By Conley Woods
Last time I introduced this idea of changing your game based on how you perceive your opponent and gave a few ways in which to avoid that. But I was not able to get as in depth as I would have liked and will continue that discussion again here. A few of my friends noted that they thought the article basically said to stay cool during any given game of Magic. While this is part of what was said, it only addresses a one sided approach to the topic.
Lets go back to the example of the dragon deck kid. Is it realistic to think that staying cool in this match is what would have kept you from picking up an unnecessary loss? Obviously not, in actuality, the problem was that you played it too cool, assuming that a win was already granted. Now lets move to you sitting down across from a pro and cornering yourself by “just being happy to be there.” Once again, this is an example of you simply being too cool. Still, moving towards the opposite side of the spectrum, when you begin to exert yourself too much, attempting to make plays or reads that are simply outside of your comfort zone, now is the right time to “keep it cool.”
So why is it such a bad thing to change your approach to a game based on what your opponent is doing or has accomplished? Well the first thing to point out, is that when you do this, you have given you opponent all of the power in the match. You have forfeited your right to even be at the table. Magic is played with 2 people and when you defer to you opponent to control the tempo, skill output, and overall direction of the match, you have put yourself into such a hole that aside from some factor outside of either player’s control, such as if your opponent keeps an awesome hand and rips 10 lands in a row off the top, you cannot hope to win the match. You have made yourself out to be a self-created victim and your opponent surely couldn’t be happier.
To illustrate this point, because I am sure a lot of you are just assuming that this doesn’t ever really happen and is all just some theory mumble jumble, I would like to bring up a happening from Grand Prix L.A. It is day 1, and I am in the X-1 bracket, I can’t recall an exact round but that is irrelevant. I sit down and as is usual with me, I try to get some information from my opponent and to do this (a topic for another time) I begin to get him talking. I simply say, quite innocently mind you, that he looks like an aggro player. During our mulliganing he opens his hand and has this look of awe for a brief second, the kind of face where he clearly has the nuts. So I quickly change my statement and say something along the lines of, “I change my prediction to faeries, because that hand looks like the kind of hand with a turn 1 ancestral visions in it.” He leads with a first turn fetchland and passes, and I of course don’t mind. I simply was making him feel comfortable by talking, not actually trying to get a read on him, as it has little to no relevance at that point in the game. But then something amazing happened, as he played a breeding pool tapped on turn 2, and suspended an ancestral visions. I figure he has just ripped it off the top, but before I say anything he tells me, ” I actually had that in my opening hand, but I couldn’t do you the justice of making you right so I figured I’d wait a turn.” At this point I am jumping out of my seat and ask him a few more questions to see if he was joking or serious, and come to the conclusion that he is in fact, telling the truth.
Now some may think I am happy at this point because I have guessed a card in his hand blind, and sure thats nice that I was able to read his face, but hardly game altering. The actual reason I am excited is that with just the use of some small talk, I was able to not only walk my opponent into making a strictly inferior play, but I now control the outcome of the match. I have established myself as the dominant player, and this individual may not of even known who I was beforehand. Do not allow yourself to fall prey to someone else regardless of what they say, do, or the reputation that they have. Each player starts on equal footing, and to give up even an inch is just robbing yourself of an opportunity to win.
We are getting slightly away from completive resistance at this point but all of these concepts share some crucial ground that end up working together. Everyone is familiar with the concept of choosing your deck role, as was illustrated in “Who’s the Beatdown,” but what many people do not understand is that the exact same concept can be applied to the human interaction area of Magic. To those of you who exclusively play MODO, this idea has less of an impact, and is why I enjoy the live, social, magic more than any computer program, but never the less I am sure there is something to be taken away here. Just as I had established myself as the dominant player in the above example, my opponent, almost assuredly unwantingly, assigned himself the role of the the dominated, or weak, or suppressed player. He effectively misassigned his role on the interaction level, and therefore has a weaker chance of winning the game because of it.
Going back to the idea of competitive resistance, the player who nonchalantly assumes victory because his opponent appears to be weak, also had misassigned his role. He has placed himself as winning a match of which not a single card has been played, based solely on the appearance of his opponent. Likewise, the player staring across from a pro, assigns himself the role of “Grateful participant” but never really gives himself a shot at winning.
A player who’s ultimate goal is that of winning, cannot allow any outside force to alter their starting chance of that outcome. There will of course be in game situations in which you lose, but the out of game situations are those that should never be compromised. My opponent allowed such a silly statement of guessing a card in his hand to force him into an inferior play. (The kicker here is that I was able to resolve a turn 2 bitterblossom due to his lack of counter mana and that fine little tribal enchantment won me the game.) I am sure that my opponent rationalized that allowing me to be right meant that I would feel better about winning the match, when in actuality, while that may have had a small impact, the ultimate outcome gave me astronomically more confidence than any random card guess would have. He showed weakness and I was able to recognize this and jump on it.
The summation of all of the points outlined in these last two articles is pretty simple: Do not allow your opponent in any way to alter your skill output, style, or attitude. There are of course, some tricks to be used that once you have mastered the above, allow you to actually use the opposite to your advantage, in essence, feigning weakness. But those all come in time and until then, it is important to simply block any negative outcomes from the interaction.
I am not implying that you be cold to your opponent, or completely shut them out though. There are definitely ways to be friendly and nice without giving your opponent a window into your mind. You should definitely interact with them in a way that makes you feel comfortable, but simply do not allow them to dictate what makes you feel comfortable. A good example of this comes from Regionals 2007 when a friend and teammate who was playing Dragonstorm sat down for his first round. I had helped him with his list and he had a couple of maindeck quickens and an empty the warrens. His opponent destroys him game 1 playing mono-white control. Then in game 2, my friend goes off for 4 dragon copies and begins to pick up his deck when his opponent mentions that if its easier for him, he can just show his hand and prove that there aren’t any dragons in it. My friend having one card in hand, realizes that he can save some time and quickly flips over the empty the warrens in his hand. His opponent then insisted that he go find the Dragons anyway. Of course, watching his opponent sideboard is a painful process for me as he brings back in the Wrath of Gods that he had sided out, and proceeds to win game 3 after my friend goes off for 12 goblins on turn 2 due to one of those Wraths on turn 4.
The situation seemed innocent enough, “Hey he just wants to save me some time!” At the end of the day, each person wants to win, and you cannot assume that your opponent will not use any and all information you provide them as a tool to win. My friend had allowed his opponent to grab the reins and control the fate of the match all because he fell into the nice guy trap. He perceived his opponent as having good intentions on both of their behalves and thus made a poor decision, when in reality, his opponent only had his own best interest at heart, which will generally be the case.
There are of course, exceptions to every rule, but keeping all of these things in mind while you play will help shield you from bending to any outside influence that you do not wish to be associated with. There is no hard and fast rule that I can give you that will prevent you from ever being the victim to one of these cases, but the best advice that I can give you is just to stay vigilant. Do not ever leave your comfort zone. Most people would assume that being overly friendly or what not is inside of their comfort zone, and if this were a party or speed dating, they may be right. But remember to adjust your comfort zone to the setting, which in this case, is a competitive outing. You want to figure out what actions and speech you can give off that provide enough information to fit your personality and play style while restricting yourself from going past your threshold. Each person has a different threshold and a good place to figure out where yours is in during play testing.
Have a friend watch you during games and tell you when you are giving off too much information or when you shell up and don’t give off enough. If you normally are talkative and friendly but all of a sudden after ripping some card you go into silent serious mode, your opponent will pick up just as much information from that as if you were playing with your hand face up.
Ultimately, information, skill output, and play style, are all facets of your game which can, but shouldn’t be dictated by your opponent and any perceptions you have of that individual. You built the deck, traveled to the tournament, and paid the entry fee, so why is it OK that you allow your opponent to play your game for you.
Hopefully this went a little more in depth than the last article as I was able to focus primarily on the subject matter as opposed to the standard biographical stuff. I will be going over the art of sideboarding next time due to a special request by Chris from Kentucky. But for now I am off to Grand Prix Chicago where I fully expect to finish highly. Again, thank you for reading and please comment below or send me an email, and I will try to answer everyone’s questions. Until next time, TRA LA LA, I’m out.
P.S. Thanks for all the positive feedback!