Playtesting is Overrated

If you read a lot of Magic articles, then by now you should know that you’re a terrible player. You should also know that the people who write these articles are all terrible players, and that there is nothing anyone can possibly do to become a better player. If that sounds like a ridiculous statement, then perhaps it’s time to stop reading all those worthless articles on how everyone sucks. I am a good Magic player. I dare say I’m a damn good Magic player. And what’s more, I’m going to tell you how to be a better Magic player as well. The one thing that holds back a lot of competitive players back when trying to improve their game is one simple fact that no one wants to admit: playtesting is overrated. In fact, playtesting is borderline useless.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that you should ignore the metagame entirely and live with your head up your ass. What I am saying is that playing 100 games of Super Friends vs. Mythic Conscription isn’t going to make you a better player. In fact, it could have a severely detrimental effect on your game. When you playtest, you’re not actually playing Magic. You’re focusing on rote memorization of every possible situation two decks can wind up in against each other and trying to identify the correct play in these situations. However, this process fundamentally breaks down when you play against an altered version of a popular decklist or when your opponent pilots a deck in a way that your playtesting partners had not. When this happens, you wind up in a situation that you had not prepared for, and since all you did was prepare for specific situations and not prepare to play Magic, you’re pretty well fucked.

So then how does one become a better Magic player? My answer is going contrary to all conventional thinking so instead of disregarding it immediately, at least hear me out on this. The key to becoming better at this game we all love is casual multiplayer. Is your mind blown? Do you think I’m out of my fucking mind for suggesting such a ridiculous notion? Well read on, and perhaps you’ll become a believer as well.

There are a few principles at work in multiplayer that help improve your game. Possibly the most important is that aren’t throngs of websites dedicated to posting the top casual multiplayer decks. The notion of netdecking for a multiplayer game is not only foolish, but doing so would make you a total dick who no one would want to play with anyway. Being forced to build your own deck from scratch is something that many players haven’t bothered to experience since they discovered online decklists. I’m not saying that a few multiplayer games and you’ll be the top deck designer in the world, but after building your own multiplayer decks and being forced to make tough card choices, you will be able to immediately pick up a decklist and understand exactly why every single card is there, even if you disagree with some choices. While deckbuilding skill is the most important thing that most players need to work on, it’s still not actually related to your play skill. Admittedly, my best results at large tournaments were not with decks of my own design. However, they WERE with decks that I spent one hour or less playtesting, so I do actually know what I’m talking about here.

This brings us back to the original question: what about multiplayer improves your actual gameplay skill? To start, you will find yourself in absurd situations that will never happen in a constructed game. The less focused your deck is the more likely this is to happen, so I recommend grabbing a stack of 40 lands and 60 spells that you like, shuffle them up, and see what happens. This is how many of my decks start, and they’re the ones that will help teach you the most. Afterall, a combo deck in multiplayer is no different than a combo deck in standard: what you do is not related to the opponent in any way. However, a deck of good cards and little discernable strategy will ensure that you frequently wind up looking at the board and looking at your hand and wondering “How the Hell did this happen, and how do I get out of this situation?” This is where your skill starts to improve. Memorizing how two decks frequently play against each other doesn’t make you a better player, but winding up in ridiculous situations that you have to somehow reason your way out of with the resources available will. This directly leads into my next important point.

In multiplayer, your back is always against the wall. No matter how strong a board position you have, you still have multiple opponents who actively want to kill you. When you have a superior board position to your opponent, it’s easy to get away with play mistakes and not lose a game. When you’re fighting from a losing position, however, you can’t afford a single mistake or it just sets you back even further. This is even truer in multiplayer where every mistake you make can result in five people exploiting it and setting you back, or even killing you. Basically, a play mistake is like leaving yourself open in a boxing match. If you misstep you eat a haymaker to the face. In multiplayer, however, one misstep and you have one dude landing a haymaker, another guy putting a vise grip on your balls, and a third guy fucking your girlfriend. Needless to say this principle of compounded pain and suffering will severely reduce the number of play mistakes you make.

Believe it or not, multiplayer will also teach you to metagame. If you play with the same group of friends every week, you start to know each other’s decks, and you start to know which decks to fear. Instead of just fearing those decks, you start to figure out how to beat them with minor alterations to your current deck. If you don’t understand the parallel, this is EXACTLY what you should be doing when you netdeck. You take a stock decklist, figure out what the metagame at an event will be as best as you can, and then make alterations to the deck to prepare yourself for said metagame. This is not restricted to choices of sideboard cards. Metagaming in this way is important for a couple reasons. It prepares you for the real life metagaming that I just described, but it also will introduce you to cards that you didn’t even know existed. My first EDH deck was Ku Klux Karn (No colours allowed), and it dominated my new playgroup to the point where they almost didn’t want to play EDH anymore. Then one day something happened: one of my friends dropped down a Damping Matrix. Game over, Jeebus. Game over. Months later when the thopter combo decks became popular in extended, my friend didn’t even need to wait for someone online to figure out the solution, which took surprisingly long; he showed up at the store and bought three more matrices.

The final skill that multiplayer will teach you is more subtle. It’s hard to learn, but extremely powerful if you do. That skill is the art of the mind fuck. There are a couple components to this, and I will address each separately. The first component is learning to read your opponents and know what they have in their hand, as well as what it will take to make them cast it. In a multiplayer game recently, I was preparing to cast a Rites of Replication kicked with Doubling Season out…but what to target? There were some beastly creatures out. Creatures that said “If Jeebus gets another turn, everyone dies to these ten tokens.” However, there were also five other players still alive. Did any of them have mass removal? If so, would they use it, or were they in a position where they assumed I’d take out a few other players first giving them an opportunity to save it until it was more advantageous? Ultimately, I decided on my Primeval Titan. I got ten tokens, searched for twenty land ensuring I drew nothing but gas for the rest of the game, and promptly watched them all hit the graveyard the next turn. The other component of the mind fuck is controlling what your opponents think you have in your hand, what they think you’ll want to cast, and in multiplayer situations controlling who they target instead of you. There’s really no way to describe how to do any of this, but I will say you will get better at reading opponents in multiplayer faster than you will in one on one circumstances for the simple fact that there’s more of them to read, so you get more practice in.

Now we’ve covered all, or at least most, of the reasons multiplayer will make you a better player. You will also note that none of this carries over to standard playtesting techniques, as there is really nothing to be learned from such a practice. But you may be asking yourself, “Dr. Jeebus, what if I choose not to improve? What if I’m happy playing bad multiplayer decks and losing because I’m just having fun?” The answer to that is simple. Playing Magic is fun. Watching other people play Magic seldom is. When you scrub out at a PTQ, you go home and drink with your friends, and fun is had by all. When you scrub out in a multiplayer game, you sit there for potentially hours watching everyone else play without you. I think most people will agree that’s a far worse situation to be in than just leaving a tournament earlier than you hoped.

I hope you’ve learned a lot from this and that for many of you it has been an eye opener. Play some multiplayer with your friends and watch as you become a better player, a better deckbuilder, and probably even better friends. Just make sure you don’t make any play mistakes, or I’m fucking your girlfriend.

© 2010 by Dr. Jeebus


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Rob Davis, Dr. Jeebus. Dr. Jeebus said: "New" Blog Post: Playtesting is Overrated […]

  2. Dr. Jeebus says:

    Thanks! I appreciate the feedback as always!

  3. Sup, just found you through Yahoo. The site looks great and i’ll be sure to come back often.

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