One of the two major reasons I started writing Magic articles was to let me collect my thoughts on issues into relevant formats to help myself improve.
Today, I will try to do precisely that for a year's worth of play and content.
Following Up On Goals
Back in January, I set a list of four Magic goals for the upcoming year. How does what is now reality measure up to my hopes for it?
4. Play Eggs at a Modern Event for fun.
I failed here but had good reason to do so.
First, playing the good lists of Eggs on Magic Online is absurdly unfun. Adding a bunch of dead cards like Banefire and Krark-Clan Ironworks allows the deck to kill in a reasonable time period, but the Pyrite Spellbomb kill is outside my range.
I played a grand total of five real life Modern events this year: one PTQ, three Grand Prix, and a Pro Tour. None of these were events I could use to play a deck completely for fun. I don't even think I had a chance to play any other Modern events bar maybe one more PTQ where my goal was to win every match possible.
3. Bring home a trophy.
I dreamed big here. I did win a PTQ, but that was not what I was really aiming for. To be fair, I couldn't attend Grand Prix events in the first half of the year due to school scheduling and a lack of red eye flights, but I missed a few over the summer due to burnout. I also missed a StarCityGames.com Open Series, an Invitational, and two Grand Prix in the latter half of the year due to looking for travel breaks, so I definitely had chances I passed up to make this happen.
Given the events I did play, I don't think I could have realistically expected anything more. The first six months of the year I was not playing my A game. I was even doing poor event prep, which has historically been my strong point. The only events I even did arguably well at were a Modern PTQ, where I legitimately had a lock on the format at the time, and 7-3ing the Constructed portion of Pro Tour Barcelona, which was a grab of a deck I didn't really test and only lent cursory building advice on. Every other event was burned on poor testing into a poor deck choice, poor play, or both.
All in all, I can't say I would make this goal again. It's a good one to spark you into action when you are on a downward spiral, but when you are playing well I'm a much bigger proponent of "one match at a time" and "focus only on what matters."
2. Get better at deducing what my opponent has in hand.
Check, but only a little bit. I've definitely noticed myself doing this a lot more lately, but the other important thing I've gotten better at is figuring out when I can afford to play around things.
Of course, I've also played a lot of decks that just don't care about what your opponent has or can make good decisions to play around anything. See Infect with Vines of Vastwood in hand or any Pod deck with Birthing Pod in play. I just get slightly more value out of these experiences than in the past.
1. Have another strong Pro Tour finish.
Importantly, my combined Constructed record at Pro Tours this year was 18-7 or a 72% win rate. Prior to this year, my combined record adjusted for scoops was 39-40 or a 49.3% win rate. I had two events I hit 7-3 or better this year versus zero out of nine previous Pro Tours (and I only broke a .500 record at three of those). I'm doing something right I wasn't doing right before, and I'm trying to keep it that way.
How did I do? Well, hit on the first two, miss on the third and fourth.
Overall, I'll call it a win on the year. One of the misses was pretty much a joke goal, and as for the other, I heard a recent PTQ handed out a trophy. Not calling myself undefeated on goals here, but it was much closer than even a 2-1 suggests.
Things I've Said I Come Back To (AKA Things I Said I Think Were Smart)
"Do something that is broken and odd but fairly compact in execution."
The same still applies. While Jund has gained a lot from Deathrite Shaman in terms of being able to race and interact with some strategies, it's still soft to just plain weird decks. If you need an analogy, think of how you would beat Stoneblade in Legacy and go from there.
"Don't be afraid to lose a FNM because you want to play Raid Bombardments and Brood Birthings—it might just be absurdly good (true story). If someone tells you that some joke archetype is actually good, watch them draft it or give it a try yourself before passing judgment"
"Seriously, the number one mistake I see people make in local events is not realizing half the point is improvement. Try new things or just jam the same old thing if you want to tighten up your play."
I've taken this to heart lately, and it has been a huge part of why I've succeeded in the latter part of the year. For both Limited and Constructed, I've taken the time to try out every archetype I find interesting or relevant, even if only for a couple matches or a single draft. I've learned a lot about what makes each of them tick, and when I find something new, I go back and try again.
I dismissed Modern Infect early on in testing and went back when I found Noble Hierarch. I dismissed drafting Golgari but went back after playing against a more aggressive style of deck and loved it. I dismissed Pod but went back after looking at Chord-less builds. Of course, I've done the same with other things and found them still lacking, but not every swing is going to be a hit. It does mean some more time invested away from tuning, but I definitely didn't need every hour I spent on that.
-From June 19th:
"To use some contentious terms, it is definitely not a hybrid control deck no matter how hard people try to sideboard into one. You have some cards that are very good at both pushing and defending, but you have enough that aren't that you are often put into scenarios where defense is impractical or impossible."
Summarized: If your threats aren't able to flex between defensive and offensive depending on your draw, your deck is pure control or pure tempo. It is not hybrid control (i.e., Caw-Blade or Faeries), and if you try to build and play the rest of your deck as if it is, you will lose.
-October 23rd respectively:
"Note: If you are looking to learn a format for a Pro Tour or Grand Prix, play Swiss queues. Your drafts will be Swiss, and learning the difference between a 2-1 and 1-2 deck is very important. More matches also helps you learn the format by just playing with cards more and playing against more decks. I learned to draft Golgari solely by watching people in Swiss queues win or lose and seeing what cards were working for them."
Real life team drafts with competent players are still the best, but those take a lot more time and effort to get going. If I am testing Draft for an event, Magic Online Swiss queues are now my go-to source.
Other Lessons Learned
3. As an event gets closer, your testing should get more focused and your time better managed.
Meeting up with your testing group the week before a Pro Tour sounds like a great idea, but it can easily be a way to waste time. Making sure everyone is on the same page with regards to what has to get done is a huge task. Even having a subgroup with specific goals is a huge boon. I feel like I've only been able to get a handle on this a select few times, and each of the events it has happened for has gone very well.
2. If you are playing bad creatures in aggro, you better have a very good reason.
This is something that has been true for a number of years, but I've fallen prey to this trap too often this past year to not address it.
Playing bad creatures is fine if they enable amazing cards. Cranial Plating and Tempered Steel have been nothing but good times for me. Playing "bad creatures" is fine if the format is about stopping combo and not creature fights or if there is a way to make them good. Playing bad creatures is still fine even if you have to reach to make chip shots relevant. Paul Rietzel didn't win a Pro Tour with Ethersworn Canonist in his maindeck for no reason. But if you are trying to fight a green creature deck with two mana 2/2s and no burn, you should take a minute to consider the decisions that led you to this point.
Note: The only reason my Block Constructed deck worked was that Champion of the Parish was an amazing card in the context of that format. This is no longer true. I tried Humans in current Standard and couldn't buy a game against a real deck.
1. Just because everyone says something is the best deck doesn't mean it is.
See all of my experiences with Delver of Secrets. I hated playing the deck and kept losing to people who knew how to capitalize on its weaknesses. If that is happening, the reason the deck is the best isn't power, it's stagnation.
Odds and Ends
"That being said, the most important part of testing—whether Limited or Constructed—is getting a feel for things. Data can be useful, but data lies. In the short time frame available to test for a Pro Tour, it's impossible to play a sufficient amount to produce a relevant sample size. Not only that but not all of the data you gather is equally valuable. It's entirely possible for two players to sit down and play a set of ten games with a pair of decks and get a result of 8-2, while two different players play the same matchup and get a result of 5-5 or even 6-4 in the opposite direction. Sometimes the differences are the result of variance, but sometimes they're the result of game play choices and strategic differences. I hate when people try to talk to me about matchup percentages; what I care about is how a matchup feels and why.
We played a lot of drafts, and I didn't win a lot. My record wasn't among the worst, but it certainly wasn't among the best either. I didn't win much in our testing for Philly either—I actually had the worst record in the house during our preparation there but went on to 5-1 Limited in the Pro Tour. Part of the difference comes from experimenting with a lot of different ideas in testing, but a big part of it comes from just not playing nearly as well as I do in an actual tournament situation. It's hard for me to muster the same kind of focus for testing as for a real event. I prefer to save my mental energy for when it counts. I was getting a feel for the format, though, and that's what matters to me."
-Brian Kibler, Huntmaster of Honolulu: Part One
I just want to hammer this point home. Playtesting is when you should be making mistakes and learning about what actually matters.
Also, big props to Wizards of the Coast on how they have slowly tuned the current Pro Play structure since the big change last year. Planeswalker Points related invites were not healthy for the player base, so they were removed. We don't want getting to the Pro Tour associated with sleeping on a subway to go 4-4 at a PTQ. Sponsor's Exemptions are an awesome way to help patch up holes in the system. There are obviously some kinks to work out, and it's a lot easier to issue exemptions than try to come up with on the fly fixes. The latest changes regarding Grand Prix invite expansion and bonus PWPs for PTQ winners are both steps in the right direction.
I only have two things I feel are issues to solve, and neither affects a large population: event finish timing and Grand Prix byes being punished by major event finishes.
For the first, it's things like my 9th place finish at Pro Tour Return to Ravnica being much better for getting on the train than Josh Cho's 4th place finish at Pro Tour Avacyn Restored that are odd to me. If you would rather have a worse finish because it is six months earlier, that isn't right. Some rule similar to the old "25 points across mid-seasons" should be implemented once more numbers are crunched, but I'm assuming this is an issue that Sponsor's Exemptions can solve for the time being. I expect this is something that would affect under ten people a year, as well as cut down on awkward scoops in the late rounds of the season.
For the second, it's also odd that people who finished in the Top 8 of the last Pro Tour don't have three byes for the upcoming Grand Prix season and can't play in PTQs to get them, but that's easily fixed once they see how the PWP bonus works for PTQ winners. It was just a matter of numbers. This maybe hurts ten to twenty players a season, while the Pro Tour Qualifier equivalent hurts about ten times as many. I may do a bit more extensive analysis of this in the future and see where I get on it, but for now I trust it is in good hands.
Note: It's still possible to grind a ton Grand Prix and put up a ton of decent finishes alongside existing invites to get to Gold. It's just a bit more rigorous in terms of travel than it was two years ago and almost impossible without starting the year on three byes and a PT invite.
Goals for 2013
4. Comfortably hit Gold this season and aim for Platinum.
I have one guaranteed Pro Tour, four likely drivable Grand Prix, two more I can fly to, and one potential Pro Tour to get nine Pro Points. Of the six Grand Prix, four are Constructed, and two of those are Modern. Gold should be well within reach, while Platinum requires another good Pro Tour finish. Ideally I'll hit Gold after Pro Tour Montreal and have three byes for the rest of the Grand Prix, but that requires all money finishes until then or another very good Pro Tour. Not unreasonable, but definitely a goal to strive for.
3. Play more with non-combo decks in Legacy, specifically RUG Delver.
I often neglect Legacy as a format in testing, resulting in drifting back to what I feel comfortable with. When that fails to be good, I find myself actively disliking the format. While I don't have a ton of small events to work with, preparing myself to have multiple fallback decks in the future seems like it gives me a much better chance of playing a good deck for the format if strapped for time. Tempo decks seem like the best choice for the periods when combo exists but the metagame is hostile towards it, so that is where I'll start.
(Subgoal: This requires getting local Legacy events firing again or starting to do real testing of the format on a semi-regular basis.)
2. Do everything I can to foster regular Modern events on a local level.
I think Modern is an awesome format. I think the format can be drastically changed by niche deck development, as we have seen in Legacy. This in turn requires regular play of the format by large amounts of people, and Magic Online often turns this into people grinding safe decks for profit.
I'm not sure what this will entail, but with PTQ season starting soon, now is the best time to try to get the format going. Step zero is currently just owning the format and helping a ton of people start playing in the events that do exist.
1. Extend the good testing practices I've used for the past six months to undefined formats.
I've been trying new things and learning from them. I've been getting great value out of all the time I spend testing. I've been working with people who I both want to work with and know will be helpful. All of these are drastic improvements from my previous years on the Pro Tour.
I've already done work on setting up the last part for Pro Tour Gatecrash. The rest I'll have to wait on and see.
The other major reason I started writing was I like hearing other people comment on what I talk about. If you have any questions, comments, or particularly disagreements with what I've said here, let me know in the comments, on Twitter, or in person at Grand Prix Indianapolis this weekend.
@armlx on Twitter