The Busy Man's Guide to Getting Better at Magic
If I've read it once in an article about Magic, I've read it a thousand times, "If you want to get better at Magic, playtest. A lot!" And I couldn't agree more. The best way to get better at this game is undoubtedly to put in more time and effort than the guy across the table from you. But if you're like me, this is not a possibility for you. It might be the wife/girlfriend (or both), the kids or the jobs (yes, plural for me), but there is just not enough time in the day for some of us to get in significant playtesting. Maybe those of us unable to dedicate 20-40 hours a week to our hobby can never be at the level the Pros are, but I refuse to believe that I can't take steps to improve my game enough to be competitive on the PTQ level, and you shouldn't believe it either. So I decided to find ways to improve my game within the confines of the approximately five hours a week that I have to dedicate to the game (usually one FNM draft, and about two hours of time on MTGO or testing with friends at the shop). I've devised several ways to maximize the time I do have to make myself a better player, and I want to share some of those with you.
Utilize MTGO, even if you can't afford to build your decks there.
I recently finished 9th in a PTQ, my highest PTQ finish to date. I attribute most of my success in that tournament to learning how to use MTGO as a preparation tool. I did two things differently in regards to MTGO than I had ever done previously. The first thing I did was build a really cheap deck in the format I wanted to test for (Kamigawa Block Constructed) very early and then I played that deck online whenever I could. This gave me an opportunity to see a lot of decks early, and begin to get a feel for where the metagame was going. The real benefit to this approach early on was that because I wasn't playing a deck that I was worried about legitimately testing, I was able to concentrate more on what the decks I was playing against were doing. This gave me a very good overview of the format without a heavy time investment. Of course later on in testing I built the deck that I ended up playing, as most players would. The second thing I did was making use of the ability to review Premier Event results, as it got closer to the tournament. This gave me a great idea of what the latest tech was for the best decks in the format.
Do What You Do Well (and Don't Waste Time Doing What You're Not Good At)
I'm not a good deck builder. Any of my friends who played me back in the days of my Aisling Leprechaun/Lure/Regeneration/Circle of Protection: Green deck can confirm that statement for you. But I used to just bang away at the deck building, convincing myself all the time that I was going to create the deck that broke the format I was testing for. Eventually, I would figure out that my deck was horrible, and then I would end up hitting the net decks the day before the tournament and playing something I hadn't tested at all. Now, I'm not suggesting you never try to build a deck; maybe deck building is the best aspect of your game. I'm suggesting that whatever you do well, work on doing it better and then rely on the work of others where you are weak.
Don't get me wrong, I would love to become a great deck builder, and if I have time in the future I will certainly work on it. But when you have limited time, your best chance at "Positive EV" is to cement your strengths. In my case, I'm pretty good at choosing a good metagame deck and then making the necessary tweaks to improve that deck, so I focus on that area of my game. In the early days of a new format, I try to get a general feeling for the decks and the format so that I can make a good deck decision. I waste no time on deck building. If the best part of your game is your play skill, then try to choose a deck that gives you a chance to outplay your opponents, and spend all of your available time learning that deck inside and out. If you're a deck builder, then spend most of your time studying the available card pool, and count on others to playtest that deck for you.
Form A Playtest Group
I spoke several times in the previous paragraph about the "work of others." Now, sometimes that refers to the writing on sites like Star City, but if you really want to maximize your time you need to try to get a playtest group together. A playtest group is the best way to maximize the "Do What You Do Well..." philosophy. If you're strength deckbuilding, you'll need someone to test that deck and give you feedback. If your strength is tweaking decks, the deck builders will feed you decks to work worth. Even more importantly, you can share information. Information is the hardest thing to get, and the most time consuming. If you have a playtest group you can pool information, and that is the primary benefit. I started a website for my playtest group, and we have forums where we can share all of the information and ideas we have on any format. Although most of the pros have groups they test with, the truth is that the best of them can go it alone and figure out the format (i.e. didn't Zvi figure out KBC in a vacuum?). For those of us down the line in talent and with little time, we're going to need help.
If you want to maximize your time, you need to take advantage of the information others have gleaned. If you're reading this, you probably read most of the big Magic strategy sites, and that's a great start. But do you take full advantage of the resources? The forums on the big web sites are a never-ending source of new tech and new deck ideas. If you're not regularly perusing the forums for information you're not getting full value out of the time. Are you checking out the local website? St. Louis, where I live, has a local Magic website, and a lot of other areas do to. I search these all out, because I want to try to find the most information I can that I don't actually need to spend time testing to find out. Sure, the quality of the information goes down a little bit as you get away from the big international sites and start looking at local sites, but the info is still cheap and time efficient.
Organize Your Collection
All right, we've established the fact that you're time strapped, and organizing your collection can take a lot of time. However, the one time investment in time can save you a lot of time (and money) over the long haul. Building decks and playing them is a key to becoming a better player, and if you spend half of your available time trying to find the cards to build those decks then you're wasting valuable play test time. My format is pretty simple. I have a three-inch binder for every block. I put all cards in order by set, then by number, putting a play set of each in each slot. If I take a card out to put it in a deck then I simply put a little note in that slot saying where the card is. This makes putting together decks to test very quick and easy. Now, I know that a lot of you are saying "Well, I just proxy my play test decks". That's a great idea, but does it prepare you for the day of the event? I know I spend a lot of time scouting at the beginning of a big event. Some of that is watching people play, but most of it is paying attention to the people frantically running around trying to find the cards for their deck. If you're tight on time, you need all the prep time you can get, and scouting in that time before the tourney begins is a much better use of your time than hunting down cards. I won't even mention the fact that you might not find the cards, and then you're playing a sub-par version of the deck you spent you're limited time playtesting.
Organize Your Information
I use Magic Workstation to organize my deck lists, and I archive those deck lists so that when each new season rolls around I can look to the relevant season for a starting point. For example, I've got a folder with all of the decks from last Extended season. Now, obviously that format has changed quite a bit, but there are at least some starting points there to begin this season's work on. I'm sure quite a few of you do this, but I do something that I'm not sure I've seen a lot of other people do. I use the notes section on each deck list to paste any articles I see that are relevant to the deck right to that deck. This allows me to quickly get some background on the deck without having to hunt down that article in archives off of the site. I'll also occasionally cut/paste relevant forum posts also.
And finally, the most effective way to maximize your time...
Set Goals, And Strive To Meet Them
This is the most effective way to maximize your time. All of these other ideas happen because you have goals. I think too many players play without an idea of what they want to achieve. Each player's goals are personal, but I'll give you mine as an example.
- Reach 1800 composite (current - 1760, began year at 1720)
- Make Top 8 of a PTQ (as I mentioned, made 9th... still have a few more tries)
- Completely organize my collection (all but Tempest block is done)
- Improve my draft play (50 pt. Increase in Limited rating-mostly draft)
Your goals are very personal to you and they'll likely be very different than mine. Maybe you want to build the deck that wins your local PTQ. Maybe you feel you're ready to Q, and that's your goal, or maybe you'd like to have a high enough rating to get 3 byes. Whatever your goals are they will be the key to you taking the necessary steps to improve your game.
These are just a few of the things I do to maximize the limited amount of time I have to devote to this game. I truly love Magic, but I'm competitive, and I wouldn't love it as much if I couldn't find ways to be competitive with those who have a lot more time to dedicate to it than I do.
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