Master versus Master

Posted in Feature on February 15, 2007

By Mike Flores

Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo. He'd claim allegiance to Dimir (if such a Guild existed)… but instead will just shrug "Simic."

What is the bluff?

Technically speaking, and assuming we as Magic: The Gathering players, players of a collectable card game, borrow this particular term of art from granddaddy card game poker, a bluff is a raise or bet with an inferior hand. That is, in Magic terms, a commitment of resources designed to trick the opponent(s) into folding when one does not actually have the best cards. The problems with transferring this definition, even in spirit, to Magic are these: 1) you can't fold in Magic, and 2) the reverse (feigning weakness) makes up at least half of the most compelling "bluff" stories in the game.

Think about it like this... What is a fold in Magic? Conceding? Conceding will only very rarely increase your chances of winning a match (and therefore the tournament) whereas in poker, folding (preserving your stack or bankroll rather than trying to take essentially unwinnable individual hands) actually increases your chances of winning because you live to fight another day. I suppose there are some situations where you can represent an insurmountable advantage to force a concession, but...

Wait a minute!

The most famous and important bluff in the history of Magic was just that, a true bluff, a stone cold bluff. In the finals of Pro Tour Paris, Jedi Mind Trick master Mike Long took his "Wishing Well" Prosperous Bloom deck to that last table, up against the first real star of the Pro Tour, former US National Champion Mark Justice and his B/R beatdown deck. In one of the games, Long was able to represent critical mass with his mana and cards engine, looked across the table to Justice, gave him one of those "These are not the droids you are looking for" faces, and asked if he, come on, really had to go through the motions. It looked automatic, so the accommodating Justice conceded into the next game. The problem? Long couldn't have actually won.

Wishing Well

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Mike Long, US Nationals '02. You see, Mike Long's deck was a particular kind of combo deck that used Squandered Resources and Natural Balance to generate a short term mana advantage in order to bring out Cadaverous Bloom, which would then convert cards to mana at a 1:2 profit. From there he could then convert mana back into cards back almost 1:1 with Prosperity. So long as Mike had Blue mana (one Blue mana for each Prosperity), he could draw, Draw, DRAW from his deck, make a ton of mana (specifically Black mana) and win with the lone Drain Life. That's right... the lone Drain Life. You see, Long was under a ton of pressure from Mark's aggressive and disruptive deck, and was forced to remove his Drain Life earlier in the game to get the engine started. Did Justice not know Long's list well enough? Did he, like so many other victims, buy into Long's easy voice and seductive command of the present? Did he not realize that the Drain Long should have been looking for was already removed from the game? No one knows the reason for certain, but Justice packed up the cards on Long's stone cold bluff and the record books remember Long as the godfather of competitive combo decks, the winner of the first foreign Pro Tour, and for our purposes, the engineer of the single most significant bluff in all the annals of Magic: The Gathering.

All that said, extrapolating this match can give us an amazing basic framework for when to bluff (or at least when you need to bluff), when and how to dodge bluffs, and maintaining poise under pressure.

First and foremost, something I can't stress enough, is that no amount of intimidation, Jedi Mind Tricks, or bluffing can ever crack a tight player's game if he just continues to play tightly. Tight play breaks down somewhere between 80/20 and 90/10 in Magic. That is, you will maximize your chances to win 80-90% of the time if you just strive to make the mathematically tightest plays at each and every opportunity given superior information and deck advantage. Mental games and deviation from normal behavior only work when one guy or the other falls for them! Players fail most often when they go with their guts, when they choose either out of fear or puffed up bravado when they should be making decisions based on math. Why was first turn Dark Ritual + Hypnotic Specter on the play the scariest opening sequence in tournament Magic for so long? Even though the relevant format(s) had decks with four Lightning Bolts or four Swords to Plowshares, an opponent would have less than a 50% chance of having Lightning Bolt or Swords to Plowshares in his opening hand (assuming that he, like most players ran one or the other and not both), and less likely still to have the mana to play the proper two-for-one (in context) response card immediately.

If you didn't go for Lord Hypno on turn one when you had the chance because you assumed your opponent were a luck sack and you wanted to clear his grip with discard first, you could -- and likely would -- be giving up valuable time and probable card advantage by living in fear. At the same time, if you knew that your opponent had access to both one mana response cards, say, and you didn't at least consider varying your play, you would find yourself on the wrong side of a one mana removal spell at twice the normal rate.

I had dinner with Zvi Mowshowitz last week. Zvi is a former Pro Tour and Grand Prix Champion, former member of Magic R&D, former floor reporter for this site, and current high rolling math nerd. His attitude is sobering. He never goes with his gut. "What's my gut?" "Who am I?" "Why does my opinion matter?" These are the kinds of things Zvi will ask you as you attempt to construct a line of inquiry. Your gut will sometimes find itself filled with butterflies as your palms sweat and your heart races uncontrollably. This is love, says Gandalf Gut... Woe unto you if you listen. Your head, if you instead consult it (and you probably won't want to) might try to remind you of a little something called "indigestion."

If you never go with your gut (assuming your gut is or can be right when the numbers say otherwise), you will miss out on the 10-20% of the time that the statistics don't line up, that perch above the glass ceiling where Jon Finkel and his elite angels pluck at harps strung with thousand dollar bills looking down over the cathedral filled with otherwise technically perfect professional players. No, really, sometimes the rat bastard has the fourth, yes fourth, Wrath of God even when there are still 40 cards left in his deck. No, that wasn't very likely given his mulligan to five and rat-tat-tat-tat string of land drops. No, I can't fault your decision to drop two creatures after the (also rather improbable) third Wrath of God. Yes friend. Yes he just luck sacked you. Yes, yes... You still lose.

However you make up for it, you know that 80-90 percent of the time that you could or should have just been playing tightly. In Justice's case, it wasn't even a hard decision. Long had essentially no way to win but to force Justice to fold. He could have just looked in Long's removed from game pile and noticed a Drain Life there. Even if he thought it was likely that he would lose, he probably should have made Mike go through the motions, even if most Bloom decks from that time had two copies of Drain Life. In some cases you can increase your chances of winning a match by conceding a hopeless game in order to preserve actual minutes to win the third. Jutice was playing in the finals of a Pro Tour where time was not an issue. He gained nothing and lost thousands of dollars by this concession.

Mike Turian can see your cards.

There are many available times where one can conceivably bluff (and you can try to represent a better hand than you actually have almost all the time), but that is not to say that one should bluff on each and every when. A quick glance at the ballots for the 2007 Hall of Fame reported via the Pro Tour Geneva blog have similar lists from Osyp Lebedowicz, Shuuhei Nakamura, and Olivier Ruel. One player on all three ballots is Mike Turian. Mike, a Pro Tour Champion with Gary Wise and Scott Johns six years ago, actually retired during his hottest season to join Magic R&D, off a year where he had a Team Pro Tour Top 4, two individual Limited Top 8 appearances, and multiple Limited Grand Prix final tables, including a win. He is considered by many of the game's past and present top minds to be the finest Limited player of all time, and it is telling that Osyp's ballot includes Mike but not Nicolai Herzog, who actually won the two individual Limited Pro Tours that season where Mike appeared, including actually dispatching the capable Turian during the Top 4 in San Diego. I can tell you from personal experience that even today, with him years out of his Pro game, the easiest route to a team side draft win is to have Turian on your squad. What made and makes him so special? The great edt, old man of the Pro Tour Eric Taylor, once wrote the following:

"I can't count the number of times that Mike Turian has sent his hapless little bear into a fat Green monster. Sure it's a bluff, but Mike knows just when to run it, and his ability to bluff properly and get those extra two points of damage means that Turian wins many games where other Magic players that never run the bluff lose. There's a reason Turian wins so much. In addition to an overall excellent game, he's got the best bluff in Magic."

Eric's theory is that you can't do the same thing overmuch or you will become predictable, but that Turian had or has an algorithm indicating when exactly the opponent would not block, likely based on reading and body language, and would therefore win tight games thanks to a stolen pair of life points where other players would fall on the wrong side of the binary.

While I can't articulate at exactly what rhythm it is that you can steal two points from an opponent with a superior board position, I can tell you an important time that everyone should bluff (or at least try to stay in the game and wait for or force a critical error), and that's when you have no other option. Our initial example shows a perfect opportunity to bluff, taken by Mike Long and executed to the tune of the game's highest honor. In this case, Long had no other option... It was bluff out Justice or pack it up. When you can't win fair and square, the bluff might be your only shot. If your opponent falls for it, you've got a chance to win... If he doesn't, you're no worse off because you were going to lose anyway. Maybe this does give us an insight into the Turian mindset; maybe Mike bluffs in games when he knows the fight will be hardest, and executes on a tight game when he doesn't anticipate the need to steal.

I've actually gotten into a number of discussions and even knock down, drag out fights over the years regarding the notion of skill, and ability overall, in Magic. What differentiates a good player from a great one, and why are players who dedicate themselves to a particular format more or less inherently tested than others? I think that gamesmanship, execution, the ability to bluff, feign weakness, and overall read the opponent while simultaneously making the tight technical decisions is the biggest part of it. In a sense tight if not perfect technical play is the assumption, with the greats exceeding the mere motions and mechanics of implementation with superhuman frame, x-ray vision, and longing looks into later turns that make Ixidor, Reality Sculptor's enchantment at look like the grounded Urza at . In Master versus Master, we here discuss a series of battles between two great players, decided by skill (and specifically gamesmanship) rather than mana screw, flood, or some kind of pathetic, non-self reflective, excuse.

Our notion of bluffing in Magic is in large measure parallel to check-raising, as opposed to bluffing strength, in poker. Rather than representing dominance when impotence is the state of the true universe, as Long abused Justice in the Paris finals, some of the best gamesmen in Magic play dead, beg for a killing stroke, and surprise their supposed predators with the dramatic ambush.

Tsumura vs. Ruel, PT LA 05.

To my mind, the finest early game in the history of competitive Magic was executed by Antoine Ruel over Kenji Tsumura in Game 2 of their battle at Pro Tour Los Angeles 2005.

On the draw, Antoine opened with a tapped Watery Grave.

On the second turn, he played basic Island and Duress. Kenji responded with Mana Leak, which Antoine allowed to resolve.

Seeing a path as clear as a cloudless summer's sky, the Player of the Year slammed down his third land and tapped for Psychatog.

Antoine responded with the Force Spike heard 'round the world.

Mere words have difficulty describing the perfection of Antoine's setup here, and Terry Soh's reminder earlier this week that you should never try to bluff an idiot rings brilliantly. It's is because Kenji is such a fantastic player that Antoine's subtle waltz is so impressive. He walked Kenji onto the dance floor, gave him a couple of cursory twirls and dips, ultimately left him stranded with a fake phone number. Antoine played tapped Watery Grave. He could have Force Spiked the Duress-fighting Mana Leak, but didn't. He gave the then-best player in the Game 2 different tells that said "Kenji, I don't have a Force Spike," and "Really, I don't have it... again," prompting Tsumura to commit Psychatog, such that the one mana response card would be backbreaking. Who knows how a lesser player would have analyzed Antoine's moves, if he even would have noticed, or if Ruel would have wasted his mojo against someone likely to be too frightened to tap on turn three regardless.

I've never before or since seen poise like Ruel showed in that Top 8.

The deft -- or pointless -- bluff is a two-participant process. On one side you have the guy who bluffs, on the other, the mark or intended victim. The best mental games in Magic can see a bluff a mile away and will not bite.

Neil Reeves, a US Nationals finalist and Limited standout, is considered by most to have quite the eagle eye. A great example is his match at Los Angeles 2005 against Masashi Oiso. The battle was Neil's Life from the LoamPsychatog against Masashi at the height of his powers, piloting Balancing Tings, occurred under the hot lights of the Feature Match area. Psychatog has many weapons against Balancing Tings, but you can never really discount a deck that can eliminate the opponent's hand and board both, leaving a single unstoppable threat, in a single turn, especially when under the control of an Oiso, who was then considered the tightest technical player on Tour.

As the story goes, Oiso was beating Reeves down with an Anurid Brushhopper going into the late late game. Neil was probably chewing on a toothpick, shuffling about a hand that featured only one relevant copy of Counterspell when Masashi presented Orim's Chant. This could be devastating. Orim's Chant is the usual precursor to Balancing Act, a kind of White Duress that might leave Neil without hand or permanents if it resolved. He could counter the devastating setup card, hoping to represent a follow up counter and scare off what was to come next... or he could say "Okay."


Masashi chuckled as the Chant resolved. No follow up. No Balancing Act. It was a stone cold bluff, and Oiso had been called. 2-0 Reeves.

This tale is particularly ironic given the next one. The scene was the Top 4 of Grand Prix Milwaukee in 2002, the opponents once again Reeves with Psychatog, this time fighting "the Innovator" Patrick Chapin with U/G Opposition. The Feature Match coverage sadly does not do this one justice. It was a mental struggle from both sides, a slippery duel where Pat beat Neil in two, but where most players with the same draws would have found themselves dominated.

Patrick Chapin and friend.

Watching over Chapin's shoulder in this Top 8 was like a master class in high level Magic gamesmanship. He would stare at perfectly stacked openers for what seemed like aeons, deliberating that he might toss them back, and overplayed weak hands like they were nothing but aces. He controlled the tempo of the opponent's play with his voice and pace, waltzed them around the room, and resolved key spells like he had never heard of permission.

In one of his two games against Reeves, Pat kept one of the most strategically unplayable grips I have ever seen. It was literally nothing but mana. Birds of Paradise and Llanowar Elves and basics and... nothing. Not surprisingly, Neil had the superior taps, with Nightscape Familiar, Probe, legitimate counters, and of course Psychatog to trump some Wild Mongrel. Pat, though, managed his hand of all mana as if it were the pillars of Atlas, an army of superheroes, anything but Forest and... Forest. His every move was a swagger. He walked around the board like he owned the room. With a confidence well beyond a man with no other relevant plays, he asked, "Compulsion?"

Reeves let it hit. As with his match three years later against Masashi, he only had one Counterspell, and he and his Psychatog were done immediately if Patrick had either Squirrel Nest or Opposition; all those Birds and Elves would have allowed him to resolve one of those enchantments easily. In short order the Compulsion transformed Pat's weak position into a board cluttered with Basking Rootwallas and Arrogant Wurms, simultaneously transforming his hand of lands into nothing but cheap Blue instants.

The result? Chapin would fall the next round to his childhood mentor edt, while Neil would have to settle for a perfectly awesome fourth place finish at this Grand Prix.

"What? Two of them?"

The last story I want to recount is the actual inspiration for this article. My good friend Mark Herberholz, barn and hull, clueless genius, game show winner and Pro Tour champion is literally the most underrated Magic theorist in the world, largely because he surrounds himself with players with gigantic deck design Q ratings, such that his contributions and individual efforts sometimes get drowned out by the massive cacophonies of his friends' promotion and reputations. Most people know Mark from either his pinball-like performance on The Price is Right or the fact that he, you know, won that Pro Tour in Hawaii last year. However I think that his most impressive display of individual valor -- and gamesmanship -- was in Philadelphia, during the so-called "skins game" Pro Tour that was Kamigawa Block Constructed.

Herberholz vs. Budde, PT Philly 05

Mark's Day Two was very likely the roughest schedule any single player has ever endured on the way to Top 8. For most of the day he played with his back against the wall at Table One, in Feature Match after Feature Match with elimination on the line each round, against literally the best players on the Pro Tour. In Round Eight, his opponent was eventual Philadelphia winner Gadiel Szleifer; Round Nine was Kai Budde, the best player in the world not named Jon Finkel; Round Ten was then-Resident Genius Tsuyoshi Fujita, considered by many to be the finest beatdown player in the world, piloting one of the few successful decks in the Divining Top-laden tournament to feature basic Mountain; Round Eleven was Jim Roy, Rotting Giant innovator of "threat diversity," once again packing an unpredictable special; and Round Twelve -- even after he clinched Top 8 -- saw Mark up against Oliver Ruel, his eventual Top 8 opponent, and then, as always, one of the most feared competitors in the game.

For our purposes the most interesting match was Round Nine against Budde, a match that has become legend in certain circles, a beginning and an end, an arrival, a curtain, and a hell of a story. Pro Tour Philadelphia was being hailed as The Return of Kai, with Magic's grand champion acing Day One with a perfect 6-0. He hit the skids on Day Two, though, with losses to Ryan Cimera and Simon Carlsson, before hitting his elimination match with Heezy. For reference, here are the decks in question:

Kai Budde

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Mark Herberholz

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Mark's deck was a Gifts Ungiven recursion combo-control deck that used Soulless Revival and Hana Kami to lock the opponent out with repeated Cranial Extractions (if combo or control) or Ethereal Hazes (if beatdown). Kai stuck Night of Souls' Betrayal and commenced beatdown with Yukora, the Prisoner. With Night of Souls' Betrayal in play, Mark could not play a Sakura-Tribe Elder, let alone loop Hana Kami, as his 1/1 creatures would be quite dead before he would have the chance to sacrifice them for lands or spells. Early in the game Mark "blew" Wear Away to take out the first of Kai's Legendary Enchantments, not even splicing. He put on a read that said Budde believed him to be playing only one Wear Away. By burning it so early, and not as a splice, Mark believed that Kai would put himself in the driver's seat, and commit like a man with no way to lose.

Mark, meanwhile, went through his Cranial Extractions to take out Kai's Distresses and Cranial Extractions of his own. These seemed like a series of futile plays to stay alive a few more turns while in actuality Mark was crafting an unbreakable long game while looking for his second Wear Away. "At one point in the match, [Kai mentioned] that the only way I can win is to find my Wear Away," Mark recalls. "That's when I just throw away the first one without splicing, so he obviously thinks 'he got there' when he plays another Night of Souls' Betrayal. In reality he was drawing dead as soon as we shuffled up... The Feature Match coverage is surprisingly good, classic BDM doing his job."

Did Heezy win on the bluff? If we accept the notion of how Mike Turian bluffs when he sees an opportunity, a flash of weakness or the wrong glint in the other guy's eye, right before he sends his hapless 2/2 into some giant Green man, then Herberholz deserves a nod if not an Oscar nomination. With Kai beating him to eight with a 4/4 Yukora, the Prisoner, Mark walked away from the table to consult a judge, prompting Kai to mention "He is basically just searching for his one Wear Away..." to floor reporter David-Marshall. Mark's return to the table, sliding into his seat and swooping his arm sideways like a baseball pitcher in slow motion, arriving in a single fluid motion, overjoyed as he proclaimed the famous "Found it!" is burned into my memory as one of my iconic memories of the Pro Tour. Even though this move is the fake-out and not the true Wear Away source of Heezy's victory, it's the image that I remember, a histrionic flourish designed to throw off Kai and distract every other onlooker, yours truly included. This play was ostensibly useful in the short term, "Found it!" a nakedly appropriate emotional reaction from Herberholz (who was to that point unable to defend himself with signature 1/1s) as his lifeline; most importantly, it put Kai in a position of false confidence.

The rest, as they say, is history. Kai, once the most terrifying opponent on the Tour, who started the event with an undefeated Day One, was not seen again until Worlds at the end of 2006. Mark solidified himself as a legitimate threat in Constructed, made Top 8 in Philly, and set himself up for an even better performance in Honolulu. We in the Magic media were all rabid for a return to glory for Budde, but Philly ended up a passing of the torch, with its elimination rounds filled with some of the game's rising stars and finest Constructed technicians, not the least of whom was scrappy Japanese finalist Kenji Tsumura.

After being eliminated from competition by Mark's second Wear Away, Kai praised his subtle tuning. "Most Gifts decks run only one Cranial Extraction and one Wear Away... Wear Away is very good against me." It is my belief that subtle efficiencies like recognizing the value of a second utility singleton, or tuning a beatdown deck to beat a format dominated by a certain stripe of control elements, as Herberholz did in Honolulu, is a sign of insightful, if not brilliant deck development. Somebody make this man the Resident Genius!

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