For most people entering the competitive Magic scene, the first goal is to Top 8 a premier event (PTQ, Regionals, 5K). Once you’ve made the Top 8 a few times, you want to move on to the next level; it’s time to qualify. You practice the PTQ format (and the draft format for Sealed PTQ top8s) until you know it inside and out. You’re bringing the tech to this tournament that no one else has and you’re ready to win it. The top8 rolls around and you’re feeling in it. All that stands in your way is 3 more rounds of Magic and you know you are better and more prepared than the rest.
You get there.
You’ve won your PTQ…
While a huge portion of strategy articles are based on how to qualify for the Pro Tour, it is (at the very least) equally important to know what to do when you get there. For some, merely getting to the Pro Tour is enough. You get a free plane flight, have a blast at the tournament, and then just go back to grinding PTQs and trying to get back to the Pro Tour. However, many players aren’t content. Once you get a taste, you want a mouthful.
The problem is, Pro Tours are called Pro Tours for a reason. They’re hard! The vast majority of the people in the room worked just as hard as you trying to get there, and they are not going to go down easy. Not every player at a Pro Tour will be LSV, but you can expect them to be more competent than the people you beat to get there. They will play solid decks, play tight Magic, and know the basics of drafting.
The only way to get an edge on these players is to put in more work than them. I didn’t do a very good job of this at my first big event.
The first professional event I ever qualified for was Nationals in 2007. I qualified for the Magic Scholarship Series Champs, which was held at the same place at the same time, so I was super excited, and had a huge incentive to understand the Standard format. I would play day one of Nats, and if I didn’t do well just drop and play the Scholarship Series the next day. I knew I wanted to test a lot, but I didn’t know how. Because it was my first big event I really didn’t know how to grind through testing.
I had a friend who had also qualified for MSS champs, so we tested some. We discussed the idea of making a gauntlet and battling all the decks against each other, but never managed to actually do it. We put in some testing with the decks we liked, but didn’t put in nearly enough.
This was where I learned my first lesson. A two-person testing group doesn’t work well unless both people are VERY motivated. The two will have to make a ton of decks and then play a ton of Magic to obtain an accurate understanding of the format. The more people you have, the less each individual will have to do and the more you can get done overall. Also, the more minds you have thinking about the format and its intricacies, the more ideas you will be able to come up with and/or shoot down.
Getting a good central group to playtest is huge. While Northern California may be on the high end, most areas have a good core of solid players. Use them. Create a group of people who you trust and work with them on the format. Proxy up the gauntlet decks and grind out games with them. Then make some brews with your new understandings of the major decks and test them too. Then, play whatever deck does best in your testing. This sounds simple, but it really is a solid way to get some solid testing done. At this point, I had some vague idea of what I liked, but mainly just had various lists brewed up. Unfortunately, “this point” was time for the tournament. I got on my flight to Baltimore without a clue what was going on. I finally decided on a deck and was ready to get cards. I went out to find my friends to borrow cards. Unfortunately, it was then that I realized that this wasn’t a local PTQ. The majority of the people I usually counted on for cards weren’t there. Obviously, this left me in an awkward situation. I ended up borrowing a Project X deck, simply because it was the only thing I had access to. Coincidentally, Project X was a great choice. The very popular Blink decks didn’t have much disruption and couldn’t really handle the fast combo deck. Unfortunately, due to lack of experience with the deck, I only managed to 3-2 the Constructed portion.
It was now time for draft. I sat down at the draft table, ready to go. I hadn’t practiced drafting as much as I should have, but I did have a basic understanding of the format. The judge calling the draft told everyone to count the first pack face down and make sure it had fifteen cards (packs had fifteen cards in the good old days). I happily obliged. One, two, three, “JUDGE, my pack is upside down.” It turned out that was not an accident. For professional events, judges stamp every card in the pack so that you can’t cheat by adding cards to your pool. Because of this, the cards are not hidden in booster packs. Instead, the cards are simply facing opposite directions. When you sit down at the table, the top card of the pack will be facing down, while every other card will be facing up. When the judge tells you to count the pack, flip the pack over, and start counting. When you get to the bottom card, flip it really fast so that you can’t see it. You won’t get disqualified if you accidentally see the color or something, but do your best.
One thing I don’t understand about the upside down packs is the lack of a Judge announcement before these drafts. Judges seem to assume that players are familiar with the way these drafts are run even though everyone has to go through a first professional draft at one time or another. It would prevent a lot of embarrassment if the judge calling the draft would simply explain the way the packs are made during the other pre-draft announcements.
Because I was so flustered from my embarrassing judge call, I wasn’t very ready when the judge said I had ten seconds to make my pick. Ah, the clock, how I hate thee. While I had drafted before, I hadn’t done it with a loud voice yelling at me to pick faster. I made almost every tough pick wrong due to the pressure from the judge, and ended up with a very poor draft deck. If you haven’t drafted without a clock before, practice. Ask your local store owner to do a few called drafts so that you get a feel for the cadence. For those of you wondering, Magic Online drafts don’t count as timed drafts. For starters, the cadence is a lot slower. Second of all, it is very different to see a clock ticking in the comfort of your home than to have someone yell at you to pick in a large tournament hall. While it doesn’t take too long to get used to time drafts, it is huge that your first timed draft isn’t at a major event. Don’t embarrass yourself like I did.
During play, I managed to take a round with my Herd Gnarr/Nacatl War-Pride combo before getting my third loss in round seven. At this point, I wasn’t going to stay in Nationals even if I won my last round. I dropped from Nats before day two, ready to play in MSS champs. This was yet another mistake. While it wasn’t necessarily a mistake to drop from Nats because MSS had such better value, it was a mistake to drop before finishing my last round. Playing Magic at a professional event is a blessing and dropping before you finish all the rounds you are allowed to means you aren’t taking full advantage of the opportunity.
Since I was now more comfortable with the Project X deck and liked it in the metagame, I asked my friend if I could borrow it again for MSS champs. Unfortunately, he needed it back for a side event. Thus, I had to scramble to get a deck together. I figured Dredge was probably a good call since it could attack the Blink decks in the same way Project X did (and I had access to the cards for it). Unfortunately, I didn’t really have time to tune the list, and just played what came off the top of my head. Unsurprisingly, with a combo deck like Dredge, doing this led to disaster. I correctly predicted the Blink-heavy metagame and theoretically had a good matchup, but the deck was so untuned that I still lost to it. A well timed Venser on a Dread Return was enough to cripple the deck. My deck was untuned enough that it couldn’t even beat the small amount of disruption the Blink deck offered. Do NOT play a last second brew unless you are sure it’s actually good. If you have no other choice, grind games with it ASAP and make sure it’s tuned enough to be passable.
Card availability is a bigger problem at events you have to travel to attend. Bringing every possible card you might need is tedious if you’re leaving the country; and borrowing becomes a lot more difficult when you don’t know many people at the event. There are a few solutions to this: Firstly, plan ahead. If you are going to a Standard tournament, ask your friends for the major Standard staples before you embark on your trip. Secondly, bite the bullet. You should be playing the exact 75 you want to play at a Pro Tour or at Nats. At a PTQ, there is some argument that your expected value might be low enough that it is not worth buying a super expensive card that is not crucial for your deck. At a major event, this argument doesn’t apply. If you have to buy all 75, do it. Don’t put your testing to waste: play the 75 that your testing revealed was best.
When I went to Nationals, I did a good job of limiting my chances of winning. I guaranteed that my hard work testing for Regionals was going to reap no rewards. I hadn’t tested nearly enough, and didn’t have access to the cards for the deck I wanted. I didn’t know the draft format very well and certainly wasn’t ready for a called draft. Don’t be me! Be prepared before your first big event. If you prepare and do well, you won’t have to go back to grinding. Until next time, get there, and stay there.