Whenever I explain the concept of playtesting to people who don’t play Magic, I always stress that it’s more sophisticated than just practice. If I wanted to be a world-class basketball player I couldn’t just go to the court every day and shoot hoops for 12 hours and go home. Even if I did that every day for the rest of my life, I would never attain a skill level comparable to even the worst professionals.
The fact of the matter is that the old saying “practice makes perfect” is totally wrong, and is detrimental to believe and follow. I much prefer the saying “intelligent practice makes perfect.” The concept of intelligent practice means you’re not just putting in dead volume—playing with no purpose and simply playing. You go in with a goal, and you continue to take steps in the direction of making that goal more attainable. I recently had a friend who took up Magic not that long ago ask me “how long until I don’t suck anymore?” to which I responded “10,000 hours.”
This is a test we perform as a team before each Pro Tour when we have a deck we’ve all decided to work on. Let’s say The Pantheon decided on an Elf deck for the next Pro Tour. A simple deck: 40 Elf creatures and 20 Forests. We’d make a list of decks we expect to see, and practice against each deck at a rate consistent with their popularity, and even more so against the popular decks we’ve deemed problematic matchups.
In this scenario, we think our deck is just great and it’s clearly the best choice for the tournament, and instead of just staying satisfied with a job well done, we try to create situations that make it so that our deck choice is less good. We’d test against the top decks and assume those pilots would figure out that the Elf deck is great, and then put 4 Pyroclasms in their sideboard. At this point we’d test against the other top decks and just assume they had 4 of the best cards against us in their sideboard.
This is one of the best forms of stress testing, if you have a great deck that wins 40%-60% under the worst conditions you can cook up, and you can reasonably assume that those conditions won’t be commonplace, it means playing against unprepared opponents will be a cakewalk, and when you play against more prepared players you will, at the very least, be experienced and able to make better decisions.
This can backfire of course, and you can have a deck you think is amazing but doesn’t hold up well under scrutiny, at which point you’ll have to make a difficult decision about whether it’s worth playing, but you’ve given yourself all the data and that’s how you can make the most informed, best educated decisions possible.
Being thorough means trying new things to see what sticks. Experimenting can be really tough, especially for me, because trying something that may not be good flies in the face of my instincts as a player, which is to do what has already proven successful. If my goal is to win a game, or a match, or a draft, that means I will do my best to build an optimal configuration for a deck—that doesn’t mean I put in a card I’ve never seen before that looks bad.
Very often though, a card may look bad, but once you play with it you’re pleasantly surprised. I’ve struggled with this part of the process, but that just means I need to be even more vigilant and force myself to play with new cards and experiment.
The best example of this I can think of is in a booster draft with rares/mythics that are new and hard to evaluate. Every Pro Tour testing team I’ve been on understands the importance of this and we all seem to do a pretty good job of it.
Let’s say you open a Grip of Desolation and a Guul Draz Overseer pack 1 pick 1 in your first Battle for Zendikar Draft—it’s clear to everyone now that Grip of Desolation is the superior of the two cards—but I actually believe that if you’re going to be thorough and test a huge amount of Limited early in a format, it’s better to first-pick the rare here. There’s a good chance you may never get to play with that rare again before the Pro Tour. It’s everyone’s nightmare that they sit down at the Pro Tour and open a pack and see Touch of the Void and a rare that they’ve never seen before, and there’s a big risk in either taking a card that turns out to be bad, or passing a card that turns out to be great. This is an example of purposefully lowering your expected win rate in an effort to intelligently practice. You won’t win at the same rate you would normally, but hopefully you’ll learn at a better rate.