Windborn Musings – Calling the Bluff

The game started with everyone dropping a land and passing the turn.  The turns continued and the threats grew in size as the game continued.  Norman played Akroma, Angel of Wrath and mulled over who would be the first target.  There were a couple of players with defenses that ensured Akroma would die if he attacked them, so Philip and Roger were knocked off the list of players that could be attacked.  While Norman was looking at Theo and Vicky’s defenses, Vicky warned Norman, “if you like Akroma, you probably don’t want to attack me.” 

"If you like her, don't attack me"

I hate that kind of crap.  I hate amorphous threats that get thrown out there.  More importantly though, I hate someone telling me what I should or shouldn’t do.  The example above is complete fiction, but I have a visceral hatred towards Vicky right now!   I completely understand why people bluff.  They hope to influence who you will attack by suggesting they will or will not do something if you do something.  When my opponents would say stuff like that I would attack right into them and suffer the consequences.  This is a product of hating to be told what to do.  I know that it is important to not be so predictable, so I’m trying to control that instinct, but it is very difficult.

Bluffing is a pretty common situation in many playgroups.  If you play in my group, Vicky’s sort of statement isn’t a bluff, it is a warning.  My play group runs bluffs, but no one lies.  Everyone plays with each other every week and the importance of the other players being able to rely on the truthfulness of what comes out of your mouth is far more important that trying to get the occasional bluff through.  Being branded a liar would mean you would face endless attacks since, everything else being equal, you would be deemed less reliable and therefore, a greater threat.  We don’t lie.

That isn’t to say we don’t bluff.  We give coy answers, no answers or answers that amount to misdirection.  While this does sound limiting, it actually makes things even more interesting since we can bluff and give warnings that something will happen.

Other groups bluff, and some groups claim there is no table talk, therefore no bluffing.  Those groups are only kidding themselves.  Every group has some level of bluffing.

The game started with everyone dropping a land and passing the turn.  The turns continued and the threats grew in size as the game continued.  Norman played Akroma, Angel of Wrath and mulled over who would be the first target.  There were a couple of players (Philip and Roger) with defenses that ensured Akroma would die if he attacked them, so Philip and Roger were knocked off the list of players that could be attacked.  While Norman was looking at Theo and Vicky’s defenses, Vicky stared pointedly at Norman, then looked carefully at a single card in her hand.  She pointedly straightened up her land, showing five Plains and six Forests with only one of each tapped.  She then looked back at Norman and fingered a single card in her grip of four cards.

No table talk has taken place, but the bluff is there just as plain as if Vicky had spoken the bluff out loud.  And I still just want to tell Vicky what she can do with her cards and where she can stuff her bluff!

In spite of what I’ve said about separating bluffing and the honest statements of fact my group uses, I am going to define bluffing to include the type of warnings my playgroup offers.  While technically that is not bluffing, since you know your attack will not be successful unless you can do something they don’t know about to stymie their plan, I am including it here, because the rule I’m about to state still applies in those situations where you know they have something. 

Every play group is somewhat different, so giving unconditional rules that would apply to every play group is somewhere between dangerous and foolish, but if I give you rules to follow, then layer on multiple conditions, restrictions and caveats, you’ll need to be a lawyer to figure it all out.  Since being a lawyer is my job, and probably not yours, we’ll keep this rule clear.  Just the rule and a single exception to the rule.  You have to give me a little something here people!  So finally, here is the rule:

Multiplayer Rule:  Always call the bluff.

I don’t underline willy-nilly, over-emphasizing every useless point.  In this case though, I want to be perfectly clear that always means every. single. time.  At least until we get to the caveat!

So why should you always call the bluff?  Consider the possible outcomes if you call the bluff:

1.  They don’t have the card. 

Norman stared Vicky down and she blinked first.  He attacked with his brand new Akroma and waited for the response.  Vicky looked back at Norman, paused for a second, then grinned and shook her head, taking the 6 damage.

Check out Norman kicking ass!  He got to do what he wanted, and made Vicky appear like the blowhard she is to the rest of the group.  Her threats won’t have much muster if this happens. 

2.  She has the card, but you can stop it. 

Norman stared Vicky down and she blinked first.  He attacked with his brand new Akroma and waited for the response.  Vicky looked back at Norman, paused for a second, and cast Eightfold Maze. Norman responded by casting Reverent Mantra , giving Akroma protection from white.  Vicky tossed her Eightfold Maze in the graveyard and took the six damage. 

Here again, Norman got to do what he wanted.  The difference is that it cost him resources (mana and a card, usually) that he would have saved if he had fallen for the bluff. 

3.  She has the card and you can’t stop it. 

Norman stared Vicky down and she blinked first.  He attacked with his brand new Akroma and waited for the response.  Vicky looked back at Norman, paused for a second, and cast Eightfold Maze.  Norman and Vicky toss their respective cards into their graveyards.  Everyone else at the table wonders if either Norman or Vicky has a way to stop their creatures…

This is the worst scenario for you when you call the bluff.  In this worst-case scenario, she loses her threat (a resource) and you lose your resource(s).  Even here though, if you played carefully, you have removed a threat from your opponent and hopefully not lost too much.

Consider the possible outcomes if you don’t call the bluff:

1.  There is only one.  Your opponent got what she wanted, and it didn’t even cost them a card. 

Norman stared Vicky down and he blinked first.  He attacked Theo for six and Vicky relaxed back in her chair with a smug look on her face. 

No kidding Vicky is looking smug.  Sitting there in her chair with her Cheshire cat smile, practically screaming out at you “Sucker!”  She has plenty of reason to be looking smug.  You’d look smug too if you avoided six damage and it didn’t cost you any resources at all.  The best part is that you still have the card to use if someone else threatens you with an attack.  Norman will likely have to face the bluff again the next time he wants to do something, only this time, Vicky will have drawn another card and is even more likely to actually have the ability to stop him.  I hate Vicky.  She annoys the hell out of me. 

The reason you should always call the bluff is that it allows you to determine when things happen.  When Norman decided to attack, he forced Vicky’s hand, demanding that she play the response she was threatening.  Now Vicky can’t threaten each person in turn with a card she may or may not have, since it is already gone.  Now Vicky can’t threaten the next creature you put out with the same threat.  Vicky doesn’t get to wait until the absolute best time to use the card, but instead is forced to use it now.  Burning up Vicky’s answers now means that she is less likely to have an answer later.  When your attack will kill her.  And you won’t have to look at that smug look all over her face turn after turn.    

Now I did reserve the right to have one caveat to the Rule and here it is:

Caveat:  If it is better for you that the bluff is out there, then leave it alone. 

Norman is looking at the board with his horde of Zombies, trying to determine who to attack.  Philip claims that he will Rout if Norman attacks him.  Norman looks at his hand and determines that a Rout right now will wipe him out with nothing in his hand to help him recover.  Philip’s other opponents are vulnerable to the Zombie hordes as each of them has only one or two creatures in play.  Considering the positions, a Rout right now is a problem for Norman, but a Rout after he has a few draw steps to put some creatures in his hand will be just fine. 

In situations like these, Norman is probably better off waiting.  There is serious danger in waiting, since the board could very well change and suddenly the Rout Norman was expecting to see hit the board never does.

Another situation where this makes sense is when the bluff threatens another player far more than it threatens you.  If Jake suggests he will blow up all the artifacts on the board if Norman attacks him, and Norman has minimal artifacts while Roger has ten different artifacts, you may want to leave that bluff to Roger to deal with, or even better, use it against Roger, threatening to attack if he doesn’t do something you want. These are both dangerous games to play since Norman is counting on someone else doing something that they may not even be able to do, let alone whether they actually will follow through on the bluff as they claim they will.

The important thing to remember with the caveat is that, like the Rule, you are trying to control how and when other players use their cards.  Letting an opponent hold their card is something you are controlling, but at the same time, it is also something they are controlling, so be aware of the risks here.  Many times it seems like taking the loss like Norman did in the earlier examples is not best for you.  Just remember that if you are going to break the Rule, there needs to be a high bar.  The game is constantly changing and you want to give your opponents as little control as possible.  Often a little pain the early game is far better than getting shut down at the end of the game.    

Thanks

I want to end this article by saying thank you to a reader named Andrew.  About a week after my article, “Mirrodin Besieged Prerelease TO Report” was published I received an email from Andrew.  He talked about his experiences when he first started playing Magic, and his experiences now.  He expressed his frustration with the sharks who are more interested in wins that showing inexperienced players how to be better.  He thanked me for writing the article and providing a tournament for the younger players to really enjoy the game.

Anyone will tell you they love to get a compliment and I was thrilled to get this one.  It was a reminder of who our audience is and why the three of us have chosen to write.  The next time you read/watch/listen to something you enjoy, whether here on the Muse Vessel or at any other Magic site, let the author know.  Praise on the internet is a rare thing and getting some rejuvenates and encourages more writing/podcasting/general Magic content. 

Thanks to Andrew for sharing his story and offering encouragement. 

Bruce Richard
bnrichard<AT>hotmail<DOT>com
@manaburned

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About Windborn Muse

If you seek limited or constructed tournament knowledge, wrapped up with excellent comedic writing, you are in the wrong place. Planted firmly at the kitchen table, Bruce (the Windborn Muse) is all things casual, focusing primarily on strategies for multiplayer games wrapped up with horrific, train wreck attempts at humour. Bruce is married to an extremely tolerant woman and has three children who will not go near him in public. In real life Bruce works as an attorney and lives just outside Boston.
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3 Responses to Windborn Musings – Calling the Bluff

  1. Great post, I started out initially wanting to disagree with you, but by the end I found I actually am right in line with you. I will never flat out tell someone “Don’t attack me or I’ll kill your guy” unless I absolutely can back it up. And even then I rarely do that. The last time I did, it was with a Seal of Cleansing ON THE TABLE, and someone tried to swing into me with a Sword of Light and Shadow-equipped guy. I just pointed to the Seal and asked them if they’d like to keep that Sword in play… they quickly backed off and attacked someone else.

    But that was a threat that was on the board, they could plainly see I was able to make good on. If I have Swords to Plowshares in hand, I’ll flash them a glimpse, just to show them I’m not bluffing. When I bluff, I do it without speaking or saying anything, because to me that is just lying.

    I’m pretty good at psychology, so I know how to make myself look more threatening than I actually am, if that is what the situation calls for, but I can do that without having to lie. Same thing if I want to look inconspicuous and non-threating… oh don’t mind me, I’m just playing lands… and this Consecrated Sphinx, it’s not that big a deal!

    So yeah, if someone flat out says “If you do X, I’ll retaliate by doing Y” they damn well better make good, because I don’t take that king of thing lying down.

    Very good article, sir.

  2. Stidjen says:

    I find the silent treatment a good take. Sometimes my opponents squabble with eachother, and shutting your mouth here sneakily takes you a bit out of the equation. Of course, being a danger at the table probably won’t help you, but when someone is debating attacking me or someone else, shutting up has surprising value.

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