want you to think they have an answer. If they pass twice without an answer, it isn't because they're holding it for something that might be a bigger threat. They didn't answer because they don't or didn't have an answer. If your spell is good enough to make the opponent pretend to have a counter, it means the spell would have been countered if there was a counter to deal with it. If they're peeking otherwise, it's to find out if they have removal for it, or if the removal they have will even work. As stated before, players know what is going on in a game. Any status checks are just a way to ramp up the psych factors because they don't have anything else going for them.

8. Your opponent's mana tells all.
The best way to describe this one is really just to give examples. You know that your opponent's plays will be limited based on what kind of mana they have available to them. The things you may not be aware of, however, involve how the manipulation of mana might play a role in the game. For example:

- you know that with only one blue source, Faerie Trickery is out of the question
- you know that without Urborg in play in X/B, tendrils is less than a threat
- with four sources of mana available, your opponent won't be playing Pact of Negation
- no white land in play = no Wrath of God next turn

The list goes on, but those are all things that are blatantly obvious. The things to pay attention to would be like watching the chip stacking in a poker game. Typically, conservative players stack their chips nice and neat in tight stacks, and loose aggressive players seem to have no set stacking patterns. The same can be said about the state of your opponent's mana spread and how often they rearrange, touch, or look at them.

9. Posture is a sign of self confidence.
Slouchy people in general have low self esteem, and the same is true when playing magic. A player lounging around and not sitting upright typically concedes the fact that he or she has a weak hand, while players with excellent posture portray confidence in themselves and their hand.

10. In three-game matches, you should have an idea of the type of player you're against.
Gaming habits are tough to avoid. Aggressive players will rarely switch from game to game to a more controlling and conservative style. Once you've figured out how your opponent's play style is geared, you'll be able to force plays on them, and force them to react how you want them to. Most conservative players will wait until they feel they are in complete control before going for the jugular, which is to an aggressive player, hesitation- a sign of weakness.

On the same lines, an aggressive player that suddenly pulls up and waits for the Wrath to clear is obviously waiting for an opponent to overextend with removal. The best way to handle the aggressive player in this case would be to slow their clock with a spot removal spell, and when they play one creature but hold anything else back, go ahead and throw the wrath. After that, the aggressive player will start slinging his spells in hopes to regain that clock, and will rarely ever hold back for another board sweeper. WYSIWYG from that point on.

I'm not sure whether I've stated the obvious for many of you, or if I've opened doors to things you were never aware of. All I know is that if you're not employing some of these strategies, you are behind the curve of skilled card slingers. These are the things that separate the good players from the great players, so learn the FACS.

I've told you how to take advantage of your opponent's tells, but the best way to avoid being a victim yourself is not something I can really shed light on. The best defense would be to simply read your opponent better than they read you, but when you've mastered the reading part as second nature, develop a play personality. I know that I am a different person when I sit down to a match. I've developed a personality that makes me near impossible to read, but also one that can throw off a FACS expert by sending mixed signals. Just being you at the table is the best way to become a victim of a FACS reader, and I'm sure, whether you know it or not, it's happened to you at almost every single tournament you've played in.

Ask yourself this: if the pros are great players playing great decks, how is it that they constantly beat the other non-pro great players playing the exact same deck? Typically, professional card players know what to look for outside the game itself to help them gain the advantage over their opponent. If it were not the case, Pros would be on level playing fields with the rest of the gaming community.

By Justin Vizaro