Mythic Championship Qualifiers: Testing, Results and Reflection by Graeme McIntyre

Graeme McIntyre breaks down his detailed Mythic Championship Qualifier notes to share his play-testing strategies.

Graeme's notebook

“Every discourse, even a poetic or oracular sentence, carries with it a system of rules for producing analogous things and thus an outline of methodology.” – Jacques Derrida

The first round of MCQs have come and gone leaving us all waiting for the announcement of the next series. I really enjoyed them – they were pretty much exactly what I expected and what I had missed about the game since the removal of the PTQ system. I travelled with Alastair Rees and David Inglis and caught up with some old friends while I was at the events. I also spent time with new people, and people I’d only gotten to know a little before. That human element is something that in my experience was missing from PPTQs because of how consumable they felt, and because so many of us felt trapped into playing them as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. For me, these events did everything I hoped they would.

Good times, but you can tell from that opener that I didn’t crush the tournaments. I went 5-2 in Liverpool, losing a crucial late round to Isaac Murray, lost a heart breaker to Alastair Rees in Sheffield and finished 6-2 with a quick 0-2 the next day, then some middling scores in Stansted. It would have been nice to have had it go a little more my way in one of those first two events, but at the same time there are certainly things I could have done better in the lead up to the event, both in terms of testing and the practical stuff; booking tickets, arranging travel and accommodation.

I took notes on my testing results thoughts going into each day. The presentation of this information is somewhat dense because I wanted to show it “in the wild”. The upside is that it’s a more accurate insight, but the down side is that it’s a little on the dry side for a bit. So, consider yourself warned!

Testing Diary

April 29th – we have a two week lead up to Liverpool and the decks we’ve got as front runners are Esper Control, Red Green/Temur Midrange, Sultai Midrange and Grixis Control. We’re going spend the week running these on Arena for five hours each. Hopefully by the end of the week there will be a clear choice among these decks. I’m not especially happy that we’re starting with Arena but War of the Spark prerelease was only a few days ago and we have no physical cards, so it’s either Arena or loads of proxies.

Sultai Midrange Testing

UG Nexus – WLW 1-0
UB Zombies – WW 2-0
RG Midrange – WLW 3-0
RG combo (?) – WW 4-0
UW Control – LWW 5-0
Esper Midrange – LWW 6-0
UG Nexus – LWW 7-0
Sultai Aggro – LWW 8-0
Izzet Drakes – LWW 9-0
GW Tokens – WLL 9-1
UG Nexus – WW 10-1
Esper Midrange – LL 10-2
Grixis Midrange WW 11-2

Roalesk, Apex HybridApril 30thRed Green/Temur Midrange today. Roalesk was good in Sultai but ultimately not worth the bother in this deck. There was trouble getting double green, but single blue was fine.

Temur/RG Midrange Testing

Red deck wins – WlW 0-1
Nexus – LWL 0-2
bad red green – WW 1-2
Grixis midrange- LWW 2-2
Red Green – WW 3-2
Esper Control – LL 3-3
Sultai – LWW 4-3
Bant Nexus – LWW 5-3
Esper – LWL 5-4
Rakdos – WLL 5-5
Demir – WLL 5-6
Esper Control – LWW 6-6
Ralzek Combo – WW 7-6
Grixis Control LL 7-7

May 1st – Andrea Mengucci Tweeted about playing Grixis this morning, so that’s what we’re testing. He liked Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker but not the Dragon. Watching his stream it looked like he struggled to build it, and I wasn’t especially happy with the list we ran, either. Bit of a shot in the dark.

Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God (WAR)

Grixis Control Testing

Grixis – LL 0-1
RG Boar – LWL 0-2
Esper Control – WW 1-2
RG Boar – LWL 1-3
Grixis – WW 2-3
Sultai – WW 3-3
RW aggro/midrange thing – LL 3-4
Grixis – LWL 3-5
Grixis – WlW 4-5
RG Arachanist – LL 4-6
Nexus – WLW 5-6
Izzet Drakes – WW 6-6
Grixis – LL 6-7
Red deck – WW 7-7
Red deck – LWW 8-7
UR Phoenix – WLL 8-8

May 3rdGrixis had promising cards and draws but overall middling performance. Could be a matter of how we built the deck. Esper today.

Esper Control Testing

UG Ramp Nissa – LL 0-1
Esper Control – LWW 1-1
Esper Control – WLL 1-2
Sultai – WLW 2-2
Esper Midrange – LL 2-3
UW Weenie – WW 3-3
UW Weenie – LL 3-4
Dimir Control – WW 4-4
Esper Control – LWL 4-5

This deck felt good when it had the right cards, but all too often you’d have the wrong card for the situation and get crushed.

Results from this week of testing showed a clear favourite.

Sultai did much better than anything else by quite a margin. I was worried about the nature of testing on Arena, because our opponents seemed to make a lot of mistakes, would concede prematurely and so on. At the same time everything else went about 50/50 while Sultai was better than 80%.

May 8th – this week we’ve got actual cards to play paper Magic with. It’s Wednesday, but there was an event at the weekend in which Red, Esper and Nexus did well. Nexus is a problem matchup for Sultai according to other sources, and theory, although we happen to have done well enough against it on Arena. The first thing we did was play Sultai vs Red and Sultai vs Esper, game ones.

Red vs Sultai 4-1 Sultai on the play, 3-2 Sultai on the draw.
Esper Vs Sultai 3-2 to Sultai on the draw, 3-2 to Esper on the draw.
Esper Vs Red 5-0 Esper.

May 9th – Sultai did well game 1 vs Red, and fine vs Esper. Esper also seems to crush Red which surprised me a bit, and left me wondering how the format fits together. Surely the Esper deck also does well vs Nexus, as does Red, so why did Nexus do well?

We’re going to build our sideboard with the intention of shoring up our Esper Match up in the hope that we can bring in the same cards vs Nexus and be in a reasonable spot to beat it.

4 Duress (Control, Nexus, maybe Red depending)
2 Negate (Control, Nexus)
2 Thrashing Brontodon (Nexus, Aggro)
2 Nissa, Who Shakes the World (Nexus, Control, Midrange)
2 Enter the God-Eternals (Aggro and Midrange)
2 Moment of Craving (Aggro)
2 Unmoored Ego (Nexus)

Sultai Vs Red 3-2 on the play 2-3 on the draw
Sultai Vs Nexus 4-1 on the play, 2-3 on the draw

Again, pretty acceptable.

May 15th – Liverpool went ok. A Planeswalker deck won which is maybe pretty good against Sultai. David’s event didn’t go well and he is talking about Esper Midrange, which he vaguely mentioned the day before Liverpool. This was a point of debate ultimately resulted in us testing Grixis which won a Starcity event in Richmond over the weekend.

25 LANDS
4 Blood Crypt
4 Dragonskull Summit
4 Drowned Catacomb
3 Steam Vents
4 Sulfur Falls
2 Swamp
4 Watery Grave

4 CREATURES
4 Nicol Bolas, the Ravager

22 INSTANTS and SORCERIES
2 Angrath’s Rampage
2 Bedeck / Bedazzle
4 Bedevil
2 Cry of the Carnarium
4 Discovery / Dispersal
2 Enter the God-Eternals
2 Ritual of Soot
4 Thought Erasure

9 OTHER SPELLS
2 Liliana, Dreadhorde General
2 Narset, Parter of Veils
4 Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God
1 Ugin, the Ineffable

SIDEBOARD
1 Cry of the Carnarium
3 Duress
1 Enter the God-Eternals
4 Legion Warboss
2 Moment of Craving
2 Unmoored Ego
2 Vraska’s Contempt

Grixis Control Testing

Red – WW 1-0
Esper Midrange – WW 2-0
Esper Control – WW 3-0
Esper Midrange – WW 4-0
UG Ramp – LL 4-1
Grixis – WLL 4-2
Esper Control – WW 5-2
Bant Planeswalkers – WW 6-2
Gruul Midrange – LWL 6-3
Bant Midrange – LWW 6-4
UB Ramp – WW 7-4

May 16th – Grixis did well enough to keep testing with it. Will see at the end of the day. I’m getting more worried about Arena as our win rate is very high even in high Mythic.

Grixis Control Testing

Esper LWL 0-1
Command – LL 0-2
UG Ramp – WW 1-2
planeswalkers – WLW 2-2
Esper Midrange – LWW 3-2
UG Ramp – LL 3-3
UR Drakes – WLL 3-4
UG Nexus – LWL 3-5
Esper Midrange – WW 4-5
Jund Midrange – 4-6

May 17th – Grixis struggled. Trying Sultai, might end up playing one each day.

Sultai Testing

Red – LWL 0-1
Esper Midrange LWW 1-1
Esper Control – LWL 1-2
Command – LL 1-3
Esper Control – LL 1-4
Grixis – LL 1-5
Grixis Control – LWW 2-5
Planeswalkers – LWW 3-5
Grixis Control – 3-6

Ok, off Sultai then.

May 22nd – I played Danny Nuttall who was playing a Sultai deck very much like the one I’d been testing, but using Command the Dreadhorde over Find/Finality. I was really impressed with this and wanted to give it a shot.
Command the Dreadhorde (WAR)
6-4 vs White
5-5 Vs Red
5-5 Vs Esper Midrange

Some poor draws along the way, mana issues etc. The deck seems pretty decent but then again they all do. I’m pretty much committed to playing it at this point.

May 23rd – Sultai Command on Arena

Sultai Command testing

Bant Midrange – LL 0-1
Esper Control – WLW 1-1
Sultai – LL 1-2
Bant Nexus – LWW 2-2
Red deck – WW 3-2
Esper Control – 4-2
White weenie – LWW 5-2
Command – LL 5-3
Red deck – WW 6-2
Esper Midrange – WW 7-2

Retrospective

Arena – Pros

We did the lion’s share of the testing on Arena. Although I was pretty disparaging about it when it first came out (there is simply no way that I’d be willing to grind up the cards. No way!) I was open to using the program as a tool.

If you’re not sure exactly what you’re trying to do and just want to get games in to build an impression of a deck, Arena is excellent. Because of the uncertainty we faced around deck selection, that time spent playing in a broad way was most likely to be helpful. It’s also good for ensuring that you’re competent with various decks so that you don’t make a pig’s ear of it when you do test them.

This is especially helpful if you’re not comfortable with certain architypes – I’m not a great Tempo player, and there is no doubt that I’d struggle if the next format was dominated by Mono Blue Aggro, or Izzet Drakes. But given 10 hours playing either of those decks on Arena I would learn a lot more about the decks, and the game, than I would if I was to do the same with a midrange, control, or aggro deck.

Arena – Cons

My experience so far has been that the standard of play on Arena isn’t very high. It might be that you’re playing against random people, and they aren’t paying to play tournaments like they did on Magic Online, so they’re more indifferent to the outcomes of the games, but it seemed to me that a fair number of my opponents were pretty loose.

Beyond this there is the issue that you can’t test specific matchups unless you know someone else who has the deck. For me, Arena is too impressionistic as a primary means of testing – you’re somewhat forced to put in as many games as you can and get a rough idea of what “seems good”. I think you can aim for better than that. Ultimately, it’s best used as a tool with which to augment paper testing.

Esper Midrange

One thing that doesn’t come out of these notes is that Esper Midrange was very popular among the best players at the event. In retrospect I should have – and would have – played it.

The week before Liverpool, the deck was still pretty underdeveloped. With David out of contention in 3 rounds, whilst I went 6-2 , I honestly wasn’t very interested in hearing him describe a “Fish” deck:

4 Hero of Precinct One
4 Thief of Sanity
3 Teferi, Time Raveler
1 Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord
3 Teferi, Hero of Dominaria
2 Liliana, Dreadhorde General

2 Despark
2 Dovin’s Veto
4 Thought Erasure
4 Mortify
2 Enter the God-Eternals

1 Island
4 Drowned Catacombs
4 Glacial Fortress
4 Isolated Chapel
3 Hallowed Fountain
4 Godless Shrine
4 Watery Grave

Thief of Sanity (GRN)Some of them had Seraph of the Scales. But at this stage I was looking at lists and thinking

“all this deck does is prays it draws Thief of Sanity or Hero, and a discard spell, then crosses its fingers.”

But then Gerry Thompson wrote an article about the deck, and how he’d change it. It ended up being a really decent Magic deck:

4 Hero of Precinct One
4 Deputy Of Detention
4 Thief Of sanity
3 Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord
3 Teferi, Hero of Dominaria
3 Teferi, Time Raveler

1 Despark
2 Mortify
2 Tyrant’s Scorn
2 Duress
1 Enter the God-Eternals
4 Thought Erasure

1 Swamp
4 Drowned Catacombs
4 Glacial Fortress
4 Godless Shrine
4 Hallowed Fountain
4 Isolated Chapel
4 Watery Grave

This list is considerably better with more cards that support the deck’s plan: more pressure in the form of Deputies, more Sorins to bring back your important creatures and more efficient spells. To me the first deck looks like a very rough draft while the second could be the bedrock of a format.
Deputy of Detention (RNA)

David said he’d been having success with Esper Hero right after the event, and I assumed what he was talking about was something like the first list; I wasn’t aware that another list had come out. I only discovered it the night before the event, when Alastair Rees mentioned it to me. I don’t know what I’d have done if I had the information earlier, but it seems to me that a deck like Esper Midrange really benefits from familiarity in respect to both mechanics and the exact way to build it.

That part is just life – you make calls about which deck to play and if it makes sense, then that’s all you can ask for. My biggest let down was not keeping up on the format. This already soured a protracted and frustrating conversation about the deck earlier, which for whatever reason didn’t include mention of the updates. Likely David thought I’d already dismissed the deck, so he didn’t think mentioning another decklist would be relevant.

Something which might have helped with this is having more people involved in my process.

When it’s just you and one other person testing its very easy for disagreement to become adversarial and consequently become a point of conflict and wasted time. I don’t mean big blowout arguments – in fact it can be the opposite: it’s easier to say you agree and keep the peace than it is to discuss things thoroughly. I can be difficult to approach on issues like this because I think in a clear, orderly way, can quickly construct arguments and dismantle weak positions. The problem is that being able to argue and express information quickly and effectively is not the same as being right. It can be daunting to deal with. I’ll need to find a way to make myself a bit more approachable in this respect. At the same time, I’d like to think that – at least to those close to me – I’d have earned a reputation for intellectual integrity and for trying to get the best possible results, so the way this went down strikes me as unfortunate.

If there are more people, there are more opinions. Saying “hmm, 4 other people I play with and respect disagree with me and think another deck is better” should at least give you pause, as well as more perspectives. Sometimes it’s easier to get to the truth of a subject by patching together things multiple people have said. Perhaps more important than either of these is that if two people disagree there isn’t anyone else who can step in and ensure the discussion stays productive.

You can also get more work done with more people, of course. David and I played so much Magic in the lead up to these events but the actual volume of work still didn’t leave us with quite enough information.

Conclusion

I was expecting some teething issues coming back into the game, and I’m not entirely surprised that I got caught out keeping up with the development of the format; it’s not like the old days where there are two websites to check a couple of times a week and that’s it. Some pros put content up on Twitter which you won’t necessarily see on Channel Fireball or Star City. There is a push to stream Magic, which adds to – I still think of a current trend, but actually has been happening for a while – video based content as opposed to articles. Of course there are still articles. Additionally, websites which gather up Magic Online results and produce decklists and statistics like MTGgoldfish (an invaluable resource) are not as good as they used to be, because of changes to availability of information from Magic Online, but also because that program is getting phased out for Arena.

It’s a strange spot because there isn’t a massive wealth of information from any given source, which makes it more important to make sure you’re aware of and check all the sources. I really missed a beat by not checking Channel Fireball and seeing the article about Esper Midrange. It might have made a big difference to the choices I made going forward. I think it would be easy to spend an hour every day keeping up to date if you were so inclined. Of course, this is quite time consuming and something which is mitigated by having more people involved in your testing process.

This was a really interesting article to write because while I’ve taken notes during testing over the years they’ve never been that substantial (counting mulligans etc) and I’ve certainly never spent such a long time reflecting on them. I actually learned a lot from doing it, and would definitely recommend. I had a broad idea of what happened and what went wrong, but being able to go back over it on a day by day basis and see it take shape was thought provoking. There are definitely some things I need to work on….

….But that’s it for this article. Next time I’m going to write about some more practical stuff about the events themselves as it seems like everyone I know has a fairly strong opinion on them. Until then, all the best.

-Graeme McIntyre

Read more of Graeme’s articles (including his prelude to the MCQ format) via his author page.

How do you find Arena as a tool for competitive testing? Read more on Arena in our recent article, exploring whether Magic: the Gathering can ever truly be represented as an esport.

Tell us your favourite testing techniques & MTG resources in the comments, and remember to check out our upcoming tournament schedule.

Mythic Championship Qualifiers: Testing, Results and Reflection by Graeme McIntyre
Mythic Championship Qualifiers: Testing, Results and Reflection by Graeme McIntyre
Graeme McIntyre breaks down his detailed Mythic Championship Qualifier notes to share his play-testing strategies and advice.
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Graeme McIntyre
I've been playing magic since the end of Rath Block, and I've been a tournament regular since Invasion Block. I started studying for a PhD in Sociology at University of Leicester in 2017. I was born In Scotland, but moved to Nottingham three years ago, seeking new oppertunities both academic and magical. I play regularly with David Inglis, Alastair Rees and Neil Rigby. I've been on 5 Pro Tours the 2016 English World Cup Team, and Scottish 2003 European Championship Team, but what I really bring to the table is experience. I've played 136 Pro Tour Qualifiers, 18 Grand Prixs, 11 National Championships, 13 World Magic Cup Qualifers, 51 Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifiers and more little tournaments than I can remember. More than anything else, my articles are intended to convey the lessons of this lived experience. Likes - robust decks, be they control, midrange, beatdown or combo. Cryptic Commands, Kird Apes and Abzan Charms. Dislikes - decks that draw hot and cold. Urza's Tower, Life From the Loam and Taigam's Scheming.