It Breaking Through: Information Warfare-Confidence
A topic I feel doesn’t get enough time in the spotlight, but deserves it, is the information battle going on during any given match of Magic. This encompasses everything from reading your opponent, to giving off tells, to misinformation. I think this is a topic much too broad to discuss in a single article, at least in any meaningful depth. However, periodically amongst my normal column I will be releasing these articles on Information Warfare, and in doing so hope to touch upon one small aspect of it at a time.
Today, I would like to begin with dictating what information you give off to your opponent. Before you can ever read an opponent, or walk them into an inferior play, you must first know how to stop them from doing just that to you. In learning this, you will also be able to discriminate between viable and reliable information and misinformation. Think of the entire system as a ladder you need to take one rung at a time. It is possible to jump rungs, but in doing so you invite the possibility of disaster.
The first piece of information you give off during any tournament happens before you ever sit down to shuffle up. I am talking about confidence. Your confidence level can be seen by potential future round opponents the minute you walk through the door. Even more important is you yourself will often subconsciously read into your confidence level before making plays or reads and use the returned confidence estimate to guide you into an appropriate level of play. That is to say someone who is less confident in any given day is more likely to keep worse hands or make bad plays on the assumption the correct play would require future correct plays to validate it, and they feel as though they cannot make that many correct plays.
Confidence is obviously important outside of the Magic world as well, in dating, job searching etc, and is therefore a vital life skill. Confidence is important to have but even more important is to portray an aura of confidence. Sometimes this show of confidence will be completely fake but to any observer it is just as real as anything.
This first thing to take note of when trying to exude this impenetrable aura of confidence strangely enough starts with your posture. Walking tall and proud with your chin in the air may sound like too much of a cliché to be true, but it actually presents yourself in a more confident manner. Maybe your opponent sees you waiting in line for pairings or has already been seated and manages to watch you walk to the table. Head down, skulking and intimidated is not the way you want to present yourself. This appears to be a small, if not non-issue, and to be honest, 80% of the time it will be. Your game will play out the same regardless because of deck superiority or mistakes made by an opponent. But other times, when your opponent looks across the table and remembers how confident you were as you sat down, he may put you on a play that even you don’t recognize yet. He may assume you are better than you actually are. Maybe he acknowledges that you’re a good enough player to sit back on a Resounding Silence that isn’t even in your hand and you get an entire turn to find an answer to his Feral Hydra.
These are all potential outcomes many players just brush off because they think them to be too fantasy driven, as if they would never actually happen to them. I however, have seen these things happen, both to me and to other players. They actually do exist and not solely next to the Lock Ness Monster.
So you have managed to walk proudly to your table whether truly confident or as a complete ruse and have sat down. What in-game behaviors can you do to lead your opponent to believe you are confident and thus in a better position regardless of what your actual position may be? It begins with the pace of play. There is no right or wrong pace for you to have, although I would obviously suggest not playing too slowly, but the trick here is to control the pace of the game.
I am a very fast player, often planning roughly 3 turns in advance of what I would like to do, shaping all possible game states in my head beforehand. Thus, I often will lead my opponent to play at my pace or at least faster than they are comfortable with. This must be done subtly however, as pestering your opponent will not provide you any advantage other than the small chance he may go on tilt. An example of controlling the pace of play: Your opponent is playing zoo and has just broken a fetchland for a Stomping Ground to play a Tarmogoyf. I will generally say something (remember to be subtle!) to the effect of “Done?” Or “You’re done right?” As I reach to untap my lands literally within a second of him playing the Goyf. He obviously has no more plays as he is tapped down and you want to restrict as much free time from him as you can to cut off potential future plays he may think of during that time. Again you cannot do this over and over and be rude, but gently issuing the game to move faster so long as you are comfortable at that pace will put your opponent on edge without them realizing it.
The reverse is true as well. Let’s assume you are a “deliberate” player who takes his time, although avoids slow play most of the time. Your opponent may ask if you are done when you clearly are not. It is now your job to push back and be authoritative. Saying something along the lines of “I will let you know when I am done,” can shrink an opponent to the equivalent of bite size. Often when an opponent plays a spell and immediately follows up with a second spell, I will let them know the first spell has not resolved yet and will let them know when I give them the OK they may move on to the second spell. I do this even when not playing with counter-magic, as it just gives me authority in the match. I play fast but I am willing to change pace to a much slower game if I can see my opponent is too comfortable with the fast pace.
Another thing that both gives off an aura of confidence and helps you to catch cheaters is to maintain a game state internally. Often you will hear players ask how many cards are in an opponent’s hand or how big a Goyf is, which is fine if needed, but it is so much more intimidating if you tell them how many cards they have. Rather than say “Cards in hand?” you may keep track of the cards in your opponents hand and say “4 cards in hand right?” This lets him know you mean business and are keeping track of both players’ situations. You have shown responsibility and confidence with a simple sentence. If you have lost track of the number of cards in his hand, look at them and try to count them before asking, but if you remain unsure of how many there are, it is ultimately better to ask him how many he has rather than blindly guess. Being wrong shows that you have gotten sloppy and may have made a few bad decisions already based on wrong information. This hurts more than helps in the long run.
Those of you who play poker may be aware of the common sentiment that a player who messes up shuffling his or her chips is often less experienced than an avid chip shuffling pro. This idea carries over to Magic although obviously not with chips. Players often shuffle around cards in their hand and flip them back and forth. While this is fine, I suggest doing so consistently. If you wish to shuffle around your cards, do so in various situations as to not give away any tells. If you are caught only shuffling your hand around on your opponent’s turn, you are giving off information you would rather not. I personally enjoy putting my hand on the table face down, folding my arms, and staring at my opponent directly in the eyes. This will often make him feel uncomfortable and rushed, which of course leads to play mistakes. Just as in poker though, avoid shuffling around your cards if you feel as though you may drop one or something similar, as that hurts your reputation much more than any of the shuffling had helped.
Permanent placement has its various inclinations as far as confidence is concerned as well. Players who stack all of their lands into one pile or have some lands upside down will automatically be thought of as weaker players and have given up their confidence edge in the match. Try to keep your lands in piles of 3 or 4 for easy management for yourself unless something else would provide an advantage. This does not mean putting all 4 islands in one pile, with all 4 swamps next to it, and then your 2 Faerie Conclaves and 2 Mutavaults in a 3rd pile. Often mixing up some of your lands will make an opponent get a bad read on your lands and miscount your man-lands. Regardless of that fact, the piles of 3 or 4 provide many more benefits than any other random piles will generally provide. I will provide an example:
Island Swamp Island Swamp
Swamp Swamp Faerie Conclave Mutavault
Mutavault Faerie Conclave Island Island
In this scenario you still have organization of your lands but also make your opponent take some time to realize exactly what you have. You have maximized your image while also maximizing information advantage. In the one pile situation, you have made your opponent take the time to figure out exactly what lands you have, but have also given the impression that you don’t know what you’re doing. And in the 4 Island, 4 Swamp 4 Man-lands scenario, you have shown that you’re a neat and seasoned player, but have given your opponent a shortcut to determining plays and may have even given away that you are not at the maximum level of play. This is because most high level players will see the above laid out land formation as being the most optimal.
Along these same lines is having a distinct area for creatures aside from enchantments, artifacts etc. These all seem very minor but in conjunction with one another begin to add percentage points to your game over a long tournament. Looking professional is such a valuable asset that gets overlooked in the Magic world. When someone goes to a job interview, they do not dare show up in a ragged t-shirt and jeans that sit just a little too low on the waist (you know what I am talking about). Why then is it OK to show up to a Magic tournament in that type of attire. Don’t get me wrong, you are free to do whatever you want, but “whatever you want” will not add anything to your game. Looking professional has just as many benefits as actually being professional.
So what comes beyond having a confident posture and organizing yourself in a professional manner? Well the most important thing to keeping your aura of confidence at a lasting level happens after the game is over. Let’s say you have just lost in nail-biter; how many times have you seen someone in this position rattle off how if only they hadn’t mulliganed or had drawn any of 24 outs they would have won? Well sure, your opponent knows that. That is Magic. Games are made or broken on the smallest of advantages we are all familiar with. Take your loss in stride. Wish your opponent luck or whatever you feel is appropriate and move on. It is fine to talk about certain plays you were unsure of during the game, but letting your opponent know if you drew perfectly just makes you look whiny and insecure. Letting your confidence slip won’t actually alter the game that has just past, but it will alter any other matches you have throughout the day and surely will affect the opponent’s perception of you if you ever happen to face him again.
The fact is every game of Magic will end in someone losing and someone winning (or drawing) and no matter how poorly you drew or how many times you mulliganed, your opponent only cares he got the win. You may be looking for sympathy or pity, but a more confident player wouldn’t be. This player understands someone had to lose, and rather than focus on things outside of his control, he will search for plays or errors he could have done differently throughout the match.
You may not realize it but searching for excuses immediately following a game is only going to hurt you in the future. You may walk yourself into similar mistakes due to the fact you never realized they were mistakes because you were too busy figuring out how your deck screwed you. Carry your head high, other people will notice.
The inverse is true as well. How often have you noticed someone win only to rub it into an opponent’s face or get overly excited? Unless you have just finished winning the PTQ or whatever, there is no reason to cheer for yourself. You still have matches left to play and by celebrating you are selling your future short. Sure you have done well and you can internally recognize that. But it is much more intimidating to any opponents you may soon face if you act as though you were SUPPOSED to win. You may not have felt this way the entire match, but now that it is over, act as though you knew the win was in the bag the entire time. This gives off an extremely high level of confidence and makes you look ten times bigger than you actually are. You would never approach a girl to ask for a date, and immediately upon her saying yes, cheer and shout like crazy. She would rescind her offer due to your foolish nature. Other Magic players look at you in this same way.
Again, and I cannot reiterate this enough, it is not always actually feeling these things that make them work, rather simply demonstrating them to the outside world gives you that edge. Those other people have no idea whether or not you actually felt a certain way during a match and therefore must base any opinions of you solely on your behavior. Looks can be deceiving and you should use this to your advantage.
Some of the things I have noted here may seem odd or obscure or even not related to your confidence level at all, but I assure you everything adds up and gives you an aura of excelled confidence in the end. Confidence is of course not the only thing you should master to maintain a positive information flow between you and any opponents you may sit across from but it is a vital starting point.
Of course all of that said, there are also ways to manipulate the above to work in reverse order. This is a skill very few players will ever get to and thus, I will only touch on it as to help make you aware of it. High level players may whine after a match or approach the table with a bowed head to give off the impression they are not at all confident. This is all a ploy to get you to drop your guard and play them as though they were worse.
The only real way to combat this is to pay close attention to them and try to distinguish between genuine behaviors and those ones doctored for personal gain. This is a tough challenge for someone who has just learned how to show his own confidence, but it is a point you will eventually move towards once you are comfortable in your own skin. Do not try to get too fancy and pull these tactics before mastering the ability of showing confidence, as one misstep while feigning weakness will undo all of the work you have spent months building up. That is to say, it generally is not worth it unless you are 100% confident (ironic?) in your confidence skills.
As I noted, scattered amongst my regularly articles, I will continue to talk about Information Warfare and other tactics you can do to win the battle. My contact information is below if you would like to reach me. In addition, I keep up with all of the show comments and respond often so feel free to drop a line there. Good luck with the final weeks of the PTQ season and continued standard battling at FNMs. I won the individual portion of last weeks Front Range Magic Team Challenge and will post a short section on that tournament below if you are interested.
Bonus Section: North Side Swans at the FRM Team Challenge.
As many of you know through various other podcasts on this wonderful site, including Road Warrior Otwell and Djinns Playground, nine days ago was the Front Range Magic Team Challenge. This was basically a cash tournament with a twist. Five captains were chosen throughout the state to represent their region and head a team of four into battle against the other teams, as well as any individuals who wished to form their own teams. I was chosen as the North Side captain and armed my team of Sean Conway, Chad Juarez and James Duke with a spicy little Swans deck we had finalized during testing. We had not been able to find any deck that dominated the field until we made some radical changes to Shuhei Nakumura’s Swans list. We had determined some of the card choices were hurting the deck more than helping and did not like all of the disynergy in the deck.
For instance, Tidings would only ever tap you down on your turn, when you would much rather sit back on counter-magic or Volcanic Fallouts. Incinerate was fairly underwhelming, but we could tell that the spot removal was needed somehow. Mutavaults were messing up our manabase much too often, not allowing early Seismic Assaults, etc. In addition, Plumveils had their purpose, but they often turned on opponent’s creature removal, had no synergy with Swans, and died to double Pyroclasm effects. With that and much more including a shady sideboard in mind, we arrived at the following:
|Lands:4 Cascade Bluffs
|Spells:4 Volcanic Fallout
This deck was playing out amazingly, and through a few innovative strategies in various matchups, was beating basically everything. Blightning was about 50/50 game one depending on who was on the play, but four Swerve and the Masticores made the sideboarded games much better. The one matchup we did not want to see was Dark Bant but I was fine with one bad matchup that was a tier 2 deck.
Flame Javelin and Banefire cement your burn plan against the control decks while acting as good removal against aggro. In addition, Javelin can just go to your Swans to act as an instant speed Tidings, which is cool. The fourth Volcanic Fallout is awesome. Six or seven Pyroclasm effects makes sure you will see one often enough, but a lot of the time you actually want two to tag team up and kill bigger things. This, coupled with the fact that it is uncounterable damage to go with the new burn suite, made the fourth Fallout an automatic inclusion. Additionally, because you don’t have Plumveils to randomly eat some creature removal, and the fact that Swans is just awesome, we decided to go up to the full four there.
The sideboard was awesome and a huge improvement over Shuhei’s list. Razormane Masticore makes the aggro matchups become much easier, and is obviously the nuts with a Swans down. Swerve started out as a two of and grew in numbers as we tested. We had more Negates, etc, but against 5 Color, Swerve is basically a Negate anyway that also counters sideboarded Banefires from them (and by counters I mean blows them out). But the real reason Swerve is a four of is because of Blighting and the mirror match. In the mirror you need to deal with their burn and counterspells, which Swerve conveniently does double duty on. And against Blightning, forking over a Blightning is just game, and redirecting a Flame Javelin is sick too.
Faeries were easily 70-30 with Flame Javelin and Banefire making the matchup much better than the previous Plumveils and Tidings. This way we were killing Mistbind Cliques or going to the face with Flame Javelin and waiting them out to drop a huge Banefire. We actually WANT our Faerie opponents to drop a turn 2 Bitterblossom, which is an awesome feeling.
The R/W and B/W matchups were both favorable with only a few scary cards in each deck, like Ajani Goldmane and Glorious Anthem. 5 Color was literally a bye. I won’t give away all of my secrets as I am not sure what I will be playing come Grand Prix Seattle, but I will let you know if you are losing even 15% of your games to 5 Color with this deck, you should seek out a different strategy. I went 3-0, 6-0 against 5 Color in the actual tournament and testing was even better, something like 24-1.
So I ended up going 8-0 on the day, only losing a single game all day in round 1 to 5 color Planeswalkers. You will notice no draws in that record because of the awesome format. Your teams combined record determined the final team standings and allowed the top two teams to do a heads up draft for the team money and prizes. This had the 6-1 and 2-4 competitors still battling on equal footing come round eight just trying to get their team those last few points. My team ended up finishing third overall out of 19 teams (Quite a few individuals played without a team though). Fellow Fort Collins team “On a Boat” ended up winning the team portion and I finished first in the individual portion. For more coverage of the event you can go here. Overall it was an awesome event.
If Dark Bant continues its surge, this deck needs a few answers in the board, like control magic effects (NOT SOWER!!). But otherwise, if you enjoy all out control, I recommend this list for your FNMs. Ok, I won’t go into any more depth for a somewhat unimportant format, but I just wanted to send this out as an update and to get the list out there. Until Next time, TRA LA LA, I’m out.
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