People often ask me what the biggest differences are between professional Magic of the modern era, and professional Magic of the past. One of the biggest differences, if not the biggest, is the advent of the super team. In the past, super teams were tried, but for one reason or another they never quite worked out. In general, the teams weren’t as big as they are now, and teams tended to be more geographically centered, often based out of a local game store, or specific region. Part of this was out of necessity. There was no Magic Online for much of my Pro Tour career. If you wanted to play Magic on the internet, for a long time, it was impossible. Eventually, there were some really poorly built third-party programs, but at least it was possible.
But frequently, just to practice, you’d have to schedule a time to meet at the local store that could accommodate several people, then you’d have to travel there, and sometimes you’d only be able to play for a few hours. This made getting in the amount of practice and preparation we get now a lot harder, simply in terms of volume. Now, the teams get together for a week or more before the Pro Tour. Many people take time off work, and everyone is in one place, focused, working toward the goal of doing well in the Pro Tour.
Another question I’ve been asked is how to build a successful Magic team. The first qualities that people look for in teammates are play skill, deck building skills, and Limited skills. The better a player is technically, the better results they tend to be able to give in play testing, especially in a limited amount of time. These results are fed to the deckbuilding specialists, who, in turn, are able to use that information as efficiently as possible to keep developing the various decks. The Limited specialists are able to figure out the draft formats and pass that to the rest of the team.
While those qualities are the most important to succeeding at Magic individually, I’d argue that in a team setting, they are not. It’s important that your team consist of people who have similar goals, and plans for reaching those goals. Everyone who is attempting to join a team wants “to do well at the tournament.” But not everyone has the same vision for getting there. If you want to practice for 90 hours in the two weeks before the tournament, that’s great, but it’s something you should discuss ahead of time, as it’s very likely that not everyone will feel the same way.
Inevitably, if a team has people that put forth vastly different amounts of effort, it will cause problems. People who do the most will resent the people who do the least. If everyone is upfront and honest about what they expect from their teammates and what their teammates can expect from them, you avoid potential problems when it’s time to start testing.
The single most important thing in having a successful team is chemistry. It’s so crucial if you’re going to be spending weeks in a house, apartment, or hotel leading up to a tournament, practicing for hours every day, that you truly enjoy the company of the people you’re spending your time with. Personality conflicts create a major problem in team settings. If things get out of control, people take sides, and it can make things very uncomfortable. In a setting like that, if people are nervous or unhappy, it can severely limit productivity and hurt everyone’s chances to do well.
If you truly care about and respect all of your teammates, it is so much easier to get in the team mentality—the mentality where you feel like you are a part of something bigger than yourself. I’ve been extremely lucky in this area. I have no doubt that my teammates are concerned with my best interests, and I am certainly concerned with theirs. I am very proud of my teammates, and I am very proud to be a part of the team.
Here are the members of my team, ChannelFireball: The Pantheon, and what I consider to be their primary roles and greatest strengths:
Sam is one of the hardest working deck builders I’ve ever played with and is never afraid to try new ideas. In Sam’s process, there is a lot of trial and error. For every great deck he creates, there are twenty decks that don’t work out. He never shies away from putting in that amount of work to make sure to get the results we need, and the team is much better off because of it.
Kai is better than anyone in history at preparing for a Magic tournament. He is exceptional at every facet of preparation, from deck design to tuning to Limited practice and discussion. Obviously, his seven Pro Tour championships are a testament to that. Also, when it comes to deck selection and predicting a metagame, there is nobody better than Kai.
Patrick is a renowned deckbuilder, which has earned him the nickname “The Innovator.” Due to his strong affinity for control decks, especially of the Grixis variety, we can all be very sure that with Patrick on the team we’ll have a great control list at our disposal. Patrick is a very hard worker, and despite his preference for control, he is a threat to make a very strong deck of any type.
Matt is probably the most underrated Magic player in the world. Andrew Cuneo once told me that he thought there was a good chance that Matt was the best player on our team. On a team that contains the three greatest players of all time, all of whom were at one point considered to be the best player in the world, this is very high praise. Matt is particularly adept at tuning Constructed decks.
Andrew is another of the greatest deckbuilders in Magic‘s history. Most famous for inventing “Draw-Go,” he also has a preference for control decks. Like with Patrick, we know that having Andrew around means that we are going to have a major head start when it comes to building or tuning our control decks. Andrew also fills an important role of providing the team with plenty of comic relief.
One of my favorite moments from playing with the team so far was in testing leading up to Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze in San Diego. We had a ping pong table in our rental house, and as it turns out, Andrew is a very good ping pong player. Andrew was trying to get an opponent, and most everyone besides Owen was busy. Owen wasn’t too keen on playing Andrew, as Owen doesn’t have a ton of ping pong experience, and he didn’t think it would be a very close game. Andrew started suggesting absurd handicap after absurd handicap until finally Owen agreed to play.
The final rules were like this:
• Owen played normally.
• Andrew played with his off-hand.
• Andrew had to hold the paddle using a penholder grip.
• Andrew had to keep one eye closed.
• Every time Andrew served the ball, he had to announce the score like a pirate. (“7 serving 6, yarrrrrrr.”)
Owen ended up winning 21-19, but not without controversy. At one point in the match, Andrew served and forgot to announce the score like a pirate. Owen was awarded a point. Had that not occurred who knows what would’ve happened? But we all certainly had a very good laugh.
Reid comes closer to Kai in his prime in terms of effort and work ethic than anyone I’ve ever played with. Reid is terrific about figuring out a format, and coming up with unique ideas for how to attack it. His opinions and ideas are held in the highest esteem by our entire team.
In Dublin, after Gab and Kai had built Mono-Blue Devotion, Kai was a bit on the fence about playing it. As often happens before the Pro Tour, there was considerable uncertainty. Reid had been working on some other decks, and wasn’t exactly sure what to play either. At one point, Kai asked Reid what he was leaning toward playing. When Reid answered with “Mono-Blue,” Kai literally stood up from his chair and pumped the fist. Getting that level of respect from Kai is certainly not easy, and I think we all feel that way when it comes to Reid.
Jon is, in my opinion, the most talented player to ever touch a Magic card, narrowly edging out Kai. In a team setting, he is always willing to watch teammates and help them play better, and is very good at figuring out Limited formats. Aside from his Magic talent, he is very much a leader of the team, and puts forth a lot of effort to make sure things run smoothly in a logistical sense. We are all very lucky to have him around.
Rich is widely considered to be one of the all-time best at figuring out Limited formats, specifically booster draft. Having a few people on a team who are able to quickly and accurately break down a Limited format and impart that wisdom to the rest of the team is crucial. Rich is very good at figuring out holes in decks that need to be filled. He can identify when an idea has run its course and a deck isn’t very good, for one reason or another.
I am similar to Rich, in that I feel my greatest strength as a teammate is helping with Limited preparation. I usually develop a good understanding of a Limited format pretty quickly, and I can help others improve their Limited skills through practice as well as discussion.
Tom’s exceptional play skill and critical thinking allow him to be very useful in the final stages of preparation. Never one to shy away from a healthy debate on draft picks, or finding the correct play, Tom’s insights are very valuable to the team when it gets to crunch time.
Unfortunately for us, it turns out that Zvi isn’t going to be able to make the trip to Valencia due to conflicts at work. Zvi usually fills the role of deck innovation and design. Throughout the history of Magic, he has created created several tier one combo decks such as Turbo Zvi and Zvi Bargain. We will definitely miss him in Valencia.
Completing the trifecta of the three best Magic players of all time is Gabriel Nassif. Affectionately known to his friends as “Yellowhat,” “Hat,” or in my case “Big Papa Hat,” Gab is quite possibly the greatest deckbuilder of all time, truly excelling at all facets of deckbuilding: construction, tuning, and sideboarding.
Brad is another deckbuilding expert. Brad’s approach is a bit different than most of the other deckbuilders on the team. Brad tends to find a deck he likes early on, and spends almost all of his time focusing on that deck and making sure he has the best version. As a teammate, it’s nice to know that if I don’t find something that I particularly like, Brad will have a very good version of a good deck available.
Paul is our resident beatdown specialist. In both Limited and Constructed, he likes to figure out as quickly as possible if he is able to play an aggressive deck, with a preference for Boros. Paul is another player particularly skilled at figuring out Limited formats (even if the best deck is not Boros aggro) and imparting that knowledge to his teammates.
In my opinion, Owen is currently the best Magic player in the world. Owen is in the rare class of player that makes you a better Magic player just by playing against him. He is always ready to play a set of games with or against any deck. When you take him up on that, you know that you are getting the best possible testing. In addition, Owen is exceptional at both tuning decks and learning Limited formats.
Gaudenis is the grinder of the team. He tends to play a lot of games online leading up to the event, and grinds away day after day in testing. He usually has a good grasp of the metagame, and is able to use that information to make educated decisions about card choices and deck selection.
On Monday, I’m heading to Valencia with the first wave of my teammates to begin preparation for Pro Tour Born of the Gods. It will be really interesting to see how Born of the Gods as well as the recent changes to the Banned and Restricted list will impact the Modern format. I’m also looking forward to diving into Born of the Gods/Theros draft. Coming off of our great performance at Pro Tour Theros, I’m really excited to see what kind of performance our team is able to muster this time around.
I’ll be off for the next couple weeks getting ready and playing in the Pro Tour. But when I get back, I’ll have a weekly article here on ChannelFireball.com. I hope you’ll check out my content going forward!