Day 1 of Grand Prix Sydney got off to a sunny start, if a little cool. That's right, Australia has winter, too, and we're in the middle of it. As players cracked open their packs this morning, it was a fresh 10 C (50 F) outside and reached a high of 19 C (66 F) early in the afternoon. Is it any wonder 284 teams chose to spend their weekends relaxing on the sunny sands of Amonkhet?
(Holds finger to ear)
Sorry, this just in. They weren't relaxing, they were battling. That makes much more sense, now that I think about it.
Most of us are familiar enough with the idea of Booster Draft and Sealed Deck and how they differ, but Team Sealed is different again. Teams this morning were presented with 12 boosters of Amonkhet, from which they built three decks for each of them to play. I decided to talk to a team of some of New Zealand's finest Magic players about how they approached the format.
Building Amonkhet Team Sealed with Chung, Poor, and Takahashi
While Jason Chung has long been the poster boy for New Zealand Magic, he's always maintained that Zen Takahashi was brains behind his success, and Takahashi in turn has cited William Poor as influential for them both, so it certainly made sense for the three of them to band together for this event. I figured if anyone had put a lot of work into this format, it would have been them.
"I have my notes on this format with me, if you like," Takahashi offered, "it's ten pages long, though, so I don't know if you want to read it all."
"Zen's a try-hard," Chung added, "I just wing it, and he's written a thesis on this format."
"I've also Top 8'd three of the last four Australian GP's," Takahashi replied with a smile.
Ahh, my kind of team. I asked how they had prepared for the event.
"We didn't have a lot of time to actually get together and practice," Takahashi explained, "so we did a lot of theorycrafting first. We knew Amonkhet sealed was different to draft and assumed team sealed would be different again. Then once we could finally get together and practice we had that as a basis to start with, and found our theories to be mostly true.
Three friends from New Zealand – William Poor, Zen Takahashi, and Jason Chung.
Takahashi then explained that a lot of the rares in Amonkhet are build-around, but you almost never get enough support in sealed deck to make them truly shine. You face similar problems in draft because you still don't quite get enough support for the bomb rares, and the faster strategies built around good commons tend to be stronger. However, with Team Sealed, you're building three separate decks from 12 boosters, so you finally get enough support for the build-around rares that they help slow the format down to somewhere between draft and sealed deck.
When it comes to the logistics of playing in a team event, they had opinions on that, too.
"I think people try too hard to outplay opposing teams in their seating choices," Chung explained. "Originally we were going to have me in the middle to try to play against their most experienced player, but decided it was just better to have Zen sitting next to William because they would need to talk to each other more during the match."
I asked about the idea of either putting the fastest deck in the middle, so that the middle player would finish faster and be better positioned to help others, or trying to counter a fast middle deck by having an anti-aggressive strategy in the middle.
"Nah, here's what you do. They put their faster player in the middle so they finish first, so you put your slowest player in the middle to hold them back from helping their teammates," Chung laughed. "But it really doesn't matter. I think you should discuss which strategies in the format fit each of the players in your team the best and let them play those, and then seat however is going to let you communicate with your teammates the most effectively."
Chung, Poor, and Takahashi admitted they didn't think the card pool they had opened was very good, but they felt they had built it as well as they could. After a strong start saw them get to 5 wins and a draw, their weaker card pool begun to show. It wasn't enough to stop them making Day 2 with 6 wins, 2 losses, and a draw, though, so tomorrow they'll get to replace their Day 1 pool with a new one.
Can you smell what the Doc is Cooking?
There was a time when it seemed to the rest of the World that Australian Magic revolved around Jeremy Neeman. He Top 8'd three National Championships in a row, Top 8'd three Australian Grand Prix, winning two of them, and Top 16'd two Pro Tours, with his crowning achievement being a Pro Tour Top 8 in San Juan in 2010. The spotlight on Neeman's was shared by his close friend and deckbuilding extraordinaire Dan Unwin, who was practically "Q" to Neeman's James Bond, building many of the decks Neeman had piloted to victory. Unwin was also a great player in his own right, with a handful of Australian Grand Prix Top 8's and a bunch of Pro Tour appearances of his own.
But then came life. They both turned their attention to their schooling, with Unwin becoming a Financial Performance Improvement Consultant and Neeman becoming DOCTOR Jeremy Neeman, which he says mostly involves completing paperwork at a hospital. Fast forward a few years and Wizards of the Coast announced there was finally going to be a Team Grand Prix in Australia.
"It was a year ago," Isaac Egan recalled with a grin. "I think within 2-3 hours of them announcing there would be a Team GP, I had locked these guys in for my team." Getting into the spirit of the weekend, they were all wearing baseball caps emblazoned with "Makin' sum food" after an in-joke from one of their many board game evenings, which roughly translates to "someone who has no idea what's going on".
Don't mind Isaac Egan, Dan Unwin, and Jeremy Neeman, they're just makin' sum food.
In some ways, the Melbourne Magic community grew around Isaac Egan, also a strong Australian Magic player in his own right with plenty of respectable finishes. It was Egan who encouraged both Neeman and Unwin to relocate from Canberra to Melbourne many years ago to join what soon became the power centre of Australian Magic.
How well would they go this weekend though? It's been quite some time since Unwin or Neeman have breathed the heady airs of the Grand Prix tables. Was this just a casual jaunt for old time's sake?
"Oh no, we've been practicing for this quite a bit," Unwin said. "Other people have been practicing regular Amonkhet draft and sealed for PPTQ's and stuff like that, we've only been practicing Team Sealed, and it seems like it's quite a different format from Sealed or Draft."
"I basically bought a case (6 boxes of Amonkhet boosters) as soon as we were able to and kept bringing them around to their house to practice," Egan said. "I was reading all of the cards in the set out to Neeman and quizzing him on them."
While they got off to a rocky start, the three stalwarts of the Magic Community battled back to sneak into Day 2 at the bottom of the 18 pointers, giving them an outside shot at the Top 4.
One of the things that makes Magic so great is its thriving community, and little exemplifies that more than a Team Grand Prix. Australia is a large continent. Not quite as big as the United States, sure, but pretty close, and with a much smaller population.
Now, now, let's not quibble over why, the less we say about poisonous spiders, jellyfish, and drop bears, the better. Suffice to say, Australia's Magic communities are spread further than most, so the chance to get together at an event should be celebrated. Let's take a look at some of the more community minded teams here this weekend.
Hailing from Melbourne, Draftaholics Anonymous sprang into being from a discussion between Richard Spriggs and Alex Byatt.
"We were talking about how annoying it was to try and figure out where and when Magic events were actually happening," Spriggs explained, "so Alex wrote a tool that gathered that information together, and it worked so well I registered a domain name and we put it up on a website. He also had this thing for Pack 1, Pick 1 which we put up there, too. Then when we were at GP Sydney last year, we got a photo with Brian David-Marshall and he tweeted about our site and it exploded from there."
Richard Jeffrey, Richard Spriggs, and Alex Byatt can help you find your Magic.
Not content to just have a successful tool for finding local events and a fun toy for draft picks, the Draftaholics expanded to making video content as well, bringing long-time friend Richard Jeffrey on board to help with the more technical aspects of the recording process. Now they also visit local stores interviewing players about their draft picks for a regular video series called "Defend your Picks".
"A lot of Magic video content out there is by pro players, but we wanted to shine the light on the local communities instead, because there are a lot of great players in Australia, too."
The Draftaholics lads put up a good fight today, but dropped after they picked up their 4th loss in Round 7 to go in search of some drafts.
This Fanzine Builds Communities
We know the obvious ways of being a part of the Magic community, like playing at your local store, organising a draft, or being a Judge, and so on, but there are other ways, too. Melbourne's Chifley Cole is certainly demonstrating that this weekend, he's printed a parody fanzine and is handing them out for free to anyone who wants one.
"It's called the Fuelist. You know, after the Duelist, but with 'Fuel' because of Gas?" Cole explained, pointing to his jacket.
Chifley Cole proudly brandishes a copy of his Magic Fanzine, with Maitland Cameron and Isaac Egan in tow.
This might be a bit of a head-scratcher for many of you, so let me dig in a little here. The Duelist was a gaming magazine produced by Wizards of the Coast between 1993 and 1999 as an accompaniment to Magic itself before magic.wizards.com became a part of our daily lives. Gas as in GASmtg, a Melbourne Magic website created by Sammy James Brent that often looks at the lighter side of Magic.
For a while, GASmtg had a podcast called the "Magical Friends Variety Hour" which had in turn inspired Cole to start a podcast of his own on GASmtg with long-time friend and teammate Maitland Cameron called "This Machine Kills Netdeckers" after the sticker Woody Guthrie stuck to his guitar in 1941 that read "This Machine Kills Fascists".
Look, yes, I get that this is a long string of tenuous in-jokes, but that's not exactly uncommon in Magic community around the World, is it? Chifley Cole is a member of the Melbourne Magic community going above and beyond in his community contributions alongside frequent Grand Prix finalist Maitland Cameron. Yes? Yes.
I chatted with Cole and Cameron about why Melbourne appears to have such strong community engagement.
"When I moved to Melbourne, it seemed to have this big Magic community, and that made me want to be a part of that, and contribute to that. Good communities tend to grow themselves, I think. I wrote an article for GASmtg and last year Maitland I and started the podcast, and it's just kept going," Cole explained.
"We like to talk about Magic," Cameron added, "a lot. So it made sense."
After trying his hand writing for GASmtg, Cole decided to try something a bit different, and ended up going old-school with the Fuelist.
"I was a bit worried about whether I could pull it off at first, but I googled 'fanzine printing' and surprisingly enough, I found a store that practically specialises in the printing the things. I'm really happy with how they turned out!"
If you're on site tomorrow, make sure you track Cole down and ask him for a copy. You'll be able to find him fighting it out in Day 2 alongside Cameron and their teammate and occasional This Machine Kills Netdeckers co-host Tim Hughes.
Making the Cut!
Sadly, not everyone can win when it comes to a Magic tournament – unless you count getting to hang out with your friends all weekends and play the best game in the World, which I do, so maybe they can! But anyway, after 9 rounds of brutal 3v3 Teams Action, our 284 teams have been cut down to just 62 who will come back tomorrow and build themselves some new Amonkhet Team Sealed decks.
Leading the field as we head into Sunday are Jarron Puszet, Dominic Z, and Karl Eyre with 25 points. Following closely behind on 24 points are three teams: the Keedle family (Warren, Dante, and Aramis); Danny Liao, Jing-Wei Zheng, and Brandon Wise; and Jason "Amaz" Chan, Aziz Riphat, and Justin Robb. There are plenty of other notable names among the rest of the teams playing tomorrow, but which of them will make it to the Top 4 to try their hands at Team Draft? We'll have to wait and see!