Top Tim Tournament Training Tips
I’m currently in the midst of a long break from tournament Magic. My trip to Bilbao, Spain for Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan did not go so well for me. It was the first time I missed day two at a Pro Tour since PT Brussels back in 2015. On the bright side, what I missed out in Modern games played I easily made up for in jamon iberico consumed. Over the past few weeks I have been helping Massdrop East teammate Tommy Ashton, better known as stainerson on Magic Online, prepare for the upcoming Magic Online Championships. He gives me a Modern list to try out, I fail miserably with it, and I give him feedback. I’ve also been doing a lot of Rivals of Ixalan drafting and sharing my thoughts with him. My next tournament isn’t until GP Columbus at the end of April, so I have some time to devote to helping out!
However, this generally is not the case for me. With a full time job and commitments outside of the game, I very rarely am able to play during the week. When I check the social media of and read articles by my player peers, it boggles my mind how many hours they can devote to playing each day. It is partially my fault as I’m not a fan of playing online – there is nothing better than sitting down across from a person and playing live games… playing versus a screen just isn’t fun for me. I usually reserve my few Magic playing hours each week to a live store draft with friends. Given all this, when I sit down across from my opponents at a Pro Tour or in the late rounds of a Grand Prix, I am usually way behind in terms of hours played and knowledge of the format or a matchup. There are a few things that help me bridge that knowledge and experience gap though. Being on a team of talented players certainly helps – I rely on my teammates to evaluate cards, decks, and strategies, and trust their conclusions when I don’t have time to investigate myself. Today I’d like to talk about ways I help myself make the most of the limited amount of time I have to prepare for a tournament, and how I deal with and accept the pressures of playing high level tournament Magic.
Know your limitations as a player
I find that one my biggest strengths is knowing that I am weak. Self-realization is important for everyone, not only in preparation for an event, but also in setting expectations. Most players have the luxury of time and are able to try out most of the tier 1 or tier 1.5 decks when preparing for a PT or GP. However knowing that my time is limited, I can generally only test a handful of decks. I also know that I am extremely weak at playing control strategies. Whether it is a lack of mental fortitude to pilot a thought-intensive deck for upwards of 8 hours, or the lack of format knowledge to know which threats need to be mitigated and which can be ignored, or I’m just not bright enough to make enough correction decisions to win a long game, if there is one thing I know it’s that I generally cannot play control decks. This means I can eliminate all of the control and most midrange decks, and focus on linear and/or aggressive decks. Identify your weaknesses, and learn to accept them or figure out ways to work around them. Only try to correct or improve them if you have the time to do so, not if you’re under the gun preparing for an important event.
There are sometimes exceptions to this rule. Over the past 9 months I have never had success with the mono red aggressive decks in standard. I have yet to figure out why, but I spent lots of time trying to figure that deck out and was never able to find marked success with it in testing. On the flip side, one of my best constructed performances at a Pro Tour was with Abzan control. In this case, we had such a very good deck that even a ham sandwich (me) could win with it.
Test with purpose
Playtesting is something that I feel I've improved the most over the course of the past few years, thanks to the processes the Massdrop team uses to test for events. When testing for an event, don't just jam games. Come up with a process. Try and figure out what matchups you expect and find a willing test subject to play those match ups against you. And be methodical about it. Play 6-10 games pre sideboarded, alternating play/draw. Record wins, losses, mulligans, common game states, important cards in the match up, and mistakes made by players. Chat about interesting games and take notes. Then play another 8-12 games post sideboarded, and allow for more than 15 sideboard cards if you are trying to test specific cards out. Same thing - record wins, losses, take notes. When playtesting you are not only trying to figure out if deck A is favored against deck B 70/30, but also what are the important factors in the match up. Discuss the match up with your playtest partner to ensure you are both on the same page about your notes and conclusions. Not only do you need to figure out why and how deck A wins 70% of the time, but also how deck B wins. Simply concluding that deck B is "unfavored" is not very helpful if you end up playing deck B at your tournament. How deck B wins and loses the matchup is what you need to figure out.
Repeat the above for the expected metagame and you'll have a good summary of how the decks and match up play out. This is a lot of work for only two testers to figure out, so recruit local players that you know to help out with this task. Assign matchups to test and share notes and results. The more players you can get involved, the less time you need to devote individually to playtesting (assuming you trust the results of your playtest team).
Use a cheatsheet
I went to school in the stone ages where we took tests on paper and unscrupulous kids used paper to jot down little cheatsheets to refer to during tests. Obviously I’m not condoning cheating, but the rules of Magic do allow you to have paper notes that you can review between games. At a minimum, I always have sideboard plans written down that I can refer to between games. I’m not sure why every player does not do this, even as a sanity check. As a 40-something year old geriatric, I no longer have the mental capacity to retain exact sideboard plans for each matchup, which is why a written sideboard plan is vital to me. However, even if you are able to memorize every sideboard swap for every matchup, why not have a cheatsheet prepared to ensure you’re sticking to the plan and not forgetting something? The mental energy saved by not having to recall every sideboard plan from memory for each matchup adds up over the course of an 8 round tournament. For Modern Grand Prix’s and occasional Pro Tours, I have adopted a process introduced to me by Massdrop East teammate Mark Jacobson. At GP Houston in 2016, Mark was spotted in a feature match referring to a notebook with several pages of decklists. The coverage team affectionately referred to it as a “Trapper Keeper”.
For those of you not old enough to understand this reference, here is a picture from the Smithsonian archives:
Modern is a wide-ranging and extremely diverse format. There is usually a large number of tier 1 and tier 2 decks, and many fringe decks that dedicated modern players play as their “pet” decks. As someone who stopped playing Magic from Time Spiral through Return to Ravnica, I missed playing with a large portion of the Modern card pool. I also don’t play Modern outside of preparation for Pro Tours, since I do not travel for modern Grand Prix’s. For this reason, for modern events we scour the internet for the top 25-30 most popular modern decklists, copy and paste them into one document, and shrink the font down to minimize the number crib sheets. I’ll use this decklists sheet to jot down my sideboard plan for each matchup. Due to the sheer number of decks in modern, it doesn’t make sense to have a plan written out in advance for each match up, but at least I have a recent decklist to refer to. This is an immense help to me as a relative novice when it comes to modern, since I have no idea of the maindeck and sideboard of the majority of tier 2 decks. Instead of guessing at what my opponent might be bringing in, I now have a basis for evaluating what their game 2 and 3 plans are going to be. In fact, on one occasion I was able to quickly defeat my opponent who had only played Island, Seachrome Coast, Temple of Deceit, Sleight of Hand, Serum Vision, and a Pentad Prism. Again remember that I only play modern a handful of times per year, so I assumed this person was on some type of weird Esper control deck, but I had zero idea what it could be. Well a quick glance at the sheet revealed that this was most definitely Ad Nauseum, so I was able to sideboard somewhat correctly instead of completely incorrectly!
Keep your head in the right place
During the course of a tournament it is important to have mental toughness when things are going both poorly and well. Having a solid mental framework will combat negative thinking, and assist you in recovering quickly from a bad outcome. It will also help bring you back to Earth after great wins. Below is a set of conscious decisions that I often find myself making during the course of tournament play. Using these techniques has helped me in combating negative and unproductive modes of thinking.
• Go into each match with the objective of playing well and playing to win. Try to play perfectly, but accept the fact that very few can actually play perfectly. Having a defined winning plan for the matchup and executing it is the best path to victory, but understand that sometimes the top of the deck won't give you everything you need to win. Accept your losses and learn from them.
• Treat each match as an opportunity to improve at the game you love, while accepting the fact that you may lose. If you do lose, take away lessons from it both in terms of in-game and mental preparation. Do not waste energy on excuses, whether or not they are justified. Complaining about mana screw/flood is a waste of time. In victory, make sure to reflect on the actions you took to get there and also try to identify mistakes both you and your opponents made and learn from them.
• If you sit down across from someone who appears to be less skilled than you, do not treat them as such. Take them as seriously as any other opponent. If you sit down across from a pro player, don't panic or get nervous. Do not be distracted with thoughts about your opponent's skill level during the match. Focus on the game.
• Whether good or bad, do not think about the probable future result of the game while it is in progress; think about what you (and your opponent) are going to do with the current board state in order to win. Furthermore, do not think about your current or future tournament standing during a match. The board state for the game in front of you is neither affected by your tournament standing nor by how many future matches you need to win to make the top 8.
• During the course of the tournament, identify and accept your weaknesses for the given format, deck choice, day, etc. This goes back to my first point about knowing your limitations. However, don’t let yourself become distracted with your perceived limitations while playing, but do address them later when reflecting back on how you could have changed your preparation methods to strengthen those weak areas. Instead recognize that what you do know gives you the tools to play to the best of your ability and preparedness level.
In general, I just try to remain relaxed and not get excited about wins or down about losses. Applying the above is not easy to do, especially being able to control your emotions when variance is not on your side. The point is to have a conscious goal of ignoring the things that will only serve to distract you from playing games of Magic to the best of your ability for that given day/tournament. It is up to you to know what these distractions are for you, to set them aside, and return to productive lines of thought, focused play, and most importantly having fun. I can’t stress this last point enough. Always check in with yourself and make sure you are enjoying your time playing the game!
· Meet the Massdrop Teams: http://dro.ps/mtg-team-announce
· *2nd* at Pro Tour Ixalan: http://dro.ps/ixalan
· Unclaimed Creature Types: http://dro.ps/ari-creatures
· Why I Never Drop From Tournaments: http://dro.ps/eric-nevergiveup
· The Art of Sideboard Construction - Sultai Energy: http://dro.ps/jon-sideboard
· A Commoner's View on Pauper: http://dro.ps/mark-pauper
· Blue Moon Beach Control: http://dro.ps/scott-bluemoon
· Top 5 Modern Decks: http://dro.ps/pascal-modern
· Storm in Vintage Cube: http://dro.ps/ben-storm
· An Early Look at Rivals for Standard: http://dro.ps/shaun-rivals
· A Standard Approach to Evaluating New Cards: http://dro.ps/rob-newcards
· Drafting Rivals of Ixalan: http://dro.ps/tim-ixalan
· Team Sealed Secrets: http://dro.ps/eric-secrets
· Steal My Standard Ideas: http://dro.ps/tommy-secrets
· Team Massdrop Rivals of Ixalan Limited Primer: http://dro.ps/ari-primer
· Gestation of RG Eldrazi: http://dro.ps/ben-gestation