Team Grand Prix: The Structure Problem
It is known that team tournaments are the best thing ever. It's a huge value add to be able to go to an event as a team—to build, draft and play as a team; win and lose as a team; and, most importantly, have good times as a team. Without a team of sorts, even individual events are mostly not worth going to. Magic is all about the people and the times you can have with those people, and true team events make that happen like nothing else does. In addition, both Team Sealed and Team Draft are strategically rich formats that offer a wealth of decision-making and multiplicity of matches that even at their worst makes them superior to individual events. It's possible that one could overdo it, but we've never come remotely close.
Local stores should run more team events. StarCityGames.com should run more team events. Most importantly, Wizards of the Coast should run more high-level team events, especially Grand Prix, and I will do everything I can to come to every last one of them in North America. As always, of course, it helps that I have such a great team: Sam Black and Gaudenis Vidugiris, which if team names were back (as they should be!) would be named Mythic.
The catch is that the tournament structure is fundamentally broken at the present and must be fixed. Playing against opponents twice means that it is usually in both teams' interests that the second match be won by the winners of the first match. At the first Team Grand Prix in San Jose, an agreement to this effect was explicitly legal. At Grand Prix Providence, that agreement was ruled explicitly illegal, but legal workarounds did not take long to find and over time the situation will degenerate. When you draft against another team, the process needs to determine one winner. Either you play best of nine, which takes a while but is otherwise ideal, or you only play one round, as we did when we played Team Rochester, which means you spend as much time deckbuilding as playing Magic.
We could also cut down from 40-minute deckbuilding periods, which are way too long, to buy ourselves a little more breathing room.
We should also keep in mind that the current system eliminates players from contention quite rapidly. When Illuminati won Grand Prix Pittsburgh, we were lucky to make the cut to Top 4 after winning all our drafts! In general, most players enter day 2 of a GP without a loss to give if their goal is to win the event.
I think that there are three paths forward for team tournaments based on this problem. A fourth path, putting multiple teams at a table, has been suggested, but I feel strongly that this is not acceptable because it destroys what is great about Team Draft. We'd be better off with Team Sealed at that point. All three of the viable options would be great tournaments, so we need to choose one. They are:
Plan A: Best of Nine, Single Elimination
After day 1, there would be a hard cut, and 16-32 teams would be allowed into the second day's main event, with a secondary event for those who are X-2 or better and miss this cut. Those who make the cut are placed into a bracket; if you lose a match, you're out of contention and presumably go into a loser's bracket for lesser prizes if you lose early on. We certainly have enough time for sixteen teams to play this way. If we could get 32, in my mind this would be the clear winner, but chances are you only have time for sixteen, so we'd need to use the Sealed rounds to get down to this number, meaning you could likely only lose once on day 1 and still be in it to win it. In a team event, that could easily be the lesser of two evils.
Plan B: One Round per Draft
Under this plan, we accept that multiple rounds don't work for a combination of time and incentive reasons so the second round with each deck is eliminated. The deckbuilding period is cut to 25 minutes from 40. This means you get back an effective 1.5 hours per draft, which over three drafts nets you 4.5 hours, which is enough time to add a fourth draft and is almost enough time to add a fifth. You then make these rounds count more than day 1's rounds—say five points for a win and two points for a draw—and the teams only play one round.
Plan C: Day 2 Sealed
Build second Team Sealed decks on day 2, play with those, and then cut to the top eight teams (rather than four) and draft for the title while the other teams draft for prizes, or in the extreme case, build second Team Sealed decks and run six rounds (three with the first deck, three with the second deck) and then cut to the top four teams for the draft. Team Sealed really is good enough to make this a viable option if the others do not work.
In addition, cutting down to one or even zero byes for everyone would help make sure that the tournaments function better. With the buffer of three matches each round, I think this may be worthwhile, and I'd happily give up mine if this were part of a comprehensive solution.
At its core, all of this is the same problem that individual GPs have—only more so. Two days isn't enough time for 1500+ players to settle on a winner without cutting corners, so any solution is going to leave people unhappy.
Team Sealed: Basic Principles
If you're all excited to play Team Sealed, you'll need to know the basic principles of how the format works strategically. Most of our day 1 opponents did not seem to understand what was important and built decks that didn't do much of anything, allowing what I believe was a relatively weak but serviceable pool to keep us alive at 8-2.
The most important thing to remember is that you aren't simply trying to jam as many good cards into decks with workable mana. You are building semi-Constructed decks. Those decks need to have coherent, well thought-out plans for how they are going to win games against the types of opponents you are likely to face, and you need to choose the cards that are right for your decks rather than picking the abstractly best cards. Jamming all your best cards into three decks is not the goal, although leaving large amounts of brokenness without a home is usually a sign you have failed to find your best option.
Each deck needs a plan against:
An aggressive deck trying to kill you with two-and three-drops.
An aggressive deck trying to kill you with large monsters, which are usually green.
A skies deck that holds the ground and tries to win in the air.
A Junk-style deck that tries to stay alive while it plays cards that generate gradual advantage.
A control deck that uses removal combined with expensive bombs.
Rares and bombs. Lots of rares and bombs.
That last one is easy to forget. Your opponents are going to open twelve packs, and therefore most of your opponents will have multiple bombs. Decks that lack bombs are much worse than they look, and decks that can't deal with opposing bombs are even worse than that. If a deck doesn't have bombs, it absolutely must be fast enough to kill people before they can bring their bombs to bear on the game, and it's worth playing ordinarily subpar cards in order to be able to better interact with what bombs opponents might bring to the table. When playing the games, any cards that can answer bombs need to be preserved far more than they usually do.
Sideboards also become far more important than they usually are. Instead of having one or two extra playables, you'll often have ten or more sitting in your board, allowing you to tune your deck to face your opponent. My teammate Sam Black is the master of this, often sideboarding out entire themes of great cards because they aren't especially relevant to the situation and bringing in "bad" cards that will win the game. This lesson can and should carry over to regular drafting:
You play to win the game. Don't think about what makes your deck good in general; think about what will beat your particular opponent!
You can find Sam's account of the tournament here. I'll add some additional perspective to that as part of walking through how I recommend going about building Team Sealed decks.
My method of building is first to sort everything by guild and color and then to look at all of them to see what each color can do. First, you look for the obviously powerful or deep stuff to see what the card pool "must" do and see how good the aggressive decks would be, especially Boros. In our case, it was clear right away that we did not have a Boros deck. But we did have a Rakdos deck, and we also had strong Orzhov and Selesnya cards. That distribution has an obvious problem: it doesn't include the color blue.
While those three guilds all contained powerful cards, there weren't enough good cards to go around if blue were left entirely on the bench. Blue didn't have especially strong bombs, but it did have seventeen playable cards, and we'd need to play the majority of those. That meant combining two of the other decks, which we eventually realized had to mean combining Orzhov and Selesnya. This resulted in a very Sam deck, which made the other two builds clear since Azorius was what was left over after that and Rakdos were built.
In general, you look to see if configurations "work" and how good the resulting decks will be as decks. A good principle is to find things that have to happen; guilds that are too strong not to play in some form are one easy restriction to see, as is your access to the right gates for 3+ color decks. A more subtle one is access to two-drops and other early defense since all decks need a way to not die early—even a strong set of individual cards is often worthless without early drops. Combine that with the need to find enough playables and make sure that each deck has ways to win and you will usually only have one or two possible solutions left to choose from, but getting there usually isn't easy and the details of who gets what cards can be devilishly complex.
The reasoning on who would play which of the other two decks did indeed come down to what decks we expected in which seat. Gaudenis made the case—and I agreed with it—that decks in the B seat were likely to be more controlling and that they were likely to have Gatekeepers and other cards that held the ground well, which the Rakdos deck happened to be poor against whereas they would not be a problem for the Azorius deck.
This turned out to be exactly right, and if we had swapped decks it is highly unlikely we would have made it to day 2. I ended up playing the Azorius Skies deck in the Sealed Deck portion and constantly boarded out my ground creates when I found an opponent that had ways in their deck to hold the ground and render my guys irrelevant as long as they weren't trying to overrun me such that I needed those creatures in order to block. I brought in Cancel, Render Silent, and in one case even Scatter Arc. I will say a lot more about this phenomenon under Cards That Don't Matter.
How Do I Win?
A question every deck must answer is how it wins games. Something you do has to cause your opponent to die, and often decks are shockingly bad at doing this. Good answers are winning quickly via raw aggression, massive card advantage via bombs or cards that can grind out advantage over time, having a steady group of strong attackers on the ground, having a strong flying attack, or building your own winning army using auras, combat tricks, or populate. You'll have to maximize your own angle while working to defend against the angle your opponent is going for. Play to your strengths and your game plan.
If a deck is having trouble winning, that's an excellent reason to splash a third color to pick up some extra oomph from an unused guild or even by stealing another deck's high end if they have good substitutes. If you have no trouble winning, chances are you want to narrow your mana base and keep your deck reliable.
Cards That Don't Matter
With both decks trying to follow a cohesive strategy when at least one of the decks is defensive, cards that don't interact with either strategy will often end up going dead. There is a narrow window for 2/2 creatures to matter before the 2/4 creatures come online on turns 4 and 5. If by then they haven't made an impact, you'll have to give them support by either using pump spells, removing the blockers, or overloading the blockers. This means expending real resources that matter, so the cards you're going after had better be important or this strategy won't work. Thus, if you're not sufficiently in on an aggressive plan, you'll want to ignore their 2/4 and similar creatures, which means your 2/2 creatures do exactly nothing if they aren't blocking.
It's vital to fix this during sideboarding, but after the tournament I was left wondering if putting them in the maindeck in the first place was a mistake. Were they giving enough extra percentage against aggressive decks to make up for what they were costing against slower decks? They can have a huge impact in both places. In many long games, having an extra counter or other high-impact spell in your deck will win the game ten or twenty turns down the line, and having two or three extra such cards can turn you from a large underdog to a large favorite, letting you take completely different approaches to the entire game. Entire matches often revolve around a handful of cards, and having more of them is huge.
On the flip side, missing that two-drop against aggression is often the entire game right there, and the aggressive decks in Sealed are very good at their jobs. My current feeling is that in the B seat, you need to be willing to lose game 1 to strong aggressive starts, especially when you lose the die roll, but that in the A and C seats you need to go the other way.
Consulting During Matches
I'll close with a key piece of advice for teams: stop consulting with your teammates so much! You think you're helping—and sometimes you are—but often you are not because you are spending time and spewing information.
The time issue is the easier one to see. When you consult with a teammate, you slow down their match, and if you are still playing you slow down yours. Right now we have a Limited environment where natural draws are very rare, so you can mostly afford this, but even now there is a limit to how far this can go. Draws tend to be horrendous results for both teams.
The bigger issue is the spewing of information. The act of asking a teammate what you should do is highly meaningful: it means you have a real choice to make. Players often don't think about the implications of this, but they should! Knowing your opponent has another three-drop and has a plan for the next turn turns you away from trying to win a quick knockout and towards playing more defensively or reactively, especially if they have a counter available. If they have removal, they're more likely to hold it. That's also pretty much the most harmless type of situation; others can be far more dangerous.
If you debate whether to attack, there are now multiple players to read in addition to whatever is said, and the chances of a non-desperation costly bluff go way down. There's now a reason behind whatever happened, and usually they know that involves something in your hand, allowing the opponent to figure out what it is and act accordingly. Teammates will often try to talk more generally or broadly to minimize this effect, but it rarely works. Matt Ferrando was whispering to his teammates, which helps, and one team on day 1 was speaking Italian, which also helps, but even in these cases I managed to make use of the information when making judgment calls.
In several cases, I knew I had a tough decision but that asking for help would give away far too much information to be worthwhile. One particular situation occurred in Sealed, where one of the lines involved getting my opponent to activate both his creatures to enable me to Aetherize and strand him with no board; if I'd started asking teammates for advice, that line would already be off the table since he'd know something was up (and yes, one of my other opponents did read me for exactly Aetherize correctly later in the day without having seen it).
In addition, a player who hasn't been playing the match generally has less information and is less clocked in, so the more they've been playing their own match the less likely they are to be right when there's a judgment call. You also have to worry much more about the decision looking wrong rather than being wrong; group decisions tend to be conservative and factor in things other than winning the game. There are life lessons here, too. Letting the most qualified person take responsibility and make the choice is usually better than taking a vote when the right answer is right for everyone and the wrong answer is wrong for everyone but you don't know which is which.
For these reasons, I recommend keeping consultations to a relative minimum. Mulligans are a big exception; asking if boss says keep or mulligan is high leverage, and you usually have already given away by now that your decision is close. It's also one of the few situations where you can bluff having to ask. If your teammate shows you a strong hand and asks, it's correct to pretend that it is close. At other times, the situation will clearly be high leverage, you'll have no idea what to do, and you'll decide it's worth consulting, but before you do think about whether doing so will give your opponent a better idea of the situation they are facing.