Ask The Drama — Playtesting, Pros, and Two-Headed Giant

After Jeroen’s impassioned plea for questions last week, the Magic community rallied round and sent ‘em in by the dozen. Mr Remie casts his experienced eye over topics as diverse as proper playtesting techniques, the lack of characters on the Pro circuit, and Two-Headed Giant Sealed deck. And in light of his perceived reputation — that of negativity — he promises to be super-positive today!

I’ve really gotta work on my reputation…

I never thought I was that bad. I never thought I was whiney, or overly negative. But when people start making up your “quotes,” portraying you as a sour and sore loser that comes in 300th place… well, your are definitely doing something wrong.

For those of you who don’t know what I am talking about, here’s a little piece from The Ferrett MagicTheGathering.com article from yesterday, sharing “my” views on the fictional Multiplayer Pro Tour.

Jeroen Remie (296th place)
This format is complete crap. I hate to say it, but it all comes down to who can look the least threatening, so whoever’s known as the best player at the table gets knocked out first. How does that reward skill? … That makes me very suspicious of the format.

Plus, the fact that there’s no sideboarding gives you one shot to take it, and if you’re even a little off, you’re gone. It’s stupidly unforgiving.

I mean, everyone already thinks I hate everything… I really can’t take all this extra negative publicity!

On that note, I’m gonna try to be super-positive today. I’ll skip the rest of my introduction to get to more questions!

I gotta thank all of you for sending me huge amount of questions after my cries of distress again, and I have so many I won’t be able to handle everything this week. I will get to them all in time, don’t worry.

This week’s first one comes by way of Brandon Todesca:

Hey Torvald. I saw you were lacking in the question department this week, so I decided to throw some your way:

What are your playtesting techniques? Do you have an ideal team number? How do you prepare for Constructed PTs / PTQs? How do you technically run a playtesting session? Do you run a deck X number of times boarded, then run it over the same amount of games pre-boarded? Do you sit down with friends and examine a game and discuss the right plays as they occur? How do you convince your team members to abstain from team-drafting and actually do some testing? How do you prepare with real-life testing sessions? I’m trying to find the best approach for our group and was hoping to find some insight on playtesting.

Hey Brandon. I have been called a lot of things in my article-related emails, from Kai to Yawhroen… but never Torvald. I wonder why you decided to call me that…

As far as playtesting goes, there are a couple of different things I do (and used to do). Back when I was still on the Pro Tour, we used to hold playtest sessions all the time. As you may know, a lot of the Dutch pros live within driving distance of each other, which makes those sessions fairly easy to organise. I still feel this is the best way to test, as getting a group together is very important for brainstorming purposes and the like. We usually tended to make sure to always have plenty of people together – at least four – so that there would always be games going on.

Frank Karsten generally runs these things, as he is a great taskmaster and whips everyone into playtesting mode as soon as you step through the door. We would often run matches in sets of twenty, in which you would play ten games pre-board and ten games post-board. Once a matchup has been tested, we will often just start running sets of a couple of games before boarding to get a feel for the matchup, and then run the rest of the twenty after boarding, since for tournament play after boarding is the most important part of match play.

Of course, because not everyone feels like playing all the time, we will often have people watching the games. This means debates always arise over plays and matchups, which is perfect when you are surrounded by such great minds.

As for keeping people from team-drafting… this has always been pretty tough, which is why it is so awesome to have someone around who actually takes charge and makes sure stuff happens, like Frank. Of course, drafts will happen, as they are simply more fun than anything else, but I was pretty happy that we had Frank to keep us focussed most of the time.

It helps that all of us were basically full-time gamers, which meant that we could test whenever we wanted to – the perfect situation. It also meant that, even if we weren’t really testing at the time, everyone was still busy thinking about decks and preparing.

Lately I have noticed that a lot of the Pros’ testing has shifted to Magic Online, with test sessions as I’ve described happening less and less. MTGO has some huge advantages on real life, as it reduces shuffling time and it is very easy to change a couple of cards in the deck and start again.

As for me right now? My testing isn’t so good anymore. I tend to be on MTGO a lot, observing Premier Events and playing games, but because my team is all Pros, I usually don’t have people to actually test with. Them’s the beats. I am pretty sure that without Magic Online I wouldn’t have anywhere to go…

Next up, our very own Ben Bleiweiss:

1) Where’s the drama? There doesn’t seem to be much drama lately…

Yeah, I know. I miss it too, as without such drama Magic tends to be pretty boring. With the coming of MTGO I tend to feel like the amount of great players has increased so much that it is now tough to have real celebrities around, as anyone on the Tour is very good. This means that following the Tour coverage is a lot less exciting as it was back in the day, when the Sideboard would cover stuff like chair-throwing, and PTR throwing cards in peoples eyes, etc…

We need guys like that to return.

2) Which Extended deck has been doing well this season, but you can’t fathom why it’s doing well?

Funny enough, this is a deck that is very near to me. I don’t understand how people can win with most of the Rock decks that I see are doing well around me. They always seem to have huge holes, and I just don’t get how anyone gets them to work. Maybe I’ve just lost touch with the deck… but I just feel like it is so much worse than other options in the field.

Whenever I play it in testing I lose with it, and we really couldn’t get it to work no matter what we tried.

This only goes to show that Magic isn’t the same everywhere, and that different metagames or test groups can come to different results. That is what is so awesome about Extended right now. Everything seems to be possible.

3) Which cards would you most like to see reprinted in Tenth Edition, that realistically have a chance to see print, that came out in Kamigawa or Ravnica blocks?

The problem with Kamigawa Block is that most of the most awesome cards from that block were all legends or arcane, which means they are out for the base set. The problem with Ravnica Block is that it is still here, so it is hard to see what will really be missed most. On top of that, the guild theme doesn’t play well at all with the rules for base sets.

I like to play with creatures, though I tend to like to play against control decks the most.

With that in mind I took a look, and found out that everything from Kamigawa I really wanted to have back was actually legendary. From Ravnica Block, my first impression was something like Giant Solifuge, but of course the guild mana stops that…

That’s when I noticed that all of the cool stuff – the set-defining, reprint-worthy stuff – is all flavor related. It must be tough to work at Wizards and having to make a cool base set.

I still don’t want to leave you without an answer though, so I am going to go for Dark Confidant. Powerful, simple and flavorful, this card seems to be perfect for a base set. Black always tends to have something that draws cards in the rare slot, and I feel like this guy would be perfect. He also helps to keep control decks down, providing a perfect tool for the more aggressive archetypes.

4) It’s been rumored that the next block will be a four-set block. Any clue / ideas on how booster drafting will work in a four-set block?

Good question. There are a couple of ways Wizards could be going here, from ten-card packs to fifty-card draft decks, but I am really not sure what will be best. What I do know is that Wizards has some great people on staff to figure this out as they work with it. People like Mike Turian and Paul Sottosanti are great minds, and I have a lot of faith in their ability to make it fun.

5) Which Pro would you say has most sabotaged their own success?

There’s always a couple of players you feel are incredibly talented, but don’t make the most of what they can do because of other circumstances. Think of Sam Gomersall, who had always been seen by his colleagues as one of the best players around. When he finally started to do well in tournaments, he left us for World of Warcraft.

Another example is Masashi Oiso, who was clearly on his way to be a player of the caliber of Jon and Kai, but then decided he’d rather study than play cards.

Of course, this isn’t always a bad thing, but it is sabotaging your own success in my eyes… he was destined for greatness, and then just stepped aside.

Ruben Hols sends us a question that everyone has been thinking about:

I have a question regarding Damnation in the Dralnu du Louvre deck. Dralnu doesn’t want to tap out in the main phase, but Damnation forces it to do so. On the other hand, Damnation is a too strong card not to be played. So my question is how the future U/B Control decks will look, in your opinion.

Dralnu truly thrives on not playing anything in its own turn, and plays to that plan perfectly by playing storage lands, Mystical Teachings to tutor up instants, and the great Rewind. This means that you won’t find it very easy to just slip in a couple of Damnations and expect the deck to still work to an optimal level. Sure, it’s fine to tap out and Wrath if you were behind, but as decks are going to set up to beat Wraths, I don’t think it is an auto play. I feel like, in Dralnu decks, Damnation will be nothing more than a sideboard card, simply because the entire deck is set up to play instants only.

This means that if you really want to play U/B Damnation – if the metagame requests you do so – you will have to make some changes to the deck. Think about cards like Signets, so you can play the Damnation sooner and with counter backup; more cheap counters; and less of an “instant toolbox,” since your core deck will no longer be focussed on instant-speed plays.

Whether that means that Dralnu is better or worse than the new Blue/Black remains to be seen, and depends a lot on what other decks are out there. Exciting times.

Scott Clark also has a question, this one about draft:

I wanted to get your opinion on a draft pick I made the other night. I was playing in an online TSP 8-4 draft, and through pack 1 I was pretty well established in R/U (notable cards include 2 Empty the Warrens, Fathom Seer, Spiketail Drakeling). Pack 2 Pick 2 I had a choice between Bogardan Hellkite and Errant Ephemeron. I took the Hellkite, and I was wondering what you would have picked given this choice? By passing the Ephemeron, I’m sending a strong signal that Blue is open. Therefore I did not see any more good Blue cards in pack 3. If I had shipped the Hellkite, my deck might have ended up stronger if I could have grabbed a couple more Blue suspend cards. Needless to say, I lost the first round. The one game I did win was when I actually got to cast the Hellkite. I think there’s a good argument for either card, I just wanted to get your opinion.

Well Scott, I have to admit that it is pretty tough to comment on a single pick like that without seeing the rest of the draft. You mention you had at least two Blue cards at that time, but what I’d like to know is if those cards were picked early or late. First pick Seer, second pick Drakeling with no strong Blue cards afterwards probably means that Blue is going to be cut off from your right anyway. This means you should not worry about signaling and just take the best card. Based on the information, it is pretty hard to decide.

As far as card quality goes, I don’t think the difference between the cards is that big. Hellkite seems to be slightly better in a vacuum, but Ephemeron tends to play towards the “U/R Empty the Warrens” strategy a lot more. Did you have any Lenses or Totems at the time? What did you pass? All that stuff is important when deciding between two picks that are this close in power level.

Card for card though, I think you made the right choice… though it is a lot closer than you may think, especially in a U/R deck with seventeen lands and no acceleration.

Bradley Robinson asks us about Two-Headed Giant Sealed in this week’s last question:

I was wondering if you could give us (everybody who’s playing at States) any advice on the Two-Headed Giant Sealed and booster draft. What cards other than the obvious (Urborg Syphon-Mage) get better, and what cards get worse.

I know Nick Eisel already did a draft overview, but I was hoping that you could do a Sealed overview.

Two-Headed Giant is a completely new format to everyone that is playing it, and I can tell you that there is no one on this world that understands how it really works just yet. I think I have a decent idea, with a couple of drafts with really good players under my belt. I disagreed with just about every pick Nick makes in his walkthrough, so that goes to show that this format is far from cut and dry.

Add to that the fact that the recent changes between 30 and 40 life completely changes the format again, and I feel it is pretty hard to do a decent walkthrough at this time. I can tell you about a couple of cards that are completely different from what they are in one-on-one Sealed…

First, land destruction spells are very good. Mana-screwing one player is huge, as two against one is a something you win easily most of the time. The fact that the other player can set up defense means you have time to play cards like Plunder and Mwonvuli Acid-Moss to try and steal a win. Volcanic Awakening is obviously unreal at that, as it also has Storm, the best ability in the format.

Second, card advantage is very important. Always play cards like Haunting Hymn and Mindstab, as they can swings games. Mystical Teachings is another example of a huge card, which can be set up perfectly. Basically, always play every card that say draw a card, especially stuff like Think Twice. We have gone as far as to always play every copy of Wistful Thinking we see.

Third, it’s all about the Cancel. Countermagic is a must, and one of the best card-types you can play. This works because when one player casts spells, the other person can sit back more easily and control the board. This means cards like Cradle the Grave and the like are also much better, as you can afford to have one player not always cast creatures without losing.

And last, don’t go all-in on weenie plans. Thick-Skinned Goblin might have been fine in one-on-one draft, but now it’s just a dork that does nothing, and should almost never make your deck. Aetherflame wall, on the other hand, is perfectly fine, and a great two-drop to give you a lot of time. Weenies just don’t work often enough, not even at 30 life.

I hope that helps, as it is pretty counterintuitive to take what you feel are bad cards and play them in your deck, while leaving good card on the bench. Understanding this is the key to doing well in the format.

That’s it for this week! keep those questions coming to [email protected], so I don’t have to beg again!