A Week in Wisconsin

Posted in Event Coverage on October 11, 2015

By Corbin Hosler

It began across the world. The Battle for Zendikar was joined, with Zendikari and Eldrazi battling for supremacy across the plane. More locally, in game stores and kitchen tables, players began to explore Zendikar on their own, getting their first taste of the set at the prerelease and in Friday Night Magic events since.

Neil Oliver started his own journey into Zendikar in California, where he attended a “draft camp” with a talented group of players. On the other side of the country, Jon Stern did the same, playing draft after draft as he tried to discover the ways of Zendikar ahead of the Grand Prix and subsequent Pro Tour in Milwaukee on Oct. 16-18, just a few miles down the road in the Badger State.

The two met in Madison, after the Grand Prix concludes the pair of Team Face to Face members will group with the rest of their squad to jam as many games as possible into a final week of preparation for the Pro Tour. And when it comes to preparation for playing at the game’s highest level, the team has its routine down to a science.

“Some of us did draft camps with different groups to get as many diverse experiences as possible, and we’ll come together this week to bring everything together,” Oliver explained. “We’ll then play together for a few days but we really want everyone to come to their own conclusions first. That way, when we get together we haven’t already decided as a group what’s good and what isn’t. When you bring in a lot of different opinions from different groups, it lets you figure out what is a common experience and what isn’t.”

It may be a little more complicated than just getting together with a few friends and drafting at home, but the process has clearly been successful for the team, and both Stern and Oliver were still competing late into Day 2 at Grand Prix Madison.

Neil Oliver bootcamped across the country from his teammates to prepare for this weekend, and he and the rest of Team Face to Face will carry that knowledge into next week’s Pro Tour.

For those who don’t have a team of the game’s best players from across the world to work with — Face to Face also lists hall of famers Shuhei Nakamura and Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa on its roster — how do the rest of us learn the secrets of Battle for Zendikar?

The answer lies in how Team Face to Face and others approach the problem. Teams typically arrive in town a week before the Pro Tour and spend a week deep in preparation, testing Standard decks and practicing as many drafts as they can fit. While it’s a huge benefit to have such a talented group to work with when the cards and pick orders change every time a new set releases, their process remains constant, and it’s a proven formula anyone can emulate.

“It can be really helpful to read set reviews at first, because while card evaluation always changes after you’ve played with the cards, it’s a great place to start,” Stern said. “You want to try and play as many games as possible, and play different colors or cards in those games. You don’t learn as much if you just stick with one or two colors you’re comfortable with, and playing as many different decks as you can will help you understand the format.

“It’s also good to discuss the format with people you trust. Even if you’ve done 30 drafts you’re not going to have played with every rare in the format, so it’s important to discuss it with those who have had a different experience than you.”

Jon Stern put his Battle for Zendikar draft skills to work on Sunday, and entered the second draft with a shot at a high finish.

Battle for Zendikar in particular is a complex draft format with many layers of depth, and even in two decks of the same colors the builds could look very different, Stern said.

“Take black, for instance. You can have one colorless Ingest deck, and another can be a white-black Allies deck, and you want different cards for both,” he explained. “In this set you want to be looking for archetypes rather than colors.

“You can also afford to be flexible in Battle for Zendikar. You can’t be afraid to discard a color or even your first few picks if it means finding the deck open at your seat on the table. In those first few picks you want to remain open until you see what’s coming to you and then start taking the synergy cards, because you can give up three or four picks and still end up with a really good deck.”

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