One topic that does not get a lot of attention but that plays a very important role in one's Magic success is tournament preparation. Everyone in a tournament wants to do well, but few prepare in such a way that maximizes their chances of doing well. Today I would like to discuss the topic of preparation, offering a handful of tips for how to get the most out of your tournament preparation.
Everyone is going to have a slightly different method that works best for them, but today I would like to focus on five specific areas that I think players are largely ignoring, or at least not spending the amount of attention that they should. Whether you aspire to go pro in Magic, win a PTQ, or simply perform better in your local FNM or Pauper League, the suggestions in this article are intended to help you accomplish your goals. 1. When experimenting with something new, don't hesitate to go all out.
When Worldwake first came out, people had their eye on Stoneforge Mystic as a potentially powerful card. Tom Ross used two copies of it to fetch Basilisk Collar to combine with Cunning Sparkmage, which propelled Luis Scott-Vargas to a semifinal finish at Pro Tour San Diego 2010. In that same tournament I played a monowhite weenie deck featuring four copies of Stoneforge Mystic, with my only targets being Basilisk Collar, Sigil of Distinction, and Trusty Machete. In my deck it was purely a value card to make all my Kor Firewalkers, White Knights, and Kor Skyfishers into larger bodies. I even played four copies of Dread Statuary just to boost the amount of creatures in my deck to equip with all these equipment spells the Mystics were routinely searching up each game. I also played four copies of Elspeth, Knight-Errant in my deck because that and Stoneforge Mystic were my best cards and drawing multiples of either was rarely bad. My choice to go all out got me all the way to the semifinals.
People tend to be hesitant with new cards. They want to try things out but they're not sure just how good the new card is because they haven't tested it enough and there is no frame of reference to go by (e.g. no prior tournament of deck lists). So they often err on the side of caution and play two copies, or even one or three, but rarely four. For example, think of Pack Rat in Monoblack Devotion today. Would anyone even consider running less than four copies? Of course not! According to Reid Duke, it's the Plan A of the deck! Yet the first person to do well with the deck was running less than four copies and everyone thereafter followed suit until finally Paul Rietzl and Owen Turtenwald at GP Albuquerque jammed all four into the deck. Now it's obvious to everyone that four is the correct number.
When I try out a new card, I tend to have the opposite attitude. I start with four copies for a few reasons. First of all, I want to draw it as often as possible in order to gain the most experience I can with the card in the widest variety of circumstances. Secondly, if the card is great, I have already found the correct number - four. If it often is not great, I'll start shaving copies until I find the appropriate number (which is often zero). It's not “wrong” per se to start with less than four, but it is usually a suboptimal use of time to do so. For instance, if we start with two copies, we are only going to see the card half as often and hence it will take twice as long to see the same amount of circumstances as we would see if we started with four copies. Since adding copies to get to four takes longer than subtracting copies to get to two (or less), it is therefore a better use of time to start with four, unless there is some overwhelming reason to believe some number other than four is correct (e.g. you want one copy as a tutor target, etc). 2. Form (or join) a team of high quality players to test with.
One of the turning points in my Magic career was joining a high quality team of players (originally known as Team Luxurious Hair). Especially for a pro tour where you have only a couple weeks after a set comes out to prepare for the event, literally nobody in the tournament has enough time to figure out the format in its entirety, and rarely does anyone show up with the deck that later is considered the best in the format (or if they do, it is usually a suboptimal build). The pro tour is like a sprint to see who can get as deep into the metagame as possible and show up with a deck that is better than what their opponents were able to come up with. The subsequent weeks are like the marathon where everyone fine tunes the pro tour decks and figures out what the pros overlooked. Therefore having a team of quality players around you to help share in the work is such a huge advantage. It's like sprinting alongside each other and then everyone being able to record the time of whoever made it the furthest.
Magic Online is also a great tool and I use it frequently for tournament preparation, but I consider it “medium resistance,” to borrow a martial arts term. In martial arts when someone is trying to learn a new move, they ask a sparring partner for “medium resistance” which means they don't just go limp and let the person do whatever to them, but they also don't fight at full strength. Rather they let the person execute the move they are trying to execute, but while offering enough resistance to make it a bit of a challenge. Magic Online, against random opponents, will help you smooth out your mana base, give you a general sense of what your deck is lacking, and will give you a feel for how your deck operates. It will not, however, provide useful feedback when it comes to fine tuning a deck that you know is already good. The average opponent on Magic Online will make too many mistakes and will skew your results if you rely too heavily on them.
What is more useful when it comes to fine tuning is to form a team (or to join an already existing team). I'm using the term ‘team' loosely here. It is usually just a group of friends with a similar goal. For me, my teammates share a goal of wanting to do well on the pro tour and are each willing to put forth the effort to accomplish this goal. On a smaller scale, however, let's say you're trying to qualify for the pro tour. I would recommend identifying some other players who have the same goal and testing with them. This will give you the most productive results. Depending on how much better your teammates are than the average player online, the quality of your results will scale proportionately.
The best way to find these players is to seek them out in tournaments. Are you trying to win at FNM at your local gaming store? Find some of the other regulars who want to practice for it and set a time to show up and test with them. Are you trying to win a PTQ? Look for the other players who regularly finish toward the top of the standings and try to set up a network to play against each other online, or if you live close enough to them, to meet somewhere to test in real life. Maybe even invite them over for a weekend where there is not a PTQ in driving distance and spend that time preparing for the next week. If you're not quite at that point yet and you find Magic Online to be a sufficient challenge, I would recommend battling online until you get to the point where you're ready for tougher competition. 3. Prioritize, set goals, and pay the costs.
People often tell me they aspire to go pro in Magic. My response when someone asks me for advice on how to accomplish this often catches people by surprise. I ask them, “How do you spend most of your time outside of Magic?” My follow-up question is then, “Are you willing to put all that time into Magic instead?” The point I'm getting at is that your goals/dreams are only worth pursuing if you are willing to pay the costs to bring them about. Otherwise you're only setting yourself up to be frustrated. So what I try to do is help the person to identify exactly what those costs are (hint: the biggest cost is time) before then giving them a concrete plan for how best to invest their time.
If the person is really more interested in cars, League of Legends, watching movies, partying, or whatever else, and is not willing to invest the necessary time and energy into accomplishing their Magic goals, I'm pretty straightforward. I tell them to either re-prioritize what they're willing to invest or to consider a more realistic goal. Oftentimes once someone reaches the smaller goal (maybe winning a PTQ, cashing a GP, or even winning an FNM), the sense of accomplishment will drive them to re-prioritize and they will then be willing to invest more into achieving their larger goal. Other times not. Either way, it's important to set realistic goals first, ones that you are willing to pay the costs to bring about. Then once those goals are achieved, set your sights on bigger goals. Going pro in Magic is really only realistic for players who are already qualified for the Pro Tour and have put up a big finish to put them within range of hitting gold in the Pro Player Club. If you haven't yet done this, then I would recommend setting a smaller goal first and working toward that one and then later build toward the “go pro” dream.
Once you've evaluated your priorities (mostly involving use of your time), set your goals, and counted the costs for accomplishing your goals, you need a plan of action. 4. Establish a plan of action.
Let's say your goal is to qualify for the Pro Tour. For this example we'll assume it is a constructed PTQ.
The first thing I would recommend doing is scoping out the PTQ schedule to see which tournaments you will be able to attend. Let's say there are four tournaments within driving distance.
The next thing I would do is make a calendar highlighting those dates. It can be as simple as this:
January 18: PTQ 1 January 25: PTQ 2 February 1: February 8: PTQ 3 February 15: February 22: PTQ 4
So if today is January 10th, you have one week to prepare for the first PTQ. I would talk to your teammates and ask them which ones they are planning to attend and potentially coordinate rides together or whatever. If you do not have a team, then try to form one at that first PTQ in order to test together for the next three PTQs (and for ensuing PTQ seasons).
Set a date to test online or in person with teammates. If no one is available to test, use that time to look up deck lists of winning decks from the previous week's PTQs and online tournaments of the respective format. Then practice some against random opponents online. This should give you some experience with the deck and the format in general. Medium resistance testing is still better than no testing, and the average online player probably isn't much worse than most of the PTQ players you'll face, depending on the PTQ location.
You might even stumble across some worthy adversaries online that you would like to test with. If you do, don't be afraid to state your intentions upfront. Tell them you are preparing for a PTQ and that you noticed they are a strong player and that you would like to test against them. Oftentimes if your opponent is good, they are doing the same thing you are: testing for a PTQ online because medium resistance is better than not testing at all. So if you're willing to make this jump, you will start networking with people online and will have access to more quality opponents to test against. As your buddy list expands, you'll be more likely to find good test games than you were before, which will in turn improve your testing results, which will improve your chances of winning the PTQ.
Continue doing this until you achieve your goal of winning a PTQ. Don't be afraid to abandon ideas that did not work, to switch decks if you need to, or to make modifications each week. I'd often play out every round of a PTQ, even after getting my second loss, in order to gain as much information as I could for how to change my deck for the following PTQ. Oftentimes this would eventually result in me winning one of the last PTQs of the season. So while I say don't be hesitant to switch decks, I would also caution not to abandon it too quickly either. As long as you're playing an established deck, it's probably good enough to win a PTQ with as long as you learn all the ins and outs. 5. Learn the ins and outs of your deck.
After testing a bunch of matches with a deck, often online, someone will say to me “the deck is 75% in testing” or something similar, which on the surface sounds pretty good. But who are you testing against? 75% against terrible players is pretty bad, but against pro players is really good. Also did you just play 10 matches against your deck's best matchup or against its worst matchup or some combination? With all these considerations in mind, even if you played 50 matches against good players against a wide array of decks, most of which were the decks you expect to face in the tournament, there is still a question that is at least as important as the deck's match win percentage in testing, namely: “How do you play each of your matchups?”
Sure, you can tell me the deck is XYZ% in a matchup, but why? What are the key cards? What are the opponent's most important cards against you? Is the matchup tempo based or control based? Which deck has inevitability? What series of interactions come up frequently? How do you sideboard? How does the opponent sideboard?
People often tell me confidently “my deck crushes white weenie” and they cite their three matches they've played against either some random player online or against the 0-3 player at FNM. I then swiftly defeat them 2-0 and they're left scratching their head as to what went wrong. Instead of just thinking “I am favored in this matchup” it is much more instructive to think “These are my key cards and the strategy I employ for the matchup.” If you enter into a dialogue with someone who has also tested the matchup, this provides a basis for which to discuss your strategies from both sides. For instance, you might say “Supreme Verdict wipes out all their guys and then Sphinx's Revelation puts the game out of reach.” But then an experienced white weenie player might then say “what if they don't overextend until they have Boros Charm or Rootborn Defenses mana open? Then what is your plan?” Sometimes simply posing this type of question forces them to Rethink their approach to the matchup.
What I like to do in the days leading up to an important tournament is write down all my sideboard plans for the matchups I expect to face in the tournament. This accomplishes three things. First it gives me a general guideline to follow or look back on during the tournament (since you are allowed to look at your notes during sideboarding). Second it allows me to make changes to my sideboard (or main deck) based on the way I am sideboarding. For instance, if I only want to take out five cards against Monored, should I really have that sixth anti-red card in my sideboard? Or would it be better served as a card for a different matchup that might need more help? Or maybe I need a card to come in for multiple matchups but lack space, so could I replace a specific card for one matchup with a more generally useful card that is good in both matchups? Third, it helps me to gain a clear picture as to all the functions of each card in my deck. Cards often serve different key roles in different matchups and just asking questions during this process helps me to better make decisions during a match. For instance, if I realize that Pillar of Flame is my only way to handle Kitchen Finks, and the opponent is boarding in Kitchen Finks, then during the match I will know to prioritize Pillar higher in game two than I did in game one, saving it for the Finks if possible. So this practice of writing down sideboard plans will not only allow you to make some last minute adjustments to better tune your deck against the expected metagame but will also help you to make better in-game decisions. It's like holding an exam review the day before the exam, if academic metaphors are helpful to you. Conclusion
If you are not experiencing the tournament success you desire, I would recommend looking into the five areas discussed in this article. In the area of deck building and tuning, most players do not go all out like they should, and this wastes valuable preparation time. If you've been testing alone, joining or forming a team would greatly improve your results. Maybe your goals are too unrealistic? Start smaller and work toward your longer-range goals, and reflect on whether you are truly willing to put in the commitment to accomplish your Magic goals, adjusting your non-Magic hobby interests accordingly if needed. Once you've set your goals, establish a plan of action for how to bring about your goals and then follow through with this course of action until the goal is reached. Lastly, don't just focus on numbers or quantity of testing but rather quality, making sure you understand how to play all the nuances of your deck, including how to sideboard with it in each of the most common matchups. My deck analysis article aim to provide you with this information, but it is a good exercise to try and do it yourself, especially if you're playing a deck I have not written about.
As the old saying goes, “practice makes perfect,” but unless you know how to practice well, perfection may take a very long time to achieve.
Fortunately now you know how to practice well!
Craig Wescoe @Nacatls4Life on twitter
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