As I checked into the hotel that most of the players and staff are staying at for Pro Tour Dragon's Maze I heard two distinctive sounds coming from behind the closed doors of a first-floor conference room. The first was the Pavlovian sound of people shuffling Magic cards and the second was the hearty laughter of people clearly having a great time with each other. Being the nosey parker that I am, I had to peek inside and see what was going on.
Seated around the conference room table were thousands upon thousands of Pro Points, three Pro Tour Hall of Famers (and at least two people on my ballot for the coming season), four Pro Tour Champions, and a ridiculous number of Top 8s and achievements within the game. There was a time when that description could have only meant that I was talking about Team ChannelFireball—which is actually who I am describing—but, amazingly, there were actually multiple rooms scattered about San Diego with similar resumes doing exactly the same thing: trying to break the Return to Ravnica Block Draft and Constructed formats for Pro Tour Dragon's Maze.
Jon Finkel and Team StarCityGames.com have more Hall of Famers than most teams have Pro Tour Top 8s, combined. Kai Budde, leading an as-of-yet unnamed European team has more Pro Tour victories than any other two people in the game, combined. Combined with Team ChannelFireball, they are the most prominent three teams in an ever-increasingly organized pro community. I had a chance to sit down with ChannelFireball founder Luis Scott-Vargas about how the template he created leading up to Pro Tour Kyoto has changed the face of competitive play and what his last couple of weeks have been like as he prepared for the final event of the Pro Tour season.
"When we started our team—three years ago, actually—there weren't many people making a concerted effort to meet before the Pro Tour in the same city," said Scott-Vargas, who added with a laugh: "That was pretty nice."
The idea of a superteam is far from new. There was Deadguy, Team CMU, Your Move Games, and various super teams over the years, but by the middle of the 2000s teams seemed like a thing of the past, and apart from an occasional Beach House, players were not setting up camp in a city and hammering away at the format in a businesslike fashion.
"People would have mailing lists, people would talk to each other, but there is really no substitute for living, breathing, and eating Magic for a week or longer in the same location," LSV elaborated. While there was a convenience to working remotely, just being around each other all week gave the team more opportunities for inspiration and collaboration. "You just get all the incidental communication, which is really good."
Sitting at a conference table with highly corporate jugs of ice water and glassware dotting the edges of the rooms, I asked the Pro Tour Berlin Champion about how intensely the team works at an event and what kind of work environment he creates for the team.
"We have a great time," he said. "If we didn't enjoy it we wouldn't do it. I know I wouldn't do it—I can't speak for everyone." But he did stress that they were very serious-minded at the same time. "It is pretty work-centric. I remember when Carlos Romao tested with us for Paris. Midway through, he turned to Paulo and said 'Man, all you guys do is play Magic. Even when you aren't playing Magic you are talking about it.' Yeah... that's kind of what we are here to do. We all enjoy doing it and are all taking time away from our normal lives to be here. Even though we do have fun, the bulk of our time is focused on Magic preparation."
Managing a team of players with different personalities—and different sleep schedules—can be challenging, and different players will inevitably put in different levels of work.
"I don't think anyone on the team would be surprised if I mentioned Ben Stark. His schedule is what his schedule is. He doesn't like getting up too early. He has trouble sleeping when he is on a weird schedule. He always stays on the 'stay up really late, get up really late' schedule—and he likes watching basketball games. He puts in less face time than everyone else, but at the same time, when he is not with us he is drafting on Magic Online and telling us what he learned from that."
Of course, when you have four Pro Tour Top 8s—including a win—and are considered to be the best drafter on the planet, you are entitled to a little special treatment. And lest you think that Ben's Limited reputation is hyperbole, you should bear in mind that his perceptions of Limited formats shape the team's Draft strategy.
"Some people are more prone to listen to him than others," admitted LSV. "I do put a lot of stock in what Ben says. I don't take every single one of his words as gospel but I think it is incredibly useful to have Ben watching over my shoulder as I draft or watch as Ben drafts. Or just talk to him afterwards about picks, decks, and theories."
One of the downside of being either a Limited or Constructed specialist is that everyone assumes you are useless in the other format. Pro Tour Paris Champion Ben Stark has proven that he is equally adept with sixty- and forty-card decks.
While you might think that the work for a Pro Tour begins a few days on either side of a Prerelease for the newest set, it actually starts much earlier than that for the team captain, who has to work out the logistics of playtesting for the team, including travel and accommodations for the weeks before the event. That planning is what ultimately led to the team having a conference room for their work this week.
When Scott-Vargas initially booked the rooms for the hotel, he made arrangements to have draft tables and chairs in a suite of rooms the players were staying in. When they got to the hotel, the staff decided that it was easier to provide the conference room than actually bring the tables and chairs up to the rooms. Without the advance planning, it likely would have cost the team hundreds of additional dollars and possibly resulted in playing, drafting, and sleeping on the same surface all week.
"We get to Eric Froehlich's house in Vegas about two weeks before the tournament and then depending on the location head to the Pro Tour about a week before," said LSV, of when they actually get down to business, although he said that he might make some changes due to work commitments next season. "We met in Vegas, went to GP Portland, and then from Portland came here. That is a two-week cycle that we have been doing for the past few Pro Tours, but some of us are going to be moving to a one week cycle. I can't really take two weeks off, Ben doesn't want to do two weeks. But we are going to talk about that after the Pro Tour."
The first step in the actual playtesting process happens once the Card Image Gallery is posted with all the cards in the new set.
"People aren't playing too many games at that point. We just talk about stuff and throw things around," Scott-Vargas said, explaining that their geographic disparity means that everyone thinks about the format on their own until they get to Vegas. "By the time we meet, we try to have a bunch of decks built. Josh (Utter-Leyton) always has a ton of decks built. Kibler almost always has the deck he wants to play built. And the rest of us throw decks together on the first or second day."
"It starts out with more drafts than Constructed. Drafts are the kind of thing where you just need to do a bunch of them. The first couple look very different from the next couple which look very different from the last bunch. The first week, we did a couple of drafts a day and that starts to go down until the end where you are just playing Constructed. The set comes out on Magic Online about a week before the Pro Tour, and once that happens we basically don't do any live drafts. Magic Online drafts are faster and you get a bunch of different viewpoints."
Those first drafts are valuable to the team because they can all talk intelligently about the set and the rhythm of the format, but once they have done several drafts the results can get inbred as they become familiar with each other's tendencies. Once their attention turns to Constructed, they begin vetting the various decks and tuning them for what they think the metagame will look like. They rarely lock into one team deck but can narrow it down to a couple of well-informed choices.
"Today, as we are talking—the day before the Pro Tour—we are split into two different decks," shrugged LSV. "A couple of days before the Pro Tour we have a few different decks to the point where we could play them but we don't have a deck locked down until the day before.
They try not to play much on the day before the event because, "You don't want to put too much stock in the last five games you play. Three days ago we knew we were going to play hundreds of more games so that was fine. At this point, it is too late to pick up a new deck. As we are looking at results from Magic Online we might see something that is a new deck and we can use that information, but it is too late to play that deck. It is just not a wise idea."
While many players working on their own will lock into a deck before they get to an event, that is not how things work on CFB, since they are constantly getting information. There is some information exchanged between teams and they constantly tweak and adjust based on that intel.
ChannelFireball successfully added Gerry Thompson to its ranks at Pro Tour Gatecrash and has added another two players for Dragon's Maze.
Matt Nass was originally on the team but left when his school schedule did not allow for him to spend the full amount of time with the team before an event. The team tried having him come out later but found it didn't work.
"He was just missing a lot of the context and it would take him a couple of days just to catch up. It wasn't working for either side. Now he can make it and we are glad to have him back," said Scott-Vargas, who also added Pro Tour Gatecrash Top 16 finisher Shahar Shenhar to the team.
"The funny thing about Shahar is that the people from the Bay Area know him from when he was fourteen, five years ago, which is kind of hard to believe. It is interesting to see his evolution as player. He is a very good player—much better than he was a year ago and way better than he was two years ago, for example. We wanted to see what it was like to test with him. I have enjoyed testing with him and I think it has worked out well."
Shenhar's willingness to play as much Magic as the tireless Utter-Leyton was appealing, as was adding some new voices into the discussion.
"We have the same group of guys we have been testing with for the last couple of years; adding a new mix of ideas is interesting," LSV said of Shenhar, before adding with a laugh: "He has some unconventional thoughts, too, though."
When the team started it, often seemed like Team ChanelFireball against the field, but with the recent success of Team StarCityGames.com the results of the teams are inevitably held up against each other. And Luis Scott-Vargas was grateful for the measuring stick.
"I do like the competition," he said flatly. "Now we have another big group of really good people to compare ourselves too. It was fun when we were the only people doing this, but I think it is better for Magic overall to have multiple teams competing."
I asked him to close with advice for any teams of players out there looking to tackle an event, whether it was a Pro Tour, an upcoming Grand Prix, or a PTQ season. His answer harkened back to those two sounds I heard coming from behind those conference room doors.
"I think the number one most important thing—and I tell this to people all the time—is to find people you like hanging out with. Find people you legitimately like spending time in the company of. I spent hundreds of—if not thousands—hours with the people I am playing in this tournament with. You see them all the time. You share a room with them. If you are trying to team with people you don't really like but they are really good... I don't think that is going to work. It is a recipe for disaster. If you are not having fun you are just not going to do well."