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A common trend for me over the last few months is that I start writing an article trying to tell a story, and then I decide stories are useless and try to teach a lesson instead.
I originally started this article as a cool retrospective on fifteen years of competitive Magic, similar to Brad Nelson's Year by Year but chronicling years of Junior Super Series into PTQing into nine years on the Pro Tour.
At some point in laying that out, I realized there were pretty clearly defined eras or level-ups in what I was doing and how I was doing it. Jumping from the JSS to PTQs was one, the era around Pro Tour Return to Ravnica and Gatecrash was another, and then I really didn't have any idea. What's the next step beyond "testing with Pro Tours for a team, but working a day job" that doesn't involve spending an extra eight hours a day on it? The article felt like a mix of random rants, not-cool-enough stories, and a super-flat finish with no real point.
So I dropped it.
Then the Sunday night of Grand Prix New Jersey, I drove home with Alex Majlaton. Aside from a brief stop where an emoji figuring booster pack was purchased, obviously resulting in a heart and poop, there was a lot of discussion about how testing should be handled for the upcoming Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan.
The short version of this discussion is that a Modern Pro Tour is super-weird to prepare for. The format right now is really well-defined with a million options. Rivals of Ixalan might break everything Eldrazi-style, but the most likely outcome is nothing happens when you add a bunch of random Pirates stuff to a format with 11,000 other cards, one of which is Lightning Bolt and another of which is Fatal Push.
There are, however, a million options on decks to play in a spot where depth of experience and precise card choices matter. Given that, what should the goal of a team be? Should we be obligated to each other to cover the full spread, or should everyone just kinda branch in different directions and try to optimize something? Is there even value to heads-up matchup testing when the metagame is so spread, beyond a couple of key players like Death's Shadow and Lantern Control?
Given that the whole format is known, does the traditional semi-secret style of testing even matter? If I want to discuss Death's Shadow specifics with Dylan Donegan or someone else, who cares if they talk about the same stuff with someone else? Things are just too scattered for that info to make a real impact on metagame levels, and there isn't that much hidden info.
The next level realization is that the entire Pro Tour setup in 2018 is this way. There's a Standard Pro Tour six weeks after Dominaria releases, presumably another one of those in November, and then a Pro Tour where one-third of the players have to worry about Standard, but someone else is off in their own world of Brainstorms and Wastelands, playing the same thing they played in 2015.
So if the goal isn't to generate good proprietary info in a short time, what should we be doing when testing this year?
We came to a basic conclusion, but the wonder of modern technology that is Super Mario Odyssey took my attention for the rest of the trip. Given an extra week, that conclusion has gone from basic to fully formed.
One of the awkward truths of top-level Magic is that everyone is actively terrible at testing Magic. I do mean this in the very literal sense. I've worked with everyone, or I've worked with someone who has worked with everyone. I've spent the better part of five years working on "test smart, not hard" tactics like Sam Black talked about last week. No one actually has a good system.
The most successful thing has been stuffing a bunch of smart people in the same house for weeks, having them throw cardboard at each other, and making sure the door stays closed so the secret spark doesn't leak out. There's literally no chance that is anywhere close to procedural or optimized or anything beyond throwing lots of reasonably aimed darts at a board and hoping for a bullseye.
What you end up with is a lot of educated guesses, with various amounts of "education" behind them. Patrick Chapin once described making gameplay mistakes as just an added element of manageable randomness in the game, and testing or deck selection is similar. There are many things to look at, and even with educated pruning of obviously bad things, there's too much going on to find everything in the time given.
In the world of competitive Magic, there's a lot of inertia. I don't mean this in the way that leads someone to hit a wall and burn out, because Magic is still awesome, but people keep doing things the same way because the game forces constant artificial deadlines. The event is in three weeks, three days, and so on. Then the next event. And the next. There's a real payoff to testing for an event, and anyone who doubts that would be a fool to think otherwise, so people just keep doing the thing that's kinda good.
It feels like it might be time to try to do it differently.
The conclusion that Alex and I came to is that it might just be time to figure out how to play better Magic.