Practice Like a Pro Without a Pro Team

We all know that the landscape of high-level competitive Magic has been dominated over the past decade by “super teams.” It’s the best players on the planet working together to “break the format” in preparation for a big, important event. The more minds you put to the task of solving complex problems, the more you yield better solutions, especially when all of those minds have proven time and time again that they are the best players in the world. If Magic is dominated by teams, what chance does an average Joe without access have against a coalition of Hall of Famers and Platinum-level Pros? Well, I’m not on a “super team” either and today I’m going to share some strategies that I’ve been utilizing to gain an edge when preparing for important tournaments.

Nobody Is an Island

Just because you are not part of a team doesn’t mean you have to go about tournament preparation like a lone wolf. The thing that makes teams advantageous is that cooperation yields better results than a singular perspective.

Developing contacts is important in high-level tournament Magic. In order to fully develop ideas, it helps to have input from others to help you refine, critique, and challenge your point of view. Without a second, third, or fourth set of eyes sometimes it is very easy to get tunnel vision and miss the forest from the trees.

You don’t need a “super secret” team of pros to achieve this result. Your friends and the circle of players who frequent your local game store can function as “teammates” with whom you can trade and refine information.

An underrated way of adding new and potentially important players to your circle is to simply strike up a conversation with the people you play against at bigger events like GP. If you play against a person and they have a great deck and played really well, perhaps there is an opportunity to strike up a conversation about sideboarding and have it carry over to Facebook. You’d be surprised how many people are looking for other dedicated players to discuss decks with outside of their LGS circle.

Ask Questions

You don’t need to test with a team for 10 hours a day to learn about Magic if you ask the right questions.

When you play at the local level, seek out opportunities to create a dialogue after your match. Be friendly and ask your opponent things that are useful to you:

  • “How did you sideboard against me?”
  • “What do you think about this matchup?”

People love to talk Magic and share their ideas. The key is to listen to what they have to say and to not just force your own ideas. Remember, you already know what you think and what is more valuable is to learn beyond what you already know.

It is useful to learn how an Affinity player sideboarded against your Tron deck and why, because you can use that information to predict how future opponents will play the next time around.

Testing for a Specific Event

If you want to do well at a specific event, you have to do testing that will actually help you prepare for that event. If you are planning on going to a Modern Grand Prix and you spend your Wednesday night “practicing” by doing a Cube draft, the quality of that practice is low given the circumstances.

A single event only tests your expertise at playing that specific format at a specific point in time, and not all formats throughout all of time.

The fact that LSV is an expert on two dozen Limited and Constructed formats that existed before you ever bought your first precon doesn’t necessarily generate as much of an advantage as understanding the nuances of the format of the tournament. Yes, being “good at Magic” helps, but up-to-date current mastery of a format is the single most important skill being tested at any single-format tournament.

It is why “format specialists” tend to do disproportionately well at Modern and Legacy Grand Prix. Many of them may be worse technical players compared to the top pros, but their format specific knowledge and testing is at a higher level. Since they often play weekly all year round, these players have encountered and solved subtle matchup problems that the pros don’t get deep enough into the format in their testing to even know exist!

If you are planning to go to a Legacy GP, go to the weekly Legacy tournament the week before and ask those individuals what they think about the deck you are planning to play. Listen to what they have to say.

Get Better Data

Good information is what everybody wants and there are ways of getting to it.

Hitting up your local game store circle and online Facebook contacts is a great start, but if you want to go deep into a format, you’ve got to utilize the web.

The best data you can get is the data you get from actually playing real events and matches in preparation for the event. I’ve already highlighted how important I think playing locally is, but the reason this information is fantastic is because it is unique in the sense that it isn’t available to everybody else online in articles and online databases. It is also firsthand and not “word of mouth” if you’ve played a matchup four times and you think it is hard. You know it is hard regardless of what anybody else online says.

As valuable as real life experience is, one person can only generate so much out of it. There are only so many hours in a day and so many events you can play in.

The absolute best way to generate a ton of information is to use the deck databases on the internet to see which decks are performing well and how they are being built. I haven’t always utilized these resources to the best of my ability, but since I’ve started focusing on it, I have seen a drastic improvement to my tournament preparation. There is something to be said for always having a great build of a great deck for every event I play in!

These are the questions I ask myself and the things I focus on:

  • What are the most played decks?
  • What decks make the most Top 8s?
  • What decks win tournaments?

You can learn a ton about a format without even playing a single game. You can single out the three or four best decks simply by looking at how they performed in the past month or so. You can also figure out which decks you are most likely to play against, and be sure to test those matchups to the point that you are comfortable.

The reason pro teams are so successful is because they are a group of motivated players working together to get the best information and apply that information. You don’t need a “team of pros” in order to apply these principles—though it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have LSV and PVDR help you crunch the numbers and think through the logic problems—and applying these principles smartly, effectively, and efficiently will help you gain a huge edge over a majority of the competition.

Wish me luck in Atlanta this weekend! Not a member of a super team, but I put in the effort. No regrets.

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