"You'd be forgiven if you don't know the name…yet." I wrote those words about Team East West Bowl in Grand Prix Vancouver, one week before Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch. A lot has changed in a few months, hasn't it?
Let's recap the time between then and now.
- Grand Prix Vancouver: Ben Weitz, Eugene Hwang, and Eric Severson all played for Top 8 win-and-ins Round 15. Severson converts, qualifying himself for three Pro Tours in the process.
- Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch: Pascal Maynard, Andrew Brown, and Jiachen (JC) Tao Top 8 with the Blue-Red Eldrazi deck Tao and Weitz designed that broke the format. Tao won.
- Grand Prix Houston: After going undefeated Day 1, Mark Jacobson Top 8s with ease.
- Grand Prix Detroit: Ben Friedman goes undefeated Day 1, then heart-breakingly loses three in a row in the last rounds to just miss Top 8.
- At Grand Prix Albuquerque, Andrew Brown, (2) Seth Manfield, Eugene Hwang, and JC Tao all play win-and-ins Round 15. Manfield and Tao convert.
This is Tao's first individual GP he attended since winning Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch.
To reiterate, on February 1, I wrote that you didn't have to know this team's name yet. It is less than three months later. Clearly a lot has changed.
Team East West Bowl in its entirety.
Team East West Bowl has vaulted themselves in the conversation of the teams most likely to do well this weekend, and it's easy to see why. I wanted to get their reactions to these changes, but sometimes it's hard, just because of the sheer number of people on the team. East West Bowl sports seventeen players.
Throughout my conversations between various rounds with the group, it was almost impossible to get two players without three more wandering in. Then, once there were five, that soon became eight. The teammates constantly pow-wow and break down what happened in the most recent matches. Just a few red and blue hoodies will turn into a sea, then an ocean of the two colors mixed together as the coasts coalesce.
The format of the team is an evolution of the online "Team Ultra PRO" model where players from around the country share information digitally to find the optimal strategies. However, there's a lot of live practice too, as most of the players are between two geographic locations—as you might guess—east and west. Rocking the blue hoodies are the California contingent, and the red hoodies are the Northeast crew, and most are in or around Maryland.
Neal Oliver admitted, "There's a lot of online overhead," that comes with the geography, but the team has been figuring systems and getting it all to work. Even though playing cross-coastally is difficult with the time-zone shifts (Ben Freidman had trouble with starting games at 1 a.m. on work days), the giant team has bonded together through mutual appreciation of skill, results, and friendship. More and more of that has been happening thanks to the insane run at Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch.
The West side of East West Bowl (Left to Right, Top to Bottom): Mark Jacobson, Eric Severson, Ben Weitz, Paul Yeem, Neal Oliver, Jiachen Tao, Andrew Brown, Scott Lipp.
"The biggest change [from last Pro Tour] is knowing all the people," Mark Jacobson explained. That applies both to personality and acumen. "I didn't know how good they were at Constructed really even until the Pro Tour. That took away the doubts anyone had."
"Those [Grand Prix] runs after were a direct result of the Pro Tour," Severson said, each teammate helping and lifting the others.
"You see them and you definitely feel like you can make that happen," Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar Top 8 finisher Ricky Chin said. "Well for me, again." He smiled.
"Rising tides, or something," Jacobson joked.
The team took the momentum from the Pro Tour and shifted East West Bowl from a group of solid players into an impressive team. The last Pro Tour's prep was haphazard but successful. This time, they've set up the tools and systems to replicate and build upon that great coming-out party.
There's a lot of management that comes with getting seventeen people on the same page for testing. But that's also where team specialization can really shine. Ben Weitz broke the group out into manageable clusters, playing to everyone's strong suits. Team East West Bowl has the gaps covered. There are players who get the reps in, playing the Bant Company mirrors. There's Tommy Ashton, who multiple people point to as the go-to brewing genius. "And Andrew [Brown] and I always want to play control," Neal Oliver said. Jarvis Yu later referred to them as the "Wafo-Tapas."
This is how you can figure out Standard or any tournament format. Make sure you have people you trust working on what they're best at. As Oliver explained, because he knew that other players had gauntlet decks covered, the control players were given the leeway to find out if control was possible. "We were counting on [those] guys to do the other [things]; and we knew we could."
This method works, even if sometimes original authorship is in dispute.
"I did build the deck." Brown said.
"No, you didn't." Oliver retorted.
"Well, I made the most significant contributions."
"That's just not true," was the flat reply.
The two simultaneously looked at me and laughed.
Regardless of where everyone landed on each deck, Jarvis Yu was confident in the process itself. "I believe we understood the texture of the format well." Which is good. If you're going to work with tons of people, you hope you can replicate the metagame to some degree.
Throw that solid Constructed testing in with Limited testing and multiple Limited seminars led by Alex Majlaton, and it looks like the team has found ways to work with their large numbers. Most of them feel that even though they are one of the largest teams, they think their number is sustainable.
The east side of East West Bowl (left to right, top to bottom): Timothy Wu, Michael Majors, Ricky Chin, Alex Majlaton, Pascal Maynard, (2) Seth Manfield, Jarvis Yu, Ben Friedman, Tommy Ashton.
Because they are often doing their own thing, Severson sees no reason why they couldn't keep that number together, as long as they have the systems in place for it. "This is the first time we really tried to have a concentrated attack plan; tried to get everyone on the same page." Though there are some bumps, everyone was confident that they could be hammered out with ease.
East West Bowl's performance is the most anticipated and questioned here at Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad. They may fly high again; they may fall into the sophomore slump. But even if they do, it won't affect their resolve. Despite finding themselves at the front of the team line, none of them are taking shortcuts to stay there. They know that making a team like this work over the long term requires dedication, time, and a whole lot of communication and wrangling. Especially with a group this size.
But Andrew Brown thinks he's got the secret: "Friends first. Teammates Second." Though he doesn't know everyone intimately, Brown said, "I feel like I have a connection to every player on the team."
This is an idea that Timothy Wu echoed. "That Top 8..." he shook his head, "...that was some really good bonding." He said this right after Jarvis Yu had called him East West Bowl's resident "old man" and gave him a big shoulder grab.
Wu stressed, "Everyone's willing to contribute. That's really what it's all about." Wu has worked with lots of groups of testing partners, and he said that East West Bowl is singular in that way. These Magic players just like being around each other, helping "rise tides or something." It shows in their interactions. That's why you can't seem to get one East West Bowl player without getting more.
Jarvis Yu explained it. "You know, there's really something to be said for being happy while testing."
"We don't put pressure on each other, and we try to remember Magic is fun," Brown said. "I've dreamed about doing this for so long, and now I'm doing it. Look, when I say I'm just happy to be here, I really am happy to be here." Brown's words aptly spoke for the team.
East West Bowl might have been an unlikely success to some, but they have such cohesion together despite being a country away. It's hard to imagine them not taking both the trophies and the bonds that were forged at the last Pro Tour, and bronzing them for all time.
They might do well here this weekend, or they might not. But either way, they're having fun doing it, and they'll be back even better the next tour.