The Importance of Team Work in Magic The Gathering – by Graeme McIntyre
I expect for a lot of people the first thing that came to their mind on reading this article title was Channel Fireball. In the old days, people would have thought Phoenix Foundation (Kai Budde’s play group, which was comparably successful back then). Others might be thinking of Palace (the old school elite of UK Magic).
The function teams preform in Magic has changed over time. In the beginning most people didn’t have internet access, so metagames were extremely localized, and being in a position to test a bit, tune your deck, and go to the tournaments in your local area put you in a very good position over people who couldn’t.
Then as the internet became more and more mainstream (at the same time as magic grew), decent websites, event coverage and (very limited) magic online made “netdecking” an option, and the edge teams had was diminished a bit, although they were still very useful for tuning and reacting to changes in the more global metagame.
Now, Magic Online includes all the cards for modern, and is making progress towards all the legacy cards too. The daily events, premier events and PTQs from magic online clearly provide a wealth of good information about the current nature of the format. In addition, SCG Tournaments are a great source of information, and Channel Fireball provides excellent content.
So, are teams redundant in light of this?
Well, no. The same people keep top 16ing PTs, and working with – largely – the same people they have for years. That said, it’s slightly different at PTQ level, because PTQs are informed by PTs. It’s definitely an option to play only on MODO (MTGO), without really forming any relationships with others, and do well at Magic. But I’d argue that you increase your chances of doing well by working with others because they can share the work load, help you get to events, and provide insights which you might miss on your own. Also, I’m pretty sceptical about how well a person can expect to do at PT level simply by grinding out games on magic online for countless hours.
How to find the Player Base
In all likelihood, in order to form or be part of a team, you are going to need to find a decent sized player base, start seeing who is who. Maybe you live in a city that has one, in which case this will be a lot easier than if you don’t, in which case you won’t need to bother looking into efficient public transport routes, railcards, and so on. Otherwise, you’d best get ready to be inconvenienced. There is a store locator function at: http://company.wizards.com/, which should be helpful in this respect. You should also use the UK Magic Calendar which lists all the events– and thus play groups/shops –in your area at: http://www.manaleak.com/mtguk/uk-magic-calendar/
Another possibility, if you live in some remote place, or for whatever other reason can’t manage to get into the city regularly, is meeting people at a shop/the shop’s website or Facebook page (or through internet forums – although I expect this might be a frustrating experience), and playing online against them. This isn’t ideal in many respects, but it’s better than playing against random people.
It goes without saying that this is something of a lottery, and I can see that a lot of people will basically not be able to access these sorts of resources. The more remote you are, the more you are going to have to rely on the internet to facilitate your play.
Skill & Skill Levels
This is difficult to judge, because there isn’t an objective means by which it can be measured (there are plenty of people who have never been on a PT who are good players, and plenty of people who have been, who are not, for instance. A list of accomplishments isn’t an accurate scale of ability).
Go to a shop on its gaming night, play the event and chat to people. Generally by speaking to people you will get some idea of how good they are at magic, certainly you’ll know if they’re substantially worse than you are pretty quickly. It’s harder to judge when someone is roughly as good as you, or substantially better (in the case of the latter, a lot of what they say will go over your head), and in these cases it’s worth giving people a chance; likely as not you will not be in a position to dismiss people who could help you. Clearly, watching people play will also help.
If there is already a pretty well established group, they’ll also be judging you, either as someone who could help them, or as a threat at PTQs. Naturally such groups are selective in nature*, because they don’t want someone who is substantially worse than them wasting their time. It might be that such a group is ok with you turning up and testing with them, but they’re definitely doing you a favour in this case – it’s not dissimilar to expecting a band to teach you how to play drums at their practice sessions. If they accept you, great, if they don’t immediately, be patient, and try and make friends with them. Don’t just get annoyed because they didn’t help you out – they’re not indebted to you.
Ideally, you want a wide range of skills in the group, otherwise you risk missing things, and redundancy.
By resources I mean time, money, cars, cards and a place to play. This is stuff that your group will need, and if you don’t have it, you’re going to struggle. There are ways to mitigate, and to an extent sharing will get you there, but resources are a big deal. So if you form a group of highly motivated beggars, you’re going to need to find a way to get cards, for instance. If you’re in a position of responsibility within the group, you should be considering this at various junctions; how can you help?
Personally, I think inviting people on the basis that they have resources, despite not being particularly skilled, is morally suspect. If someone is just terrible, but has 5 play sets of all the cards in Modern, you should keep this on an exchange based level – e.g. they’re probably cash rich, time poor, so you are nice to them and give them deck lists and share your thoughts, and they’re nice to you and loan you cards.
I think blurring the lines on this leads to some potentially crappy situations, where someone gets their feelings hurt. Really, it just comes down to trying to be honest and decent with people, and not using them.
I’d also avoid people who seem really able, but need to be called on the day to get them out of bed, and make an excuse not to come half the time. They’re wasting your time, and theirs. The people you really need to watch are the guys who only turn up when it’s in their interests, or just leech information and contribute nothing. This is scummy, but people do it, either intentionally or unintentionally. Again, it comes down to being honest and decent.
The Importance of Getting Along…
If it is possible, you should try and play cards with people who you actually like. This will be a better experience in terms of both enjoyment and productivity, because you’ll be better able to discuss things, and think without being irritated by the other person, but also for the more obvious reason that it sucks to spend your free time with people you don’t like. You should try and be reasonable about this sort of thing however, and if someone is just a bit quirky, some of the time maybe it’s down to you to get over your minor irritation at something meaningless. Magic players are pretty odd people, after all.
That said, you might be forced by circumstance to deal with someone you don’t like within a pre-established group, or because they’re really good friends with another person in the group, or because you’re the only two Magic players in your one horse town. In this case, you need to think about what matters to you more; the horrific nature of your playtest partner, or your desire to keep playing Magic.
I was reading about Penn and Teller recently, and it turns out they don’t spend much time together outside of work because they don’t share many interests. Despite this, each enjoys working with the other, and they feel this breathing space is a required aspect of their 37 year career. This made me think about Magic; it’s not everyone who I have played cards with who I would call/would have called my friend.
If you’re in a position of leadership, you should also be considering this sort of thing when you’re organizing testing or cars to PTQs – if person A doesn’t really get on with B, maybe there is a way to swap them around, or maybe person C is fine but annoying after a little while, so you encourage rotation during testing.
Have the right Discussions
To me this is one of the most important parts of the testing process, and why I generally get a lot more done in smaller groups. Being able to properly discuss the nature of a match up, or the problems faced by a particular deck in the format, or when to side in a certain card is the most useful thing a group can provide.
I’m pretty intense, and want to argue these things down to the best possible answer we can get to, and it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Generally what this means is that Ross Jenkins and I will spend 2 hours talking about 2 cards, come to a conclusion and then play one or the other. That’s more difficult in a bigger group, because it goes off at numerous tangents, but also because there needs to be a level of familiarity in place for that to work. Some people would definitely see this sort of lively discussion as an argument, but neither of us will come away from it offended.
Not everyone thinks the same way, and as such there needs to be an established way that the group communicates ideas (without people getting offended, or thinking the other person lost their temper, or letting their ego get in the way). This is a tricky thing to establish.
Sophistry and rhetoric are both bad things, and are to be avoided, along with any other sort of intellectual dishonesty. It might be that one person is better at getting their point across than another, and as such the less eloquent person’s opinion is minimised.
In another case, it might be that one person is funnier, or “plays better to a crowd” in which case; the group might end up taking on that person’s ideas more often than they should. The problem with this is that the objectives of a testing group differ from the objectives of a high school debating team; the latter attempts to score points, while the former attempts to seek the truth. It is imperative that this sort of behaviour is seen as negative by the group as a whole, and that there are people in the group who can spot this sort of thing as it happens, intentionally or otherwise.
Pet decks and “ownership” of ideas are also problematic. That people make irrational arguments in defence of “their deck”, or getting upset because someone criticized “their idea” is laughable; it is beyond obvious that such subjectivity is not in the interests of the group.
Lastly on this point I would like to say that it is imperative that a group consists of people who are willing and able to challenge each other both in terms of game play, but also in discussion. That said, it is counter-productive to make niggling, in substantial criticism, or simply “put it out there” that the other guy might be wrong. “That’s just your opinion, though” is as childish as it is intellectually cowardly.
Thanks for reading, thanks for sharing.
*some might say elitist, although I have always found this distinction bewildering. A group is by definition making a distinction between themselves and others, which could be argued to be elitist. It seems to me somewhat hypocritical to call groups you are excluded from elitist, and not apply the same term to those you are part of.