“There is no substitute for preparation.” – Personal mantra

I used to think that simply putting in hours was enough to be prepared for a tournament. It’s how I’ve prepared for everything else in life, be it studying for an exam in college, or spending hours upon hours practicing before an important musical performance, or even rehearsing pre-prepared routines to talk to girls; relentless preparation has served me very well.

But I wasn’t achieving the kind of success I expected when it came to Magic, and it took me a while to figure out that sometimes you have to practice smarter and not harder.

If you’re not properly testing before a major tournament, you’re doing yourself a disservice. You can certainly win on play skill and be naturally better at the game than your opponents, but it’s getting harder. Someone told me that PTQs eight years ago were a cakewalk because only four or five people had any sort of realistic chance of winning it, because they were the ones with the top decks and the understanding of the format. That’s no longer the case. People play better decks, and the advent of MTGO has brought the average skill level up.

I’ve boiled down ten principles that have served me well in testing, and I’ve been able to make more efficient use of my time as a result.

1. Don’t practice the way you play – at first.

I used to believe that treating a testing session the same way you would treat a tournament game was the right way to go. After all, if your brain is not engaged in making the correct play at all times because of distractions or adopting a more casual attitude, then your testing won’t be optimal.

On the other hand, there is something to be gained by trying different lines of play that may seem a little riskier and ones you wouldn’t necessarily think of trying in a tournament. For example, in Lorwyn block Faeries, many people went on “auto pilot” and always played Mistbind Clique during their opponent’s upkeep. But sometimes it was right to play it during their combat step, as the 4/4 could eat an attacker while still achieving the goal of tapping them out, since most players don’t play spells during their precombat main phase.

Though that may seem like an obvious line of play, I can tell you from observation (and my own experience) that this was not a common one. But by asking yourself in testing, “What if I just waited until combat to try this?” and then trying it, you might learn that there are situations where it’s good – or you might learn that your experimental line of play is not optimal, and you can subsequently abandon it.

I’m a big fan of experimentation, and I like trying out different things to see what works. Often, a lot of terrible ideas get tried and are dismissed, but that’s part of the process. As long as you realize the ideas are terrible, then you can filter out the nuggets of good information that can give you an edge during the tournament.

Talk about the games. I even like having take backs in testing, because if one player is making mistakes and you’re not letting them “take it back” then the game state isn’t going to be ideal and your testing results will be skewed. Some people don’t agree with this philosophy, and I think it comes down to a matter of preference.

2. Practice the way you play once you’ve gained an understanding of the matchup you’re testing.

Once you’ve settled down and have really figured out what is the way to go, treat your testing sessions like it’s the top eight of a PTQ.

The 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls put up an astonishing 72-10 record, led by Michael Jordan. Players on that team said that their practices were more intense than the games themselves, so by the time the games came around, they were mentally prepared when it came time to play some hapless opponent that didn’t have the same drive or determination that the Bulls did. Similarly, if in practice you’re used to maintaining the focus necessary to do well at a large tournament, then you won’t feel it as difficult to “kick it up a notch”.

3. Play sideboarded games.

Over half your games at any tournament are going to be played post-sideboard, but so many people just play game one over and over again and think they are fine. Then when it comes to play game two, they don’t know what’s going on.

The majority of your games should be done post-sideboard. Certainly there’s value in playing a lot of game ones to figure out which cards are good/bad in the matchup and how to sideboard, but once you’ve moved beyond that stage, your focus should really be on playing post-boarded games.

4. Play sideboarded games.

It’s worth mentioning again.

And when you do, try different sideboard plans. For the inaugural City Champs finals two years ago, Jon Loucks was playing a five-color Zoo deck with many Ravnica dual lands that was designed to beat the Gruul R/G aggro decks, complete with boarding in all fifteen sideboard cards against it.

I was not one of those who had tested with Jon, although I was playing Gruul. He and I were matched up in that tournament, and he got upset when I boarded in Cryoclasm to take advantage of his fragile mana base. He felt that bringing in Cryoclasm was not correct against his deck, and therefore had never tested against it. It caught him off guard, and he lost a matchup that he had specifically designed the deck to beat because he was not prepared for a sideboard card that was in most Gruul sideboards.

Just because you think the sideboard plan should be a specific way doesn’t mean your opponent knows that or agrees with you. Most people do not board correctly, so expecting your opponent to board the “right” way each and every time is a tall order. By testing against different sideboard plans, you’ll be less likely to be thrown off when they leave in an “irrelevant card” that wrecks you or board in a sub-par card that you did not expect.

5. Keep track of your results.

This may seem tedious, but the more information you have, the better. Most people don’t have the luxury or patience to have a full feature match style report done on their matches, but take note of what happened. Who was on the play? Did anyone mulligan? What happened in the game? One or two sentences should suffice – which cards mattered? Did someone lose because of mana screw/mana flood?

Another benefit to this is that you can send these results to other people who may not have the time to test a particular matchup at length. This is important when working with a team for Extended in particular, as there are so many tier one deck archetypes and so many matchups to test. People often don’t have time to test them all. But if you can break up the testing and have detailed notes, then the notes can get circulated among the team and everyone learns what’s important in the various matchups.

After Slide rose in prominence late in the Extended season, I talked to Max McCall about the Slide/Zoo matchup. His notes weren’t novels, but they were enough to give me a sense of how the matchup went. I tested, but I also had information like:

zoo mulls to five, has fanatic, ape. double finks trades with seals and an ape, then plays vortex. exploded. second vortex. raced with worm harvest and assault.

finks gets burnt out of the way, assault and slide without loam succumb to team one drop.

slide has finks, hierarch. zoo drops a vortex trying to push through lethal damage and promptly dies to assault/loam

nacatl goyf vortex. slide had an insane edge/hierarch/slide/hierarch draw, but it was not to be.

zoo mulls, gets nacatl exploded, beats in with goyf, it and marauders get wrathed after some taplands. double finks into slide, assault ftw

basically just straight kold to vortex, guys, and burn

team one drop meets t3 wrath into hierarch, but zoo also has thirteen points of burn.

It’s very shorthandy, but it’s also very informative. There are pages and pages of these notes on each game, and after reading them I had a very good sense of how the games play out before I even played a game against Slide.

6. Test the mirror.

This is another common mistake I see. People put together a “gauntlet” with copies of all the popular decks in the format, and run them against each other. This is a great plan, but unless you’re planning on playing a rogue deck, you should really have two copies of any deck that you’re thinking of playing. I can’t tell you how many times I would play someone in the mirror of a given matchup and they would say, “I tested this deck a lot but I didn’t really test the mirror.” Well, if you’re playing a popular deck, why on earth wouldn’t you test the mirror?

After Jon Loucks Top 8ed a PTQ with our WBr Martyr deck, we even tested that mirror matchup in case we ran into it for GP: Los Angeles. Testing the Martyr mirror ranks on the “list of fun things to do” just below “setting yourself on fire,” but we felt that it was important to learn what mattered in the mirror and were prepared if we did come across that matchup. Though Jon did not play against any Martyr decks all weekend, I played against one in the Grinders for the Grand Prix and once again, figuring out how to win the mirror served me well.

(A fun aside: In the single elimination Grinders for a Grand Prix, there are no draws. After five turns, the winner is the one with the highest life total. If both players are tied, then the first change in life totals wins. The amusement by spectators watching two Martyr decks try to race each other on life totals was quite high – though.)

7. Have a reasonable sample size.

I realize that not everyone has infinite time to test, but if you really want to do well, playing five or even ten games is often not enough to get a really good feel of how the matchup goes. There are two reasons for this.

First, if one or both players are new to this particular matchup, it can take a few games to figure out what matters and what’s important. This “feeling out” period can skew your results. I’ve had matchups where one player has gone 2-8 in the first ten games, only to figure out what really matters, and then go 23-7 the rest of the way.

Second, there’s good old-fashioned variance. A player can have abnormally good/bad draws, creating the perception that a matchup is in favor of a deck that is actually behind in a given matchup. Sometimes you can figure out that the sample is skewed by things like:

1. Player A drew his four-of (and key card) in one of ten games.
2. Player B drew his one-of (also key card) in seven of ten games.
3. Player A never saw more than two lands in eight of their games despite running 28 lands in the deck.

8. Focus. Shut off all distractions.

Some friends have invited me over for testing on certain nights when the Denver Nuggets have been playing playoff basketball. I’m a huge Nuggets fan, and they are in the middle of a once-in-a-generation season.

“But Zaiem,” they would tell me, “we can just have the TV on so you can test and watch the Nuggets!”

Wrong.

Unfocused testing is unproductive testing. If I’m testing the 5cc mirror, I want to be thinking about which spells to counter and what to play on my turn and whether or not it’s right to evoke Mulldrifter. I want all my mental processes dedicated towards making my testing session as productive as possible. If I’m instead watching Carmelo Anthony use a sweet spin move while driving the lane, then I’m doing myself and my testing partner a disservice. [Or watching Chauncey Billups miss 3 of his first 4 free throws. -Riki, working while watching the game.]

An ideal testing environment is free of distractions. TV is the biggest culprit, but video games or what someone’s doing off to the side with a MTGO draft can be just as distracting.

I remember hearing Sam Black on a podcast before Berlin talking about his testing for that event with Gabe Carlton-Barnes. GCB told Sam to show up at his place at 8am sharp for testing, and they would test. I like this approach. It provides an aura of seriousness and focus. You get up for an 8am event when you’re serious about it, and the more seriously you take your testing, the more likely you’re going to get something out of it.

9. Sufficiently randomize your deck.

If you pile shuffle at a tournament to make sure your deck is randomized, why not do it during testing? I see people take shortcuts with shuffling during testing, which is wrong. If you do anything that increases the chances of mana clumps, then your testing results are going to be skewed. What takes more time – doing a pile shuffle and taking the time to randomize your deck, or playing twenty minutes of a game where a player gets stuck on two lands because they didn’t shuffle their deck thoroughly?

10. Play against different people if possible.

People can be of similar skill but play a deck in different ways, which can yield drastically different results. When we were testing against Standard Faeries last year for Regionals, a friend played Faeries one way and certain matchups seemed to be in their favor. But then another player would pick up the deck and play it differently, and the matchup would flip. Some players are more comfortable with certain types of decks than others.

If you can, play your deck on Magic Online. The startup costs for playing a tier one deck on MTGO can be a little steep, but if you can afford it, you will gain so much from playing your deck online. You will play against all different types of decks and types of players with different strategies. It’s varied and you can play essentially non-stop with the same deck for hour after hour, dealing with whatever is thrown at you. You even have time to keep detailed notes should you so desire, which is an even better way to look at your results and figure out what the best way is to approach a given matchup.

Adopt these strategies and stay on task, and you will find that your testing is more efficient and you’ll get more out of it. A lot of it comes down to maintaining focus and keeping your mind on the task at hand.