4 Problems Every Magic: The Gathering Team Will Experience, And Some Pragmatic Solutions For Them, by Graeme McIntyre


Team Work in Magic: the Gathering – Wisdom Fae Under the Bridge, by Graeme McIntyre

“You have to get along with people, but you also have to recognize that the strength of a team is different people with different perspectives and different personalities.” – Steve Case

I’ve been thinking about teams quite a bit recently, first as a result of my experience at the World Magic Cup, then because of my foray into Blizzard’s team based first person shooter, Overwatch. The structure of play in both of these environments is one in which your outcomes are partially determined by the behaviours of your team mates in a direct way, which has the potential to be a very frustrating experience, or a rewarding one. Which of these it will be is a question of realisation.

I’ve already written about the World Magic Cup, here. This was a good example of a positive outcome; I found the lead up to the event frustrating in many respects as it became more and more clear that Modern was in a pretty bad place for me in terms of my strengths, and I’m glad I deferred to the others in that respect. I think we did quite well in keeping our cool when we started quite poorly, too.

I’m going to discuss Overwatch a bit to illustrate a point, but I’m sure there are plenty of other team computer games where this would be just as bad…

I played my “placement games” at the earliest opportunity, thinking that by doing so, getting my initial ranking and unlocking the competitive game mode, I was doing the right thing (in retrospect this was a mistake – I’d have placed higher had I waited till I could play a few more characters, knew the map… could hit the broad side of a barn…). I placed 1100~ which is quite poor, given that most reasonable players are between 2000-2499. This was OK, I thought to myself, because I’d improve and go up. This did happen, but not before I went to 800, then clawed my way up to 1700.

It was very difficult because this level of the game is full of players who either don’t care if they win or lose, or just play the characters they like, irrespective of their usefulness to the team or applicability to the map they’re on, have bad situational awareness so they get “got” by certain heroes disproportionately… the list goes on. The very worst issue about it is the attitude towards losing and adversity held by many of them, though. *Nothing* was their fault, everyone on their team was holding them back, anyone who disagreed with this assessment was “cancer” and should “delete the game and kill themselves”.

Overwatch is a *Team* First Person Shooter, and it’s similar to Magic: the Gathering because in reality, Magic is a team game too. The Internet emboldens otherwise meek individuals, and so it is rare that you’ll be spoken to in quite as offensive terms in paper Magic, but the rest of these issues resemble Magic interactions very well – they’re Bad Beats Stories. It’s these people from whom you will need to build a team, though, unless you’re prepared to do all the work yourself on Magic Online against strangers. There are people who do test like this and are successful in doing so; I hate playing Magic Online extensively on my own and I don’t think I would bother playing the game at all if this was the means by which I had to do it, but that’s matter of personal preference. On the whole I think it’s better to work with others if that’s possible, however.

The ideal: What you think will happen

There is a tendency to think about teams like you’re forming a Magic: the Gathering version of the Avengers. The difference is that instead of finding a defensive fighter, a powerful hand to hand brute, a ninja/spy, a healer type person (you get the idea, I’m sure!) you’re trying for a limited specialist, a constructed specialist, a deck builder, a neysmith, a math person and a technical play specialist. Once you have that, you find an abandoned building to construct the hidden testing base under which, needless to say – includes a massive table which can easily sit a team draft pod, white boards and spot lights, computers in the back, Magic related podcast playing in the back ground and a collective “card armoury” which includes 4xnumber of players in the team copies of every card ever printed. Of course, you‘ll all go there and work round the clock preparing for events with like-minded individuals in a constant stream of good times.

The GPs won’t know what hit ‘em. It will be a blast.

The reality: What actually happens

There probably aren’t even six players who are appropriate in your city, either because they’re too bad and you don’t want to play with them, or because they’re too good and don’t want to play with you. You’re *really* unlikely to find each of the roles I mentioned, either. People quit, too, and leave a hole in your lineup, which is compounded by the previous points because you might realistically only be between two and four people, and when one of them leaves, you’re pretty close to shut down.

Your “hidden testing base” is – if you’re lucky – someone’s dining room. It might well be a poorly lit pub or a loud games store. There’s probably just about enough space for the group to test on the same table, probably there are a couple of pens between you, no white boards, but maybe some paper or a sharpie to write the proxies on, because let’s face it, no one who has any time to play owns all the cards.

When people can actually be in the same place at the same time because the stars have aligned in terms of other priorities, one of them is half an hour late, another needs to leave early, and the other two spend half the night arguing about semantic points because there is some beef between them.

Oh, and your driver flaked out last minute for the PPTQ. Again.

4 Problems Every Magic: The Gathering Team Will Experience, And Some Pragmatic Solutions For Them

In general, lower your expectations, and be patient. Don’t expect overnight success as you will almost certainly be disappointed, which leads to frustration and telling people where to go.

More specifically I think the problems fall into four categories:

  1. Personnel
  2. Resources
  3. Operationalisation
  4. Feedback response

1. Personnel: Finding the right people

This is mostly just a question of finding people who are *roughly* as good as you, and making friends with them. Easier said than done firstly because it’s hard to find people, and secondly because making friends isn’t something which everyone is good at. To the first point, I think many people are too picky because they’re likely not as good as they think they are, anyway, but also because it doesn’t really matter if you’re the equivalent of a 1700 and they’re a 1400 so long as they’re on the same page in terms of strategy because the difference in skill is a matter of keeping an eye out for if they mis-tapped their lands, or mis-sequenced their spells slightly, and trying to optimise their play and help them get better. They’ll learn faster than you because they’re playing with someone better, and soon you’ll be a 1800 and they’re 1600, then 1900 and 1800. You’ll also probably be close friends after the 18 months or whatever it takes to accomplish this, and they’ll appreciate you having mentored them. This is basically the game and what you’re trying to accomplish.

Making friends is tricky.

I’ve been lucky in this respect because even when I was a kid – and a total dick – people in general gave me multiple chances and even went out of their way for me quite a bit. I think this has largely came down to the fact that I’m reasonably funny and ultimately do the decent thing 99% of the time, even if I can be temperamental and impatient.

This could be a whole article on its own I expect, but I’d feel as though it was condescending to write it in that manner, so here are some loose points.

When I first moved to Nottingham I was in a car on the way to a PTQ, and one of the people in the car had shown very little interest in me and had been a bit on the snotty side, thinking of themselves as a more established and better player, and me as a new guy. The driver asked me how the how the previous PTQ season went, and I said I won one quite early, he asked if it was my first Pro Tour, and I said it was my 5th. The other passenger drastically changed his attitude to me immediately, and was all chat. This sort of thing is pretty telling – if you’re looking at people purely in terms of their potential usefulness to you, then you ought to be a lot more subtle than this guy was.

Ask questions, and make a point of listening. *Don’t* start telling people about how you know best right off the bat. Try and show an interest on a human level, unless you are both totally disinterested and incapable of hiding that (although, that’s a difficult road to travel and not just because of Magic). Try to be useful but without trying to bribe people.

2. Resources will be limited, so be organised, and be proactive

Resources are a difficult one because they tend to have quantifiable limits; there is only so much you can do if no one owns any cards, say, or has no time to play. What you can do is try to use what you have optimally, which is a matter of being organised and proactive, a problem area for many Magic players, in my experience. Be the person to ask when people can meet up and create a table in Excel if it is sufficiently complicated that this is needed. Be the person to ask in advance, so your team can set aside time at the same time to get things done. Similarly, you can be the person who asks around for cards and a lift a bit.

Share what resources you have, both in terms of physical things like space to play and cards, but also if you can get something done for the group which needs doing during your lunch break, try and do it. Do your best to facilitate the smooth running of the team – if everyone does a little you can make some progress and get more done. *Don’t* be the opposite of this – e.g. the guy who needs to be asked a million times to give back cards, or turn up on time, or send money on PayPal for the flights someone else booked, etc. This is largely a matter of mutual respect and its absence breeds a poor environment to operate in. It’s not work, sure, but professionalism needn’t be laborious. In fact, quite the opposite; the reason people bother with professionalism is because it is more efficient and reduces the amount of labour required.

3. Operationalisation: Apply attention to both the macro and mirco levels

This is something I’ve written about before in terms of testing methodology, so I won’t repeat that massively in an effort to keep the old word count down. Operations require attention on both a macro and mirco level. Macro operations consist of things like making sure that there is a clear plan as to what your testing goals are on a week to week basis – which decks need looking at? What decks are each of you thinking of playing? Is someone playing a deck the others aren’t, which needs attention in respect to match ups? What new decks are there? Are the sideboard games getting enough attention? This is all stuff which needs to be thought about and discussed (briefly) so that testing time is used well, for all parties.

Mirco operations are things like how are both players sideboarding? Is one player mulliganing poorly? Playing badly? Are players arguing over things in an ineffective way (e.g. squabbling, rather than discussing)?

This area is the actual *doing* of testing, so it is important to get it right. There is plenty of Magic literature on how one might address the micro points I have mentioned, while the marco points can be found if you search for workplace meetings related content. The person who takes most of this on needn’t be the best player in the group – the key skills are an even keel, willingness to listen to the rest of the team, strong communication skills for the purposes of facilitating discussion and – where needed – defusing conflict.

4. Feedback response: How do we interpret results? And how do we respond to the feedback?

Feedback response is a two part issue. First, it speaks to the way the group interprets results in testing and in events, and second to the way in which they respond to feedback from each other. I’ve said this more times than I care to remember, but it can’t really be said enough: ego is the biggest problem most Magic players have, and it’s a killer in group dynamics. If someone disagrees with you, that’s not a slight on you. In fact, it’s arrogant to think it’s about you at all; an idea you express is not an extension of your person, it’s just stimulus out there in an existential sense.

Even if something is a critical remark about you or your behaviour, this ought to be dealt with in an adult way. It’s fairly absurd to get irritated with someone for asking you to play less sloppily/stop playing with your phone while you’re playing/speak up/whatever. Don’t get defensive, just listen to what they have to say, decide if it’s reasonable or not, then act accordingly.

In terms of solutions to this issue, I have little to offer because I realise that patience is key in this respect, and I have very little empathy for this sort of thing, so find it very difficult to be patient about it. This is why you want someone level headed to sort these issues out!

In respect to winning and losing in games and testing, this is often discussed in terms of tilt and being results based. It’s very common for people to tilt, and it’s very common for people to both say things like “this deck must be good because it won the event” as well as draw conclusions from very small sample sizes. Generally, as a person gets better over time this will lessen, especially being results based, but both tilt and sample sizes are persistent, niggling issues. People want quick fixes both in terms of the testing process but also rewards from events. All you can do is try to gently discourage this in others, and attempt to do so with your own thoughts, too. This will require a great deal of introspection.


Put the friendship before the cards

As a closing remark, I feel I ought to say something about the nature of the relationships that Magic play testing teams can form. My closest friends are all people I met playing cards, there’s no doubt about it. People I met and went through a process not unlike what I’ve discussed in this article. It’s very important not to lose sight of that, and it’s quite easy for it to happen. There are various people throughout the years with whom I have been very close, and ultimately parted ways with, either gradually or through some big fallout, and in each case a meaningful percentage of the reason for this has been because I lost sight of the fact that these people had dual identities in my life (Magic testing partner and friend) and I over-stressed the Magic: the Gathering related part of it. It’s not important overall who was, on balance, at fault; what matters is that meaningful percentage. Put the friendship before the cards.

Community Question: In your opinion, what is the single biggest challenge a Magic: the Gathering team will face?

Anyway, that’s it for this week!

All the best,

Graeme McIntyre

4 Problems Every Magic: The Gathering Team Will Experience, And Some Pragmatic Solutions For Them, by Graeme McIntyre
“You have to get along with people, but you also have to recognize that the strength of a team is different people with different perspectives and different personalities.” - Steve C

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Graeme McIntyre
I've been playing magic since the end of Rath Block, and I've been a tournament regular since Invasion Block. I started studying for a PhD in Sociology at University of Leicester in 2017. I was born In Scotland, but moved to Nottingham three years ago, seeking new oppertunities both academic and magical. I play regularly with David Inglis, Alastair Rees and Neil Rigby. I've been on 5 Pro Tours the 2016 English World Cup Team, and Scottish 2003 European Championship Team, but what I really bring to the table is experience. I've played 136 Pro Tour Qualifiers, 18 Grand Prixs, 11 National Championships, 13 World Magic Cup Qualifers, 51 Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifiers and more little tournaments than I can remember. More than anything else, my articles are intended to convey the lessons of this lived experience. Likes - robust decks, be they control, midrange, beatdown or combo. Cryptic Commands, Kird Apes and Abzan Charms. Dislikes - decks that draw hot and cold. Urza's Tower, Life From the Loam and Taigam's Scheming.