So Much Time and So Little To Do…
Strike that. Reverse it. Thank you.
Magic players have lots of different formats to prepare for, and even as a full time job there isn’t enough time to fully explore all of them. It’s not easy to play Legacy and Standard in the same weekend for an SCG Open, then go play Extended in the qualifier season and prepare to draft and play Block Constructed in San Juan. Try doing that with a full time job and maybe even a kid, and time becomes even more the limiting factor. This means you need to prioritize your time. Even if all you’re trying to do is qualify and can concentrate for several months on one format, that format changes so much from week to week that, unless you’re under severe budget constraints, time is still the thing in shortest supply.
While I haven’t enjoyed earth-shattering success since returning to the Pro Tour, I’ve posted a solid record and I’ve done so under severe time constraints. I’m hoping San Juan will allow me to go in fully prepared, but it will be the first time I feel like I’ll have the chance to invest a competitive amount of time. The key is to take the time that you have and to spend that time efficiently. The most important decision you’ll make is what deck to play, and the there is a key to making that decision:
Choose your deck early, and stick to your guns.
At the extreme, a player can pull a full Bob Maher: Show up without a deck or any cards at all, get a deck from friends, have them give you a quick briefing, and rely on pure skill to carry you through. If you have a choice, don’t do this especially with any deck that is genuinely new to you. He was called The Great One for a reason. I’ve attempted to pull this maneuver many times, and each time I paid a severe price. The most recent time I did this was at a qualifier, and I know exactly the moment that going in blind cost me my first match; if I’d played even a handful of matches with the deck, I would not have made that mistake, and this is common. I always feel like I’m playing far better in the latter rounds of such tournaments than I was playing earlier.
If you are going to pick up a deck and play it for the first time in round 1, or having played only a handful of games, then you must pay this price. How big the price is depends on your prior experience with other similar decks, matchups, and situations. The closer the parallel you can draw, the better off you will be. A standard issue White Weenie or Burn deck is simple enough that you can extract most of its potential right away, so long as you have experience with previous White Weenie or Burn decks. Chapin-style Blue/White Control is far easier to play if you’ve got a lot of games under your belt with previous Blue/White Control decks, because they operate on similar principles, and the places were you will make the most mistakes are in handling Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Everflowing Chalice because those cards present new kinds of decisions. By contrast, the new Juza-style Blue/White Control decks based on four copies of Mind Spring and Martial Coup are inherently easier to play properly, but most players won’t have experience with older decks that are as relevant.
Players who haven’t been playing competitively for at least a few years won’t have the relevant experience, and there are diminishing returns to experience. The first few games with a deck, or the first old experience with a similar deck, generates far more improvement than the next few games or the next previous experience. If you are starting out in competitive Magic, last minute switches will prove disastrous. In addition to not winning the tournament, you won’t learn as much because you’ll be spending valuable tournament time learning the basics of your deck that you could learn in casual play, and that will prevent you from learning things that are more valuable. Most new players understand this and don’t have the required cards to make frequent switches, so they do the wise thing and stick to one perspective for longer periods of time, even if it isn’t the strongest approach.
It is the players with more experience who make the bigger mistake and go in with decks they are not prepared to play, and this is a huge mistake. While they give up less in winning percentage by doing so, it is easy to forget that the rewards for Magic tournaments are so top heavy. At a Qualifier these days, you will slog through over two hundred players fighting for a single slot. At a Pro Tour, your only worthy goal is to make it into the Top 8, and those last three matches are so important that deck choices can and should be partly based on what happens when you play best of five games with available decklists. A Grand Prix isn’t much more forgiving unless you wanted to fly around the world for a PT Point or two and a few hundred bucks. By going in unprepared, even if you choose the best deck you will be operating at a disadvantage compared to those who chose that same deck weeks ago, and in my experience the result of this is usually a mediocre finish and going home with very little, because the best players will have your number and beat you.
The place this usually shows the most is in sideboarding. I could probably pick up Zoo or Dark Depths or any other Extended deck, fly into Houston, and not give up that much, but after that first game is over I won’t know what to take out, even if I know what to bring in. That can be fixed with explicit instructions, but the moment I’m off the straight and narrow path I won’t make the right adjustments. If I have to adjust the sideboard to a new metagame or other factors, I’ll be all but helpless, and usually the mirror matchup is both common and the most problematic, since it requires adjusting to the draws of both decks and recognizing the nature of the current game rather than assuming a standard issue role as you will for most of the tournament.
That doesn’t mean you should never switch on the night before or day of the tournament, but you should use extreme caution in doing so if you are not switching between what I call Candidate Decks. Candidates are decks you’ve already decided are decks you might play, and for which you have done the necessary preparations. The key to efficient preparation is properly identifying and choosing candidate decks. This allows you to allocate your time efficiently. Spending time on a deck that is not and will not be a candidate, other than to know how to play against that deck, is time wasted. Time not invested in a deck that should have been a candidate shuts off an option that could prove invaluable. The night before the tournament, a player should have either one or two candidate decks remaining, and have most or all of the cards for both if he brings two.
Switching to a non-candidate deck means throwing out a large portion of your work and going in under a disadvantage, often a severe one. Since my return, there are two Pro Tours in which this decision would have been justified for many players. In Berlin, the Elves deck was so utterly ridiculous that most players with combo deck experience had little choice once he knew about Elves; a handful like Nassif had alternate solutions, but most were sitting ducks if they stuck to their guns. If your original plan is hopeless because you can’t handle the most popular or most powerful deck, then you need to switch even if it is too late to be properly prepared. It’s not going to be a good tournament for you, but you’re choosing between two bad answers. The other situation was in New York, when the Dragonstorm deck was too good to pass up. Jon Finkel was going to play my Faerie deck (this was before Bitterblossom), but the night before he learned about Dragonstorm and had the option to switch. Dragonstorm had a severe advantage over the field, enough to overcome a lack of play experience even if Finkel had invested preparation time in the Faerie deck.
Here’s a summary of my best Constructed finishes from my pre-HoF career and when I knew what I would be playing:
PT: Los Angeles
Deck Choice: Sligh
When Chosen: Had great success with Sligh throughout testing, never seriously considered anything else.
Deck Choice: Rude Awakening
When Chosen: I’d developed this deck for the World Championships prior to the Grand Prix, and never seriously considered playing any other deck after the World Championships.
PT: New Jersey
Deck Choice: Zero Effect (Fluctuator)
When Chosen: This was my top candidate deck the entire time, I invested the majority of my time in it, I always expected to play it, and I locked my deck choice more than two weeks in advance of the tournament.
U.S. Nationals 1999
Deck Choice: Bargain
When Chosen: Never played a game with anything else. Called my shot.
PT: New York
Deck Choice: Rising Waters
When Chosen: Locked entire 75 cards with two weeks to go, deck choice about two weeks before that. Of course, there weren’t many other choices.
Deck Choice: Chevy Fires
When Chosen: Several weeks in advance.
Deck Choice: The Solution
When Chosen: Locked about two to three weeks in advance. Considered several other decks before that.
Deck Choice: Astral Slide
When Chosen: A month in advance, after which there were many deadly boring Slide mirrors in playtesting with Justin Gary.
GP: New Orleans
Deck Choice: TurboLand
When Chosen: I never even looked at anything else.
In every single case, I locked my deck at least two weeks in advance of the tournament. Often, I locked my entire list, or all but the last few sideboard cards. There were World Championships where I made the Top 16 with decks chosen relatively late, but I did so with the help of strong Limited finishes and relatively week and unprepared opposition. By contrast, all but two constructed Pro Tour and Grand Prix where I failed to make the Top 32, I either chose my deck at the last minute or built my sideboard on the fly the night before because I was unprepared. I had several excellent maindecks that didn’t have what it took because I didn’t invest enough time in building the sideboard. The two exceptions to my success when I was prepared were the PT: Chicago where I played Tinker and the PT: Houston where I played Oath, both of which saw a copy of the deck I played make it into the Top 8. You can’t lock in a strong finish with good preparation, but you can lock in a bad one*.
Locking first your candidates and then your deck early allows you to focus on making the most of your choice rather than flailing around choosing between different options. Your sideboard is far more likely to be well built, or if you are copying the deck from another source it is more likely to be well understood and you’ll be in a position to tune it to adjust to changing conditions. Your play decisions will improve, especially your mulligan decisions. Another benefit that many players forget is that the earlier you lock in your deck and the less you switch, the easier it is to make sure you have all the cards you need.
The timelines I listed above come from an earlier period of the game when players like me devoted a month or more to a single tournament and had highly intense preparations. It was also a time when information was far harder to come by, so working farther in advance of the tournament wasn’t punished the way it is today. These days the majority of players won’t devote that much time to preparation until it is almost time for the event, to avoid their work becoming obsolete or redundant, so the timelines need to be moved up but the principle is the same. If you’re taking a tournament seriously, your timeline should end like this:
Day of Tournament: Scout the room and talk to people. Choose the last few cards and/or sideboard slots based on observed metagame, but otherwise you are ready.
Night Before Tournament: At major events, do scouting. Make sure you have you’re your cards in hand. Narrow your sideboard choices and choose a probable sideboard subject to results of scouting room the next day. Write down your cards in and cards out against all the decks you think are out there, so you know which sideboard cards are important and which aren’t making much difference, if you haven’t already done so. If you have a backup, know under what metagame conditions you will pull an audible, and have all the cards ready.
One Week Before Tournament: Choose which deck you want to play if you haven’t done so, make arrangements to get a copy. If you feel there are enough unknowns that you must bring a backup, choose that too and make arrangements for those cards as well. In PTQ seasons and other situations with a week’s time between events, you may choose two candidate decks, especially if one of them is a new deck you are building (or new to you) and the other is a deck you’ve previously played, but don’t invest many resources in multiple new ideas unless you have an eye towards later in the season.
Two Weeks Before Tournament: You should already have candidates. Choose one you are likely to play and, if you are still unsure, one or at most two other remaining candidates, but start devoting almost all your time to your top choice if you haven’t already been doing so. When choosing backups, keep in mind that it has to be a deck that won’t require much preparation. If card access will be difficult, don’t postpone the issue.
Note the contrast between this and the Playtesting House model, which is where most of the work is done in the final one or two weeks of intense work. The advantage of this approach is that everyone is relatively focused and the team has access to a wealth of outside information, so their work is presumably more efficient. I am not a fan of this approach, but it has enjoyed success in the hands of other players. If you take this type of approach, it means that the preparations are shifted into the final week, so you won’t be able to make your choices until later in time, but the principles do not change. Instead, what was stretched into several weeks is now done in one week, so things are scheduled appropriately, but it is still vital to lock your choice several days in advance. If you have a tight schedule for other reasons, or simply have almost no time to work, make similar adjustments, but the key is to lock in your choices early and often.
One could object that picking too early will often lead to a poor deck choice, and choosing the wrong deck won’t do anyone any good. How to decide which deck to choose, or which candidates to look at, is of course also vital, but that is another article. So is the method of working once those choices have been made, but I believe that almost everyone can benefit from the core insight that staying on target is far more central to success in Constructed events than players are willing to admit, and integrating your choices with this type of timeline both creates powerful synergy and improves the quality of both halves.
* – As an upstanding member of the rationalist community (I encourage everyone to check out Less Wrong and Overcoming Bias), I should note that this is in large part correlation rather than causation. In those tournaments where I had a strong deck, I would be far more likely to be happy with it and lock into that choice than those tournaments where I was unhappy with what I had developed, so an early lock in was a sign that things were going well. I don’t think this accounts for the bulk of the effect, the correlation is too strong for that, but it does likely account for a large portion of it.