Wisdom Fae under the Bridge – “Teamwork makes the dream work” MTG Grand Prix Testing and the Road to Bronze
“There’s No I in Team” – Roadhog
I had initially planned to write an article about the new pro level (bronze) this week, and how that system might offer an alternative to playing PPTQs for some players aspiring to qualify for the Pro Tour. Upon planning the article, however, it became clear that so much was dependent on individual circumstances (e.g. where a person lives, how much time they have to play Magic, how much money they have…) that writing the article would be either extremely lengthy for what are ultimately minor points, or largely meaningless.
For me the biggest issue is cost, and it’s clear from a brief look at flight prices alone that going to 10-12 Grands Prix in a year is going cost more than going to 20-24 PPTQs. That said, I think I will enjoy playing the GPs a lot more and I will likely come out of playing them a better player. In addition, reducing the amount of time that I spend playing Magic: the Gathering is appealing now that I’m closing in on the end of my first year of PhD. The idea of playing one event per month, and testing for perhaps two weeks before each, while I take the other two off, is really quite appealing in comparison to continually testing without breaks during a PPTQ season.
I’ll try this route this year, but should you? I don’t know the answer to that question, but if you are going to try, I think it’s worth looking at the way you test for events as the way you approach what is essentially 12 1 month seasons (1 GP a month, each GP typically a different format than the one before) ought to be different to the way that you approach a 3 month season such as the PPTQs. Because you have 1 tournament and 1 month to prepare each time, you have to be efficient and accurate with what you do, while a longer season with multiple events means that you can be pretty lazy in how you approach the early stages, and it means that playing the wrong deck isn’t the end of the world as you have multiple attempts.
Ideally you’d find a group of people who wanted exactly the same thing as you, were as able as you, and could commit the same sort of resources you could. The reality is that you’ll likely just have the people in your town who are relatively interested, some of whom will be more helpful than others.
So, how might you make the best of that?
6 Tips to help you get more from your MTG team, and team testing
1. Agree upon a collective intent, and enforce it
Groups come into conflict when there are competing motivations, which will come about often because there is confusion as to the purpose of the group. Because we likely don’t have the perfect set of people at our disposal, it is likely that there will always be some degree of conflict in this respect, but having a stated goal from the beginning – which people were aware of and agreed to – will serve to keep the group on target. This can be a simple thing like a group post on Facebook or a Facebook group along the lines of:
“Hi, I’d like to try and get bronze pro status this year. In order to do this I’d like to organize some regular testing – suitable to my goals – in the weeks before each of the following events… the idea would be that this testing would be fairly serious compared to what we’ve been doing before. Is this of interest to any of you?”
Finding a group of like-minded people is one of the hardest things to do in respect to accomplishing things in Magic: the Gathering (and games in general, really), so if you have this then you’re definitely on the right track. It is important that you maintain the integrity and purpose of the group though, and that it doesn’t end up just being another beer and pretzels affair, where people mess around and play Commander. Encourage people to take it seriously and focus on the task; this will be appreciated if the majority of people are actually of a similar mindset to you, and if they are not, you’ve not found a group of like-minded people.
2. Be organised, and everyone must carry their own weight
Arrange at the start of the week the times when you’re going to meet up and do things. It’s really easy to say “ok, let’s try and fit in a few drafts over the weekend” then no one is actually around to screen share some drafts, because it turns out they’re working and didn’t say, or they were tired. People flake out like this quite a lot and it’s more difficult for them to do so if you’ve specifically said “7pm-11pm Saturday night for draft” and they’ve agreed. If someone continually agrees to meet with you at a particular time then cancels at the last minute, you ought to be reconsidering their place in your life, as this isn’t acceptable behaviour. Similarly if you’ve divided the deck building labour so that each of you is building a deck and some people continually fail to meet their end, that isn’t something which you ought to accept.
It’s quite easy for the person who is most keen to be the person who initiates everything, too. This means that they’re most likely to say “let’s meet up on Sunday night at 6 at mine”, and “Ok, I’ve checked out the prices for accommodation and flights”. They’re also most likely to be on top of things like a major event happening and a new deck emerging from that event, so they’re probably going go the extra mile and build that for Sunday night. They’re also most likely to be the person who pays for the flights they looked up, and the cheap apartment they found on Airbnb.
This also means they have to be at every testing session because no-one else bothers without them. Because they’ve hosted they’re going to spend half an hour each time clearing up pizza boxes and Coke bottles you and your buddies left. They’re also going to be using up more card sleeves, and reorganising their cards more often than you. They’re also most likely to get short changed because someone forgets (and it’s funny how forgetful people get…) to pay for flights and accommodation at events.
One person doing the lion’s share of the work like that sucks. It’s not fair, and it’s disrespectful to the person who is likely doing you the most good in terms of progression in the game. Develop a group culture in which each group member actively tries to carry their own weight, and not just because this is the fair, reasonable thing to do, but because individual contribution to a collective task makes the individual feel as if they are part of a collective, thus tying in their interests with the group’s more. This is what it is to be a team player, not just buying doughnuts when you mess up.
3. Avoid the “groupthink”, be objective
“Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints by actively suppressing dissenting viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences.” – (Shamelessly taken from Wikipedia)
The way this applies to Magic is likely a familiar tale. Early doors, your group finds a deck which it thinks is good, and it is doing well in the first few match ups. But then it starts to struggle against a deck which is doing well the following week. You want the deck you were testing before to continue being good because you have already invested time into it, and you’re resistant to the person in the group suggesting that perhaps you ought to play the new deck, which beats it. Alternatively, and perhaps worse, you are inclined to say that the results of the games you have played were unlucky games. This is quite a tricky spot to be in, because it might have you changing decks every week if you go one way, or stuck playing something which isn’t good anymore if you go the other. Experience is helpful in this respect, but ultimately it is quite difficult to avoid and something I struggle with often.
Another good example of groupthink applied to Magic: the Gathering happened around this time last year. We were preparing for GP London and arguing about Renegade Freighter way more than was constructive. This card emerged as a power house in our earliest draft decks in the format for obvious reasons; the card is practically impossible to single block for 2-3 turns in which time it deals 10-15 damage, the Built to Last and Smash to Bits make double blocking and removal a risky proposition, and even if you block it with a 5 drop at the end of all this, that train has gone to town. So it was that this exciting discovery became a “secret we learned” and half the people in our Draft Camp were super high on the card, and became irascible with anyone who suggested the card wasn’t *all that* or any strategy which would suggest an alternative narrative about the format. I was in the middle somewhat, having taken a back seat throughout the process with an eye to listening as much as possible, offering contributions in a mild way, and drawing my own conclusions about the format. I knew the people involved, the sorts of decks they liked, their bias in respect to various aspects of the game, how they viewed each other and knew that it would be practically impossible to fix the difficulties that were occurring in a timely fashion before the event.
At the event, I started each conversation with “what’s the best common in the set?” and everyone said Renegade Freighter. So much for our secret weapon, but at least we were on the right tracks, so to speak. That said, as many of you will no doubt remember, that format allowed for the drafting of a fairly diffuse range of decks, and not all of them were decks which would want to first pick that card, so both sides of the argument were right.
What’s the solution in a situation like this one? Two things spring to mind, the first of which is the importance of treating your teammates with respect, not as a platitude but because you actually respect them. Take a step back, try to be objective, and think about whether you value their opinion or not. If you do, chill out, take it on board, make your case firmly, clearly and dispassionately and if you can’t agree, then revisit it later once there is more information. If you don’t, then stop playing cards with them because you’re wasting each other’s time.
The second is to find outside information either in articles or from other groups. This sort of information is important for contextualising the work you do and shaping it relative to your own findings. It wasn’t possible in the lead-up to GP London, because the set had only been out for a very short time.
4. Learn to deal with people, don’t go chasing down rabbit holes
For me ideally I’d be playing in laboratory conditions with no distractions and 3 other people who also wanted that, but I’ve found often when I’ve been playing Magic that I’ve had to make compromises in respect to who is around when I played or discussed things. I’d have thought most people would have a similar experience – that’s just the nature of life. Playing in shops often means that there is someone around who will have a strong opinion on whatever you’re discussing about the game, and they will feel compelled to loudly and forcefully tell you you’re wrong, or perhaps you’ll ask a question of one person, and another – less informed – person will interject.
This is just life, really. So, how might you best deal with it? All too often I have made the mistake of thinking “ok, I’ll just include them fully in the discussion, engage them, and they’ll quite down a little, say less, and whoever I’m discussing the thing with really will respond once they’re done”. This is a pretty idealistic way to deal with the situation, and typically what happens is that the 3rd person just gets angry with you for “not respecting their opinion” or “being elitist” or similar, the whole conversation gets derailed and it ends up being about the subjective nature “having fun” or similar, and you never find out if Bradley Barclay would pick Gravedigger or Azure Drake pack one, pick one.
Now I tend to give short replies to whatever they said, then “hmm yeah maybe… what do you think, >person I was really speaking to<?” For obvious reasons you will want to be more subtle than this, but if you only have a short amount of time to prepare for events then you can’t spend ages arguing about some indulgent tangent a peripheral character wants to discuss if you want to be effective.
This sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how often I’ve been led down this road in the time I’ve been playing cards, and not even just when I was young when it would have been a matter of my own ego. I’m just really easily tricked into it, because I know the people I’m speaking to aren’t stupid, so I just sort of assume they won’t want to talk about something pointless and stupid, or argue for argument’s own sake. “Assume makes and ASS out of U and ME” I suppose. Because Magic – in my circles at least – is a very competitive game, it brings about competitive people, and social hierarchies are formed and fought over constantly.
All you can do with this is be constantly vigilant regarding what you’re spending time doing, and extract yourself from pointless conversations. This might mean…
5. Don’t be afraid to call people out, but do it in a respectful manner
Sometimes people behave badly in the context of Magic: the Gathering. I’ve alluded to this a bit already in respect to taking other people for granted or slacking, but it could also mean playing sloppily, cheating in testing, getting defensive, being too loud, arguing rhetorically, constantly speaking over people, always being late… but it could also mean some more serious stuff. I’ve played cards with people who have threatened to hit me, I’ve played cards with thieves, I’ve played with people who have gotten aggressive enough in arguments about cards that I’ve been close to losing my own temper badly, I’ve played with people who have either just been so weird it’s put me on edge, or so generally menacing that I have felt continuously uncomfortable while in their presence.
On reflection, some of the situations I am thinking about I couldn’t have simply called the people in question out, and in those cases I should have found a way to extract myself from the situation. I’ve played in some places which were sufficiently isolated that there simply wasn’t a massive talent pool, meaning that I played with who I could. That, and often you can’t remove one person without removing another because people are friends and so on. With all that said, some of the conditions above are simply unacceptable, and if you find yourself in them, please remove yourself. There’s got to be another way to find someone to test for a Magic event with!
Much of the time it will be possible to ask them to change it up. If someone is late all the time, ask them if another night would be better, and if they say that’s the best night for them, ask them to be there on time. If someone isn’t doing their share, assign them some of the work directly. It’s been a long time since someone cheated against me in testing, but this definitely used to be a thing – call them on it. If someone is getting defensive, just ask them why. It’s a bit awkward to do this stuff but if you’ve got mutual respect then it shouldn’t be a problem to do it because the other person will realise they’re letting the side down, and shape up. Bad reactions come from a perceived difference in status, in my experience, and if this is a continuous problem then the person isn’t good for the group.
6. Broaden your network; expand your resources
I’ve lived in two countries while playing cards and I still keep in contact with a bunch of the guys in Dundee and Glasgow, but also the Irish who I know from regularly flying to the Dublin PTQ, and various people in other cities in England. If you actively work on having a decent network of people to play with you don’t need to worry too much about the people who play locally.
When I moved to Nottingham, Matt Light and Neil Rigby were a big pull, and part of the reason I moved here. Matt doesn’t really play now and Neil’s about to move, so it’s really just me, David Inglis and Alastair Rees now. Even if both those guys moved, I would still be fine for playing cards because I know If I wanted to play regularly with Bradley Barclay or Rob Catton, or a bunch of other people, I would be able to do that.
Speak to people at events, try and make friends. Facebook groups which serve this function are likely quite common, and there is bound to be a Reddit page for this reason. Even if you already have a decent group, extending out like this allows for information to come in from other sources, which is good for dealing with the group think issue, but also allows for a sort of “doubling up” of testing.
You might be interested in these Facebook groups: Useful Magic: The Gathering Facebook Groups & Communities
That’s it for this week – quite a long article as it happens. Do you have any tips of your own that you’d like to add? If so then please let me know in the comments!
All the best,