Improving at Magic: How to Prepare for an Event

If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail.

– Someone wise, probably

Preparation is key to succeeding at most things in life. The problem is that preparing – doing your homework – is really boring. No one really likes doing it and those who say they are do are probably lying, at least a little. However preparation, like most difficult things, is often worth doing, particularly if you want to improve your Magic game. This week we are going to explore how I prepare for events. I’ve taken sometime away from Magic recently but with a Pioneer Pro Tour Qualifier and Pioneer MOCS (Magic Online Championship) qualifier rapidly approaching, it’s time for me to get back into playing shape, and that starts with preparation. I hope you enjoy the breakdown for my plan this week.


Step 1: Analyze. Where is the format right now?

Magic changes often and significantly; there is more and more information to take in every single day, from new deck lists going up on MTG Goldfish to new Twitch streamers trying out brand-new things. There is always new technology to stay on top of and even missing a little bit of Magic can be very punishing because new sets come out a new deck rises and a new set comes out. So we need to start by looking at what is going on in the format. The first step for me is to log onto MTGoldfish or any other decklist repository you turn to often. When I am looking at an event’s results, I’m usually interested in two key things:

  • What did the Top 8 look like?
  • What did the Top 16 look like?

I don’t typically care who won the event overall as much as I care for seeing the raw data from those placings. As I look at those, I’m often looking for “groups” of deck archetypes. So for example if the Top 8 has five aggro decks, I can potentially look at how to exploit that or into figuring out why Aggro was well positioned that weekend, etc. The general idea at this point is to identify trends and try to work out whether the metagame react to those (and then hopefully predict how). Pioneer has a lot of new decks at the moment, particularly as more people are returning to that format in preparation for the world hopefully re-opening. Also with high stakes tournaments on the horizon there is a lot of incentive to work hard when it comes to brewing and testing.

I’d currently describe the Pioneer format as “very much in flux” — there’s no longer Niv Mizzet reigning supreme over the format and instead there are lots of new strategies to consider. Step one is looking at what those are and how we can punish people for playing them. Do we:

  1. Find a proactive deck that punishes people? (Spirits/ Mono Black Aggro)
  2. Find a strategy that goes over the top? (Lotus Field/ Niv To Light w Yorion)
  3. Find a reactive strategy with good disruptive tools? ( UB Control w Thoughtsieze)

Credit: Robert “TheChirurgeon” Jones

Step 2: Start narrowing things down.

This is very important for eternal formats. There are often a lot of decks that you can play that “could” win the tournament, but you have to narrow things down. An old adage I like for Modern is that “no one really plays bad cards.” No one’s deck is outright bad in Modern so it can be pretty overwhelming when it comes to  knowing where to start when picking decks.

Here are some things I look for when I’m picking a deck for a constructed tournament:

  • Nut Draws. It’s really important to have a “nut draw” in Magic. This a game where everything comes together in the opening hand or your first few draws and you just leave your opponent in the dust. An example: Turn 1 Glistener Elf, Turn 2 Scale Up, Double Mutagenic Growth; another example is Turn 1 Lightning Bolt, Turn 2 Counterspell, Turn 3 Archmage’s Charm, Turn 4 Jace, The Mind Sculptor. In long Constructed Tournaments you really need to be able to have nut draws, and it’s worth noting that these need not always involve Aggroing people out quickly. The reason you want them is because you are never too good for a free win and a deck that can have them is going to give you a free win once in a while, while a deck that can’t well, won’t.
  • Solid Sideboarding. I love designing the sideboards for decks. One of the reasons I don’t care for decks like Affinity and Dredge is because they often have very weak sideboards. Sometimes it is appropriate to play these more glass cannon-like decks and if you like that style of play, more power to you. But I tend to prefer playing decks with good sideboarding options. A big problem with Affinity decks the like is that they often can’t sideboard much without removing their core engine, limiting how they’re able to react to challenges in the field.
  • Mulligans. I love to mulligan; doing so gives me a lot of excuse to complain but more accurately I think mulliganing is very important and so I want to have decks that are able to mulligan well.

So I start my search by looking for decks that meet these three criteria. Since I’m focusing on Pioneer this weekend, that narrows my choices down to the following.

  • Jeskai Ascendancy Combo
  • Niv To Light
  • Izzet Phoenix
  • Dimir Control

Credit: Robert “TheChirurgeon” Jones

Step 3: Practice and Refine. Play Some Games.

So now that we have some prospective decks to play, we need to play some games. Often I will want to run some games through leagues to get a feel for the decks. I don’t place much emphasis on my results as I play – I just want to know how the deck feels. I will often take some Notes in Notepad++ and after a session will make these notes a little more compact. At this point I will start crossing off some decks and I will have a lot more of an idea of where I want to go. Once I have a feel for what I want to field I will often discuss my ideas with some friends and teammates and compare notes. During this I’ll often write fairly long stream-of-consciousness type posts. I try not to get too invested in my ideas and thoughts – I’m mostly trying to generate discussion and see if people agree with what I’m saying. At the same time, you need to some confidence in your own findings, or you’ll likely be overwhelmed when you’re bombarded with feedback and suggestions. If I’m still unsure about what’s going on or how the deck plays in certain matchups I’ll play some more focused games and test those out – for example if the narrative is that Deck A loses to UB Control and I have been winning a lot, I want to test whether that’s true by finding and playing the best UB Control players I can.


Step 4: Finalize the List.

After all the testing and arguing and discussing, it’s time to lock it in. At this stage I want to make sure I know my sideboard plans for the major match ups, know my role in each match up, and make sure everything is structured correctly. I want to make sure there are no wasted card slots and that we’re really ready to go. Often this can lead to even more discussion and working stuff out but at some point you have to set things in stone. I like knowing my list before the event and not scrambling around at the last moment looking for cards or feeling unhappy about where I am. I often want to have everything sleeved up the night before so I don’t need to spend time worrying about that the day of.


Step 5: Do Your Best at the Event, Then Review the Process.

There have been plenty of tournaments in my life where despite all of my preparation, the day went badly and a friend of mine won the event. Take some time to decompress, then go back over your games and your preparation leading up to the event. What worked? What didn’t? I think it’s very important to be honest about your testing and try to iron out any problems for the next time. In the end, Magic is just one huge grind.


That wraps up my look at preparation – hopefully it all comes together with a successful event! In the meantime, if you have any questions or feedback, drop us a note in the comments below or email us at