Getting Ahead Part 2 - Bluffs
Like in every other card game with hidden information, Bluffs are a strategic part of Magic. If you want to have success at Magic Tournaments, you need to understand what kind of bluffs your opponents will use, how to identify them, and how to make use of them yourself while minimizing risk.
What is a Bluff?
A bluff is an attempt to deceive someone into believing that one is capable of doing something they are not capable of doing. More specifically, you want your opponent to believe that you're holding a certain card – or not holding a specific card – in order to get an advantage. Note that this is only possible if there is hidden information. If you don't have any unknown handcards, you won't be able to make your opponent believe you have some specific card. If your opponent knows your deck, you can't make them play around Lava Axe if there is none in your deck.
The Worst Bluff in Magic
Probably the most popular bluff is to not play out your last land cards. The theory is, that you probably won't need those excess lands anyway and by keeping some hidden information in your hand, you keep your opponent wondering what spells you might still be holding. While this is a certainly useful practice in some games, one should definitely not do it in every game. I've watched so many games where players lost because they kept too many lands in their hand. What people struggle to do correctly about this bluff is figuring out how much mana they might need in future turns. They keep drawing lands in the late-game with nothing to do with their mana and keep multiple lands in their hand in order to "bluff" better cards. However, smart opponents will try to exclude impossible cards from your hidden cards whenever they get the chance to obtain information about your cards anyway. For that reason, the benefit of keeping excess lands in your hand gets smaller as the experience level of your opponents rises. At the same time, you can run into some troubles if you're playing cards that let you draw multiple cards or if you have some mana sinks that let you spend big amounts of mana by not playing out enough lands. For example, late in the game, you draw your Divination. You cast it and draw Shivan Dragon, but you don't have access to nine mana since you figured your most expensive spell costs six mana, why should you play out more than seven lands? Now you need to wait for a full turn to cast your Dragon and that might cost you the game.
The Costs of Bluffing
As you saw in my last example, a bluff can cost you. In fact, most of the time, you will have to commit to a certain risk or at least lose something along the way to make your bluff even possible. Therefore, you should always consider the possible gains through your bluff and weigh them against the costs to run the bluff. This is also important because the costs of your bluff also decide how likely your opponent will fall for it in many situations. Imagine you're attacking on your third turn of the game with your 2/2 creature into your opponent's Wildgrowth Walker. The cost of this attack is that your creature will be tapped and unable to block the Wildgrowth Walker on the backswing. Since it's not certain yet if you have another blocker for the Walker or if he even attacks back the cost of this bluff is 1 life point at most. (Maybe 2 if the opponent explores, but let's keep it simple) For that reason, a block is very likely to occur despite your bluff. Sure, the reason for your attack could be Fungal Infection but in most cases, there will be no Trick and the reason will be that the attack is almost for free. If, however, your creature was 2/1 and not 2/2 - which means it would die without trick if the Wildgrowth Walker blocks – the cost for this bluff has increased dramatically and your opponent will have a harder time deciding if it's worthwhile blocking as you're basically saying: I have the answer and if you catch me lying, I lose my creature with absolutely zero benefit" Still, your opponent will also consider other factors like his current life total (which could still be very high), the value of his Wildgrowth Walker and how devastating Fungal Infection might be later in the game.
A Grizzly Bluff
You're attacking your Grizzly Bears into your opponent's untapped Giant Spider to make them think you have Giant Growth. They're at five life points and block. You don't have Giant Growth. Your Bears are gone. Maybe you sold them on having the trick with your attack. Maybe they thought "Damn I can't do a thing about this Giant Growth, I need to block." It's not only about obvious stuff like this. Try to think about your opponent's perspective. Put yourself in their shoes. What resources look important to them? Is their life total under pressure or do they fear the instant more than they value your creature? They can't fall for your bluff if they don't have the luxury to play around your card.
Let's say you're playing against someone who doesn't know all the cards because he's new to the game or hasn't studied the new set thoroughly yet. Those players have natural protection from bluffs since they sometimes won't get which card you're trying to represent. Again, you're attacking your Grizzly Bears into their Giant Spider. They block. Of course, do they block. Why wouldn't they eat your Bears with their Spider? What is Giant Growth? Interestingly, the value of a bluff also goes down significantly as your opponent's experience level goes up. The best players exactly know when they can afford to play around a card and when they need to bite the bullet and just play into your cards. Advanced and eager players that know all the cards but are afraid to lose in embarrassing or obvious ways are the best victims for bluffs. They will try to play around your cards – or the cards you're representing – the most and in spots where they shouldn't. Adapt your bluffs to your opponent's experience.
Bluffs are very interesting and you can certainly win more games by mastering this technique but be aware that you can throw away games by overdoing it or by missing out on a simple detail while executing your Disinformation Campaign. The fact that we draw a random and hidden grip of fresh cards every game makes Magic interesting, at least for me. Trying to gather information and use that information keeps the game challenging as well. Try to put yourself into your opponent's shoes more often and you'll find plenty of opportunities to take advantage of that hidden information, but make sure you're aware of the ways this can backfire.
Tell me in the comments about famous bluffs you've watched or done yourself and if you liked reading about this topic.
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