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Gauging an Opponent


This article was originally published on 4 September 2011 and forms part of the Blackborder Classics series.

About Jonathan Randle

Jonathan Randle
Jonathan Randle

After an 8 year break from Magic I won English Nationals at my first attempt in 2008. Since then I've made made the top 8 of Nationals 2010, Grand Prix Birmingham 2008 and Worlds 2010. I have a deep passion for control decks and have a reactive, stoic and philosophical approach to the game.

  • 52 Lifetime Pro Points
  • Top 8 Worlds 2010
  • Top 8 GP Birmingham 2008
  • Great Britain National Champion 2008
  • Top 4 Great Britain Nationals 2010

Gauging an Opponent

Gauging the strength of your opponent is an important skill in Magic. It can dictate the line of play you choose, and can be the difference between winning and losing. As soon as you sit down to battle, you should be trying to assess their strength, their knowledge and their skill.

You can learn from how they hold their cards, how they tap their mana, how they draw, and even how they compose themselves. In this article, I’ll endeavor to talk about a few of these things and hopefully express how to hide information of your own abilities from your opponent.

How They Compose Themselves

I have found that the strongest players are the calmest ones. This isn't always the case, as there are some very strong players out there who will be very animated, occasionally aggressive and imposing - but this style is usually a guise that tries to mask their inner composure as well as a tactic to throw you off yours. I won't spend much time talking about these kinds of players, but it is important to differentiate between the guys that are tilting and the guys who want to make you think they are. To do this though, you have to judge their skill by how they are playing.

Information Dealer
Onslaught (Foil)

The calm players, on the other hand, the ones who sit relaxed and comfortable even in the face of an overwhelming board position, the ones who patiently wait for you to pass priority and casually accept your spells resolution, are ones to watch out for. They have a hidden strength and advantage. That is that they are difficult to read. You may have lethal on board, but hesitate to attack in fear of an instant speed spell because they don't seem fazed at all by the game state. They force you to play around things, which they probably don't even have, purely because they are calm, cool and collected. They give away nothing for free and you are the one who has to do all the work. Generally, the calmer the player, the better they are.

The angry players (who aren't faking it) are typically not so strong. People who get openly frustrated by drawing another land, or another spell, who are rattled and worked up by the game tend not to be in control of themselves. This not only leaves them open to be manipulated, but also tends to demonstrate that they overlook other, more important factors - namely their own skill. They overlook their own mistakes and don't accept responsibility for their action or inaction.

How They Play Their Cards

I think that you can tell a lot about a player on how they play their cards. By this I mean the order in which they play them and also the manner in which they actually hold the cards. Looking at the former, this is where a lot of information is gathered. This has more to do with mechanical skill. Should an opponent not possess these skills, then you can almost certainly change your lines of play accordingly. For instance, the order in which they play their lands, playing spells pre- and post-combat, playing cards from their hand when you knew the contents of it, Preordaining or using Planeswalkers. There are countless instances in which a small, detailed decision, where they don't take the optimal path, can reveal that they either lack the experience or knowledge. Cases like these won't tell you if they are a bad player, but do help you to build up a bigger and deeper understanding of them.

How they hold their cards can also carry some useful info. This might sound a little daft, but I do think that you can read a player from how they hold, cast and draw their cards. For example, if someone slams down a spell which they are confident is good, yet even if it is good in the given situation in 90% of others is bad, then they may be weak. Or should they again, hold their cards calmly, confidently and unshakingly, then they may be very good. You can tell crispness from how they snap or slide their spell in to play which shows us they have experience. Some people wear nervousness on their sleeve as they shake or twitch. You can often tell when a player needs to draw a land, or a spell (you can tell this from the board state) by the way they slowly draw their card, or how they snap it into their hand (basically if that draw step differed from other ones). Getting information is always a good thing, but gauging how strong they are based on this information is just as important.

Tapping Their Mana

This one goes down in the mechanical portion of gauging strength. Experienced players will usually be quite careful as to how they tap. They will not only make sure it is the most efficient way of doing so, such as leaving open their dual lands, but will also be aware of cards like Tectonic Edge and thus leave up basics. There are other things too, such as which spells to represent, and which spells to disguise. Players who are conscious of these things, and know which cards matter, understand that one can influence a game in ways beyond the cards in play. They can do this either subtly or blatantly, either way, you have to respect them more for what they're doing.

Less experienced players might not do these things. Should they not, then again, as long as you don't believe they are bluffing their skill level, you should start to play accordingly based on what you've observed.

Playing Accordingly

Once you've started to ascertain how strong your opponent is, then you can directly apply it to specific lines of play. For example, there are situations sometimes, where you have to decide whether or not they will compute to play around a certain spell. I recall a game I played against Gerard Fabiano. It was Pro Tour San Diego and we were basically playing for day 2. We were in a situation where I had him dead on board if I attack with everything. However, the way he had played his past few turns made me think he had Whiplash Trap in hand. I didn't attack with everything, he survived the turn. He attacked me back. Putting me in a position where I would lose if I don't block and he has a burn spell. So I played safe and blocked. Again, on my turn I had to make the crucial decision. After some thought, I came to the conclusion that I had to attack now, or risk losing over the next few draw steps. I attacked and won. He didn't have the trap and showed me his hand of lands. I use this example because Gerard bought himself extra turns because he managed to bluff the Trap. He wouldn't have been able to do this however had he not thought that I would think of Trap and deduce it as a way of losing. He respected me and I respected him. There have been other situations where I have tried to bluff a spell but my opponent hadn't even considered the spell I was trying to bluff. You have to try and know what they will think of. You could play someone who doesn't realize you are holding a trick because they didn't consider it, or they are holding the trick and they don't think you have considered it. Combat can get pretty interesting when these scenarios arise and playing the man is almost as important as playing the cards.

Matchups themselves can be played differently depending on what they are. For instance, the Mono Red player should play their deck very differently vs. Valkut (aggressively) than vs. CawBlade (controllingly). When you understand how a matchup should be played out by both players, then you can better gauge how well they can play and what direction you should be going in. Your decision making becomes much more correct once you work with more information, especially when you can predict what plays they will make. You can certainly buy yourself extra time if they are the kind of player who fears cards rather than just runs things out. You can bluff more. But those who play without fear then you can work windows in which to gain both tempo and card advantage.

This is why I’ve always preferred being a reactive player, and playing reactive decks. By no means is this the right way to go, but it is the way that suits me best, and suits many others too. Playing reactively, basing your decisions more on theirs than taking the lead role can give you more options. It can mean you can leverage more advantages and take an overarching and subtle control of the game. Gauging an opponent’s strength is key to this. Learning about what you can and cannot pull off can give you ever-so-slight opportunities to change how the game is played. Being observant, trying out new things, seeing how they react to what you do, are all ways of gathering information, and information can be invaluable.

Magic is the best game I’ve ever played, and I find that there is a lot more depth to the mental side of the game than most people I’ve spoken with realize. Once you get your mechanical game down well, then you are already solid. But then, once one develops the more mental aspect of it, then one can start to bridge the gap between themselves and the real greats. I'm constantly trying to work on my game. I've been outplayed by real masters out there, who have bluffed me and read my bluffs. Playing against these players always makes me realize that I can improve.


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