Allies in the Battle for Zendikar

Posted in The Week That Was on October 2, 2015

By Brian David-Marshall

Brian David-Marshall is a New York–based game designer who has been involved with Magic since 1994, when he started organizing tournaments and ran a Manhattan game store. Since then, he has been a judge, a player, and one of the longest-tenured columnists on, as he enters his second decade writing for the site. He is also the Pro Tour Historian and one of the commentators for the Pro Tour.

In this Issue:

Team ChannelFireball | Team Face to Face Games

The team formerly known as . . . | The Pantheon

Team Ultra Pro | The Team Formerly Known as Thommo | Everyone Else

Pro Tour testing teams have been around for almost as long as the Pro Tour itself. Team Pacific Coast Legends—with players such as Henry Stern, Preston Poulter, George Baxter, Mario Robaina, Mark Justice, Mark Chalice, and Scott Johns—formed within the first year of the Pro Tour. Hammer's Hitmen—built around the big personality of Shawn "Hammer" Regnier—rose up on the East Coast to challenge them. Team Deadguy, Team CMU, and Team Your Move Games all came, saw, and conquered in their wake. But by the end of the first decade of the 2000s, the era of the super team had come to an end.

Then sometime around 2010, the competitive landscape of the Pro Tour shifted when a handful of professional players coalesced around ascendant star Luis Scott-Vargas to create Team Channel Fireball. The approach that the team took involved setting up a boot camp in the same city as the Pro Tour and spending as much as two weeks breaking the Constructed format and setting up detailed pick orders for the Draft format. The team put up multiple dominant events, highlighted by Ben Stark's win at Pro Tour Paris with the powerful Caw Blade deck that littered teammates up and down the Top 16 of the tournament.

A year later, the team put four players into the Top 8 of the World Championships in San Francisco and it became crystal clear to everyone else competing on the Pro Tour that there was a successful formula that could be emulated. Pro Tour Hall of Famer Jon Finkel began to assemble a Pantheon of players around him to prepare with similar rigor, and that team began to post similar results—highlighted by Tom Martell's Pro Tour Gatecrash victory.

Team ChannelFireball

Now there are teams that descend on the Pro Tour city from all over the world. Team Thommo won back-to-back Pro Tours this past season with Martin Dang and Joel Larsson; the yet-to-be-renamed Team TCGPlayer had Ari Lax win a Pro Tour and Seth Manfield win the World Championship; and Team Ultra Pro has put up some of the gaudiest numbers of the Pro Tour all season long.

Luis Scott-Vargas

"For some time, we were just about the only group that met live for two weeks and put a high priority on organized, in-person testing. Our results reflected that, and other big teams started forming. Now, there are more people on teams at the Pro Tour than not, and in general everyone is much better prepared," said ChannelFireball's leader, Luis Scott-Vargas. He added, "Though that is also due to Magic Online lining up better with set releases now, too."

As the competitive landscape has changed, so has the nature of Team ChannelFireball. The roster of the team would change and expand over the years, but for this Pro Tour it is a much leaner incarnation, with a core of players who were there at the beginning taking a somewhat different approach to the tournament. I mentioned earlier the success of Team Ultra Pro, a team that does not rely on the Magic boot camp method of playtesting and instead relies on organized online testing. That suits the older members of that team, who juggle Magic with professional lives and cannot often spend two weeks sequestered in a house. Scott-Vargas definitely found himself coming to grips with that as well, after five seasons of renting houses.

"When I first got on the Pro Tour, my testing group was myself and Paul Cheon, with David Ochoa and Josh Utter-Leyton making some appearances after the first few years. We then formed Team Channelfireball, and grew to ten, then nearly 20 people over the next couple years," said LSV, who will be working with a pared-down roster for this event. "As non-Magic demands on everyone's time have grown larger, some of us have looked for a different method, and we've almost made it back to where we started."

For Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar, the team roster will be Scott-Vargas, Cheon, Ochoa, Utter-Leyton, Matt Nass, and Eric Froehlich. The bulk of the testing will be done online and in Scott-Vargas' hometown of Denver, Colorado.

"I'm really happy that the four of us who tested together from 2005 to 2008 are back together, as it gives me a sense of completeness and continuity that life often lacks. I certainly expect to still be well-prepared for the Pro Tour, as testing in person here in Denver and on Magic Online is plenty of prep. But we aren't leaving as early for tournaments as we used to."

Team Face to Face Games

That pared-down roster leaves a lot of Hall of Fame talent normally associated with the ChannelFireball t-shirts looking for some new laundry. Two of those Hall of Fame pros are Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa and Shuhei Nakamura, who will be working with Alexander Hayne and reigning Player of the Year Mike Sigrist as the newest members of Team Face to Face Games.

Hayne's team had collaborated with ChannelFireball for the last several Pro Tours during the previous season, but are moving in a different direction for this tournament.

Alexander Hayne

"As a group, they tend to be older and often have more obligations outside of Magic, while Face to Face is generally younger and able to meet up earlier to test," said Hayne of the parting of the ways between the two teams. "Both Shuhei and Paulo wanted to continue to work with us because they share our vision."

In addition to Hayne, Nakamura, and Damo da Rosa, the rest of the team is Mike Sigrist, Jon Stern, Josh McClain, Sam Pardee, Nathan Holiday, Neal Oliver, and Tyler Blum. Hayne was excited to already be hard at work with the new configuration.

"Building a good team is a lot like building a good Swiss Army knife," he explained. "You want people with different skills that complement each other and work together as a team. Shuhei is a Limited mastermind and a workhorse. He will always jam games and also gives us a Japanese connection with some of the hot new tech coming in. Paulo is a great player, and can be counted on to help with looking at the big picture. . . . Many members often get too caught up in sweet new ideas that might be unrealistic; he keeps us grounded. These guys are Hall of Fame members for a reason, and both are not just great players but great people. I'm really happy to continue to work with them."

The team had a fair amount of success last year in Constructed with Abzan Aggro at PT Khans of Tarkir, Esper Dragons for PT Dragons of Tarkir, and the Ensoul Artifact deck for PT Magic Origins. Four members reached Platinum on the year—Hayne, Sigrist, Holiday, and Damo da Rosa—and they are looking forward to building on that for the coming season.

"I think our Limited preparation has been lacking, and perhaps having a group that all comes in and prepares at the same time will be helpful in that regard," said Hayne. "I hope our collaboration helps us all achieve our goals, be it making the Top 8 of a Pro Tour, winning another Pro Tour, having another Player of the Year, getting closer to Hall of Fame-level stats, or just reaching Platinum in the Pro Player's Club. The group is still relatively new to the Pro Tour compared to many other teams, and everyone is working hard, committed, and hungry for victory. We have just been starting to hit our stride this past year, and I'm excited to see what this year will bring."

The team formerly known as . . .

Another ChannelFireball alum who is working with a different team these days is Hall of Fame Pro Brian Kibler. Kibler is one of the more recent pickups for the team that cannot decide on a name but was best known as "Team" Whatever team name they ultimately decide upon, it will need to be enough name for one of the biggest rosters for the Pro Tour; their roster is up to seventeen players as of this week.

Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir Champion Ari Lax, Chris Fennell, World Champion Seth Manfield, Steve Rubin, Brad Nelson, Brian Braun-Duin, Michael Majors, Austin Bursavich, Ross Merriam, Brian Kibler, Gerry Thompson, Matt McCullough, and Gabe Carleton-Barnes have all been team members at various points throughout the last season. They will be joined by first-time members Josh Cho, Corey Baumeister, Corey Burkhart, and Andrea Mengucci.

Ari Lax

"We are already a week and a half in!" said Lax of the team's Pro Tour preparation. "The many of us who can have been playing several hours a day exploring the format in depth."

It was a very successful year for the team by any measure, with four players competing in the World Championship—including a dominating win by Manfield—and a Pro Tour win. Lax's goal for the team this year is to keep doing the same things that let them be successful last season.

"Building on last year would be insane to assume or think of," said Lax. "The goal is just keep crushing, play the matches as they come, and win as many as we can. If I wanted to put a 'stretch goal' out there, it would be the two people in a single PT Top 8. That really shows you had it for a specific format for a specific event, but that's not a real thing you can plan for beyond 'test well, play well.' "

The Pantheon

While there has been a lot of roster movement on these established teams, The Pantheon remains largely unchanged since the end of last season—when they added one of the game's young stars in Shahar Shenhar. He joined a team chock-full of Hall of Fame pros, including the two winningest players in the history of the game: Jon Finkel and Kai Budde.

The full Hall of Fame portion of the roster for this tournament is Finkel, Budde, William Jensen, Jelger Wiegersma, Ben Rubin, and Gabriel Nassif. On the non-Hall of Fame side of the team, you have no shortage of star power with Owen Turtenwald, Reid Duke, Shenhar, Andrew Cuneo, Brock Parker, Jamie Parke, and Matt Costa.

The team has already started to tackle the new Standard environment, which Finkel described as "much more wide open than we have had in a while" due to the massive rotation of Theros Block and Magic 2015 out of Standard. As for the size of the team, it's right about where he likes it.

"Right now we're at a pretty good size. We consider ten to eleven to be the bottom end of acceptable, and sixteen to seventeen to be the high end. Little logistical things like finding a rental home are a lot easier with thirteen people than they are with sixteen," explained the ever-practical Finkel.

Team Ultra Pro

Pro Tour Gatecrash Champion Tom Martell has played with both The Pantheon and Team ChannelFireball in his career, but now he's the big-name offseason signing by Team Ultra Pro. Being on the team should make work at a little less stressful for him and now-teammate Matt Sperling. The two have been on teams in the past but not recently, making it difficult to talk about their favorite hobby during the workweek.

"Tom's addition is the change that for me means Addepar will no longer be a company divided," said the recently married Matt Sperling of the team roster heading into the next Pro Tour. "Tom and I can once again prepare together like we have in years past. For the most part though, we have familiar faces trying to take a similar approach. We got into a rhythm last season and made roster decisions with a watchful eye on maintaining rather than disrupting that rhythm."

Tom Martell

The current roster for the team—another group with more Hall of Fame members than some groups have members—Bob Maher, Paul Rietzl, Ben Stark, Patrick Chapin, Craig Wescoe, Sam Black, David Williams, Pat Cox, Sperling, Martell, Richard Hoaen, Justin Cohen, Andrew Baeckstrom, Matt Severa, and Brian Kowal.

Looking back on the previous season, Justin Cohen winning the Rookie of the Year award on the back of his second-place finish at Pro Tour Fate Reforged certainly stood out for Sperling. The team also placed two competitors into the Top 4 of the World Championship in Sam Black and Paul Rietzl.

"It wasn't an accident that those two guys were on the biggest stage representing us, and everyone who didn't already know why it was those two guys got to see why in the late rounds of the Swiss," said Sperling of their World Championship runs. "Aside from individual stories and successes, we felt like we put a major footprint on all three Pro Tours that have been played since the team formed. By 'major footprint,' I mean that for three straight Pro Tours our team has made a strong case for the top team performance. Not arguably the best performance over the timeframe of the last 3 PTs, but rather we made the case at each of those PTs, without exception."

Heading into a new season, it was that streak of successful events that had Sperling concerned. Success is easy for a team to handle, but Team Ultra Pro has yet to face an event where the team just makes the wrong call.

"Magic is a game of ups and downs, and the other teams in the world are more than capable of squeezing us out if we stumble in preparation or execution at one of the four big stops this season," said Sperling. "When that happens, there will be a temptation to shake things up and to put in less individual effort, since it feels like we all got less out, etc. This is a new team that hasn't wrestled with these issues. Every hitter eventually has a slump, and while ours may not come this year—knock on wood—that is something I think about."

The Team Formerly Known as Thommo

While Team Ultra Pro consistently placed members deep into Day Two at events it was the team formerly known as (but still not officially renamed) Team Thommo that took home the most hardware. Martin Müller was the captain of the Danish team that won the World Magic Cup, Magnus Lantto won the Magic Online Championship, and the last two Pro Tours handed trophies to Martin Dang and Joel Larsson. The European super team is hoping to keep that momentum going into the new season and to create an environment that can foster more European players reaching the highest echelons of the Pro Player's Club.

"We tried to keep the core players from Vancouver and build around the core of Gold and Platinum players, while adding quality and experience to reach our desired number of around twelve players," said Matej Zatlkaj of the team that is returning himself, Larsson, Lantto, Dang, Immanuel Gerschenson, Müller, Christian Seibold, and Simon Nielsen from the last Pro Tour. "Rounding out the team are Olle Rade, Fabrizio Anteri, Daniel Fior, and Pierre Dagen. We also have Wenzel Krautmann helping out, even though he is not qualified for the Pro Tour. We were very happy with the team chemistry, and were very careful in choosing new members that we felt would not only bring experience but also were able to commit to serious testing."

Matej Zatlkaj

The team will be arriving in Wisconsin a week before Grand Prix Madison and staying in what Zatlkaj described as "lock-down mode" until the Thursday of the Pro Tour. While they are laser-focused on the upcoming Pro Tour, they are also trying to take the long view for not just this season but the ones that lay beyond.

"Our main goal for the season is to build a very strong European-based team with a core of players that are qualified for all the PTs and dedicated to testing seriously for each. Ideally, by the end of the season we would have even more Platinum and Gold players than coming in this season. We are also keeping our eyes on upcoming European talent and are always looking to improve the team and the testing process."

Everyone Else

The Cabin Crew is another European team—and one that Zatlkaj had been a member of in the past—that is so named for an actual cabin in the woods that serves as testing HQ for the team—which is comprised largely of players from the Czech Republic and Slovak Republic. One of the exceptions is Dutch Hall of Famer Frank Karsten, who has been a fixture in the Cabin for a couple of seasons now.

Joining Karsten on the team are fellow Hall of Famer Raphael Levy, Martin Juza, Ivan Floch, Ondřej Stráský, Thomas Hendriks, Robin Dolar, Lukas Blohon, Davor Detecnik, Elliott Boussaud, Jaroslav Boucek, Petr Sochurek, and Tomas Vanek.

Geographic disparity is a huge challenge for TeamMTGMintCard, which is led by four-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitor Lee Shi-Tian. They have members from Korea (Nam Sungwook, Park JunYoung, and Oh JooHyun), Singapore (Kelvin Chew, Jeffery Chan, Steven Tan, Mark Tan, Tay JunHao, and Ray Wee), Taiwan (Huang Hao Shan and Huang Zangitan), Japan (Tomoharu Saito), and of course Hong Kong, with Shi-Tian representing his home country.

Lee Shi-Tian

"We playtest in our own countries and share the information online, then we plan to meet up in Milwaukee one week before the Pro Tour," explained Lee Shi-Tian. "I certainly want to help more Asian players stay on the Pro Tour. We have players go on and off due to work and moving to other countries. I hope we can do it better this year."

One of the players who has been involved with playtesting teams for many years is Pro Tour Hall of Famer Zvi Mowshowitz. He has formed a team with local New York players, some old friends, and some unknown quantities.

Joining him are Gaudenis Vidugiris, Bryan Gottlieb, Alan Comer, Michael Flores, Adrian Sullivan, Jasper Johnson Epstein, Stephen Neal, Ronny Serio, and Saradin.

"The team-building process is stressful if you take it too seriously, because you are telling people they are or aren't good enough, you're sometimes kicking people out, you're playing politics. In this case, the first PT had an easy rule—all of NYC was welcome—and it was all fun," said Mowshowitz of the second go for his new playtesting team. "This second time, again we didn't really need to turn people away, and developed a natural team by merging with an existing group in Madison. Also, to put this in a way you'll appreciate, I love the waiver wire! I mean, Adrian Sullivan and Michael Flores? Thanks, guys! Can I also get Danny Valencia at third?"

You can see what these teams bring to the table when the Pro Tour is streamed live on October 16–18. But before then, you can get a preview of the Limited format next weekend when many of these competitors will be playing in Grand Prix Madison. In the meantime, have fun at your Release Events this weekend!

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