Camping With The Pros
Have you ever wondered how the top players in the world prepare for tournaments? Have you ever wanted to be a fly on the wall in the days leading up to a Pro Tour? Well this is your chance! I've spent the past week with many of the best minds in the game of Magic to prepare for the upcoming Pro Tour: Philadelphia and I'm going to give you a behind the scenes look at what it's really like to be a Magic pro before a major event.
When you think of Magic players and testing what typically comes to mind? Maybe your mental image is of a group of gamers huddled around a table in a dimly lit basement or maybe it's people sitting around at your local card store battling away or maybe it's Brad Nelson grinding out hundreds of games on Magic Online. Whatever it is it probably isn't where we ended up for the past week.
For the past few Pro Tours my testing group – which is comprised of myself Brad Nelson Luis Scott-Vargas Owen Turtenwald Conley Woods Ben Stark Josh Utter-Leyton David Ochoa Matt Nass Martin Juza Lukas Blohan and the recently-added Shuhei Nakamura and Yuuya Watanabe – has tried to get together as a group for a solid week of testing leading up to the Pro Tour. Since it's become customary for Pro Tours to feature a Grand Prix in the same region the week before that has typically meant meeting up the weekend prior to the Grand Prix either somewhere convenient for most of the group like San Diego before Pro Tour: Paris or near the venue itself such as the apartments we rented for the week for Pro Tour: Amsterdam.
This time we decided it made the most sense to try to find a place near Pittsburgh so we could stay there through the Grand Prix and then head to Philly for the Pro Tour itself. Contrary to what you might believe pro Magic players aren't exactly the most organized bunch — so while we all agreed on a course of action no one actually did much of anything to make it happen. Eventually Conley took it upon himself to look into making arrangements which wasn't the most auspicious sign. You see Conley has had his share of travel debacles including (but not limited to):
- Booking the wrong hotel for Grand Prix: Singapore so he was booked to stay across the city from us;
- Actually staying halfway across Paris from the team so he ended up playing G/R Kazuul.dec while the rest of us played Caw-Blade;
- Various cancelled flights and other awful travel luck.
Suffice it to say that we were all rather dubious of leaving our fate in Conley's hands but laziness and apathy won out over rational self-interest. That concern increased when we realized the place Conley booked was an hour and a half away from Pittsburgh and literally in the mountains. But by that time there was nothing we could do but hope that we weren't walking into the plot of a horror movie.
We decided to meet in Pittsburgh on Friday the 19th giving us a solid week of testing before the Grand Prix. Conley in typical Conley fashion booked his flight to arrive that morning despite the fact that every other person was flying in from the West Coast and thus wouldn't get in until the evening leaving him alone in the airport for something like nine hours. The rest of the crew – save Ben Stark the Czechs and the Japanese who would be arriving the following Tuesday - trickled in throughout the evening. Thanks to storm delays in the area it wasn't until almost 9 p.m. that we eventually all met up in front of the rental car counter itching to be anywhere but an airport.
You'd think a group of nine intelligent human beings would be able to do something as simple as get from point A to point B without serious problems but we ran into complications from the start. Wrapter and I picked up the rental car keys while we were waiting for everyone else to get their luggage but nothing in the documentation told us where to actually pick up the cars. Rather than just walk up to the counter and ask (which I'd like to point out that I suggested we do) the entire herd just wandered up an escalator toward the parking structure. Our paperwork indicated that the cars were parked in D5 and D6 and someone seemed to think the area of the parking structure map labeled as “6D” was where we were going to find them. A fruitless trek down a very long hallway later and we found that 6D was unsurprisingly a section of the self-parking lot and our rental cars were nowhere to be found. We walked all the way back to the rental desk and asked for directions (as we should have done in the first place) and eventually made our way to the vehicles in the rental car parking area.
But the adventure wasn't over yet. After a challenging game of Tetris to fit nine people plus luggage in two relatively small cars my car eventually got on its way. I specify “my car” since as we were pulling out we saw Brad Nelson standing outside the other rental car passenger door ajar (and directly in line with a concrete pillar) trying to push it backwards. When we stopped and rolled down our windows to ask them what the hell they were doing Brad yelled back “We don't have reverse!”
Your best and brightest ladies and gentlemen.
Rather than watch the slow motion disaster unfold we decided to hit the road since we had a long drive ahead of us. Somehow my car ended up including basically every remotely responsible individual with the exception of Wrapter so we were somewhat concerned as to whether our compatriots will actually ever get to our rental house. We're somewhat surprised when they managed to meet up with us when we texted them that we were stopping at Chipotle on the way — but that was the easy part.
The rest of our drive took us past the actual city of Pittsburgh down countless miles of narrow winding roads that literally cut through and around mountains. Thankfully Conley had his GPS on his phone leading the way but like in any bad horror movie his battery started to die as we got off the highway and onto the back roads that led to our destination. We were driving up an absolutely pitch-black road into the woods when his phone died entirely. What a clich plotline! I wouldn't have been the least bit surprised if someone jumped had jumped in front of our car with a chainsaw to turn us into the human centIPad but somehow we managed to get through the woods unscathed and finally found our home for the week.
We weren't sure what to expect when we walked in the door — but as it turned out Conley had done quite well. The house had three stories with three bedrooms upstairs one on the ground level and two sets of bunkbeds set up in the basement. With a table to sit eight in the living room and ample extra gaming space downstairs and on the porch it was pretty much the perfect gamer camp.
An hour and a half or so later our compatriots managed to find their way there. Apparently they'd gone too far and had to double back at nearly every turn along the way. By that time the best sleeping spots had been claimed and the latecomers had to settle for what was left.
Sometimes you play badly and get punished for it.
Since we didn't get to the house until late Friday our first real day of testing was Saturday. Thanks to the split format Pro Tours we had two formats to test: the well-tread M12 draft and the brand new Modern format. While I can't divulge the results of our testing since the Pro Tour itself is in a week what I can tell you is the process we're using to get there.
While preparing for a draft may seem easy enough – just draft a lot – for this event we took things up a notch. In addition to drafting a lot (we've averaged two to three drafts a day so far) we've been keeping track of both the records of individual players as well as the records of different archetypes so we can see what strategies are having the most success. While even the large number of drafts we're doing is still too a small a sample size to make too many judgments it can help us identify trends — like certain color combinations or archetypes performing exceptionally well or very poorly.
The record-keeping also serves as a kind of motivational tool since no one wants to be the guy with the worst record in the house. I should know: as of the writing of this article that guy is me. D'oh.
Constructed is a much more complicated beast. As a brand-new format Modern is particularly difficult to solve as there's no precedent to fall back on as far as making a gauntlet is concerned. Sure there are some decks from previous iterations of Extended that emerged unscathed but porting a deck into a new format fails to account for the context in which the deck was successful and the new challenges it must face. While there have been a few Modern tournaments so far most of them were rather impromptu affairs for those involved so the decks were hardly representative of a developed format and certainly not tuned.
Thankfully the work StarCityGames.com's own Gavin Verhay did on the Overextended format provided a wealth of data about at least some of the possible directions in Modern. The lists from Gavin and Sam Stoddard's recent articles provide an excellent starting point for anyone trying to wrap their head around the format and certainly helped us immensely in identifying potential key players in the format.
How do we go about identifying those key decks? Generally speaking when looking at a format the first things I want to identify are the fastest aggro deck the fastest combo deck and the mana engines available which determine the upper limits of what can realistically be played. These are basically the pace cars of the format – in order for a deck to be able to compete it has to have some way of interacting with the key decks within the necessary time span. This means having some way to slow down the fastest aggro deck from killing you some way to disrupt the fastest combo deck before they go off and some way to end the game before the mana engines can get online and churn out powerful effects.
An astute observer will notice that I didn't mention control decks. That's because control decks are by their nature constructed within the context of a relatively defined format. You can't effectively build a control deck without knowing the sort of decks you expect to face since you have no idea what kind of answers you'll need. The foundations of a format come from aggro combo and mana engines – control comes later once the key decks have been identified and played against each other to get a sense of the important interactions strengths and weaknesses.
From that point it's lots more games and iteration. Is combo too fast for the aggro deck? How much does it hurt the clock of the aggro deck to add disruption against combo? Can the mana engine deck come online before the combo deck goes off? What tools are available to slow them down? Are there cards that can do double-duty to provide a stopgap against both aggro and combo? It's at this point in testing that the serious brewing gets done and control decks and other decks skewed toward beating the metagame take form.
Where has our brewing led us? Well I'm not about to give everything away – you'll have to wait until the Pro Tour itself to find out. But I can give you a few more glimpses into what life is like here at magic camp.
Don't let all the talk of gaming fool you – we made good use of our rustic surroundings. We made a point of going to the nearby basketball court fields or pool every day. On the first day I managed to catch a doozy of a Frisbee throw from Conley right below the eye.
Building so many decks takes a lot of cards and even the pros don't always have everything needed to put together the decks we want to test. Some proxies are a bit more embarrassing than others however.
I wasn't kidding about being in the middle of nowhere. The other day I was stuck behind literal farm equipment for about fifteen minutes on the way to the grocery store which somehow didn't carry reasonably-priced ground turkey (a staple of both both my diet and Luis') but did carry this.
While my record in our drafts hardly gives me place to talk trash about other peoples' decks it doesn't stop me from posting pictures of their contents. And for those of you who don't read Japanese yes that is a Sundial of the Infinite that made its way into Conley's latest draft deck.
The Japanese and the Czechs arrived on Tuesday though Shuhei and Yuuya came in many hours later and took a car service to get to the house. Apparently flying from China to San Francisco to Pittsburgh really takes it out of you.
While being denied my turkey was kind of a rough beat and I'm not so much into hunting even I have to admit there are some nice perks to spending a week out here. As Owen Turtenwald opined as he was standing looking out at the scenery in the picture below: “Dude this is like…nature.”
I hope you enjoyed this look behind the scenes of the Magic lifestyle. Next stop – the tournaments themselves. Let's hope all this gaming – and fresh air – pays off.
Until next time