“All Warfare is based on Deception.” I am quite certain Sun Tzu was not thinking about L5R when he wrote this deceptively simple phrase thousands of years ago. That does not make it any less applicable to L5R or how it is played. Anyone who knows me knows that I enjoy the mental game of L5R at least as much as I enjoy the physical manipulation of the cards in play. I also personally believe that the game being played between two opponents independent of the cards in play is generally far more relevant to the eventual winner of the game than any cards drawn, played, or destroyed. Many people are not even aware of this game within the game. Those who are aware of it and who know how to play it well tend to be fairly successful in the world of CCGs. While I would not go so far as to call myself an expert on the subject, I have picked up a few things over the years I have spent playing various CCGs and intend to share them here. At its core, this concept is about taking information from your opponent while giving him no information in return, or false information when possible. I am not suggesting anyone lie about the game state, that is not only immoral, it is also illegal and can get you disqualified from a game or match, and can possibly lead to your ejection from the tournament altogether. I am talking about the manner in which cards are handled in and out of play, what is said at the table, and the physical reactions or mannerisms of the players.
Of these three main points, the handling of cards is the easiest way to pick up information about the opponent and his plans. Many players will stack their holdings during the actions phase to plan for their dynasty and then see what holdings they have left for attachments or other actions which cost gold in the actions phase such as buying a card with Traveling Peddler, or bowing a Tsi Mokotsu to create a weapon. With Southern Blockade in the environment, this is a habit that I think players need to break ASAP. This is valuable information your opponent is giving even if you do not play Southern Blockade which you may not even be aware of. If your opponent sets 8 gold aside and then tries to budget his dynasty phase, you can make fairly safe assumptions about what might be in his hand or at least narrow it down to a few possibilities based on what deck he is playing as to what that 8 gold may be reserved for. Even if he decides not to buy the attachment at that time, he has given you information. Pay attention to how your opponent plays cards from his hand, are his battle actions always coming from the front few cards in his hand? Watch your opponent when he is drawing, what does he do with the card once it is drawn? Does he always add the card to the front of his hand or does he sort it to a predetermined position in his hand? Many players will sort their cards in hand in some manner, attachments all together, battle actions in front, or something similar. When you have defended against an opponent’s attack and he seems to have played all of his battle actions from the front of his hand and when he draws he sorts the card into a position toward the back of his hand, he may be giving you information he is not aware of about what he has just drawn. There are many examples of this kind of information for those who are willing to watch for it. Using this information to get an idea of what may be in the opponent’s hand or what he may be planning to do will help you to be better prepared for whatever your opponent may have in store for you.
What is said at the table is often a little more difficult to extrapolate information from. “How many cards are you holding?” is a fairly common question asked in any CCG, but it can mean any number of things. Maybe your opponent is just trying to get an approximate gauge of your resources because he is planning on attacking you or making a decision about how or if he should defend. Maybe he is trying to calculate the odds of your holding a specific card, or maybe he is simply trying to cycle the Ring of The Void. The game state will provide additional information which should help you to make an educated guess as to why your opponent is asking that question. If your opponent announces that he has an open action before you take an action during your action phase, he has given you information which you would not otherwise have. If you take your action and then notify him it is his action and his response is that he has no actions, he has given you an incredible amount of information, especially if it is in a battle action segment and he is telling you he has used all of his available battle actions. If your opponent asks to see your discard pile, watch him as he looks through the cards. Is he checking your focus values, looking for how many copies of a specific card you have played (and by extension how many may still be in your deck), or maybe he is reading the exact wording on a card in your discard pile. Knowing what it is he is looking for in the discard gives you information about what his plans may be.
Probably the most difficult source of information available at the table is from your opponent himself. Of course he is not going to want to give that information willingly, but there are things you can pick up on if you pay attention. Are his hands shaking nervously as he assigns his attackers? This might indicate insecurity in the strength of his attack based on the actions he has available in play and from his hand. Is he indecisive in his assignments, shuffling personalities between one or two groups of units several times before finally deciding on the unit composition he is comfortable attacking with? This could indicate fear of a Retribution being played or fear of the counter-attack on your turn. Does he fidget with the cards in his hand without appearing to care what is in his hand or worse yet just put his cards down on the table and ignore them entirely? This could indicate an abundance of unplayable cards in his hand. Does he stutter or fumble with the words when he tries to ask a question or announce his actions? This may indicate a lack of confidence in the decisions he has made. There are several ways your opponent can give you information without saying a word, but these clues are not always easy to pick up on. Many people believe all the information they need to win is readily available to them from the cards that are in play and maybe the number of cards their opponent has in hand. They tend to spend a lot of time looking at the cards in play and very little time watching the opponent himself. In any given tournament round, I would wager I spend at least as much time just watching my opponent reacting to the cards as I spend looking at the cards themselves. Many people do not even notice my watching them because they are only watching the cards. In my opinion that means they are missing half of the information about the game that is available to them.
I would recommend first working on playing in a manner in which you give no information to your opponent. When you are confident in your ability to deny your opponent any information at all, then you should begin working on giving your opponent false information. Appear nervous about assignment when your position is strong. Stack your gold as if you will be playing a big attachment, or Civility, or Will. Ask questions which might mislead an opponent as to what your intentions may be. Keep in mind, these strategies will be more effective against better players, but the strong players will also be more difficult to deceive. Many players consider these types of tactics impolite at best and outright rude at worst. It is a fine line to walk and will vary greatly from opponent to opponent. Some players enjoy the mental cat and mouse games while others do not see that it has any place in CCGs, so use discretion with these kinds of tactics. They have no place in (most) friendly games, and are completely inappropriate against new players just learning the game, but when it comes tournament time, they can be of great value. Knowing what your opponent has planned while keeping him in the dark (or better yet misinformed) about your intentions will make otherwise difficult games a whole lot easier.