by Mike Long
Singles tournaments are simple, almost intuitive: find or build the best deck for the format, get lucky and play your best. Team events are much more complicated. First of all, there are as many as nine games of Magic going on to decide each match. More players means more egos, more brilliant plays, bigger swings of momentum and of course, more mistakes.
Even getting into this pro tournament is more difficult than your average pro event. It is difficult enough to wake yourself up at 5:00 in the morning to trek out to a singles qualifier in the boondocks, but here you have to coordinate an effort. If you are fortunate enough to have the points between you and your friends (my girlfriend is good luck to a close friend of Bob Maher Jr.; there are rumors that she will join forces with Bob Maher and our dog Mac Beth), then you have to find people you want to work with. Great players don't always make for great synergy. Fortunately, team Magic is also about three times as fun as singles Magic, as long as you and your teammates are on speaking terms after it is all said and done.
Matches in team tournaments often swing on factors that don't even exist in a regular tournament. In one of the early precursor to the Team Pro Tournament, the CanAm Challenge (held at Pro Tour Chicago 1997), a talented but largely unknown Canadian group led by Jeff Donais and Paul McCabe crushed an American superteam packed with perennial top 8 performers like John Yoo, Mark Chalice, Mark Justice and myself. Commenting later, Donais said that the key to the Canadian success was teamwork. While me and my American teammates struggled amongst one another for powerful cards to put into decks that we would play, the Canadians built decks, tossed them into a pile and selected the decks that they would actually play at random! When the time came to play, the Canadian decks functioned smoothly while American decks struggled.
Team events are spit into two portions: Sealed and Draft. Day One of the event is Sealed Deck and focuses on your team's deckbuilding ability. This isn't too hard if you all you crack open is Troubled Healers and Flowstone Crushers; sometimes your team will open enough good cards to build four good decks! The real problem comes when you can't seem to build three good ones. Teams who are able to build their decks well and who get a little bit of luck have a good chance to get to the second day with one loss or less, putting them in good position to place.
The second day is a series of 3-on-3 Rochester Draft and plays. This is a team's opportunity to make some bills and maybe score a top 4 finish. Such a performance is no mean task. How do you know if your team has what it takes to make it? There are three tells:
Even in team drafts, Troubled Healers and Volcanic Winds swing a lot of games. If your opponents open a lot of breakers early, your answers matter. For instance, if one of your opponents opens a Volcanic Winds that can be used to wipe out one of your teammates and an easy answer to it comes up, like Defender En-Vec, or even a Ramosian Rally, it's important to be aware and get the answer card to that player. Answers don't just diminish your opponents' strategic advantage, they also give the psychological edge back to your guys. It's terrible to sit back and wait to be crushed by a breaker, it's quite another thing to know that you can swing the game back in the opposite direction with cards in your deck. Teams that are able to weather their opponents' more dangerous threats are more likely to survive the second cut.
At the same time, winning teams will take a dangerous card and use it to press the advantage. While it's great to draft Lin Sivvi, if you only have one or two Fresh Volunteers, it may not be enough to single handedly win a draft, where as a single Defiant Falcon and a Lawbringer can go crazy against even the toughest of Red Green decks! Also, remember the flip side of the coin from above: if you have the breakers, don't pass off the answers. Protect your Rathi Intimidators from late Flowstone Strikes and Steal Strengths and you'll end many games before they begin.
It's true, if you put three of the 50 best players in the world on a team, they will be formidable. Even without super great decks, or the most powerful breakers, great players will toss up wins. To make matters worse, the better players do have a habit of gravitating towards great decks and crucial game enders. Everything else aside, if you and your mates don't get down to business and make wins then your team will just end up as another clever name (see appendix Grand Prix Pittsburgh XXXIV: Long, Blackwell, Schneider, Suspicion Breeds Confidence 97th place, out of 23 teams). Which brings what is the most important aspect of team play.
Teamwork is the key to the event, an element to Magic as yet unexplored. It's easy to get along with yourself, or at least easier, than with two other people. Do you and your two buds your team have synergy? Are you lucky enough to be playing with telepathic identical twins? So what happened in the CanAm Challenge? Shouldn't better players have prevailed, or was Terry Lau just too much for Matt Place to stare down?
Why such an emphisis on working together? Because it's tough to put together three decks, each one specifically geared to beat one specific opponent. Signing up for your team roster and opening packs is only part of the event. Team roles must be assigned, plans made and then scrapped and remade at the opening of a Dominate, and decks have to be balanced. Each member must be selfish enough to take the cards they need to win, but selfless enough to give their teammates some winners. Team members must trust one another, and not just to win (Jon Finkel must be my soulmate, he's so easy to trust!). The best of teams are best of friends, Your Move Games, Antarctica and even the dreaded Black Ops.
And if all of these things are in place you might be fortunate enough to be a part of Day Three.
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