Wizards: Bring Back Team Constructed!
The most fun I've ever had playing Magic: The Gathering was during the Team Constructed season in 2006—I got to play tournaments with rather than alongside or against good friends and I got to play meaningful but unusual strategies in events other than FNM.
I recall one particular Grand Prix Trial in which I experienced a heartbreaking loss in the finals with G/W Myojin Control—basically twelve wrath effects some Saprolings and a lot of lands after my partner lost to Zoo with… wait for it… Counter Phoenix. It has been five long years since the 2006 Team Constructed PTQ season and with the dawning of Modern as a new playing field (*cough* Overextended *cough*) now may be the time to initiate the return of Magic's best competitive format. What follows is an open letter of sorts that both attempts to outline the positive aspects of the format and seeks to answer a potential criticism.
You've done a great job of expanding the options available to constructed players. As a lifelong Magic player (that is I've been playing since 1993) I've enjoyed the increase in visibility for Legacy that you've provided in conjunction with the StarCityGames.com Open Series. Although I was rooting for Gavin Verhey's “Overextended” format to take off I like that you've heard the calls for a cheaper nonrotating format to supplant Extended. The Modern ban list is actually pretty impressive—reducing the power level of a variety of strategies in order to create a less intuitive format was a good touch. So… while you're in the business of shaking up the Constructed world let's talk about bringing back Team Constructed with a series of bullet points:
a) Team Constructed especially for Standard and Block Constructed dramatically increases the extent to which deckbuilders use all of the cards that you've designed.
In an ordinary Standard format we acknowledge that there are a number of cards that define our deckbuilding. Prior to the recent Standard bannings these cards included Jace the Mind Sculptor Stoneforge Mystic Squadron Hawk and Primeval Titan. The majority of successful decks used four copies of several of these cards. For example the top 16 decks at the StarCityGames.com Open: Louisville included 12 Caw-Blade variants and a copy of Soul Sisters which also used Squadron Hawk. Clearly a player intending to perform well in that tournament would have either played or strongly considered playing Jace the Mind Sculptor Stoneforge Mystic Preordain Squadron Hawk Mana Leak Celestial Colonnade etc…
Even the most recent Standard tournament the StarCityGames.com Open: Richmond featured a number of similar cards among the top 16 decks including: Preordain Mana Leak Squadron Hawk Consecrated Sphinx Splinter Twin Deceiver Exarch Lightning Bolt etc… though the diversity in card selection was much more pronounced.
My much-belabored point I suppose is that competitive- and professional-level Magic tournaments encourage identification of the best deck followed by adoption and adaptation.
The Team Constructed format changes all of that. Because of the need for each team to present 225 cards with no more than four copies of a given card (excepting basic lands) there is room for significant variety. As the current format stands certain combinations of the best decks would not be viable (i.e. no team could present Caw-Blade U/B Control and U/R Twin). While on one level a team could simply present Caw-Blade Valakut and Mono-Red Aggro the rock-paper-scissors nature of that setup probably would encourage additional diversity. Further it is not entirely clear that something like Mono-Red Aggro or Goblins is the best “third deck” in a team's setup versus a Fauna Shaman or Birthing Pod variant or a yet-undiscovered “brew.” In addition in an un-established or Block Constructed format the differences between teams' deck choices become even more pronounced.
Prior to Pro Tour: Charleston (the Team Constructed Pro Tour in 2006) Mike Flores proposed two differing approaches to selecting the best trio of decks: either finding the three best decks that aren't in overlapping colors or identifying the most powerful cards and spreading them among the three decks (an approach he credits to Steve Sadin). While these may not be the optimal approaches to the format they certainly are reasonable approaches and it is clear that both of these techniques promote format diversity with the preponderance of powerful cards are of a similar type or are in one or two colors.
In addition while his article notes that selecting one “overpowered deck” that beats most other decks (in this case Caw-Blade might fit the bill) and then two decks that defeat creature strategies may be a numerically sound strategy the actual format ended up evolving beyond this plan and the Pro Tour showcased the highest variety of viable archetypes that I've ever seen in a professional event (and it was the only time that I've lost to a Roiling Spoil being copied by a Djinn Illuminatus).
b) While it has been argued that the Team Constructed setup prevents players from participating who are the “odd man out” it is unlikely that this is the case.
One of the perennial arguments against Team Constructed is that players need to find a team in order to participate. Interestingly though when I conducted a survey of Magic Players I found that only 79 of more than 1000 participants did not prepare for tournaments with other players. This suggests that there already are groups of people (not only playtesting groups but more expansive networks of Magic players) that have pre-established connections.
Even those who do not commonly playtest with others (writing anecdotally I often play in tournaments without having played or networked with others) probably have access to teammates. Even in exclusion of the evidence presented above I'm not certain that a lack of teammates for some players is a disqualifying feature of this tournament structure.
There is something to be said for showing up at a tournament by oneself and searching for teammates from among the others there—this is a mechanism for developing networks and building friendships. So much that is done in Magic development is done to cater to certain player demographics (i.e. Spikes Johnnies etc…) and these structures often ignore those players who thrive on competitive multiplayer participatory events.
c) Sanctioning Team Constructed formats especially at the PTQ- and GPT-level may serve to reduce some of the tournament redundancy stemming from independent Magic series.
StarCityGames.com has done an amazing job of creating a meaningful non-Wizards-sponsored tournament series with Legacy Standard and Booster Draft events being held near weekly. There are numerous upsides to this change including amazing opportunities for semi-pro “Grinders” a constant influx of new information about each format and a rapidly developing infrastructure based around tournament coverage.
However this means that a Standard or Legacy PTQ season has diminished meaning. While the coveted blue envelope and Pro Tour invitation only is available at PTQs the prize structure for StarCityGames.com Open tournaments is otherwise significantly better than the one in place for PTQs and is significantly deeper as well. For someone who isn't incredibly driven to play on the Pro Tour the choice between attending a PTQ and a “cash event” is almost a no-brainer.
In many ways this is a great thing for players—it can be incredibly frustrating to play all day in a PTQ make the top 8 and leave with only a box of boosters as a reward—or worse yet to miss the Top 8 on tiebreakers and leave with nothing. On the other hand the pro structure (i.e. the ability to become a “big name”) in Magic is very important to the game's longevity and it will be important to create and maintain a PTQ structure that is different and enjoyable enough that there is an incentive to attend. The PTQ and Grand Prix structure needs to expand beyond Standard and Legacy in order to retain meaning for players.
Modern is a great start and plays substantially differently than either Extended or Legacy but that only covers a single season. With the movement away from Block Constructed tournaments and the general interest in having a Limited PTQ season each year it would make sense to have either a Standard or Block Constructed Team PTQ format. Given the necessity to hold a Team Constructed Pro Tour to support the feeding PTQs it may not be possible to run this system each year but it certainly could work well as a biannual event.
d) The “shared advice” structure of Team Constructed matches can serve as a means of supporting players' technical improvement.
While this is also true of two-headed Giant games of two-headed Giant are not 'actual' games of Magic (i.e. the mechanics of the game work uniquely differently). In Team Constructed players on a team are allowed to communicate with one another during play with the “B” player (in the middle seat) functioning as the center of discourse/team captain. As such there is an opportunity for players to teach each other tricks/technicalities during the course of the tournament itself.
While players often assist each other by pointing out optimal plays following tournament matches the extent to which we remember constructive criticism is different when we are prevented from making the mistake in the first place—we consequently are allowed to work through and “own” the correct thought process and may have a higher chance of internalizing the correct lines of thinking. While this point in support of Team Constructed may be more abstract than the others we should be aware of the value of improving players' performance.
I respectfully submit the above arguments and admit that my motivation is also selfish: I loved the format and I want to experience it again—five years later with new knowledge new cards and admittedly many of the same friends.
While the letter above by no means encapsulates all of the different potential benefits stemming from the reinstatement of the Team Constructed format it is unlikely that it will “take off” without significant player support.
Intuitively I cannot believe that I am the only person for whom Team Constructed was a favored format but very little has been written or said about the format since its quiet demise without a bang or even a whisper. I encourage those of you reading this for whom Team Constructed was a favored format to message Wizards of the Coast or even to host local events using this format (to borrow a page from Gavin's Overextended book). A significant outpouring of support will be important if the format is to see the light of day.
Finally and on a slightly different note while there has been some low-level grumbling about the number of cards that were banned in Modern I think that Wizards made a very wise decision. To the extent that powerful and quick strategies as well as the most powerful control cards (i.e. Jace the Mind Sculptor) are banned players are forced to adopt new strategies and to play archetypes that otherwise would not be experienced. Some of the most complex decisions and archetypes have been derived from situations in which the most overtly powerful strategies and archetypes were unavailable. As such the bannings only make Modern more exciting by increasing the viability of strategies and cards that otherwise would be of a lower tier.