Over the past two years Magic paradigm has shifted. Events used to be completely individual affairs. Based on the overwhelming success of a few trial team events run a couple of years ago, both professional Magic and the SCG Tour are plunging both feet forward to our new team-based future. The Pro Tour now has the team series, Grand Prix events are more frequently featuring team play, and this year's Pro season is even culminating in a Team Pro Tour in August. The SCG Tour has upped team events to be around slightly under half of the events they run, and even a lot of local stores have started to run team tournaments from time to time. Brad Nelson, Emmy Handy and myself drove down to North Carolina a few months ago to play in a team tournament at a local store. It was a blast, even though we personally got blasted in the event.
Now, I'm not here to extol the virtues of team tournaments. I know some players love them and others don't, but that is not what this article is about. Instead, I am going to hopefully provide some advice for how to adapt to Magic's new team-oriented world.
I guess you could say this is a team-building exercise.
Not everyone has a lot of options when it comes to choosing a team. Some local communities are smaller than others and sometimes the team you choose is simply going to consist of the other players in your area that are also interested in playing in the team event. This problem can be exacerbated in Team Trios events where sometimes only one person owns Legacy cards or only one person has the knowledge or desire to play Legacy in the event.
One thing that can be done is to reach out to larger communities to look for a team. Social media is a great way to accomplish this. There are hundreds of Facebook communities related to Magic, and those can be great ways to pick up a team, especially if you are flexible about what format you are willing to play in an event. Reddit can also be a great place to find a team. If your local community isn't good at providing you with the resources it takes to fill a team, branching out to the larger Magic community via the various groups you can find on social media sites or forums can be very useful.
I have a couple of rules I like to follow when it comes to the kinds of players that I want to team with in an event.
First off, I think it is important that everyone on the team have similar goals for the event. If one player is hyper competitive and cares a lot about winning while the other two players just want to enjoy themselves and have a good time regardless of winning or losing, then this team might not be a good fit. Having divergent goals is an easy way to sow discord amongst the team.
Secondly, I think it is way more important to team with people that you like rather than just people who are good at Magic. One common pitfall that I see people run into all the time with team events is to just try to team up with the best players they know, regardless of how people's personalities and goals will mesh with each other, and that's bound to end in disaster. Team morale and mindset during team events is a real thing and this can affect motivation and play throughout the event.
This section ties largely into what I said at the end of the previous section. My point was essentially that having a team with similar goals and with people you enjoy can actually result in a better finish than just making the spikiest team you can. Mentality and mindset matter.
If you're on a team where people are tearing each other down, that can greatly reduce one's motivation to play well. That's simply human nature. A lot of people, myself included, respond way better to positive reinforcement than negative reinforcement. I've seen it play out several times where if one teammate is berating another for making bad mistakes, the berated player is going to care less about playing well in the future and care less about listening to their teammates out of frustration or spite. This dynamic breeds failure, not success. If you're not enjoying yourself, you're definitely not going to care nearly as much about winning or losing or even playing your best. You're just going through the motions.
It's not possible to control your teammates or how they choose to approach a tournament, but it is possible to control your own actions and be the kind of teammate that elevates your teammates rather than brings them down.
The first step is to always be positive. If your teammate punts a match and you lose the round because of it, don't harp on it. Just let it slide. Take that moment to tell your teammate that it's ok, mistakes happen, and that there is still a lot of tournament left to be played and that they shouldn't let it bother them or affect them. A lot of players feel way worse when they make a mistake than when a teammate makes a mistake because they feel like a failure who let the team down. Do your best to make sure your teammates don't feel this way. Focus instead on good plays that were made or just making sure that everyone is in good spirits again for the rest of the event.
The next step is to not focus on individual results. It's a team event, not an individual event. You win and lose as a team. Keeping track of how you're 6-2 but your team is only 4-4 is just a negative mindset to have. Your teammate already probably feels bad about losing more matches, there's no reason to worry about how "if my teammates had won their matches we'd be doing well" or to bring that up with your teammates or friends. Instead, a better way to work on this is to figure out why your teammates are struggling and help them to start winning more in future rounds. Sometimes, especially in Team Sealed, your teammate might have ended up playing the worst deck out of your pool and that can be a huge reason behind their lack of success. Alternatively, you might have the best deck and that is why you're crushing and they aren't.
Regardless of the reasons, focusing on things like this can only be a negative thing that tears down your teammates or creates dissent amongst the team. If you must focus on individual results, do so in a positive way, such as saying something like "Hey, we gave you the bad deck and you're crushing with it. Keep tearing it up, hypothetical teammate!"
I think the primary consideration when playing team events is to be cognizant of the time clock. It's a lot easier to get a draw in a team event than a regular tournament because there are three matches rather than one and players consulting with each other eats up the time clock very quickly.
If someone on the team is playing a notoriously slow deck like Lantern Control, for example, then I think it is valuable to just let them play their match. Don't interrupt them to ask questions all the time, and don't try to provide advice on what you think they should do in their match. There just isn't enough time for that. Furthermore, I think it's also important to demand that your opponents play at a reasonable amount of speed.
Generally speaking, if my opponent starts to spend too much time helping a teammate with their match or their teammates are spending too much time helping my opponent, I like to gently remind them that they need to progress the game and we won't be able to conclude a full match if the entire match is being played at that pace. While a lot of people react negatively to being directly told they are playing slowly, I've found that telling people indirectly to play faster, by saying things like "I don't think our current pace of play is fast enough to naturally finish this match" tends to go over better and has the same effect. Your opponents typically don't want to draw either; sometimes they simply aren't cognizant of the clock, and a gentle reminder is useful.
When it comes to helping teammates, there is a delicate balance to be had. There is an old saying: two heads are Better Than One. The idea behind this saying is that two people working together can come up with a better idea than either of those people could individually. There are a lot of situations where discussing lines of play with your teammates can help figure out the best course of action.
That's all well and good, but there is also another phrase: too many cooks spoil the broth. The idea behind this phrase is that if too many cooks are all contributing their ingredients to a soup, while their ingredients may be individually delicious, the final result will still taste awful. Everyone watching a game has their own ideas on how to finish the game out and how to try to win from the current board state. If you listen to one person's suggestion on the first play, and then do your own thing on the second play, and then listen to someone else on the third play, the sum result is going to be a failure. Your teammates suggestion for what to do for the first play might only make sense if you then also follow their suggestions for every subsequent play, because their play only works and only makes sense in the context of their bigger picture for how the game should be played out.
How do you balance these two competing ideas? Personally, I think the best way to do this is to have each teammate play out their own games and enact their own plans for winning the game. When it comes to the big picture planning of a game of Magic, allow the player piloting the match to make those decisions, or if you are offering suggestions for how to play the match out, make sure you do so while also providing the big picture context for why your play makes sense in the long term, so they can follow that plan in their future plays as well.
Where teammates can come in with very useful help is in filling out holes of information. For example, if it's Team Sealed and the opponent attacks with a 2/2 creature into your 3/4 creature and you don't understand why they would do that, your teammate might point out that Giant Growth is in the set, and that can help you understand the attack. Teammates are also a great litmus test to make sure you aren't going off the rails. For example, sometimes you might have a hand that is probably a mulligan, but you are tempted to keep it. Asking your teammates for their input can help give you the strength you need to mulligan, even though you want to make a bad keep.
For what it's worth, I usually just make bad keeps without consulting my teammates, who I know will disapprove. I do this, hoping they never look over and see my bad hand. They always do. They always disapprove. Somehow, they still are willing to team with me in future events. One of life's pleasant mysteries.
There are two more big points about interacting with teammates that I want to mention.
The first is that the player who has been playing a game from the very beginning of the game is going to have more knowledge and information about the game than players just coming in. I think in the great majority of situations, it is better to just allow the player to continue playing their match than to jump in with suggestions, because that player has learned information from the way the game was played out in the earlier turns or from how they've seen their opponent's deck constructed that can influence their decision making. Our subconscious is great at picking up on information and body language tells, and those are valuable tools to use in games of Magic. Someone just popping in isn't going to have any of that information to work with.
The second is that sometimes communicating with your teammates can actually help your opponents more than you. If you lean over to your teammate and say "I think you should use this card on that card" and point to a card in their hand or point at a card in play, your opponents aren't just sitting there in complete ignorance. They hear that and can extrapolate information from it. They might realize "Oh, they're considering casting Vraska's Contempt on my Hazoret" and then if you end up deciding not to cast the card, your opponents will know to play around it in future turns.
Before popping in with advice, it's important to think about whether that advice will be useful to your teammate and think about whether the opposing team can learn information from it as well.
One big thing to keep in mind when playing team events is how you shuffle and how you hold your cards.
If you're one of the outside seats on the team, it's important to always shuffle toward the side away from the rest of the players in the match. If you shuffle toward the inside, players on the opposing team might see cards in your deck. It is against the rules to actively try to see cards in your opponents' decks while they shuffle, but if you happen to see something on accident, you can use that information and tell your teammates about that information. If you're shuffling toward the inside, it can be pretty easy for someone a seat or two down to see cards, even if they aren't actively seeking that information.
This is also super important while shuffling your opponent's decks. Please don't shuffle your opponent's decks toward the inside where your teammates might be able to see cards in it. For one, it is extremely scummy to take your opponent's deck and show your teammates cards from it, and secondly doing this intentionally is cheating and could be grounds for disqualification.
If you're sitting in the middle seat, then shuffling is extra hard for you, since you can't tilt the deck to either side without potentially revealing information to the players on that side. Having been the middle seat several times, I personally had to practice shuffling in a way to minimize this. The way I shuffle is to hold the deck as low to the table as I can, put one hand underneath the deck, the other hand over top of the deck, and side shuffle the cards together while keeping the deck completely level. This wasn't natural for me, but it is a way to shuffle without anyone else being able to see the cards on either side. I'm also aggressive about making sure that my opponent shuffles in a way such that their teammates cannot see the cards in my deck. I think it is important that everything is kept on the level and that your opponents aren't getting unfair information about the contents of your decks.
Even beyond shuffling, one thing to keep in mind is how you draw cards off the top of your deck and how you hold the cards in your hand. Some players draw their cards in such a fashion that an opponent two seats down might be able to actually see the cards as they draw them. Instead of doing the "miracle" method of drawing where you stand up the top card on top of the deck to check what it is before putting it into your hand, it is better to instead pull the card away from your deck and discreetly check what it is closer to the table, because the first method can actually sometimes allow opposing players to see the cards you're drawing.
Secondly, it is important to hold the cards in your hand close to your chest and be careful to not angle them toward your opponents. Sometimes players will angle their cards toward their teammates to show them their hand and in doing so, one of the opposing players can also see the cards. In a one-on-one game this would never happen, but in a team event, things like this are worth paying attention to.
Team Trios Constructed is a team format where one player plays Standard, another Modern and the third player plays Legacy. Because of the tri-format nature of this event, it's tough to derive a lot of useful metagame information because the deck that one player plays in one seat has no bearing or relevance on what another play might play in another seat, unlike Team Sealed or Team Unified Constructed.
However, I do think there is still some useful information to learn from it.
For one, each player who plays their format is generally, but not always, someone who cares a lot about that format or is a specialist in that format. Because of that, people tend to more frequently be playing tier one archetypes. For example, at GP Toronto, in the Legacy seat, I played against Grixis Delver a little over a third of my matches. In a normal Legacy GP, this would be a very high amount, but in Team Trios, it made sense because the Legacy pilots are typically players who are adept and practiced in the format and they play a deck like Grixis Delver because it was the best deck and they win a lot with it.
I tend to expect the metagame for trios events to primarily consist of the tier one archetypes, and then people who are playing hate decks against the tier one archetypes. So for Toronto, I expected a lot of Grixis Delver, but I also expected a lot of decks like Mono Red Prison to attempt to prey on Grixis Delver's zero basic lands with Blood Moons.
Team Unified Constructed is a team event taking place in a single format like Standard or Modern where the rules are that, except for basic lands, every card in one player's deck cannot be present in another teammates deck. So if your teammate has one Stony Silence in their sideboard, nobody else on the team can play that card in their sideboard.
In Team Unified Constructed, decks that have very low color or card requirements are often more heavily played. For example, Tron is a deck that uses colorless lands and colorless cards that other decks don't play, so Tron is a very popular deck in Team Unified Modern. Jund, on the other hand, is a deck that won't see much play because if someone is playing Jund, then nobody else can play with Thoughtseize, Lightning Bolt, three different fetchlands, three different shocklands, etc. To make Jund work, you have a very narrow list of other decks that can be played alongside it.
Decks like Dredge or Affinity, that are powerful, but fold to hate tend to also see more play in Team Unified Formats, because only one deck can play Surgical Extraction, or Rest in Peace, or Nihil Spellbomb. In the case of Affinity, only one deck can have Stony Silence. While lots of graveyard or artifact hate cards exist, sometimes players are forced to play worse versions of these cards and these decks can capitalize on that.
I think the best way to approach this format is to generally pick decks that are good against linear powerful strategies, even if they are weak to midrange decks, because you are unlikely to play against a lot of 3-4 color decks. I also like having a lot of hate cards for linear strategies in my sideboard, because people might play Affinity in hopes of dodging the one player who can play Stony Silence and then you can still make their life miserable by having Creeping Corrosion or Shatterstorm instead.
In Team Unified Constructed, it is important while playing the games to keep tabs on what decks the other two opponents are playing, because it will give you information on what cards might be in your opponent's deck. If you're playing against Black-Red Aggro and your teammate is playing against Esper Control in team Unified Standard, only one of those players can have Duress in their sideboard, for instance. This is useful information for you and your teammate to know.
In Team Sealed, I think it's important to talk with your teammates in advance of the event and compare notes about what decks you think are the most likely archetypes to build from a traditional sealed pool in the format. I think it is also important to figure out which decks each player wants to play and then assign each player with the deck that most closely represents their play style.
For example, at the last Dominaria Team Sealed GP, I teamed with Brad Nelson and Martin Muller. We knew going into the event that Brad was going to play with black and green cards primarily, because he is the best at winning with underpowered cards that are hard for your opponent to play around. We knew Martin was going to play the blue and red cards, because Martin is the best at playing tempo-control oriented strategies, and we knew I was going to play with a mostly-creature white deck because my skill was in managing creature combat and getting the most out of attacking and blocking. This worked out admirably for us, as we ended up making the Top 4 despite having a weak pool on Day 2 where Brad somehow managed to win most of his matches with a nearly unplayable black-green deck that I don't think Martin or I would have won much with.
When it comes to deck building itself, in traditional limited formats (in other words, not multicolor sets or artifact themed blocks) the best way to approach a sealed pool is to take every individual color and lay that color out by mana cost with creatures and spells separated from each other. That will show you that color's curve and its strengths and weaknesses. Lay out multicolor and artifact cards separately as a resource. Then, once you see a color laid out by curve, you can start to compare it with other colors and see which colors might make sense together.
For example, if you have 18 great white cards with a perfect curve, you might want to pair white with your weakest other color because white doesn't need a lot to be a good deck, and the other color you pair with it might not be strong enough to be a main color for a deck, but could be the support color for two different decks instead.
Or, perhaps you see that one color has a lot of great aggressive three-drops but lacks any good two-drops, and you can pair it with another color that has aggressive two-drops and build a very strong aggro deck. By laying out colors separately, it allows you to immediately take a big picture look at what three decks you might consider building before immediately jumping in on building specific decks. If instead, you just say "I'm going to take the blue and red cards and try to build a deck" from the beginning of the process, you might miss out on a better build combining other colors.
Much like Team Unified Constructed, it is useful to keep tabs on what decks your other opponents are playing. If one player is playing a red-white deck with a lot of red removal, you might be able to extrapolate that they probably put all the red removal into that deck, and your opponent's black-red deck is going to have mostly black removal spells in it. In that case, a card like Healing Grace, something you might normally board in against a red removal deck, should stay in the sideboard, and Adamant Will, which is good against black's "destroy target creature" or -x/-x type removal spells would be a better fit.
Love them or hate them, team events are here to stay. A lot of the problems that I see people have with team events come down to a lot of issues they are having with teammates or other aspects of team dynamics. I've personally been on some bad teams and some good teams, and playing on bad teams, even with good players, can be a miserable experience. Hopefully this article helps provide some perspective and tips on ways to make future team events fun for the whole family.
Just remember, there is no I in team, but there is an I in "I would like to be the Legacy player, because Legacy is straight fire and I would never want to duke it out for 14 rounds of Standard."
- Brian Braun-Duin