Building Bad

As promised, Glenn Jones has another sealed pool to discuss! See how he built his deck to make the Top 8 of a GPT and share your own build in the comments.

As promised, I have another sealed pool to discuss! I considered making the drive to Sacramento for a Pro Tour Qualifier this past weekend, but cooler heads prevailed. I decided to get some things done in town while playing a Sealed Grand Prix Trial to blow off some steam instead.

Having gotten more experience, I’ve determined that I actually enjoy playing the current Sealed format; it’s only Draft that I find distasteful. Reflecting upon the differences, it’s that I get significantly less dynamic games in Draft. When BTT decks are focused and good, there’s a lot of one-sided stompings—even when both decks are good—due to the tempo-oriented nature of the format. Sealed decks tend to be worse, and the entire process has a little more room for tactics and analysis, from deckbuilding to sideboarding to the actual playing of matches. This is only my opinion, but it’s how I’ve experienced the format so far. I’m having as much of a learning experience as the next guy.

So I went to the GPT. There were only about sixteen people, but the winner received a flight or the equivalent in store credit with another $300 in credit among the Top 4, so I had a shot at a reasonable payday. Not the most exciting event of course, but I just needed a bit of live Magic to get the blood pumping!

Crack-a-lack Those Packs!

Here’s the pool I was passed.

Just a few seats away someone got triple Loyal Pegasus and Brimaz, King of Oreskos, so I was a little more glum about this pool than usual. It was one of the weaker pools I’d received in the format so far, and it was because the power level was relatively low and also awkwardly spread among all the colors.

Right off the bat I cast white to the side. It only had a handful of playable creatures, and while the bestow guys were fine, there were nothing outside of the Hundred-Handed One to make it exciting. Sideboarding into white would be a fine strategy against some green decks I figured thanks to the double Vanquish, but I’d need a strong primary color to make that changeup matter. For now, it was only a consideration.

The first color I wanted to make work was red. Red had double Bolt of Keranos, Ordeal of Purphoros, Fall of the Hammer, and Coordinated Assault along with a few solid bodies. The big problem was that red’s creatures were all good but they weren’t plentiful. Bolt of Keranos is at its best in a red-heavy deck, but with only four cards that had the word “creature” in their type line, it would be very difficult to make a deck capable of supporting that commitment to Mountain magic. Even red’s tier 2 spells were above average, but you need creatures to kill opponents—you just do.

That sent me looking for my heaviest creature color, leading me right to green.

Laying out this deck, a few things quickly became clear. First off, the deck’s mana was bad—double colored three-drops in two colors is just asking to get got. Things didn’t improve much as I went up the curve either. Traveler’s Amulet is gross in a two-color deck, but this particular one had larger problems—there was just nothing to do on two mana.

Two-drops are pretty important in Theros Limited in general because you want to be able to threaten early trades. Two-drops also gain more value when you have cards like Ordeal and Temper in your pool, so missing out hurt. The larger issue at play here was that with no two-drops and double Oathsworn on three, I was often going to fail to have a creature that could meaningfully interact in combat until turn 4. Every time I lost the die roll, I’d be guaranteed to fall behind early against the average kept hand from any opponent!

If this deck was more powerful, I might have been willing to take that risk, but without massive blowouts like Savage Surge available, it didn’t seem like a lucrative position. The total dearth of helpful spells in green meant I was really just looking to the color for warm bodies, which wasn’t going to be good enough.

I scrapped that deck pretty quickly. My black wasn’t too bad, so I decided to look at building with it. Black had two-drops so I could pair it with green if I wanted to, but there would definitely be no B/R deck—there weren’t enough creatures between those two colors even if I played them all! I won’t bother laying B/G out here because as soon as I started to at the table I knew it would be a non-starter. Black had only a few ways to trigger heroic in the color, and most of them were very mediocre. Because the black creatures were for the most part quite bad, I’d be relying on giant green monsters to close out the game if I went into B/G, but those were few and far between once I started discounting the value of the heroic creatures. The deck would be “playable” but not good, and I figured that out fast.

So I started to look at my deepest color last. That might seem strange, but truthfully the other colors all had some pretty attractive spells—my blue cards were plentiful and even good, but with no real powerhouses on four and five mana, I was more interested in building a creature-dense strategy. Given my bizarre success with U/R in the last Pro Tour Qualifier, I actually started there. If I could play those red spells, I was going to!

My first draft of the U/R deck underwhelmed me. It felt so slow and unsteady—I found myself wondering how I would win without drawing Tromokratis and seven mana in a timely fashion. Most of my creatures were small, and I knew that Centaur Courser and Nessian Asp would be very tough to beat, which are two incredibly common cards in Sealed battles due to their raw stats. It was difficult to see this deck coming back from a bad board state, and I assumed I’d be unable to count on my bounce in turning a race because it would be busy early to keep me alive!

With no significant bestow or heroic, this deck looked like it would be run over by any deck with reasonable synergy and an average power level of cards. At this point I went to U/B. The mana would be good, and it had a few rares, right?

Yeah, no. I never settled on an exact list because it just looked like a much worse version of U/R. The total lack of strong early removal in both colors wound up warding me off straight U/B very quickly. My two-drops were horrible on defense, and Whip of Erebos looked outright embarrassing with so few ways to attack profitably—I needed real creatures. Once more I felt all in on Tromokratis, only this time I didn’t have Bolts to buy me time or Crackling Tritons to snipe fliers. In order to make the Whip work, I knew I’d need more fatty boom-booms.

As you might have guessed, time was winding down on the clock at this point. When faced with what I perceive to be a below average pool, I generally am willing to be much less risk averse and just try to increase my power level. I abhor splashing in this format in general, but with a Temple and an Amulet, I figured I could get away with a BUG deck that tried to cram most of the best cards in and get lucky.

The clock basically rang with this laid out in front of me, forcing me to register it.

Was I happy? Nope. This deck could fight a long game, but it would be on shaky legs trying to get there—my plan was basically to block and hope some fat creatures stabilized the board in my favor. I had perilously few tricks and would be very vulnerable to opposing pump spells, and that was assuming I cast all my spells well in the first place!

Into The Fray

The first round dinged, and I went off to battle. I wound up being dispatched in two frustrating games, drawing no spells in game 1 and getting raced to death by a Harpy in game 2. My opponent did make a key mistake, which makes for a learning moment:

With a pair of 2/2s and Blood-Toil Harpy in play on his side against my Floodtide Serpent and Crackling Triton, he cast Thunderous Brute. He was ahead on life by a fair bit—nineteen to thirteen at the time I believe. I gave him the 5/5 of course, and he sent it into combat alongside just the Harpy, trading it for my Serpent when I doubled up. This was a mistake for a couple of reasons.

First off, this turn marked his last opportunity to convert those bears into damage. They’d sat untapped for several turns due to my Triton, but here he could attack with everything and force me to take an additional four or five damage regardless of how I blocked. If I teamed up on the 5/5, he’d get four damage basically for free. If I took out the little guys, he’d put me to six, which was only three Harpy hits from death, and offered himself the helpful potential to draw Grisly Transformation or Dragon Mantle, both of which he’d played in game 1. In fact, holding the Brute back until he could untap and draw one of those or any of the pump spells I knew he had is also a play with nonzero merit.

My favorite analogy for situations like this comes from Go, a game based on completely surrounding opposing game pieces with your own in order to capture them. In the game of Go, stones on the board that can no longer surround others are referred to as “dead” stones—adding to them will only serve to dig you further into the hole. While the dead stones aren’t actually captured and removed from the board—or in Magic vernacular, destroyed and sent to the graveyard—their presence has become close to meaningless, and at the end of the game any dead stones on the board are scored identically to captured stones.

An opportune reversal or opposing error that makes these stones “live” once more—that is to say restores their influence—is a large shift in advantage. Plays in Magic that let you convert an impotent attacker into additional damage or additional draw steps are similarly strong, and you should always be looking for them.

This is a simple enough scenario, and I’m sure many readers might scoff that I’d even bring it up. But illustrates a very important aspect of Magic, which is the notion of resource management. Far more complex board states often boil down to the same core principles, and “chump attacking” with a creature to force through another one often gets overlooked—at least in the games I watch other people play. Not only that but the abundant combat tricks in the format add bluff value to all of your “chump attacks,” which means sometimes you just get free damage or value when fear affects their blocking!

At the end of the game, each creature was only ever worth the damage it created or prevented.

We Can Rebuild It

Anyway, after this round I took my pool over to my roommate Forrest, as he’d seen my finished product and was sure there was a better deck. I didn’t really disagree with him, but I’d been unable to find it in the time allotted and didn’t think what I wound up with was all that atrocious. Forrest noticed something I’d missed, which was that my pool actually had four creatures exempt from the bounce effect of Whelming Wave—an addition I’d never considered for the U/R deck. We arrived at this basic deck, returning to U/R and making some changes.

Vortex Elemental was the last card to leave. I liked Pillar of War instead, mostly because it seemed plausible that I could turn it into a real threat with my enchantments. Of course because I’d be sideboarding into this deck, I’d rarely be using this exact configuration—I’d be playing with sideboarding for the opponent in mind.

The tournament ran smoothly from there, with me losing half of my game 1s but the U/R deck carrying me to the finals, where I delightfully chopped the prize with Forrest, who went undefeated.

Other Things That Happened

Against another BUG deck in round 2, I was faced with the option of Sealock Monster or Nessian Asp on turn 5 while facing down an opposing Chorus of the Tides and Wavecrash Triton with my opponent on eighteen to my fourteen life. Normally I’d play Asp here to try to slow my opponent’s clock—however, the remainder of my hand was Archetype of Imagination, Tromokratis, and land.

By leading with Sealock Monster, I could attack and play Asp, attack again and play Tromokratis, and then on the next turn land Archetype of Imagination to get in a lethal attack through virtually every trick in the format (and many pairs of them) provided my Sealock Monster had gone unblocked twice to get my opponent to eight. In addition, if my opponent had a trigger for Triton, he’d likely use it on Monster to prevent ten damage, leaving my Asp free to actually block the 3/2 if a change of plans became necessary.

In the Top 8, my U/W opponent had a very good Wingsteed Rider deck but played a Dissolve rather transparently in the first game—he was in no rush to jam me with threats, choosing to try to get me with the counterspell. I lost that game when my flood made it impossible to overcome the counterspell, but I kept his style in mind for the sideboarded games.

Sure enough, in game 2 he began repping Dissolve very aggressively, and rather than jamming threats when I was slightly ahead, I continued to push slowly at his life total, sandbagging a Portent of Betrayal and Crypsis that I knew would let me throw the race through his blockers at a crucial moment despite having the opportunity to bait out the counter. His refusal to “take down the shields” resulted in him eventually losing to an end step Sudden Storm followed by the lethal Portent.

I did make a rather serious blunder in this match—having never cast a Born of the Gods card on Magic Online, I was relying on intuition for some of the finer points much more than usual. Floodtide Serpent in my head had a trigger that would return the enchantment (or bounce Serpent if I couldn’t), leading me to attacking and then activating Fearsome Temper before bouncing it to allow me to play around Sudden Storm and similar effects with my three mana when I shouldn’t have.

Most cards that function like Serpent do so the way I intuited. However, it makes sense that Serpent is different—the high number of ways to toss enchantments in Theros block would make Serpent too easy to exploit if its ability operated as a trigger with a detrimental penalty, and this is also a relatively cleaner way to understand the card. I don’t believe it would’ve affected the game’s outcome, though it’s possible, but I did misrepresent the card to my opponent there.

One of the onlookers said “that Serpent can’t attack,” during my use of its ability but didn’t press it further once I explained that the only reason the enchantment was still in play was that I’d offered my opponent an opportunity to respond to the activation I’d made (but shouldn’t have been allowed to). This spectator had the right understanding of the in-game situation, but what he should’ve done was either clarify his concern specifically or even better simply call over the judge. While it can be awkward to interject oneself in these situations, at the end of the day we’re all hoping to play a clean game of Magic, and that’s exactly why we have judges in the first place.

The Top 4 was a bit more awkward. Down a game, I was on five life and facing a freshly cast Nemesis of Mortals he couldn’t possibly make monstrous and a tapped Felhide Spiritbinder enchanted with an Ordeal that had triggered once so far. My opponent was on eight life, and my only nonland permanent was a 5/6 Crackling Triton buffed by a long-gone Ordeal. My hand held just Tromokratis and Breaching Hippocamp, leaving me dead to the board—I couldn’t block three five-power attackers, which my opponent could create by untapping and paying for Spiritbinder on Nemesis and not forgetting his Ordeal.

But my opponent would have to demonstrate a willingness to go to one life first!

Attacking with my Triton, my opponent had actually left up the mana for Spark Jolt and opted to block with his Nemesis, figuring his Spiritbinder versus whatever I played next would be a fight in his favor. Tromokratis was exactly what he didn’t want to see, turning the tables heavily my way and denying him any value from Spiritbinder. Needless to say, Tromokratis took it down from there.

The third game saw my opponent change from G/R to W/G after seeing my U/R deck in action and featured an amusing spot. Ahead on board, I opted to stop attacking into a Staunch-Hearted Warrior when my opponent left open mana in order to just continue casting creatures and avoid getting blown out by a combination of pump spells, with Mortal’s Ardor particularly troubling.

When he left open exactly four mana on a turn, I remembered seeing him play this W/G configuration in a nearby match, only he’d had an Island in play and used it to cast Griptide! As fortune would have it, while he hadn’t played an Island, my Sealock Monster had given him one in order to get in eight damage on an earlier turn. Making the read, I managed to avoid giving him a favorable block by refusing to enter the red zone until I knew the outcome of the game was locked up. He didn’t have the life total or presence to sit idly by and hold multiple tricks against my growing board presence.

The match ended on an awkward note. Having been forced to Mortal’s Resolve his Staunch-Hearted Warrior in my end step just for counters because I was declining to attack until I could guarantee lethal, he followed with a Time to Feed on my freshly recast Sealock Monster, with no announcement of the Warrior’s trigger or movement of its die. I paused and silently counted to five in my head while looking at my opponent. He confirmed his intent with the spell, and I replied “I have no response to Time to Feed.” When he then moved for the die, the judge confirmed he had missed that trigger.

My opponent’s immediate movement to the die afterward made it clear to me that he hadn’t really forgotten the trigger—he had simply mentally shortcut the board state without declaring or representing it to me. No doubt this sort of habit was just a result of playing more casually with friends, as I know I’ve done as well, but Theros Limited has a lot of triggers, so it’s important to represent them quickly and clearly. Between inspire, heroic, and monstrous, it’s actually very easy to confuse the reality of the board with internal perception, and it takes an active effort on both players’ parts to be clear about their actions. As it so happened, I held Crypsis available to cast in response, but with no movement of the die, I actually had no incentive to cast the spell, leading to the awkward detente on the stack.

That does make this the second GPT I’ve split in a row, each one with a plane ticket I turned into store credit instead—if this keeps up, I may have to start actually going to some of these tournaments!

Bonus Round

I played this deck in a Sunday Legacy event. I lost every die roll and frequently drew Dryad Arbor on turn 1, but I like the core idea of the deck. It’s not quite there yet though. It should probably play a second Dryad Arbor (#ResultsOriented), and the singleton Golgari Charm should definitely be Orzhov Pontiff. It needs the ability to create more action. Many games saw me seriously outcarding the opponent with not enough to show for it. Volrath’s Stronghold might belong somewhere in the 75, and I’d like a unique creature threat to accompany it—perhaps Sigarda, Host of Herons?

This is a sweet deck for the Spirit of the Labyrinth sideboard plan, and the Green’s Sun Zenith engine is quite potent as well—it really gets the mana going. Some number of Crop Rotation, the third Life from the Loam, and the fourth Abrupt Decay are my current suspects for maindeck cuts.