Feature Article – Anatomy of a Season

By his own admission, Paul is not the powerhouse of PTQ-level Constructed Magic that he used to be. As a young man with a flighty lifestyle, a PTQ each weekend was the very least of his Magic experience. Now a man with commitments and responsibilities, he can only manage two or three a season. However, he has a fine tactic to lessen the pressure and get the most from his game. Who knows, maybe it can help you too…

I used to be much better at Constructed Magic. It’s no secret. Between 2000 and 2003 I could go to a Constructed PTQ and at least make Top 8 forty-plus-percent of the time. Several things have changed since then.

For that four-year period, or really about 43 months, I would attend a PTQ every weekend. Literally. The only exceptions were when there was no PTQ season, one weekend in 2001 when I had to skip PT: Barcelona for my college graduation (still bitter), and when I was already qualified (in which case I probably showed up anyway to judge or draft). The average PTQ season featured between eight and ten tournaments I could attend. During this time, I rang up 28 of my career 30 PTQ Top 8 appearances, along with my lonesome two victories. My life has undergone an extreme home makeover since then though and life has gone on. I graduated college. I got a real job. I left that real job to get an actual real job, with kung-fu career grip. I got engaged (wedding in April). In short, (warning: sad realization forthcoming) I grew up.

I can no longer fly around Never-Never land (a.k.a. Dominia) clashing with Captain Hook (Ramiriz DePietro?) and trying to look up Tinkerbell’s (I was going to say Scryb Sprite here, but I don’t think it works) skirt. Nope. I’m now a card-carrying member of the adult population, and I don’t mean Magical card-carrying. While I’m relatively new to the scene, so far I have to say Mr. Pan seems to have had it right and childhood was more fun.

The net result of this prolonged analogy is that I can no longer approach a Professional Tournament Qualifier season in the same way I used to. For those of you who like structure, this means we’re going to first examine my past life as a hardcore PTQ player, and then take a look at the status quo, much in the fashion past-versus-present style of Time Spiral and Planar Chaos. I’ll also save you the suspense and say that, if you can do it, the former strategy is much more effective.

It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon

Summer of 2000 was a spectacular time for me, Magically speaking. The PTQ season was Mercadian Masques Block Constructed. The first PTQ of the season I took a terribly un-tuned Blue Skies deck to Neutral Ground and earned my first-ever individual Top 8 performance, beating out Michelle Bush in the final round and losing to Skye Thomsen in the quarterfinals*. While getting my first Top 8 was exciting, it was the next weekend that changed everything.

Josh Ravitz and I made the trip to Maryland. I fell short of Top 8 with an aggressive Rebel deck, but we ran into a person who was at that time someone Josh had only recently started chatting with. I had met him a month earlier at Nationals (the Napster-Finkel Nationals) and had the pleasure of watching the entire Top 8 in the front row with him. Josh re-introduced us, and followed up with, “So Flores, are you going to the Boston PTQ next week?” Mike responded with, what I still think to this day was a hull-to-barn setup, “I don’t have a ride.”

As was not quite the Magicianal (new word — write it down) vernacular yet at the time, obv we offered the ride. Mike made Top 8 in Maryland but then lost. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the beginning of a now seven-year friendship that would span a numerous road trips, and twice as many Cracker Barrel dinners**.

Week 3 put us in Boston. Mike was playing his same mono-White maybe-I’m-a-rebel-deck-but-maybe-I’m-a-control-deck deck. I ran a Black Monstrosity. Mike made Top 8, I went 1-2.

At this point I noticed something. I had played a different deck each week. Each week I lost at least one game to poor sideboarding. Each week I lost at least one game to poor resource management. Each week I lost at least one game to a poor strategy. I was not optimizing my chances for success because I was diluting my playtime with too many different decks.

Magic is a complex game. The most proficient players in the world still make game-play errors. I can accept that I am not perfect at it, so I should at least try to get maximum value from the skills that I do have. I made the decision at this point to just pick a deck and run it into the ground for the rest of the season.

For the remainder of the season, through eight more PTQs, Mike had two more Top 8s and I got another for myself. I also had three final round losses when playing for Top 8. I was playing Mike’s White deck (marking the beginning of a long run of me playing the deck Mike plays).

Throughout the following Limited season I began to think about why it was important to stick with a single deck. There are several reasons that are easy to cumulate into a single word of familiarity. But I think it is even more than a level of comfort like finally being able to clip your toenails in front of your girlfriend. There are more layers beneath comfort, which can better explain the increased success.

No matter how much play testing you do, there is no substitute for tournament play. In a tournament you are getting a true representation of what other people are playing, as opposed to potential inbred testing in your friend’s basement. You can see what hate people have against you, and what tech you have to hate out. Your mistakes carry heavier weight. If you are anything like me, you will carry your losses with you for at least a few days, examining what you could have done differently (as I’m writing this, I’m contemplating last night’s loss in the finals of an online draft). If you are playing a different deck the following week, what misplays you made this week will carry much less relevance than if you are using the same deck. By staying consistent you offer yourself a better opportunity to learn from your mistakes.

For instance, if I lost this week when I played out a wrong sequence of lands with Boros that didn’t allow me to maximize my spells, I’m not likely to be able to apply that lesson to this upcoming week if I’m playing TEPS. The Boros land base is much more complex than TEPS. I don’t want to discount some of the decisions as to when to play a land, but generally speaking you can almost auto-pilot playing the lands in TEPS, while in Boros you have to pay much closer attention. Your mind retains lessons at a much better rate when those lessons are practically applied shortly after learning them. So if I play TEPS this week and then switch back to Boros next week, I’m more likely to have forgotten what I learned from my loss.

But the benefits do not stop there. Not only do you increase the likelihood that you learn from your mistakes, but you also can craft and perfect your strategies with more precision. Most decks have to alter their game plan depending on what the opponent is playing. By participating in more tournament level matches you expose yourself to more deck archetypes, including those that you and your test group did not have time to test against. Everyone sets out to testing with the intent of learning each iteration of every matchup, but time constraints ubiquitously prevent this. Larger test groups may even segment out testing duties so that some people are only testing a specific deck. While this is an effective distribution of testing resources, it is only beneficial for learning matchups if the deck they are assigned ends up being the deck the test group plays. Tournament play remedies this though, and opens the doors of opportunity to experience all that a format can offer you.

You also get to see more people playing the decks you did test against, and those people will be implementing strategies other than those your test partner was. After a few rounds of playing test games, I will know how my test partner plans to win a particular game, and likewise he will know my strategy. While a random opponent with the same 75 cards will likely implement a similar strategy, it will not be the same. This holds particularly true for the longer, more controlling pairings. By exposing yourself to how other people play, you gain insights that your partner may have missed, or that the general public is missing. By doing this weekly with the same deck each time, your knowledge base expands and your chances for success go up.

I’ve read a number of articles through the years detailing how important a sideboard is, and how frequently it is ignored. I’ve read twice as many reports of people where it will say something along the lines of, “I wasn’t sure how to sideboard against her deck, so I just brought in ABC and took out XYZ.” Frequently it will be followed up with an admission that their sideboarding plan was flawed. Raphael Levy recently had a similar admission in his GP: Dallas report.

After twelve rounds, I knew how to sideboard correctly with the deck. When you lack time for preparation with the deck you’re playing, you have to catch up during the three minutes you have between games. Intuition and an accurate knowledge of the format will be your best ally there.

Levy was burdened by not having enough test time to comfortably select a deck and had to make his deck choice mere hours before the event started. By his own admission, he only knew how to sideboard properly after a full 12 rounds of tournament Magic, which is the approximate equivalent of two weeks of PTQs. Now think if that happened to you on week 1, but you faced the same deck during week 2. Chances are that you will implement the correct sideboarding the second time around the block.

During the extended season of 2000 I was playing a Necro-Donate deck. It was post-Mana Vault but still with Duress, Force of Will and the Skull itself. I had been sideboarding in some form of Pyroblasts in the mirror match out of fear of Force of Will. Only after losing twice to opponents who just forced out some form of Masticore or Phyrexian Negator did I realize that my sideboarding was flawed. I went on to start bringing in a full set of eight creatures, leaving the Red counter magic in the sideboard and didn’t drop another mirror match that season, which culminated in an eventual win at the PTQ in PT Chicago***.

If there are a lot of people out there who are unsure how to sideboard in a specific matchup, there are certainly more people out there who are unsure how others are sideboarding against them. Sideboards are the most likely place to find technology in Magic, and this is true to an even greater extent in PTQs. Maindeck technology is usually deck and possibly format defining. These revelations are usually a product of a team of professional players preparing for a major event, most likely a Pro Tour. There are extremely few instances of deck-defining tech being introduced during a PTQ season when compared to the number introduced at Pro Tours. There are also significantly less PTs than there are PTQs, which makes the numbers even more staggering. Much more focus is also put on maindecks, so while it is entirely possible that a piece of sideboard tech will remain quiet for one or two weeks in a season, something in the maindeck will jump out at everyone and be known before the blue envelope is even handed over. By experiencing more matches against more people with more decks while you maintain your steadfast apprenticeship to your deck of choice, you become exposed to more potential sideboard cards as well as strategies.

There are so many advantages to making a commitment to a deck over a season that it seems like a waste to ever change decks. Using this methodology it becomes even more important that you have a good deck that you like in week 1. Always be willing to abandon your choice though if things are not working out or the deck is underperforming. Much like you may have to abandon your first pick Sulfurous Blast, sometimes you have to accept your loss and salvage what you can.

Okay, now it’s a sprint

That was then, though. Now I can only make it to two PTQs during a Constructed season, at most. I have come to accept the tragedy and have had to adapt my process to cope. You can probably tell that I’m somewhat methodical about things, and prefer to learn things over and over and maybe even over again. This trait of mine does not mesh well with attending 1-2 tournaments in a season. While the plan before was the grind it out over a season, picking up small advantages along the way with the ultimate goal being a victory at the end of the season, the plan now is to shotgun eight rounds of Swiss andthree3 elimination rounds and go home with an invitation to a tournament I may not be able to attend. I had to make adjustments in my preparation as well as expectations in order to accommodate this.

First and foremost I had to limit my deck choices. I would have to examine a particular metagame and throw out any decks that don’t resemble a deck I’ve played to success in the past. Since I would have limited preparation time, and even more limited tournament time, I had to rely more heavily on past experiences. This is wonderful for learning a deck’s strategy but not as effective as identifying possible threats in an environment — particularly hate cards. For instance, while I have played many different forms of Psychatog decks in the past, but I never faced Sudden Shock. That is an environment-defining card that would require some extreme changes in my strategy if I were to play a Tog deck. So while I would feel pretty comfortable with the general strategy of a Psychatog deck (any Psychatog deck) I would have to adapt certain strategies — namely I would no longer be able to throw down my “puny” one-two on turn 3 and expect it to completely stop my opponent’s attacks. It was important for me to find a deck where I was familiar with the overall strategy so that I could limit how much new information I would have to learn.

I failed miserably at doing this for the current Extended season. I began to test as I usually do, by offering to play whatever deck needs playing in a testing session. I ended up with Boros, and liked the results it was getting so decided to choose that deck for me. I set forth to begin trying to learn the deck, the format, and the strategy. The problem was though; I am not a beatdown player. I watch people like Billy Moreno and Pat Sullivan and simply do not understand how they pull some games out. Don’t get me wrong; I can draw my seven, attack with creatures, and point flaming fires at my opponent’s face, sure. But there is a point in a beatdown game where it can turn from stage 1 (mindless beatings) to stage 2 (actual strategy) where I am lost. Prior to this PTQ season, the last time I played a beatdown deck competitively that I can recall was the Blue Skies deck from earlier in this article in 2000. Prior to that it was a Sligh deck at NJ States in 1998. I am more of a combo or control player at heart. I like to laugh at the “stupid” beatdown players, even though I believe that beatdown is the finer skill.

So I ended up with Boros, easily falling under the beatdown classification. I was breaking my rule of following my history to limit what I had to learn and instead opened myself up to trying to learn an entire format, along with an entire deck, along with an entire philosophy. I tried to accomplish this over the course of two mock tournaments, one live testing session, and some nights on APPR. Instead of focusing my energy on learning a new combo deck, where I was already comfortable with how to manage combo resources to get to my flashpoint and “go off”, I uselessly increased the difficulty of my task at hand and therefore decreased my chances of success. The result was a humbling 2-2 exit from the only PTQ I could attend.

My expectations at a PTQ between 2000-2003 were always to Top 8, and maybe to win. Whenever I failed to make Top 8 it was a failure for me. I was fortunate to always have the following week to make amends though, and sometimes even the following day on those lucky double PTQ weekends. This dynamic has changed drastically for me, probably more than any other aspect of Magic. Now when I attend a PTQ I am forced to temper my expectations both because of less preparation and because if I were to miss those expectations I do not want the bad memory to fester for the next two months until the next PTQ I went to.

Psychologically it is important to have a solid understanding of what your expectations are versus goals versus your dreams. My expectation is to get between four and six wins with two losses, my goal is to Top 8, my dream is to win. While none of these is really out of reach, if I state my expectation as winning I am really going to be down on myself for the next couple of days or even weeks, which could have a major impact on my game-play during that time span. Even if I won, I would not be able to enjoy the win fully as anything else would have been a let down. While it is certainly important to maintain a positive outlook and be confident, it should not come at the expense of enjoying the game.

While you’re preparing for a season, take into mind which category you fall under. If you are going to be attending more than two PTQs in a season, I recommend trying out the above process. I think you’ll be pleased with what you may learn.


* Incidentally, this PTQ was also the scene for my favorite caught-cheating incident. After one of the early rounds some guy went over to his friends and started talking about how he had done something illegal by accident but his opponent didn’t notice, and the guy won because of his illegal action (I think it was with fading counters, but I’m not 100% on this one). Chris Pikula overheard the story and told the head judge. The kid denied it, made up a story that he lied about cheating to impress his friends, and then eventually broke down into tears. And that was a quick tournament for “some guy”. Good, I hate cheaters.

** For those who like Flores trivia, Mike gets the chicken fried steak with dumplings and more dumplings

*** I had actually planned on throwing away my deck choice and going with a Secret Force deck, but Dan MacNeil made me go out drinking the night before and I was unable to trade for or borrow the cards. Allegedly he did this to prevent me from running Secret Force. Smart guy.

**** This isn’t referencing any particular point in the article, but merits mention. My longtime teammate Steve Sadin was raised as a vegetarian and has never known the joys of dead animal flesh. This past month he manned up and put his incisors to good use. He has worked his way up from chicken through bacon and up to the big boy steaks. I’m honestly just so proud and happy for him that I wanted to share.

***** DraftStats have undergone a major overhaul and we now include DCI-style ratings. We have back-dated the ratings to calculate since when we started keeping records last July. We also have added a piece where if you know the teams you can calculate the odds for each team based on their ratings. I’m toying with the idea of doing a breakdown of the entire DraftStat process including how to set up your own database. Currently I am tracking rating, draft win %, match win %, earnings (pride bucks, of course — we would never gamble) along with rankings and trended data month over month and by format. If you have a group of friends who drafts frequently (or plays any other format frequently) it really adds a lot of fun. It’s a big task to document everything, so I don’t want to do it if people aren’t interested. Let me know in the forums.

****** Just kidding, nothing else to add. Hehehe.