In this article, we’re exploring what makes magic deceptive. What are the factors that come together to make a piece of magic truly fooling—and how can we use that knowledge to create and perform better magic?
This is a HUGE question, and it’s more than a little intimidating to try to answer it in just one article.
In fact, there’s no way we can cover everything there is to talk about—so instead, we’ll zoom in on a
few key ideas that we’ve found helpful and share them with you.
We’ll go over six essential techniques that magicians should use to perform better magic.
But first, what is magic?
Having a good definition of what magic is will help us figure out how to improve our own work.
The Definition of a Magic Trick
What is magic?
Here’s a beautiful definition from Arturo de Ascanio:
Magic is the difference between the initial condition and the final condition.
Take the classic effect of making a coin disappear from your hand as an example…
The initial condition is a hand with a coin in it, the final condition is an empty hand, and the magic is the difference between those conditions.
With that definition in mind, here are the first 3 ways we can make our magic more deceptive:
1. The stronger the contrast between initial and final condition, the better
The more you can increase the difference— perceived or real—between the initial and final conditions in your effect, the stronger the effect will be.
In the Ambitious Card Routine, the initial condition is a chosen card placed in the middle of the deck, and the final condition is the card appearing on top of the deck.
Many magicians, during a phase of this routine, place a rubber band around the deck once the card goes into the middle—strengthening the initial condition and increasing the contrast between it and the final condition.
2. The shorter the time delay between initial and final condition, the better
Which of the following three examples is the strongest piece of magic?
You place a coin in your hand, close your hand, wait 10 minutes, and then open it to show the hand is empty.
You place a coin in your hand, close your hand, and reopen it immediately to show that it’s empty.
You wave your hand over a coin and it disappears. The third option is clearly the strongest, right?
Because the time delay between the initial and final condition is so short, the audience can’t find any causal explanation for what happened—leaving them in a state of wonder.
3. Falsely extend the initial condition to increase the strength of the ‘magic moment.’
An easy way to decrease the time delay between initial and final condition is to make the audience THINK the initial condition is still the case—even though you’ve secretly ‘done the work.’
This is why it’s so useful to seek out tricks in which the method occurs BEFORE the effect.
Let’s imagine we’re performing a routine in which we make a handful of coins vanish from our left hand, and our method involves using sleight of hand to switch the coins into palm in the right hand.
We might add a moment, right before the vanish, where we shake our left hand and our audiences HEARS the coins jingle around.
In reality, we’re using sleight of hand to make the coins in our right hand make that noise—but it creates the illusion that the coins are still in our left hand, and falsely extends the initial condition in the mind of the audience.
When we then open our hand to display the coins have vanished, the magic will be a lot more impactful.
Ready for 3 more techniques that will increase the strength of your magic?
Here they are…
1. The Problem with Misdirection
Let’s talk about misdirection.
Or rather, we want to talk about the problem with misdirection—an idea we discovered a few years back in the work of Tommy Wonder.
See, as Tommy saw it, it’s less about MISdirection than it is about just plain old direction.
The word ‘mis-direction’ implies we are getting our spectators to look in the ‘wrong direction’ while we perform some kind of secret move.
(For example, the comical but cliche image of a magician pointing away just before he switches the card.)
The best magicians know that that’s not how it actually works…
Misdirection done well isn’t directing attention AWAY from something, it’s directing attention TOWARD whatever we want.
It’s learning how to capture the audience’s attention and place it exactly where you want it during each beat of your performance.
Imagine that you’re hiding an object in your left hand…
Tommy would advise you not to worry about making your audience look away from your left hand.
Instead, reframe it in your head by focusing on directing their attention where you want it—perhaps to your right hand, then to your eyes, then to your left hand.
(by which time you’ve ditched the object and can display the hand empty)
Simply switching the way you think about misdirection in your head can have a huge impact on how well you use it in your performances.
Maybe you think this is just semantics, but we’ll side with Tommy Wonder on this one.
2. What are ‘Convincers’ or ‘Subtleties’ in magic?
If you want your magic to be as deceptive as possible, you NEED to be using ‘convincers’…
In the book Strong Magic, Darwin Ortiz defines a ‘convincer’ as any minor action that serves to strengthen the audience’s belief that all is as it should be.
Convincers are some of the most invisible, clever and downright sneaky things we can do as magicians— and we love them.
Convincers are usually very minor, offbeat moments that will often appear accidental or unimportant—but prove to the audience that you’re really doing what you tell them.
Here are some of our favorite examples:
1. The Marlo Tilt convincer
Many magicians use the Marlo Tilt—a move that allows you to insert a playing card second from the top of the deck, even though it LOOKS like you’re placing the card in the middle.
When we perform the Marlo Tilt, before we place the card below the top card, we push it against the middle of the deck to make the cards at the front of the deck protrude as if the card is going into the middle.
We do this once or twice, as if trying to find a good spot, and then place it below the top card.
This is a very low-key moment that we don’t draw any attention to, and likely the spectators won’t consciously remember it.
But later, if we’ve done our job right, they’ll SWEAR they saw the card go into the middle of the deck.
2. ‘Mistake’ convincers
Let’s say we’re performing an Any Card At Any Number routine. The audience has picked a card and number, and we’re about to deal through the cards to make the revelation.
We tell the spectator “we’ll deal 18 cards, and hopefully the 18th card will be YOUR card. Let’s—”
The spectator interrupts you to remind you that they actually chose the number 17, so we apologize and count 17 cards, finishing on their chosen card.
Of course, we knew the whole time that their number was 17, but this apparent ‘mistake’ implies to the audience that you couldn’t have secretly placed their card at the chosen number—because you couldn’t even remember the number!
(this is a technique that you’ll see masters like Juan Tamariz and Dani DaOrtiz use a LOT)
3. ‘The object that isn’t there’ convincer
A brilliant convincer in coin magic is to adjust the coin in your hand—AFTER you’ve already switched the coin from one hand to another.
For example, let’s say you’ve just done a false transfer and the coin is supposedly in your left hand. You might make a little motion to mimic the kind of fidget you would make to readjust the position of a coin inside your hand.
A similar convincer can be used in card magic.
Let’s say the audience picked the Seven of Hearts, and you’ve secretly switched their card for a Joker.
You tell them “we’re going to use your card, the…”
You frown as if you forgot the name of the card, and look down at the Joker in your hand.
“…Seven of Hearts.”
This of course subtly implies that the card in your hand is still the chosen card.
(very sneaky, right?)
These are offbeat moments that we don’t overplay, but they can massively increase the impact of your routines.
If you aren’t already using convincers, we recommend evaluating all the magic you currently perform and looking for moments that you could insert convincers.
3. The ‘false memories’ technique
One of the most effective ways you can make your magic more deceptive is by creating ‘false memories’ in the minds of your spectators.
Let’s say we want to perform an effect where the spectator simply THINKS of a card, yet we are able to correctly guess its identity.
Well, that’s an extremely difficult effect.
The good news is we don’t actually need to perform that effect…
…we just need the spectator to THINK that we did!
And one of the easiest ways to do this is by the technique we call ‘false memories’—the art of influencing your audience to remember your magic as even more impossible than it really was.
How do we do this?
In this example, we start by getting our spectator to pick a card and look at it. We immediately take the card back and tell them to “keep thinking of that card.”
We go on to perform a few different effects, periodically reminding that same spectator to “keep thinking of that card.”
Once we’ve finished our other effects, we turn back to the spectator and address them…
“Are you thinking of a card? Yes? Wonderful. You could have thought of any card. But I think you’re thinking of…”
Do you see what’s going on here?
Because we’ve let some time elapse from the initial selection of the card, many people will have forgotten how that card was even selected.
And because we keep verbally emphasising that the spectator is “thinking of a card”, the implication is that the spectator simply picked a card in their mind.
In fact, there’s a good chance that the spectator themselves will later tell their friends “I was just thinking of a card, and the magician guessed exactly what it was!”
This is a technique that Spanish masters like Tamariz and DaOrtiz are fond of.
If you want your magic to be more deceptive, you should start using it too.
4. Boy Scouts of America show you how to 10x the impact of your magic
Now let’s talk about a concept that can 10x the impact of your magic—without requiring you to learn a single sleight, move or difficult technique.
The technique we’re talking about today is rarely mentioned in magic tutorials, but it’s so important.
What’s the secret?
What is positioning?
Positioning, as we’re using the word, is simply the way you frame your magic.
The less prepared, rehearsed, or ‘set up’ your magic feels—the higher the impact.
In other words, the most powerful magic feels organic, unplanned and totally impromptu.
The key word in those sentences is “feels.”
Our magic should in fact be highly planned, rehearsed and thought-out—but we want it to feel the opposite.
We achieve this through clever positioning—the way we frame our magic.
For example, if we pull out a deck of cards, ask to show a trick, and start by explaining how ordinary the deck is…
…we’re sending out a TON of red flags and practically screaming “this whole thing is planned.”
Here’s a far better way for the situation to unfold:
First, THEY ask you to see something. You initially refuse and then finally give in. You aren’t sure if you have a deck of cards handy—perhaps you borrow one or have to search for a while to find one. You can’t remember or aren’t sure what to perform. You start by hesitantly saying “let’s try something—we’ll see if this works”
And the most important part is it doesn’t matter whether we really are just performing impromptu using a borrowed deck or in fact had seven decks all in stack hidden in our bag…the key thing is that it feels organic and real.
You might know that the motto of the Boy Scouts of America is ‘always be prepared.’
Our motto as magicians is similar, but with a very important addition:
Always be prepared, but always act unprepared.
This idea can even be used in stage shows—we’ve heard that Asi Wind’s entire act uses a blank deck of cards that he writes the names of his audience members on, in order to make each show feel like it could only have happened once.
So there you go! 7 of the most powerful techniques that magicians can start using immediately to increase the power of their magic.
Did you know?
This article was created by compiling 7 days worth of emails we sent to our mailing list on the topic of creativity.
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