The Code: A Path to Winning in Magic

Published on, August 19, 2002

The Code: A Path to Winning in Magic

by Ron Vitale

Magic is a game of skill, luck, and a Code of conduct. No matter if you play Black, the color of evil, or chaotic Red, the game of Magic gels around an unspoken Code of conduct. In today's world, we live in an ethical climate in which truthfulness is ignored. Companies such as Enron and Worldcom have falsified their earning records, major athletes use steroids, and more to the average Magic Players' age-level, fellow students cheat on their tests and plagiarize passages in their research papers. What does this have to do with Magic? The game of Magic also has rules and regulations. Without these rules, there would be no structure. How we adhere to those rules and follow a Code of conduct mirrors our personal values to the world.

Let's look at a real world situation. You are at a pre-release and your opponent beats you soundly. You shake hands and go off to report your loss. But what if I were to tell you that your opponent had cheated by adding some cards to his deck? Think it hasn't happened? Think again. Over the last several years there have been some big scandals in the Magic world surrounding misconduct and outright cheating in the tournament scene. I propose that each of us strengthen our Code of conduct in our daily Magic playing. Just as we shuffle our decks and we play our cards, I am suggesting that we, as Players, focus on the importance of using the Code to better our games. In playing Magic, we are not only playing against an opponent but also against ourselves. We have to continually challenge ourselves to: Learn the rules, practice, be honest, and to be wary of our opponent.

The Goal

The purpose of having a Code of conduct is to be honorable and open. Sound lame? Maybe, but hear me out. There's more to the Code than you might think. When you play a game of Magic, list in your head the goals of the match. Are you out to get revenge against someone? Are you looking just to have a good time? Do you want to win at all costs? There have been moments in which I have felt all of these emotions and I believe that they are all important. No matter how good we are, Magic is about winning and losing. It's a game with a goal that we spend a lot of time learning, preparing for, and practicing. But when we can't achieve a win, many turn to being a poor loser. Losing our temper is not going to solve the problem. Rather, if we act inappropriately, we'll lose our friends and our concentration level for the next match. How to solve this problem? I would suggest that you hold your goal in mind before you start the game. If you're looking to pull off some crazy group deck combo, then maybe your goal is to have more fun than winning. Maybe you've built a deck in which you can't win, but are trying to end the game as a draw. Or, if you're in a State Qualifier, you're out to win. You don't care about anything else but that. This is fine, but remember to hold your goal in sight. Focus on the goal and concentrate on achieving it.

What does this mean? It might sound fairly simple, but how often have you been at 1 life and you've given up hope. You're about to lose and want to concede. What should you do in this circumstance? Never give up. Of course, because of a lack of time it might be in your best interest to concede so you can move on to the next game. But if this is not the circumstance, then it's important to not give up hope. Why? It is always possible to pull off a win at 1 life.

Another important trait tied into holding your goal in mind is to be fearless. Never allow your opponent to see you sweat. Even if you are at 1 life and holding land in your hand, do not show fear or concern. I read of one match where a Player conceded because he had lost hope, but his next card would have won him the game. Again, focus on your goal and stick to it.

Cheaters Never Prosper

I've seen people sneak cards in their decks, trade away counterfeit cards, and even lie about the rules to a Scrub. At the end of the day, if you have to cheat to win, then I can only say this of you: You are sad. Pitiful even. Each of us must choose to take the high road or the low road in playing Magic. You can cheat or be cheated by someone else. How much more enjoyable a game is in which neither Player needs to cheat to win! Closely tied to cheating is the discipline to learn how to deal with adversity. From my perspective, I force myself to stick to a strict set of rules. If playing with a friend and am screwed for land, I'll take a Paris Mulligan even when my friend wants me to reshuffle and draw 7. I'll adhere to the rules to see how well I'd do. When I'm playing in a tournament, my opponent is not going to allow me to reshuffle and draw 7. Discipline helps you learn how to win under real life situations. If my deck can't handle this, then I need to rebuild it. How would I ever know this if I kept taking the easy way out and reshuffled to draw 7 cards when land screwed?

Take my example to the extreme and think about how much more a victory will mean if you do not cheat or bend the rules. Going home at the end of the day and knowing that you beat the best Players fair and square is a wonderful feeling. There's something to be said about that type of victory. Or, if you'd rather be like a steroid-playing athlete who cheats his fellow Players, go ahead-just don't go crying when the DCI suspends you or you lose your friends. Magic is a social game. What you do to another Player affects your name and reputation. No matter if you're a Scrub or a Pro, adhere to the rules and be kind.

Let me expound on this. Many Players tend to put on that hard shell exterior to scare an opponent or to psych them out during a duel. That's fine, but remember not to cheat and be sociable enough to shake the Player's hand and introduce yourself at the beginning of the match.

The Bluff

I believe in utilizing mind games in Magic to help you win, but remember that there is a fine line between cheating and playing fair. Here's a common play of mine: My opponent casts a spell and I don't have a Counterspell. I look at the cards in my hand, think for a moment and say, "I choose not to counter." My opponent can interpret this bit of information in many ways. Possibly I don't have a counter and I'm bluffing, maybe I have a counter but I'm waiting for a better card to counter, or maybe I just don't plain know what I'm doing and my skill level shows my opponent that I'm a Scrub. Is this cheating? No. But if I were to tap my lands, pretend I'm countering, and then "change my mind," I would consider that cheating.

Mind games are legal, in my mind, because these moves deal with the strategy aspect of the game. When I'm playing Blue, I tend to tap my lands in such a way so that I clearly leave two untapped Islands next to each other. I like for the two untapped Islands to announce to my opponent: Remember, I have a Counterspell-even if I don't. Or, if I'm trying to be sneaky, I'll leave one Island untapped on the left of my lands, and an Underground River untapped on the right. These subtle plays force my opponent to watch and learn from my playing habits. If she is not observant, then she will fall into my trap. But understand me: I do not condone illegal plays such as hiding a land under another so an opponent cannot see how many land you truly have left untapped. I do not believe in cheating, but in bluffing and in making your opponent think.

Be One with the Code

Years ago I read a several part article in The Duelist concerning the "Art of War" and comparing this oriental philosophy with current day Magic playing. Essentially, the article described how a warrior prepares mentally for an upcoming battle. The mental preparation for a serious Magic duel is the same. A Player needs to concentrate on winning, to hold that goal in one's mind, and to control one's temper when a loss appears imminent. By not cheating and adhering to the rules, a Player can better his or her playing skills and find the true path to victory. A false victory, one obtained through cheating, is not a true win. On paper it might appear that way, but when a cheater needs to succeed in the future, his skills will be lacking. Magic is about mastering the rules of the game, focusing on the strategy involved, and in utilizing bluffing and observing skills to obtain a win.

When I first played Magic, I learned to attack first and then play other creatures after the attack phase. Most new Players never do this. But think about the strategy involved in such game play. Holding back your resources forces your opponent to act or react with limited knowledge. If you attack with all your creatures and play a Giant Growth to kill one of his blocking creatures, your opponent might counter your spell. After your attack, you then might have forced your opponent to waste his Counterspell so that you can now win the game with a well-timed Hurricane. Baiting an opponent to overstretch his or her resources is a legitimate tactic and is closely tied to bluffing. Remember to pay attention to your resources, your bluffing, cards in play, and your opponent's playing strategy. Do all this and you'll be well on the way to success.

Summing It Up

How would I define the Code of conduct? In as few words as possible: Know your goal, remain positive no matter what, follow the rules of the game, and utilize legal strategies (bluffing and resource allocation) to your advantage. These steps will help you become a better Magic Player. Practice being honest, yet discerning in the information you allow your opponent to see, and you will find a path to better Magic games. The Code I propose is not one blindly followed, but a path filled with discipline, ethical choices, practice, concentration, and embracement of the metagame. Following the Code enables you to strengthen your skills, teaches you bluffing and resource allocation techniques, and improves your concentration level. Play by the Code and you will thrive as a Magic Player in ways you did not think possible.