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Maintaining Perspective on Your Playtesting

Sooner or later, we all experience self-doubt. As Magic players, one of the questions that we ask ourselves is: “Is this just a losing streak, or is there something off in my game?” Odds are, if you’re asking the question then you’ve noticed an irregularity. Since everyone goes on losing streaks sometimes, and basically no one goes from being a solid player to a miserable one overnight, the answer to the question should be obvious: sometimes you just lose.

The doubt comes because you’re used to taking credit for your wins, and it’s intuitive that your losses are your fault too. When you win, you get that rush of endorphins. People congratulate you, respect you, and ask about your list. It’s satisfying to make the right call for an event and see testing pay off, but that doesn’t mean that you didn’t win the pairings lottery or fade some draw steps along the way.

When you think back over an event you won, you remember playing well. Your deck gave you the cards you needed to win, but you put yourself in the position to capitalize on those draws, and that’s why you put those cards in the deck in the first place, right?

Sometimes you lose despite playing well. Maybe your draws suck, or maybe you lose the pairings lottery a few times in a row. Maybe you draw fine and play fine and have good matchups, but some anomalies happen and you lose anyway. That’s the real trade-off to playing a CCG: sometimes you sack out and win the bad matchups, but your opponent can sack out too. “One good rip deserves another.”

That said, even the best players in the world make mistakes, and very many losing players are doing very many things wrong. Doing a post-mortem after every game, dissecting the key decisions and mulling over the trickier points is a great habit to get into regardless of winning or losing.

The point is that we humans are fickle beasts, and we tend to overemphasize the importance of a match or even a series of matches. One side effect of this mentality is that we fetishize Top 8s. The difference between a Top 8 and a Top 16 often comes down to a single game, a single draw, a single missed land drop.

So a Top 8 list isn’t necessarily better than a Top 16 list, but we’re way more likely to accept a Top 8 list as a good deck and a good choice for the next tournament. This used to bother me, but if everyone’s copying and testing the same lists it leads to a predictable impact on the metagame, and that means the testing isn’t wasted. This changes a bit for Pro Tours, where the average player is much more likely to read the metagame and bring something that’s good against the top deck.

Testing and Results

Most casual testing involves two buddies playing their decks against one another. This is useful if both players don’t play the format much, and just want to get a feel for their decks. It’s also a fine way to see if a brew has legs, to see if it’s worth the time to do more regular testing and tuning.

The next level involves proxying/building a gauntlet of the top tier of decks, which will ideally make up the bulk of a tournament. Larger test groups tend to divvy up the workload, with people split off in pairs to test specific matchups. Then they share information like “deck A feels like it has a 45% matchup against deck B.”

What does this “45%” mean? Is it you playing against your friend? Or are you extrapolating to something more general like two average players of equal skill? Odds are that number isn’t very useful. Even if you are an average player you’re going to have to beat below average players and above average players to take down a larger tournament, and typically an opponent’s skill should increase as you get deep.

Sometimes a matchup is surface-level. Other matchups have more play to them, and here knowledge of the matchup gives you a huge edge. I remember testing the RUG vs. Maverick matchup against a strong player that was newer to Legacy. First I 8-2’d him with RUG, and he was sure that the matchup was impossible for Maverick. Then we swapped decks and I 8-2’d again.

Now, part of that is that it’s a very treacherous matchup if you’ve never played it before. Sometimes the Maverick player needs to make some unintuitive plays, like Wastelanding himself to play around Submerge, and sometimes the RUG player needs to turn on a dime and switch strategies mid-game. The other factor at play is that a lot of variance can happen in 10 games, and a pile of game 1s is not the same as best-of-threes against opponents of varying skill and different lists.

Test games are mere examples, and you aren’t necessarily going to see the average match within them. More often than not, a specific matchup breaks down into subsets of likely draws, and knowing what to do in each situation is the important thing.

Not that you shouldn’t care about your position in the metagame, but that’s something that can come about incidentally, and simply playing Magic gives you a good idea of what you can win with. Testing should be about identifying key cards and interactions. Going back to the prior example of a larger group divvying up a workload, a useful note to a teammate might sound something like: “I won the games where I baited a counter and then stuck a Whisperwood Elemental, but lost the ones where he drew multiple counters in the early-to-mid game.”

In general, when I talk about the key cards of a matchup I’m talking about:

  • Early-game cards that help you identify hands that are strong keeps. Maybe it’s discard or Abrupt Decay against Splinter Twin, or Lingering Souls against a Liliana of the Veil deck. Sometimes, the strength of a specific card is enough to outweigh an otherwise loose hand.
  • Mid-to-late-game cards that overperform in a specific matchup. What cards do you need to sandbag because they’re the only answer to a specific game-ending threat? What cards are so important that you’re going to wait to play them around countermagic?

The flipside to this is that while you learn the key cards you also learn which cards are relatively useless, which in turn informs your sideboarding and how you prioritize your cards in game one. A lot of Magic boils down to who can make their bad cards relevant, possibly by trading them 1-for-1 with the opponent’s good cards. If you ever make your Bile Blights live in a control mirror, you feel like a god.

One of the things that I like about the RG Bees deck is that, even if the opponent’s deck doesn’t care about Hornet Nest by itself, you still have a slew of ways to manually crack it, creating a mini army to start beating down with.

Hopefully this article helps a few people gain perspective. It’s important not to overvalue a few matches, whether it’s over the course of a few events or some immediate test results.

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