The Art of the Bluff

Posted in Serious Fun on February 13, 2007

By The Ferrett

"errett," Kelly said to me, "You're the guy who believes that interpersonal politics has a role to play in multiplayer. Thus, I think this upcoming theme week will be just perfect for you."

"What's the theme?"

"The art of the bluff."

His request confused me, but I never want to let down an editor — especially when he thought I was a good fit. I thought for a while, and then eventually sent back this:

"What the hell is this?" Kelly asked.

"It's a picture of a bluff," I replied. "A steep promontory overlooking the banks of the Missouri river. I mean, I didn't draw this, but then again I'm just a writer — I guess I could have Roni, the co-artist from my webcomic Home on the Strange, draw something for you if you want, but that seems kinda weird...."

It was then that Kelly explained to me there was another meaning to the word "Bluff." Not "A steep cliff," as I had incorrectly surmised, but this:

Bluff (bluf)
v. bluffed, bluff•ing, bluffs
1. To mislead or deceive.
2. To impress, deter, or intimidate by a false display of confidence.
3. Games To try to mislead (opponents) in a card game by heavy betting on a poor hand or by little or no betting on a good one.

"Ah," I said. "That's just being sneaky. I'm good with that."

"So can you do it?" he asked.

"Oh yeah."

The Art of the Bluff, Part II

Other, better writers this week will no doubt discuss the nature of bluffing in a duel. And learning how to mislead your opponents in a one-on-one match is a good skill for everyone to learn, because it not only gives you a psychological edge but it teaches you to pay more attention to your opponents. When you know that you bluff sometimes, you start to realize that your opponent gives off signals as well, which causes you to watch him just a little closer to see if he's giving off some kind of tell.

That actually winds up working in your favor, even if your opponent gives you nothing of use. Why? Because anything that keeps your full attention on the game at all times is something that will improve your skill.

But bluffing properly in multiplayer is a different beast for two very important reasons.

1) You will play your opponents multiple times.

Thalakos_DeceiverIn a large tournament, it's comparatively rare that you'll face the same guy twice in a given day — if you're lucky, you meet him in the Swiss and again in the Top 8, and that's it. If you're a regular in the area, you might wind up playing a single duel with the same guy almost every week.

But in regular games of multiplayer, everyone plays. You see their play style in every game in the evening, leading to a much more intimate knowledge of what they do (or do not do) with their cards.

But wait! There's more! If you're part of a chatty group, as I am, everyone's discussing each other's board position quite openly, talking about who's in the lead and who could be the threat given a few cards, and applauding when someone makes a great play. If you allow this and pay attention, it's like having a podcast discussing the habits of everyone at your table. You learn a lot quicker.

And yet there is even more! Because unlike tournaments, where anyone who pays the fee can get in to play, casual games tend to be invite-only. Which means that your friends are at the table. Now you not only know their Magic habits, you probably know a great deal about their life habits as well.

The net result is that you have far more information available to you about your opponent when you're trying to bluff them. This is good.

What is bad is that they have just as much information on you.

2) Artificially-strengthened positions will get tested more often.

In a duel bluff, you can often get a weak player to hold off on killing you for a turn by pretending to have something good, even if you're holding a mittful of land.

Multiplayer? Not so much.

It's not that pretending to have a good hand won't work on some people... But for a false-strength bluff to work, you have to fool everyone at the table, or your weakness is soon revealed. If you're snarling, "Nobody attack me or you will suffer my wrath" and silly little Joey shrugs and attacks you without reprise, then everyone else will know that you were full of it.

You can fake weakness just fine — it's a tried-and-true tactic in multiplayer. Just sit back and pretend to have nothing while two of the most powerful guys duke it out, chipping away at each other, and then flop down a hand formed of pure power. But faking a strength that isn't there on the board? That's much harder to do, and I don't recommend it.

Why? Well, that falls into the principles of bluffing in multiplayer.

He Distinctly Said "To Blave"

So how do you bluff in multiplayer? The problem is that there are three essential bluffs, each of them different: Bluffing a strength of position that you do not have, or pretending to be weak when you're actually in the cat's seat, or bluffing the contents of someone else's deck. All three need to be handled differently.

But the number one rule of bluffing in multiplayer is this:


This isn't to say that you should never bluff in multiplayer. But remember my first point: you're playing with friends, and playing with them a lot more often than you'd play Joe Schmoe down at the local Magic shop. They will get to know your play style, and within a single evening you can develop a reputation as a bluffer.

And when you strike, make it splashy. Stand up in your chair, slap the card down on the table, and trash talk a little. "Ah toldja! Who you messin' with? Who's your Daddy?" You wish to mark this moment in their minds so that they will always remember trying to call your bluff and being wrecked for it.

This leads to wonderful moments of comedy when you leap to your feet to slam down your Card of Doom, and your opponent mildly says, "Counterspell?" - completely neutralizing it. It is, of course, hysterically funny when your big play collapses underneath you once you've made a big deal of it, and if you can't see that then you need to learn to laugh at yourself.

Besides, then your opponents remember it even more. Win and win.

This is not something you want. The whole point of a bluff is to fool people. If people shake their heads and go, "Ah, Ferrett's always saying he'll strike down upon us with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison him," then you've lost.

The bluff needs to be used sparingly.

This means that by and large, you do not threaten someone unless you have the card. If you look someone in the eye and say, "If you attack me, you are going to lose your entire army," then you'd better dang well be able to whip out that Sudden Spoiling upon command. If you whine about how you don't have anything in your hand except for lands, you'd better make sure that you do have a really bad draw.

In particular, do not unleash the thunder unless you have the lightning. You want to establish yourself as someone who is believable. And if you promise retribution, you had better be in a position to hurt someone really badly (or at least to give it a valid shot), because you are building a profile for yourself over the course of many games. You want your friends to think, "Whenever he said he would kill my guy, he had the Putrefy...."

The moment they think of you as a liar, all bets are off. Which leads to general multiplayer bluffing tip #2:

Only bluff when you can win.

Brutal_DeceiverThe danger of being caught bluffing is greater in multiplayer, so you don't want to do it merely to avoid losing. Losing is just something that happens when you're facing five guys; not every draw you get will have the power to struggle past a gang of opponents. The losses will come.

But since the bluff can poison the well for weeks at a time, eroding your reputation, you only want to bluff when you can win.

If one more turn will give you the extra mana to assemble your combo of doom? Awesome. If dissuading this guy from attacking you this turn will enable you to take out two guys the next turn? Even more awesome.

Bluffing in this position serves two purposes: first, you win if it works. That's awesome. And if you don't win, you get to shrug and say, "I had to try, right?" as you reveal your cards, and nobody's going to blame you for the bluff when you were almost there.

But if you're in a position where even if you do bluff successfully, then all you get is another turn and another card that probably won't save you, then don't bother. It's not worth it. Save that bluff for a rainy day, mi amigo.

(Well, except that sometimes you want to mix things up. If you only bluff when it's down to the wire and you may or may not have the cards, people will see the pattern and shatter it. But you know, that's the danger of playing psychological games... You gotta be a little random...)

This leads, circuitously, to multiplayer bluffing tip #3:

If it works, don't tell them.

Callous_DeceiverYeah, you're gonna feel good about having pulled that out of your pocket. It will be a moment of sheer triumph, because you got people to do your bidding. But if you value victory over fun (which, mind you, I don't always do), then flopping your cards down on the table after a successful bluff and going, "Wow, I had nothing!" will mark that moment in their minds forever.

You just chumped 'em. Do they want that to happen again? Not really. The cold-blooded winners will hate being fooled, and the guys who just like playing will think that's awesome, and they'll want to see whether they can outbluff you the next time they play, so they'll run in to see whether you're bluffing this time. It's a lose/lose.

If you have to show, show. Don't be a jerk. But if you can scoop up your cards quietly as people ask, "So did you have it?" the answer is always, "Like the number of licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop... The world will never know."

And here is the final tip, making this multiplayer bluff #4.

Only bluff one player.

Like I said, trying to bluff everyone will lead to ruin; when you have three or four people with the time to investigate the holes in your story, someone's going to discover it. The best bluffs are mano a mano bluffs, where you look one person in the eye and convince them of the danger they are in. The other guys don't need to believe what you're saying, because the only thing that's critical right now is that you are altering the play decisions of the guy who can wreck you.

Don't try to run the table. Pick your target, tap your mana, and bluff that guy. Anyone else you catch with your honey trap is just gravy, if that is in fact a valid metaphor.

That said, let's discuss the three styles of multiplayer bluffing and call it a night.

The False Strength Bluff

You have a hand full of nothing. Your opponent, on the other hand, is twiddling his cards, considering an all-out attack on you... Or he's laid a big ugly sorcery spell on the table and is deciding who it's going to get pointed at. What do you do?

Well, it depends on your opponent. There are, generally speaking, three kinds of attackers: those who hate being challenged, those who hate losing stuff, and those who just like to watch stuff burn.

The guys who hate losing stuff can be dissuaded, occasionally, by a steely glance. You have to get to them before they turn their guys sideways, which is always a tricky balance – most players, once they've committed their armies, are loathe to take it back (though sometimes you can get them to send a guy or two elsewhere).

Look at them with deep sorrow, like you're talking to a pal who just lost a favorite relative at a funeral. Let him know, without particular anger, that sending his guys in your direction would be a grievous mistake. It's not that you're threatening him exactly — it's just that you know what's good for him right now, and if he knows, he won't.

The trick is, of course, to know whether it is good for him. You don't want to bluff when it's clear that wiping you off the table at this moment would be the best thing in the world for him. Sometimes, you just have to shrug and go, "Yeah, I'd hit me too." But if there's any doubt in his mind that maybe sending his guys over and losing a few wouldn't be the A-lister strategy, or that wasting this big splashy spell would be a shame, then work that doubt like there's no tomorrow.

Be impassive. Remember, you don't care: You have the answer, so this is of no concern to you. What's at stake is his board position.

Then there are the guys who have ego. They hate being challenged, and if you tell them, "If you come at me..." they will come at you twice as hard just because you've called them out before a whole crowd. Thus, this approach doesn't work with them.

What you need to do then is to shrug and say, "Yeah, you could attack me." It's not a bluff per se so much as it is throwing yourself on your opponent's mercy, showing your belly to him and acknowledging that he is, indeed, every bit the Big Man that he thinks he is. Generally, he'll be quietly flattered enough by this that he won't stomp you as hard, splitting his forces to be "fair" (though you'll often still take a hit).

Then there's the third guy: He can't be bluffed. Generally, he's a novice player who attacks the guy who has nothing, continually making the Rattlesnake error and coming in second or third. He's not concerned so much with strategy as he is with affecting the board – he doesn't want to win, he just wants to do something, now. And like it or not, you're the person he can do something to.

Don't bother trying to bluff this guy. Won't work. Just suck it up and deal, and then pound him the first chance you get to show him the error of his ways.

The False Weakness Bluff

Harsh_DeceiverThis comes when you have a good hand, and you want to lay low so that other players will go elsewhere. "Hiding in plain sight" is possibly the classic multiplayer political strategy, but it gets trickier when someone points at you and says, "Look at Ferrett! He's got seven cards in hand and hasn't done anything for turns! Why aren't you picking on him?"

The trick is merely to downplay your hand, not to negate it.

If you tell people, "I've got handful of nothing" and then start casting backbreaker after backbreaker, they will remember. You can't claim you have all land when really, you've got the goods.

Instead, you want to shrug — in multiplayer bluffs, you're rarely upset because this is the truth and hey, that's just the way it is — and tell people that you've got some stuff, but it's not that good.

Then analyze the board position. Explain why you're hoarding cards. It's not because The Guy Who's Winning Right Now (who will eventually be toppled off his throne and lose to you) is dominant — it's because this guy over here has a strategy that wrecks yours. "Come on, he's playing Mono-Black, and I'm here with a stupid G/W Selesnya deck! I have to keep some cards back because he's going to wreck me if I overextend!"

Any good lie has an element of truth. Show them where you're weak, and explain how other players can beat you. Be honest about how their decks are actually bad for your strategy. In reality it's not that big a deal because you've got an ace in the hole (even if that ace is hoping that The Guy Who's Winning Right Now will knock your enemy color out of the game first), but debate a little.

Besides. You're not trying to involve yourself in these wars. You're just this guy, trying to get by, surviving until the next turn like all of you. Why would you want to attack me? I'm not messing with you.

Not until you win, anyway.

Bluffing The Opponents

This is another classic political strategy. And here it is in a nutshell:

"Look at him! He's got tons of stuff! It could kill you!"

It only works on weaker players, but I can't tell you the number of times that I've gotten a friend to attack someone else because I know what's in that guy's deck.

"Look at him! He's playing White! You don't think he has Wrath of God? You'd better pound him first — you can handle my Red burn, but his global creature kill will wipe you out."

"But I don't have Wrath of God," my opponent whines. "It's just a stupid Bird deck..."

"Of course he'd tell you that!" I cry. "Do you want to wait until he whips that out from nowhere? Get him now!"

Of course, you have no clue what's in the guy's deck. He probably doesn't have the Wrath of God. But merely by pointing at a pair of lands and noting that he has U and G available, you can put the idea of UNTARGETABLE SIMIC SKY SWALLOWERS OF DOOM in people's heads.

This takes a bit of knowledge of cards, and decks in general. But if you know what someone's general strategy is, it's not too hard to name a card that would absolutely shatter the fundamental concept that someone's whole deck rests on (Extirpate to destroy their recursion deck? Pernicious Deed to kill their Enchantress deck? Counterspell or Stifle to halt that combo?) and then convince an opponent that really, it's in their best interests to annihilate this evil, evil player before he comes online.

You gotta be first, of course. If you're in the defensive position of saying, "Well, sure, I could have Wrath of God, but... but he could have Jaya Ballard!" then you've pretty much lost. Be aggressive.

The great thing about this bluff is that half the time it turns out to be true. Good players play with good cards, and if you have a general idea of when someone started buying their cards, you can pick out the cards you know you'd put in a deck with those colors if you had access to cards from these sets. You look way smarter.

And when you don't? Shrug and apologize. "Hey, I thought it was a different deck."

Which brings up the question: Does bluffing make you a jerk? Yup. Sometimes, it does. Be prepared to acknowledge that not all tables like being played this way, and maybe if they're getting angry because you're pointing fingers, it's best not to try.

Fortunately, our group of players loves it. Trust me. Would I lie to you?

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