Getting the Most from a Team: How to Talk About Magic

Sam Black examines the inner workings of a team and effective communication strategies in this article inspired by his work leading up to Pro Tour Journey into Nyx.

Spring 2014 State Championships

This is a bit of a meta-article. I’m not going to talk about my thoughts on any particular format; rather, what I want to explore is the best ways to have
a conversation about Magic and tournament preparation more broadly. You see, on the one hand, my team has done pretty well historically at preparing for
Constructed and choosing a Constructed deck, but on the other, we’ve struggled with figuring out how we can best prepare for Limited. I work with many
excellent drafters, but we haven’t figure out the best ways to teach each other what we know. My goal over the next few days is to figure out the best ways
to fix that.

My plan is to try to isolate the most important questions and then have conversations with each of my teammates, compile the answers, report back, and
refine from there. The first step is to figure out the questions, which is what I’ve just been doing.

So, you want to discuss your Limited strategy for a format with other people in a relatively detailed way that will actually exchange valuable information.
What do you talk about?

The Big Questions

Most often, I see people talk about the best cards in each color or which color combinations they like the most. That’s a good start, certainly, but surely
there’s a lot more to it than that. Let’s look at the interview questions I’ve prepared and why I think each is valuable.

1) Rank the commons and uncommons in each color.

Rank them together, not separately, because there’s no reason to separate them. You’ll see them in packs together, and you’re looking to know which card to
take over which card once you know that you’re taking a card of that color.

2) Rank the best cards between all colors against each other.

When you’re drafting, this will be the first thing you need to know, as it will do the most to inform your first pick. As a question, it comes second
because it’s useful to answer the first question first to figure out which these best cards are that we need to rank. It’s most important to rank cards
that you’re likely to take in your first three picks or so against other colors, because that’s where you’re comparing cards of all colors equally.

3) What are the best color combinations? Which are the worst?

There are only roughly ten, just go ahead and rank all of them, or maybe split them into tiers. Where are your strongest preferences? Are there any
combinations you strictly refuse to draft?

4) Now let’s get to some real details. Within each color combination, which strategies do you like?

These strategies will roughly represent strategic archetypes. How many viable strategies are there for each color combination? What are the most important
cards for them? Are there any specific cards you mechanics in that color combination you might want to build around?

5) This is going to be closely related to number four, but which cards have the widest range in power level depending on what your deck is doing?

You’re looking for cards that can be essential to one archetype and unplayable in another. When is it correct to move in on those cards?

6) More broadly, how fast is the format?

Given that this is the third set, how does it change compared to previous experiences with the other sets in this block? This can do a lot to inform how
much you should value expensive bombs and how defensive you need to be to support them.

7) Are there any cards from earlier in the block that have radically changed values?

Cards that have overperformed because of new cards they work with, or cards that are worse because there’s less synergy for them in the draft, or better
because there’s more? In general, how differently should we be drafting the other packs?

8) With the other packs in mind, think about how the direction that each set is being drafted will impact reading and sending signals.

If there are two cards of one color that are the best two cards in the pack, that are, for example, white, and you think white is outstanding in the second
set and very bad in the first set, you might consider avoiding white out of fear that you’ll get cut in the second pack when it really counts. On the other
hand, you could try to cut white really hard through the rest of the pack to push the person you’re passing to out of it, but that can be difficult, and
you won’t have the option if future packs just have two white cards. It might be better to be in a different color.

If there’s a color that’s weak in the second pack and strong in the third pack, you don’t care so much if you have to pass cards of that color while taking
others, as long as it seems to be flowing from the people passing to you. Maybe you’ll get cut in the second pack, but it’ll probably be flowing again in
the third pack, which is what counts.

9) Now let’s get to some more general drafting strategy. How strongly should you try to take a card of the same color as your first card? How much
should you avoid taking a card of your third color? Is it better to try to stay as open as possible to read the draft and figure out where you are
closer to the middle of the first pack, or is better to just choose a strategy and commit?

If you’re talking all experienced players, it can be embarrassing or feel like a waste of time to ask something so basic. It’s not particularly unique to
this set, and everyone should already basically know how they approach it. Moreover, it’s very difficult to really codify; if your first pick is a bomb,
you’re much more likely to just want to commit to it, while if it’s a weak pack and you have to start with a mediocre card, you can just abandon it.

Similarly, how do you feel about starting with a card with strong mana requirements, like one that costs 1CCC or a multicolor card? Do you like to just
have direction from the beginning? Are you content to just abandon it if it doesn’t come together? Are you worried that it’s just too much of a commitment
and will ruin your draft?


When it comes to Constructed, I think our methodology has worked pretty well.

We start by putting together as many decks as we can find or think of. This involves a lot of brewing, because Pro Tour preparation starts before there are
tournament results we can draw from.

Early on, most people spend most of the time playing their own decks. This is good because you generally know what your deck is trying to do, and if it
runs into some obstacles, you’re likely to know what cards you were least confident in playing and what other cards you considered that didn’t make the cut
but that you could put in to help. Other people playing your deck are more likely to assume that you’ve built the best version of the strategy available
and give up on it quickly if they find something it can’t beat as configured.

After a deck is tuned enough that it can put up decent results, it starts to get handed off to other people so you can get more input and other people can
get a feel for it.

Throughout early testing, pay a lot of attention to how cards, not just decks, perform and match up against each other. You’re looking for cards
that tend to do well and other cards that tend to do well against them. This body of knowledge will likely to prove to be the most important thing you
learn going forward, as it gives you a good knowledge pool to solve future problems with.

You want to get a sense for which decks beat which other decks and the best cards and strategies against each deck. You might find that your have a Naya
deck that is losing to a Black deck, but you’ve learned of some cards that were in another deck that were red and white that performed very well against
Black. You conclude that the Naya deck could be built differently or could sideboard differently to beat the Black deck.

You might also find some cards just consistently perform well. It’s probably a good idea to explore other decks that use those cards as well as possible,
to make sure that you like your whole deck as much as you could and you’re not just playing it because it’s the first deck you happened to find that plays
a certain card you really want to play.

As you get closer to the event, you’ll have access to more data. It becomes possible to put together some realistic predictions about the metagame and to
figure out what you’ll need to beat. This will be extremely valuable, as for almost every deck you can almost certainly find some good matchups and some
bad matchups, and you need to try to choose one that will be good against as much of the field as possible.

It’s best if none of this is a solo project. We’re constantly asking each other what decks we like most. Whenever someone is playing something, we ask if
it’s something they’re seriously considering, or it it’s just to see how the opponent’s deck does against it, or if it’s just a new idea they’re trying

We ask both what someone likes most right now, and what shows the most promise, that they might most like in the future, if we can solve a few problems and
tune the list a little more, or if we can figure out a viable strategy to take advantage of some card or combo they want to use.

When testing a new deck, it’s important to look not just at how much it wins against whatever you’re playing it against, but also how well it performs at
doing what it’s trying to do. For example, recently, I built a deck based around a bunch of cute synergies that had a lot of cards that worked well
together. I could get them to do work together and do some cool things, but none of those things ever really accomplished anything that mattered. After
just a few games, I realized, awkwardly, that my deck had plans to do cute things, but it didn’t actually have a plan to win the game. Seriously, I
basically couldn’t kill my opponent. It didn’t matter what I was playing against; the deck was just bad.

Another time, I found a deck that performed excellently. Its synergies worked smoothly and the result was powerful. It created a reasonably fast and
extremely resilient threat that was excellent against decks that tried to stop it. On the other hand, it was so dedicated to doing that thing that it
couldn’t interact much with the opponent. This caused a huge problem against anyone going faster than it, which turned out to be a substantial portion of
the metagame.

Both of those decks were failures, but one of them was quite a bit more useful. It showed other ways to use cards I’d been impressed by and offered a
solution to a particular metagame. If things look to be going in that direction, it could be an excellent choice, but things don’t look to be going that

When Magic players work together, it can be hard to engage in useful, open, honest communication. Often, people are too concerned with being right, or
showing off their own findings or conclusions. They can become defensive of their ideas or attached to certain decks. It’s important that everyone can
reasonably explain why they like the decks they like and why they’re making the choices they’re making.

There’s a big difference between, “I think this is the best deck we have against the field, which I expect to be this, and I’ll have these expected win
percentages” (which all sound reasonable), and, “I’m playing this because it’s the deck I have the most experience with and I’d feel most comfortable
playing. It has these things going for it, but it also has these problems and weaknesses. I have these plans to try to account for this set of those, but I
will lose to these things.” The first is a strong endorsement for a deck; the second is a statement of personal preference that one should be less likely
to take as a recommendation.

It’s important to develop a relationship where people are expected to communicate their decisions in either of those ways, rather than saying things that
are meaninglessly unrealistic or tell you nothing about the deck and only something about the player.

Spring 2014 State Championships