The newest superteam on the block, Team Ultra Pro was born, in part, out of a common need for a more flexible approach to tournament preparation. These are players with full-time jobs and responsibilities that prohibit the kind of intense, focused testing that we’ve come to expect from the big names. They burst onto the scene at Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir and this weekend they’re showing that they’re no flash in the pan. I sat down with Paul Rietzl to get an inside look at how the team works, especially at a Grand Prix where the stakes are lower and only part of the team is in attendance.
Team Ultra Pro
First I asked Rietzl to walk me through their Pro Tour prep. “It was a very piecemeal approach to things. People would focus on their own thing. While a lot of the other guys were working on Limited, I was on Magic Online playing Fate Reforged Standard because I hadn’t played it in months. Then Dragons of Tarkir hit Magic Online and everything flipped. I was jamming draft after draft, and others were tackling Dragons Standard. It wasn’t a formalized setting.” It might sound strange to talk about that kind of teamwork, but it was about generating as much information as possible. “It’s a great setup for being creative.”
Though they won’t come to a consensus “Team Deck” for constructed, in Limited they go into heavy detail and emerge with a unified understanding of what they want to do. “We’re a more traditional ‘Team’ when it comes to limited. There’s a lot of data. Sam Black and Justin Cohen prepare deck maps for all the color pairs to help illustrate what each deck wants – treating it like a constructed deck.”
So what does an unconventional team do in the days before the Pro Tour? “Well, we showed up to Bob [Maher’s] place. ‘Okay, who here knows what they’re playing?’ I put up my hand, a couple others put up theirs. Then, as a team we help all those who haven’t already decided to figure out what they want to play, and to make sure it’s as sharp as possible.”
It worked like a charm at Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir. “We had three players in the Top 16. If I’d won one more match it would’ve been four. All but one of our players made Day 2.” This was not a small crew, all but one is a staggering figure. Fast forward to this weekend. How did Team Ultra Pro get ready for Toronto?
“Again, those of us who were going each went after the format on our own. My process was literally: Look at what’s being played, figure out what the best-performing deck is. Then, figure out the next-best deck. These aren’t small sample sizes, so you can be pretty comfortable that at least the framework is solid. I take that second-best deck and tweak the maindeck to beat the best deck, and then fill out the sideboard to beat the other big decks. And then I add a land.”
A week out, the teammates submit their decklists to the Team Forum for assessment. “It’s a lot like defending your thesis. Your teammates come after you with questions, why this card, why sideboard this way, and you have to answer. Sometimes you’ll have sound reasons, but other times you’ll realise they have a good point. It also helps you to better understand your deck by actually having to articulate your reasons for doing things. For instance, I had to explain why in some matchups I basically sideboard into a bad midrange deck, but after explaining it I felt a lot more sure I was doing the right thing.”
This weekend they were six strong: Hall of Famers Paul Rietzl and Ben Stark, Pro Tour Champion Craig Wescoe, recent PT Top 4’er Adrian Sullivan, two-time PT Top 8’er Pat Cox, and Andrew Baekstrom, who Top 4’d the World Magic Cup with Team USA. They pushed five across the Day 2 line, and as the swiss wrapped up they still had three players in Top 8 contention: Rietzl, Stark and Wescoe.
Suffice it to say that they’ve found a format that works.