Teaming up: Preparing for the Best in the World

Posted in Event Coverage on July 31, 2013

By Nate Price

A longtime member of the Pro Tour and Grand Prix coverage staff, Nate Price now works making beautiful words for all of you lovely people as the community manager for organized play. When not covering events, he lords over the @MagicProTour Twitter account, ruling with an iron fist.

The World Championship is an event unlike any other. With a field comprised of sixteen of the absolute best players from around the globe, all of these players are familiar with one another and their accomplishments. Many of them are friends and teammates. Others are bitter rivals.

In any given tournament, the chance always exists that you will at some point be paired against a friend or teammate, often with a great deal on the line. It's always a sinking feeling when your victory comes at the cost of preventing a good friend from advancing, but Magic is a game and there can only be one winner at the end of the day. The point of a team is to make sure that each individual member has the best possible chance of being that winner. When one player wins, the team wins.

Rules like that sort of fly out the window here at the 2013 Magic World Championship, though. With such a small field, team size eventually becomes a problem for multiple reasons. Take Team ChannelFireball, for example. In this year's World Championship, there are eight players from ChannelFireball in the field. If all eight players worked together for this event, each coming to the same conclusions, there would be an incredible lack of diversity in the field.

In addition to the problems with diversity, you run into the issue that half of the field knows absolutely everything about your decks and your Limited preferences. Magic matches are absolutely not made better by this kind of transparency. Imagine how it would be to play at event where there were no secrets, no advantages that could be gained through testing a particular matchup. Remember back when Carlos Romão broke the Psychatog mirror match by saving his counterspells to only stop Psychatog instead of wasting them on the card drawing spells? It was highly counterintuitive, but clearly the correct decision in retrospect. The fact that he was the first one to figure it out gave him a huge advantage that he rode all the way to become the World Champion. Imagine how things would have changed if everyone he played had access to that same information.

In addition to these logistical problems, the players also acknowledge that it simply makes things more interesting for everyone else at home for them to break into testing groups.

"It's just better for the mold," David Ochoa said when I asked him about the decision to break the team in half.

"It would be really boring if we all showed up playing the same decks the same way," Ben Stark added. "I mean, who would want to watch that?"

In the end, rather than come to the World Championship as a team that would comprise half of the tournament, the bigger teams fractured, forming cells of four or five players. In addition to these cells, there were a few other alliances formed, and even a few players who decided to go the road alone. Here's a brief guide to the teams that worked together to break the World Championship.

The Professional Tourists - Yuuya Watanabe, Stanislav Cifka, Shuhei Nakamura, Martin Jůza, Ben Stark

This was the logical extension of the nucleus formed by Stark, Nakamura, and Jůza. Competing at Grand Prix Providence as a team, Stark, Nakamura, and Jůza have been very good friends and teamed up for a long time now. All three are acknowledged Limited masterminds, and all three are either in the Hall of Fame or have ridiculously strong Hall of Fame resumes. To flesh things out, Nakamura brought along his countryman and current World Champion Yuuya Watanabe, while Jůza brought along the player who bested him for the captaincy of the Czech Republic: Stanislav Cifka. Both Cifka and Watanabe bring a great deal of Constructed expertise to the team, giving Stark reason to believe that they have the most well-rounded group of players coming into this tournament.

"It already made sense for Shuhei, Martin, and I to team up for this event," Stark told me. "We're really good friends, and we've played together and tested with each other a lot already. Getting Yuuya and Cifka is a big boost, too, because we've already got three of the best Limited players. Now we get some guys with Constructed chops as well. I really like our chances."

One of the biggest problems this team faced was its multinational makeup. With Nakamura and Watanabe coming from Japan, Stark coming from the US, and Cifka and Jůza living in the Czech Republic, they didn't exactly the ability to meet up and play. Honestly, they didn't even live on the same schedules. Still, the addition of Cifka and Watanabe proved incredibly fruitful, as if gave testing partners to Jůza and Nakamura, allowing them to work in their own cells in the weeks leading up to the tournament.

"For a week before Grand Prix Rimini, Cifka and I tested with the other Czech and Slovakian players," Jůza told me. "After Rimini, we got to meet up with the rest of the team and share what we had all worked on. I mean, we talked some online leading up to the event, too, but we mostly worked on our own and then compared notes. Well, except for Ben. He just got on Magic Onlineand drafted a lot."

"I tested some with Yuuya before Rimini," Nakamura told me, "But his schedule was very hectic. He had to spend his time mostly working on the team events for the World Magic Cup."

The Orphans - Tom Martell and Shahar Shenhar

"We were both orphans, and we felt lonely."

This was how Tom Martell described his and Shahar Shenhar's situation before they decided to combine their powers as a duo. A cross-team concoction, the pairing of Martell and Shahar puts two of the hottest players in the game right now into one think tank. Though they come from two rival supergroups (Martell is a member of Team SCG while Shenhar is the newest ChannelFireball recruit), they both found themselves on the outside looking in when it came time to build teams, like this were a gym class dodgeball game. It wasn't due to lack of skill or trust, however. Martell has the highest median finish of any player on the Pro Tour in the last three years, higher even than LSV's record setting median. Shenhar, meanwhile, is the youngest player in the tournament, but his performances have been so strong that his two years on the Pro Tour have him just shy of surpassing the 150 point threshold required for Hall of Fame eligibility. These guys are good.

In this case, they were just victims of the fact that their teams would have been too large had they been included, thus most people chose to work with the people they worked with the longest and knew the best to prepare for this event. As founding members of ChannelFireball, Josh Utter-Leyton and David Ochoa have known each other well for years and decided to work together. Shuhei Nakamura, Ben Stark, and Martin Jůza are a Team Trios team. They went with what felt comfortable and what they knew would be fun. In the end, this left Martell and Shenhar teamless. Rather than decide to test alone, they decided to join forces to prepare.

"I really would have loved Reid to test with us, but I understand his reasons for wanting to test alone," Martell said. "He has a lot to prove after last year, and this is his way of doing that. Unfortunately, that left Shahar and I without a deck builder. I would have loved to team with a deckbuilder. Both Shahar and I are good players and good deck tuners, but when it comes to building decks, that isn't really either of our strengths."

It won't take long for us to figure out whether their lack of a deckbuilder on their team hurt their performances, or if their skill and experience can carry the day in this intensely competitive field.

Brian Kibler, Josh Utter-Leyton, David Ochoa, and Eric Froehlich

This team is primarily based around two of the charter members of team ChannelFireball: David Ochoa and Josh Utter-Leyton. While Josh Utter-Leyton is the reigning Player of the Year, he is known more for his consistency than for flashy finishes, as is his teammate David Ochoa. What he does possess, though, is one of the best deck building minds in the room. This, combined with Hall of Famer Brian Kibler, also known for his deck building prowess, results in the potential for some of the best selected decks in the tournament. If they can come to an agreement, that is.

"I ended up playing different decks than anyone one else on the team," Kibler informed me. "This is just how I approach testing. If I find a deck that I really like, I test it incredibly hard. If it turns out that my teammates come up with a better deck, I have no problems switching. If they don't, I'd rather play something I'm comfortable with."

This was no surprise to many of the other players in the tournament, with Ben Stark going so far as to say that he thought there was a zero percent chance that Kibler and Utter-Leyton would be able to agree on a deck.

"Wrapter [Utter-Leyton] likes decks that give incremental advantage and Kibler likes individually powerful cards," Stark said with a laugh. "There's no way that they got on the same page."

Still, Kibler felt that the process still worked.

"I think it's important to have people on your team that are willing to test decks like this," he told me. "If everyone on the team is constantly jumping decks, they are much less familiar with each of them in turn. When one person focuses on a deck, they learn it incredibly well. I think it's important to have people like that on the team."

Another thing it's important to have is people willing to work. I'm not sure how people came to the conclusion that Eric Froehlich wasn't someone to do work for a team, but he was recently outed by Luis Scott-Vargas as one of the hardest workers on the team. When you've got two great deck builders on a team and people like Froehlich and Ochoa willing to put in work testing them, you have an incredibly good core for a team.

The Lone Wolves - Lee Shi Tian, Dmitriy Butakov, Willy Edel, Craig Wescoe, and Reid Duke

The remaining five players in this tournament walked the long and winding road alone, each for their own reasons.

First up is Lee Shi Tian from Hong Kong, the APAC representative in this year's World Championship. Coming from Hong Kong, Lee's available pool of testing partners is relatively small locally.

"There are only really a few players in Hong Kong that are competitive Magic players," he told me. "Most are casual."

Still, as often happens in underrepresented areas of the Magic world, neighboring communities band together to improve the quality of play for the entire region. This has been especially true in Latin America and East Asia, where players from Singapore to Chinese Taipei have banded together over the past few years to produce some incredibly strong players, including the current World Magic Cup champions from Chinese Taipei and Lee Shi Tian himself.

"While I didn't test with anyone who was preparing for this event, I still prepared with some very good players," Lee told me. "The Taiwanese players like Tzu-Ching Kuo really helped me to prepare for this event and gave me some great players to play against."

Another player who comes from a fairly underrepresented Magic community is the MOCS champion Dmitriy Butakov. Hailing from Russia, there are a few more local players for Butakov to test with, as well as some outside of Russia, but that isn't Butakov's style. Having earned his stripes via Magic Online, Butakov stuck to his roots, choosing to base his testing on Magic Online.

"It is what I do," he told me. "I play Magic Online as a full-time job, and I know that there are some very strong players on Magic Online for me to test with. It was very surprising and touching that some of the strong players I trust reached out to me and offered their help in testing."

Butakov admitted that relying solely on Magic Online, and particularly on Daily events, has its downsides.

"While the players on Magic Online are good, the Dailies tend to be overrun with decks like Gruul Blitz because they are easy to build. It isn't necessarily a good representation of the format I'm going to see here."

Craig Wescoe and Willy Edel had similar approaches to testing for this event: rely on their local communities.

"I would have loved to work with any of the other teams in preparation for this event," Edel explained, "But I wasn't approached to work on it. I ended up just testing with the local players in Brazil. Testing with players that were also invested in this tournament would have been nice, but it didn't work out that way."

Wescoe, meanwhile, also ended up testing with his local Tennessee players.

"No one approached me to work with them, so I ended up just working with the local guys at home," he told me. "I'm not really sure how the small nature of this tournament affects working with or without a team, whether it's advantageous or disadvantageous to work alone. I don't know if anyone knows that."

True, it's been difficult to see a correlation between working with the other players in the tournament or going it alone. On one side, you have players like Shouta Yasooka, who made it to the finals last year on mostly his own merits, while the other members of the Top 4 all made it there by virtue of working with larger groups of players. This year shows similar disparity of results this far, so it's impossible to draw any real conclusions.

Still, one player who teamed last year chose to eschew them this year, though not because he felt it hurt his chances. Reid Duke teamed with Owen Turtenwald to prepare for the Player's Championship last year, and his unimpressive performance is well-documented. Though he admitted that the testing process was productive, he simply felt a change was in order.

"Working with Owen last year was a very positive experience," Duke admitted, "But the results were less so. This year, I chose to work on my own, without anyone else invested in the tournament. One of the major reasons I ended up doing so was simply an issue with scheduling. Everyone's schedule was incredibly hectic, which made it very difficult to sync up."

While Duke didn't admit it, Tom Martell had a slight addition to his theory on why Duke wanted to test alone.

"After last year, Reid just wanted to really focus for this year," Martell theorized. "Pulling himself away from distractions was probably a good way for him to sharpen up. I wish he would have teamed with us, but I understand his reasons."

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