The past few weeks have been a blur of house drafts, Constructed testing, pool meetings, and the mad scramble to figure out those last few sideboard slots. That can only mean one thing - it was Pro Tour time.
The Pro Tour is unlike any other tournament in Magic, with large teams of top Pros from all over the world gathering in isolation in the hopes that they emerge from their cocoon with a beautiful butterfl... er, a great deck.
Given my relatively sparse Pro Tour career, this would be the first time I would test with roughly the same team for a second time, rejoining what was Team TCGPlayer from PT Fate Reforged with several strong additions and rebranded under the oddly polarizing name “The Mighty Lucks.”
Why did everyone care so much about this team name? We certainly didn't. Watching Steve Rubin chant “Sack, Sack, Sack!” for a week made us laugh enough to commit to the goofy moniker that stands in stark contrast to the unnecessarily regal “Pantheon.” We're just trying to have a little fun, guys. Plus, Gerry Thompson as the disgruntled coach who didn't want to be there for half the movie was too good a metaphor to pass up.
Despite not taking ourselves too seriously, this was easily the most accomplished team I had ever played with. We had six Platinum pros, which made hotel accommodations a breeze to arrange, and I felt like the talent there was comparable to that of the most well-known teams. With a strong finish in Grand Prix Dallas the week before, I went into this PT brimming with confidence.
And what was I left with? Another Pro Tour gone by and what seems like another missed opportunity. I finished a thoroughly-mediocre 9-7, meaning my last four Pro Tour appearances have been 10-6, 9-7, 10-6, 9-7 - not exactly exciting. As for the team, we put eleven out of twelve players into Day Two and had a lot of players finish in the 9-7 to 11-5 range, but we failed to vault anyone into a great performance.
While on the aggregate our team was indeed competitive with the best in the world, as we expected to be, and while our results may simply be the result of variance, there is always more that could have been done and since I will be working with this team again at Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar I have spent some time analyzing our testing process to see where improvements may be made.
My hope is that you may apply these lessons to your own testing process, whether it be for a weekly FNM or the Pro Tour. Magic is an incredibly complicated game and we have all benefited from the wisdom and guidance of others. However, it seems to me like teams do not test cohesively or purposefully enough to achieve the best results, so many of these ideas are guided by those principles.
Division Of Labor
We can't all test every matchup. With only a week or two to prepare, I believe it is best to have individual players focus on specific decks until such a time as the team is able to narrow the range of viable decks down to a few choices. That way, the individual players can delve deeper into their chosen archetypes and come out of the process with a better understanding of how to appropriately tune them for the expected metagame.
In our process, each of us was essentially left to do what we wanted on any given day and it led to players repeating each other and not learning as much about the format as we could have. Without a wide base of knowledge, we locked in on G/R Devotion too quickly and created a metagame prediction that failed to appropriately account for the influx of Magic Origins, leaving us at a distinct disadvantage.
The primary requirement for this to work is trust in one's teammates. If they are the one who has dedicated their time to testing a deck, you simply cannot doubt what they say and take valuable time to confirm their results with your own (likely flawed) testing of a deck you know little about. While we all acknowledged the talent on the team, complete trust in others' results and opinions still was not there, which resulted in some wasted time.
Now this does not mean you have to blindly follow what your teammates tell you, just that you have to trust them enough to completely understand their opinions before learning a deck for yourself. If, after that, you develop a contradictory opinion of a card or a matchup, then the ensuing debate is quite healthy... but the first step should be understanding.
When Brad Nelson first developed the Trail of Mystery sideboard plan we used in our G/R Devotion deck (Ari Lax breaks down the deck itself here) I completely understood how it worked against blue-based control but could not put it to good use against Abzan Control, which was troubling given how good that matchup had previously been. It felt to me like we were getting too cute when we did not have to.
What I failed to realize was that Brad was playing the deck much more aggressively against Abzan, using the pump ability on Trail to apply extra pressure when appropriate and limit the Abzan player's options to counterplay. I was stuck in attrition mode since that is how the plan played out against blue-based control with much success. However, playing that type of game against Abzan led to too many games of having your board trumped by an Elspeth for just long enough to Ultimate. After learning that, my results in the matchup improved and I was able to confidently lock in on the deck.
On a team, each player is a valuable resource, and their time must be optimized for the team to learn the most. To some extent we all want to be playing with the decks we think are the best in order to maximize our individual equity in the tournament, but a few days to learn the mechanics of a deck from someone who has spent a week working on it should be enough and failure to properly explore the new format has major consequences.
This is the lesson I feel is most important and is tied to the previous one. Part of why we were largely left alone in testing whatever we wanted on a given day is that the team lacked some central authority to guide the testing process. This has happened essentially on every team I have ever been on because no one wants to feel elevated above their friends.
You see, teams in Magic are about much more than preparing for one tournament. They are the primary tool for networking within the community. Meeting new people and making new friends is paramount to success at this game since you always have people to travel with and bounce ideas off of. More importantly, feeling like you are a part of the community is an excellent motivator when you do not have much inspiration to keep working to improve.
But what comes with that is a desire to not upset anyone, to blend in with the pack so everyone will like you. The irony is that, once you reach a certain level, the people you are working with are secure enough to respect strong opinions as long as they are not presented with condescension. Moreover, usually there are many players on the team who are happy to take guidance from those who are more apt to lead.
Brad frequently expressed that he was “better with a collar than a leash” - he always has a folksy, North Dakota way of saying things, <3 you Brad - but we thrust him into a leadership position by locking onto G/R Devotion too early, which was a mistake. With Brad working on that deck, the rest of the team could have focused on other things confident that he would come up with something great, which he did. The Trail of Mystery plan was excellent against blue-based control and Abzan. We simply overrated Jeskai and Jace, Vyrn's Prodigy in general and underrated aggressive decks, so the rest of the deck was poorly tuned. Had we put more work into those decks and focused less on G/R Devotion, our final product would have certainly been better even if we selected the same archetype for the Pro Tour.
When everyone is working toward a defined end and is held to that task when necessary, they will be working at peak efficiency. Let's face it, Magic players are not known as the most industrious of peoples, and there are times we all could use someone over our shoulder telling us to keep going. Maybe after two weeks of testing you will begin to resent the person who takes on that mantle, but after the tournament you will be thanking them.
Don't Set Up Your Brews For Failure
This was perhaps our biggest shortcoming for PT Magic Origins. We began the testing process invested in G/R Devotion and with a reasonably-tuned list because it was a known deck. When all of our brews fell short against it, we dismissed them too quickly as nonviable when in reality they were just untuned. While part of this has to do with the desire to not waste precious time on bad decks, in reality we were too invested in one deck from the start.
The initial stages of brewing need not yield a complete archetype or anything close. You are looking for powerful cards from the new set and powerful interactions among those cards. If you're lucky, a complete shell will reveal itself or be somewhat obviously supported by the mechanics of the set, like artifacts in Origins. However, you cannot expect the initial drafts of these decks to compete with lists that have been tuned for months. Even if you end up discarding the deck, you may learn something that helps a future brew. Everything you learn aids in your understanding of the format and thus makes your final deck better.
A Holistic Approach To Limited
For the last two Pro Tours now, towards the end of the testing process we have had a team meeting to discuss every card in the new set and its place in the Limited format. While this meeting has been helpful both times, I think it leaves out some important pieces in understanding the format.
Primarily, it places undue focus on individual cards which in reality are pieces that can only be understood in relation to a greater whole. A card like Tower Geist was an easy first pick in Innistrad-Dark Ascension draft, but it suffered in Magic Origins from diminutive stats for a format whose increased speed means that a creature's immediate board impact is more important than any long-term value that might be gained.
Now Tower Geist is still a good card in Magic Origins draft, especially in a defensive deck that is looking to trade early, but that kind of nuanced understanding of a card is often lost in pick orders and individual card ratings.
I am not saying that our team failed to discuss these nuances, because we did, and that is part of why the meeting was helpful. But I would still like to deviate further from the card-by-card discussions to a more holistic approach. Beyond card evaluations, there are many things that go into understanding a Limited format including, but not limited to, signaling, archetype evaluation, and the guiding principles of a format.
Under signaling, we can ask many instructive questions. Is it better to stay open or commit to powerful early picks? Or, to put it another way, “is pack two more or less important than pack one?” For archetype evaluation, we can look at the viable color combinations in the format and ask what a good deck in each tends to look like. How many creatures and tricks do you want? What is the ideal curve? Are there any color combinations you rank significantly above or below the others?
The guiding principles of the format give us a general framework to operate in for those drafts where you end up outside your comfort zone. For Magic Origins the format was mainly about gaining the initiative early and holding onto it with powerful Renown creatures and the various tricks that create more efficient trades than the set's removal spells.
This does not mean that every deck had to be a low-curve rush aggro deck like you might see in triple-Zendikar draft. The best green decks in my opinion look more like ramp decks because the three drops in green do not match up well in combat with creatures in the other colors. Black decks gained the initiative by making a series of slightly-advantageous trades with cards like Deadbridge Shaman and Eyeblight Assassin or combinations like Nantuko Husk + Dragon Fodder.
For the first time in a while at this Pro Tour I felt like I had an excellent grasp on the Limited format, as evidenced by my performance at Grand Prix Dallas, and perhaps I failed to fully articulate this understanding to the rest of the team. Frankly, I was not used to finding myself in the role of the team's “Limited Guy.” But this format plays to my strengths as a player with its unique brand of aggression that still allows for creativity in deckbuilding. I will certainly be looking to ask these sorts of questions in the future in an attempt to replicate the level of comfort I had with Magic Origins draft.
Now is the time that many writers are reflecting on their Pro Tour seasons. What went well, what did not, and the hopefulness that abounds with a fresh start.
Well, it's a bit strange for me to talk about the Pro Tour season because even though it has a defined end point, it never had a defined beginning for me. At the start of the season I was not qualified for any Pro Tours and was instead focused on securing my spot at the inaugural StarCityGames.com® Players' Championship.
You could say that my season started with my first Grand Prix finish in Nashville, or with my first PT qualification at GP New Jersey, but I would say it started last July at GP Boston/Worcester. For those unfamiliar with my story there, you can find it here.
Despite that tournament being perhaps the most difficult moment of my Magic career, it did finally give the confidence and determination I needed to travel to Grand Prix events. Before that I would always justify not going because it was low EV and the potential Pro Points gained did not matter to me at the time.
But they were never going to matter unless I committed to the professional circuit and made them matter. This was the first season I traveled to GPs and I made two Top Eights (somehow both in Limited) and missed another on tiebreakers. Sometimes you have to throw away those excuses and focus on what you want rather than what makes sense.
Despite the commitment each requires, I feel I have done a good job of balancing the Pro circuit with the Open Series circuit, and I hope to continue playing both even if it means playing an absurd amount of Magic. It turns out this game is kinda fun, eh?