Monday, May 19, 2014

Mental Magic: Psychology of Competitive Magic Play

Magic can be a great game to play, but there are also mind games to play during the middle of a tournament, some of which I will detail here. Some things will teach you to be a better player, other things will make you come off as a bit of a jerk if you attempt to use them. So what mental mind games can you play on opponents? Consider this: many people have quirks that come from believing something should be done a certain way. For instance, most players will play with their lands on the table right in front of them, and then creatures will be up against your opponent's creatures. What would happen if you instead put creatures on the side closest to you and lands on the side closest to your opponent? That might mess with someone.

So let's look at a few of the things you can do that can mess with your opponent...


There are several different things you can do with your lands that can annoy people and psych them out. Everything is perfectly legal within the tournament rules, but some players will concede an entire match based on some of these:

Lands on Top

You know how you normally play with your lands at the bottom of your field and you put your creatures at the top? Do it the other way around. Play with your lands at the top and your creatures at the bottom.

White Borders

Some people absolutely hate white borders, especially 8th Edition. So try using some white bordered lands. I even remember seeing someone who had their dual lands altered to have white borders just to mess with any opponents they may play.


Tapping/Stacking Lands Weirdly

Some players, like me, may have a minor instance of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder where things have to be lined up a certain way. I ignore it now, but some people can't, so something you can do is stack different lands a certain way (if you have two different colors of dual lands, you could stack them together or but a dual land of two colors with a basic of a third color.

The other thing is tapping lands in opposite directions and some people just don't notice it, but you could tap some lands to the right and others to the left.


Some people will go crazy over someone not playing with sleeves (and especially no sleeves or playmat). It drives many people up the wall if you play foil planeswalkers and shocklands without sleeves. I personally don't recommend doing this, but if you have thousands of dollars to spend for each deck or you don't care about resale/collecting value, go right ahead...

Tournament Politics

Sometimes you can talk opponents into doing things that will benefit you, like if you're losing, sometimes you can convince your opponent to make it a 1-1 draw, or even convince an opponent to concede because they don't notice something. For instance, one player I know was playing a Blue TRON deck at an FNM in Modern, and he used a Treasure Mage to find a Mindslaver. When his opponent saw it, he didn't want to be controlled again and said he might concede. He was asked if that means he does concede, he said yes, and was then told that there was not enough mana open to cast AND activate it. The opponent wasn't exactly pressured into conceding, but he did misread the field and was asked if he actually was conceding when it was brought up.

This isn't entirely ethical and probably shouldn't be tried at anything above an FNM event, but giving players the option and making them think it is capable for you to finish the game this turn when you definitely can't is something you can do. I've been known to hold onto a couple of lands and leave mana untapped just to make an opponent think I have combat tricks in my hand.

Card Sets/Art

One thing that actually is something you should do in all your decks is this: If possible, be sure to have the exact same set symbol and art for your cards. Sure you probably have the alternate arts and you don't have playsets of a single art, but it's a good thing to do, especially in Standard right now.

Brain Maggot  Thoughtseize  Duress

With Brain Maggot, Thoughtseize, and Duress all available to players, your hand becomes visible to opponents. With different arts or set symbols, an opponent who tracks what is in your hand can then know that the land you just played was drawn and not what was in your hand, or even a spell wasn't previously in your hand just by art.

Lightning Helix  Lightning Helix
Lightning Helix  Lightning Helix

Take Lightning Helix for instance. There are two different arts and four different sets this was printed in. I have four in all (one Ravnica, one Ajani vs. Nicol Bolas, and two Modern Masters. No Planechase 2009 yet). I ran four in a Modern Burn deck. If someone looked in my hand and saw both Modern Masters copies, and they tossed one, then I draw a card and it is the Ajani vs. Nicol Bolas version and play it, they know I still have one more. However, if I played the Modern Masters version they know about, they have no information of what is in my hand. If I had four of the Modern Masters version, if I draw one and play it, they wouldn't know it isn't the one that was in my hand.

I recommend trying some of these out at tournaments you play in to see how they work. I don't advocate using politics with your opponents. Save that for games of multiplayer EDH. I also don't advocate not usings sleeves and playmats. I do, however, recommend using the same symbols/art for cards and trying out some of the techniques with the land. You never know what could make someone give you a match win over something as simple as white bordered lands at the top of your field...

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