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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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