Chatter of the Squirrel – Understanding Shards of Alara Sealed

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Wednesday, December 10th – For the first time in nearly two years, I’m in danger of “falling off the train.” I’ve forgotten what it was like to stand in line for PTQ after PTQ and fail again and again and again. I’ve forgotten how difficult it was to get to the point at which I arrived, more or less, in May of 2006: that of being basically positive you were going to play at the next PT. Forgotten that it’s so much easier to stay on than it is to get there in the first place.

Thought about being all casual, like “oh obviously the first combo engine I thought about was Rith’s Charm into Windbrisk Heights,” not even mentioning that I haven’t written a conventional free cheeky Chatterly piece in say a month or so. Just launching into subject matter whatever, this week the topic of “Understanding Shards of Alara Sealed, with Asides on Other Stuff.” But come on now. There was a period of at least a year when I couldn’t kick off the actual content until at least page two or so, so let’s roll with the rhetoric and introspection.

First: I hope you read, if you had the chance or the premium access, my front-page-crashing month-long-labor-requiring mammoth chronology of the entire Berlin testing process. It was, in some ways, a vindication of my incredibly-mediocre Day 2 performance spurred by sickness and a complete, pervading feeling of detachment, not only from what I was doing but from being in Berlin itself. I love playtesting, the thought process behind it, the feeling you get when you process an almost indescribably huge amount of data and variables and end up with a well-oiled machine. More than that, though, I enjoy examining in retrospect the ideas we came up with and the experiments we tried, seeing how those meshed with what everybody else was doing, discovering what we got right and what we missed, witnessing the beauty of what happens when four or so hundred very, very smart people put all their brainpower to the test, sit down across from one another, and let their wits sort out the details.

What’s a little less fun is the grind I’ve been on since then.

For the first time in nearly two years, I’m in danger of “falling off the train.” I’ve forgotten what it was like to stand in line for PTQ after PTQ and fail again and again and again. I’ve forgotten how difficult it was to get to the point at which I arrived, more or less, in May of 2006: that of being basically positive you were going to play at the next PT. Forgotten that it’s so much easier to stay on than it is to get there in the first place.

Fortunately, this makes for better column-writing because I’ve got to experiment with actual formats that actual readers are playing, and this should help me write more relevant material over the course of the next several months. Take now, for example. I (finally) feel like I understand, thoroughly, Shards of Alara Sealed Deck. From a development perspective, I know what does and does not work and why the format plays out as it does.

Understanding it, however, does not mean I’m succeeding at it. In fact, I feel that the present format is the worst Sealed Deck format since Masques Block, and for the first time ever – almost literally ever, at least since 1999 and probably even the last vestiges of Tempest Block – I feel like I have zero edge when I sit down against a random opponent. I cannot stand playing matches, and almost everyone I talk to agrees that the format as it exists right now is atrocious. Still, I believe there is value to be gained from understanding why that is, why the format works the way it does, the small minor steps you can take to generate small minor advantages that, hopefully, will land you in the Top 8, where the set redeems itself and provides some of the most enjoyable and skill-intensive drafting in recent memory.

In a way, I also hope this piece can be used as sort of a reference material for how to avoid designing miserable Sealed Deck formats in the future, since I have a feeling Booster Draft is what’s playtested most often, and without the repeated grind of a Sealed PTQ season it’s hard to put a finger on what is and isn’t actually fun.

At first I thought this tremendous distaste for the format was just me having a bad run, me failing to grasp something essential. But after attending Taipei and watching at least four of the best players in the world fail to make it into Day 2 at an eight-round tournament with three byes, and watching Saito fail to make the cut yet again in Auckland, I realized that there was truly a problem. Further conversations I’ve had with others on the PTQ grind reveal that this distaste is pervasive, that most likely something is fundamentally and genuinely wrong.

Fortunately, by understanding exactly what elements of a format are problematic, you also by proxy start to understand the format itself.

After thinking long and hard about what feels wrong, and concluding that in essence it was the prevalence of far and away more variance than could be reasonably expected to be worked around by any amount of playskill, I’ve narrowed down the causes of that variance to four primary factors:

1) The potential of incredibly aggressive starts even from non-aggressive decks.
2) A critical density of high-powered gold cards and a corresponding low volume of high-powered mono-colored cards necessitating higher-risk manabases at the sacrifice of consistency.
3) The set’s small size, coupled with the availability of quality manafixing, practically ensuring that certain format-warping commons (specifically Branching Bolt and Wild Nacatl, conveniently both in Naya/Jund, which I will get to later) are present in virtually every opposing pool.
4) That same small size reducing the number of lower-quality cards printed in the set, reducing the value gained from effective deckbuilding and card-selection. The deckbuilding value you do gain against weaker players, typically via the construction of a manabase, certainly matters in the long-term but can actually backfire over the course of a match, where someone simply plays all his best cards and sac-lands/Obelisks and gets there, twice even, with a completely counterintuitive land-selection.

I’ll take these in order, but I’m glad I’m starting with the “aggressive cards” problem because I feel it’s both the most difficult to understand and the most problematic. The reason that it’s difficult is that what is normally the proper response to this kind of situation – lower your curve to accommodate the aggressive decks and win with a higher overall card quality after you survive the initial onslaught – is actively bad Magic in this case. Believe me, I’ve tried.

Everyone knows by now that I hate “random 2/2s” in Sealed Deck. The reason is that they deal some damage, and then the opponent plays a 3/3, and they just sit there doing nothing. The more you have in your deck, the more dead cards you draw over a typically-long Sealed game, and your opponent starts winning via higher quality-and-threat-density. It’s simply not very likely to open enough removal in your Sealed Deck to overcome all the opponent’s moderate-sized threats they’ll be playing because the nature of the format dictates that you don’t always have the luxury to sculpt a textbook mana curve. Greater Mossdogs, for example, or their equivalents.

In this format, though, the aggressive creatures are of a higher quality than usual, with the quality typically being mitigated by the fact that they are harder to cast. Think cards like Wild Nacatl (need Forest, Mountain, Plains early), Rip-Clan Crasher, Steward of Valeron, Jhessian Infiltrator, Tidehollow Sculler, Goblin Deathraiders, Tidehollow Strix, Rhox War Monk, Sprouting Thrinax, and Woolly Thoctar. This is fine in and of itself; you risk being stranded with an unplayable grip early in exchange for the possibility of a more explosive start. The problem comes when it’s juxtaposed with the other defining quality of Shards Sealed; namely, point 2, that you’ve got all these really good Gold Cards, many of which you’re going to just have to play even if you want the most consistent manabase in history, just so you can put together a deck of 23 playables. That means that some games you’re going to have better mana than others. Sometimes you’ll spend your first three turns Magma Jetting a guy and playing a Hissing Iguanar – but other times you’ll be cracking a sack-land and playing an Obelisk.

Crucially, both of these situations can arise even if you built your deck correctly, and that is where the real problem lies. It means that you can’t employ the typical “beat-overly-aggressive-decks” strategies to any sort of effect this time around. Again, I am fine with aggressive decks being viable Sealed Deck options if you have to make some kind of real sacrifice in order to do so. In this format, though, the sacrifices you make mana-wise don’t necessarily pan out in an individual game; you can run a 6/6/5 manabase (like a few of my opponents) and get lucky enough to support Rip-Clan Crasher, Steward of Valeron, Akrasan Squire, and Dragon Fodder in your one- or two-slot. This is not me complaining, but rather acknowledging the reality that sometimes this happens. These types of starts are aggravated when the opponent draws the “Fix My Mana” portion of his early-game, and so the 6/6/5 guy is winning the game even though in all likelihood he had the wrong build, whereas the other guy has cards like his own Dragon Fodder (realizing the need to combat other people’s early starts, and also valuing the act of chump-blocking a Bull Cerodon for two turns) or Court Archers but isn’t able to muster those cards in time because he drew the wrong mana completely or else has to cast an Obelisk/draw a comes-into-play-tapped land at the wrong time to access the correct kind.

Other times, of course, Rip-Clan-Crasher-And-Rhox-War-Monk-In-The-Same-No-Nonbasic-Land-Deck guy gets manascrewed and loses, but crucially, there’s not a lot either player can do about it in-game.

Returning to the real problem, though, the prevalence of luck or hopeless resignation to what your mana allowed to happen (either positively or negatively), look at the list of “high-quality aggressive creatures” I posted above (which, incidentally, is by no means exhaustive). Normally, it’s risky to run “your average two-drop” in Sealed (say, a Somnomancer or a Kinsbaile Skirmisher or whatever) unless you have a critical density of aggressive cards, because come turn 5 onwards it’s going to be dead. However, of all the cards I named, only Rip-Clan Crasher is particularly bad in the midgame, and even he can get in for an unexpected two damage. What this means is that often it’s very correct to run three or so of these high-quality two- and three-drops, because even if your mana doesn’t ‘get there’ you’re still going to eke a lot of value out of turn 5, where you can in all likelihood deploy multiple relevant threats on the same turn after you’ve deployed an Obelisk. This means that a lot of decks are going to be capable of like turn 1 Nacatl turn 2 Steward of Valeron, or turn 2 Deathraiders turn 3 Sprouting Thrinax, without sacrificing anything to be capable of these aggressive starts. In other words, these same decks are also going to be the decks running sac-lands and Obelisks, too, and will contain within them as many powerful late-game cards, potentially, as any given decks in the field. How many times have we seen what we took to be the aggressive deck positively blow out game 1 only to play its first threat on turn 4 on the very next game – whereas often the deck that spent all of its time catching up came right out of the gates the second time around. Too often, there’s nothing either side can do.

Finally, a corollary to all of this: because of everything I’ve just talked about, it’s almost always impossible to know, if you’re attempting to build a sort of long-game-with-a-lot-of-removal-for-people’s-fast-starts five-color-ish control deck, whether or not your long game is better than anybody else’s. Because it’s so easy to splash any color, you practically have to factor in everyone’s possible opens, and (as I will get to in a moment) because the set size is so small, it’s not particularly unlikely that their attempt at a late game features the exact same cards you’re trying to use yourself! Contrast this to something like Lorwyn, even, where you could be pretty sure that if you’re making the step to play cards like Oakgnarl Warrior and your opponent isn’t Green, it’s unlikely that he’s going to be able to stand up to a toe-to-toe slugfest around turn ten.

I mentioned the “small set size” problem, which leads to the “high-density-of-format-defining-cards” problem, which can actually exacerbate the “too-good-aggressive-starts-from-non-aggressive-decks” problem, as if things weren’t complicated enough. Basically every Sealed pool has at least one Wild Nacatl, for example, meaning that basically every deck (have you seen a non-Green Sealed pool at the top tables, because I haven’t, almost literally) can present a turn 1 3/3 with a little luck. Unsurprisingly, that leads to a lot of lopsided games. But another reason that almost every major well-performing deck is base-Green (or 5c-drop-a-bunch-of-bombs) is the existence of Branching Bolt, and the reality that almost everyone has access to the card if they want it. That card is so devastating when it hits you that it’s incredibly risky to play otherwise-very-powerful cards like Cloudheath Drake and Kathari Screecher because of how absolutely kold you are when you get Bolted. In exchange for maybe half their turn they Time Walked your turn 3 and your turn 5 and gained card advantage. Even in my five-color decks I sideboard quality fliers in rather than board them out versus Branching Bolt, just because the overwhelming majority of decks contain at least one Bolt. This leads to a downward spiral – noticing a theme here? – because all of the sudden Blue’s biggest strength in Sealed, usually large-bodied flying creatures, has become neutered, leaving a gap for the other four colors to fill. Because both of the shards excluding Blue are base R/G, and not incidentally Red and Green have a very large volume of playable commons, a lot of decks start looking very similar to one another. Blue’s secondary strength, card-drawing, typically can be co-opted from a base-G deck with very little sacrifice, so it’s not like you have to alter your focus to access card advantage (the most important attribute of a quality Sealed deck).

This overall similarity of deck composition is also, I believe, why a lot of people feel like the format is much more “bomb-intensive” than even Sealed is normally. It’s because the rares and a few uncommons you open are frequently the only significant differences between your deck and your opponent’s. So that one Hellkite Overlord or Titanic Ultimatum or Broodmate Dragon or Vein Drinker your opponent opens while you were busy cracking Invincible Hymn frequently changes everything.

And finally: I find building Shards Sealed Decks perfectly is really, really hard, but building a passable deck, with the mana off by one or even two slots, is really, really easy. Furthermore, a problem we’ve never had before is that there just aren’t that many totally-unplayable commons in the set. A cursory scan reveals only:

Banewasp Affliction
Cathartic Adept
Gustrider Exuberant
Lush Growth
Marble Chalice (though it’s great out of the sideboard)
Onyx Goblet
Soul’s Grace
Soul’s Might
Tortoise Formation
Viashino Skeleton

As genuinely unplayable cards, and even Godtoucher and Gustrider can be fine in some decks. Vectis Silencers is awkward, but at the end of the day can trade for a biggie if it has to. Furthermore, all these cards are mono-colored, but the average Sealed Deck has 14-17 gold cards, almost of which are playable, and in fact good if your mana works out. So, worst case, someone takes their monsters and their gold cards, adds their Obelisks and lands, and still can just beat you by casting high quality spell after high quality spell.

Finally: with aggressive decks being difficult to deploy on time (usually) due to the realities of mana, things like combat tricks become worse than they would normally be because you’ve got a smaller array of creatures (typically) to play them on; barring that, you’ve got to maximize the value of every individual card because you’re playing a lower threat density due to one or two Obelisks, so you don’t have room for conditional-gains spells like specifically Sigil Blessing or Hindering Light. This makes it more difficult to engineer situations where playskill matters, especially given that with a smaller cardpool even weaker players can factor in a few select cards (like Resounding Thunder) into their decision matrix with relatively little effort.

In a nutshell, that’s the root of my dissatisfaction. It’s also, I believe, an accurate synopsis of the relevant variables to take into account when you’re constructing a Sealed Deck, and enumeration of the problems you’re going to have to face and the obstacles you’re going to have to overcome. Remember: a more consistent manabase relative to what your deck needs will win you more games in the long term. In the short term, sure, it’s frustrating when your opponent MountainPlainsForest-Woolly-Thoctar-Island-Stoic-Angel-s you out of a game, but still your best chances to win involve tight play, long-game-sculpting of the type described earlier this week by PV, and ideal deck construction with the goal of balancing power with consistency as well as possible given the constraints of what you open.

Join me next week, when I take a unique look at Magic through the lens of my favorite author, and examine some of the more, shall we say, “curious” trends in judging that I’ve observed over the last month or so. Until then, it’s great to be back.