This post is about testing to see if the deck you’ve built behaves consistently, and whether it’s actually competitive. It’s basically expanding on the closing points I glossed over in the second Magical statistics post.
The first thing to do is to shuffle and draw a hand to see if you got the land proportions right.
- draw seven cards
- is the hand playable? If not, then mulligan: back to step 1, but draw one fewer cards this time.
- If you have a playable hand, then play it – put down a land for your first turn, then draw and play another land and a spell, and so on. Imagine how your opponent would respond; imagine the results from your actions.
The goal here is to get a playable hand in the first draw or the first mulligan, and then to continue to have land to cast spells and things to do each turn. If it regularly takes more than one mulligan to get to a playable state (and winning from an opening five card hard is way more difficult), or if you are regularly left with nothing to do on a turn, then you should look at the reasons for the unplayability and adjust things in the deck:
- too much land, not enough land, or the wrong colour mix: look again at the number of land cards. If this is too hard to get right, then maybe that five colour deck is just not going to work out.
- too many expensive spells: look again at the mana curve for your deck.
- not enough creatures: look again at the mix of creatures to non-creature spells
Once you have a deck that consistently makes playable hands and draw sequences, you should try playing it against other decks.
If you’re building a limited deck at a draft event of some kind, that testing will be done against other players and the decks they build in the course of the event.
However, if you’re building at home for later play, then you’ll want to play the deck against another baseline deck or two to see how it fares.
- clear a space large enough to layout two board positions close to each other.
- roll to see whether left or right goes first.
- lay out the cards as you would normally, but if they’re side by side then I would recommend mirroring the two.
- play each hand in turn. Stick to the normal phases of play* on each turn. This isn’t just good practice, it will also help you to not forget anything – the phases are a checklist for each player’s turn.
- keep notes of how the test hand performs.
- make adjustments if appropriate or possible.
- test again.
- and again. Normal matches are best of three, so you want to run each iteration of a deck against the baseline at least three times.
- use all the paraphernalia you would use in a normal game: life dice, tokens, and counters – the more authentic you can make it, the more thorough the test is.
- try to play each hand based only on what that player can see. Try to ignore the knowledge you have of the other player’s hand.
- if you have trouble separating the two in your mind, try putting the different board positions on opposite sides of a table so that you have to get up and move to the other side in order to play the other hand when the turn changes. This physical change can reset things and help with mental separation.
- if there’s an instant response which one player would likely make, leave a marker visible which will remind you to glance at the other hand at the proper time.
- don’t be afraid to go back and fix something if you made a mistake playing one hand because you forgot something the other player would have done, but only do this retconning for situations where there is a response the defensive player would have made based on the information at hand rather than because you’re rooting for one side or the other.
- be honest, and be brutal. Your opponents won’t cut you any slack because it’s a new deck, so don’t soft-pedal your baseline deck to give the other deck a chance.
Or, of course, get a friend to play against you instead.
Different Tests for Different Contexts
So far, I’ve only really played limited formats with (what should usually be) 40 card decks. In that context, I have kept my first limited deck intact as a baseline deck: it plays fairly consistently, it has multiple win conditions, and it has actually won quite frequently during my play tests**. What I’ve been testing are different clan decks*** drawn from a sealed pool.
If you’re playing a constructed format (whatever the deck size) you should consider pulling together archetypal builds for test purposes. These are the kinds of decks you will encounter at competitive events, so if you new deck can’t beat them then you need to rethink.
… and by “pull together” I don’t necessarily mean buy all the cards for those builds, but rather find a deck list and print out proxy copies of the cards. Unless, of course, you like those decks and want to start playing with them.
For the Modern format, Red Deck Wins or Mono Blue Tron seem representative. If you’re playing Standard then this budget Mono Red deck will be a good test bed. Those are all Tolarian Community College videos because I find the Professor’s presentations easy to understand.
Good luck with your decks, and may the statistics be supportive of your plan.
[*] untap, upkeep, draw, main, combat, second main, end of turn, cleanup.
[**] originally it was a 60 card deck which consisted of all my relevant picks from the booster draft, but that was a mistake. Trimming it to 40 made it good. If that’s not a metaphor for the value of editing, then I don’t know what is.
[***] these being the clans of Tarkir, the current play set as of this writing.