Preparation is the key to succeeding at a Magic tournament.
I'm often asked what my process of preparing for tournaments is, since I happen to be one of the most successful Pro players who goes the "lone wolf" route and doesn't prepare with a big team.
Today I'll share my testing process and the philosophy behind it. Let's begin!
#0 - Success Is Not the Main Goal
If succeeding at Magic is your number one goal in life, you're already doomed to failure.
Succeeding at Magic is not a goal you can reliably achieve, and when you do hit your goals, the goalposts will inevitably move further away. As soon as you win one tournament, guess what, now you need to win another. It's a treadmill that gets faster and faster and punishes you more and more if you stumble.
You can only control your process, and if that process is sound, it will lead to success.
But more importantly, don't hinge your happiness on external factors.
Happiness is the goal; success comes more easily when you're happy. Happiness will help you succeed, since your mindset will eventually spread to reality. Happiness is success, not the other way around.
Take care of yourself first and then let winning be a bonus.
#1 - Join a Team!
Wait a minute…first I'm telling you not to focus on succeeding, and now I'm telling you to just join a team? I'm supposed to be teaching you how to prepare and thrive without a team! What gives?
Realize that what works for me isn't what will necessarily work for you.
It might work, it might not.
I'm a well-rounded player. Not in a fat joke kind of way, but in an experience kind of way. Not everyone is. Having a teammate who can shore up your weak points can be invaluable. For example, if you're an excellent player but a terrible deckbuilder, finding someone to build a deck for you (while you in turn help them play better) would be highly beneficial for each of you.
You might be extroverted instead of an introvert. Teammates can be distracting or they can energize you.
Having players with similar goals and skills to play with helps you get better and gives you a sense of friendly competition. This is how it has worked for most of my life with my brother. We compete with each other, especially at Magic.
If you feel you would benefit from joining or forming your own team, by all means, do what works for you. Maybe you don't have access to a team, maybe you have one other trusted teammate, or maybe you just want to try making it on your own. Do what works for you.
#2 - Play Magic Online
This is pretty much essential, now more than ever, if you don't have a team.
Magic Online is releasing new sets much earlier than they have in the past, which means you can test the new formats sooner than before. This is an amazing change, probably the most amazing change, and it makes it much easier to succeed when you're testing solo.
There are more resources for decks popping up faster than ever. Thanks to the SCG Tour®, Magic Online, and the Pro Tour, the quality of decks and the metagame gets defined quickly.
Build up a collection, get a decent computer, get familiar with the junky Magic Online interface, play a lot of Magic, and then crush real-life tournaments.
#3 - Effective Feedback
You are here to improve, to learn, and to win. Testing and improving doesn't guarantee success; it can only ever improve your odds.
Learning a new format can often just be done by doing enough grinding.
Play with a card. See it sucks. Eventually you'll get better and better at identifying what matters in a format, and what combinations of cards have a chance of being a competitive deck.
Write down observations about the format. What cards did your opponents play that caught you off-guard? Should you be playing them? Are there any cards that you can play that would be strong against cards and decks you're having trouble beating? Is your sideboard plan working?
Think critically for yourself and don't be afraid to follow what you believe to be true.
#4 - Master a Good Deck
If I sit across from an opponent, I want to know I'm better-prepared than they are. I've put in more work and played my deck more than they've played theirs.
This comes from being prepared and doing a lot of testing, but also by budgeting your time correctly and locking in a deck when you know you'll still have time to master it.
Don't play a terrible deck.
"But of course I shouldn't play a terrible deck! That's obvious!"
Then why do so people so often fall into the trap of playing a terrible deck!?
It's an easy mistake to make.
The opportunity of finding a completely broken deck is alluring. So is winning with a brew or conforming to your specific playstyle.
Don't play a weird deck for the sake of playing a weird deck. Play the best deck you can.
This strategy, while simple, has worked wonders.
Leave it to the big teams to figure out a way to crush the top strategies. Sometimes they succeed, and sometimes they don't.
Often, just playing the obvious best deck or a top-three deck, rather than the longshot interesting deck, is the correct call.
Sometimes it's hard to tell what the "best deck" is. Often it really isn't the objectively best deck, yet people still struggle and scrape to try to beat it.
Tight technical play and a solid deck are more than enough.
Pick up the best deck.
Put in hours.
Read everything about it.
Know the sideboard slots intimately.
Know how every card interacts with every other card.
Know what beats you.
Know how to sneak out wins in games you shouldn't be winning.
Master your deck.
#5 - Success Is Up to You
At the end of the day, Magic is a solitary battle. You're the one making choices you make, not only during the game, but also what deck you play and how you react to a loss.
I find that when you're on a big team, it's easy to get caught up in trying to break a format and find the perfect deck.
You fight alone. You die alone.
Even in team events, you're the one holding your cards.
There's a lot of indecision when it comes to life and it's easier to look to others to make the hard decisions for you. You can't do that in Magic. Take responsibility for your choices, and don't be afraid to choose incorrectly. Just do the best you can.
You are the hero of your own story.
Succeeding at Magic is ultimately up to you.
Testing for a Big Tournament
Now I'll take you through a rough outline of what my testing looks like the weeks before a Pro Tour. Pro Tour Hour of Devastation is just about to begin, so we'll take a look at what my testing looked like, more or less.
You can apply this to any tournament, you can do less testing than this or more, and you can follow what you want and not follow what you don't want.
The Timeline: A Month Before the Tournament
Testing gets more important the closer to the event, since you have better information on what the metagame looks like and actual access to the cards.
You can still lay the groundwork before serious testing begins to set you up for success by doing the following:
Observing what's in a new set, looking for powerful cards, new combos, and interactions with cards already in the format.
Theorycrafting ideas, trying to predict what the best decks will be, what decks will get worse, and what strategies might break out. Discuss with your teammates and have arguments over what cards are good and which aren't. Read plenty of articles.
Testing brews to find what has the potential to work. A lot of decks and cards you can dismiss before you even try them. Some you can't.
Completing as many obligations as you can ahead of schedule to make sure you can focus on testing in the coming weeks. For example, I wrote this article early and clipped my toenails.
Telling your friends and family you're going into "Magic Mode" and will soon speak only the language of Magic and adorn yourself with Magic cards for good luck. Make sure to end any romantic relationships you're currently in so you can focus on testing. A successful relationship lasts a lifetime; winning a Pro Tour is forever.
Two to Three Weeks Before the Tournament
If you're preparing for a Pro Tour, there will be a Prerelease and the new set will be released on Magic Online.
Now you can really start getting a lot of games in.
It's better to start with Draft first. Not only are cards are more expensive to buy online right after a set is released, but the metagame is less competitive and worse-defined early on as well.
I'll usually focus exclusively on Draft as long as I can, which is usually the first few days, doing four to six drafts a day. In practice, it usually doesn't take longer than a couple of days before I can't wait any longer to start playing Standard.
One to Two Weeks Before the Tournament
I'll start trying the best decks I've brewed and some of the best decks from Standard Competitive Leagues.
Sometimes I'll play a deck and it will consistently crush everything and I'll just tune it all the way until the Pro Tour.
More often than not, I'll skip around between decks, usually thinking I've come up with a new idea for the best deck ever before abandoning it later than day.
I'll take into account the SCG Tour® results, since they will usually have interesting card choices and decks you can learn from and use that will also alter the metagame.
Near the end of this process, I'll lock in a deck. Usually there won't be a super-clear choice, just a deck that I think will do well if I put time into tuning it, and nothing else I can see that's obviously better.
One to Seven Days Before the Tournament
Even though I enjoy preparing for Constructed more than I do Draft, if I'm preparing for a Pro Tour, I like to keep doing at least a draft a day, even when my thoughts are consumed with Constructed.
Now you're tuning your deck for what you expect the metagame to look like, with an emphasis on what your sideboard plans will be.
There will almost certainly come a point where you're tempted to audible into a seemingly amazing deck. Usually, it is wrong to audible. The grass is always greener and new decks are rarely as good as the sharpened deck you've been working on.
Don't forget to take care of things like borrowing or buying cards, traveling, staying fed and watered, and not stressing yourself out.
Remember it's only a game and you'll play much better if you're relaxed. Take care of your real-life obligations first! There will always be Magic waiting for you.
I usually like to just relax the day before an event, watch some good TV shows or movies, and de-stress a little while putting the finishing touches on my deck, since I tend to get carried away testing and it's important to remind yourself not to take things too seriously. You'll play better if you're feeling light, happy, and relaxed.
Ready For Action!
You're prepared! The tournament finally begins! Take a few deep breaths. Play hard. Have fun.
If you're like me, you put in a solid month or more worth of time and effort preparing for a tournament, and you can still get knocked out in a day. You might feel disappointed...
Don't feel bad when this happens!
Congratulations! You should feel amazing for putting in that time and effort. You did the best you could, putting your heart, soul, blood, sweat, and tears into doing something you love. That's commendable.
Scrubbing out is all part of the experience and you need to learn to live with it when it happens. Pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and go do it all again. If it gets to be too hard, all you can really do is take a break and re-evaluate your priorities.
Win or lose, now you can relax.
When you do well at a tournament, don't forget to reward yourself! Buy yourself something with the prize money you earned or throw a party. It doesn't have to be expensive, just a little extra positive reinforcement for a job well done.
There you have it: my testing strategy from start to finish. I'm just about to put this all into practice for Pro Tour Hour of Devastation, so hopefully my preparation will pay off!