Pro testing teams are at the heart of competitive Magic, because without other top-notch players to brainstorm decks, test match-ups, gather data, and help navigate new Limited and Constructed environments, there wouldn't be enough time in the world to keep pros at the top of their game. Behind every great pro player, there's five or six other great pros who helped them get there, and who are working every bit as hard for their own next good finish.
For this World Championship, Lee Shi Tian, Javier Dominguez, Kelvin Chew, Márcio Carvalho, and Christian Calcano joined forces to give themselves the best edge they could over the rest of the field. This international testing team of five represents five different countries: Spain, Portugal, the United States, Singapore, and Hong Kong.
Left to Right: Christian Calcano, Javier Dominguez, Marcio Carvalho, Kelvin Chew, Lee Shi Tian
This round-the-world testing team isn't new to most of these players as, despite the distance, Lee, Calcano, Chew, and Dominguez have been preparing and playing together since Shadows Over Innistrad.
It started out as a team patched together from necessity and friend-of-a-friendship, as Lee looked for a team of players that was consistently qualified, picking up Chew from the Asia-Pacific region and meeting international players through mutual friends.
"When the team is not consistent enough, the whole thing doesn't work," Lee said. "So I started finding people around the world. Most of us started doing better, so we kept doing it."
For these five players, forming a group that would work well together hinged on creating a healthy environment.
"It has to be players whose opinions you trust and people you enjoy being around," Calcano said of forming a team. "You all have to have the same goal in mind and be ready to work hard."
Testing together for a Pro Tour can be a little more straightforward than at the World Championship, as, in a field of a few hundred players, teammates aren't nearly as likely to face one another as they are in a tournament of 24.
Despite the certainty that they'd play against each other, possibly more than once, the team had the mutual goal of doing well at the World Championship and knew they'd have a better chance of achieving that goal if they worked together. By doing so, they'd continue to have the advantage of each player's perspective on two new formats, plus each of their respective strengths, and the team camaraderie they'd developed over the past year.
"I think the atmosphere is very important," Lee said. "We are happy to test with each other and discuss with each other. We respect each other."
That isn't to say that disagreements don't arise, as they're bound to happen when there's difference of opinion. A group that's cultivated a good atmosphere will be able to take those disagreements in stride.
"Everyone must be eager to playtest and to contribute to the team," Lee said. "When something bad happens, you have to try to solve it. If there is an argument, both parties have to try to solve it, instead of someone walking away."
Preparing for the World Championship presents some challenges unique from those associated with the Pro Tour or Grand Prix circuits. To start, this year's World Championship came a week closer to the release of a new set than a Pro Tour traditionally would, meaning that players had less time to hone their Limited strategies and to craft and test their Standard decks.
Of all the challenges the team discussed, however, testing with a group of players who usually live thousands of miles away from each other never once came up.
Instead, they talked about the difficulty of settling on a Standard deck in a 24-player field. The size of this event creates an interesting tournament metagame, because any deck can quickly become a large percentage of field.
"In a Pro Tour we might have a tier one deck, and we might prepare for tier two decks, or we try to build some deck that next-levels these decks," Lee said, outlining the challenges of building and choosing decks. "But in a small field like this, everyone tries to next-level. If you find yourself on the wrong level, you're going to have trouble."
In light of that understanding, Lee focused less on the deck choice and more on fundamentals.
"I think in a small tournament, the best thing I can do is improve our play skill and just prepare for the top-tier decks," he said.
One of the other keys to succeeding in an arena as competitive as the World Championship or the Pro Tour is to have team members that bring a variety of strengths to the table and that will fill different roles on the team.
Lee sees himself as the point person for gathering and synthesizing data.
"I think one of my skills is analyzing the metagame," he said. "So they get me the data and I tell them what I think the metagame will be and what position of the metagame we want to be in."
Calcano's contributions are mostly in Limited. "That's just what I'm good at," he explained. This is where trusting his teammates becomes particularly relevant, because Calcano relies on them for what he should play in the Constructed rounds.
"Constructed I leave mostly to them," Calcano said. "I followed them for this tournament. Javier, he's a red mage all the way, and Lee and Kelvin, they're both super good at Constructed, so yeah, I followed what they said and shared my thoughts on Limited."
Chew is a deck brewer and builder, bringing testing ideas to the team, while, for this tournament, Dominguez acted as the team's resident mono-red aficionado.
It's heard time and time again when asking the best players in the world how they got better: they got there by working with and playing against players better than them, by finding people with the same goal of becoming the best Magic player they could be, who were willing to put in the work. For these five players, that path to success just happens to involve a few more thousand miles.