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Motor City Madness

Written by Jeff Zandi on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Limited, Standard

Motor City Madness

Jeff Zandi

Jeff Zandi is a level 2 judge and an eight-time veteran of the Pro Tour. He has written continuously about Magic for over eighteen years. His team, the Texas Guildmages, have the longest running regular game in history, meeting at his home every Tuesday night since 1996.

[Manager’s Note: Jeff Zandi passed away Friday night after suffering a heart attack, the outpouring of love and support for his child and family was quickly spread on social media as we saw people from all over give tribute to this giant in the Magic community. Jeff was a wonderful person who positively impacted so many lives. In honor of him, we are running some of our most favorite pieces from his time at LegitMTG.com. Rest well Jeff, we’ll all miss you. This piece was originally published on September 2, 2015.]

You ever do something crazy because it seemed like a good idea at the time? Has a pretty girl ever convinced you to do something that later seemed ill-advised? It’s happened to me a few times. I should actually be old enough to know better by now, but sometimes you just have to go for it! In this case, it was Lady Magic that beckoned to me from faraway Detroit, with the promise of one of competitive Magic’s less frequent gatherings, a chance to play Team Sealed. Team Sealed is the most skillful of all of Magic’s limited formats, an opportunity too good for an old grinder like me to pass up. But you need some partners for a caper like this, and nobody was talking to me about Grand Prix Detroit until Joe Panuska sends me a Facebook message around midnight back in June.

Out of the blue, Joe asks me if I already have plans for Grand Prix Detroit. He tells me that if I’m available he would like me to join him as a member of Team LegitMTG. He told me that our third man would be Levi Gaines, a local hotshot from LegitMTG’s store in Kentucky. To sweeten the deal, Joe tells me that Nate Lawrence, the top guy at LegitMTG, is sponsoring the team. He offered to pay for the team’s entry fees and hotel accommodations. All we had to do was figure out how to get there. Joe’s go-to is Greyhound Buslines. My snap response is that I’d rather drive. Of course, since my primary education was entirely provided by small-town Texas public schools, I have no idea where Detroit is or how far away it is. Of course, the distance and the transportation is just one issue. I have to check my schedule and clear it with my wife. I told Joe that I hadn’t made any Detroit plans (I hadn’t considered it very seriously up to this point) but that I LOVE team sealed and that I would look into it.

Joe’s motivation was easy to understand, he had just finished forty-third at Grand Prix Las Vegas in the biggest Magic tournament of all time. The bus thing? That’s pure Joe. He says he’s taken the bus from Dallas to Baltimore and back again more times than he can remember. He doesn’t mind the bus. The man doesn’t drive. He gets around on foot and on public transportation. Public transit is probably a lot better back in Baltimore where he grew up. In Dallas, most people need a car for even the smallest of trips to the post office or the bank or the grocery store. On the subject of GP Las Vegas, I played in that tournament as well, I just didn’t have the same high quality results that Mr. Panuska experienced. While playing in the largest Magic event ever, I also played in the Colossus, the World Series of Poker event designed to attract the largest-ever attendance in tournament poker history. I’m proud to be a part of a small number of people who played in both of these events. While the idea was for this year’s GP Las Vegas to hold up to a gigantic 10,000 players, the plain fact is that the record-breaking event was cut into two halves, splitting the overall attendance of just under 8,000. Meanwhile, a mile up the road at the Rio, event number five of the 2015 World Series of Poker schedule, the Colossus, crushed all previous attendance records with 22,374 players. I was in the early session on Friday. If I had survived to day two I wouldn’t have played poker again until Sunday afternoon. If I had qualified for day two in both events, I would have been in an interesting position on Sunday with some hard decisions. Unfortunately, I made day two in neither event. To make a long story short, my exciting trip to Las Vegas for the Grand Prix set me back a few bucks. With a “home game,” Grand Prix Dallas/Fort Worth, coming up in July, it was easy, back in June, to not want to think about a long road trip to Detroit. But team sealed… it’s just such an attractive format to me. It ought to be more popular, I’m convinced it’s the most skillful limited format in Magic: the Gathering.

I did the first thing any intelligent person in my position would do: I ran the idea of GP Detroit past my wife. Mrs. Zandi likes to keep up to date on my movements about the country. She is extremely supportive to me in all ways, but her patience for the Magic side of my life is legendary and well-documented. She has allowed her home to be invaded by Magic players every Tuesday night for the past nineteen and a half years. That’s a record, people! When I tell her about Detroit, she nods approvingly. I get a rather severe eye-roll when she hears the part about how I’m going to drive the whole way. Still, we’re good to go. I alert Joe. He’s excited for the trip, and so am I. He’s still talking about the pros of riding a bus across country, compared to taking a car. I tell him that I hadn’t taken a Greyhound bus since the Nixon administration. It turns out that Joe has never played team sealed before. I know Joe will be good at the format, however, because he has the same addiction to sealed deck that I do. Joe and I would rather play sealed deck than any other format in Magic. That makes us a pair of pretty rare birds. For most people, sealed deck, and limited in general, is the necessary evil that you sometimes have to do while you take care of your main Magic business with constructed decks. I feel almost exactly the opposite.

Sealed luck. That’s what people say about sealed deck. I haven’t ever felt that way. Uh, yeah, I understand the random elements involved in sealed. You open six booster packs, you have no control over the contents of those packs. On the other hand, you DO have control over how well you know the format. In relation to GP Detroit, that means that Joe and I wanted to get as much sealed deck practice with Origins as possible as soon as the set came out in July. We communicated back and forth on Facebook, but the simple fact is, Joe and I hardly knew each other before this trip. We ran into each other at an Origins sealed deck PPTQ in Arlington on July 18th. Joe is there with a couple of fellows from his side of town, Dallas. He and I are both there very early Saturday morning and we’re chatting pretty easily back and forth. When more guys show up that are part of my weekly draft thing on Tuesday nights (the mighty Texas Guildmages) I get sort of distracted by them and don’t talk much more to Joe for the rest of the day. This PPTQ in Arlington, Texas, is really my first time to play with Origins. I went on a family road trip (more driving!) that started the previous Saturday, the Origins prerelease weekend. However, I did play in the midnight prerelease at my local game store, Roll2Play in Coppell, building a fast white/red deck featuring a foil prerelease edition of Kytheon. I played one match, got the win, and then dropped so I could go home and get some sleep before driving all over West Texas starting the next morning. In the Arlington sealed deck PPTQ I played a green/white deck trying to splash for Chandra’s Ignition with three Mountains and one copy of Evolving Wilds. I knew the odds of this splash’s success were small. It never worked out, I had Ignition in my hand two different times without getting the second red mana source. Only once, in the last match of the day, did I have two red mana in play, but I didn’t manage to draw Chandra’s Ignition in that one. It was a small tournament, just five rounds of Swiss, but I managed to get knocked out of contention at 2-2. The rest of my deck was also flawed, too many expensive six and seven-casting-cost cards in a deck with no real mana ramp plan. I just didn’t know how fast the format was. Learning how fast your sealed format is (Origins is fairly fast) and whether you can successfully play a third color (you shouldn’t try it with Origins) is how you make sealed deck a less random format. You aren’t going to learn this stuff without playing a lot of Magic. After bombing in this PPTQ on Saturday, I was back at it a day later at Common Ground Games in Dallas. This tournament had only slightly more players as the day before, 39 to yesterday’s twenty-seven, which means today’s event calls for six rounds of Swiss before cutting to the top eight draft. Sunday’s tournament wasn’t a PPTQ, unfortunately, but it was a $1K SCG IQ as well as a Grand Prix Trial for GP London. GP London would be the same weekend as GP Detroit, but I’m not here for the byes at GP London (it’s way too far to drive to…) I’m strictly here for the hot sealed deck action. In this tournament I played blue/white with Tragic Arrogance, one copy of Suppression Bonds and two copies of Claustrophobia. This is the day I learned that Tragic Arrogance can be a sick blowout card that’s actually difficult for opponents to play around. In game three of the first round against a good Dallas player named Thos Fisher, my late game Tragic Arrogance made it possible for me to start the day. My round two opponent didn’t show me much in our two short games, but she was playing blue as I am. My third round opponent is a lot more challenging, and he is also playing blue, but with black. After he won game one of our match I made a note that he’s playing counterspells. I lost the match to the UB player, Michael Smith, but won my next two and drew into the top eight. I drafted blue/black and felt like I was starting the get the hang of Origins limited. I lost a heartbreaker in the semifinals to Peter Lu’s red/blue artifact deck. Peter was at the tournament in Arlington yesterday where he did about as well as I did. It turns out Peter Lu is a friend of Joe Panuska’s.

The next time I see Joe is at Grand Prix Dallas on July 25th. Joe picks up where he left off at GP Las Vegas. So did I, more or less. That means that while I was licking my 3-3 wounds on the sidelines, Joe was getting ready for day two after an 8-1 day one. Joe did not crush the booster draft side of Origins limited the same way he did with Modern Masters at Las Vegas. As a matter of fact, Joe won only one of his six matches on day two at Fort Worth. Event organizers continue to call their event “Grand Prix Dallas” and then actually run the event in Fort Worth, an entirely different city with an entirely different vibe and personality. Zandi, aren’t you just splitting hairs? Isn’t Fort Worth a suburb of Dallas or something? No, not at all. Is Jersey City a suburb of New York City? I don’t think so. Downtown Dallas and downtown Fort Worth (where this and the past several “GP Dallas” events have been held) are thirty-two miles apart. Okay, rant over. We know what’s going on, the event space rental is twice as costly in Dallas than it is in Fort Worth. Just about every major Magic event in the area for the past ten years has been held at the Fort Worth Convention Center. I’ve run many smaller events, like Pro Tour Qualifiers and prerelease events there over the years. It’s been the home of my favorite tournament, the Hunter Burton Memorial, for the past two years.

Even though Joe didn’t crush day two of the Grand Prix, he made it to day two and that’s the important thing. He didn’t just go 1-5 on Sunday, he went 1-5 against world-class competition. You could crush a lot of booster drafts in your local game store, or even on Magic Online, and then go 1-5 on day two of a limited Grand Prix. The difference in skill level between day one and day two at a limited Grand Prix is vast. Joe was anything but discouraged after Grand Prix Dallas (Fort Worth). He went home more determined than ever to do well at GP Detroit. Two weeks after GP Dallas, Joe took the train up north to the station closest to my house. I live in Coppell, which, unlike Fort Worth, really is a suburb of Dallas. I picked Joe up at the train station and we talked about team sealed over pizza at a little joint around the corner from the Dallas Cowboys have their offices and training facility at Valley Ranch. That night, in Panuska’s first visit to our weekly booster draft, Joe went 3-1 in Swiss before narrowly being defeated in the semifinals by Texas Guildmage Brian Heine. The other finalist was Cesar Collazo, a male entertainer who moonlights as a competitive Magic player. Cesar reached day two for the first time at Grand Prix Dallas (Fort Worth) and managed to finish in the money on Sunday. He’s got rock hard abs AND he can draft a winning deck. What exactly is the excuse for the rest of us?

The Odyssey Begins

We kept up with each other by text, phone and message board, but Joe and I didn’t meet up again until Thursday morning when I picked him up at his home in the old-fashioned but upscale uptown neighborhood called Oak Lawn, an area I called home twenty years ago when I last lived in an apartment. I pick him up in the red, race-proven Nissan Versa rental that I picked up from the airport yesterday. In the new age of car rental, it was fun to be shown the various cars that I could select from. I chose the smallest of the cars, the Versa, even though I could have had a more comfortable and powerful car for the same money. The key, however, wasn’t style, it was gas mileage. The Versa promised something between thirty and forty miles per gallon, an important feature for a car trip of just over twelve hundred miles EACH WAY. Joe eyed the car, and its crowded front seat, suspiciously. His wife looked on as we shoved his two backpacks into the rear hatch. Between us, we had four bags back there and they took up all the space. Where was Levi supposed to fit when we left Bowling Green, Kentucky, with him in the car tomorrow morning? In the back seat with the big plastic cooler, that’s where! Joe stuck a few things he wanted to keep cold in the cooler that I had stuffed with ice and bottled water and we were off. Almost. Joe first gave me a gift, tin toy race car from the toy store where he works. Very apropos, the box’s lettering said “Grand Prix Racer.” We were on a sort of tight schedule, trying to cover today’s drive from Texas to Kentucky in less than twelve hours. We would, indeed, be racing to our Grand Prix.

As we pulled away from the curb of his home on this sunny August morning, Joe made a movie reference from The Jerk. I immediately knew I would like traveling with this guy. As a matter of fact, we made record time to Texarkana and into Arkansas. I’ve driven to Little Rock a couple of dozen times in my life, it’s about five hours total and the most grueling part to me is the part between Dallas and Texarkana. Dallas to Texarkana is generally three hours, we did it today in well under two and a half. It’s always easy for me to get in a hurry on a long road trip, but today we have an actual deadline of sorts. We’re supposed to meet up in Bowling Green, Kentucky, at nine o’clock tonight with Levi Gaines and Nate Lawrence at a bar and grill called Double Dogs. One reason that the time (and the miles) sped past so quickly was that Joe Panuska brought a lot of good music along. Everything about Joe screams ‘eclectic’ so it’s no surprise that his musical tastes are mixed, but I’ve never met anyone whose two favorite styles of music are heavy metal and hip-hop. In fact, the first album Joe ever bought for himself, as a wee lad, was Metallica’s Master of Puppets from 1986. At the time, he was already listening to M.C. Hammer’s 2 Legit 2 Quit on cassette tape. The tape came with the jam box his dad gave him for Christmas that year (1991).

Our first stop was someplace called Gurdon, Arkansas, at a tiny convenience store that advertised fried chicken but didn’t have any cooked. Cool. Just the Diet Dr. Pepper, then… At least the bathroom wasn’t too bad. Over the next four days, I would observe that the quality of public restrooms declines precipitously as you travel east and north. Sorry, people of Ohio and Michigan, your public restrooms, at gas stations on the highway at least, are terrible. We were getting very good gas mileage, a little over thirty-three miles to the gallon, even though we were spending a lot of time at about eighty miles an hour. I didn’t get a full tank in Gurdon because the credit card readers were not working on their pumps. Since I wasn’t getting my tank filled with fried chicken, the Versa’s tank would have to suffer as well. I gave the lady a twenty for gas without figuring out how much gas that would be. It turned out to be 7.6 gallons’ worth. We didn’t stop again until we were slightly past Memphis, Tennessee. We filled up with gas at a station whose bathroom, in a separate outdoor building, was too awful to contemplate. We crossed the road to a slightly larger convenience store attached to a McDonalds. I crushed two regular hamburgers and bought another bottled drink for the road. This tank, 9.6 gallons, carried us all the way past Nashville, where our road bent north towards the blue grass of Kentucky. We arrived in Bowling Green on fumes with half an hour to spare with regards to our estimated time of arrival at Double Dogs. Joe sat outside, waiting for our new friends to show up and talking to his wife on the phone. I secured a table near the front and ordered an appetizer while drinking iced tea and watching preseason football. In a little while the rest of our party arrives. There are six of us, in all: me and Joe and Levi, Team Legit for the GP, along with Nate Lawrence, the owner of Legit MTG, his wife, Jenn, and Cory Johnson. Cory has worked at the store for about six years and is the store manager nowadays, leaving Nate more time to sort his zillions of Magic cards. We eat, we drink, we make merry. The conversation continues as we exit the restaurant and head for our cars. Nate opens the side of his wife’s minivan and starts throwing Legit MTG t-shirts at us, three shirts each. Actually, Nate sort of made Levi, who he knows pretty well, work a little bit for his shirts. Levi asked pretty please until Nate was satisfied and Levi got his shirts. From there, Joe and I followed Levi out of town a few miles to the farm house where he is currently residing. It’s the family home that used to belong to Levi’s grandfather. The first room, as you walk in past a big multi-car disconnected garage on their property, is a large den with two leather sofas and a large leather arm chair and a big screen TV. Joe and I are too tired to even turn on the TV. Levi offers to give up his bed but Joe and I insist that we’ll be fine on the leather sofas. We were. It wasn’t like we were going to get a lot of sleep anyway, we were honor-bound to jump up and hit the road to Detroit as soon as the sun was up. Dawn arrived, and Joe and I encountered Levi’s uncle, who lives in the house. Levi’s uncle asked us the usual questions about Magic. We tried to reassure Mr. Gaines that his nephew Levi was not wasting his prime adult years doing something stupid.

We headed north out of Kentucky and into Ohio. The only thing I knew about Ohio was that it was supposed to be high in the middle and round on both ends. That wasn’t my experience driving through it. What I’ll remember about Ohio is its vastness. Obviously not an El Paso to Texarkana kind of vastness, that trip takes over twelve hours. Still, Ohio, bottom to top, is a lengthy drive. We cruised by Cincinnati without stopping. We stopped somewhere north of there and ate lunch. Levi and I went into a Chinese buffet on a hunch. Joe balked and walked to a Taco Bell. The buffet was pretty good, neither of us felt like really filling up while in the middle of a long day on the road. We’re out of gas again in Troy, Ohio. Later, we pass a town that, I swear, at first I thought was called Wikipedia. My bad, people of Ohio, the town is actually called Wapokoneta, named after a Shawnee chief. It’s also the home town of Neil Armstrong. Unfortunately, one small step through Neil Armstrong’s backyard still leaves one giant leap before we get out of Ohio. I swear, I was in Ohio for so long that I started to think I was running for President. I didn’t actually start to think I was going crazy until we drove past Bowling Green. Holy Toledo, have we been driving in circles all day today? No, Ohio has its own Bowling Green. Oh, then we took the 475 loop so that we wouldn’t actually have to visit Toledo.

As we passed into Michigan, I asked the other dudes, jokingly, how close would we get to Detroit before we started to see signs of societal breakdown. I was kidding. Not long, as it turns out. First of all, there was suddenly this major body of water just off our starboard bow. It’s Lake Erie. I’d always wanted to see a Great Lake in person. They’re great. The real problem was that there were major traffic challenges ahead of us on highway 75. Both Joe and Levi were calling out reports of traffic problems that they found on their smart phones. We didn’t take the first detour that was recommended and we spent half an hour sitting parked on the highway because of it. The next two times a detour was recommended, we took the detour. These traffic problems sunk our hopes of reaching the Grand Prix in time to play in some practice team sealed events this evening. They starting firing single elimination team sealed events at 3:00 pm with the last scheduled one going off at 6:00 pm. We didn’t get to Detroit until almost seven. Actually, that was fine with me, I was beat from the road. Also, I was pleasantly surprised by the Holiday Inn Express that we checked into in downtown Detroit. Actually, everything about the Holiday Inn Express was a pleasant surprise. The valet parking was effortless, we got into our room with minimal hassles (thanks to Nate Lawrence paying ahead of time for the room) and, above all, the room on the ninth floor was solid with good air conditioning and very decent wifi. When built in 1965, this seventeen floor hotel (under another name then) was one of Detroit’s first high-rise buildings. The individual floors are not extremely wide, I think each floor might have twenty rooms. The seventeenth floor has a small indoor swimming pool. I don’t know if these historical facts are completely true, I just looked them up on Wapokoneta.

While we wouldn’t be walking the three blocks (they’re very long blocks) to the Cobo Center tonight, it doesn’t mean we wouldn’t be practicing for tomorrow’s tournament. First, though, food. All three of us stared at our little black rectangles, throwing out restaurant names and descriptions and distances. Finally, we found a hotdog joint just one block away on Lafayette. Actually, we found two, next door to each other. We ate at the Lafayette Coney Island, which is located directly next to American Coney Island. These two started as one, as we’re told, before friction split up the ownership. It’s kind of like the two factories that, as the TV commercial would have you believe, manufacture the left and right Twix cookies separately. Lafayette Coney Island sells one product, hot dogs. American Coney Island also primarily sells hot dogs. At the risk of starting another food war (the two joints were featured on Food Wars on the Travel Channel back in 2010) the two restaurants seem to be serving the exact same thing. A regular Coney costs $2.60 and consists of a hotdog (with a natural casing that sort of makes a crisp sound when you bite through it) covered in a thin chili sauce (I’m told it’s made with beef hearts) with mustard and quite a lot of diced raw onion. I like onion on my chili dogs but I had to knock off about half of the onions that came on mine. If you order the special, as Joe and Levi did, your chili dog comes with ground hamburger meat on it as well. Not a hamburger patty, but loose hamburger crumbles. Tasty as hell. The place is small and tightly packed. The menu is on the wall, a waiter walks over and takes our order, committing it all to memory. I mean, there are only four or five things you can order. When he brings us our food, it arrives on six different tiny plastic plates like back in public school. The waiter has all the little plates balanced on one arm. It’s one of the things they do here, evidently. You can see pictures of this same waiter doing the same trick on magazines and newspapers hanging framed on the walls. Walking out the door, past the stack of dozens of hotdogs fresh off the grill, we peek next door at American Coney Island. Whaddayaknow… stacks of dozens of hotdogs fresh off of the grill. I wish the owners of these two fine businesses would find a way to make peace and put the band back together. Either that or separate the two places a little bit. Until then, however, the center of the hotdog universe is surely held together by the Lafayette Building at Griswold Street between Michigan Avenue and West Lafayette Boulevard.


Coffee Break’s Over, Back on Your Heads

When we get back to the hotel we pass some Magic nerds, halfway hoping something might be going on in the common area on the first floor. When there isn’t, we ride the elevator back up to room 905 and get to practicing. Practicing, in this case, has nothing to do with playing any games of Magic. We’re worried about the unusual procedures involved in team sealed. We’re concerned about taking twelve booster packs and turning them into three good decks in just sixty minutes. Timed team deck construction, that’s what we’re going to practice tonight. Sure, we’ll play a few games with the decks that we end up with, just to get a feel of the power level and how games play between decks of this particular power level. In limited, it’s almost always true that decks created from eight-man booster drafts are higher in power than decks created from opening six booster packs (sealed deck) in the same format. The common wisdom is that the three decks created from twelve packs in team sealed are significantly better than normal sealed decks and at least as good as average booster draft decks.

Why are team sealed decks better? The simplest reason is because every good card that gets opened in your team sealed pool finds a home in one of the three decks. It’s extremely common, though never exciting, to open an individual sealed deck pool of six boosters and have good rares that can’t realistically be in the same deck with each other. In terms of Origins sealed, there’s the deck I built at the Arlington PPTQ. I had good white and good green, both were very deep in playables. My red cards were not very good but I had a Chandra’s Ignition. I wanted it in the deck so I tried to shove a couple of Mountains and an Evolving Wilds into what was already a solid white/green deck. It was a mistake, not just because everyone says you can’t play three colors in Origins, but because it just plain didn’t work. In this case, everyone is right, Origins is not a three-colored limited format, it’s a two-colored limited format. Without chasing that rabbit for too long, the reasons have to do with a lack of good color fixing. At every sealed deck tournament (normal singles) you’ll hear player after player explain that their pool was too evenly divided with good cards in too many colors to play. The key to a good sealed deck is playing as many of your best cards as possible. In team sealed, every one of the good cards in your pool should find a home in one of the three decks.

The hard part of team sealed isn’t opening good cards, you have no more control over what you open than in individual sealed deck. The challenge in team sealed is working together to get the three best possible decks built in the one hour time limit. Maybe you think you’re a pretty chill person, easily able to work together with teammates without conflict. When faced with team sealed, you might be surprised how hard it is to agree on things. Practice helps. We took twelve booster packs and, before cracking them, we started a one hour countdown timer. We quickly opened the packs and sorted the cards by color. Then we laid out the cards so that we could see everything. We got some good advice from the gang on the Limited Resources podcast (you gotta give props where they are deserved) that because of the time limit and the limited table space you are working with in team sealed, it’s important to cull the unplayable and even the less-playable cards out of each color before you lay out the cards on the table. Obviously there are some cards in each color that are straight up unplayable. Also, there are cards in each color that you would only want for sideboarding purposes. You should put these cards to the side for now. Also, potentially playable but generally bad cards in each color should also be set aside for the time being. These are less-than-stellar cards that you might end up needing as filler for one of the three decks, but they aren’t the kind of cards that will in any way influence your decisions on what decks to build. My normal method of laying out sealed deck pools is to lay out each color in a column so that each card’s name can be clearly seen. I put the creatures at the top of the column and the spells at the bottom. I lay out the columns in color pie order. I make a sixth column for artifacts and place the gold cards in one of the colors required to play the card. Joe had a new idea and we tried it both in our practices Friday night and in the GP on Saturday. His idea was to arrange the cards by casting cost, low to high, left to right, first one color and then another. When we were finished laying out the playable cards you could easily see which colors had the best curve. It also took a little less room somehow.

The next thing we did was to try and identify the most broken deck, the deck that went together the most perfectly. In both practice builds Friday night, as well as on Saturday morning, the three of us were able to agree pretty much right away what the best deck was. From there, the going was a little tougher. Any choice of colors for the second deck immediately put the third possible deck into a squeeze. On Saturday, the best single deck our pool could produce was definitely blue and red. However, choosing the other two decks was very difficult, just as it was in two practice builds Friday night. The white had Suppression Bonds, a decent curve of mostly small creatures, and Tragic Arrogance. I wanted to build around Tragic Arrogance and thought white could borrow just a few things from blue (like one of the two Claustrophobia enchantments) and make a good white/blue deck that had creatures early and control cards for later in games. This move would have left green and black for the third deck. Lots of people look at their green/black first. I’ll admit that I look at blue/red first and then black/green. No matter which order you would have chosen to study our card pool, the blue/red deck easily came together while the green/black deck didn’t have a lot going for it, at least not as far as Elves were concerned. What black did have going for it was Languish and two copies of Weight of the Underworld and Priest of the Blood Rite. We ended up putting the black and white cards together. This left our green cards sitting all alone. Joe thought hard about how to put a little of the blue with the green, then a little bit of the black. The three decks we ended up with were blue/red, white/black and nearly mono green with a white splash. As time ticked away on Saturday, Levi was putting the finishing touches on the blue/red deck while I was doing the same with the white/black deck. As we were finishing entering the three decks on the deck checklists, I believe it suddenly occurred to Joe that we had, without specifically saying so, assigned the three decks. I believe Joe had hoped we were going to finish building the three decks and then have a manly debate over which deck should be played by which player. That didn’t really happen. This is another illustration of how important, and how challenging, it is to communicate everything with your teammates when you are taking on the challenge of team sealed. The bottom line is that we didn’t come up with three good decks, which is the goal, we came up with two good decks and a third deck that could try real hard but which would probably not win much.

This is not a debate about the quality of the card pool. You will always wonder if you got a good enough pool of cards relative to the competition. The quality of your team sealed card pool is out of your control. What is in your control are all the steps needed to work together with your teammates to build the three best decks. I don’t think the best strategy is to build two very good decks and allow one deck to be seriously below average, or even average. We weren’t trying to do that on Saturday in Detroit, but it happened anyway. The goal has to be three very good decks. As far as the assignment of decks to certain individuals on your team, I don’t think there is one perfect way to do it, but I am completely sure that no one on your team should be surprised or unhappy with the deck they end up with. How is that plan going to succeed? I don’t know how realistic it is to completely finish three decks before deciding who is going to play which deck, but whatever method you use, be sure that each player is happy playing their deck.

team photo from GP Detroit

Time to Battle

The first match of Panuska/Zandi/Gaines was against Barr/Doty/Monroe from someplace about two hours from Detroit in Ohio. The order of our names, by the way, is also our player designation, A-B-C, determined by the order our DCI numbers were entered on the website at registration time several weeks ago. Professional Events Services, the tournament organizer for this event, didn’t make this plain at all. Many teams we talked to believed that they would be assigning the A-B-C designation to their teammates on the day of the event. The way team sealed works is that although you build your decks together, the matches are individually contested, the A player on your team plays a normal best-of-three-games match against the A player of the other team. Our B plays their B, our C plays their C. There has been some conjecture about the best way to assign A, B and C to your team. Put the fastest player in the middle, B, so he can easily help the player on his left and right when he is finished with his match. Some people say you should put the least experienced sealed player in the middle so he can get help from his teammates on either side. We gave our DCI numbers to our silent benefactor, Nate Lawrence at Legit MTG, and he entered them in whatever order on Professional Events Services website when he signed us up. Little did we know that we were being locked into Panuska-Zandi-Gaines order weeks before the event. Anyway, that’s how it happened in this particular case. My round one opponent is Jeremy Doty and he’s playing black/white enchantments. Game one is pretty lengthy but he manages to turn the tide late in the game to beat me. Game two was about the same. The simple fact is he won both games late with Shadows of the Past. The scry effect was good earlier in the games for him, the activated ability was the straw that broke the camel’s back in both games. Just as I finish my second game, Levi, on my right, is finishing his and he has also been defeated. Joe and his opponent are starting game three. People around us are telling us that the match is over as soon as one team has won two of the individual matches. We ask a judge and he isn’t confidant of how the results slip should be filled out. I can tell you, both as a player and a judge experienced with team sealed, that once upon a time, you definitely were supposed to finish all matches if there was time available. If all three of your team’s matches were wins you filled out the slip 3-0 in your team’s favor. If the third match was the deciding one, your slip would reflect that with a 2-1 score. Not today, apparently. A second judge, who seems more confidant, assures us that regardless of what is entered on the match reporting slip, the winning team for any given match will simply be given one win and the losing team will be given one loss. In other words, our first team match, in which Levi and I each lost and in which Joe and his opponent did not bother to finish their match, would be reported as 1-0 in the other team’s favor. This means that the third and fourth tiebreakers, your own game win percentage and your opponent’s game win percentage, were not being used in this tournament. In this tournament, the only statistic that would count is whether or not you won your team’s match, a feat that you accomplish by winning two of your team’s three matches in any given round. Confused yet? We were, too, though it made a little more sense as the day went on. I recorded the color choices for each of our opposing teams. In round one, it was Joe’s GW versus GW, my BW versus BW, Levi’s UR versus RU. Interesting, right?

Round two pitted us against the team of Eier/Wyant/Lyman, from Cleveland, Ohio. This time, Joe’s GW was facing GB, I was against a RW deck and Levi faced UW. My opponent’s first name was Aaron and he was a pretty nice guy. He throttled me so very quickly in game one. He found game two not much more of a challenge. As quickly as I lost my match, Levi won his. The match was decided when Joe was defeated in a close one. Just like that, our team was 0-2 and, let’s be honest, hating life a little bit. Another point about the scorekeeping decisions, you can see in the archived coverage of GP Detroit on Magic’s mothership site that matches were indeed scored every which way, 1-0, 2-1, 3-0, just every possibility. That means it was a bit of a fib that the scorekeeper would be entering 2-1 as a 1-0 win, would be entering 3-0 as a 1-0 win. If that were true, we wouldn’t be able to see the various other entries when we review the results of the matches in the GP coverage. It just goes to show that team sealed, while a wonderful format to play, is a tricky event to control and adjudicate. What adds to the confusion is that team sealed is only run one or two times a year.

In between rounds, Joe tries to rally us. He reminds us that we aren’t eliminated from day two until we lose a third match. Levi seems befuddled. He won his match in round two but has nothing to show for it. Levi is very constructed-focused, he’s counting on us to carry him through the sealed deck competition but so far Joe, fresh off day twos at Las Vegas and Dallas (Fort Worth) doesn’t have much to show for his work. Joe says he wants to play at least four more matches, regardless of result. He wants to make the most of the opportunity, no matter how bleak it seems as we sit at 0-2 after just two matches. Levi and I nod in agreement, but it’s not exactly a rousing show of support. Defeat is bitter.

Our round three opponents are Walter/Chemello/Bader. They are from nearby Brighton, Michigan. My opponent, Antonio, is playing black /white. Meanwhile, Joe is facing green/black while Levi battles against another red/blue deck. I mulligan to five in game one and nearly win. My opponent and I both mulligan once in game two and I squeak out a win against a deck very much like my own. I win game three and look up just in time to see Levi win his match. For the second time in three matches, it’s unnecessary for Joe to finish his match. This time, however, it’s because of our early victory, not our quick defeat. All three of us are buoyed by the win. Luckily, there is very little downtime between rounds and we are quickly battling again.

In round four we play against the team of Cheung/Gill/Miller. They are from Livonia, Michigan. My opponent, also named Jeff, is playing GW and mulligans in game one on the draw. I deal my damage to him in quick little bites from a Topan Freeblade that just never gets killed for some reason. His strikes against my life points are fewer but hit a little harder. I win a fairly fast-paced game one. He keeps a bad hand in game two, is slow to get a third land and never gets a fourth. I’m the first one finished. On my right, Levi is in another red/blue mirror match. On my left, Joe is losing to black/green. Levi eventually pulls out the match win on his side. Just like that, we are vindicated, sort of, we’re 2-2 after four rounds.

In round five we play against our first pro-level competition in the team of Killeen/Oliver/Weitz. Neal Oliver, my opponent in the B seat, is a ginger-topped badass. For one thing, he is the champion of the 2013 Las Vegas Grand Prix. This guy knows his stuff. I just wish he hadn’t been so cocky in game one. He didn’t do anything wrong, he just crushed me with his blue/red deck in a way that made me feel bad, and I don’t get salty all that often. I tried to bear down and play tighter in game two. I hit him with a 2/2 exactly twice before he turned out my lights. About the only thing Oliver did that actually made me feel terrible was treat me like a casual dude. And the way I played, I can’t imagine why he should have done anything differently. If I could remember all the little mistakes, I’d share them with you, but I can’t. Suffice to say that some losses just hit you a little harder than others. This one knocked the breath out of me badly enough that I didn’t make good notes about the other two matches for my team. We lost, that’s all. Having fallen to 2-3, we’re officially out of the running for day two. I guess that means that our stalwart round five opponents had four more tough rounds ahead of them. As a matter of fact, they lasted exactly one round longer than we did. Joe convinces us to try at least one more round. I go along with the idea, but I want to make something clear about the way I approach tournaments. Until I am mathematically eliminated, you can count on me to answer the bell each round with as much confidence and focus as I am able. Once I’m mathematically eliminated, things change. Playing extra matches for some planewalker points, or to try and catch up my record for the day, I don’t do much of this. New York Yankees great Yogi Berra is famous for saying, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” I agree with that sentiment completely. But it turns out, there was a little more to the quote. “But when it’s over, it’s over.” I agree with this one as well. You should never quit until the race is finished, but once it’s over, it’s good to just be done with it and move on. Nevertheless, we decide, as a team, to go ahead and play round six.

Christopher/Leonard/Christopher (sounds like a law firm) are awaiting us in round six. They are from Columbus, Ohio. My GB opponent has Nissa in game one and beats me with the help of about four free cards he gets from Nissa after she flips. I win game two thanks to the Demon creature token produced by Priest of the Blood Rite. I mulligan in game three and then fail to make much of my six card hand on the draw. I just don’t draw much action and I lose quickly. Levi wins his match against BW but Joe has no luck against RU. Joe can see it on my face and on Levi’s face. We’re done. Joe gives us permission to pull our ripcords and take apart these decks once and for all. Levi unsleeves the rares from his deck, he played all day, by the way, in yellow Pikachu sleeves. Pretty funny. We tell Levi that we can divide up the rares in some kind of even way but Levi says he doesn’t want them. I think Levi’s just a little fed up, but there’s no convincing him otherwise, so Joe and I cast lots for Levi’s rares and divided up the rest of the treasure from our pool.

The idea was to record our entire team sealed pool and share it with you, along with the exact list of each of our decks. That just didn’t happen, but here’s a close approximation of what was in my deck. Then I’ll tell you about my horrible deck construction error. If a card doesn’t have a number to the right of it you can assume there was only one of them.

I often sided out the Gideon’s Phalanx because my opponent’s deck was just too fast. Maybe a lot of teams really did give their B player their fastest deck. I don’t think the Guardians of Meletis was in my starting deck, though it was in my deck’s sideboard pool. The tragic error of my deck wasn’t Tragic Arrogance, but it may have been the regular kind of arrogance. I sort of pushed off my teammates’ recommendations of making this a white/black enchantments deck. I have two Blightcasters in the sideboard as well as Sigil of the Empty Throne. Now, I generally believe that Sigil of the Empty Throne is a trap card. How many more enchantments are you likely to play after the point in the game when you trade an entire turn playing this five-casting-cost enchantment? Playing Sigil after you have one or two Blightcasters in play, that’s completely different.

If my deck had been more of a control deck based on enchantments and board-sweepers, we could have put the Topan Freeblades into the green/white deck and made that deck better. I would have played more defensive creatures, like a pair of Yoked Ox and Guardian of Meletis. I didn’t consider the Blightcasters strongly enough because I wanted to play an aggressive game with the high quality white two-drops. What I ended up with was a deck that had a beginning and an ending but no middle. As a white/black enchantments deck I would have given up some power in the early game in order to make many more strong moves on turn five and later, possibly owning the skies with Angel tokens from Sigil of the Empty Throne.

The bottom line is that we just didn’t get it done. Tragic Arrogance and Languish are fine rares, but they are more Get Out of Jail Free cards and less the kind of cards that actively help you win matches. We all agreed that Levi’s blue/red deck was the best deck our pool could produce, but it didn’t have any of the bombs that you want to see in those colors. He didn’t have Hangarback Walker, or Thopter Spy Network on Chandra’s Ignition. It was simply a hard-working blue/red artifact deck with good synergy. We don’t need to beat ourselves up too badly, we bravely stepped into the octagon and gave it the best shot we could. Our pool may not have been any stronger than the record we ended up with. However, unlike some friends of mine who feel better when they can blame their losses on their own bad luck or the amazing drawing skills of their opponents, I feel better when I can actually point to my own errors because I know that I can fix errors. I can’t fix the random parts of Magic: the Gathering any more than anyone else can.

Why is Team Sealed the Greatest Limited Format?

All limited formats are bounded by the same idea, that each player is forced to think on his feet and operate within an extremely limited base of available cards. You’re not at home with your whole Magic collection with the internet available to help you find the perfect combination of cards and strategies. Instead, you have just a small pool of cards and mere minutes in which to put together the best possible deck that you are able to build. The challenge of limited appeals to me more than anything else in the game of Magic. Individual sealed deck has more skill involved in it than most people understand. Often you have to do more than simply assess the quality of your pool, you have to think of ways to combine the cards in a new way in order to make the best of your situation. Booster draft adds another level of skill. Although the pool of cards you end up with in a draft is only half the size of a sealed deck pool, you actively participated in the creation of this pool of cards by studying the cards made available in each pass. As skillful as I believe sealed deck is, booster draft is at least twice as skill-intensive. When you have a lot of experience in a particular booster draft format, your draft is almost like a constructed Magic exercise as you decide on the deck you want to go for and select, pick by pick, the cards that fill certain spots in that draft deck archetype. Then along comes team sealed. Because it is still, at its heart, a sealed deck format, the key concept is a random card pool. But unlike regular sealed, because the pool is twice as large and because you are building multiple decks, team sealed plays almost more like a constructed format. As in constructed, every green/white deck in team sealed is likely to have certain cards in it. Where you would guess that your GW opponent in regular sealed, or booster draft, might have certain commons and uncommons in it, you can almost guarantee that archetype-defining cards are in your opponent’s GW deck in team sealed. As a matter of fact, with twelve packs opened for each team, it becomes somewhat more correct, in team sealed, to put your opponent on certain archetype-defining rares as well. You don’t play around Tragic Arrogance the same way as you do when you know for a fact that they have it, but the odds are much greater in team sealed that the white deck could have it. Team sealed is the best test of limited play because it rewards play skill so readily. Proof of this concept comes straight from the results at the end of day two at Grand Prix Detroit. The top four teams at the end of day two represent one of the greatest collections of pro players in Grand Prix history. According to the final four teams’ profiles, those twelve players have combined for over a hundred Grand Prix top eights, at least a dozen GP championships, more than a dozen Pro Tour top eights and multiple Pro Tour championships, and a fistful of Hall of Fame rings. Team sealed is random enough to reward great players for their ability to figure out the best combinations and enough like a constructed format to reward great players for their play skills. Not only is team sealed my favorite limited format of all time, it might be the best test of player skill in all of Magic. I’m not even kidding a little bit.

Having said all that, it was completely humbling to come all this way and not do any better than we did in the main event. Far from depressed, however, our entire team walked straight over to the side events area and signed up for the Super Sunday Series. Joe and I chose to get up an hour earlier to play sealed deck. Levi chose to play Standard. In the interest of time, I’ll tell you that not one of us did particularly well on Sunday. Joe’s card pool was rather challenging. He ended up playing different color combinations throughout the three or four rounds in which he competed. I had a green/white deck with some of the goods. I won my first two matches and lost the two after that. Suffice to say all three of us were tourists by the middle of the afternoon on Sunday. We found a cool brew pub called Motor City Brewing Works. It was a nice joint with windows and doors open to the outside, it wasn’t too hot that day. They make their own beer, which me and Joe did not sample, but they also make their own root beer and creme soda, which we did enjoy. They make these ten inch brick oven pizzas that are very, very good and a decent value for eight or nine bucks each. They have nice people working there, as well, and it was a very nice hangout for a couple of hours in the afternoon. They’ll make you any kind of pizza you want, but of the four we ate (Levi joined us a little after Joe and I got there) the best two were the Bronx Bomber with four cheeses, bacon, Italian sausage, pepperoni, mushroom, green peppers and onions, and the Mary Did Have with fresh ground lamb roasted with garlic with mint, pine nuts, feta cheese, labne, tomatoes, cucumber and zatar spice. The pizzas were delicious. So good, in fact, that we never seriously considered going back to the other place for more hotdogs. This place was another of Joe Panuska’s restaurant finds. He has a sixth sense for finding cool non-franchised dining experiences that don’t break the bank or require you to wear nice shoes.

Sunday night, Joe streamed a Magic Online booster draft while I helped him from the back seat. Levi was pretty tired of all the high energy activity from Joe and I by now, he put on his headphones and watched movies on his cell phone. When Joe finished crushing his draft, I wandered down to the first floor with my laptop to work on my weekly Standard story for TCGPlayer.com. I can tell you I was in the mood for just about anything else, but I never pass up a chance to write about Magic, regardless of the subject. I was pleasantly surprised to find friends of mine from Oklahoma City drafting in the common area on the first floor. They were playing on the tables that are used for the breakfast buffet each morning.

Sunday night booster draft

Clockwise from left, it’s Joni Bailey (Oklahoma’s newest level two judge), Kevin Klaes, Deanna Dang, Morgan Wentworth (also a judge), A.J. Bailey and Will Craddock. I sat a couple of tables away and fired up my laptop and started studying the results from Grand Prix London. Later, the Ogre and a couple of his friends wandered into the space and set up shop so they could execute some trades. I pretty much only know this giant man as Ogre, but his real name is Matthew Stevens. He worked for years for Troll and Toad but I’ve found him behind the counter of surely a dozen different vendors at GPs and PTs and conventions over the years. If you’ve been to a big Magic tournament EVER there’s a good chance you have seen this guy. While he’s working out a trade with this one guy that he knows really well, the other guy introduces himself to me and starts showing me actual magic (lowercase ‘m’) tricks with a deck of cards. His name is Adam Pendergrass and he’s the owner of Critical Hit in Murphy, North Carolina. I tell him that I’m working on a Standard article and he starts talking about Standard cards he’s hot for right now, like Hangarback Walker and even Sphinx’s Tutelage. I get a wealth of information, some about Standard, some about close-up magic, but I don’t get my story finished. I head upstairs to the room and hit the rack a little after midnight. Strangely, I have no trouble at all going to sleep.

On Monday morning we pack up our things and call for our car to be brought around. Yesterday I had an urge to explore the city a little more on our way out of town, but I’m having none of it today. All I want to do is put this little red Nissan Versa on the highway and point it south. We don’t stop until we’re deep into Ohio. We stop twice in The Buckeye State, once for donuts from Tim Horton’s because my Canadian friends always brag about that chain. Our second stop is in Lima, the home of three of the remaining five Kewpies Restaurants. This is an old burger chain that once had over two hundred locations. It’s old and quaint and still buzzing at lunchtime. Nice fair burger. Tonight, we’re dropping off Levi at a different place in Bowling Green than where we started. He’s staying at his sister’s place. The idea, though never a word is said, is that Joe and I better find someplace else to stay tonight. I tell Joe that we can stay someplace in Bowling Green or else not too far down the road as long as he doesn’t mind getting up really early on Tuesday morning. I’m honor bound to get back to my house in order to host the weekly Texas Guildmage meeting. That means getting back to Dallas early enough to drop off Joe between five and six at his uptown home before facing the rush hour traffic back to my place in the suburbs. Joe secures us separate rooms at a Motel 6 in Bowling Green. It’s a bargain, but I worry about bugs (there really weren’t any) and murderers (none bothered either of us). I had a nice shower and was able to finish my article in the peace and quiet.

The final long leg of our crazy odyssey starts at five in the morning on Tuesday. Joe is ready to go. Before the sun comes up we have already reached Nashville, Tennessee and turned west towards Memphis. We race past Memphis at lunch time and stop at a catfish and bar-b-q place in the middle of absolutely nowhere in Arkansas northeast of Little Rock. It was fantastic, as a matter of fact. Another astounding dining choice by Joe Panuska. He has a knack. Along the way, Joe records about an hour of he and I rehashing our GP Detroit experience for his podcast (available on this same high quality Magic: the Gathering website that you are already reading). When we reach Texarkana, I have to tell you, I was starting to get tired and was very ready to be home. Just to keep things interesting, I forgot to pull over for gas at the right time and we came really, really close to running out of gas on the highway before we putt-putt into Mount Pleasant on fumes. We’re back in my neck of the woods, though, and I know exactly where the gas stations are. After filling up, I went in the store and got something to drink. When I come back out the first thing I say to Joe is, “How does it feel to know you’re completely bulletproof?” That’s how I felt, like nothing bad seemed to stick, after dodging the small disaster of running out of gas in the 100+ degree heat. Nothing else of note happened between there and Dallas, I’m glad to say. We hit Dallas right at five o’clock but experienced fewer traffic snarls than usual. It helped that we were inbound towards the city and not trying to get out like most people were trying to do at that hour. As I dropped him off at his house in the super-cool Oak Lawn neighborhood, Joe and I practiced our terrible white man hand shake techniques. Then Joe grabbed his two back packs and bid me adieu. An hour later, I dragged myself into the back door of my home in Coppell. My wife wasn’t home yet, but Lawson was. Home for the summer before his junior year in high school, he was locked up in his room playing Hearthstone while watching people playing whatever else on Twitch. The usual stuff. We had nine players that night for meeting number 917. The dudes could tell that I was pretty worn out. I may have displayed less patience than usual. I used to never be so crabby. Let that be a lesson to you, younger players. Try not to get super-old.

I would keep the rental car one more night and return it Wednesday, with a full tank, naturally. The total mileage for the week was just over twenty-five hundred. The total gas bill came to exactly $207. Even driving at eighty miles an hour A LOT of the time, we still averaged 33.6 miles per gallon. My wife thinks she might like a Nissan Juke. I’m more excited about the prospect after driving the even smaller Versa for a week. Would I ever drive this far again for a Magic tournament? Probably. Will I do again anytime soon? Definitely not.

Thanks for reading.

playmat and suvenirs from GP Detroit

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