Beginner’s Luck: Information and Misinformation

What do you look forward to most when you log onto MTGO? Is it a fun game or three? Is it winning? Is it the in-game banter? What really keeps me coming back are those moments of clarity where, suddenly, everything makes sense…

Being new to the game, I get these ‘eureka moments’ nearly every time I play. It’s great to be able to play for an hour or so and know that, in some small way, my understanding of Magic will be better by the end of it.

I’d like to tell you about one of those little revelations I had the other day. It didn’t come as a complete surprise to me, but still; it’s something that I think rarely gets talked about, but is nevertheless a crucial part of the game. It’s something everyone does, sometimes without even realizing.

It’s bluffing.

Now, just telling you that bluffing goes on in the game is not going to set your world on fire. Even saying that you can pretty well guess what an opponent is going to do by how much and what sort of lands they leave untapped is probably news to no-one. What struck me a while ago was just how much information goes back and forth between the players during a game. Manipulating this flow of information to your advantage makes it easy to misinform your opponent and force them into acting predictably, and even making mistakes. Perhaps more importantly, knowing something about what your opponent is going to do next gives you valuable insight into what your course of action should be. That’s the real aim of this article; to give all you fellow new players out there a few tips on how to outwit your virtual nemesis.

What might your opponent’s actions be telling you, and what should you do about it? The way to deal with any information situation is to ask yourself three questions: what’s the worst that could happen? What’s the best that could happen? What will happen if I do nothing?

“I’ve got a removal spell!”

This is an easy one. If you have played creatures earlier in the game and your opponent leaves some lands untapped (especially Swamps or Mountains), there’s a good chance he has some sort of instant speed removal spell, and is just waiting for you to loving place your favorite minion on the board so he can zap it with a Lightning Bolt or rend its flesh. What to do, what to do…

Presumably the worst case scenario here is that you tap out for something big and scary, and your opponent calmly dispatches it with a cheap burn spell before you get chance to attack. That’s something we’re all familiar with, and it certainly stings, but think about it like this: you played one card, and your opponent played one card to get rid of it; no disadvantage there. There could be some disadvantage in terms of quality; if this is a very important creature you only have access to one or two of, then you might be reluctant to trade it for your opponent’s ten-a-penny Lightning Bolt wannabe. There’s also a potential tempo disadvantage; you spend your turn doing something that your opponent nullifies instantly, during your own turn. It’s almost as if you hadn’t taken a turn at all! This can be a serious issue in competitive tournament games where the best deck archetypes are played often and games can be decided by Turn 3 or 4; but in the Casual room, where decks are slower and pilots less ruthless, there’s every chance that your opponent might not be able to make good use of their ‘free’ turn.

This kind of scenario is a key example of why you should not let your opponent call the shots. Consider the two different types of advantage your opponent might be looking to gain through using his removal spell; card quality and tempo. If you do nothing, he instantly gains that tempo advantage, and next turn, when you want to think about casting your creature again, guess what? The threat of that removal spell is still there. Worst of all, there might not even be a removal spell, just the suggestion of one; if that’s the case, you will have thrown your turn away for absolutely no reason.

The best case scenario is that your opponent doesn’t have the removal after all, or at least doesn’t use it; you call his bluff, and gain a tempo advantage. In this situation it certainly looks like doing nothing is not an option; so, given a wider variety of options, what should you do to make use of the information your opponent has given you? Well, if your opponent really does have a removal spell in hand, you can turn the tables and make him do the thinking; play a smaller, less important creature first. This way your opponent might be tricked into wasting his removal spell on it, clearing the way for your monster next turn; or if not, at least you have made something of your turn, rather than wasting it. Best of all, you might be able to sneak in a whole host of little beasts while your opponent blithely waits for the behemoth… that might never come! In the same vein, if you have a non-creature spell that’s worth playing, now might be a good time.

“I’m holding a counter spell!”

If your opponent routinely leaves Islands untapped, there’s a good chance he has a counter spell or two. You should treat counter spells basically the same way you treat removal; play through them. The main difference is that whereas the best burn and removal spells can be used on any creature, most counter spells have some sort of restriction on when and how they can be employed. This is especially true in Standard and Zendikar block. There’s a chance that your opponent might have the wrong kind of counter spell in hand for the threat you are about to play; this should encourage you to play more aggressively, if anything.

One other situation seems worth mentioning; in Pauper, the format I play most, there are a lot of good Control decks rattling round. Some of these use a mixture of bounce spells (those that return a card, usually of a specified type, to its owner’s hand) and counter spells; the idea is that if they do not have a counter spell at the time you cast your big fatty/key enchantment/vital artifact, they can wait until they find the right card then bounce it back into your hand. This forces you to cast it again, and they hit you with their counter spell. If your opponent bounces something that looks utterly pointless, this might be why. For example, I recently got caught out when my opponent bounced my Tortured Existence; I thought ‘well, that’s a waste of a spell!’ and immediately re-cast it, only to have it countered. I felt pretty silly.

“I have a combat trick!”

Combat tricks, in my opinion, present you with the best opportunity to misinform your opponent. Conversely, they also present the biggest misinformation trap for you to fall into! This is because although they are played at instant speed, they have to be played at a particular point in the turn, so this sets up a kind of expectation; moreover, each player has more information about how things are going to pan out at that point in the turn than any other (usually).

As well as your opponent leaving mana up, one tell-tale sign of an incoming combat trick is an unwise or pointless attack; if your opponent consigns a creature to the jaws of your defenders when there’s no conceivable way it could survive, let alone bump off one of your creatures, there’s a good chance he has a back up plan. Similarly if he chump blocks with a useful creature like a Noble Hierarch, you can be pretty confident there’s a trick up his sleeve.

So, what’s the worst that could happen? You end up losing a good creature, perhaps one that you’ve invested a lot of mana in in the form of levels or cards in the form of auras, whereas your dastardly opponent’s creature gets to fight another day. How bad this outcome really is will depend largely on the creatures involved, and what happens next. The advantage gained from a combat trick is primarily board position; the best use of a combat trick leaves the caster with more or better creatures than their opponent. It may be humiliating to have your Rapacious One ravaged by a turbocharged saproling, but once the dust settles, that feeble fungus isn’t going to be smashing your face in any time soon. If you can find a replacement before your opponent plays a bigger bully, then the loss could be negligible. On the other hand, if the creature left behind on your opponent’s side of the board is a bona fide threat in itself, then things won’t go so well for you.

The best case scenario here would be, once again, you turning the tables with a combat trick, counter or burn spell of your own! There is nothing more satisfying than waiting for your opponent to commit a creature to stemming the onslaught of your army, watching him grow it to giant proportions… Then cracking out a Jump, and watching your mighty monster sail gracefully over the head of his inflated, frustrated blocker and into his waiting face. Of course, this isn’t always an option; failing that, your best bet is to have a replacement creature in hand. Every remotely normal deck will run far more creatures than combat tricks (since most combat tricks target friendly creatures; the main exception being Fog effects, but they’re less destructive anyway) so his Giant Growth may be more valuable to him than your creature is to you.

Unlike the above examples, doing nothing when you think your opponent has a combat trick ready is a viable option, especially early in the game. If the cost of not blocking is going to be, at the worst, a few points of life in exchange for your opponent using a card, it’s probably worth letting him through. Of course, this has to be judged carefully; to illustrate this point, here’s an anecdote:

It’s a Standard Constructed game, around Turn 4; I have a Plated Geopede and a Llanowar Elves on the board, backed by two Forests and a Mountain, facing off against a Wall of Omens and a small flier on my opponent’s side. We’re both on 18 life. I have a hand full of bigger creatures I don’t have the mana to play yet, along with a Rampant Growth. So I can pump my insect to 3/3, but as it stands, there’s really no use attacking with it since my opponent can safely block it with his Wall. Then I have a devious idea; I could play the Rampant Growth and leave a Forest untapped. It would look exactly as if I have a combat trick in hand, and my opponent might choose not to block in case I do. Three points of free damage. Then I have a doubly devious idea; I click to cast the spell, then tap the two Forests, pause for a moment… then untap one, and tap the Mountain instead. Now it really looks like I have that Giant Growth! My opponent, as predicted, lets me through for three damage. In fact, over the next two turns I drew lands and he allowed me through for another six!

Now, let’s look at things from his point of view; clearly something’s gone wrong when you let someone beat you half to death for fear of losing a 0/4 wall. Perhaps he should have noticed that even if I did zap his defender, the board still looked pretty good for him; he had a small flier I couldn’t block, compared to my lonely Elves. Probably he should have decided that if his Wall drew a card out of me and blocked the Geopede, preventing a total of six points of damage, it had done it’s job anyway- not to mention that it had already replaced itself with a card in his hand. Certainly he should have realized that not blocking with a defender in case it gets destroyed is like not putting your umbrella up in case it gets wet.

It’s easy to criticize, but this is the kind of mistake I’ve seen people make, and made myself on many occasions. The moral of this story is not that you should ignore the possibility of your opponent having a sneaky combat trick, it’s that you should not let that information warp your judgements of how much your creatures are worth. Losing a creature feels like losing part of the game; you’ve tried to do something, and you’re opponent has stopped you. It’s important to get out of that way of thinking; certainly there are times when keeping a creature alive is critical to your winning the game, but more often than not, drawing a harmful spell out of your opponent’s hand early is just as useful as pushing through for a few points of damage. Equally, if you can use a little misinformation to cause you opponent to make a mistake like this, so much the better.

One last thing; I think it’s a very good idea to, every now and then, try to look at your actions from your opponent’s point of view and see what they might be able to tell about your intentions from what you are doing. Even if you do not change your game plan because of it, it’s still useful to know what the person on the other side of the board is thinking. Have you been leaving mana up for something? What color? Have you been making rash attacks, or been unwilling to block? All of this is knowledge, and you know what they say about knowledge…

That’s all, folks

Except, of course, nothing is that simple; the examples I have dealt with are drawn from my own experience, so no doubt yours will not exactly match mine. In particular, I should point out that I wrote this article from the point of view of playing mostly creature-based decks, not Control, and considering constructed matches, not draft, where the guidelines on how to evaluate card advantage, in particular, should be a little different. Even so, we could draw some key rules along the following lines:

1- Don’t let your opponent intimidate you into doing nothing.

2- Compare the best and worst case scenarios, and act accordingly.

3- Now and then, try to guess what your opponent thinks you’re up to; don’t be too predictable.

Hopefully the ideas in this article will help you explore the extra dimension of MTGO that goes on behind the scenes (or should that be behind the screens?), and keep tabs on the flow of information and misinformation.

Until next time; have fun.

Pete (AKA: Mephastopheles)

  1. I really enjoyed not only editing this (if such a thing could be said about such an airtight execution), but reading it as well. Great job, Peter, and welcome to The Academy roster!

  2. Nice article. I like your first piece of summary advice – don’t let your opponent intimidate you into doing nothing. Especially with regards to counter-magic – that has been an issue for me, but I think I’ve gotten it through my brain that I should just play through it, like you said. Good advice.

  3. Great article and welcome to the Academy family. Looking forward to more from you :)

  4. A nice article for the true beginner, I suppose. Or the overly cautious player.

    Remember: If you can’t beat something, assume your opponent doesn’t have it.
    This little rule has saved me many games. If you really can’t beat a counterspell, just play your creature. If you die if he has a kill spell, assume he doesn’t have it.
    Playing like he has it means you lose, so you might as well give yourself a chance of winning by assuming he doesn’t have your foil in his hand.

    It is *not* naive to play this way. You’re simply maximising your chances of winning. Even if he is telegraphing a counterspell by keeping islands open, if you lose when he has a counterspell, so be it. You’ll lose if you assume he has it and don’t play anything, too.

    Just a little additional tip for the cautious player :)