There are numerous elements involved in proper Vintage tournament preparation. This article is going to concisely focus on just one: testing.
The Importance of Testing
Some players are naturally gifted players. They use their technical proficiency to propel them to the top levels of Magic. For the rest of us, testing is crucial.
First, testing gives us the information we need to make better plays. Most of us are bound to make mistakes when something new is thrown at us for the first time. We might not see some interaction or improperly calculate the time to play some instant. The problem is not that you are a bad Magic players, it is just that you haven’t been in this situation before. Learning the correct decision is often a matter of building a base of knowledge from trial and error by which to more careful weigh the risks and advantages from any given play.
Second, testing leads to a mastery of a chosen deck. This is important not just because you play it better, but also because you will understand what to tweak and the reasoning behind it when tuning and developing your deck and sideboard.
Third, testing is the foundation of format understanding. If you know how matches play out and understand why any given deck is winning, then you can begin to branch out and learn to develop your own decks. Knowledge of the format provides an opening to exploit the weaknesses you spot in other decks on a strategic and tactical level. The same knowledge that enables you to sideboard and tune a deck will enable you to begin to develop and design decks that have a reasonable chance of success.
Finally, testing gives you needed confidence. If you have been in a situation before, you are much more comfortable with the game state and the likely outcome. Confidence can help avoid simple errors by keeping nervousness in check. It will also show that you understand what is going on and have a handle on it.
Critical v. Background Decks
The question is: what decks should you test? Because Vintage never rotates, decks developed long ago are likely still viable unless a restriction has made it illegal. At this point is a good time to differentiate between decks. The decks you are very likely to see at any given tournament I will term “critical” matchups. Decks that are out there but see little play I will call “background” matchups. An example of a critical matchup in today’s metagame would be Gifts Belcher. An example of a background matchup would be Mono Blue Control or DeathLong. There are people out there playing these decks, but spending time preparing for these matchups is simply not a valuable use of your time, for more than one reason.
First of all, most decks in the format have structural similarities to other critical matchups. Therefore, the tools and information you learn in testing the critical matchups will have some applicability to the background matchups. Second, if you are a novice to the format, your time will be best spent not worrying about the sheer quantity of decks out there. You likely won’t face them. And if you do your homework preparing for the critical matchups, you won’t need to worry about whether you face background matchups or not. Your skill with your own deck should be enough to carry you part way and your testing against similar decks will help you reach the finish line.
However, you must learn critical matchups. You will run into critical decks at a tournament. You may run into one or you may run into three. Preparing well for them is like getting a tax refund. You have tested the matchup and you know what you need to do to win and so you should be in a position to win that match. It is likely that your opponent has not put in the work you have and you will reap the reward.
So in the absence of readily available Pro Tour data for Vintage, how do you identify “critical” matchups? The Vintage metagame is not incoherent. Metagames all over the world have grown increasingly close to each other. Usually the key difference is not a regional metagame preference, but the number of proxies that any given tournament permits. The large StarCityGames tournaments and the Gencon Vintage Championship as well as some other huge tournaments provide a rather well defined contour to the Vintage metagame. I could give you several websites to scour for Vintage data, but rather than overwhelm you with more information, I’ll just direct you to the archives of Phil Stanton. Every month he presents a breakdown of the metagame in fifty-plus person tournaments around the world. This data provides a rather clear picture of the Vintage metagame.
Look at Phil’s metagame breakdown and you should have a very good idea about what the critical matchups are. Look within his articles for the tournaments that have occurred in your region and use that information to weigh what you think you are more likely to expect than the worldwide metagame would suggest. If you live in a region where there is a large Vintage tournament, you can look to see what has won the last large event or what decks tend to be popular. Pretty much anything that is over 10% of the metagame is a “critical” matchup. I would identify no more than six decks that you want to rigorously test and learn. Ideally, you should choose no more than four.
The Mechanics of Testing
The first step to testing is to goldfish a deck. You can do this even with a control deck. The point is, first, to see how the darn thing actually wins. Second, you familiarize yourself with the deck’s card pool. Third, you get a sense for how fast it is. If you don’t understand why a particular card is in the maindeck, it might be a metagame inclusion, or there is something you are missing. Goldfish the deck until you have a good idea what the deck is trying to do and you don’t have any serious questions about why any particular card is included.
If you don’t find the goldfishing particularly helpful in terms of learning the deck, you can go install a program such as Apprentice or MagicWorkstation and begin testing online. Do this until you have a better sense of how the deck plays out. Once you have learned the basic plan and are familiar with the card pool in at least two decks, you are ready to begin the next step.
The second step is to pit two of the decks on your “critical” decks list against each other. There are two ways to do this. If you know a person who is particularly good with one of those decks, then, if you can, find that person and test with them. If not, a method I think is equally good, if not better, is “two-fisted testing.” Let me describe how to go about doing this.
Two-fisted testing can be done in several ways. One way to do it is to sleeve up both decks, shuffle and cut them and then to draw both hands and begin playing the decks against each other. The physical logistics of using two physical decks can make this method too time-consuming. A better method is to open up a program like Apprentice or Magic Workstation and play two decks against each other. Apprentice allows you to open up two screens and connect the program to itself. Magic Workstation doesn’t permit that so you’ll just have to open two separate screens and switch back without actually having the games connect to each other. The third and best way to two-fisted test is to open up Apprentice or Magic Workstation and to play one deck on the computer and the other in real life.
No matter how you choose to test, in person or two-fisting, you will only learn so much playing the decks against themselves without more. It takes a bit more time, but the best way to test like this is to physically record the games like a chess player records a chess game with notation. With a shorthand method, this form of recording can be quite efficient.
Here is how I recommend you do it. Either take a pad of paper or open up a program such as Microsoft Word.
Begin each game with:
Game One or “G1”
Then, to save space, have the name of the two decks right below that such as:
That clearly indicates the two decks. Run the life total across the page instead of vertically. Such as this:
Gifts: 19, 18, 17, 14 8, W
Oath: 19, 18, 14, 13, 0 L
This log indicates in a very concise manner the progress of life totals until the game was won by the Gifts deck. Also, use a very simple method to indicate which deck played first. For example, you could circle the deckname “Gifts” to indicate that it played first, or you could put a check next to it or a little “p” to indicate that Gifts was on the play.
This will help you keep track of which deck have won or lost the most, but it won’t provide the most insightful information.
My advice is to further notate the play-by-play using shorthand notation.
Say you are playing Oath. You would want to write down the opening hand under the “Game One” notation using:
Oath: Orchard, AK, FoW, Drain, Delta, B-Storm, Oath
Do the same with the other deck. Then to notate out the game, I suggest a pattern such as this:
O: Delta -> Island, Pearl, Oath.
G: FoW pitching Drain.
O: FoW, pitching AK.
And so on.
From that simple notation, you can tell every thing that happened. You can tell that the Oath deck dropped an Orchard on turn one and then Brainstormed on the Gift players endstep. You can tell he drew Akroma, Mox Pearl and an Oath and put back the Akroma. You can tell that the Oath resolved after a Force of Will battle.
This isn’t particularly time consuming to do because Type One games are usually over within 10 turns, and often much sooner. If the game goes longer, then you can use notation to summarize when nothing was happening and so on.
But why? Why go through all of that? You would be shocked to learn how valuable such a form of testing that can be. The reason is simple. When you are in the game, you are focused on the intricacies of that actual game. If you notate ten games like that, then you can go back and look for patterns.
I haven’t actually done this with this match, but let’s say you discover that Gifts won 6-4. In reviewing the matchup, you can categorize different games. You’ll be able to observe the precise circumstances under which each deck won. You might discover that Oath won every game that Oath was able to resolve an Oath on turn 1 or turn 2, but lost every game in which it didn’t. You might discover that every time the game went longer than turn 5, the Oath deck won. Who knows what you might discover, but the point is, you will be able to draw concrete conclusions based upon your testing. You will be able to observe the frequency with which certain plays occur and then draw rough estimates about the amount of time that play is likely to arise. You will be able to say: deck X wins when A and B happens and loses when C and D happens. You will then be able to have some idea for how often A, B, C, and D happen and how much of a difference going first may be. You will also be able to make conclusions about consistency, weaknesses, and correlations between various outcomes and mulliganing. You will also be able to see outliers for what they are. Also, in reviewing the games, you will come across situations in which you made a play mistake or a improper play. All of these observations are extremely valuable for one very important reason: you will now have a plan.
You Must Have a Plan
The next time you play that matchup, you will know what needs to happen for you to win. This will be your plan. You know what you need to stop and you know what your chances of doing that are. You can then use that information in several ways. First, you can tune your maindeck to increase your ability to effectuate that plan. Second, you can develop a sideboarding plan geared to achieve the outcome desired. Third, this will give you confidence if you play this match that you know you will win. You know the kinds of draws your opponent is likely to get and you will be able to make very cunning plays based upon that information. That is the advantage of two-fisted testing: you get a feel for how both decks draw, not just one. If your opponent leads with turn 1 Mountain, Goblin Lackey, and you have tested against Food Chain Goblins, you have a very good idea what to expect next.
Once you have figured out how the critical decks you have chosen play out against each other, you can then decide which deck you think is best. You are in the best position possible to gauge weaknesses, to see strengths, and to identify which deck might be able to handle the other critical decks. Moreover, small but important advantages accrue. You might get some inspiration about a card that could be included to swing the one bad matchup. Or you might learn how to best split a Gifts Ungiven pile.
Whatever the case, all of this leads up to developing a plan. You need to know what needs to happen to win any given match. You need to have an idea of which hands you have to mulligan because they aren’t likely to execute that plan. You need to think about how to sideboard to bolster your plan.
Mastering a Deck
Once you have chosen a deck and have adopted a plan for that deck, now is a good time to move onto in persona testing. The best way to do this is to find someone who is really good at a matchup you are worried about. Then find a time to test with them trying various sideboard permutations.
Testing in person is very important. There are some things that simply must be done against another opponent. This is where you tighten up your game. You should be looking for ways to improve your ability to play the deck beyond simply executing your plan. You need to be thinking about how to induce your opponent to make mistakes, how to surprise your opponent, how to deal with difficult situations and unforeseen threats.
If you are really pleased with your deck choice, it’s at this point that you can begin to branch out and test some of the “background” decks that you are less likely to see but want to learn anyway.
This testing will never go to waste. Type One never really rotates. Your work will be valuable background information that you will be able to apply even if you face that matchup much later on with a completely different weapon. Over time, your knowledge of the format will grow such that you will be in a position to design and develop decks of your own. But that’s the subject of another article.