I was going to start this article off with a joke calling this mailbag series the “Bag Online Adventures” (IYKYK) but I couldn’t think of anything witty so instead we’re just gonna dive in.
You can catch my last mailbag special here:
Why are the Fast & Furious movies your favorite Shonen Anime?
First of all saweetie, Yu Yu Hakusho is.
But I digress. I’m a sucker for media that leans into absurdity. Presumably, one day someone woke up, put pre-workout in their morning Monster Energy brand coffee and opened their window to hear a choir of birds greeting the rising sun with their songs. Then thought “wouldn’t it be cool if Dwayne Johnson bicep curled a helicopter?”
Jarvis Yu… and Aysenaz’s husband ask:
How do you think ‘format specialists’ who qualify for higher level events can ‘get better’ at mtg or condense testing in a productive way for them without being part of a superteam?
Play more varied Magic.
In a general sense, you can break down the skills needed to play Magic into three levels that go from being broadly applicable across multiple formats to very specific within a single environment, each building off of knowledge acquired in the preceding layers.
Level 1: Fundamentals
These are the foundational skills of Magic are numerous but Reid gives a great overview that you can review here.
Level 2: Format Specific Knowledge
- Archetypes within the format
- Knowledge of the available card pool
- Common play patterns
- General metagame trends
- How decks match up against each other
Level 3: Archetype Specific Knowledge
- Your deck’s matchups
- What cards are available for your deck to utilize
- What cards are better in which situations
- How to tune your deck for certain metagames
Each of these lists can be made a bit more comprehensive, but for the sake of brevity, I’m just giving an overview.
As a player spends more and more time playing a specific deck, shifting their focus from one level to the next skills they’re exercising becomes more and more specialized to their format and deck of choice. This is often at the cost of losing proficiency in more translatable fundamental skills that they don’t exercise as much. Luckily, there is a methodology for building those skills back up.
Step 1: Objectively assess your skill sets.
Do you know what your strengths are? What about your weaknesses? Try making a list of the most relevant decks in the format and rate your level of competency with them. I recommend the “stages of competence” model as a point of reference, and framework for assessing yourself. If you want to go further, you can make a list of the skills needed to pilot a deck and rate yourself in each of those as well. Once you’ve figured out where you stand with each of these decks, figure out how strong you’d like to become in a certain area. You don’t need to reach the point of mastery in every possible area of focus. But you do need to have concrete goals for growth regardless of how big or small. Also, take the time to revisit your goals from time to time. As you learn more you’ll begin to understand how certain skills you undervalued previously are actually integral to your progression. Or inversely, how a skill you overvalued might not be worth diving deeper into.
Step 2: Play other archetypes within your preferred format.
Look at the list you made, start playing the decks within your preferred format that you’re self-admittedly bad at. It’s best to focus on learning new skillsets within a familiar environment before moving onto other horizons. Transitioning from playing a lot of control to learning aggro is much easier if you already have an understanding of what the other decks in the format look like as opposed to jumping in the deep end of a new card pool. While diving directly into a new environment can be enjoyable it, can also slow the learning process because you won’t have a foundation of format knowledge to lean on. So instead of being afforded the singular focus of learning how your new deck operates internally, and how it interacts with the format, you’ll be distracted with having to learn what every other deck in the format is doing. As you start to get more familiar with decks outside of your wheelhouse, you’ll begin to develop more skills that can be translated from one format to the next.
Step 3: Play your favorite archetype in a new format
While you’ve gained new skills after completing steps one and two, you’ll probably still be most comfortable piloting your previous archetype of focus. By having a more intimate knowledge of how that archetype functions, your learning curve for the specifics of that style of deck will be lower, even in a new format. Since you’ll have a more innate understanding of your decks internal dynamics, you’ll be able to focus more on what other decks are in the format, what they do and how your deck interacts with them. Have you ever noticed how the “control enthusiast” of your LGS is able to pilot control decks to roughly the same level of competency across multiple formats? It’s essentially this idea in application.
Step 4: Play other archetypes in a new format.
Now that you have an understanding of the decks that exist in the new environment you can essentially repeat Step 2. Take note that Steps 3 and 4 are somewhat interchangeable. If in your exploration of other archetypes you’ll have become a much stronger player in a general sense. Meaning that you might find it more interesting to try a new deck off the bat in a new ecosystem. Even though the end goal is to learn new skills it’s paramount that you have fun with the process.
Regarding playtesting without a team, here’s an overview of how I recommend going about the process.
- Pick a deck list that recently did well
- Play games until you understand the foundational engine of the shell, and the reason that the original player selected these options.
- Start experimenting with other card choices.
Use this time to focus on learning the strengths and weaknesses of a particular option. Not every spell in your deck needs to always be a 10/10 as long as it performs the function you need it to when you want it to.
This article is a more generalized discussion of the concept, but when tuning for a deck I ask myself the following questions:
- What issues does my deck have that this card can fix?
- What matchups will it be good in?
- What matchups will it be bad in?
- What matchups will it be okay in?
- Are these issues actually worth trying to solve?
- Sometimes a matchup is so good that trying to solve corner case scenarios isn’t worth the effort. Conversely, sometimes a matchup is so bad that the best game plan is to hope you don’t play against it.
- What is the ceiling for this card?
- This is the best case scenario where this card will be a 10 out of 10
- How often do I expect to have this card be a 10/10?
- What is the floor for this card?
- The worst case scenario where the card will basically be a blank piece of cardboard.
- How often do I expect this card to be useless?
- What is the average use case for this card?
- How the card will generally function outside of it’s extreme use cases.
Essentially, we’re creating a hypothesis of how an effect will function across a Bell Curve of scenarios.
This might seem like an arduous process, but following these steps will help you mitigate internal bias slowing your progress. In a similar spirit, as you test, you should keep a log of how the card compares against each of your assumptions. You’ll find that by actively testing your assumptions against something concrete you’ll be forced to be more objective, and methodical in your approach. You’ll also spend less time playing suboptimal effects since you’ll gain a clearer understanding of their issues at a faster rate.
I also recommend doing write-ups post testing sessions on the card to collect your thoughts. Joe Lossett used to do post-tournament debrief streams where he would give run downs of matches, observations, lessons learned, etc. This is a stellar habit that has been employed by most successful players in one form or another. While what ultimately constitutes a “testing session” is up to you, but I recommend doing so post every league, every FNM you attend, and after every few matches on Arena.
When employing this process, you’ll find yourself converging on an optimized list fairly quickly. Great! That’s your “if I had to play an event tomorrow I’d play this” deck list. So you know what the next step is?
- Try out every card possible within your deck. Yes, even the stuff that you think is unplayable. Figure out when those cards might be good. Yesterday’s garbage might be your secret silver bullet in a future metagame. Having a wide knowledge of the actual use cases of cards will let you be ahead of the curve when the metagame shifts.
- Try approaching building the deck using a different construction philosophies. Just because a shell has historically been constructed one way that doesn’t mean that’s the only way.
For example, Legacy Lands usually looks something like this
Legacy Lands by Promidnightz
But recently this list did well.
Legacy Lands by Clockwork Dean
I don’t think anyone expected to see Mulch and Winding Way do well in a Legacy event. Whether or not this particular list is a “flash in the pan” or will be a format mainstay doesn’t matter. If your goal is tournament success, you don’t need to have a long-term impact on the format – you just need to break it for that week. As you keep an open mind and test things out, you’ll find yourself looking at your decks in different ways.
Essentially, the above is just a methodology for applying the scientific method to Magic.
Related Loose Thoughts
- Callum Smith of the Everyday Eternal podcast shared this community-driven data tracking resource that looks like a great tool for not only tracking your own results, but seeing how your records stack up against the field. Keep in mind that when using a tool like this, the goal isn’t to show off your win rate – it’s to get unbiased data to aid your learning process. Unfortunately for some, keeping a record of your match results can be hugely beneficial, while others find it anxiety inducing.
- One of the pitfalls that can come with testing in environments like leagues is that the perceived need to “go infinite” leads to a “play to win mindset” which directly opposes the “play to learn” mindset.
- When people “play to win,” it’s common for them to settle on a single deck list that they never change and consistently approach matchups using a singular strategy. Rarely do they ever explore different card options, methodologies of approaching matchups, etc. This mindset is fine if a player’s goal is to simply grind out prizes, but it’s not a good modality to operate within if someone’s goal is to improve. That said, the “play to win” mindset can only service a player for so long before their approaches to matchups, and understanding of the format, becomes outdated.
- Keep in mind that failure is a key aspect of learning, and I personally weigh the opinion of someone who can show me a million failures and explain why the ideas didn’t work out more than someone who can show me a million wins but can’t articulate why they won. It’s not that hard to become mechanically proficient at Magic and find moderate success by simply emulating the play patterns of someone else without truly understanding the underlying logic behind those plays. However, gaining a true understanding of the game, and any skill, requires trial and error. You’ll often learn more from an 0-5 league than a 5-0 league.
As long as you’re organized and methodical, you can learn more in a two to four hour playtesting session than you will in a week grinding away online. Here’s a few pointers on how to go about doing so:
1. Create specific game states
One of the benefits of paper testing is that you can more easily understand how a card operates in different situations. When doing paper testing, I would commonly ask myself: how does this card function when drawn in the early game?
- How does this card function when drawn in the late game?
- How does this card function when it’s in my opening hand?
- How does this card function when drawn in multiples?
- How do play/draw dynamics affect this cards playability? Does that have bearing on the above questions?
The list can go on endlessly. Ask whatever question you have and unabashedly chase the answer.
When doing paper testing, I recommend engineering these game states by setting that card to the side and “drawing” it at the point in the game you want to test it.
Say you want to find out if Rest in Peace is good against Modern Death’s Shadow. Try running it through a gambit of scenarios.
You might find that the card is overall good in the matchup, but really bad to have in your opening hand due to the prevalence of discard spells. Maybe drawing it on turn one is fine if you expect opponents to commonly tap out on turn two. You might find that the card is only good when resolved specifically between turns two and three. You might find that resolving the card on the draw is a struggle, while on the play it might be easier. You might find that you this sort of effect isn’t even needed within the matchup.
Testing in this way will help you not only discern the opportunity cost of playing a card, but how to best leverage it to be most potent. From there, it becomes a bit easier to derive how many copies of an effect to play. If you expect to play a matchup multiple times, and the sideboard card you’re testing is only good when drawn in the early game, then you have to weigh the risk vs. reward of playing three or more copies. Maybe you don’t have the space and need to find an alternative tool. Maybe the matchup just isn’t enough of a concern to warrant that many copies of a dedicated effect so you opt for a singleton copy of an effect that has application across more matchups, e.g Shatterstorm vs. Ancient Grudge.
2. You don’t need to finish every game
Before each game, you should have a clear idea of what question you’re trying to answer. Don’t just mindlessly jam games until their conclusion – jam until you’ve found your answer.
Say you’re trying to form a coherent macro-plan against a deck like Golgari Yawgmoth. You might find yourself wondering if killing their turn one mana dork is worth it or not. Try playing 10 games where your testing partner always plays turn one mana acceleration and you always remove it. Now, play 10 games where they lead on an accelerant, and you save your removal for some other threat. You might find that one play pattern is immediately favorable over the other. You might find that using Lightning Bolt on a turn one Bird is fine, but that an effect like Fatal Push is better saved for some other threat that Bolt can’t address. You only need to play the game until you’ve hit that point where it’s pretty clear one player has a sizable advantage, which often happens multiple turns before the game comes to a definitive end.
For example, when testing Miracles vs, DnT, my friend Josh Wiley would routinely scoop every game that I was able to curve a turn three Terminus into a turn four Jace because that sequence made me the overwhelming favorite to win. So unless he specifically wanted to get better at beating this specific board statem we’d move onto another game which we’d deemed as a more advantageous use of our time.
3. Play matchups from the other side.
Don’t just play a matchup from the side of your preferred deck. Getting reps in from the other side of the table will open your eyes to in game dynamics that you weren’t aware of.
Sometimes we might leverage a removal spell in a way we think is good, then upon having that strategy employed against us, we’ll realize there might be better strategies. Sometimes we might undervalue a certain aspect of the matchup and subsequently realize how important it actually is. Try and get a holistic understanding of the dynamics at play. Ideally, you should construct a gauntlet of the most relevant decks within a format and gain experience playing both sides of as many matchups as possible.
4. Testing is an open dialogue.
Again, you aren’t playing to win games. You’re playing to learn. If you’ve hit a game state that you find confusing, show your testing partner your hand and discuss the options you have available. This doesn’t mean that your partner should show you their hand and/or tell you the “correct” line. The goal here is to gain a bit of perspective. Lets go back to our “bolt the Bird” example from above. A discussion surrounding this decision tree should go something like this:
Player 1: I think I want to kill your Bird but I’m not sure if that’s good in the long run?
Player 2: Well, with three mana on turn two, this deck can make X, Y or Z plays, while on two mana it can make plays A, B and C.
Player 1: I don’t really care about any of those plays, I’m mostly worried about the prospect of facing down a turn three Yawgmoth.
Player 2: Well, my deck has 10 mana acceleration effects, so even if you kill my turn one Bird, I’ll probably still be able to play Yawg on turn three.
Player 1: So maybe instead of trying to kill your threats, I’ll focus on developing my own board state the first couple turns and then hold up interaction.
Player 2: Lets try that plan and see how it pans out.
Player 1: I think I want to kill your Bird but I’m not sure if I should use this Push or this Bolt.
Player 2: Well, I have X creatures in my deck that die to Push and Y creatures that die to bolt. Can you think of any reasons to use one or the other?
Player 1: *lists off pros and cons of each option*
Player 2: Maybe save push for one of my x/4’s?
Player 1: *bolts Bird*
Player 2: Hey, you’ve bolted the Bird in X out of Y games and that hasn’t worked out well for you. Maybe you should try some other game plan.
Player 1: Like what?
Player 2: Well, your deck doesn’t care as much about my mana dorks as long as you have enough interaction to break up my relevant synergies. So let’s play a few games where you ignore what I’m doing for a couple turns and use that time to make proactive plays instead of trying to impede mine.
The above are just hypothetical examples of how such conversations could go. You don’t have to use these as exact templates of how to approach these conversations. Just make sure that you and your partner are having an open dialogue. Make sure you’re getting direct feedback from someone on the other end about how effective a card or strategy is. Even go so far as to show your partner your hand and ask them to weigh in on how to approach the current game state.
More Loose Thoughts
- Make your decks better than you are. A wins a win regardless of who put in the most effort. A deck being harder to play isn’t actually a badge of honor.
- Coaching is a great way to shortcut a lot of trial and error. I highly recommend paying someone for the service if you can afford to.
- Use a hypergeometric calculator to fine tune your deck. It’s easy to waste a lot of time mulling over how many removal spells you should play or what your mana base should look like. Doing the math helps cut that time down dramatically. For those interested in a more specialized tool, Peter Van Der Ham made this mana base analysis sheet for public usage.
- If you find that you really struggle with getting over your biases, then pretend you’re building the list for someone else to play. You’ll probably find yourself looking at things through a more objective lens.
- If you’re trying to decide between playing one of two cards, say the second copy of Ancient Grudge versus the first copy of Abrade, flip the card upside down in it’s sleeve. That way, when you draw, it you’ll be prompted to ask yourself “if this was the other card would it be better here? How would it impact the game?” And so on. This exercise shouldn’t be looked at as a way of discerning any statistical relevance. But it does force you to actively compare and contrast the pros and cons of various options in real time.
Anywho, shoutout to everyone who tapped in for part two.
See ya in the next one.