Last week, I was listening to Limited Resources, and they covered a topic I’ve been interested for some time: bluffing. Though not as important as tight technical play, bluffing adds a really interesting dimension to Magic that I think can be utilized to bolster your win percentage.
We most often think of bluffing in Magic when a player attacks a smaller creature into a larger one, for example a 2/2 into a 3/3. This prompts the defending player to consider the cards their opponent might have, and then to make a cost-benefit analysis of whether blocking will be advantageous or harmful overall to their chances at winning. This is an important aspect of the game, and does require a lot of skill and critical thinking, but the concept of bluffing goes far beyond this.
At its essence, bluffing is about using the knowledge you have about the board state, your opponent, and the format you’re playing to manipulate the knowledge your opponent has about your hand. Bluffing requires you to have an accurate understanding of all of these factors, and to utilize that information to compel your opponent to make sub-optimal plays over the course of a game and match. This can involve isolated incidents like the one used above, but it can also involve subtle manipulations of your opponent’s knowledge over an entire match!
The Board State
The information you and your opponent share about the board can be crucial for determining what you bluff and when. For example, if you have a 2/2 and your opponent has a 3/3, then only certain cards will be useful to represent. Representing Rallying Roar in this scenario doesn’t benefit you very much, because your opponent would get a 2-for-1 if you played it!
Skulduggery, on the other hand, is advantageous to represent, since you can attack into your opponent’s creature without losing your own. Consequently, when you intend to bluff a card, it must have a significant impact on the board state, otherwise your opponent has no reason to play around it.
Now, the case just mentioned is a scenario where it is reasonable to bluff with Skulduggery. If your opponent has a 2/1 and a 3/3, and you also have a 3/3, the effective value of your bluff increases dramatically. Here if you attack, your opponent would lose two creatures for 1 mana! At worst, you’ll be trading for a 3/3, so this is a scenario where the cost of attacking is very low for you, but the potential cost of blocking is extremely high for your opponent. In sum, the board state heavily influences the utility of representing combat tricks, and dramatically alters the likelihood of such a bluff being effective.
Understanding your opponent is a crucial aspect to bluffing. Players of disparate skill levels will think about board states very differently, and so the information you can gain from a bluff (and the information you give to your opponent!) varies based on how skilled they are.
For example, if you are playing against a relatively new player who has no mana available, and they block your 2/2 with their 3/3, it’s actually very difficult to ascertain why they are blocking. Is it because they don’t know Vampire’s Zeal is in the format? Is it because they want you to use up your combat trick so their larger creature can attack and block safely?
Effectively, when playing against a newer player, the information each of their decisions gives you is limited because there are a plethora of viable explanations for their play pattern. On the other hand, against a veteran player, if they block your 2/2 with their 3/3, the information is more constrained. It is likely, in this case, that they have larger creatures they want to preserve and that they don’t have access to instant-speed tricks for the following turns to take advantage of. Similarly, when you make this attack against a veteran player, they will gain information about your hand as well.
Whether or not your opponent will block in the first place depends on their skill level as well, and their decision will provide you with information regardless of the outcome! Understanding your opponent is crucial for effective bluffing, so be more cautious with your bluffs when you know little about your opponent!
As always, the context in which your match takes place is important for knowing when to bluff. This is also an important component to consider when evaluating your opponent’s skill level; if they are unfamiliar with the format, the effects of your bluffs will be harder to predict. Knowing the format gives you a better understanding of why your opponent makes the plays they do, which in turn influences what you anticipate they have in hand. Without knowledge of the format, you will have a very difficult time understanding the decisions your opponent makes, and consequently will not be able to determine when it is advantageous to bluff against them!
For example, if I am unaware that Settle the Wreckage is a card in Ixalan, and I am representing a combat trick to attack for lethal, then my bluff is completely ineffective because my opponent wants me to use that combat trick if I have it!
Bluffs can be an intriguing and fun part of playing Magic, but be careful that you know when it’s best to use them! What do you think, are bluffs an interesting part of the game or just something you have to play around? Comment below!