Lessons And Progress

In the past year, Ari went from staring down a possible last Pro Tour to missing Platinum by a single match. Read about what he learned in that time to make progress as a player.

In the past year, I’ve gone from staring down a possible last Pro Tour to missing Platinum by a single match. Luck was involved. I won’t deny that. More importantly, progress was made.

Here is what I’ve learned in that time.

I’ve written about many of these things before, but compiling them into one place makes the ideas easier to revisit and examine further.

Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze

I need to step up my Pro Tour Limited game. I had one of the best Constructed win rates on the Pro Tour this year. My Limited record was dead even. My records in Draft were 2-1, 2-1, 2-1, 0-3, 1-2, and 2-1. No 3-0s. An inexcusable 0-3 where I was in the right guild and just drafted the wrong cards.

Until I fix this, I won’t break through to the next level. I can put up a bunch of decent or mediocre finishes and make a run at the Top 8 every so often with just a strong Constructed record, but that realistically isn’t enough. Not only is the record not enough, but the switch to Limited starting the event means a bad draft wrecks your tiebreakers. Pair my Constructed record with the Limited record of a Floridian and you have some really nice results.

It’s taken me quite a while to get to this point. For my first two years on the Pro Tour, I threw away half of my events with basically non-existent testing. I had spiked one event with this much effort; could it really be so hard to continue to do so? I was fortunate enough to not get punished and fall off the train while learning the answer to this. The year after that I started putting some work in but wasn’t quite getting there, and finally this past year everything has started to come together. I don’t know how long the learning curve on Limited will take, but between now and the next Pro Tour, finding out how to learn Limited formats will be my primary focus.

Another thing I only picked up on after this event is how important freedom of deck choice is for events where you test with a team. You are not locked into playing the same 75 as everyone else you work with. You aren’t even locked into the same 75 as any other given person, even if they do tend to make good choices. When it comes down to it, you are still making the decision for yourself that defines how you perform in the event. Listening to what someone tells you to play is still just you making a form of a decision. Considering the ideas of others is definitely a valuable input to this process, but in the end you choose your fate. And that is awesome.

After the event, Craig Wescoe and I both said that we would never play the deck the other one of us did but definitely agreed we both made the correct choice for ourselves within a few cards. The fact that this is possible is awesome.

On a team level, diversity of choice also increases the odds that someone just has the perfect choice and makes it big. Everyone succeeding is obviously the dream, but in a world where only great Pro Tour finishes are really rewarded, one 10-0 and three 6-4s is much better than a bunch of 7-3s (unless you don’t lose at Limited). There are also minor rewards in terms of information transmission between opponents over the course of the event, but if there is a clear right choice everyone makes, that shouldn’t be a reason to not have a uniform team.

Aside 1: The goal after this one is tightening up high level Constructed play. Great decks are good enough for cashes and occasional great finishes. Great decks plus great drafts puts you in Top 8 contention quite often. Great decks plus great drafts plus great play—that’s just something else.

Aside 2: For all you stats lovers out there, ignoring known concessions and late round draws into Top 8 or cash levels, Tom Martell has me beat on Pro Tour Constructed win rate this year at 25-7 and 78.5%. A bunch of other people also broke 70% win rates. Reid Duke, Craig Wescoe, and Josh Utter-Leyton are all around 73%. Makihito Mihara went 72%, and Magic Online ringer Dustin Faeder aka The_Great_Dustini went 7-3 at his two Pro Tours for a 70% win rate.

Grand Prix Pittsburgh

Sealed and Draft are two very distinct formats, which is part of the difficulty of Limited Grand Prix. All the cards being the same definitely saves a lot of time because you don’t have to relearn tricks, but relative evaluations and play patterns often drastically differ. I was rock solid in my prep for the Sealed portion and opened an unreal deck to match, but I had no idea how to get ahead in Draft. I was overconfident in my Pro Tour preparation there, which (spoiler) was also proven to be not enough. I blew a 10-0 start, and I deserved it.

Also worth noting is that Draft evolves much more than Sealed does. Sealed testing usually can last through an entire season without much need for adjustment. Every so often you learn a little bit and change your card evaluations appropriately, but you aren’t trying to level a dynamic metagame like in Draft. Draft preparation is usually only good for one event—the same as Constructed. Plan your time accordingly.

Playing games of Limited is also drastically underrated. I’ve watched too many people, myself included, spend a bunch of time discussing the draft and put barely any thought into the actual games. While your picks and deckbuilding define a range of wins possible for you to achieve, that range is often quite wide. Gameplay determines where your actual record falls in this, and the only way to get better at that is to play. Feedback on your card evaluations can’t be gained without actually seeing the format in action.

Grand Prix San Diego

There is more to the Pro Tour and competitive Magic in general than just playing the game. The last few events I had been to before this one were just grinds. Chicago was the closest I got to having a fun time, and even then I was exhausted from travel. I went to San Diego, crashed on a friend’s couch, and stayed an extra day to durdle around the city. While most events I remember for some unreal story about a specific match or draft, this event I barely remember the games I played.

There is a certain group of people who can relate to my stories about winning with comical Auras in Limited or Dark Rituals in Constructed, but anyone can enjoy hearing about planes catching on fire, almost drowning at public beaches, nightmare rental houses, and wild adventures in unknown cities. I don’t think having every event be like this is super important, but having perspective and experiences from time to time is amazing.

Grand Prix Quebec City

I honestly didn’t learn much here. I didn’t test against the updated post-Pro Tour format and got wrecked appropriately. I knew what I was doing and assumed it wouldn’t be an issue. With the change to only counting a set number of Grand Prix, I hope to avoid these situations in the future where time is an issue.

At least I knew my mistake and accepted it. That’s the important part. Sometimes you don’t make a mistake and honestly can’t do anything, but odds are it happens far less than you think it does.

Pro Tour Montreal

While it is still a work in progress, a lot of my thoughts on how to optimally test for Pro Tours and events in general were solidified by the results of this event. The value of online testing in addition to or even over the traditional house testing, the usefulness of forums for easily viewable and shared documentation, and most importantly the general ideas behind what and who make a good team. The specifics are still evolving and more on this will follow with more events. Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze added a few more specifics regarding lodging and size. I expect the next one to really narrow down group member selection among other things.

Grand Prix Atlantic City

It’s often harder to learn from wins than losses. While I definitely had to try more decks for this event than almost any other Grand Prix I’ve ever tested for, it was basically the same as any other event I have done well at. I found a deck that was easy to win with in the format, played the best list of it fairly well, and had luck break on my side. If that was my advice on how to win an event, it wouldn’t be very helpful.

Grand Prix Indianapolis

I needed to test Sealed. I lost here because I played terribly. I didn’t plan well for the later rounds and played a lot of good Draft Magic against Sealed decks, resulting in me coming out ahead against their below par filler but losing to their high-powered rares.

After this event, I tested a ton for Gatecrash Sealed and learned a lot, but something I never got around to was observing the difference in metagames between round numbers. I focused mostly on the phantom Sealed queues, which are only three rounds long. While those are great for figuring out some of the fundamentals, that only teaches you how to get to 3-0. After that point, how do you line up well against the other 3-0 decks? For example, it was really easy to 3-0 with Orzhov in Gatecrash, but Boros was probably the most common 9-0 deck at the Grand Prix. That isn’t to say that Boros is better; it just means that you should be prepared to face off against the high-end variance distributed pools if you plan on having a good record in the later rounds.

Grand Prix Toronto

This was my time to learn from an immediately previous lesson. Level 1 was Lingering Souls Jund prepared for the mirror, and level 2 was making Lingering Souls bad. I played one of the two decks that was great at doing this, and I was one blunder away from coasting into the Top 8.

Even if you do fine, pick up on what you did wrong and you will do better next time.

Grand Prix Chicago

Always consider what being one level ahead is. It’s always possible at a Constructed Grand Prix that there really isn’t another level ahead (i.e., Caw-Blade, Faeries), but when in doubt just think about it. Coming out of the Pro Tour, I just upgraded my Infect deck and went to battle, but the better option was figuring out how to upgrade other shells to beat it and Affinity.

The innovation of Lingering Souls was a real turning point in the format that obsoleted a whole range of decks that had previously been fine choices, and I was still playing as if my Plague Stingers where unblockable. I bet if that event was run back infinite times, I would win a percentage of them less than par for a random person with three byes. These hypothetical infinite copies of me would likely put up an above average finish for someone with three byes, but the number of trophies they took home would not match this expectation.

If you just want to chip shot some points, playing the level 1 deck is fine, but with the new Pro Point structure, making each Grand Prix count as much as possible is really important. One level deeper but still reasonable is the place to be.

Grand Prix Philadelphia

No matter how bleak the odds, there is always a chance.

I went into day 2 at 7-3 and could only afford to drop one match if I wanted to cash. With the incoming hurricane, I told myself that I would drop if I lost either of my first two matches.

I regret that decision in retrospect, but it didn’t end up mattering. A quick two matches later I was playing for a draft pod win.

Again, I found myself at poor odds in game 3. I was staring down some bad blocks at one life to his over 30 life. He was Rakdos with a ton of burn. I drew my card for the turn, and everything started cascading in my favor. He drew nothing, I drew creatures, and slowly but surely I turned the board around and won the game.

At Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze, Luis Scott-Vargas went from 1-3 to 12-4 and Platinum. Larry Swasey went from 4-4 to playing for Top 16 in the last round. At Pro Tour Seattle, a player went from 4-3-1 to making Top 8. If it is technically possible, it can happen.

Alternatively, the phrase "never give up, never surrender" works.

Pro Tour Seattle

Given enough information and time, anyone can break it. I was in a situation where I could put a ton of work into this event in a very worthy environment (Magic Online), and I was shown that actually having a good deck is not some mystical thing that certain people have cracked the code to. It’s just a bunch of work and good analysis, both internal and external, of ideas.

This is obviously harder in non-defined formats since the base ideas aren’t readily available, but for those of you who manage a qualification for the Modern Pro Tour next year, this is a great point to consider. While a testing group makes things easier, if you can’t find one for that event, it won’t be the end of the world.

Grand Prix Columbus

Sometimes a break is just what you need. Plain and simple, playing events you don’t want to win or don’t care about is not going to result in victories. Obviously there are events you should try to make yourself want to play (Pro Tours, local Grand Prix, etc.), but if you aren’t feeling it you aren’t going to make the best decisions. This applies both pre-event and during the rounds. I punted my way out of a round and knew way too little about the format at this event.

After this event, I focused on doing the things I wanted to. I drafted M13 a ton and learned a lot about it in the process. I played a ton of Legacy and tried things I wouldn’t normally try on top of getting even better with Storm. Finally, when I found a good Standard deck I was excited to play, I made it even better. Just like that, I took down a PTQ. I was back and winning relevant events and was enjoying every minute of it.

When you find yourself in a funk, take a step back.

I was in a fortunate scenario at the start of this season to give me the time to really focus on my game. Now that I’ve seen what can happen when you systematically do so, I plan on doing everything I can continue to take my game to the next level.

Ari Lax

@armlx on Twitter