Next month, the StarCityGames.com Open Series brings its first Team Sealed tournament to Somerset, New Jersey on Sunday, May 5th. In the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of playing in (Grand Prix San Jose) and judging (Grand Prix Bochum side event) Team Sealed events, so I feel like I am in a good position to share a little bit about the most unique and fun format in all of Magic.
Each team consists of three players of your choosing. When GP San Jose was announced last year, Facebook immediately lit up with announcements of super teams forming and solicitations for teammates. If you’re planning on playing in this event, I suggest getting on the horn now to find your teammates. Of course, you want to find strong players, but it’s equally important to find good friends that you will have fun with. For San Jose, I chose to team up with two friends from judging, Alabama L2 Zak Whyte and former L4 Adam Shaw. We didn’t do so great, which was to be expected, but we did have fun both playing Magic and hanging out for drinks and eats after we dropped.
Even if you don’t have a team going into the weekend, it’s still worth it to come on Saturday to battle in the Standard Open and look for teammates. If you have a good match against a friendly opponent, why not ask them if they have a team for tomorrow? There will also be a solicitation board available at the main stage for people looking for teammates. While it might not be as much of a meaningful bonding experience as choosing your own team, the great thing about Magic is that we have so much in common, and an event like this can be a great opportunity to make some new friends.
Each team will receive twelve booster packs worth of product. For Somerset, that means four packs each of Return to Ravnica, Gatecrash, and Dragon’s Maze. This is twice the product allotted for an individual Sealed deck, which might not seem like enough for three players. Trust me when I say that you will not only have plenty of playables but will have difficulty making those last few cuts.
Think about a typical individual Sealed deck. There are often several different builds that you have to decide between, with a typical Sealed pool having at least 1.5 good decks. You might have one color that is clearly going to be the focus of your deck but your support color isn’t crystal clear. There’s also the matter of different thematic builds. Dimir is a deck that can be built with quick tempo in mind (unblockable Rogues plus cipher spells like Hands of Binding or Shadow Slice) or the good old mill deck. With many more cards to choose from, a Team Sealed pool might very well be able to support both of those Dimir archetypes.
From a judging perspective, product distribution is basically the Golden Fleece. Every judge dreams of being the Team Lead of the Logistics Team of a Sealed event so that they can finally be the one to decide how the product is distributed. Yeah, judges get excited about some pretty weird things. This is a group of people who enjoy mundane tasks like counting cards on decklists and sorting match results slips.
Anyway, Sealed product distribution is one of those awesome logistical challenges that tests your mettle as a judge. Screw it up and the tournament is delayed dozens of minutes as judges scramble to get packs to people. Do it well and no one will notice because “OMG foil planeswalker!” Team Sealed adds the extra wrinkle of having even more stuff to hand out. Twelve packs instead of six! Three decklists instead of one!
Once you’ve hashed out your three decks, you still need to divvy up your sideboard cards. What’s interesting about Team Sealed is that each player must have their own individual sideboard recorded on their deck registration sheet. Let’s say you’re playing Izzet and one of your teammates is playing Gruul. You have a Batterhorn in your pool that neither of you is playing main. Batterhorn is a fairly useful sideboard card that a red deck might want to bring in against a deck with multiple useful artifacts like Keyrunes.
Here’s the catch: between the Izzet and the Gruul deck, the Batterhorn must go in one of your sideboards and stay there for the duration of the tournament, recorded as thus on your deck registration sheet. You can’t trade it to your teammate when he needs to sideboard in some artifact destruction or change your decklists so that he can have access to it in later rounds. Once it goes on your list, you are stuck with it, and your three decks and sideboards must stay in the configuration that you record on your registration sheets.
This opens up a lot of room for further arguing over who gets what cards beyond just the maindeck selections and may be the most skill-testing part of the build. As someone who loves finding niche uses for terrible cards, I can tell you that yes it does matter who gets the Bellows Lizard to transform into a super quick beatdown deck. If you wrap up the arguments about maindeck cards early enough, it’s worth talking about Plan Bs.
Keep in mind that you only have to win two of the three individual matches to win the team match. That might open up a whole new deckbuilding strategy where you load up with two “super” decks and hope that they win, throwing the third match away. Or you could build your third deck with an alternate win condition plan in mind like milling.
Like any Sealed event, we’ll start with the build, which means closing registration one hour early in order to fit the time in for deckbuilding. That can suck for getting coffee and/or breakfast. As is, you might randomly get the Starbucks that is doing the historical reenactment of GP Charlotte with a line out the door like I did at GP San Diego when there was a neurologist convention next door. Possibly the only thing stranger than a Magic tournament sharing a convention center with a bunch of neurologists was that Kevin Sorbo was a special guest. Magic…neurologists…and Hercules was a guest at their event. How did we lose that one, guys? During deck registration, it might be a good idea to send one of your team members out for coffee and pastries since it really only takes two people to do the job—one to sort and the other to write.
The Swiss portion of the tournament will be X+1 rounds, with X being the recommended number of rounds. Luckily, the number of Swiss rounds is calculated based on the number of teams, not total players, so the tournament is likely to be in the eight to ten rounds of Swiss range. The reason it runs at +1 rounds is because we need to make a cut down to the Top 4 teams, not the Top 8. Those Top 4 teams will play a single-elimination semifinals with their Sealed decks.
Teams will be seated according to the A, B, C arrangement that you register under (generally in the order that you give or write your names at registration). If you are the A player, you will always be playing against the opposing team’s A player. Although it’s a team event, you are still playing individual matches—something that is important to keep in mind for judges. Penalties still apply to individual players. If Player B misregisters his deck, that is a Game Loss for B only and will not affect A or C. Similarly, time extensions need to be recorded for individual matches. Having a long ruling on Match C should not result in A and B also being awarded extra time (unless those players needed to be interviewed during the course of the ruling).
Once the Swiss rounds are over, that brings us to the most exciting part about the entire format: the Team Draft. It’s unfortunate that the Open only gets the single Team Draft between the two finalists, but unlike a GP we don’t have the luxury of Day 2 (for now…). The six players will sit in a typical Team Draft formation, alternating seats between the two teams. They will draft (on camera, no less) and play up to three rounds, once against each opponent. That’s potentially a total of nine matches, but if a team sweeps the first five matches played, a third round will not be necessary.
Besides deck construction, communication is the part of the tournament that is most different from regular Magic in that communication is allowed between teammates at all. Here is what the Magic Tournament Rules have to say about team communication:
“Members of the same team may, at all times, communicate between one another verbally. This includes during play, during drafting, and during deck construction of Limited tournaments. However, team members that have an opportunity to acquire hidden information (e.g., by speaking to spectators following their own match while a teammate is still playing) are restricted from communicating with teammates for the duration of that match.
“Prohibitions against written notes of any kind during drafts apply to team drafts as well.”
The passage about hidden information is also reinforced later in the team rules:
“Teammates may communicate with each other at any time unless they leave the play area. If they leave the play area, they may not return until the end of the match.”
These rules are in place to prevent spying. Obviously, you can’t allow players who have finished to stand behind an opponent who is still playing a teammate and relay information. Leaving the play area for any reason, even to go to the restroom, means that it is possible for you to have obtained hidden information, and thus you are prohibited from talking with your teammates from that point forward. You basically return to the status of a spectator for the rest of the match.
Beyond that restriction, it is basically a Three-Headed Giant situation. You can look at each other’s hands, advise each other on lines of play, and to a limited degree even play for your teammates. This doesn’t mean that you can just switch seats and have your teammate take over for you while you take a smoke break. You are still the player, but your teammate can use you as a remote-control player by telling you what to do and when to do it.
Keep in mind that Slow Play is still a thing—possibly even more of the thing—to be mindful of. When you are watching your teammate play and possibly advising them, it can be very easy to get caught up in their match and forget that you have your own match to play.
During my first round of play in San Jose, this exact thing happened to my opponent. We finished game 1, and he started to watch his teammate play while sideboarding (slowly). I finished sideboarding and prompted my opponent that we still needed to play our match as well. He gave me a little nod on acknowledgement but didn’t finish sideboarding. A judge happened to be watching, obviously interested in the fate of one of the many judge teams in the event, and also gave a quick nudge for the guy to present his deck. A few minutes later after my opponent still had not presented, the judge assessed him a Slow Play warning.
This type of thing will be frequent in the format, and I encourage you as players to politely ask for your opponents to focus on your own match. You can allow them a quick “Let me see? Yeah, you should play that one first,” but while they are still actively involved in a match against you, they need to play that match at a reasonable pace and not get sucked into what’s going on next to them. If it continues to be a problem, please call a judge and ask them to watch your matches for appropriate pace of play.
Shuffling can be a bit of a problem in this format because the side/mash shuffle that many players favor can expose card faces to the side. In a duel, this doesn’t cause problems because players will shuffle off to the side of the table, normally to the side of their dominant hand, facing the card faces away from themselves and their opponent. However, in a team match with three teammates sitting in a row, this type of shuffling can expose card faces to teammates and opponents sitting down the line to your right.
Per the rules, an opponent to your right can look at you shuffling your deck and tell his teammate playing against you what colors you are playing. How can this not be some form of peeking violation? A lot of the language has changed regarding Cheating recently, but there is still this passage in the MTR on Hidden Information (section 3.12): “Players must not actively attempt to gain information hidden from them but are not required to inform opponents who are accidentally revealing hidden information.” Sitting in your assigned seat and watching someone shuffle is not a very active attempt to gain information. The former infraction called “Hidden Information Violation” (now lumped under “USC – Cheating) used to have a passage about not going to “excessive lengths” to gain said information. For more on this subject, most of which is still relevant, see my article about it here.
Keep all of this in mind when shuffling. You might want to practice techniques that don’t give people down the line a peek. If you have a left-handed player on your team, you might also consider placing them in the far left seat since their natural tendency should be to shuffle off to their left. Who knew that handedness could be an important attribute to look for in a teammate? (Note that this also requires getting to the play tables first and claiming the correct side of the table to set this up.)
A very important distinction here is that you are not allowed to shuffle your opponent’s deck in a way that gives your teammates a peek at the bottom card and have them deliver a detailed report on what they see (or even general impressions like colors). That is definitely crossing the line because you are no longer in the realm where your opponents are accidentally giving away information—you are actively participating in that information being revealed. Arguments that you are accidentally revealing the information to your teammates don’t really hold water.
Positioning team members matters in another way. For the World Magic Cup, teams would typically put their strongest player in the middle seat, allowing him to dish out advice to both sides. In addition or instead of this, it also makes a lot of sense to put your quickest deck in the middle. That way, having that player’s bandwidth eaten up by giving advice won’t put him back too far and in danger of drawing the match. If you are playing one of the end table matches, you can go around and pull up a seat to help your teammate on the other end when you finish as long as you don’t leave the play area or go around behind your opponents.
During the finals Team Draft, communication is a no-no. This runs contrary to what the MTR currently says, but those rules are still in place from the days of Team Rochester Draft and don’t apply to Team Booster Draft. Those rules should be revised sometime this year to reflect the brave new world that we live in. For now, trust me that you aren’t allowed to send smoke signals to your teammates to let them know what colors you are in. You can have a plan in place going into the draft like “Bob will try to force Azorius, Tim you are Golgari or Rakdos, and I’ll form the Flaming Sword (Boros).” However, once the cards start going around the table, you cannot communicate about the audible you are calling because you opened Clan Defiance (or whatever the equivalent in Dragon’s Maze).
After the draft is over, teammates will be separated to register their card pools. This is primarily to prevent any intentional or accidental cross-pollination of card pools. After registration, teammates are allowed to meet up and pow-wow on how to build the decks with full communication and advising allowed. Then it’s on the finals matches to crown a Team Sealed champion in Somerset, New Jersey. Good luck and good Magic!
Finally, I want to end on a personal note. In June, I will be leaving my current position as Organized Play Assistant Manager of Travel Logistics at StarCityGames.com. I will still be working for SCG as an independent contractor, but most of my events will be West Coast to Midwest ranged. It has truly been a pleasure and a life-changing experience the last three years working at SCG and being a part of the East Coast community. I’ve made so many new friends among players and judges.
I’ll be back from time to time as a judge, SCG event staff, player, and even SCGLive commentator, but I’ll admit that it won’t be the same. My last event as a resident of the East Coast will be as Head Judge of the Baltimore Standard Open on June 1st. and I hope that you will all be able to make it. Let’s break the record!