When Hareruya Latin and Ultimate Guard Pro Team sat down earlier this week to prep for today's Team Series Championship, the clock was ticking immediately. With the full set revealed just hours before their first practice session, both teams knew they needed to make the most of the 8-hour session (followed by a 3-hour session on Thursday). With more than $150,000 on the line, the stakes could scarcely be higher. As the seals were cracked on the first Guilds of Ravnica booster packs, you could feel the gravity of the tournament.
It came as quite a surprise, then, when former World Champion Carlos Romão suddenly broke out into song.
Hareruya Latin kept things upbeat as they explored the Guilds of Ravnica Sealed format.
"Yeah, that's actually a common thing," explained Romão's teammate Lucas Esper Berthoud with a laugh. "He usually has his own sound box and sings it all himself. At Pro Tour Aether Revolt, our team split into two houses. My house played for 8–10 hours a day, had dinner and went to bed. It was quiet, professional, all that. One day I visited the other team's house and it was midnight and they were all singing Britney Spears and comparing her to Taylor Swift and arguing about who was better."
Of course, nothing can top Hareruya Latin's final exercise before returning the cards on Wednesday—a six-player free-for-all round of pack wars in which alliances were made and broken in the span of seconds. It was the kind of raucous environment you'd expect at a midnight Prerelease, not a serious tournament with tens of thousands of dollars up for grabs.
But that's what works for this team. A side of serious, a side of fun—that aptly describes Hareruya Latin, who brought plenty of the latter with them to Las Vegas and the Team Series Championship.
It was a different story from Ultimate Guard Pro Team, as the collection of many of the world's most accomplished longtime professionals got down to business. There was still plenty of fun—you can thank Paul Rietzl for that—but the crew came in determined to accomplish their goal of getting through as many practice pools and matches as possible.
Ultimate Guard Pro Team was all business as they tested their Sealed builds for Guilds of Ravnica.
They certainly did that. They split into teams of three—the "Peach Garden Oath" of Reid Duke, Owen Turtenwald, and Huey Jensen along with the Jon Finkel–Andrew Cuneo–Paul Reitzl trio—and worked through as many games of the new format as they could. That translated to four complete Team Sealed practice pools with three rounds of play for each on Wednesday, and another round on Thursday.
That revealed the first big difference between the two teams' preparations: Hareruya Latin spent most of their time building decks within their subgroups and then discussing the builds as a full team after. Ultimate Guard Pro Team kept detailed records of how each guild fared, down to how they matched up against each other guild. It was a small sample size, to be sure, but did help to offer some data to back up their impressions. Hareruya Latin got through the same number of builds, but sacrificed time playing to work through theory as a team.
"I feel very good about our preparation," Berthoud said. "The first pool we built took almost an hour and a half, but by Thursday we were building pools in 15–20 minutes. We wanted to see the highest number of cards and builds possible, so we just kept opening packs. We played one round to get a first impression of the cards, but we wanted to use the time to work through the options as a team."
Processes aside, both teams learned quite a bit over the two days of practices. Here are some of the takeaways:
- Golgari struggled in the Team Sealed format—which is noticeably different than something like Booster Draft—and the Swarm often struggled to field enough cards to set up its powerful undergrowth payoffs.
- Izzet could be the most difficult guild to build, but had the highest ceiling. Jump-start meant that the deck very rarely ran out of gas, provided it could stay alive long enough to set up its engines like Electrostatic Field and Crackling Drake. Goblin Electromancer was an obvious standout, but cards like Radical Idea and especially Chemister's Insight were key pieces for the deck to work.
- Of course, both Golgari and Izzet work well with surveil, which led to blue being the color most often split between decks. Dimir was also a favorite, and thanks to having access to such a large pool the blue decks almost never ran out of options as they churned through cards via surveil, fueling jump-start and graveyard synergies along the way. It wasn't uncommon to see Disinformation Campaign cast three or four times in a single game.
- Unexpectedly, losing to decking—running out of cards in your library—was a real concern in multiple matches, as two control decks could run each other out of resources while drawing gas every turn thanks to surveil and jump-start.
- On the opposite end of the spectrum, Boros was capable of some downright silly starts, with one-drops increasing in value to the teams as the testing progressed. Hunted Witness and Healer's Hawk may not look like much, but with a few mentor triggers from two-drops like Sunhome Stalwart and Boros Challenger they become quite powerful for one-drops, making Guilds of Ravnica a format where one-drops are better than usual.
- Maniacal Rage serves double duty, pumping the Boros deck or removing a blocker from an opponent.
- Selesnya didn't make many waves, though Siege Wurm was a standout in the archetype.
- Most decks stayed two colors as teams sought to harness the power of hard-to-cast-but-powerful cards like Golgari Findbroker. When splashing did occur it was typically light, with blue cards making their way into Golgari decks to help fill the graveyard or black removal making its way into Izzet decks.
"We've definitely had cards and decks move up and down," Duke said after the team's final practice session. "We've made a lot of progress."
The combination of the laid-back fun of a group of friends discovering new cards for the first time—and make no mistake, even pros need practice to learn the new cards—along with the pressure of the high-stakes tournament made for a truly unique new-set experience, and both teams enter today's final confident they're ready to return to Ravnica.