The strategy of chess and the variance of poker, all wrapped up in a fantasy medium.
The strategic implications of Magic are intricate and complicated. The fantasy medium we all love is woven into the fabric of the game with its amazing art, lore, and role-playing. The variance aspect of the game however, can be somewhat polarizing. It means that even the worst player in the world with an intro deck has a chance to beat the best player in the world with a tier-one deck. For some, this is part of what makes Magic great; for others, this can be the most frustrating part of the game. But Magic and poker have more in common than just variance and statistics. Sometimes the way we execute the game in person can also be borrowed from poker, as Magic often does, through bluffing and angle shooting.
Everyone bluffs in Magic. If you’ve ever held onto a land as your only card in hand, you’ve bluffed. If you’ve ever glanced at an irrelevant card in your hand just before saying “it resolves,” you’ve bluffed. You attempted to communicate to your opponent that you have interaction when you don’t and you did it intentionally to deceive them.
Don’t worry, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Bluffing is an important part of the game and it can come in many forms, to include body language, words, speed of play, and concealed information (like the land you kept in hand). Even though bluffing comes about through misleading your opponent and deceiving behavior, it isn’t frowned upon or scrutinized for damaging the game’s integrity. This is because no rules are being broken and it’s ultimately up to the opponent to decide how much they want to rely on information derived from your cues. They can ignore it, or they can draw drastic conclusions based on it.
Games can be won and lost on a bluff, all based on information that we’re collecting from our opponent’s, or false information we’re trying to convey. At the end of the day, it’s hard to ignore that there’s a human element to a game that involves an opponent sitting directly across from you.
Blue mages separating their mana into groups of two and four (the four showing their ability to pay for Cryptic), players picking up their graveyard after a draw to imply they drew a Snapcaster, and seemingly bad attacks that suggest combat tricks are all examples of bluffing. These are all very small actions that are meant to subconsciously lead you to draw conclusions based on unreliable information.
I’d like to go over a couple more examples of bluffing and the variety of ways they can express themselves and be implemented that I’ve experienced personally, and perhaps you have as well.
In a recent SCG Regionals I had an Affinity opponent that had a pretty intimidating board to include a Ravager, an Inkmoth Nexus, and more than enough artifacts to sacrifice for the Inkmoth combo kill. I had two lands in hand, that’s it. I was of course holding onto them so that I could try and convince my opponent that I had interaction, that I could disrupt the combo and punish him if he went for it.
He fired up the Inkmoth, attacked, and waited for me to pass priority.
I fervently studied my cards, let out a quizzical, “Hmmm…” as I pondered my options.
Put my fingers through my hair, deep in thought.
I sat up, began to tap my lands, then slouched again and untapped the lands, redacting my previous thought.
Again, I analyzed the board and then passed priority.
My opponent thought for a moment and then allowed for damage to happen; only one infect damage. On my upkeep, Dark Confidant reveals a Bolt.
I bluffed my way out of a deadly situation and lived long enough to find the interaction I desperately needed.
The most important thing about this bluff was that it didn’t break any rules. I was very clear in communicating what phase we were in, what I was doing, and in the end my opponent chose to use that information to make an educated guess about what I was capable of.
Bluffing is usually more subtle than the theatrics I pulled against my Affinity opponent but the cues are still there for you to notice. I once had a Scapeshift player play the namesake card and waited patiently for me to scoop, but I had already Fulminator‘d two mountains and there were many on board so I said, “Okay, show me the mountains.” He searched through his deck, and conceded.
The “Are you really going to make me go through the motions of my combo?” bluff is nothing new. Players have been doing this one since combos have existed. Usually this means they don’t have access to their win condition and are looking to shortcut, a common courtesy we give combo players sometimes, to convince the concession. In Competitive REL (Rules Enforcement Level) , always make opponents show you the combo before you scoop. You never know when it’s all just a bluff. The exception to this is if they have demonstrated a loop.
“The Pen Trick” is another common bluff. This is when your opponent is looking to declare attackers and you go to pick up your pen to record the impending damage as if you are accepting whatever comes your way. Your opponent may attack incorrectly or poorly based on this only to have you put down the pen and interact with their board.
Now, let’s imagine a scenario where a player names Krark-Clan Ironworks with Pithing Needle.
Does it accomplish anything? No.
Pithing Needle doesn’t stop mana abilities, but maybe the opponent doesn’t know that. KCI is still a legal card you can name with Pithing Needle even though it won’t stop the ability. This bluff is testing the opponent’s knowledge of how Pithing Needle works in the hopes to trick the opponent into not using the KCI. Bluffing is defined as misleading by a display of strength and confidence, and this certainly fits the bill. Cheating on the other hand is an act of dishonesty as a means to gain an advantage. This becomes cheating only when the KCI player goes to use the KCI and is stopped by the Pithing Needle player. In that situation the Needle player is trying to break the rules by claiming that Pithing Needle achieves something it cannot.
Rystic Studies has a great video showcasing a scenario with Pithing Needle. In the video, the opponent has tons of countermagic in hand, with a Dark Confidant, and three uncracked Polluted Deltas on the battlefield. The Pithing Needle player calls over a judge and asks, in front of his opponent, if Dark Confidant is a card they can name with Pithing Needle. The judge says yes, and the player casts the Pithing Needle. The opponent lets it resolve assuming they’ll name Dark Confidant and the player names Polluted Delta instead. This bluff reverses the role of the last example, playing as if they didn’t understand how the Needle worked to trick the opponent into letting it resolve. The Pithing Needle player mislead with a display of apparent ignorance rather than strength.
Mulligan body language can be another excellent opportunity to bluff. You can snap keep when the cards are horrible or you can ponder the hand meticulously when if fact the hand is easily keep-able. If you’re on the play and get to resolve your mulligan decision first, you can sometimes affect your opponent’s decisions. If you act as though it’s very strong, they may reevaluate the strength of their own hand. If you act as though the hand is close or not very good, they may keep a mediocre hand for the sake of keeping seven.
There are many more examples that I could list, but I think you get the point of what a good bluff can look like and the many different forms it can present itself in. The common theme among all of these examples of bluffing is that despite the intention to deceive or mislead the opponents, no rules were broken and the integrity of the game was upheld.
In Pro Tour Guilds of Ravnica, Luis Scott Vargas made one of the most amazing bluffs we’ve seen on camera at the top level of competitive play. Jeremy Dezani is trying to figure out how he wants to attack and is obviously struggling to find the best line. LSV motions for a lifelink token which goes hand in hand with the bluff he’s already set up with his mana. By separating three of his lands from the Andanto, the First Fort, he’s already communicating the possibility of activating to gain an additional blocker. Dezani ignores it at first but then reaches for the token himself to aid in his combat math. After Dezani makes his attacks, LSV throws the token aside, knowing full well he never intended on activating the Fort, and plays Settle the Wreckage to wipe Dezani’s board.
The interaction was widely controversial, and LSV was criticized by some for fooling Dezani with false intentions, but it was really Dezani’s decision to allow the bluff to affect his actions that lost him the game. This is an honest bluff, and a card like Settle the Wreckage requires a certain amount of bluffing to play to its full potential. How does this example compare to a scenario where the equity of the game is actually being degraded?
Let’s say Dezani turns all of his creatures sideways, doesn’t say anything, and rests his hands under his chin. Then, LSV plays a Settle the Wreckage. Dezani could then say, “Woah, woah, wait. I’m still thinking about my attacks and I haven’t passed priority.”
In this example, Dezani has purposefully created an ambiguous situation where we are unsure what phase we’re in and who has priority as a means to gain an advantage. Now he knows LSV has a Settle and can play around it for the rest of the game. In this instance, Dezani has demonstrated what we know as angle shooting. Through underhanded methods, angle shooters can take advantage of unclear situations in order to deceive the opponent into breaking the rules or revealing information they normally wouldn’t.
In poker, rules have been put in place to punish certain ways of angle shooting. In Magic, we have no such rules, so opportunities for angle shooting can often be taken advantage of without punishment. Good angle shooting will often be so ambiguous that it can be impossible for a judge to prove malicious intent, especially if the angle shooter is a good actor.
Another perfect example of this can be seen in plays involving Vendilion Clique.
A Vendilion Clique player cast their Clique and waits patiently remaining silent. The popular Clique target is of course the opponent, to get information and trade out their best card. While targeting yourself may be the less popular play, the Clique player is still a legal target. The opponent may assume that, as in most Clique scenarios, the target is them and the Clique player is simply waiting for them to reveal their hand.
The opponent reveals their hand and then the Clique player explains that the Clique hasn’t resolved yet and is just waiting for the opponent to respond to it if necessary. Unfortunately, the opponent has already revealed their hand and given away important information, something that cannot be undone. Now the Clique player can decide to either target themselves or the opponent with perfect information. The Clique player wanted their opponent to be confused about whether the Clique had resolved and/or targeted them so they could take advantage of their opponent’s assumptions.
We can also see angle shooting in action when people try to go for the “Fake Scoop.” This is when an opponent, who is dead on board, scoops up their lands as if they are conceding the match without verbally communicating it. You assume that your opponent is throwing in the towel since they are dead on board and you begin to scoop up your permanents as well. Your opponent then claims that they are just rearranging their lands and try to make it appear as though you are in fact the one scooping to them. Again, the person faking the scoop is creating a confusing situation that takes advantage of the opponent’s assumption that by picking up their lands they are conceding when in fact they’re not.
I do my best to uphold the equity of the game, but even I’ve angle shot someone before. It was an accident, but that doesn’t mean the integrity of the game wasn’t damaged.
I had cast a Bloodbraid Elf and cascaded into a Thoughtseize. My opponent only had one card in hand and I knew it either had to be a Collected Company, a Path to Exile, or a land. Nothing else made sense as they would have simply played it on their turn otherwise. As I’m putting these pieces together in my head and coming to the conclusion that I shouldn’t cast it, my opponent waves a Path to Exile over the board. I quickly looked away and held out my hands trying to keep my opponent from saying or doing anything more. I explained that I was still considering whether or not I would cast the Thoughtseize and hadn’t put it on the stack yet. The damage was done though, I knew what they had in hand, and put the Thoughtseize on the bottom.
I had accidentally created an ambiguous situation where my opponent was unsure if the Thoughtseize had been cast or not and whether they had priority or not. We had an incredible game up to that point and I felt terrible that I had not communicated better with my opponent. He was thankfully very understanding as we talked about it more afterward.
I don’t think I can touch on every aspect of angle shooting without mentioning rules lawyering. Rules lawyering can be another ethical grey area and depending on your moral compass, some rules lawyering is fair game while others are frowned upon.
Did you know that Rest in Peace has a triggered ability when it enters the battlefield? Most of us associate the card with its static ability but the initial exiling of cards currently in the graveyard only happens when the ETB resolves. If you don’t announce it, you may run into a situation where the cards currently in graveyards aren’t removed from play on a technicality. This is a trigger that can be missed, and simply moving your graveyard to exile assuming the trigger has resolved is not the same as announcing the trigger when it happens.
“Chalice Checking” – referring of course to Chalice of the Void – involves the opponent of the Chalice player casting a spell into it to see if the Chalice player will remember the trigger that counters it. We all know how Chalice should work, but it’s still the controller’s responsibility to remember and announce the triggers. This is one of those plays that people proclaim to be straight up cheating, especially since on MtGO it does it automatically as a trigger that cannot be missed. There are a lot of triggers that do not say ‘may’ that can still be missed in paper, to include Noble Hierarch’s Exalted trigger and Dark Confidant’s reveal trigger. Just because it happens automatically online doesn’t mean it can’t be missed in paper. I’d be surprised if the same people saying Chalice checking is cheating would remind their Dredge opponent of their Prized Amalgam triggers. Chalice checking is not cheating, it’s rules lawyering. The only time this becomes cheating is when the Chalice owner tries to cast into their own Chalice. In that scenario, the owner of the Chalice is purposely ignoring their own trigger to make way for a play that would otherwise be countered.
Coming back to Pithing Needle (isn’t it such a fun card?), most will remember when Brad Carpenter named Borborygmos to turn off Bob Huangs Grishoalbrand combo. The problem was that even though we all know that Carpenter meant Borborygmos Enraged, the integral piece of Bob’s combo, a judge ruled that since an actual Magic the Gathering card was named in Borborygmos, that Borborygmos Enraged could still activate its abilities.
The difference between rules lawyering and angle shooting is that the intent is very clear when you are trying to win through technicalities. The motive in trying to gain these kinds of advantages cannot be misinterpreted and are very deliberate. The crossover comes simply by trying to manipulate the rules to your advantage, whether that’s based on ambiguity or on technicalities.
Both bluffing and angle shooting are achieved through deception, so why is one frowned upon and the other okay? The answer is simply ethics; the moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of an activity. Gaining advantages at the cost of our opponents misunderstanding of board states is pretty unsporting. Trying to corral opponents into a situation where they are breaking the rules by playing cards when they don’t have priority or skipping phases is pretty unethical.
But, shouldn’t we be doing everything we can to win?
Of course, but only up to a certain point. After that, upholding the integrity of the game becomes more important than winning. Obviously, this is a point that is lost on people who cheat, but it’s up to the rest of us to defend the game’s honor. Without it, you’re tipping the scales to a disadvantage for those who play fairly and pushing them out of the game. That will eventually foster a hostile environment that will end with Magic’s decline in popularity and ultimately its demise.
When both players sit down to face each other at a tournament, it’s with a mutual understanding of what the rules are and what’s considered acceptable behavior. Deviating from that will earn you a less than an ideal reputation in the community with little to show for it.
The best way to keep yourself from accidentally angle shooting, being the victim of angle shooting, or even some rules lawyering, is to have impeccable communication. These confusing situations can only be misinterpreted if you allow them to be. Make sure you announce everything you’re doing as you’re doing it so that both players are on the same page. Just as you are communicating your own actions, be sure to reiterate what your opponent is doing if it’s unclear.
I still announce my discard targets and Liliana of the Veil edict targets even though it’s obvious what my intentions are when I play them. I don’t want there to be any possible way my opponent can misinterpret what I’m saying, doing, or take advantage of a situation. Don’t assume anything but instead be sure you know exactly what is happening.
I always offer my deck after shuffling and never proceed until they say they are good with the deck otherwise. I once had an opponent abstain from cutting after an end step shuffle when I motioned the deck towards the end of the playmat in his direction and then call a judge when I slammed a Siege Rhino off the top for the win. The judge ruled that because I didn’t explicitly present my deck and verbally ask him to cut, that I had shortcut past his opportunity to do so. I had to shuffle the Siege Rhino in and take a fresh draw step. I doubt he would have fussed if I had drawn a land.
The same goes for effects like Bloodbraid’s Cascade that puts cards on the bottom of the library randomly. Even if it’s two cards, I randomize the best I can and then ask my opponent if they are content with my shuffling. I usually get some scoffs and laughs at that, but I take this kind of player to player communication very seriously as to not taint the honesty of the game.
It’s worth analyzing how you’re playing the game and becoming more self aware. Think about how you are appearing to your opponent and the signals you may be sending, because every little thing you’re doing or not doing is being digested by your opponent and being used against you.
Of course all of this information requires a little bit of context as well. At FNM, I think it’s extremely important to allow for learning opportunities. This means talking through lines of play while we’re playing, allowing take-backs within reason, and having constructive conversations afterward. Bluffing is still a part of the game that you can practice and talk about at FNM but people should really avoid rules lawyering and under no circumstances should you ever angle shoot.
Magic is a fantastic game with deep and complex strategies paired with immersive fantasy components. The human element allows us to bluff and bend the variance of the game in our favor when we draw the short straw. It allows us to get inside our opponent’s mind and play this secondary game beyond what’s happening on the table. If you’re not using it, you’re missing out on the opportunity to gain small advantages throughout your matches.
Bluffing is as much a part of Magic as it is of poker, a tool for us to use and importantly doesn’t hurt the integrity of the game. You can’t always have the best opening hands or run hot every draw. Sometimes, you gotta take something mediocre, or even slightly bad, and turn it into a win.
“[It’s] not always a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes, playing a poor hand well.” ―