With GP Louisville tomorrow, as well as the advent of Team Modern GPs and the World Magic Cup, I thought this would be a perfect time to talk generic advice about teams. I’m going to give some pointers on team tournaments and then address some of the most frequently asked questions regarding team play.
1) Choosing a Team
When choosing a team, there are two factors to consider. First, you really want to team with someone you personally know and like. It’s better to have a team of two friends who are 5s on skill level than a team of two people you don’t really know that are 6s. Of course I’m not saying you should pass up the chance to play with Owen Turtenwald and Reid Duke if you’re offered it, even if you don’t know them, but it’s very unlikely that the discrepancy in skill/accomplishments from your potential teammates outweigh the benefits of just playing with people you like can trust.
The other factor is that you should have at least a semblance of matched incentives. If one of the players is super casual and just wants to have fun, and the other is a spike chasing Pro Points and trying to get into professional Magic, that arrangement is unlikely to work, because they care about different things. You want to team with people who have roughly the same incentives as you do, and the same desire to do well or have fun. Basically there is no wrong approach to a team tournament, as long as all three members of the team have a similar approach and understand where each other person is at.
You win or lose as a team.
I’ve talked about this before, but it bears repeating—you win or lose as a team. One of the most ridiculous things that happens in a team GP is when you ask someone “what’s your record?” and they promptly reply with “well, I’m 5-1, but we’re 3-3.” In this spot, you’re just 3-3. Your individual record does not matter at all! There are so many factors that go into it—maybe you had a better deck, maybe your opponents’ had worse decks, maybe you got lucky, maybe you’re the better player—but ultimately it does not matter, as your individual wins count for nothing.
No assigning blame.
It’s important to understand that, unless you come from a place of mismatched incentives, your teammates are going to do the best they can, and berating them for doing something wrong is not going to help. We all know that person who goes around talking about how his teammate messed up and thinks it’s going to make them look better in the eyes of others, but in fact they just look like a jerk. Again, you win or lose as a team—even if it was someone’s fault, it does not matter. You should resist the opportunity to educate your teammates during a tournament, unless you believe the exact same mistake is likely to happen again.
At a team GP, a couple of years ago, I received a game loss because I morphed down a Forest by accident. I’ve been playing Magic professionally for over ten years, I’m playing with two other professionals (Shahar and Martell), we really care about winning, and I. Morphed. A. Forest. I had two cards in my hand, picked the wrong one, and that was it—a turn later I realized it, called a judge, and the game was over. It’s inexcusable, really—how do you ever do that? And in a team tournament, no less?
And you know what my teammates said about it? Not a single word. Were they happy about it? Obviously they weren’t—I wasn’t either—but what’s the point in blaming me for it, even if it’s clearly my fault? I obviously didn’t do it on purpose, and it’s very unlikely to happen again, so being angry at me for it serves no goal.
The first reason you should not be worried about assigning blame is that it’s just not very nice of you, and it will diminish people’s enjoyment of the tournament. The second reason is that it’s actually counterproductive for you to do so—you don’t want your teammates feeling bad or tilted.
I see this a lot in Bridge (which is always a team game), so bear with me some Bridge references here. I remember I was in an important Bridge match once, and I was doubled in a contract for a result of -500 (in Bridge, you have to “promise” how many tricks you can win in a certain round, and if your opponents think you’re not going to win the number you promised, they can “double” you, which will basically double your reward if you succeed and double your punishment if you fail). I promised a certain number of tricks, was doubled, did not get them, and it resulted in a score of negative 500 points. I was a bit flustered about it, but my teammate (who was a better and more experienced player than me) told me “don’t worry, they make game on their side”—which means that, if I let my opponents play the hand, they’re going to score 600 points themselves. In this situation, my -500 is actually a +100, since you compare the results of the hand with people who played the exact same hand. So whereas in theory everyone with the opposing team cards would get 600 points, on our table they only got 500 and that’s good for us. That made me way happier and I think I played better the rest of the match as a result.
Later on, I looked at the hand and found out that, the way the cards broke, their side could actually not score 600 points—the most they could win was 8 tricks, which in all likelihood would result in a -50 score for them (or +50 for us). People with my cards went +50, I went -500, for a total of -550. it was a pretty devastating hand that lost us a lot of points, basically only on my judgment call.
I then asked my teammate why he had lied about it. His response? “Because I didn’t want you to feel bad about the hand. What’s done is done, you should just move on.” He had all the opportunity to blame me—it was entirely my fault—and instead he chose the opposite route so I wouldn’t be tilted, and I think the outcome was me playing better the rest of the match and a better score for our team overall.
Who should sit where?
As I see it, there are two possible approaches for choosing who is seat A, B, or C. The first approach is that you want the best player in the middle, so that they can give advice to the other two players. The second approach is that you want the worst player in the middle, so they can receive advice from the other two players. I think the first approach is better—given that you have three players of distinct skill, I’d rather put the best in the middle because I think the best player being able to reach the second-best player is more valuable than the second-best player being able to reach the third-best.
You can also base it on speed rather than skill. If you are a faster player, then you’re more likely to finish your match early and be able to help your teammates. This is not as relevant in my opinion because once you’re done you can just move and help your teammates regardless of where you are most of the time, so I would not put much weight in it.
As for whether you’re A or C, it makes absolutely no difference, you can just choose randomly.
What does the deckbuilding process look like?
Each team does things differently, but the general idea is similar. During registration, you should have one player writing down the cards and the other two players sorting out each color alphabetically. Once you’re done sorting out, one of those players can read the card list to the player writing the deck list. There is usually plenty of time in this step, so you don’t have to worry much about it.
The first step of deckbuilding for me is to look at mana fixing and multicolored cards. If we have four land or artifact fixers and a couple of dual lands, I’ll be more likely to think about splashing when I go through the colors. If I see a bomb rare that is of a certain color combination, such as Sorin or Ulrich, then I’ll be more likely to consider how those colors go with each other. Since this is a lens that will affect how I look at every single thing in the pool, it makes sense for me to acquire this information first.
After that, you should have everyone sort out the cards by color and then have each player pick a color and go through that and take out the unplayables. Here I like using a very strict definition of unplayable—just remove the cards that you know are never going to see play and are just a waste of space. Ideally, those cards will only be looked at once again, before you finalize your decks.
Once the team has done that, they should sort out the color by mana curve, and try to form a general idea of the capabilities of the color and what it’s missing. Is it deep (as in, does it have a ton of cards you want to play)? Does it have a lot of cards that do the same thing (for example, removal)? Is it missing 2-drops? Does it have too many of them? Does it have any particular synergy? Once you’re done with that, you should communicate it to your teammates. Examples:
“Black is very shallow. It’s unlikely we can have two black decks.”
“Green is very deep and has many 2-drops. We’ll probably have either an almost mono-green deck or two green decks.”
“Red is not deep but has a ton of removal that costs only a single red, so it’s likely that we can have two decks that are base X with red as the secondary color.”
“Blue has a lot of emerge creatures that cost 7 but not many value 3-drops—we should look for good 3-drops to emerge with in other colors.”
“White has a lot of cards that care about Humans, we should try to pair it with another color that also has Humans”.
Whoever is done first can start with the remaining colors, but it’s also relevant to know which colors pair well with what. In Shadows over Innistrad we knew that UG Clues was a powerful archetype if it worked and a bad one if it didn’t, and we wanted to know right from the start if we could count UG as one of our decks, so we always gave blue and green to the same person to sort—as this person did it, they’d have an immediate idea whether UG was a viable deck or not, and they’d be able to communicate that faster than if green and blue had been arranged separately. In Eldritch Moon, UG is not a good color pair, so you shouldn’t do exactly this, but the general point remains.
Once you’re done with this, you get all the information together and brainstorm ideas of possible color combinations. If your teammate says blue is missing 2-drops and you know white has a ton of good ones, suggest pairing white with blue. Your team should then think of what is going to happen with the other colors, and start building possible decks. The best way to visualize if a deck is good is to just build it—over half the time it’ll become painfully obvious that it doesn’t work for one reason or another and then you can just scrap it in one minute and move on.
Sometimes, a deck is so “in your face” that you know you’ll play it no matter what (for example you have Arlinn Kord, Ulrich, and multiple Werewolf synergies, so it doesn’t make sense to not pair red with green). In this case, you should just build that deck to see what else you have in those colors. You might realize that even though you’re building RG, you have a lot of red removal that you don’t need, which could go in a different red deck. Or you might realize that you’re going to need all the red and green and the other two decks will have to be built with the remaining colors.
One thing I always find useful is to figure out “what is the best deck I can possibly build with these cards?” Once you know that, you can see if that offers a viable combination—that is, if you can get two good decks out of the rest of the cards. If you can’t, then you move on to the second-best possible deck, and so on.
Who gets the sideboard cards?
As a general rule, the better your mana is and the slower your deck is, the more cards you should get. Slow decks will often have suboptimal cards that they want to take out, and they will have uses for random durdles such as a 6/6 for 6 or grindy cards like Mind Rot. Aggro decks are much more streamlined, and are less likely to want to board in a grindy card. Plus the games are decided more quickly, so the impact of a sideboard card is diminished (since you’re less likely to draw it over the course of the game).
One of my main concerns when selecting sideboards is to make sure my control decks can beat other control decks post-board. I’m a fan of discard spells, counterspells, big creatures, and draw spells. If I do not have a lot of bombs, that’s even more important. This sometimes includes getting a sideboard card that’s not even in your colors but that you might splash in some situations.
Other than that, you should try to shore up any weaknesses your decks might have, and split the hate cards accordingly. If you have three Springsage Rituals, then you should probably split two and one, instead of giving all three to the same deck. If you have two Swift Spinners in the board, they should probably both go to the BG deck that is weak to fliers instead of the UG deck that has a ton of fliers itself. If you have a deck with two Savage Alliance, the other red deck should probably get the Dual Shot, because it’s more likely to need this kind of effect.
Should I build three evenly-powered decks or two powerful decks and a bad one?
You should build evenly-powered decks, as long as that doesn’t diminish the overall power level too much. In my opinion, it’s better to give everyone on your team a fighting chance than to try to have two people murder their opponent when one is scrambling with unplayables. There are diminishing returns in power—the more powerful your deck is, the less it gains from additional power because the likelihood that it loses on some axis other than power increases (i.e. it doesn’t matter that you have the fourth bomb rare when the only way you’re losing is to mana problems or a fast rush).
The exception is when the powerful cards are all in the same color, or work particularly well with each other. Imagine you’re a very lucky team and you open 2 Dark Salvation, Crypt Breaker and 2 Voldaren Pariah—those are all powerful cards, and in a normal situation I’d rather split up the power a little bit, because no deck needs all of those to win, but I think they work so well in combination that you’d rather just bite the bullet and have them all be in the same deck, because the overall power level of your pool is going to be much higher if those cards are together.
What are some pitfalls you see people fall victim of?
I think the biggest one is that people constrain themselves too much when it comes to their colors. Sometimes, it’s correct to not play a color in your pool. Sometimes, it’s correct to split a color three ways. Sometimes it’s correct to play two decks with the exact same color combinations (such as, for example, BR aggro and BR control). Those are not common scenarios, but they do exist, and you should know that they are possibilities or you’ll never find them.
The second biggest pitfall is that people lock in too soon—they spend a long time building a deck or two and they don’t want to have wasted that time. If you aren’t happy about how things are and you have some time left, then you should scrap everything and start over with new deck combinations—maybe it doesn’t work, but you won’t know until you try, so don’t be lazy.
Who plays each deck?
This is a tricky question because it really depends on who is on your team. I would rank the following things as relevant factors, in order:
Deck preference/capabilities. If someone prefers to play a style of deck, they should just play that style of deck because they will be better with it. If I’m on a team with Craig Wescoe, you can be sure he’s getting the white creature deck. If I’m on a team with Wafo-Tapa, he’s getting the control deck. We all have preferences, and it’s important to communicate those. If I’m the best player on my team, it’s likely that I’ll just play the most complicated deck.
Who worked on which deck. Deckbuilding is a team effort, but the person who actually had the deck laid out in front of them for most of the deckbuilding time is just going to know that deck better than anyone else.
Speed. In general, it’s better to have the better player with the deck that is likely to finish the game faster, so they can help their teammates.
I do not think deck strength is an important measure for who should take each deck. Sometimes people think “I’m going to give my best player the best deck to ensure a win” or “I’m going to give the worst player the best deck to compensate,” but I don’t think those are nearly as important as the three factors above.
How much help should I ask for?
Ideally, not a lot. In general, assuming players of relatively equal skill level, it’s better if everyone just plays their game and only ask for opinions on specific situations. It’s also important to only ask when you truly want to know. Sometimes people only ask questions as a way of diverting responsibility. If you think you should block but are afraid of getting blown out by a trick, don’t ask your teammate so you can blame them when your opponent does have the trick—just block.
I try to limit my questions to things that I know my teammates will have the context to answer. If I turn to my teammate in turn 14 of game 2 and ask “should I kill this creature?” how are they supposed to answer that? They don’t know anything! Examples of good questions to ask are “should I mulligan this hand? My opponent has a very aggressive RB deck” or “are there any tricks in the format that make this block bad?” If they need context to answer, then I’ll do my best to provide it in a short amount of time.
One instance where I think it’s important to ask for help is when you’re trying to play around a specific card that might not be in their deck because there is a better place for it. I generally just look around to see what people are playing, but sometimes it’s better to ask. Say you’re playing against an RW aggro deck, and you are wondering whether to play around Descend Upon the Sinful or not. If you look around or ask, you might find out that the player in seat C had a slow black/white control deck. In this situation, it’s almost impossible that your opponent has Descend, because, if they had that card in their pool, it would very likely be in the BW deck instead. A question like “hey, if they opened Burn from Within, would it be in your opponent’s deck or my opponent’s deck?” can make your life much easier.
Even when you’re both playing a game together (i.e. someone has already finished and has watched your game from the beginning), it’s usually better to let one person make the decisions (usually the person playing, but sometimes not if the other player is much better). Playing on two different wavelengths and with two different plans can result in major missteps.
How do you communicate? Do you have codes?
Usually we just whisper to one another, or even talk out loud if it’s not relevant information for the opponent. I’ve never had any team with codes, though I have had teams that spoke a different language than the rest of the field, and that’s an interesting advantage. You should be careful to not say card names even if you are speaking in a different language—saying “should I play this card?” is much better than saying “should I play Ruthless Disposal?”
That’s what I have for today! I hope you’ve enjoyed it, and good luck in Louisville.
Play with people you like and who have similar motivations.
Win or lose as a team, and don’t worry about assigning blame during the tournament.
Have the best player sit in the middle.
Try to build three decks that have a fighting chance, rather than “sacrificing” one.
Communicate strengths and weaknesses of each color to your teammates to find builds that maximize their strengths while compensating for their weaknesses
The best way to see if a deck configuration is going to work is to just build it. Don’t waste time wondering when you can build and see it quickly.
Assign sideboard cards according to each deck’s weakness, and be more inclined to give more sideboard options to the slower decks.
Assign decks based on style and preference, followed by who worked most on each deck during deckbuilding
Don’t ask questions as a way to divert responsibility. It’s better to ask questions when your teammates know the context or you can provide it.