Flow of Ideas – The Myth of Playtesting: Switching Decks, Playthinking, and Why Max McCall is Wrong

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Monday, May 24th – Playtesting is overrated. How many Magic writers have penned down that phrase? None come to mind. But if you’ve ever spent time at a high level event, there’s a reason why you can see hundreds of pro levels worth of players running around to find a deck with less than 24 hours before a tournament – and how they can still do well at the event despite a last minute switch.

Playtesting is overrated.

How many Magic writers have penned down that phrase? None come to mind. But if you’ve ever spent time at a high level event, there’s a reason why you can see hundreds of pro levels worth of players running around to find a deck with less than 24 hours before a tournament — and how they can still do well at the event despite a last minute switch.

Last week, Max McCall wrote an article entitled “Good Play versus Best Deck,” in which he describes the trap-ridden perils of choosing a deck at the last minute.

I’m here to tell you Max McCall is wrong.

When Max was talking to me trying to find material for his article, I shot down every door he tried to open. I left his house informing him if he was going to write an article warning players against choosing decks within the few days leading up to a tournament, then I he could expect a rebuttal article the week after.

What can I say? I’m a man of my word.

We hear about playtesting all the time. About how crucial it is. About how you should always do tons of it, it’s difficult to win without it, and so on. In some sense that’s true — but not in the way you normally would think.

A lot more matches are lost by people sticking to their guns than by people switching to something better. Whenever someone tells me they’re going to 100% play some deck two weeks before a tournament, all I can think about is how they’re hindering themselves by not being flexible. Sure, it’s good to have some idea about what deck to play. You should have at least played some games in the format with various decks; you don’t want to go into an event blind. But locking yourself into a deck too early just limits your potential.

Metagames shift. New decks arise. What might have been good one week is bad the next. One week’s tech is another week’s gauntlet deck. Sure, you can just run the same deck every week for an entire season and some weeks you’ll have chosen right, and other weeks everyone will be ready for you. A lot of people do this. But what if, instead of playing one deck every week and having it be “on” some weeks and “off” others, you just played a deck that was always “on” for that week? It holds greater value.

Everyone has their horror story of how they switched the night before and went 0-2 drop. What many people don’t stop to consider, though, is why they are changing. Almost every time I have made an informed decision to change my deck right before a tournament, it has been beneficial for me. The key word there is “informed.” The majority of 0-2 drop stories are comprised of people changing “just because.” You can’t just decide the night before, “well Naya seems sweeter than UWr Planeswalkers, so I’m just going to drop the last two weeks of playtesting and play Naya instead.” Where’s the value in doing that? It’s just moving sideways. You shouldn’t just switch between a deck you know well and a deck you’ve never played without a reason. There has to be some perceived strength in the deck you choose to switch to over the deck you have experience with.

Let’s say you’re stuck on UWr Planeswalkers forever. Some weeks you’re going to be an 8/10 on deck choice. Others you’re going to be 3/10 on deck choice. You can still play UWr in the 8/10 weeks. But in the 3/10 weeks, why not just play another 8/10 deck instead of sticking to a rusty, unloaded pistol?

While there is something to be said for playing a deck over and over so you can perfectly tweak it and play it to the highest point, that’s still not going to bump a 3/10 deck up to an 8/10 deck. You might be able to get to a 5/10, but that’s still not favorable. I’ll take the 8/10 deck every time.

You might be wondering how you can pick up a deck you have never played and understand how to play it. Here’s the deal. Far more important than knowing your deck is knowing the format. If I know the format, I’m comfortable picking up anything. But if I don’t know the format very well? Not so much.

One time GP Top 8er Alan Hubbard said something to me years ago which stuck and continues to resonate: “playtesting only tests for card interactions.” In other words, playtesting can teach you about sequencing and what the crucial pressure points of a matchup are if they aren’t already noticeable. (Which they often are.) But for the most part, that’s the extent of what you learn. Sure, you get matchup data, but mostly the entire process is just a vehicle to learn about play sequencing and the pressure points of a matchup.

Think about that during all of those games you are grinding to playtest. What are you actually learning from them? You’re not playing to help you read the cards. Gideon’s -2 ability will always (attempt to) destroy a tapped creature, and Vengevine will always be good alongside a lot of creatures. Collecting pure matchup data is useful, but being a human lunar rover only goes so far. The main thing you’re trying to learn is how your cards interact and clash with your opponent’s.

In most people’s minds, playtesting is the rigorous, boring, accountant-like jamming of two decks into one another to see how they play out. That’s the kind of playtesting which is overrated. Comparatively, playthinking, what I’ll call the other version of playtesting just to differentiate them, is very underrated and much more useful as a whole.

Playthinking is the art of talking about the format, considering what holes there are in the metagame, analyzing whether or not a certain card or strategy will be strong, and conceptualizing gamestates. Playthinking is often far more useful if done correctly than playtesting.

Let me give you an example: Conley Woods. After working with Conley for several Grands Prix and now a Pro Tour, he barely tests any of the incredible decks he plays. On the most extreme end, he hadn’t even played a game with the Bant deck with which he made Top of GP: Oakland before the tournament. Via playthinking, Conley can identify pieces of the format, run through how games play out in his mind, figure out the best strategies to employ, and put them into action. He can accurately tell you how every matchup should play out and how to sideboard without ever previously casting a spell.

Once again, it’s all about learning the format.

When you know the format, you can make a lot of decisions without having to run a ton of games. It’s like having some kind of Samus Aran-esque data scanning capability. By the time your opponent has played two or three lands, you should be able to identify 65 to 70 or their 75 cards. You should know what angles they’re going to attack from, what cards they can play on any given turn, and what plan you need to employ. At that point, you don’t really need to have played a thousand games of Naya versus UWr Planeswalkers to induct some basic truths. You assign the role of beatdown and control, play your cards in an order so you don’t get blown out by the cards you know they have, and attack their strategy as best you can.

Vengevine is always a hasty creature with base four power. Divination always draws two cards. Sometimes, a pipe is just a pipe.

So, the question many of you are probably asking is about how do you “know” a format? Simple. By playing it, watching it, and studying it. Just because you aren’t
playtesting specific matchups doesn’t mean you have no idea what’s going on. If you are playing games against decks with anything and figure out what each deck does, it should give you a similar breadth of information.

Furthermore, if you learn how to play one general kind of deck, you can transfer those skills to every other iteration of that archetype. For example, if you’ve played a lot of UW Control and are shipped an Esper Control deck the day before a tournament, many of the techniques you used to win with UW carry right over.

Going even further, once you’ve learned how to play control or beatdown well, you can apply those methods to any deck until the end of time. Control and beatdown are locked in an eternal tango, each with a rhythm shifting slightly to the new song but the fundamentals of each step unchanging. Regardless of the influx of new elements like Planeswalkers, control decks still function like they have for the entirety of tournament Magic’s existence. If you have ever played a Blue based control deck and been successful, you can likely pick up another Blue based control deck and, assuming you have knowledge of the format, be just fine. The skills transfer over, regardless of if you’re Thirst for Knowledging or Jacing; Psychatogging or Baneslayer Angeling. Learning to play control versus beatdown is like riding a bike.

In the end, a lot has to do with technical playskill. Players who are good at playing Magic in general can switch decks and be successful because they understand what the best technical play is at every turn. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never played the deck before: if you know what’s in your deck, and you know what’s in their deck, you can play to make the best possible play at every turn.

Some players have to play a deck a lot to become familiar with it, and then when presented with a new option have no idea how to approach their newly planted decision tree. Switching decks is poison for these players. My suggestion to you, if you are one of them, is to just play more Magic, especially Limited. Once you can deal with establishing different roles and strategies in Limited games, switching in Constructed becomes easy. It’s just a matter of working your technical play up to that point.

This article isn’t to say you shouldn’t playtest at all, because that’s a lie. Both playtesting and playthinking have their place in refining decks. In an ideal world, you would end up with an excellent deck for each tournament five days early so you could tune it from an 8/10 to a 10/10. (See: the version of Guess Who? from GP: Houston as compared to the version I won a PTQ with a week later.) But that’s not how these things always work, and I’d rather take an 8/10 deck on the fly than a 5/10 deck with a week of experience. Too many people let the fear of switching grab a hold of them. Dispel those fears. Don’t be afraid to switch if it’s going to benefit you.

I’d imagine this is a pretty controversial topic for many of you, and I’d be happy to talk about it either via e-mail, at gavintriesagain at gmail dot com, or via the forums. I’m sure a good discourse on the topic will brew up in there, and I’d love to see you post your thoughts and experiences.

If you’re going to be in San Juan this weekend, I’ll see you there! I’m going to be here all week, and I’m definitely looking forward to it.

Gavin Verhey

Team Unknown Stars
Rabon on Magic Online, Lesurgo everywhere else