For anyone who has played in the Masters division before, or even the top tables of the Seniors, you should know that there’s much more to winning games than just making plays and decklists. You should also know that a third game is often at work: the mind game. Here, players will attempt to gain a tactical edge on you via psychology, and you will often do the same, whether or not you even realize it.
By the end of this article, you should know three important things regarding mind games: what a “legal” mind game is, how to use legal mind games for offense, and how to defend against your opponent’s own mind games.
Note: I will only go into some detail about bluffing, as I feel that topic would be best served in a future SixPrizes article. Still, I will make many references to moments that are clearly bluffs, and thus give you a clearer idea of how to do it well.
- Section One: What’s Legal, and What’s Not?
- Section Two: Mind Games for Offense
- Section Three: Defense Against Mind Games
Section One: What’s Legal, and What’s Not?
Before we progress any further, I must warn you: “Play! Pokémon” (“P!P”) does not tolerate unsportsmanlike conduct. “Unsportsmanlike conduct,” which is defined by P!P as “inappropriate…intentional” actions (Penalty Guidelines, P. 15) , encompasses not only all of the morally black tricks you could play on your opponent, but several of the morally gray ones as well.
Examples of what P!P discourages include “swearing… touching or moving an opponent’s cards without permission… disturbing a match in progress… engaging in gamesmanship/rules lawyering… playing slowly to manipulate the time remaining in the match.” We’ll cover all these issues later, but most important of all is their disapproval of “attempting to manipulate a match through intimidation or distraction.” (P. 16.)
That last one in particular trips us up a bit – what are mind games without that? And what makes matters worse is that not even reputable dictionary sources agree on a meaning of the topic at hand.
Webster says that mind games are “… used to manipulate or intimidate,” whereas Random House (accessed through dictionary.com) shows a bit more appreciation, elevating their use to “psychological manipulation or strategy.”
Since the intent of this article is to neither advocate rule-breaking nor tolerate it, the following definition, derived from the John Kettler Dictionary, is what we’ll mean every time the phrase “mind games” pops up during the first part of the article:
Legal Mind Games: Manipulation by psychological means, excluding intimidation and distraction.
See what I did there? I combined both source definitions, and included P!P’s statement. That way, we’re peachy, morally white, and I don’t get a ban letter for advocating cheating! I don’t feel like this definition provides for illegal behavior, nor does it provide for amoral or immoral actions, since P!P’s coverage of intimidation is, as of writing, a good policy, and all-encompassing.
However, even when making a clear effort to respect both the text and spirit of rules, people may still show objection to what you do. An anonymous source of mine, “Expert Judge X,” shares his opinion on the matter: “Mind Games are a slippery slope and purely at the Judge’s discretion of how far is too far. Personally, I do not mind the exacerbated antics some take.”
I feel like my work will protect you from the “judge’s discretion” that Expert Judge X brings up, but remember that you won’t get him every time; instead, you might get a judge who will over-interpret what you’re doing, and hit you hard.
You may not be satisfied with where I draw the line. Maybe you feel uncomfortable with playing people’s misconceptions against them. Or maybe you want to just stick strictly to the cards. If Any of those are the case, then my advice is to skip ahead to section three. If not, then keep reading…
Section Two: Mind Games for Offense
First, here are three universal truths to every type of mind game, listed or not:
Rule #1: The better your opponent, the less likely he/she is to fall for a mind game. For an intermediate player, mind games should be very persuasive; for a World Champion, you will probably fail miserably. Despite this, you might hit a bad player on his or her great day, or a great player on a bad day. Either way, the chance of success is never 100% or 0%, so play your odds wisely.
Rule #2: The more passive the mind game, the less likely it is to achieve its desired result. Mind games such as touching your cards are very active; ones like reputation are passive. As a result, the passive ones take more work to successfully pull off.
Rule #3: Better execution leads to better results. As you consider the following, remember that practice makes permanent, and if you can improve your skills, then your “permanence” will be lethality at mind games.
TYPES OF LEGAL MIND GAMES
cartoonstock.comThe following are some common mind games that are legal, not too difficult to employ, and are effective in leading your opponent into decisions that are favorable for you. I’ve separated them into three categories: touching your cards/game supplies, verbal/non-verbal communication, reputation, and bluffs.
Touching Your Cards or Game Supplies
This is a fairly common, yet effective tactic, in which you simply gesture toward something you “want” your opponent to do. This could be prematurely grabbing hold of a favorable Bright Look target the moment your opponent Levels Up a Luxray GL, reaching for your dice if your opponent seems uncertain whether to use Rest (a defensive healing move) or Super Deep Dive (a highly offensive damage move), or some other tactic.
The point is that you are leading your opponent into doing what you want him/her to do. Alternatively, if your opponent is an upper-intermediate who’s more knowledgeable of this stuff, then it may pay to play reverse psychology – reach for what you don’t want him/her to go for! I can’t tell you for sure when a legitimate lead-on should be used versus a bluff, so let your skills develop in this area over time.
In a similar vein, Expert Judge X brings up an excellent advanced technique in this category: the “dance of having the Spray.” Here, upper-level SP players use several ploys to trick their opponents into thinking that they either do or do not have a Power Spray. One such ploy is to tightly clutch a specific card in your hand. When you do this, you lead your opponent to mistakenly believe that you have the spray, thus forcing him or her to detrimentally over-accommodate for something that isn’t even there.
Note that any of the above is perfectly fine so long as you are not distracting. If you are obnoxiously trying to screw with your opponent, then you deserve to have the penalty guidelines thrown at you! To any reasonable observer, there comes a time when you exit the territory of being distracting, and enter the territory where your opponent is just being stupid.
Also, from a judge’s perspective (I’ve judged a few events in my day…), context matters: for example, Seniors or Masters with any tournament experience are expected to know better than to announce attacks just because an opponent reaches for dice, but at the same time, this is going to be distracting to a Junior or new player. In the first instance, I would be shocked if a judge felt it was right to intervene, but in the latter, I would certainly advocate application of the penalty guidelines.
This is by far the hardest mind game to cultivate of them all. Why? Because it takes months – maybe years – to build up reputation. In Pokémon, though, this is done relatively easily due to P!P’s emphasis on local playing, as well as our emphasis on online communication.
Reputation happens in two main ways:
1. GOOD Reputation: You are considered a ferociously talented player, an enlightened deck builder, a resourceful metagamer, and/or just a nice person. To each of these respectively, players will often do the following: go in nervous, expect some weird tech in a deck, anticipate a counter to themselves (if they’re that cocky), and/or act treat niceness synonymously with “wuss!” How, then, do you use each of these good preconceptions to your advantage – especially that last one?
Simple: rather than let reputation precede you, let it proceed for you as well. If you’re a great player, then let your opponents’ knowledge of you “proceed” into them getting flustered, anxious, and into misplay mode, before and during the tournament. Likewise, if you have some sort of reputation to your deck building, then behave differently when it suits you best. Say you play rogue most of the time. When you play an archetype out of the blue, it will naturally shock even the players that are more successful than you in that metagame, thus making it easier to pull off a win.
On the other hand, if you’re considered an archetype player or even net decker, when you branch out into some bizarre deck, you will have already gained an edge on the field. Just remember that both advantages are heavily dependent on the quality of your lists and concepts; no “psychological” edge will ever correct a bad deck or list!
– Same goes for metagaming as it does for deck building: encourage opponents or prospective opponents to make unjustified, unfair misconceptions about your actions.
2. BAD Reputation: For whatever reason, you have some sort of infamy in your area. Maybe you’re a new or unknown player, and so you don’t even have respect yet, thus giving you “bad” reputation as a newbie. Or maybe you’re wrongfully considered to be “shady” in some way. Why not use all this to your advantage?
New Players: You may be new, but to any reasonably intelligent player, you are STILL a threat that must be squashed mercilessly. However, for those that don’t take you seriously, then play up your newb status: whip out an old play mat, flip coins, use beads or paper markers for damage counters, etc.
I think some of the worst misplays I have seen people make are due to assuming that A) new players are free wins, and B) that the opponent even “is” new. Please keep in mind that this won’t last forever, so milk it while you can. The only exception to this rule is the PokéDad, who – if not immediately recognized as a killer player – could milk his “dad” status for all its worth.
“Shady Reputation”: For one reason or another, you have achieved a local, statewide, or national disrespect for shadiness. Regrettably, these tips will give players who are legitimately in the wrong a mind games advantage; yet, since Pokémon TCG overwhelmingly consists of rule-abiding, legitimate people, I feel like this section is far more likely to benefit good players with a fake bad rap than nasty players with a real bad rap.
My rule of thumb for moments where you’ve been wrongfully labeled as a cheater, thief, or some other morally corrupt character is to encourage the opponent to believe this, yet never commit the act, nor ever appear to commit the act. That way, you simultaneously take advantage of ignorant players’ misconceptions, yet rebuild your reputation.
A good example is a page out of my own playing career. Expert Judge X, a long-time online confidant of mine, knows well of the time when certain players wrongfully assumed that I was a staller. Nevertheless, we both also recognized a major advantage I had during this period: the ability to coerce opponents into rushing by means of reputation alone. Essentially, those who thought poorly of me were more prone to act in a manner that made them vulnerable, and so I exploited this vulnerability.
My exploitation, however, was simply ignoring the inclination – the sportsman’s courtesy – to speed up. While “slow” pace of play is absolute in the rules, “slow” is relative to players…Especially the guy who’s trailing near the end. As such, my moral code is to not play slow, but at the same time let my opponent trip over himself for thinking that I would. Sweet, sweet justice…
This is when both players are in an active process of sending and receiving ideas. Unlike the previous two examples, this is “explicit” because the player knows you are trying to convey something to him. The specifics of that “something” should be kept under-wraps, though, or else your mind game efforts will be wasted.
Like reputation, we can divide this into two categories: verbal and non-verbal.
1. Verbal: the ideal is that we talk only when it’s directly pertinent to the game; the reality is that, as competitors in a sport with emphasis on fun, we are inclined to chat about un-pertinent things.
When asked about this technique, Expert Judge X mentions his son, who’s developed a knack for “… pushing his opponent into verbal submission.” By means of chit-chat, this kid is able to not only put his opponent on edge, but force said opponent to discontinue his/her own mind games due to getting caught up in the antic.
pokemon-paradijs.comWhile I don’t normally use this method, players in my metagame are right to recognize me as notoriously laid-back, which often does the same thing: it creates an illusion of overconfidence or even cockiness, and ultimately throws them off of their mind games.
The result of these maneuvers, while different from one-another, is usually the same thing: a situation where one player has a much clearer mind than another. While it may not be your duty to fog your opponents’ judgments, it’s definitely your duty to have superiority. As shown by the successes achieved by both Expert Judge X’s son and myself, this is certainly one way to get there.
2. Non-verbal: The classic non-verbal mind game is body language. Granted, I could spend a whole article on this matter alone; however, let’s just talk about specific body language tricks in Pokémon.
Your goals here are fairly straightforward: to either appear confident or reserved, both with the intent to gain a psychological edge. Typical traits of confident body language include upright posture, a firm (albeit brief) handshake upon meeting an opponent, and few to no displays of nervousness. Typical traits for uncertainness are just the opposite: slouched posture, limp handshakes, and nervousness oozing out of your pores.
Confidence, put simply, is strength. “If you appear confident,” says SixPrizes.com founder Adam Capriola, “you can convince your opponent you have exactly what you need in your hand (even if you don’t).” By exhibiting certainty at the right moments, you will effectively play a mind game where your opponent follows your lead, and in doing so, sends him or herself off of a cliff.
While a truthfully reserved person is usually considered weak by our society, the façade of a reserved or timid personality can produce just as much of an advantage as confidence. A useful tactic against an un-savvy player is to pretend to top deck something that was in your hand all along, utilizing your fake nervous energy for effect. That way, your opponent will be put on great tilt, in large part due to your exaggeration of uncertainty. Other kinds of this behavior include pretended whiffs, as well as deliberately failed deck searches.
But what about when you’re not displaying any particularly identifying body language? That’s when we enter “stoic” territory. For these facades, you simply can’t read them; they are justifiably labeled by Expert Judge X and others “Poker Face” types. If they can pull this off well, then your goal is to just be defensive, since some people simply aren’t that vulnerable.
If you can pinpoint the cracks in poker face players’ armor, then exploit those cracks, and employ the above mind games that would best shatter the entire defense.
Now that we’ve gone in detail over some of the mind games you can master, let’s discuss something that will be useful to every reader: how to protect yourself from all mind games, both legal and illegal.
Section Three: Defense Against Mind Games
Even if you’re the best mind game player in the world, you’ll be nothing more than a glass cannon if you can’t defend yourself from the manipulations of others. The theme of this section is really basic: STAY CALM!
So with that out of the way, let’s talk about how to apply this principle against various mind game examples, both legal and illegal:
1. An Opponent Touching or Moving Your Cards
Even though this isn’t allowed for them to do in the first place, it won’t help you to call a judge over if it happens sparingly. Usually people do this because they’re a bit too touchy-feely, but sometimes it’s with the intent to manipulate you into making a given move.
Expect a line such as “I’m assuming you’re bringing up ‘Pokémon X’ with Warp Point?” or something similar. The solution is to just repeat in your head that YOU are the one in charge – not your opponent.
2. An Opponent Touching or Moving Their Own Cards
pokemon-paradijs.comSometimes people do this with their own cards, as described in the offense portion of my article. The same thing applies: stay in charge. It is almost always detrimental to give your opponent control over your decisions, so no matter how good your opponent’s expectation sounds, make a decision only because you’ve thought it out yourself.
This may seem like common sense in theory, but lord knows I’ve seen so many games decided by a player’s subtle manipulation.
As a side note, staying in control does not equate to ignoring whatever your opponent says. You will often find a nervous opponent dropping legitimate clues about what’s in his/her hands, what’s in the prizes, etc.
In a close game where both of you are nervous and you’re not thinking clearly, an opponent could even accidentally tip you off to the best move! Basically, don’t discredit everything the challenger says, but still be the one making justifiable moves.
3. An Opponent’s Display of Confidence
Usually, the personalities who will be swayed by confidence alone are those who aren’t terribly confident themselves. So if you feel like you’re prone to get swayed more by appearances and less by facts (happens to the best of us), then your duty before a tournament is to BUILD UP your confidence! In real-life practice games, always ask, “why?” That way, you will avoid making irrational decisions based on things outside of the game, such as “my opponent looked so sure he had what he needed!” Play the odds, stay knowledgeable, and don’t get caught in a web of deceit.
Another important thing to keep into account is that, in achieving confidence, you recognize that your odds of winning are NEVER zero percent. This should help you avoid the né failure that SEVERAL players have: nervousness when going up against a well-known “name” player – or, what SixPrizes.com’s Chris Fulop calls “Fame Tilt.”
4. An Opponent’s Display of Weakness/Bad Reputation
Here, you are tasked to do the opposite; that is, don’t trick yourself into excessive, maladaptive confidence. Just because you perceive your opponent to be weak (rightfully or wrongfully so) does NOT mean you should let things get out of hand in-game.
pokemon-paradijs.comI’ve seen countless games blown by GOOD players just because they let their guards down – be it a player sloppily forgetting to attach an energy card (VERY bad playing), wasting precious seconds in a timed game, or just generally FAILING to take the match at large seriously, it is a weakness that HAS to be shed if you seek to succeed.
The best players are where they right now because, unlike the merely “good” players, they respect the ever-present possibility that they could lose on any given day.
5. An Opponent Playing Slowly to Manipulate the time Remaining in a Match
This is a special issue, so rather than splash it into the “weakness/bad reputation category,” I figured I’d address it here.
As we previously said, “slow” is relative to players who are trailing, so proceed with caution. Obviously call the judge on stallers, but since average-paced mind gamers are invulnerable to fair judges (as they should be), I urge you to stay lively, and to block out the person’s trick. In these tough games, you will be in a furious race to the finish no matter what kind of pace the opponent is at, but if you stumble and let nervousness take control, then you can kiss a tie by the “+3” in “30+3” goodbye.
An opponent engaging in gamesmanship/rules lawyering: occasionally, players will call over judges just to mess with your head. Although I discourage you from being paranoid of an opponent’s every move you make, it’s still important to remember that high caliber rules lawyers will call you on stupid things. “Could you check my opponent’s sleeves?” “Could you please observe the pace of play?” “Give me opponent such-and-such penalty!” Etc.
My preferred method in dealing with the above is to, in addition to staying calm, turn the tables on the opponent. If they call you on sleeves unfairly, then counter-call them on theirs – who’s to say your opponent doesn’t have a crease in a convenient spot? Back to the time issue, if they call you on pace of play, then you stay steady, don’t start rushing or lagging, and make good eye contact with the judge in case your opponent starts lagging and they haven’t been called on it.
This is especially strong because it essentially tells your arbitrator, “take a look, judge: my opponent called you over because he’s slow! Do something about it!” Often, they will do something, and rightly so. It’s unfair to everyone at a tournament if a rules lawyer is using up the limited judge resources, so in addition to making your opponent nervous, you’ll also dispense much-needed justice.
Individual mind games are indeed powerful weapons, yet they also contribute to the greater war that you’re fighting: the mind game, a third test of skill in the Pokémon TCG that’s not readily apparent to most casual observers. Unfortunately, since the definitions that govern P!P rules are vague, we must construct a firm understanding of what’s fair play and what isn’t before we play the mind game.
They come in all styles, with card/supply gestures, reputation, and direct, in-game communication being chief among them. However, it is your skill that will determine whether or not you can implement these mind games successfully. Likewise, your defense against mind games is just as crucial as your offense – the result will almost always be relative protection, absolute protection, or even table-turning.
Regardless, this is a skill you must master to improve at competitive Pokémon TCG. Several reputable individuals – not just myself, but Expert Judge X, Adam Capriola, and the rest of the SixPrizes.com Underground staff – think that mind games are a PREVALENT force at the top tables, and that ALL top players use them at some point or another!
With this in mind, I urge you to keep improving. That way, you too will end up winning the mind game.
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