Making Practice Perfect

Practice makes perfect, so they say. But how to practice… There’s the rub. Is it enough to simply play and play, and play? Or is there more to it, a Holy Grail of knowledge from which we need to drink to truly maximize our potential growth? Is there a measurable gain to be made from plowing through twenty-five games pre-board, twenty-five games post?”Well, I’ve played fifty games, and my Magic Skill-o-meter has notched up another 1.21 gigawatts of talent!” Craig asks what the perfect practice sessions are like, and begs for your vote in the Invitational!

I don’t want to be part of The Matrix – not for a second. I’d want my eyes open. I’d take the red pill. Fighting the system, battling against the agents in the eternal hunt for Zion. Don’t worry, I don’t see myself as the Chosen One; I’d be an average soldier, awoken to rise against the power of the machine.

One thing- you’d never get me out of the dojo. Never. Just close your eyes and lie back… two minutes later, you’re a black-belt at Jujitsu. Plug-in knowledge, talents and skills… Now we’re talking.

Imagine tiny chips, containing all you need to win a Pro Tour. A disc you access to become a Robo-Finkel. An obscene proboscis, rammed into your skull, pumping hot metagame data directly into your willing brain. You could sit, lotus-like, at table one, beckoning opponents to their doom with an arrogant flick of the hand. And all obtained by simply clicking OK.

In a way, we all try this. Sites like StarCityGames, Brainburst, and the like provide us with these plug-ins, albeit in the shape of articles. A quick fix of Magic tech, five minutes to read, which we hope will increase our play-skill through a bizarre ritual of bludgeoning osmosis. Cram enough words into the old noggin, and some of them must ferment into the heady brew of talent.

One click on a Limited article: I now know the correct draft-pick order!

Download the latest uber-decklist: I am sure to destroy the entire field!

Hell, let’s read a few tourney reports: I no longer have to bother playing!

Alas, we know this idea is bunk. There’s no super-speed fat-burning diet-shake, no send-fifty-dollars get rich quick scheme, no miracle Magical memory modules. Deep down, we all know how to get to Carnegie Hall… If you don’t put in the hours, you can’t pick the flowers.

Practice makes perfect, so they say. But how to practice… There’s the rub. Is it enough to simply play and play, and play? Or is there more to it, a Holy Grail of knowledge from which we need to drink to truly maximize our potential growth? Is there a measurable gain to be made from plowing through twenty-five games pre-board, twenty-five games post? "Well, I’ve played fifty games, and my Magic Skill-o-meter has notched up another 1.21 gigawatts of talent. Anyone know Kai’s mobile number?"

Of course, repeated practice does improve your game at a repetitive level. Playing game after game with the same deck leads to superior knowledge of how the deck reacts when pushed and pulled in surprising directions. It also gives you confidence, arrogance like a snake, rising up to spit in the eye of defeat… "Come at me, world! I have faced your demons! I am armed and prepared, and I will not fall!"

But everyone does this, right? Everyone practices hard and plays hard. Sure, there are tales of tournaments won with little or no preparation, winners holding wobble-board checks while flashbulbs glint off tired, addled eyes… But do we really believe this? Even if we do, these players must have cared, must have sacrificed and worked for the game at some stage – only an expert can truly rely on Larry the AutoPilot. And as we all know from experience, our game courts Lady Luck herself. Sometimes she smiles on the ugliest of players.

Everyone tests. Everyone tries. Everyone experiences luck. But on any given day, there are winners, and there are losers.

What makes the winners? Natural talent? Good fortune? Experience? Nerve?

I have no idea.

Sorry to build your hopes up, but there you are.

There’s one thing I do know- the line between table one and table one hundred is thin.

Our game is governed by many factors beyond our direct control. We can’t influence luck. We can’t boost our inherent ability. We can’t even choose what decks we face. One thing we can do, however, is make sure our preparation is the most comprehensive possible.

When we test, we’d better have a method. If we don’t actively learn from our testing, then it’s a waste of time.

So how can we improve our testing process? As an example, I’ll share my testing routine. Even before I type it up, I know it’s inadequate. We all know that testing is not an exact science; I’m pretty certain that in reading the breakdown of my testing technique, the majority of you will spot strengths and weaknesses in your own routines. Hopefully, this will give you some ideas on how to improve your testing plans.

I’m a member of Team Leeds, which numbers approximately seven ‘core’ players. This number rises and falls with the wind, and the weak are seasonally devoured by the all-consuming wolf that is EverQuest. Of the seven, there are three of us that test regularly. As luck would have it, some of us are housemates.

When testing for a particular tournament (or season of tournaments – for example, Onslaught Block Constructed), we’ll each throw together a copy of the deck we aim to run. These are our primary decks. As we have a distinct mixture of play-styles (and we all have internet access), this usually leads to a varied collection of Tier One decks. For Onslaught Block, I built Goblins, while my two regular testing partners built MWC and Maher R/W. Of course, we may change our minds (and our decks) if testing throws up supportive results.

Next, we discuss what we may face in the current metagame, and build up versions of these decks for testing purposes. The cards are mostly proxies*, and the lists come from exciting netdecks that are proven winners by making top 8’at an established tournament. We also add any popular decks, plus a few decks that are fun to play while not being earth-shattering. For Onslaught Block, we threw together Slide, Zombies, The Claw, G/W Vegetation, B/W Control, Bad Form, R/G Beasts, and Beast Bidding. We also dallied with Goblin Bidding and a G/B”Rock”-style deck. They all go into the Gauntlet Box.

Then we play. A Magic session can last anything from two to ten hours, depending on outside factors. We have no plan before we start; we simply grab our primary decks and play some games. One of us may say, "Hey, I fancy testing against Bad Form tonight,” and so their opponent will pull Bad Form from the box, and they’ll play until one or the other is bored. Sometimes we play strictly to tournament rules. Other times we allow take-backs and free mulligans. If there’s three players at the session, one will watch the game or watch TV, chipping in with comments when apt. We make a mental note of the winner of each duel, and we go to our sideboards when we feel like refreshing our chances. Sometimes, we’ll discuss possible maindeck or sideboard tech against the metagame. Other times we’ll talk about the weather.

As you can see, there’s no coherence to our testing. It seems little more than testing by trail and error. Here is a list if the faults I see in our haphazard methods:

  • There is no testing plan. We build up and test a number of decks, but without any guidelines. With a more thorough approach to matchups, we could quantify the strengths and weaknesses of a given deck against another given deck. This approach might, say, involve playing each of our primary decks against every deck in our gauntlet, ten times pre-board and twenty times post-board.

  • There is no care given to why a deck seems to be doing badly. Yes, we remember the odd manascrew, but we could improve our methods by noting in detail the plays and cards which directly influenced the outcome of the duel.

  • We do not make physical notes. At the end of the evening, we may all agree that, say, MWC suffers at the hands of the goblins, losing fifteen of the twenty games we played. When we come to our next session, we simply have a vague recollection that MWC has a bad matchup against the little red men.**

  • We do not play consistently. By not establishing solid floor rules, such as the strictness by which we’re playing or the usage of free mulligans, we are opening ourselves to confusion at best, and encouraging bad habits and sloppy play at worst.

  • We do not update our gauntlet. While constant improvement and tweaking to our primary decks is occurring, the decklists in the Gauntlet often become stale and out-of-date. Without someone actively monitoring such things, new tech and strategy can swiftly pass us by.

  • We do no post-play analysis. There is little attempt to deconstruct duels after they are complete, pointing out strong plays or errors in each other’s games. Frank discussion on thought processes at vital times must be beneficial, leading to a deeper insight into the game and how to play certain matchups.

  • There is little to no consideration given to testing the mirror match. Unless we have two people who’ve chosen identical decktypes as their primary decks, we need to go out of our way to test such a matchup. This is particularly worrying for this Block season, as there seems to be a limited number of truly competitive decks out there.

Even considering these shortcomings, Team Leeds has posted modest but solid results in quite a few tournaments. We’ve had no real breakthrough performances quite yet, our best being a Top 4 at Grand Prix: London last year, a Top 32 at Pro Tour: Houston soon after, and a Top 8 at this year’s English Nationals. We’re holding steady and trying to improve.

As a brief recap, here are the changes I’d implement to strengthen our testing technique:

  • A comprehensive testing schedule, with a pre-set number of duels held (primary decks versus the gauntlet, pre- and post-board).

  • Physical notes made outlining number of wins and matchup percentage, noting key plays and particularly strong cards.

  • Stricter rules regarding take-backs and mulligans. For more relaxed sessions, establishing the level of strictness before play begins would be sufficient.

  • Decklists in the gauntlet checked and updated weekly (or more often, if necessity dictates).

  • Detailed discussion on play errors and deck weakness after each duel (again, as necessity dictates).

  • A second, proxied copy of each of the primary decks added to the gauntlet box, to aid in the testing of Mirror matches.

Would these changes measurably increase our success? Difficult to prove. However, by adopting a more professional attitude towards testing, confidence would certainly increase in all aspects of our play. In a game that is so dependent on mental state, perhaps that is all we need.

Here are some more thoughts and ideas on testing, both old and new:

The Jamie Wakefield Error Die

Ah, the old favourite. Whenever I read about the Jamie Wakefield Error Die technique, I feel fuzzy, like I’m warming myself at an open fire. The main impetus for writing this article was that whenever I trawled for advice on streamlining the testing process, the only help I could find was to do as Jamie did.

Take a six-sided die. When you make a mistake, be it tapping the wrong mana, casting the wrong spell or drawing too many cards, set the die at 1. The next mistake, move it up to 2. When you hit 6, concede the game. Over time, this will lead you to make fewer mistakes, as you are spotting them and trying your best to cut them down. As a beginner, I tried this. I soon binned the D6 and pulled out a trusty D20… And I still conceded more games than I actually lost. Still, it’s a valid technique, and comes highly recommended by players much more successful and talented than myself.

Upping The Ante

Steve Barltrop, one of the members of Team Leeds, likes playing for ante. Not ante as in the strict gaming rules, just placing a little side bet on the result of the match. No cash, mind: A card from his trade folder, perhaps, or a couple of boosters. I enjoy playing against Steve, because the games seem to mean something.

When testing, it is easy to get stuck in a rut and simply go through the motions. If there’s something on the line, then the tensions (and the skills) are heightened. This technique also helps prepare you mentally for the big game: The game for top 8 of a PTQ, for qualification to day 2 of a Grand Prix, for the Pro Tour Final itself. Playing for material gain can be nerve-wracking. Be it for a Black Lotus, or be it for the loser to make the next coffee, practising for ante can help simulate the tight-stomached feeling such games produce.

Do Not Shun Technology

Love it or hate it, Magic Online is a wonderful tool for Limited practice. With enough cash spent on cards, it serves the same function for Constructed play. Yes, it’s going through a sticky patch, but this will (hopefully) improve soon. And if you’ve not been sucked into MODO, there’s Apprentice and Netdraft. Each offers a service that can improve your game immeasurably: The ability to face fresh players and decks at any time, day or night. This can greatly aid the magic player who practices without a team. And after a blast on Apprentice, bringing a fresh perspective to your testing session can work miracles.

Pre-Tournament Tournaments

If your team is of a sufficient size, one idea is to hold mini tournaments. Say you have eight people… Simply place eight of the most popular decktypes in a box. Each player takes one at random, and a three-round Swiss tournament is held. This gives players an insight into the strengths and weaknesses throughout the field, and can throw up some interesting matchup data that may not have been fully explored. And hey! It’s fun!

Calling On God

One trick I’ve tried is taking two decks, and each player starts with seven cards of his or her choice. The next five draws can be stacked before play begins. This van help establish the power of certain decks and their God draws. It also shows how decks fare when each is drawing well. A variation on this theme would be to set one deck up with a God draw and see how far an unaided deck can go. With some decks, the game will end quickly, but it’s surprising how many decks can put up a valiant fight, pumping the fist in the face of the most ferocious opposition.

Testing For Fun, Not Profit

There’s been a great deal of talk about the 8th Edition card face. The new art, some say, has sucked the soul from the game we love. Through all this talk of testing plans and professional approaches to the game, there is one thing we mustn’t forget. It is a game. It’s supposed to be fun. If it ain’t fun, no amount of structured schedules and note-making will make a difference. This game has a soul, and a heart. Ripping it out to increase your play skill will only lead to disenchantment… And we all know that’s been rotated out..

So there we have my take on testing. I present it not as a comprehensive guide, more as a gateway to discussion. I give you no answers, only ideas. I know there are more ideas out there, and I want to hear them***. The art of successful and profitable testing seems elusive to me, shimmering at the edge of vision, an undiscovered country with boundaries yet to be explored. Head back, running blind, following the white rabbit.

I’m positive that practice does indeed make perfect. But making practice perfect? Well, that’s the challenge.

Thanks for listening,

Craig Stevenson

Scouseboy on Magic Online

[email protected]

Before I go, a few points:

In my last article, I mentioned that my friend Stephano Gattolin went 0-7 at Pro Tour: Houston. He has asked me to point out that he did in fact post a highly creditable 1-6. Well done, Stephano!

A friend and teammate of mine, Craig Smith, is going through an identity crisis. On MODO, his nickname is CraigS, and he wants to make it clear that he is not me. When online, I go by the name of Scouseboy – this is a proud reference to my noble Liverpudlian heritage. If you need me when I’m on MODO, I can usually be found in the draft room car-park, prying the hubcaps off Kai Budde Virtual Volkswagen.

I am lucky enough to be listed on the Sideboard as a possible invitee to the forthcoming Magic Invitational. Although I think it rather crass, I’d like to ask anyone who has enjoyed my articles (and even those who haven’t) to Vote For Me. The link is here.

Look at it this way:

If you like my articles, you can ensure I have plenty of top-drawer material to weave into my writing by voting me to the Invitational.

If you dislike my articles, you can ensure I’ll be too busy to pen any more fatuous bilge by voting me to the Invitational.

Hey, it’s a win-win situation!

In a perfect world, my invitational offering would be a split card, a la Invasion:




Slap deals 2 damage to target creature or player, and 1 damage to you.

Tickle gives +3/+3 to target creature, and +2/+2 to target creature an opponent controls.

“Oh, you ARE awful… but I like you”- Dick Emery

Of course, it’d end up being a vanilla 2/2 for six mana, but at least it’d have my face on it.

“Look, Mum! I’m on a card! I’m not wasting my life playing silly games! Please stop crying.”

I need your votes: My friends and family alone will not be enough. Help me, Obi-wans… You’re my only hope.

And if you don’t vote for me, I suggest voting for England’s Sam Gomersall. He’s a nice guy, and the best we currently have.

I’ll give out the results of my”Censored” teaser in my next article. No-one has achieved 100% yet, although some are pretty close. Thanks to everyone who has entered so far.

And finally, to all those who hated the”Censored” teaser, moaning long and hard on the Star City forums… go <Censored> yourselves.


* – But all can be bought from StarCityGames at extremely competitive prices. Mail-Order Nirvana is only a mouse-click away!

** – Making physical notes is incredibly important in our team. Matt Harper, house-and-team mate, is constantly confused about the numbers of wins and losses he posts in a session. Even when he’s been comprehensively trounced all night long, his matchups are never more than 50/50. I swear he plays phantom games in his head while no one’s looking.

*** – I’m especially interested in ideas for improving Limited testing methods and play-skills. My talents at Limited are, frankly, limited.