PV’s Playhouse – Team ChannelFireball

By now, I would say it is widely accepted that Team Channelfireball is the best Magic team in the world. You could make a (rather small 😉 ) case for Team Mythic (Zvi, Sam Black, Gaudenis, etc), but I think it’s undeniable that we’ve had the best results this past year – of the nine level 8s, seven of them play in our team, and we have spots one through six in the player of the year race – in fact, by the time the third day of Worlds came, there were four people who could end up being the player of the year, and all of them were from Channelfireball. Why does this happen? Is that because we’re just good players? How much of that is the team, and how much is the people individually? Do we do anything differently than other people? This is what I am going to write about today. But first, a little bit of story (and my apologies if you’re already familiar with most of it):

For the past two years, my Magic history has been entirely entwined with Channelfireball’s – it’s impossible for me to imagine one without the other. That was, of course, not always the case – for many years I played with an online community, the equivalent of today’s Magic-League, and for many more years I played with the Brazilian players. So, how did Team Channelfireball come to be, and how did I come to be in it?

My first contact with Luis Scott-Vargas happened in GP Phoenix, 2006, which was, if I recall correctly, the first American GP I ever played – back then, I was not really a “pro player”, but I was short one point to get a plane ticket to Japan on pro level, and since tickets to Japan were so expensive, I felt like giving it a try. At some point, I was sitting on a table and a bunch of guys I recognized from the coverage of US Nationals pulled a cube out of their bags and started drafting. I had no notion of what a “cube” was, but it seemed pretty interesting, so I just watched them and we talked a little, but no more than that. It turned out I had actually played Luis in PT Hawaii, but I had never associated them as the same person. My first meaningful interaction came on the following PT, when we happened to take the same connecting flight from Dallas to Kobe. I was traveling with the Brazilian guys, but they all wanted to sleep, so I hung out with the Americans instead – Paul, Luis and Zac Hill are the ones that come to mind now but there were others. We gathered in the emergency exit and decided to do a cube draft on the airplane – a bonding experience if I’ve ever seen one – and, after that, we became sort of friends. It’s interesting to note that nowadays the great majority of flight attendants would just yell “NO CONGREGATING IN THE AISLES” and ruin our drafting, and had that happened then maybe I wouldn’t be part of Channelfireball today.

We kept talking on every tournament we met, though we never playtested together – that would only happen a year later, on GP San Francisco. GP SF was block Constructed, and I stayed at Web’s house along with Luis and Paul, where we actually practiced a lot to come up with the Teachings version that me, Luis and Paul piloted to the t8, with Luis winning the whole thing. At this point, though, I still played with the Brazilians – for the following Valencia and Worlds, for example, we did not share much information on decks, and this continued to Kuala Lumpur, Hollywood, Berlin, Memphis and Kyoto – we were friends, but not a team (or, rather, they were a team, but I was not in it).

The first PT we acted somewhat as team was Hawaii, in 2009 – we did not test much before the event but we met for one or two days and discussed strategy. The tournament was Block Constructed and we did pretty badly as a whole, with me doing especially badly, with our 5cc deck that had a horrible sideboard. After that came Austin, and again I did most of the playtesting on my own with friends, and we only talked and shared information. Worlds in Rome was different, because we stayed together for the most part, so we did practice together rather than just talking, much like in GP San Francisco.

Then, a website by the name of Channelfireball was launched, as well as a physical store in California, and Luis moved to take an important position in it, leaving SCG for this new project. By the time GP Oakland happened, in February 2010, team Channelfireball already existed, and I was partially part of it – I stayed with them and we practiced together, but I was not involved with the store Channelfireball in any way, unlike almost everyone else. Once there, staying at Luis’s house, I realized that it didn’t make much sense for things to continue that way, and I was quickly persuaded to join Team Fireball in its fullest – I then started writing for the website weekly, wearing shirts, doing interviews and stuff like that.

In my mind, the first time we were actually “team fireball” working for a big event was PT San Diego, which followed Oakland. At the time, the team included Me, Web, LSV, Josh, Tom Ross, Brad, Gabe Walls, Tom Raney, Matt Marr (kind of) and some locals who showed up later. We played a ton, and then we ran a series of mock tournaments where each person was responsible for a deck, which is something we’ve done a couple other times but don’t always do. I was mainly in charge of Jund, and I think I did a pretty bad job of it – we all ended up playing Naya.

There were a couple of interesting things that happened in this playtesting – the first of them was that our deck sort of leaked. We decided to play at Superstars, the Channelfireball Store, and then people just kept coming and they were kind of “aggregated”, to the point where someone who had not worked very much on the deck played a Magic-League event with our exact list the day before the Pro Tour. I did not like that very much. We also learned that it’s much, much easier to get a team going if you can get everyone in the same place – everyone really liked that and thought it improved testing a lot.

With that knowledge (and a lot of free time on our hands), we decided to rent a house in San Juan for the following Pro Tour. This time, the roster was composed of everyone from the previous PT plus Lucas Blohon, Martin Juza and Ben Stark, with an occasional appearance by Michael Jacob. We tried to do the same thing we had done before – mock tournaments – but that was not very successful. I leeched a lot of knowledge for this tournament, since Brad had already played infinite Block and Ben had already played infinite Drafts, and the day before the PT we were not very confident in our deck choice – RUG. It was then that someone had the genius idea of moving Cobras to the maindeck, and suddenly the deck became awesome – my train of thought went from “I have an OK deck” to “I have the best deck in the tournament”, and it’s always nice when you feel that way. This was our first major PT success as a team – we had three of the eight (me, Josh and Brad, though Brad played a different constructed deck).

What I took from this PT is that it’s interesting to have people specialize and then share that knowledge – things will go much better that way than if you force everyone to do everything equally (though of course, everyone ends up doing a bit of everything at some point or another) – we would probably have had a much worse record in both formats if Ben and Brad had both played Constructed and Limited as opposed to focusing on one format each.

The next PT was Amsterdam, and it was a lot more reminiscent of San Diego than San Juan – we had infinite people in a house for a couple days trying to “break it”, since the format was entirely new. Additions included Owen, Kibler, Chapin, MJ, Zaiem, Conley, and the occasional passer by – I remember Travis Woo but there were many people who randomly showed up there, including Sperling who was working with another team. Testing was mostly chaotic, and we managed to come up with two different decks – Teachings and Doran – both of which were good. We again had three top 8s (MJ, Kibler, Brad).

The most interesting thing to happen in this PT was the “[card]Treefolk Harbinger[/card]” phenomenon; when it was originally suggested, Luis memorably said “there is no way I’m playing [card]Treefolk Harbinger[/card] in this PT”. A day later, it became “there is no way I’m playing four [card]Treefolk Harbinger[/card]”. Another day later he was phoning the US and ordering 56 copies of the card, which ended up being nearly impossible to find – I know people who didn’t play the deck because they couldn’t find it, and people who played less than four (though they probably could have tried a little harder). I guess the lesson here is that, even though you are allowed to have preconceived notions, you should be willing to abandon them, as we all were.

Of all the people we added for this PT, three remained – Owen, Conley and Kibler. For Worlds in Chiba, we again got together and playtested, and this time the additions were Eric Froelich, David Williams and Corey Baumeister. We didn’t have much of a clue what to play, and ended up splitting between Vampires, UB (me) and UW. The real lesson came on day 3 – a bit before the tournament, we decided to try this Ooze deck that had the [card]Devoted Druid[/card] / [card]Grim Poppet[/card] combo in it, and it actually looked interesting, but we just didn’t know what to make of it – it was too different and we didn’t have enough time. By the end of day 2 the discussion was whether people wanted four [card]Quillspike[/card]s, one [card]Quillspike[/card] or zero [card]Quillspike[/card]s, and I’m honestly never going to play a deck that has four [card]Quillspike[/card]s in it unless I am absolutely sure this is the right number. Some people were not concerned about this, and played the Ooze deck anyway, but about half of us decided to play it safe and go with 5cc, which turned out to be awesome (and had a much better record than the Ooze deck, I think).

Next came PT Paris and, as you probably know, Caw-Blade. Our three additions from Japan remained, and we were joined by Eirik (who occasionally plays with us) Tom Martell and Carlos Romão. Most people actually met in the US to playtest before Paris, but by a combination of not being able to skip school and not being a millionaire, I was unable to go. The end result of that was that everyone had played infinite drafts except for me, and I didn’t get to play nearly as many as I had hoped. It was still worth it, of course, since we came up with that awesome deck. Not sure what lesson can be drawn here, unfortunately – at some point someone decided to try something and we all recognized it as good and upped the count until it became the centerpiece of the deck.

The following PT – Nagoya – wasn’t nearly as interesting. None of the additions remained, we gathered for many days in Singapore, we playtested A LOT, and we just couldn’t find anything that beat Tempered Steel. In the end, the biggest lesson was that, again, sometimes you have to abandon your preconceived notions – if something is good, it’s good, it doesn’t matter that I don’t like it I’ll still play it.

Philly followed, and our biggest lesson here was that, again, having someone dedicated to a deck is good. Kibler and Brad were just focused on Zoo the entire time, Kibler especially, while everyone else kept trying other things, which was mutually beneficial. In an ordinary situation, it would have been very dangerous for Brad and Kibler to insist on Zoo as much as they did – they would never have found something more powerful if that existed, because they just weren’t experimenting – and it would also have been bad for us to only experiment, because if the experiments failed we’d have no deck. By having Kibler and Brad work on Zoo, we were free to experiment knowing that we would have a solid backup deck if all failed (which ended up happening), and they knew that someone was trying to break it so if there was a super good deck they’d have access to it to.

Then came Worlds again, and I feel that, despite having outstanding results, we did a horrible job in testing – we mostly got lucky that most people didn’t even remember Tempered Steel existed, and that no one actually found a deck that was better than Zoo. Again, I think we were able to do well because someone was dedicated to it – in this case, Josh – and even though no one really believed in Tempered Steel from the beginning he just kept tuning it and playing with it, to the point where he convinced everyone it was worth working on; when you have 10 people on a team, you can actually afford people like that, and when it works you reap the benefits. For Modern, we changed decks about 150 times, and you can actually see Luis on tape saying “I’m playing Splinter Twin, I’m decided” the day before the tournament, and then changing to Zoo half an hour later after actually playing with it. In the morning of the event, we had 0 [card]Steppe Lynx[/card]es, then during Breakfast we just added four! This shouldn’t really happen.

So, we come to the present day. Before we go on, I’m going to give you a little who’s who on the current Channelfireball roster (though obviously no one ever assigned those roles or does only that – this is just how I perceive things):

ChannelFireball Players

Luis Scott-Vargas

Luis is “the leader” of Channelfireball in the sense that most people will follow his lead, but he never decides stuff on his own – he’s not just going to add someone to the team or make a radical change without consulting everyone. Most of the time, someone will suggest something (like “Let’s eat at Fogo/Let’s stay at this hotel) and everyone will follow, but whenever no one suggests anything, we turn to him and he is kind of forced to decide for us all. This is good for him because he has significant weight in most decisions, but it’s sometimes bad because responsibility also falls on him for everything. As far as playtesting goes, he is the person who is usually responsible for making sure control is unplayable – we know he likes control and he tries every version of it, so when he says “guys, control is bad”, we can generally believe him, because he really wants to play it so if it was even remotely good he wouldn’t have given up.

David Ochoa

Web is very quiet during playtesting most of the time, and usually just observes, but if you ask for his opinion he will generally have valuable advice to offer. I think Web’s greatest strength is that he is always focused, even in practice games – he will draft the same in our 8 men for the rares or on the Pro Tour, and it’s very useful to have someone with that mindset. Web also researches most places we go to and is responsible for finding restaurants.

Josh Utter-Leyton

Josh jams a ton of games – whenever you ask him to play he will play you, no matter the matchup. He also likes decks that the majority of the team doesn’t *ahem* Tempered Steel *ahem*, so he is responsible for making sure that, if this kind of deck is good, we don’t just overlook it.

Ben Stark

Ben is the Limited Expert – whenever we meet he will have drafted 150 times already, and he can usually break down archetypes and stuff for everyone else.

Brian Kibler

Kibler is very focused – he gets a deck and he tries it for the entire testing week, changing it from time to time to test every configuration (generally a Zoo deck of some sort but not always necessarily). This is very useful because, again, it always provides a solid backup deck for everyone.

Brad Nelson

Brad is much like Kibler, except with way more breaks for smoking. He is mostly quiet, but I actually like talking to him about formats, and he was the person who convinced me to play Zoo in Philly (which was a good choice even if I did horribly).

Matt Nass

Matt is the “combo guy” – he usually masters this kind of deck and tries crazy stuff. He plays combo decks very well, which is important in playtesting, since many combo decks are dismissed early on because the pilot is doing something very wrong.

Eric Froelich

Efro generally just sits there and looks pretty while everyone else does all the work.

Conley Woods

Conley will try the craziest decks, but pretty much all of those end up being really bad; I feel like his greatest strength lies not with weird decks, but with weird cards – he has built so many different decks in his life that he has played cards people don’t even know exist, and sometimes those cards happen to be very good in the decks we think about playing. He also routinely goes through every card on gatherer that meets the characteristics we need and he is not afraid of making any suggestions, which is very useful to make sure we don’t miss anything.

Owen Turtenwald

Owen does a little bit of everything – he plays, he chats, he theorizes. If I had to pick one function for him, it’d be the Bringer of Reality – he is the person who challenges your ideas to make sure there is actually any substance to it. It’s very easy to get carried away with something new, and he will usually dispel that notion from you with reasonable arguments. I think his role is the most similar to the one I play, too, and in most groups (but not ours) it’s one that gets a little bit of hate – people generally don’t love the guy who points out a problem but doesn’t have a solution, but the way I see it it’s better to know there is a problem than to pretend everything is OK.

Shuhei Nakamura

Shuhei plays a lot whenever you need him to, much like Josh, and he adds a different perspective – the Japanese metagame is usually not the same as anywhere else, and he knows that metagame, the version of decks they play, etc. He also has physical copies of his decks most of the time, which is a huuuuge help, since most of us don’t own cards and playing with Proxies is miserable.

Martin Juza

Martin’s role to me is to bring information – he doesn’t play much with us ever, but he is online 24/7, so if something happens on MODO he will find it and bring it to us.

Lucas Blohon

Lucas is like Martin, except he interacts more with us – he will play if you ask him to, and he will try certain decks that other people won’t, though he also does most of the testing on Magic Online and then reports.

Eric Froelich

Ok, ok, seriously…. Efro doesn’t really play *a role*, but he plays every role a bit. He is a cross between Owen and LSV I think – he will throw reality at your face like Owen does (which is very good), and most people will also defer to him when we have to make your everyday decisions.

Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa

Again, I am a little like Owen and Efro in that I have no qualms about throwing reality at people, though I try to do a little of everything – I try to jam games and I experiment with new stuff, and I try to talk to people and see what they think, which is something I think most teams seriously lack. I think I am generally good at tuning a deck when we don’t have a whole lot of time – if it’s the day before the event and we need the last four sideboard cards, for example, I will trust my own judgment over anyone else’s assuming no one has played, because I think I’m good at theorizing, though whether I just feel like that because it’s me or other people also see it that way I wouldn’t be able to tell you. In any case, I don’t think anyone would disagree that I am by far the most valuable person on the team.

The Channelfireball Staff

Of course, we wouldn’t be Team Channelfireball without the actual Channelfireball crew – Jon, TSG, Tony, Anastasia, Tim, Butler, Nikko, Tommy, Alex, Brent, (other people whose name I don’t know/forgot) – those guys make it possible for us to do what we do, they get us cards, shirts, sleeves, breakfast, a place to play, they promote us, they do videos, they give us a place to write and they’re generally great company – so thank you!

Note: many people write for Channelfireball.com, but the actual “playing team” is currently just those people I’ve mentioned (and they don’t all write for Channelfireball, either – some write for other websites). For the most part, we don’t interact with anyone else while playtesting, even if they also write for CFB.

So, back to my original questions…. why do we do so well? It’s a combination of things, really. First of all, we’re all very good – everyone currently on the team is very likely one of the best 100 players in the world, with like 10 of us probably being in the top 20. If we were not a team and we just grouped everyone’s results, we’d still have a way above average finish. There is no question, though, that we all make each other better – being in such a strong environment will make you challenge your own conceptions and improve as a result. Most of us would be the very best in their local communities but turn out to be average when put in comparison with the other members of the team, so it forces a different approach – if a local guy tells me he’s got different results, then I will likely dismiss his results as a fluke, but if someone on this team tells me that, then I have to consider it. People in this group won’t just assume I’m right – they will challenge me when they think I’m wrong, and they’ll force me to explain things and prove it to them. That is invaluable.

And, of course, there is the matter of decks – we always have great decks. I’ve always been a very good chooser of decks myself (and I say this with no sarcasm – I’m actually great at choosing decks to play, I very rarely play a bad deck), but my decks have improved a lot with Channelfireball, because we are able to cover so many angles – if there is something sweet, we generally find it, and if there isn’t we generally know it’s not there to be found and then we have one of the best versions of whatever everyone has.

A lot of our success can also be attributed to the fact that we meet in person for a couple days before the PT, and we’re very focused once we do that. I remember that, when Carlos played with us for Paris, he mentioned that he was surprised our entire day happens around Magic. Even when we’re not playing, we’re talking about it, we’re thinking about it – we even include it in the jokes we make about everything. It’s not like we are oblivious to the world – many of us have other obligations, Luis has a wife, Josh works full-time, Kibler develops other games, Matt Nass and I study, etc – but once we’re practicing for the PT, I feel that we become Magic Players above all else. I don’t really touch Magic cards between tournaments, but whenever we meet I get so immersed in what is going on that it very quickly feels like I’ve been playing nonstop since the last PT. So, if you plan on having a team, make sure you meet in person – internet chatting is useful but really doesn’t compare to a couple days of everyone in a room testing and talking about the format. I think the very best way to do it is have everyone go their own way before the tournament, so each person will draw their own conclusions, and then you meet and share everything, to then start working with each other.

Lastly, it is also a factor that we’re all friends – I like every one of the 13 other people on our team, and I don’t feel like it would have worked otherwise. You must be able to live with someone for a week, to include them in everything you do; you must respect them enough, and you must have intimacy enough to tell them when you think they are wrong, as well as to understand that, when they yell at you, it’s not personal – they just want what’s the best for the group and that includes you. Take Conley, for example – we felt close enough to tell him what we thought he did wrong, and he respected us enough to not dismiss it outright or just be offended – he actually listened to what we had to say, whether he ended up agreeing with us or not is not that important. It’s also relevant that chaos is ensured from time to time – we all like to make fun of each other, we’re all very vocal about our opinions, we don’t hold much stuff back – if we were not all friends, we would probably have killed each other by now, but instead we manage to find order in the chaos we create. In the end, I don’t think a team can ever work as well as ours does if the players aren’t friends.

Yet, for all the success we’ve had, we’re not perfect. There are many things I wish we’d change for next year, so in the spirit of new year resolutions:

– We need to be more organized and focused on constructed. We procrastinate too much when we know we have time and we keep drafting, and then we have to do all the heavy work on the last two days despite being on the place for a week.

– We need real cards! Part of the reason we don’t try new stuff is because it’d have to be all proxied and we all hate playing with proxies. Since we know that is the case, we should have more cards.

– We should be more secretive. I don’t think this is a sentiment shared by everyone, but it is definitely how I feel – I go berserk whenever I see someone playing MODO with a deck that we’re very likely to play in the tournament, even though most people think “it’s not going to matter”, “it’s a different account”, blah blah. I just hate giving away information and I think we do it too much.

– We need to play more sideboarded games. I think everyone in the world is guilty of that, but we actually have the time and the manpower to do it, and there is no excuse for us to show up in a tournament without knowing what to sideboard in a given match.

Bonus: Q&A

Since I wasn’t sure what exactly people wanted to know about Team Channelfireball, I asked for some questions on Facebook on Twitter, here are the some that I don’t already answer in the article:
(PS. I think rather like this questions & answers model ^^)

What are the most annoying habits while traveling?

I think the habit that personally annoys me the most is Brad smoking. It’s really none of my business, but it’s super annoying when a draft is delayed or we have to stop playing because he needs a smoke break. I guess I’m already predisposed to dislike it since my mother smokes and I absolutely hate smoking. For some people, I guess the fact that I don’t like to spend a lot of money might be very annoying.

In developing team dynamics did you look at other teams from MTG history such as YMG , Tongo Nation, Deadguy, CMU, etc to see what had worked and not worked for them and use that information to make sure you did not repeat mistakes or improve team functionality?

No, not really. I don’t even know how most of those teams worked to begin with, it just kind of happened.

What is the team testing process?

It’s fairly ordinary, or so I assume – we try to have all the gauntlet decks, then people build the decks they think have potential and we play gauntlet versus gauntlet when we aren’t sure of what is actually good and then brew versus gauntlet.

Are there any non-Channelfireball member that you guys specifically like to work with?

I guess we’ve talked to Nassif a lot in the past – he hasn’t ever been a part of the team, but he’s shared stuff with some of our players. Eirik, Luis’s former roommate, also works with us most of the time he attends events, though he doesn’t go to most PTs.

What’s your favorite format to play in the downtime? you must get tired of jamming standard

Draft, it’s nice and useful. Some of the guys play Ascension from time to time, too, and lately we’ve also been doing stuff like swimming and playing frisbee.

Who would you like to have on the team?

Hmmm, if I had to choose someone, at this point it’d probably be Shouta Yasooka – he always comes up with the craziest deck ideas and they all seem very bad, but he always does well and is insanely good, so I would like to see how he thinks. I do think language barrier is an almost insurmountable problem in this case, though, and besides we have more people than we should have anyway. I’m also curious what it would be like to work with Zvi, but I think Zvi on Channelfireball wouldn’t necessarily work – it’d be more interesting to go to Zvi’s own team for one tournament to see how it is. It’d also probably be very interesting to playtest and interact with Kai and Finkel.

Do you guys get together for reasons that aren’t magic tournament related?

In my case, no – I live too far away for that to be a possibility. We do hang out together for non-Magic reasons (many of us are staying one extra week in Hawaii to sightsee, for example), but that is only because there is a tournament – they’re the reason we meet on the first place.

The last several pro tours Team CFB has played Aggro/Aggro Control. Is this due to team strengths, or simply best deck for the event?

Best deck. I’d say the team strength (and preference) lies on the opposing side of the spectrum for most of us.

If you had to delegate your deck choice to someone else on the team, who would it be?

I think Owen is the person who is most likely to play a deck I’d like to play, so him.

How frequently does the team communicate on Skype?

Never, we have a Facebook group and we mostly talk there.

Are you planning on continuing doing “beach house” type situations for tournaments?

Yes, it’s the best way to do it – I think we’re going to do something like that every PT from now on.

How do you manage the rivalry between team members?

I don’t think we have to “manage” it – the rivalry obviously exists to some point, since we play the same tournaments and are direct competitors, but it’s not big enough as to be a problem, I don’t think anyone lets it influence what they say or do. Maybe now that changes since people compete directly for tournament spots with pro points, but I don’t think it will, in the end the team benefits everyone and we all know that.

Who has turned CFB down?

As far as I know, no one.

How do I get on CFB?

Short answer is, you don’t – right now we have waaay too many people already, and the only reason we don’t cut anyone is because we actually want all those people there, since 14 is way too much for logistic reasons (getting a place for 14 in Hawaii, for example, was not very easy) – if I could magically choose a number I’d say 10 is ideal. Of course, an exception can always be made for a person who happens to have an available 7 dorms house in Barcelona…

When someone new gets added (or someone gets removed), though, that’s generally done through talking with everyone – no one person makes the decision alone, and I guess everyone has veto power – I can’t imagine someone entering the team if a person really, really opposes it, no matter who it is (though it’s not common for a lot of people to actively want someone and some people actively not wanting the same person). Most of the time we just get together and discuss this sort of thing, though the burden is usually on Luis to communicate whatever decision we make to the person.

Well, this is it. I hope this was an enjoyable read and that it gave you some insight on how we operate as a team! By the time you read this, I’ll probably be gone to Austin already, in what is going to be the longest trip of my life – around three months between the US and Mexico – and I’m sure it’s going to be very awesome in big part because all those people are involved in it. See you next week, in Austin or here,



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