What’s the next big tournament you’re going to win?

When will you have your deck choice nailed down? The day of? The day before? The week before?

Will you know what your opponent is likely to be playing, even before you sit down for round one?

“Amateurs talk about strategy. Professionals talk about logistics.”

That quote, usually attributed to Omar Bradley, makes a point that applies pretty much everywhere. There are all sorts of cool things that will also make us more effective at the game – like new tech, neat videos, and so forth. But, per General Bradley’s point, none of that matters if we aren’t prepared for a big tournament when it happens.

I’ve been thinking a lot about planning lately, whether in Magic or otherwise. It’s our very human tendency to think that planning is either boring or a distraction from doing. The thing is, time spent planning is an investment that tends to pay off handsomely in terms of whatever we’re planning for.

In Magic, when we plan, we’re investing in having more fun and doing better. Conveniently, it’s also fun to prep for a Magic tournament, so it’s much easier than General Bradley’s job was.

Today I’m going to talk about how to plan for a big event by walking backward from the start of the tournament. I’ll break down an example prep sequence, step by step, and provide a couple of tools to use when you’re planning for the day.

Looking forward is planning backward

Humans are probably the best species on Earth when it comes to looking forward and planning ahead.

But we’re still pretty bad at it.

That’s not a dig on us – actively planning ahead turns out to be really hard. As my colleagues who work on robots have told me, it’s entirely reasonable to make a robot that can drive around the next obstacle in the road. It’s really hard to make a robot that can pause, look down an obstacle-laden stretch of road and say, “Well, forget this. I’m finding another way.”

So what can we do about this? More pertinently, how can we apply that to doing well at our next major tournament?

Movies aren’t written in order

If you have any interest in screenwriting, I recommend getting a hold of a copy of Robert McKee’s Story. Story is the distillation of McKee’s famous screenwriting course, and one of the many lessons McKee teaches about screenwriting is that you don’t just sit down and start writing the movie from the opening lines.

This isn’t intuitive. We tend to want to sit down and just start writing the movie in order.

It’s the same with planning. If I asked you to sit down and plan for the next 5K or PTQ you’re attending, you’d most likely want to start by writing “pick a deck” and then go from there.

That’s probably not even the correct first step, but the problem here is more fundamental. We don’t want to start with the first step.

This is where we’ll step away from the movie analogy, since by McKee’s methods, movies sort of “expand outward” from the high concept, layering on detail until you finally, at the end of the day, write the actual words in the screenplay.

When we plan, however, we just want to run backwards from the goal.

Walking backward from the ending

So what’s the point of your plan?

Generally, the idea is that we want to reach our goal. If our goal is “win the next big Standard tournament” then the easiest way to build a plan that ends at this goal is to start from the goal and walk backwards through time, step by step.

So, consider the general outline for what you’d like to be doing as we walk backward from the day of the tournament.

On the day, we want to have a solid deck list, have the cards for the deck, know our matchups, and be practiced in taking down all likely opponents.

That’s our goal right before our final goal, then. So how do we get to that?

Breakout one – planning spreadsheet

The best friend of planning is notes.

These days, my planning tends to revolve around spreadsheets. If your preference runs toward calendars, daytimers, or any other kind of organizer, that works, too. I like spreadsheets because you can bake in some calculations if you’d like (e.g. “How long did it really take me to playtest all the decks I tried?”).

In today’s article I’ll refer to a planning spreadsheet as I go along. Here’s a snapshot of part of that spreadsheet, with nothing filled in yet:

This is a Numbers template. I’m confident you can replicate it in your favorite spreadsheet app of choice, so if you don’t own Numbers, don’t worry about it. The point isn’t in the specific spreadsheet, but in its application.

Last thing first – optimization

If we’re walking backward from the event that we’re planning on winning, then the first thing we need to consider is the stuff we want to be doing right before an event. Our goal in the final days before a tournament should be to fine-tune our deck choice, learn how it specifically works, and tweak final card choices. So how do we plan for that?

What we’re doing – the elements of fine-tuning

Okay, let’s start using that very basic template to work up our planning for a tournament.

Imagine that you’re planning for a Standard tournament three weeks from now. What do you want to be doing in the final week before the tournament? I’ll suggest that we want to be doing our fine tuning, including playtesting likely matchups to understand the fine details, adjusting cards, and generally tuning the deck we’ve already selected for the matchups we expect.

Right now, we don’t know what those matchups are, and we don’t know what deck we’ve selected, so we’ll write in something generic into our planner, like this:

Right now, those are generic placeholders. Obviously, we don’t know the supporting details, like what’s in the metagame and what our deck choice is. We’ll fill those in later.

What we’re not doing – the audible

If you read anything by Luis, you already know he thinks audibles are a terrible idea. After reading a lot of tournament reports, I’m inclined to think that the vast majority of audibles go hand-in-hand with a lack of planning leading up to the event. How many times have you read something like, “I still didn’t know what deck I wanted to play, and I wasn’t happy with the deck I’d been testing since yesterday, so I went with a new deck instead.”

We end up in this “bleah” position about our deck choice largely because we put off making serious decisions about it, and doing the required testing, until it was too late for it to be effective.

Audibles do happen, of course. But the bar for the last-minute switch should be very high. It’s not just that you’re not particularly satisfied with your deck choice – it’s that you’ve turned up for the tournament and realized that your deck auto-loses against the majority of the decks you can see around you.

In other words, reserve the audible for the time when you did the planning, but have suddenly identified the fatal flaw in your deck selection. Don’t just switch in the hopes that you’ll somehow magically do better with a deck you have never used instead of a deck you’ve tested.

In the middle, we winnow

Before we do any of this fine-tuning or have the chance to make any decisions we’ll later regret about audibling, we need to actually have a deck selected. So following our approach of walking backwards from our final deadline, the logical middle portion of our preparation involves choosing a deck.

Here’s how I like to approach this step.

Test the top deck options first

It’s a simple idea, but an important one – if you intuit that a specific deck represents your best chance of winning, then test it. Right away. You are under no obligation to run through some alphabetized list of decks in the format, or to listen to someone else who’s telling you that it’s critical that you test an alternate deck instead.

If your prep work on evaluating the metagame (we’ll get to that below) tells you that one or two specific archetypes are likely to be your winners, then start with them.

Simple, I know. But we frequently forget that we’re not doing a class assignment here. This is about wanting to do well at the tournament. If you have a strong feeling about a given deck, trust that feeling and start there.

Fail fast

In local startup speak, “fail fast” is all about acknowledging that most things we try don’t work, and that we’d rather not waste a lot of time and effort trying to get them to work.

In terms of Magic playtesting, this means, essentially, “Don’t try to make an idea work.” This is not the time to be tweaking individual card choices, or to slowly adapt a deck to the metagame. While you’re still deciding on a deck, it’s best to accept that you are not testing perfected archetypes. If a deck doesn’t seem to be doing well, file it in the “not doing well” category and move on.

This isn’t an argument against fine tuning, even. That’s what the third phase – the one we just talked about above – is for. Instead it’s an argument for doing things at the appropriate time. First pick a deck, then fine tune it. That’s all.

Get the cards

Curiously, this never really shows up as an element in the “deck selection” process – but it’s a legitimate part! If you don’t actually have the cards, you don’t have the deck, no matter how much proxied testing you did.

As you approach the tail end of the winnowing process, we should get the actual deck or decks that we’re going to use together.

I don’t have a lot more to suggest about that – we have other folks who can guide your card acquisition efforts. I just wanted to make it clear that actually getting the cards is a real, often-overlooked part of deck selection.

Our rough update of the planning spreadsheet now looks like this:

As before, these are generic placeholders, pending our tackling the metagame analysis section.

Breakout two – playtest notes

Do you take notes when you playtest?

I didn’t until fairly recently.

Intuitively, we tend to think that we will keep our impressions in our head as we go, developing an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of our different deck options. In one sense, this is true – you will develop those impressions. However, it’s also just as true that most of us don’t retain the details that buttress these impressions. Sure, CounterTop has a rough time against Merfolk in your testing…but why? Was it just [card]Aether Vial[/card], or were there other specific instances or interactions that came up in your games that you’d like to know about later?

These may influence our deck choice, or, more likely, our later fine tuning once we pick a deck.

What about the bad guys?

Before we do any of the deck selection or fine tuning, we need to understand the metagame. This, too, is a process that we can break down into logical pieces.

Putting together a metagame

Almost a year ago, I wrote about how one might put together a reference library for the old Extended format. Although the specific links no longer apply, the general principle remains the same.

Figure out what sources you want to use to understand the metagame, then read them and scribble down some notes about what you feel this means for the metagame at the tournament you’re planning on attending. If you’re planning for the upcoming Extended PTQ season, for example, you might want to start with deck lists from Worlds, then read Luis’s overview of the format, and then move on from there.

Your method will vary, but this is an actual step, and it’s where our planning journey for that upcoming tournament starts. Don’t just ride with your passing memory of how the metagame was…actually set aside some time to check in with your trusted sources and figure out if that metagame remains the same as your impression of it.

Assemble some decks

Given that you’re going to be testing in part two, part one really ought to include not just developing an understanding of the format, but grabbing the actual deck lists you’ll use to build your option and testing pool.

It’s helpful to carry out this step consciously, attempting to find deck lists that at least did reasonable well at tournaments. You also want to 2-3 versions of each deck, so that your rough, winnow-phase testing won’t run afoul of you having chosen a weird version of one archetype to test against.

Watch for disruptive events

Short and sweet – is anything really big happening between now and the tournament?

You know. Like Mirrodin Besieged coming out.

Or Worlds or some other big, metagame-influencing tournament.

If something like this, that can shift your options or your metagame, is going to come out before the tournament, you’ll want to note it on your schedule and possibly adapt to deal with it.

Our rough planning template now looks like this:

Running it all forward

Now that we have a rough outline of our three week plan, we can start to flesh out the details and run it forward. First, let’s expand week one:

I’ve started using the “Notes” column now, to put in reminders about what I specifically want to do at each step.

We can move on to expand week two:

…and then week three:

These are artificially clean schedules, of course. They still have room to become more specific, too. Once you decide that the 10% players in the metagame are, say, U/B Control, Valakut, and B/R Vampires, you can change from one “put together playtest decks” task to an individual task for each archetype – perhaps assigned to different members of your playtest group.

The templates I’ve included with this article are just one way of structuring this kind of planning – but the core idea is that we want to actually spend the time to plan. If you prefer to use Google Docs to collaborate with your friends, or a white board in the game store, it’s all good. The real point is that planning is an essential part of making sure we can actually enjoy ourselves and have a decent chance of succeeding at our next big tournament.

Does this idea resonate with you? Do you have planning tools you like to use?

Postscript – time to chime in about Limited and Constructed

Next week, barring something more timely that demands our attention, I’m going to be writing about some results from the Magic Effectiveness Project that relate to Limited, Constructed, and how we interact with both. The many excellent results from the MEP have spurred some additional questions, and now it’s time for you all to chime in with a couple quick words about why we love the formats we love.

If you have a few minutes to help make next week’s article even better, please click here to take a very brief survey about Limited, Constructed, and what makes you tick.

Click here to take this super-short survey.

As always, I am parakkum at twitter and magic (at) alexandershearer.com.