Feature: Testing 1, 2, 3...

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If you want to do well in Magic, you either have to be the best (most often read luckiest) player alive, or you have to practice. Since the dawn of professional Magic, players have been collecting in groups to brainstorm ideas for a format, and to play out potential matchups in an attempt to be one step ahead of the competition. After all, you can only get so far strategically in any game by simply knowing your game plan. The real advantage comes in knowing your opponent’s game plan and using that knowledge against them.

Your Move Games Darwin Kastle
Groups of players from around the world, usually within close geographic areas, started to come to the forefront of Magical SuccessTM The Neutral Ground, Your Move Games, and CMU were some of the first groups to dominate the professional Magic circuit. They had the best players working together toward a common goal. Many brains make light work. Soon, many Europeans were collecting with their countrymen to a similar result. The German, Dutch, and French powerhouses have churned out some of the most dominating players in the world thanks to their small geographic borders and the willingness of their players to come together for mutual benefit. Once Japan got into the act, it was as though a new game was invented. Success without a support group was hard to come by, and many areas without a strong player base started to flounder.

Enter Magic Online—maybe the single most important influence in Magic today. The Internet is an entity with no borders and no boundaries where players from across the world can come together and practice. In addition to the world-shrinking effect it has had, Magic Online has taken clocks out of the equation. A player no longer has to worry about finding time to get together with testing partners, or spending the time to wrangle up a draft. On Magic Online, you just enter a queue, wait a few seconds, and the game comes to you.

Another frequently overlooked effect Magic Online has had on the players of the world is due to its highly regimented nature. Simply put, players are getting better. Magic Online forces you to go through every step, every turn, every time you play a game. Thanks to this, players have a much firmer grasp on the timing of effects and how certain cards interact.

Due to the fact that each new set requires a public beta testing phase before it can go live on Magic Online, the newest sets for most Pro Tours often don’t see electronic play before players sling them on the professional stage. This creates an interesting phenomenon. As new sets are released, formats change ever so slightly. Some decks lose cards, making them no longer viable. Sometimes, new cards are introduced that, when combined with some of the older cards in the format, create completely new decks. Many of the decks change very slightly, mostly in reaction to the other changes going on. It’s this shifting nature of the formats that makes preparation so important.

Paul Cheon and Luis Scott-Vargas show off their tech.
I checked in today with some of the more prominent playtesting groups in the world to see how much the absence of Shadowmoor on Magic Online had affected their testing regimen. If you’ve read coverage for pretty much anything from the last year, you probably know who Paul Cheon, Luis Scott-Vargas, and Pat Chapin are. These guys have come to own the American Magic scene through their tight deck building and well-honed play skill.

When I asked Paul about testing in a Magic Offline environment, his feelings were a little split. Paul had recently taken up residence in Colorado, which doesn’t exactly have the same reputation for strong Magic play that the coasts boast. Consequently, he tends to use Magic Online to test for tournaments. Obviously, that wasn’t an option this time. Instead, he turned to his teammates and some of the local players from his area to help him do the work needed to prepare for the event.

“Luis and I tend to get together for a week before the event and pool our resources and walk out with a deck. It’s been pretty successful for us,” Cheon told me with a bit of a laugh. Having a support group containing players the caliber of Chapin and LSV helps tremendously. You can leave them to do some of the work when you aren’t able to help, and still be confident of their results and their ability to explain their findings to you.

Another American Magic player, Gerry Thompson, spends so much time testing on Magic Online he’s in danger of starring in a Tron sequel. Diligence has results, though, as he has found winning decklists in virtually every format for the last year or so. Much of the theory that goes into his team’s building process is done through the mtgiowa boards online. Their collaboration usually culminates with a real-life testing session, much like Cheon and LSV’s.

Your Dutch master Frank Karsten
Many of the European powerhouses have been around the game longer than Magic Online has been around, and their testing methods reflect that. I talked to Frank Karsten about testing for the Dutch. “To be honest, we usually just get together and play at someone’s house since we all live at most an hour away from one another.” According to Antoine Ruel, the French players’ testing is much the same. When your group lives such a short distance from one another, it’s easy to orchestrate a testing session before events.

One important thing to note about group testing, though, is that just because a group tests together doesn’t mean they come to the exact same conclusions. Even within playtest groups, each player still decides what deck to play based on their own conclusions and play styles. As Cheon put it, “the format is so wide open; there are so many good decks. People just play what they know.” Sometimes the players spend enough time working on an idea that they feel they know it well enough to run, as is true of the French players and Manuel Bucher, who are running a Bucher-designed five-color control deck. More frequently, though, playtest groups don’t find a deck that “breaks” a format. They just find all the decks that they expect to play against. Once the decks have been found, the players can pick a deck they understand and test it against a gauntlet played by players they trust, and who can give constructive advice as each game finishes. It appears that whether it’s high tech or low, testing is all about teamwork and the group. As the saying goes, “all you need is a deck, a brain, and a friend.”

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