Digging Deeper into Team Ultra PRO

Posted in Magic Lifestyle on January 25, 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.

The world is a big place. Regional Pro Tour Qualifiers take place around the globe to bring hundreds of players together for the chance to play Magic with the highest stakes around: the Pro Tour. Throughout over 20 years of history, the game's greats have risen to the challenge of competition for the best prize and glory the game affords.

Pro Tours are something everyone wants to win, but it isn't a lonely task.

Over the next two weeks, the task of preparing for the game's biggest prize falls on several hundred players at Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch. While our eyes will be on dozens of players, one team in particular we'll watch with great interest is Team Ultra PRO.

Team Ultra PRO is one of several "super teams" that emerged in the wake of the success of team ChannelFireball in the late 2000s. The roster for Pro Tour Oath of the Gate includes many of the game's most notable contenders and recent standouts:

  • Bob Maher, Pro Tour Hall of Fame member
  • Paul Rietzl, Pro Tour Hall of Fame member
  • Ben Stark, Pro Tour Hall of Fame member
  • Patrick Chapin, Pro Tour Hall of Fame member
  • Craig Wescoe, Pro Tour Dragon's Maze Champion
  • Sam Black, multiple Pro Tour Top 8 finisher
  • David Williams, multiple Pro Tour Top 8 finisher
  • Patrick Cox, multiple Pro Tour Top 8 finisher
  • Matt Sperling, multiple Pro Tour Top 8 finisher
  • Ari Lax, new to the team for Oath of the Gatewatch and Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir Champion
  • Tom Martell, Pro Tour Gatecrash Champion
  • Mike Hron, new to the team for Oath of the Gatewatch and Pro Tour Geneva 2007 Champion
  • Rich Hoaen, Pro Tour Top 8 finisher
  • Justin Cohen, 2015 Rookie of the Year and finalist at Pro Tour Fate Reforged
  • Corey Burkhart, new to the team for Oath of the Gatewatch and Grand Prix Pittsburgh 2015 Top 8 finisher
  • Matt Severa, multiple Grand Prix Top 8 finisher

It's a mix of young and old, fresh and veteran. Years of experience and rising talent mix in a way few other teams muster, and for good reason: everyone was looking for a different testing experience, one that balanced the typical grind of practice against the commitments of work and life.

"For me, the idea for this team came from my experiences trying to attend Pro Tours on an occasional basis," Bob Maher said. "I was lucky enough to have friends on competitive teams who would allow me to join their teams for one or two events, knowing that I could not contribute to in-person testing the way they were used to. I did this a few times and found that there were other players who had either limited availability or little desire to dedicate significant time to on-site testing before a Pro Tour. The idea was just to put together a group of people who, for whatever reason, preferred collaborating online until the event.

"I believe I originally talked to Ben Stark, Matt Sperling, and Paul Rietzl. We all agreed that it would be a good idea to explore and went from there. We very quickly reached out to players we knew had constraints on face-to-face testing, and also to players we just enjoyed teaming with. We just wanted to build a team that would be as competitive as it could be while understanding that players may have constraints on the time they could contribute."

Bob Maher, founder of Team Ultra PRO.

Paul Rietzl echoed that drive for differentiation.

"Just because I can't prepare in a cabin for ten days before an event doesn't mean I'm not competitive," he said. "If I'm going to fly all over the world and play these tournaments, I want to have a shot against great professionals. Team Ultra PRO—through roster composition, process-driven approach, collaborative tools, and flexible scheduling/role assignment—allows me to prepare the way I need to for tournaments without the normally associated stress.

"It's also filled with people like Matt [Sperling], Bob [Maher], Patrick Chapin, David Williams, and others who I would find myself going out to dinner with at events anyway. It was just natural. Bob and Matt shared my desire to have elite-level preparation without the significant negative impact on our personal, family, and professional lives."

Paul Reitzl, left, and new Team Ultra PRO member Ari Lax.

Testing, of course, still needs to happen. Ari Lax hungers for the flow of knowledge to make better decisions during tournaments and games, and his journey to joining the team for Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch speaks to the caliber of preparation happening asynchronously.

"When I started what ended up becoming Team TCGPlayer/BMK Gaming three years ago, the goal was to create a team that had well-documented and procedural testing," Lax explained, adding that his own time commitments created a disconnect, as he couldn't dedicate the time his teammates could.

"Team Ultra PRO really succeeded at that initial goal I had," Lax said. "Maybe it's because there are a lot of people in situations similar to mine (the team was originally called Team Work), but the idea of data and information being presented in a detailed and accessible way is really the norm here."

"You cannot replicate the level of preparation that Team Pantheon is able to accomplish."

Paul Rietzl has worked with the potent team of Jon Finkel, Reid Duke, Owen Turtenwald, William Jensen, and many more of the game's elite before. While the amount of information Team Ultra PRO generates is high, he pointed out the sharing isn't the same as in-depth live testing, no matter how thorough.

"You put a rotation of eight of the top 50 players ever in a pod and draft 20 times, while discussing interesting picks and situations; that's just the gold standard," he said. "So fighting them on that axis is destined to come up short. Our team focuses more on communication and specialization. We let people do what they are good at, with the understanding that everyone will err toward over-communicating so that we can sharpen our decks, pick orders, et cetera."

Matt Sperling, one of the more outspoken players on the tour and a longtime friend of Rietzl's, sees the solution as one of talent.

"One of the things I love about Magic is how it brings smart people together and presents them with interesting problems they have to work together (and alone) to solve," Sperling said. "As with the best startups where I work in Silicon Valley, part of what is attractive to candidates is the pool of talent you have assembled to address whatever problems you're working on.

"People come to Team Ultra PRO to contribute and to learn, to give and to take—and if that's what you care about, then you care deeply about who you're in that foxhole with. It's not just about getting the smartest guys and gals in a room together, though—and we actively try to get some younger, hungrier people on the team at all times to push us, to force us to be explicit and examine assumptions, and to bring new ideas into the fold from wherever they got their start."

Letting teammates do what they do and sharing it deeply is exactly what Bob and others set out to achieve originally. Bob Maher said that, while he is the de facto leader, others handle much of the organization—Justin Cohen, for example, does much of the spreadsheet work, while Matt Sperling handles quite a bit of the Facebook group.

Meanwhile, the team leans a bit harder on some members for areas of expertise than others.

"We don't have specialists, but it's somewhat unavoidable when you have multiple people who would be on a list of best Limited players alive and multiple others who would be on a list of best deck builders alive," Sperling said. "So yes, Patrick Chapin contributes more to Constructed than he does to Limited, but A) he contributes to Limited, and B) he can't help that he's so good at Constructed that people go to him with questions and want him to comment on every deck. We have experts, but not specialists."

But, that, Maher said, is the point.

"Our diversity is our biggest strength. We can cover a great deal of ground in a short time," he added.

Part of covering more ground means working independently. With Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch featuring the wider Modern format, the ability to dive into productive work on Magic Online has featured prominently in how the team accomplishes their testing.

"Magic Online plays a bigger role for this event than any other, because you can start preparing early," Lax explained. "Like, preliminary work starting months ago early, with known decks so you aren't leaking any real information, as compared to Standard where you literally have one week and are afraid to show any lists."

Rietzl doubled down on how vital digital Magic is for the team.

"Magic Online is absolutely critical for us, even more so for Modern where such a high percentage of the card pool is already available online," he said. "On a personal level, I played a variety of Modern decks while studying the Oath of the Gatewatch set to see how those cards might be integrated. Then, our team started to play one another ad hoc online. The week before the tournament is Limited crunch time, as I never play a game of Limited before the set is released online. I shoot for two to three drafts per day starting the Friday before the Pro Tour."

Summarizing the team in a word is an impossible task, and like the eclectic mix that is the team itself, the words they chose ranged widely as well.

"Open-minded," Maher said. "We are not tied in to any approach."

"Efficient" was the word Sperling used. "Whether it's by reducing the 'drama' distractions or by insisting on open, clear, inclusive channels of communication, we don't put up with nonsense. And if something breaks, we fix it next time out."

"Not to sound cocky, but 'right,'" was Lax's vote. "Obviously I don't think we are 100% on everything to start and that nothing can be improved, but the core of how the team operates is everything I had previously thought was the right way to do things."

"Balanced" was Rietzl's pick without any additional explanation, and that's perhaps the best word of all to describe a team of fresh faces and iconic competitors testing Magic near and far, through life and work, as one of the most formidable teams at the Pro Tour.

"Winners" might be appropriate too, but that's what we'll be watching Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch to find out.

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