Grand Prix Portland marks the start of a new Premier Play season, and it does so with a bang. Magic's first four-day Grand Prix is also one of just four Team Limited events in the next 12 months, and coming a week after Pro Tour Magic 2015 and in the same city it has attracted some of the game's biggest names to the unique challenge of sharing a sealed pool with two other people.
Here's how it works: each team is made up of three players who are designated "A," "B" or "C," which determine the order players sit at the table when competing. The team then receives 12 booster packs from which they build three decks each with their own distinct sideboard. Teams are then matched up against opposing teams and the side that takes two of the three matches wins the round.
Simple enough to understand, right? As you might expect, the devil is in the details. With so many packs it's easy to make one extremely powerful deck. Sometimes you can even make two, if the good cards are spaced out between colors. But the goal is to make the three best possible decks to maximize your chances of winning the round, and that's when things get tricky. It's a format that leaves a lot of choices and room for error, and one that few teams have mastered.
One group who has come close is the super-team of Dave Williams, Matt Sperling and 2014 Hall of Fame class member Paul Rietzl. The trio won a Team Limited event at Grand Prix San Jose in 2012, and they're hoping to add another title here in Portland.
I sat down with the team as they received their pool for the event to find out how the best in the world approached the unique format, and the results were as instructive as I could hope for.
The first thing they did was what most players do when they first open their packs; they quickly divided the cards and sorted the playables from the non-playables. After that they laid out each of the colors and any potential "build-around" cards. In this way they were able to quickly determine which colors would anchor their decks and which colors would better serve as a complimentary pieces. The colorless cards were set aside to save for last given their ability to fit into any deck.
Again, it seems like a fairly straightforward process. But it was here that the team began to show why it's one of the most dangerous trios in the room. As they evaluated the possible decks, Rietzl took the lead and made a list of the color-combinations they felt most strongly about before moving onto the next permutation. This allowed the team to eliminate and tweak ideas as they moved onto the next possibility.
Then they did something that may have looked a little funny to any observers: all three exchanged seats in a game of magical musical chairs. A few minutes later, they did it again.
"People build Limited decks differently," Rietzl said. "The first thing I do when we switch seats is I scoop up all the cards and completely rebuild it. If you stare at the same cards for 20 minutes you start to miss things. Having those three different perspectives on a deck leads to the best deck."
Another tip they shared was how fluid decks can be. While they initially laid out an aggressive black-red build and decided that they were settled on archetypes, things began to change once they changed seats. As Williams looked at the base-white deck he found that the red paired much better with the aggressive white cards than with the controlling black deck, and the last-minute swap that occurred ate away at the time on the clock but ultimately resulted in what all three agreed was a much stronger configuration.
Team Limited is about more than just deck choices and decision trees. Teamwork is the heart of the format, and working well with your teammates is as important as what Mythics you open.
And even hall of famers can be wrong. It was a point illustrated perfectly when Rietzl argued for a card that Williams and Sperling tried to talk him out of.
"Overruled," he admitted as he accepted the wisdom of his teammates.
The challenges of Team Limited don't end when decks are registered. Players are allowed to help their teammates during the games, and it's in-game when the seating order matters most.
"When all three of you are playing, there's not much talking unless a tough spot comes up," Williams said. "But the first person who finishes is on duty to go to the toughest match and kind of two-headed giant it. And in general, If you have someone who needs a lot of help, or only one person who can give help, you want that person in the middle."
Just be careful to let your teammates play their own matches.
"There is such a thing as over-coaching," Sperling said. "Two people aren't actually better at playing Magic than one person who is focused. You can easily give too much advice. You cannot be domineering when you're helping and take them out the zone. Just be there and provide support."