The Pillars of Playtesting

chazonmedia.comWith roughly a month before State/Provincial/Territorial events, it’s necessary to set your game plan leading up to them. That game plan – known colloquially as “play-testing” – can be defined simply as the process by which you improve your deck and/or your in-game skills.

Simple, right? Well, there’s a lot more to it than that: there’s a “how,” a “what,” a “who,” a “where,” and a “when” too. In short, there are principles – “pillars” – to play-testing, and once you get those pillars firmly established, your pre-tournament preparation will be miles ahead of the competition. And with that in mind, I’ll address these five critical points about play-testing:

  1. Methodology Suggestions
  2. Decklist Evolution (inc. Luxchomp deconstruction)
  3. Opponents
  4. Places to Play
  5. Time Remaining Before an Event

How”: Methodology Suggestions

There are several ways to play your games in such a way that you test as efficiently and effectively as possible. Some decisions may need to be made dependent on how much time you have, or what your purpose is, but all of the below should give you a new perspective on a very old process.

The “Ten-Game-a-Day” Regimen

The main point behind this testing style is to get a large number of games in, thereby having as many opportunities to find new things as possible. Our theory at work here is a subversion of the notion that quantity isn’t quality: the belief that if you don’t know what you want to play, then you will inevitably approach something satisfactory through constant experimentation.

Once you’ve settled on a deck, it then carries with it the convenient secondary effect of improving your skills with a deck tremendously.

Although this is a fairly crude way to do things, I’ve found a certain level of correlation between this method and personal success. In each July preceding the 2008 and 2009 World Championships, I followed this exact routine, and as a result, pulled 7-1 records in each; and in the March before Regionals 2010, I followed a miniature “five-game-a-day” regime, and won my event. These results, while not deterministic, give credit to the possibility that repetition does improve both categories.

All in all, I would recommend that you set some sort of game quota if you’re serious about doing well at a major event. Whether you’re God’s gift to Pokémon and are just in search of the best new combo, or a struggling player trying to find his/her bearings through repetition, familiarity with the deeper aspects of the game may certainly increase your chances of success.

Deck Rotation

Want a good way to play-test that doesn’t require a long, drawn-out regimen? With “deck rotation,” you’ll gain a fairly hefty amount of vital information in less than an evening’s time.

In deck rotation, you and a testing partner choose any even number of different decks (preferably 6-12 total). Once you’ve decided on the order you’ll use the decks, play: if your deck loses, then retire it for the session, and then proceed to the next choice; but if your deck wins, then your opponent has to rotate out or something new. Continue this process until one player’s decks are all Knocked Out.

Plugged-into-the-Chart

I’m sure most of you have seen matchup charts before, but have you ever considered painstakingly playing each match you’re not sure about…Just to get as accurate an understanding as possible? I have, and it’s definitely led to some interesting conclusions.

Usually you should reserve this option for rogue/experimental ideas, but the gist is to just run one deck versus every major match – hence, “plugging” it into the chart.

Top cut conditions + simulated tournament play

Not necessarily a “method” per se, but the previous three methods pertain to testing in single, untimed games. Tournaments are not played like that, so it may be necessary to advance your testing further, and do your best to mimic what you’d see in an actual event: reasonable timeliness for plays; avoiding outside attractions; best 2-of-three; 60 minutes+3; etc.

Keep in mind that this fourth option is conditional based on which deck you’re using, as some decks – namely LostGar – require much greater time skill.

What”: Decklist Evolution

We know some of the ways to test, but what is the end result supposed to look like? From start to finish, here is the process I’ve observed time and time again for deck evolution.

First Stage: Skeleton

Popularized by pretty much every deck article author for the past year, the “skeleton” is your starting point. Oftentimes, this is a first draft, or not even your draft to begin with – it could be something inspired from the internet.

However, the skeleton could be a winning list from a past format, or a winning list from last week that needs some serious revisions. Whatever the case may be, the skeleton is NOT optimally ready for tournament play at this instant, and needs some fleshing out prior to game day.

Although most of you know what these look like, I’ll illustrate each example with a post-Call of Legends Luxchomp.

Luxchomp Skeleton:

Pokémon – 12

2 Luxray GL
1 Luxray GL LV.X
2 Garchomp C
1 Garchomp C LV.X
2 Uxie LA
1 Uxie LV.X
1 Bronzong G
1 Crobat G
1 Azelf LA

Trainers – 16

4 Cyrus’s Conspiracy
3 Energy Gain
3 Poké Turn
2 SP Radar
2 Pokémon Collector
1 Bebe’s Search
1 Aaron’s Collection

Energy – 6

4 Double Colorless
2 L

Undetermined Spots – 26

Does this look familiar? That’s because my above example is really similar to J-wittz’s “Bible on Luxchomp” skeleton. The simple truth is that Luxchomp has a core ~30 cards, with the rest being subject to tester’s discretion.

Although in practice there would be another 26 cards to round out this list, these main 34 would be the only ones a player could consider uncuttable.

Some might notice that my skeleton is much thinner than the one in “Bible”…Why? Well, hold that thought, because it’ll be my last and most important point for this section; but for now, let’s move on to the next step in the deck process.

Second Stage: Muscle

Here’s your chance to flesh the deck out with some real “muscle” (major choices). If the first stage was for creating the structure, then this is when you should consider the following:

*Make major decisions on consistency matters, such as supporter counts, Call Energy versus no Call Energy, draw choices, etc
*Determine Pokémon lines for crucial attackers
*Include common techs that would be worthy of inclusion for general purpose

(Note that during this stage, it’s neither common nor desirable to get too advanced in your techs. Just take things gradual before you start messing with the strange and unusual.)

Luxchomp Muscle:

Pokémon – 15

2 Luxray GL
1 Luxray GL LV.X
3 Garchomp C
1 Garchomp C LV.X
2 Uxie LA
1 Uxie LV.X
1 Bronzong G
1 Crobat G
1 Azelf LA
1 Lucario GL
1 Unown Q MD

Trainers – 28

4 Cyrus’s Conspiracy
4 Pokémon Collector
4 Poké Turn
3 Energy Gain
3 Power Spray
2 SP Radar
2 Bebe’s Search
2 Junk Arm
2 Premier Ball
1 Aaron’s Collection
1 Pokémon Communication

Energy – 11

4 Double Colorless
4 Call
3 L

Undetermined Spots – 6

Third stage: “Completion”

With the two hard parts out of the way, we look to take our first shot at those undetermined spots (which – as you will learn after building hundreds of decklists – are the hardest ones to get down right).

So keep in mind to:

*Reconsider all of your choices made in the last step
*Include techs for specific concerns, matchups, etc, rather than general concerns

Luxchomp, Completed:

Pokémon – 20

2 Luxray GL
1 Luxray GL LV.X
3 Garchomp C
1 Garchomp C LV.X
3 Uxie LA
1 Uxie LV.X
1 Dialga G
1 Dialga G LV.X
1 Ambipom G
1 Bronzong G
1 Crobat G
1 Azelf LA
1 Lucario GL
1 Toxicroak G DP41
1 Unown Q MD

Trainers – 28

4 Cyrus’s Conspiracy
4 Pokémon Collector
4 Poké Turn
3 Energy Gain
3 Power Spray
2 SP Radar
2 Junk Arm
2 Premier Ball
1 Aaron’s Collection
1 Looker’s Investigation
1 Bebe’s Search
1 Pokémon Communication

Energy – 12

4 Double Colorless
3 Call
3 L
1 P
1 M

After much play-testing, that’s what one of my two current lists look like. It’s been tweaked to a precise style that works for me – hence less common things such as the Looker’s Investigation and only three Call.

Fourth stage: super-completion

…Hold up a second: we’re not done yet! It turns out that those undetermined spots from the muscle are harder to get down than anticipated, and so we had a few last second tweaks before the big day. The list above, illustrative of Luxchomp’s ability to look radically different with just a few changes, could very well be this with:

Luxchomp, Super-Complete:

-1 Toxicroak G PL
-1 Toxicroak G DP41
-1 Looker’s Investigation
+1 Call
+1 Lost Remover
+1 Twins

pokegym.netAn interesting, but possibly dubious play is the Lost Remover. This card is illustrative of just what could happen during last second testing: you could find that a surprise twist could give you an extra advantage against matchups like Steelix, Tyranitar and (situational) mirror, and go with it.

While this is no specific endorsement of Lost Remover, this simultaneously conveys the ideas of last-second inspiration “and” last-second impulse, which are both prone to arise as you’re working on the list the night before. Be prepared to differentiate the two.

Stage Zero:

Sudden inspiration is a risk to a stable, safe play, but it could also be the best thing you’ve ever banked on. “Stage Zero” is when you go back to the drawing board on something: not just techs, but perhaps age-old conceptions about a deck.

For example, when SP decks first came out, it was standard protocol for many players to play 4 Poké Turn, 4 Energy Gain, and 4 Power Spray simply because it was “standard.” But, as more people recognized the underlying flaws with these assumptions, SP began to evolve into what it is today: a fluid, dynamic deck with near-limitless options.

This is what I meant about my skeleton vis-à-vis Josh’s: I simply considered fewer cards essential to the core build than he did. Likewise, my skeleton can also be deconstructed into a zeroth stage:

Luxchomp Zero:

Pokémon – 7

1 Luxray GL
1 Luxray GL LV.X
1 Garchomp C
1 Garchomp C LV.X
1 Uxie LA
1 Crobat G
1 Azelf LA

Trainers – 8

4 Cyrus’s Conspiracy
1 Energy Gain
1 Poké Turn
1 SP Radar
1 Aaron’s Collection

Energy – 5

4 Double Colorless
1 L

Undetermined Spots – 40

Is the above appropriate or even sane for Luxchomp? I can’t tell you that, but it is exemplary of how extreme things can get, and how far decks can be stripped down. It is this Zeroth Stage of deck testing that every successful player strives to discover, and is the number one reason why a stale metagame is capable of elasticity.

Who”: You and Your Opponents

Yourself (gold fishing):

For the record, I feel that gold fishing is extremely underrated – in fact, there is no better, faster way to get a feel for your own deck! Consistency can’t be tested any better than just by shuffling, dealing, and laying it out in front of you, recognizing how fast you’re getting out.

The reason we start with you before other people is because their time is just as valuable as yours; an inconsistent, sloppy build is bound to yield little in terms of actual information.

Yourself (actual games):

Believe it or not, you can actually learn a great deal from playing against yourself. If you need to run the numbers hard and have no one available, then you can get a shocking number of games in a very quick amount of time by testing against your own decks, or your own Apprentice/Redshark windows. Tread carefully, though, as there are several pitfalls, including…

*Personal bias influencing your plays;
*Failure to play “double-blind” (decision-making based on lack of information);
*Your play deteriorating as a result of taking two roles at once;
*Being capped by your own current limitations as a player.

Despite all of these issues, there “is” something to be learned from testing this way. It just takes some work.

Now that I’ve spent ample time on solitaire, let’s go back to what makes a game a game: multiple players!

Actual Opponents, and How to Choose Them:

There are as many shades of player as there are colors, so it might be a huge oversimplification to split people into these two simple categories. However, for the purpose of your serious, crunch-time testing, you’ll just be separating people into two categories based on the answer to one question: “do I expect to learn something from playing this person?” That may sound really shallow, but it carries a few more layers of depth upon closer examination.

I’m not recommending you play only one group over the over; rather, you should diversify, putting certain percentages of time where appropriate.

For instance, if your in-game skills feel rusty, then playing primarily against the most skilled in-game players you know is likely a good plan; but if you’re on the hunt for new ideas to push the format, then gaming against the creative thinkers, the proven format-breakers, or even “lesser” newbie players with a fresh eye on things may prove beneficial.

Analogized, your play-testing is like a good mixture of assets: you have your basic savings account, victim to only stagnation and inflation (i.e., testing against yourself); your stock holdings (games against lesser skilled players with creative perspective); and your AAA-rated bonds (expert players).

Of course, if you’re in no real, serious need to get super-prepared super-fast, then much of this advice should be ignored in favor of just having fun – don’t get too “serious business” about things, okay?

Where”: Venues, Locations, and Online Programs

Where you play is heavily correlated to who you play against, and how efficiently games are conducted. So if you’re pressured to get prepped quickly, then choose your venue based on your needs.

In-Person (League)

Since leagues typically have an excess of eager, inquisitive players, getting several games in during a two-three hour period is very easy. At my college league, I’ve been able to play as many as twelve games, in three hours, and at a leisurely pace. Is that cool or what?

However, the skill and creativity levels of league vary greatly, so if you’re in a crunch to prepare for States, then maybe attending isn’t the safest idea if most members are stuck on theme deck variations. Keep in mind that many of the best players, for one reason or another (both good and bad), do not attend leagues, so you may need one of the following options to set you straight in skill improvement.

In-Person (Non-League)

If you know a pretty decent group of players, then sometimes it’s more practical to meet in an informal setting at someone’s house than to go to league. That way, you’ve got a comfortable pace to do things, but much less environmental stresses and distractions to get in your way.

Of course, the only downside is that a setting like this is a major strain on your variety: since it’s just you and your friend/small group of friends, you’ll be constrained to that player pool’s skills, as well as the decks that are on hand.

Online (Red Shark and Apprentice)

Anyone who has followed me on HeyTrainer.org closely knows how much I dislike this program; however, I’ve come to accept that literacy in not one, but both programs is essential to maximizing one’s online testing experience. The reasons for this, though, are not in the programs themselves, so much as the implications for your testing experience.

Why use Redshark? Since it’s distributed by Pokébeach, that automatically gives it a sizeable player base, which has for years surpassed that of the Apprentice crowd. That wide player base means more opportunities for games, which means more opportunities to get in daily quotas, such as the ten day regimen.

That’s about my only reason for using Redshark. Diversifying with Apprentice aids in two endeavors: player pool and solitaire. Many of the best players you could test against are either “bilingual” in Apprentice/Redshark, or play only Apprentice. Due to its simplicity, superb hotkeys, and easy editing, y […]

Also, relative to Redshark, Apprentice is a fast program. On my computer, Redshark takes approximately twenty seconds to merely load, where Apprentice takes a mere four seconds. Furthermore, in-game actions take much more time, delaying your actual experience playing. Perhaps this is a reason why many top players sacrifice the aesthetics of Redshark for Apprentice?

But, since the source code isn’t publicly available, all of Apprentice’s glitches and bugs are permanent. Redshark has room to improve its failures, so I’m eager to see how it’s edited in the future.

When”: Testing Relative to Time

All of these nice tips and suggestions are dependent on how much time you have before your event. For this reason, I have decided to conclude this article with some suggestions on how to treat your testing in each major timeframe:

Ample Time (>Month)

During this period, you should certainly be keeping fresh, but it may not be to your advantage to overdo things. This holds especially true if your definition of “Ample Time” includes skipping a relatively insignificant premier event series, such as Prereleases or Battle Roads.

Overall, you are best served to use this time collecting data, experimenting with new options, analyzing leaked information about good competitive advances (if applicable), and familiarizing yourself with any emergent archetypes. Stay on top of things, and don’t get rusty, but don’t wear yourself out over nothing.

Sufficient Time (7-30 days)

While more than a month is preferred, it’s generally more practical to spend a couple weeks really honing your skills (and lists) with a couple select decks of choice. Around the two week notice is when you want to switch from deck choosing to pure playing; otherwise, you may find that your skills are dragging behind what they should be. When you get around to there being a week left before the event, it is strongly recommended that your play-testing yield one or two decks for consideration. Even if it doesn’t, force yourself to settle on at most three.

Don’t sacrifice the things mentioned in “Ample Time,” since they’re still important – you never know when a big, earth-shattering development will occur! However, do remember that it’s no longer the emphasis in the equation.

Insufficient Time (2-6 days)

Ideally, you should be spending this time to narrow down your choices…To one. Play games to recognize any hiccups in consistency; keep predicting the area metagame to see which might be the best choice. However, this isn’t the time you should be full-blown about play-testing: there isn’t much time for most people to really get things down in a few days, hence it generally being the “insufficient” period.

However, if you must play catch-up, then my advice would be to identify 2-3 high tier decks you feel comfortable with, test them heavily for a few days, drop options as you go. Unless your eye for good rogue is profound, then don’t take big risks if you haven’t tested; archetypes are much kinder to the unprepared among us.

Emergency Testing (Less than or equal to a day)

Once again, I have an “ideal” track and a “contingency” track. Ideally, this final day should be a reflection on finishing touches to the list; in other words, the concept of “super completion” referenced earlier. Even if you had to rush testing and play catch-up, try to put yourself in this same position, regardless of where you are at that point.

However, if by some absurd possibility you haven’t tested, then your refuge exists in A) using something you knew very well from an earlier point; or B) cram in an all-nighter to play-test.

I would HIGHLY advise against the latter, but many successful players have pulled it off, so if you’re confident you can muster the strength to endure a long day with no sleep, then do what fits your gameplan best, and play the matchups into the wee hours of the morning.

Or you could always…You know…Plan ahead? Yeah, that sounds good!

Best of luck in preparing for the big events on the horizon, guys! I hope some of these relatively uncommon theories and ideas help mold you into the ideal player for a real world.


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