When it was announced that Grand Prix San Jose 2012 would be Team Limited, I got very excited. The most fun memories I have are of playing Team Limited. My first cash at a Pro Tour was in teams over 10 (gulp) years ago. I’ve stayed up all night doing unsanctioned but very hotly contested team drafts with various entry fees and prize structures.
I guess I love team Magic so much for the same reasons I enjoy playing with physical cards over MTGO. I want to play a game that feels like a social event (the Facebook era has given me a reflexive cringe response to the word “social” in the gaming context, so please don’t mistake actual social interaction for posting on someone’s wall or giving them a digital trinket when I discuss a social gaming experience). I just like hanging out and playing far more than playing alone. Also, aligning my interests with those of two friends creates an “in the trenches together” bonding experience that is really fun.
Everyone assumed, correctly, that Paul Rietzl and I would be teaming up for the GP since we’re such good friends. Several people who asked me about my team didn’t ask, “Who are you teaming with?” but rather, “Who are you and Paul teaming with?” This was the most important decision Paul and I would make.
We only asked one person to be our third team member, he said yes, and that was that. That person was David Williams. The criteria we used for selecting teammates (in no particular order) are 1) someone good at Limited, 2) someone we get along with, and 3) someone we have fun with. Dave is all three for Paul and me, so he was an easy choice.
Anyways, here’s some of what happened during our 20 round and 4 draft adventure:
We got our pool of cards and were not impressed. We had two Rakdos. I mean we had two of [card Rakdos, , Lord of Riots]the card[/card], not two players playing the guild. I hate having to say that every time I discuss the card Rakdos. Here’s an idea: don’t give cards the same name as the guilds. It’s almost like naming a card “spell” so that when people said, “my opponent cast a spell,” you wouldn’t know what they meant.
Anyways, we had two Rakdos but still not a great Rakdos deck. Going into the tournament Dave had played a bunch of Team Sealed decks already and learned that it was hard to make a good Rakdos deck. Aggro decks with 3/2s and the like win by punishing clunky draws and weak spots in opponents’ curves. I think the decks in 12-pack Team Sealed are generally pretty consistent decks with good stuff all along the curve. Thus, the Rakdos decks tend to struggle. Still, with two [card rakdos, lord of riots]Rakdos[/card], we gave it a shot anyway. Spoiler alert, the Rakdos deck almost never won and we started sideboarding into a bomb-less Izzet deck starting in about round 7 or 8. The Izzet deck won plenty once we started using it.
The Selesnya deck we build was solid. It had almost zero bomb rares/mythics, but it made Centaurs and populated them, and that tends to be good enough in RTR Limited. Plus, Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage and the [card call of the conclave]centaur sorcery[/card] for GW might as well be rares. Playing a Selesnya deck was our only obvious decision in deckbuilding, only because the gold cards like those I just mentioned needed a home and the deck seemed solid.
There might not have been many choices with Selesnya, but when it came to the third deck, choices overflowed. If we played Golgari, we’d be leaving all our blue cards on the sidelines and splitting the black. The black was way deeper than the blue, so that remained an option. Splitting the red and making an Izzet deck was going to difficult because neither red nor blue was deep. And, if you take the few early red plays away from the Rakdos deck, casting Rakdos and/or winning would become a challenge. Azorius was another option, but when we laid it out it had no “punch” to it. The bad Azorius decks in this format play a few fliers and rarely win, and this looked like one of those decks.
After some deliberation we decided the Golgari deck looked the best. A couple of rares were on-color, and the 3 Launch Party in the pool meant that Golgari could take 2, Rakdos could take 1, and we’d have answers to the bombs that we were sure to face later in the day. We made big mistake at this point.
Dave keenly observed that the Daggerdrome Imp was a much better card in Golgari than it seemed. It was really easy to put 2, 3, 5, or however many +1/+1 counters on it and “build a [card baneslayer angel]Baneslayer[/card]” so to speak. We added it into the deck, and it wasn’t until about an hour later I realized that we should have put the 1/1 flyer for two in the deck with 2 [card rakdos, lord of riots]Rakdos[/card] in it. If you can’t deal a damage, you can’t cast your 6/6 flyer. Seemed obvious after the fact, but it got lost in the shuffle of deck building.
As time was running down, we accidentally gave the Goglari deck a Druid’s Deliverance which we intended to put in the Selesnya sideboard. This wasn’t a strategic mistake—it was basically a misclick. I think I put it into the wrong pile and then we recorded it without double-checking whether the cards were in the right spot.
Our final decision was who would play which deck. The Golgari deck was more Dave’s style than anyone else’s, and that kind of thing matters. Comfort level and familiarity mean less energy expended and fewer mistakes. When it came down to Rakdos and Selesnya for Paul and me, I came out and said he should play the harder deck because he’s better. Selesnya is way easier to play than the deck with unleash and removal, and I wasn’t about to let pride get in the way of putting our best foot forward and the harder aggro deck in the better player’s hands.
Rounds 1-2: Byes
Round 3: Anderson/Hayne/Maynard
An accomplished Canadian team would present a difficult challenge. Early in the match I recall Paul telling the opponents that he spoke French, indicating it was probably a bad idea to strategize in that language as if it were encrypted. Dave and I stared at each other with an unspoken, “why did he just reveal his trump card?” Was he playing fair or just showing off? We’ll never know.
I was playing against Anderson with Golgari and lost game 1 to Pack Rat. My search through my main deck and sideboard for ways to deal with the Rat(s) turned up nothing. I was thinking that if he draws the Rat game 2 or 3, it’s gonna gnaw right through me. I won game 2 while Anderson missed land drops and discarded. In game 3 it was Ratatouille II: My Treat. Dennis Miller might say I grew to hate Rats more than James Cagney living in a Manhattan subway tunnel that runs from a cheese factory to Greg Hatch’s car.
Paul lost, Dave lost. The decks seemed overmatched, Round 11 seemed miles away, and spirits were low.
0-1. (well, 2-1 with byes)
Round 4: Anderson/Pierce/Sims
We won this round 2-1, I don’t remember much else—I was still feeling like the other shoe would drop any round now, and we and our crappy decks would be headed to the bar.
Round 5: Ngai/Uy/Gibson-Flader
Great names, but still not a memorable match. We again win 2-1 and scrape by.
Round 6: Batarseh/Muranaka/Padill
Okay this round-by-round format might have been a really poor choice for Day 1. I promise to remember more when it comes to the Day 2 draft rounds (who am I promising, myself or the reader?). We win 2-1.
Round 7: Ellis/Davis/Ward
We win 2-1, on the back of some excellent play and great mulliganing. Okay I made up the description and can’t remember what happened. I was so sick the whole tournament I carried a box of tissues everywhere I went. I was on cold medicine (I hope nothing that violates Commissioner Forsythe’s and The League’s banned substances list). That’s why this is all a blur, I hope.
It was around this time that we decided to try to figure out how the Rakdos deck that wasn’t winning much could sideboard into Izzet and try to Pursuit of Flight its way to the top. We laid it out, got some input from teammates Sam Black and Gaudenis (pronounced GO-t-DEN-tist), and felt good about it. [card rakdos, lord of riots]Rakdos[/card] (the card) was a trap, and we had walked right in, but at least we attempted to fix it. In the coming rounds the Rakdos deck itself did a little better in game 1s for whatever reason, and then after sideboard the Izzet deck felt like it performed even better.
Round 8: Huteson/Adams/Nguyen
Both teams played hard.
Round 9: Sidher/Hetrick/Shenhar
Okay this round I definitely remember. Our opponents this round were “Sip it and Ship it,” a highly anticipated collaboration between three of the game’s rising stars. As someone who grew up in the dreamy era of Josh Hartnett in the ‘90s, I find it somewhat difficult to concentrate with Michael Hetrick in the seat across from me, so I was happy that Dave drew that assignment. Ricky Sidher proved just as challenging however, defeating me fairly easily despite the best efforts of my Centaur tokens. Paul and Dave fared no better, and there we sat. Seven wins, two losses. Not unexpected by any stretch of the imagination, but still disappointing. We would have to win the last two rounds of Day 1 to even see the light of Day 2.
Round 10: Steele/Kendall/Calhoun
My matchup this round would be against Cube columnist and friend Thea Steele. I was feeling two things going into the round: 1) very sick, as I was between dosages of my medicine, and 2) really focused on winning these last two rounds. Looking back, I feel bad for probably not being my usual friendly self at the table this round. But hey, I came to kick ass and take cold medicine, and I was all out of cold medicine.
My draws are pretty awesome, Thea’s aren’t, and I win. My teammate(s) also win.
Round 11: Griffith/Ayers/Winter
Win or Go Home. Both sounded pretty attractive given my health, but I figured, “what the hell?” and set out to win my match anyway. This round I believe I experienced the best of all team Magic feelings: when you’re locked into a close game 3, slightly behind, trying to figure out how to optimally navigate the situation, and your teammates turn to you and say “we won, it’s over.” Relief sweeps over me as my opponent (I imagine) experiences all seven stages of grief plus the, “why did I pick these teammates?” stage unique to Team Magic losses when you individually won.
With Day 1 in the books, we were really happy to be 9-2 and into the draft day.
Draft 1: Prost/Hunt/Stoll
The first thing we did was to offer the following arrangement, which we had been assured by the judging staff was legal to offer as long as nothing like money was offered as part of the exchange: we offered to concede round 2 of the draft pod if they won round 1 in exchange for their promise to do the same if we won round 1. Basically, whichever team won round 1 of the draft would 2-0, and we would thus never split the round 1-1 if they agreed to the arrangement.
Why would we want to do this? There are a few reasons why this is mutually beneficial, but I think the easiest to understand is that tournament payouts aren’t evenly distributed from top to bottom. The guy who goes 5-5 every tournament doesn’t win as many prizes as the guy who alternates between 0-10 and 10-0. Put another way, the gap between “6-0 in draft” and “4-2 in draft” is larger than the gap between“4-2 in draft” and “2-4 in draft,” and so forth.
The arrangement we offered increased the odds of being in that 6-0 category at the expense of the odds of being in the 5-1 or 4-2 category. That loss of value can’t be made up by the difference between 8th and 15th, because the difference between 8th and 15th simply isn’t as large as the difference between 3rd and 6th, for example. If one player or a subset of players could lock in 6-0 or 0-6 based on the first round of performance, they’d be crazy not to, right? This holds for n=2 as well as n=6, but our opponents did not see it that way.
Prost, Hunt, and Stoll declined our offer, and when we asked for clarification about why, they said it was bad EV (expected value). I felt like a cross between Gretchen Mol in Rounders and Ben Affleck in Boiler Room: “Tell me you were out at Scores getting lap dances, tell me you don’t like my f&*!@ng neck-tie, but don’t tell me you think it’s negative EV.” Polarizing your results yields a higher payout in a top-heavy tournament like a Grand Prix, and I wished at the time that they would just acknowledge that and agree to it.
Whether the rules should prohibit this kind of agreement is a tricky topic. It is unseemly and it feels bad for this be correct strategy, but banning it might just make it a tacit practice among pros who are “in the know,” to the disadvantage of outsiders and newcomers, which is unseemly and feels bad too. There’s no easy solution here except explicitly making Day 2 three rounds that count for 6 points, or changing the Day 2 format entirely. We’ll see if or how this is addressed going forward.
Round 12: Prost/Hunt/Stoll
I drafted a blue/white deck with lots of tempo cards including 4 Azorius Arrester and 2 Faerie Impostor, which means early damage and hopefully a few fliers to finish late. Every time my Azorius deck is slow and controlling I seem to lose (including a very disappointing 0-3 deck in Pro Tour Return to Ravnica that took me from 4-1 to 4-4), so I try to stay tempo-style with Azorius when I can.
This round it wasn’t meant to be, and we were defeated in what felt like a pretty close match. Well, at least these guys decided not to agree to winner-take-all. Given that we lost in the first round of Day 1 after byes, and now the first round of Day 2, we figured our chances of making the cut to Top 2 were pretty much gone.
Round 13: Prost/Hunt/Stoll
There’s this thing called “Justice” that happens when someone declines a split in the finals of an 8-4 online, or has to be begged to put a card into the credit card game at dinner. We call it Justice not because it really exists or because it resembles what is carried out in a court of law, but because that name seems to map pretty well onto the sense of satisfaction everyone else feels when it happens. Justice in this case meant that we’d go on to lose the first round, and instead of receiving a concession in round 13, they’d receive a loss.
Did these guys deserve to lose just for declining to participate in our somewhat indecorous plot to maximize our expected profit? Probably not, but it sure felt right, and that counts for something in moral arguments. My match was on camera and I detained, chump blocked, and flew over for just enough advantage to pull out the match for my team.
Draft 2: Hampton/Wong/Zappelli
Another draft, another opponent that decided not to do the winner-take-all thing we suspected most people would be doing. In fact, the scorekeeper told us after four or so rounds of draft, nobody had done this thing we suspected most people would be doing. Not one single pair of teams had reached the agreement. This was fascinating to us. We had fully projected our own reasoning onto everyone else in the field, ignored the collective action and inertia problems people who did want to cut a deal would face, and incorrectly predicted what people would do.
As for the match with Hampton et al., this time, Justice wouldn’t have to wait.
Round 14: Hampton/Wong/Zappelli
I like Jesse Hampton and he’s a good Magic player, but the same cannot be said of his teammates. Just kidding, I wrote the first clause of that sentence about Jesse and then couldn’t decide what I could contrast that against or transition into, so I threw Wong and Zappelli right under the bus.
All day Dave was doing an amazing job at completely screwing up the draft deck of the guy on his left while assembling a decent deck himself. It helped us tremendously every round, and Paul and I were happy we brought a Vegas money draft specialist on board. It’s possible that none of the players Dave was directly passing to got a single match win against us all day, but that might be a slight exaggeration given my otherwise very unreliable memory of what exactly took place at this Magic tournament.
Round 15: Hampton/Wong/Zappelli
This round was more of the same, with our decks and draws still just a little more playable than our opponents’.
So at this point we look at the standings and we’re drawing very slim for Top 2. We’re in seventh place, with only two rounds to play and several teams with our record have better tiebreakers. Ten different things would have to break our way to make up for the tiebreaker gap and move us all the way to 2nd place. Oh well, there was still some money to be won.
Draft 3: Ganz/Nordahl/Bjornerud
Finally, we are able to make a convincing argument for the winner-take-all, since the impact of two wins at this stage now makes intuitive sense—we are so close to the finish line and can just read off the payoffs for what happens if we 0-2, 1-1, or 2-0. They quickly grasp that losing $300 by slipping into 13th place (which they eventually did) will not be as bad as gaining $1500 for climbing into 4th place will be good.
Round 16: Ganz/Nordahl/Bjornerud
Dave has once again passed a masterpiece to his left. Ganz ends up playing Pyroconvergence and more colors than a bag of skittles on his way to a quick loss. I don’t remember who else on our team won, but I remember our opponents were good sports about the loss and kept their end of the bargain to concede the last round.
Round 17: Concession Received
The standings prior to Round 17 show us 1.2% behind Efro/Owen/Conley and in 4th place. Not only do we need the first place Siow-led Canadians to knock out the German team in 2nd place, we also need to jump Efro’s team (who also got a concession through the winner-take-all deal they made with their last round opponents). Efro’s team had played Siow’s team, so when they knocked the Germans out, that meant Efro’s tiebreakers would go up (double impact since two rounds of play had occurred between the teams) and we would be out for sure.
We started a side draft and gave ourselves a 2-5% chance of making Top 2. If we made it, we’d happily concede the draft. When the news came in that the Canadians had tied the Germans, knocking them out of Top 2 while simultaneously improving the tiebreaker outlook, our hopes rose a little, but we made sure not to let them rise too high.
Then the announcement came—“by the narrowest of margins… Sperling, Williams, and Rietzl!” We were jumping up and down after the “S” from Sperling was read. Our celebration was right in Efro, Owen, and Conley’s face, but hopefully they understood that we were just happy to make it, not happy because they missed. Efro takes these kinds of losses well, I’m sure he was fine with it.
Finals Draft: Gryn/Siow/Naylor
We would draw first every match of the finals since we were the lower seed. It wasn’t great, but we were still riding high on even making it, so only Dave had the balls to complain about it to the organizers before the draft.
I opened Corpsejack Menace and was happy to take the excellent Golgari rare. My draft from there was really pretty typical Golgari. A Gatecreeper Vine here, a scavenge creature there, and it was coming together. I was mindful of passing a few Voidwielders to my left, and in pack 3 I passed a Sphinx of the Chimes because I was taking a good card for my deck and the Sphinx is an “old school” type bomb rare that is just a big dude, and not one of the new ones that you can never beat or even chump block if it lives for 4 seconds like Niv Mizzet, Dracogenius or Necropolis Regent. Voidwielder is just an overrated card. You always play it and it’s good, but people get way too excited about it.
I ended up with this deck:
During deckbuilding Paul layed out the most unplayable piece of crap these eyes have ever seen.
I’m still not sure if Paul drafted the Drainpipe Vermin or it just appeared when the smell of this deck reached its sewer-home. Either way, the Vermin eventually made his way into the deck to balance out the two Minotaur Aggressors in the curve I suppose. Every principle I thought I knew about the format was violated by this deck: Have a clear plan. Make sure you can always win the early game or the late game, and forget about the mid-game. Keyrunes and [card chromatic lantern]Lanterns[/card] will make you flood more than you think AND make you slower in the early turns. Cobblebrute should not be your 9th AND 10th best card.
Paul won his first two matches and did not need to play out his third match. Kids: do not try this at home! Paul is a trained professional. Dave says Paul is someone who inexplicably wins and should neither be gambled against nor copied in an attempt to obtain the same results.
Dave’s deck was Golgari with Corpsejack Menace just like mine:
Finals Round 1:
In round 1 I just spit out fatties every turn—and my fatties cost 3 and 4, not 6 and 7. I was able to overwhelm my opponent and when Paul was able to get some hard, pipe-hittin’ Rats with a pair of pliers and a blowtorch onto Lucas, he won as well.
Finals Round 2:
This round Paul won his match early somehow, and we had the following situation: I was up a game in game 2 and Dave was going to game 3. We needed one game win between us to end the finals. We didn’t get it. In both Dave’s game 3 and my own we drew lands in some critical late turns in close games and came up a few cards or life points short.
Finals Round 3:
This time it was Dave’s and my turn to bring some relief Paul’s way. Siow presented 39 cards to me, neglecting to include the Skull Rend he probably boarded out the previous match. I count my opponents’ decks when I shuffle them (or I count when they pile shuffle sometimes) so I noticed the error and called a judge. Game loss was issued as usual for this infraction, and though I lost game 2, I managed to win game 3 and take the match. Did the game loss cheapen the win? I’m sympathetic towards how Lucas probably felt making a silly mistake like that, but at the end of the day I can’t regret declining to play against a 39-card deck with its worst card sitting on the sidelines.
After placing 2nd in a GP in Minneapolis, I had wanted ever since to make it back to the finals and hold up the trophy, and I finally did.
• Dave and Paul for constantly joking around, being easy to work with, being great players and drafters, and great friends.
• Yvette and Lili for letting us borrow Dave for 2 weeks for the GP and the PT.
• Cookie, Monster, and Kat for letting us borrow Paul for 2 weekends.
• Carly for believing in me, or at least for believing me when I say that no, despite appearances, I don’t love Magic more than her.
• Ben Stark and Antonino Da Rosa for their solidarity with the Gamers Helping Gamers movement and their mindset of giving.
• Ganz/Nordahl/Bjornerud for accepting the winner-take-all and sticking to it in the final draft pod.
• Tom Martell for working to assemble at Addepar the best legal team in the world, measured by likely success at a two-headed giant Magic tournament.
• Jon Finkel for turning all the water in the RTR testing house into wine and dying for all of humankind’s sins.
• LSV for reminding us that human triumph over difficult obstacles is short lived and eventually even those who jump the highest must return to the earth, for teaching us that we all die alone in the 0-2 bracket no matter where we once stood in the standings of some long-forgotten tournament years ago.
• Owen, Huey, Sam Black, Ravitz, and Cuneo for laughing at my stupid jokes and being fun to hang out with.
• Jelger, Reid “The Duke” Duke, Matt Costa, Zvi, Kai, Nassif, and Gaudenis for testing and helping me improve as a player.
• Everyone who fought for the return of three-person Team Limited. You know who you all are even if I don’t (Aaron, as well as others behind the scenes). Thank you.
• The GPSJ tournament organizers and staff, who worked really hard to make a very crowded, complicated, and novel event run pretty smoothly.
• Reuben Bresler for sticking with his comedic pursuits in the Magic arena. I said at his show’s inception that the format is very tough and producing material for it would be a challenge one man would not easily meet (how far does Jon Stewart get without the many writers and the live audience laughing along?), but I think he does a great job. Reuben: if you need a writer or partner for your next project, I hope you are a fan of my comedy stuff and will at least let me make a pitch.
• Owen Turtenwald for learning from his mistakes while keeping his sense of humor.
• Nassif for getting 10th immediately after I was making fun of him a lot along the lines of, “You’re one of the best players who used to be considered one of the best players ever. Seriously, you’re way better than Hammer, Justice, and Brad.” But seriously seriously, Gab is truly an all-time great and he isn’t stalling anyone, he’s just thinking a few levels deeper which takes longer.
• Aaron Sorkin for writing A Few Good Men and Quentin Tarantino for writing Pulp Fiction and David Mamet for writing Glengarry Glen Ross. Without these movies to quote, Paul and I wouldn’t know what to do with an afternoon in a hotel room or airport wherever the tournaments have taken us. And to those of you trying to learn Team Sealed before Providence next year, “I’d wish you good luck but you wouldn’t know what to do with it if you got it.”
• All my Gruul people who continue to smash first and ask questions never.
• Mark Herberholz, Gruul guild leader and ruler of Tin and Heezy Streets. Can’t wait till Mark gets Protection from Islands (sort of like Gruul limited legend Yavimya Barbarian) and returns to the mainland. Rum+Coke+ Money-Draft hasn’t been the same since he left.
• The common cold.
• BDM for a GP preview article that neglected to mention a team with a 2-time Team GP winner (now 3), a PT champion who also holds 2nd place and 3rd place PT finishes, and another guy with some of the best fake Magic card articles in the last decade.
• Whoever decided that it was a good idea to have people write for one website but play for the team of another website. I play along because that’s how things are structured and there’s no easy fix, but I don’t know what to say to people when were tweeting Congrats SCG and Congrats CFB at the same time when Paul and I won (or when Kibler wins, for example). Oh well.
• Reynad, for having a stream that isn’t half what the Modo Show is. Two cards please.
• Anyone who thinks we aren’t defending our title at next year’s team GP in Providence (and maybe Utrecht if Paul and I finally get rich from our investment in Gobias Coffee).
• The guys and gals who took away our Team Limited GPs for 7 long years. The Grinch thinks what you did was wicked and cruel.
• Phoenix Foundation (Kai Dirk and Marco for any youngsters out there) for not finding a way to play the GP.
• Khaki pants for always ending up with an ink mark on them by 2 p.m., no matter what I do (alright this is getting pretty random I should wrap up soon).
• Finally, a huge slops to whoever decided to turn the race to the Players Championship and the World Cup into an absurd “The Rich Get Richer” structure. Paul should have been near the very top of the race going into PTRTR by virtue of his GP performances leading up to that event. Instead he was in like 10th place behind each person who got points in the Players Championship. If the NBA announced that the Miami Heat will start this season with a 10-0 record before the rest of the teams get a chance to start their 82-game schedules, people would rightly say, “this is really stupid, if they’re still a playoff-worthy team, they ought to go out and earn that playoff spot again, just like last year.” I don’t want a Yankees of Magic and a Pirates of Magic (that’s like a Real Madrid and a Man City of Magic (maybe?) for my international readers). Let’s just shuffle the damn cards and settle the question of who’s the current best player, like Kai and Jon used to.
Thanks for reading, and sorry for not remembering all the matches or providing much team Return to Ravnica strategy advice. Just follow Dave’s advice of A.B.U.: Always Be Unleashing.
mtg_law_etc on twitter.