Chatter of the Squirrel – How To Profit From Playtesting

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When I say that you playtest to figure out how to play, it doesn’t simply mean that you’re preventing yourself from making mistakes. Playtesting also encompasses a broader element of figuring out what it is you’re trying to play for. I don’t mean the prizes or the packs or whatever; I mean what your deck is set up to do, and whether what it does is worth it.

Did I mention last week that I landed the awesomest job in the history (besides writing for Craig, of course)? Microsoft Word is telling me that “awesomest” is not actually a word in the English language, but Billy G-and-co obviously do not know what it’s like to work for mayor A.C. Wharton, and so wouldn’t understand the context inside which such a word is appropriate.

I mean, Chatter gets to write speeches. I. Mean.

Let the hyperbole flow freely, and in Herculean amounts.

So several days after last week’s article went up, I was cruising my own forums* when I came across the following post from MagicRage, the self-proclaimed playmat** guy”:

This brings up an interesting topic that I would love to see covered in an article. I recall Richard Feldman alluding to it a little (entire Saturdays and lots of coffee were involved), I’ve seen a few articles over time where people list ‘steps to playtesting,’ there have been some good tips from you and Richard at times, and I’ve seen other people with some broad statements like ‘Pick N decks and play each of them against each other X times and reach conclusions.’ But it would be really nice to see a more in-depth article(s) about effective playtesting and analyzing a format. Not just on a per-game basis, but in an overall framework.

Also, on a related note, a topic that came up on Thursday night whilst testing: I am sometimes a slow player (not to be confused with someone who slow plays) because I feel most of my misplays in MTG occur because I don’t properly think through my decisions and make some donkey play. This has drawn complaints from some of my fellow testers. One of them suggested I should play faster and just make a bunch of mistakes anyway; their reasoning being that essentially six games of testing full of mistakes (that you can theoretically learn from) is better than three games of fewer mistakes (because you took longer to think through your decisions). It seems to me that this is terribly wrong, as testing a lot against poor plays doesn’t help you for a tourney where your opponents should mostly not be playing like donkeys. In either case, I do try to get feedback from my opponent on whether they felt my decision between A and B was correct and what my logic was.

It’s awesome when readers brainstorm topics for me!

My gut says that I’ve already written this article. At the same time, I’d love to cover the topic of playtesting in more depth. This is mostly because as my life arranges itself such that it’s becoming more and more difficult to practice adequately, I’m naturally drawn into the mechanics of that practice because I no longer take it for granted. Moreover, it’s good for me because it keeps my brain attuned to certain schema of thinking that I’ll lose sight of if I don’t condition myself periodically.

If you’re wondering what on earth that means, I was perusing my article on polarity because Tom linked to it in his column yesterday, and I was struck by how much of that content seemed novel to me! In a period of only a few months, I had forgotten many of my own ideas, and moreover, had even lost track of many of the thought processes that allowed me to make the conclusions I did.

This is a lesson in and of itself, because if the author of a certain method can forget his own advice, then we as readers are even more likely to lose sight of a valuable lesson – if we don’t put it into practice. This is why it’s so important to think actively about Magic in every single game we play. I’m constantly amazed at people I know who play tons of Magic Online, tons of Magic in general, but fail to get better at the game because they’re basically just spectating when they sling their spells. In many ways, that’s why I spend so much of my available time talking to Richard or Adrian or Steve or Cedric about formats; it allows me to reason through a metagame or a deck’s card selections on a much deeper level than I’d be able to do myself with only ten or so games under my belt.

It’s my goal today to try and explain what goes through my head during those conversations. There have been many articles, as MagicRage says, about playtesting on a “per-game basis.” Hopefully, this will help you understand what you’re trying to learn from those games.

I might owe the following paragraph to my continued conversations with Tom LaPille, but I’ll start by saying the most important part of “playtesting” is the play. That is, you playtest games first and foremost to figure out how to play a deck, because far and away play skill, except under rare circumstances, is the foremost determinant of who wins and loses tournaments. Now, in a way I still believe that deck choice is more important than playskill on a theoretical level, because anyone who plays a deck substantially worse than the rest of the room is not going to be able to win games. However, the reality of the internet means that very, very few people are going to be playing garbage decks, so the “goodness gradient” of what people are actually playing is not going to be very expansive.

The thing is, when I say that you playtest to figure out how to play, it doesn’t simply mean that you’re preventing yourself from making mistakes. Playtesting also encompasses a broader element of figuring out what it is you’re trying to play for. I don’t mean the prizes or the packs or whatever; I mean what your deck is set up to do, and whether what it does is worth it. You can only understand that within the context of a given format.

This is, in a sense, the most difficult thing for new and casual players to understand, and in many ways I’m pretty sure the average PTQ player doesn’t understand it either. A lot of people build decks, or look at existing decks, and assume because those decks do something powerful then it’s a fine strategy to work around. Take the current Gargadon-Balancing Act deck, for example. It’s not enough to say “this is a two-card combo that blows up all permanents in play and leaves me with a 9/7 haste creature.” That is not actually enough analysis. Only by looking at the format can you tell whether that’s good or not. If, as the format seems to be shaping up now, you have a ton of permanent-based control decks and midrange disruptive decks, then that combo is going to be good enough. But if you’ve got decks like Dredge (which may or may not become popular) that don’t actually care if you blow up all their permanents, or even something like TEPS that can win off a Lotus Bloom coming into play after your Act hits, then you’re playing for the wrong endgame.

Does that make sense? It’s the same reason that you’ve got a lot of comparatively easy-to-execute combos – Intruder Alarm/Kiki Jiki, Intruder Alarm/Imperious Perfect, Enduring Renewal/Wild Cantor/any storm spell, even Shuko/Cephalid Illusionist – that may or may not be good depending on how much splash damage they receive within a format. If this was, say, Extended right after Mirrodin Block was released and nobody was even remotely concerned about killing creatures, then today’s Illusionist deck would be busted in half. But in a format where Fanatics and Helices and Fire/Ices and Solitary Confinements and graveyard hate and Putrefies and Pithing Needles are running rampant, that combo is a little more awkward.

So when you try to analyze a format, you try to figure out what the relevant variables are. Am I going to have to attack through a bunch of huge-toughness creatures? Am I going to die to a good portion of the format if I don’t interact on turns 1 or 2? Am I not going to be able to play spells that cost one, two, or three mana, either because of Chalice of the Void or Counterbalance? Are my nonbasic lands reasonably likely to die, or become useless due to Blood Moon or Destructive Flow? Can I kill my opponent on 29-32 life due to a Martyr? Can I beat an enchantment that fundamentally alters whether or not the game is played? Can I operate under the assumption, as is the case in a Duress/Cabal Therapy/Thoughtseize format, that the best card in my opening hand will be stripped away from me?

The answer to all of these questions isn’t always going to be “yes,” but you have to figure out where you’re willing to make your sacrifices. I, for one, always err on the side of immediate interaction, and tend not to play decks that rely upon attacking with creatures to end the game. Rock and Nail is a perfect example of this, because even though it “wins with creatures” it really wins with Kataki or Yixlid Jailer or Collective Restraint or Sundering Titan or Platinum Angel. Four of those are only sort of creatures; they aren’t relevant because they attack or block, but because they change how the game is played. At the end of last Extended season, I relied upon Terravore, Wild Mongrel, and Spectral Force, but I really was a Life from the Loam inevitability deck with a ton of huge Green monsters the format couldn’t handle. The thing is, when you play a creature whose only job is to attack and block, you’re really playing an investment card. You’re playing a card that only interacts with the opponent if he’s operating along the same terms – that is, he’s trying to win the game by attacking with creatures – and so the card is only immediately relevant if it blocks a man the opponent is trying to swing with. Otherwise, you play a card that does nothing right away in exchange for the ability to win the game in X turns assuming the opponent is unable to alter the game state.

I’m not saying this is bad. People are winning PTQs with the best 0/5 since Wall of Roots, and he is exactly the type of card I’m talking about. What it does mean is that you should know what type of field you’re entering, and be fully prepared for the implications of a strategy revolving around attacking with guys.

Playtesting, in essence, is the art of determining how much you can get away with. You have to figure out what you’re going for in every matchup. You’re not just looking for “what deck beats what,” but how one deck beats another, what types of situations tend to arise that contribute to one deck defeating the other. Step two is figuring out how to create those situations. So to address the last part of MagicRage’s question, I think absolutely that you need to think as hard as possible to avoid making mistakes in playtesting. Of course, you’re going to have to make yourself play faster. It’s not an either-or conundrum. If you’re in the tank in tournaments you’re getting a judge called on you, and playing well but slowly in playtesting is only going to make you all the more unable to play well but quickly in a tournament. But the argument that “you’ll make more mistakes, but you’ll learn from them” is really bogus. You learn better by figuring out how to avoid those mistakes in the first place! You can’t learn from something if you’re not able to take the time to think about it, analyze it, dissect it from different angles and compute the possibilities.

Hopefully, man, this was what you were going for!

Take care, everybody, and I’ll see you next week,


* Yes, I am that guy.
** Just typed “playmate,” which is almost as awkward as my “man screwed” typo from last week that Craig caught before anyone laid eyes on it.