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CardShark Content - John Mourino (8/31/2005)

Ever wonder why it seems impossible to do well in a PTQ? Does it seem like achieving a top 8 is out of the question? Well, then this is the article for you! This is for medium level PTQ players looking to step their game up and start making some top 8s. If you are on the Pro Tour or consistently do well at lower level events, such as PTQs and Grand Prix, then you probably already know most of what I am about to say. However, if you are a newer player or have just started to play more competitively, and are wondering why you are always dropping by round 4 of your local PTQs, read on.

The truth is, playing the occasional pre-release and a few PTQs here and there is just not enough if you want to see improvement. Unless you are a savant, you have to dedicate a serious amount of time and effort if you want to step up and play the way you think you are capable of playing. Although there is a big time commitment, ultimately I find it to be enjoyable and relaxing. Sometimes it can be work, but for the most part, if you enjoy the company of your teammates and you know how to break up testing sessions with some good times and laughs, it’s not bad at all.

Rule 1: Form the team
In order to get better you are going to have to play with better players. Your casual group isn’t going to cut it. Try to find partners that are serious about the game, keep up with the latest tier 1 decks, and are playing the same format as you. Don’t underestimate the power of online sources because they help immensely, and I’m not talking about net-decking. Thousands of people post results all the time, explaining what they did wrong and right. It would be in your greatest interest to read these.

Rule 2: Choosing the Right Deck!
Do NOT change the decklists before you try them. That is the most common mistake I see when people are testing. If you see a 2nd place deck from your last tournament but you “don’t like” that card they are running four of, just put it in there anyway and play with it a little before you go changing the whole deck around. The people that have built, tested, and played the deck to good results know better than you. Do not think that you have the best tech without even trying the original version first. Chances are the card you are already considering has already been tested and discarded. So, not only are you wasting your time, but also, you might mistakenly change the card due to an oversight and have a sub optimal list for your next tourney.

The next most common mistake people make is testing the deck without sideboarding. I am sure you have read this before, but I feel I have to reiterate that more than half or your games will be played post-sideboard. If you want to win, don’t test the main deck to death and then throw all your color hosers in your board during the car ride to the tournament. The player that knows the post-sideboard match ups will always have a HUGE advantage over the unprepared player. Here's a good example:

ProActive Vs. Reactive Sideboarding:
Players sometimes don’t realize that the sideboard doesn’t always have to be about answers. For example, siding in more aggressive cards like Genju of the Spires
Genju of the Spires
Genju of the SpiresSet: Betrayers of Kamigawa
Cost:
1
Color:
Red
Type:
Enchant Mountain
Rarity:
U
Number:
105
Artist:
Joel Thomas
Text:
2: Enchanted Mountain becomes a 6/1 red Spirit creature until end of turn. It's still a land. When enchanted Mountain is put into a graveyard, you may return Genju of the Spires from your graveyard to your hand.
against the control decks can be a better answer than siding in something like Hero’s Demise for their big creatures. Control decks rarely have small blockers (besides Sakura-Tribe Elder
Sakura-Tribe Elder
Sakura-Tribe ElderSet: Commander
Cost:
2
Color:
Green
Type:
Creature
Sub Type:
Snake Shaman
Rarity:
C
Number:
169
Artist:
Carl Critchlow
Power:
1
Toughness:
1
Text:
Sacrifice Sakura-Tribe Elder: Search your library for a basic land card, put that card onto the battlefield tapped, then shuffle your library.
of course), and Genju of the Spires
Genju of the Spires
Genju of the SpiresSet: Betrayers of Kamigawa
Cost:
1
Color:
Red
Type:
Enchant Mountain
Rarity:
U
Number:
105
Artist:
Joel Thomas
Text:
2: Enchanted Mountain becomes a 6/1 red Spirit creature until end of turn. It's still a land. When enchanted Mountain is put into a graveyard, you may return Genju of the Spires from your graveyard to your hand.
punishes players who play with only a small amount of blockers. Siding in Genju of the Spires
Genju of the Spires
Genju of the SpiresSet: Betrayers of Kamigawa
Cost:
1
Color:
Red
Type:
Enchant Mountain
Rarity:
U
Number:
105
Artist:
Joel Thomas
Text:
2: Enchanted Mountain becomes a 6/1 red Spirit creature until end of turn. It's still a land. When enchanted Mountain is put into a graveyard, you may return Genju of the Spires from your graveyard to your hand.
, a Proactive move, will aid you more than siding in reactive answers like Hero’s Demise.

Rule 3: You don’t always lose to bad luck

I have heard every bad beat story out there. It’s not bad luck every time you lose. As a matter of fact, it’s not bad luck the majority of the time either. Face it, live with it, cook it breakfast, and deal with it. You might not even know that you made mistakes, but you probably did. When you lose, there is a reason other than land screw or land flood. That part of the game happens to everyone. The difference between the good players and the bad players is that they win some of those games anyway, or they just win the other two games of the match. In the long run, you can only blame luck so much. Sure, there will be some days where you caught a rough match up or drew poorly one too many times. If you consistently aren’t doing well though, you can be pretty sure it’s your own fault.

Rule 4: Be Persistent

Even if you hate the format, and are sick of losing, just remember that you have to get some beatings before you can administer some. Nobody bursts onto the PTQ scene and starts tearing everyone up. It takes time, dedication and determination. I know some people that are qualified that I’m surprised can tie their own shoes. No matter how bad you think you are now, there are people out there that are worse and people that will never improve. You will get better.

Step 5: Don’t believe everything you read

Every day there are tons of articles on the Internet to read. SOME of these articles have useful information and some of them are complete and utter trash. Generally, you have to figure out for yourself which is which. But just remember this: everything on the net isn’t true. Take everything you read with a grain of salt.

Step 6: Building your deck

Most of the newer players I see out there make several deck building mistakes with every deck that they don’t copy card for card. I am not necessarily talking about card choices, although that is part of it, but rather basic deck building concepts. I think most people reading this know what a mana curve is and probably use it while drafting or constructing their limited deck. However, a lot of the time, I see people completely ignore the concept while building decks for constructed.

Generally, you want to use the most inexpensive spells available to achieve the desired effect. Everyone knows that, but sometimes you need to really think about a mana curve before choosing what spells to include. When you're building a constructed deck, it should be laid out the same way as a limited deck in order to help you visualize where the curve peaks and where it breaks. Right now in Standard, for example, you might want to build a U/W control deck. You're playing white so you will probably want access to Wrath of God
Wrath of God
Wrath of GodSet: Revised Edition
Cost:
4
Color:
White
Type:
Sorcery
Rarity:
R
Artist:
Quinton Hoover
Text:
All creatures in play are buried.
, right? How about some card drawing? Ok, throw some Sift
Sift
SiftSet: Stronghold
Cost:
4
Color:
Blue
Type:
Sorcery
Rarity:
C
Number:
42
Artist:
Pete Venters
Text:
Draw three cards, then choose and discard a card.
s in there too. Need more? Alright, let’s try Thieving Magpie
Thieving Magpie
Thieving MagpieSet: Urza's Destiny
Cost:
4
Color:
Blue
Type:
Creature
Sub Type:
Bird
Rarity:
U
Number:
49
Artist:
Una Fricker
Power:
1
Toughness:
3
Text:
Flying Whenever Thieving Magpie deals damage to one of your opponents, you draw a card.
. Counters? Well Rewind
Rewind
RewindSet: Urza's Saga
Cost:
4
Color:
Blue
Type:
Instant
Rarity:
C
Number:
93
Artist:
Carl Critchlow
Text:
Counter target spell. Untap up to four lands.
is probably the best hard counter available right now... This is the way I see people build decks! Did they just realize that every card they named, although not overcosted or bad per se, costs the same amount of mana? If you load your deck with 16 four drops, you will probably be sitting around for the first 3 turns playing lands and getting hit by creatures. When you finally do hit 4 lands, you will have so many 4 casting cost options available that you will never be able cast all of them.

So what is the solution? Well actually, there are a few ways to fix the problem. It might be as simple as just taking out some of those four drops and adding some less expensive spells so your draws are smoother. That is obvious, though. Maybe a less conventional way around the problem is to play some mana acceleration, such as the Signets in Ravnica. Four Signets added to that same deck could improve the draws so much you might not believe it. It allows you to start casting those spells a turn earlier, and ramps it up so that by turn 5 you can actually cast a 4cc spell and have Mana Leak
Mana Leak
Mana LeakSet: Stronghold
Cost:
2
Color:
Blue
Type:
Instant
Rarity:
C
Number:
36
Artist:
Christopher Rush
Text:
Counter target spell unless its caster pays an additional 3.
mana available to back it up. So in the same scenario as above, it could instead be turn 3 Sift
Sift
SiftSet: Stronghold
Cost:
4
Color:
Blue
Type:
Sorcery
Rarity:
C
Number:
42
Artist:
Pete Venters
Text:
Draw three cards, then choose and discard a card.
and turn 4 Wrath of God
Wrath of God
Wrath of GodSet: Revised Edition
Cost:
4
Color:
White
Type:
Sorcery
Rarity:
R
Artist:
Quinton Hoover
Text:
All creatures in play are buried.
, which is infinitely better.


It goes without saying, then, that you can’t play bad cards. And by bad I don’t mean Twist Allegiance
Twist Allegiance
Twist AllegianceSet: Betrayers of Kamigawa
Cost:
7
Color:
Red
Type:
Sorcery
Rarity:
R
Number:
120
Artist:
Wayne Reynolds
Text:
You and target opponent each gain control of all creatures the other controls until end of turn. Untap those creatures. Those creatures gain haste until end of turn.
in Type 2. I just mean cards that aren’t powerful enough or are too narrow to merit inclusion. Even if the synergy is good with other cards you are playing, or it answers a specific threat that you are worried about, it still might not be worth the slot in a tight deck list. Often, you will have to make excruciating cuts to your final deck list that are really tough to live with. I have debated with myself at times for hours over 1 card in the sideboard of my deck. That’s how important every card actually is. It might seem insignificant, but believe me when I tell you, EVERY card in your deck and your sideboard matters… a lot.


Relax and take notes (play testing for profit)

When you play test, write something down. If you are playing hundreds of games, do you honestly think that you will remember the details? Me neither. Still, I am always seeing people endlessly play testing the same match up pre-sideboard and not writing anything. At least write down how many games you played and what the end results were. A lot of times, people will play the match up in question just to get a feel for who should win. However, at times it can really feel like a deck should have an advantage until you sit down at the end of a testing session and realize that the records show the opposite. If you are only testing a small amount of games (which, in my opinion, would be somewhere around 20 or less), write down specific notes about land screw, misplays, bad draws or even just games that were really close.

Write down specific cards that over or under-performed when they were cast. And for the love of God man, write down the deck list you were playing. It’s hard to get a feel for what deck is winning more when both of the decks have changed significantly. Also, it might help you get a better feel for what cards impact which match ups.

Have a specific plan when you are testing. Make sure you have a decent gauntlet that includes all the most popular decks you expect to face, and make sure that you test all of those decks at least against the deck you are planning to play. Preferably, you would be able to test a few games with those decks against one another, but sometimes there isn’t time for that. To get a real feel for the format, though, I prefer to play games with the decks that I think will be popular. You can get a much better idea of what that deck’s strengths and weaknesses are by being the player on the other side of the table. The information you learn by playing with, as opposed to only against, the other decks will help you to understand how to beat them.

Don’t waste too much time testing against decks that have not been established. For example, your friend has this really great new deck and you just can’t seem to beat it. Will that deck be able to stand up to the rest of the decks in the format? Well, you can’t be sure. But, generally, the longer a format has been around, the less likely a new archetype is to emerge. Most of the time, the deck will be only tier 2 and not able to handle 1 or more of the popular archetypes in the format. Don’t worry about it. Don’t spend time playing that match up in order to beat the few people playing it. Most likely they will get knocked out of the tournament in the first few rounds anyway. Just focus on the decks that matter. And by that, I mean the decks that you are almost sure to face.

I’d like to give a quick explanation of the tier levels. I’m sure that many times when you are reading Magic articles, you will see that most people feel “X deck is tier 1” and “X deck is tier 2”, but what does that mean anyway? Well basically, tier 1 are the most powerful and established decks available. You will constantly see them top-8ing and winning tournaments, and they have very strong strategies that perform well against the other decks in the format. They may have a bad matchup here or there, but it won't usually be too lopsided. They perform consistently against the other tier 1 decks, and will usually crush any strange rogue decks that aren’t specifically out to beat them.

Tier 2 is generally a pretty solid deck that has a powerful set of cards, but doesn’t quite have what it takes to make tier 1. It might have a really bad match up against one of the most popular decks in the format, or it might be missing one key card that would put the deck over the top. Sometimes Tier 2 decks will show up in top 8s, but it will rarely, if ever, win them. Usually they got there by getting good match ups the whole tournament. If one deck starts to become really powerful and almost everyone in the field is playing it, a tier 2 deck (or a metagame deck), can be acceptable to play due to its good chance of beating the most popular deck. A good example of this was when Ravager Affinity was still legal to play. Most of the metagame consisted of Ravager Affinity itself or some deck geared to beat Ravager Affinity.

If you are not testing right, not building your deck right, or not playing the best deck for the field, then you don’t even have to worry about actually playing. You're already at a severe disadvantage before you even sit down. Once you get the deck right, though, the next step is to…


Stop messing up so much

This is probably the hardest part. You won’t be good until you stop making so many mistakes. Notice that I didn’t say 'stop making mistakes'. It’s actually impossible to not make play errors. The best players in the world make mistakes from time to time – just not anywhere near as many as the bad players. Being good is seeing and making the best play at the time. There is always a best play. Every play you can make has an outcome that you hope will be positive. Even when it seems like two different plays will yield the same outcome, there is always one option that is just better than the other. You might not realize it, but believe me, it’s true.

What cards are left in your deck? What is the probability of drawing the card you need next turn? What can your opponent have in his hand? These are all questions I’m sure you ask yourself sometimes. But, do you base your plays around these probabilities? It’s important to understand the probabilities of drawing certain cards or your opponent having certain cards. Many times in constructed PTQs, you can pretty much name the entire contents of your opponent's deck card for card (give or take 1 or 2.) Is he playing like he has that Mana Leak
Mana Leak
Mana LeakSet: Stronghold
Cost:
2
Color:
Blue
Type:
Instant
Rarity:
C
Number:
36
Artist:
Christopher Rush
Text:
Counter target spell unless its caster pays an additional 3.
? If you make a certain play, how many cards could your opponent possibly have that could punish you for it? Can you play around that/those card(s)? These are things you should know. Winning in Magic is sometimes about taking risks. Not just any risks, though – calculated risks. Always play the odds.

Always think about what ways you have to win, and not what ways you can survive. Sometimes I see players just trying to live another turn, and not giving any thought to how they will actually win the game. Use all your resources, including your life total, to keep yourself in a position to win. That is why you don’t start chump blocking too early. I see this way too much in weaker players. Life is not generally as important as board position or cards, unless it gets low enough that you have to simply stay alive. This is where the concept of tempo comes from. When you can out-tempo your opponent, you can keep him or her on the defensive from an early point in the game so they have to preserve their life instead of doing other things like developing their board the way they would want, or drawing extra cards. Sometimes you can wreck their board while still deploying threats, costing them even more time. Cards like Uktabi Orangutan
Uktabi Orangutan
Uktabi OrangutanSet: Classic Sixth Edition
Cost:
3
Color:
Green
Type:
Creature
Sub Type:
Ape
Rarity:
U
Number:
260
Artist:
Una Fricker
Power:
2
Toughness:
2
Text:
When Uktabi Orangutan comes into play, destroy target artifact.
or Mystic Snake
Mystic Snake
Mystic SnakeSet: Apocalypse
Cost:
4
Color:
Multicolor
Type:
Creature
Sub Type:
Snake
Rarity:
R
Number:
112
Artist:
Daren Bader
Power:
2
Toughness:
2
Text:
You may play Mystic Snake any time you could play an instant. When Mystic Snake comes into play, counter target spell.
were good for that kind of strategy. When you can make an MBC deck tutor for a creature kill spell instead of a win condition, you have done your job right. Life = time. Try not to worry too much about it until you are forced to.

Practice these things and stop blaming luck, and I guarantee you will be on the road to the top. It’s a long road, and everyone is still on their way – just at different points.


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