Two things came up again and again when the members of East-West Bowl talked about their team: friendship and trust.
On paper, East-West Bowl is a team of players from across the United States and Canada, but in practice their formation sounds something like the piecing together of several different jigsaw puzzles into a single cohesive picture. It's not surprising, though, that the assembly starts with friendship and a little competition.
Team East-West Bowl
Andrew Brown first met Eugene Hwang at a local Friday Night Magic, where the two players faced off in the finals.
“This was at a time when I was finally understanding how to play Magic,” said Andrew, “and [Eugene] just came into our store and we met in the grand finals of our little FNM. I put lethal burn on the stack and then he put lethal burn on the stack and I'm like AHHHHH, you're cheating, you've got to be cheating, because I don't lose ever at my store, and then we became easily best friends”
While a difficult loss is an unusual way to start a friendship, Andrew and Eugene's story echoes how Eugene met another East-West Bowl member, Jiachen Tao, years ago.
“[Eugene] knew JC from when he did mathletes as a junior high student,” Andrew said. “Apparently Eugene was the one who would always win all the math tournaments, but then a transfer student from China came and beat him up, and then they became best friends.”
Eugene met Benjamin Weitz, another East-West Bowl member, at Grand Prix San Jose, and, of course, the two were close competitors.
“At the time he was number one in the Rookie of the Year race and I was number two – this was before Justin took it away from us. I looked at the pairings board and I saw Benjamin Weitz and I was like, I guess I should introduce myself to him, he's currently beating me by one point.”
While the American portion of East-West Bowl emerged from this tangle of competition-inspired friendship, the Canadian pieces of the team fell into place following Pro Tour Milwaukee. After that Pro Tour a handful of Canadian players, including Pascal Maynard, wanted to recreate their Limited testing environment, but with less of a commitment to testing Modern, the constructed portion of Pro Tour Atlanta.
“Modern, we figured, everyone has a favorite deck and they want to play that deck and you can't really gain an edge by making a new deck,” said Pascal. “That obviously changed at this Pro Tour.”
Even as East-West Bowl has grown and flourished, putting multiple players into the top eight of both Grand Prix Vancouver and Pro Tour Atlanta, social cohesion has remained central to the team's workings.
“All the guys are really good dudes,” said Scott Lipp, whose store sponsored East-West Bowl for the Pro Tour. “I got pretty fortunate to be on a team with them.”
As the name implies, East-West Bowl faces some geographic barriers to working together for Pro Tours and Grand Prixs, their members divided by the bulk of the United States and in some cases by an international border. They navigate the miles with Skype calls and Facebook groups and chats.
Skype, they've found, is more conducive to Limited preparation. Leading up to Pro Tour Atlanta the team would provide feedback on each other's online drafts in real time via Skype, effectively drafting together while thousands of miles apart.
“We'd all be in our own individual draft, and let's say someone had a hard pick. They'd just start sharing their screen and everybody would give input,” says Andrew. “You don't want to watch the guy who opens up mythic rare into great uncommon, you don't want to watch that draft, you want to watch the difficult decisions.”
For testing constructed decks and match-ups the team relies on individual players testing decks and reporting back to the team via Facebook chat or group discussion.
“You make notes, you have your own opinions, and then you voice them into the group forum,” Andrew said. “That's where everybody processes the information how they want to process it and then we generally try to come to a consensus.”
Their methods of both Limited and Modern testing proved devastatingly effective at Pro Tour Atlanta, where Jiachen Tao, Andrew Brown, and Pascal Maynard all made the top eight, but East-West Bowl isn't resting on their laurels following their success at Pro Tour Atlanta. Not all teams are as active between Pro Tours, but for members of East-West Bowl the systems they've set up for testing long distance have paid off in the weeks following the Pro Tour.
“I think it's important to have a team for Standard because Standard is easily breakable,” Pascal said. “You can easily have the best deck because it's always a new format. Most of the time it's not all explored.”
It was less than a week before Grand Prix Houston when the East-West Bowl conversations all began to center on one particular deck that was consistently beating the Eldrazi decks members of the team were testing. Some members of the team had time to test the deck that was quickly becoming infamous in their discussions, while other players took the recommendation based only on the trust they had in their teammates.
“I wasn't going to come to this GP until 40 hours ago, when I booked my flight,” said Pascal.
“They started playing with it and some people said it was good,” Eugene said. “I was on board because Ben was on board . . . There's a lot of blind trust going on here.”
While teams shift, disassemble, and reassemble during any given season, joining a team is still a significant commitment, as players talk, work, trust, and room together for any given event. But teams also provide support when it's needed, as well as a sense of community.
“East-West Bowl is all people that I get along really well with, so even if I have a bad Pro Tour, I'm going to have a great time,” Pascal said.
“Everybody's very positive, and that's my favorite thing about Magic,” Andrew says. “It's just so great when you succeed together, and even when you lose you're like, man, thanks team, you got my back!”
Though they've been competitors in the past and any given Magic event means a chance they might be opponents again, being a part of East-West Bowl means that these players have an opportunity to develop their skills, perhaps get a competitive edge over their opponents, and celebrate or commiserate with their friends.
“Magic is what you make of it,” Scott said. “So if you want to be on the Pro Tour and you want to be very good, or you want to do good at a Grand Prix, it's more beneficial to meet more friends, get on a team, and obviously you can always get better by playing with people who are just as good as you or better. You're going to naturally get better, and you're going to learn more.”
“I'm very impressed with what they managed to do at the last Pro Tour,” said Eugene. “I believe in my friends, but at the same time it's hard to believe that my childhood best friend is a Pro Tour Champion. I think it shows the power of teamwork. It shows the power of what a few people can do if they have an idea and they trust themselves and they run with it.”