Team Efforts

Posted in The Week That Was on November 20, 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:

Brussels | Meanwhile, in Atlanta | October Player of the Month

There were two major events this past weekend, with more than 1,900 players competing in Standard at Grand Prix Brussels in Belgium and more than 2,000 players taking on the Battle for Zendikar Limited format at Grand Prix Atlanta. Each event resulted in a pro-packed Top 8 with exciting final matches. Each event also propelled a World Magic Cup competitor into the winner's circle.


In Brussels, the weekend of Standard culminated with Team EUreka's Simon Nielsen, and his team's Rally the Ancestors deck, vying with Cabin Crew's Lukas Blohon and his team's Esper Dragons list. Blohon emerged the victor, and the Czech Republic will head into the World Magic Cup with a strong Standard finish filling their sails. They actually had two shots in the Top 8 to win the tournament, with the Czech Republic's National Champion Ondřej Stráský losing to Nielsen in the quarterfinals.

The team will not get together and playtest for two weeks leading up to a Grand Prix like they would for a Pro Tour, but they do pool their information and try to come to a consensus about what the best deck will be. With multiple team members heading to Barcelona for the World Magic Cup, there was extra incentive to get as detailed a map of the ever-shifting Standard landscape as possible.

"We have a team forum, where people post what they like and what are they going to play. Then we usually talk with people who want to play the same deck about the last few cards," said Blohon, who was availing himself of Magic Online Leagues to play as many different Standard decks as possible. "I liked some decks more than others, but was finally convinced by my teammates that Esper Dragons was well-positioned. I think the format changes a lot from week to week, and the Magic Online metagame is always about one week ahead."

Blohon had some advice for players looking to play in a Standard Grand Prix. Even if you don't have access to a super team, you do have access to Magic Online. How much can you get out of playtesting the Grand Prix format online beforehand?

"I think it depends how much time you have," said Blohon. "The best would be to try playing everything. Then you know how matchups work, what decks are good against what, and how the metagame is shifting, so you can choose the best deck for the tournament. Most people don't have that much time, but I think choosing one deck and playing it a lot is a good strategy too. Decks and games are really complicated in current Standard. Even just fetching lands in four-color mana base decks is really hard, so it really pays off when you have a lot of practice with your deck."

Heading into the Top 8, Blohon was hoping to avoid the one Atarka Red matchup. Instead the Cabin Crew player faced off against three straight opponents from Team EUreka in Magnus Lantto, Martin Müller, and Simon Nielsen, all playing their team's Rally the Ancestors deck. All three of those matches were long and grindy, and the last two matches went the full three games, but Blohon emerged the victor despite the youth and vigor of Müller and Nielsen.

Lukas Blohon

The Top 8 of Grand Prix Brussels was a great showcase for some of the best young players in the game, with Stráský, Nielsen, and Müller (as well as Bart van Etten) all being 21 or younger. It should be noted with an arthritic shake of the head that Blohon is the ripe old age of 26. Blohon attributed the ability of these young players to succeed—and to build upon their successes—to becoming members of the European super teams. With these teams they are able to develop the good habits that some of their older teammates have learned—often the hard way—earlier in their own careers.

Next up for Blohon will be the World Magic Cup. He qualified for the tournament in the World Magic Cup Qualifiers and was the first of the three winners to join National Champion Stráský. Cabin Crew teammate Ivan Floch is the captain of the Slovakian team, and you can expect those countries to collaborate on the complex Unified Standard format. The easiest way to describe Unified Standard is to imagine three Standard-legal decks (plus sideboards) that would still be a legal 225-card deck if you stacked all three on top of one another. If one deck has four copies of Polluted Delta, then none of the other decks on the team can use any additional copies of that card.

"We have already started figuring out which decks we will want to play, but it's hard to divide 20 fetch lands into three decks when most of the top Standard decks all play twelve," said Blohon of the challenges the format presents. "And for Limited preparation, we will meet live and play some practice Sealed Deck against some of the best Czech players."

I asked the freshly crowned Grand Prix Champion about which teams he was expecting to do well, and he immediately identified his fellow GP Champion from this past weekend as a force to be reckoned with.

"I think the United States has a great team. Tom Martell winning Grand Prix Atlanta only shows how good their team is," he said before adding, "But there will be a lot of good teams, Japan and Denmark just to name a few, so I think it will be really tough and interesting tournament."

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Meanwhile in Atlanta...

Tom Martell is always a threat to win a tournament, but he is a couple of years removed from an absolutely phenomenal stretch of events that included his win at Pro Tour Gatecrash. His three-year median finish during that run was a staggering sixteenth place. Basically, he finished in sixteenth place or better in half the Pro Tours he played on for three seasons.

"As my generation of Magic pros has aged, more and more of us have had to find a balance between 'real life' (careers, families, and so on) and 'Magic life.' Three or four years ago, only a couple of us had full-time jobs outside of Magic, and now that is a pretty common challenge," explained Martell. "I wish I could take two weeks off for each Pro Tour to just immerse myself fully in Magic, but that isn't a realistic option for me anymore. I'm extremely fortunate that there is a team of great players facing similar challenges who have figured out how to make it work."

Part of finding that balance has included finding the right team that would accommodate where he was in his life. Over the last several years, he has played with ChannelFireball, the Pantheon, and now Team Ultra Pro.

Tom Martell

"Professional Magic is a fairly small community, and if you are on the Pro Tour for a while you end up making more friends than you can realistically fit on a single team. My own personal team journey was initially driven by a desire to try working with different groups of friends over time," said Martell of his path to his current team. "Ultimately, Team Ultra Pro made the most sense for me, as the team was formed to address the challenges of balancing Magic life and the real world. Team Ultra Pro shifted the focus away from two weeks of in-person testing as a big team on location before each PT to a more distributed model, with subsets of the team working together in different locations and then collaborating extensively online."

One of the big changes that Martell has noticed about working with his new team was in his lead up to the Grand Prix. Traditionally, Martell has relied on many, many years of Sealed Deck and Booster Draft experience for a Limited Grand Prix.

"Team Ultra Pro is the most active Grand Prix team I've seen. Historically, GPs have been pretty laissez-faire. I've seen them as a chance to collaborate with friends not on my PT team and try out decks I wouldn't normally play. Team Ultra Pro approaches GPs with the same rigor and preparation as a PT. There is a very active forum for discussion and lots of ideas being shared communally. It is a lot of fun to be a part of it," said Martell. "Since joining Team Ultra Pro, I've spent way more time in between tournaments thinking and talking about formats. These guys do a ton of team-orientated prep, even for GPs, which has been a huge boon for me as it keeps me engaged with Magic constantly."

Martell talked about the importance of finding the open strategy at the table and moving into it, but sometimes you don't need to move very far at all.

"In my first draft, I first picked a Culling Drone out of a very weak pack and had an insane blue-black devoid deck drop into my lap. I got a fifth-pick Fathom Feeder in pack one and I knew I was in a great spot," he recounted. "In my second draft, I had a tough first pick between Touch of the Void and Serene Steward. I ultimately picked Touch for color preferences, and I got hugely rewarded. My first six picks were high-quality red cards, and by the end of pack one, I had a lot of flexibility on my second color. I waffled a little between black and blue as the pairing, but again got a million great red cards in pack three including a fourth-pick Rolling Thunder over Brutal Expulsion and three other good red cards. Drafting feels really easy when your first pick works out perfectly."

Heading into the Top 8, Martell knew he had a tough table with Owen Turtenwald and teammate Sam Black sitting to his right.

"I knew they wouldn't misevaluate cards and I wouldn't get anything insane late, but I could also expect them to draft reasonably and send signals. Sitting directly to Owen's left, I liked the idea of being in green in theory, as he hates the color, but I knew Sam was happy to draft green and I really didn't want to be in green if he was."

Martell and Black both ended up in green, but managed to avoid fighting over the same cards. Black fell in the quarterfinals, but Martell saved the best player for last as he had to get past former Player of the Year Owen Turtenwald in the finals. It was a matchup of players who have both won Grand Prix and have multiple Pro Tour Top 8 appearances. Exactly the type of matchup the hyper-competitive Martell wanted to have to go through in order to win.

Owen Turtenwald

"I love playing Magic against the best players. It brings the game to a new level, and I have so much fun battling in that environment. Owen is a tremendous player, and I definitely feel like I earned my title by going through him," said the Grand Prix Atlanta Champion, who won his third such title in eight career Top 8s.

Next up for Martell is the World Magic Cup, where he will be playing alongside Player of the Year and United States National Champion Mike Sigrist.

"We've had a Facebook group for a few weeks now to discuss early ideas and thoughts on the format. Once we make it through Pittsburgh this weekend, I expect the pace of testing to accelerate a lot. Team USA is going to work with a few other teams to share preparation for Team Constructed, as we want to get some more brain power on the problem," said Martell of a likely North American playtest squad that includes Sigrist's Face to Face Games teammate Alexander Hayne, who is on the Canadian team.

There has been a lot of buzz around the American team, which also includes Grand Prix Champion Neal Oliver and Joel Sadowsky.

"I imagine we have to be one of the favorites for the tournaments," acknowledged Martell. "Having two pro players win WMCQs to join the reigning Player of the Year is pretty unfair. There is still a lot of Magic to be played, and anyone can have a bad tournament, but I am very excited about our team and our chances this year."

Check back next week for a closer look at the World Magic Cup teams. The event itself will be upon us shortly. You can watch live coverage of the 2015 World Magic Cup on and Twitch December 11–13! Coverage begins on December 11 and 12 at 10 a.m. local time (CET)/1 a.m. PT/4 a.m. ET/9 a.m. UTC. Coverage of Day Three will begin on December 13 at 9 a.m. local time (CET)/12 a.m. PT/3 a.m. ET/8 a.m. UTC.

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October Player of the Month: Kazuyuki Takimura

Kazuyuki Takimura

Magic Online Takeover Week interfered with a slam-dunk announcement for the October Player of the Month. Japan's Kazuyuki Takimura—who had previously made the Top 8 of Grand Prix Taipei—had the breakout finish of his career when he piloted his Abzan deck to become the Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar Champion. It was a huge weekend for the Japanese player, who earned a seat at the World Championship, locked up Platinum status for the rest of this year and next season, and had to figure out how to get an oversize $40,000 check into the overhead compartment on his happy flight home.

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