Magic: The Gathering is a solo game, but the support of a team can be a huge boon.
After the pandemic hit, most teams had to change how they operated; people could no longer meet for weeks at a time in an AirBnB or conference room, and testing moved online. This means that, right now, the way your team operates can be remarkably similar to the way the major teams operate without you necessarily having to commit to the full-time player lifestyle.
In this article, I’ll discuss what makes for a good testing team and how to create the best testing environment. I’ll also give examples from our own testing group for an inside look at how a world-class team operates. In the end, not every testing team will work the same way, either because the people are different or because there’s a different level of access to resources and ability to commit, and that’s completely fine. This is just a list of the things I find important. You can choose if they’re important for your team or not. Also keep in mind that many of these points remain valid when testing with one partner or by yourself.
Finding a Team
The first part in the process of having a good online testing team is finding one. Historically speaking, most teams form due to previously existing relationships. People are friends first, and then they end up joining a team together (either because you form a team with your friends or because you are friends with someone that’s already on a team, so you get to join). Very few people ever joined a team without having a personal connection to one of the members.
Nowadays, everything has to be done online, so things are a bit different. Interpersonal relationships aren’t at play as much, letting you form teams with people that you’ve never met before. Discord is a good channel for this (several players and communities have Discord channels) and potentially Reddit as well.
The main thing to look for when you’re building a team (other than people being generally nice and easy to work with) is aligned motivation levels — even more so than skill, I think. Obviously some skill parity is nice — if you have a world-class player alongside a novice it’s not really going to work out well — but a lot of that can be accounted for, and the thing that you can never fix is motivation. If one person is testing for a major tournament that means a lot to them and the other person is just coasting through (or perhaps isn’t qualified for the same tournament), then the testing team is unlikely to succeed.
You might have heard the saying that each person on a team has a role. I think this makes it look like Magic teams are heist movies — you need the brewer, the deck tuner, the logistics person, the playtester, the hacker, the bomb defuser. In reality, most people perform most of these roles, and you shouldn’t pigeonhole yourself to any single one of them. I know some people who believe themselves to be the “brewers,” so all they do during testing is try to brew a new deck, even if testing has progressed to a point where this is no longer relevant. The key is that each person should be good in at least one thing, without limiting themselves to it.
Take, for example, Ondrej Strasky. Ondrej is a very good teammate, even though he doesn’t brew, tune, or contribute many ideas. Why is he a good teammate? Because he’s always down to play games, he will play anything, and he will play it competently. If anyone says, “Hey, I’d like to play Bant VS Dimir Rogues,” he will play either side of it for however long you want. This is very valuable to a team, even if it’s the only thing he does. So, if this is the only thing you can provide, then you can still find a good team and be an important member, but try to not limit yourself to one particular role — most people tend to do a bit of everything.
Playing on the Ladder
There’s serious debate on how reliable the Magic Arena ladder is and how useful it is as a testing tool. Personally, I think it can be quite useful if you’re aware of its limitations and use it properly.
One area the Arena ladder is good for is for learning what the metagame is. At this point, you don’t need to worry about what beats what exactly. You just need to see all of the decks and have a cursory understanding of how they operate. After that, it’s also good to learn your own deck. Learn to play it, learn which cards are good, tune it, and change the sideboard and the sideboard plans. These are all things you can achieve by just playing games on Arena.
Arena falls short for figuring out specific things. For example, if you would like to know if having two Polukranos, Unchained changes the Sultai Ramp VS Dimir Rogues matchup, then Arena ladder is a very poor way of figuring this out. You’re much better off finding a testing partner for this specific purpose. This means the usefulness of ladder matches diminishes as you progress in the testing process. It can be quite useful early on to lay the groundwork for everything, but as you get to the part where you need to figure out more specific things, there’s really no substitute for playing with a teammate.
I also feel that the usefulness of Arena depends on the format. For Standard, I find ladder to be a good approximation of the tournament metagame. People mostly play metagame decks and the best decks have representation accordingly. For Historic, however, this is not true. The online Historic metagame is full of non-meta decks that you will very rarely find in a tournament. Before the last professional Historic event, you could play twenty matches of the format on ladder and not be paired versus a single Jund deck, but everyone knew that at the tournament Jund would be 30% of the field. Your Standard deck winning a lot on ladder means more than your Historic deck winning a lot on ladder. Therefore, if you have the resources to test one format with your teammates, make that Historic.
Keeping a Record
Nowadays, it’s very easy to keep a record of your matches without actively having to do anything. There are several pieces of software that will automatically do it for you (I use untapped.gg). I think this is something that every team should adopt.
When you keep track of matches, beware the trap of giving these results too much weight. It seems like that recording them gives them more credence, but it shouldn’t work like this. In the end, the numbers are not themselves the conclusion; they merely help reaching the conclusion. It’s perfectly possible to play twenty matches, win thirteen of them, and conclude that, in spite of the results, the matchup is unfavorable. It’s possible to go 30-10 on ladder with your deck and still conclude that it’s bad.
If I don’t assign a lot of meaning to the hard numbers, then why keep track of them? Two reasons. First, our memories can be notoriously deceiving, and keeping track of the results acts as a reality check. This is especially true when people are playing control decks. Control decks spend a lot more time winning than they spend losing; each time you win it takes 30 minutes, whreas losing takes ten. You could have a session where you go 6-6 but you spent three hours winning and only one hour losing. Your impression leaving the session will be that you won more than you actually did.
It’s also not that uncommon to have sets where both players think they won more. Very often I’ve asked my teammates how a matchup went and both sides say they won more than lost. In those cases, keeping automatic track of the matches will let you make sure that what you remember is what actually happened, which can make it quite valuable.
The second reason is that it allows you to more easily establish a confidence interval. If a matchup feels very favored but you’ve only played three matches, that means less than if it feels very favored but you’ve played 30. Your feelings about the matchup are the same, but they can be trusted a lot more if your sample size is bigger, and keeping track of your matches will let you adjust your confidence interval.
I believe that communicating properly is the single most important thing on a team, and also the one area where Magic: The Gathering teams struggle the most. I’ve rarely been on teams where the work wasn’t getting done, but I’ve often been on teams where nothing was communicated well.
Communicating is important for several reasons. Most importantly, it lets the team work as the sum of its parts. The main point of having a team is that an individual doesn’t have to do all the work. If there’s no communication,` a lot of the work gets duplicated or even worse than that. For example, if teammates Zachary Kiihne and Mike Sigrist play the Jund versus Izzet Phoenix match to exhaustion and say nothing, then Matt Nass and I might spend a lot of time playing the same matchup unnecessarily.
It’s also relevant when trying out new decks. Most of the time, if someone tries out a deck and it’s good, they will post about it to get more traction, but people will rarely post about decks that they did not think were good, and that’s one of the most important things because that’s where the majority of the work gets duplicated. Imagine, for example, that I decide to try out the Paradox Engine combo deck in Historic. I decide that it’s not good enough, and dismiss it. If I don’t post anything about it, there’s every chance that one of my teammates will just spend time trying to make the same deck work (possibly multiple teammates). A single paragraph of “I tried this deck. I’m confident it isn’t good for XYZ reasons.” might save several hours from the team’s collective time.
As a general rule, I would say that the most important things to communicate are:
- What you’re interested in that should be worked on
- What you’re definitely not interested in
- Testing results (what happened in your matches)
- What conclusions did you draw from it
Here, I want to highlight how important I believe it is to not be too hyperbolic. I’ve had teammates that were nice people and hard-working, good players, but that drove me mad because they exaggerated everything, which meant I couldn’t trust whatever work they did. If someone plays two games and says a matchup is “unwinnable,” or plays versus one deck and says their deck is “broken,” that’s a big red flag to me. If you tell me your deck is broken and you’re serious about it, it’d better be true.
This doesn’t mean players can’t have opinions. It just means that they need to properly communicate their degree of confidence in said opinion. “This matchup is unwinnable!” is very different from “This matchup seemed unwinnable to me, but I only played it twice.”
One has a degree of finality to it that, to me, implies, “I’m confident in what I’m saying. This work doesn’t need double-checking.” Whenever I post something, I always try to add my degree of confidence. I will say stuff like, “my inclination is,” “I believe this,” or “I’m confident.”
When I say I’m confident, it’s because I believe no further investigation is necessary. Sometimes I have opinions on matchups that I have played zero times just because I watched them once or because I’ve done the theory, and sometimes I have opinions that come from playing hundreds of games, and my teammates need to know which is which.
It’s also crucial not take things too personally (or at all personally, if possible). Many great players are impossible to work with because they treat their ideas the same way they would treat their children. When I’m on a team, I have to be able to say “I think this card is horrible” or “I think you’re wasting your time with this deck” without the other person feeling personally offended (they can disagree with me, of course, but they have to know that I’m not passing judgment on them, just on this product). At the same time, if you tell me a deck is good, I need to know that you don’t think it’s good just because it’s the deck you built.
Team communication has been done in several different ways in the past: in person, email chains, forums, Facebook groups. Nowadays the most common method by far is a Discord group. In a Discord group, you can make separate groups for everything and keep communication streamlined so that information flows well.
As an example, here’s our Discord group for the last League Weekend:
Obviously you don’t need to do things exactly as we do them, but I’ve found some of these channels helpful. The main idea is that every major deck has a channel (including the decks we eventually discard) and then there’s a variety of information that’s not related to any specific deck that’s worth being shared (as well as information that should be easily accessible).
Here are the channels I consider the most important to have, as well as any that might not be self-explanatory:
We use the Logistics channel to schedule meetings and figure out things like, “When are decklists due?” or “What format is the Top 8?” Basically, this is information that people should be able to access at a glance. Also stuff like this:
This isn’t that relevant for an open tournament, but highly relevant for the MPL because we know our upcoming opponents. This channel is for people who find out any information about what other League players are playing. Stuff like:
Sometimes, if you just do a little bit of research, the writing is on the wall. For example, when I looked up what decks Mengucci had played lately, this is what I found for each tournament:
This channel is for people to post their exact decklists when they’re testing versus each other. Since every tournament is open-decklists now, it’s good to test in the same conditions.
We are often on audio chat, but sometimes people can’t talk (someone is sleeping nearby, the microphone isn’t working, etc.). This channel lets them type and participate in the conversation and people in the conversation know to look at it.
What’s The Play
This is for us to have discussions on interesting plays, keep or mulligans, etc. For example:
Once we reach the specific formats, then we have:
Standard / Historic General
This is for people to post their general thoughts about the format — what they are leaning towards, what they believe is going to be good or bad. For example:
This is for people to post their testing results, but the goal is to keep this channel clean so that only the relevant stuff is there and it’s all easy to find. For example:
Here, I think it’s important to not only give out the result (though that’s helpful if it’s the only thing you can do) but also to talk about any things that you found noteworthy with the matchup and that might help the team. For example, Greg’s post is pretty short, but it conveys all the information we wanted. In that particular case, we wanted to see if Gideon of the Trials was good enough to swing the matchup in Selesnya Company’s favor. The answer was no.
Then, each major deck has a channel where we post updated decklists, questions, and thoughts about the deck in general.
Having a Purpose
Another issue players have on a team is that they often just play matches without a clear goal. Whenever you’re playing a teammate, unless it’s very early on in the format and you’re just trying to get a general overview, you should be trying to accomplish something. You should ask yourself, “What piece of information am I missing to decide between these two/three/four decks? What would help me make this decision?” Then work on figuring that out.
As an example, let’s go back to our Selesnya Company VS Dimir Pact example. In that spot, we were trying to figure out specifically if Gideon of the Trials was enough to beat Dimir Pact out of an aggro deck. This was important because, if the answer was no, we would be able to discard Selesnya Company altogether and we’d continue with the Pact deck. If the answer was yes, we’d still have Selesnya Company as a contender and we’d potentially need to tune our Dimir Pact deck to be stronger versus planeswalkers. So acquiring this information (whether Selesnya Gideons was good versus Pact) was important because it gave us a clear direction afterwards.
Other examples include:
- “How much does Polukranos, Unchained swing the Dimir Rogues matchup?”
- “Is Elite Spellbinder enough to make Naya beat Sultai?”
- “Is Scorching Dragonfire better than Obosh in Temur Adventures versus Dimir Rogues?”
- “What are the most important cards in the Dimir Rogues mirror?”
These were all things that we spent time specifically trying to figure out (sometimes only playing sideboarded games) because that was information that we thought we needed to be able to make a decision on which decks/cards to play. Basically, first you decide on what you’re trying to figure out and then you play the games that will help you figure that out, rather than just playing random games and then figuring out what to do with your conclusions.
Again, there isn’t really a one-size fits all when it comes to making a team work, because different people require different things, and I’ve had teams that worked differently from each other in the past. It is not a checklist of required things, but merely factors for you to keep in mind and implement as you see fit in your own team. Hopefully it will improve the productivity and the success of your group.