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"Scrubs Corner": Playing the Role
By Shawn J. Houtsinger
Ever sit down to an opponent that you know is very good? You're nervous, or you're not, a little excitable, hoping to absolutely smash his face.
You want to beat 'the man'.
Beating him would prove to yourself that your progressing as a Magic player.
In essence, his loss would be your momentum into being as good as him.

Some players don't take the game as seriously, and just sit down to play whomever with no regard to their opponent's skill level-whether they know, and don't care, or are oblivious to it. I mean, if you sat down across from Kai Budde, you'd react differently than a schmuck like myself.

And, you know...this is a good and bad thing, not caring about the player. Is it important to play against them differently if they are a 'good' player?
I like to use the “two blue open” analogy because it translates the best for stories and people to truly understand the situation.

How is it good?

A average player might second guess their game play through out a match. For example, knowing that your opponent is playing a counter spell deck, and they have two islands untapped, you pass your turn when you could drop something. Why? Your afraid of dropping a card that might be potentially be countered. Keep in mind I stated 'might'. Call them Jedi mind tricks if you must, but they are a basic form of bluffing. Read this for more insight. A good player will make you think he has a counter. He won't give any 'tells'* But, if you don't care or realize how good he is, you'll play as is, without any concern. You will stick to your game plan. I am not pointing out the obvious fact that you should play around Force Spikes, or a counter if your trying to set them up for a game breaking card.
My roommate, Shaner, is my ultimate nemesis. He beats me game after game. Of course this only applies in our apartment.
At one time we posted our win-loss records on the refrigerator.
Shaner: 26
Houts: 6

A few years ago,at a PTQ, I found myself in a difficult position. My opponent was playing Mono-Green while I was playing Jank-a deck with burn and removal(Swords to Plowshares, Incinerates, Lightning Bolts, etc). I was beating him down with my Soltari Monk, with nothing keeping him back except a White Knight and a few cards in my hand. He kept beating with Rogue Elephant, and I had no answers. But, I had a grip full of cards. And, whenever he would attack, I'd pause, to make him realize I did have 'outs' or tricks. My deck was mass removal, especially after sideboarding.
Two turns before my own death, I take my turn, look at the card, act as if I was doing the math, and send in my guys. I didn't realize it them but I was 'playing the role'. It was a smoke signal of: “I have the threat or answer, so you must block”
He didn't have to block, but if he didn't, I would could easily Bolt, Incinerate, or Swords my own guy to live another turn-the turn he would for sure to do from. So I put him into a position of where I thought he would have to block.

But, he doesn't. He takes the damage, going to 1 life. I am stunned.
I have, at this time, 5 cards in my hand.
I could only mutter, “Go” as he smashes back at me to just put me down to 0 on the dot.

Mad, and justifiably so, I ask him why he didn't block, especially since he could have died from ANY one burn card.
Now, you could say this was a great play by him...presuming he was reading me, and knew I didn't have the burn or removal. But, he wasn't that quick of a Mtg player.
I questioned why he'd risk it considering I had 5 cards in my hand.
He merely replied, “I thought I could live from the attack...”

Most players would presume, if they know they are playing against a good player, that person has a removal or threat. Why? Because I drew my card, and acted as if I had the card, and it was two turns before my own death. Most players would wait for another turn if they didn't have any out, hoping to draw a card.
I told this story to a few other players, and they agreed that he wasn't smart enough to realize this.

He didn't know I was a 'good' player, and it won him the game. So who is the real winner in this situation? It was good for him, obviously, but being oblivious to these facts, are bad for his game play. This will hold him back from becoming better.

How is it bad?

“WTF Mate!?”
I am no Pro Tour player, but here I am with a 1954 rating in constructed, and losing to my roommate who drops a Spire Owl and Zephlid Embrace on it. He turns it sideways so many games...

“The Horror, the horror”
I realize my misconceptions now. I just presumed that because I was a better player, he wouldn't drop kill cards against me when I had two blue untapped, or a possible answer in my hand, to his threat. Shaner didn't believe in that. He wanted to win. This is a valuable lesson I learned. Sometimes you just have to turn your creatures sideways, or drop that bomb. Play as if you would. Don't let player across from you dictate your plays.


A week ago, I stopped into a local card shop in Kenosha to shoot the breeze with some of the young'ins. I played a bad version of affinity, and playing it badly, in a quick 4 rounds of Type 2. The last round I was paired against a decent young'in playing my favorite deck, Astro-Slide, in a deciding game to see who will make Top 4. I packed in my cards for a good game. The devastating Akroma's Vegeance just beats this deck. It was a 80-20, in favor of my opponent; especially considering my deck was horrifyingly terrible.

But, I had counter spells. I just need blue mana untapped.
You see, the deck, as bad as it was, had a mass amount of counter spells.
Not you typical Affinity build.

Game one went to him, as he dropped angel third turn, and I decided not to play any lands for 8 turns after dropping my first one.
Game two was just your lucksack Affinity draw. I had a counter for his Vegeance and Wrath and on we went to game three..

Game three involved me having no counter spells, two lands, and card drawing.
I dropped my Chrome Mox and land and sent it back to him.
He untapped and laid a land...and did nothing.
Now, I knew he had either an Astral Slide or Lightning Rift. But he chose not to drop it.
Because I had two blue untapped.
Because he knew I was a 'good' player**

Mike, watching him not drop anything, could only shudder.
He played out his Exalted Angel after a few turns, as all I could do was draw cards.
I put out two threats that made him eat up a wrath.

But, when he played Wrath of God, I stopped him. I told him to “Hold on, I might have respond”.

What was in my hand?
Myr Enforcer
Mana Leak

Nothing. Nada. Zip. My hand was oink, and I knew a Vengeance would blow me out.
Here is when I knew I would have to bluff.

“I am All IN!”
As I call this kind of tempo change, as related to Texas Hold Em', I was 'playing the role'.

What is 'playing the role?' One night, during Texas Hold Em', I went all in, after the flop, with a J4(Jack and Four) off suit. The flop came down with AA3(Ace, Ace, Three). There were 5 in the pot, and first to call. I went all in after everyone called a raise of 100. Now, with the 5 players forced with a position of deciding of staying in, I felt comfortable. You see, unless someone was trying to bluff the Ace, I felt confident in knowing no one had it. Everyone folded, and my friend asked me to show my cards for fun. I was reluctant, but thought I'd throw salt into their eyes. My friend groans and asks why I risked all my money on that, when I had nothing.
I replied, “Because, I played the role.”
-”What do you mean you played the role?”
“I played the role of the man with the best hand, as if I had the winning hand when the situation is given to do so.”
-”Oh, so you acted as if you had an Ace.”
“Exactly, and only after I felt confident noo ne else had it.”

So back to the game...
I was acting as if I had the hand that could stop him or win the game. I bluffed I had the counter that could counter this wrath.

I decided, I would have to play the role of the man with the best hand

I flash a Mana Leak, and count his lands. I acted as if I didn't know he has 4 mana left open. No, I didn't tap my land, just merely flashed the card. Then I shifted my other card and started to touch the two all-mighty islands.
I sigh.

Then, I let it resolve mentioning I have to save it for the Vegeance.
You see, I played the role.
I even mention the card that would destroy me.

Why is this important? Because most players wouldn't name the card they would be afraid of while holding no counter spell. You have to act like you would as if you have the hand.

I untapped and dropped a Frogmite. He was at 8 Life.
Now, with affinity, there are several counter spells that could take counter a Vegeance, but this card would be Override, which I had enough artifacts in play to easily counter A Vegeance. So, I dropped the Myr Enforcer. I cast Thoughtcast and draw into a land and Chrome Mox.

Mike, still watching, has horrified eyes. I know now he has Vegeance, and could win this game if only he would cast it.

So I go into Golden Globe award acting mode.
I look at Mike and say, “Well all I can do is hope he doesn't get double wrath of Vegeance, because I'll scoop if he does. I can't stop that. If he has double threats to stop this guy, I won't be able to stop him.”
Mike asks, “Why? Do you have a counter?”
I slouch in my chair...and groan, with a smirk and say, “Yeah, I accidentally showed it to him.”
Mike replies, “Oh, I see...”

Mike doesn't know either. He is caught in the web. I look at my opponent and I can see that even he is starting to believe he had seen it.

So on the this turn, he casts an Eternal Dragon, which I mana leak, and purposely leave the three mana open for him to see.
I sigh again.

I take my turn, draw another Chrome Mox and put him at 4, passing my turn quickly.

He takes his turn and CYCLES Akroma's Vegeance. He then cycles a land and scoops.
I ask him if he has Akroma's Vegeance. He nods.
“I will give you this game, even though I won, just because I wanted to teach you a lesson..”
I flip my two Chrome Mox's at him
Two people shake their head in disbelief, and he can only stare at my no counter spell hand.

There is something I am trying to point out here. I didn't type out this story to make myself look good at magic. To show my amazing bluff skills, how great I am at Magic.
No, not at all. I want, as I did with him, try to teach you an important lesson.
Play as if you would, don't get caught in the web. Even good players get bad hands, and they don't always have a counter spell.
Some people thought he was dumb NOT to play the Vegeance. They are right, but I point out that most of them would have, or have, done the same thing against me, or other good players.

I don't care about the “W” if I can get them to be better players. Otherwise, how else can they learn? Whenever I play in Madison, Milwaukee, or Chicago card shops where the player quality is high, I sometimes am baffled at the attitudes of Pro's or 'good' players. They will mock or knock down the kids that are trying to play better. They won't take the time out to tell them, “No, no...this is what you should have done, and here is why...”

There are times you need to know you should as if your opponent might have the two blue open. He might not have it the second turn, but he has it, and is waiting...for the right turn.

In this story, most players I have seen, would have cast (if I did have a counter) a counter at the Wrath of God during game three. This would be the bad play. Of course, Mike Flores, Jame Wakefield, and Adrian Sullivan are my MTG maybe I shouldn't be one calling “good” and “bad” plays.***

What if I did have that counter in hand, and acted as if I didn't have one, letting the Wrath resolve, and then dropping down the Vegeance with it....
When playing a 'good' player, you want to draw out counter spells. Sounds silly huh? But, as long as you know the win conditions against your match-up, you will need to get him to drop his hand. You need to throw threats out, but not the ones that you want to resolve, in order to keep him from dropping his threats. This creates a stale mate of tempo. He isn't dropping his threats, and you aren't either.
What if you didn't? Then he could drop a threat, and then have counter back up. Meanwhile, your still catching up to stop the threat, and then drop your win condition.

You want to play the role of the man with the best hand.

It's your way of saying “If you tap out...or don't have mana open, or a counter spell, I will drop a threat you can't answer”
Make him think he has to have that counter.

I will be honest, against average players, I know they won't play with their counters or 'tricks' with the same safeguard as I would. If I know the opponent doesn't know how to play his 'tricks' correctly, I can abuse the tempo, and play the role all day.

Shawn J. Houtsinger
The one and only,

*This is an obvious reference to Poker. 'Tells' are when you do move, talk, breath, etc that can be attributed to having a good hand or bad hand. i.e. People tend to get excited when they have a good hand of cards, and those who don't will show it-on their face, or physically, by slumping in the chair. These are just basic forms.

** I really detest calling myself a good player. I have qualified for a Pro Tour, made several Top 8's, 4's and other quality turn-out's, but I don't think I am 'good'. Does my rating make me good? I can only cringe as I imagine a Pro Tour player reading this and chuckling. Or even worse, some of the people that play against me regularly. They are probably snickering seeing me attributing 'good' with my own name. However, in my wise age of MTG players, this old dog knows more tricks than the young pups, so I have to put myself slightly above their level of playing. God forgive me.

*** Jame Wakefield was known as the most likable MTG player but also one who made the most mistakes. If you ever read one of his articles, you'll remember his classic 6 sided dice he'd roll when making mistakes during a game. Mike Flores, A.K.A bad player, is a great strategist, but not very consistent in play. Adrian Sullivan IS a good player, but his flavor of play style is questionable among Pro's. Once again-who am I to question them? They all have surpassed me in MTG achievements.

Read More Articles by Shawn J. Houtsinger!

 - Wednesday (July 18. 2018)
 - Thursday (May 17, 2018)
 - Tuesday (Aprl. 24, 2018
 - Monday (Apr. 16, 2018)
 - Friday (Apr. 6, 2018)
 - Wednesday (Apr. 4, 2018)
 - Monday (Apr. 2, 2018)
 - Friday (Mar. 23, 2018)
 - Thursday (Feb. 15, 2018)
 - Thursday (Jan 25, 2018)

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