Teamwork: Krenko's Command
The first and the most important question: hey Wizards where is my Return to Ravnica spoiler?
There is just a month before rotation and we still know nothing about Return to Ravnica aside from one official spoiler two accidental ones and some M13 cards related to the plane of Ravnica. Current Standard is living out its days in relative calm. Mono-Green Infect finally became a real deck and there are many other viable decks so right now you should just play what you like.
So today I'm going to do something a little different and talk about teamwork. Playtesting is the second most popular tournament preparation topic after "sleep well and drink more water" but I'm not going to write about actual playtesting. Instead I'm going to tell you how to organize teamwork for the long term.
Writers often recommend being a part of a playtesting team but a team is not just a group of friends that say "Hi!" to each other before a tournament. I've prepared with a team for more than three years (happy birthday teamsputnik!) so I know that a well-organized team is a complex entity with its own advantages weaknesses and pitfalls. Good organization can allow you and your friends to upgrade from Dragon Fodder to Battle Squadron.
Good teams have always been around even when genius lone heroes dominated (remember the amazing Phoenix Foundation or Your Move Games?). Even Jon Finkel works with a team these days; there is so much information around that the chance of having an idea or deadly combo that no one else knows about are dramatically low. So hard work and good evaluation are the main ways to succeed and these are just not doable by a singe person in a short time.
The best examples of good teamwork normally include multiple Pro Tour Top 8s and so on but having a team is even more significant on the FNM or PTQ level. Teams help each member to improve and give new opportunities like ability to try more decks or ability to have the best deck for the tournament. Nevertheless the most important advantage of a team is the opportunity to evolve as a player.
Having your ideas challenged and challenging others' ideas is one of the fastest and the most effective ways to create balanced view and to take into account many more factors than you would have imagined alone. So if you're playing in FNMs and have some friends who are also playing creating a team is definitely a good idea especially if you're dreaming about winning a PTQ or SCG Open Series.
Playtesting Tools / Goblin War Drums
The ultimate goal of teams is to put its members in the top places at tournaments so the main work they do is tournament preparation. I'm sure you've read the great stories about getting together to test for a week before Pro Tours but if we're speaking about PTQ or even Grand Prix it's normally impossible to have people skip work for so long to prepare. Instead other methods must be used. These methods usually take longer and include online testing due to time and location constraints.
The very first thing a team should do is set up a communication platform. The best one depends on the nature of the team. If you're playing a lot of regular events in real life and speak with each other every night that would be enough. Skype chat seems to be the perfect tool for those who play paper Magic once a week or even less frequently (for example my team plays mostly PTQs and GPTs).
Finally some kind of Facebook group or even a private forum is appropriate if team members are somehow divided by time (time zones inability to chat during work etc.). The common rule is that communication must become more structured with the increase of distance among players—it's very hard to stay on topic when you open Skype and see 700 different messages.
Regardless of the team's preferred communication method you should have easy access important information such as your events calendar plane/train tickets gauntlet decklists test results etc. This is especially important in the case of unstructured communication—friendly chat often goes wild on non-Magic topics so finding yesterday's discussion about a trip to distant PTQ could be impossible unless you stay organized.
Once the communication platform is established you should ready to discuss your testing results but how do you playtest in the first place? Getting together before a tournament is obviously the best way to test but online testing is much better when you're short on time and are separated by distance. I'll not discuss the "online versus paper" topic in detail but I feel that spending two hours to travel to a store just to test in person is not worth the testing time you lose to travel. So my team typically starts online testing for a Pro Tour (for which we usually have one slot) right after the first new set spoilers or we just test during the whole PTQ season.
By the way testing centered on one particular person is a strange beast with its own advantages. Mainly it allows the happy slot owner to spend more time on Limited while the rest of the team tries every possible Constructed deck. Limited is also the main reason for live playtesting sessions because drafting without Magic Online is much more complicated than playing Constructed.
Two primary tools for online testing are Magic Online and Cockatrice. They both allow spectators to see the match so the main difference is rules enforcement and card availability issues. No I'm not going to complain about how a virtual Jace the Mind Sculptor costs 100 USD. The biggest problem limiting Magic Online use is that it releases the new set later excluding Magic Online from any Pro Tour preparation. Embedded rules enforcement also used to be as an important advantage of Magic Online but it's often a disadvantage for testing purposes.
When you and your opponent both play unfamiliar decks and cards from the new set you'll often make mistakes and suboptimal plays. During a tournament it's good to be able to capitalize on an opponent's mistake (if it's a mistake not a rules violation) but this line of conduct is unacceptable during testing. Yesterday I looked at the SCG Open Series: Denver coverage and saw a player who cast Whipflare Snapcaster Mage into Whipflare to kill a Phyrexian Metamorph copying something. This was an obvious mistake and I'll be happy if my opponent does something similar during a tournament but I'd insist on backing up during testing. Such a backup is easily done in paper or in Cockatrice but is just impossible on Magic Online.
Embedded chat is obviously too slow and inconvenient for testing while a Skype group call or Raidcall conference is more appropriate. Raidcall is software used mostly by MMORPG players so it's better suited for our purpose especially when people come and go during a testing session. Nevertheless sometimes even vocal communication is too slow especially if you're using Magic Online queues for testing.
TeamViewer is what you want in this case (obviously in addition to vocal communication). This program allows your testing partners to see your screen and to use their mouse to point at what they want which informs you about their decision much faster. By the way if you can imagine the other player's reasoning after pointing to something before it would be voiced it's an interesting indicator of mutual understanding amongst the team.
Magic Online plus TeamViewer plus Raidcall is basically a private stream so having an actual stream would be an interesting idea too. Streaming has gained popularity among Magic players and it's very nice to see greatest minds of the game in action. In case of top pros streaming is the best way to communicate with their audience but the average player can gain their own advantage from streaming and listening others' opinions. Streaming is obviously a disclosure of some internal knowledge but if you're not Brian Kibler you would probably rarely see your deck invade a Grand Prix while the pros for you and your local community would easily overweigh the cons and help to defend home turf.
While having many similarities streaming and group testing are very different due to the fundamentally different way of communication. In contrast to streaming where players usually voice all their decisions and logic behind them internal testing allows each spectator to voice their opinion while players speak less and concentrate on the game.
Players and Roles / Goblin Lore
Having a friend who lends you some cards for an FNM is a common first step to a good team. Note that the key words in the previous sentence were "having a friend" not "lend some cards." There are many possible takes on a team's card pool but being in good relations with others is always crucial. It's not necessary to be thick as thieves but taking each person on the team seriously is a must.
Moreover a team is much more than just a group of people playtesting together. A lot of work must be done so everybody must do something for the team. I'm not saying that you should keep some people out because they're nice but useless (because even Goblin Battle Jester could positively influence a working atmosphere) but if you find yourself surrounded by nice but useless people it's not a team. Rather it's a way to waste your time. If you'd be better off going to the bar with someone you should choose to playtest with someone else.
There are two types of roles on a team: gaming ones and business ones. They interfere and not all of them are utterly necessary but I recommend you to cover as much as possible. Note that players take different roles in different circumstances for example in different formats but you must always have all roles covered. This is where you have to draw the line between just having fun and working for a certain result.
A team consisting of good friends could be successful but it would mostly be the consequence of having different and creative friends that are able to work together. On the other hand the need for some role would be good excuse to invite a person who isn't a friend of other members of the team. There is however no excuse for working with somebody ruining the atmosphere inside the team.
- Designer / Goblin Welder. This is a creative person who builds decks to test tunes existing decks for the expected metagame etc. Note that the designer must be able to work with different decks and other players' ideas and that other teammates should trust him. Another job the designer has is writing the primer after the deck is finalized.
- Scout / Rummaging Goblin. There is a lot of information out there—articles forums Twitter event results fresh ideas gossip—and it's very hard to check everything. The scout is a person hungry for information that could easily answer a question about Sam Black's deck from Pro Tour Whatever provide the "default" Delver list for the gauntlet or recommend a fresh interesting article for other team members.
- Playtester / Goblin Legionnaire. The key skill of the playtester is the ability to provide qualitative feedback. The full cycle of a deck's design includes some ideas and information provided by the scout the designer's idea and the playtester's feedback helping the designer to improve the deck and helping the scout to find additional information. Each member of the team will playtest at some point but there is a difference between playtesting to familiarize with the deck and playtesting to improve it.
Effective teamwork from the side of gaming roles is providing decks best suitable for each team member for a given tournament. "Deck or decks" is an interesting question and the right answer can depend on many factors. However the nature of the modern Magic environment probably more suitable to considering each player's individual preferences. It's rarely possible to break a format completely so a handier tool for each player would increase the odds of success.
From the side of business roles effective teamwork is basically resource and time management. There are many issues to figure out when playing in an important tournament: when to find time for testing how to travel to the event where to stay. Leaving each player to solve these problems separately is a clear way to have no time to spend on actual playtesting and leads to worse tournament results.
- Captain / Krenko Mob Boss. Magic teams are rarely as large MMORPG guilds with hundreds of members and a complicated internal bureaucracy but even a team of three members requires a leader who makes decisions affecting the whole team like choosing which important tournaments to attend (and to prepare for) and solving internal conflicts among team members. The captain does not have to be the best player on the team (as rock band's front man is not always the leader) but their authority inside the team must be very high. For example the captain must be able to convince a team member to change a deck choice if he thinks that the odds of the player being successful would be higher with another deck.
- Testing manager / Siege-Gang Commander. Playtesting is a complicated process especially if it involves many players and time shortage so somebody must organize the process taking into account players' roles the format's traits leisure time etc. This person also tracks testing results and controls the designer's work. The testing manager could also be the captain but that's not always necessary. For example if only a few team members are participating in a tournament it would be better to let them arrange everything accordingly to their needs.
- Cardholder / Arms Dealer. There are many possible ways to organize the team card pool but it's very good to have a person who if not keeping paper cards together at least knows where are they what the team needs to provide each member a deck where to buy or borrow missing cards etc. I will not touch this topic extensively but the team card pool is important because it involves significant finances.
- Logistics Manager / Goblin War Buggy. The person who takes care of the tournament schedule tickets etc. This role usually combines with the scout's gaming role because "There are three PTQs during next five weeks. We're going here and here here are your train tickets and look what I've just found in yesterday's SCG Open Series coverage" is what others want to hear before a good playtesting session.
The last thing I want to say is that you should remember that if you're not playing Magic for a living your ultimate goal should be to have fun playing this wonderful game with interesting people. A Magic team is not a multinational corporation so there is no reason to build a team according to a MBA program. Everything that prevents you from having fun should be avoided but some good organization can help you save time and improve your tournament results. And what's better in Magic than winning more?
Good luck and see you next week!
P.S. The Goblin comparison is not intended to insult anybody (including my own team).