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I have a question I’d like you to consider: how much faith do you have in your playtest partners? Think about your answer for a bit, and make sure you’re not lying to yourself. I’m asking because I used to believe that I had complete faith in my playtesting partners. Now I really do have that faith, and realize that while I always believed my teammates were strong players and deck builders, I did not have complete faith in them, and that has hindered my personal preparations for tournaments in the past. Let me explain just what I’m talking about.
Over the last couple of years as I really got serious about playing in tournaments, my playtest circle has varied quite a bit. Some players have come and gone, sometimes I was the one coming and going, but throughout that time the real heart of my playtesting circle has revolved around two absolutely amazing friends and players: Troy Skinner and Travis Cullum. They are both solid players, and I’ve lost count of how many PTQ Top 8’s they have between them. Throughout the time I’ve been working with them, I’ve always had confidence in their abilities as players and deck builders. Troy is a solid all-around player, and always seems to hear about the upcoming tech, decks, and trends in the metagame before they become public knowledge on the Internet. Travis is the closest person I know to being a definitive beatdown expert. I know some people feel that beatdown decks require less skill to play, but Travis has a supernatural feel for the flow of aggression, and I’ve seen him win games with Sligh decks from positions that 90% of us would lose from, time and again. If anybody had ever asked me if I had faith in my playtesting partners, I would have said I had total faith – I believed they were 100% solid.
However, there was an area where my faith was lacking. I suppose this is some indication that I have some amount of control freak or perfectionist in me, but when it came to understanding the big picture of the metagame, I had to see everything with my own two eyes. When preparing for an upcoming season of Extended, it wasn’t good enough to hear from someone else that Trix beats Sligh: I had to test out that matchup myself. I needed to see it happen to believe it. I had to know what relative strengths and weaknesses were revealed as the two decks battled each other, and why the matchup was in one deck’s favor. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe that my teammates were making the correct plays or had the correct builds for the decks – I just had this need to see and understand everything for myself. It was like telling a five year-old kid that a fence was electrified. Sure, he doesn’t disbelieve that what you told him about the fence is true, but still, he’s going to touch it when you’re not looking – real belief has to be zapped in first-hand.
Fast forward to the Invasion Block Constructed PTQ season. While many players were struggling to work out the answer to the latest constructed format, I was scrambling to keep up with a rapidly changing environment in my career. My once prosperous company of over 30 employees was not teetering on the brink of going out of business, with the 8 remaining employees scrambling to keep the company running. Up until that time, I had been playing Magic pretty regularly: Monday night playtesting at my house, Tuesday night occasional random games at the Game Shop in Kalamazoo, Thursday night playtesting in Ann Arbor, tournaments nearly every weekend. By the time IBC season started, however, playtesting was a luxury, an extravagant expenditure of time spent that I could no longer afford. I didn’t give up Magic during that time, and in fact I probably enjoyed Magic tournaments even more, as I found it comforting to still be able to head off to the occasional Magic tournament and almost always do reasonably well, when everything else seemed so unstable at the time. However, the new constraints on my time forced me to change the way I prepared for a tournament. I was no longer able to try my hand at every matchup possible in the format. If I was going to compete in Magic tournaments, I had to trust in my teammates to break down the format and learn its intricacies without my help. I had so little time to devote to Magic, that what practice time I did have I had to use to gain some familiarity with a deck that a teammate told me was good, as I didn’t have the time to find out for myself which decks were good.
Troy in particular was a huge help to me during the IBC season. The decks I took to tournaments were decks that he had done the homework on and had told me were solid. My contribution was merely to try to show up for a practice, get handed a deck by Troy, and try to become familiar enough with it to play it reasonably well at a tournament. The results I got from this weren’t stellar, but a guy who doesn’t put in any work on a format has to be happy with a Grand Prix Trial win, a PTQ Top 8, and some amateur cash from placing 33rd at a Grand Prix.
So what’s the point of all this? The point is, I realized that when I did have more time to prepare for a constructed format, I could make more efficient use of it. I learned that there was no point in learning the intricacies of the matchup between Deck A and Deck B if I never ended up playing either of those decks. Complete understanding of the metagame is not necessary to success in that metagame, and in fact, pursuit of that level of understanding is a distraction and a waste of practice time. Besides, is it even possible for one player to completely understand every nuance of a particular format? I have my doubts – Magic is much too big, with far too many possibilities. That is why Magic players band together in teams instead of pairs – there’s just too much work to be done.
From here on out I’m trimming the fat on my playtesting time. If Travis tells me that Deck A beats Deck B 60% of the time, fine – I don’t need to see the matchup in action unless I decide to work on Deck A or Deck B for an upcoming tournament. I’m going to move on to the phase of preparation that involves fine-tuning my deck of choice much earlier than before, because I won’t have to see every matchup played out first. My teammates are solid players, and I know I can trust in their results.
I know some of you out there are thinking to yourself “Yeah, but I enjoy exploring the whole metagame.” Before the recent IBC season, I probably would have thought that too if I were reading this article. Unfortunately folks, that just isn’t viable anymore. Wizards really is getting better at producing interesting card sets and making the right decisions to balance out the formats. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the Extended edition of Swimming with Sharks at www.card-shark.com/metagame. There are a full 20 decks there, all perfectly viable for the current Extended format and recently played at Pro-Tour: New Orleans by Magic’s finest players. Are you going to personally test out all 190 possible matchups, playing 10 games with sideboards and 10 games without? That would be an impressive feat just to understand the metagame as it was on November 4th, let alone what it will be like as players start to adjust and innovate armed with the knowledge of what went down in New Orleans. Now more than ever it is important to have a solid team of Magic players working to crack a format, and to understand that to make it all work for you, you have to have absolute faith in your teammates.
I hope this little explanation helps you to make more efficient use of your own playtesting time. More importantly, I hope it helps you to realize just how important your teammates are for your own success. Even if you think you’re the best player on your team, try to remember that you didn’t get there by yourself, and you’d be dead in the water without your partners. Besides, when all is said and done, who’s going to remember your biggest Magic accomplishments other than you and your friends?
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