Attention to Detail #12 - Everything But the Cards
by Jordan Kronick
February 10, 2006
Many years ago – I'd say
at least eleven or so – Phil Foglio used to do a version of
his (in)famous What's New? comic for The Duelist. For those
of you too young to remember, The Duelist was a
Magic-centered magazine put out by Wizards of the Coast. In
addition to covering Magic, it also covered the assorted
other card games that Wizards of the Coast put out under the
Deckmaster imprint, such as Jyhad and Netrunner. Anyway,
What's New? was a humor strip first pioneered in Dragon
magazine which took a lot of funny jabs at the gaming
industry and games in general. In one strip that I remember
fondly, Foglio took on the subject of card game accessories.
Back then, card sleeves were still pretty new. People were
starting to recognize the benefit for shuffling and
preventing wear and tear, but many still played their Moxen
unsleeved. Foglio, in his usual style, came up with some
ridiculous inventions that were luxuries for card gamers,
such as plexiglass sleeves and automatic deck whifflers.
Back then, it was good for a laugh. Nowadays, such things
are something less of a joking matter. There's a lot of
periferal goods that can help you play better or at least
make you feel like you're playing better. And that's what
this week's column is all about.
The most important advantage you can have in a game of
tournament Magic is not mana screw for your opponent or even
superior playing ability. It is psychological advantage.
I've seen many players who had superior decks, luck and
skill get defeated because their heads were simply not in
the game. Anyone who has forgotten to pay for a Stasis at
the exact wrong moment or tried to counter an Urza's Rage
knows what I'm talking about. Sometimes you're distracted.
Sometimes you're frustrated. Sometimes you're just plain not
caring about the match anymore. Whatever, the cause, people
get thrown off their game. There are ways of causing in your
opponents this which I absolutely do not recommend or
condone – such as showboating, and generally being a bad
sport. Don't yell to your friends across the room while
you're playing a match. It can set your opponent off their
game, but it's just bad taste. Instead, one of the tricks I
like to make use of is in the periferals. I'll give you an
example which ironically comes from the place where this
sort of thing is rarest – Magic Online.
A guy calling himself Tharion Wind used to run a weekly
commons-only tournament called Pauper's Deck Challenge. It
was a good place for people who were entirely new to the
tournament scene to get a feel for it without having to
throw away money on a deck or an event. It was also a good
place for experienced tournament players to test their
abilities with a more limited card pool than is offered by
Standard or Extended. The thing about Magic Online is that
you really don't know who you're playing against. If you
don't click to look at your opponent's information profile,
they are pretty much anonymous. If you do take the
opportunity to look at it, there's some very real
information that can be obtained. If you're playing the
first round of a PDC tournament and you click on your
opponent's info at the beginning of the match and discover
that they've got a 1600 (base-line) constructed rating or
lower, you can feel a little better. You're not playing
against an experienced tournament player. You can expect
them to make a mistake or two, and to perhaps have a sub
obtimal deck. However, if they have an 1800 constructed
rating, then you know that they are a pretty good player.
They've had a lot of success in constructed Magic formats,
and you can guess that they'll be able to afford the best
common cards and know how to use them. Of course, this kind
of thing isn't something that you can simply add to your
profile. You need to earn a good rating. So what else can
you do to give yourself a bit of advantage over your
opponent otherwise? Well, Magic Online has a bit of space
for a quote on your profile. It's a place where most people
put humorous quotes from friends or movies or songs or
whatever. Sometimes it's meaningful and sometimes it's just
a record for who owes them cards. I advise using this space
to make sure your profile tells your opponent in a subtle
way that you know what you're doing. Playing against a good
opponent will cause people to second-guess themselves and
otherwise assume you have an out when maybe you don't.
Bluffing becomes easier and thus winning becomes easier. My
own Magic Online profile contains a blurb telling people
that they can go read my articles on this site and a few
others that I've written for. So what effect does that have?
Well, it tells people that I think about Magic a lot. I
actually make some amount of money by talking about Magic.
Some people even assume that it means I'm somehow a
professional (which is far from the truth, unfortunately).
Note that I suggest subtlety in this sort of thing. I didn't
make my quote say “I'm a Magic writer and I know what I'm
doing”. That's a bit leading and can only bring a bit of
contempt from other players. Let them work it out for
themselves. Many players who have won premiere events copy
and paste the system notification when they win into their
profiles. This is a good way of saying “look, I was good
enough to win a whole PE. I know what I'm doing.”
But your profile isn't the only place in the online world
that this sort of thing happens. Let's go back to that PDC
tournament I mentioned earlier. Now, this is often a place
where people play when they can't afford the cards to play
in a “real” format. Commons are cheap, right? Well, there's
a certain psychological benefit that you can get from the
price of your cards. For instance, if you're playing a
commons deck that is absolutely packed with foil cards, then
your opponent knows that you've made a significant
investment here. You're taking the format seriously. You're
willing to put resources into making your deck look good.
The same thing happens with Avatars on Magic Online. Many
Avatars are very expensive. Having an expensive one
represents either effort (to win it) or wealth (to buy it).
Skillful opponents and rich opponents are the two kinds that
people fear. Certainly more than they fear bad players or
ones who can't afford the best cards.
And that's where the lesson carries over into the world of
paper Magic, of course. Let's look at one of the most basic
cards in the game – a Mountain. Now, let's say you're
sitting down to play some Standard Friday Night Magic.
You're playing a cool new Gruul deck that you've put
together. Most of the cards come from Ravnica block. What
can you do to ensure that your opponent sees you as a
legitimate threat? I'll mention here that many of these
strategies can be expensive. Also, they are no replacement
for good playing ability. What they are is a way to help
psyche your opponent out. To make them think you're better
than you are – no matter how good you are.
So you've got this Gruul deck. You've put the money into it
to make sure that most of your cards are foil. That's a good
start. I already talked about foils as being a good way to
accomplish the effect you're looking for. But everybody's
got foils. For commons and lands, they're a dime a dozen or
close enough. I decided, back when I played with paper
cards, to go a step further. I had a collection of Mountain
from Arabian Nights. They did exactly what a mountain from
9th edition does. But they look cool. That really can't be
overstated. Arabian Mountains, especially a deck full of
them, make people say “oooh, that's very cool”. They can
convince your opponent that the kind of investment that
you're willing to put into your deck and your Magic time in
general is vast. Of course, Arabian mountains are expensive
as all get out. There's still options out there for the
slightly more frugal. Get some lands from Beta. They still
come fairly cheap and have a statement that you have been
around long enough to play with stuff that looks cool. I
used to use a small box for 20 beta lands of each type to
supply all my booster drafting lands at prereleases.
Prereleases are maybe the best place for these investments
to come into play. You'll be playing against a lot of people
you don't know. And a lot of them will be young enough that
they won't know what a Beta land is, except that it looks
very weird and different from one of their lands. Then you
can explain to them how old it is and how valuable. Make
your opponent feel that they are outmatched – but do it in a
subtle way. That's the key.
Old versions of cards, as with the beta lands, are an
excellent way to make your decks look better and to make
yourself look better at the same time. If you're playing a
Battle of Wits deck in Standard (for some reason), make sure
that you're using Battles and Diabolic Tutors from Odyssey
rather than 9th edition. If you're playing with Boomerang,
make sure that you can get your hands on copies from Legends
or Mirage or something. The current Standard environment
actually has a lot of cheap ways to make your decks look a
bit older. Llanowar Elves, Hypnotic Specter and Kird Ape
were all in Revised, which had a huge print run. You can get
copies of these for very cheap. They'll all be white
bordered, but then – so will the 9th edition ones unless
they're foil. Old versions will make you feel better about
your deck and will make your opponent think you've been
around a bit longer. Unless, of course, you're too young to
have concievably purchased any Revised when it was on the
shelves. In which case, you've got a whole other set of
problems when it comes to making your opponent think you
know what you're doing.
So what does all this have to do with that Foglio cartoon
from the mid-90's? Well, there's more to the game than just
the cards, as the title of this column suggests. Back in the
day, we didn't have fancy sleeves to put our cards in. I
remember when the only available colors were Black, Red, and
Dark Green. Slowly, more sleeves entered the market.
Slightly reflective sleeves. Sparkly sleeves. Transparent
sleeves. Even sleeves with artwork of their own on them.
I'll say here that I firmly suggest everyone sleeves their
cards. Especially at prereleases. I don't have any
scientific evidence to back this up, but I really do feel
that sleeves help with shuffling. And of course, not
scratching up that shock land that you just opened isn't a
bad thing either. But a lot of people still don't use
sleeves at prereleases. And if you're someone who does, then
you've got a leg up on your opponent, don't you? Get
yourself some cool looking sleeves. You can reuse them for
many drafts before they're too beat up. A small investment
can greatly improve your style when playing.
The same sort of theories can be applied to other game
accessories as well. Tokens are a good example. Anyone can
use pennies or torn pieces of paper or upside-down cards as
tokens. But why not use something a bit classier? You can
get a bag of glass beads for very cheap at most game stores
(or craft stores). Or if you're really into it, get some of
the really nice tokens that Wizards gives out with their
Player Rewards program. Or get really creative and print
your own tokens.
That covers most of the ways you can use your gaming
supplies to grant you an advantage. But there's really one
more thing you can make look good – yourself. I have a good
friend who wears a suit to many Magic tournaments he plays
in. I got a haircut the day before the Guildpact prerelease.
These are ways to make yourself look like a threat. They can
also help you feel more confident, which is an advantage in
itself. Who do you fear more? The kid with the torn
Metallica t-shirt and the unshaven face using his draft deck
without sleeves – or the guy in the dark suit with the $20
haircut, who has brand new transparent green sleeves on his
deck – which is full of Guru lands that are $20 apiece on a
good day? Their cards may do exactly the same things, but
most people can't help but lost a little steam when they
fear their opponents. There's more to Magic than cards, and
sometimes a little polish is all you need.
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