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When the Arena Ladder Doesn’t Cut It

This past weekend was the Neon Dynasty Set Championship, the first ever premier event to feature the Alchemy format. 

The outcome of the event inverted any expectations we could’ve had based on the Arena ladder, or even previous tournament results. I’ve come to expect this after years of playing at high levels of competition. The elite Magic teams and individuals are extremely good and dedicated, and they frequently show up to big tournaments with fresh, unexpected technology. 

This invites the question: How do you prepare for a competitive event when the training grounds can’t effectively simulate the competition?

Training Grounds

 

 

 

Header - Arena Ladder Level of Play

Alchemy, in particular, is a relatively niche and underexplored format. Part of this is having never before been in the competitive limelight. However, another aspect is that the Alchemy Ladder on Magic Arena is unpopular and doesn’t offer a deep pool of highly-skilled opponents.

One of my teammates, high in Mythic on the Alchemy ladder, reported that he would routinely wait in the queue for four minutes or more, before eventually being paired against someone in Silver or Bronze tier. 

Here’s some additional commentary about the Arena ladder from Set Championship competitors (note that some of it applies to Historic in addition to Alchemy).

Strasky’s word choice is particularly harsh, but he’s describing a common frustration. My teammates and I have intentionally stopped tracking and reporting our ladder results because we don’t feel they’re reflective of what we’ll face in competition. 

A strong player with a top tier deck can expect to win at a very high rate, regardless of whether that deck is particularly well tuned or well positioned for the metagame. I’ve frequently seen (and had myself) win streaks of 15 (or more) matches, and sustained win rates around 80 percent, even in Mythic tier. For reference, the very best players have career win rates at the Pro Tour around 60 percent. 

Why do people complain about winning a lot? The problem is that for Set Championship competitors, laddering is a way to practice for the tournament, not a goal in itself. You churn through your “easy” matches waiting to be paired against a serious competitor who can give you a good challenge. The best outcome is that you lose to a tough opponent in a way that teaches you something new about gameplay or deckbuilding!

It can be hard to distinguish between “reasonable decks,” “good decks” and “great decks” when you’re winning at high rates with all of them. Since 2019, I’ve been tricked into some of my worst tournament deck choices by overrating success on the Arena ladder. 

 

Specifically, if you’re looking to hone your strategy and develop effective sideboard plans, it can be hard to do that when you’re only rarely getting paired against one of the “decks to beat.”

 

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