When I was a younger, rebellious teenager, I would chide my mom for leaving the refrigerator door open, saying “it’s my Earth too!” I was such a prat. When I left the door on my fridge open this week, I remembered back to my more annoying years and thought about why I even cared about such a small thing. I realized that what I didn’t like was not the idea that whales were dying because of an open door (maybe they deserve it… orca whales are total jerks) but because it was enormously inefficient to waste the power and let the fridge warm up. When I get those banal questions in job interviews about “what is your worst fear,” I remember that more than anything else, I fear wasting people’s time. Naturally, using the most of my minutes can be a high priority for me, and that brings me to today’s topic: how to test effectively and efficiently.
There’s a saying, “work smart, not hard,” and I think that really applies to Magic testing and playing. With only a limited amount of time to sit down against another human being to play, we don’t want to spend time answering questions we already know to be irrelevant to our success. Thus, today, I’ll share some tips for testing smartly so you don’t have to grind through games instead.
First, let’s look at why we’re even testing. There are several discrete points in deckbuilding and testing that require different approaches. Examples are in order. So, you find a deck pop up in a tournament result that you like and want to play around with. First, you need to get a handle on how the deck actually plays out. For many decks, an hour of goldfishing while thinking about “how do I handle Tarmogoyf here? What about Armageddon?” can give you the right start. Maybe, then, you do what I do and figure that you’re smarter than the deckbuilder you copied from and start chucking cards from the deck. If you have to do this, which is unwise, at least do it after you’ve played around with the deck in its original form. When I was exploring Gifts Rock, I played around with several lists and realized that a lot of components rely on each other to the point that removing one will disrupt the entire deck. Cut Birds of Paradise for Farseek and you won’t have enough targets to get Recurring Nightmare rolling later or make Cabal Therapy really punch through. If I hadn’t seen this inter-relation first, I would have been dismissing the archetype out of hand because I found that the Recurring Nightmare mysteriously never fired off.
So now we’ve got an idea of how the deck works, what about the sideboard? Many are built for specific metagames, especially if the tournament is a smaller one. At least give it a try before you chuck it, though I admit that I foolishly skip this sometimes. The problem with skipping it is that you see what works and what does not work; most sideboards are terribly misbuilt, so the time spent with a badly made board gives information about what won’t work in the deck. Landstill doesn’t want something like Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender against Burn and maybe it wants Extirpate over Tormod’s Crypt because the Dredge opponent will be bringing in bounce instead of something like Chalice of the Void or Unmask in anticipation of permanent-based disruption. You only need to spend a little while with a sideboard, looking at what you would bring in and take out, to get a sense of what’s good and what needs to go. I suggest a few full matches against decks you know how to play against, two-fisting games in Apprentice or a similar program to get a grip on how matches play out.
Before we go on, I have to say a word about interpreting a Top 8 performance of a deck. The first, the absolute first thing to look at is how many players were in the event. Less than 24 and I completely ignore the result. Beyond that, anything under 50 I view with suspicion, because there may have been a fluke that resulted in the deck’s performance. We have to always ask “is this good or did the player get lucky?” What I mean by that is in an event, it’s possible to go 3-0-2 and then lose in the Top 8 in a decently-sized event. You’re looking at a deck that only won three matches, and one that was probably because their opponent was awful or their deck was. The takeaway here is that 5th-8th placings in medium-sized events don’t mean a whole lot and shouldn’t persuade you that the deck is better than it might actually be.
So we think our deck in hand is good, we’ve goldfished it a little, played it a little and have a good handle on what it does. What next? We can tweak the sideboard, adjust the manabase, identify problem matchups and cards and more. All of these require different methods, though! We can’t be adjusting the manabase while we fool around with the sideboard or we have two variables that might contribute to our success or failure. Before you test against a real person, make sure you at they know what you’re attempting to find out. For example, let your testing partner know you want to make sure you’re sideboarding correctly and then play a few postboard games. Then discuss with them what went wrong and what really worked. What cards did they fear? How did they alter their strategy? For example, when I was testing Enchantress against CounterTop decks, I realized that the CounterTop deck didn’t need to fear Choke if it could find and bank up Force of Will and maybe get Counterbalance out. The gambit was that without City of Solitude, most Enchantress decks crumble if they get their two win conditions countered along with their Replenishes. It was a simple matter of adjusting the CounterTop strategy to be one of just finding counters and decking the opponent instead of actually fighting Choke. Similarly, as the Enchantress pilot, I found that I had to adjust to make my Chokes stop their digging spells or bring in more Replenishes to overwhelm the opponent. I only learned this through testing sideboards and asking myself and my testing partners what we really feared.
Most players admit that they do not adequately test sideboarded matches. Not only rookies or eager PTQers, but real pros admit this as well. Overcome it by playing batch matches. Play ten game ones, then play a bunch of postboarded games that align so that all of the games where you won, you play second and get those out of the way. This saves a heck of a lot of time if you’re adjusting your sideboard based on whether you or your opponent is playing first. It also gives you a perspective of how to adjust your game if you’re tremendously favored in the first game and only need to win one of your next two games (think Dredge here). Also, be prepared to abandon results if you want to change sideboards. Batch matches make this easier because you can keep first-game results halfway through if you want to change things up before you play out the rest of the matches. You get to save as much data as possible while still organically adjusting to previous information.
But all this is general strategy and I’m sure you want little tactical bites as well. Here’s a slew of those too. First, standardize on sleeve color. It makes changing up decks to make different ones in the middle of a game session easy if you don’t want to make proxies for all of your gauntlet decks. You can then dynamically adjust your decks and form new ones with less effort. Also, bring some decks to other events you go to if there will be people you know that play Legacy or are willing to fool around a little. Between rounds, you can get in some time with another player. This is important! Different perspectives on sideboarding and playing can mimic actual tournament experience and make your results much stronger. They might have suggestions for what you can do to improve matches as well. Don’t be stupid and bring fully pimped decks to an event, though, as that makes you a target of unwanted attention.
Print out proxies from actual pictures if you’re testing, so you know if Summoner’s Pact can get Blue creatures or if Vendilion Clique’s ability is a “may” or a “must” ability. If you don’t have the actual cards, this is the closest you will get and you can make mental associations with the pictures. I do mine in black and white, which is fine and economical, and I suggest that you do the same unless you want true Technicolor testing.
If you’re testing against a gauntlet, go back two weeks and read my article on an effective Legacy gauntlet. I stress that you should adopt decklists that are normal and not techy; you won’t get bizarre results that might come from testing against something like Goblins with Umezawa’s Jitte in the maindeck. I even caution against testing really flashy decks in your gauntlet, like the ones that placed well at GP: Chicago. Sounds strange, but Legacy players don’t change decks quickly. I have not seen Lorescale Coatl pop up in many decks so far, even though it’s amazing. I haven’t even seen Andy Probasco deck, or really any other from the Grand Prix, show up, netdecked, in another event with any regularity. Eternal players are slow to adopt new cards because they take extensive testing (Gifts Ungiven took a year to pick up steam in Vintage!) and you’re better served using your time with established decks.
Don’t waste your playing partner’s time and make sure they’re happy with testing as well. Change decks, go for breathers, discuss other things and play other formats as a break from what can be tedious testing. If your buddy wants to play a new deck, don’t bring a rogue one of yours because nobody will be learning real-world info. Finally, take decent notes about what you found out and keep them handy. I make notes in Notepad or on a really fancy yellow legal pad, so I can pull up things I’ve looked at before and make notes along the way. It’s especially helpful to jot down a sentence or two about what cards were the MVP in the match and which ones sat in your hand.
Got more testing suggestions? How do you get the most out of your limited time? In what ways do you distinguish your “fun” playing time from your “testing” playing time? Do you allow your friends a takeback in a testing environment to make sure they make the right play or do you hold them to their mistake to more realistically simulate a game and get people thinking competitively? Tell us in the forums!
Until next week…
email at legacysallure at gmail dawt com, yo
Also, check out this link for a primer on my favorite non-serious magical format and enjoy, as a bonus, goofy pics of Jeff Anand.