Building A Better Magic Player: We Have The Technology

Jon Agley investigates what matters in preparing for a tournament. Take his survey and contribute to finding out the true makings of a Magic champion.

When it comes to Magic: The Gathering… what is a “champion?” How do some people make the Top 8 of tournament after tournament, while
others languish in round 6 of PTQ after PTQ? Dozens of articles have suggested that the key to success in Magic is tournament preparation;
following certain key steps, it is said, will result in better tournament performance, better aggregate results, and, dare we hope (heart fluttering),
a picture of us holding aloft a giant check or trophy, body contorted in a manner consistent with the latest inside joke.


None of us are Charlie Sheen—winning may not be part of our blood—and so we need to look to more mundane approaches. We’ve all read
articles describing the ways that various pros have prepared to win tournaments, and these frequently are informative pieces. What I want to do, though, is to begin the process of systematizing the study of tournament preparation. In order to do this, I’ll
need your help—as many of you as I can get. If enough Magic players are willing to spend three minutes of their time, I think that we can get our
foot in the door and begin to do some interesting analysis.

We’ll have to begin “small,” and with a short survey—since no one is getting paid to do this, this “pilot test”
will be ten questions. This article goes further in depth on tournament preparation, but…

>>If you want to complete the survey now, click here<<

In designing this preliminary survey, our main question is… what kinds of things do we want to ask people? In order to develop the
questionnaire, I went back through the StarCityGames.com archives to find several examples of what I consider to be “significant” articles
addressing tournament preparation techniques.

Basic Behaviors

Different and well-respected writers have suggested a number of strategies. Back in 2008, Benjamin Peebles-Mundy wrote an article addressing, among
other important topics, some concepts that now are considered some of the basics. These include getting an adequate amount of sleep (But what
constitutes adequate? Might this vary by person?) and breakfast/food consumption prior to a tournament (should a player generally consume food prior to
playing?) (
“Peebles Primers – Tournament Preparation” by
Benjamin Peebles-Mundy

Given the timeframe that I’ve selected to use for this survey (The prompt for most questions reads “The following questions refer to your preparation for the average tournament, excluding Friday Night Magic, in the past year.”
), we should include some questions about non-Magic-related tournament preparation:

How many hours of sleep do you typically get the night before a tournament?
            – Fewer than 5
            – 5-6.9
            – 7-8.9
            – More than 9

Do you usually eat breakfast prior to playing in a tournament?

            – Yes
            – No

Testing Sideboards

With those concepts addressed, we can move forward to more obviously Magic-related concepts. One idea that has ‘taken off’ in the past year
more than it has in the past is playtesting games post-sideboarding. In many ways, sideboarding important matchups is a sub-game in which
anticipating our opponent’s line of play significantly can impact how we will fare in the subsequent game. In addition, a minimum of 50%
of our games in a tournament will be played post-sideboarding… so why don’t we practice this valuable skill more frequently? Back in 2009,
PV wrote an excellent article for SCG Premium that emphasized this very topic (
“PV’s Playhouse – Tournament Preparation” by
Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa

So, let’s introduce a new question stem that will determine the extent to which we perform certain behaviors that pros argue are key to
tournament success. We’ll ask…

“Please indicate the extent to which you agree or disagree with the following statements about your preparation for the average
tournament, excluding Friday Night Magic, in the past year”; we’ll use the response options strongly agree, agree, disagree, and
strongly disagree.

To determine how often we test post-sideboarding, we’ll ask about our level of agreement with the statement:

When I prepare for tournaments, I usually playtest games both pre- and post-sideboarding.

Testing Multiple Archetypes

Playtesting is more nuanced than just throwing some cards together and examining our post-sideboard lines of play, however. We need to look at the
metagame as a whole and to develop some level of familiarity. Many of us (and I’m incredibly guilty of this) will select a deck shell from a list
of decks, decide “this is the deck I’m going to play,” and will examine only the intricacies of that deck. Very successful players,
though, seem to develop experience with a wider variety of archetypes prior to each tournament. For example, in
“One Step Ahead – Standard Preparation” by
Gerry Thompson, Gerry writes that he “must have run through twenty different Standard decks before [he] settled on
.” Inductively, this not only suggests that he was more able to select the appropriate deck to play for that tournament based on experience, it
also suggests that he was more prepared to combat other archetypes by virtue of having played them.

So let’s ask a general question about whether we playtest a variety of archetypes when we prepare for a tournament. Let’s ask about our
level of agreement with the statement:

In general, I playtest a variety of decks before I choose a deck to play in a tournament.

Playing a Familiar/Comfortable Decklist

In the same vein as testing a variety of decks is the concept of “familiarity.” There is something to be said for having played a deck so
frequently that its mechanisms become second nature; this can apply to archetypes and broader strategies, too (see: Patrick Sullivan and red decks).
Sometimes, there is an advantage to be gained in playing the deck with which we are the most comfortable, even when that deck might not be the best
choice for a given metagame, or even a Tier 1 contender. Ben Lundquist wrote an excellent article on tournament preparation that addressed this concept
“Feature Article – Proper Preparation” by
Ben Lundquist
). It will be interesting to see whether people who agree with the following statement succeed more frequently at tournaments:

At most tournaments, I tend to play a deck with which I am comfortable, even if it’s not considered to be the “best deck.”


There is a large number of variables that leads up to any given tournament, including virtually infinite permutations of each relevant decklist (i.e.,
is this the week to add a second Batterskull to Caw-Blade? Do we cut Gitaxian Probe again as Splinter Twin becomes less popular?). It’s a lot for
one person to handle—we might go so far as to say that anyone who doesn’t approach Magic as a full-time job, or at least as a full-time
hobby, cannot hope to reach technically optimal decisions with regard to deck selection in many cases. Kyle Boggemes warned SCG readers about the
perils of failing to network prior to a tournament (this is especially important immediately following the introduction of new sets) in his article
“The Nose Knows – Amsterdam Preparation.”


We read anecdotes about team-based successes all the time, but we
don’t often think of them in terms of “networking.” But then again, there are people who have a seemingly impossible ability to tweak
new decklists week after week while consistently posting good finishes. So, we might ask on our survey:

With how many other Magic players do you typically prepare for a tournament (this includes playtesting, verbal and written correspondence about deck
choices, etc…)?

– None
– At least 1, but fewer than 6
– At least 6, but fewer than 10
– 10 or more

For the Purpose of Analysis, How Can We Define Success?

At first, we might consider a player’s “Total” DCI rating a measure of success, but the entire system has been the centerpiece in a
small amount of controversy lately. Specifically, players have questioned whether rating really illustrates skill in a game like Magic, where there is
an element of chance in each match. In addition, given the high K-value at professional-level events, the highest-ranked players frequently are those
who performed the best at the most recent high-level event. So, while it will be interesting to measure Total rating as part of our
study—we can see whether it is associated with success—it probably shouldn’t be how we measure success.

What is your current DCI Total rating for Magic: The Gathering? _____________

We should acknowledge that however we choose to define “success” at tournaments, our measure will be imperfect. Players think about success
in many different ways. For a player who wants to play on the Pro Tour, nothing less than winning a PTQ will do; for a more casual player, success
might be making Top 8 and walking away with a box of boosters. For yet other players, PTQs might not even be on the radar, with only Grand Prix- and
Pro Tour-level competition mattering. If we want to measure “tournament success” as part of this study, we need to work to capture the
subjective nature of success, while acknowledging that different “successes” have varying levels of difficulty.

At first, we might consider asking a broad question:

In the past year, how many times have you made the Top 8 of an SCG Open, Pro Tour Qualifier, State or Regional Championship, or National
Championship, or the Top 32 of a Grand Prix, Pro Tour, or SCG Invitational? _________

While combining “easier” feats like making Top 8 of a PTQ with more difficult feats, like making Top 32 of a Pro Tour, may seem strange,
remember that we’re interested in examining whether different kinds of tournament preparation are associated with success. As such,
while this measure is imperfect, because players have to qualify for Pro Tour events, and because players self-select what other events they will
patronize (and we presume that this selection is based on a perception of their ability to perform well in many cases), the players themselves control
some of these troublesome factors.

However, because players might play in widely different numbers of events, simply comparing a single Top 8 to ten different Top 8s is not meaningful in
the abstract because that may be a reflection of the number of tournaments attended. We therefore also need to ask:

In the past year, how many times have you played in an SCG Open or Invitational, Pro Tour Qualifier, State or Regional Championship, National
Championship, Grand Prix, or Pro Tour? _________

By examining Top 8/Top32 appearances as a function of tournament appearances, we obtain a much better (but still limited) picture of success.

What Can We Learn?

At the most basic level, we’ll get a fun and informative suite of graphs about ourselves (i.e., are we testing with sideboards? Are we sleeping
before tournaments?). As one of the more introspective groups of people around (that is—Magic players tend to be intelligent, and so we ask a lot
of questions about everything), we like to know about ourselves as a group. In addition, though, we have the potential to begin discovering
associations and potentially predictive patterns (say that five times quickly) between things that we do before tournaments and our performance.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to find out something like “we’re five times as likely to succeed in tournaments if we network with at
least six people prior to tournaments?” That’s the kind of basic data for which we’re shooting here.

But, again, in order for this first experiment to work, we all need to participate. The more people who take the short survey, the more interesting our results will be. Therefore, I encourage you to take the survey, and to ask your
Magic-playing friends to take the survey as well! I anticipate leaving the survey open for around a month, so spread it around, post it on Twitter and
Facebook, and let’s try to get as many responses as we can! *

In addition, if this works well, I hope to expand on it at some point in the (not immediate) future. To that end, if anyone has suggestions for other
things to add to the survey (presuming we’ll remove the things that aren’t significant from future surveys as well), please let me know via
the forums.

>>If you want to complete the survey now, click here<<

* I should add, though, please don’t take the survey more than once. It will skew the results.