Pro Tours are quite the event. While Grand Prix make up the majority of the tournaments that a professional player will typically play, no Grand Prix can capture the tension and excitement that a looming Pro Tour brings. Because of this, the preparation going into the event is also taken a lot more seriously. Sometimes, I will show up to a Grand Prix without having played the format it features during the past month. That just won't cut it at a Pro Tour.
The best players in the world are not only doing their homework for a Pro Tour, but they are then comparing notes with some of the other best players in the world. The explosion of teams on the Pro Tour scene has made it so much more important to find yourself on one or else you will be starting from a disadvantage.
I am not here to argue the validity of being on a team, however. What I wanted to focus on was more along the lines of progressing a team once you are already on one. For many, simply assembling the team in the first place is going to be the biggest hurdle, but it is difficult to rest when that part is over because there is going to be improvement to be had. It is important to be honest with yourself and your team when it comes time to discuss how to improve because if your team becomes stagnant, it will fall behind the others and you will be losing out on all of the benefits that a team typically brings.
I have been fortunate enough to be on a few major teams at this point, including what was the best team running for over two years. All of that experience has helped me to learn, mostly through trial and error, just what is important when it comes to working with others. These lessons are nearly countless, but today I wanted to discuss some of the lessons I learned from this Pro Tour specifically as well as what I learned from Team TCGplayer.Time: The Most Important Resource
If there is one area that will show you over and over again just how bad you are at managing it, it will be time. This is the place where the most mistakes are made and where improvement is almost a lifetime commitment of sorts. When you prepare for a tournament by yourself, there is a good chance you are walking into some common inefficiency traps but when you do the same thing on a team, the amount of wasted time ripples through the team and impacts many individuals.
Take the Wednesday before the tournament as an example. All week I have been championing a Junk Constellation deck that has just been putting up awesome results in our testing. Most of the team is slowly coming on board with the idea, and now it is time to make sure we have enough cards for everyone.
Our solution for this was to take stock of the entire inventory of the house and then to make purchases of the cards we were short through friends or local businesses. These newly acquired cards would be passed out at a meeting in the future. In theory, this whole idea was solid, but in practice, this was all time we could have used better.
What if we had people list the cards they were bringing to the house ahead of time? If people took inventory of their own cards while they were packing them, we would not only have a more accurate count most likely, but people would be using time where they did not have access to 13 teammates to take care of the task. They are sacrificing no time with the team, which is the most important time as the tour approaches.
This came up other times too and in much more mundane ways. Even just running into things like finding good vegetarian options for those members of the team that are just that, or just planning food in general. We could have arrived at people's likes and dislikes as well as any allergy info and everything before entering the house and yet we had to address all of these things when they came up instead.
When you are on a team, the most valuable time is that in which your members are all available. This is when your manpower is at its highest and you have access to the most data and opinions that you can. To spend this time taking care of things that could have been dealt with prior is just inefficient, especially when you only have a week of time with said team.Having The Best Deck Isn't Always Enough
I was very happy with my Block constructed deck. After arriving in the house the Sunday night before the PT, it did not take me long to gather the rest of the team's thoughts on the format and combine that with my own to deduce some strong ideas of how to best attack the format. I had shown up with some of my ideas in hand, but they were struggling against some of the decks we expected to be popular.
I realized I was being a little too cute using a graveyard theme to enable a greater constellation theme, but in the process actually was just making the best cards in the deck weaker. Cards like Doomwake Giant and Eidolon of Blossoms do not want to be just one-ofs in a deck looking to "tutor" them out with a Whip of Erebos or Odunus River Trawler. Those are cards that work well in multiples and should be the focus of your deck. As a result, I shifted the themes around a bit and we ended up with 11 people playing the following list:
I cannot tell you how happy I was with this list. It did very powerful things and attacked the metagame from a safe angle. You are able to outlast the control decks with inevitability on your side while having hammers to drop on aggro decks that few other lists have access to in the same way that you do.
Because I was so high on the deck relatively early on in testing (five or six days out) I had a lot of time to tune the deck with the help of some of my teammates that also thought the deck was very good. I was playing sideboarded games with the deck looking to improve troublesome match ups while others were still testing theoretical brews.
Normally, I am the one jamming brews until the last minute, but this deck just felt better than everything else and it was winning. I would say I played 300-400 games with the deck in the last four or five days leading up to the pro tour and I knew the deck very well as a result.
For my teammates though, that was not necessarily the case. Eventually eleven of the fourteen members of Team TCGplayer opted to play Junk Constellation, but many of them had used their time during the weak ruling out other brews or possibilities. If I am being honest, less than a handful of team members actually played with the deck enough that I would feel confident in their ability to play it to its full potential. Obviously I can understand why the others did not get in the practice with the list and I can empathize, but improving as a team is all about honesty, so I don't want to pull punches when they are constructive in nature.
If we had been a little more organized, it would have been in the best interest of most of the team to have a full additional day to do nothing but battle the deck against a variety of match ups. The arrival on the deck was great, but we still needed to equip our guys with the knowhow to pilot it well. I have a track record of building slightly difficult decks to pilot just because I like to incorporate a lot of mini-synergies or interactions, but given enough time, everyone on the team is talented enough to pick those things up. The issue was that they were not given enough time.
This happens naturally and is tough to avoid as the reason many of them were focusing elsewhere was because they were not convinced on the strength of the Constellation deck. I know I need to come up with a better way to convey my confidence in the deck for the future, but the biggest issue there may have simply been that I just have not worked with these guys enough yet to naturally read that situation correctly.
A successful prep for a Pro Tour does not end at arriving at the right deck. That will be the central focus throughout most of the process, but you still need to remember all of the basic playtesting procedures that you would go through for a PTQ or Grand Prix. We could have improved here.Limit Your Travel
Anyone that has ever traveled to a Grand Prix before might think of the travel as an annoying part of the experience. It takes a while and is often quite draining as you spend hours in lines or sitting in some cramped space. Traveling with a team is all of that but ten times more complicated.
Consider that we have to coordinate 14 people to arrive within certain windows from all around the country. This takes some time in and of itself and is just the beginning. Finding a house to rent for a week can be a fun experience but it can also be a total pain. Again, fourteen people is not the amount where we can just rent hotel rooms or get an apartment easily. We have to find a very specific house.
For this pro tour, that house was pretty awesome, but the problem came in that it was 30 minutes from where the venue was. This was fine during the week when we would be testing and have no use for the venue, but it would mean a long commute during the tournament or that we would have to relocate during the tournament. We opted to do the latter, moving into the Platinum hotel, but that had its own problems.
I would say we easily lost a full day of testing due to travel and relocating. That would not be so bad if it were not one of about five days of actual testing with the entire team assembled. Losing 20% of our testing time is a crucial mistake that may have very well been worth the extra few thousand dollars that a closer house may have cost us. In this particular case, housing in Atlanta for 14 was quite limited, so we probably arrived at the best solution we could have, but it is still something to consider for Portland and beyond.Wrap Up
In general, I was very happy with how our testing went and I think we arrived at some very solid conclusions and some very solid lists. It is always important to look for areas to improve, but in no way am I condemning myself or anyone on the team for not being passionate, because I thought we had that covered in spades. Most nights, our team meeting would conclude and instead of people retiring to bed, many would just head right back to the testing room to jam more games. The dedication was infectious and I really enjoyed it.
I am looking forward to the next one, especially since GCB gets to be our city guide in one of my favorite in the country. Standard for the next three months then? Sounds good! Well, I suppose there is this Grand Prix in Atlanta next week...