Flashback to early 2008…
"Attack with my Tarmogoyf."
Could LSV have Darkblast? I have a Tarmogoyf to block, so why would he attack here? What does Junk have that can punish me for blocking? Maybe he is just going to play another Tarmogoyf and is checking to see if I am a sucker. Is there any way this isn’t a bluff? After all, he knows I am on Next Level Blue, and even if I block it’s not like I am going to attack on my turn.
One of the most effective ways to get better at Magic is to practice with the best players you possibly can. Practicing Magic is invaluable for strengthening one’s game, but the value in the practice is not just going through the motions. Practicing good technique, thinking about your plays, and understanding what you are learning are crucial, but the amount you get out of testing is also a function of how strong of a game your testing partner brings to the table.
We want to be on the lookout for the best testing partners we can find, but it is not enough to just seek out the best players you can. There is usually no shortage of people looking to test with the best players in every area. As such, it is important to not take it personally if someone declines an offer to test with you. There is not enough time in the day for everyone to test with everyone else.
One doesn’t make it in the NBA by complaining about never getting to practice against NBA players. If you want a serious shot in the NBA, you have to earn it. Work your way up. You might play on a variety of teams (middle school, high school, college, intramural, etc.) before ever getting a single NBA scout to see one of your games. If you want the best chance to make it in the NBA, you are going to want to learn to make every team you are a part of the best team it possibly can be.
These relationships are not all just temporary, either. It isn’t like the guy you play with in middle school can’t grow up to play in the NBA. Tayshaun Prince and Tyson Chandler played together in high school before eventually playing together in the NBA. Four-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitor and Pro Tour champion Mark Herberholz used to just be a local kid at a game store I went to as a teenager. Tom Martell and Luis Scott-Vargas went to high school together.
Pushing your teammates to be the best possible versions of themselves will help push you to be your best. Investing time and energy into the local scene is one of the best investments you can make in terms of improving your game long term.
That said, it is also important to make sure you don’t force collaborations that have run their course. Magic is a dynamic and evolving game. We have to be able to evolve with it. It is difficult to make it into the NBA if you are only willing to play with your middle school basketball team. Maybe you all thought you wanted to be in the NBA when you were 13, but as you grew up, your desire to be an NBA player did not end up the same as theirs.
It is important to figure out who is actually interested in seriously elevating their game. You can’t make people want to get better. You can encourage people to come out and they might even get the fever, that hunger to compete and win, but if they don’t feel it, you can’t make them feel it.
Listen to the things people say, what they don’t say, and what is said between the lines. An awful lot of people say they want to improve, but are they making excuses for not showing up to test? Are they trying harder to prove to themselves that they are already good enough than to actually level up? Are they listening to what other people are saying or just waiting for an opportunity to talk?
Building a playtest group up isn’t about making people do what you think they should to prepare. It isn’t about commands, and it isn’t some military training camp.
It should be about positive energy. When Magic is fun, we learn a lot more from it. Seriously. If someone is a strong player but has a bad attitude and brings with them an aura of negativity, it is just going to poison everyone in the group. It may not be fatal immediately, and it is possible your playtest group is enough better than the local community to endure it for a while. However, over time, negativity, unhappiness, and bad attitudes can pollute even the best of testing groups, spreading like a cancer.
When building your local scene up, it is important to look to nurture a positive environment, not just get the five best players in town together. If people aren’t enjoying themselves, if people are unhappy, what are you even really doing?
Though we are all motivated by a desire to improve ourselves, a good test group is not selfish. At least not in the shortsighted, short-term sense of the word. The truth is that our game is going to get better if we can step our teammates’ games up, and to do that, we have to make sure testing is not just about helping ourselves.
For instance, it is shortsighted to always want to pilot your brews. What about being the villain sometimes against your teammate’s brew? It is not life or death to be the villain exactly 50% of the time. Different people have different skills. That said, defaulting to being the guy playing Delver or whatever your teammate wants 50% of the time is a good strategy.
Take turns playing ten-game sets, if you want. Just make sure that when you play the gauntlet deck, whatever that may be, you play it to the fullest. A teammate that will put their heart into play with a gauntlet deck is extremely valuable.
Testing Against Your Buddy’s Bad Decks
Giving your teammates a chance to learn the things they want to learn is important, even when it involves them playing cards or decks that suck. First of all, brilliantideasarestupidideasthatworked. Even when the stupid ideas don’t work, there is value beyond "another roll of the dice to see if this idea will work."
Playtesting is about understanding Magic and the format better.
When a teammate wants to try a new idea or a new deck, play them with whatever they want to face. If they just want to see if their deck is good, having an established gauntlet is super valuable. For instance, these days every new brew should have to go through Delver just to make it to serious discussion.
If they are trying to see something specific, however, you shouldn’t make them sit through another Delver set just to earn the right to see the impact two Crushing Vines has on their Birthing Pod matchup, if that is what they want to see.
It doesn’t always take ten-game sets to show us something isn’t working, but if something looks like it is, generally giving it ten games is a good idea. That is still a ridiculously small sample size in the grand scheme of things, but it is usually far better than jumping to conclusions after three games.
Let people abandon decks that aren’t working. While it is fine to give up on your brews that aren’t working, we generally want to avoid pressuring someone into giving up their new brew after just a couple games, even if it looks terrible. We can learn a lot, even when playing a deck that is fatally flawed. Who knows? Maybe there is some awesome technology hidden in that horrible amalgamation of cards that is trying to escape, and their subconscious is trying to figure it out.
It is a very fine line between "horrible" and "great," but trying to make evaluations isn’t the best use of our time at this stage of testing. Striving for perfect understanding is the ideal. If they are not learning enough for the games to be worth it, they can stop any time. If you really feel like the games are just a waste of time, it is not unreasonable to double check to make sure there is purpose, that there is something they are trying to see.
If they just believe their deck is good and you believe the opposite, do your best to demonstrate it on the battlefield. That doesn’t actually "prove," anything, but it does provide evidence you can both use to come to a greater understanding.
It is not crucial for your testing partner to believe the deck they are piloting is actually that good for it to be valuable, though. They could also potentially respond along the lines of, "I just want to try something," or, "I want to see something." Maybe the deck is bad, but they just want to see if it is even possible to combo off, or which cards are looking bad in their hand, or if the deck’s mana even works.
Testing Against A Bad Net Deck
When testing against a deck that just made Top 8 of the last GP or SCG Open Series or Pro Tour, it is important to give the deck the benefit of the doubt. Make sure to not give up on it without understanding it. If it just made Top 8 of a major event, there is almost surely something of value to understand about it. Even if you are not a fan of the deck or think it is fatally flawed, it is important to figure out how its pilot could have gotten the result it did.
For instance, let’s suppose you’re taking a look at the results from this past week’s SCG Standard Open in Denver (the largest ever in Denver). You notice the Top 8 contained four Delver, a B/R Zombies, a Mono-Green Infect, G/W Aggro, and a Mono-Black Control deck.
A Mono-Black Control deck? That’s impossible!
Since at least half the people making this claim were alive when Necropotence was printed, it is probably worth investigating how a Mono-Black Control deck could have snuck into the Top 8. Was Brad Nelson right and Trading Post was fetch all along?
It is not enough to just proxy up the list and jam a few games. We want to take a critical eye and see what we can learn from it. For instance, four Mutilates despite just fourteen Swamps. That is at least "interesting," right? How did Pitzer get away with it?
These are the kind of discussions that can be invaluable with testing partners.
Get their take on it! Maybe you already noticed the three Nihil Spellbomb, three Ichor Wellspring, two Mycosynth Wellspring, and four Solemn Simulacrum, but they point out Barter in Blood and Black Sun’s Zenith, giving you other options even when you occasionally can’t Mutilate the entire board.
Maybe a conversation with teammates about what makes this list different from existing Mono-Black Control lists (such as using only five big victory conditions maindeck instead of nine, like Anthony Eason ran a month ago) leads to an idea about how to use a new card to revamp a Mono Red deck you were working on a year ago. When you foster an environment where people can freely and openly discuss ideas without fear, everyone involved will have more and better ideas over time.
Magic can be quite competitive, but playtesting shouldn’t always be a competition. Testing shouldn’t be about proving some form of superiority. It should be about moving towards perfect understanding. When groups working together are not on the same page about their goals and their priorities, it leads to dangerous perversions of incentives.
For instance, if someone in a testing group feels they badly need to prove they are the best all of the time (or even just prove themselves at all after a bad showing), there is a risk that they don’t play the decks in testing that will help the group gain the most understanding but rather the decks that will help them save face.
Worse, some groups actually find themselves in the awkward position of people lying or "forgetting" their record in drafts that were done that day or the results from earlier testing sessions. Writing down results on paper sounds silly, but it is super valuable. We don’t want to be the guy messing up results for the group with misinformation, and we don’t want to be the guy pressuring or making fun of someone to the point that they end up so defensive that they lose track of what it is we are really doing as a team.
Being a good teammate means more than just playing games together and more than just good conversations. Good teammates are there for each other. You have to be able to trust each other. If someone doesn’t respect your time, your cards, or your technology’s secrecy, what makes you think they will start when you are all on the Pro Tour together? Or that you will ever get to the Pro Tour with teammates perpetually fighting amongst each other?
Being a good teammate isn’t about being a "yes man." We want to accept our teammates, how they really are, but we also want to encourage them to be the best they possibly can be. Peer pressure isn’t always a "bad thing." We want to encourage teammates to sleep better, not take back plays in testing, stay focused on the tournament at hand, and not throw away a month of testing the night before a tournament (without making sure that is really what they want to be doing).
We aren’t always going to have an abundance of teammates available at our fingertips. It is a common strategy for people to spend a lot of time trying to get people that don’t really want to level up to want to (and to keep asking those same people over and over). A more effective approach is to give yourself a diverse set of testing experiences.
Go to more tournaments in more places. Go to more stores, more SCG Open Series, more PTQs, more FNMs. Become bigger than that. Meet people, network (through Facebook, forums, and IRL), and give yourself more chances to find the right people.
Give people the benefit of the doubt, and try to learn from everyone you have an opportunity to play with. What motivates them? What do they want out of Magic? Finding people that want similar things to you is invaluable.
When you do collaborate with people, make sure to keep it real. Be sincere in your words and your actions, be a good human being, and it will make a difference. Find other real people that want it as bad as you do, and you can conquer the world.