FFfreaky Friday – The Process of Preparation

I’ve been working very hard over the past month to prepare for Worlds. This will be my first Worlds competition and I’m excited to get to leave the United States for the first time for Magic – not counting Winnipeg, Manitoba. Even though I’m competing in Worlds, however, I still have to defend my turf at States.

On December 5, there will be a tournament in every state to find a champion. I really need to win mine because I’m tired of hearing about my brother winning the last two years in a row. This is going be a big tournament for almost everyone, so I wanted to talk about how to prepare.

To Brew or Not to Brew

The first part of everyone’s preparation for a big tournament can be the most dangerous if not taken seriously. There are two ways people build a gauntlet. They build every known deck in the metagame and bash them all against each other to get a feel for the format, or they brew a deck and run far too many games with it. The worst thing a person can do during testing is to have too small of a gauntlet.

The average test team for a tournament like States has always been around two to four people for me. I have had very successful years when no one knows what they want to play and we test a bunch of different decks. The years that have done badly are when everyone finds a deck they want to play right away and no one builds and tests other options. This limits the growth of a deck and causes you to be very good against your best friend’s [card]Time Sieve[/card] deck, but not necessarily the rest of the field.

Making sure your deck isn’t inbred from limited testing is a must to be successful in a bigger tournament. One of the easiest ways to prevent a deck from inbreeding is not playing with a small deck pool. The biggest problem is spending all your time playing game one and never preparing for post sideboard games.

This was another problem that I had in Texas. We worked very hard on our deck, but played almost no post-sideboard games. I ended up not really understanding what was going on in the second and third games of my matches, which led to the “theory” of them almost always failing. I was not too pleased with my overall preparation for that event.

The best test sessions I have ever had were when we didn’t even play any game ones. We grabbed two decks and just tried a bunch of different cards in sideboarded games and found things we liked and disliked. That’s what makes a good deck builder. Just ask Conley Woods how Worldpurge played out in testing. It wasn’t good, but he tried it. Testing out cards that might seem unplayable is something that inspires good decks.

This tends not to happen when you are too concerned with the 60 cards in the main. Of course there are cards you would never test in the main deck, but the more sideboarded games you get in the better your maindeck will end up.

In every test session there should be set goals everyone has. Making sure each session has a meaning will make for more productive days and save a lot of time in the end. It’s fine if your goal is to find out how a specific matchup plays out in post-board games, but then discover there is something else you didn’t see that you want to investigate. Deviating from the main purpose isn’t a bad thing but going in with a plan beats bashing two decks pre-board for five hours.

Aim Small, Miss Small

Two weeks ago I played in the local shop’s Zendikar Game Day. It was a very fun tournament, but something happened there that has helped me get into a few of my local friends’ psyches and gave me more of an understanding of how they look at the game.

I was waiting for finals while two friends played in the semis. I was watching for mistakes and how they played in case they did not like the split I offered in the finals. After the match, I went up to the person that made the finals and said I saw some play errors in his games. After I told him exactly what he did, he modestly came back with, “It wasn’t a bad play.”

I was taken aback by what he said because it’s been a while for me to not have tested exclusively with my brother when it comes to the philosophy of Magic. Whenever we play together, the question in every situation was, “Where is the best play?” We never have grouped decisions from good to bad. If it’s not the best play to make, then it is the wrong play.

If your goal isn’t to minimize the mistakes you make and to try to find the best play possible, you will not make the best play very often. The best way to get your game into shape is to look for the best play. Then, once you find it, sit back and find the right play. The more patient you are in testing, the easier this will flow naturally in competition.

There are many things you can learn during test sessions that are not format-related. This is the best time to improve one’s game, from trying to understand the signals your opponent gives off to how to figure out the math of the race in your head. These things can be studied in great detail in practice games and discussed openly with your playtest partners.

This is the best time to learn a lot of Magic theory. The best way to get good is to watch better players. If you are that person on your team, you did something wrong. Well, you didn’t do something wrong necessarily, but you should try to surround yourself with people as good as you are, if not better.

When I have better players around me I try to learn as much from them as possible. This is really important for everyone reading this article. By reading this, you proved to yourself that you want to get better at this game. Just because I’m writing an article doesn’t mean I know everything.

If you know a player as good or better than you, it is important to learn from him. A play group is a really successful way to improve your skills very fast. Take the Madison crew for example – their area is littered with very good players.

It amazed me how deep the player pool was when I visited there this summer. It’s something they worked hard on for years. With dedication, any area can have a great Magic community.

Defined vs. Undefined Formats

There is a big difference in how you should test in defined versus undefined formats. Players make a big mistake when they approach both formats the same way, instead of taking a different tack with each.

In a defined format, the best thing to learn is how decks play against each other. Learning how to play a matchup is more important than finding the sweet sideboard card that is good in that matchup. Learning what hands are keeps and what you are looking for is very important.

This is also a great time to get behind the other decks so you know what your opponents see from their side of the table. Playing a lot of games from the other side is very important. Not only will you learn which deck has the best chance in your projected metagame, but also there will be a higher possibility to brew new strategies and decks.

If you only test on the side of the deck that you are thinking about playing, you will not get as good with the deck. It sounds a bit weird, but as long as the deck you want to play at the tournament is on one side of the table, what you’re playing shouldn’t matter. It will be better to see the matchups from both angles.

Projecting the metagame is more important in defined formats. This helps in figuring out what deck is the right call to take. Now there is a fine line between knowing the wrong deck and not knowing the right deck. It’s a problem many Magic players have faced many times.

When a tournament gets closer, you get a better understanding what the meta will look like. It’s completely different from what you projected earlier, and is now making your initial decision for your deck incorrect. The problem is that there isn’t a lot of time to learn a “correct” deck to take, so you’re stuck in a hard place.

One of the traps in this situation is whether you really know your deck as well as you think. If you know it’s not a right call but don’t know if it’s smart to move away from, it seems you might not know it as well as you thought. A really easy way to get knocked out of a tournament is to play a deck not tuned for the metagame.

One strategy I have always liked to use as much as possible is the big finish strategy. What this means is picking a deck that will have a definite edge in the final rounds of the tournament. You might not be able to beat the random kids playing Mono-Red Burn in the early rounds, but you will have the best matchups against the more talented players in the end rounds.

I like to have a deck that can finish a tournament. Playing decks like Mono-Red Burn and Affinity are really good deck choices sometimes. They have really good matchups but once they get into the later rounds they don’t win because the decks they face are tighter and the players are better. This means that even if the player piloting Mono-Red is the better player, they won’t be able to outplay the other player.

Undefined formats are a bit trickier. When I am testing in those formats, I like to work on very powerful lists. One thing that always holds true is that the most powerful decks come out when a format is fresh because the control decks of the format are not prepared to win. They don’t know what they are controlling yet.

Aggro and combo will rule the roost for a few weeks. These decks tend to be very aggressive without many ways to protect what they are doing. This is the perfect way to approach these formats. Testing is still important, but you have to spend test time a bit different.

You won’t be able to figure out the metagame as easily, but you will be able to put together your own gauntlet to test with. This will help you understand the situations of the format rather then the decks. Understanding what this format can do, regardless of what deck you end up playing, can help make sure your deck isn’t underpowered compared to the field.

That’s all I’ve got for today. Next week I will be writing from Rome, hopefully about a good Grand Prix. Thanks for reading.

Brad Nelson

FFfreaK on MTGO

[email protected]

27 thoughts on “FFfreaky Friday – The Process of Preparation”

  1. What do you do when you’re well above the curve in your local area as far as experience and skill are concerned? I’m definitely not the best player in town, but i’m certainly above average and probably the most active. I find that most people don’t care enough to test rigorously and get better. I’m happy to teach what little I know and offer resources (cards, articles, etc) to others who care, but I can’t make other people actually care!

    Is the answer just to play MTGO?

  2. What players of high caliber are based in Madison? I’ve seen Sam Black and Gaudenis Vidugiris in different hotspots, but I’m not sure to whom else you’re referring.

    Not saying the players out here are scrubs, but I’m of the opinion that the East Coast scene is much more skilled than the Midwest, at least from what I’ve seen.

  3. To Kelly: I tend to agree, MTGO is the best place to test. Sure you get a lot of non-top tier decks, but you get a huge variety, which can be good. I play in a very active area, and play alot, but even then, I can’t seem to get enough games to fill it out. I still sit on MTGO and play standard after standard game in Tourny practice.

    Good Article brad =) You couldn’t of said it better:
    Projecting the metagame is more important in defined formats. This helps in figuring out what deck is the right call to take. Now there is a fine line between knowing the wrong deck and not knowing the right deck. It's a problem many Magic players have faced many times.

    I, and many other have made this mistake so much, its not even funny anymore. (See Time Sieve a week after :P) If you can determine the metagame prior to the matchup, you’ve effectively won.

    Oh and Brad: Good Job in the PTQ Tonight, least you did better than I did 😛

  4. Matt T: Adrian Sullivan is based in Madison, and Bob Maher is from there as well. Judges Chris Richter and Peter Jahn. Brian Kowal, Ben Rassmussen, Jared Pierce, and others (mostly names I recognize, but not for things I can think of off the top of my head.) Madison has been producing good and influential Magic players for the whole history of the game.

    Brad: I love you, Bradley J. Nelson. You go kick some ass in Minneapolis. I’m sad I can’t go, but you have your fun. And then have even more fun in Rome. (Oh, and this article was pretty good, too.)

  5. I live on the east coast, we love magic, there are a lot of passionate and motivated players. I am not sure if we have better players than the folks in madison, but we have some very good players

  6. I agree about the problem of being one of the top players in the area. I prefer limited play due to budget reasons, and my rating is 1821, good for the top 20 in Oklahoma. The problem is that 80% of the players above me either don’t actively play, or live in Tulsa. I live in Oklahoma City. At the places I frequent, there’s about 4-5 other people of a comparable skill level with the game, and it becomes very difficult to play with these people.
    As such, I always look for the “best” play, as discussed here. People take it so personally when you critique them. I do so in the interest of improving them, because I can’t improve if I play against players making the same mistakes.
    I wish I could have played in the limited PTQ here, but I was out of town and I’ve never played in that level of an event. My claim to fame is being 2-0 lifetime against the girl who took fourth and lost to the eventual winner.

  7. The whole “surround yourself with better players” plan has a very big flaw, though – if you want to surround yourself with better players, then why wouldn’t the better players want the same? If you want to play with people who are better (understandably so), why would the better people want to play with you, if you are worse? Don’t they also want to play with better people? Where do you draw the line? Who has to step back?

    I liked this article ;D

  8. Unless they are dicks… better players will play with people of lesser skill if they are ambitious and are looking to get better. It takes a pretty degenerate person to turn down playing with an aspiring player just because their skill might not be up to snuff. If the lesser player is actually interested in getting better, he or she will pick up a lot quickly and get to the point where playing against them will actually turn into practice.
    I guess it would become awkward if the player never seemed to pick things up and just maintained the same level of play. But I imagine most people who really want to get better have the potential to do so.

  9. @ PV I don’t actually think that is the case. By better I do mean players that have skills you are lacking, but it also means just great players in general. I am assuming you have to be the best player in your area, but you can also help those players get to a level that is worthy of great test sessions. If good players are not in your area than find a few that have the drive and make them better. They will probably teach you something and you will benefit from the investment.

  10. mtgo does offer a way to test but there is something to be said for the experience you gain from playing a live person who you can see and hear, many little details will be missed if you arent used to playing live, you can still kind of get a read on somebody online but its far easier when there in front of you

  11. And in live play you get to experience the person trying to cheat, stall the game out in game one when they think they will win, etc. Yay.


  12. I agree that MTGO is great for practice, but even there it helps to have a posse of good players to work with. Even in the tournament practice room the skill/deck level varies dramatically.

    I’d love to see a future article on networking within MTGO.

  13. when it comes to playtesting, I don’t think there is a bad playtest partner… regardless of your own caliber, or theirs, these are the people you are going to be playing against… everyone has something to teach you… you just have to be willing to learn

    brad… solid article, good luck in minn and worlds.. I won’t see you and conley there… apparently they don’t let people across international lines when you have a close family member that might have swine flu… and my son is sick… but I’ll be seeing you both in san diego

  14. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think a better person should not play with a worse person, I do play wiith people on my area whenever I go to the shop, and one of my playtesting partners is a local guy, I just wanted to point the flaw in the “always play with better people” argument – because, if everyone thinks that, no one ever plays – SOMEONE will have to play with people who are worse than they are, and if you think that person is never going to be you then it’s not really fair.

    But please don’t think I meant something like “get out of here scrub I only play with pro players”, I swear I didn’t!

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  16. I was easily the best player in my local area for 4 years. Then I moved up to the Midwest, and found myself losing match after match. Unfortunately, these guys in my “new” hometown aren’t too accommodating when it comes to helping me out. One of them offered once, but it didn’t happen. Most of my improvement has come from watching them play, and keying on their deck choices and how they evaluate cards. I’d like to think I’ve gotten better, but a hectic school and work schedule keep me from really finding out where I am. I did manage to X-1 the last 3 Constructed FNMs I play in… Guess that’s a decent start.

  17. I’m still a firm believer in only testing with a person who knows the rules thoroughly. When you test against someone who doesn’t they will miss certain plays that could have been made and you never get to see what your play would have been.

    For example, it actually came up playing a Dark Depths deck against a deck with Wastelands where there were two Hexmages on the board and a wasteland and I had found out about being able to Wasteland the Dark Depths and there’s not much the other can do about it.

    If it hadn’t have been two good players, that scenario would never come up.

    Though I do agree with testing a large gauntlet. I do like to add in odd janky stuff that might be decent with the release of a new set or something. Just in case.

  18. While the vast majority of players are male, especially competitive, I dislike the assumption that the best player in any area is a “him.”

  19. @Nobody: I proofread Brad’s articles for him (except for this one, because I was sick). I was trained in AP Style so I tend to use “his” as an indefinite pronoun, as does Brad. There’s a movement to promote using “him or her” instead of “him,” etc., and AP recommends switching to plural indefinites like “their,” but as far as Brad’s articles go, I wouldn’t recommend reading anything into it.

  20. PV: If you look at it another way you can easily imagine someone who is “better” playing with you. Magic is a very deep and complex game, so it’s pretty tough to be better than everyone in your area at all formats/decks/sets/etc. Perhaps try finding players who are better at you in draft, or sealed deck, or standard, or Alara, or control decks, or… 😉
    If you’re willing to play with someone is weaker than you in draft, but better than you in standard, why wouldn’t they be happy to do the opposite? (assuming they aren’t a dick)

  21. @Nobody:
    Him is just the universal substitute when the person in question is unknown. ‘God’ is a nice example, we refer to it as him while it could very well be a woman (although I think it’s neither).

    @the article: I enjoyed it and testing only sideboarded games actually makes a lot of sense as often we have limited time and finding all the sideboard cards in our piles of cards, then sleeving them and figuring out how to board with decks we don’t play often, eats up too much of that time. Just neglecting the mainboard games seems like the perfect way to eliminate this problem.

  22. I just won a zen block daily piloting a vampires list almost identical to one your little brother (or little brother’s account) went 3-1 with last weak. The curve is pretty awful but I like what having all the absurd bombs does for the uw control matchup. Thanks for the list indirectly in any event.

    Might a grim discovery in for one of the Ob Nixilis make the mirror a little better, smooth out the draws, and help with hitting a timely t5 sludge/s vs. control? You could board the Ob back in vs. UW for something relatively weak like a feast of blood.

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