Walking around the drafting area for Rochester number one, a few things quickly became apparent.
- We (meaning Grand Prix and the Pro Tour) haven't done this in a while. In fact, the last time anyone I know did a Team Rochester before testing last night, was back at Worlds last year.
- When one never practices this format, it can be mildly confusing simply to operate the draft.
- Regardless of which sets are being drafted, this format remains very hard and can therefore be exceptionally rewarding to those who practice. This is true in spite of the fact that Time Spiral draft typically delivers very deep card pools, and it is difficult to end up without a decent deck. The big difference with Rochester is that a decent deck is not enough – what you really need is a good deck that matches up well against what your opponents have drafted.
Knowing that the Americans had done some testing, I watched them draft, hoping not to assault my brain with stray "WTFs" so early in the morning. Early in the draft, the Americans were clearly winning the battle of the opens, plopping Magus of the Scroll and Kaervek the Merciless into their piles. They even managed to open a Teferi and put it into Paul Cheon's pile when his opponent had at least five playable suspend cards already in his pile. In the end, the Chinese decks seemed solid and they had an excellent rebel chain in the A seat to go along with the Disintegrate they opened their last pack, but the American decks in the B and C seats looked a little better, and Lundquist's match is certainly winnable. On the other hand, the Chinese have been surprisingly good for two Worlds in a row now, and you can't count them out.
- France is known as a country with very good cheese. But the French team presented itself Saturday very much not cheesy, as the three host country players were the only ones to shake hands with their opposing team before Round 1.
- Old habits are hard to break, as Nicolai Herzog demonstrated during the draft. With years of Team Rochester under his belt, the Norwegian team member did not quite adjust to the new communication rules. While the teams were allowed to talk freely, Nico still used his hands, silently signaling to his teammates what card to pick. But he took good advantage of the ability to talk during the pack review times, so maybe by Round 4 he'll be chattering away like all the younger players who never had to play taciturn Rochester Draft.
- Team Rochester Draft seemed to confuse more than a couple of players in the event. All over the hall, the table numbers were used to trace the player who opened the pack. Still, the English and the Israeli team lost track of how exactly the draft was to start. They started the first pack in the wrong seat, so their pick order was quite different from the commands the judge was calling out. However, they managed a smooth draft without hiccups.
- The English also had figured that because every team would understand them, they'd just speak in improvised code. "The pigeon opens the door with its song" was their code for "just pick the rare." It worked, apparently, as Craig Stevenson ended up with a Stuffy Pigeon, Kaervek the Pigeon and Plague Pigeon in his pool.
- Julien Nuijten was eager to get his draft in, sitting on the edge of the table and scowling down at the laid-out cards in the Netherlands–Argentina draft.
- If your opposing team has a Sliver deck, would you allow them to get a second Sedge Sliver? The Finnish team did just that. After giving David Reitbauer from Team Austria a fourth-pick Sedge Sliver, they also took a Momentary Blink over the second copy, allowing David to snatch it as a second pick. The Austrians were all in all very happy with their decks. David had a red-black Sliver deck with the two Sedge Slivers and a couple of Bonesplitters and seven removal spells. Benedikt Klauser had a white-blue concoction that included Pentarch Paladin, Griffin Guide and a rebel chain. Nikolas Eigner presented a green-blue deck stuffed with every card you want in that combination: Errant Ephemeron, Draining Whelk, Mystic Snake, Durkwood Baloth, Penumbra Spider – you name it, he had it. The Austrian team was one of the underdog favorites for the team title at the start of the tournament. If they manage to draft more decks like this, they will certainly finish better than their current tenth place in the standings.
There are a few key areas where this format can really punish the unprepared or reward those that know what they are doing. For the first draft of the day, I was interested to see which teams had put in the practice and formed a plan, and how said plans would work out.The Portuguese and Welsh teams try their collective hand at 'Team Roch.'
- As every deck in this format only has one matchup, decks that can appear very powerful in the abstract aren't automatically the deck you want to draft. Thinking about specific matchups is key. There can be no surprises, as everyone sees every pick. Bombs will be opened, and teams need to work out when it is best to hate-grab and when they need to work on their deck.
One great example of this was in the Wales/Portugal draft, where, in pack 3, Wales opened a Kaervek the Merciless along with Errant Ephemeron and Strangling Soot. Without a red-black deck in position to make the most of Kaervek, they took the two cards that clearly worked well in their decks. That allowed the powerful legend to make its way to Paulo Carvalho, who, in red-black, would happily run it against Welshman Jimmy Chung's red-green concoction. Chung would have a tricky time killing it on the cheap, with only one Lightning Axe in his pile at the time.
Had they let the Strangling Soot through, Jimmy's deck and its bevy of big monsters would not have been as worried by it, and as such taking (and potentially splashing) Kaervek would have been reasonable for Nick Lovett, who was paired off against Portugal's Joao Martins, who was running green/black.
- There is some potential to be 'out opened' in Team Rochester, as in any Limited format, but it is very important to ensure that you try not to allow the really powerful cards around the table even if it means your deck is a little worse. This is a big departure from individual Rochester draft, where hate drafting could cause a royal fight at the draft tables. In the Wales/Portugal draft, both Sulfurous Blasts were opened by Portugal, and ended up in the same deck. This was simply fortunate. The key points in the draft are much more likely to be where Wales allowed a Squall Line to get through from one of theirs, giving some crucial extra reach to one of Portugal's builds.
- One new element to the format that has rather shaken things up is the free communication of information verbally as well as non verbally by teams both during the draft and in play. This would seem to favour nations with more unusual languages, but in general it seems to have worked out as being a simplifying factor for those national teams that haven't tested together enough to work out hand signals. The English team, upon hearing the news, suggested that they were at a bit of a disadvantage, which might warrant some 'Cockney Rhyming Slang' drafting, or secret verbal codes. These seem like an entertaining way to look at things ('Mexican Dwarf', or just 'Mexican' is the Cockney rhyming slang for 'morph'), but in most cases it is probably best to be thinking more about your picks and the matchups for each player than other things, as time is tight – and, if it wasn't clear already, this format is hard.
Now, obviously I've got a soft spot for the Team Rochester Draft format, but I have to say I found the draft between Japan and Brazil fascinating to watch. The Brazilians were on the kickoff, so Paulo was the first to open a pack. Here's how the players were seated around the table.
|Hidenori Katayama||Katsuhiro Mori||Shouhei Yamamoto|
|Elton Fior||Paulo Vitor D. Da Rosa||Carlos Romão|
With Brazil wanting green on the left, their opening pack had a huge bomb in Spectral Force to accommodate that plan, but Paulo had to first pick a Phthisis that wouldn't even end up in his deck. As so often happens in these kinds of drafts, that first pack showed pretty much everybody's colors (except Paulo). Very quickly it became clear that Paulo was blue/white, Elton was base green with options to splash into extra colors if needed, and Carlos was probably going to be black-red. For the Japanese, Mori was blue-white and Yamamoto was black-red.
The only problem with that plan was that it put Katayama, their player on the right (from their perspective) in green, right behind Elton who was also green. Given the flow of the draft directions, it would mean Elton would have far more first cracks at the most important green cards to come up, but in return it meant that Yamamoto would get to do the same thing to Carlos on black. That seems critical, because green is deeper than black and has more redundant cards, whereas black is more shallow and certain key cards are immensely important to get. It should come as no surprise then that Yamamoto was able to put together a very solid deck featuring multiple Strangling Soots with the ability to easily flash them back as needed.
As the draft continued, the main thing I was struck by was that I felt the Japanese were drafting better for their individual match-ups. For the Mori/Paulo match in particular, I felt that Mori was specifically drafting a blue-white deck that was faster and more focused, crafting it specifically for the blue-white mirror he knew he'd be facing, then rounding it out with the more important controlling cards like Errant Doomsayers and Telekinetic Sliver. Meanwhile, Paulo was passing up the kinds of cards Mori was emphasizing, ending up with (in my opinion anyway) a clunkier, less focused deck that featured aspects like four copies of Temporal Eddy.
(Don't get me wrong, I suspect I like the Eddy much more than most, but it's only at its best when you're using it to maintain an already established tempo advantage not trying catching up. In a slower deck Eddy often isn't as good because by the time it fires it's hitting creatures that cost less than four to try and keep up, which just means even more loss of tempo.) Another issue was an early Mawcor for Mori that Paulo could have a lot of trouble with. Despite that, Paulo drafted so many one-toughness creatures after the Mawcor that something like a quarter to a third of his spells are one-toughness creatures. Fortunately for him Carlos was able to hate out a second Mawcor, but I couldn't help but worry about all those one-toughness creatures should the Mawcor make a showing.
Temporal Eddy could keep it at bay for a while, but Paulo's deck didn't have much damage to force through during the time gain, which meant the Mawcor could just come back down and threaten much of his team. Fortunately for him by his own admission, a desperately needed Ixidron was nice enough to open on his side, giving him some badly needed creature control in combination with Conflagrate and Firemaw Kavu if he could make the mana work. Finally, I was very surprised to see him pass a Slipstream Serpent, a card that's deceptively good in the mirror for its finishing power and ability to mix up the guessing game combined with the Fathom Seers each player had. Mori snatched the gift when it came around, bringing his morph count to four in combination with Fathom Seer, Mawcor, and a Vesuvan Shapeshifter, another big blue-white mirror card that could have been in Paulo's deck but got to Mori instead.
Watching both the draft and deck building was telling. Whereas the Japanese were smooth and focused, the Brazilian team had many more issues getting the team to agree on picks. Carlos and Paulo repeatedly disagreed on cards for their individual decks, and though they were able to function, it was clear to any spectator that the Japanese were much more on the same page. A big part of that was Mori, who actually ran the entire draft. Though his teammates would weigh in with advice from time to time, it was clear that Mori was running their entire draft, making all of the picks for his entire team and orchestrating a very good set of decks in the process.