Feature Article from Raphael Levy

Being Successful in Teams

Raphael Levy

3/5/2014 10:02:00 AM

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After a month on the roads talking Magic (for the coverage of GP Paris), preparing Magic (for the PT in Valencia) and obviously playing Magic, both at the PT and at GP Barcelona, it was time for me to write Magic. While I decided my miserable experience of PT Born of the Gods was not worth sharing (unless you want to hear how much I hate modern again and how playing while being tired/sick isn't optimal), I'll go straight to something more positive that I've always loved : playing team events.

Most of the team events you are going to attend will be team sealed. There are occasionally unified constructed events, but I'm not going to talk about those. There is also team draft if you manage to make it to the Top 4 of a GP... But let's stick to what you'll be most likely playing.

People wildly overlook sealed deck and fail to recognize how skillful deck building really is. Make it three times harder in teams. The main problem to this is that learning is much harder. Long ago, I tried to write about how to build a sealed deck in a column, but it wasn't very popular. You guys want information fast and don't want to spend your time doing homework building sealed! (If you're interested, maybe I can create some video content for TCG or something; just write how you feel about that in the comments!) Anyway, that step of the tournament requires a lot of skills and method, and having three people will rarely help if none of them know anything about the format.

When you decide to attend a team event and unless it's a special tournament like the World Magic Cup, you will get to choose who you're playing with. It could be your friends, the best players in your town or just people you want to play with. While choosing your teammate is very important, knowing how to play with them is just as important.

Over the years, I got to team with a myriad of different players and type of players. I played with PT winners, Hall of Famers, but also total beginners. In the end, success often comes from a combination of factors that may not be the ones you think of.

Last weekend I had the chance to play with Team Revolution's Jérémy Dezani, currently #1 at the Player of the Year race and Top 25 ranking, and Melissa De Tora, Top 8 competitor at PT Gatecrash. I knew we had everything we needed to do well.

I'm going to share with you what I think a team requires in order to be successful in a tournament.


-A team needs a leader.

In a team just like everywhere else, people are different. Some have strong personalities, some are shy, some are stubborn, some won't voice their opinion...basically an infinite number of combinations. What a team really needs to make everything work is a leader. The leader doesn't need to be the one with the strongest personality. He's usually charismatic, experienced and respected by his teammates.

When it comes to team deck building, it's very easy to lose time. You might think 50 or 60 minutes is a long time to build three decks but you'd be wrong. If you finish too early, that means you definitely missed a few options. Knowing how to manage the time is very important. Some teams lose precious time trying to do something that shouldn't take more than a minute. The leader will make sure no time is lost doing useless things. Basically, he will organize deck construction.

Here we can introduce the concept of the “trap”: just because someone is involved and by your side, doesn't mean he's working with you on the same thing.

The “trap” appears in many steps of team competitions, including deck building. It's not a concept I made up, it has other names in many other subjects, in companies, and pretty much everywhere there is team work. The main idea is that instead of adding the value of everyone's ability, or using the best ones (ie: 1+1 >= 2; 1+2>= 2; 1+3>=3), the team works with the lowest value or below (1+1<= 1; 1+2 <=1).

The trap in deck building is mostly due to miscommunication between team members, or a lack of organization. Without directives, a player without too much confidence will wait for his teammates' approval. While he waits or is unsure, nothing is really accomplished on his side. When he finally gets the approval, time has already been lost, and it's unsure whether or not the solution will be found when the rest of the team all think together.

Organization is better with a leader, but a well-organized team might not need one.

In practice, what happens is that each team member will start by sorting cards in their colors, trashing the unplayable, sort them by type (creature/spell) and casting cost. A quick overview will give a general idea of what could be good or not. All teammates might throw in their feeling about the pool. In an unorganized team, or a team without a leader, that phase could take a while, and nothing is really done then. Everyone is just thinking, sharing ideas, but nothing is really accomplished, because well, everyone thinks the other has a better idea of what's going on, but in fact, not really.

One player must take the initiative and tell where everyone should start working. And that player is the leader. He's the one saying: you take the blue and mix it with white, you take the red and black, and I take the green and see what goes with it. If the options are wrong, or if no one is satisfied, then he should go another direction. Arguing without trying takes you nowhere. It literally takes two minutes to try new deck configuration and it's a lot easier to visualize a color combination when the cards are together.

When you're the leader, speak clearly, listen to your teammates and their suggestions and most importantly take initiatives. It doesn't mean you're always right either, but you're the one telling your teammates what to actively do.

The leader gives directives, but it doesn't mean he knows everything. Everyone on the team has a job to do.


-A team needs complementary players.

It's true in both steps of the tournament, building and playing.

A player can be comfortable playing any deck, but it's more than likely that he has a color preference or a play style he prefers. When deck building, it's a lot more efficient to have the player who will play the deck of the colors he's most comfortable with. Let's take a certain deck configuration, let's say WU, RW, Gx. The team of three should not be focusing on the same deck all at once. The player with the cards in front of him should know if the setup is viable or not. Of course, he can ask the rest of the team for their opinion if he's not sure, but that shouldn't take too long.

Building team sealed is a lot about efficiency, if everyone had two or three hours, maybe they would end up with the best decks they can end up with. That's why avoiding the “trap” is so important.

The question that's thrown around the most often is “do you usually make two good decks and a bad one, or do you try to make all decks the same level?”

If one of the players says “my deck is really bad, I was sacrificed,” it means the pool was really bad. In Theros block, I have seen a lot of different pools and none of them were unplayable. So unless the set is very light on playables, I'd say that I want all the players to be happy with what they're playing.

At the GP, Jérémy was very comfortable with RW aggro strategies, Melissa with control strategies, and I was comfortable with tempo strategies (usually green/blue). When we were considering our options, I would not have been able to tell if Jérémy's deck was average, good or very good (even though I had an idea about it), same with Melissa's. What I wanted to hear was that they were confident their decks were good. If someone isn't happy, you have to look for further options, as long as time allows it.

Each player needs to believe their deck is going to win, even though you can lose your match and your team win overall, it's your duty to know what you're doing and support the team the best way you can, and that means being a good magic player.


-A team needs individually good magic players.

That might sound a little too obvious, but follow me on this. Of course, you'd rather play with a World Champion than an FNM grinder, but sometimes you don't have the choice, and have to team with “suboptimal” players. For your team to be successful without being an all-star, the players need to believe in their own potential in order to optimize their performance.

A few years back, you were not allowed to coach your teammates during play. That meant that when you were in a tense game, you had two pairs of eyes watching your match over your shoulder. And yes, what the people behind these eyes were thinking (or what you think they were thinking) was: I hope my teammate doesn't mess up. The match itself puts you under a lot of pressure, playing for other people adds even more pressure.

It's proven by a ton of studies that people don't perform at their best under pressure, or when they are being judged. I know I should give you references, but I'm pretty sure you all have read about that. If not, it's a totally different and very vast topic that's extremely interesting to look into.

Anyway, the rules have changed now; you are allowed to coach your teammates while they play. But now, instead of playing under too much pressure, you might fall into the “trap.”

In this case, falling into the trap means that you're relying on your teammate to think at your place.

When your teammate is sitting next to you, watching your game, do you really think he has more info about it than you do? Sure they can help reminding you of triggered abilities, but when it comes to playing the cards, you and only you should be in control.

When you ask for assistance, or for a line of play, and wait for your teammate's approval, what you're really doing, is sharing the responsibility of your play in case it's bad. Which in a way is good for you, you'll feel less bad if you actually mess up, but is bad for the team as your teammate usually doesn't know more than you do. Actually, he has significantly less information than you do. Is he focusing on his game at the same time? Has he seen what your opponent played in game one?

Take the most common situation: “Should I keep this hand?” What do you expect? You should know what's in your deck, and the risks you're taking. Do you want their approval to take risks? And share the responsibility if you don't get there? Also, you're giving away that your hand is missing something...

A problem with coaching is that you're giving so much information to your opponent. It doesn't matter which language your opponents speak, you always figure out what they're saying. Also, next time you play in teams and you want a tell from your opponent, don't look at him when he draws a card, look at the face of the teammates coaching him. While the player in the driver's seat might keep his poker face, at least one other teammate will have a reaction. After a while, you'll recognize the tells easily.

The trap can even go deeper than that when it comes to assistance. Not only can your teammate give you a line of play that isn't optimal, but you won't be able to tell the different between a “non-optimal” line of play, and a straight mistake. In that case the equation could look something like: 1+1=0

So you're thinking:

“I have these options, what do you think?”

“Oh yeah, sure, that sounds good.”

You make the play, which turns out to be an extremely poor decision. You look at your teammate who didn't pay the attention you wanted him to (he might have been playing his own game at the same time too), and think deep inside: “Why did you tell me to do that???”

Remember, you are holding the cards, and it's your responsibility to play your game for the team.

I, for example, hate to be coached or have someone to assist me. I lose focus and play way worse than if I play on my own. The same goes when my teammates ask for assistance, I lose focus on my game (and therefore play worse), and they're not getting the level of assistance they're expecting.

So what's the key that connects all these elements?

Trust.

-You have to put your fate in the hands of your leader during deck building. If he knows his job, he will take initiatives and manage the time you have to make the best out of your card pool.

-You have to trust your teammates' ability to judge the quality of their decks and their perception of the different settings.

-You have to trust them as players. Or at least show that you do. You never play worse than when someone is constantly judging you and criticizing your lines of play. You will try to play a game that isn't yours to please them, instead of playing to win.

Of course, when you're watching a game and you see the best line of play that the player actually playing hasn't seen, you should tell him. But that shouldn't happen very often.

There are a bunch of other factors that your team will need to win a tournament: keeping the team spirit up after a loss, make sure everyone is in the right conditions to play even though it's your duty to make sure you have everything you need. There's nothing worse than having a teammate down who can't get over his last match, or one that hasn't slept enough...

Overall, I have had more success when my team had a lot of cohesion, than when I played with what was supposed to be the best “raw” team on paper.

I knew all this going into the World Magic Cup with the ending we know (I also had the chance to play with fantastic teammates that I didn't get to choose). For Barcelona, Jérémy and Melissa were the perfect setting. I knew I could trust them no matter what during the play portion and they knew they could trust me during deck construction.

Finishing 7th at the GP was very satisfying and as always, a little frustrating. I posted the deck we built and played on my facebook page, so feel free to go have a look.

For more info about the tournament itself and our performance, check out Melissa's report that also went live today.

I'll gladly play with the same team again in the next team GP in Portland in August, hopefully we'll do just as well.

I hope you can use my advice in the next team tournaments!

Oh also,

I'd like to add a few lines to thank the sponsors and the people who have supported the team: Magic Bazar in Paris, Sign in Blood, Max Protector, and Dragon Egg for the supplies, and huge props to Cardhaus for lending me cards at the PT!

Cheers,
Raph
@hahamoud