Digging Deeper into Team ChannelFireball

Posted in Magic Lifestyle on April 21, 2016

By Adam Styborski

Stybs has played Magic the world over, writing and drafting as part of the event coverage team and slinging Commander everywhere his decks will fit.

"Team ChannelFireball shaped and continues to shape my professional career, and even those members who have moved on can say the same."

There was a time in Magic when teams were all the rage. From the onset of Organized Play, team drafting and secretive testing with exclusive partners underscored the drama and tension that culminated at every Pro Tour. By the mid-2000s, however, teams of professional Magic players were a thing of the past. Lone wolves and occasional cadres of acquaintances cooperated, but the idea of organized teamwork, travel, and testing was gone.

In 2009, future Pro Tour Hall of Fame player Luis Scott-Vargas didn't know how much the decision to start playtesting with friends would change his life. While the Scott-Vargas of today shares how weighty and important Team ChannelFireball is to its members, it began as happenstance.

"Team ChannelFireball began not as a team, but as a group of friends," he said. "We all just naturally gravitated toward playtesting together, and after a couple successful Pro Tours, we decided we should be a little more organized. We started testing together in 2009, but the roster really stabilized after Pro Tour Amsterdam in 2010. The timing was kind of funny—after superteams from the early 2000s disbanded, for a long stretch there were no organized groups of players meeting early to test for the Pro Tour. It turned out that the simple act of meeting in the same place and playing a lot of Magic for two weeks was just great technology, and we had a ton of success without doing anything particularly complicated. We were a team in an era largely without teams, and that was a huge edge (having a lot of great Magic players didn't hurt either). If you look at the Pro Tour now, more than half the field is on a team. That just wasn't the case when we started."

Another Hall of Fame player, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, has been a regular with the team from its beginning. Their first Pro Tour as a team quickly changed things.

"The first tournament for which I feel like we tested together as Team ChannelFireball was Pro Tour San Diego," Damo da Rosa said. "Since it was close to Oakland, Luis's father lent us his house for testing and we had the first 'get together for a week and do heavy testing' experience. Since we liked it and were very successful, we decided to keep doing it for all Pro Tours, and since then most teams have emulated it."

Scott-Vargas recalled who was who among the early members that drove the team's initial successes.

"There's a long list of people involved, and who affected the team in important ways," he said. "When I think of the core of Team ChannelFireball, it includes a number of people who aren't on the team anymore."

  • Luis Scott-Vargas
  • Josh Utter-Leyton
  • David Ochoa
  • Matt Nass
  • Owen Turtenwald
  • Eric Froehlich
  • Ben Stark
  • Brian Kibler
  • Shuhei Nakamura
  • Brad Nelson
  • Conley Woods
  • Martin Juza
  • Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa

"These are the people who were there from the beginning (or very close to it), and who really made the team what it was," Scott-Vargas said. "We had a lot of great times together, and collectively achieved much more success than we would have individually."

Matt Nass hasn't earned the Hall of Fame stripes and accolades that many of his longtime teammates have, but contributing to making Team ChannelFireball the team to defeat was unforgettable all the same.

"There was a stretch where Team ChannelFireball had the best or one of the best decks at almost every Pro Tour," Nass said. "We had Tempered Steel with Hero of Bladehold in Nagoya, Counterspell Zoo in Philadelphia, Caw-Blade in Paris, and a number of other great decks. We had a lot of the best players and deck builders in the world working for a week or two in advance when there weren't really other groups doing the same. Worlds 2011 was just us playing tuned lists of Zoo and Tempered Steel and getting some good practice in. Putting four in the Top 8 was pretty incredible."

The Top 4 of Worlds 2011 saw three of the four Team ChannelFireball members fall in the quarterfinal rounds, but the one who advanced did so in a moment made for the ages:

The heyday of the team's success ebbed just as fast as it flowed. The team changed dramatically in the years that followed, missing the heights of success that propelled them early on. Eventually, it shrank to a humble handful that needed to pair with another team for support.

"Our roster has seen many players come and go, but they all left an impact," Scott-Vargas said. Their roster also includes many more of the game's greats:

  • Pat Cox
  • Paul Cheon
  • Gabe Walls
  • David Williams
  • Willy Edel
  • Michael Jacob
  • Gerry Thompson
  • Lukas Blohon
  • Shahar Shenhar
  • Frank Karsten
  • Guillaume Matignon
  • Tom Martell

"There will always be some degree of change with teams like this—there are a multitude of reasons why a player might move on," Scott-Vargas said. "It's good to get a flow of new ideas and interact with new faces, though almost everyone who we added wasn't 'new' in the sense that we were well acquainted with them before they joined.

"The team always felt like the team, though looking back at all these names we really are in a different space than we used to be," Scott-Vargas continued. "The biggest shift came when most of the people on the team could no longer commit to testing in person for two weeks, as we always used to do. No longer were we the new pros on the scene, with the ability to spend weeks testing on location. Most of us found ourselves with new responsibilities and less time, which is what caused the biggest shift.

"We had enough good players on the team that it was rare that someone didn't do well, but we've certainly had Pro Tours that didn't go as planned," Scott-Vargas said. "It's tough dealing with different levels of success than you are used to, even if there is natural variance in Magic.

"I will fully admit that there were times when we didn't have the same fire as we did initially, and fighting that feeling of entitlement or apathy is something every successful team has to do. Finding our motivation through the different swings has been tough at times, but I really like where we are at right now."

Damo da Rosa shared similar thoughts.

"Most of the times we did badly were due to a lack of motivation. During Pro Tour Avacyn Restored, for example, we were almost all already locked for Platinum so no one truly cared," Damo da Rosa said. "The same thing was happening recently—we were all sort of 'burned out' from Magic, and it was reflected in our preparation. Other times we've done badly it was usually because we misjudged the metagame or a particular deck. For example, for Pro Tour Theros we had a bad version of mono-blue, which led us to conclude it wasn't going to be a popular deck. It turned out it was quite good and everyone played it, and we played a deck that lost to it and therefore didn't do well.

"I think there isn't a lesson to be gained on motivation—either you are motivated or you aren't—but with time we've learned that people do not always think the same way we think so we can can't expect only the things we'd like to play," he said. "Sometimes we think Deck X is bad, but we test a lot against it anyway because we don't think people will identify it as very bad and will play it regardless."

Nass summed the lack of success up in a succinct way: "I think being overconfident is a big risk. If you ever think you don't have to work hard to be the best, you can fall behind. As other teams started forming, our edge got smaller."

Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch wasn't a breakthrough performance for Team ChannelFireball so much as a return to form. Getting there from the slump was hard.

"The need for a new testing structure is what led to our collaborations with other teams, namely Team Face to Face Games and Team Ultra PRO. As we moved away from our traditional method of preparation (meet on-location or somewhere central two weeks before the Pro Tour), we had to look for alternate methods of testing," Scott-Vargas explained. "That, combined with a desire to increase our team size, led to the collaboration with Face to Face. We worked with them for a couple Pro Tours, off and on, as recently as Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch.

"Unfortunately, we ran into the same problem we had previously: they favored meeting in person, and for much longer than many of us could," he said. "To their credit, they were very flexible and worked with us despite many of us not being able to attend as early as they did, but it wasn't the best fit all around.

"We have now joined forces with Team Ultra PRO, and it's been going very well. They are set up to be an online-focused team, and really prioritize communication and efficiency," Scott-Vargas said. "We started preparing way earlier than we ever have before, with the goal of spreading testing out over a longer period of time instead of requiring multiple weeks of full-time commitment. Given that Matt Nass, Josh Utter-Leyton, Patrick Chapin, and I are all residents of Denver, Colorado, we still have the luxury of playtesting in person and reporting our findings to the rest of our teammates."

Pivoting to testing with a new team—from Team Face to Face Games to Team Ultra PRO—immediately after success at the last Pro Tour was a surprise from the outside, but it makes perfect sense to the members of Team ChannelFireball.

"It is funny that we are following up a dominating performance at Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch by immediately switching who we are testing with, but that's how things shake out sometimes," Scott-Vargas explained. "I hope for nothing but the best for Team Face to Face Games, but I'm certainly rooting for us to have an incredible Pro Tour. It is funny that we are back testing with many previous members of the team, so in a way it's less of a change than it might seem."

With seven years of camaraderie and Scott-Vargas's penchant for the humorous, the team has some amazing tales from outside of tournament performance, as well.

"There are so many stories that I can barely scratch the surface—we are talking about years of testing together with a group spanning 30 people," Scott-Vargas said, before sharing some highlights:

  • Conley once got in a fight because two strangers on the street didn't like his sandals.
  • The pizza delivery guy in Las Vegas come back with playmats for Gerry Thompson to sign, which was even more perfect because Gerry ordered from that same pizza place over five times that week.
  • The team tried hard to beat Tempered Steel for a solid week before Nagoya, then realized if they couldn't, nobody else could either.
  • They convinced Ben Stark to play their Caw-Blade deck over the Kuldotha Forgemaster deck by saying, "They don't know if they want four Jace, the Mind Sculptor or four Preordain." Ben then won the Pro Tour.
  • Brad once declared that he would beat Conley 12-4 in any set of sixteen games in any format, which kicked off one of the most enduring rivalries in Magic. (The team then mandated Brad and Conley must be on opposite sides in any team draft.)
  • Owen Turtenwald won Player of the Year in 2011 because Scott-Vargas didn't draw a land in the final game of his quarterfinal match. Turtenwald certainly deserved the win, but Scott-Vargas still feels a land would have been nice.

What story gets added from Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad is a question for another day, but we'll all be watching the showdown in Spain to see the team demonstrate its latest vision of the future: the only Pro Tour that counts now is the next one.

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