Chatter of the Squirrel – Sealed Deck Theory and the Shadowmoor Prerelease

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Wednesday, April 23rd – Around Grand Prix: Daytona last year I mentioned that I wanted to write a theory article on Sealed Deck play, since I think the format as a whole is underrepresented in the body of Magic literature. Too many people think of it as “open your cards, look at your bombs, and play your removal.”

Around Grand Prix: Daytona last year I mentioned that I wanted to write a theory article on Sealed Deck play, since I think the format as a whole is underrepresented in the body of Magic literature. Too many people think of it as “open your cards, look at your bombs, and play your removal.” While this can be true, to a certain extent, this past weekend’s Shadowmoor prerelease reinforced my hypothesis, verified by years and years of observation and experience, that many players misbuild their decks because they are too accustomed to booster draft.

First, though, the background.

By some miracle of fate, the stars had aligned, the hogbeasties had left their dens, and the female Chris Farleys of the world had turned off their video cameras and allowed the one and only Brian Davis to re-enter the world of the living for a weekend. While I only get to see him maybe twice a year, BDavis is easily one of my favorite a) Magicians and b) Human Beings on the planet. His much-maligned tendency to crack under pressure masks a deep-rooted understanding of the game that places him amongst the most skillful players to ever sling a spell. While I chattered about his old-school-dom, how the game’s not the same anymore, and how the average player is leagues better than the average player when he was active, Davis is still better than me by miles.

He still undervalues certain cards in the Sealed Deck environment.

What he most certainly does not undervalue, though, is the Jägerbomb.

The squad was BDavis, myself, and the lovely/talented karaoke superstar slash Veronica Mars fandom diva Anna Smith. The plan was to meet up with Aaron “Blaine” White, Miguel “The Only Magic Player To Ever Have Played Division One Athletics” Williams, Andy “Yes My Last Name Is Tomkins” Tomkins, Robert “My Kids Are Really Named Jack and Daniel” Larrabee, Jason Potter, and Danny “Pee-Pie” Walston for a night of belligerence and debauchery following a carnival of prerelease extravaganza. Naturally, as is the tendency for plans among Magic players, things didn’t necessarily turn out that way.

For starters, Blaine really wanted to save nine dollars on a hotel room, and so instead of staying on-site, getting dinner early, and commencing throw-downs at, say, nine o’clock, we instead had to trek over to potentially the most ghetto establishment this side of the television show “Flavor of Love.” Now, I am from Memphis. I grew up in Hickory Hill. While my street credibility pales in comparison to some of this site’s more prominent authors – I mean, I went to Lausanne Collegiate School and currently attend Whitey World, Caucasia Castle, Rhodes College – I’m certainly not sheltered, either. But never ever did I imagine myself lurking through an establishment known as “Big D’s Liquor House,” where the total number of busted-ass vehicles in its front lawn exceeded the number of customers making purchases at any given moment. The phrase “Big D” to me evokes the sports section of the newspaper and deep concentration. Big D himself, however, offered surprisingly accurate directions – if we had taken them. Instead, Ms. Smith, Voice of Reason, was drowned out by the masculine pride of two of the cockiest individuals on the planet – myself and Mr. Davis – as we boldly asserted that the directions were rubbish and that only the two of us knew the real way out. One full orbit around the city of Little Rock later, our hunger overpowered our party-cravings (at least for me) and, by the time we finished eating at around midnight, I was ready to pass out.

This didn’t stop me from drafting the worst W/g deck in history en-route, of course. Fortunately Andy’s W/g deck was worse than mine, featuring two copies of the new Stream of Life, and BDavis/Potter/Myself were able to take it down quite easily – despite my actually falling asleep in the middle of a game.

I credit the morbid horror of witnessing James King’s canyon-like, um, plumber-pants, as he bellowed horrible snores like a hibernating beast asleep on the adjacent bed.

Blaine loses any and all planning privileges that he ever may have ever again ever ever. Add this to the fact that McLarrabee had to attend a McWedding and Mr. Walston’s erratic schedule prevented him from participating in chatter, and the weekend certainly didn’t live up to the maximum that it could have under ideal circumstances. Still, I had a blast – even if I don’t even remotely understand the Shadowmoor Limited environment.

That’s another article, though. For now, right. Sealed.

Point of all that BDavis-vaunting was that I have tremendous respect for his Limited ability, yet during deck construction he put cards like Loamdragger Giant in the “unplayable” pile whereas I find that card an excellent pull into either Red or Green. I mean, he’s no Oakgnarl Warrior – what is? – but I think fatties in general are an incredibly crucial part of Sealed Deck play. Irrelevant cheap creatures, on the other hand…

It boils down to a few inherent characteristics of Magic cards, as well as the Sealed environment more generally. Because you don’t get to hand-pick your Sealed pool and craft a curve appropriate to the aim of your deck, your mana costs are generally going to be arranged in some kind of normal distribution. Your average set contains commons that span the curve from 1 to 7, so the bulk of your cards are going to be concentrated around a mana cost of four. Even if you say, “well, I’m an aggressive player” and so tend to choose the colors that offer you the lowest converted mana cost, you’re very unlikely to have the critical mass of two-drops that allows for an effective aggressive Limited deck. Add to that the fact that most people are going to be playing random four-drops as filler – 3/3s and 2/4s that make mincemeat out of your average two-drop – and you’re just not very likely to get that much value out of a 2/1 with a marginal or tempo-related ability. In Draft you can alleviate this problem somewhat by drafting pump spells, removal, or a critical mass of tap/bounce effects to ensure that you maintain your early advantage. In Sealed, on the other hand, the way Magic works is that expensive spells tend necessarily to be better spells. Without a means of preserving your tempo advantage in the early game, then, you hit the midgame with a deck composed of objectively weaker cards.

Now, of course, at the same time you can’t just play a deck whose curve starts at four. Even if you build Sealed pools like I do – 18 lands (typically), tons of cantrips, elect to draw first – you’re going to be involved in games where you miss your fourth land drop and need to stem the bleeding from other people’s attempts at tempo. Furthermore, it’s difficult to amass 22-23 playable spells without making use of the two-slot. Finally, cheaper spells allow you to play multiple threats a turn. It’s not like I’m trying to invalidate the time-tried theory of the mana curve. What I am saying is that, if possible, your early drops need to be spells that can at least potentially affect the mid-to-late game, since basically every game of Sealed Deck progresses to that point.

I love, for example, a Deeptread Merrow. If you’re in a position where you need to trade early to allow your card quality to kick in, he trades with any bear. Unlike other bears, though, against 40+% of decks you’ll have an evasive threat that must be killed, and since evasion is one of the things that matter most in this type of environment, you’re not really making any sacrifices in favor of your curve. Because you play with the cards you open, you’re not really in a position to demand that your early drops always be relevant in the mid to late game (although this is one of the reasons why cards like Leonin Skyhunter or Mistral Charger are so valuable). What matters is the potential for that relevance. Given enough potential, you’ll wind up with a higher density of board-affecting cards in the midgame than your opponent, and that will give you edge and inevitability the further the game progresses.

Other (non-obvious) cards I love that fall into this category are: any mana accelerant, Boggart Loggers/Arsonist, Kithkin Zephyrnaut, Bogardan Firefiend, Canopy Spider, or Sickle Ripper.

All this talk of mid-to-late game inevitability, card advantage, and card-quality advantage may sound like I’m betraying an inherent bias toward the control role in a given matchup. The thing is, though, in an environment where most of the time the tools aren’t there to be the aggressor, you want to be the control. This is because the burden of action is on the aggressor to win the game.

I’m sure that previous sentence has been said before, but I’ll provide a line break here just to let it sink in. The burden is on the aggressor.

By definition, the deck that is playing the aggressive role in a matchup is the deck that doesn’t possess inevitability. While the definition of “inevitability” in Limited Magic is frequently murkier than it typically is in Constructed, in general the deck with the highest density of relevant topdecks in the mid-to-late game possesses inevitability, because sooner or later it will produce an unanswerable threat. Furthermore, the deck whose late-game threats trump the other deck’s late-game threats has an additional degree of inevitability – for whatever that is worth – because as the game extends to relevant infinity your chances of drawing the One Superlative Card increase and increase.
Now, this is not to say that age-old maxims like, “there are no wrong questions, just wrong answers” are somehow not valid. Absolutely not. In Constructed, and even most draft decks, having the “burden of proof” to win, as it were, is just not that big a burden to meet. If you’re sitting there not doing anything in almost any Constructed environment, you’ve effectively lost the game by turn 4 or so. In draft, typically decks can draft aggressive enough mana curves to ensure that the pressure’s going to be on from the get-go. In Sealed, while that can happen, it usually (barring some anomaly) isn’t going to come up frequently enough to justify the inclusion of inferior, likely-to-be-dead cards. If you do open that pool, then sure, by all means play it! But what you don’t want to be doing is including two one-drops and four two-drops if two of those two-drops are simply dorks with power and toughness. You can’t ensure you’ll “curve out” often enough to surmount the card-quality loss you’re incurring by running those cards.

Even if those decks do curve out, my Sealed strategy ensures that you can frequently just trade an Arsonist for their random two-drop and ensure that you’ll survive long enough to start dropping monsters.

All of which is to say, “Kids, run your Loamdraggers.” There exist in every format cards that I refer to as “Sealed spells” that I am just thrilled to have every time I open them, yet I would (usually) never be that excited to run in draft. Shadowmoor Sealed is too young yet to allow me to make definite proclamations, but I’m feeling cards like Safehold Duo, Splitting Headache, Old Ghastbark, and especially Helm of the Ghastlord are going to fall into this category. Card advantage is at a premium, as are large numbers in the bottom right-hand corner of creature cards.

Now, just to break Standard…