Reassessing My Pro Tour Goals

The game outside of the game is much harder to metagame, and Ross breaks down the many-layered steps that go into properly preparing for a split-format Pro Tour and the tensions that can be found between them.

I am currently in Roanoke, Virginia staying with Brad Nelson and Tom Ross so that Brad and I can begin testing for Pro Tour Magic Origins before we meet the rest of our team in Dallas next week.

Did you know that Brad’s bedroom is covered in pink lace doilies? Or that Tom Ross sleeps in nothing but his leather jacket?

…just kidding. Thanks for hosting me guys! (Seriously, please let me keep staying here.)

As I sit here writing while Brad and Tom are off filming some undoubtedly sweet videos, my mind is filled with thoughts of flipping planeswalkers and Languishes, but amidst those are reflections on past Pro Tours – past opportunities squandered.

You see, this Pro Tour is a bit of a milestone for me. This is the first Pro Tour I will play where I do not have to worry about qualifying for the next one. Simply by showing up I will earn enough points to achieve Silver in the Pro Players Club. In some respects I can relax and focus on testing well, finding a good deck, and learning the new Limited format.

But on the other hand, this is the first Pro Tour I have played where I have a chance to get to Gold and become a regular Pro Tour player. With eighteen points right now, I will need to make Top Eight or supplement an 11-5 or 12-4 finish with a great result at Grand Prix Dallas the week before – an even taller order than the simple 11-5 necessary to re-qualify.

Rather than add to the existing pressures by setting a goal based on my finish, I am choosing to instead reflect on my past Pro Tours, diagnose my major mistakes, and aim to prepare better than I have in the past. Once you have done all you can, you should be happy with your result regardless of what it is.

I have had a lot of success with this sort of self-reflection, and I urge all of you to practice it as well. Please note that there is an important distinction between self-reflection and making excuses and, while I have not quite found a way to properly articulate that difference, in my experience differentiating between the two has always been obvious. The latter always leaves me with a sense of guilt; on some level I know what I am doing is lazy and unproductive.

But once you are honest with yourself, the burden of success is lifted and I feel relief since I am no longer defining my goals in terms of obtaining results which are at least partly outside of my control. Nothing is worse than falling short of a goal despite feeling like you have done all you can, so why use results to define your goals in the first place? It simply places you on a path to disappointment and frustration.

How I use my time and resources to prepare is entirely under my control, so the work I put in is much more reliable in helping to achieve my goal. Here is what I aim to achieve over the next two weeks:

Weigh Draft More Highly

This is by far the most important to me. The logistics of getting eight people together for a live draft are challenging to say the least, and Magic Origins will not be released on MTGO until the end of next week so it is easy to fall into the trap of ignoring and underpreparing for the draft portion, especially when Origins has so many sweet cards to try and brew with. I have fallen into this trap in the majority of the Pro Tours I have played, only getting in a handful of drafts before the Pro Tour and hoping for the best.

Every team has dreams of breaking the format and completely dominating the tournament. But no one ever has dreams of crushing the draft portion. Constructed is far more glamorous and brewing decks is loads of fun. But the reality is that breaking the format is an unrealistic distraction.

Additionally, I already play much more Constructed than Limited because of the structure of the Open Series, so I am only compounding my natural disadvantage by spending an inordinate amount of time on the former. Well, no more. I am not going to walk into this Pro Tour without feeling completely comfortable when I sit down at my pod on Friday morning.

It may seem strange to focus so heavily on the part of the tournament that is only six of the sixteen rounds during the Swiss portion and never factors into the Top Eight, but such logic is another trap that leads people towards ignoring draft. Especially for this Pro Tour, which occurs when Standard is at its biggest, there is only so much the Constructed format can change with the addition of a single set.

As powerful as Magic Origins appears to be, most of the best decks will be existing archetypes with obvious improvements. The amount of time and effort needed to find a new archetype that can compete is incredible, and often not worthwhile when it means sacrificing your Limited preparation.

On the other hand, this Limited format is brand new and completely unexplored. The returns on your practice are thus much higher, and the potential edge to be gained much greater, even if it comprises a smaller portion of the tournament.

Give Up On Brews Quickly

I said it earlier and I will say it again: brewing is loads of fun. Seeing a deck come together and improve under your guiding hand is incredibly satisfying. I would liken it to the feelings of a proud parent if the idea of me as a father weren’t so seriously frightening.

But everyone knows that the vast majority of brews do not pan out. Maybe you learn about a cool interaction or find a workable shell but the decks themselves are discarded and much of the time put into them yields nothing. It is best to take those lessons learned as the fruits of your labor and move on.

At a certain point it becomes necessary to narrow your focus on the few decks that you will most likely play in order to put in the necessary repetitions to learn to play them well and develop a quality sideboard for the expected metagame.

And unfortunately, that point is much earlier than anyone would like to admit, myself included. It is easy to convince yourself that this deck or that deck is really close to being great and you just need another few hours or another day.

It’s not. Set the deck down and draft.

Maybe you will have time to revisit your creations later, but with limited time to prepare, you have to maximize what you have – not to mention the fact that your work directly affects anyone you are working with for a given tournament.

We can all come up with twenty cool decks that all have a tiny chance of becoming viable, but putting work into all of them is unrealistic. This may result in missing out on a good deck because I dismiss it too early, but I am much more willing to make that mistake than to put in the time and find out the deck is not good enough. The low-risk, medium-reward strategy certainly isn’t sexy, but it works.

If I have a good deck and I know how to play it, I will be happy.

Don’t Waffle In Choosing A Deck

This is yet another goal that boils down to allocating my time more appropriately and it draws from my experience preparing for Pro Tour Fate Reforged earlier this year. After weeks of testing, none of the Modern decks we had separated from the pack was a clear favorite, so making a choice between them seemed arbitrary… which I found unsettling.

Determined to make the best choice, I failed to realize that the best choice was in reality the earliest choice. Instead I spent days agonizing over the various choices, worrying over making the “wrong” choice when that time would have been much better spent gaining a deeper understanding of my chosen deck.

As I noted earlier, everyone wants to have the clear best deck and know it going into the tournament, but that is unrealistic. The differences between the top decks are simply too small to generate that kind of confidence. The best deck for a given weekend depends on a number of factors, and with the top decks mostly trading pros and cons the ultimate differences between them are fairly small.

Take as an example the following metagame considerations. Say we assume that G/B Elves beats U/B Control which beats G/R Devotion, which itself completes our Rock/Paper/Scissors metagame by beating Elves. If these decks appear in equal proportion, then deciding between them is a matter of preference – but as one becomes more popular, the others should fluctuate accordingly based on their matchup against it.

This phenomenon appears simple, but there are tons of assumptions going on. You’re assuming that your test decks are representative of the archetypes or that internal decklist variations do not appreciably affect its matchups, both of which are weighty assumptions to make. You are also assuming a certain picture of the metagame.

Then, even if you make all the correct assumptions, you are hoping that your pairings are representative of the field, which could easily not happen given that you play such a small sampling of players over just ten rounds of Swiss.

Note that I am not saying metagame considerations are completely negligible or that I will be ignoring them for this Pro Tour, just that they are often overestimated and it is much more difficult to generate an advantage from your deck choice than it is to gain an edge by better understanding how to play your deck in various expected matchups. That is why I have so often played one deck for long periods of time and had success doing so. Unfortunately, I have failed to follow this advice for previous Pro Tours and my preparation suffered as a result.

The one edge I have complete control over is in how well I know my deck going into the tournament. Do I have a good understanding of all the major matchups? Is my sideboard prepared for those decks? Do I understand my deck well-enough to adapt to rogue strategies? These are a few of the questions I will be asking myself while testing, and my work is not done until I can confidently answer yes to all of them.

The goals here may seem overly simplistic, but the unspoken reality of Pro Tour testing is that we really do not have that much time and it is easy to fall victim to the many distractions I illustrated here. The important principles to keep in mind are remaining focused, disciplined, and detached.

Lastly, I think it important not to add extra pressure here by striving for perfection in any of these goals. True perfection is a myth and at some point I will become distracted, undisciplined, or emotional. As long as I am quick to realize it when it happens, it will not have a serious negative impact on my preparation.

And if I accomplish all these goals for my preparation and still 0-5 drop, it won’t be the end of the world. I still have Milwaukee.