The Value Of Nonoptimal Testing

Online play is like The Stuff: Are you eating it, or is it eating you?

If you’re into celebrating the continuance of time’s progress, then I suppose I can dig up a "Happy New Year" to throw your way. It’s hard to maintain interest in the holiday after taking a moment to realise that a year’s worth of days concludes in every instant.

However, believing that hasn’t stopped me from indulging in the societally required end-of-year ruminations. I suppose if there must be a time for it, winter is the best. The whole outdoors has put on its guise of death. It’s the closest the mundane gets to the disastrous, with all the self-examination that comes in times of peril. The analogy ends there, though, for in the face of real terror I doubt I’d be thinking about eating less and exercising more.

Getting back to the looking back, I think the last few weeks have been good for me, though not entirely. A few things have happened to me that are awful enough to warrant omission, and then there’s not having a column published in about a month. I had to delete two aborted half-columns today. I hate squandering good material, but it had become dated. Much as I would love to recycle my two pants jokes, they lose a fair bit out of context. Plus, pants jokes age like wine in fine old kegs.

My return to Burlington hasn’t helped matters. Sequestered from my usual playgroup, I’ve been short on funny goings-on. The balance tips when you consider that I’ve been relaxing furiously and enjoying all the comforts associated with the end of school and immersion in holidays. Plus, I got to work a near-legitimate gig for The Sideboard, so even though I sometimes feel as if I’m chained to the past never to escape, I can point at one or two things and say, "Hey, remember that?"

Like Manimal.

Besides, Henry Ford told us that history is bunk, and then the Buddhists gently reminded him that he wasn’t telling the whole story.

One of the best things that’s happened since returning to Burly is that I managed to draft at my old stomping grounds. I’ve been away so long I forgot that they play a rather unorthodox game. I was ready for an all-Invasion draft and was met with the unlikely "Pick any three packs you want" format. Visiting WotC’s site verifies that this has yet to be sanctioned.

My reflex was to take three Invasion, but that’s apparently not only taboo in these parts, but also "boring". I looked at what my worthy opponents had snagged. The rare-drafting kid that no one likes took three Invasion despite numerous crook-eyes. After that, the pattern went paisley. There were 6th Edition boosters, Masques, Nemesis, and Prophecy. I decided to play black, and if I was to play from three distinct boosters I figured I’d need the powerful first picks that Saga and Masques virtually guarantee. I took a pack of Invasion for kicks.

I busted that first, and Zanam Djinn told me I’d be playing Black/Blue. My right passed me Tsabo’s Assassin, and I was in like Flynn. I ended up with a really great B/U/w deck, with many evasion critters like Razortooth Rats and Feral Shadow, good removal, a pair of Recovers to bring back my powerful creatures in the 11th Hour, and decent groundstall tools like Vodalian Zombie and the absolutely amazing Wall of Vipers (Thank you, errant Prophecy pack!). The white was for a Griffin, Tower Drake’s ability, and to gussy up my pair of Exotic Curses. My pack choice paid off, giving me a Snuff Out and a very ludicrous Zephid’s Embrace.

I managed to win the whole shebang, despite a first-round loss to my good friend James McCleod playing a G/R Land Destruction deck with multiple Tillings and Turf Wounds, backed up by Stone Rain and Raze. He made my three-colour gambit look like it dressed itself this morning.

The best thing about this draft was that I expected a debacle and got many interesting game positions, overall strong competition, and better still, buckets of fun. I had to be sedated briefly when the shifty-eyed rare-drafting kid beat the store owner with the Coalition Victory he had in his deck.

And since this all happened right at the end of the year, it got me to thinking. I’ve been using NetDraft a lot since I’ve been home, and I had sort of discounted whatever practise it gave. I mean, you haven’t a way to gauge your opponents’ abilities, and often scam some downright silly decks. I recently finished pack two with many good creatures, four Plague Spores and three Frenzied Tillings. Eighteen land, a Fertile Ground and a Cameo later, I was in the LD industry. My opponent conceded when I whacked his fourth land in as many turns, burying his offence in the process.

Even though these frankly fanciful things happen in online testing, I’m realising that I’ve been developing as a player despite them.

People say "Practice makes perfect," but I’ve been a fan of the revision that says, "Practising your mistakes makes you good at them." To this end, I’ve tried to avoid the lighter, less ferocious arenas that this game offers, worrying about getting lax. I’m only just past the point of forgetting fading counters, and the prospect of backslide is horrible to think on.

Nevertheless, I’ve been in voluntary hometown exile with little else to do, and it’s not like I can just stop gaming. So I’ve playing a lot of online Magic, most of which has been against decks that were ill-constructed (fifteen land and a curve that’s missing it’s three-spot) and opponents who were not only not up to snuff, I suspected several of them to be users thereof. And yet I progress, slowly.

This probably means that I’m just not as good as I thought I was, and that in the course of these often-tiresome drafts (first pick Breath of Darigaaz, second pick Ghitu Fire, third pick Breath of Darigaaz, Disconnect. "Can I count that as a win?"), I’ve been picking up the fundamentals that so many of you out there seem to have knitted into your lungs.

The other possibility is that my game just improves with practise, the way the proverbs say it does. It might be a little slower, and I’m certainly not going to face the hardest matches of my career, but maybe the learning is only barely limited by your opponent. It’s usually your decisions that matter anyways, right?

Josh Bennett

"The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing." — Good ol’ C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

That’s just for fun. You can keep that.