Feature Article – Proper Preparation

Tuesday, March 16th – In the first edition of a new weekly column, Pro Tour mainstay Ben Lundquist discusses the need for proper preparation when going into high-level Magic events. Scrubbing out is never a good feeling… but if we’re honest, do we always do all we can to avoid such an ignoble exit? Ben reveals all…

Hey everyone! My name is Ben Lundquist, and I have been a PT mainstay since my first Pro Tour in 2006. I am not going to look up big words in order to make you think I am smart, but I will try to teach you some tips I have learned through my trials and tribulations of being on the Pro Tour for the past few years. I have been trying to get myself to write articles for over a year now, and have finally worked up enough motivation to do exactly that. This is partly due to a member of my hotel room from Pro Tour: San Diego fingering through my boxes and taking a stack of cards including seven Tarmogoyfs (which I hope to get into in a future article), and also partly due to my string of lackluster performances over the past four PTs. When attempting to come up with an understanding of what I was doing wrong, I finally stumbled across a topic that I felt was worth writing about.

“Scrubbing out” of a tournament is never a good feeling, but rather than dwelling on it I have been trying to come up with answers of what is going wrong. I started last year with an 18th place finish at the first PT and 2nd place finish at GP: Seattle leading up to the second PT of the year. I was unbeatable. With 15 pro points leading into PT: Honolulu, I knew it was going to be a great year; however, that is not actually the case. I ended the year with 25 points after three additional Pro Tours, and a very bitter taste in my mouth. Where did I go wrong?

The first and probably most important reason for my failures is covered by the Five Ps. A few months ago I was part of a different website that basically taught Magic via oral presentations over the internet. Interestingly enough it was my boss that taught me about these Five Ps in regards to my presentations I was giving, but it was only now that it has clicked to me that it is also one of the most valuable tips to give the Magic community in regards to tournament preparation. So without further ado, the Five Ps:

Proper preparation prevents poor performance.

You are probably thinking that this looks pretty obvious, but the only obvious part is that preparation prevents poor performance. Properly preparing for tournaments is something that I had not been doing, and neither have you. In this complex game that we all play, there are so many different variables that we need to wrap our minds around that we overlook some of the simplest, yet most important ones.

You see, I live in a rural area of New York, and there aren’t many opportunities to get a group of good players together and test. The Magic community in this area is so weak that a lot of the time we can’t even manage to pull together eight players for a weekly draft. On top of all this, when we finally do get a chance to get together, it is not uncommon that we have up to three or four different formats to try and figure out, and not nearly enough time to even come close to feeling comfortable with even one.

In order to understand why I had been losing, I decided it was a smart idea to first figure out what I was doing right when I was winning. As soon as I did this it was fairly obvious, I was winning when I was most familiar with my own deck. That may appear to be another fairly obvious point, but why then are we all changing cards and decks at the last minute? Look at my best Constructed results since I started playing on the Pro Tour in 2006…

21st place PT Honolulu 2006 playing UR Tron.
2nd place GP Madison 2006 playing UR Tron.
2nd place Nationals 2006 playing UR Tron.
2nd place GP Vancouver 2008 playing UG Tron.
31st Worlds 2008 playing UB Faeries.
18th place PT Kyoto 2009 playing UB Faeries.
2nd GP Seattle 2009 playing UB Faeries.

What this tells me, besides that I am a terrible closer, is that I do exceptionally well when I play a deck that I know in and out. The time I spent playing these two different archetypes cannot even compare to the time I spent on any other single deck in the history of my Magic career. With the limited amount of live testing that I do manage to get in, I can figure out a couple cards that need to be adjusted in order to make my matchups better, rather than make the mistake of registering a list of 75 cards that I do not find myself as comfortable with. I have made this mistake many times over the past few years, and have just recently understood that this was going on.

The problem is that everyone has picked up a deck the day before an event and played them a decent finish, and they don’t understand that this is a bad move to make in the long run. I always thought of myself as one of the best players in any given tournament, and if I had the best deck I would have the best odds. While this is mostly true, it is almost impossible to play a game perfectly when you have never played that deck before. Now that I understand this, I think that the correct choice would be to play the deck that you are most comfortable with and know that you are making the best play each turn of the game. Most matchups in most formats are so close to coin flips that the person who plays better is going to win, so why give up a deck that you play so well for a deck that you aren’t going to play perfectly? Let your opponent be the player who messes up; don’t play an unfamiliar deck just because it has better slightly better win percentages against a random field. Dredge is not going to beat Zoo 70% of the time if you just picked up the Dredge deck, I promise. The point here is that any advantages you are gaining by picking up a “better deck” you are giving right back with the inability to play it correctly.

This goes even further than just playing the deck as well. If you consider yourself a good player or deck designer then there is a good chance that whatever new deck you are looking to pick up is not fully tweaked; it has holes. At PT: Austin I played Dark Depths and lost twice to my own Dark Confidants and Bitterblossoms. I knew they were some of the most important cards in the mirror match, but I had no way to negate the life loss of these two cards and lost with superior board position, when I could have avoided it had I known this was going to be an issue. Feeling more comfortable with my understanding with the deck I decided to play it again in the PTQ the following day, adding a singleton tutorable Umezawas’ Jitte to the sideboard, and easily made Top 8. Had I known this little bit of knowledge the day before, I would be happily playing in Day 2 of the PT instead.

Another deterrent to picking up a deck right before an event should be that it is almost impossible to know what is going on with the sideboard. If you don’t properly know how the games are going to play out on a consistent basis, then you probably don’t know the proper way to sideboard in any given match. Yes, you bring in Deathmarks against Zoo… but what on earth do you take out? Only experience can answer that question. As far as sideboarding is concerned, note that even if you do know your deck in and out, it is important to get maximum value out of your sideboard as well. You don’t want to have dead cards in your sideboard, or too many cards versus a particular deck. If you have a sideboard of 10 cards you want to bring in or take out and only 7 to correct this problem, then you are making a big mistake before you even sit down to play a game. In a tournament we play more sideboard games than game 1s, and having your sideboard plan nailed down is proper preparation at its best.

It is also fairly obvious that you need to be familiar with Limited in order to do well there. This is not just because you need to figure out every trick they could have at each point in the game, but also because when you draft and build your deck you need to know what to look for. Before you pick a certain card in your draft, you have to envision how your deck is going to turn out. Look at the current format, for example. Did you know that when you are drafting Black that there isn’t a three-drop creature in WWK (other than Quag Vampires when kicked)? What does this mean exactly? Well, maybe when you have a chance to take a Giant Scorpion or Stonework Puma over a slightly better card like one of the four-mana spells Crypt Ripper, Heartstabber Mosquito, Hagra Crocodile, and Nimana Sell-Sword, , it would be wise to do so. WWK introduces Jagwasp Swarm which tends to go pretty late, probably considering the amount of four-mana spells that the other Black drafters already have in their stacks. I have also done a few too many triple WWK drafts, and let me tell you, some of those color combinations cannot work. If you ever open Vapor Snare and get passed Searing Blaze, be informed that you are not going to have a very pretty deck.

Something that has come to my attention when drafting and playing with ZEN block is that there isn’t much interaction going on. Considering previous sets, there aren’t many cards that give you decisions, such as something along the lines of devour or cycling. Pretty much all the options in the current block are whether or not to use a removal spell yet, or whether or not you should attack or block. When I noticed this, I realized that Green is actually very rewarding for play skill as it has some cheap tricks and big creatures that let you develop the board as you so choose. Leaving back your Nissa’s Chosen can go a long way to slowing down the game for a few turns, where as you don’t have the luxury of that kind of choice when you have cards like Welkin Tern and Steppe Lynx.

Just to remind everyone, it is vital for your tournament life to be properly prepared and understand as much as possible about your deck and the existing format. Deck familiarity will go a long way to producing good results for you, and it is important to stick with it. If you are experiencing terrible results with your deck then it is probably in your best interest to try something new, but please do not take a deck blindly. Play as many games as you can with a particular deck and fix it where it appears to be weak or need some help. Goldfishing, playing two decks against yourself, anything that familiarizes yourself with a particular deck will go a long way in order to teach you about what you should be doing in each game. The smallest of mistakes can and will cost you the game, so in order to prevent this take the proper steps in doing so. Even at PT San Diego I straight up lost a match due to me being unfamiliar with my deck and the way matchups would play out. I simply played a Zektar Shrine on turn 3 instead of waiting until turn 4 where I would be able to play it and sacrifice it in the same turn. My deck had very few targets for Maelstrom Pulse, but by making a mistake like that it cost me seven damage and the entire match.

The strange thing about this advice that I am offering to you is that you will never see it make a difference if you take it. If you don’t listen to my advice you will witness this first hand, but if you take it then you will question whether or not it was good advice. I am speaking purely through experience that if you want the best results it is vital to know your deck inside and out. Sometimes you see decks in the top 8 of given events and wonder how it was possible the pilot of the deck could win with a ham sandwich. I am telling you that it is because they were so familiar and comfortable with their deck that they were able to make the best plays each turn and maximize on their opponents making the mistakes. Maximize your tournament experiences by maximizing your ability to play a particular deck. Don’t give up your ability to play a deck very well, for another deck that may or not be better. Mistakes cost you games, and changing decks last minute is a giant mistake.

Something as obvious as the Five Ps is still not properly appreciated by fellow pro players like me. Writing this article has made me much more aware of my own thoughts, and it feels very rewarding to be able to share that with you. I hope you enjoyed my article and follow me as I continue my column in the weeks to come.

Until next time…

Ben Lundquist