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11.02.01 - Practice Makes Pro

If you don't think that the Pros practice you are wrong. If you think the Pros don't test their decks you're wrong again. Just like any other activity, Magic takes practice and the game rewards those who put forth the time and the effort. Since States is coming up soon I will be discussing ways to practice and ways to test decks before States. No matter what else I say in this article, I cannot stress the importance of practice and testing enough. Good players can play mediocre decks and beat better decks played by worse players game after game. Mediocre players can play the best deck and leave a tournament with a 0-6 record. The same is true for testing a deck. Some experienced players can learn the feel of a new deck quickly but this is the exception, the simple fact of the matter is that the player who knows how their deck plays out is much more likely to win every game they play. If you don't know your deck you won't know how to play it and you will make mistakes that cause you to lose every game. Which type of player do you want to be?

Practice, Patience, and Testing: The 12 Step Program

A large part of Magic is just experience. Just being around the game lets you learn. You learn to feel comfortable with different strategies, different decks, new ideas, and new cards. The things you like may not change, but you will begin to feel comfortable with a lot of new stuff. A perfect example is the fact that very few new players like Black because everything worth casting causes damage to you. As you gain experience that perception changes and all of a sudden you are dropping life at astounding rates, and winning while you do it.
Well, there is no way that you can cram years of experience into the next few weeks so how do you rapidly ramp up your skill and get a deck ready?

1) Go and find a player who is better than you that would be willing to train with you.

The bottom line is that life is (rarely) like an RPG. Beating kobolds all day won't do much for your experience point total but killing a Red Dragon will. Better players will have things to teach you. They will have tricks that you don't know and they will use them.
2) Go and find a player who is worse than you and teach them what you know.

This may sound mutually exclusive with point #1 but it's not. Magic players do a lot of things by instinct. How many of you have thought of the reason why you play 90% of your spells during your 2nd main phase or how you choose which cards to block. By spending time teaching newer players you can begin to more fully understand many aspects of the game that you may have just taken for granted before.
3) Now that you have two other people to help you out, go buy a box of cards.

Split 3 ways, this should be doable and this will also provide all of you with cards needed for decks and trade fodder.
4) Start playing Solomon Drafts with your two training buddies.
Solomon Drafts only need two players instead of 6-8 so they are a lot easier to pull off. Basically, each of you takes 3 booster packs and then you open all the cards (90 cards total). Shuffle all the cards together and then divide them into 10 piles of 9 cards each. Then starting one of you picks up the first pile and divides it into 2 piles (they don't have to be equal). The other person chooses which pile they want and then picks up the next pile to divide it and so on. At the end, grab as many basic lands as you want.

Drafts in general serve to help players begin to feel out new sets. In addition they help to improve upon deck building skills, especially land allocation. Finally, since you will be playing with ungainly and unfocused decks, you will be forced to play cards creatively and learn how to handle unexpected circumstances.

5) Go to the store and buy lots of paper, address labels for the printer, and regular playing cards.
Okay, there isn't much strategy here but you will need this stuff for the next step. Try buying recycled paper or (if you are broke) recycle extra flyers that are left places (it's amazing how much paper can be recovered this way). If you don't want to spend money for address labels and playing cards then download apprentice. There is something to be said for actually holding the cards when you use them latter and it will help the learning process but the choice is yours. Apprentice is also more convenient however.
6) Print out a complete spoiler list.
Start reading this list and discussing it with your two practice pals. Knowing the cards that people are playing will save you from more play mistakes than you might think. It will also help you think about your own decks and the other decks that you will be facing. Don't be afraid to mark up your spoiler list with rules reminders, errata, notes, ideas, and anything else. Rating cards on the spoiler can also help you out especially if you think about deck ideas that would make the card perform even better. Discuss cards that you feel are powerful, cards that you think will be played, and cards that you don't understand.
7) Print out the comprehensive rules .
This sucks since last time I checked it was well over 100 pages. As an alternate strategy download them to your computer. Either way, start to browse through the rules. You don't need to memorize anything but you do need to pick out things you find interesting, things you didn't know, and also get a feel for how the rules work. This will also help prevent a lot of errors during play and will make you a better player. Don't spend too much time here, like I said just get a feel for the rules.
8) Start printing the articles you like and the current deck lists.

Read these not once but many times. With your friends try discussing why each deck uses each card and what you think of the strategies that you see. Try to understand exactly why an article makes a claim and then examine it to see if you agree. Just because a player writes something doesn't make it gospel. When I published my Reyanimator deck I made a claim that recursion was card advantage. Someone (Dave, who designed the original, see the link provided in that article) pointed out to me that this wasn't the case since most reanimation decks made 1-1 or 1-2 card trades just for a little extra speed. My point was that, while the card tradeoff was made, reanimation effects basically gained an additional library to play cards from as well as a constant Demonic Tutor type effect; thus gaining card advantage through choice and quality. If you had taken that comment at face value your understanding wouldn't have been as good as if you had questioned it. Also, keep a list of the themes that keep coming up, you will need this when you test your deck. Never be afraid to mark up or change the other decks either. In fact, if you don't alter a net deck at all maybe you shouldn't go to the tournament, no one else will ever design a deck that is fit exactly for your local tournament scene (often called the metagame) or for your play style.

9) Using your new found knowledge sit down with your friends and start creating lots of decks.
Don't stop with one or two decks, design as many as you can. Sit around and discuss the ins and outs of each deck and prepare a list of good and bad match ups for each deck even before you play them. Think about mana curves and other important game issues. Once you have toyed around with these ideas for a while build them (by printing out the full text of each card on the address labels and then sticking them to the playing cards or by using Apprentice). Start playing these decks and start analyzing how their performance compared with your expectations. Why was there a difference? How could you fix it (if it were a problem)?
10) Now go back to the drawing board and start all over again with the draft.
The cards that you just made should now compromise a thorough list of all the cards that will be played at the tournament. Take them and shuffle them together into a big pile and then divide that pile into smaller piles and start playing Solomon Draft with these cards. This will help teach you about unexpected interactions between cards and it is a faster way to test this type of thing for the whole field (although you run the risk of missing some important interactions). Still, this is even more play experience and play experience is, of course, the most important kind.
11) Build your deck.

This is the point at which you should settle down and pick your deck. Do this as early as possible and as soon as you get a feel for the format. Picking a deck early may mean that you end up with a deck that isn't "the best" but if you followed the previous steps it should be a Tier 1 (a deck capable of regularly winning tournaments) deck anyway. If it's not, stick with the deck for this tournament (unless you are very sure of your ability to adapt to a new deck) but start thinking about where you went wrong. Anyway, picking a deck early gives you time to get comfortable with it. In turn, knowing your deck and feeling comfortable with it will mean that you will play games as if you were a much more experienced player.
12) Send your friends home and play with your Gold Fish.

Playing against the goldfish is how most decks are tested, at least initially. Basically all you do is sit down by yourself and play a game against no one. All you are trying to do is get a feel for how your deck plays out. Is the land mix okay? How long does it take to deal 20 damage? After each game, take all the cards you played and put them back on your deck in the same order and play again. Do things differently and see how that affects your deck. Finally, play against the script. A script can be as simple or as complex as you want to make it, basically it simulates a general style of deck by laying out some arbitrary events. Here are a few examples:

Aggressive Script (Sligh/Rocket Shoes)
Turn 1: Nothing
Turn 2: You lose 2 life unless you can block (in which case you lose a creature)
Turn 3: You lose 2 life unless you can block, You lose 2 life or a creature
Turn 4: You lose 4 life unless you can block, discard a creature kill card or counterspell if you have one or lose 2 life, you lose 2 life or a creature
Turn 5: You lose 8 life unless you can block 2 creatures (in which case lose 1 creature), discard a creature kill card or counterspell if you have one or lose 2 life, lose 2 life or a creature
Turn 6+: Repeat turn 5
Control Script (Finkel, Peekula)
Turn 1: Nothing
Turn 2: Nothing
Turn 3: Discard the best spell from your hand or discard a counterspell
Turn 4: Discard a card at random from your hand or return a permanent to your hand
Turn 5: Discard the best spell from your hand, return a permanent to your hand
Turn 6: Destroy all permanents unless you discard a counterspell
Turn 7: Discard the best spell from your hand or discard a counterspell
Turn 8: Take 3 damage
Turn 9: Take 3 damage, return a permanent to your hand
Turn 10: Repeat steps 7-9
Land Destruction
Turn 1: Nothing
Turn 2: Deal 2 damage or destroy 1 creature
Turn 3: Destroy a land
Turn 4: Deal 3 damage or destroy 1 creature or destroy 1 land (which ever would be worst for you)
Turn 5: Do 1 of the choices from turn 4 but choose which would be best for you
Turn 6: Rinse and repeat steps 4 and 5
Scripts sure aren't perfect but they can give a general sense of a deck's weaknesses and strengths. This is the general script that I always start with and is not tuned to the environment. To tune the script sit down with your card list and group the decks into categories and then figure out the best possible game that each of the categories could have. Then tone it down just a little bit and you have your script. Don't change your deck yet but start thinking what you can do to shore up its weak spots.

13) Call your friends back and start the real testing.
Get your friends back over and start playing your deck against their decks. If there are decks you expect to see that no one else has built make them (on Apprentice or with the labels and playing cards) and test your deck (and your friend's decks) against them. 5-10 games against each of the expected match ups is a good start. Try replaying games that you lost to see if you could find another way to win. When you aren't playing watch your friends and see what they are doing right and what they are doing wrong (don't forget to talk to them about this stuff).
Well, there you have it. It may look like a lot of work and it is, but following a program like this for a few big tournaments will soon have a beginner playing like a pro. Like I said above, don't take my word for it. Pick apart this article and decide what you like and what you don't like. Try changing things and find out what works for you. The most important piece of advice is that if this all seems overwhelming or if you stop having fun or if your school work starts to suffer you should stop. Magic is just a game and there will always be another tournament, but when Magic no longer seems like a game and starts to seem like real work you will never reach the top of your game.

Jason Chapman



Copyright 2001 Pojo.com


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