Initial Technology – How to Win a Tournament


Presumably, winning tournaments is something you are interested in. If emerging victorious is in fact your goal, there are some definite steps you can take to make it more likely. I can’t tell you exactly what to do, and there isn’t just one path, but I can talk about what has worked best for me in the past (some of which worked for PV this weekend, though I can’t speak for him completely). While I will use PT San Juan as the main example, since it is the last tournament I played in, hopefully you will be able to apply these steps to any tournament you are planning on attending. Plus, San Juan was (mostly) awesome, so I figure I would share some of my non-tournament experiences with everyone.

The first and most important part of tournament preparation is having a good testing group

Nobody can break it alone, and even if you end up drafting a million times on MTGO, having someone to discuss picks and decks with will help you reach the next level. Constructed is even more impossible, since good discussion and playtesting is unattainable if you are on your own. I like MTGO as much as anyone, but I must caution against relying on it too much. Grinding infinite 8-mans and PEs does provide you a good baseline estimation of your deck’s strength, but to really tune it you need more than that. Playing against unknown opponents of random skill levels can only get you so far, and a big part of truly breaking Constructed is discussing theory with someone who knows what they are talking about. For San Juan, we were pretty set, since we had set up a test group well in advance.

As usual, I had already begun testing with the Ocho, wrapter, and Matt Nass back at home. We smashed a fair amount of block games, though the Ocho mostly observed, as he tends to do. Once at GP DC, we met up with just about everyone else, though Big Z wasn’t going to meet us until we got to San Juan. This brought our final roster to:

David Ochoa
Josh Utter-Leyton
Gabe Walls
Brad Nelso
Martin Juza
Lukas Blohon
Tom “the Boss” Ross
Ben Stark
Matej Zatlkaj (Big Z)

Most of us were on the same flight to San Juan from DC, though that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. See, when you fly in such a big group, whoever books first has everyone follow suit, which is what happened with us. Unfortunately, that involved Martin booking a 6:15 AM flight from DC to Atlanta to San Juan, instead of the 8 AM nonstop that Web took. It wasn’t really his fault, since he was booking a 10-leg trip that involved Prague, Tokyo, DC, San Juan, and Manila, and that flight fit best, but it did punish the rest of us for not looking for ourselves. We all just mised his flight, which is how me, Gabe, Martin, Lukas, and Wrapter ended up in the Wyndham hotel lobby at 2 AM the night before, just killing time until we could head to the airport. Gabe and I soon found ourselves sitting across from each other with a pile of draft commons between us, at which point a rousing game of 5-second Mental Magic broke out.

The rules are simple: you start with no cards, draw a card each turn, and have five seconds to play it as a card with the same casting cost. It is way more difficult than it looks, and especially given the circumstances, it is no surprise that plenty of Grizzly Bears, Pearl Unicorns, and Halimar Wavewatches got played. We had some pretty sweet games, and levelers ended plenty of them.

Once we were at the airport, it was time to wait for another few hours, so of course we kept battling. We started with a game Gabe invented:

You have seven cards in your hand, and they can be anything. You play lands as normal, and announce each card when cast. This game didn’t last very long, and went a little like so:

Gabe: Underground Sea, go.

LSV: Underground Sea, go.

Gabe: Volcanic Island, go.

LSV: Library of Alexandria, go (with 7 cards in hand).

Gabe: Uhh, end of turn Funeral Charm you.

LSV: In response, activate Library. Funeral Charm resolves, I’ll discard Basking Rootwalla (and it even should have been Dodecapod).

Gabe: This game is stupid.

We moved on to a variant that Pat Chapin showed me when we were killing time on the way to GP Philadelphia a few years ago. You start with one mana, and no cards, but draw one per turn. You can’t draw additional cards, and your mana goes away at the end of turn. Each turn, you get one additional mana. Each card can be played once per game. We spent the first couple turns casting Lava Spikes and lifegain, then moved on to various come-into-play guys. I had a plan though: I was able to get Gabe to 10 life, at which point I immediately killed him on my next turn with Hidetsugu’s Second Rite, one of the sweetest cards in any Mental Magic format. I figured I would get one for free with the Rite, since it is pretty unexpected. Of course, I ended up winning both games one AND two with Second Rite, but mise. Despite these games seeming silly, they definitely do make you think, and are a great way to pass the time while travelling. Any sort of mental exercise is good, and one that actively makes you think about Magic is even better. In order to win these games (well, maybe not 5-second Mental Magic) I always had a plan, and was able to execute it. I’m not claiming that Mental Magic is great prep for the Pro Tour, but that doing stuff like playing Mental Magic vs just sitting in an airport has to help somehow.

To make a long story short, we burdled until we arrived in San Juan

There were varying levels of preparation coming into the beach house (though it was more like beach apartments, which was unfortunate), but that was to be expected. Having different perspectives is very valuable, and the fact that we had a good mix of people was awesome. Brad and I had probably played the most games of Block prior to meeting up, since we both tested the RUG deck a fair amount on MTGO. It wasn’t like we had all the answers, or anything close, but we had enough initial experience with the format to set up a good gauntlet and provide a base of information for everyone else to work on. That brings me to my second point:

Have a good gauntlet to test against, and make sure to update gauntlet decks periodically

A gauntlet is pretty simple: it is just all the decks you want to be prepared against, which often includes the deck you end up playing. Ideally you have the actual cards, with no proxies, since overuse of proxies does hurt gameplay (if you are spending mental energy figuring out what your cards are, you are not going to play optimally), but as long as you get all the decks made, that is the important part. As testing continues, use any new information you get to update your gauntlet decks, since testing against a month-old Red deck will just give you false results. In this case, we had multiple good tools at our disposal. Typically, Magic Online doesn’t help with Pro Tour testing, since the Pro Tour uses a set that hasn’t been released online yet. However, Rise of the Eldrazi was actually released well in time for there to be tournament results and booster drafts aplenty. Therefore, we were constantly looking at decklists that did well in MTGO tournaments for inspiration and updates. I’m not saying that we assumed every decklist was awesome just because it 4-0ed a Daily Event or anything, but that these lists were just another useful sort of information available to us. Even if we think that the Red deck or Boros should be built a certain way, it is more useful to test against the way the people playing it will build it, which means limiting to some extent the amount we customize it.

For example, we found that just by adding Trailblazer’s Boots to the Boros sideboard, it made the RUG matchup way more favorable. One tutorable card that nullified all the blockers the RUG deck had was huge, and it made games way tougher for the control deck, since none of the chump blockers mattered in the late game. Still, not a single person was using the Boots, so even though we would have definitely run them had we played Boros, we ultimately decided that testing against them wasn’t productive. If people had Boots, that was bad for us, but we assumed that most people wouldn’t (and they didn’t). In fact, the Boots alone almost made Josh audible to Boros the night before. I feel like I should get some sort of reward for convincing him not to (though, to be fair, most of my “convincing” was just me holding up a Goblin Guide and a Jace, and asking him which he would rather be casting).

We did alright in keeping our gauntlet fresh, though we certainly could have done better. We did have all sorts of Eldrazi Ramp decks built, some involving Summoning Trap and some not, as well as multiple aggressive Red decks (Mono-Red and Boros), UW Control, RUG, and UWG Control. Mono-Green Aggro was not a deck we were really aware of, and it ended up being one of the best decks, though luckily that didn’t hurt us much in the tournament. Throughout the course of the week, most everyone got to play most of the gauntlet decks, which leads me into my next point:

Try playing most or all of the decks in the format, even if just for a few games

Most test groups tend to pigeonhole people into certain roles, but that can definitely be harmful. If the same person always plays the Red deck, not only will you only have experience testing against the decisions one person makes, you also never get to experience any of the matchups from the other side. Playing with “the enemy” is important, since it gives you the perspective of the decks you are trying to beat, which sometimes reveals previously unknown information. If Kozilek’s Predator is the card you start hating the sight of when playing with Mono-Red vs Eldrazi Green, you now have more information on the subject than if you only played from the Eldrazi side. You might not have realized exactly how good Predator is, or how much it disrupted the Summons combo, and this holds true for all sorts of cards. Once you learn what the opposition likes or hates, you can make better decisions, even if you know you won’t be playing the Red deck at the Pro Tour yourself.

Uncharacteristically, both Josh and I slammed a ton of games with Boros, and I think that helped us make decisions regarding RUG. We realized how good one for one removal was, and how bad cards like Chain Reaction would have been, and how just killing everything on sight was the best play. PV was our Mono-Red mage most of the time, but even he took breaks and let other people handle the Mountains. This is an area we did decently well in; nobody was overly attached to an archetype, which let other people play and offer suggestions on it. Of course, the flip side of playing everything is making sure you have played your primary deck enough, since next up is:

Make sure you know the deck you want to play inside out

Playing the Boros deck for a few games isn’t enough to teach you the deck, but part of the reason that Josh wanted to play Boros was that he had played way more than just a few games, and was confident he could pilot it well. He wasn’t going to switch to a deck he had no experience with; Boros was more of a lateral move. Ultimately he didn’t switch, but his time spent on Boros was enough to give him that option.

I had played a ton of games with RUG, beginning with the MOCS a month ago, and I knew the deck in and out. The other people playing the deck also picked up quite a few games with it, and we also discussed each slot at length. The actual evolution of the list isn’t too important anymore (though Mike Jacob did create it of course), since Block is no longer much of a format, but how we went about tuning it is. Through testing and talking, we had every single slot in the deck figured out and triple-checked, so we knew why each card was there and what it did. This not only helped us make correct in-game decisions, it helped us build the deck to the best of our abilities. The biggest disadvantage of picking up a deck late in the game is that you lose this familiarity, which hurts you both in construction and playing.

When you don’t know what each card is for, you can’t really tinker with the deck effectively, since you might remove a load-bearing card by accident, at which point you are screwed. You also won’t find the optimal lines of play in complicated situations, though you should be able to manage most simple ones. I know that every time I have played a deck cold, I can feel myself drastically improving with it even after just a few games, which is why I won’t play a deck cold at a real tournament. Those few games (and more) should occur before the event, not in the first few rounds. You give up way more percentage points by playing an unfamiliar deck than by playing a deck you know inside and out, assuming both decks are competitive.

Losing the ability to effectively tinker with the deck is big, since as I’m sure you will hear in the reports from the other guys, we added Lotus Cobra and Goblin Ruinblaster main at the last minute. If we didn’t know how Cobras and Ruinblasters interacted with the format, I would not have been confident in that change, but we had the knowledge necessary to make the right cuts and add them in. The decision ended up being awesome, and none of us regretted it. Part of what prompted us to make that decision in the first place is my next point:

Last-minute metagame information is extremely important

There is a reason we decided to swap in the Cobra package the night before, and it isn’t totally that we didn’t do enough testing. Honestly, we didn’t test as much as any of us would have liked, but we still tested a lot, and the new information we received was the biggest reason we swapped at the last minute. Once we showed up at the tournament site, just by talking to people we realized that the field was going to be vastly more control than aggro, which is not what we had anticipated. Gabe in particular was very vocal about playing a deck that had a great game against control, since he thought that we could almost ignore aggro with our maindeck. He ended up going 4-1 with an UG deck that was awesome vs control and pretty bad vs aggro, so I would say that he was on the money.

Between the five or six of us, we knew enough people to realize that our previous estimates of Red Aggro were going to be way off, and luckily we took this information to heart. We had access to a ton of previously unavailable information, and wasting it would have hurt us immensely. The Cobras and Blasters were in the sideboard because of how bad they were against aggro, but if control was going to vastly outnumber aggro (which it did), moving them maindeck was awesome. That was the idea, and I would say that it worked out splendidly in practice.

I do wish we had tested the maindeck plan more than the 10 games or so we played the night before, but we had enough time with the deck to know that we weren’t doing anything overly detrimental to the integrity of the deck itself. If our estimate of the metagame was off, that was one thing, but in terms of deck construction, we were mostly set. More testing would have made us feel better, but we worked with what we had.

In the case of a PTQ, you won’t have access to quite this level of pre-tournament information, but definitely put the information you do have to use. This may mean less drastic swaps, but even adding more sideboard cards against a deck that a ton of people seem to be running can help. Use results from previous local tournaments, and above all, talk to people. Networking is valuable, and talking to the people who know local trends can help you make better predictions.

In case you hadn’t seen, here is our final decklist:

With the deck out of the way, it was time to battle. Getting to the site, or anywhere, was a bit of a daunting exercise. Driving in Puerto Rico isn’t exactly the same as the States, where there are traffic laws. So, not only did we get lost over and over, we got to do so while dodging the other people on the road. Once, when heading to the site, Paulo, Josh, Brad, and I were sitting at a red light, and this guy just blew right through it without slowing down. I’m not sure how long it would take me to get used to driving in PR, but however long I was there was not enough.

We started off with mixed results in the Constructed portion. I went 3-2, PV went 3-2 (and started 0-2), Josh and Web went 4-1. I completely threw my second round, dying to a Summons + Bushwhacker when I could have set it up so I had Deprive up instead of playing Oracle on my turn. That is my biggest regret of the tournament, since I almost unquestionably should have won that game. Once done with Constructed, it was time for Limited, where I felt we had a huge edge.

One thing our house did well was prepare us for draft. Not only did we have many members who had three digits worth of MTGO drafts under their belt, we also did live drafts and talked about draft strategy all the time. I would almost say we were overprepared for drafts compared to Constructed, though since it was the Draft Pro Tour, I suppose it was fine.

Even for Limited, discussion is the best way to focus your thoughts on the format

The environment we had was very conducive to great Limited brewing. We had Ben Stark championing Green Ramp, which he will write about shortly, and that was an archetype he knew inside and out. One of the most commonly discussed picks was Joraga Treespeaker vs Staggershock, and by the end of the week Ben had us all taking Staggershock. Guess what Paulo did when confronted with that very pick in the Top 8?

At one point, Ben was arguing for Treespeaker over Sarkhan the Mad, though he eventually relented. I don’t bring this up to make fun of him, but to put into perspective both how powerful the archetype is and how powerful Treespeaker is. I drafted G/b ramp in both my drafts, and I still feel robbed that I lost in both draft finals.

Besides Green Ramp, we also discussed (and drafted) B/R Tokens, which wrapter ended up 3-0ing his first pod with. Last week, I talked about having a plan, and that was central in our discussions. We weren’t just talking about pick orders, since classic pick orders make no sense in this format. A typical question wouldn’t be “Staggershock vs Flame Slash” it would be “in G/x Ramp, Staggershock or Slash” or “in B/R Tokens, Lavafume Invoker or Essence Feed“. We talked about all sorts of questions (and I would take Flame Slash and Invoker most of the time, for what it’s worth), and all of us knew what we were doing in Limited.

We were drawing first 90% of the time, we would avoid White if at all possible, and we would always settle into a particular deck as soon as possible. When your goal is to 3-0 (and at the Pro Tour, it almost always is), you are better off moving in on a deck as quickly as possible. We tried not to waste time, and commit to a specific archetype as soon as it seemed prudent. The worst place you can be in Rise draft is in-between decks, since the focused decks are almost always better than piles of cards that many people seemed to draft. Even if you are getting cut in some of your colors, it is better to be going after a deck than just taking cards, since that gets you actually nowhere. Our team had a great grasp on the good archetypes and the format in general, and the results bore that out. At 4-2, I was dragging behind the rest, who went 6-0, 6-0, 5-1, 5-1 or something like that.

I ended up 42nd, which isn’t terrible, but more importantly, the rest of the guys crushed it. Web and Sperling made t16, and wrapter, PV, and Brad all Top 8ed. It was unfortunate that PV and wrapter had to play round one, but that was the case. Watching PV win the whole thing was incredible, and I was on the edge of my seat during the draft (and they broadcasted PV’s) and most of the Top 8. Of course, I was drafting at the time, but I was still watching as best I could. I knew PV had it in him, and seeing him finally get there was fantastic.

There is certainly more I could tell you about tournament preparation than I have, but this should give you a good start for any Limited or Constructed tournament. We did a decent job of touching most of these bases in our preparation, and even if there were areas we could improve on, our results were even better than we could have hoped for.


31 thoughts on “Initial Technology – How to Win a Tournament”

  1. I wish i could see some of the games played online. If any one knows where the vids are, post up a link.

  2. Pingback: Time for a random post XD, random updates « Fates of Ashe

  3. is “and by the end of the week Ben had us all taking Staggershock” supposed to be “Treespeaker” instead?

  4. Off topic, although this sort of relates to your first winning team.

    What happened to the dude that you rose to fame with, Paul Cheon?

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  6. Other nice mental magic formats:

    4cs (four card showdown):
    You pick 4 cards in your head from a decided format and your opponent does the same (this includes land, so an example could be path, wild nactl, temple garden, stomping ground). You then decide who’s going to win with the selected cards – sometimes you even have to battle it out. Each game is best of 2 (one where each player is on the play). Hand disruption is banned (because blackmail, urborg, dark depths, hexmage never looses otherwise).
    We played it for several hours heading back from GP Bruxelles!

    Mind magic:
    Pretty much the same as yours, but with Danish cube rules, which means that every card can be layed as a land with all basic types that can produce any colour of mana. Actual lands can be cast as a land of your choice or any other 0 cmc card. Each card can only be cast once (so if you cast timewalk, your opponent can’t) and the same card must be used as the same card (so the timewalks continues to be timewalk). We decided to ban fastbond and carpet of flowers, ’cause they’re probably too good in the format, but power works fine!

    Nice article!

  7. Welcome to Puerto Rico! We have chaos here!

    I assure you what you experienced was but a small fraction of the unruly driving and behaviour we have here.

    I find it quite amusing when college aged american kids come down here for spring break, act all tough at Senor Frogs / some other spring break dive, then look surprised when a local beats them down. The look on their faces is precious… they look around expecting help or police… those are luxuries not afforded in PR!

    Puerto Rico present day = America’s Wild West circa 1850-1950.

  8. What a big history… ;p
    Tought it also,you did put us on the atmosphere of a pre PT. Good job!

  9. What a sweet holiday morning.

    Reading a gem like this and watching a sweet draft while having a nice coffee in bed all alone is just awesome.

    Thank you for playing magic.

  10. This is a great article! I’m not sure if there are such articles readily available already online, but I’d like to see this article be the start of a series. This one is kind of “What do to before the tourney” and the next could be “What do to while playing the tourney”. I’ve seen or heard friends mention things I would’ve never thought of, such as “If I draw this round, I’m stuck in lower-mid tables with Howling Mine Hell, not a place my deck wants to be”, so a discussion on a certain format’s archetypes and how a tournament tends to progress could be helpful. Also a primer on tiebreakers and tournament math would fit in that article. Finally, since I’m a PTQ player and no more pro than that, a discussion on how to break through to the Pro Tour, and how to adjust from being a big fish in a small pond to being the new guy on the block, would be nice to read, too. I know a few people who’ve won PTQs but immediately flunk the first three rounds of the PT. Is there anything different to prepare oneself for the different environment?

  11. Drawing first?! I would really like to hear more about this. Write a Limited article soon!

  12. Sorry for double post, but I really want to say that this article totally feels like next level magic.

  13. Regarding testing and tweaking, how many games do you like to play before you feel that you have enough data on a deck to tweak it accurately? I always read about testing and tweaking, but I don’t know when I’m being results-oriented and when the results are accurate. What do you do in your testing?

  14. “One of the most commonly discussed picks was Joraga Treespeaker vs Staggershock, and by the end of the week Ben had us all taking Staggershock.”

    you mean he had you all taking treespeaker right?

  15. 4 Card Showdown:

    If you play with no decks involved then ghost quarter beats blackmail in extended because they won’t be able to ever cast hexmage or activate depths, you just need some way to kill them with any 2 of the remaining 3 cards. Wasteland does the same in legacy with fewer conditions. You could even strand them with at best 1 swamp and they still can’t do anything.

    So for example: Mutavault, Ghost Quarter, Blinkmoth Nexus, Land beats the blackmail strategy on either play or draw by either leading ghost quarter and taking away their black mana. And it took me less than two minutes to work out that hand.

    Don’t ban cards unless you have to!

  16. @dar482 I second the sentiment. We are long due an article about choosing to play/draw in modern limited environments!

  17. @ spymist…don’t you also need a land or lotus petal?…the black lotus-channel-fireball won’t work unless you’re planning on channelling all 20 of your life 😉

    loved the article, i learned a little something new, like that i need to move back to a city with a bigger magic scene than Jefferson City, MO

  18. @ lordkryptic Unless I misunderstand one of these cards, Black Lotus will allow you to pay only 19 life to deal 20 because you will have one left over from Channel and Fireball.

  19. @ spymist
    the hand should probably be mountain (cause black lotus only adds 1 color) black lotus, channel, kaervek’s Torch/demonfire (to stop counters and other shenanigans)

    that still leaves you dead to semian spirit guide, elvish spirit guide, manamorphose and divert.As well as any disruption.

  20. Thanks for telling me about mental magic, I have to tell my friends that, it sounds awesome! Although I know one friend of ours would blow us out everytime

  21. this has to be one of the clearest and most insightful things you’ve written about the game… that i have read, at any rate.

    thank you for sharing this.

  22. Reading this article made me want to try harder at being better at Magic. I haven’t thought that about an article in a looong time. Great work, Luis.

  23. I’ve seen a 3 card hand/deck variant, where your hand is basically a 3-card Vintage deck. (No decking.) For example, Karakas+Isamaru, Hound of Konda+Path to Exile is a simple but viable plan. Of course, like many strategies, it loses badly to Black Lotus+Show and Tell+Barren Glory… which is, in turn, trumped by a similar deck that replaces the Barren Glory with Platinum Angel or Angel of Despair. Dryad Arbor+Force of Will+Slippery Bogle beats or at least draws with any of those, but always loses to Mishra’s Workshop+Trinisphere+Steel Golem.

    Also fun is the format consisting of 60 card decks that contain only a single card (with the four-card limit removed). Soul Spike is one way to burn your opponent out, but Keldon Megaliths also work… IF you mulligan to zero or one first. Mulligan decisions are actually really important, as many decks may have no way to kill their opponent besides running them out of cards (Commandeer, for example, one of the only effective answers to Soul Spike).

  24. @ Tim:

    Guess that proves it’s a rich format! That hand looses to 3 simian spirit guide magus of the moon btw!

  25. So, basically, if you want a win a tournament, “join our gang”.

    What is the size limit on your gang, anyway?

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