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Team Handshake's Plan to Win Pro Tour March of the Machine

May 03, 2023
Corbin Hosler

Team Handshake has spent the past year on top of the Magic world. Of that, there can be no doubt: Nathan Steuer's Magic World Championship title is just one of the myriad of accomplishments the close-knit testing group put together in their dominant run over the past two years.

Like many things over the past few years, Team Handshake's formation came almost entirely online as a group of Magic Online and MTG Arena competitors that joined forces and began to fill up more and more of the top tables in the era of online events, ushering itself into the spotlight when the team represented 50% of the Top 16 at the New Capenna Championship. That turned out to be just a warmup for the squad, as success begat success and brought on the best of the best veteran talent in with world champions Javier Dominguez and Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, en route to finishing with four of the top eight spots at World Championship XXVIII—including Steuer's victory.

Nathan Steuer, Magic World Champion

That was the the run that put Team Handshake into the pantheon of dominant testing teams. Entering Pro Tour Phyrexia, it seemed nothing could stop the team that had wrested control of the competitive Magic world.

There was only one problem.

"We felt like we failed last time with Limited," rued Simon Nielsen, one of the roughly 15 or so members of the team who will be shuffling up at Pro Tour March of the Machine on Friday, May 5. "Honestly it was kind of catastrophic at Pro Tour Phyrexia. We had a sub-50% win rate on Day One, which was unacceptable. We had to look at our process."

Simon Nielsen

Those are dire words, but it was a disappointment by the lofty standard they've set for the rest of the Magic world. And while I don't want to oversell things here—Nathan Steuer did go on to make the Top 8 of the tournament—but almost all teams agree that Draft is where there's the most knowledge (and therefore, edge) to be gained, and so a poor performance reflected across the entire roster was a major cause for concern.

When we look back at Magic history, it's always the Constructed decks that draw the headlines. You remember the first time Squadron Hawk picked up Sword of Feast and Famine, but you don't remember the 6-0 draft performances that were just as key to propelling the team to success at Pro Tour Paris in 2011. Simply mentioning Mistbind Clique still brings a shiver to many, but not as many people remember that the Lorwyn-Morningtide Draft format is considered one of the most difficult of all time due to the volume of complex interactions players had to track. And for those who follow the Pro Tour, the unveiling of Blue-Red Eldrazi at Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch was a "where were you when you first heard about this" moment. You don't think about the untold hours those same players put in perfecting their strategy in the wacky devoid-heavy Limited environment to even give their Modern deck a shot to break the format.

But that's where the world's best teams focus; the Draft rounds in many ways "count" for more since they come first in the tournament and set up tiebreakers and seeding down the road—not to mention the psychological benefit of starting the tournament off strong. So when Team Handshake fell short of their expectations at Pro Tour Phyrexia, it was back to the drawing board.

At the World Championship "the team had an incredible winrate, and we won three of the four pods," Nielsen explained. "We thought we could emulate that at the next event, but we realized that doing everything in person was a very big change for us and we had to pinpoint where our communications broke down. We want to show we're not just online zoomers. We can do well in paper events as well, but it does require change and that's what we've learned. When you're in person, a lot of communication happens verbally, and information would get wasted, essentially. It wouldn't be in Discord for everyone else to see and follow up on."

How could communication break down? As groups scale up the way information will flow changes, and Team Handshake has gotten quite big.

David Inglis

Nathan Steuer

Tristan Wylde-LaRue

Jonny Guttman

Austin Bursavich

Simon Nielsen

Matti Kuisma

Karl Sarap

Eli Loveman

Stefan Schütz

Anthony Lee

Javier Dominguez

Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa

Zack Kiihne

Leo Lahonen

Julian Wellman

Joonas Eloranta

Abe Corrigan

Daniel Brodie

(Many, but not all, of these members are participating in Pro Tour March of the Machine.)

"The preparation window for this event has been very short, so that has been the challenge," said Nielsen, who has set a personal goal for himself of finishing 10-6, a Pro Tour record he hopes will qualify him for the next one in Barcelona this July. "With Pioneer there was a lot of time to play in advance and know things wouldn't change all that much, but with March of the Machine just releasing and introducing a bunch of new cards to Standard, we had to plan around that.

"Our strategy was to do almost all of our draft testing online and as much beforehand as possible; our rule is after we meet up the weekend before, we're not allowed to open a booster pack until Wednesday at noon, after Standard lists are due."

The other change the squad is making this time around is a shift to what's become known as "The Limited Meeting." In Pro Tour parlance, that's essentially the hours-long info dump where the handful of players on a team who are Draft enthusiasts relay all of the information they've gleaned to the rest of the team, from pick orders to importance of the mana curve to winrates to average lands and on and on—with Magic players there's no shortage to the amount of stats they can cook up. But for the rest of the team that may have been hacking away at Standard's best decks to work out the perfect sideboard strategy, the meeting is a vital way to get up to speed in time for the Pro Tour.

At least, in theory. What Team Handshake found was that when they did that in at Pro Tour Phyrexia Philadelphia, it was essentially too much to take in all at once. This time around, the team plans to tackle Limited prep in stages, giving the team a chance to put the information into gameplay well in advance of ever opening their first pack on Friday morning. The conceit certainly makes sense: it doesn't matter how much data you've gathered or how good it is if the majority of the team isn't able to put it into practice when the cameras start rolling.

And make no mistake, there is pressure that comes along with the position Team Handshake has put themselves in. They're no longer the upstart group that began taking over online tournaments a few years ago—they're the dominant force in competitive Magic with a roster full of the best to shuffle them up (although notably Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa has a scheduling conflict and had to step back this cycle).

"It's been pretty stressful so far," was the understatement Nielsen went with a week before the Pro Tour kicks off. "We're not where we want to be yet, so I've been adjusting my plans to get in as much testing as possible. It's a tough challenge: In Standard some of the random draft cards are actually playable, and it makes considering everything that can potentially see play a lot harder. In this format, your individual card choices really matter, and how you approach sideboarding does too."

That's all exactly as it should be—the Standard format defied definition over the past two months of Regional Championships, and the addition of March of the Machine has already shaken things up again, in a way not often seen so late in a Standard format's lifecycle.

One way to take off the pressure? Handshake teammates Karl Sarap and Stefan Schütz did the only thing that made sense: compete with each other for the most draft trophies on Magic Online in the immediate days after March of the Machine released. (It ended in a tie when both agreed it was time to finally take a long nap.)

But that information was vital to starting the testing process for the team, and the information Sarap and Schütz gained in that mad dash for digital hardware created a base for everything that's followed to build on. How far will that be? Improving on their numbers from Pro Tour Phyrexia is the start, but no one has higher expectations for this group than themselves.

And they've brought in a few new faces to help. Nielsen praised Abe Corrigan as a player the team wanted to work with, and when Corrigan's miraculous last-chance qualifier turned Top 8 Regional Championship run landed him with an unexpected invite to Minneapolis, the match was made.

"I'm ecstatic for the opportunity to play Magic at the highest level again," Corrigan said. "Team Handshake is clearly one of the best teams on the Pro Tour, so I was naturally eager to get the chance to work with them. Austin Bursavich and Nathan Steuer are close friends, which helped working with the team feel familiar. My best friend Daniel Brodie is also qualified, and getting the opportunity to play a Pro Tour with him is very meaningful to me."

With Corrigan rounding out the roster, Team Handshake seems poised for a bounceback performance in Minnesota. But with tabletop Magic thriving across the globe—and now all those players converging from across the globe on Minneapolis—there's no guarantees for anyone, including the latest Magic superteam.

Pro Tour March of the Machine action kicks off on Friday, May 5 at!

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