This Fire: PTQ Tournament Strategy

In my last article, I wrote about the Blue/White Mind’s Desire deck that I plan on playing in the upcoming PTQ season. This article will focus on tournament pointers that I believe will help you play your optimal game at the PTQs. This guide is meant for the beginner to moderate level of Magic player, but most people could probably benefit from perusing the article once or twice as well.

Hello and welcome to my second featured article here on StarCityGames.com! Thanks goes out to the loyal readers of my column who comment in the forums and also gave me so many hits on the Neo-Freshmaker in Standard link that won me $50 in store credit here!

In my last article, I wrote about the blue-white Mind’s Desire deck that I plan on playing in the upcoming PTQ season. This article will focus on winning tournament play that I believe will help you play your most optimal game at the PTQs. This guide is meant for the beginner to moderate level of Magic player, but most people could probably benefit from perusing the article once or twice as well.

You might wonder “Why should I listen to Kyle Boddy, he’s never won a PTQ in his life?” which is a fair question to ask. While it’s true I’ve never actually won a PTQ, I don’t think I’ve really started playing a strong competitive game until this past season (Mirrodin Block Constructed), and I’ve definitely learned a lot from my mentors. Over the Mirrodin Block season, I was responsible for co-creating the “Freshmaker” deck that saw plenty of play (and continues to in current Standard) as a viable Tier 1 option to Affinity, Tooth and Nail, and Big Red. I posted many good yet unimpressive finishes – 6-2, 6-2, 6-1-1 (missed Top 8 on breakers), 6-1-1 (Top 8 and loss in the first round), and 1-2 drop. One of the 6-2 performances saw me be unable to draw into the Top 8 due to the large turnout of players and had to play against a teammate/friend, Mike Aten, and the 6-1-1 where I missed is where I took an ID with teammate/friend John Hunka and missed on tiebreakers (again, due to large PTQ turnout).

So, I’ve been a bit unlucky in that regard, but I do believe I was playing some of the best Magic in my life at that point, and many others agreed.

With the PTQs coming up, and many new players getting into Extended, I feel that writing a semi-comprehensive guide to playing well and maximizing your chances of winning a PTQ, doing well in a PTQ, or achieving whatever performance goal you set for yourself will help many people out there do their best.

Without further ado, let’s get started!

Step 1: Determine what your performance goal is.

This is important. Whether your goal is to have fun with a rogue deck design, Top 8 the PTQ, or take a slot to Philadelphia, you should start off by deciding on exactly what you want to achieve this season. By having a clear target to hit, you can accurately work towards that goal throughout the entire season and be happy with hitting it (or exceeding it). Do note, however, that the goal/target is liable to change after one or two PTQs, and that’s fine! Just make sure you have a jumping off point from where you want to be at.

Step 2: Get a playtest group together.

This might be the most important step of the many that I will cover in my article. Without a playtest group, you are flying blind. You need to be able to spread the work out amongst your group by assigning decks to various people to build and test, getting members to scout out metagames at your local gaming stores, and pooling a large collection of cards from which to build decks from. It also goes without saying that a large playtest group will maximize your chances of getting quality playtest games in to further your play skill and deck knowledge.

If you can’t find people in real life to gather and group together, you can always substitute an online league like Magic Online, E-League, or O-Gaming to disseminate ideas about deck strategy and playtest your matches. Communication is key, and you’d do well to find a group of people you can bounce ideas off of and work together with as soon as you can!

Step 3: Gather information.

Game selection is an important part of playtesting. It’s very tedious and boring to proxy every single deck archetype that was played at PT: Columbus and run the numbers against each other for days, so cut your work in half by scouting the local tournaments and seeing what people are planning on playing (this is where having a team helps, big time). If you see a lot of Red Deck Wins, make a note of it. If you see people playing a lot of Scepter-Chant and Psychatog, make sure you write that down somewhere. Once you’ve collected sufficient data on what the local metagame looks like and what you can expect from your likely opponents, make a list of the decks and archetypes you expect to see.

Then, after you’ve got all that information, determine which deck(s) in the semi-established field give you the best opportunity to win against the dominant decks that you see on your list. If Red Deck Wins is huge, a good choice might be Blue-White Mind’s Desire or Life. If Psychatog or Scepter Control look to be huge, perhaps Red Deck Wins or Blue/Green Madness are the decks to play.

After you’ve done that calculation, proxy up the decks you plan on seeing and the decks you’d like to play. This leads us into the next step…

Step 4: Playtest, playtest, PLAYTEST.

Not enough can be said about this step! Once you’ve got all the decks proxied up and ready to play, run them into each other constantly. Make sure you keep detailed notes when you play, and make sure you play the deck as optimally as you can. Assign the beatdown decks to the player in your group that best plays beatdown decks, the control decks to the control-oriented player, and so forth.

When we were playtesting the Vial Affinity vs. Freshmaker matchup late into the night, my teammate Stephen Glaeser loved to keep meticulous statistics on both decks – how many times they mulliganed, average land counts per game, and number of given cards that both decks drew in the matchups.

I would recommend keeping track of the following statistics on each deck:

  • Number of times you mulligan with any given deck.

  • Number of times those mulligans are matchup-dependent.

  • Average turn you run out of land drops per deck.

  • Win percentages in every matchup you expect to see at your PTQs.

  • Games won/lost due to sideboarding options.

When you play your first few games, it’s a good idea to discuss with your teammates every single play you make to ensure that each spell you cast is the optimal play in any given situation. Once you’ve determined the best way to play the decks in your gauntlet against each other, you can then play at a more rapid pace to get a better feel for the deck. Until that time, however, you want to make sure that all the decks in the gauntlet are being played optimally, otherwise the statistics will provide less meaningful data to draw conclusions from.

I like to use Microsoft Excel for this, but regular paper and pen will work just fine. Again, this is where finding a team that will help you with these laborious tasks will help tremendously.

Step 5: Determine changes to the decks.

After playing hundreds of games with the netdeck lists you’ve collected and proxied, take a look at the statistics of the decks and the matchups. If you find that Nakamura’s deck tends to lose to Siron’s Blue/Green Madness deck because of land issues, maybe you should look into tweaking the mana in the deck. Could the addition of Chrome Mox help in your maindeck or sideboard? Maybe more lands need to be played.

Take a long look at the sideboards. Like Chad Ellis said in his article, sideboarding options from the decks at Pro Tour: Columbus were designed with that particular metagame in mind. If your metagame is devoid of Red Deck Wins (I can hardly imagine that being the case, seeing as how I live in the Red Deck Wins capital of the world – the Ohio Valley), maybe you want to look at cutting precious sideboard slots of Chill and/or Sphere of Law to make room for other cards. What effect does siding in six cards against Reanimator have? Does it dilute your deck’s original power and make it slower, thus nullifying the utility you gain from siding in anti-combo cards? Should you write off a particular matchup because it’s just so terrible?

These are the questions you should be asking yourself when you make changes to your maindeck and/or sideboard:

  • Does this change make an overall positive effect given what I expect the metagame to be in my particular area?

  • Could I substitute or augment this well-known card with a lesser-known card to achieve better results? (“Go rogue in the details,” Chad Ellis said. I agree.)

  • Am I comfortable playing with these changes to the deck?

  • Do these changes alter the direction of the deck to such a degree that we should look at constructing a brand new deck altogether?

Step 5a: Playtest MORE.

Yes, that’s right! Once you’ve made the first round of alterations, playtest more with the changed versions of the decks you now have. So much playtesting can cause people to get bored, but realize that it’s ultimately the best way to prepare for a tournament. Our entire team was sick of playing the Big Red vs. Freshmaker matchup (especially me, since I usually had to pilot the Red deck), but with all the changes we made to both decks we continued to collect appropriate data on the decks.

The end result was me winning a crapload of Fifth Dawn packs, about 120 Constructed ratings points, and placing 75% of our teammates in the money at GP: New Jersey and getting Joe Gagliardi a slot to the Pro Tour. We were slightly disappointed with the results, but at least they were there.

The above steps will help you get to creating and designing the deck you want to play, and ensuring you have all the relevant experience under your proverbial belt to make a good showing at the PTQs. However, deck design and playtesting is not all you need to win or do well at your tournaments. While it is a major step in getting you comfortable with every play and every matchup you expect to see, there is the actual execution of playing the games – the other half of the solution to get where you want to be.

Step 6: Playing your matches optimally.

Jon Becker wrote this particular excerpt that I found to be excellent:

Of course, lower level players suffer much more from playing cards that legitimately are terrible than from not playing cards which look terrible, but may not be. Whenever my opponent casts a Jukai Messenger on me, I start looking ahead to the next round. It probably doesn’t help the Jukai Messenger mage that he makes a lot of play errors to boot. When my opponent taps out pre-combat for something which cannot have any bearing on combat, I mentally chalk up a win. When my opponent lays his last card turn after turn, and its always a land – so he isn’t saving a bluff card – it becomes so much harder for him to win than if he just held that thirteenth land to make me play around whatever demonic trick my mid can conjure up as a potential wrench in the works. Although it’s tough to work on all these parts of your game at the same time, if you want to get better, you have to suck it up and do it.

He lists everything that I will be covering in this portion.

  • Keep note of your life total with pen and paper, and make notes on how both you and your opponent got to those totals. If you don’t note that you took 2 damage from Seal of Fire and not Magma Jet, you might wonder when you are sideboarding what burn spells you saw.

  • Write down every card you see when your opponent reveals his hand (Land Grant, Duress, Cabal Therapy, Peek, Cursed Scroll, whatever).

  • Once per turn, mentally check the gamestate. See how many cards your opponent has in his hand, count your graveyard and his graveyard, and attempt to read his physical traits that give away what he might be considering.

  • Never Chalk Up A Win Because Your Opponent Is Making Poor Plays. This is one of the more important issues to note (and Jon admits he is guilty of it). While your opponent might be playing poorly, this does not give you the excuse of also playing worse than you usually would. Play tightly and always respect your opponent, regardless of his actions.

  • When you are in a clearly losing position and keep drawing dead cards (usually lands), do not sigh or show physical signs of disappointment with your draws. Consider every card you draw to be an option, and do not give your opponent the satisfaction of knowing you’re in a terrible position. Make him determine that based on the limited information available. A good tip is to zone out while you draw your card, barely focusing on the card you are drawing. Put it into your hand in a random location and shuffle it around, then look at your hand. Magic is a game of imperfect information and knowing as much of it as possible to win – the corollary to this is to hide as much information as you can so that your opponent has a tougher time winning. This means not playing lands out of your hand as you draw them and not showing physical signs of disappointment with your draw steps. *

Always remember what you learned in playtesting and deck building, and be confident in your matchups and your ability to play well. If you’ve done enough playtesting and analyzing of your statistics, this will come naturally. If you haven’t, there’s no easy way around it. There is simply no replacement for playtesting and other preparation.

Random notes that will undoubtedly help your game:

  • Eat breakfast the morning of the PTQ, and make sure it’s relatively healthy. Get a good amount of simple and complex sugars and drink a natural juice product.

  • Get at least six hours of sleep before the PTQ.

  • Shower before the PTQ. Please.

  • Buy new sleeves before the PTQ and sleeve them up.

  • Have your teammate double-check your decklist and sideboard to ensure no random match losses.

I hope this list of tips will help you in your game at the local PTQs – they are a culmination of things I’ve learned along the path of becoming a developing tournament player.

Kyle Boddy

GFC Teammate

* There will be times that you suffer such ridiculous beatings that you will be necessarily demoralized with no way out of it. The only way to rally back is to continue to play tightly and refuse to be completely defeated. My example of this is Grand Prix: Oakland, where I finished Day 1 with a 7-1 record and proceeded to draft one of the best Mirrodin-Mirrodin-Darksteel decks I’ve ever seen.

2 Somber Hoverguard

Neurok Prodigy

Quicksilver Behemoth

Hoverguard Observer

Vulshok Berserker


Spikeshot Goblin

2 Frogmite

Spire Golem

Copper Myr

Arcbound Bruiser

Steel Wall


Barbed Lightning



Lifespark Spellbomb

Mindstorm Crown

2 Bonesplitter

Talisman of Impulse

Banshee’s Blade

I played against Dave Humpherys in the first round, and felt that my deck was probably the best at the table. Here’s how our first game went:

I win the coinflip.

Turn One

Me: Land, Steel Wall, go.

Dave: Land, go.

Turn Two

Me: Land, Copper Myr, go.

Dave: Land, Gold Myr, go.

Turn Three

Me: Land, tap Copper Myr, cast Hoverguard Observer, go.

Dave: Land, Talisman of Impulse, Darksteel Ingot, go.

At this point, I’m feeling extremely happy – I’ve cast a turn 3 Hoverguard Observer with a Steel Wall and a Myr on the ground, and I’m about to drop another flier.

Turn Four

Me: Land, attack for 4, play Neurok Prodigy, go.

Dave: Land…. “Judge?”

Hah, what could he possibly have? I have five power worth of fliers on the table, and he’s calling for a judge? Little did I know that he was probably calling the judge to make sure the beating he was going to give me was legal in the United States of America.

Dave: Land, tap all mana sources, cast Grab the Reins with Entwine on your Hoverguard Observer and your Neurok Prodigy.

Me: …excuse me?

For those of you keeping track at home, that’s a Grab the Reins with entwine on turn 4.

Turn Five

Me: Draw Arcbound Bruiser (okay, I’m back in this), play Arcbound Bruiser. Attack for one. Go.

Dave: Land, tap all mana sources, play Furnace Dragon.

That’s right kids, a turn 5 Furnace Dragon.

Needless to say, I lost that game, and then went on to lose the next game. I was so demoralized by this loss, but maintained my composure and rallied back to win my next two, going 2-1 in that pod. I finished in 20th place overall after losing to Ben Rubin playing for Top 8, and in the money in my first Day 2 appearance at a Grand Prix. You have to keep playing tight to win.

Bonus Section: Dampen Thought.dec gone horribly wrong.

I’ve heard from various people never to build a Dampen Thought deck in the team sealed portion of a PTQ. Well, my team (Miami Sound Machine) decided to try building one for me to play, and it looked completely acceptable – even good – in my eyes.

The trouble was, I had never played a Dampen Thought deck, or even seen what a good one looked like. Be forewarned – the following might burn your eyes severely.

Sensei’s Divining Top

Honden of Life’s Web

Joyous Respite

Kami of Old Stone

Blessed Breath

Harsh Deceiver

Candles’ Glow

Psychic Puppetry

Soratami Savant

Sire of the Storm

Mystic Restraints

Sift Through Sands

Petals of Insight

Dampen Thought

Reach Through Mists

Consuming Vortex

Honden of Seeing Winds

3 Peer Through Depths

2 Callous Deceiver

10 Islands

5 Plains

1 Forest

1 Cloudcrest Lake

1 Tranquil Garden

Notable sideboard:

Cloudcrest Lake

Kami of the Painted Road

Honor-Worn Shaku

Azuza, Lost But Seeking

Lifted by Clouds

Soratami Rainshaper

Soratami Mirror-Mage

Soratami Mirror-Guard

Soratami Cloudskater

2 Thoughtbind

2 Hisoka’s Defiance

I’m accepting guesses on what my final match record was in the forums. Have fun.