Magic is often described as a cross between chess and poker. One element that poker adds to this description is hidden information. In both poker and Magic, but not chess (in the absolute sense and for the most part), there is information private to each player. Private information is what opens the door for bluffing.
Your opponent doesn't know which cards you have in hand. But certain plays you make indicate what you might have or are likely to have (by being consistent with having that card). They represent it. If you misrepresent what you actually have, your opponent may (and often will) make a play that is inferior to the play they would make if you represented exactly what you did have. The risks and rewards of misrepresentation can vary, though. It's important to be able to recognize the most profitable bluffing opportunities.
Your opponent has an untapped Craw Wurm. You attack him with Grizzly Bears. To your opponent, it seems that you either have a pump spell or a burn spell, and that perhaps they shouldn't block, or that you are attempting to bluff through 2 damage, and that they probably should block. Whether or not this play, for you, is profitable depends on several factors, divided into two categories.
Risk, which in this case means: how likely is your opponent to block, and how bad is it if they do?
Reward, which in this case means: how important is the 2 damage?
- How valuable, from your opponent's perspective, is what they are risking? the more your opponent's Craw Wurm figures into their game plan for winning, the less likely they are to risk it. Careful—cards they have in hand (say, two more Craw Wurms), might incline them to block despite the board state. Also remember that there is some value from their perspective in calling your bluff; it usually means that you will at least have to expend your trick.
- How attractive is their alternative? What is your opponent's life total? The higher their life total, the more able they are to justify not blocking your Grizzly Bears.
- How valuable, from your perspective, is what you're risking? How important is the Grizzly Bears given your private information? If you're planning on playing an Inferno this turn anyway, there's no reason not to attack!
- How valuable, from your opponent's perspective, is what you're risking? How important is the Grizzly Bears given the board state? The more important it appears to be, the more credence your opponent will give your bluff, but the more inclined they'll be to block.
- Is someone winning? Unlike poker, where good play means maximizing profit in any given hand (even if that means folding), in Magic a game is either won or lost. That is, barring time considerations, winning by a lot is the same as winning by a little.
What this means is that if you're ahead and likely to win, it's worth avoiding risks—even profitable ones. If they go your way, well, you were already ahead. If they happen not to, you might suddenly be facing a loss!
If you're already ahead, risk is less attractive.
If you're already behind, risk is more attractive.
- Does your opponent think you are capable of bluffing? If not, you are likelier to get away with it.
- Is your opponent able to separate a bluff from a bad play? If not, you probably shouldn't try to bluff!
- Does your play have semi-bluff potential? Risk is diminished if, though you don't have a trick good enough to justify wanting your opponent to block, you do have a backup plan.
There is a lot of variation in what you and your opponent are actually risking in bluffing scenarios. It may be a creature, it may be damage (I attack with a Grizzly Bears into your Lumengrid Warden. I am not risking my Bears, only that I might take 1 damage on the backswing when I would otherwise have an untapped blocker), it may be cards, etc.
- How significant, from your perspective, is the reward? If you're holding a Searing Flesh in hand, and your opponent is at 9 life, then getting through an extra 2 damage is a highly valuable reward.
If your opponent's at 22 life, the reward is less valuable.
- Is there an additional reward for a successful bluff? There is an opportunity cost to not attacking; it confirms (most of the time) that you in fact don't have a trick! Remember to consider this. Often, representing a trick on one turn can affect the way your opponent (mis)plays for an entire game!
Of course, high risk / low reward situations should generally be avoided. Low risk / low reward situations are sometimes worth it, as are high risk / high reward situations. Low risk / high reward situations (or no risk / low reward situations) are almost always worth taking.
Aside from some of the general interactions mentioned above, let's look at a few common bluffing scenarios.
Board clearing effects: Consider a situation in which your opening hand contains some creatures and a Wrath of God. Here, the play most generally profitable is to not play your creatures as soon as possible, as you normally would, (or only play one or two as bait) and instead wait until your opponent invests multiple creatures to the board, so that you can make full use of Wrath first.
This is a fairly indirect and automatic bluff. You are representing weakness (I have no creatures to play! You should hurry up and kill me before I draw some or get enough mana to play them.) The risk is that your opponent will realize what you are doing and only commit a nominal amount of creatures to the board, or anticipate your Wrath and have a Cancel ready—ouch! The reward is leaving your opponent low on creatures post-Wrath while you play a steady stream of them.
Medium risk / high reward
Lands in hand: In the late game, extra land drawn is often redundant. In these cases, it can be valuable to hold them in hand. To you, three land in hand is useless. To your opponent, three mystery cards hold the threat of a combat trick or a removal spell, which could seriously affect the way they play!
You win if you attack with everything, but if they have a bounce spell you lose. They have three cards in hand, all drawn in the past three turns. Can you attack?
Low risk / medium reward
Tricks in damage race: These are the most common and most direct bluffing situations.
Often, particularly when one player has evasion creatures and another doesn't, games become damage races. In these situations, every few points of damage count. Here, calculated bluffs can be very valuable. The damage is significant, and misrepresenting a trick has high value since it might cause your opponent to attack or block awkwardly later on.
Your opponent attacks with Hill Giant into your Air Elemental. You can't afford to block. Finally, you're at 6 life, and he's at 8. It's difficult to justify attacking since he represented Giant Growth earlier.
At the end of the game he shows you he only had land!
Medium to high risk / medium to high reward
No-Risk: Sometimes misrepresenting a card is free. That is, there is no or only marginal risk, for potential gain. In these situations, it is important to recognize the card you can easily and profitably represent. For example, let's say you have a Plains, an Island, and a Mountain in play, and that your opponent knows you might be playing Mana Tithe. You play Goblin Brigands on three consecutive turns. If you tap different mana (Island or Plains) each time, it will appear that you indeed have no one-mana spell to potentially play. If, however, you leave up a Plains every time, the possibility for Mana Tithe exists, and even seems plausible!
No or low risk / low reward
That's it for this week. Please post your own bluffing scenarios in the forums! When and why do you find yourself bluffing in your own games? Does it usually work out?
Chad Ellis—Bluffing, Imperfect Information, and the Myth of the Single Correct Play
Terry Soh—The Art of Bluffing
Noah Weil—Snarely Legal