Listening and Learning

Posted in GRAND PRIX SAN JOSE 2015 on February 1, 2015

By Marc Calderaro

I’m used to being the bell of the ball. I mean, I just walk up to Magic pros and start asking questions and they seem to want to talk to me, or at least tolerate me. But that’s just not the case right now. During the hour designated for Team Sealed building, no one wants to give anyone the time of day who they’re not competing with—unless your name happens to be Tasigur or Daghatar.

Because the players always want to build the best possible deck (and in this case three decks), often over ten forty-card piles are built and sifted through in the hour. This does not leave much room for frivolities like questions and attractive profile pictures.

But because there’s so much internal team chatter going on, merely walking around the tournament hall can give you a great sense of the mood, the decks, the building strategies, and even—if you listen hard enough—what David Ochoa should do with his facial hair.

The first thing you notice is what cards players look at first upon opening the pool. With this set, it’s almost always the lands. Players count their lands, set them up in the center of the table, and will often leave them there for the majority of the building time.

“We have a lot of lands here, guys,” were the first words Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir winner and No. 11–ranked Ari Lax said to his teammates Craig Wescoe and Chris Fennell. They immediately divvied up the spells; Lax got all the Red, Wescoe got the White and Multi-colored cards; and Fennell got Blue, Black, and Green.

“Wait, you guys gave me the Sultai colors? Ok . . .” Fennell said and laughed. He’s the most control-oriented player of the trio, so this color split was unsurprising. They all laughed, but only for a second. Laughing cuts out of precious time. All three enjoy the moment fully, but did not mourn its passing and got back to analysis.

(24)Craig Wescoe, Chris Fennell, and (10)Ari Lax

Lands were a much-discussed topic even late into building. When discussing a late color switch, Neil Reeves was unsure how strongly it would affect his teammates, Pro Tour Hall of Fame members Shuhei Nakamura and No. 19 Ben Stark. “So you’d, like, have no lands then?” Reeves posited.

“No, I have all these,” Stark said while pointing to a pile he’d sequestered for himself off to the side earlier. “We have a lot of land—our pool is great.”

(19)Ben Stark, Neil Reeves, and Shuhei Nakamura

There’s something interesting about a Sealed format that can qualify a pool based so much on land. The more colors your pool can allow, the more options available. But lands certainly aren’t everything. The colored cards play a gigantic role as well.

“We’re reasonably close to a Mono-Red deck here,” Lax said, as Fennell added, “and we cannot split up Green.” There was a frenzy around the room to figure out which colors were both powerful and deep, or just powerful—or the dreaded “neither.”

No. 12–ranked, and currently undefeated Eric Froehlich was analyzing his pool along with his other undefeated cohorts, Paul Cheon, and Hall of Fame member Luis Scott-Vargas, and his conclusions weren’t strong. Though it was hard to hear them, as they all spoke at a slightly lower volume than everyone else, you could overhear phrases like “I mean, I guess we could do that,” and “I guess Black is just unplayable then, isn’t it?” Observations like that aren’t the ones you want to be observing when you open a Sealed pool. But if they knew it up front, they could still compensate for one weak color.

Paul Cheon, Luis-Scott Vargas, and (12)Eric Froehlich

This type of discussion could continue well into building. About fifteen minutes later, while looking to shore up the last couple cards, Paul Cheon fanned all the team’s unused Black and said, “This is our comedic pile of . . . somewhat playables.”

Similar discussion was happening at another big-named table. After assembling their first few builds, the team of Hall of Fame member and No. 21–ranked Paul Rietzl, Matt Sperling, and Dave Williams had similar observations to get everyone on the same page.

Rietzl opened the topic, but didn’t even need to finish his sentence. “I mean, some of these blue cards are, like—“

“Yeah, they’re not good,” Sperling agreed. He immediately audibled in Williams’ direction. “Ok, so you give me those, and I’ll give you these.” But then he thought for a second. “Oh man, but I really want this in my delve deck.”

“Then just keep it. If you can use it, keep it.” Rietzl concluded. And like that, the team was on to the next thing. Sperling turned to Williams, flashed him a card and said, “You played infinite rounds with this yesterday. Was it good?” This type of expedient conflict resolution is what teams say time and again is so important to an effective team.

(21)Paul Rietzl eyes the clock, as Sperling and Williams try to finalize the decks

The team quasi-named “Scottsdale Foundation” (you see, the Phoenix Foundation was . . . nevermind. Trust me, it’s funny) have been playing together for a long time, and know each other so well, working together makes the time pass properly. But different teams can work out the time problem in different ways.

Sometimes there is a clear team captain. On No. 11 Sam Black’s team, you could hear stray sentences like, “You want these, and you get this.” Black moved cards around and shifted his focus among the decks on the table. “This wants to be with this.” Sometimes players hedged their language with “I think” and “I guess” but Black was usually speaking in declaratives.

Justin Cohen, (11)Sam Black, and Matt Severa

Though his teammates Justin Cohen and Matt Severa are both extremely qualified players (Severa qualified himself for the Pro Tour in Nashville by finishing in the Top 4 alongside Black and Gaudenis Vidugiris). But they understand that at certain points of their team building, a captain-like role is useful and efficient.

Any way a team chooses to communicate, as long as it’s functional, it’s good. But achieving that isn’t always easy. At various times, I heard from multiple teams things like, “We’re past that now; we’ve got to move on.” One team had some disputes that ended with “Look you have to just trust me, those colors don’t go well in that deck. We don’t have time to argue anymore.”

You get a good sense of player communication, building skill, and just the sheer focused drive of many of the players when you walk around hearing the sometimes-indistinct chatter—and at a large-scale international event like this one, sometimes it’s indistinct because you don’t speak the language. The Argentines (with Super Sunday Series champion Luis Salvatto, Sebastian Pozzo, and Nicolas De Nicola) traveled a long way here, and discussed their build in a reserved, but animated fashion.

Grand Prix San Jose Team Argentina - Luis Salvatto, Sebastian Pozzo, and Nicolas De Nicola

The Danes did the same. I tried to pick up on the discussions of Super Sunday Series Finalist Oscar Christiansen, Michael Bonde, and Allan Asmussen, but only picked up stray phrases. Sometimes it sounded like there were some heated topics, but it could just be my ignorance when listening to a foreign tongue.

Team Super Sunday Series Standouts - Oscar Christiansen, Michael Bonde, and Allan Asmussen

Either way, hearing this chatter around the room builds the buzz, the tone, and sometimes can give you a better sense of what’s going on if you talked directly to everyone. Hearing someone tell a Hall of Famer “That’s too many War Flares. Isn’t that too many War Flares?” or hearing a Pro Tour winner ask, “Wait, where’d the Sidisi go?” are just things you don’t get in one-on-one conversations.

And my personal favorite: “If you bleach it just above the lip, and then on the sides, it’ll look like a lemur is sleeping on your face! Look, I’d grow a Ring-Tailed Lemur if I could, but I can’t, OK?”

BDM showing Ocho how it's done.

All right, I’ll admit that last one wasn’t at a deck-building table. It was coverage guru, Brian David-Marshall, instructing facial-hair inclined David Ochoa on how to make the best-looking beard. But still, it adds to the room’s tone, right?