How To Playtest Correctly

Work. School. Lots of things occupy our time so that Magic isn’t always able to. GerryT says that it doesn’t matter. With the right mindset, the right tools, and the right attitude, you can utilize great playtesting no matter what your situation!

With the Khans of Tarkir prerelease this weekend and a brand new Standard format approaching, chances are you’ve already spent some time speculating on
what the new decks might look like. Maybe you’ve even built a few decks and started playtesting for tournaments.

If you want to know how to get the most from your playtesting experience in the most effective ways possible, then this article is for you.

Why Bother Playtesting?

Ideally, playtesting will help you learn the ins and outs of your deck, how to play it, what its weaknesses are, how you want to sideboard against various
matchups, and show you how to navigate difficult situations with ease.

Not everyone has the time to playtest extensively but that’s okay. The most common misconception about playtesting is that in order to be successful, it
requires hundreds of hours for each tournament, and that isn’t the case.

Spend Your Time Wisely

Playtesting takes time and our time is finite. So how do we get the most out of our time? This article should go a long way towards helping you figure out
what works best for you given your constraints.

In a previous article, I talked about how learning the format
from its infancy will save you time down the road, allowing you to make better deck choices, especially when you audible. Right now is the perfect time to
get a head start on the format, gather as much information as possible, and learn everything you possibly can.

“Gather information” is certainly vague though, isn’t it? What does that mean exactly?

Which Information Actually Matters

“I can’t believe I lost! This matchup was so favorable in testing.”

Imagine you sit down for a playtesting session across from a Mono-Black Devotion player who is playing against your Mono-Blue Devotion. Both pilots are
skilled with their decks. Mono-Black Devotion attempts to take a controlling stance and despite stabilizing and finding an Underworld Connections,
Mono-Blue Devotion keeps eking it out. Mono-Black Devotion was doing its thing but was still losing to Mono-Blue, so you decide to play Mono-Blue instead.

Next week, you go to a tournament and face someone playing the exact same Mono-Black deck you playtested against, only to see your opponent is taking a
much different stance – he/she is siding in Lifebane Zombie, siding out Underworld Connections, and ultimately giving you a gigantic beatdown. You might be
quick to call into question their choices, but there is likely something to be learned from a situation like that.

Trying to find out “who is favored in the matchup” is kind of a mistake. Clearly that type of stuff is important, but too many things change between decks,
sideboards, and who’s actually playing them and how to find the real answer.

Instead, you should be looking for things like “In the mirror, if games aren’t about Pack Rat, they are likely about Underworld Connections.” “Who’s the

Ask Questions

“Why is Deck A beating Deck B?”

“What matters in the matchup?”

“If, strategically, I’m behind in the matchup, is there anything I can do with my maindeck and sideboard to make the matchup better without sacrificing
much in other matchups?”

These are the biggest questions that people don’t ask enough. You can jam games until you intuitively know a matchup and that might be enough to score you
a big finish or two. However, when you’re faced with a situation you haven’t seen before or a weird version of a popular deck, it’s typically better to
have a strong understanding of the why’s and how’s.

That’s the main reason I don’t like giving out full sideboarding guides. If you run into something that’s not on your list, you’re going to have to figure
it out on the fly. Once you have a firm grasp on what matters, sideboarding against a new opponent will be like second nature.

Numbers aren’t everything and can be skewed by any number of things. If you play a ten game set of Mono-Black Vs Mono-Blue and the final score is 7-3, that
really doesn’t mean much. If the Mono-Blue player felt helpless at times but ran over the mana screwed Mono-Black deck, is that really indicative of how
the matchup plays out?

Similarly, if you and your opponent differ in playskill, your numbers might not make sense. Try to get the “feel” for the matchup and decide who you think
is favored on your own.

I wrote this in the article mentioned above:

There are certain matchups, like Jund Monsters vs Mono-Black Devotion, where if both players are competent, Mono-Black likely has the advantage.
However, if both players are incompetent, Jund probably wins more often. The reason for that isn’t that Jund requires less skill to pilot but that what
Jund is trying to do in the Mono-Black matchup is fairly straightforward, whereas Mono-Black will often have to shift gears several times per game.
Without a clear understanding of that, it’s much more difficult for Mono-Black to win.

Again, numbers aren’t everything and the above paragraph proves that. There is more to it than just logging results and drawing conclusions based on those

Have Goals For Each Session

Does sideboarding four Setessan Tactics suddenly make Mono-Green a favorite against Mono-Blue? Is Duress good in the Mono-Black mirror? Does Dictate of
Kruphix allow Mono-Blue to have a better matchup against U/W Control?

Sitting down to jam a few games might be a fine way to pass the time, but what are you really learning? If you’re both experienced in the matchup already,
it might be good to have some goals in mind. By doing this, you won’t be wasting time.

People like to do things like play ten games pre-board, alternating who’s on the play or draw and concluding with ten games post-board. It might feel
professional to have things structured like that, but oftentimes you don’t need to play more games than that. If you sit down to answer a particular
question, you might have the answer as soon as game four. If that’s the case, you are free to move on to the next question.

When I’m sitting down to playtest, it’s probably because I have a theory, and I can’t exactly prove it with just theory alone. Playtesting is the ultimate
way to prove or debunk the theory.

Don’t Play Against Brews

This one’s kind of tricky because at some point, all decks were once brews. That said, if you don’t plan on playing a particular deck and you don’t expect
to play against it during the tournament, don’t waste your time playing with or against that deck.

Of course, you might be strapped for options and that’s the only opponent you have. If you’re just trying to learn how to play your deck, that might be the
best option. Try to avoid it whenever possible though because you could be spending your time wisely.

Also, there’s a give and take in regards to playtesting. At some point, you might have to play the enemy for a friend of yours who is also preparing for
the same tournament. If they want to test their brew for the tournament, you should be willing to help them and hope they would be willing to do the same
for you.

Play With Sideboards

You play over half your games with sideboards, so you should treat your sideboard as an extension of your maindeck. In the tournaments where I’m doing
well, I usually have a strong sideboard for the metagame. #SCGNash anyone?

On the other hand, if you have a solid understanding of the matchups you are likely to face, it might be easy to build an effective sideboard without
actually having to play games. If you’re doing anything drastic, like shifting roles post-board, you might want to play some sideboarding games because you
can’t be sure if it will work.

Another common pitfall is sideboarding against your opponent’s game 1 deck, whereas after sideboarding the things you thought mattered don’t matter as much
anymore. Rather than risk being blindsided in a tournament, I recommend testing with sideboards whenever possible. Not everything is obvious on the
surface, so doing this, even a little bit, should help tremendously.

Don’t Get Inbred, Don’t Be Emotional

It’s easy to get frustrated by losing, even if there’s nothing on the line. Your end goal should be learning, and sometimes being frustrated can get in the
way of that. Your friend’s Obelisk of Urd deck might be a bad matchup for you, but is it really worth metagaming against?

Last minutes changes are typically born from an emotional response to the last match you lost or some metagame information you heard but might not actually
be reputable. In general, these should be things that you avoid.

Try New Things

Tournaments are not the time to try out new and exciting ideas. If your goal is to qualify for an Invitational or Pro Tour, you should not be willing to
squander one of the few chances you’ll have on trying a brew. There is plenty of time for testing new things outside of the tournaments.

That said, when you’re testing, you should be trying random cards you think might be good. For example, when testing Mono-Black Devotion, I often had a
Corrupt in my maindeck. I didn’t know if it was worth it as six is a lot of mana, but if I drew it in a couple games, I could probably figure out if
playing that six mana spell was worth it or not.

Too many people play with their same 75s, not changing anything and that’s another way of squandering the precious time you have. Having a singleton in
your deck won’t affect your testing too much, but you should be able to figure out relatively quickly if that card is worth it or not. If not, feel free to
move onto the next piece of technology.

Play Both Sides

In order to truly understand a matchup, one has to walk in the opponent’s shoes and see what they see. You will better understand how your opponents will
be trying to beat you and because of that, it should be easier to stop them.

Some things might take you thirty games to learn from playing your side, whereas that thing might be readily apparent after just five games on the opposing

Be Invested

Imagine you and your friend are both excited about the prospect of a new deck. In order to make sure it can stand up to the big dogs of Standard, you lay
down the gauntlet and start playing games. At this point, an emotional attachment to your new project has probably been made and both of you want the deck
to be good. Nothing would make you happier than making a wild deck choice and being rewarded.

That’s a dangerous mentality. In order to drum up real results, the person on the other side has to be just as invested in winning as you are. I’ve seen
several people justify their deck choice based on the fact that their friend kept bad hands and didn’t play optimally in playtesting. You were looking for
validation that your new idea was great, but the tournament is going to be a harsh wakeup call.

Don’t Be Afraid To Test With Just Yourself

I grew up in a small town and by the time I started having tournament success, most of my friends had moved on from Magic. If you can’t get together with
people or don’t have friends, don’t be afraid to take matters into your own hands. I spent a large amount of time doing “double fisted” testing, and while
it wasn’t perfect, it did what I needed it to.

You won’t get perfect results because it’s difficult to make unbiased plays when you have access to your opponent’s hand, but just do the best you can. You
can learn plenty of things on your own, such as what’s important in a matchup, what types of hands are mulligans, and what you fear most from the other
side of the table.

It’s not perfect, but sometimes it’s your only option.

Play In Tournaments

You might have a playtesting session that goes really well and that has prepared you for everything. Nothing truly prepares you for playing real
tournaments though. When something is on the line, you know that everyone is going to bring their best deck and have their game face on. In playtesting,
that might not always be the case.

There is a reason that after every tournament I play in, I learn a lot. The same cannot be said for most playtesting sessions. People are coming at you
with different things in different ways and a lot of that stuff you wouldn’t have thought of on your own. You should be gathering information from other
sources and tournaments are some of the best sources of information out there.

Share Information

Some of the good news is that you don’t have to do all the legwork yourself. The tricky part is finding someone who you can trust to do the other half of
the work with the same integrity that you have which can be a tricky proposition. Even if you think the information you’re getting is bad, there is likely
something useful you can extrapolate from it.

If an interesting decision point comes up during testing, both parties should be willing to put their hands on the table and talk about the how and why
that goes into the decision making progress. If you think a card or sideboard plan might sway a particular matchup, talk it out. Not everything needs to be
tried. If both players understand the matchup, sometimes they’ll be able to poke holes in your new strategy and you won’t even have to try it to know that
it won’t work out.

You should also be willing to discuss things like difficult mulligan decisions and how to sideboard. Sometimes getting a fresh perspective offers up
something that you missed but happens to be obvious to them.

Don’t Treat It Like Work

For those of us who are lost in the grind, do you remember what the discovery process felt like when you were a new Magic player? Playtesting is this worry
free zone where no one should be judging you for taking risky lines to see how they pan out, trying weird cards or sideboard plans, or trying a brew that
is almost certainly not going to pan out.

Playtesting should be about learning, and learning more about your passion used to be fun. Try to capture some of that if you can. Lots of people used to
like their jobs but quickly fall into the same rhythm, and it stops being exciting. If you treat Magic like a job or a chore, it’s not going to be
enjoyable. We all started playing Magic because we enjoyed it, and we should try to keep it that way.

You don’t have to playtest, you get to playtest.


My quest for the World Magic Cup was abruptly cut short after I realized that the Invitational in New Jersey and my commentary gig at SCG Atlanta
conflicted with the dates. I was initially disappointed, but there will be plenty of chances to get back on the main stage in the future.

This weekend I’ll be gunslinging at a Pre-release at Spanky’s Card Shop in Kansas City, and I expect that will be a lot of fun. Feel free to come by and
say hi!