This weekend is a momentous occasion for Magic—it marks the return of Team Limited to the competitive play circuit with Grand Prix San Jose! Now I was only a small child during the heyday of teams but I played in my fair share and certainly read all about them. No other format provides as many awesome stories or magnificent memories so I'm happy to see its return as a player and a coverage professional.
However I recognize that many players weren't around "back in the day" and the idea of this format—or of team formats in general—could be completely new to them. To that end I'll be priming you with an introduction to the format of Grand Prix San Jose and some of the unique aspects of both Team Sealed and 3v3 Draft.
If you're interested in the Limited metagame I'd advise you to check out Ari Lax's excellent first look at the format. This article is going to address Team Limited more abstractly and is built with an eye toward the basics.
Grand Prix San Jose Format
If you want to know all about the basics of Grand Prix San Jose the Event Information page will answer most of your basic questions. I'm going to specifically discuss the format and structure below.
Day 1: Team Sealed Deck (12 Return to Ravnica boosters)
Day 2 and Playoff: Team Booster Draft (3 Return to Ravnica boosters)
- Team members draft at the same draft table with one opposing team (six total players per draft table). Each team members will be randomly seated between two opposing team members for the draft. No communication (verbal or non-verbal) is permitted between team members during the draft.
- After the draft team members will be located to separate tables to record their draft pools (fifteen minutes for draft pool registration and verification). After draft pool registration team members will sit together for deck building (30 minutes for deckbuilding).
Team Sealed Deck is a pretty intuitive format as far as actual concept goes. You and your two best friends that anyone could have (or waifs from the street) crack twelve boosters and build three decks. Those are the decks you'll be stuck with for Day 1 so build wisely!
The Team Booster Draft or 3v3 Draft is a little different. This format has been a player favorite between rounds or after tournaments for years but San Jose marks its triumphant surge into the spotlight.
I'll discuss a few points of strategy for both formats below. Onward to the tournament structure!
- Modified Swiss-style (50-minute rounds).
- Each round two out three three-team members must win their individual matches for a team win.
- All teams with an X-2-0 or better record OR the top 30 teams—whichever number is greater—will advance to the second day of the event.
- Day 2 will consist of three Booster Drafts. Teams will be paired for each draft based on standings.
- After each Booster Draft the teams in each draft will play two rounds.
- Each team member will be randomly paired against an opposing team member in the first round.
- Each team member will be randomly paired against a different opposing team member in the second round.
So each team needs two matches to get a win for the round which is three points for the team. Rather than Top 64 the Top 30 teams will advance to Day 2 (or every team on X-2). I'm curious how we arrived at 30 teams; anyone got some math to back 30 vs. 32 vs. 24? It seems fine I'm just idly interested.
There will be three Booster Drafts on Day 2 in the 3v3 format which means you won't be winning the tournament without displaying significant prowess in this format. Interestingly each draft has been shortened to two rounds rather than pitting all three teammates against their foes—this protects some teams from gaining a massive advantage over one inferior foe while also trimming time to squeeze in another draft.
The diversity of rounds in this way is necessary to actually create some strata near the top; if a bunch of teams just 3-0'd twice it would be pretty awkward at the end of the day but by diversifying opponents you can break up the top of the standings enough by pitting top teams against one another enough times.
Which is important because the Grand Prix ends in a Top 2 Playoff.
Top 2 Playoff
- The Top 2 teams after the final Swiss round on Day 2 will advance to the playoff.
- Playoff matches will be best two of three games per individual match with no time limit. (Players are still expected to play at a normal pace and complete playoff matches in a reasonable amount of time.)
- Each team member will be randomly paired against an opposing team member in the first round.
- Each team member will be randomly paired against a different opposing team member in the second round.
- If necessary each team member will be paired against the remaining opposing team member in the third round.
- Where necessary the standings after the Swiss rounds will still be used to determine final order in the standings.
- For the first game of each match in the playoff the players on the team that finished higher in the Swiss rounds choose either to play first or to play second.
The idea of a Top 2 Playoff left a sour taste in a lot of mouths at first. The elimination rounds often offer the most memorable matches and they're the most interesting because the tournament is on the line round after round for everyone!
That said logistics constraints make the Top 2 one of the more reasonable solutions. After all if you optimistically estimate a 30-minute draft (lol) and 50-minute rounds then the Swiss rounds of Day 2 will take a minimum of six and a half hours; each elimination round afterwards would add two or three hours to the event depending on the number of rounds necessary to eliminate a team.
And that's without factoring in time for time extensions extra turns seating or anything that could just go wrong! Team tournaments have some unique timing obstacles within tournament logistics. I think that we'll learn a lot about what is an isn't possible in the structure this weekend and I'm certain that Wizards is open to ideas for improvement—if you've got some advice make sure they hear it!
As is it'll be pretty difficult to Top 2 reliably and it should be nearly impossible to ID into the finals. Money finishes might be easier however.
Worth noting: the team in first place gets the choice of play/draw in all of the matches during the final two or three rounds! I think I would have preferred alternating it or giving the play to two of the three matches—both still advantage the first seed but not as heavily as this setup.
I don't want to sell myself as some sort of "Team Sealed expert" here—I'll be wading into a new Limited format on Saturday like everyone else. That said I've never considered Sealed to be a format where you're "at the mercy of the packs" as much as many seem to think and that's still true in Team Sealed. A little bit of practice and deckbuilding know-how goes a long way.
Generally Sealed involves opening your packs identifying the cards you want to play and then eliminating the cards you can't or shouldn't before building your deck. That's not so for Team Sealed! With only twelve packs to build three decks you'll have to manage your resources more carefully and optimize who gets which cards.
Consider that an individual Sealed contains 84 cards with a single player trying to assemble about 22-28 playables (including fixing lands) plus some sideboard options and that many players struggle to actually do so; that's when you're looking to utilize less than 50% of the cards! In Team Sealed you and your teammates will be playing over 60% of the pool in some form or fashion counting sideboard slots. All of those numbers are without accounting for color-switching sideboard options too!
That's a significant difference especially considering the additional hurdle of "spreading the wealth" among all three players. Ideally every deck should be able to win matches—the "sacrifice" play is pretty terrible EV. That said it's effective to build decks that win their matches in unique ways! By varying the way each deck plays you'll vary which cards each deck needs enough to gain the maximum number of playables for all three pilots making it easier to share colors and divvy up the high-impact spells.
Removal is the pool you'll all be drawing upon the heaviest and it's unlikely you'll want to leave reasonable removal spells in anyone's sideboard. If you can't squeeze them into all three decks you likely haven't built the right combination of decks. Being able to answer strong rares—from Dragons to genuine bombs—doesn't necessarily require equally powerful opens on your part. There are a number of common but powerful removal spells in Return to Ravnica capable of dismantling a giant creature and a handful of tricks can stave off even the likes of Mizzium Mortars and Collective Blessing.
A format of gentlemen and rogues alike!
There are very few experiences in Magic more fun than a good 3v3. Playing with two good friends against a team of comrades you've never met trading barbs and laughs alike—even the drafts against total jerks are usually entertaining at least.
There are plenty of theories on the essentials of 3v3 strategy—many hilarious some relevant—but I'm only here to give you guys a basic introduction to some of the concepts.
Naturally I'll do that in the most technical and complex way possible.
Winning as a Team
Consider this excerpt from the FAQ of WagesofWins.com courtesy of Mike Flores evaluating a metric for measuring success in basketball:
"Wins Produced is inconsistent with common perceptions of player performance. Common perceptions are driven by points scored. Non-scoring factors tend to be minimized or ignored. Given this disconnect between how the factors are perceived and the impact these factors have on wins it's not surprising that a model that measures wins would give results that differ with how people perceive the game. Or to put it another way both PERs and NBA Efficiency are consistent with perceptions of performance but neither is very consistent with wins."
Forgive the sports language and acknowledge the parallels. This passage indicates that there are actions a player can make that may not necessarily appear to contribute towards individual success but that may contribute to success: the generation of a win.
Similarly consider the Wikipedia entry on sabermetrics:
"Sabermetricians frequently question traditional measures of baseball skill. For instance they doubt that batting average is as useful as conventional wisdom says it is because team batting average provides a relatively poor fit for team runs scored. Sabermetric reasoning would say that runs win ball games and that a good measure of a player's worth is his ability to help his team score more runs than the opposing team."
Note the language: "...help his team score more runs than the opposing team" is not the same as "...score runs." The latter might be a subset of the former but there's a lot more to it than that.
Playing in an individual Magic tournament and playing in a team tournament are different in that the former exclusively rewards you playing and winning your matches while the latter exclusively rewards your team's ability to win the majority of the matches.
Will these two goals overlap? Certainly; whenever you win a match it's good for your team so try to win them all if you can. The differences emerge when considering decisions that will impact multiple players. The most common battlefields? Deckbuilding in Team Sealed and the draft during a 3v3.
We already discussed the necessity of sharing in Sealed to ensure each player makes the most of the tools the team has been given. In 3v3s you can't share—you will only get to play the cards you draft. But you're still affecting your teammates' ability to win due to the fact that you your teammates and your opponents are all drafting from the same pool of cards. You want to generate as many team wins as possible while minimizing team losses which should affect your decision-making during the draft.
Example: You've already drafted enough three-drops for your deck; maybe you even have an extra one. You open a very weak pack 3; your only playable is Sunspire Griffin though the pack also has a Launch Party. Griffin's better than the Vassal Soul you were planning to play...in an eight-man you'd generally just take him. No need to waste a first pick after all.
In a 3v3 this is a point where you should consider some other options.
Maybe you passed a Stab Wound to start the draft after opening Cyclonic Rift and didn't see much black in pack 2—that makes it pretty likely the opponent to your left is in black and almost guarantees he won't play the Griffin.
If he's not white then what about your teammate just one seat down? That first pack you opened had a Skymark Roc that probably went fast after Stab Wound. Your teammate might really want that Griffin!
Of course if he doesn't then the opponent to his left might...
Obviously this is just a hypothetical situation I built on a whim but it demonstrates the value of considering how your picks can be used to improve your team's potential in contrast to exclusively improving your own. In this scenario is it better to marginally improve your deck at the cost of passing a Launch Party you fully expect your team will have to play against? Does the potential that your teammate is playing white matter? Would an opponent getting the Griffin be a big problem?
In an eight-man your success will only occasionally be directly affected by the good cards you pass; in a 3v3 those cards will always have some kind of influence regardless of who drafts them. Think it over.
You'll notice that last little example involved a fair bit of information gleaned during the previous picks of the draft. Memory has always been a useful tool in draft but in a 3v3 it's going to be even more important. In order to make decisions like the one above you'll need to have a good idea about what's going on around you.
One of the most useful habits to pick up is sorting the pack into its eight most playable cards before making your pick and memorizing the remainder. When the pack completes its circuit around the table you'll be able to get a read on the texture of the decks being drafted based on which five cards have been taken and ideally you'll be wheeling a card you already knew to expect back.
Knowledge can also function as an effective weapon. Remembering the cards you passed—and the cards you weren't passed—can let you and your teammates work together to figure out which tricks removal spells and rares wound up with which opponent.
For example knowing your opponent drafted a Teleportal is a pretty significant improvement upon simply having to entertain the possibility!
This article is a bit late for players to begin building their memory palace so if you can't memorize packs then just focus on the most important stuff. Try to remember which removal spells you pass and when then check with your teammates after the draft to see if they saw them; keep count of the combat tricks in the draft then see which of them are on your team's side. Pay attention to details because the small things can make all the difference.
Tips and Tricks
To conclude I've got a few more bits of random advice for players making their first foray into team events. While Magic has been on a team hiatus for some time I've actually been playing WoW TCG team events this year and learned a handful of useful practices that I advocate for anyone going forward.
The utility of cracking packs to learn the archetypes of Team Sealed is debatable especially in a format as diverse as Return to Ravnica. The power level of the rares and uncommons are difficult to predict and will often govern your deckbuilding.
What you should do however is at least one practice with your actual teammates. The goal of this process isn't to figure out how the format works—it's to figure out how you and your teammates best function as a group. How does each of you like to organize cards? Do you start by comparing creature curves or do you pair the guilds and then start sorting out the spells?
Figuring this out on the fly during Grand Prix deckbuilding will eat precious minutes off your clock. If this process is already secondhand to you then that's more time to make important deckbuilding decisions rather than time wasted on the minutia of sorting.
Face the Clock
The nature of team communication can tend to slow down matches of Magic. You don't want to give up the edge gained by frequent communication—two heads are better than one—but you also can't afford to stall out multiple matches. It's very easy to pick up Slow Play warnings which over the course of a Grand Prix could quickly start turning into game losses.
To that end try to position your team so that a clock is always in view. Not only will this make it easier to realize when your own games are taking too long but it'll also help you time opposing discussion and recognize when it's crossing the line from thorough to obstructive.
Keeping the clock in view is generally useful to players but in team events I think it's even more important to keep accurate track of time in the round. If you can't see the clock try to make a cell phone display visible to everyone on the team or designate someone to remain mindful of the time.
This is a practice I first observed many years ago when playing Tomoharu Saito for the first time at Grand Prix Atlanta. As I played I saw Saito furiously taking notes in Japanese—while I couldn't read them I could imagine well enough what they said. They were the cards I was playing each turn. Definitely all of my removal spells but also the occasional "creature of note" like Mosstodon. As the match progressed Saito would consider the pad often before making his play factoring in my potential options before deciding upon his own course.
I hope it's obvious that this like facing the clock is a useful skill to individual players...but it's even better in team play!
Most players are paying attention to their own match even as they consult with a teammate about another game. By keeping good notes on your opponent's deck you have a resource that your teammate can use to quickly learn your opponent's options when you need to ask him a question. It's a common problem in consulting that the player outside the game simply doesn't have the base of knowledge necessary to factor in all the variables—notes fill in those blanks and help each player puzzle out the solution to a complex scenario.
On the topic of consultation: do it carefully. Players who fluently speak a foreign language have an advantage in occasionally being able to get away with relatively "open" communication but you also run the risk of being surprised when one of your opponents happened to really enjoy French during high school...and four years of college afterward. Try to avoid consultation that will tip your hand and focus discussions on what the opponent could have or why he might play the way he did rather than directly discussing your own options.
Consultation can also be wielded as a form of subterfuge by two convincing actors but this is relatively rare. For the most part I'd stick to the basics.
You'll also want to pay attention to position and get the player in the middle who is most capable of helping. This won't always be your best player—perhaps it's simply your fastest because his matches will be over in time to let him help with yours. Or your slowest because he'll need the most help and should thus be able to access both of you. Figure out what your team needs from its communication and position your seats accordingly.
See You in San Jose!
I hope you enjoyed this little introduction to Team Limited on the eve of the Grand Prix. I'll happily respond to questions and comments below and I'll especially appreciate any awesome advice—I'm making the trip to San Jose myself! I'll be playing alongside John Cuvelier (@jcuvelier) and Julian De Los Santos two good Floridian friends from 3v3s past. Win or lose I'm sincerely looking forward to a great time and making a few new friends over the course of the competition.
Event Coverage Coordinator