For Pro Tour 25th Anniversary, with two friends to play with and a special prize pool, I could justify playing 70 matches on Magic Online, all Standard thanks to the lack of Limited. What I couldn’t justify was a slot on a major testing team. Even my teammates, Gaudenis Vidugiris and Stanislav Cifka, were unable to offer much help. They’re great players, but had their own formats to worry about.
This seemed like the ideal time and format for a one-man effort. The format was well established, seeming to have few secrets. I could find a deck I liked, tune it, and make it my own. I tried a cycling deck Gaudenis liked, but that turned out to be bad. Then I tried Steel Leaf Stompy, went 5-0 in my first League, and started making changes. I tried Adventurous Impulse to smooth out the mana base, which felt like a big improvement, and kept tinkering based on that. At first, I played against a bunch of Nicol Bolas decks, then a lot of Paradoxical Outcome decks, and later a lot of Stompy and red. With a strong record everywhere, including in the mirror, I thought I was ready.
I wasn’t ready.
I turned in my worst ever professional level Constructed showing. Some of that was poor luck. The deck didn’t cooperate. My opponents drew well. But a lot of it wasn’t luck. I had a good time, but I let myself and my teammates down. This is about how and why that happened.
1: Your Winning Record Means (Almost) Nothing
Every player I talked to about my testing experience put this problem front and center. If you are a strong player and understand the format, even random brews can win 75% of their matches without being any good. If you can’t win, your deck sucks, but if bad decks can achieve 75% win rates, how much better do good decks do? Higher win rates become more indicative of consistency rather than strength versus strong opposition.
Even worse, tracking your results in particular matchups has the same issue. Your opponents suck. You can, as I did, go 5-1 in the most important matchup, then find out at the real tournament that the matchup is close to even.
If you build something terrible, the results might let you know. If you have a terrible matchup that comes up frequently, you’ll likely notice. Alas, good results are only small Bayesian evidence that you and/or your deck are any good.
2: Your Expected Metagame is Wrong
Playing a lot online tells you what is being played online right now, but online metagames change quickly, and are warped by their own factors. Card access and cost, and ease of play and getting a reasonable build, are big deals online and matter little at a Pro Tour. That’s true even without a strange situation like the next-to-impossible-to-get-online-at-the-time Nexus of Fate, with a lot of people using the find-the-cheapest-reasonable-deck-and-play-it strategy, for varying values of reasonable. Worse players also favor different styles than better players.
I also played too early. Back in the day I would wrap up my testing two weeks early quite often, as teams worked in isolation, and this time I wrapped it up about a week early because I felt ready and I’d put in what time I could spare. Metagames shift quickly, even when you think things are and should be stable, and my failure to take new samples in the last few days likely gave me a warped picture.
3: Your Winning Style is a Trap
There is a style that does well at Grand Prix level and lower events. Play good, solid cards that play good Magic. As an example, Gerard Fabiano enjoys success with good-stuff decks, as do Antonio de Rosa and Alex Shvartsman. If you play solid Magic, bad players find a way to lose. Give them that opportunity!
That style does not work at the Pro Tour level. It can give you a solid performance, but the top of the Swiss will be ready for you. You’ll find yourself in a bad position and hit a wall. Winning means being good against other good things.
My strategy upon my return has effectively been a variation of the good-stuff strategy. I play the best cards and assemble an overwhelming force, finding ways to force other players to have it as quickly as possible. That’s an important contrast to playing solid cards that create interactive games, but has the same problem. You’re testing whether your opponents have the right answers. The better they are, the more often they have those answers.
I think this is why I’ve been able to put up solid results reliably, but unable to close the deal when I’ve had strong starts. The game really gets that much harder. It’s not lost on me that when I was putting up my best results, Magic was my singular focus. I was effectively crazily prepared at all times.
When testing against top pros who are good at finding answers, and whose builds adjust over weeks to account for what you in particular are up to, this can work. But you still have a big drop-off when you play against the best. When you never even test against the best, you have no idea what you’re walking into. These styles become doubly poor.
4: You Don’t Know the Rules or What Your Cards Do, and Develop Bad Habits
When the game always handles the rules for you, you don’t keep yourself in good physical-Magic-playing shape. Triggers are never missed online. Shuffling is always efficient. Cards are never marked. Rules violations are always caught. Math is always correct. Time management uses chess clocks. A lot of being strong is knowing all of this well enough to not let it distract. Without playing in person, that is impossible to sustain.
Managing time in the round and knowing how to get opponents to play faster, their poker faces, timings that don’t give anything away, mannerisms that create the impressions and results you want, banter that gets you important information, and more are all also habits that need to be practiced.
Instead, you’re developing good online habits like knowing which stops to have, when to pause, when you can safely hit F6 without giving away your hand or plan, and how to manage a chess clock rather than manage a round clock. Not good.
5: Irrelevant Considerations Get to You, Too, and It’s Expensive
For Pro Tour Hour of Devastation, I put down the funds to own full online playsets for every card in Standard. I’m glad I did, because that both gave our team a strong resource that saved people time and trouble, and it saved me from worrying about what cards I owned and fiddling with various trades. Or worse, from not bothering to play the right cards or trying another deck due to the expense involved. Beware trivial inconveniences! If you have a good idea, the best thing to do is usually to proxy the deck up and see how it does, and online that can mean paying hundreds of dollars and interacting with multiple bots.
For this Pro Tour, for various reasons, I didn’t do that. I ended up not switching decks when it was clearly right to take others out for a spin. I didn’t get key experience, instead doing less valuable things.
One must choose a path. Long term, if you’re serious about Magic, having a fully stocked Magic Online account seems like the right way to go, so if I decide to return, I’ll be headed in that direction.
Such things are expensive in both senses. They cost you money and time, and they also make your testing worse on top of that. Beware.
6: Your Testing Isn’t Focused or Efficient
When you test against whatever comes, you don’t do deep work on key matchups or details. When you adjust your sideboard, you might get no feedback for hours. You’ll spend a lot of time in matchups where you’re not learning anything valuable. If you switch up your strategies, you regather all of the information that didn’t change, along with information that did change. You have no control.
There is no substitute for doing sets—10 or more games of the same matchup in a row, ideally switching sides halfway through—and understanding key matchups.
7: You Don’t Play Enough Games
Not having to shuffle is good, and having little wait between matches is a huge improvement thanks to Leagues, but Magic Online is still painfully slow compared to real-life testing, and miles slower than some online alternatives. Not only are the games not the right games, or against the right opponents, there aren’t as many of them. I played 60 matches with the deck I ended up running. That sounds like a lot, but it took up most of my testing time to do that. And those games were impoverished (see #9).
8: Online Communication Mechanisms Have Degenerated
You don’t have to be as against Facebook as I am to recognize that as a way of communicating as a team, it doesn’t work. Teammates do not reliably see what you post. Even when everyone sees a post, and you can rely on everyone seeing a post, you can’t count on people seeing replies. In order to get remotely close to reliable on these things, you need to check constantly, which is a huge time sink and risks drawing you into the even bigger time sink that is Facebook.
This would not be a big deal except that all of the online teams I want to work with insist on using Facebook to communicate. Or, rather, to fail to communicate. Contrast this to email, which reliably ensures that everyone sees everything exactly once. Email is compatible with life, Facebook groups aren’t. Multiple times, I gave up and stopped trying to communicate with my team, instead talking to individual members where and when I could.
This problem not only has seriously hurt my game, but it has also kept me from attending multiple Pro Tours. Please, stop.
9: You Can’t Analyze or Learn from Games Properly
Online opponents won’t point out mistakes. They won’t tell you their hand or what they were thinking. Sometimes you can ask and get a little info, but only a little. You can’t pause the game to talk about what is important, or what cards or decisions might have helped. You won’t know why what is happening, is happening. If you make a key mistake, or your opponent does, including a pure misclick, the game can be ruined, and there’s no way to undo it.
A lot, likely the majority, of actual experience gets stripped out when online and playing alone.
10: It’s Not as Fun
The entire online experience is impoverished in another important way: Fun! The whole point of playing Magic, on any level, is to have fun. If you can’t have fun playing Magic, don’t play. Magic Online is still fun, but it’s nothing compared to the fun level in person—hanging out with your friends and other players, and experiencing all the details. On Magic Online, you can’t even talk to your opponent most of the time. You likely won’t devote the same level of time and resources to testing under those conditions, nor should you. Nor will you give them the same level of focus. A game of physical Magic has my full attention. Playing against a slow, silent opponent with stops in a bunch of irrelevant places, I often find myself multitasking.
Conclusion: What to Do?
I’ve drawn several conclusions from what happened.
The biggest one is that testing on one’s own via Magic Online simply does not cut it. It’s good for learning how to play a deck and getting reps in, or for the early stages of getting a new concept running smoothly, but it’s otherwise a slow and inadequate substitute for the real thing.
You need a testing partner. Period. A team is ideal, but you need one other person close to your level, whom you can play against, and analyze plays and decks and strategies to make sure you’re engaging in productive, real, deliberate practice. You need to spend the bulk of your time with that testing partner or other strong players you can learn from. Even if you don’t play each other, you need to watch each other to make sure that what matters doesn’t pass you by. There is no alternative, no easy way out.
If you can’t have that, streaming or otherwise interacting with other players is the next best option. If I test alone in the future, I’ll stream it on Twitch as ZviMowshowitz.
If you’re going to mostly be on Magic Online because there isn’t a choice, you need to find a way to put all cost and card access considerations out of your mind for yourself and adjust for them in other players. If that means buying the whole set, buy the whole set.
With a job and a family, it’s tough to find the time to attend a Pro Tour, let alone prepare properly for it. But with today’s players being so much better, and the prize pools so anemic, there’s no point unless I can also spare the time to do it right. Next time, I’ll either make a much bigger and largely offline effort, or I’ll stay home.