Flores Friday – The Top 8 Things I Get Out Of Testing

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Today’s Flores Friday sees Mike sharing his intimate playtesting procedures. However, instead of focusing on the minutiae the process, he deals in specific ways in which he gains insight into his deck, the metagame, and his own personal growth as a player. By breaking down the Top 8 ways in which he improves through testing, he shows us the ways in which we too can learn from playing our wonderful game…

TomLaPille asks:
“Mike, is it possible that your playtesting is singularly focused on what deck to play and not focused enough on playing well?”

I definitely playtest with a main goal of ascertaining the best deck to play at any given tournament, but through sheer volume of play (assuming a sufficient volume to actually find that deck), just getting to that answer can’t be the only thing that I, or anyone, pick[s] up. This article is going to be about eight of the most important tools I’ve picked up in playtesting, some less tangible than others, but all helpful. While I can’t claim to be one of the world’s strongest technical players at the present moment, I have had definitely had islands of lucid ability. In my experience, just playing a format a lot can radically improve your results, even if you aren’t specifically focused on improving your actual play.

For example, I was definitely at my personal all-time apex of play from Pro Tour: Charleston through New York Champs 2006. Leading up to those tournaments (and the NAC Qualifier I won in-between, and a disappointing NAC Top 16… Good job Ben), I played a lot. I made a lot of decks, and played a lot of different decks. By playing lots of decks versus lots of decks, I got a feel for the format, learning the fundamental turn of the environment, gauging its limitations and possibilities, and finding what the limiting factors were that made up the walls of the metagame. For Charleston I literally chose my deck the week of the Pro Tour, and for Champs I got my deck from BK less than 24 hours prior to the tournament starting. I could not have developed many specific skills specific to those decks in the time periods going into those tournaments… But my knowledge about every other deck helped me figure out how to set up my late game play (you can scroll down to numbers 7 and 2, below).

The thing about the skills that you gain by playtesting… They erode. You don’t earn and learn them, and keep them; if you don’t practice constantly (at least I’ve found) that you lose them very quickly. You know what they are, you often know what you are doing wrong, but you are so swept up in the inertia of bad play that you have great difficulty doing things that were academic in earlier periods of your career, even just a few months earlier.

#8 How to Play the First Two Turns

“Man, that’s smart!” –Steve Sadin

A couple of summers back I wrote an article called Tuning Basic Plains about a White Weenie deck that I played in a PTQ. If you go back and look at the deck list, you will see that it played four copies of Lantern Kami but only two copies of the Cadillac one-drop of the format, Isamaru, Hound of Konda. How did future Constructed Grand Prix Champion Sadin not only let me get away with that, but play the same 75 himself?

The first dilemma that came up, back when we were testing stock White Weenie with all eight one-drops, was whether to play Isamaru or Lantern Kami on the first turn. The generic best play was to run out Isamaru, Hound of Konda (and I use “best play” pretty loosely) because, hey, it hits for two. The main decks at the time were other White Weenie, Black Hand, or some kind of Sakura-Tribe Elder mid-range deck with Dragons such as TOGIT or Gifts. Looking at what the opponent might do during the first two turns of the game Lantern Kami was consistently the right play… but we were dropping Isamaru on the first turn just because. I mean it looked so right, being 2/2 and all. Isamaru versus Sakura-Tribe Elder is such a dumb fight, especially when White Weenie is on the draw. Black Hand had Hand of Cruelty, which of course spits on Isamaru. Other White Weenie would play a Bushido. Offensively, Lantern Kami consistently got more value and we forced ourselves to play it early over the Hound, but it wasn’t easy.

When we figured out Celestial Kirin, cuts had to be made to fit all four in the main. Though it made no sense from a pure offensive game plan perspective, we cut two Hounds of Konda… Partly because Isamaru is a Legend, and partly because we didn’t think they were as good on the first turn anyway.

The first two turns of the game matter. In interactive formats you can often play out of mistakes just because the opponent has many turns to screw up and open the door for you, but your margin will still often be thin. For a whole article about how I played the wrong two-drop in U/G Threshold and Bob Maher made fun of me, check out Realizing How Bad You Are from way back in 2004.

#7 How to Execute on Paradigm-changing Strategies

“What are you going to do when he plays a first turn Thawing Glaciers? Wait for him to miss a land drop?” -Erik Lauer

In the winter of 1999 there was a clear best deck during the Extended PTQ season: High Tide. With High Tide’s success, an anti-deck was developed, and subsequently arose in the metagame, first championed by Ken Krouner, then modified, improved on, and adopted by notable players like Nate Heiss, Randy Buehler, and Chris Pikula. That anti-High Tide deck was Forbidian.

Early in playtesting – and from the perspective of most outside observers during matches – Forbidian seemed unbeatable for High Tide. However, and interestingly, if you played the matchup correctly Forbidian was at a severe dog to High Tide.

The secret to the matchup was that basic limitation of the game printed in every basic set rule book: No matter how many times Forbidian clocked you with that devious Snake, it could never have more than seven cards in hand.

Subtly, and because Forbidian would be attacking for 0-1 (or would commit five or more mana to creating a Morphling… which would be great from a strategic standpoint assuming you are the High Tide), High Tide had time. It could be scary, especially for the unprepared, but Forbidian wasn’t “killing” High Tide, not really. So how did poor High Tide battle high way through this perceived to be unbeatable matchup?

Wait for Forbidian to discard a counterspell.

Eventually Forbidian would have so many cards that discarding a permission spell would be the only option. Usually Forbidian would keep a land (probably a Thawing Glaciers) but would have an upper limit of seven relevant spells (and practically speaking, usually fewer).

High Tide would just have to have eight must-counter spells and the game would be over. Neither deck would miss land drops due to Thawing Glaciers. Forbidian would have a scary number of cards in hand, but at some point, it would not really be “ahead” on pure cardboard because High Tide would be passing with seven in hand, too (think about how, in more recent years, Boros has “fought” card drawing with Howling Mine or how one Blue deck or Gifts fought Jushi Apprentice with Mikokoro, Center of the Sea). Discarding was a foregone conclusion. Just wait for him to discard a counter! When High Tide ripped its card for the turn, POW! there might just be too much mischief for the control to control.

You’ll notice something: In this case, High Tide, one of the most dangerous combo decks ever unleashed on a PTQ season, was not the beatdown. In fact, versus one of the most controlling decks of all time, High Tide was the control! Remember “misassignment of role = game loss”? The reason that such a small number of High Tide players were beating Forbidian players was that the High Tide players were intentionally putting themselves on the wrong side of the equation. Victory for the deck that could win on the third turn came only when it was patient, out-lasting, out-witting, and ultimately out-playing the regular favorite.

Eric Taylor taught me the strategy behind how to win this matchup with High Tide, but the mechanics of victory came only from relentless practice.

#6 How to be Flexible and even Acquire a little Strength of Character

We learn more from losing than we do from winning. In Magic playtesting, losing teaches us many things. It teaches us how to execute better, and what to do when a similar situation arises in the real tournament. Most importantly for someone like me who mostly tests for the deck rather than to improve my play mechanically, testing teaches me when my decks are not viable, simply not winning (and with some quick math) how far gone my deck is, and whether or not I can salvage a bad matchup… Or given sufficient resources, whether I would want to.

#5 How When to Mulligan

Most of us mulligan based on our normative ideas of one (or fewer) lands only; this is just not right (from an EV standpoint), but also ignores an important tool that only practice can yield… Which cards in which combinations do you actually need in order to win?

Think about that one.

For those of you who haven’t given our new Feature Writer Andre Coimbra a read and a warm welcome, you should. Andre wrote an article about his JustUs Goyfs, a deck that he estimated to have essentially a coin flip of a matchup in Game 1 with Dredge. Why? One card! Based on his testing, Andre decided that he would win the Dredge matchup Game 1 at least as often as he drew Mogg Fanatic. Why? Mogg Fanatic wasn’t a “lock” or anything, but against Dredge without Leyline of the Void main deck, Mogg Fanatic would be enough. JustUs Goyfs was a fast enough and powerful enough deck to race and win, with Engineered Explosives to help delay the wrath of Zombie tokens… It just so happened that all the things that could go right would go right with greater frequency provided the availability of the Mogg they call Fantastic, often just by delaying the opponent by a turn.

Over the years there have been many decks that rewarded mulligans to specific cards. Necropotence. Survival of the Fittest or Recurring Nightmare. Accumulated Knowledge. Given the right information about a matchup… Why not Mogg Fanatic?

Remember, the decision about whether or not to mulligan is not made solely on whether or not you like a hand in the abstract, but whether your next hand, with one card fewer, would be more or less likely to carry you to a win. Absolutely never keep a seven card hand that you can’t win with, just because it has a mix of lands and (say, uncastable) spells!

#4 How to Conquer “The Fear” Using Information and Logic

“I think there are two kinds of people who win PTQs: Those who know they are the best in the room, and good players who really don’t care about winning. What those two kinds of players have in common is a lack of fear.” -samstod

Playing a lot against the main decks in a format teaches you their capabilities. Subtly, it also teaches you what opposing decks can’t do most of the time. Go back and look at our #7 example with the Forbidian deck with a fist full of cards… It can be really easy to fold under the pressure when you are terrified of the unknown. However, when you know, by practical play and practice, what to do and how everything should play out cleanly, you become free rather than a slave to your fear of the unknown and the wild, often unpredictable, plays that result in an environment devoid of logic or strategy.

My first contribution as a Feature Writer for this site (this time around) was Sullivan, Nimble Mongoose, and Sullivan; at about the same time, Zvi Mowshowitz, then the top Magic strategy writer, wrote about my deck and tournament separately, for another site. My article didn’t focus on the first round (and I can’t confirm this because Zvi’s almost four year old Premium article is still locked, but I’ll do my best from memory), but Zvi discussed a turn where the opponent played Intuition for Accumulated Knowledge, Accumulated Knowledge, and Smother. Zvi had correctly read the opponent as having the remaining Accumulated Knowledge; I gave him the Smother.


Why was this right or wrong?

I was pretty sure that I would win if I gave him Smother; that was my reason to think that it was right (I won).

My opponent clearly wanted the Smother; that was Zvi’s reason for not giving it to him.

We discussed the play, and I said that part of the reason that I didn’t want to give him Accumulated Knowledge was that with three or four cards comes all kinds of chaos… Who can say what kind of trouble he could wreak? Zvi explained that the answer was “probably not very much.” For one thing, he would have to spend two more mana before he could do anything. If he could tutor for the cards he needed… He would have. He was under pressure. He made the only play his resources left him to try to trick me into a certain split, and I fell for it. It just so happened that his only play was also a dead end, but that didn’t make it right.

Ultimately, I gave him the card he wanted due to a fear of the unknown. I was scared of his potential card advantage, not really understanding in a concrete way that most of his cards “up” were dead. This isn’t exactly the same thing, but it’s similar: It took me forever to get comfortable playing the Vampiric Tutor-for-bullets strategy of Napster. Vampiric Tutor is “card disadvantage” (not to mention two life). I hated using it. Even when I won, I hated using it. The problem was that, over time, I learned that playing Vampiric Tutor was basically the same as winning due to the tremendous card advantage whatever I hunted up would give me. In that case, the huge volume of playtesting we did taught me to challenge established paradigms, “rules” for the game that simply didn’t apply to me. Yet it took hours and hours of doing the opposite of what I had trained myself to do (maximize card advantage in exchanges) to figure that out; if I picked up the deck today, cold, I bet I’d have problems executing correctly for fear of falling behind on cards.

#3 How to Formulate the Best Sideboards and Avoid the Opponent’s Sideboard Cards

“Do you know how many eleven is? Eleven is so many. Most people have nothing but blanks.” –Josh Ravitz

Testing in Game 1 situations is very important because winning game 1 is closely associated with winning the match (all things held equal you lose percentage in Game 2 but assuming the opponent wins, again all things held equal, you gain percentage again in Game 3 on virtue of going first). Testing in Game 1 feeds the #1 most important thing that I get from testing (see below, obviously) and helps to create paradigm-smashing plans… But given enough sets, also tells you how far behind you are in the bad matchups. This is pretty important because when you build your sideboard, you have to consider how favored or behind you are against the common decks, not just fill your side 15 with any random cards in your colors.

I like to say that you can get a 60% matchup out of any viable deck against any deck in a metagame, but you can’t always do that with conventional means (for instance, it probably takes more than some sideboarded Thoughtcasts for The Mannequin Deck to end up ahead of The Guile Deck). Extremely bad matchups often call for extreme sideboarding techniques, such as transformation or misdirection. The absolute best example from recent years is probably Kuroda-style Red versus Mono-Blue Control, where Kuroda-style Red simultaneously took out all its fatties versus predicted Bribery, didn’t have any kind of Boil / Boiling Seas against the predicted Spectral Shift, and instead transformed into a Boseiju burn deck with tons of Fireballs supplementing the deck’s existing Beacons of Destruction. There are other examples of similar principles, much less extreme.

A great recent example is Andre Coimbra JustUs Goyfs deck and its sideboard strategy against Dredge. Initially we had Leyline of the Void like everyone else, but it dawned on me that that was awful. Leyline of the Void is only good on the first turn; Dredge is very fast so you never really hard cast it unless they didn’t get a good draw anyway. Leyline of the Void, and the first runner-up Tormod’s Crypt, also had some very exploitable weaknesses in common. The Dredge player could slow play for a Chain of Vapor; Cephalid Breakfast could Wish for Harmonic Sliver. There were too many outs with plenty of time to find them.

So what about Extirpate? This card seemed like the best compliment to the deck for purposes of beating Dredge. Extirpate is probably less powerful than Leyline of the Void, but the answers to it were just so much harder to set up due to its not being in play, not fitting cleanly into known patterns. Again, there’s the great bonus of creating dead weight with the opponent’s sideboard; if you’re really lucky, he will prioritize hands with the bad cards!

#2 How to Resist Autopilot and Break Bad Habits

“Debtors’ Knell won me one match on Day 1, and I never sided it in on Day 2. I was ahead via Muse Vessel against the Copy Enchantment / Dream Leash version of U/R/W, and I was offered a saucy opportunity to go Mortify your Firemane Angel at the end of turn, untap and play Debtors’ Knell, and I didn’t. This took a supreme amount of effort… I have this little daemon on my shoulder who is always pointing at how much mana I have and how much economy I can get by tapping out for things, and I fear this daemon is responsible for a good many of my most embarrassing tournament losses. I ignored him in this case and took a Firemane shot or two, strategically preserving the Mortify in case of any Copy Enchantment shenanigans, and spent my next turns emptying the opponent’s hand with Muse Vessel so that I could lock out the game in peace. I figured that even though U/R/W has quite a bit of reach, it doesn’t have twelve ready, not when it is getting donked for a card each turn, and that the main way I could lose a game from a commanding lead would be to waltz the Knell into a Dream Leash or Copy Enchantment (or a Copy Enchantment for Dream Leash). Once I eliminated all those potentialities with hand destruction, winning was academic. ” -me

If not for the #1 item on this list, this one would be the shining apex of what you can learn and learn to love via playtesting.

All of us live our lives in particular routines. We wake up, login to Star City Games at certain time, make or miss a particular train in the morning… You can probably find your way home from work without thinking about it. You are probably on autopilot for most of the day. That is also how most Magic players play the game.

Our goal in Magic (and what should probably be one of our main goals in life) has to be to take agency and determine the path that we will follow rather than just sliding into whatever position the rut of autopilot puts us in. No one wins the Pro Tour by playing exactly the same way everyone else does when on autopilot.

It’s hard, though. The difficult situations, not Mortifying the Firemane Angel, don’t usually come up in playtesting… Or if they do, we don’t pay attention necessarily. However, by playtesting and eventually playtesting and winning, you will gain confidence in your plays; over time, that can translate into the confidence to look a little bit past the tips of our noses and ultimately do the right thing.

#1 How to Pick the Right Deck to Play


I mean other than actually winning the tournament outright, picking the right deck to play in it is usually the Holy Grail of Magic: The Gathering. When you have the best deck, everything comes easier. You have tools to win your bad matchups, and you crush everybody else. You don’t necessarily play on autopilot (and let’s hope that you don’t) but the actual round-to-round play is so much less stressful and difficult. Of all the thousands of individual decisions you make over the course of a tournament, which land to play on which turn 2, which creature to drop, how to sideboard an unknown matchup, not one of those decisions compares to correctly choosing which deck to play.

In media, they teach us to pick an audience and market to that audience. We get additional customers not in that audience just by virtue of showing up to work… But if we pick our audience for a product well, and speak to them in the language that they understand, we will win.

So yes, Tom; I mostly test to figure out the best deck to play… But on the road to #1 on this list, I pass by seven or more other ideals, and pick them up on the way, too. They are what I get out of testing.