In the history of Magic, "super-teams" have come into existence from time to time before fading away again. In the early 2000s, a combination of East Coast and Carnegie Mellon University players formed what was believed to be the first super-team, but the challenge of coordinating design and testing efforts between so many players proved difficult and efforts from the group were unimpressive. At Pro Tour Honolulu 2006, a super-team known as "The Beach House" (named, like some other super-teams, after the temporary residences they occupy prior to Pro Tours) managed to put Mark Herberholz into the Finals and ultimately take the trophy. In the modern era, the super-team has taken shape in the form of Team ChannelFireball (though the name is a bit of a misnomer as some of their stars write for StarCityGames).
Depending on who you ask, the group of super players came together as long ago as Worlds 2010 in Chiba, Japan or earlier this year for Pro Tour Paris. Headed into Philadelphia, the testing team included the following players (though after speaking to a half dozen members of the team, all agreed it was possible they were forgetting a few players): Luis Scott-Vargas, Owen Turtenwald, Shuhei Nakamura, Yuuya Watanabe, Brad Nelson, Brian Kibler, David Ochoa, Josh Utter-Leyton, Matt Nass, Conley Woods, Martin Juza, Lucas Blohon, Ben Stark, and Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa. If you're looking for the team with the most Pro Tour Top 8s of all time, this might be it.
I spoke with a number of members from the team who shared with me the secrets to much of their success and why they continue to put up top performances on the Pro Tour. While the unofficial leader, Luis Scott-Vargas, did most of the talking, the likes of Martin Juza, Brian Kibler, Owen Turtenwald, Lucas Blohon, and more leaned in to contribute to the conversation.
The first question I wanted to know was how the group had come together in the first place.
"Well, it's a lot of people who mutually knew each other and got along well," Luis told me, receiving nods of agreement from those crowded around him. While the majority of the team is made up of American players, it has begun adding more international flair. Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa comes to the team from Brazil, while for this event Czech stars Martin Juza and Lucas Blohon and Japanese greats Shuhei Nakamura and Yuuya Watanabe also joined up.
Historically, big teams have faced struggles that smaller testing groups have not, and have failed to put up impressive finishes (the Beach House notwithstanding). How did ChannelFireball achieve different results? "There are upsides and downsides to a big team," Luis explained, "you can get lots of games going at once, and you have tons of different viewpoints."
And the downsides?
"It's hard to keep so many people organized. It can be hard to sort out the noise."
The former Pro Tour champion also stressed another problem that crops up when you add more people to the mix: diffusion of responsibility. Given a large enough group, individuals within the group will assume someone else amongst the group has taken the responsibility of performing sometimes critical and obvious tasks. But when everyone comes to that conclusion, no one actually completes those tasks (mistakenly believing "someone else" has) and important things can get missed. "For this Pro Tour," Scott-Vargas pointed out, "we didn't test against Splinter Twin even though we knew about it and recognized that it was a good deck." As if on cue, and without having heard Luis answer that question, Conley Woods rambled up and loudly proclaimed he had just beaten a Splinter Twin opponent, going undefeated against the archetype on the weekend. Sometimes, it turns out, it's better to be lucky than good, even with the backing of a super-team.
So how, I wondered, do readers at home go about putting together a group like ChannelFireball's successfully?
"It's better not to look at it as a business arrangement," Luis said, adding, "We're all friends. We have differences, but this wouldn't work if we couldn't all hang out outside of the Pro Tour." That brought up the question of how they made the choice to tighten up the group, another problem super-teams had had in the past. The more people you add, the more friends they have that want to be included, and the greater the likelihood that the team's key innovations will get out. How did the team handle that problem?
"If I had added everyone I'm friends with, the team would have been half the Pro Tour," Luis said. In general in his experience, people were understanding of boundaries and recognized the problems with adding people to a team that's already so large. How then did they deal with leaks, particularly considering they had members from so many different communities around the world? "We had problems with leaks, which is why we tightened the group up [at Worlds in Chiba]. Now people generally understand that sharing information is bad for everyone on the team, and that it's not good for us to work really hard only to have people who didn't benefit from that effort receive the rewards."
As to the question of whether they have plans of changing how they prepare in the future? I think the photo says it all...
From left: Brian Kibler, Lucas Blohon, Owen Turtenwald, Brad Nelson, Conley Woods, Josh Utter-Leyton, Matt Nass, Luis Scott-Vargas, Shuhei Nakamura, and Yuuya Watanabe, just part of the considerable talent that Team ChannelFireball brings to bear.