Improving Tournament Results and Experience

I frequently get asked about how I prepare for tournaments or what recommendations I have for players looking to get better at Legacy. I realized that I’ve answered these sorts of questions on stream all the time, but I’ve never gone and put it into article form. While there’s nothing groundbreaking here, I hope this will be useful to both the newer tournament goers and those who are look to break through to the next level of performance.

Form a testing and travel group
For some people, taking the first step towards getting more serious about Magic is the hard one. Many people are nervous about asking to travel with others for the first time, or are hesitant to try and break into a new playgroup (or to start a new one if that isn’t an option). You can only get so far on your own. You’ll need people to bounce ideas off of, discuss sideboarding with, and split gas/hotel costs. If you are willing to learn and put in the effort to improve, people will notice that and welcome you; if they aren’t, they probably weren’t a great group in the first place and you dodged a bullet! The grind can be demoralizing and exhausting at times, and having a group to fall back on (and get food/drinks with) when things don’t go well is invaluable. Honestly, half of the reason I travel for Magic to hang out with awesome people.

Improve your testing amount and/or quality
Next I’d recommend refining your testing process. Be honest with yourself. How many games are you playing? Do you think this is more or less than the testing your average opponent is doing? Are you playing enough post-sideboard games? Are you playing these matches like you would competitively? Should your playtesting for that GP really include that many beers? Based on what level of success you are aiming for, set a realistic goal for how much testing you can do. I used to think that the 3 rounds I played a week at the storefront plus a bunch of random games a week were enough to keep me in shape and really to do well in big events. When I was doing that, my results were mediocre. Now when I’m prepping for tournaments seriously, I’ll play a GP worth of matches every Saturday and Sunday leading up to the event and jam as many leagues as I can on the weeknights without burning myself out. Once of the best ways to get better at Magic is just “play more.” It’s honestly that simple.

Let’s assume your time is limited though. If you can’t significantly increase the amount of time you spend playing, you can still drastically increase the quality of your testing. If your testing for a week is “let’s jam games with whoever shows up,” is that really “testing” or is that “playing?” When I sit down for a playtesting session, I try to have a few questions in mind that I seek to answer that day. I find that this keeps me focused in testing and lets me actually learn something. Is X card good in this matchup? Is sideboard configuration A or configuration B better against this deck? Am I favored preboard vs X deck? Am I going to be the control deck in this matchup or the aggro deck? Sometimes, I even cheat during these sessions! I let my testing partner know that I’m going to start every game with a certain card in my hand to see how it performs, or always draw a certain card on the fourth turn of the game to see how it would perform. This can help you gather data on some new cards or spicy 1-ofs without necessarily needing to wait to naturally draw it every few games.

If your playgroup consists of your deck, Eldrazi Post, Aluren, and Goblins, are you going to be prepared for the matchups you’ll see at big events? Probably not. Make sure that you are spending time testing some of the more relevant and common matchups. Legacy in particularly has so many decks that you can’t reasonably test against everything, but at the very least, you should be comfortable with the most popular Delver deck, control deck, and combo deck of the moment. If you can do better than that, I’d recommend testing against the top 10 decks of the format as measured by whatever metric you like. Looking at the Decks to Beat (and previous Decks to Beat) on The Source is a good starting point, as is MtGTop8’s metagame breakdown.

If you’re looking for a current short list of things to test, I’d recommend Miracles, Grixis Control, D&T, Eldrazi, BR Reanimator, Dredge, Storm, Death Shadow Delver, Grixis Delver, and Show and Tell. While that’s a ton of matchups, the difference between having zero experience against a deck and having a few matches under your belt is astounding.

Play other decks
So what if you don’t have access to all of those sweet Legacy decks or pilots who can play them? Proxy them up and learn how to do it yourself! There are lots of sites like MtG Press that make it easy to print off proxies or “playtest cards” as they’re technically called now. I actually believe that the best thing you can do to improve as a player is learn the intricacies of many decks. Though I’m “the D&T guy,” if you look at what all I’ve been playing on stream in the past year, you’ll see my range is actually huge. Playing other decks gives you a better feel for the strengths and weaknesses of those decks. It lets you get better reads on your opponents, and helps you to find those tiny edges that lead to wins. This is especially true if you play a highly interactive deck like Miracles or D&T.

Learn the rules…like actually though
If you’ve made it this far, I assume that you know how to play Magic. What I mean by this is learn the details of how the game actually works. Do you know the steps for casting a spell? Do you understand how priority works? Do you know what the IPG and MTR are? Do you know what should happen if your opponent draws an extra card? Knowing some amount of technical info will certainly help your game and ensure that you know when to appeal a judge ruling that is potentially incorrect. Some famous dude once said, “Knowledge is power!” If you’re looking for some reading material, I recommend the Judge Classes. These are intended to get people to the point where they can pass the level one exam to become a certified judge for things like FNM.

Observe and Collaborate
You probably aren’t going to be the only one trying to improve at your deck. Find similar minded folks (preferably people who are better than you!) and collaborate! Share ideas and resources. Critique each other’s decklists or sideboard strategies. I’ve said this plenty of times, but working with others was key to my development as a player. Spend some time chatting with people on Facebook or Discord, seek other pilots on Twitter, read primers or articles on your deck, listen to podcasts… there is so much great content out there if you look for it. I highly recommend bookmarking MtGStreams so that you can see who is streaming Legacy at any given time. Follow a couple of high caliber streamers and try to catch them live so that you can interact with them and learn from them. I highly recommend myself, Anuraag Das, Julian Knab, and Ark4n11. You’ll easily find more if you poke around.

Write a sideboard guide
Did you know you are allowed to refer to notes between games of Magic? You can write yourself a sideboarding guide and use it! Tournaments can be long and grueling (more on that in a second!); doing some of that mental work ahead of time can really pay off at the tail end of a long day. It’s also a great way to see if you have too many cards for certain matchups or if a card isn’t actually brought in enough to deserve the spot. Again, Legacy is huge, so you can’t necessarily have a board plan for everything; sketching out a plan for the 10 most popular decks (you know, those same decks you’ve been practicing against…) should be good enough. Even the process of sitting down and writing one of these for the first time is very helpful. I went years without physically writing out one of these, and I regret it. One thing many people don’t realize immediately is that sometimes changing one or two cards in your list can radically change how you play or sideboard for a matchup.

When I recently started playing Chalice of the Void in the sb of D&T, it radically changed how I approached many of my matchups to the point where I didn’t know how to quickly sideboard without giving it real thought. It was the first time that I sat down and physically typed out a sideboard guide. Now that I’ve done this, I don’t think I’ll ever play in a major event without one. When you are tired and it is round 9, you’ll be really glad when you don’t have to think, “Oh god, what was the last card that needed to come out?” The mental energy you save can then be spent elsewhere.

Physically prepare for a day of Magic
This is the part of tournament experience that new players tend to ignore. It is in my mind the most important part of a successful tournament. You need to be ready to spend hours on end at a tournament hall. You need to make the experience as easy on yourself as you can. Here are some tips:

-Print your decklist so you don’t have to rush in the morning. It also reduces the chance of an error.
-Preregister so you don’t need to wait in line.
-Get to town early enough the night before so that you can actually get a reasonable amount of sleep.
-Find a good food spot or two before the event begins so you don’t have to scramble to find something later.
-Drink water constantly. Getting dehydrated is game over for your brain.
-Pee. Every round. Don’t risk it. That one round that goes to time feels reaaalllly bad if you gotta go.
-Have snacks. I usually carry a sugary snack, nuts or jerky, and a granola bar.
-Don’t stay focused on the negatives. Repeating/listening to “bad beats” stories all day isn’t the best for you.
-Do something between rounds that keeps you mentally active, but relaxed. I tend to play Ascension on my phone or walking around while playing Pokemon Go.
-Eat meals, preferably ones that are somewhat healthy. That pretzel covered in molten cheese don’t count.
-Bring drugs. I always carry Ibuprofen, Tums, and cough drops with me.
-Don’t carry around 10 pounds of trade stuff. You probably aren’t trading much between rounds anyway.
-Use online pairings to reduce stress/hassle. I get mine from the TopDecked App, which pushes notifications to my phone when pairings go up.

Set Realistic Goals
I like to set both short term and long term goals for myself as a Magic player. As I got better and better, these goals generally grew more ambitious. Each time I checked off one of those goals, I set a new one that was just a bit loftier than the previous goal. The tricky thing here is to keep your goals realistic. Some of your goals can be based on event placement (e.g. top 8’ing an event) whereas others might be based on your more general improvement as a player (e.g. handling tilt better, making fewer mistakes, putting in more hours of playtesting). Also (in my opinion), your goals shouldn’t be tied to one specific event. If your goal is “cash this SCG Open,” you can have a bad day and feel like you failed; “if your goal instead is “cash an SCG Open,” that’s a goal that you can keep working towards.

Don’t be afraid to invest in yourself as a player
I’m a teacher. I don’t make a ton of money. I’ve got big ol’ student loans that sometimes feel crushing. That’s the reality of my situation. For a long time, I was extremely hesitant to spend any money on Magic outside of event fees and travel costs. I only used store credit to buy cards, and I preferred to trade for cards rather than spend that credit whenever possible. While this attitude saved me quite a bit of money, it didn’t help me improve as a player.

Investing a little money every month into the hosting and upkeep fees for Thraben University motivated me to produce content, which in turn made me think more about my own choices and approaches to matchups more carefully. When I bought D&T on MTGO, it was about $700. That was a big purchase for me, but it resulted in me more than doubling the amount of playtesting I could do. I was really hesitant to buy a new computer (and later nice monitors for said computer), but doing so allowed me to stream Magic; getting the commentary from my followers has really helped me improved and allowed me to see what lines others would have taken much more clearly. I don’t regret a dime that I spent on Magic Online, this website, or things for my stream. They were investments in my future as a Magic player and content producer, while also being pretty darn good for my personal happiness.

So… invest in yourself! If you want to take it to the next level, don’t fall short because you tried to save a few bucks. Take that day off of work so you can attend the big event you’ve been eyeing. Buy that deck you so adore on Magic Online so that you can practice more. If you feel like you’ve plateau’d and you can’t do any better on your own, look into tutoring options. I offer tutoring for D&T, Bryant Cook offers tutoring for TES, and many other pros or high level players would likely be open to the idea as well. Remember, if this is truly an investment, you likely will reap rewards over time for your initial expense. I’ve more than made back my initial investments in MTGO by selling tickets to Cardhoarder (the current rate is $.96/tix, so you get almost all of the value out of your tix with no hassle). My average event placement has also certainly improved since buying in to MTGO as well.

So those are some of my tips and tricks for tournament success. I hope at least some of these things have been useful to you all today. I’ve got some tournament prep to start doing for SCG Con now, so expect to see a writeup of that event and my build in the not-too-distant future.

About the Author

Phil Gallagher

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