Required Reading: How Professionals Test for Events
Hello again everyone! I’ve been asked a lot of questions about how Chris and I go about testing when a tournament is coming up. Furthermore, many people have been extremely surprised that Chris’s testing team was literally just me, a no name player.
I attribute this to two major factors. One, Chris is an absolute monster and easily one of the most talented players to ever play the game. Call me small minded and biased, and maybe I am, but how many professional players got to where they were without a network of players better than them? All Chris had access to was functionally no money, a modest MTGO collection, and a player who was a literal dumpster fire until 2019 specifically. Take that as you will.
However, the second part is what the article is about, it’s how we playtested to make sure he was as prepared as possible for an event. Now let me say, having only the two of us certainly was not ideal and we would’ve loved a larger network, but we had to work with what we had. We made it work though, because we tested extremely efficiently. Here, I’ll go literally step by step on how to approach the testing phase. This one’s going to be a doozy so strap in and get ready to learn.
WHERE TO START
Say you have the Arena MCQW coming up in a few weeks (which will be true for me and many others qualified as I’m writing this article), where do you start? Before anything else, you need to vet decks. What does this mean? You need to start figuring out what decks in Standard right now are good and which are less good.
At the very first phase of testing, I’ll try out many different strategies on Arena ladder to get a good sense of how the deck feels. I’ll keep playing the list until I feel like I have a strong grasp of how good it is and how it lines up in the metagame, and then I’ll move on to the next one. This is the period where you can try some more off the wall strategies or decks that can attack the metagame from interesting angles; experimenting and learning is highly encouraged at this phase. I try not to spend too much time doing this as this is just the preliminary part of the whole testing experience, but I generally try to narrow it down to 3-5 decks that I think have what it takes to be my pick for the event. With that in mind, I want to give out some general advice that most people (including myself) need to hear.
TRYING TO BREAK THE META IS ALMOST ALWAYS LESS SUCCESSFUL THAN CONFORMING TO THE META
I can taste the salty tears of you brewers from here, but this is the trust of the matter. The odds that you are single-handedly going to create a deck better than the collective Magic hivemind is rather small. However, there can be a few exceptions to this rule.
One, if you are an incredibly skilled player and deck builder, you have a better shot than most in making a really good deck (be honest if this is applicable to you).
Second, if you have access to an incredibly skilled player, then this advice transfers over.
Third, building a deck that can attack the meta is easier than trying to build the new best deck. For example, when Omnath was infesting the ladder right after Zendikar Rising released, I created 8 Shark to combat it, and it did the job reasonably well. However, I would even consider that a risky proposition if you’re short on time. I created 8 Shark because I had no relevant event in any close time frame, so I did it as a thought experiment more than anything. Despite that, more often than not, it’s just better to play the best decks or try to improve upon them. With this in mind, it’s time to go into step two of the testing process.
FIND A TESTING TEAM
This is likely going to be the largest barrier of entry to budding Magic players, but this is by far the most important step of any of them. It’s unfortunate, but I have to be blunt; if you do not have a testing team, or at a minimum, a testing partner, you’re at an extreme disadvantage. Arena ladder is very nice for vetting decks, as the most important part of phase one is figuring out if the deck is even playable or not, and playing against pretty much any opponent will do that for you. However, the dividends for playing on ladder drop off pretty quickly after that (this applies to MTGO as well but I’ll just keep saying Arena for simplicity).
On Arena, you have no control over the skill level of your opponent or what strategy they’re playing. Even if you are at the very top of the ladder, the delta between different player’s skills is insanely large. One match I’ll face someone who plays lightning quick and makes zero misplays, and the next I’ll face someone who tanks for two minutes and does the worst possible line for themselves. This isn’t a knock against any player at all, but the lack of consistency makes testing significantly harder.
So, how do you go about finding a testing team? There’s functionally two good ways, either you find an established team and try to get in or you form your own. Whichever route you decide to go for, there are 3 important criteria that ideally ALL have to be met. If any of these are not met, this can severely impact the efficiency of your testing, so I would try not to compromise at this stage. The criteria are:
- The player(s) are around your skill level or better.
- They have similar goals to you or take the testing as seriously.
- They are pleasant to work with.
Ideally speaking, there wouldn’t be a huge delta in player skill within testing groups as that just runs you back around to the Arena problem, but sometimes that is unavoidable. If that’s unavoidable, hope that you’re the worst one on that team so you can reap the most benefits. If you happen to be the best on the team, make sure you trust your teammate’s judgement enough that if they tell you something about a deck, you respect their skill enough to believe them. If you can’t trust your teammates, there’s literally no point in being on that team. Since Chris was always better than me, this was a big hurdle I had to get over for him to trust what I say about certain strategies, and even now he’s still a little skeptical of some of my choices (it’s probably because I’ve ascended so far past him he can’t see my genius, it’s the only explanation). Nevertheless, the whole reason to form a testing team is to make your testing more efficient and expedient, if the player skill delta is hindering that, the team dynamic is no longer helpful.
If you need some anecdotal evidence, let’s take Chris for example. Around 2010, he formed a testing team with his close friends at the time (before I knew him). None of them were particularly skilled, but they all had varying degrees of success as they were all around the same skill level and had similar goals. In the next few years, the team had many successes with a plethora of PTQ Top 8s, multiple SCG Top 8s, GP Top 16s, a TCGPlayer State Championship and an SCG Invitational Top 8. Chris racked up 10-15 PTQ top 8s, one of the SCG Top 8s, a 2012 NJ States win, and a few GP Top 16s. Not bad for someone who wasn’t even 16 at the time.
However, in 2014, with everyone growing up and most people going away for college or developing other hobbies, the team dissolved. After that point, it was Chris who was having the (now second) best Magic streak of his life and me who was a trash bag inside of a dumpster fire as the only other person who seriously played. He seemed unbeatable at the time and he was arguably the best of that team, but without the support network, his testing was extremely hampered. As a result, he struggled to have any decent result for years. However, that entire time he was slowly training me up, which certainly wasn’t easy because I’m denser than microwaved oatmeal, but he was playing the long game. In 2019, I was finally a good enough player that he could start trusting my decisions in some capacity and I could be an effective play testing partner. What else happened in 2019 for Chris? Oh yeah, he won 2 PTQs, got into the Finals of another, qualified for TWO Arena Mythic Championships through the qualifier weekend, and top 8d TWO Mythic Championships. Was that all due to me being there for him? Obviously not, but clearly he was ready to break out and needed a support network to help him.
Second criteria, they need to have similar goals or take testing as seriously as you. This is something I can speak from experience with as in 2019 our goals were vastly different. Chris was trying to get into the MPL, I was just hanging out. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but I had to constantly remind myself that this isn’t just playing around for him, there was a lot on the line, and I had to match the intensity. That’s not to say it can’t also be fun, because it certainly was, but you need your testing partners to be taking it as seriously as you are. If you’re with a group that wants to relax, hang out, throw some decks against each other and you’re all in agreement of that? Fantastic, sounds like a great time! There’s nothing wrong with not being 100% serious as long as everybodys on the same page, but if you’re not, the validity of the testing is compromised.
Lastly, you really want to be on a team of people you enjoy working with. Magic is supposed to be a hobby we do for fun that builds camaraderie, and if that isn’t happening for you, that’s not a great spot to be in. This is probably the most flexible of the three depending on what your goals are, but I find you can work harder when you’re with people you enjoy being around. Nobody wants to work with a jerk unless they have to, so I would avoid that if possible. Furthermore, if you have to constantly deal with toxic people, you may be spending more time trying to placate their wounded ego rather than getting valuable testing in. Personally, I would work with an incredibly nice person who isn’t amazing over an amazing player who is awful to be around. You could potentially learn more, but the tradeoff just isn’t worth it.
Alright, so you have a few decks picked out that you like, you found a testing group that’s filled with highly skilled, like-minded, and super cool individuals, what do you all do now? Well invite me in, I need more friends. No? Wow.
ORGANIZE YOUR TESTING SPACE
Remember the overall goal is to make testing efficient and expedited, this is where you have to do some organization to make sure information flows smoothly through your testing group. What I recommend is having a different tab/channel for each deck that you are all considering playing. Under each tab, only talk about that specific deck, it’s matchups, innovations, and whatever feels pertinent concerning that deck.
Furthermore, tracking win rates against certain matchups can be valuable information as well. I wouldn’t put too much stock into win percentages, but it’s always helpful to have more relevant information than less. If you want to take it a step further, I’ve actually heard of some who record the matches and do a quick writeup on what happened in the match as well. It’s time consuming for sure, but will give you the most accurate picture.
TEST WITH YOUR TEAM
This is the big plus for forming the testing team in the first place, right? Facing skilled opponents in a controlled environment is the absolute best way to improve at Magic. However you choose to do this is really a personal choice. For example, some people like treating it as a tournament match, some don’t. Some like talking during the matches, others don’t. It’s completely up to you on how you want to tackle this phase, but again, make sure your team is on the same page as you.
Chris and I like doing untimed matches and we talk during the games, this works for us but wouldn’t necessarily work for others. After you play some matches, aggregate what you learned from those matches and put that on the individual deck tab. At this phase, being open to learning and receptive to criticism is extremely crucial. Playing on Arena was the first vetting stage, but this is more or less the second. If one of the decks you like just isn’t cutting it, you have to try to be honest about it and hopefully your teammates will also keep you honest with your process as well.
Although it may be tempting, especially if it’s a pet deck or a brew, try not to make too many excuses for a deck’s poor performance. If it’s not up to task, just say that on the deck tab and move on to the next one. Being emotional about a deck or record is only going to hurt your testing and your results, try to avoid it. Now this was a general way of explaining the testing phase, but I want to break this down further so you know not just to test with your teammates, but HOW to test.
PLAY FULL MATCHES
Assuming the tournament you’re testing for is a Bo3 format, you have to test the full match. I don’t know why it’s so popular to just play game ones for testing purposes, but it makes literally no sense. At best, game one takes up half the matchup and more often, a third. Obviously I’m not saying that game ones don’t matter, but don’t just assume because you have a good game one matchup with a deck, that it’s a good overall matchup. This is likely obvious to most of you, but doesn’t hurt to say it quickly. As an extension of this advice…
TEST SIDEBOARD PLANS
I like to think there are no sacred cows in Magic, a philosophy that has helped me grow significantly as a Magic player. Sometimes, unintuitive sideboard plans can be the key from making an unfavored or even matchup into a good one. Trying out different combinations is extremely helpful in getting a deeper understanding of the matchup, which cards matter and which don’t, and how to approach the matchup from a game plan perspective. Again, this phase is where the most learning and growth needs to take place. Get some valuable insight with your deck, and share it with your team.
FOCUS ON MATCH FEEL, NOT MATCH RECORDS
This is probably the least intuitive of all the advice I have here and the one that requires the most trust with and from your teammates. If you want to see this in action, just reference my last article and see how the match records didn’t coincide with how we felt the matches should go. The largest thing you need to take away from this part of testing is to figure out how the matches would tend to play out so you can parse how to approach the matchup in future testing.
Now I’m not saying that the record is irrelevant by any means, but using it as the only metric of success won’t give you the full picture that you need to make a proper determination of how good a deck is. This is where the honesty element will be the most important in your testing process. Sometimes, you can lose a lot in a row and realize that the games weren’t panning out in that particular session and that it’s not indicative of the deck’s strength, however this can easily be conflated with a wounded ego, make sure you are able to separate the two in testing.
A weirder interaction is when you’ve won a lot but you feel like the deck still wasn’t up to snuff. I’ve definitely had testing sessions with Chris where one of us would sweep the other and then determine that the deck wasn’t good enough. I still remember Chris’s glee of reanimating a Feasting Troll King on turn 4 for the 5th game in a row and after he laughed in my face, said that the deck was horrible. It’s weird getting absolutely obliterated by a deck that even the pilot recognizes as bad, but that’s all part of the process.
Lastly, the most important element of testing is learning from the gameplay, not by how much you win. Even if an entire testing day involves you losing with poorly constructed decks, if you take away a bunch of tangible lessons from that experience, that would be considered an extremely productive day. Temper your expectations and focus on improvement.
So, you have your few decks, have your testing team, you’re all amazing players and on the same page, and the tournament is coming up in a week. What do you do now?
AGGREGATE ALL YOUR DATA NEW AND OLD
This is more or less that last piece of the testing phase that groups need to do. Ideally this is done in some sort of voice call or chat room where everybody can briefly go over what they’ve learned from the testing phase. Even more ideally, someone has had such good results with a deck that everybody is on the same page and can focus their energy on the same list. Despite it rarely happening that everyone agrees on the same deck, ideally it’s been narrowed down to 2-3 lists maximum.
Although it’s rare, sometimes right before an event a new strong deck will pop up that will require consideration from the group. If this occurs, the first order of business is everyone should be all hands on deck playing matches with it on Arena Ladder to figure out if the deck is good or not. If it is, you can continue on to the next step with this deck in consideration and if it isn’t, you can discard it and move on to the next step normally.
At this point, whoever has the most experience with each of the archetypes presented can talk about their experiences with the deck, game plans, matchups, and sideboard plans. Once the meeting is concluded, each member of the testing team should commit to one of the archetypes and spend the last week learning the deck inside and out and offering improvements and innovations. A few days before the event, the aggregate list should be established by the testing group and whoever is playing each archetype should do the same meeting they did the week prior, but focus on their particular archetype.
If you are still stuck on what deck you want to pick at this stage, ask your testing group to stagnate the meetings so you can attend multiple. I have made a lot of last minute deck choices and although it’s certainly not ideal, life happens like that sometimes. All that’s left to do is finalize your list and play the event!
Congratulations! You successfully navigated testing for a tournament. No matter how the tournament shakes out, if you believe you tested in such a way you are happy with, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Magic is a test of learning and patience, and whoever is the most willing to accept these virtues are generally the ones who are taking down the tournaments.