Last week, PV wrote an article about professional playtesting. I admittedly did not read that article—but I think that is actually beneficial, since this week I would like to touch on a complementary topic: the importance of having a team, or rather, what a team has done for me and what it can do for you. I don’t want to discuss playtesting comprehensively—partly because I’m certain PV covered it well already—but instead I’d like to discuss how I’ve been affected by having my ideas challenged, and how I think I have similarly impacted others.
The most recent example came before Day One of the last Grand Prix. LSV, Wrapter, and myself were hammering out those last sideboard slots. Up until this point, I had played 0 games of current Legacy and our Reanimator deck, but that didn’t matter as much as you might think. I have still played a ton of Legacy. I knew what decks to expect, and how people were going to react to the threat of a Reanimator-infested field.
Luis had done the bulk of the testing and was close to solidifying a list. He had Gilded Drake in his sideboard, which I thought was terrible. He wanted it for the mirror, and contended that some number of games you would be able to Entomb for it in response to an opponent’s Exhume, and make the swap. On top of that, just having access to a powerful card like the Drake would be fine, since sometimes you’d just draw it and steal a Griselbrand.
I argued that trying to fight the game on this axis is miserable. Gilded Drake is a dead draw when you want to fight in the early turns over Thoughtseize and Reanimates, and it’s dreadful when cast against a resolved Griselbrand, because they can just draw into a Force of Will or Thoughtseize it before it matters. It isn’t typically a great argument to say that a card is bad just because it can be Force of Willed or Thoughtseized, but reactive cards are especially weak to Thoughtseize; and when you want to cast a card after Griselbrand is in play, that card will be especially weak to Force of Will.
I didn’t have a replacement in mind, but it didn’t matter. I said at the time that I would play ANYTHING that mattered in the early game instead, and that drew some cringes. When someone suggested Vendilion Clique, I was all about it—it was exactly what I wanted: a proactive and flexible card. In the end, I think Gilded Drake would have been horrendous, and Vendilion Clique was one of the best cards in my sideboard.
Another example, from the same tournament, occurred in the days leading up to the event. I expected a ton of mirror matches and knew if both players had a ton of graveyard hate (the logical conclusion of how to beat a graveyard deck), then the mirror would become bogged down and drawn out. I heard stories of Reanimator mirrors at an SCG consistently coming down to hardcasting Griselbrand. I felt a match that played out like this was not going to be skill intensive beyond the basics, and I wanted to have something powerful and different in my sideboard. I wanted something that my opponent would not expect, that could win the game by itself and ignored my graveyard, and I was convinced the answer was Phyrexian Negator. The cost of having an opponent Force of Will and Reanimate my Negator was low enough that he would be worse for it, since I could reanimate them as well. If we both have the same cards, but I have all the Negators, then it’s likely I will be the person to stick one first.
I tried to convince LSV over and over that this was the best course of action, but I was wrong. I had the right idea, but the wrong card. Jace, the Mind Sculptor does the exact same thing, without the weakness to reanimation; and it’s more flexible, since the -1 ability is hugely relevant in the matchup. Jace did exactly what I wanted that sideboard slot to do, in a more effective way. These are two clear examples of both of us being willing to listen to the other, each convinced to move on from a bad idea and into one that is optimal, and the end result is we both have a stronger deck.
The next example is from PT Nagoya. At this point we were nearing the end of our testing, and had to decide between Mono-Red and Tempered Steel. Fast forward to the end of the tournament. The Top 8 contained one [card tezzeret, agent of bolas]Tezzeret[/card] deck that wasn’t playable, three Mono-Red, and four mono-white.
Wrapter was certain that we should play Tempered Steel, but as I still liked Mono-Red, I claimed that anyone could metagame their Mono-Red build to have an awesome matchup against Tempered Steel. Challenge: Accepted. Wrapter built a fairly stock Tempered Steel list with a reasonable sideboard, and I built the most hateful red deck I could. I mean I had 4 Oxidda Scrapmelters, 4 Arc Trails, 4 Slagstorms, and just about everything you can imagine to try and hate out the deck. The best I could muster was about 50/50 against Hero of Bladehold, Mutagenic Growth, and Elspeth Tirel—all on top of the fact that he was playing well and never got completely owned by Slagstorm or Arc Trail. Basically, any game after sideboard where he drew a Tempered Steel I was an underdog to win.
This was easily the most convincing piece of evidence for me, and the moment I agreed that Tempered Steel would be a good choice. It was really important to our testing that I worked on Mono-Red and wanted it to win, and that Josh liked Tempered Steel and wanted IT to win. We both played like we had something to prove, and if I had been the one with the impressive win rate in the matchup, we probably would have played a different deck. This one also falls under the category of, “It’s important to challenge others’ ideas and have others challenge your ideas.” It sounds simple enough but it’s true. If you can back up your arguments, then it shouldn’t be hard to convince your peers. If you are wrong, then work to figure that out, even if you face a bit of criticism as a result.
One more good example, from Worlds this past year: All of Team Fireball was huddled into a hotel room and practically shouting at each other, trying to figure out what Modern deck to play. We stretched ourselves too thin during testing, and focused hard on Standard and draft—not that this was stupid, because basically everyone on the team had crushed in Standard and draft—but now we were to the point where most of us needed 3-ish wins to make Top 8, and didn’t have a good Modern deck.
At dinner beforehand, we came to the conclusion that we liked Zoo and Splinter Twin best, and that these would be the two most played decks. We don’t normally do this, but we decided we were going to play the decks heads-up—whichever won more, we would play. We got back to the room, and it was back to normal with us just yelling at each other and basically getting nothing accomplished. Luis, as he usually does, was building decks for the entire team; and because he really didn’t want to play Zoo he started to build a bunch of Twin decks. This prompted me to stop and make him admit that he was making a decision based on personal preference, and not one that was based on any data whatsoever. He was angry with me at the time, but once everyone settled down, we actually played some games. It didn’t take long to realize that Splinter Twin was terrible. If this had been one of those times at which I was happy to sit by and just trust whatever they decided to play, we would have all played Twin. Instead of putting four players in the Top 8, it could have been zero.
Pro Tour Barcelona still stands as the best testament to our playtesting changing my mind for the better. When I draft, left to my own devices, I usually make snap-judgments on cards, and stay true to those until a certain card gets cast against me and I am proven wrong. This is not the optimal way of doing things, but it’s just how my brain works, and having other people around to help me is nice. When I first saw the card Stolen Goods I actually thought it was pretty reasonable. Now don’t get me wrong, I never was impressed by this card, but from what I knew about the format and how short everyone was on playables, I claimed that this was a card you should always play.
It didn’t help me at all that this card was rare, because if it were common, we would have seen it in action tons of times and been able to easily figure out that it is, at best, a sideboard card. With the help of everyone, I eventually realized that it’s really not all that exciting, and on average an Elgaud Shieldmate is just more powerful. Now, this card can be used to good effect against a higher casting cost white deck with some Angels, or a green deck with some expensive fatties like Vorstclaw or Pathbreaker Wurm, but it’s best not to start this card. Too often you’ll get a Thraben Valiant, Death Wind, or Bladed Bracers.
The second card was basically the opposite scenario. At first, I thought it was completely unplayable. Once it was actually cast against me, I was blown away by the dominating effect it had—the card was Triumph of Ferocity. Triumph is deceptively good, because there really isn’t any card similar to it in past Limited formats as a means of comparison, and in other formats this card would be either way better or way worse. When I had it cast against me, and it just drew card after card I was sold. I liked it so much I started to pick it really highly in our practice drafts. I was also wrong here, because it’s not that good, and it’s not a card that is obviously good. So while the set was still new, I didn’t expect people to value it appropriately.
I hope this helped give some insight into our playtesting and my mind. These examples stood out to me as especially relevant and broadly applicable situations, where listening has helped me improve, coupled with times in which I was convincing enough to benefit other members of the team. Playtesting is always a give and take in this respect, so keep that in mind the next time you get especially attached to a particular opinion.
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