Marvelous Team-Ups

Posted in The Week That Was on February 7, 2014

When you look back on the recent history of the Pro Tour, it is definitely the exception to see someone win a title without being part of a large testing team. Both Alexander Hayne and Stanislav Cifka won their trophies with smaller, less formalized teams, but both had experienced support groups to work with. The idea of a superteam is not a recent development. You can look all the way back to the earliest days of the Pro Tour and find The Pacific Coast Legends, Hammer's Hitmen, East Coast Assassins, Team Deadguy, Team CMU, Team YMG, and so on.

The Pro Tour is the most challenging level of competition a Magic player will ever face and it makes sense that players would coalesce to prepare, but the game seemed to change around the 2009 season, when eventual Pro Tour Hall of Famer Luis Scott-Vargas assembled Team ChannelFireball. They would get to a tournament city well in advance and attack the format. There were multiple events where they simply dominated the field—Pro Tour Paris and Worlds 2011 both leap to mind—and they demonstrated the value of their rigor time and time again.

The next major team to coalesce was the squad led by Jon Finkel, Tom Martell, and Patrick Chapin that has since moved from being sponsored by StarCityGames to being a SECOND, as of yet unnamed, ChannelFireball team. Suddenly, there were two squads of powerhouses with multiple Hall of Famers vying for seats at the top tables. It also seemed to be the tipping point for the rest of the field to start using the template that these two teams had employed to great success.

Suddenly, you had a trophy going to Team Luxurious Hair (since renamed Team member Craig Wescoe and Team Revolution (since renamed Team Madness Project) member Jérémy Dezani after following in the footsteps of the superteams that seemed to have a monopoly on winning for the past few years. It seems like there are even more teams than ever before as we head into Spain, and I caught up with a handful of them for a roundtable about how they are approaching Pro Tour Born of the Gods.

Joining the discussion were:

Pro Tour Hall of Famer Luis Scott-Vargas of Team ChannelFireball, which includes fellow Hall of Famers Brian Kibler, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, Ben Stark, Shuhei Nakamura, Kenji Tsumura, and Frank Karsten, as well as Pat Cox, Josh Utter-Leyton, David Ochoa, Eric Froehlich, Brock Parker, Martin Juza, Shahar Shenhar, and Ben Lundquist. Yes that is SEVEN Hall of Famers on one team.
Pro Tour Gatecrash Champion Tom Martell of Team CFB:(tbd), which includes its own share of Hall of Famers, such as Jon Finkel, Kai Budde, Patrick Chapin, Zvi Mowshowitz, Gabriel Nassif, and William Jensen, alongside the likes of Sam Black, Matt Costa, Andrew Cuneo, Reid Duke, Rich Hoaen, Brad Nelson, Paul Rietzl, Owen Turtenwald, and Gaudenis Vidugiris.
Pro Tour Gatecrash Top 8 competitor Melissa DeTora of Team Madness Project, which includes Pro Tour Hall of Famer Raphaël Lévy with the most-recent PT Champion Jérémy Dezani, along with Pierre Dagen, Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, Roberto Gonzales, Kevin Chiche, Vidianto Wijaya, Rob Castellon, Samuele Estratti, Yann Guthmann, Timothee Simonot, Alexandre Aurejac, Olivier Lévy, Alexandre Bonneau, Guillaume Peret, Alexis Gallais, Mark Jacobson, Eliott Boussaud, Justin Robb, and Damian Mole.
Pro Tour Avacyn Restored Champion Alexander Hayne of Team FacetoFaceGames, which is made up of Alex Majlaton, Jon Stern, Josh McClain, Steven Wolfman, Ben Moir, Glenn McIelwain, Lucas Siow, Dave Shiels, Todd Anderson, Brian Braun-Duin, Jacob Wilson, and Sam Pardee.
Pro Tour Dragon's Maze Top 8 competitor Matej Zatlkaj discussed working with Team Elaborate Ruse, which includes Hall of Famer Olle Råde, along with Simon Goertzen, Stanislav Cifka, Ivan Floch, Lukas Jaklovsky, Willy Edel, Juliano Gennari, Joel Larsson, Elias Watsfeldt, Denniz Rachid, and Ludde Londos.
Grand Prix Singapore finalist and APAC coverage reporter Chapman Sim of Team MTGMintCard is working with the likes of Kelvin Chew, Tzu Ching Kuo, Lee Shi Tian, Ken Yukuhiro, Zhang Meng Qiu, Jeffrey Chan, and Wong Weiquan. The team also sponsors Shouta Yasooka and works with Jun'ya Iyanaga, who won't be at this PT.
BDM: What is your team's itinerary for the Pro Tour? When will you arrive in Spain and does Grand Prix Paris the weekend before factor into your plans?
LSV: We are showing up in Valencia about a week ahead of the Pro Tour. We used to meet for longer, but enough of us can't make that anymore that we are at a week's worth of prep (with a fair amount of Magic Online testing beforehand). We have been happy just going to the site hotel early for the last couple events. Wizards of the Coast always picks a good one, and the hassle of renting a place for only a week isn't worth it, although I like it for longer trips.

Some of the team is going to Grand Prix Paris, but I'm not among them. I do like playing Legacy, but I really dislike playing GPs a week before the PT, both because I don't want to prepare for them instead of the PT and because of the time/energy needed. Enough of us feel that way that we are mostly going straight to Valencia instead.

Martell: We've rented a villa for the two weeks prior to the PT. Half of the team is arriving on February 11 to begin testing, with the remainder trickling in between then and February 15. We've decided as a team to skip the GP the weekend before so we can focus on testing.
DeTora: We are testing in Paris, because most of the team is from there. A local game store is letting use their space for testing. For Valencia, we arrive on February 17, no special living arrangements, just a hostel for a few days and then we are moving to the player hotel. We are meeting in Paris on Sunday and playing in the GP. It's not exactly what I wanted to do, but the whole team wants to play so we are playing.
Zatlkaj: One part of the group gets to Valencia on Friday, the week before the Pro Tour, skipping GP Paris to focus on testing. The rest of us will join on Monday. We are staying in two big apartments in the town center with ample space for Constructed and Draft testing. GP Paris is a minor inconvenience but only one of us is playing and three are doing coverage so it should not be that big of a problem:
Hayne: We are planning on gathering in Spain Saturday, February 15, and have rented a house where we will all be staying and testing together. We specifically made it a requirement to skip the Grand Prix in favor of more time for in-house testing. We have found it to be extremely beneficial to have that extra time, and would take more if people did not have work commitments. The Pro Tour is serious business, and we only want people who are fully committed.
Sim: All of us will arrive in Valencia on Monday, with Kuo Tzu-Ching, Wong Wei Quan, Li Bo, and myself rushing over from Grand Prix Paris. For this event, I had made arrangements for everyone to stay in a 180-meter square, four-bedroom apartment in the heart of Valencia, a stone's throw away from the Central Train Station and the magnificent Valencia Cathedral. Surrounded by restaurants, shops, and excellent transportation, we will have more time to focus on our preparation and still go out for some grocery shopping and have decent meals in between. It is no time for a vacation, though, and we all understand it will be a rather intense week.
BDM: What is the division of labor like on your team? Do you have someone who is a Limited specialist? Modern master? Analytics expert?

Martell: We haven't formally split up tasks like this in the past but people gravitate toward their strengths. Sam spends a lot of time brewing offbeat decks, Patrick and Cuneo brew control lists, Rietzl builds a Boros deck, the Oath Brothers teach the rest of us how to draft, Kai cooks us dinner, and Jon sits in the corner goldfishing Storm all day.

DeTora: We don't really have a Limited specialist. We just draft a lot and talk about interesting picks or plays. As for analytics, it would have to be Roberto. He is good at compiling all the data and presenting it to us. We also have a Facebook group, so all of our results are online.
Sim: At the moment, all of us are mulling over the new bannings and unbannings in an attempt to attack the new format. Even our Limited specialist, Lee Shi Tian, is very much focused on Modern at the moment. We have a Facebook group we use to discuss new brews and modification of existing decks. Limited-wise, most of us have attended our respective Prereleases to get a feel of the new cards in Born of the Gods. On top of that, everyone is drafting as much as we possibly can at our local game stores. We share our draft decks and card evaluation comments online and will put our theories to the test when the nine of us sit down together and do some serious drafts against each other.
LSV: Ben Stark fills two roles. He's first and foremost our Limited specialist, but last Pro Tour he also tried out being our "post the team strategy to his Facebook page" specialist (instead of our team page). We hope he doesn't reprise that role for this one. Frank (Karsten) is definitely our analytics specialist, and has added a lot to our testing as a result. Josh (Utter-Leyton) provides our best barometer for Constructed, although we have a lot of people who are good at testing and tuning decks. David (Ochoa) is first and foremost our dining specialist, and always scopes out the best places for team meals (which is actually important, all jokes aside). Plenty of other people have unique offerings as well, and everyone brings something to the table.
Zatlkaj: At this stage, everyone is working on everything but we are certainly relying on Constructed specialists to provide some guidance on decks, matchups, and sideboards, and Limited specialists are analyzing the new cards and giving good context to Theros. I personally am mainly responsible for making sure the logistics are good and that the testing will be effective.
Hayne: This is a bit of a hard question to answer, considering much of our team is new. Generally, we haven't really had anyone as specifically a Limited expert (is anyone besides Ben Stark?), but we do have many experts in various archetypes for Modern. In terms of having the best lists for the major archetypes, I expect us to be in good shape.
BDM: How much attention were you paying to Modern before the B&R changes? Were you able to do work in advance of that or did you just have to put Modern on hold?

Hayne: Jon and I definitely explored the format and worked on the foundation of existing decks. I know many other members did some pre-ban testing as well, mainly learning the format as a whole or testing decks and cards unlikely to be affected by bannings. Most work had to be put on hold, and now that the bannings have been announced we have all commenced brewing.

Zatlkaj: We mostly worked on Modern early, exchanging ideas and decks that were relevant for the pre-ban metagame, which was still relevant because of GP Prague. It did influence our efforts in that the day of the announcement was the catalyst for new brewing and new age of testing and re-testing matchups. I wish it came a week earlier, as we could certainly could use the extra time.
Sim: After Grand Prix Kuala Lumpur, a bunch of us actually stayed back for a couple of days and put in just a little time to play test a bit of Modern. A few of us had expected Deathrite Shaman to receive the ban hammer, but until it was confirmed, we didn't want to go ahead and pretend it was already gone. Having said that, we didn't want to do nothing, either, and we did manage to assemble a gauntlet of the most popular decks, especially those that had Top 8ed at Grand Prix Prague.
LSV: We did very little work on Modern before the B&R announcement. It wasn't (pure) laziness, we just knew the format fairly well and figured something big would happen with the changes. There was no reason to go super deep if there was going to be a big shift.
Martell: We were paying a lot of attention as Born of the Gods doesn't look to really shake up the format, so the B&R list would have a much larger impact. We definitely got started earlier working with preexisting decks and stock lists as our assumptions were there wouldn't be a lot of bannings and knowing which decks are inherently good is still useful.
BDM: How much of a monkey wrench do these changes represent?

Martell: These changes are great—the format felt a little stale and we were hoping for the environment to get shaken up. Big changes benefit the larger, stronger teams as it invalidates some of the old tournament results that other groups might rely on for outsourcing their testing.

Hayne: Definitely throws a monkey wrench into the works, as Zoo and Faeries look to be two new archetypes to work on, and Jund is severely crippled. However, I am glad to see the format shaken up a bit, and I think our team is prepared to meet the challenge of figuring out how the ecosystem of Modern adapts to the changes.
Zatlkaj: I thought we had the format fairly figured out before, but the announcement can give us more of an edge, because BGx decks were quite dominant, not as hard to play, and something that a lot of people could default to.

LSV: These changes are huge. A lot of the popular decks got impacted both directly and indirectly, and plenty of new decks now exist. Whether they are good or not is yet to be seen, but I can tell you that we have a lot of team members sleeving up Wild Nacatls in anticipation (remember that this is the team that played Tempered Steel, Zoo, then Tempered Steel + Zoo at three Pro Tours in a row in 2011).

Sim: It's been only a couple of days and we have yet to come to a conclusion. We are busy putting various Zoo and Faerie decks together, brewing new decks, and modifying old ones as we speak. We're sure that the format has changed, but only time will tell how much it has. I dare not speak for my team, but I personally believe that the format has been shaken up a fair bit and Modern won't be quite the same as before.
BDM: Any breakout players we should keep an eye out for on your team this time out?
Zatlkaj: I'm confident that all players on our team have the potential to Top 8 the Pro Tour, but I will definitely single out Elias Watsfeldt as the youngest member who has bags of talent that I hope he can show on the big stage!
Sim: Lee Shi Tian and Kelvin Chew have made it to the Sunday stage, while the rest of us are still pretty green. But if I were to put my money on someone, it would be Kuo Tzu-Ching. The last time he came close was during Pro Tour San Juan, where he lost the "win-and-in" match to former Player of the Year Brad Nelson. If Kuo had emerged victorious instead, he would only need to ID the last round to make the Top 8. Two years ago, he also placed 10th at PT Avacyn Restored (winning a consecutive eleven matches), missing out on the Top 8 with his abysmal tiebreakers but netting enough Pro Points to lock up Platinum that season. With ten Grand Prix Top 8s and a World Magic Cup title under his belt, we're hoping it would be his turn next.
DeTora: Yann Guthman, it's only his second PT, and he is leading the Rookie of the Year race right now. He made Top 25 in Dublin.
LSV: Both Ben Lundquist and Kenji Tsumura are exciting additions to both our team and the Pro Tour. Having them both competing again is awesome, and I wouldn't be surprised if they did very well.

Hayne: Most of the players on the team are fairly well known, but I would particularly look out for Glenn McIelwain, who has been the most feared grinder on the Canadian PTQ circuit and who has finally qualified for his first PT.

Martell: Every player on our roster has the talent to win a PT and we have a lot of guys who are playing at or near their all-time best right now, so I wouldn't be surprised if we put three in the Top 8. In terms of a "breakout," Huey has been tearing up the GPs but hasn't crushed a PT since his return and Reid is probably the best player in the world without a PT Top 8.

BDM: How difficult do you think it is to compete on the Pro Tour without a team supporting you? How much has that changed over the recent history of the game?

LSV: From experience, I can say that it is very difficult. I didn't have a big team (or a team at all) for my first bunch of Pro Tours, and my Constructed results suffered because of that. It's probably tougher now, with less lead time from new sets to the Pro Tour, and because there are more large teams than there used to be. The good news is that Twitter and other social networking tools can help you make more connections than before. I got to know people by going to Pro Tours, losing, and doing side drafts, but that's not the easiest path. I'm not saying it's trivial to find a team, but there are more resources to do so than there were previously.

Hayne: I think it is very difficult. I haven't been around the Pro Tour very long, and so when I started it was still basically a necessity to be on a team to keep up. But I think that this has been a relatively recent occurrence, and that ChannelFireball really changed the way people prepare for Pro Tours by getting a group of committed players together to test a week or more in advance. Without a team, you can have difficulty getting high-level Draft preparation, as well as figuring out a good deck to use in the always-new Constructed format. Many hands make light work, and anyone who has been on a team can tell you that simply so much more gets done, and so many more ideas are spread and examined, when you are working on a team, rather than alone or with one or two others.
Zatlkaj: It is certainly very difficult without a team. Even a small group of qualified people can give you good perspective on both Limited and Constructed. I think especially for a format such as Modern, with so many interactions, finding the right deck and testing all the matchups is nigh impossible. I would definitely recommend reaching out to qualified people from your region or at least finding local people who are invested in the format of the Pro Tour. And there's (thankfully) always Magic Online!
DeTora: It's really difficult. it seems that everyone has a team and if you don't you are really far behind. Coming up with a deck and predicting the metagame is impossible to do alone and if you are off then you are screwed. It doesn't really affect Draft though, because of Magic Online.
Sim: I debuted at 2006 and had to prepare for Pro Tours on my own because I knew next to nobody. Pro Tours also mostly occur around new releases and that made matters even worse because few people had an idea what was good and what wasn't. Even though I did manage to cash at my second Pro Tour (and missed out on the money at my third due to tiebreakers), it was really difficult, because when you didn't have any playtest partners, you only had one perspective, and that was your own. Unless you have tremendous talent, like Shouta Yasooka, it is definitely better with a team, since we are able to arrive at conclusions more quickly through discussions and exchange of ideas. We watch each other play, point out each other's mistakes and question each other's decisions. I'm really glad I have my team, because not only are they great players, they are also my best friends.
Martell: It seems very hard given the low amount of testing time available with the new cards and the huge lag for sets going live on Magic Online. You just can't get in many games if you are alone. This has gotten worse in recent history because several large teams have emerged—before, when getting a beach house before a PT was unusual, there was less of an information gap.

January Player of the Month: #MTGPom

The six teams featured in the roundtable are made up of 83 of the more than 400 qualified players in the tournament, and it is very likely that someone mentioned above will be in this discussion for next month's award. As it stands, two of the players interviewed are nominated for Player of the Month for January on the strength of their Grand Prix wins. You can help decide which of these players will win the award by engaging on Twitter using the hashtag #MTGPoM. You can interact directly with me using @Top8Games or just use the hashtag so I can find the discussion you have within your own social network. The winner will be announced in next week's column.

Pro play in January kicked off with Grand Prix Prague, when twenty-seven-year-old Croatian IT developer Vjeran Horvat defeated the 1,000+ person field with a RWU Modern deck featuring Geist of Saint Traft. He achieved that victory without any byes. Let me repeat that for emphasis: WITHOUT ANY BYES. He will have byes come Grand Prix Paris, since the other tournament he played in and won during the month was a Grand Prix Trial for the Legacy event. His record to start out of 2014 was a robust 21–2–2.

Next up was Tom Martell's win over an 1,800-person field at Grand Prix Sacramento. The format was Theros Limited and Martell employed many of the underutilized cards across black and white to grind his way through the elimination bracket of the Grand Prix. It was Martell's only tournament of the month and he went 16–2–0 with three byes to get things going. The win pushed Martell up the Top 25 Rankings by six spots into No. 7.

The last weekend of the month saw two Grand Prix take place. In North America, Alexander Hayne took down his third Grand Prix title in the last six months and his second money finish in the month of January. Hayne piloted a blue-white Planeswalker control deck to a Standard win at GP Vancouver. He also finished 45th at Grand Prix Sacramento and went 26–6–1 with a total of six byes on the month.

Fabien Li, a twenty-seven-year-old marketer from Singapore won a Theros Limited Grand Prix in Kuala Lumpur—and did it with only the aid of a single bye. Like Hayne, he played blue-white to victory, although Li did it with Wingsteed Rider and a forty-card deck. Li also played in a PTQ and an FNM and racked up a January record of 18–4–1.

Four Grand Prix winners, one Player of the Month title. Who is it going to be?

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