Teams: A Necessity

What a weekend. A weekend of highs and lows, triumph and despair and the English Nationals has passed us by until next year. A few thoughts on the weekend followed by a few thoughts about teams in magic follow: I qualified in London for the Nationals and had been preparing for it for some time….

What a weekend. A weekend of highs and lows, triumph and despair and the English Nationals has passed us by until next year. A few thoughts on the weekend followed by a few thoughts about teams in magic follow:

I qualified in London for the Nationals and had been preparing for it for some time. I’d been practicing my drafting and slowly getting better, I’d also been putting a lot of work into playing Type II and played just about every main deck archetype in order to get a feel for what cards are important, and I’d been working on Blastogeddon a lot. I finally got my player pack with the tournament schedule and list of hotels I could stay in on FRIDAY before we went to Guildford. I had 24 hours notice to book hotels, sort out travel and make sure I could get there OK. Someone somewhere needs to talk to Wizards, UK about their organisational abilities…

The tournament itself didn’t go well. The first day was draft day, I drafted a great blue/red deck with 2 Wandering Eyes, Stronghold Zeppelin, and a couple of Drakes. Amongst the rest were 2 Thunderclaps, a Seal of Fire, a Lunge and a Kyren Negotiations. It was probably the best deck I’d ever drafted. I went 2-1 loosing to John Omerond, one of the UKs top players. The second draft went well too. I built a red/white deck with a thunderclap, lunge, afterlife and two Orim’s Cures. I also picked up a Two-Headed Dragon, a Blinding Angel, a Ballista Squad and nine other rebels. Unfortunately I only managed to win one of the three games, leaving me 3-3 for the first day, the same as last year.

The final day I did VERY badly. I didn’t make that many mistakes, and when my deck worked my opponent generally conceded the game on turn five (that happened a number of times). But it wasn’t consistent enough and I often found myself playing well into the late game, not something Parallax Wave and Blastoderms are very good at, and against the best players in England, having no removal or beatdown is a bad thing. I lost a lot of games 2-1, even winning the first game very quickly. The deck needs work, a lot of work but I’m going to start looking at Prophecy cards instead for now. I dropped out to join my teammates and Team Spike in a game of Lunch Money – more about that later.

So the Magic wasn’t that great, what about the Nationals itself? I mostly had a great time. The venue was large and, although a little like playing in a school sports hall, there were plenty of places to get food and drinks and they let us play around the clock.

The first night in Guildford was my teammate Paul Dale’s birthday so he took us all out for a meal. By all of us, I mean all of Team PhatBeats, Gordon Benson, Phil Mattingly and Alice Coggins from Team Spike, Chris Senhouse and Liz Keogh. We had a great night, and it was probably the high-point of the whole weekend for me. Good food and cocktails in good company. Check out the Devil’s Dictionary for a definition of”Dining” sometime – Saturday night was it.

The games of Magical cards I played over the weekend ranged from boring and frustrating to exciting and supremely exhilarating. My opponents ranged from evil rules-lawyers (who didn’t manage to out-rule me once) to friendly players I really enjoy playing against. Props to Mike Lowrey (hope I’ve spelt your name right Mike) who game me the most enjoyable game of the whole weekend. I won 2-1, but no game was too short and we fought each other with creatures and spells, just like Magic is supposed to be.

On to some of the bad points. In the Type II half of the tournament I played five opponents (dropping out to avoid playing a sixth) and they played Bargain, Trinity Green, Blue Control, Merfolk and a Tinker Blue deck. Of all five, there was only one I didn’t know what most of their main deck was by about the third turn. It’s a sad fact that, even though I’ve been playtesting hard, my deck just wasn’t good enough to play round after round against the best players in the country playing the best decks from the ‘net. If my deck had been more consistent it had all the answers in it that I needed – I just didn’t see them. One or two of this and a couple of that don’t help when you only see twenty cards.

There’s only one person I can ‘blame’ for this, and that’s me. I like to play decks that I’ve built. I like to play decks where people don’t know what I’m playing before we’ve even got to turn four. It’s an attitude that means I am consciously choosing NOT to play the best decks in a format in the elusive search for the holy grail of rogue decks: a deck that beats all the other decks in a high profile tournament. Even then, what will happen? It won’t be rogue any more because people will start to play it.

Rogue decks are fine for local tournaments. At the start of May my deck gave me a top-eight in Bath, but that’s Bath. There’s always a number of kids with their new decks, there’s always a few people who haven’t played much before and there’s the rest of us. The wannabe ‘serious’ Magic players. The people who read the articles on the ‘net, playtest a couple of times a week and regularly attend tournaments. There are also a couple of infrequent Pro-Tour players and some of the top 25 magic players in the country, but only a few.

The real difference is that, in Bath, I’m a medium sized fish in a little pond, at the Nationals I’m a minnow in a lake of sharks. Talking to Alice Coggins after we’d all dropped out, she expressed the opinion that unless you’re in a big team of good players who are really serious about winning, you won’t win.

IN such a competitive environment you need to be in a team to get their support to help playtesting and deckbuilding. You need to meet up a couple of times a week, you need to constantly exchange emails. In short, Magic needs to be a very important part of your life. More important than having a few drinks with a friend you haven’t seen for a while. More important than taking your partner out for a nice meal when you know you should be playtesting. More important than any other hobby you have (and yes, that does includes Asheron’s Call).

Not just any team either. Creating a team is the first step to getting better. Once you’ve done that you need to persuade one or two top ranked players to join you. You need to show them that you’re serious and that you have something to offer. Whether it’s deckbuilding, drafting, sideboard construction or just being a playtesting dummy for them to play against. That’s hard because if they’re at the top they’re probably in a team already, it might be an informal one, but they’ll be in it.

Once they’re in your team, you can start to raise your game. Playing against the best makes you better, you can start to be the good players that you want to be, and that’s an incentive for your good players to stay – they’ll be shaping a team that they can be proud of. They can look back and see the rag-tag bunch they started with and see them on the Pro-Tour and say”I did that.”

Team PhatBeats is still at the first stage. We’ve formed a team. We playtest together, we share cards. If one of us wants to build a deck between us we can build it. Four Ports? No problem. Two copies of a good deck is harder, but we can do it most of the time and trade for the one or two cards we’re missing. Three copies of a deck? MUCH harder, but we’re getting there. We need to move to the next level. We need to either start playing a lot more, or involve a kind hearted, top-ranked player who wants to make something of a second-rate team. Applications on a post card please.

Of course, you only need to do any of this is you want to get to the top of the game. The top of the game I’m talking about is playing on the Pro-Tour, regularly getting into the top 8 at PTQs when you have to qualify, getting into the top 16 in the Nationals year after year.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with sticking to being the best where you live: each to their own. Just don’t be disappointed when you go somewhere else and get beaten. You could blame it on the meta-game, you could blame it on bad match-ups, you could even blame it on luck of all things, after all Magic is a game of skill AND luck. Anyone can find the four anti-artifact cards they’re looking for in the bottom ten cards of their deck when they need one of them to beat a Tinker Blue player. Anyone could cast their best spell only to have their opponent top-deck the one ‘silver-bullet’ card in their deck next turn.

I left the Nationals on a downer thinking most of the above but the more I think about it the better I feel. I played against the best players in the country and didn’t come last. That means I’m an average player, and average amongst the best in the country is nothing to be ashamed of. I’ll still win local tourneys, my ranking will continue to rise and I’ll continue to get better. Next year I might even do better, who knows?

So, a few things to think about. This year’s Nationals has taught me a few things: if you set yourself targets, don’t be disappointed if you don’t meet them – you can always do it next year. Think about what you really want from Magic and try to work out if it’s realistic. If you want to win local tourneys do you spend enough time looking at the local meta-game. Do you look at the decks on the ‘net to see what the other good local players will be playing?

If you want more than that, are you in a team? If not maybe you should be. If you’re in a team, take a good look at it. Is it working? Are you getting what you want out of it? Is your team missing something that will make it a Real Team, a team that other people will fear and one that’ll put one of you on the Pro-Tour?

Finally Lunch Money. This is a game I was shown by Phil Mattingly. He picked it up from the offices of a magazine called Arcane when we cleared it out after it closed down (by cleared out I mean that the two of us filled my Estate car up a couple of times, and a friend’s car too). In Lunch Money, you each play a number of children in the playground who are out to steal each other’s lunch money (counters). You each draw five cards, which consist of attacks such as”Poke in the Eye”,”Jab” and”Stomp”, protection like”Block”,”Dodge” and”Freedom” and other cards like”First Aid” and some weapons. Each turn you attack one of the other players and they try to defend themselves.

It may sound odd, violent or even ill-conceived. It’s not. It’s VERY funny. We were having so much fun playing it that myself and Matt Green nearly got game losses for turning up late to a Match. We were all told to be quiet several times by senior judges because we were laughing so loud. Try it. By the middle of the second day I wanted to play Lunch Money more than I wanted to play against another game of magical cards.

So, to all the people who said”I read your articles on Star City” over the weekend,”thanks very much.” I do get some responses forwarded on to me by Omeed but it’s nice to know there are other people out there who don’t think I’m writing complete drivel on a weekly basis.

Next week: more strategy. I’m not sure what at the moment, but I’m sure I’ll at least mention Prophecy as it seems to be at the front of everyone’s mind at the moment.

Cheers, Jim.
Team PhatBeats