Last week, we announced Team ChannelFireball Ice. In this article I’m going to tell you the history of Team CFB, how I met each of my current teammates, and how ChannelFireball Ice came to be.
As you may or may not know, Team ChannelFireball originally got together for PT San Diego in 2010. Most of us were already friends and had tested with each other before, but San Diego marked our first organized effort as a group, with about 10 of us meeting in Luis’s father’s house in Oakland.
We didn’t really have a system—we were just playing Magic and talking about our findings. At some point, we ran a mock tournament, and Tom Ross won it with his Naya deck. We started paying more attention to it after that, and eventually tuned it to a point where we were all happy playing it. Thus, the first “ChannelFireball deck” came to be:
Not only was this our first team deck, it was also our first time playing Stoneforge Mystic, a card that we’d play later on to a lot of success in another Standard deck. Our highlight here was the Cunning Sparkmage/Basilisk Collar combination out of the sideboard. We had played it exactly zero times before the event, yet we were confident enough that it was going to be great that we just jammed 4.
Our effort paid off, and the team did very well as a whole, highlighted by LSV’s 16-0 performance. We liked the process so much we decided to continue doing it, and rented a couple of adjacent houses for the following Pro Tour in San Juan, where we developed the R/U/G deck almost all of us ended up playing.
We did very well at the PT, putting 3 into the Top 8 (myself, Brad Nelson, and Josh Utter-Leyton), including the eventual winner (me!). PT San Juan also marked my first interactions with Ben Stark, and he was extremely useful for two reasons. First, because his girlfriend, Michelle, is from San Juan and suggested places for us to eat, sight-see, and so on. Second, because he helped me understand the Limited format in the small amount of time that we had.
One of Ben’s greatest strengths is that he just gets Limited formats. In Rise of the Eldrazi, he identified very early on that you wanted to do big, busted things, and that random small and midrange creatures weren’t the way to go—we prioritized black and green Eldrazi Spawn makers, and wanted nothing to do with blue and white level up creatures. A lot of people can look at a set and say “green is the best color,” or “first pick the removal spell,” but very few people can understand a paradigm shift with so few Drafts as Ben. This skill was particularly valuable because we focused a lot on Constructed and I didn’t have a ton of time for drafting, so I basically went with what I was told due to not having time to figure things out by myself.
I still remember my second pick in the Top 8 draft—after a Corpsehatch, I had the choice between Joraga Treespeaker or Staggershock. I considered taking Staggershock—it was the safe choice—but then I thought, “Ben is probably watching this draft and he’s going to yell at me if I take Staggershock—I’ll take Treespeaker.” Treespeaker was unsurprisingly very good (it’s a Sol Ring! What was I thinking?) and I won the PT! In reality, Ben was probably Team Drafting and had no clue that the Top 8 was even going on, but it still helped.
Other than understanding Limited well, Ben also has an interesting approach to life—he’s the most utilitarian person I’ve ever met. He’s hyper-rational, and expects everyone else to be as well, which makes for funny conversations when you try to factor in silly things like feelings and emotions. Ben, for example, never gets upset when he loses because he knows it’s just part of the game. Even though a lot of people “know” it’s part of the game, I don’t know anyone else who can shrug off losses as nonchalantly as Ben can. In his mind, being upset doesn’t accomplish anything, so he just doesn’t get upset. As someone who can definitely get very upset by losing, talking to Ben often helps me put things in perspective, because his rational approach to life makes a lot of sense (most of the time—sometimes he’s just crazy).
Ben is my first teammate.
After my San Juan win, we followed that with Top 8s for both Brad Nelson and Brian Kibler at PT Amsterdam, playing our Doran deck:
After that came PT Chiba, and that was when I first interacted with my second teammate, Eric Froehlich.
At first, I didn’t really know what to think of EFro. I knew of him from poker, but I hadn’t interacted with him, and I kind of thought he was one of those washed-up players who had been good back in 1995 when people played without sleeves and there was no internet—someone who wasn’t actually good and only won because everyone else was awful. I was disabused of that notion very quickly.
Once I played and talked to EFro for a bit, it became clear that despite being away for a long time, he is one of those rare players who deeply understands the game of Magic. There are people who have the ability to play very well because they test most of the possible interactions and recognize patterns when they show up, which is a rare skill on its own, and then there are the people who understand what’s going on so much that they can extrapolate from things that they’ve never seen and know exactly what is going to happen next, which is even rarer. EFro is one of those players.
Personality wise, Efro is also quite a character. He’s one of the smartest people I know and one of the quickest thinkers you’ll ever find, and he has the rare ability to make fun of you with you, and not against you—he makes you feel like an accomplice and not an antagonist. When EFro makes fun of you (which is often, regardless of who you are, and more often than that if you’re me)—you never feel like he’s being cruel or mean, you never feel upset, left out, or belittled. You just laugh along because it’s so light hearted. He can certainly be grumpy sometimes, but once you know him, you realize that he complains because he’s frustrated things aren’t as good as they can be, and his goal is usually to make things better.
At Worlds in Chiba, we were actually split between multiple decks in both formats. In Extended, I played 5-Color Control:
And in Standard, I played U/B:
Both our decks were very good, and I reached the Top 8 alongside EFro, who played Vampires in Standard and a horrible Quillspike/Devoted Druid combo in Extended. I remember that, for a moment in time, we weren’t sure if we wanted 4 Jace, the Mind Sculptor in our Standard deck—we even cut one before begrudgingly adding it back. How stupid were we?
After Chiba, the season ended, but our team showed no signs of slowing down, and in the very next PT we came up with the deck that would arguably be known as the most dominant deck in the modern era of Standard.
This deck was on the control spectrum of aggro-control, and had the powerful combination of a good late game coupled with the possibility of free wins on turn 2. We ended up putting two in the Top 8 (Martell and Ben Stark, who won the whole thing), with two more in 9th and 10th, and Brad Nelson won his grudge match for Player of the Year.
Our next tournament was Nagoya, and it was Scars of Mirrodin Block Constructed. That was one of the most miserable tournaments I can remember, in large part because the mana was so bad. Inkmoth Nexus was an extremely powerful card, so every deck kind of had to run colorless lands, and there weren’t many dual lands, so the great majority of decks had to be mono-colored. If you look at the Top 8, you’ll see one 4-color Tezzeret deck, 1 Mono-Black Infect deck, 2 Mono-Red decks, and 4 Mono-White decks, culminating in 28 copies of Inkmoth Nexus and 72 total basic Plains.
As for our team, we struggled for about a week with how to beat Tempered Steel consistently, and we just couldn’t. We tried decks with 12 main-deck artifact removal spells and we still couldn’t beat it—the mono-colored consistency, Inkmoth Nexus, and aggression was just too hard to overcome. So we played it ourselves:
It was the worst tournament for us since we became a team, but we still put one in the Top 8—Luis Scott-Vargas.
After Nagoya came PT Philadelphia, the first Modern PT. We kind of missed the mark on that one since all the combo decks were insane (Preordain and Ponder were both legal!), but we ended up playing a blue version of Zoo with a Green Sun’s Zenith toolbox that actually wasn’t bad against the metagame:
The end of the year brought us our crowning achievement: Worlds 2011 in San Francisco. We played Tempered Steel in Standard and Zoo in Modern, and ended up putting 4 into the Top 8 of a multi-format tournament—myself, Luis, Conley, and Josh—a feat that has never been matched and in all likelihood never will be. On top of it all, 6 of the top 8 finishers in the Player of the Year race were from our team, including winner Owen Turtenwald. At this point, by virtually any metric you could choose, we were the best team in the world, and it wasn’t particularly close.
Our dominance was confirmed at the very next PT in Hawaii, where myself and Brian Kibler met in the finals, playing our R/G ramp deck:
Of course, nothing can stay at the top forever. Other teams started to adopt our testing routine, and a mix of real-life obligations and other factors radically changed the composition of our squad. Team CFB still existed, but those of us who remained lacked the proper motivation to succeed. PT Avacyn Restored, where we played G/W Humans, was our worst showing ever, with only one player in the Top 32.
After that PT, we were never really the same. Nothing was quite as bad afterward, but it was never as good, either. After a long drought, we decided to pair up with team Face to Face, a group of young up-and-coming players who were much more enthusiastic about testing than we were.
It was on Face to Face that I met my third teammate: Mike Sigrist. Like EFro, Siggy was an old-school player who had taken a break and then come back, and like EFro, he impressed me with his general understanding of the game—particularly his Limited game. He was Face to Face’s Limited guru, of sorts. I believe that Constructed is more refined now than it was many years ago, so it’s hard to come back and immediately be great at that, but the Limited fundamentals are still basically the same. If you understood them back then, you’re going to understand them now, and Siggy did. With time, he got back on track with Constructed as well, and now he’s just one of the best Magic players in the world, culminating in his Player of the Year title in 2015.
Other than his Limited skills, I also like that Siggy has a very open mind and a keen eye for deck selection, which means he often insists on powerful decks that people like me dismiss because they look bad.
Personality wise, Siggy is just an extremely nice individual—there’s not a mean bone in his body. He legitimately likes everybody and goes out of his way to make everybody happy. He’s also one of my favorite people to make fun of because he always takes it light-heartedly and he provides you with a lot of material. If you get to know him, you’ll see that he is about the least functional adult you’ll find, which is impressive considering he has two daughters. At some point in one of our testing houses, we caught him Facetiming with his wife to try to figure out how the washing machine worked, and then he struggled for hours trying to make pasta. To make up for that, he’s a water connoisseur—he’s able to identify by taste which glass contains tap water, Fiji water, non-Fiji, and non-tap water (we confirmed it).
Fast forwarding a couple months, we arrive at the worst time of my life, Magically speaking. I hadn’t won a match in two years and I was strongly considering quitting or dedicating more to a different game. WotC decided to do something about it, and kindly printed Dragonlord Ojutai, which put everything back on course. It was during PT Dragons of Tarkir preparation that we built the deck that would end up revitalizing my entire career.
Our deck was just amazing, and leaps and bounds better than anything I played against. To me, it was Caw-Blade all over again, except your free wins came on turn 5 instead of turn 2, but they were still there.
I lost playing for Top 8, but Top 8’d the GP the week after, and the spark was lit again.
It was also during PT DTK that I met my fourth teammate: Ondrej Strasky. Our first contact was in the post-PT party in a Magic store/LAN house. Ondrej was supposed to play in the Top 8 the following day but was still out there partying, and eventually someone decided to organize a League of Legends game, and we were both in it. He then told me how he was a big fan and it was such an honor to be playing LoL with me, which was nice.
I didn’t talk to Ondrej much after that, until I found myself teamless for the 2016 Worlds. I talked to Thiago Saporito about it, and he said he was testing with Ondrej and I could join them, so I did. We became good friends after that, and eventually Ondrej joined Face to Face.
Ondrej is a young player with raw talent. He’s not usually the one to come up with some breakthrough or insight, but he’s always ready to play when you need an opponent and he takes a ton of interesting lines. Now most of the time when I say “interesting line” it’s actually a euphemism for “horrible,” but that’s not the case here. Many times when I talk to Ondrej about a play he made, he explains to me his train of thought and, even if I don’t agree with the play, what he’s saying always makes sense. He has the rare trait of thinking before he plays and making plays for specific reasons, and that, in my opinion, is the most important quality in a Pro Magic player. Ondrej still lacks experience, but it’s much easier to acquire experience than to internalize the fundamental parts of the game, which he already does.
Personality-wise, Ondrej cares about very little. It’s actually funny to read our team discussions—it’s 5 people with very strong opinions about everything, and then Ondrej who couldn’t care less what he wears, what the team name is, what deck he’s going to play, or even who his teammates are. This makes him both the worst and the best traveling companion. He never does anything because he never cares, but he also goes along with anything that I plan because he never cares. I tend to care too much about things that don’t really matter, and being friends with Ondrej has helped me temper that.
Our CFB/Face to Face coalition worked out for a while, but eventually most of the remaining members of Team CFB got jobs outside of MTG—or kids in the case of Paul Cheon—which prompted the team to decide to no longer meet in person before the PTs.
This put me in a very tough spot because as much as I loved my team, I really dislike playing online. I don’t play Magic much outside of tournaments, so I really need those two weeks before each PT to catch up and get used to the game again. I was the one player on our team who had not acquired any new life commitments. If anything I’d have even more free time—I was finishing my studies. I decided that I’d try something new, and stayed with Face to Face.
So this brings us to the current point in time. When WotC announced the team series, my team at the time simply assumed that we’d make 2 groups of 6, and nothing would change. We were wrong. Once writing and sponsorships came into play, things got chaotic. Jon Stern, the spiritual leader of our team (mostly due to being old and wise, but also due to doing everything, including color-coding the deck lists), decided to leave for East/West Bowl, and Josh McClain realized that Magic was no longer really fun for him. Shuhei Nakamura and Petr Sochurek were on Team Hareruya, and combined this left us very short-handed. Six members of our team found a sponsor, but there were 3 of us left: myself, Siggy, and Ondrej.
The team process was very complicated for me due to testing with one team but writing for ChannelFireball. I could theoretically be on a team and write for another website, but that wouldn’t go over very well with the sponsors, and besides, I felt very connected to CFB—even if I wasn’t playtesting with other CFBers at the time, I had been a member of the CFB family ever since its inception.
One option was to just create an assortment of players who didn’t test together but who polled their wins to form a team (i.e., mercenaries), but that didn’t seem fun, and it looked to be against the spirit of what the team competition stood for, so I really didn’t want to go that route. Finding a way to have CFB sponsor the team I was on was my optimal scenario, and after a lot of discussion, we arrived at the point where they asked us to build a team, which I set out to do.
The first three members were easy—myself, Siggy, and Ondrej. Having Siggy and myself on the same team proved problematic at first because Siggy wrote for another website and I write for ChannelFireball, but that was solved once CFB picked up Siggy, which is why you get to read his articles for free every week now (you’re welcome/I’m sorry). Ondrej was flexible, could wear anything, and mostly didn’t care where he ended up (I told you he cared about very little). After that, we still needed three people that the other members of our testing team would approve.
The first player we contacted was EFro. EFro had tested with us before and had left when we split from CFB originally, but we thought we could make it work again. EFro was on board, and suggested Ben Stark as a potential addition. He expressed interest in joining us and after a while, we acquired him. We then set out to find the sixth element of our team.
We knew some Pros would be available due to shifts in testing groups caused by the Team Series, but we didn’t know exactly who. People were surprisingly secretive when it came to this, and we had to find someone who was able to test with us and wear a CFB shirt. Eventually we found out there were some changes in the Eureka lineup, which provided us with our 6th member, who happened to already be writing for ChannelFireball—Joel Larsson.
I’ve known Joel for a long time, but only passingly as I have never tested with him, so I can’t make the same declarations about his unsurpassed skill as I did for the other four members, because I just don’t know him that well yet. That said, I know he’s a very good player, he has great results, and his fashion sense is impeccable. One of the biggest arguments we’ve had as a team was actually regarding choice of apparel—I wanted v-neck t-shirts and a hoodie, and Joel wanted button-up shirts and a leather jacket. He said he refuses to wear t-shirts and in fact didn’t even own any. That’s all I own! We ended up compromising on a jersey.
As for testing, we’ve been doing it for a very small amount of time, but I can already see he is very enthusiastic—he posts a lot in our forums. He also goes pretty deep, and is a bit crazy, which might just be what we were missing. How crazy?
Once our team was set, we also had to come up with a name. Since ChannelFireball was going to sponsor two teams, we wanted a way to differentiate between them. We tried a couple of different options, and eventually the names CFB Fire/CFB Ice were suggested. I liked them. The teams are distinctive, and the names have personality. They’re also strongly associated with Magic—there’s a Sword, and an iconic split card. On top of that, we could still use the CFB colors—teal and orange—so that worked out perfectly.
The other CFB roster preferred Fire, and we thought Ice was cooler and unique, so that’s what we settled on.
So, there you have it—Team ChannelFireball Ice! I’m really happy about it. I like all the players, we’re going to be a real team (testing together), and we’re all very good, so we have a great shot at doing well. Hopefully I’m not wrong.