Team tournaments are among the most fun you can have in Magic. Not only is the social aspect of Magic the best part of it, but team tournaments are also the most skill-intensive. There is no other format where the better players get to hoist trophies as often.
That said, team tournaments are grossly misunderstood. There are several things that are unique to team tournaments, and because they happen so infrequently, people rarely talk about them. It’s time we change that and, as always, seek the truth.
My team for Grand Prix San Antonio, as it has been for a while now, is Josh Cho, Josh Utter-Leyton, and me.
Back in my day, team tournaments didn’t allow communication between team members. The only communication that was ever allowed was by signaling during Team Rochester drafts. It was archaic and ineffective.
These days, open communication is allowed, as long as you do it within a timely manner. However, the most common mistake I see players make during team tournaments is their inefficient use of what’s allowed. You can set up for bluffs and ask for mulligan decisions, but trying to get someone to help you during a complicated turn is difficult, as your teammate doesn’t have all the information you have.
Is there a card you think they’re holding? Have they been playing aggressively (are they trying to turn the game into a race?) Why would that be? “Should I kill that?” isn’t a very helpful question and it will eat incredibly valuable time off the clock. Nobody wants to walk away with an unintentional draw, but it happens all too often in team tournaments.
One of the discussion points that nobody seems to bring up is that sometimes there are too many cooks in the kitchen. You would think that if you had three brilliant minds, you’d be able to find a way to play a nearly flawless game of Magic, but I strongly disagree.
Similarly to my earlier point, you can’t guarantee that everyone involved is going to have the same information, especially given the limited amount of time. People tend to play Magic differently as well. If someone naturally errs on the side of aggression and their teammate doesn’t, it’s unlikely that they’ll want to play the game the same way. You could debate every solitary decision, but you’re only going to frustrate each other.
If you think you’re going to face a difficult decision soon, signal a teammate to start watching your game so they can be caught up by decision time. You’ll get a more informed decision and it will certainly take less time. Obviously you don’t want to interrupt them while they’re involved in a complex game, so use your best judgment. Despite communication being allowed, sometimes it’s best not to ask.
At this point, I know my teammates’ mulligan preferences. Asking every single time is kind of pointless. While I wish I could have Wrapter holding my hand for every decision, it’s not realistic, so I’ll save it for when it’s actually a difficult decision.
Finally, consider that every time you consult your teammates, that’s time where two of your opponents are likely just sitting there. Obviously it’s within the rules, and I highly recommend you can use it to your advantage, but overusing it is disrespectful for a few different reasons.
You can’t bluff a calling station.
What that means is that there are some opponents who won’t be able to pick up on the clues you’re laying for them, and there are opponents who are going to call you regardless. It defies logic, but it happens a lot.
“Make them have it” is a nonsensical Magic phrase, yet it’s one I hear a lot. If someone believes in that phrase, it means they are going to take the lazy approach. Instead of inferring things from your actions, they’ll likely play around nothing, regardless of their subconscious is telling them. Granted, in most of those situations, it’s unlikely you have exactly what they’re worried about, even when every fiber of their being could be telling them otherwise. To them, it’s a numbers game, and they aren’t going to fall for your bluff.
Anytime you try to bluff your opponent, you’re trying to tell them a story. Is your story believable? You have to be careful of the story you’re telling your opponent. If you’re attempting to tell them you have a trick, it has to be a trick that makes them not want to block (or attack), but it has to be a trick they can afford to play around. Attempting to bluff a Giant Growth when they’re going to lose to a Giant Growth regardless of what they do isn’t an effective bluff.
Sometimes it works. I’ve seen Josh Cho pull some maniacal crap when he’s losing, but he’s a special case. He literally sold things for a living at one point in his life, and he was damn good at it. Sometimes it’s not about whether the story is believable, but how convincing you are.
If you’re going to bluff, you not only have to sell it, but you have to know they’re buying.
I would heavily cautious against setting up elaborate bluffs unless you’re accustomed to it. By talking to your teammates and giving your opponents false information in an attempt to lead them on, you might actually give them real information if you do it poorly.
Honestly, this might be the one section in this article where I don’t need to tell you anything. We’ve had bluffs run on us by teams of three people we had never seen before, so I think everyone understands what’s possible in team formats.
Given that, it’s possible that you should tone it down a bit. I know Josh Cho won’t be able to stop himself, but I can show enough restraint for the both of us. If everyone knows it’s a thing, they’re going to fall for it less. That opens the door for some leveling situations where you get them to call your obvious “bluff.”
Setting up a good bluff can take some planning, and you rarely have that luxury, but it does make for some of the best moments in these tournaments.
Worrying about how you should seat your players is often a waste of energy. Putting your best player in the middle seat gives them the opportunity to help both of their teammates, but that might not necessarily be the best course of action. Your best player might be better off playing your most complicated deck, which means they are more useful when they’re concentrating on their own match.
I know I’m more than happy to stick Wrapter in the corner and let him do his thing. Meanwhile, Cho takes the center seat, both for entertainment and because he’s generally attacking people and finishes first. That, and because I want to be as far away from Wrapter’s judging eyes as possible. We’re good friends, often on the same page in real-life stuff, but man do we play Magic differently.
Barring personal conflicts, should the middle seat be the best player so they can watch both their teammates or the worst player so both teammates can help? The real answer is that it doesn’t matter, at least not enough to worry about it.
Spending too much time trying to figure out the “correct” seating or how to bluff effectively is akin to figuring out what playmat will intimidate your opponents more. Maybe it’s worth something, but it’s worth way less than actually practicing the format of the event.
Why I Play Team Tournaments
In short, I play for the times.
Like the time when Josh Cho kept a horrible hand at the advice of Josh Utter-Leyton and his first draw step was an Expedition Raptor. He paused, made an ever-so-slight glance toward Wrapter that I caught, and we shared a good laugh.
Or the time when my mediocre Limited deck was severely outclassed, but I used a few well-timed tricks to put me back into it. My opponent turned to his teammate and said, “I need some help here; I’m getting destroyed.” Cho, not wanting to give my opponent any help, immediately attacked his opponent with all his creatures, which distracted said opponent long enough for me to take my game.
There are also the many times where Wrapter won nearly all of his matches, giving Cho and me a huge buffer. Granted, we haven’t won any of these team tournaments, but it doesn’t matter. Having a teammate you can absolutely count on is the best feeling, even if he always takes the best cards and tells your other teammate to keep awful hands.
Wrapter might play team tournaments to sabotage his teammates and make himself look better, but that’s not why I play.
The Real Strategy During Team Tournaments
It might seem kind of obvious, but it bears repeating: you and your teammates should be having fun.
Again, you can stress over any number of unfamiliar things during team events, but it’s not worth it. Know your teammates, know what keeps them happy, and work towards that. When your teammates are having a good time, you will too. That’s why Cho and I will always have a Starbucks Espresso Double Shot waiting for Wrapter in the morning. A happy Wrapter is a Wrapter that has a tolerance for our nonsense.
On the flip side, once morale is sunk, your tournament might as well be over. You shouldn’t have to bribe your teammates to keep them happy, but it can be an effective strategy. For a while, I avoided team tournaments because I’m hard on myself, and I take it even harder if I’m playing for more than just myself. I wouldn’t say that’s gotten any easier, but it certainly feels that way when your teammates can commiserate with you or cheer you up.
Blaming your teammates (or yourself) is not helpful. I personally can’t help it, but you should do as I say, not as I do, especially when it comes to blaming your teammates. Everyone loses from time to time, and everyone makes mistakes. Shake it off and go get the next one.
You cannot predict the Grand Prix San Antonio metagame.
We haven’t seen many Constructed Team tournaments, and the turnout for this might determine how often we see them in the future. The Modern SCG Tour events in Texas have been absolutely massive, and despite San Antonio not having the best location, I can’t imagine this tournament will be any different.
Splitting the cards for Team Unified Modern isn’t very difficult. Lightning Bolt, Fatal Push, and Path to Exile are cards that don’t all go in the same deck, so you can split those three into two decks very easily. I’d recommend Jund Death’s Shadow, but past that, it’s up to you. Bant Eldrazi and Burn are both solid choices.
Past that, you probably have to find a deck that doesn’t want many shocklands. Infect is a great sleeper choice that doesn’t take much from any deck. If splitting the premium removal is the backbone for your deck choices, Dismember is another reason to play something like Infect or even Merfolk.
Not all of your decks need to interact, though. That’s just not the Modern way. A team composition of Burn, Affinity, and Amulet Titan won’t be out of the ordinary. Given that Jund Death’s Shadow doesn’t lose to many decks, I would expect a copy to be on most teams, but it certainly won’t be part of everyone’s roster.
How much Affinity are you going to play against? Burn? Death’s Shadow? Dredge? It’s random. Every team you play against might have an Affinity deck, but you could also play against it zero times. Rather than focusing on specific matchups, I’d rather make the decision to make your matchups as even as possible across the board, but that typically comes with sacrificing a matchup or two.
Still, it’s not a big deal. It’s Modern, so your deck is going to be powerful and there are very few matchups that are worse than 40/60. As long as you don’t do something egregious like play two (or even three!) decks that lose to a specific matchup, you probably won’t run into any auto-losses.
Overall, you should play three solid decks that you know well. Don’t stress the small stuff, and you should enjoy yourself.