I'll admit that when I got the assignment this week, "Things Are Not As They Seem," I was a little confused about what I should actually write about. After some careful consideration I came up with a few topics that fit this description and that I hope you will find useful.
Deception is a huge part of high-level Magic. Usually it presents itself in the form of a bluff. Bluffing is a fundamental skill, but it has some intricacies that need to be identified before you can use it most effectively.
In Limited, bluffing is normally centered around the use of instant-speed spells like combat tricks and removal spells. There are other ways to bluff, but these two are the most common examples.
Bluffing is the act of representing that you have a certain type of spell in your hand by your actions, regardless of whether you actually do or not.
When it comes to removal spells, the most common bluffs come in the form of leaving up certain colors and amounts of mana such that you could cast a removal spell. Most often this is done during combat, so that the opponent is less likely to double-block an attacking creature. This is also a big part of the reasoning behind playing your creatures after combat—if you tap out to play the creature before attacking, the opponent will be able to safely double-block with the knowledge that you can't punish them.
Here is an example from Khans of Tarkir:
In this very simple board state, you are attacking with an Ainok Tracker, and you have six untapped red and black mana and four cards in hand.
The opponent has no untapped mana, and two Mardu Warshriekers on the battlefield.
The opponent would probably like to block with both Warshriekers, effectively trading one for the superior Ainok Tracker. But with a full six mana available, you could have any number of removal spells that would kill one of the blocking Mardu Warshriekers, leaving the other to die to the first strike from the Tracker.
That's right: The dreaded two-for-one.
With four cards in hand, it's entirely possible that you have one of these spells, so the defending player may just let the damage through instead of risking getting blown out.
The cool part about this scenario is that a really good player may recognize it and attack with the Tracker even if they didn't have the removal spell in hand. This takes some experience, as you need a feel for what kind of player your opponent is. Some people are more likely to block than others.
Interestingly, the more experienced the player, the less likely they are to block.
Some bluff situations are even easier to sell:
In this scenario, the attack from Seeker of the Way is almost mandatory. Even though the defending player may very well want to trade the morph for the Seeker, any instant from the attacking player leaves the morph dead if it blocks.
This particular bluff becomes second nature at some point. You just attack every time in this situation, almost no matter what. If your opponent is thinking about the game and aware what the cards do, they won't block.
Through experience, you will learn to decipher when it's ok to attack as a bluff, and when it's less good.
Speaking of morphs, they certainly fit the theme for the week.
Morphs are kind of ready-made little bluff machines. Once you hit that magical fifth land, your morph could be anything from a 0/6 to a 6/6 trampler with hexproof or anything in between. This tends to make blocking difficult for the opponent if you happen to be the first one to five mana.
Since the morphs are so varied in Khans, knowing what the possibilities are for each scenario becomes important. This is part of the reason why five-color decks are so difficult to play against; they could have any morph!
It also means that the order you play your morphs in can matter in a big way. If you play your best morph first, it could easily pick up a Debilitating Injury and find itself in the bin. Additionally, the first morph you play may need to block something fairly early in the game; another reason not to play your best morph first.
But if everyone plays their best morph last, then astute players will make sure to use their removal on the last morph cast.
Let the head games begin. Now you have to start taking into consideration when the morph was cast, if it was ever going to block, and what kind of plays you could make to punish it. It gets complicated pretty quickly.
Morphs make for some great game play as long as the controller has untapped mana. They can attack and use the threat of activation to push through damage, or they can hang back and intimate future attackers but threatening to turn up into big scary blockers at "slightly faster than instant" speed.
And then you have cards like this that threaten to do both:
I do love me a Pine Walker. It rumbles so well in combat with so many of the morphs, all the while being on blocking duty without letting the opponent know about it.
There are other morphs in the set that certainly aren't as they appear.
Some of them change the board state dramatically, turning what seemed like a favorable board state on its head.
I call this card the IceDad (partially because I initially misread the card as Icefather Aven). It's probably my single most favorite card in the whole set. This crafty bird turns from an innocuous 2/2 morph into a tempo torching 2/2 with flying for only three mana. Icefeather Aven is one of those cards that lets people think they have stabilized against you, only to spring the trap showing them that they are way further behind then they originally anticipated.
Talk about Not What They Seem. Jeering Instigator is capable of turning a game around on its own. Just as your opponent breathes a sigh of relief after having fully stabilized a hectic board, Jeering Instigator snatches away the biggest and best blocker only to have it rumble into the red zone alongside all of the other attacking creatures.
Since this particular instigator is a rare, it can be extra difficult to play around (and often incorrect to do so without having actually seen it in the draft).
Kheru Spellsnatcher is so sweet. It sits there as a lowly morph, definitely not seeming like what it is, until it's turned face-up and the horrible truth befalls your opponent. I have yet to lose a game where I have had a Spellsnatcher up with the mana to pay its morph cost. They never see it coming (again, a rare) and you really can't play around it very effectively. Even if you know it's there, the best thing you can do is cast a lesser spell hoping the controller will use the ability on it.
Even if they do, it's hard to feel like you are ahead in a scenario like that. Which is what makes this card so good.
For our last example of something not being what it seems like it is, we have Kin-Tree Warden. In this case, however, it seems like it might be some sweet morph ready to take over the game (see above), but in reality it's kind of boring and not that great.
Hey, you can't win 'em all, right?
Until next week!