Monday, December 13, 2010

Better Playtesting: Overcoming Localism and Forming a Team

In my previous post in this series, I discussed how to playtest in an organized manner in order to prepare your list for a tournament.  One of the biggest assumptions I made was the availability of 3-4 committed teammates with similar goals.  If you are competitive enough to consider playtesting in that manner, chances are your potential teammates are competitive too.  This creates a problem: your teammate for the next GT is your opponent at the next local weekly.  A lot of players would resist forming a real playtesting team for a GT because they don't want to share information that could hurt them on the local level.

Overcome localism
If you are going to focus your energies on winning GTs, you and your potential teammates have to have a serious discussion where you all agree to put your competitiveness into national and regional tournaments, and treat the local tournaments as non-competitive friendlies that you use just to sharpen your technical ability, not to actually break new grounds with your lists.  If you can't overcome a locally minded focus, you'll never rise above the local level. 

During my M:tG career I was locally minded and myself and 3 other players dominated the local scene and between the 3 of us we won nearly ever local tournament.  But we didn't playtest together, and we didn't share deck tech.  What ended up happening was when we would go to Pro Tour Qualifiers, or Junior Super Series tournaments, we would do OK due to our abilities, but we would always lose to people who were organized into teams and had better playtesting.  Their decks were more refined and their sideboards were especially superior.  After one tournament, we decided to form a team of our own, playtest together, share information, and help each other refine the technical aspects of our game.  The result was that within 6 months all of us were playing on the Pro Tour.  We didn't care about being cut throat at the local tournaments, but we did care about cutting down the competition regionally, and it worked.

So what do you need to do to get a competitive team?

e pluribus unum

1.  Talk about goals, don't assume them.  You might think that your goal for the team is the next GT, or 'Ard Boyz semis.  But if you never say it aloud, you might be surprised to find out that the rest of your "team" has a different agenda.  You can't overcome localism if you have teammates who don't want to.  A good team always starts with the players sitting around a table having an honest discussion about goals.  If someone is not on the same page with the rest of the team, unfortunately that person has to go.  If you aren't all willing to commit to the national or regional level of competition, there is no reason to be a team, because the localism will sabotage your plans.  

2.  Plan your year as far in advance as possible.  One player might be most interested in a GT 6 months away.  Another may care most about 'Ard Boyz semis 9 months away.  You should circle these important 'event' dates on your calendar as early in the year as possible, because it will allow you to focus your playtesting schedule.  What you do not want, is to have to playtest two formats simultaneously.  If one player's 1500 point GT is a week away from 'Ard Boyz, chances are one of them is not going to get the playtesting time it deserves since you can only do serious playtesting for a limited number of events per year.  To avoid this, plan your year out as far ahead as possible, and you won't have hurt feelings down the road.

3.  Be willing to jettison weak links.  Your playtest data is valuable, and being a teammate who contributes is the price for obtaining it.  If you have someone who doesn't contribute, even if he is a good player he can't stay on the team.  It will cause drama and problems.  There are other ways to contribute besides playtesting hours, but a teammate does have to contribute somehow.  

For instance, on my old M:tG team, one of our guys wasn't the best player, or a good deck builder, but he literally had 12 of every card.  Thanks to him, we could build 3 of any deck we wanted to play at a tournament.  Nowadays with store/website sponsorships, that isn't a big deal, but in the late 90's this was a huge deal that gave us a giant leg up on other teams.  Say other teams playtested and they found a deck that was dominant.  But they had 5 teammates.  Chances are, they don't have enough copies of the cards to all play the same deck.  And buying cards for a deck for a single tournament is cost prohibitive.  So having a teammate who already has enough cards to make any deck in multiples is a huge, huge deal.  And it wasn't one sided.  While he wasn't a great player, he was good enough to benefit from our playtesting data and our deck decisions, and he was quite successful in tournaments himself due to it.

So if a player isn't willing or able to contribute to the team effort in some form, he has to go.  This also goes if he turns out not to be a good player.  If your team playtests together for a few months, and you find all of your skills progressing nicely, but one player despite his helpfulness and enthusiasm, isn't progressing he might have to go.  You can't have every player on the team be a 7 and one guy be a 3.  It creates problems with playtesting by skewing the data.  If weak link guy consistently loses games that someone else would have won, how could you ever trust the mathematical results you get from playtesting?  Simply put, you can't.  You need playtest teammates who you feel are as skilled as (or hopefully more skilled than) most of the players you'll be playing against at the event.

Dropping a player from the team is a really difficult conversation to have, and should not be done lightly.  Heck, in many cases it's easier to just break up the team entirely and reforming with a new nucleus than dropping a player that you're all close with, if that's what it takes.  As difficult as it is, its way less difficult than spending dozens of hours in mathematically meaningless playtesting and getting smashed at the event you trained so hard for. 

4.  Triumph as a team.  After that downer section, I want to end this on a positive note.  The biggest thing you have to do to get over localism is be willing to sacrifice individual glory for the sake of the team.  When your teammate wins the tournament, you have to be as happy for them as you would be for yourself.  Winning that tournament was not from luck, it was a team effort and you should take a great deal of pride in the win, even if it isn't you holding the trophy.  If everyone is contributing properly, a win for anyone on the team is a win for everyone on the team.  The guy who takes the prize gets to buy everyone a round of drinks, though.


  1. Another one I think needs mentioning is:

    Be aware of where you're playing.

    There are 3 LGS within 30 minutes of each other where I live. Each one has a different "feel" or "vibe". One of them is a distinctively NON competitive place, with a much more "friendly/casual" attitude than the rest.

    There is a group of competitive MtG players that come to all of the stores for constructed game play, and when they hit the non-competitive store, it gets weird really fast. This "team" (for lack of a better word) does not understand why they are less than popular at the non-competitive store, and continue to come in, barn-stormer style, wanting to win the big prizes.

    If the team were aware of the store vibe, it's possible they might act differently. They might send fewer members of their team, or they might do other things to show respect for the store and its community. They might not as welll.

    It's being aware of what you're going into that can make a difference in how you're treated and whether you're invited back.

  2. That's a whole different ball of wax. If the scrub store is offering amazing prizes at their weekly tournies, then don't be surprised when the chum attracts the sharks.

    If I found a LGS that was full of fluff bunny 40k players who were terrible at the game, but every week they gave out $200 in prizes for their tournament, I'd almost certainly go. I wouldn't take any joy or pride in winning, but for a big enough prize it would be worth my time.

  3. Thanks for this article... I was once a competitive MtG player as well, but I had that local mindset too so I never did better than winning a bunch of FNMs. This article was like a blast to my past of reading starcitygames articles!

    As far as your advice... have you considered the time investment of so many 40k games? I would love to spend that much time gaming, but I never felt like I had enough time to playtest for MtG tournaments, and the games rarely lasted more than 30 minutes. I can't imagine what kind of time it would take to run 50 40K games to prep for a tournament (and that's just the initial gauntlet before refinement).

  4. Yeah, it is a serious time investment, that's why I advocate using 3 turn games in 40k playtesting. If you and your playtest buddies are serious you could easily get 10 2,000 point 3 turn games in on a sunday while watching football. If the other two playtest guys do the same you can power through it quickly.

    Luckily with 40k the big events are usually spaced out months apart and the metagame (if that exists at all) changes so slowly that your data doesn't expire fast, so you don't have to cram it all into a two week playtest push like you often have to do for big MtG tournies.

    If my 2011 target tournies are a GT in March 'Ard Boyz in June, and a GT in September it wouldn't be hard to dedicate 3 months of prep for each.

    Really it all comes down to how much commitment you're willing to put into it and how important winning is. Because 2 days a week for 3 months is a lot to give up.

    There is a reason why Magic pros can be dominant for so long and then burn out and quit the game, and its because they get burned out playtesting. It is really really easy to get sick of the game when it starts resembling work more than it resembles fun.