Just over two years ago, I wrote an article detailing a bit of what I had learned from my dedicated first Pro Tour team experience and my previous work with Team Unknown Stars . In those two years, things have changed and I've learned a lot. Both fromthe good events and from the bad ones. I've figured out things I hadn't realized from previous events.
This is somewhat an addendum covering what I missed from the previous article and somewhat a completely different viewpoint on the same subject.
I've worked with a large number of groups for events, ranging in size from "me" to well over a dozen people. I honestly can't say what the most effective option is, but I've learned a lot about each.
The biggest draw to working by yourself for an event is complete control. You direct every decision. You make a list of things to do and just do them. If you don't get the work done, you only have yourself to blame, but that's fine because the only person hurt is you.
The big issue with testing by yourself is lack of perspective. You have just your ideas to go off of, and not thinking of something given limited time is always an issue. The other aspect of this is getting inbred. You test something, come to a conclusion, but you miss an aspect that is really important. This bad information leads to further bad decisions and cascades into completely missing the target. Even if you want to work for an event alone, it's always best to check your work with outside sources. Even if you refuse to talk to another human being, you can check event results, read articles, watch videos, and so on.
I expect this size to become a bigger thing moving forward with Regional PTQs. You have four people who live relatively close together qualifying. Add in maybe someone who spiked a Grand Prix qualification, someone's friend from the next region, and you have 5-8 people. Not massive, but big enough.
The big draw of a team this size is that communication and organization is still really easy, but you gain volume. It's really easy to delegate responsibilities to a handful of people, have them go do the work, and come back to iterate to the next set of assignments.
The problem is that it is real easy to think you have more resources on hand than you do. You are iterating, working great, going through over and over, but you have to draw a line somewhere and change directions to refining your last idea or Limited or whatever matters. It's also easy to get a false sense of security and think you have covered all the bases in ideas, but really because you have all been working so closely together, your ideas have become just as inbred as if only one person was working on everything.
Basically, it's the traditional midrange problem. You aren't quite a large team, but you aren't quite a small team, and you have to actively make decisions about what matters at given points of your testing and constantly reassess as you can't change directions as quickly and also lose out a lot by locking in too early.
When someone brings up a Pro Tour team, this is the typical size you think of. Around a dozen people, usually a little more.
The big draw of this size is that you are able to cover a lot of ground really fast and reliably create sub-groups that go deep into a subject. 36 hours until the event and you need to test potential board plans in three matchups? No problem. Want to get started on Limited but still need to cover ground in Constructed? Send four people off to draft on Magic Online. Undecided on which of two decks is better against the field? You can test eight matchups at once, results will be back in three hours.
The problem here always comes in logistics. Getting twelve people together in a meeting to discuss is hard to begin with (see: herding cats), but do you even want everyone around? Sharing information and discussing in a twelve person group actually just takes forever and can go around in circles. Getting physical space for everyone? Travel agent is literally a role someone plays on a lot of teams.
It's not impossible to manage a larger group, but once you start getting into the 10+ range you get to the point where having a dedicated manager is actually useful.
I think at its peak, Team Unknown Stars had over thirty active members and was still a productive entity.
The draw of this is simply the mass of information. Not much else to say there.
The problem is that getting the group to do anything focused is actually impossible. You get fragmented sub-groups doing their own thing, and sometimes people cross borders if they decide to take a look. This also starts being an issue with smaller groups, but at least you have a hope of having a group debate to discuss the differing opinions there. Once you reach this size, it is basically a bunch of people testing by themselves with an information repository. Not that this isn't really helpful, but you have to understand what you are getting out of the experience.
You can also start running into issues where your team starts making up too much of the field. One of the reasons Team Unknown Stars was great was the team was so spread out. If a team of 30 people showed up to a Pro Tour, that would be 8-10% of the field, which then reaches a point where you become the metagame that gets exploited.
Value of Consistency
A group of players who continues to work together over time is going to have better and better results. Some of this is learning from other people over time and improving in skill, but an equal portion of it is understanding the delegation of roles.
For example, I know that I can count on Chris Fennell to cover Limited. I can count on Craig Wescoe to discover the aggressive creature or trick that is really well positioned I might have glossed over. I can ask Seth Manfield what to do when I am stuck on a matchup that feels like it should be winnable. I can trust Steve Rubin to iterate a deck over and over until it is great. And they can trust me to have tested a huge number of things and call up the knowledge from that to fill a hole or ask the right question.
What I don't do is ask Chris for a full 75. Or talk to Craig about optimizing a combo deck for game 1.
As I stated above, one of the biggest issues with groups is effectively delegating and organizing to do work that matters. Knowing who to trust with what work is a huge part of this, and this knowledge is one of the biggest gains over time.
The Overzealous Dreamer
We all know the guy. They have their idea, and they get really pumped up about it. Even if it fails, they spend exorbitant amounts of time because it's so awesome that it has to be good.
Having these people in your group is both great and one of the easiest ways to get derailed. You need them to find the awesome ideas everyone else would miss, but you can't afford to be sucked down a rabbit hole. How do you find the balance there?
You have to be able to rapidly evaluate their ideas. I'm not going to go too deep here, mostly because this is something I'm very good at and want to explore on its own, but you can't afford to spend tons of time basically retracing work they have likely already done on their own.
So the dreamer says they liked how their cards paired vs Abzan, you play five games and can't win. How do you handle this discrepancy? You can't just dismiss them, as they will assume they are right and keep spiraling out in their own direction without providing benefit to the group.
The key is providing the whys. "Your idea kept losing because they would just play two threats. Given infinite time you would beat their interaction, but any hand where they didn't give you that time was a disaster." "This card was awesome, but the rest of your deck didn't really do enough work to leverage the advantage." "You specifically lose when they play this card at this point."
If the person knows why there is an issue, they can understand how to replicate it in their testing. They can explain to you what you are doing wrong (ie. Amulet versus Abzan looks bad if you play as a combo deck, but when you play as a Titan ramp deck, they have issues answering your stream of threats).They can dream up an answer, or understand why things don't work and figure out how to reframe it.
And most importantly, if they can't solve the issue, they can accept defeat and move on.
As with Constructed, the draw of working with a group for Limited is simply additional data. The two things that are normally the data bottlenecks in Limited are rares and archetypes.
The rares one is obvious. Fate Reforged has ten mythics and 35 rares. Just on raw numbers that's about 80 drafts to have opened every one, but accounting for opening rares and not ending up playing them, being passed mid-level rares, playing against rares, and a bunch of other things, it's likely closer to 40-50 drafts. To put things in context, I would guess that's around a month of draft testing. That's not even counting determinations like "How much better is Shu Yun if you are full Jeskai as opposed to Temur?" that then cascade into more precise decisions after you first pick a rare.
Also worth noting: there are often a lot of uncommons that are really hard to evaluate. Usually this is because the effect is really unique, or costed in a way that puts it into question. Think Shifting Loyalties or Winds of Qal Sisma. These are cards that might end up in your pile late, but you don't want to try out as you are still figuring out the core of the format.
Possibly more important than rares is archetypes. You draft a deck, it's cohesive and good. It maybe takes another time or two of drafting it to learn what the minimum requirements for it are and what can go wrong. Again, you are looking at the range of 40-50 drafts to really explore all the viable archetypes in a deep enough manner to matter.
Note that time shouldn't be really expended on niche archetypes. You should be discussing repeatable patterns. Drafting the once in a format deck is more of a thing where you have to trust the person drafting to understand how to build a deck. It's the Limited form of brewing some crazy combo deck after a new set is released.
One big aside here: There's a lot of hype about the pick orders many teams have been putting up after the last Pro Tour. It makes sense. There's a lot of info and a lot of opinions to discuss.
And a lot of them just don't matter.
Discussing every card in a set or even a format is a really good idea, but the full list loses a lot of value past the very top tiers. Once you get past the first couple of picks, context fudges the numbers on anything that is remotely close. Wider tier ranges are what matters. You aren't going to take Gore Swine over Aven Surveyor just because of a first pick Pyrotechnics, but you might take Bathe in Dragonfire over Reach of Shadows to stay on color.
When having this discussion, the questions to ask are:
- Is this card potentially a first pick? If so, rank it, usually relative to the other rarities and nearby cards. Example: Do you take Yasova Dragonclaw over Elite Scaleguard? Do you take Pyrotechnics or Temur Sabretooth? Do you take Aven Surveyor or Bathe In Dragonfire out of a weaker pack?
- Is this card something that if I see it in the pack around pick four is a signal I should shift? Example: In Khans Draft, a Mardu Hordechief anywhere past the first couple of picks was a clear signal white was open.
- Is this card a solid playable, a 17th card, or a 24th card? Example: Smoldering Efreet looks bad, but is actually a very solid role player in the two-drop hungry red aggro decks.
- Does this card change in value significantly given surrounding cards, or does it change later picks? Example: Taking Gore Swines makes Jeskai Runemark, Force Away, Barrage of Boulders, and Temur Battle Rage much more attractive.
- What constraints are there on a card? Example: The first Gurmag Angler or Sultai Scavenger is basically a free roll, but outside the dedicated delve deck, the second copy is just solid and the third delve spell is basically blank.
This isn't some big secret. I'm actually certain that the people posting these pick orders are using them as discussion tools for the above questions. It's just that a lot of the actual relevant information is easily lost in the translation from multiple hour discussion to spreadsheet.
Drawing a Line
In the end, Magic is always going to be an individual game. If your teammates all top 8 and you don't, you didn't top 8. You can be happy for them, and often on the Pro Tour there are tangential benefits due to them qualifying for future events and what not, but in the end you didn't win.
So, when it comes to crunch time, how do you reconcile this with a team? When you have your deck lined up two days before the event but everyone else is still looking, what are you supposed to do? They all want to test against a bunch of things, and you just want to test one matchup post-board for an hour and see what you need to win. Or, likely more familiar, you are all set and want to just relax and not worry about Magic while everyone else is rummaging around for their 15th sideboard card at midnight before the event? On one hand, you don't want to be someone people think didn't contribute much because you shut down late in the game to do your thing, but you don't want to be the person who finds the day of the Pro Tour they spent all their time testing as the enemy and have no reps in with the deck they ended up playing.
I don't have a great answer here. I've heard laments from people who spent too much time testing matchups and not tuning what they needed, but I've heard the reverse side of "this person just stopped being part of the team with a day to go and gave up on looking." I lean more towards the side of secure your mask before helping those around you, but I think there's definitely a line.
After all, if there weren't incentives, why would anyone work with other people for a Magic event?