Over the past 16 months I've put a lot of thought and energy into figuring out how to improve as a player, not only for myself but for players across all skill levels. After having undertaken several projects in this time with this goal, I believe I have finally figured out the single best way to improve at Magic. Not only that, you can learn at the fastest rate possible, all while having fun and making new friends!
· If you can't wait for the specifics, skip down to the section entitled 'Connective Learning'.
· If you'd like additional reading on things you can do to improve your game, here are three of my best articles on the topic:
Tournament Preparation Tips
Five Tips for Stepping up your Game
How to be the Best at Magic
· If you want the backstory on how I arrived at the idea, it begins in May of last year (2014) at Pro Tour Journey into Nyx...
MTG Boot Camp
I had an idea at Pro Tour Journey into Nyx that for the next Pro Tour (Magic 2015 in Portland) I wanted to run mock tournaments as a way to advance my Pro Tour testing team's knowledge of the format while also improving our abilities as players. The idea stemmed from what I saw as a shortcoming in our testing process, namely that as a team we were not as good as we could be at testing for the Constructed portion of the Pro Tour.
Our team (Team TCGplayer at the time) included several strong Limited players who generally abhorred the idea of testing Constructed. We additionally had a handful of players who were not especially experienced at high level tournament testing. The one thing that every member of the team was great at, however, was competing in tournaments. So I wanted to play to the team's strengths by facilitating a series of mock tournaments to comprise a significant portion of our team testing process. My initial suggestion was to play for money because I figured that might be the best way to incentivize my teammates to try hard to find the best technology to win (since I knew most of them were degenerates). The money aspect of the plan was shot down but the majority of the team agreed to participate in Boot Camp.
The way MTG Boot Camp operated was we would schedule a time where eight teammates were available. Then we would all get on a skype conference call and say which decks we want in the mock tournament. Anyone could bring their own deck, but usually half would play the 'enemy' gauntlet decks in order to assure our testing didn't get inbred. Then we would pair three rounds of Swiss and record the data in an MTG Boot Camp Facebook group.
We ended up doing this for a few weeks and it was successful at getting teammates together to practice, but it failed to achieve the majority of its objectives. People were not incentivized enough to win the mock tournaments, so they ended up feeling more like casual testing sessions than actual tournaments. There also wasn't much being done to improve the players.
MTG Fight Club
Run concurrently with MTG Boot Camp was a group that I opened up to the public. I made a Facebook post requesting volunteers to participate in a series of mock tournaments (Standard). The minimum qualification to participate was that the player had to have played in at least one Pro Tour in their lifetime. The purpose of this requirement was to maintain a relatively high skill level among participants in the Fight Club. While the Boot Camp was only marginally successful, Fight Club was quite a success!
We had 18 active members. Usually about twice a day I would post "Fight Queue" in the Facebook group. Then everyone available to participate would type "fight" in that thread. As soon as we got eight fighters, the fight would start. It would be three rounds of Swiss and I recorded the results. At non-peak hours we could sometimes only get four players, at which point we would do a round robin tournament where everyone plays everyone, which would still get us three rounds of data. I also decided to track each fighter's wins and losses on a leaderboard with the following scoring system, with the intention of motivating players to play and to try hard to win:
Win = +3 points
Loss = -2 points
So for instance if a player competes in a three round fight and goes 2-1, the player gains three points for each win (six total) and loses two points for the loss. So the net result is +4 points added to that fighter's season point total.
We ended up running 15 total fights over the course of two weeks, between the set being fully spoiled and the time I left for the Pro Tour. Grand Prix Buenos Aires Champion Philippe Monlevade was The Champion of Fight Club. Fifteen members of Fight Club competed in Pro Tour Portland, nine of which made Day 2, three of which cashed, and the top finisher was me who made Top 16.
I liked the incentive structure of a leaderboard and I think I got the point structure right. Since losses hurt less than wins help (by a two-to-three ratio), players who participate more will on average gain more points than players who compete less. Still I felt like all I was doing was incentivizing people to play and win tournaments. This system was extremely helpful for improving our EV for the specific tournament we are testing for, but there wasn't really any way to catch and correct player mistakes, so its usefulness in improving participants' long term skill was limited.
MTG Fight Club 2: Pro Tour Honolulu
For Pro Tour Honolulu I decided to combine Boot Camp and Fight Club into one group. We again completed 15 fight queues, collected quite a bit of data on matchups as well as win rates of various decks. We also generally gained a wide range of experience in the format, having tested 23 different decks throughout Fight Club. The end result was that one of our fighters, Ari Lax, won the Pro Tour!
I ran a third season of Fight Club for Pro Tour Washington DC, but participation was minimal and I was too busy working on other projects to take on the heavily involved leadership role I had taken on for the first two Fight Clubs. As a result, Fight Club essentially died out.
Ojutai Bant Discussion Group
Speaking of other projects, Team UltraPRO formed around this time and debuted at Pro Tour DC. I was not yet a member of the team, but they invited me to join them for the next Pro Tour in Brussels and I accepted. For Pro Tour Brussels we built Ojutai Bant and I was the primary advocate in favor of the deck. I also finished in tenth place, immediately putting the deck on the map. Aside from Esper Dragons it was the breakout deck of the tournament.
Following the tournament, I received several messages from people saying they plan to play the deck at GP Krakow or at the upcoming Regional PTQ. Since everyone messaging me had the same questions (regarding sideboarding, matchups, etc.), I decided to make a Facebook group to save myself from having the same conversation a dozen different times. It would also provide an opportunity for people playtesting the deck to share their results, technologies, and questions with each other.
The result was a fairly big success. The discussions were quite active and good. Sam Pardee was part of the group and made Top 8 at GP Krakow with the deck. The group continued throughout the season and two of Neal Oliver's real life testing partners played the deck to a Top 8 finish at GP Toronto (Neal was a very active member of the group). Several players Top 8ed or won their RPTQ with the deck, and late addition Brad Nelson joined the group and nearly won an SCG Open with the deck.
The group was a fairly novel idea and worked out as well as I'd envisioned. It makes sense to pull together as many strong minds as possible that are all working on a single deck and to collaborate results, discuss theory, and share technologies and sideboard strategies. The tournament results with the deck were likewise excellent.
Team White Weenie
I decided to start a similar group for Monowhite Devotion for similar reasons. I had played Jared Sherman's Monowhite Tokens deck at GP San Diego and the deck felt like it had promise but needed to move in a bit different direction. Immediately after the GP Justin Heilig messaged me to share his Monowhite Devotion deck that he had been working on for the past month or so. His record with the deck was incredible, something like 35-3. So I tested it and my initial testing was quite promising. Since Jared and Justin were both messaging me talking about very similar decks I decided to create a Facebook group where the three of us could work on figuring out together the best Monowhite Aggro deck.
The result of our testing and discussions was that we determined Monowhite Devotion was the superior angle. Since Justin had the most experience with the deck but only Jared had the cards on MTGO, we had Jared pilot the deck on MTGO while Justin and I would co-pilot, discussing plays and sideboard strategies. Together the three of us ironed out most of the details with the deck, enough so that I played it at the WMCQ in Philadelphia that weekend.
As soon as I made Top 8 of the WMCQ, my UltraPRO teammate Sam Black said he wanted to test the deck in preparation for Worlds. So I added him to the group and the four of us tested some of my Top 8 matchups together and figured out a sideboard plan against each. I ended up losing in the semifinals but the group dynamic and testing process were both excellent!
We continued working on the deck as a group and the following week Sam Black played the deck at Worlds and went 4-0 in the Standard portion before losing to the unstoppable force and sexiest man in Magic, Seth Manfield.
It all finally came together while I was having a conversation with my friend Michael Simon about how to measure progress in Magic apart from simply measuring wins. The question intrigued me and I couldn't come up with a good answer. Then all of a sudden I had an idea and realized I was in a unique position to share something unique.
My idea was that instead of players playing against each other as opponents, they play alongside each other as pilot and co-pilot(s). For example, Zachery Byrd is about to fire up Magic Online and wants someone to co-pilot for him to talk about plays and critique his plays in real time. Zach then calls his co-pilot(s) on skype and clicks the + button to screen share with them and they play the tournament together, discussing plays with the goal of mutual improvement of everyone involved.
The best method is to connect players with Pro Tour aspirations so that they can play alongside each other as pilot and co-pilot to critically evaluate and discuss in-game decisions at real time (lines of play, sideboarding, etc.). It is similar to the dynamic between streamer and audience except with much more personal involvement since we're dealing with two or three people interacting with each other instead of potentially hundreds trying to interact with one person.
Co-Pilot: In order to be a co-pilot all you need to download is Skype. That's it!
Pilot: In order to be a pilot you need both Skype and Magic Online.
While the goal is mutual improvement for all participants, an incidental-but-not-trivial offshoot is that players are able to network and make friends. For instance, Colleen Nelson made a post about piloting a Magic Origins 8-4 Booster Draft. Brandon Earl Snyder and Joshua Medlen then commented on the thread that they're available to co-pilot. The three made it to the finals of the 8-4 together, learned from each other throughout the tournament, and ended up as friends who may schedule a future time to play together again.
The idea began (surprise, surprise) with me creating a Facebook group. I named it MTG Fortified Area since the purpose of the group was to band players together who had hit a wall in their improvement as Magic players in order that each player in the band improves their skills by +1/+0.
Any way that you can find to connect with other players and play together is the best way to learn from each other. Remember:
The single best way to improve as a Magic player is to connect with other Magic players in a similar position with similar aspirations and to play alongside each other against unknown opponents, cooperatively discussing the decisions throughout the match or tournament.
Good luck and have fun!
@Nacatls4Life on twitter
Proud Member of the MTG Fortified AreaFacebook group