When it comes to competitive Magic, one of the big talking points is always teams. If you look at the official preview article for this Pro Tour on the mothership, it heavily focuses on what groups worked together for this event. A good team can easily be a dominant force on a tournament circuit. After the last few Pro Tours, I spent a lot of time thinking about how to make an effective team, and I think I've gotten somewhere for this one. While the results have yet to show themselves, I can share a lot of what I've figured out about the process and logic behind creating a testing team.
Note: I'm sorry to those of you who clicked this hoping to read about Team Limited. I've played one sanctioned event of that format in my life, and it was during Mirrodin. Ideally, Grand Prix Providence or the SCG Open Series in New Jersey this year will change that.
The Biggest Lessons I've Learned about Teams
1. You don't need a team for every event.
Teams help in two instances: needing to prepare for formats with very open or unknown metagames or long-term result improvement over one or more event seasons. If you have a one-shot event with an explored format, you can do the work yourself. If you want to learn a single deck or see what is good/bad about it, you don't need a team to help you. At most, all you need to do is ask other people to fill in the gaps of knowledge you don't want to spend time working out yourself. More on this later, but a team might even hurt you in some instances.
2. Physical location of team members is almost irrelevant.
There have been ways to play Magic with people through the Internet for as long as I've been playing. I'm not going to lay out the pros and cons of them compared to real life play, but realistically there shouldn't be a difference between the two.
Internet forums are also a thing. If anything, they make data organization easier than any real life solution could. In a forum, you can easily find the exact topic you want and keep it separated from all the others. Aside from buying a ton of notebooks and lugging around all that paper, good luck finding a way to mimic this in real life.
Finally, we now live in a world where it is possible to actively converse with people through the Internet. Skype exists, so you can now discuss your plays with one (or more) people while you play online in a natural way. For those less vocally inclined, there are plenty of screen sharing programs out there with text chat functionalities (Skype even lets you do this). I've heard tales of the Eastern European countries gathering groups of players in a room for a Magic Online PTQ to discuss plays; now anyone with the proper bandwidth can do the same!
Seriously, the only things in the way of you testing with someone not in physical proximity to you are sleep schedules, language barriers, and time zones.
3. The old "test when we show up to the Pro Tour" model is a disaster waiting to happen.
At old events, this logic was much better supported. Saying anything else was just admitting you would have an additional week or so to try things once the spoiler was released, which everyone obviously does. Even then, this is the Magic equivalent of cramming for finals the night before in a class where everyone is as smart as you and it is graded on a pure curve.
As I mentioned above, data and focus are much more readily lost in on site testing. Online testing tends to remain solidly stored in forums. People tend to meander off to eat or be touristy at events, leading to a scenario where you are basically herding cats to get a draft together, not to mention jet lag issues. There's also just a pure time factor. Showing up on site gives you at best around 48 hours of solid testing time. It's possible to break a format in that little time, but it's unlikely.
Pacing yourself is the best option. Sleeping on ideas does help. Even if you log the same number of hours over a longer time, parsing ideas is easier when they come more spread out. There's less panic that you are wasting time you don't have.
Start testing earlier than you think you should. Not so early the format you start testing isn't the one you are playing, but early enough that you can be relaxed.
4. Effort and creativity often matter more than pure skill.
(Directly ripped from a conversation with Matt Nass)
Skill obviously matters a ton in an event, but what about outside an event? Obviously skill and experience help in judging a deck and immediately suggesting changes, but more often than not just playing games with the deck is the best way to figure it out (effort). Lots of people have inherent biases against certain decks and will dismiss them for no reason. Something that is actually good might look completely terrible, like Mono-Red Aggro. If you don't put in the time to try these things and have the ability to think of innovative answers to their problems, you won't have nearly as much success as you could.
That said, these things aren't really exclusive properties of a specific person. Almost anyone can do them, and saying you are just going to ride skill is giving yourself excuses to be lazy. If you think you aren't creative, odds are you are wrong and should just start trying more random things. If you can't put in effort, why are you interested in contributing to a team?
The Benefits of Teams
The big gain from being on a team is information.
You, as a single person, will not come up with all of the ideas possible. There's a reason Shouta Yasooka is so praised among the pro community: he is the exception to the rule. He independently shows up with a completely wild and awesome brews for every Constructed event and crushes with them. So far, almost no one else has been able to do this. By being on a team, you have a bunch of people throwing out ideas. Even if it's pure random noise, there will eventually be one bullseye someone can parse out of it.
There is also the potential for division of labor. A single person can definitely sit down a grind with every deck in a known metagame, but it's a lot of work. If everyone calls out a deck at the start and works on it, you make what would normally take a week of work finish in a couple days. This frees up your time to do more important things. You can write articles, Cube draft, sleep, or whatever other things you choose to do when you aren't playing Magic.
The Downsides of Teams
The biggest issue with having a team is a loss of focus. As great as it sounds for everyone to pick a deck and generate the answers to the questions you have, everyone in your group has a different set of questions they have to answer and ideas they want to try. Getting everyone to coalesce to a common plan of action is difficult, if not sometimes impossible.
The way I like to solve this is take it upon myself to be that guy who just bashes everyone with the gauntlet decks, thus continuously generating the relevant data everyone actually needs. If you do this, you have to realize that in most matches you won't end up playing a deck you will play in the event you are testing for. Even if you end up playing one of your gauntlet decks, you may have only tested against brews and not be prepared for the actual metagame.
Eventually, you have to decide on a point where you stop being the enemy and settle on something that you have been consistently losing to. Be very aware of this, and if it starts approaching event time and you are still unimpressed with everything people have thrown at you, it's time to get someone else to help you figure out which known deck to play.
An occasional issue with teams can be interpersonal conflict. If you test by yourself, ideally you shouldn't be wasting time on arguments. In teams, incompatible personalities can come together and cause issues. You can try your best ahead of time to make sure this doesn't happen while selecting your team, but once it does it usually but not always resolves itself in an awkward way (read: someone leaves the team and the problem is "solved"). It's simply a risk you have to take, and if it starts becoming apparent this is going to happen, try to head it off before it disrupts your workflow.
The other issue with teams is the "weakest link" one. As everyone knows from group projects in school, it is impossible for everyone to contribute equally to a team. The same is true in Magic. At best, you can force everyone to be working in the same place at the same time, but that constricts the functionality of the group and doesn't actually help.
You will have to accept this as part of a team. What you don't have to accept is actual free loaders. If someone isn't contributing, call them out on it. Without contribution, there is no difference between that person and someone that the team has agreed on leaking their results to. Is a leak a good thing? Not usually, if ever. This isn't to say you should be aggressively calling someone out who is merely underperforming and not mooching. People tend to be reasonable; talk it out like a rational human being.
PT vs. PTQ
As I implied above, there are two major kinds of teams in competitive Magic: the usual Pro Tour testing team and the PTQ testing team ala Team Unknown Stars. While their base goal of winning tournaments is the same, the focus is very different as a result of the events they are working for. Pro Tour teams are heavily idea based, while PTQ teams are very result focused.
PTQ teams tend to be more about assembling information and learning from past results on a larger scale. In general, over a PTQ season it's possible to know by the end exactly what you should be doing given all of the information that can be gathered. The problem is that any one person would have to play a PTQ every week to even have a chance of figuring it out. If everyone dumps their results and the randomly awesome decks that crush them every week into a forum, it's easy to be one step ahead at some point over the season and be reasonably able to win a PTQ.
For these teams, size is not an issue. The more info the better. Given the geographic tendency of these teams to spread, you aren't going to create a team big enough that in-team competition is a problem. If anything, you want multiple people manning each "station" in terms of deck choice. Activity is also a much-reduced concern. You just need warm bodies that are good enough at the game to have insight and play enough to keep current and provide input.
As for determining who is "good enough," usually start with word of mouth and see who is interested. Team Unknown Stars had an application process as well, which has some pros and cons. On one hand, it lets the team branch out in a lot of places it otherwise wouldn't, which is especially relevant when local phenomenon are interesting to study in a PTQ season. On the other hand, it's very easy to become overly elitist and exclude people who would be worth having just based on snap resume judgment. Adding a bunch of people who are saying a bunch of wrong things dilutes your team's effectiveness (see: any open forum), but keep an open mind and see past pure performance-based metrics.
On the Pro Tour level, teams are a lot more about idea generation. You want a bunch of people who are going to put in a lot of work over a short period of time, both in creating ideas and trying them out. If someone skips out on Magic for a while, that while might be the entire relevant testing period for the event in question! Size is a big concern, both in terms of maintaining some semblance of focus and because ballooning too large can create metagame saturation issues. As a result, you generally only want to team with those you know will provide solid input.
For those wondering how that happens, it's usually via results or people just getting to know each other and being impressed over multiple other high-level events regardless of results. There are other ways to become publicly known for putting in the necessary work, but those two are the most common.
Finally, the best advice I can give to anyone trying to get a team together, whether for large event testing or PTQ grinding? Start small. You would be surprised at how fast a team can grow if everyone brings a friend. After a while, don't be surprised when people start coming to you asking about it instead of the other way around.
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