How to Prepare for an MtG Pro Tour - Massdrop East / West: Article #1
Hey everybody, I’m Benjamin Weitz. This is my first article for Massdrop, and I’m going to try and give you a little inside peek at how we do things on Massdrop East/West. Specifically, I’m going to tell you about how we test for Pro Tours, the most important tournament series for our team. Developing all-new decks for Constructed and figuring out how to draft the new set are very difficult tasks, and there simply isn’t enough time in the weeks prior to the Pro Tour to perform them perfectly. Our approach isn’t flawless, but I think we have a pretty good system. Our testing is a lot more distributed and spaced out than other Pro teams who basically lock themselves in a room for two weeks in hopes of breaking the format. I think our timetable is a better model for aspiring players who have qualified for their first few Pro Tours. If you manage to qualify for a Pro Tour, I hope that this article can help you prepare for it efficiently.
Before we get into our exact testing timeline, let me introduce you to some of the infrastructure that Massdrop East/West uses to make our lives easier. For starters, we use a Facebook group and Google sheets for administrative tasks like voting in new members, arranging housing, and coordinating schedules for when we actually travel to the Pro Tour. We also use two Facebook group chats: one for important information, and one for spam. I’d like to say that they always stay separate and no spam ever gets posted in the main chat, but we are only human and we like to talk to each other so inevitably random discussions happen, but we try to keep it to a minimum. For recording important testing information, we use a forum service called Basecamp. On Basecamp, we can easily create discussion threads for specific decks, cards, or interactions. We also use it to store and organize decklists. It is pretty useful and I would recommend it for anyone trying to organize such information. Finally, one of the members of our team used his web development skills to create a very modest webpage that we use to easily rank the cards for Limited.
1. Full Spoiler Released
Once the full spoiler is revealed, our team goes into full-on brewing mode. We try to identify several key things: individual cards from the new set which are extremely powerful, strategies or themes that seem designed for Constructed, and specific interactions that are very strong. As an example, for the last Pro Tour some of our very first decks were a rough draft of an Aetherworks Marvel deck, a RW vehicles deck, and a Panharmonicon deck. It was clear that Aetherworks Marvel was an extremely powerful card, just as it was clear that there are a bunch of cards that work well together with vehicles and probably all synergize in the same deck. Finally, we noticed that Panharmonicon worked specifically very well with Cloudblazer, and unlocked an infinite combo with Eldrazi Displacer and Drowner of Hope, already good Magic cards.
A few hours after the spoiler is released, several members of our team have already brewed up first iterations of decks to try, especially myself. Spoiler season is like torture to me, because I see all these sweet new cards I want to build a deck with, but I can’t do it because not every card is available. I know any deck I build could be missing a sweet common or uncommon that fits perfectly, so I try not to get ahead of myself. Once we have our brews assembled, we simply try to play a huge number of games. We initially only play pre-sideboarded games, just to get a feel for the base interactions of the new sets and the power level of the new cards. We make some very, very bad decks early on. I've included one decklist I found on my computer at the end of this article. Almost everything is horrible, and it takes a long time and a lot of work to converge to a decent deck. During this period our main goal is to just internalize what cards are good and what interactions are strong. During early testing for Pro Tour Kaladesh, two lessons we learned were that instant speed removal was required because of Smuggler’s Copter, and that the aggressive decks were very fast and punishing, also because of Smuggler’s Copter.
Our Limited preparation is done by ranking all the commons and uncommons in the new set, even before playing with the cards. This gives us a baseline expectation for the cards, and enables us to highlight which cards under- or over-perform after actually playing with them. We think that it is useful to have a record of our initial impressions of the cards, so that later we can check and see if everyone is more or less converging to the same place or if people continue to have differing opinions. As an example, I looked back to see where I put Renegade Freighter for our initial rankings. I had it below Filigree Familiar, Ballista Charger, Metalspinner’s Puzzleknot, and a bunch of other cards that are way, way worse than the train. By the time the Pro Tour rolled around, almost all of us thought the Freighter was really good, and this helped us conclude that Freighter was the best common.
2. Draft Camp and the First SCG Event
By the time we get to Release Weekend, our team usually has a pretty good understanding of what the new format is going to look like, what cards are likely to be good, and what synergies are on the cusp of making it to the big time. This weekend is when the first major tournament of the same format as the Pro Tour occurs, and it serves as a good indicator for whether or not we are correct in our ideas about the format. If we see a lot of decks playing the cards and strategies we think are good, then we can feel confident in our read on the format. If the SCG event has some crazy decks we don’t expect, then we try and reevaluate our views. Are we wrong, or have other people just not figured out what we figured out? It is quite difficult to distinguish between these two cases, and we don’t always get it right. Once we’ve resolved this quandary to the best of our abilities, it is time to tune our decks and aim them for that specific metagame. Choices like building our sideboards, which removal spells or counterspells to play, and how many two-drops we should have in our decks. At this point we start to really strenuously test specific matchups and try to figure out how to fix bad ones. We want to make sure our deck performs well against whatever the most popular SCG decks are, if possible.
For Limited, this weekend is the time that most of our team members participate in a Draft Camp. At Draft Camp, we get together with our local friends, grinders, and other excellent Magic players and sit down and draft for ten hours straight, two days in a row. We try and cram in as much drafting experience this weekend as possible, since it is pretty difficult to coordinate a full draft of Pro Tour-caliber players more than once. Because our team is so data-driven (thanks Alexander Majlaton), we keep track of all the winning percentages of each color and each color combination. We have a fancy spreadsheet template to help with this, and we keep pictures of our decks in our forums. This helps inform our final evaluation of the Limited format when we try and decide if there are stronger colors, if everything is roughly fine, or if there are any colors that are just flat-out unplayable (I’m looking at you, Green in Battle For Zendikar). But the best part about this weekend isn’t just testing for the Pro Tour, it is simply super fun to just hang out and draft with good friends. Draft Camp is the biggest thing I look forward to every Pro Tour. Playing a Magic marathon with your friends is just so fun, even if at the end I am totally exhausted.
3. The Limited Grand Prix and the Second SCG Event
Not much really changes for our Constructed testing after the second SCG event. The results of the second event are usually pretty similar to the first, and it serves as yet another sanity check for us on how we perceive the metagame. It can be very stressful to wait for the results if we have a deck we think is very good (like, broken-level good) and we are just hoping that nobody has found it for the SCG. When we built the Thopter deck for Pro Tour: Magic Origins we were constantly refreshing the SCG results and checking all the Magic Online Daily events in a paranoid frenzy. We also feel nervous if we haven’t found any deck that we feel is better than the top performing SCG decks. Everyone has access to the SCG decks, so we don’t have much of an edge if we don’t have anything better than those. This has happened a few times, and the time that sticks out the most in my memory is Pro Tour: Battle For Zendikar. We tested a ton, tried a million different things, but in the end we didn’t find anything better than Dark Jeskai and GW midrange, pretty much the exact same decks that were doing well at the SCG. I felt pretty bad going into that Pro Tour because I figured that everyone would be gunning for those decks, but it turned out that nobody else had really broken it either, so everyone was playing more or less the same decks.
We practice Limited this week by just playing the Grand Prix tournament. Our heavy Draft practice the previous week can really pay off at this tournament, as we have done far more drafts than the vast majority of the participants. Unfortunately to get to the Draft portion, first we need to get past the Sealed portion. I can’t usually play in the Prerelease, so this is often my first exposure to the new Sealed format. A lot of the lessons learned in Draft stay true, but you have to be a bit careful and realize when they can lead you astray. Certain synergy decks are a lot weaker in Sealed than Draft, and certain color pairs may go from bad to good or vice-versa. Some Pro teams like to skip this Grand Prix and just focus on testing for the Pro Tour, but I think that this tournament is just too high-value to skip. We have more of an advantage over the rest of the field for this tournament than basically any other tournament in the season, and on top of that it serves as fine preparation for the Pro Tour.
4. The Night Before the Pro Tour
Over the course of the last few days leading up to the Pro Tour, we all meet in person and have a big Limited meeting each day where we discuss all our thoughts on the format. First, we discuss all the archetypes and color pairs and talk about the strengths and weaknesses of each. We talk about what the key commons and uncommons for each archetype are, and what a good example of each archetype looks like. Second, we take a full set of the new commons and uncommons, lay them out by color, and categorize the cards by tier. We try not to get too nitty gritty and exactly rank all the cards, but we want to at least determine which groups of cards are significantly better than others. We also do a final ranking of all the best commons and uncommons of each color, and lastly do a ranking of the rares and mythics. These meetings are held over the course of multiple days, since each part can last up to three hours or more, if our moderator is slacking. These meetings are extremely helpful, especially for me. Hearing others’ opinions, and more importantly their reasoning behind those opinions, really helps me determine what my goals should be going into each draft. You also get to hear about people playing cards that you just haven’t had a chance to try out yet. For example, at our last Limited meeting we eventually discussed the card Paradoxical Outcome. I assumed it was just unplayable in Limited as it is a very strange card, but my then-teammate Seth Manfield said that he had played with the card and actually found it pretty good. In my first draft at the Pro Tour, I ended up with a very late Paradoxical Outcome in exactly the kind of deck he had said it overperformed. I trusted him and picked it and put it in my deck, and it was very, very good for me, directly helping me 3-0 my draft. Learning new information from teammates happens constantly, and this is why I think if you want to succeed at the Pro Tour level, you have to test and talk with other people.
As for Constructed, I’d like to tell you that on this night, everyone is sleeping soundly in their beds, confident in their deck choice and looking forward to waking up and smashing face in the morning. Unfortunately, most teams don’t break most Pro Tours, and most of the time we are all struck with crippling indecision, anxiety, and stress about our deck. Did we pick the right deck? Are we playing the right removal? What if I couldn’t build that Energy deck correctly and there actually is a really broken one? What if I missed something? Should I play one of this card and two of that card or the other way around? These are the questions running through my head on the eve of almost every Pro Tour. Pro Tours are really high-stakes and very stressful, and I really want to perform well at them. I’m sure the same is true for every competitor. Most of the time our entire team does not decide on a single deck, so everyone is left wondering if they made the right decision. We probably each finalized our Constructed deck choice at 2pm that afternoon, and spent the rest of the night talking strategy, especially sideboarding with all our teammates on the same deck. But there’s nothing left to do but try and get a good night’s sleep and hope all our hours of testing gave us some insight.
5. After the Pro Tour
After the Pro Tour is over, we usually try and perform a post-mortem on our testing process. We analyze what we could have done differently, or could have done better. Everyone discusses and pitches in their own opinion. For example, for previous Pro Tours I thought we were starting to play with sideboards way too late in the process. It’s pretty tedious to play with sideboards since you have to change your deck constantly, sometimes you sideboard differently on the play or on the draw, and it just adds a lot of overhead in general. Because of these factors we were being lazy and not really playing sideboard games and our sideboards at the PT were really suffering. I even played Crawling Sensation in my sideboard at Pro Tour: Eldritch Moon (although I still maintain that it was a reasonable choice). Nowadays we try and start sideboarding earlier to give us more time to develop better sideboards. Testing is a complicated and error-prone process, and I think it is really important to actively try to improve and refine that process. If you aren’t truly examining what you did and how you could do it better, you will just end up trapped with the same bad process and make the same mistakes over and over. Sometimes, the best way to get better at Magic is to get better at getting better at Magic.
Example Decklist: Monored Lupine Prototype
4 Lupine Prototype
4 Bomat Courier
4 Inventor's Apprentice
4 Falkenrath Gorger
4 Furyblade Vampire
3 Key to the City
4 Fiery Temper
4 Smuggler's Copter
3 Reckless Bushwhacker
3 Incendiary Flow
Wow was this deck bad against Reflector Mage!