The Wescoe Connection – Finishing Your Tournaments

Visit the StarCityGames.com booth at Grand Prix Houston!
Thursday, March 18th – Playing to win at PTQ level has a number of unwritten “rules.” One such rule is that when you’re mathematically out of Top 8 contention, you drop from the tournament. Craig Wescoe brings us a thoughtful article on why this course of action is not the optimal play.

This past weekend I played in the StarCityGames.com Standard Open in Indianapolis. For those who are interested, the deck I played can be found here. It was basically the same deck I’ve been playing since San Diego, but this time splashing Red for Cunning Sparkmage. There were 669 players in the tournament, which meant ten rounds of Swiss before a cut to Top 8. Moreover, only the top 16 players earn prizes. Hence it would take 8-1-1 with good tie breakers for Top 8, and 8-2 with good tie breakers to earn prizes.

I lost in the first round and again in the fourth round, meaning I was mathematically eliminated from prize contention after just four rounds — and I was fully aware of this fact at the time of my second loss. But like I always do in tournaments, I continued playing until the end. My running joke throughout the day was that my goal was to win out and get paired up in the last round so I can scoop someone into the Top 8 (or at least into the Top 16). Although I did win out, I got paired against someone with equally bad tie-breakers in the final round; so we played it out and I finished 8-2 and in 28th place.

A number of players approached me during the tournament and asked me for general advice on how to improve their game. My answers were admittedly pretty generic, suggesting the following types of things:

• Reflect on what you could have done differently when you lose instead of blaming it on bad luck.
• Practice as much as possible with your deck against a variety of decks so you learn how to play each matchup.
• Watch better players play Magic and try to understand why they are making the decisions they make.
• Read articles to learn from better players.

Each of these topics has been written about extensively by other authors, so I won’t talk about them here. Instead I would like to talk about a recommendation that to my knowledge has not yet been discussed at length, despite my firm belief that it has contributed greatly to the successes I have had in my Magic career (and likely those of many others), namely:

• Finish each of your tournaments.

By this I mean you should never drop from a tournament unless you have an extremely good reason to, and most of these good reasons are the kinds of things that would make you drop from a tournament even if you were undefeated (i.e. medical emergencies, etc). Playing the wrong deck, making misplay after misplay, conserving your rating, wanting to spend more time trading, wanting to play in a booster draft, or pretty much any other reason that is tied to being out of contention for prizes are not good reasons. If you have found yourself dropping from tournaments for any of these reasons, you are probably hindering your development as a competitive Magic player much more than you realize. Allow me to elaborate.

For the vast majority of my Magic career, I have been a PTQ grinder. Once the upcoming schedule is announced, I would plan out which events I could attend and start making plans to play in each one I could. This usually meant playing in around five PTQs and one or two Grand Prix events. One of the turning points in my development was when I started taking advantage of the Swiss structure. Believe it or not, Magic tournaments used to all be single and double elimination (or heaven forbid Round Robin, where everyone plays everyone). The nice thing about the Swiss format is that regardless of how well or how poorly you perform, you will be paired against an opponent with a comparable record to yours for every round of the tournament until the cut to Top 8 (if there even is one). So here is how I started using this format to my advantage:

Going into the first PTQ of the season, I would play whatever deck I felt would give me the best chance to win. I usually would not do well in early PTQs for a couple of reasons: (1) I did not yet understand all of my matchups, and so I would make misplays or poor card choices for my deck, and (2) I have a tendency to go rogue, and usually my rogue creations are not optimal right out of the gates. So even after I got my second loss I would continue playing the tournament, but with a slight change in attitude. For the remainder of the tournament I would pay particular attention to what plays or what cards might make a difference. For instance, I would ask myself “If this Vendetta were a Snuff Out, how would that change the outcome of this game?” or “Could I have won this game without the Gilded Drake in my sideboard to Living Wish for?” These are not the types of things I would be thinking about while still in contention, but after that point the tournament is all about preparing myself for the upcoming tournament, and so these questions become just as important as “What is the correct play here.”

After each tournament I would immediately go back to the drawing board and consider what changes I should make to my deck. If I had dropped after going 0-2 or 2-2 or whatever, there is a high likelihood that I would make mistakes (either play mistakes or suboptimal deck/card choices) in the following PTQ that could have been prevented had I finished my previous tournament. So by the end of each season I would have numerous rounds of tournament play with the format under my belt, and I would have a very solid understanding of my deck and its matchups, and my card choices were nearly optimal. I found myself winning a lot of PTQs toward the end of seasons with this strategy, and ones that I didn’t could usually be pinpointed to specific errors. For example, I lost a PTQ finals with a Toolbox Rock homebrew against Nicholas Labarre playing Mono Red Goblins precisely because my 75 card list was one card off.

My deck was a solution type deck that revolved around finding specific answers to each matchup via Living Wish and Vampiric Tutor. Against Labarre I had tutored for the first Engineered Plague and was holding the second Vampiric Tutor, but I was only running 1 Engineered Plague in my deck (a decision that I agonized over the day before, specifically for this matchup). He ended up beating me by finding multiple Goblin Piledrivers via multiple Goblin Matron and Goblin Ringleader triggers. Had I played a second copy of Engineered Plague in my deck I would have been able to tutor for it and thus taken away any possibility for him to win the game, since -2/-2 kills every creature in his deck. Not qualifying for this Pro Tour was my own fault for a couple of reasons: (1) I should never have cut the second Engineered Plague, knowing Goblins was the most played deck in the format, and (2) I skipped a couple PTQs throughout the season and hence did not leave myself enough room to make up for being one card off. Nonetheless, my point stands: I was only in that position to begin with because of all the valuable practice I gained from finishing each of the previous PTQs that season. I essentially put myself ahead of the curve by maximizing my tournament experiences with the format.

Fast forward to my recent return to competitive Magic, where I played Extended to try and qualify for Pro Tour: Honolulu 2009. My first attempt I played a Death Cloud deck that did well against Zoo and various other decks but had trouble with (and ended up getting knocked out by) Mono Blue Control. So I altered the deck to a more aggressive version with Umezawa’s Jitte — one almost identical to the build Michael Jacob made Top 8 of Grand Prix: Los Angeles with the following weekend, but with Darkheart Sliver over Bitterblossom, and more Seal of Primordiums in the sideboard. While the deck was able to compete against Blue control, it had trouble with Affinity, which was one of the most played decks at the time in the PTQ circuit. So I scrapped the idea and went with a Green-White heavy Zoo deck that looked to win the Zoo mirror by playing cards like maindeck Kitchen Finks and to beat the MJ-popularized Aggro Loam decks via Wilt-Leaf Liege. The deck was a travesty and could not beat anything other than Zoo. But despite my 0-2 start I finished the tournament and determined exactly why I was losing and what alternative plans might be superior. The following weekend I played an Adam Prosak-inspired, burn-oriented Zoo deck geared to beat Blue Control and Zoo, with most of the sideboard dedicated to Affinity and Elf combo hate. I ended up winning the PTQ, beating multiple Zoo decks and Affinity decks to get through the Swiss and then beating Blue Control decks in the semifinals and again in the finals.

So even though I started 0-2 the week before, it was imperative that I finish that tournament in order to figure out exactly what I was doing wrong and how I could fix it. By gaining that information, I was able to make some (major) changes to my deck and win the following week’s PTQ. I definitely would not have won had I dropped after 0-2 the week before. I likely would have just abandoned Zoo altogether as I did Loam Rock and started from square one with a new archetype — but instead I stuck with it and was rewarded for my efforts with an invitation to the Pro Tour.

Okay, so what can we take away from what I have said so far? The main point is obviously that you should never drop from a tournament — at least if you are serious about developing as a competitive tournament player, and especially if you aspire to win a PTQ. Now let’s consider a hypothetical scenario to illustrate the edge you gain over your opposition by finishing your tournaments. Let’s say Player A and Player B are of comparable skill levels and is each planning to attend the same number of tournaments, let’s say five; Player A does not take my advice and Player B does take it.

Tournament One:

Player A and Player B each go 2-2, but Player A drops and Player B ends up 5-3 (because the later rounds when you are out of contention are typically easier than the ones where you are still in contention).

Tournament Two:

Player B now has twice as much tournament experience with the format as Player A (8 rounds to 4 rounds), but let’s say both still only manage 3-2 records in this tournament before being out of contention. Player A drops and Player B wins out at 6-2.

Tournament Three:

Player B now has 16 matches of experience whereas Player A only has 9 rounds. So Player A probably either switches decks for this week and hence his deck is likely not yet optimized or he made a key mistake that Player B did not make based on the extra experience Player B has with his deck. So let’s say Player A finishes the same as he did last week: 3-2 whereas Player B does slightly better than he did last week and is 5-1 before getting his second loss. Had he won that match he would have been able to draw into Top 8. So he plays his last round, wins, and finishes 6-2 again.

Tournament Four:

Player A made some changes to his deck and ends up going 5-1 before getting his second loss in the round where, had he won, he would have been able to draw into Top 8 the following round. Player B, however, was in that position last week and made further changes and is now able to improve on his previous finish by cracking the Top 8. Maybe he wins the tournament, maybe he does not, but he is already an entire tournament ahead of Player A, solely because he finished each of his tournaments. Both have just one tournament left and Player A has still yet to make Top 8, while Player B is either already qualified or poised to improve on his Top 8 performance from the previous week.

While this scenario is hypothetical and highly idealized, I believe it serves to illustrate a point: If it is your goal to qualify for the Pro Tour, then you should maximize your odds of doing so by not depriving yourself of valuable learning opportunities. Don’t look at each tournament in isolation — look at it as part of the overall project of qualifying for the Pro Tour (either this season or eventually). I see this phenomenon of narrow-sightedness happening all the time. Players travel from PTQ to PTQ and routinely drop after the first few rounds, only to return the next week to do the same thing. Maybe they make one Top 8, and sometimes end up winning the tournament, but if you really want some sound advice on how to give yourself the best chance at qualifying for the Pro Tour, finish each of your tournaments!

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that my Player A and Player B scenario is bogus and that you are not convinced that not dropping from an event will increase your odds of qualifying for a particular Pro Tour. You should at least acknowledge that in the long run the more experienced tournament players will have better odds of winning tournaments than the less experienced tournament players (Note that I am using ‘experienced’ in the sense I described earlier, where you are not only playing out the games but playing with a keen eye toward how to improve your chances of doing better in the following tournament). So if you play out each of your tournaments to the end while other players routinely drop once they are out of contention, you will have accumulated more tournament experience then they will have and you will thereby attain that higher level of experience faster than they will.

One question that should be looming in the back of your mind and needs to be addressed is what value does tournament experience provide that casual testing does not? For instance, why is it better to finish the tournament instead of dropping and going home to play test? Here are a few things tournament experience provides that casual testing does not:

1. In a tournament setting, you must submit a deck list at the beginning of the event and cannot change any of the cards in your deck until after the tournament. In testing you may lose a few games to a specific deck and decide to change the configuration of your deck. In a tournament you must rely on the resources at your disposal and come up with a strategy only involving the cards on your deck list. This forces you to think in ways that will either solidify your decision that a change is necessary or better yet allow you to figure out an alternate strategy that does not involve changing the cards in the deck.
2. In a tournament setting you must make a play and deal with the consequences of it. If you play the wrong land or cast a spell at the wrong time, there are no take backs. In testing, a lot of times the focus is on ‘figuring out the matchup,’ which is fine, but it lends to sloppier play. Having a tournament opponent hold you to your plays will force you to tighten up your play. Nothing forces you to learn from a mistake like losing because of it — and this kind of learning is best fostered through tournament play.
3. Tournament play assigns you an unknown opponent each round. When your opponent sits down across from you (unless you scouted), you do not know what they are playing. Furthermore, throughout the course of the tournament you will likely get paired against a variety of different decks, some rogue and some mainstream. Play testing against the best deck is important, but also having to compete against the less common decks will keep you from getting too ‘inbred’ with your testing. It will also expose you to a variety of different builds of the best deck (i.e. versions of Jund with Malakir Bloodwitch, or with Master of the Wild Hunt, or with Great Sable Stag in the sideboard, etc.).

Sure, you can tailor your play testing to resemble tournament play by constructing mock tournaments, but really what you ought to do if you are serious about developing as a competitive tournament player or about qualifying for the Pro Tour is to compliment your tournament play with a play testing regiment that will afford you the things that tournament play cannot, namely:

1. Trying out different cards for specific matchups to come up with a good build and set of sideboard plans.
2. Testing specifically against the ‘common’ deck list (perhaps the Pro Tour winning deck design or the one straight from the hot new article, etc.) since many of your upcoming opponents will likely just copy the list verbatim and maybe the deck did not yet exist, at least in its current configuration, prior to the tournament or article.
3. Not holding yourself to misplays so that you can accurately determine what the best strategies are for a given matchup.

In essence, if you finish each of your tournaments and then use the information gained from your tournament experience to inform your play testing, you will be in a much better position to succeed in your next tournament. But if you skimp on the tournament experience by dropping prematurely, you will have less to inform your play testing. Furthermore, over the long run you will still be making more play errors since you are playing fewer matches against real tournament opponents than you would be if you finish all your tournaments.

The next question might be whether and how this theory holds for Limited formats since so far my discussion has focused primarily on Constructed formats. Well, the answer is yes, it does, but in a slightly different way. By playing out all your rounds of sealed deck (assuming the PTQ is sealed deck), you gain familiarity with the cards in the format and what interactions work and don’t work. Moreover between games you can experiment by sideboarding into different color combinations to see how alternate deck configurations play out. You still are paired against an opponent with a deck of unknown contents who is trying to beat you and you are still being held to your plays. Additionally, you may learn how to play around certain cards like Arrow Volley Trap or Mark of Mutiny. And even as concerns changes in deck construction for future tournaments, you may learn that some card or cards are more or less powerful than you initially thought. Or perhaps you determine that, say, Black or Red is the strongest color in the format, or more generally that in sealed deck formats the decks running the most quality removal spells usually have the edge (or some other lesson). The point is that even in a Limited format tournament you should not drop, regardless of the relative strength or weakness of your card pool. Don’t kid yourself that you are conserving rating points by dropping — you will only give them back by losing future matches you could have won had you stayed the course and accumulated the extra tournament experience in the format. And besides, the only time your rating every really matters is when you are approaching the 2070 mark that will qualify you for the Pro Tour. If you are not within 50 or so points of that mark, your main focus should be on development as a player, and everything else will follow suit.

Coming back to my tournament experience this past weekend at the StarCityGames.com Standard Open in Indianapolis, there was never a question in my mind about dropping from the tournament. I could have been 0-9 going into the final round and I would have been crossing my fingers not to get the bye. I plan to continue playing Standard and competitive tournament Magic for the foreseeable future, so I want to get as much tournament practice in the format as I can. Moreover, even against a field largely comprised of non-pros, playing matches where my opponent and I are holding each other to our plays while trying to win the match will sharpen both our skills as tournament players. Besides, I play Magic because I love playing Magic, and nothing compares to the thrill of competition in a competitive tournament setting. Sure, a certain amount of the excitement is lost once you know you can no longer win the tournament, but that in no way renders the subsequent rounds valueless. Even on an emotional level, having to play out the remaining six rounds of a tournament knowing the best I can do is finish just outside the prizes motivates me that much more not to squander future opportunities where I am still alive to win the tournament. It’s no secret among accomplished tournament players that if you don’t have an intense love for the game and a passion to compete, you probably won’t be winning a lot of tournaments anytime soon.

Hopefully the advice in this article will be of good use to you. Best of luck in your future tournament endeavors!

Bonus Section:

Here is the list I would run if there were a Standard tournament tomorrow. Surprise, surprise — it’s White Weenie! Check the forums from my previous article for explanations of why I made the changes I made, and feel free to ask me questions in the forum of this week’s article if you have any!

Check back next week for my next strategy article! Thanks for reading!

Craig Wescoe