Feature Article – Sealed With Shards

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Thursday, October 2nd – The coming Pro Tour Qualifier season plunges us into the murky depths of Shards of Alara Sealed. The tricolor torment promises to be powerful and fun… Billy Moreno, fresh off his prerelease experience, brings us some excellent advice to help improve our Sealed deckbuilding and Limited play.

I played in a prerelease this weekend; before I get into my early impressions of Shards Sealed, I’m gonna vent a little. It seems like this was a pivotal weekend, the first real chance for the average player, the local store, and the regional TOs to experience the results of Wizards shifting focus.

I don’t know if it was a profitable prerelease for individual shops, and, if it was, I don’t have a clue how much bigger a Saturday they had previewing Shards rather than running whatever Magic events they normally do. I’d guess, if I had to, that it was a better-than-usual weekend for those stores that got to host their first prerelease parties.

I don’t really know how the math worked out for TOs, but if I had to guess, I’d say there was no way Event Horizons (who runs events in central and southeast Texas) was happy with the turnout given the prerelease galas they are used to hosting. By my count, we barely had enough people for the first flight of the day; it looked like about 30 players signed up. Sitting down for deckbuilding, we filled in just the first row of tables (four or five had been set up). The payout, which didn’t, and understandably couldn’t, match those of the big prereleases past, was only guaranteed if there were 24 or more players. I was skeptical about even a second flight meeting that requirement. My friends and I left after we collected our packs, heading to another store nearby where we might actually know some people and, if we were lucky, even find a draft.

Shane, Dennis, and I, persevering despite being outsmarted by highway construction and tricked by my own faulty assumption that I actually knew where I was going, eventually ended up at Heroes and Fantasies on Bitters Road. In the past, Heroes has hosted most of EH’s San Antonio events, and they felt slighted by being cut out of this weekend. I’m not close enough to any of the parties involved to make any claims about blame or to argue anyone’s case, but I have to imagine that the transition this weekend was as unsettling for the stores and TOs who used to run the large prereleases as it was for those (like me) who used to look forward to them.

Anyway, Heroes rallied their forces and their customer base and put together a fun event on their own. They had about as many players as the EH tournament, with a regular swiss and Top 8 structure, where the Top 8 competitors could decide to draft out of their prize pool, rather than the swiss-only format normally used at prereleases. Most of San Antonio’s more competitive players, the PTQ crowd, were here; Game Lot, who hosted the EH event, was mostly populated by more casual players. Unfortunately for the three of us from San Marcos, where we have no local Magic shop, it would be hours before anyone in the Heroes tournament won any packs with which to draft.

Disappointed, we drove home.

Maybe the store-base model Wizards is pushing is economically healthier, but it seems like a bad deal for the players involved, and for the overall player community. There are still competitive events (like PTQs), spectacular ones (GPs, PTs, Nationals, and Worlds), and casual ones (FNM and any other tournament hosted weekly at your local store), but none that satisfy all kinds of demographics and psychographics at a local level as well as large prereleases.

I’m a competitive player at heart, and it’s hard for me to get involved with some of the more casual facets of Magic if there aren’t some other competitive people involved. That is, I’d have no problem playing EDH or a Grand Melee if some (not all) of the other players share my perspective. I imagine most Magic players are like that, willing to play any kind of Magic (because the game is awesome) as long as they can find someone playing for similar reasons that they can share the experience with. Large prereleases, with their wide appeal and huge amount of players, give each of us a great chance to find others of our kind.

You might be thinking that I should just play in a PTQ if I want to find other competitive players, and that Joe Casual should just spend his time at the store around the corner. The thing is, a lot of us don’t match so cleanly either end of the spectrum. The critical mass of players at large prereleases makes it more likely that someone else there will appreciate Magic the way you do. Also, many of us don’t have a clear idea yet of exactly why we play Magic. At a large event, the undecided gets exposure many different ways he or she can like Magic; hell, even someone that is decided may come into contact with some new Magical mode he was previously unaware of, developing a deeper, more lasting relationship with this game we all love. It seems like those opportunities are unavailable at small, store-based events. This division of the player community prevents the cross-pollination essential to a healthy system.

Finally, a large prerelease is kind of like a city — even if you prefer not to live in the middle of the urban bustle, it’s nice to have access to a city so that you can, in a single day and on less than a tank of gas: shop (trade), visit a museum (play in the prerelease), drink and carouse (run a 6-man draft with your friends and your winnings from the flights you’ve played in), spend a few hours with an escort (play in one of the overpriced, but still fun, 8-man sanctioned drafts), and maybe meet some interesting new people who don’t really live that far from you and who you can at least expect to see and chat with next time around if you don’t really hit it off and decide to hang out before the next time you visit the city (do any of the above or anything else).

I for one have serious reservations about attending the next store-based prerelease or release event, given that the hefty entry fee no longer buys me the guarantee of an entire day of fun — of seeing everyone I look forward to seeing, of drafting on the side, of eating out with a group of friends, of everything that makes me value these weekends. I certainly wouldn’t make an overnight trip to Dallas to hang out with my friend’s there now that I can’t safely assume that they’ll all be in the same place. All in all, Wizards’ new model seems like a raw deal for the average player.


I played some Magic with the new cards and I’m sure you’d much rather read about that, so here goes nothing (just to note — my card pool has one more pack than your PTQ ones will, so keep that in mind).

Each Sealed format has its unique strategies and points of interest, but even before you learn those, it’s helpful just to look at cards by color and see what colors seem strongest. Here’s what I opened with my initial assessments of cards and color strength:


Grixis Battlemage — Repeatable looting is always useful, especially given the generally slower speeds of Sealed, so this card will have a place in any deck playing Black and Blue. The Red ability will come into play less often, but is not a blank.

Infest — Obviously strong, it’s important to note that it will be less a bomb in a format where most relevant creatures have more than two toughness; we’ll want to see if that’s the case so we can properly evaluate this card.

Archdemon of Unx — This card seems bomby, breaking up a stalled board all by himself, and generally leaving the board in about the same condition it was in even if he’s dealt with; as with Infest above, his value goes down if his sac requirement tends to turn your fat into lean.

DeathgreeterSoul Warden, this is not; barring excessive synergies, I’d never want to play this random 1/1.

Dreg Reaver — Filler, but two notes are important: this beast lacks the five power necessary for many of the effects in this set, but also, many of the five-powered creatures have three or four toughness, allowing the Reaver to trade with them, if that’s something your deck needs.

Shadowfeed — Would be more useful in the sideboard if Relic of Progenitus wasn’t a common, pretty useless otherwise.

Undead Leotau — This seems like a more awkward Dreg Reaver.

Bone Splinters — Pretty expensive removal unless your decks turns out fairly aggressive and filled with anemic bodies you don’t mind throwing away when they inevitably are outclassed. I usually don’t want a deck that offers that situation often enough to make this playable, but you have to make do with what you’ve got.

Viscera Dragger — This guy is pretty solid, filling a number of roles, but not doing anything special; I do think colorless cycling is going to be very valuable in this format, and three power seems to be an important threshold.

Onyx Goblet — I kept this in mind at first, because it can contribute on a stalled board, but the effect seems too minimal given the late game power of many cards.

Skeletal Kathari — Not a reason to play the color, but definitely counts as a playable.

On first pass: There’re only three cards I wanna play in this bunch (the Battlemage, the Archdemon, and Infest); moreover, one of them needs me to be playing Blue, and another may not fit in decks that already have plenty of quality men. Of the rest, I’d only be satisfied with the Kathari and the Dragger in most decks.


2 Spell Snip — The plusses: this cycles for colorless, and Force Spike holds relevance a lot longer in Sealed formats where players often have action all the way up to 7 and 8 mana; the minuses: it’s an expensive Force Spike, and it conflicts with the Obelisks on turn 3. It’d be nice to Spike theirs if you could, but you can’t pass up on playing your own given that five mana means you can start playing your 5/3s (the defining bodies of the format).

Kathari Screecher — The staple three-mana 2/2 flier, with a bonus.

Cloudheath Drake — And the staple five-mana flier, with a bonus.

Etherium Astrolabe — playable in a deck playing both colors (probably not, if you’re splashing one) and at least 8-10 artifacts… otherwise useless.

2 Coma Veil — Overcosted and late-to-the-party as removal, but should be kept in mind if you’re short on ways to deal with utility or fat.

3 Etherium Sculptor — If you have a pool with enough artifacts and pretty focused color-wise, this guy could be explosive; if you don’t and you need your Obelisks, you can’t afford to throw away so many slots on mana.

Tortoise Formation — Too expensive to be playable.

2 Outrider of Jhess — Three power seems more important on defense than offense, when your opponent can just decline to trade; obviously worth considering if your deck wants to take advantage of Exalted and doesn’t have a better stand-alone card to play.

Steelclad Serpent — Behind the curve on cost, big enough trade with a 5/3, but not big enough to survive combat with one or to take advantage of the “power matters” effects, seems like you’re better off playing a cheaper guy with three power if you can.

On first pass: the only Blue cards I’d want to play are the two appropriately-costed fliers, a handful of others have situational, sub-optimal utility.


Sanctum Gargoyle — An aggressively-costed flying Gravedigger seems good.

Oblivion Ring — And we all know this card is good.

Battlegrace Angel — This one is too… comparing it to Exalted (funny, I just noticed that) Angel, people seemed to miss that this kinda has haste if you already have a guy out who wants to attack alone.

Rockcaster Platoon — This guy’s pretty big and bomby, passing all the power and toughness tests and being able to impact the game in multiple significant ways without attacking.

Sigiled Paladin — Good, if you can consistently play it on turn 2; okay if you can consistently cast it at all. Exalted makes all your evasion creatures better, and lets you really take advantage of those common Sealed board positions where you don’t want to overextend into the Red zone, but where you do want to keep sneaking damage in or trading bodies.

Sighted-Caste Sorcerer — Exalted is kinda funny on these insignificant bodies… it encourages most of your creatures to stay home on D, but leaves them unable to do anything but chump. Of course, maybe it will turn out that you want to start by sending in the sorcerer (or other Exalted weenie) until he gets outclassed, leaving your bigger man back to hold the fort. Anyway, it seems like a weird, nuanced tension.

2 Marble Chalice — I thought about playing the Black Chalice, but I would never touch this one.

2 Soul’s Grace — Like the Chalice above, this has a counterpart in another color worth considering, while still being completely useless.

Akrasan Squire — I’m still trying to figure out if you can put together an Exalted sealed deck when many of your common enablers die to pingers at any time except in combat after Exalted has resolved.

Dispeller’s Capsule — There’s a bunch of artifact creatures in this set, and Oblivion Ring, so this is worth maindecking.

Gustrider Exuberant — Certainly, there are situations where I’d want to give all my fatties flying, and if your deck can provide enough of those, this can be an overwhelming game-ender; just remind yourself, before you include this, that you’re playing a blank when those situations don’t come up.

Welkin Guide — This guy’s pretty decent, evasive, and able to sneak in some damage the turn he comes into play.

On first pass: White has 2 bombs (the Angel and the Rhinos) and two cards I’d really like to play (Oblivion Ring and the Gargoyle), then three more cards that are fine (Welkin Guide, the Paladin, and the Disenchant)… overall a decent showing


2 Volcanic Submersion — Just as maindeckable as Disenchant. It’s a little expensive as situational removal, but the cycling takes care of that.

Vithian Stinger — Pretty awesome as a pinger… people have to deal with it, and then have to remember that it can come back once when it needs to. Forgetting about this guy in the graveyard can lead to some pretty awkward blocking.

Skeletonize — Five mana is a lot, and it doesn’t go to the dome, but it does kill a 5/3, and the surprise chump blocker offers the occasional two-for-one or just buys a lot of time.

Dragon’s Herald — Pretty unplayable; just so you know, you can’t sac a single triple-colored guy for this or any of the Heralds. I know it reads that way and you probably weren’t fooled, but your opponent might be, so it’s good to be sure, and even better to have a judge explain it to him.

Soul’s Fire — I kept this card in mind in case I was light on removal, but it might be better than I thought, given how many creatures have five power, and how few instant removal spells kill those creatures.

Goblin Mountaineer — Don’t give up the card playing this…but if you manage to come up against someone in Red with no pingers, feel free to side it in.

Viashino Skeleton — Eww.

Hissing Iguanar — This guy is aggressively costed, trades with a 5/3, and has an impact even when he’s just sitting around watching people die.

On first pass: I’d want to play the Stinger, Skeletonize, and probably the Submersions. If my deck supported it (had maybe six guys that were at least 3/3s) I’d want to play Soul’s Fire. And the Iguanar is a definite playable.


Topan Ascetic — This guy’s a 3/3 blocker immediately, huge on a stalled board, and gets immediate results from your new creatures… very impressive for three mana.

Mighty Emergence — If you have 5 or 6 guys who trigger this it starts to be worth playing, but you probably don’t need it, especially since a 5/3-turned-7/5 still trades with just a 5/3.

Godtoucher — I saw a few boards where both players had Rakeclaw Gargantuans in play and fatties just kinda stared at each other; this card can break those stalemates open, so it’s worth looking at.

Skullmulcher — You need to have enough bodies in your deck that will be outclassed late and cease to count much as cards, or a couple of token generators; if you do, this card should be awesome.

Mosstodon — One of the 5/3s I was talking about, these guys all seem to have super-relevant, cheaply-costed abilities.

Soul’s Might — There’s no trickiness or efficiency to this card, but if the other guy has no removal that can deal with your targets, it’s probably worth siding in.

2 Resounding Roar — The regular cost is fine, and the cycling effect is huge, a definite playable in Green.

Cavern Thoctar — A six-mana 5/5 is perfectly acceptable, but this guy isn’t significantly bigger than his five-mana brethren… it’s too bad he isn’t a 4/6.

Savage Hunger — I’d only play this card if I needed the cycler.

2 Gift of the Gargantuan — This card seems kinda awesome as long as your deck maximizes it; given 15 creatures and 18 lands, it should usually be a Green Counsel of the Soratami with occasional selection built in.

On first pass: Nothing stands out besides, maybe, the Mulcher, but Green seems deep on above average playables, offering the Ascetic, the Mastodon, the two Roars, the Thoctar, and the Gifts.

(It’s worth noting that if I didn’t have the gold cards to look forward to, I’d be pretty disappointed with this sealed pool at first pass.)


Rakeclaw Gargantuan — This guy looks to me like one of the key commons in the format. He’s killable, but it won’t really happen in combat unless you’re opponent has one too. Oh yeah, and he does the same thing for all of your fatties. Overall, just an immense presence, offensively and defensively.


Sangrite Surge — I’d have to have a lot of evasion, and my opponent would have to have a clear lack of instant speed removal before I’d want this anywhere near my deck. Kind of overcosted for being a pretty situational Lava Axe.

Rip-Clan Crasher — This guy is just fine if you’re base RG, and can expect to cast him consistently on turn 2… he can cause a lot of headaches in an aggressive deck.


Jund Charm — Wow…Pyroclasm is so much better at instant speed, letting you sculpt combats on either person’s turn; I’m pretty sure the pump-trick won’t come up that often given the payoff on waiting for the optimal Pyro opportunity, but it’s gravy, as is the graveyard removal.

Carrion Thrash — Likely to yield card advantage if you’re on the play or don’t need to chump block with it, but inconsistent enough as a Gravedigger that it’s mostly just a 4/4, which is fine and not a waste but not overly exciting at five mana.


Blood Cultist — Just remember to use this guy whenever anyone’s gonna die, and he’ll get huge pretty quickly; then learn when to attack with him and when to leave him untapped, as it’ll make you a much better Limited player.


Cruel Ultimatum — Not quite an eleven-for-one, the life swing is probably much more relevant than it would be in Constructed, the draw is as good as your deck, the discard depends on the other person’s strategy and draw, the Raise Dead is excellent if you have time, and the Edict is likely to eat an expendable body. It may not catch you up form behind, but this card can have an immense effect on stalled boards and close games, if you can cast it.

Kederekt Creeper — This guy’s fine, a little hard to cast, but harder to block, and eventually trading with two guys.


Tidehollow Strix — Cheap, evasive, and able to trade up.


Windwright Mage — Hard to cast, inconsistently evasive, with a negligible impact on the game if it’s not flying.

Sphinx Sovereign — Unless it’s killed on your turn, this guy swings the game immediately and ends it quickly. The kind of effect you want for eight mana.

Sharuum the Hegemon — The first time I played this card I thought it returned the artifact to hand and that I could loop it with the Sanctum Gargoyle; I was disappointed when I found out I couldn’t, but jeez is this guy nuts.


Deft Duelist — This guy’s fine if you need the kind of defense he provides, or if your deck ends up being pretty aggressive, but I think most sealed builds will want to end up with a minimum amount of 2/2s.


Tidehollow Sculler — Same note as for the Duelist, except the Sculler holds more value late in the game when your opponent will usually have removal, bombs, or lands in his hand.


Jhessian Infiltrator — This guy gets in there, so if you can cast him by turn 5, it’s probably worth playing.


2 Obelisk of Naya — Much of the conversation at the prerelease circled around the Obelisks (pausing occasionally to turn to them and bow deeply while pulsing drums emanated from ground around us); Kyle wasn’t sure he wanted a deck that needed them, while I felt like I’d pretty much always be happy playing two or three.

2 Relic of Progenitus — Mostly a sideboard card, maindeckable if you need the colorless cycling.


Arcane Sanctum
Savage Lands
Jungle Shrine
Esper Panorama
Jund Panorama
Bant Panorama

The lands are all awesome.

On my initial run through the cards, I had no clue how to start trimming away colors. Besides the learning curve that comes with a new set, it seemed clear to me that my best single colors were Green, White, and Red, but also that I gave up a lot of power by not pairing Blue and Black with White. My removal was scattered all over the place, as were my quality creatures. And the gold cards jumbled everything. Cross-pollination, indeed.

While assessing the cards, I repeatedly pointed out that 5 and 3 power (and so, 6, 4, and 3 toughness) are the important thresholds, and also that colorless cycling held a lot of value. This last intuition hinges on the assumption that most Sealed decks are going to stretch to play their gold cards, meaning they will be at least three colors, and that colorless cycling will go a long way to smoothing out many draws and mana situations.

If you have the cards to build a two-color deck (with a slight splash) that properly balances power and consistency, you should probably go that route. But I’m guessing for many Sealed pools that proper balance will often lead you to playing four, and even five, colors. So after deciding that you can’t play a two-color deck, the next step needs to be figuring out what color configurations your mana fixing best supports. The lands and Obelisks all fix for three colors, so even if you’re focusing on two you’ll often find that you’re picking up four or five source of a third and fourth color for free. After I recovered from the initial boggle of trying to settle on two colors, I found clarity when I did a quick tally. If I played all six lands, both Obelisks, and just a single basic of each kind I could fetch, I’d have 5 Black, 4 Blue, 7 White, 7 Green, and 6 Red sources, with 7 available land slots to tailor the mix. Now I felt like I had a context in which to balance power and consistency.

I looked to the removal first, deciding that I could support the full rainbow without dipping into the less exciting spells. I played these:

Oblivion Ring
Jund Charm
Blood Cultist
Cruel Ultimatum
Vithian Stinger
2 Volcanic Submission

I made a conscious choice to be greedy on this build, as I wanted to test the limits of the mana, plus I wanted to try Cruel Ultimatum. For your edification, it was too greedy, often being uncastable as I waited for a third Black. Also, including it made me include more Swamps than I otherwise needed to, which didn’t ruin me in four rounds, but would almost certainly cost me games over the length of a PTQ or GP. The other thing I figured out while playing with the deck, was that I only had two spells that dealt with an x/3, and only the Ring for anything bigger. I sided in the Coma Veils most games. It turns out I was probably heavily undervaluing the Soul’s Fire and should’ve brought that in, but I was also worried about this particular deck not having relevant bodies when I needed to cast it.

Next, I looked at what creatures and other cards I definitely wanted to play:

Sharuum the Hegemon
Sphinx Sovereign
Cloudheath Drake
Sanctum Gargoyle
Battlegrace Angel
Rockcaster Platoon

This seemed like a pretty exciting collection of finishers. As you can see, all of them were Blue, White, or Black, which led me to fill out the lower end of the curve with those colors:

Kathari Screecher
Tidehollow Strix
Grix Battlemage
Windwright Mage
2 Spell Snip

I had options to replace Spell Snip with (including a Coma Veil). I should also point out that I didn’t know how good, and format relevant, Rakeclaw was until after playing out and watching and handful of games. He definitely should’ve made the deck. Similarly, Mosstodon could easily have made the deck over Spell Snip or Cruel Ultimatum.

This is what I ended up playing:

1 Kathari Screecher
1 Tidehollow Strix
1 Grix Battlemage
1 Windwright Mage
1 Sphinx Sovereign
1 Cloudheath Drake
1 Sanctum Gargoyle
1 Battlegrace Angel
1 Rockcaster Platoon
1 Blood Cultist
1 Vithian Stinger

1 Sharuum the Hegemon

1 Oblivion Ring

1 Skeletonize
1 Jund Charm
2 Spell Snip

1 Cruel Ultimatum
1 Infest
2 Volcanic Submission

2 Obelisk of Naya

1 Arcane Sanctum
1 Savage Lands
1 Jungle Shrine
1 Esper Panorama
1 Jund Panorama
1 Bant Panorama

4 Swamp
4 Island
3 Plains
1 Mountain

While I was busy reevaluating my card pool, I wanted to brainstorm some possible alternative builds. After trying to take advantage of the depth of Red, White, and Green, I found that still didn’t have enough going on early without playing cards I’d rather not play. I was still playing all of my Blue and Black mana without taking full advantage of it. The one build I did like was not so different in spirit from my first take, mostly a refinement that takes into account the things I’ve learned so far. It plays all my best creatures and removal, has fairly consistent mana, and early drops that are relevant throughout the game. I have to say, I think I like the following build much more than my first:

1 Tidehollow Strix
1 Tidehollow Sculler
1 Vithian Stinger
1 Blood Cultist
1 Hissing Iguanar
1 Grixis Battlemage
1 Sanctum Gargoyle
1 Viscera Dragger
1 Battlegrace Angel
1 Rakeclaw Gargantuan
1 Mosstodon
1 Cloudheath Drake
1 Sharuum the Hegemon
1 Rockcaster Platoon
1 Sphinx Sovereign

2 Volcanic Submersion

1 Jund Charm
1 Skeletonize
1 Soul’s Fire

1 Oblivion Ring

2 Obelisk of Naya

1 Arcane Sanctum
1 Savage Lands
1 Jungle Shrine
1 Esper Panorama
1 Jund Panorama
1 Bant Panorama

4 Swamp
1 Plains
3 Mountain
1 Forest
2 Island

Are you seeing something in my card pool that I’m missing? Are any of my evaluations way off from yours? What else stood out to you about the format? Let me know in the forums.

And as a quick takeaway, my current guidelines for tackling a Shards sealed pool:

1) Keep the 5/3 in mind. Scan your pool for ways to interact with your opponents 5/3s. Remember that your opponent will be asked the same question by your own. Give a higher value to guys with six or more toughness.
2) Tally your non-Green mana fixing. It will give you a good idea what kind of colors you can support, and give you some limits when deciding what cards you want to play.
3) Don’t be greedy. Just because you can splash, doesn’t mean you should. Stay on color if you’re not getting a significant upgrade in power at a reasonable mana cost. Double-symboled splashes will happen more often in this format than usual, so learn how to do the mana math.
4) Don’t be scared of playing more than two colors. Your job is to maximize the value you get balancing power and consistency. It seems like most Sealed decks will be a solid three colors, so don’t automatically assume you’re screwing up when you build that way.
5) If you’re more than two colors with a splash, you probably want to draw, and you probably want to include cards that will keep you from falling behind early while you develop your mana. Value cycling high in these decks.
6) And, given the above, you should always look for the opportunity to build a deck that takes advantage of people spending the first three turns developing their mana. My guess is that deck will be Red/Green with a splash.

Good luck at your upcoming PTQs!