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Testing With Purpose: Part One

Written by LegitMTG Staff on . Posted in Competitive Magic

While I normally discuss various Standard decklists, a conversation that has popped up in my playgroup multiple times reared its head again and got me thinking about how to approach the game itself. Personally, I feel I have managed to turn a corner in the last year or so concerning how I view and play the game. I cathartically wrote about it here on Legit a while back (here is the story of Big Tears if you are interested). Stabilizing my mental attitude has helped me have the most successful run with the game that I have ever had culminating with a SCG Open victory in Columbus a few months back. However, this epiphany did not fix everything that was flawed in my overall game.

Returning to the conversation I alluded to, my friends and I have struggled with being able to test effectively in the midst of living our lives. Here is the general outline of a conversation that I had with a fellow At Your End Step podcaster, Morgan, last week before SCG Cincinnati:

Me: So what are you playing this weekend?
Morgan: Probably Brave Naya per Brad Nelson’s article
Me: That deck looks interesting, but tough to pilot. Want to test this week?
Morgan: I want to but I’m busy with life, girlfriend, job, bungee jumping, Tour de France, etc. (Paraphrasing)
Me: Hmm, sequencing and assessing board state with that list seems difficult. Nelson said as much in the piece. Are you sure you can’t find the time?
Morgan: Sadly, no

If you have ever discussed testing time with a professional Magic player, then they will tell you that it is a legitimate grind. The cold truth is that they have the time to test in a way that you generally never will. It obviously helps that their testing is generally with the best players in the world, but the ability to commit is there. To a further extent, take some time to read those top eight profiles that SCG and Wizards post. What is the most consistent career posted there? The answer is student (or some delightful bit of trolling). This probably isn’t shocking, but the common thread is they have the time to jam games in real life or Magic Online. If you are like me (or most of the players in my play group), then you may never have that much time to devote to the game again. Such is life, yet there is still a way to improve even hidden in this conversation. That is what I would like to discuss.

Morgan and I have had multiple conversations about sequencing. For the uninitiated, the idea of sequencing focuses on everything from the order you play your lands, to the order of creatures you play. In a format of scry lands and powerful removal, you can lose the game by playing the wrong land on turn one or by picking the wrong creature to be your first/last play. Generally, the better you know your deck, then the easier/more likely you are to make the correct decision. Unfortunately, I have already mentioned that time is a factor. So we know where there is a possible skill weakness, then how do we fix it without being able to jam a ton of real games?

To answer that question, I have delved back into some college textbooks. Yes everyone, we are going to get educational (dun dun dun…). The text I am referring to is called In the Middle by Nancy Atwell. Nancy Atwell is an amazing writer and English teacher. Her text, In the Middle, is a foundational work in writing and reading education. I promise I will make the connection to Magic shortly. In the book, Atwell discusses the idea that students should work on personal reading and writing territories. The idea is that they should know their strengths, their weaknesses, and what they would like to read/write. These territories should be ever expanding.

First we have the personal spelling list that focuses on having the writer jot down words they always spell incorrectly. All of us have these personal struggles with certain words. Once you have a basic list of words, you practice rewriting them. The key to this exercise is you never discard the list. When a new word seems difficult, you add it to the list. This practice has been helpful for me since leaving college, and I see no reason why it can’t be applied to Magic. What are the things that you feel you consistently make errors in? My list for Magic might look like this:

Personal Mistake List: Magic the Gathering
1.  I play sloppy when I am ahead.
2.  I play too quickly when I think I have the winning line.
3.  I don’t always recheck my hand before playing a card (i.e. announce a spell and show a different card to my opponent)

When I test, I should review this list before, during, and after we are playing games. Something as simple as a written reminder can address these issues. I may not be able to test as much as the pros do, but I can utilize these assessments to get the most out of my time.

The next component of this idea is to assess how to fix these issues. It may not be enough to just recognize the problem. Smokers know they are smoking, yet this doesn’t stop the habit (obviously a different scenario, but the point stands). This is where Atwell’s territories come into play. In writing, she separates the territories into three categories:  subjects I have read/written about, subjects I would like to read/write about, and audiences I have read/written for. The way I interpret this is to always know what you have accomplished/encountered, have an idea of what you want to encounter, and get feedback on your accomplishments. If we were going to make Magic territories (which is kind of the point), then we need to re-imagine this in Magic terms. Here is how this can be done:

Magic Territories:

  1. What parts of the game are you good at? What parts of the game do you feel the most confidence with?
  2. What parts of the game do you want to get better at? (Review your personal list)
  3. Who is able to affirm your success? I envision this as a wide range, from individuals in your testing group to tournament results.

In my opinion, the most difficult form of writing is the personal narrative. On a technical level one could argue that research writing is more daunting, but writing about one’s own skills and deficiencies is nerve-wracking. Self-assessment is a truly difficult task. That being said, being honest about your own skills is going to be nothing but helpful. Going back to the conversation Morgan and I had (and have had many times), we don’t have the time to test a lot. The question that must be asked here is can that small amount of testing be better? The answer is definitively yes. By utilizing the structure proposed by Nancy Atwell, we can tune our testing to reap more benefits than just the knowledge of specific decks and matchups. The notion of killing two Squadron Hawks with one Brimstone Volley is alive and well (get it? GET IT???). One part of this that I can truly attest to is part 3. Do you have someone that can truly affirm if you are hitting your goal? One must truly seek players/feedback from those that are better than themselves. Admitting a pro is better than you is obvious, truly seeking a local player to help assess you requires a level of humility that many of us may not have. It is however a necessity in the path to getting better.

I believe that this idea of creating Magic territories/personal lists is something that can truly help people with limited time get better at the game. My intention is to use this myself (and hopefully have a few of my close friends try it as well) to see how it structures testing. Consider this introductory piece as part one and the utilization of it as part 2 (coming soon!).

Thanks for Reading

-Mike Keknee




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