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Breaking Through – Playtesting

Everyone does it. Or, at least they should. It’s fun. It’s free. It’s useful. You have a few hours to kill and you’ve been looking forward to the real thing for a long time, so you want to practice. You sit down, make sure everything is good to go, and then—you play your [card]Steam Vents[/card] tapped and pass the turn.

All right, so maybe you thought I was talking about something else for a minute there, but if you were, shame on you for not reading the title before clicking on the article! I am, in fact, talking about playtesting. If you have played in tournaments before, you’ve probably done some playtesting as well. Just like practicing any sport or video game, you are not going to be amazing right out of the gate, so you need to put in some work to get there.

Some of you might be thinking that you are already good at Magic, so what is the point of testing? Well, let me preface this article by saying you are never perfect at Magic, no matter how much testing you have done. There is always room to improve, from general playskill, to specific deck skill, to specific matchup skill. Magic is too complex to just take for granted that you know how to play. Your brain is a muscle, exercise it.

Testing is a crucial aspect of tournament play throughout all levels. As a member of Team ChannelFireball, I know that a team doing so well for so long generated a lot of buzz. One of the big keys to this success was our testing before each Pro Tour. It has become much more common these days, with many big teams meeting weeks in advance to cram for a Pro Tour, but when we began, basically no one was doing this. Individuals might have been doing so with a friend or two, but to have 10 to 12 of the best minds in the game all focused on a single tournament for multiple weeks is a huge edge.

Despite testing being so crucial and so prevalent in the community, very little has been written about it. You will hear people stressing its importance and how you should do it, but the details are often considered bland or common knowledge. Record games. Play sideboarded. These are important points obviously, but they fail to convey the whole picture.

I think this is largely due to the fact that playtesting has become synonymous with playing games. Perhaps the term “playtesting” is partly to blame for this, but playtesting requires a lot more than just sitting down and playing games of Magic. It involves critical thinking, analysis, discussions, predictions, and a general grasp of the decks/cards/format.

Playing games will get you to many of these places and it is a critical part of the playtesting process, but it is by no means the only part to the process. If I had to condense the process into four parts it would be:

Theorycrafting
Playing
Analysis
Tuning

The first three parts here will generally form some type of loop that you will repeat over and over until you arrive at the tuning phase, which typically only happens once. I was going to actually label it “Final Tuning” but did not want to be too exclusive with my choice of words.

Theorycrafting

This area applies doubly so for tournaments like a Pro Tour or States that occur right after a new set is released, but is always important. Remember that part where you sit down to play a [card]Steam Vents[/card] as your first land? Why did you do that? Why are you playing that deck? How did you even get to the point where you have two decks battling against each other? What made you pick those two decks?

Theorycrafting likely has a role here. Theorycrafting is using the information you have and extrapolating it to the point where you can turn it into a meaningful and testable state. As a Magic player, you always have some information to draw conclusions from. Maybe that is just the contents of the set that was released, but it is something. “Hey, it seems like red got a lot of sweet stuff with this new set.” That is all it takes to begin theorycrafting. From there, my mind probably wants to think about what those red cards look like next to each other and then from there what they look like next to other cards in other colors.

As I move things around and come up with ideas, all I am doing is theorycrafting. I am speculating based on prior knowledge and hoping to expand on them. Unfortunately, this is sometimes where the testing process ends. If you are really crammed for time or audible to a deck at the last minute, you might not ever get out of the “what if” phase. While I would not advise doing that, theorycrafting is really the only truly essential part of deckbuilding or deck choice.

Bringing the group atmosphere back into this, theorycrafting is a totally different animal with other people. Now you are bouncing your ideas off of people and instead of any one thing stagnating, the information and ideas each person might have can receive immediate feedback to allow for quick pruning.

Playing

This one is pretty simple. All you need to do is play games with whatever decks you are considering playing and playing against. That theorycrafting can be put to good work here as you are basically looking to play the games you theorized about to see if your predictions were true.

You are not really modifying your deck when you are in the playing phase, unless you have taken a shortcut to the analysis portion, so try not to be too critical just yet. You basically want to see if your predictions were accurate, and if they weren’t, just how far off you actually are. Decisions about whether you are playing this particular deck or what to change about it should not really be made until the analysis phase, but this is a good time to address just that.

While I am referring to these as phases, they do not necessarily always appear in this chronological order with one preceding the other. The general pattern is that one leads to the other, but it is totally possible to be doing two, three, or even all four of these things simultaneously.

Analysis

This is quite similar to the theorycrafting in that it is mostly an exchange of ideas and thoughts regarding your deck or the format, except now it is being directly informed by the combination of your theorycrafting and your playing. Whereas theorycrafting was rooted primarily in non-play information, your analysis should be the opposite. If you had proposed a specific way a card plays out or a match up plays out, you should now look to verify or debunk those predictions.

Analysis based on your play results can be both a good and bad thing. Obviously if you have all the time in the world, playing infinite games and correctly adapting your deck based on those games is best, but none of us have infinite time (well, except for Shahar). Instead, analysis often combines a bit of theory with a bit of results. You need to know what happened of course, because that is what happened, but you also need to know what exactly it implies. You need to take the data you have received from playing and convert it into something that is actually useful so that you can make adjustments as you see fit.

This will often cycle back into the theorycrafting phase where you will begin this three-step process again. You think of things you might have forgotten, you test to see if those predictions were accurate, and then you reflect on your findings. Once you have done that enough or run out of time before the tournament begins, the final step takes place.

Tuning

After you have gotten your deck to where you would want it, there are bound to be some variables you did not originally account for that pop up as the tournament nears. Let’s say that you finish your deck two days before the event, but then the day before, you find out a prominent writer’s deck that he will be playing at the Pro Tour. What do you do?

At this point, starting from scratch with more theorycrafting is probably out of the question. You are satisfied with your deck and should not feel forced to change it because of a small change in information like this. However, it would be foolish of you to simply ignore this new information altogether. As a middle ground, I think this is where last-minute tuning comes in.

Here, you can make sideboard adjustments or possibly swap out a card or two without feeling the burden of going through the entire testing process again. If you had infinite time, you would do just that, but you don’t and the information you have arrived at up to this point is still valid, it just did not take into account this bit of new information. Use this to make adjustments but you do not have to scrap everything. Tuning probably happens one time in theory, but more information is going to trickle in as soon as you arrive at the tournament hall. The most important thing is knowing which information demands changes and what information to ignore. This is not something I can answer for you myself of course, so just be sure to protect yourself.

Wrap Up

Much of this is similar to how a writing class would ask you to prepare for papers. I think in writing, the distinction between the phases is more rigid, but the concepts are the same.

First, you brainstorm and make an outline. This is the part where you prepare your essay or paper. You collect some major talking points and thoughts and map out where you want to go.

Next, you work on a first draft. This involves actually writing the paper, filling in the holes left by your outline with details and anecdotes as you see fit.

Then, you take that first draft and have it read by another student or possibly the teacher/professor. They will give you feedback on the things you need to improve before you hand in the final revision.

You repeat this process through as many drafts as you need to do. Sometimes a single rough draft will get you there, but generally this is going to be a cycle of three or four rough drafts.

Finally, you take the paper and you spruce it up to make it as presentable as possible. Maybe you add your headers or a fancy font to make the paper stand out. Maybe you turn it into a digital presentation. The core of the paper will not change here, but you want to touch it up as much as possible so that you are producing the best piece of work you can.

Look familiar to you?

Theorycrafting

Playing

Analysis

Repeat steps 1-3 as necessary

Tuning

I think that if people learn to treat testing this way, people will begin to improve more rapidly. Right now, people just equate testing with jamming infinite games. While that can be handy, if you are not doing anything with the information, or not doing the right things, you could be wasting your time, or worse, sabotaging yourself. Stay vigilant and be committed my friends. Thanks for reading!

Conley Woods

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