Honor, Victory, and Brothership at GP Barcelona *3rd*

“We three, though of separate ancestry, join in brotherhood here, combining strength and purpose, to relieve the present crisis. We will perform our duty to the Emperor and protect the common folk of the land. We dare not hope to be together always but hereby vow to die the selfsame day. Let shining Heaven above and fruitful land below bear witness to our resolve. May Heaven and man scourge whosoever fails this vow.”
-Spoken by the heroes Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei (from Lou Guanzhong’s Three Kingdoms)

Many Magic players (at least three) have claimed a parallel between team tournaments and the violence and tumult of ancient China. Much like the declining years of the Han Empire, team events are defined by deception, politics, intrigue, and betrayal. In both, one wrong move means certain destruction. In both, you need the help of good people to survive.

Team Grand Prix today are grueling affairs. GP Barcelona had nearly 600 teams, 14 rounds, and no byes awarded regardless of Pro level, Planeswalker Points, or anything else. With three matches to be played, rounds go to time much more frequently, and barely is there time to catch your breath. The only way to make it through is with the support of good teammates.


A number of qualities are needed to make a Magic team great, but foremost among them is brothership. A team can’t succeed when one brain is trying to control six hands. It can’t succeed when its members are constantly bickering, and it can’t succeed if everyone is focused on their personal performance instead of the team as a whole.

Brothership means trusting your teammates absolutely. You must be able to let go, and allow your teammate to choose the last few flexible slots in their own deck. You must be able to sit in silence—when appropriate—and let your teammate have control of their own game. You have to listen to your teammates’ advice, and be able to discuss things with the highest level of mutual respect.

Equally important, brothership means having fun and being proud to play with your team. You can’t show up to the tournament site hoping that someone missed their flight and you can switch to a better team. You have to be prepared to win or lose together—as a team to the bitter end.

No one has taught me more about brothership than Owen Turtenwald—in large part because he invented the term. There’s no one I’d rather have playing for my tournament life than Owen. There’s no one I’d rather let plan the final turn of my game with than Huey Jensen. These were my teammates for Grand Prix Barcelona last weekend, and together we made it to the Top 4.

On a number of occasions, the coverage team used flattering words to describe us, naming us a “team to watch,” and predicting big things. However, in each case they focused on the three of us as individuals, focusing on our rankings, previous achievements, etc. This, in my opinion, is the less important part of the story. I attribute our success mostly to (in addition to a healthy amount of luck, of course) our ability to play as a team.

Our Preparation

Before GP Barcelona, Owen, Huey, and myself had played together in four team tournaments. In addition to building that important trust and friendship, these dress rehearsals helped us to be comfortable in the team setting, and learn how to talk to one another during the most stressful moments of deckbuilding and game play.

This time, though, our preparation in the particular format—Theros/Born of the Gods—outshined all of the previous tournaments. In addition to nonstop individual testing for weeks prior to Pro Tour Valencia, we spent the entire week before the Grand Prix practicing Team Sealed against skilled opponents in Eric Froehlich, Shahar Shenhar, and Brock Parker.

The first time I opened twelve booster packs to build a Team Sealed, I had no idea where to begin; it was overwhelming. Despite getting double the normal amount of time, you’ll see most teams at a Grand Prix unable to finish in the one hour allotted for deckbuilding. This time, however, Owen, Huey, and I developed a system that made deckbuilding a breeze.

We identified white, green, and black as the deepest colors in the format—the ones most able to stand alone as core colors. After opening and sorting our packs, Owen would take the white cards, Huey would take the green cards, and I would take the black cards and we would begin by building mono-color decks. After a few practice runs, we became experienced and confident with our respective archetypes and began to recognize what a good or bad deck looks like.

The next step was to identify the holes in the three mono-color decks, and to see if there were convenient ways to fix them. For example, Owen might say, “the white deck looks good, but it needs some more two-drop creatures.” We’d then take a look at the blue, the red, and the possibility of splitting one of the other colors to see if we could correct this problem. Similarly, you might hear me say, “I have a black control deck, but it’s lacking a win condition.” So if blue had a [ccProd]Tromokratis[/ccProd] that no one else needed, or if red had a [ccProd]Forgestoker Dragon[/ccProd], one of these might be the best colors to pair with black. We also learned how the presence of powerful gold cards should guide our deckbuilding choices.

Of course, this strategy won’t be applicable to every new set that comes out in the future. For me, though, the lesson is that it’s helpful to have a strategy of some kind, even if you frequently deviate from it. You should have a plan of what to look for right after you open your packs. This way, you’re less likely to miss something big, and you’ll save time and energy that can now be spent on other things.

The Tournament: Day One

We went into the Grand Prix well-practiced, well-rested, and confident. In addition to that, we had the fortune to open an excellent card pool. Owen surely had one of best individual decks in the room—W/U heroic featuring two copies [ccProd]Eidolon of Countless Battles[/ccProd], which is probably the best rare in Born of the Gods. He went 9-0 in matches on Day One, while Huey and I were still able to build above-average decks from the rest of the cards and put up about six wins apiece. You can take a look at all of our decks, but I’ll only be describing my own in depth:

[ccDeck]4 Forest
13 Swamp
1 Abhorrent Overlord
1 Baleful Eidolon
1 Blood-Toll Harpy
1 Disciple of Phenax
1 Erebos’s Emissary
1 Felhide Minotaur
1 Gray Merchant of Asphodel
1 Herald of Torment
1 Insatiable Harpy
3 Marshmist Titan
1 Nighthowler
1 Nyxborn Eidolon
1 Odunos River Trawler
1 Pain Seer
1 Pharika’s Mender
1 Spiteful Returned
1 Asphyxiate
1 Drown in Sorrow
1 Lash of the Whip
1 Pharika’s Cure
1 Sip of Hemlock[/ccDeck]

Our deckbuilding strategy worked to a tee for this particular pool. Our white, green, and black were quite strong, and our red had almost nothing to offer. Huey and Owen split the blue, as the bounce and tempo plays serve as good complements to fast creature strategies. Conveniently, there were quite a few rewards to black devotion in our pool—[ccProd]Gray Merchant of Asphodel[/ccProd], [ccProd]Abhorrent Overlord[/ccProd], and three copies of [ccProd]Marshmist Titan[/ccProd]—and it worked best for me to build a mono-black deck.

More than most players, I’m a fan of building mono-color decks in Limited. Even if it’s only one out of every twenty games that you get color screwed with a normal two-color deck, changing those losses into competitive games will make a tremendous difference in the long run. When you’re drafting, you also get side benefits in the signals you send, and in your openness if a second color comes later. However, in Sealed Deck, there’s rarely a reason not to dip into a second color and increase the power level of your deck.

From my experience, once you have 11-13 lands of your main color, you can be comfortable that you’ll have one in every opening hand, so a small splash will do little to hurt the consistency of your deck. In this case, I played mono-black with four Forests and a [ccProd]Pharika’s Mender[/ccProd], just because I felt there was no reason not to. I also had a [ccProd]Fade into Antiquity[/ccProd] and a [ccProd]Setessan Starbreaker[/ccProd] that I could bring in out of my sideboard.

As I mentioned, our red was too weak to maindeck, so my teammates gave me all of the red cards for my sideboard. In addition to a few medium-quality removal spells, red offered two copies of [ccProd]Scouring Sands[/ccProd]. Consequently, when I played against very aggressive white- or red-based decks with lots of 1-toughness creatures, I would sideboard out my green (I didn’t need the Mender in these matchups anyway) and I would bring in six Mountains, two Scouring Sands, and some extra red removal. It’s important not to overlook any possible advantage to be gained from sideboarding!

Day Two

We finished Day One as the sole undefeated team at 9-0. For Grand Prix Barcelona, Day Two was five additional rounds of Sealed Deck, but unfortunately for us, we didn’t get to use the same decks we had on Day One.

We were still pleased with our card pool on Day Two, though it didn’t stand out in quite the same way as Day One’s. This time Owen and Huey had average decks, and it was my turn to have the best deck on the team—an excellent U/B Control deck with removal, card advantage, and rares.

[ccDeck]10 Swamp
8 Island
1 Omenspeaker
1 Siren of the Silent Song
1 Agent of Fates
2 Nyxborn Triton
1 Insatiable Harpy
1 Disciple of Phenax
1 Sealock Monster
1 Mnemonic Wall
1 Arbiter of the Ideal
1 Nullify
1 Dissolve
1 Pharika’s Cure
2 Bile Blight
2 Asphyxiate
1 Divination
1 Read the Bones
1 Psychic Intrusion
1 Eternity Snare
1 Fated Return[/ccDeck]

This deck really had it all: a healthy mix of removal and permission, rares powerful enough to ensure that I could win the late game, and some cheap scrying and card drawing to help me get there faster.

The day started well. I was playing a long and tight game against a B/R control deck when I finally found my [ccProd]Fated Return[/ccProd]. I cast it on [ccProd]Mnemonic Wall[/ccProd] and a sick look came over my opponent’s face. My 0/4 indestructible came into play and I returned the Fated Return to my hand. The following turn, I cast it on my [ccProd]Sealock Monster[/ccProd] and my opponent was ready to go to the next game despite being at 23 life!

We also wound up taking a couple of close losses on Day Two. In round 13, I was patiently holding an [ccProd]Asphyxiate[/ccProd] in case my opponent should topdeck a creature that I couldn’t deal with. To make things even safer, my opponent had a [ccProd]Prophet of Kruphix[/ccProd] in play, so even if he should find a way to bestow or pump up a creature and attack me, the offending creature would always wind up untapped by the time my turn came around. However, he drew [ccProd]Oracle’s Insight[/ccProd], giving his creature a backbreaking activated ability that would allow him to tap it and fizzle Asphyxiate on command! Paired with his [ccProd]Kiora’s Follower[/ccProd] and Prophet of Kruphix, this meant four scrys and four additional draws per turn, leaving me quickly buried and unable to come back.

Nonetheless, we won our final round and that, combined with the strong Day One performance, was good enough to be the first seed going into Top 4.

The Top Four Draft

The Top 4 is decided by 3 vs. 3 team drafts. This means that teammates are spaced evenly apart, and that preventing your opponents on either side of you from getting a good deck is colossally more important than it would be in a regular eight player draft.

My draft was very straightforward, as I opened and picked [ccProd]Phenax, God of Deception[/ccProd] and just stuck with black and blue the whole way through the draft, counterdrafting when it was convenient for me to do so.

[ccDeck]5 Island
11 Swamp
1 Temple of Mystery
1 Akroan Horse
1 Baleful Eidolon
1 Disciple of Phenax
1 Erebos’s Emissary
1 Gray Merchant of Asphodel
1 Insatiable Harpy
2 Marshmist Titan
1 Mogis’s Marauder
1 Nighthowler
1 Nyxborn Eidolon
1 Odunos River Trawler
1 Omenspeaker
1 Phenax, God of Deception
2 Returned Phalanx
2 Servant of Tymaret
1 Divination
1 Griptide
1 Pharika’s Cure
1 Sip of Hemlock
1 Sudden Storm[/ccDeck]

When the draft ended, I was thrilled with my deck. My card quality was high, I had a couple bombs, and I had an excellent creature base. Particularly when you factor in that decks from a six-player team draft are expected to be weaker than normal (due to a smaller card pool and more counter-drafting), I had no complaints whatsoever.

Huey and Owen had good decks as well. Owen had put together a very focused G/R aggressive deck and Huey had a rock-solid B/G deck. I felt very good about our chances to win the round and make it to the finals.

The reality, though, was that my deck did have one weakness. Whereas I had my bases well covered in terms of ground defense—multiple copies of both [ccProd]Returned Phalanx[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Servant of Tymaret[/ccProd]—I hadn’t gotten very much removal, and was consequently weak against fliers. Luck would have it that I was paired against a very good U/W fliers deck.

In game one he had a fast start with [ccProd]Akroan Skyguard[/ccProd], but I made a game of it and set up a close race with [ccProd]Nighthowler[/ccProd], but eventually crumbled to a well-timed [ccProd]Nimbus Naiad[/ccProd].

Owen had won his match, but Huey was frustratingly mana flooded and things weren’t looking good for him.

Game two was even closer for me. I played a quick [ccProd]Akroan Horse[/ccProd], but yet again my opponent was largely ignoring what was happening on the ground and taking away big chunks of my life with flying creatures. I drew [ccProd]Phenax, God of Deception[/ccProd] off the top and realized that with the ground stalled as it was, it would be easier for me to win by milling than by damage, so I got to work setting up a big turn.

I played a [ccProd]Gray Merchant[/ccProd] to add some toughness to the board and survive a little longer, so that the following turn, if I drew a creature to pump my [ccProd]Erebos’s Emissary[/ccProd], I would be able to mill him out from 24 cards all at once! I passed the turn, my opponent attacked and passed back. I drew and it was the creature I needed! Unfortunately, when I played Phenax my opponent had an instant-speed way to target his [ccProd]Wavecrash Triton[/ccProd] and he tapped down my Emissary in response. This left me both a couple of cards short of decking him, and unable to survive another turn of his flying attack. I lost my match and we lost the round 2-1. So close!

My biggest regrets of the tournament come from the Top 4 draft. Team draft is an extremely challenging and complex format, and I don’t get the opportunity to play it often enough to have a very strong grasp on the subtleties. In our Top 4 round, Huey’s draws didn’t offer him much to work with, which is bound to happen once in a while. If we could go back in time, our best chance to change the loss into a win was probably in the way I drafted. I was focused on building a good deck for myself, but in the process I allowed the opponent on my left to build a good U/W fliers deck.

It goes without saying that I was going to pick Phenax, God of Deception from my opening pack no matter what. However, there was also an [ccProd]Akroan Skyguard[/ccProd] in the pack—one of the strongest commons in Born of the Gods. In my next pack, there was a second copy of [ccProd]Akroan Skyguard[/ccProd], which, knowing what I know now, I should have picked right away, regardless of the color of my first pick. What happened instead was that I passed it and the opponent to my left had two Akroan Skyguards to go with his (coincidentally) first-picked white rare—this is simply too strong a start to allow an opponent in a team draft.

In pack three, there were two copies of [ccProd]Prescient Chimera[/ccProd]. As a blue drafter, naturally I was interested in this card, but in each case I prioritized cheaper, more efficient cards, just as I would do in a normal eight-player draft. However, the fact is that such a solid, bread-and-butter type creature that can win a game on its own goes up in value a lot in a team draft. I should have adjusted my pick order accordingly, but instead I passed the Chimeras and they wound up being played against me to very good effect.

These are a few examples of how team draft differs from what I’m used to, and a few examples of how I might do better next time. Nonetheless, I consider it more of a learning experience than as some kind of disastrous punt. On the whole, I was thrilled with our preparation, our game play, and our team as a whole.

These days, team events are few and far between, but I look forward to our next chance to try again. For anyone who would like to try a team Magic tournament, but has not yet had the pleasure of playing one, the best thing to do is express your interest in the format to local tournament organizers. Team play builds character, builds friendships, and is good for the community as a whole; I hope it remains a part of Organized Play forever.

Even though we didn’t take first place, I like to think that Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei would be proud of us. We gave it our all, won as a team on Day One, and lost as a team in the Top 4. So far we’ve kept our vow!


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