This is a more of blog post where I’ll talk a bit of the process of preparing for the Magic: The Gathering World Championship, what it means to me, and also my practice schedule and how I try to reconcile the preparation with my life as a working professional—something that hopefully other Magic players with a competitive vein can identify with. I have to keep my secrets wrapped up for the tournament, so unfortunately no talk of strategy—at least for now.
Worlds means a lot to me. It’s a special tournament. Of course, there is the “dollar EV”, “Pro Points”, and everything else—which is great—but there’s more to it than that for me. Growing up, I was a bit of an MTG coverage nerd. I’d read every magazine, every forum post, and tournament report. The first article I remember reading that got me in love with the idea of competitive Magic was a piece from an imported The Duelist magazine about Tom Chanpheng’s 1996 World Championship victory.
The magazine was a gift from John, an American English teacher who moved to my small town of Taubaté. He taught kids how to play Magic in his backyard, and then later at small tournaments inside a rented, out-of-order commercial fridge (It’s a long story). John gave me the magazine to help me practice my English, a language I couldn’t understand very well at 11 years old. So, I got a dictionary, and the first time reading through took a bit of time, but I kept at it, and reading, re-reading, and re-reading it again.
The dream of playing a game against the best in the world simply fascinated 11-year old me. The excitement, glory, the whole concept of being able to be The World Champion™. I’m pretty sure that I’ve spent more time reading that magazine and day-dreaming about being a world champion than I did actually playing Magic, which is probably why I sucked so much at the game for the next 20 years.
Another connection to Worlds was Carlos Romão’s victory in 2002. Back then, I was kind of away from the game and not following it much, but accessing thesideboard[dot]com (not a relevant link anymore) and seeing a country-man as WORLD CHAMPION was incredible. It was hugely motivating. He showed it was possible to take on the world’s elite even if you’re from a far away, poor country. The way he did was spectacular too—all the stories about how he broke the format with innovative strategy, dominating the Psychatog control mirror, one of Magic’s toughest and most complicated matchups. It was so cool!
My first international tournament was also Worlds, back in 2005 when it had a different format and was “easier” to qualify for—it was essentially a Pro Tour. I got to experience first-hand the brilliance of high-level Japanese magic. Japan was dominating the international scene during that period, and that tournament was the apex of their domination. Not only were their results astounding, the way they played was otherworldly.
Kenji Tsumura had a 4-color Psychatog deck with cycling lands, Life from the Loam, Gift’s Ungiven, and Sensei’s Divining Top. All of these are very complicated cards that lead to a million different decisions in a single turn – which would last all of about 0.015 seconds in his tiny, but capable hands. Peak Tsumura was a sight-to-see.
How did he do it? There are some very fast players on the Tour even today, but I don’t think I’ve seen anyone as fast, confident, and lethal since then. It’s interesting how that particular tournament was mentioned as an inspirational moment by two future Hall of Fame players—Willy Edel and Shota Yasooka, who mentioned the performance of the Japanese players was second to none.
So, yeah, simply competing at Worlds is a big deal to me. I got qualified by winning Pro Tour: Aether Revolt, which was an emotional, incredible experience in itself—the happiness of overcoming a challenge and living a childhood dream is a feeling that very few things in life can match. I really couldn’t be more thankful for it, and if I never win a single game again, I’ll retire and die a happy player.
With the PT trophy came an unexpected Platinum status. It was something great but also presented it’s own set of challenges. For PT: Aether Revolt, I’d blown most of my vacation days in order to arrive early, practice, and do some sightseeing through Europe. But as for the rest of the season? Very few off-days left, but my employers would include me working ahead of schedule to clear it all, traveling the day before the event, and… When am I supposed to practice again?
To be clear, while some players can make a decent living out of Magic by being skillfull and producing content, I don’t think it’s a career that would be good for me—I suck at it. I like Magic as a hobby, but I love my current job and career, and I want to keep it that way. So, that’s my choice and I get to live with it. Living with it means pulling double all-nighters before my trip, working on the plane, arriving late for registration and spending Saturday working from the hotel after you miss day 2, which is what happened in Nashville. For Kyoto, I got lucky and found the time to travel, but practice time was close to zero and there were some very weird conference calls at 3AM.
Overall, I’ve been dealing poorly with finding time to practice since work will always have to be a priority. For Worlds preparation, I’ve done some things differently though, and I think it’s going a lot smoother.
The first change I made is to play less games in a series when I am testing a matchup. Back in my PTQ days (that was just a couple months ago, right?) I used to really enjoy playing several series of 10 games before I allowed myself to form an opinion. I’d note it in a spreadsheet and feel confident I had good estimate on that matchup. Not only is that impossible when the clock is a concern, I’m not convinced it’s effective at all when dealing with a brand new format.
Lists are bound to change early on anyway, and it’s simply more productive to play to the point where you can extrapolate what the dynamics of the matchup are likely to become, find whatever interactions you like from the deck, make a note, and move on. That could be as little as a single game, but I’ve found it often hovered around the 5-game range. The key is to get a feel of the matchup and early game sequences, and just try to remember it later when it becomes handy.
A crucial aspect here is having good communication with your playtest partner. Sometimes, my partner would say what they were most afraid of during the game, and what their plan to victory looked like. You can really get a good feel for the dynamics on the other side by listening to their point of view. Sam Black and Michael Majors (We miss you, Michael!) wrote in the past about their processes for preparing for tournaments, and I remembered thinking originally that what they were doing was kind of insane and completely different to my approach. Now, I see myself getting closer to what they wrote about—more on the flow of matchups than on lots of hard results and post-sideboard games.
This isn’t without risk, and I’ll always have the suspicion that maybe a sweet, sweet brew got discarded too early, or that I got a matchup totally wrong—which affects all the metagame predictions—but overall I’m confident it’s the right approach for this job. The next step, and the reason I think the first change is working well, was to start talking a lot more with my teammates. If I’m playing less games, I really need more sets of eyes to make sure I’m not doing anything wrong in the process. It sounds obvious, but it’s important.
I traditionally worked best when I had a single dedicated person to playtest with, and I tended to trust the games we played over the opinions of others. This is because I assumed everyone else’s testing was biased in some way, or because they didn’t play enough, or because Magic Online practice was inconsistent. But, the truth is that I was just missing out on a lot of useful insight.
To make communication better, instead of asking someone if they think a matchup or card is good or bad, I found it more productive to discuss specific play-scenarios, where hearing someone else can really open your eyes to a different tactic or strategic approach in the matchup. Similarly, questions on how someone would sideboard in a matchup (even if they’ve never played it), because hearing sideboard plans is an indirect way to get inside someone’s head, and see the flow of a matchup from their point of view (plus you might learn a sweet sideboard tech).
Finally, I did some day-to-day changes to create more practice time. Some of it isn’t easy, like telling my friends and family that I’m unavailable for several weekends, but I think they understand why I’m doing it, and that it’s only temporary. I also optimized my Magic time by skipping in-person-cardboard drafts, prereleases, and Friday Night Magic “practice”, instead choosing to dedicate my time focusing on Magic Online. It’s more efficient this way, even though I can’t wait to go back to the classic FNM + Group Dinner combo.
Another positive change I’ve made was shifting my sleep habits. I now wake up at 4am, get a quick shower, and just play Magic Online until around 7, which is when I leave for work. I try to get my clothes and breakfast all set up from the night before, it makes my morning much less stressful.
I’ve also started commuting exclusively by bus or by foot. It takes a bit longer, but I use that time to read yesterday’s article, reflect on the games I played that morning, or maybe brainstorm something new to test. At work, I’ll read some articles during lunch, but overall I make a conscious effort to focus on the job. Everyone is prone to distractions, but I tell myself that it’s more efficient to get my work done sooner. Then I can think about Magic later—hopefully uninterrupted. Splitting my time between the morning and evening allows me to enjoy the games more, and focus better.
Later, when I get home at around 8pm, I’ll get back to Magic Online and often leave a stream or two opened on mute. I really like watching other people draft and than try to force myself to see their rationale when an unexpected pick happens, instead of jumping to critique whether it was “right” or “wrong”. So this means I typically get around four hours of Magic in each day during the week. I assume it’s about a third of what the real pros are putting out there, but it’s my best effort at doing a Magic Online bot impression.
My plane is boarding soon. I am dying of anticipation already. I really hope you get to watch and support your favorite players. It’s going to be a great week!
Lucas Berthoud is a Platinum level pro player for the Hareruya Latin team, a Pro Tour champion, and overall swell guy.