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Rule of Law – Survival Guide for the Weekend Warrior

Hopefully you’re reading this at your desk at work, or on your lunch break, or while your partner changes a diaper. If so, you’re not alone. Many players want to do well in an upcoming PTQ or Grand Prix, but don’t have a ton of time to invest in advance of the tournament. Being efficient with what time you have will be critical. Below are some strategic ways to approach this problem that many people encounter.

–Limited Event Preparation

Limited formats are certainly the easier of the two types of tourneys to prepare for. Magic Online is your best weapon here, as it’s difficult to practice sealed deck with physical cards during the week. The 4 round Daily Events are an easier time commitment to stomach than the longer Premier Events, so I stick to the Dailies.

If the set you need to practice isn’t online, you’re stuck reading articles about the new set and trying to work that into what you already know about sealed deck. If you went to the prerelease or know someone who did, and you or they came home with 6 boosters (or 3 and 3 of the first two sets if that’s the case) it isn’t a waste of time to open the packs and build sealed decks. Paul Rietzl and I have done this against each other many times. Sometimes with 12 packs we’ll build and play, and try a couple different versions, or with just 6 packs we’ll build together and discuss strategy. As soon as you get two sets of eyes looking at a problem, differences in opinion will emerge, and you can learn a lot both by explaining your positions and hearing your friend do the same.

–Constructed Event Preparation

In my experience, preparation for constructed is more difficult, more important, and therefore more rewarding. I’ve had the experience of showing up to a PTQ with the best deck and winning fairly easily, and the experience of showing up a mostly uncompetitive deck that never had a chance of winning the PTQ. Preparation explains how I got those different results at different events.

For constructed, you’ll be rewarded even more for finding a friend or two with similar goals and working together. Whatever you could accomplish alone in 5 hours won’t be as much as you could accomplish working together for that same 5 hours.

There is a dropoff in terms of how easy it is to find relevant testing experience on Magic Online with constructed. The Casual-Tournament Practice room is full of bad players and bad decks, so every hour you spend in there yields some small fraction of an hour of really productive testing. 2- and 8-person constructed tournaments are the better place to practice. You can find the good players and good decks more consistently when you pay a couple tickets to enter than you can in the casual rooms.

The problems with testing for a PTQ or GP on Magic Online in a short period of time are that you can’t control what decks you play against, and the metagame is often very different. With a ton of time to “grind” out match after match, the first problem isn’t as much of an issue. But with the limited amount of time we discussed having, you might not play against many of the decks you need to keep in mind going into a tournament. Here’s where that friend comes in. A friend can help you out in online testing, either a little or a lot, depending on the number of digital cards at their (and your) disposal.

The metagame differences can range from only minor differences to those so large it makes testing online very inefficient. Going into Grand Prix Atlanta (Extended format), Rietzl, Gabriel Nassif, and I tested RG Bloodbraid LD a lot on Magic Online. For a number of reasons, Valakut wasn’t that popular online at the time. It was extremely popular at the Grand Prix, and nobody who played our deck did well. We joked that Nassif had intentionally tricked us, but in fact we just relied too heavily on Magic Online testing.

I prefer not to test on Magic Online when I’ve got, say, 1 night of preparation I can put in before an event. My preferred method in that important case is to get together for one night with a friend or two. The following tips all help maximize what you get done in that evening of preparation.

1. Construct (using proxies, or real cards if available) the 5 most popular decks in the format to form your “gauntlet” to test against.

You’ll have to use your best guess at what the most popular decks will be, but use published prior results to get a feel for what those decks might be. Try to make sure the fastest and slowest (approximately) of the tier 1 or 2 decks are present in your “gauntlet.” Problem areas get identified more quickly under extreme, rather than qualified, testing constraints.

2. Build the deck or decks you are considering playing in the tournament.

If one or more of these decks is one of the “gauntlet” decks, great, less work for you in this step. Whether or not to build and use sideboards depends upon where you are at in your understanding of the format. If you are just trying to figure out how the decks work and which one you like, sideboards aren’t necessary. If you know the basics of the format and have experience already with some of the matchups, adding sideboards will help your results. Test each matchup half unsideboarded and half sideboarded. In reality you play more with sideboarded decks that with unsideboarded, but since you might not yet know how to sideboard correctly, it’s best to play several game 1s to get an understanding of each matchup.

3. Play 4-6 games of your deck against the “Public Enemy Number 1” (a.k.a. “the Top Dog”) deck from the gauntlet.

There is usually a most popular deck in a given metagame. If there isn’t, just pick one of the ones that’s close, or test vs. the top 2 decks in this fashion.

I recommend alternating every 2 games or so between sides of the matchup. So if I play UW control the first 2 games against RDW, for the next 2 Paul plays UW and I play RDW, alternating play and draw each game. Being on both sides gives you better insight into what is going on, and makes it so noone has to be the designated crash test dummy playing only gauntlet decks all night.

4. If your deck is competitive against the top deck in the first 4-6 games, play an additional 4-6 games of that matchup (with sideboards if you have them).

What we’re accomplishing between steps 3 and 4 is to make sure our deck doesn’t get crushed by the top dog of the format. The top deck is often at the top because it is more powerful and more resilient than you think it is. That’s why you need to start there. Many times a new deck of mine will just not feel very competitive in these first 4 games and I’ll scrap it or rework it. The “feel” really is what’s important. I keep track of wins and losses, but that’s only one piece of the puzzle. Losing a close game that came down to a topdeck war late game is different from getting blown out because you didn’t have answers for the other deck’s threats.

I use the mulligan rule “7-6-6-5-5” when testing with non-combo decks. That means I mulligan to 6 if my 7 is bad, then I mulligan again with any hand I wouldn’t keep in a tournament, but when I mulligan again, I go to 6 cards, then to 5 cards, then to 5 cards again, before getting to 4. You want to make decisions as if you would get X-1 cards even when you actually will get X cards. This method sacrifices a bit of authenticity in the testing results in exchange for some consistency. Given our limited time to prepare, we want experiences that are closer to the mean rather than outliers. We don’t want to script the games or mull to 7 over and over, but “7-6-6-5-5” will help us get more “normal” games that give us a feel for the matchup.

5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 against the next best deck in the gauntlet.

It isn’t necessary that you scrap your deck after 4 bad games against any deck. As the deck you’re testing against becomes less “top dog” and more “part of the field,” you now have additional options when things take a turn for the worst. One option is to sideboard additional cards to fight this particular matchup. That’s usually an insufficient answer when having a lot of trouble against the Top Dog, because those decks tend to be so popular that you want more than a “salvageable” matchup. But against “the field” type decks, sideboarding to try to get up to 40 or 45% matchup equity is reasonable. Another option is to just accept and come to terms with a terrible matchup against that particular deck. Be hesitant to use this second option, but use it where the other matchups are looking strong and you don’t expect the bad matchup to be all that popular in the tournament.

6. After testing 10 game sets vs. the best 3-5 opposing decks, make changes to your deck and sideboard that address the problems you were encountering.

If you weren’t drawing enough land, add a land or two (be careful about small sample sizes, but trust your instincts regarding how many land you need in light of how games played out). If you had trouble with Planeswalkers, add cards you suspect will help against them, like more early creatures or additional Oblivion Rings, for example.

This may be the point at which you construct your sideboard for the first time. Place emphasis on what you felt were the weak spots, but keep in the back of the mind the matchups you didn’t get a chance to test. The pitfall to be avoided is building an “inbred” deck that beats only the 3 decks you tested against. The first way to avoid this problem is by testing against the top metagame decks rather than your friend’s own brew. The second way is by making yourself consciously acknowledge the aspects of the metagame you don’t have in front of you. I sometimes haven’t tested against Mono Red, for example, before a particular tournament because I didn’t have time. When I’m tweaking my deck, I need to make sure I maintain all the elements I believe are the underpinnings of how I intend to beat Mono Red.

7. After the changes, play another 4-10 games against the Top Dog.

You need to make sure your changes haven’t swung this critical matchup for your deck. You can’t really know this stuff with 4-10 games, but you need to try. Sometimes it makes sense to test 2 games by drawing a random hand as usual, then substituting out a random spell in that hand for a spell you need to try out. I would use this infrequently, but it beats playing 10 games and only drawing [card]Kor Firewalker[/card] once when all you wanted to test was whether you should bring in [card]Kor Firewalker[/card] against Valakut with [card]Pyroclasm[/card]s.

8. Go back to a problematic matchup and see if your attempted “solutions” are helping.

If things are looking ok at this point, and I’m out of preparation time, I am now ready to play the deck and feel confident about it. If you don’t have as much time as the other players, it’s hard to feel totally confident, but targeted and efficient playtesting will help.

9. With whatever additional time you have, just keep testing and tweaking against additional matchups.

Like I said above, I’m usually out of time after step 8 in my one-night preparation sessions. If you have extra time, great, use it. Make only small changes to address problems in fringe matchups.

–What if I want to play the “Top Dog”?

I would proceed in the same fashion, as if you were testing any other deck, by testing against the Top Dog (in this case a Mirror Match). Getting practice in the mirror match will be important. Of course you won’t be trying to get a feel for win/loss equity in those mirror match games; you should focus on learning what the important aspects of the matchup are. What seems to swing games from Win to Loss or vise versa? What cards in the opening hand seem to correlate to the wins? When you are tweaking the deck, minor tweaks are usually best.

You get equity with the best deck by a) playing it well, b) opponents being under-prepared, and (least importantly) c) your own tweaks you’ve added to the best deck. It might seem like Gerry T’s tweaks let him win with Caw Blade more than his opponents, but “a) playing it well” was the most important factor in his success with the deck, and “b) opponents being under-prepared” also gave him edge. His tweaks were good too, but you shouldn’t focus obsessively on changing a lot about existing decks that are proven to work well.

–Preparation that isn’t testing

That “eat a good breakfast” stuff you read is just common sense that doesn’t need to be expounded upon. Sure, do what you think helps you be comfortable and relaxed.

What I recommend is writing out your sideboarding “in and outs” for various matchups. If you discover there aren’t enough cards to take out in order to bring a certain card in, you might need to cut that card and use that slot for assistance in a different matchup. This stuff can be done in advance of your testing night or afterwards, or both.

Part of the last minute preparation might involve adjusting to new information about the metagame. Sometimes those Japanese Nationals results get posted, or you hear about a new deck that people created that you didn’t test against. My advice is to not overreact. For every “Elves in Berlin” moment where the metagame really has shifted, there are probably five “false alarms” like the time everyone thought the Japanese were going to play Allies because they were buying the singles from dealers. If you think the newcomer to the metagame is a bad matchup, your best strategy is still probably to stand pat and play the deck you intended to play. You might not get paired against the new deck, it might not be as bad a matchup as you might think, and, crucially, you probably don’t have a better second deck option prepared and ready to go at this late stage. You can add a sideboard card or two, but don’t overdo it at the expense of the matchups you tested.

–Final thoughts

I know that being a “Weekend Warrior” with kids, a job, a significant other, and/or other hobbies puts you and I at an inherent disadvantage in tournaments. I’ve played pro tours in the last year or two (which are half booster draft) sometimes having only drafted 4 or 5 times with the set. Opponents in those Pro Tours might have drafted the set 30 times. That sucks, but sometimes you don’t have a choice and aren’t willing to let your hobby become more than a weekend activity. Use your time efficiently and you can still post good results.

Figure out what about Magic Online works for you and what doesn’t. If you can’t stand building sealed decks online, try the method I describe above where you find someone else you can discuss potential builds with in person. If you don’t want to invest in digital cards at all, then don’t. I don’t own a single deck on Magic Online (besides Momir and Jhoira basic). It just hasn’t been practical for me to build up both a physical and a digital collection. I use Magic Online for some draft preparation, but I mostly use physical cards and a live opponent to get prep work done.

Showing up to Friday Night Magic is certainly a good way to meet some people to test with, but I would set aside time devoted to only testing, rather than entering the FNM tournament, goofing around, etc. and testing in between all of that. I tried above to outline a way to get this accomplished in only one evening away from your work/spouse/kids/whatever. Keep working at whatever method you choose and you’ll find that over time you get more out of your night or two of prep work than others are getting out of day after day of playing.

Good luck!

-Matt Sperling
mtg_law_etc on Twitter.

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