Tightening Up For Regionals

Regionals is coming. It’s right there off in the distance. If you squint your eyes and tilt your head you can almost see it.
And you’re ready for it. You’ve got your deck. You’ve playtested it. You’re going to get a good night’s sleep (cough) and eat a nice big breakfast (cough, cough) before you leave in the morning.
You’re going to win that damn tournament. Man, if only winning Magic tournaments were that easy!

Regionals is coming. It’s right there off in the distance. If you squint your eyes and tilt your head you can almost see it.

And you’re ready for it. You’ve got your deck. You’ve playtested it. You’re going to get a good night’s sleep (cough) and eat a nice big breakfast (cough, cough) before you leave in the morning.

You’re going to win that damn tournament.

Man, if only winning Magic tournaments were that easy! Wake up, get pumped, and go win. Bam! No sweat.

As we’ve all learned by now, nothing in Magic is that easy, least of all winning tournaments.

I’ve read many a tournament preparation article in my time. I can’t tell you why, since I always break like half the rules set forth in them, but for whatever reason I keep coming back to them. Each time I read one of these, no matter how fresh and how new it is, I get the itching sensation I’m reading less of an article and more of a refresher course. Certain things keep popping up over, especially:

“Make sure you get to the tournament site early.” (Yes, mom.)

“Did you get a good night’s sleep the night before?” (Of course, mom.)

“Remember to eat a big breakfast in the morning!” (I know, mom.)

Well, what you’re reading right now is indeed a tournament preparation article…but I won’t be discussing any of these things in it. Frankly, I’d be better suited to write an article on how to break these rules – but a good friend of mine known as Captain Obvious told me most readers won’t need any help with that. Instead, I’ll use the space on this Magic strategy site to tell you how to play Magic better at the tournament.

Now I don’t have my calculator handy, but I’d estimate that the deck you take to a given tournament accounts for roughly 40% of your success at that tournament. If you judge the metagame well, and bring a deck that is well-equipped to handle the diverse array of opponents you will face throughout the day, I’d say you’re already 40% primed for success. I’d put another 40% on playskill and testing, with a remaining 20% worth of “miscellaneous” stuff to determine where you end up in the standings.

Assuming 20% is the correct amount to allocate to non-playskill, non-testing, non-deck factors, that is indeed a very significant portion of what goes into your tournament success. 20% is the difference between going X-1-1 into the Top 8 and going X-2 drop, or the difference between a deck that goes exactly 50% against the entire field and a deck that goes 70% against the entire field.

A lot of players work very hard to get at that 80% worth of deck construction and playskill, but the rest of it remains a relatively untapped resource.

So what kind of things go into that last 20% of tournament success?

In the Top 8 of PT Nagoya, Terry Soh was staring down certain death from Frank Karsten unless he could somehow convince Frank to tap his Kabuto Moth on the upcoming attack. Frank sent his men in, and Terry blocked such that he would take seven damage, dropping him from eight to one. He then pointedly asked the table judge, “I’m at nine, right?” – to which the judge responded that he was at eight. Terry knew this already, but played up the situation as though he had miscalculated and would take lethal damage if Frank tapped his Moth to pump for the final point. It worked, and as soon as Frank made the play, Terry played a Soulless Revival to trigger his Thief of Hope, keeping him alive at 1 life after the attack, and allowing him to alpha back for the win on his next turn. (You can read a full article on bluffing from Terry himself here.)

I also recall reading an article once in which a mono-Blue control player was getting horribly land flooded, but chose to deliberately stop playing lands after his fourth. This gave his opponent the impression that he was holding a grip full of countermagic – after all, if he wasn’t playing any lands and also wasn’t playing any other spells, what else could his hand be full of but countermagic? The ruse worked; thinking he was up against an impenetrable defense, the opponent played out his worst threats first in order to bait countermagic that wasn’t even there. The weaker clock of these suboptimal threats gave the Blue player enough time to draw out of his land flood and go on to win the game.

Bluffing is one part of that last 20%.

Back when I played Tooth and Nail on MTGO, my sideboard strategy for a long time (before Betrayers was released) was to bring in four Karstoderms against Ponza. The Ponza players would keep juicy hands filled to the brim with land destruction, then I’d play a 5/5 angry dinosaur on turn 3 and it would just kill them.

Last year at Regionals, I had a mildly transformative sideboard package for my G/B control deck of three Hollow Specters and four Wretched Anurids – cards that no mainstream deck would touch with a ten-foot pole. Three of my eight match wins at that tournament (that’s almost half of them) came from this “surprise” sideboarding plan.

Bringing surprises no one is prepared for is part of that last 20%.

It has been said before that, “you should never go into the Top 8 of a PTQ without knowing what all of your opponents are playing.” Heading into the Top 8 of one Extended PTQ, my teammates informed me that my opponent was playing Reanimator. My opening hand in game one contained lots of discard, which would have been amazing against combination decks (my worst matchups), but which would not have gotten the job done out against the discard-resilient Reanimator. Since I knew what deck I was playing against ahead of time, I knew that I had to mulligan that hand. Without this information, I would have had to guess whether or not to mulligan, and might have botched the whole game right there.

At another Extended PTQ, I was playing a maindeck Life configuration. I sat down to one match and asked my opponent, “You aren’t playing Life, are you? I hate playing that deck and it’s everywhere today.” This was no lie – the Life mirror match is all kinds of lame – but really the purpose behind the question was to obtain information based on my opponent’s response. He commented with a grumble that he hated that deck, and was sick and tired of losing to it. From the way he said it, I could determine with reasonable certainty that he was playing an aggro deck, to the ultimate benefit of my game-one mulligan strategy. I went on to win game one, and the match.

Scouting is part of that last 20%.

In a PTQ several years ago, Jamie Wakefield knew good and well that his aggro opponents would be expecting Hail Storms post-board from his Secret Force deck. After having cut them from his list, he wrote about one tournament game in which he pretended to sideboard in Hail Storms he didn’t have by shuffling four random sideboard cards into his deck face down, then going through and sideboarding them back out. His opponent held back attackers the whole game as he played around Hail Storms Jamie did not even have in his decklist.

Getting inside your opponent’s head is part of that last 20%.

Always remember that last 20%. That non-deck, non-playskill factor that so frequently decides the outcome of entire matches. Don’t let yourself believe that “he’ll never fall for that” – if you never even try it, of course he won’t fall for it. Keep in mind this is Regionals, not the finals of a Pro Tour. These things won’t work every time, but the more of them you try, the more free games you will win over time with them. Put that last 20% to work for you, and you will find yourself pulling out all kinds of games you “had no business winning.”

Now for the remaining 80%.

I estimated earlier that about half of this figure comes from testing, so let’s get into that first. The thing that surprises me most about testing is how, for all the testing we do before a big event like Regionals, there are certain things we keep putting off each time we rattle off a set of games.

Certain things like showing love for the 15 best cards in our decks – the sideboard!

I can’t even tell you how many people I’ve talked to who regard their sideboards as some sort of miracle machine.

“Yeah, game one sucks – but then I bring in Choke and they pretty much can’t win.”

“After sideboarding I crush them with Sword of Fire and Ice. It’s not even fair. I mean, come on – pro-Red against mono-Red?”

“Affinity totally rolls over to my sideboarded Molder Slugs.”

If there’s one thing Affinity taught us, it is that tossing random hosers into a sideboard does not translate into match wins. Assuming these cards will work out just because they are hosers is one of the easiest ways to throw away a matchup you probably need to be winning. You absolutely must give your sideboard cards a few passes through the gauntlet – hosers and everything – before taking them into battle.

From what I’ve been hearing, though, this just isn’t happening. Most players I’ve talked to are guilty of having some number of cards in their sideboards that they’ve played less than ten games with.

For shame! How can you even bring a card in if you’ve never played with it? What if you’re taking out a card that’s better in the matchup than what you’re bringing in? Do you even know if this new card is helping you out?

Check out this forum comment from Jamie Wakefield:

“The Troll and Nail strategy seems odd to me, as I have had it used against me many times.

The deck went from being a turn 4 and 5 complete overkill deck to being a bad aggro deck that kills on turn 10-15.”

People are boarding that strategy in against Jamie’s mono-Green beatdown deck? No, no, no! That strategy is for Ponza! And maybe like the mirror or something – not the decks you already beat with regular Tooth and Nail!

What we are seeing here are the symptoms of a deadly disease known as Knee-Jerk Sideboarding. The disease manifests itself when players see juicy-looking sideboard cards (or entire sideboard strategies, in this case) and bring them in without stopping to analyze whether or not the sideboard cards are better than the maindeck cards they are replacing.

As far as I know, this disease is not widespread (except, apparently, among Tooth and Nail players), so I won’t dwell on the issue – just remember that if a matchup starts out favorable, any sideboard cards that will water down the strategy that made you win game one need to have a very, very good reason for coming in off the bench.

What you really need to watch out for is the opposite: Knee-Jerk NotBoarding. This occurs when players are hesitant to board out a card that kicks ass against most decks, even though a closer look would reveal that it is no good against the deck they are playing against right now.

I was floored by a line Mike Flores wrote awhile back regarding mono-Blue control:

Jon Becker brought something really interesting up to me on the phone last week. What If The Tooth And Nail Player Sides Out The Darksteel Colossus?”

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Was this somehow new tech? I had been doing this as a Tooth and Nail player since like the second time I had Bribery played against me. Wasn’t everyone doing this?

Evidently they were not. After all, Darksteel Colossus wins them tons of games, right?

Remember, the strength of the card against the field in general is irrelevant when you are sideboarding – all you care about is the matchup at hand. If Darksteel Colossus is not the card you’ll be Toothing for anyway – and he isn’t; Sundering Titan destroys their mana even if they have Boomerang – then why leave him in to give the opponent something good to Bribery for?

Speaking of Tooth and Nail targets, Duplicant comes to mind as another card that dodges the sideboard scythe more than it should. People like to keep him in simply to have him “on call” in case of emergency, not realizing that in some matchups these “emergencies” only come up once every 30 games, and the slot could be put to better use with nearly any relevant sideboard card.

Now on to the last 40% of tournament success, deck construction.

I will assume you have your maindeck figured out by this time, but how much time have you spent choosing the cards in your sideboard? Knowing how to sideboard is one thing, but fitting the highest concentration of backbreakers into those precious fifteen slots is quite another.

Let’s look at StrWrsKid’s ubiquitous LCQ Red deck. (I don’t feel bad picking on him because he openly stated in his tournament report that he did literally no playtesting.) I can tell you right now that he’s sideboarding wrong against Blue decks. Know how?

Because after sideboarding, he still has only three Genju in his deck, but multiple copies of Boil. As the Blue player, there is very little in Standard I am more afraid of than Genju of the Spires, and that most certainly includes Boil. Consider the following.

Genju is similar to Boil in that:

  • It is a sideboard slot dedicated to hosing Blue and basically nothing else.

  • If it goes unanswered, the Red deck almost always wins the game in short order because of it.

Genju is better than Boil in that:

  • There are probably four cards in the Blue deck that answer Genju (bounce spells), as opposed to fifteen or so (any countermagic) that answer Boil.

  • It resolves as early as turn 1, before Blue has a chance to go digging for answers to it, as opposed to turn 4 at the earliest, by which Blue has had time to cast at the very least Thirst for Knowledge.

  • Genju does not make you lose instantly if your opponent Spectral Shifts it.

Granted, not everyone will come to the same conclusions I have, but I can tell you right now that as the blue player I’d throw a party if all the Red mages suddenly decided to maindeck Boil instead of Genju.

(By the way, what the hell am I doing playing Blue at Regionals and then telling Red mages how to kick my deck in the junk? Let it never be said that I am miserly about my tech, folks.)

Okay, but let’s say you’re not playing Red at Regionals. You’re playing Mystery Deck X. I don’t know what Mystery Deck X is, nor do I know what’s in its sideboard.

But do you know? Can you recite it to me right now without looking at it? Have you played with all the cards in it? Ten games or more? Even if you’re confident of what to bring in against every deck, are you sure you’re sideboarding out the right cards? (More free Red tech: siding out Slith Firewalker against Tooth and Nail is not correct.)

I’ve heard it said time and again that “your sideboard is more important than you think,” but in my experience that doesn’t come close to doing it justice. If there’s one thing I have to communicate to you today, if there’s one thing I absolutely must convince you is true, it’s that the fifteen cards in your sideboard should be close to the fifteen best in your deck. Play with them.

So, to recap:

– Get a good night’s sleep, yadda yadda breakfast etc.

– Look for that last 20%. Bluff your opponent. Trick him, make him second-guess himself. Know what he’s playing before he lays his first land if possible, and surprise him with cards and plays he won’t be expecting.

– Make sure the cards you’re sideboarding in are better than the ones you’re bringing out.

– Make sure you aren’t keeping in any cards just because they’re usually good in your deck; if they aren’t any good in the matchup at hand, bench them for something else.

– Play at least ten games with each of your sideboard cards. You have to know whether or not these cards or working before the tournament, because if you find out they aren’t out on the day of the event, you’ll be mighty pissed you had them in your deck.

– Convince as many of your friends as possible to go to Regionals with you, because that way you can not only have a good time at the tournament, you can have an even better time afterwards swapping war stories with your buddies.

(Okay, that last one wasn’t technically a recap, but I’m a sucker for happy endings.)

Best of luck at Regionals!

Richard Feldman

Team Check Minus

[email protected]