Even at an event like this, it would be hard to find a more accomplished team than the trio of Ben Stark, (14) William Jensen, and (21) Reid Duke. Not only are two of them ranked among the game's current Top 25 and two of them, Stark and Jensen, enshrined among the all-time greats of the game in the Hall of Fame. Jensen and Duke are also noted veterans of the Team Limited format, winning, among other things, last year's Grand Prix Portland alongside then-teammate Owen Turtenwald.
For a repeat performance, however, they needed to build three 40-card decks from their pool of eight boosters Dragons of Tarkir and four boosters Fate Reforged, just like everyone else in the room. But unlike everyone else in the room, we asked the three of them to build their decks under the cameras in the feature match area and took a close look while the masters went to work.
Left to right: (14) William Jensen, Ben Stark, and (21) Reid Duke
Cards were checked and sorted. Then Jensen took a closer look at the Green, with White going to Stark, and Duke handling the Black. "We don't have any gold rares, do we?" asked Stark. They didn't. "But we do have all kinds of lands. Even Haven of the Spirit Dragon!"
The first decks to be laid out were Black-Red, Green-White, and a Blue build which quickly acquired some of the Red. Stark looked doubtful at the Green-White in fornt of him. "We definitely have to look at Red/White Aggro before we're done," he said. "Can Red help flesh out the curve, does Red have 2-drops?"
And with that they switched to a different set-up. Duke got the Blue and the Black cards, Stark took Red to pair with his White, and Jensen kept the Green. Stark sorted through the Red cards and handed some of them to Jensen: Sarkhan's Rage, Smoldering Efreet, Mardu Scout, and Atarka Efreet went into Red-White; Bathe in Dragonfire, Hungering Yeti, and a pair of Tail Slashes went into Red-Green. Kolaghan Forerunners moved back and forth between the two, simply because Stark was willing to replace it with Sandstorm Charger.
When all was done, Duke opined that he didn't like the Red-White deck at all. Stark disagreed: "It's not busted or anything, but I think this is fine."
Still, they exchanged cards and now build: Red-Green, Blue-Red, and White-Black. About the latter, Stark said, "There are some 2-drops here, so it may have a shot." However, when he continued to sort through the Black cards, he stumbled over some removal including Grim Contest as well as Rakshasa Gravecaller and suggested to try Black-Green.
Now Duke had all the Red cards and quickly succumbed under all that weight. "We have to split the Red," he declared. "It's just too much."
They tried out yet another combination of colors: Jensen got Red-Green and Duke reassembled Black-Red. Stark, whose task it was to figure out White-Blue, wasn't happy about the addition of Blue: "The deck's supposed to be aggressive, but I'm not getting any 2-drops here. I am getting more 5-drops, to the point that I actually need to cut these perfectly serviceable Aven Tacticians."
Further discussion led to the preliminary conclusion that Green-White maybe wouldn't be as bad after all. Since it had already been determined that Red needed to be split, this left Blue-Red and Black-Red, which incidentally was exactly the initial line-up the three had built.
However, that didn't mean all was settled. Now it was time to tweak the decks. Green-White, for example, moved more and more into midrange territory, with two copies of Artful Maneuver relegated to the sideline. In their place, Stark suggested to add more Dragons. The deck already included one Shieldhide Dragon and one Sunscorch Regent, and Stark wanted to have Enduring Scalelord plus Haven of the Spirit Dragon as well. "This card isn't even good!" said Jensen, sneering at Enduring Scalelord. Stark argued that the Green-White deck would like to have 18 lands and Haven of the Spirit Dragon was the perfect fit: "I have so many megamorphs to act as mana sinks, and with three Dragons, the Haven is almost always going to be a spell."
But Haven of the Spirit Dragon was a possible inclusion in the Blue-Red deck too, where Belltoll Dragon and Icefall Regent were waiting. Nevertheless, the Blue-Red deck already looked good enough, and the land found a safe haven in Green-White.
Then came the time to decide who would actually be playing which deck. The three had used phrases like "my deck" or "I need" liberally throughout the construction process when referring to the cards that were currently in front of them. But that didn't mean any decision on the topic had been made. After some discussion, Stark ended up with the Black-Red deck, Duke was handed Green-White, and Jensen was given Blue-Red, which, everyone agreed, was likely the hardest of the three decks to play perfectly.
Now everyone set to work on making the final few cuts and tweaks. Stark was certain he wanted to have Smoldering Efreet in his 40, but he wasn't so sure what to take out for it. "Is it crazy if I cut Defeat?" he asked. The other two seemed to be in agreement that no, it wasn't crazy to cut Defeat. "I mean it is better in Team Limited because more people have 2-drops," Stark was still agonizing about the decision. He eventually convinced himself by adding, "I guess I can bring it in if I'm on the draw."
Finally, it was time to divide the remaining cards up between all three sideboards. While doing so, Stark noticed Ugin's Construct and looked wistfully at it. "This didn't have a home in either deck, did it?" Sadly, it didn't. Poor homeless Construct.
And with that, the players began registering their decks. Any final words? Decks good?
"Sure. Okay," said Jensen with his face frozen in that famous expression of his which can best be described as "meh." Stark added: "We definitely didn't just open our pool and say, 'Wow, these are broken.' But the decks are fine. We can win."
Then again, if these three had proven anything throughout their careers, it certainly was that they're very good at winning with whatever material was at hand.