My last article talked about making the right play analyzing all the possibilities, today instead I’ll talk about how to narrow them down! It might be counterintuitive at first, but one factor that makes the difference between good and great players is managing signals.
The signals we are looking for are everywhere, from the first land we play to the last card we pass on a draft, being keen about them is crucial to get an edge in the match. Magic, as we all know, unlike chess, is a game with an unknown component, reading the signals (and of course avoiding sending them) is a way to decrease this grade of uncertainty.
Reading Opponent’s Signals
To explain better what a signal is I’ll walk through some examples with Standard, Modern and Limited. From now onwards a * will be used to address unlikely scenarios given the context.
Standard – OTP Llanowar Wastes, go
What does this mean? Well first of all we have to try to understand which deck we’re up against.
In the current Standard the options are Abzan aggro/control/whip*, Sultai control/whip*, GB whip*, others**. Usually GB based decks have at least 6-7 scrylands + 3-4 Thoughtseize. Should we assume then that he doesn’t have either of those? Of course not. Scryng is far more valuable when you know what your opponent is playing and firing Thoughtseize on the play, especially if you are not curving out perfectly, is not a good idea in Standard.
So far then we have different scenarios, we can’t be sure about anything but it’s worth to keep them in mind for the next turns. If next turn our opponent will play another untapped land and say go again we can put him on a light land hand with no Thoughtseize (since a scryland would be already in play at this stage).
Here comes a much stronger signal, why did he keep his hand? Turn 1-2 plays often define the actual seven a player keeps, so what should we expect?
Assuming the opponent kept a reasonable hand we can put him on a strong hand but light in lands so if we see a Courser of Kruphix on turn 3 we already know if it’s worth killing it or not. On the contrary if the opponent goes t2 scryland + Thoughtseize we can’t deduce anything aside the fact that he knows what is doing. This might helps us in case we would be in doubt about bluffs or plays that could appear as a mistake.
Standard – GB Constellation against UW Control
This happened to me while playing before Fate Reforged was out.
UW Control has never been a great deck in the meta so I didn’t have a solid grasp on what it might play. I already won game one and game two I had a Pharika, God of Affliction in play and I was unsure if I wanted to commit more on the board by playing Whip of Erebos. I was well used to playing against UB Control, a match-up pretty tough for the presence only of Perilous Vault and I wasn’t sure if my opponent was also running a couple of those alongside End Hostilities.
I didn’t see any sweeper game one but he removed a permanent through Banishing Light. That was a clear signal of no presence at all of Perilous Vault because of the clear nombo between the two cards. I went for the Whip and took the game.
Modern – Abzan vs. RG Tron
I won game 1 and game two my opponent is under a severe beating from my lone Siege Rhino (I guess is around 9 life or something like this). He has been in top-deck mode for a couple of turns and he has plenty of mana, while I was holding 3-4 cards. One turn he went Wurmcoil Engine + Oblivion Stone with four mana up. I gently played Path to Exile on the Wurm and Maelstrom Pulse on the Stone and attacked with Rhino again. It looks like a normal turn but my opponent didn’t read a signal I gave him a couple of turns earlier.
With my Liliana of the Veil I discarded a Path to Exile because I had three of those stuck in my hand, so I must be a total idiot* to discard my only solution to one the most problematic card in the match-up. In the end he lost to my Rhino that could have been easily dispatched by Oblivion Stone without playing Wurmcoil Engine that turn.
Using Signals – Bluffing
Giving the wrong signals to the opponent sometimes might be very rewarding. I’m not saying we should bluff every time but there are clear situations where bluffing gets us a real advantage.
Modern – Playing UR Twin
Usually I have played against Twin and them having three mana up was a nightmare for me because I had to spend the entire turn being afraid of the combo.
I recently started playing the other side and at first I didn’t realize how important this factor was, and if I didn’t have the combo I was just progressing my way through Serum Visions or other spells. After a couple of games it was clear to me though that representing the combo is a huge factor and also a pretty good strategy to gain some tempo, although be aware of the fact that you shouldn’t auto-play your third turn, sometimes you need to deviate from this rule.
Just be aware how important it can be in a scenario to represent a turn four kill.
Triple Theros Limited – Playing UG against White-Something Heroic
This happened in a team draft against one of my closest friend and Limited specialist. I have to say that I’m really proud of the logic of this play even if it might seem pretty standard.
It’s my third turn and I’m facing a freshly-cast Fabled Hero, and I have absolutely no way to deal with him especially if pumped with an aura the next turn. My only drop in play is a Voyaging Satyr and I don’t have a two drop to bluff a Voyage’s End, so the choice is between playing a drop or keep up mana to bluff a Griptide.
Usually this is a pretty bad play because he can simply untap, bash, and cast something else getting us virtually time-walked and unless we play the all the game with four mana up he just need to wait the proper time to enchant his creature.
In my hand though I had Prophet of Kruphix so I could easily represent Griptide for the rest of the game while advancing my board at instant speed. I declined to play anything and pass with five cards in hand representing my four mana bounce spell and he bashed and passed without adding anything to the board. I slammed my Prophet of Kruphix and developed my game from that point after. The game slowed down to a point where I was able to stabilize and threaten to kill him but unfortunately I wasn’t able to find any solution so before he died he went all in with a God’s Willing naming green on the Hero and taking the game.
Modern – UR Twin against Amulet Bloom
This happened during the coverage of Gran Prix Vancouver. Paul Cheon is playing Twin and during game one passes his turn after a tapped Steam Vents. The opponent replies with a Cavern of Souls naming Merfolk and passes back to Paul who casts a Serum Visions. That’s a perfect example of free misdirection since the plan is to get the Cavern back with a Bounce Land anyway.
Aside from the fact that Paul might have wasted already a Serum Visions scrying the wrong cards, he also might be inclined to tap out knowing he can’t counter opponent’s Merfolk and lead the way open for the Amulet of Vigor + Summer Bloom combo.
As I showed you there are a lot of situations where we can collect free information that can really help us making the better play and can save us some cerebral energy; yes, at the end of the day even that is a factor. At the same time we have to prevent giving away too much information to our opponents, the less they are uncertain the more we can navigate towards the game.
About bluffing I think with should not spend too much time into it, I do believe that right technical plays are still the best but sometimes it doesn’t cost anything to misdirect our opponent.
Until the next time,