People do things for a reason! (A guide to spotting hidden information in MTG)
Every successful Magic player has a little of the Sherlock Holmes about them.
Don’t worry, savvy young Planeswalkers: I’m not asking you to solve the greatest crimes of the age, or take a dive headfirst over Reichenbach falls.
Instead, I’m suggesting that developing your powers of deduction will help you to access the hidden information which exists in Magic… and in this article, I’m going to start you on the road to obtaining that information, without it ever being revealed to you.
If this sounds like some kind of alchemy, don’t fret. It’s just simple logic with a sprinkle of people-watching, but if you can pick up the principles, they will make a world of difference to your game.
Ready? Let’s dive straight in.
1. What counts as ‘Hidden Information’?
The surface level
Barring in-game effects which sometimes change the norms of game-play, there are a few primary areas of hidden information built into Magic:
Beyond these in-game boundaries, there are also some other pieces of information which aren’t explicity visible, but which are quite valuable if you can deduce them.
There are other instances of hidden information we could define, but these will do to illustrate some useful examples.
So, we’ve managed to map out our relative ignorance of all the things which go on in a game of Magic. Let’s start to fill in some blanks.
2. Closer examination
What more can we deduce from the seemingly innocuous board state used in our last example? Well, we can start from a simple principle: people do things for reasons.
Let’s assume we’re playing a game of Standard, our opponent went first and it’s their second turn.
Our first deduction
Yep! Having drawn a card on their second turn, laid a land on both their turns and ending up with four cards in their grip, it’s a certainty that our opponent took a double mulligan.
That’s not exactly hidden information, of course… but it can help us to map out some likely scenarios about their hand, when we think about their reasons for keeping it.
We can consider, for instance, that the two lands they have just played may have been the big draw to keeping their hand. If I had been forced to drop to five cards, I would have happily kept a hand with a couple of lands and a spell I could cast, simply because the odds of getting a better result if I drop down to four are so small.
This line of thinking also suggests that they might well be holding a two mana spell.
It’s worth nothing, at this point, that successive mulligans will make a player’s hand substantially worse. The loss of one card from seven is distressing, but by the time a player is weighing up a drop from five to four the difference is absolutely enormous. When you are trying to envision what might be in an opponent’s hand, remember to adjust your expectations of quality downward the more cards they are forced to give up.
A full hand might be kept for its balanced suite of threats and interactive spells; a four card hand might simply be kept because it has a hope of doing something relevant – and the player can’t bear the idea of going to three.
A Second pass
Having seen my opponent keep at five, then make basic lands on the first and second turn which give them blue and red mana – two colours strongly associated with instant spells, especially at present – I would deduce that they were playing some kind of Izzet, spell-focussed strategy.
I’d do this because an Izzet deck of this kind would present all kinds of options (at two mana) which might make a hand look attractive (at five cards)…
Any one of these cards could slow down an early assault, buying time for our opponent to draw out of their predicament – and would be a very good argument for keeping the hand.
There is another card I might expect to see from an Izzet deck of some kind: Young Pyromancer. If my opponent passed the turn without playing it, however, I’d take that as a sure sign they didn’t have one.
When a player is already behind on cards, a creature like the Pyromancer which can generate an army of its own is exactly what they need in play to catch up – and they don’t often have the luxury of playing cautiously. I can’t see a good enough argument for not playing immediately.
Anyway, back to my root assumption: couldn’t they be something other than Izzet, like UWR, or Grixis?
Yes, of course they could; but I think the likelihood of that is lower, because they have played basic lands in Izzet colours on both of their turns so far. Three colour decks in the current Standard typically make up half of their manabase with non-basic lands – and a high proportion of those lands come into play tapped.
If our opponent had one of those lands in their hand, I would have expected them to play it immediately, to increase the chances that they could cast their spells on time and hopefully recover from their ugly double-mulligan.
Again, it’s not certain, but my thinking would lean that way.
Third time’s the charm
No, that’s not a reference to Izzet Charm – which, incidentally, would be another solid incentive to keep this hand for our opponent – it’s just a glib sub-headline. Sorry if I got your hopes up.
We’ve inferred a fair few things about our opponent so far from their early land drops, but it’s time for us to switch things around. What can they deduce about us?
I think this is a pretty big tell, quite frankly. In the new Standard, there are only one-and-a-half serious UW decks – straight control, plus a sweet mid-range Master of Waves brew – and both take a relatively controlling position by default. Simply by watching us lay an Azorius Guildgate, our opponent can forecast with great certainty that we’re playing a Sphinx’s Revelation deck.
How will this affect their decisions?
Well, assuming that our own forecast is correct, they’ll realise that they aren’t under immediate pressure. Our deck is very likely to take a lot of time setting up, so they can afford to spend their third turn casting a Divination, for instance (assuming they have one and draw the land to cast it) rather than being forced to hold up mana to counter a devastating early play.
3. Translating deduction into mind reading
Phew! That was quite a lot of speculation – albeit, relatively informed speculation – about the contents of hidden game zones, like hands and decks.
However, as I mentioned earlier, there is another zone which contains information it would be helpful to deduce: our opponent’s brain.
What could they be planning?
Much of the time, we can figure out an opponent’s general strategy simply by guessing what kind of deck they have.
In other cases we’ll be faced with more puzzling in-game situations.
My opponent is making plays that seem unusual… what’s up?
I will now give you an example from the distant past: Kamigawa-Ravnica block Standard.
I was playing in the second round of a qualifying tournament for Nationals, with a UW Control deck (which, incidentally, was a work of art – shout out to James Love for handing it to me some weeks previously); my opponent was playing a BW aggressive deck which was popular at the time, abusing the interaction between Nantuko Husk and Promise of Bunrei to force through damage in machine-gun bursts.
In the second game, I had sideboarded a number of Threads of Disloyalty, in order to blunt his offense by snaffling an early creature and trading it for another attacker until my main gameplan of blowing up the world with Wrath of God could come online. This wasn’t ideal in the matchup, but at worst it was a removal spell for a Nantuko Husk…
After weathering the first part of the storm courtesy of a timely wrath, I found myself at around 10-12 life, looking across the table at the following board:
My opponent had, by my recollection, very few cards in hand.
After thinking for some time, I opted to cast a Threads of Disloyalty on one of his spirit tokens.
This was definitely an unusual move. The BW deck played more impactful creatures which might fall victim to my enchantment later in the game, like Dark Confidant and Isamaru, Hound of Konda; on top of that, a single 1/1 blocker, tapped during my opponent’s next attack, would do very little in terms of relieving pressure.
Why would I have been making this play?
My opponent, a much better player than I, wasn’t puzzled even for a second. By applying the important principle we covered earlier – people do things for reasons – he was able to deduce that I had a second Wrath of God in hand.
His line of reasoning was as follows:
In that situation, my opponent was able as a result to minimise his losses by simply attacking – and forcing me to expend the board sweeper as early as possible. While I still won that game, it wasn’t handed to me on a plate, as it might have been if he had ignored the signs and carelessly played another creature after his attack.
Hopefully this serves to illustrate the point: If you can work out what your opponent’s plan is, you’ll have an extra opportunity to influence the game in a positive direction for yourself.
Do they know their role in the matchup?
One of the most famous tenets of Magic theory is encapsulated in this almost impenetrable quote:
What Mr Flores is actually saying is pretty sensible, even if it sounds like an equation proposed by a drunken surrealist.
He’s saying that if we play as if our deck is the most aggressive one in a particular matchup, when in reality our opponent’s is much better at dealing damage quickly, then we’re likely to lose; or if we play like we’re the deck best equipped to control the game and amass advantages, but our opponent is the one with the Sphinx’s Revelations and grip full of counterspells, we’re probably going to have a bad day at the office.
In short, we shouldn’t try to play the opponent’s deck at its own game. Even if yours would usually be considered a control deck, when you run up against the player with 20 counterspells and one Aetherling, it’s time to force the issue: take your handful of Stormbreath Dragons and go on the offensive.
Think about it this way: If Mo Farah tries to race Usain Bolt over 100m, he’ll be resolutely crushed; however, if he can arrange a race over 10,000m instead, the result will be different.
In Magic, we get to set the length of the race by the way we build our decks and play out our turns. We should aim to work out which style of play our deck will perform more strongly in than the opponent’s, then try to make the game about that kind of interaction.
What has all this to do with hidden information? Well, deducing how your opponent is approaching a match-up might reveal that they have misunderstood their role – and if your reading of the situation is better, you can make plays designed to capitalise on their mistake.
To use the words of an obnoxious (but correct) MTGO troll, observed a few evenings ago in the global chat:
Exploit their fears
Taken out of context, this sounds like an item from a Dictator’s self-help book or Satan’s to-do list… but really, it’s less indicative of malignant, chaotic evil when we apply it to Magic.
Earlier, I alluded to cards that your opponent might be ‘afraid of‘. These can include both the kind of effect which will punish a particular, ordinarily viable line of play; or stone-cold trumps which will decide the game in your favour if they resolve. For our purposes, the first variety are the most interesting.
A classic example of exploiting an opponent’s fears is the counterspell bluff.
This would be enough to tilt most of us, let’s be honest.
In the second game, we are a little behind on our mana development, but still in it as our opponent untaps and eagerly plays their seventh land. We didn’t have a play last turn, so our mana is untapped; given how keen they were to get that seventh mana in play, we think it’s a reasonable bet that an [card]Abhorrent Overlord[/card] is about to be played, so we casually touch our lands for a fraction of a second, just long enough to space two slightly away from the others.
Just as we have read information from the opponent’s body language as they hurriedly played their land, we’re hoping to send a signal with this movement of our own.
Our opponent pauses. If we’re lucky, we have started them thinking about the Stymied Hopes.
Perhaps we encourage him to wait a turn or two; perhaps we don’t. Watching an opponent’s facial expression can be quite important in a situation like this: if you detect indecision and they ultimately play nothing, you can reasonably assume that the same bluff will be good next turn unless they draw another land.
The reality is that the Demon might hit the stack anyway, or even if we do delay our opponent’s big play, we might not draw into a answer or a trump of our own… but we’re at least giving ourselves the chance to get lucky.
Over enough matches, those little edges add up.
4. Playing games with hidden information
Sometimes, certain cards will allow us to play games with hidden information, in an effort to gain additional value at our opponent’s expense.
Two of these cards are currently legal in Standard.
I’m not going to review these cards in the depth that some other articles have done, but it’s still worth thinking about how their usefulness depends on invisible elements.
Let’s imagine that I am now the player of the Izzet spell deck we dreamed up earlier in the article, facing off against your Red, aggressive strategy.
I’ve managed to stretch the game out by resolving a couple of Anger of the Gods to blunt your aggression; you’re in top-deck mode while I have four cards in hand.
However, despite outdrawing you courtesy of an Opportunity, I sit at a precarious 6 life. You’ve seen no life-gain effects from my deck so far.
Drawing for the turn, you behold a Purphoros, God of the Forge.
Now THIS is a card which might grind out the last few points of damage as I stall, transforming each creature you subsequently draw into a burn spell and a threat…
You play the Red God – and in response, I cast Steam Augury, leaving three mana untapped.
After the steam has cleared (see what I did?), you’re left looking at two distinctly uneven piles:
Hmmm. Now you have a decision to make – and it hinges on what you think I have in my hand. Let’s go back to our core principle: people do things for reasons.
The way I’ve divided these cards points to one of two possibilities: either I value the counterspell so highly that I’m prepared to trade away a much higher volume of cards, or I have a counterspell in hand already and am trying to lure you into giving me absurd value for my draw spell.
Of course, we can go a level deeper. I must surely know that you’ll never hand me the counterspell… so even if I don’t have a counter in hand, wouldn’t I try to maximise my card advantage in any case?
If that’s the case, which is the more likely route to victory for you… landing the Red God and hoping to burn/attack me to zero through a greater density of defenses, or sacrificing Purphoros to minimise the resources I have to resist any top-decked creatures?
Let’s go just one level deeper. If you DO give me the counterspell… and I DO already have one in hand too… are you likely to be able to draw enough burn/threats to get through that second counter before a dirty great Spellheart Chimera or Aetherling appears to close out the game in my favour? Is that a better bet than trying to fight through the Anger of the Gods and whatever I might draw from Divination/already have in hand?
As you can see, there’s potentially a lot to think about.
I don’t know that there is a hard-and -fast correct answer in this particular scenario, but I do know that if you intend to play Standard in the next year, you will probably be called upon to make a few decisions of this nature. Depending on which side of the Auguries or Jace activations you’re sitting, I wish you either Good Luck or Good Fun.
5. A few simple principles
There has been a fair amount of head-scratching and navel-gazing in this article, which might not be ideal for a series ultimately aimed at beginners.
With that in mind, I thought I’d finish off with a few solid pointers. Before you can make Holmesian deductions about hidden information, you need to know what you’re looking out for…
If they leave up Blue Mana, think about a counterspell
Regardless, it’s always a good idea to think about what counters your opponent might be holding if they have mana available.
- What’s in the format?
- What could they afford to play?
- Is their recent behaviour consistent with having a counter in their hand?
- Can you afford not to play your spells, or to play them in a different order?
- If your key spell gets countered, will that significantly damage your chances to win the game?
Against a possible counterspell, playing ‘test’ spells is a viable tactic. By playing weaker (but relevant) cards, you can frequently either draw out the counter, or build up enough seemingly innocuous board presence to cause the controlling player problems regardless.
Take the time to think it through. It will be worth it.
If they make a strange attack, think about a trick
You will face a lot of situations in limited – and a few in constructed – wherein your opponent will attack with a creature, despite the fact that you have a blocker which will trade with or overpower it.
In cases like these, your opponent is representing a trick of some kind. It’s a good idea to try and work out what that might be.
As in the counter example, there are some basic things to think about:
- What’s in the format?
- What could they afford to play?
- Is their recent behaviour consistent with having a particular trick in their hand?
There’s another thought process you need to follow through, however. If you deduce that your opponent has a trick in their hand, what are you going to do about it?
Unless you’ll be able to negate that trick at a later point in the game, for instance by responding to it with a Doom Blade, you’re going to have to take the hit at some point.
Many new players, once they learn how to anticipate tricks, run scared of them. That’s not the answer, unless you plan on never attacking or blocking again for the rest of the game… so frequently, you’ll need to work out whether on not it’s better to just run into that Giant Growth early in the game, to prevent it playing an even more important role later.
If they keep a hand and don’t do anything for the first few turns, they might have a bunch of reactive spells
Sometimes, a player might keep a hand that contains only land and expensive, late game spells… but those times are very few and far between.
If your opponent isn’t doing anything in the first few turns, don’t simply assume that they powerlessly accepted a bad draw and you’re going to roll over the top of them.
People do things for reasons! What kind of cards might have been good enough to warrant keeping a hand, but not play anything in the early game?
The usual answers are removal spells, counterspells and board sweepers. Give your opponent credit: don’t play all your creatures out to get blown up, or dump your best threat on the board straight away if you could lead with another spell to test the water.
If a control player attacks into your superior forces with their utility creature, they’re probably about to play a board sweeper
…and finally, remember your opponent is making deductions about you!
Just as you will now be looking for signs about your opponent’s strategy from their behaviour, so the opposite is true.
This means that if you are playing Selesnya aggro against another creature deck and you pass with four mana available, it’s entirely possible that they will guess you are holding Advent of the Wurm… and refuse to suicide-attack their troops into it.
Why else would you do nothing with your mana in such a proactive deck?
If it’s obvious they’ve accurately read your intentions, don’t waste your mana or your chance to put pressure on the board by holding up the spell for turn after turn. Just give them some credit, slap down a 5/5 in their end step and start bashing.
Put down your magnifying glass
That’s right, Sherlock – and your pipe. We’re done for today.
No matter the environment you’re playing in, if you really want to get better, building up your deductive skills will help immensely.
Next time your opponent passes with mana open, or changes their mind about which lands to tap for a spell, or makes an odd attack… just stop and think. They might not always ‘have it’, but working out the possibilities and weighing your options will lead to better outcomes for your games.
Until we meet again, may you tilt your friends repeatedly by guessing all the cards in their hands.
Thanks for reading, thanks for sharing,