Last week I talked about the deck that I played in the SCG Standard Open, and this week I’d like to continue in that trend. However, instead of talking about the specific card choices, or the games that I played, I’d like to talk about the preparation that my friends and I put into the tournament. When I read about the preparation that someone else put into a tournament, I often find that it doesn’t line up with my own experiences, so I figure that sharing my point of view might help out those people in the same boat as me.
Specifically, I’m talking about the people that can’t actually devote their lives to playing Magic. I love playing the game and I love hanging out with other people who play, but the fact of the matter is that I’m trying to finish up school, and school has to come first. While the technical “best” way to prepare for a big tournament might be to spend fifty hours a week playtesting against the best of the best, those of us who have other commitments find ourselves without the ability to sink this kind of time into the game.
However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t do well at a big tournament like this one. If you can’t playtest for more than thirty minutes at a time, you might be better served spending your efforts on research and brainstorming than on actual games. As long as you have played enough to know what your strengths and weaknesses are (both in terms of your own playskill and in terms of your deck choice), simply putting some time in thinking about how to approach a specific matchup can greatly improve your performance in a long tournament.
From my spot on the couch, writing this article, I feel like my goal for today is a little bit ambitious; I have a lot of material that I want to cover, and a lot of it seems like it will be rather hard to communicate clearly. However, I think that there is much to gain from the attempt, so I’ll try to talk about what I do while picking a deck, while familiarizing myself with the deck, and then while playing in the actual tournament. Hopefully you will also find this fruitful.
Picking a Deck
I think that this topic is something that each player needs to approach in their own way. When I first started winning at tournament Magic, my deck selection couldn’t have been easier: I learned to play with Jackal Pups and Mogg Fanatics so I played Red Deck Wins in PTQs. I think that this initial success was actually bad for my progress as a good Magic player; it taught me that picking any deck and practicing with it would lead me to success.
These days, I still think that practicing with your deck of choice is important, but I no longer think that it’s enough to get you to the level of finish that you desire. When I look for a deck to play now, I actually give myself the opportunity to see each deck that I might choose before actually making my choice. For this, then, the most important resource is a source of decklists.
There are plenty of places you can find decklists on the web. I personally make extensive use of Star City’s deck database, the Wizards of the Coast tournament coverage, and DeckCheck.net, a user-fed database of decklists from around the world. The nice thing about poring over decklists is that it doesn’t actually eat up that much time. You can easily browse any of these sites in a few minutes that you have during the course of your day.
After deciding on a few decks that I’d like to try out, I usually proxy out my top three choices just to throw them against each other and get a general feel for how each one plays. Usually this is enough to let me know whether or not I’d like to continue with a given deck, but I’d say that I might play a handful of matches with promising decks before deciding that they’re no longer worth investing time in. With Reveillark, I was sold after just a few games; the power of the individual cards was amazing even when you weren’t comboing out.
The other big piece of this puzzle, for me, is trying to decide what I think I’ll be playing against. In modern Extended, you might play against a huge number of wildly different strategies, but in a smaller format, you can usually identify a handful of decks to really worry about. When the format is relatively new, as post-Morningtide Standard was at the SCG Open, I usually try to think about not only which decks are good, but which decks are fun and cool. While many of the top competitors will be willing to play a less-fun deck to gain an edge, many players will simply go with the deck that they enjoy.
This is where the most important part of having friends or teammates comes up. When you are looking at a problem that really just takes analysis, having multiple heads working on it in parallel will give you a better answer. The same is true, in my mind, for deck choice. If I’m trying to just think about what field I’m going to be looking at and what strengths I’ll need to win, I’d rather also have my associates thinking about the same problem. If we both arrive at the same answer, I’m much more confident that we’re correct. If we arrive at different answers, then we can talk about what gave us the different reads.
In the same manner of splitting the analysis up among different people, I also think that it’s a good idea to allow yourself a large amount of time to think about these problems in the back of your mind. You don’t need to sit down at the computer for five hours and figure out what deck you’re playing; you can easily contemplate the strengths of Elf-Warriors while you’re waiting for the bus or falling asleep at night. By allowing your subconscious more time to work on the problem, you’ll more thoroughly analyze the situation.
Improving the Deck
I’m talking about this section as deck improvement as opposed to playtesting because I don’t usually spend that much time actually playtesting, in the common sense of the word. For me, the first step along this path is just learning my deck. After I’ve become familiar with the deck as a whole (and this includes the sideboard), I’ll start modifying it and trying out these changes.
A lot of people use traditional playtesting to serve both of these ends. I prefer to use smaller tournaments, such as City Champs, though it can be unreasonable to expect to get to play a whole new tournament every time you tweak your deck. As a result, I usually find myself playing in these smaller tournaments with the original deck, and then using traditional playtesting to try out changes that I’d like to make to the deck.
I think that there are a number of benefits to playing in a tournament as opposed to playtesting. When you playtest with a friend, there is nothing on the line (except possibly ego), and so you do not necessarily have the drive to win that you should have in a large tournament. If you don’t play under the same conditions, it’s likely that you will not play in the same way. Small tournaments also offer you the ability to test your skills in unknown situations. During playtesting it is likely that you know all of the cards in your partner’s deck; during a tournament, you can never be sure exactly which sixty cards you’re up against. Again, because this more closely resembles what you’ll be facing when the big day comes, I believe it to be better practice.
Only once I’ve played my deck enough to really understand it (or at least to believe that I understand it) will I make any changes to it. I read an article long ago, called “The Joys of the Net Deck” by Michael Clair, that described a situation like the one I’m now warning you about. Mike had picked up a decklist from the Pro Tour coverage the night before a PTQ, made some small modifications (five cards out of seventy-five), and then realized mid-tournament exactly why these changes had made it so he couldn’t win. When I take a netdeck down from the internet, I trust that the person who made Top 8 with it before me knew at least a little bit about what they were doing, and so I don’t mess with their logic until I can understand why they made the choices they did.
To further illustrate this point, I’ll reference the Standard Open yet again. The major changes that Steve and I made to the deck were in the manabase and the sideboard, but right now I’ll only look at the manabase. The original decklist had quite the odd assortment of lands, but it eventually became clear that the designer had made these choices to easily beat ponderous control decks. Man-lands and Urza’s Factory gave him counter-immune threats (one of which was also removal-immune), while charge-lands gave him the ability to power out a large number of threats in one turn without waiting until turn 30.
Steve and I, on the other hand, believed that we would be wading through Elves, Kithkin, Faeries, Big Mana, and the mirror. In these matchups, the speed we lost by playing with seven lands that came into play tapped was deadly, and the advantage we gained from the charge-lands and the man-lands would be negligible. If we’d been heading into a sea of Draw-Go control decks, then changing the manabase to include zero man-lands and four Deserts would have been a huge mistake. However, because we made this informed decision, our deck fared amazingly well in the tournament.
Beyond these decisions, which are relatively concrete and easy to see, there’s the simple process of brainstorming up what cards to run. For me, this comes from two sources: more decklists and Gatherer. I looked at every Standard-legal Blue, White, and Colorless card before the tournament, thinking about whether or not I wanted any of them in my deck. I even looked at the Black cards (Faceless Butcher had me very excited for a short while), trying to sort out the ideas that were worth spending time on from those that weren’t. Much like my process for choosing a deck, my process for tuning a deck is largely mental.
Again, splitting this up seems like the correct way to go about it. We had four people thinking about different cards to run (mostly to try to shore up the Faerie matchup) for over a week leading up to the tournament, even if they were only spending a tiny amount of their thought process on it. Like I said above, I feel like giving these ideas time to percolate yields better overall results.
To complement this theoretical side of the process, we also just tried out different ideas that we pulled off the net, to guide our thinking. This is where we found Unsummon, and when we realized that we gained so much utility in exchange for a small loss in defensive power, we decided to run with Unsummon over Condemn (though we did lose more game against Treetop Village than I would have liked).
All in all, I’d say that actual playtesting made up a very small percentage of the work that we put into the deck. Without playing actual games we probably never would have come up with our mirror-match strategy of bouncing all of the other guy’s lands, but without thinking about as many cards as we did, we would never have settled on Serrated Arrows, Desert, or Venser.
Playing the Tournament
This is the section that I think will give me a very hard time. The act of playing in a tournament is, for me at least, pretty much entirely about my mindset. I realize that I have to play actual matches of actual Magic against actual opponents, but I feel like my outlook has way more to do with the outcome than it should. Perhaps this is simple superstition, or perhaps it is something more real.
The most important article I ever read was “Stuck in the Middle with Bruce,” by John Rizzo. I literally read this article and instantly improved as a player, because it alerted me to something in my mental game that I hadn’t noticed before. Rizzo’s article has been referenced a lot lately, and I believe this to be because it is so relevant.
To explain my view of this concept, I have to first take a step back. When I play tournament Magic, I want to win. After all, I wouldn’t pay to play in a big tournament if I wasn’t interested in taking down first place. However, unlike other players, I am willing to accept losses in certain situations. If I do the best that I can and still lose, I’d much rather keep a level head than completely tilt and spiral out of control. After all, if that loss is my first of the swiss rounds, it isn’t lethal to my tournament. My goal is to win, and so I need to be able to survive losses.
This meant that I never really let it get me down when I lost because of mana screw or other similar misfortune. The problem, then, was that I could misattribute a loss to luck when it was actually my fault. Upon reading about Bruce, I realized that I was letting myself lose games so that later on I could look back on them as games that I just couldn’t do anything about. When you keep the five-lander and flood out, it’s a lot easier to say that you only played half as many spells as your opponent than to say that you made a bad keep. Learning about Bruce let me take responsibility for losses that I had previously been shrugging off, and therefore let me improve my game.
I still think that you can’t let losses get you down. Even if you lose because you make a horrible mistake in a game you had locked up, you need to keep your head out of it. Sure, after the tournament, berate yourself as much as you need to. Learn from your mistakes, and shake off bad luck. But don’t ever let the loss you just took have an effect on your next match. That sort of thinking is just way too dangerous to engage in. So, for me, a big tournament is all about focusing on the matter at hand. All you have to do is win the game you’re playing.
To maintain this focus, many people will recommend a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast, to sharpen your senses and allow your mind to worry about Magic, and not about your next meal. If this lets you focus on your game, then you should absolutely do it. However, I have found that I require the exact opposite. Where other people want to get nine hours of sleep before a tournament, I prepare to get three or four. Where other people look for a complete breakfast, I’d rather just show up on an empty stomach. I do this because it helps me focus, so if going hungry will hinder your performance, do what feels right. Your only goal should be to play the best Magic that you can.
The other thing that I make sure to try and do while playing a tournament is to believe that I can win. This goes back to what I said before about blurring the line between superstition and reality, but while I don’t like to think of myself as a superstitious person, I’d rather be superstitious and win than be logical and lose. Perhaps optimism allows me to see the complex plays that I miss while I’m in a funk, or perhaps it makes no difference at all. Either way, I avoid thinking “this is where I drop” or anything like it at all costs.
By focusing on the smallest portion of the tournament that I can (the game at hand) and by making sure that I keep a level and hopeful head, I find that I perform much better than other times. When I took a break from tournament Magic for about a year, I came back to the game to find myself nervous when playing for the Top 8 of a PTQ. I invariably lost these games, but when I got back into my old mindset of treating game 3 of round 7 the same as game 1 of round 1, my results benefited greatly.
I think it should be pretty apparent at this point that I value thinking about the game quite highly. This is definitely true, though it often annoys my testing partners. Leading up to the Open, I was quite content to just brainstorm up ideas and then play a few games to test them out, while other people wanted to run ten-game sets of Reveillark against the field. I didn’t want to go into the tournament completely cold on any expected matchup, but I didn’t think that I would gain as much from the eighth game against Big Mana as I would from another look at Gatherer to see if there were any cards that attacked specific weaknesses in popular strategies.
All in all, this article is meant as a window into my preparation process. I think it’s a good one, especially since it allows you to get what you need out of spare time at a computer, one or two small tournaments, and an hour or three of solid playtesting. However, it’s not the gospel; preparation for any tournament can be a completely different experience for two different people. If you think that I’m completely crazy, then just try to look at the goal I’m shooting for, and not the process I’m using.
As always, if you have any questions, feel free to contact me in the forums, via email, or on AIM.
ben at mundy dot net
SlickPeebles on AIM