Listen to this article:

While big teams take Pro Tour testing quite seriously, for Grand Prix, the approach is often different. I wouldn’t say that the members of these teams don’t work together at all and don’t take it seriously, but individual players are more often on their own and have their own method for deciding what deck to play, how much they want to play with it, and what their final build will look like. I don’t only prepare with Team CFB—I have my own process I want to share with you. I’ll focus on Constructed, as those are the hardest events to prepare for.

Information Gathering

Since there is often so little time between events, any shortcut you can get to inform your decision on what decks to test is crucial. In my case, I ask my friends what they’ve been liking in the format, and how they’ve been doing with that deck. I will weigh the information they give me with their confidence level, their sample size, and of course who it is. I know that for instance, when I ask Owen Turtenwald how he’s been doing with a deck he suggests that his win percentage is going to be higher many others. This doesn’t mean that I’ll always listen to Owen over someone with a worse win percentage—it’s just a method to verify the accuracy of the data. If Owen is winning 60% of the time with a deck, that will indicate to me that the deck is performing slightly below his expected win rate, and maybe it’s not a good choice.

The next step I take, and one I find that’s the most important in my deck selection process, is to look over tournament results, and see what decks have been performing well recently. I look beyond just Top 8 results, and try to find decks that have dominated the Top 16 or 32 of an event. I’m not focused on specific deck lists yet, just archetypes. For instance, at Grand Prix Phoenix there were five copies of Humans decks in the Top 32, despite there being eight different decks in the elimination rounds. Humans also won the tournament. This isn’t a staggering number, but in a format as deep as Modern, it indicates that the deck is likely in a good place right now.

Next up are Magic Online tournament results. The 5-0 League lists don’t tell us a great story anymore—they just give us a bunch of ideas. The lists are so widespread that we don’t get an accurate idea of what the most winning deck is anymore because we don’t get a good indication on the metagame share of any deck. This leads me to look more at major tournament results from Magic Online, which includes MOCS results, the Magic Online PTQs, and the format challenges. I get to see how popular certain decks were, and how all the decks did in the event where deck A was the most popular but deck B seemed to overperform and deck A did horribly.

This week I can also see that Humans did well in the Modern PTQ, which leads me to believe that Humans has probably been well positioned lately. This trend is enough to put this deck firmly on my radar, and both consider it as a choice, but also, keep it in mind when I choose another deck. If a deck is doing this well, I don’t want to dismiss it and play something with no plan or a horrible matchup. I want to at least have a plan for it when I go to the tournament because I know I will come across this deck on my way to a successful tournament finish.

Now, there are a couple of ways I will use the information that a deck is doing well. For one, I’ll check social media and Magic content sites to see how much hype a deck is getting. When Temur Energy was everywhere, people were talking about it everywhere. The deck was on everyone’s mind, and it just beat everything, so even knowing that it was going to be everywhere it was still impossible to beat it and the other remaining decks in the field. Right now, we have a more wide open Standard metagame, and a more wide open Modern metagame, so hype like this can inform people’s decisions. When people think Jund will be everywhere, they might play Tron, or Scapeshift, or another one of its classically bad matchups. So if you’re considering playing a deck that has received a lot of attention but the deck is beatable, you could fall victim to a metagame reaction. I consider this when choosing a deck, so right now if Jund has a lot of hype, then I think playing Jund is probably not a great choice.

With Humans, no one is really talking about it yet. This indicates to me that Humans is probably a great choice right now because the metagame hasn’t reacted yet and circled back to decks like Jeskai Control. So I’m actually more likely to want to play Humans than to try and beat it since the hype is low. Full disclosure: this my current front-runner for GP Hartford and I haven’t even played a game with it yet. I just know it’s a great deck against the current metagame, which has been slow to react to it. If this information changes in the next couple of weeks, I’ll lean more towards focusing on playing a deck that has a chance against it to compete against the fluid portion of the metagame.

I continue this process until I find what I think are the best two to four decks. This will narrow my testing into a smaller subset of decks I think are playable.

Modern and Standard are different animals, as Standard has a lot fewer decks because of a smaller card pool, but I’ll end up testing the same amount of decks—because there’s only so much time. This is why it’s valuable to use all of your available resources, and find some other players you can discuss Magic with who can help you refine your search and narrow down your list of valid choices.

Testing

I will start with the deck I’m most likely to play. Since I’ve identified Humans, I will try that first when preparing for my next Modern GP.

In this stage, I won’t change many cards unless something jumps off the page to me. I’ll mostly just find a successful online deck list, or a deck list given to me by a friend, and go from there.

I’ll play two to three Leagues with this deck and decide if it has any serious problems. During this time, I’ll gather all the content I can. Last week I spent a lot of time thinking about Standard, watching Matthew Foulkes stream U/B Midrange in Standard, and reading various articles about both this deck and Grixis Energy. U/B Midrange is full of the cards I like, so I’ve kept a close eye on it in preparation for the Standard GP in Seattle. I’ve also played some Leagues with the deck to varying success, so now I’m going to move onto other decks.

If everything goes well with the deck I think I like most, I’ll still try the rest of the decks to get a different perspective of the format. It’s still possible you find something better, and if not, you at least get to build a base for the future. By trying a deck I don’t intend to play, I also will know in what metagame a deck like that would be good, so if that situation arises, I’ll be comfortable picking it back up and playing it.

Now that I’ve tried all the decks I’ve wanted to test, it’s time to actually focus on one.

Practice

Practice is different than testing, and this is a distinction that I was first made aware of by a good friend of mine Dave Shiels. Practice is what you’re doing after you’ve chosen a deck, and testing is the process of finding a deck to begin with.

When I first choose a new deck, I like to explore what makes its bad matchups bad, and try to identify a way to resolve this problem. For instance, we noticed while testing (really practicing) Grixis Death’s Shadow for PT Rivals of Ixalan that Humans wasn’t a good matchup, and it was mostly because they could just pile creatures onto the battlefield. Not only that—they could put them onto the battlefield at the same time because of Aether Vial. Aether Vial would flash in a creature end step, and then two more would be cast and another Vialed in. This meant our mana could be choked if we had expensive removal, and taxed even more heavily by Thalia. The other major problem was that Mirran Crusader had protection from all of our removal, and won in combat against all of our creatures. This means that we needed both an answer for Mirran Crusader and a way to kill creatures at instant speed, and a mana efficient answer to these creatures. Sure Anger of the Gods and Pyroclasm are fine ways to sweep the battlefield, but the problem with these cards was that when they had an Aether Vial it was very difficult to sweep away everything without facing down a serious threat after. For this reason, we came up with Lightning Bolt.

Lightning Bolt was the most efficient way to do what we needed it to do, and gave us valuable percentage points against the most popular deck in the metagame, although it was still only 10% of the field. But the process of getting there was simply identifying the problems, figuring out if the problem was solvable, and then brainstorming to come up with the solution, which was just more 1-mana removal. This is difficult to do on your own sometimes, but by identifying the problem on my own I can discuss it with my peers, and we can find a solution to the problem.

Other times, there’s not much you can do about a bad matchup, and if that’s the case you can just ignore it and accept your fate in that matchup if it’s a low enough percentage of the field, or do your best to give yourself a hope without damaging your deck too much. Accepting that you have a bad matchup is one of the most difficult parts of choosing a deck, and this is when you could do the most damage to your tournament results. By overcompensating for a bad matchup you’ll often find yourself turning good matchups into even or bad matchups.

If I have a specific matchup I want to figure out, I’ll play a few matches with a friend of mine. This isn’t always convenient, so other times you just have to do the best you can using Magic Online Leagues and compiling matchup data. I tend to keep a lot of this stuff in my head, but more organized players than I will create spreadsheets, which is an excellent idea if you want to be thorough.

The practice phase is also when I’m more likely to use information from the 5-0 League decks. I’ve already chosen my deck, so I’ll browse through the lists and see if I can find ideas to improve it. Sometimes you’ll find a spicy card, and if I have enough time I’ll try it out. I’ll rarely play a card in my deck I haven’t tried before unless it’s obviously fixing something that needed fixing or an upgrade to something I already have.

Lastly, I make sure I play a fair amount with my chosen deck. I like to play at a minimum twenty matches or four Magic Online Leagues with my deck before playing a Grand Prix. Generally, I probably play closer to forty or so. This leaves me comfortable in almost all my matchups, and gives me an indication of how each matchup plays out. Having that foundation will usually tell me what sideboard cards are most effective, and help me with the final part of preparation.

Building a Sideboard Map and Guide

A sideboard map is simply a sideboard guide, but one you create to make sure that you have enough cards coming in and out in important matchups. If I want to add Grim Lavamancer to my sideboard because it’s one of the best cards against Humans, I have to decide what can come out of my sideboard, and what my deck will look like in all of my other matchups. By doing this I get an idea of how much this Grim Lavamancer is costing me across the board, and if it’s really worth what I’m giving up. When I said over-adjusting for a bad matchup can ruin a tournament for you, this is a way to check yourself to make sure you’re not just throwing 15 cards into a pile, and that your sideboard covers all your bases.

Once you’ve gone over this map enough and you’ve determine that your deck is suitable, you’ve also studied your own plans and created your own sideboard guide. While I used to write down sideboard guides when I was less practiced, I no longer need to because I make sure my sideboards are fully cohesive before every event, and sideboarding is just second nature to me now.

So this is my step-by-step process in preparing for a Grand Prix. This is what a work week looks like to me, and I’m still refining and perfecting my process. There’s a full slate of Grand Prix coming up for me. My first stop is GP Seattle for both Legacy and Standard. I hope to see you there!