In order to understand what’s wrong with the playtesting I see many players employing, I need to first explain something called the “microcosm theory.” In the beginning of almost any Magic player’s career, they start off by playing pick up games with their friends long before entering their first tournament. Since their pool of opponents is so small,occasionally they decide to improve their decks by playing certain cards which are specifically for defeating a difficult opponents, kind of like playing a main-deck sideboard card. This helps their deck immensely, because with their small group of players, adding those few cards means that they’re immediately better against a large percentage of their possible opponents. That player’s opponents will then respond by playing cards which trump the cards that were played against them. This kind of adaptation is common, and is typically the correct mode of design for these players to employ. It mimics the adaptation that occurs in a regular environment of the millions of worldwide players throughout the course of the season.
This microcosm of a regular environment is an interesting thing to watch, as its effects will seen throughout the course of a single season. Eventually these highly modified decks will be so specifically modified that they’ll be crushed by anyone playing something different than the decks which they expect. During a season of Extended known as “Combo Winter,” there were so many combo decks that it became a race to see who would break out their game-winning combo first. These decks ran the environment for the beginning part of the season, and eventually they started to play many cards which were designed to slow their opponents down, slowing themselves down in the process. When that happened, two new decks sprung up, Sligh and Oath, both having nothing to do with combos, and both were winning because the combo decks weren’t prepared to face them. It would have been a mistake to pilot either deck early in the season, but by the end of the season, they dominated.
Indeed, the larger pool of tournament Magic decks follow a similar shift as the microcosmic example above. Cards wax and wane in popularity and viability based on the cards played against them. Because of this, it is necessary to stay on top of all of the newest developments in an environment. Because decklists will change rapidly online, if you see any decks advertising cards which specifically work against certain ideas that you have developed, you may consider changing them to disrupt their strategy against you. Staying ahead of the changes in an environment means that you need to be running some experimental cards sometimes, but if you do it right, you should be a tough opponent to defeat, given that you’re avoiding all the common pitfalls that your opponent will expect.
In playtesting, it is best to maintain a certain distance from the regular environment in order to stay ahead. This means that you need to actively avoid the “microcosm” that was suggested in the above example. If you build your own designs on decks, and then build to beat your own unique designs, you’ll lose ground against all those players who play very generic versions of decks which are found online. When testing, do it one deck at a time, and build two separate versions of a specific deck, the online generic deck, and your team’s optimized version (use proxies if you need to). Test against the generic deck, test with the optimized version. This ensures that you’re always going to be playing against the most likely configuration of opponents.
Make sure that you test against both mainboard and sideboard matchups, giving precedence to the sideboarded games if you can. Remember that only one of the possible three games you’re playing in a tournament situation is going to be a mainboard match up, so ensure that you understand your generic main board strategy, but focus your playtesting time on sideboarded match ups, where your cards are going to change.
Teams need to playtest regularly because playtesting is the only way to make sure that you can successfully pilot your great decks to the top of a tournament. It also opens more doors as players start to better understand the inner workings of decks, and they’ll often discover new ways of beating them.