I tend to consider winning in Magic as the result of a combination of three major factors: skill, practice, and luck. While it can seem to be of a lesser importance than the other two, practice may actually be the most important aspect, as it is the only one of the three factors that has a direct influence on the other two.
To put it simply, let’s say Magic is one-third about the ability of a given player, one-third about how much he invests in testing, and one-third about how lucky he is. Happily, the better you are, the more the luck factor is reduced; this allows you to beat players who are actually luckier than you. And as the best way to improve your skill level is to actually participate in strong testing sessions, practice has a direct impact on both your skill level and your luck.
But testing in itself is not enough. It is very common to test but still do badly, because testing is, in itself, one of the most complex aspects of our favorite game. And this is what we are going to study today: how to playtest efficiently.
The Testing Group
A good testmate has to fill as many of the following requirements as possible:
At the Same Skill Level as You
Two opponents at relatively similar levels of skill produce more relevant results (as it teaches us how Deck A is doing against Deck B, rather than how Player 1 is doing against Player 2). It also creates a friendly rivalry in the actual tournaments, something which you will often transpose to the practice table, pushing you to play seriously.
Good testing implies regular practice sessions. And the best way to accomplish this is to establish a testing headquarters, and all the members of the testing group should live close to this central hub. If you live far from other players, try and make concerted efforts to meet with them, and if you really can’t do so, make Magic: Online your testing place of choice.
Owner of a Lot of Cards
Not only is it better to be able to borrow cards in order for everyone to play the deck they want regardless of card availability, it is also good to be able to test with real cards. If you test a deck made of real cards deck versus a fully proxied deck, the real deck will start with an advantage as it is a lot easier to focus when you don’t have to check what you are holding every ten seconds. It is still better than nothing, but what matters most when it comes to the deck selection is its winning rate versus the other decks in the field, and you won’t be able to determine precise results when a player starts with an advantage.
Figuring the Metagame
The first thing you must do, no matter how much you want to try your own creations, is build a gauntlet of the most popular decks in the format. How do you figure what will be played, and which version is best? At first, talks with your teammates about their personal experiences of the format: what they like, what they have faced the most, what has seemed impressive, etc.
Then, once you’ve defined the archetypes to beat, rather than build random lists on your own, go check on the internet for the latest tournament results. Not only will they often give you a good version of the deck you want to build, but you will also be preparing for those net-deckers by running against the decks such folk will run in the events you will be attending.
Coming Up With New Creations
Of course, I told you to wait before building your personal decks, but this is obviously impossible, as testing always becomes boring at some point, and as that point can arrive quickly if you aren’t trying your own creations. The best thing to do is to ask everyone to build at least one deck from the gauntlet every time they design one of his own.
The importance given to these decks depends on the time you can afford to spend testing with them. If your tournament occurs in the 48 hours following the start of the testing sessions, for instance, just focus on the existing metagame and try and pick a deck from it. Building an innovative and winning deck is not, or at least not only, a matter of skill, but also a matter of solid knowledge of the format and of intensive testing. A good concept is needed, but your deck won’t be optimal in a short period of time, while your opponents’ decks should be well-honed.
If, on the other hand, you have weeks to get ready, feel free to try many original decks. Not only does it make testing more fun (at least for you), but it also feels more satisfying to run your own deck. Most importantly, the association of creating decks and testing seriously is what leads to becoming a good deck builder. But, once again, in the last few days before an event, if you haven’t come up with a good enough new creation, just forget about it and focus on the classic decks; it’s too late to optimize a new creation, and because your friends need to play against more popular decks. Keep in mind that testing is not an individual activity, but a group activity. You must help everyone test the matchups they need, and not only focus on what you’ll be playing.
On one hand, it is a lot easier to practice without sideboards. As long as you don’t have a gauntlet of optimized decks, it is hard to figure what a sideboard should look like. Also, as long as you haven’t figured how a matchup should turn, and its key plays and cards, it will be hard to figure how to sideboard optimally.
Don’t forget that about 60% of your tournament games are played with a sideboard, so testing only with the main deck cards is nonsense. Not only is it more difficult to swap the right cards in and out when you haven’t tested them enough, it can also lead you into playing the wrong deck. As a very simple example, Affinity has almost always be the strongest Standard and Extended deck in game 1, but it’s still a very risky choice as it can lose very easily to sideboard hate, as most people have Kataki, War’s Wage or Ancient Grudge. If you only test main deck cards, it is obviously the deck to play, but with better preparation you figure it often ends up being weak.
Keep Track of the Results
Most players feel like they are winning more games than they actually are. It is normal but still very dangerous, as such a thing can lead you to drawing wrong conclusions about matchups, and therefore about decks, and more globally about the format itself. A piece of paper, a pen, and not being lazy are the only things you need to avoid this. Give less importance to post-boards results though, as one of the keys of sideboarding is to experiment different strategies. If you have enough time, the best option will often be to wait until you know the postboard matchup stats before start keeping tracks of the preboard games.
Retest Matchups You Know When Changing Several Cards
It is a very common mistake that most players make… once their deck does well in a certain matchup, we assume things stay this way. But what if, after playing a lot of games against other decks, you cut a few cards which were good against the first deck you tested against? Or what if your testing (or newer decklists from the internet) state that the archetype you thought you would beat is now running a new card you had not considered before? In these situations, you’d better retest the match-up to make sure your first conclusions are still adequate.
Magic Online: a Double-Edged Sword
We have mostly been talking about testing Constructed thus far. As far as Limited is concerned, it is often better to be able to use Wizards of the Coast’s Online platform for a good practice session. The average level of a 8-4 draft pod is usually stronger that any you will face outside a Pro Tour, and you will be able to draft at anytime of the day or night; gathering good players to run consecutive paper drafts is extremely difficult. A good way to practice online with your friends, though, is having one of you draft and play while discussing any decisions with everyone else. You could also switch seats between every game… if having multiple players playing on one account was legal, of course.
The other major use of Magic Online occurs, as mentioned earlier, when you don’t have the ability to play regularly because of time and/or geographical limitations. In theory, Magic: Online could be the perfect testing tool. However, I’d highly recommend that anyone testing online should try and play as much as possible in real life, as your plays can become too mechanical on MTGO. Without an opponent, and the feeling of the cards in your hands, you don’t feel the pressure which pushes you to stay at the top of your game. Also, I don’t know any player who’s not using Facebook / Messenger / Skype or similar program in the background, and such distractions will keep you from perfect focus. As a matter of fact, such slipshod and unfocussed testing, while it should help make you a better player, actually makes you worse.
The Mental Aspect
Playing Seriously in Practice Games
Immersing yourself in testing is not only a matter of the time you’re willing to sacrifice. It’s also about how hard you involve yourself in the preparations. “Quality matters more than quantity,” my teachers often repeated. This sentence was one I never quite understood as a child, as I had no idea how they could ask for a minimum number of pages and then say that quantity wouldn’t matter. The truth is, they both matter. Testing a great deal without giving it your best attention is like testing really hard for two hours a week: it’s better than nothing, but it won’t see you perfectly prepared for when your tournament starts. It may not be easy, but you must focus in practicing as much as you would on an official game. It will make the testing more significant, and it’ll also help you face the pressure when it comes to the real thing. Therefore, it will basically make you a better player.
Ignore the Opponent’s Deck
Whether or not you know what your testmate is running against you, you must play as if you don’t. Let’s take a very simple example. Let’s say you’re testing Psychatog in Extended, one week after the Pro Tour was won by a version running main deck Force Spike. If your friend is running a UB Tog deck with no Force Spike, you have to play assuming he has them, even if you know he doesn’t. How can you test your deck’s tricks if your opponents only fall for them the first time you cast them? Such things will necessarily make your tricks look worse, and thus falsify the testing results.
Choosing the Right Deck
Only when you have gone through all the steps above will you be able to choose which deck to run at your tournament. If you aim to win, try to lay your feelings aside concerning the deck you like the most, and keep focused on numbers. If a deck is dominating the format, don’t play a deck which loses to it, except when – and onlywhen – it beats everything else. This is very uncommon, but it still happens once in a while. Once upon a time, Howling Mine could beat everything but Zoo, which was about 25% of the field in Standard. Reveillark and Faeries also springs to mind.
If several decks seem equally good, take either the one which is doing the best against the dominant deck of the field, or the one you enjoy playing the most, as playing a deck you like should give you better results than one with which you’re not so comfortable.
Also, make sure that, before you get to the tournament, you have a clear In and Out plan in for sideboarding in every match up. There is nothing worse than finding out in the middle of a tournament that you have a sideboard card but no deck against which to bring it in.