Team Ultra PRO has been a dominant force in Magic since its inception. The team's original concept was to bring together some of the game's greatest minds who couldn't fully devote themselves to the testing process that most successful contemporary teams have adopted.
Work, family, and school can and should take priority over planeswalking endeavors. Many of the game's best teams gather together for more than a week prior to Pro Tours in an effort to sharpen their play and find the perfect deck for a given event. The members of Team Ultra PRO fulfill their worldly obligations while discussing strategy and playing games with each other remotely.
I sat down with five-time Grand Prix Top 8 and two-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitor Matt Sperling and Hall of Famer (and thirteen-time Grand Prix Top 8 and four-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitor) Paul Rietzl to talk about their team's rise to prominence.
The story of Team Ultra PRO started last year, when Bob Maher, the Great One himself, approached Sperling and No. 4–ranked Rietzl about working together for tournaments in a capacity that didn't require them to commit weeks of their lives to the testing process. It wasn't a hard sell, and the team's core was quickly established. Maher went home to Madison, Wisconsin, where he was able to get some of the game's most creative minds onboard: No. 8-ranked Sam Black, Matt Severa, Justin Cohen, and Andrew Beckstrom joined the squad.
Eighteen-time (not a typo) Grand Prix Top 8 and four-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitor Ben Stark seemed like a great fit as someone who's always had tremendous talent and perhaps a more tremendous aversion to traditional testing and practice.
Six-time Grand Prix Top 8 and three-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitor Pat Cox was the final addition to the original squad.
"We wanted adults," said Sperling of his team. "We didn't want to spend hours on empty antics."
At their very first tournament, Pro Tour Fate Reforged, Justin Cohen managed to make it all the way to the finals in his Pro Tour debut. With talent and hard work on their side, Team Ultra PRO was able to quickly establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with on the Pro Tour.
Their success drew the attention of some of the game's most respected minds. Patrick Chapin would soon join the fray and add an element of creativity that could only be matched by Sam Black, who was conveniently already on the team.
Richard Hoaen would follow shortly thereafter and bring one of the game's sharpest Limited minds to the table.
Rietzl said, when asked about their progress, "With each passing Pro Tour, our team's cohesion and process is further perfected. Most teams meet for two weeks prior to a Pro Tour. The whole point of Team Ultra PRO was to get around that."
Sperling jumped in: "There's a lot of information to digest. Normally, when people get together for a week or two to practice, they end up spending the first three or four days just catching up on what the others already know. We wanted a system where we could all be on the same page from day one."
The system seems to be working. Team Ultra PRO had a dominant performance at Grand Prix Washington, D.C., which saw four members account for literally half of the Top 8.
With Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad on the horizon, Team Ultra PRO has announced their latest exciting additions to the squad. After his Top 8 finish at Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch, Luis Scott-Vargas is joining his friends on Team Ultra PRO and bringing a cast of characters from ChannelFireball with him.
Five-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitor Josh Utter-Leyton, nine-time Grand Prix Top 8 competitor and former US National Champion and Team Worlds Champion Paul Cheon, six-time Grand Prix Top 8 competitor David Ochoa, and six-time Grand Prix Top 8 competitor Matt Nass follow their fearless leader in joining Team Ultra PRO.
"Our team and process is in a really good place right now," said Sperling. "It can be difficult to practice this way when the set's Magic Online release is so close to the Pro Tour, but I think we're doing the best we can with our available resources."
Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad is already shaping up to be one for the ages. Team Ultra PRO has quickly gone from being a group that wants to play Magic as a competitive hobby to being a full-fledged superteam as we approach the big show. Will Team Ultra PRO dazzle and impress in a new Standard and Limited environment? Or will East West Bowl and the Pantheon rise to the occasion? Stay tuned to twitch.tv/magic beginning at 7 a.m. UTC on April 22 to see all the action as it unfolds in Madrid!