Breaking Through – Balancing Formats and Time


I have always been a big supporter of everyone playing more formats than they currently do. Vintage? Sign me up. Ravnica block sealed? Sure! Pauper, Legacy, Draft etc etc etc. Each format contributes a little piece of information and expands a player’s skill set in some unique way. That is to say that playing multiple formats will help you to become a more well rounded player and more quickly assess new situations in one particular format as you are more likely to have encountered a similar situation elsewhere. Just look at some of the best players in the game and you will see a rich history of playing a plethora of formats.

In addition to the skill bonus that it provides, playing multiple formats is also a great way to limit the chances of getting burnt out. If you just play Jund for 6 months out of the year, chances are you are going to hate life. What if, in between, you got to sling some Ad Nauseum and Mishra’s Workshops? Sounds a little better right?

Usually I play these more obscure formats in a “competitive-casual” environment. This basically means something like Vintage will be played at a tournament setting, but I do not spend the countless hours I do for a Pro Tour in prepping and testing my Vintage deck. It makes the tournament feel a little more like a grind and less like a getaway. That said, what happens when those tournaments become the big tournaments?

This time next week, I will be embarking on a crazy 7 week Magic tour around the World. I am not saying this to make you jealous (although you should be if you are not coming to at least a few of these events, as they should be a blast) but rather to demonstrate the importance of proper planning. Here is the schedule of events I have on my calendar over the next two months:

July 31st- Grand Prix Columbus- Legacy
August 5th-8th- Gen Con- Legacy, Vintage, Zendikar Block
August 20th- Nationals- Standard, M11 Draft
August 28th- Grand Prix Gothenburg- M11 Sealed
September 3rd-5th- Pro Tour Amsterdam- Extended, M11 Draft
September 11th- Grand Prix Portland- M11 Sealed

If you were keeping count, that is a total of 7 different formats. Now to be fair, M11 sealed and draft have enough similarities that we can combine the two, and Zendikar Block is basically a toss in, but the remaining 5 are all legitimate formats that will be entertained at the highest level of play. All of these are events that I want to do well at and therefore coming up with a battle plan is vitally important.

Sometimes, Magic presents you with a PTQ season where you are able to play the same format and even the same deck for 3 months on end while you hone your specific skills and tweak your specific deck. Other times, everything ends up in a mess like the above schedule, and being prepared for such a time is a skill onto itself. While I can’t say I am the end boss authority on organization, here is how I have gone about my prep so far.

The first thing one must do when preparing for such a large stretch of events is obviously prioritizing, but how you go about that is just as important as actually doing it. There are basically 3 ways to order your testing and building:

Chronological – This is the most basic and essentially works to maximize your schedule so that each format gets at least mostly equal time. If Columbus is first on the list, we need to be working on Legacy first as if we wait to do so until last, we may not have enough time to properly focus on the format. This technique treats all tournaments equally though, which can actually hinder you. For example, should the Zendikar Block championship really be given the same amount of time as the Pro Tour? Or getting even more competitive, what about M11 sealed for the Grands Prix? Sure there are 2 Grands Prix that cover the format, but do they even compare in scope to a Pro Tour? This brings us to the second method.

Importance – This emphasizes something like the Pro Tour over something like the Vintage World Championships. Of course, what defines something as important is going to vary from person to person, but in general, a Pro Tour sits at the top, with Nationals below that, then Grands Prix, and finally Vintage/Legacy Worlds. With this method, regardless of when you start your testing and prep, the higher on the hierarchy that an event occurs, the more time is dedicated to the event. For example, you may devote a full month to the Pro Tour, while only 2 weeks to Nationals, 1 week to each Grand Prix and even less for the Gen Con events. Chronological order is not important here as you may begin testing for the Pro Tour in June or something and have it running the entire time you look at other formats. In addition, this method does not take into account progress one has made on a format. If a player has arrived at a deck and is now tweaking and playing some games, this method does not let off the gas, so to speak, when it would seem natural to focus your efforts elsewhere at that time.

Relevance – Basically a combination of the above two methods. This method looks to maximize your time based on chronological ordering of events, but also allocates more time or effort into the larger events. For example, the Pro Tour is well over a month out still, but I have found myself testing Extended occasionally as well as constantly brewing ideas for the format, despite working on other things in the meantime. My testing for GP Columbus is done, Vintage championships is almost complete, and Nationals is in the tweak and refine mode. I started all of these in the proper order though, with Columbus testing starting before anything, yet receiving a little less time than other formats, like Standard or Extended. This is going to be the ideal method most of the time, although niche scenarios can occur where one of the above takes precedence.

Once you have a regimen lined up, you now need to figure out just how you are going to go about testing each format. I tend to build all new decks for everything, so it can be a little different for me at times, but most of the core principles are going to be the same. Ideally, if you were testing for just a single tournament, you would progress through a series of stages. These would likely resemble the following:

List Development
List Testing
List Refining

Those stages should be fairly obvious so I won’t go into detail but even if your idea of proper deck development for a tournament is different, it likely fits most of that shell. If you are picking up an established deck for example, your list is literally the same, with different names:

List Choice
List Testing
List Refining

But when there are other formats and/or tournaments involved, these lists get modified in some capacity. Instead of being able to focus on a single project at a time, you end up with lists spliced within lists. An example if you will:

Brainstorming a
List Development a
Brainstorming b
Brainstorming c
List Testing a
List Testing b
List Refining a
List Testing c
Playtesting a
List Refining b
Tuning a
Playtesting b
Tuning b
List Refining c
Playtesting a
Playtesting b
Playtesting c
Tuning c
Playtesting c

Obviously, that is only 3 different formats and things have already progressed to some jumbled up mess. Therefore, it is important to define strict methods and phases for each deck, each format, and each tournament to avoid getting lost in the maze of confusion that multiple tournament prep can evolve into. The challenge here is learning to devote significant time to each format without over committing your time and subsequently losing time in other areas.

The best parameter for testing a format is likely already neatly stored within our human system: a day. If possible, I think it is best to have specific days set aside for each format and to allow the confines of a day to begin and end the format of choice during that cycle. Lets begin piecing some of this together to make for a real world model.

Lets go back and assume we have chosen the Relevance model to begin our testing. From this information alone, we understand we will be working on multiple formats simultaneously, attacking each in rough chronological order based on the onset of those events, but with staggered time frames for each tournament based on perceived importance of the tournament. This means, using the real world calendar of events we began the article with, we will likely begin working on Columbus first, and then integrate into the equation Nationals and the Pro Tour at roughly the same time, followed shortly by Vintage world championships testing. Put into a list and expanding it to the full calendar of events, we likely end up with this so far:

Week 1: GP Columbus
Week 2: U.S. Nationals, Pro Tour Amsterdam
Week 3: Vintage Worlds
Week 5: Grand Prix Gothenburg, Grand Prix Portland

For convenience sake, each tournament represents each of the formats located within that tournament as well. I have left Zendikar block and Legacy champs off of the list as we are going to piggy back former testing for those events. For Legacy, it only makes sense to condense our testing and just play the deck we worked on for Columbus, making the champs tourney basically a “throw in.” Likewise, the testing I did for Pro Tour San Juan helps me out a ton for Zendikar Block Constructed at Gen Con. This may seem trivial but is an important lesson. When time is a factor (as it usually is) and there is a lot on your plate, do not be afraid to dip into work you have done in the recent past. It will not always be the most exciting thing to do, but assuming the tourney that you want to “cheat” for isn’t high on your importance scale, this is a huge time saver. Back to the scheduling though.

Now that we have a rough order or relevance in place, we need to begin assigning specific time frames for each tournament so that our days can be properly scheduled. Scheduling may seem like a chore, but your testing will suffer for one or more of these tournaments if you fail to apply it. It is easy to get caught up in a situation where you test the same format for 10 straight days and slack on some other format. It is a natural instinct to prioritize the most pleasurable thing but when working on so many things, you need to remain disciplined and focus on each event for some amount of time. Leave yourself some “open” days to work on the format that you need the most work in or are enjoying the most, but stay vigilant the remaining time. Lets begin assigning actual dates to our lists to see the emerging patterns.

If we give ourselves a 3 week cushion for Columbus, which is right in the middle of where most people start, as some go all in 2 months in advance, while others wait until the week of, that dates us around July 10th. This marks the “beginning” of testing for our formats. I can see some reasonable people beginning around 2 weeks earlier, but we needed to pick a time, so if nothing else, this is just an example. Beginning with Columbus, we will have a few days of research and brewing that only Columbus occupies, which is good, as it is a format that needs a little extra exploring, due to the sheer size of the card pool if nothing else. Mid way through the week, into the following week, testing for Nationals and the Pro Tour begins. I would actually begin doing research for the PT before Nats by a day or two, just because we will have data for Nationals, with the PTQ season still being in swing, where as Extended is basically all new.

Lets place Extended testing around July 15th, and Standard/Draft testing around the 17th, which is conveniently the day of the release and thus the capability for drafting is available. If we want to get at least 2 weeks of testing in for Vintage, we are going to need to begin somewhere around the 23rd, so lets get that scheduled as well. Finally, sealed prep will not need as much time and comes at a later date than anything other than the Pro Tour so I would put that off until after Columbus for sure, and try to begin sometime during Gen Con at one of the sealed events there. This will give us a good jump off point and place testing around August 5th-8th.

Now that we have some rigid dates, figuring out a day to day schedule is the next step. This is one of the more important steps as it keeps you honest and on track. Talk to your friends in advance about this to see if some specific days work for them for format X and plan accordingly. Sticking to a strict schedule makes sure you have the proper testing for each format. Obviously if the tournament has grown near and you are not where you want to be, you can begin to fudge a little and add some more time for that tourney, but preferably that is worked into the schedule as well.

We want to alternate days during “free” periods where there are no tournaments that weekend, to insure that work is being done on multiple formats. Each week, 1 to 2 days should probably be left as open ended days to allow you to focus on the format that needs the most help or is the most fun, as we need to actively avoid getting burnt out during this process. You will be playing a lot of Magic and need to make sure you stay fresh. This is in part why the day rotation model is used. Each day you will be learning something fresh and new as opposed to the same stale format that a PTQ season may usher in.

Leave yourself a 3 to 4 day grace period just before each tournament where if you need to focus on that particular format in greater detail, you have the option of doing so. If it turns out that you are comfortable with the format in question, cut that period down to just a day or 2 and work on the format you feel you have fallen the most behind in. Regardless of how well you know a format though, you still want to have that day or two to allow yourself to warm up for the looming tournament. Just getting in some playtest games will refresh your memory and get you in format X mode. This is almost like that last minute review of your book before the big test. You are unlikely to learn anything new, but you will get your mind into the mode of the format, which is important.

Once you are in full swing following a day to day schedule, all of this will begin to make more sense, so beyond all of the words and advice, there is no substitution for just doing it. It will feel good and keep you on track through the hectic time in Magic that always seems to sneak up on people. There seems to be this block once or twice a year that just jams players with format after format, so while these practices may not be constantly crucial, they are very much so in those times. Without proper discipline, players tend to get overwhelmed quite quickly and fall behind in their testing not only for 1 tournament, but usually most of them, ending up in poor results.

I have fallen into the trap of thinking that my testing for tournament X could be crammed into the week between tournaments and paid the price for it. Start getting ready now and avoid the rush so to speak. I know this wasn’t the most generally applicable topic, but I feel it is important for those players on the grind that have not had to experience a time like this before. Stay vigilant and I am sure I will see everyone at at least one of these tournaments. Good luck in preparation!

Conley Woods

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