Good Beats: Sealed Deck Knowledge From The Masses

Eleven sealed decks; pure, unadulterated. Can you make them into game-winning decks? Because eight of these decks won.

(Decklist Here)

I won a Black Lotus in a Sealed Deck tournament once.

Granted, the format was Ice Age/Alliances, back in the younger days of Magic when knowing how much land to put in your deck and how to block correctly was all it took to beat the room.

That Black Lotus has since been stolen, and my expertise of all things sealed is gone with it.

I’ve been playing Sealed events for years and have had my share of success, winning a prerelease and making a bunch of Top 8s at PTQs. So you’d think I’d have a clue about how to build an Invasion sealed deck.

Wrong. While the basic tenets of Sealed Deck hold true from year to year, block to block, the details are non-transferable. Life is in the details.

Over Christmas weekend, I played a few Invasion Sealed hands against my brother. He built his deck well, I didn’t, and he beat the tar out of me in four straight games. I totally reconfigured my deck, scrapping the blue/white/black build for a crazy 5-color approach, and I managed to pull out one win in the next four duels. Back to the drawing board. I converted the 5cG mess into a streamlined red/green beatdown deck with one Angel of Mercy splashed in, and that incarnation went 3-3. Needless to say, if I plan on playing in any Sealed Deck tournaments, I won’t have the luxury of eight practice rounds to come up with a deck that can go .500.

I needed some inspiration. I could print out all the generated card lists I wanted, but none of that was going to show me what real, successfully built Sealed decks were fashioned out of. In search of such knowledge, I grabbed a notepad and a pen and headed down to the Barcelona Pro Tour Qualifier at the convention center in downtown Pittsburgh this past Saturday.

The event (run by Mike Guptil and Professional Events Services) drew a decent crowd, somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 participants, which is pretty good considering the fact that Grand Prix New Orleans was running concurrently, and some of the local colleges – like CMU – aren’t back in session yet. The attendees included a large Ohio contingent, a not-quite-as-large group from Washington, PA, and some of my Pittsburgh pals like Andrew Cuneo, Nate Heiss, and John Rizzo. (There, I said it: Rizzo. This is my third piece for StarCity, and that was my first mention of the R-word. I know, I’m not meeting site standards.)

I started walking around as the contestants registered the contents of their decks, noting what bombs were in the house. Cuneo was ticking off quite a few goodies on his sheet – Tsabo’s Assassin, Annihilate, Breath of Darigaaz, Jade Leech. He said he felt those cards were "all right." All right? Mark Globus showed me a collection of hits, starring Pyre Zombie and the Stormscape and Thunderscape Masters. Nate flashed me two Urza’s Rages. My old teammate Jim Radeshak also had two Masters in his stack, this time Nightscape and Sunscape. The latter was joined by Reya, Dawnbringer and Atalya, Samite Master, forming the best collection of white rares this side of three Routs. Judge Shawn Manion had registered a deck in case anyone came late, and he claimed it was the best deck in the room; Blazing Specter, Tsabo Tavoc, and Void were three of the rares, and scan of the commons showed a Plague Spores and two Soul Burns. Talk of Preconstructed Decks ensued.

Due to the mandatory "deck swap," all those cards I mentioned above ended up disappearing into the clutches of unfamiliar players, never to be seen again, showing that killer rares are not the only ingredient in a recipe for top 8 dreams. There were, however, a couple interesting decks being registered that I made a point of to follow through the course of the tournament.

The first was being logged by occasional CMUer Matt Dimalanta – the deck came to my attention when I heard Rizzo bellow, "That’s a deck that’s NOT going to make top 8, if someone’s going to play four tappers." We all know of Rizzo’s distaste for white in general and little Master Decoy men in particular, but I knew a tapper-based strategy could work if the deck had enough punch in it – and it seemed this particular one may have. Aside from the tappers, the deck had two Shackles, an Armadillo Cloak, and a ton of black and red removal, including Reckless Spite, Plague Spores, Breath of Darigaaz, and two Soul Burns. The card strength was very spread out – maybe the tappers weren’t the way to go – but in any event, building the deck would certainly be a challenge.

The other interesting deck being registered was in the hands of Jason Means. Jason said the deck "sucked," it had "no good cards," and all the rares were terrible. I looked: Spreading Plague, Restock, Saproling Symbiosis, and two Overabundances – definitely sub-par. Jason said that if he got this deck back he’d be very unhappy.

After the decks were all registered, returned to the head judge, and randomly redistributed, the hard part – actual deck construction – began in earnest.

I went to spy on Rizzo. He had been given a nice collection of immensely powerful – yet prohibitively costed and non-synergistic – cards with which to work. He had bombs of all five colors lines up in front of him: Thornscape Master, Plague Spitter, Fact or Fiction, Charging Troll, Tsabo’s Assassin, Plague Spores, Spinal Embrace. I felt a twinge of compassion for him as he sat there clutching his head – he had the type of card pool that taunts players in this format. The goods are there staring you in the face, but there’s no way to possibly use them all. So you have to cut half of them, and then live with your decision – either that, or resign yourself to playing a deck with a mana base so bad that you’ll feel lucky to win ANY games.

Radeshak ended up with the first Dragon I’d seen all day – Rith. He worked the 6/6 beater into a base-green deck with several white and black cards – Rith and Urza’s Rage were his lone red spells. He had only seventeen lands in the deck; the question of how many lands were enough in this format was still up in the air in my mind.

Washington’s Mike Magby put together what everyone – from Seth Burn to Chad Ellis to Rizzo – calls the quintessential deck for Invasion sealed, blue/black/red. His technology included Yawgmoth’s Agenda and at least seven instants, four of which were permission spells.

I went back to Rizzo, and he made the tough decision to relegate the Troll, the Embrace, and the Fiction to the sideboard, sticking to a three-color black/green/red strategy. His logic seemed sound to me – once it was obvious that a five-color build wasn’t an option (which it may never be for Rizzo), he chose the best three colors at went with them.

Alas, the fates were not kind to Rizzo, Magby, and Radeshak over the course of the tournament. The three of them made relatively early exits, all having at least two losses by round six.

Of those that were in contention past the middle rounds, I’m going to focus on eleven decks, built and played by the following (listed alphabetically):

1) Bryan Bandes – the recipient of Jason Means’ "bad rares" deck;
2) Alex Borteh of Team Egghead Games – self-proclaimed "Master of Sealed";
3) Josh Casper from Columbus – winner of the previous PTQ held in Pittsburgh;
4) My Car Acrobatic Teammate, Andrew Cuneo;
5) Another Washingtonian, Anthony Florian, famous for qualifying for Pro Tours and never going;
6) Mark Globus, one of the more experienced PT vets in the room;
7) Kenny Hsiung, also of Team Egghead, finalist in the previous Pittsburgh PTQ;
8) Egghead #3, Jason Means himself;
9) Mike Patnik, a playtest partner of mine for PT Chicago;
10) David Weitz, former Ohio State Champ and recipient of Dimalanta’s four-tapper deck; and
11) Current Ohio State Champ and Egghead #4, Randy Wright.

For those of you that like building practice decks, here are a few for you. I’ve compiled the card pools for all eleven of those players here – real decks played by real people. At the bottom of that page is how they all built them for the tournament so that you can compare. The entire top 8 is on that list; see if you can guess which three were eliminated. If you want to play along, go ahead and do so now.

If you aren’t into such pursuits, I’ll try to explain the players’ deckbuilding decisions well enough that the lists won’t be necessary, although I will admit that printing them out for reference will probably be helpful.

First, let’s look at the three that didn’t advance to the elimination rounds.

David Weitz started his deckbuilding process by separating his card pool into colors and then subsequently into creatures and non-creatures. He then went through each of the piles individually, and removed the chaff – cards he’d never play. "Piles and piles of crap," he said, referring to the entire thing, not just the chaff. He immediately threw out the Attendant (many people refuse to play with them) and all the green cards due to a lack of creatures. Next to go was the blue, as both fliers he got had UU in their cost. This left him with an unorthodox black/white/red deck that I thought he was settled on. When I saw he was still poring over his cards fifteen minutes later, I returned to see he had worked green back into his deck. "This deck is making my head explode," he told me. The green offered him little other that a lone Apprentice and three mana fixers, until I looked closer at the gold cards, including Armadillo Cloak and Charging Troll. The deck turned out to be heavily four colors with only sixteen land – David was a gambling man. He ended up cutting all three of his Acolytes just to fit in more sizeable (2/2) creatures – he already had enough one-power guys with three tappers, and with the tappers and two Shackles he didn’t feel he could run enough white mana to make the Acolytes useful. David was pretty unhappy with the deck in general; it was as hard to build as I’d predicted.

He ended up getting his second loss at the hands of Nate Heiss towards the end of the tournament. He said afterwards that the colors he chose were right, but he wasn’t exactly sure about the individual cards.

A glance at Andrew Cuneo’s white and blue cards might show the hint of a decent deck: A Samite Archer, three tappers, two Wash Outs, and two Benalish Lancers. Wash Out does not impress Andrew very much, though, especially in a defensive deck; he was much more intent on using Urza’s Rage, Breath of Darigaaz, and Canopy Surge as finishers in a very aggressive build. Blazing Specter, Halam Djinn, Pouncing Kavu, and Serpentine Kavu provided him a tremendous amount of haste, and the rare Kavu Titan gave him an efficient fatty that could survive a four-point Breath. He ended up playing the Urborg Emissary with a lone Sulfur Vent as the only way to pay its kicker, and he ended up winning two games with that "combo." During other games, he was quite content to cast the Emissary as a 3-mana 3/1 "brawler." It is interesting to note that Andrew avoided playing either of his Attendants or his Alloy Golem, choosing cantrips like Aggressive Urge and Stun instead. He feels the artifact creatures are among the least efficient in the format and should be played as last resorts, mostly with the idea of blocking Duskwalker and Hooded Kavu.

Andrew lost to Anthony Florian in round 6 and finished just outside of the top 8 at 5-2. He said he was very happy with his decklist and only would change one Geothermal Crevice into a basic land – he’d had bad experiences with his Kavu Scout being 1/2 little too often.

Jason Means’ card pool was similar to Rizzo’s – five colors’ worth of bombs with little adequate depth in any of the colors. As he was building, he had 39 playable cards lined up and was picking through them slowly; needless to say, Jason bit the bullet and went all five colors ("I’m going for it!"), riding his Fertile Ground, Nomadic Elf, and two Harrows to a comfortable mana situation. The high-end stuff in his deck included Teferi’s Moat, Barrin’s Spite, Thicket Elemental, Goham Djinn, and Spite/Malice. He also played Wayfaring Giant (the poster child for 5cG), but chose not to use Strength of Unity, probably because he only had one flyer. Other than the Elemental, no card in his deck had two of the same color of mana in its casting cost, which is the ideal configuration for five-color decks.

Unfortunately, Jason’s deck didn’t perform well; he had slight mana problems and was eliminated by round five. Just like Weitz and Cuneo, Means stands by his construction and would have built it nearly the same given another chance.

Which brings us to the top 8 decks – those that were built well and performed the best.

The winningest deck at tournament was strikingly similar to Means’ five-color-madness. Mark Globus (6-0-1 after the Swiss rounds) found the inner strength to play with Phyrexian Lens, which, in combination with a Harrow, Quirion and Nomadic Elves, and two non-basic lands, gave him near-perfect mana all day long. While it may have been his gold rares – Teferi’s Moat and Reckless Assault – that directed his thinking towards a 5-color build, it was his powerful green cards that made him know it was possible. "If I’m going to play five colors, I want REAL green cards to give me a reason to play six Forests," Mark told me. Jade Leech, Kavu Chameleon, and Canopy Surge are about a real as green gets, and combined with the best that every other color had to offer, Mark possessed a real powerhouse. The Moat, Reckless Assault, and two Spite/Malice were the killers in Mark’s deck, usually keeping the enemy’s forces at bay long enough for his fatties to do their work. Mark said he had only minor mana issues all day, and would possibly alter just a single card if he had to do it over – swapping out a Hooded Kavu for an Obsidian Acolyte. It’s funny, but this deck serves as a reminder that five-color-green needs to be as much about the green as it does about the five-color part – a fact many players overlook in the face of a Harrow and some gold rares.

Randy Wright took a more "typical" approach to his deck – he says he always looks for black/red first, with good blue being gravy – and his card pool cooperated 100%. He ended up with an aggressive B/R deck with blue splashed mainly for two Probes and a Rainbow Crow. The insane aspect of his deck was the interaction between his two Plague Spitters and his three MVP Pouncing Kavu. The Spitter/Kavu duo would create a virtual 4-power first striker that was impossible to handle by blocking. Randy’s experience with this archetype showed; other than an early 0-2 loss, Randy went undefeated in GAMES, going a perfect 12-0 against opponent’s not named Amos Claiborne. While he said the deck’s color choice was a no-brainer – white and green were both terrible options – he did make what he considered one small error in his deck construction. He started Barrin’s Unmaking as a stopgap against Armadillo Cloak, a card he originally thought would wreck him. He later decided that Hypnotic Cloud would have been a better maindeck choice, since emptying an opponent’s hand is always a great strategy in this format. One other interesting choice was that he played none of his three Firescreamers, a card that was made specifically for black/red. Randy feels, as do many others, that Firescreamer is just too small, slow, and cumbersome to be played regularly.

How much "good stuff" should you be willing to sacrifice to play the "typical" deck? Here’s what ended up in Alex Borteh’s sideboard: Thicket Elemental, Meteor Storm, two Serpentine Kavu, two Canopy Surge, Samite Archers, and Benalish Heralds. He also had access to a Nomadic Elf, a Harrow, and a Quirion Trailblazer, so his refusal to go with a 5cG build doesn’t appear to be green’s fault. Alex did have a tough time finally deciding on his R/B/U deck; for a long time during construction, he had four colors of cards spread out, but he eventually cut the white in favor of more red removal. Sure, his powerful rares (Blazing Specter and Stalking Assassin) seemed to point him towards R/B/U, but Alex felt that the commons – two Recoils and a ridiculous three Probes – were what made him permanently relegate the green cards to the sideboard. "One Probe is usually enough to make me want to play blue/black," Alex told me, "but three meant I could use the first one on the third turn to set up the others." Subsequently, his Recoils were almost always three-mana Desert Twisters. Plus, since his opponents’ hands were always empty, his Assassin had a longer than usual lifespan. Alex was initially nervous about his low creature count – a mere ten, most of which were one- and two-power creatures. But his 5-0-2 record allayed his fears, and he noted that many of his victories included large chunks of damage from Dream Thrush or Smoldering Tar. Borteh’s deck is excellent proof that a lot of the sealed deck "ground rules," like "sixteen creatures, seven spells" or "needing lots of win conditions (whatever they are)" are just myths – reasonable guidelines that too many players set in stone. Take note.

Mike Patnik had his eyes set on the "typical" deck as well, but he had a green card that refused to be left in the sideboard – Darigaaz, the Igniter. By not straying from the R/B/U path except for the dragon, Patnik avoided having to put ANY off-color mana sources in his deck; he simply used either his Dream Thrush, Chromatic Sphere, or Geothermal Crevice to get the big guy out. And it worked, too – he drew Darigaaz three times and cast him twice, sealing the games in his favor. The other time he drew it he could have cast it but didn’t need to; he won anyway. The real MVP in Patnik’s deck, though, was Tsabo’s Decree. It allowed him to kill black creatures he’d normally have a tough time with, and he once got a three-for-one naming "Angel." I questioned Mike’s choice of creatures, such as the Battleflies and Viashino Grappler, but he said the only one he’d change was the Shoreline Raider, possibly for Marauding Knight. Realistically, with so much removal that two Zaps sat in his sideboard, any dumb little creature that he threw out there was generally good enough. He did admit that his Urborg Shambler killed his own Battleflies at least once, so maybe the one-toughness black creatures and the Shambler shouldn’t coexist.

Sometimes you get the tools to build the "anti-typical deck." Maybe one Sabertooth Nishoba isn’t enough to convince you to play green/white, but Kenny Hsiung busted two of the big boys. It took him considerably longer to build this sealed deck that it normally does, but in the end he settled on a list based on the "bad" colors plus blue. Two huge pro: red and blue creatures plus a Llanowar Knight gave him enough hard-to-kill creatures, even with no Acolytes. Top them off with a Zanam Djinn, an Angel of Mercy, and three tappers, and it’s easy to see that the B/R decks’ removal would be working overtime against Kenny. Kenny was well aware of the high casting costs of his spells, and he was cautious enough to run eighteen land plus a Cameo (Globus, Wright, Borteh, and Patnik all played seventeen lands). His fixers were a little atypical – a Quirion Elf and two Trailblazers – but they did their job of getting him to six by turn 4 or 5 consistently. Kenny splashed just a little black to kick Probe and for Spinal Embrace, another 6-cc bomb. He felt in retrospect that he should have probably gone the whole way and splashed red as well, just for two removal spells and the ability to give haste to his Serpentines. In any event, four colors were plenty, and the Nishobas wrecked shop all day. "People would use three cards to kill one of them," he said, "and then I’d cast the other." Interestingly enough, even with four types of basic land and talk of using all five, Kenny never put Power Armor in his deck. Personally, I thought that card was a no-brainer, but I guess I’ll have to rethink its effectiveness.

Josh Casper probably could have made a good R/B/U deck, but the possibility of using the big, bad Reya Dawnbringer led him to W/U/B. The Angel Legend hit the table at least five or six times over the course of the tournament, and almost always single-handedly won his matches. I asked him how in the world he’d get to nine mana consistently, and he showed me his two Attendants. He’d sacrifice them for mana, cast Reya, and bring the Attendants back over the next turn or two – a synergy I would have missed. Blue/white is the deck type where the Attendants generally shine, since ground stall is a necessity. He did make a bad call by playing the Rampant Elephant (which he couldn’t activate except with Attendants) instead of his third Galina’s Knight, plus he used a couple of other, less powerful, blue cards, but in general his decision to use white for the "kiddie card" paid off in a big way.

"Four Color Non-Green" is not generally considered a popular plan for a sealed deck, but Anthony Florian made it work. His black was strong, and he originally was going to augment it with red and green, just to give him a reason to use Fires of Yavimaya. But his mana curve turned out to be way too heavy with that configuration, so he ditched green and red for the less costly blue and white spells. He had enough cards to make it three colors but he felt it lacked power, so he added in Zap, Shivan Emissary, and Plague Spores. The red also turned his two Agonizing Demises from plain-old Banishings into real weapons, and the extra land type gassed up his Power Armor, Strength of Unity, and Wayfaring Giant. The four colors did take a toll on his mana consistency, he admitted. He’d often side out the Galina’s Knight and Samite Archer because he couldn’t get U/W into play reliably early on, and replace them with Cursed Flesh and Hate Weaver. But Angelic Shield, he said, always stayed in, as it was good at any point in the game. Anthony had good experiences with Do or Die (a card I’ve heard mixed opinions on), always killing his opponent’s best creature, and he often got two for one. His MVP, however, was Probe (I’m sensing a pattern here), as it crippled his enemies’ hands and fixed his mana at the same time. Anthony ran eighteen lands in a 41-card deck (a la Jon Becker), and was realistic about the possibilities of bad land draws, saying he expected to lose four or five games to mana problems. He only had two such games.

Last is Bryan Bandes. I guarantee he built his deck differently than you would have. Call him Super-Lucky Guy if you want, but his eccentric 43-card build took him to his first Top 8, where he was the only player who had never previously qualified for the Pro Tour. His nineteen land included at least one of each basic type; the green was just for Fires of Yavimaya, Armadillo Cloak, and to kick his Benalish Emissary, and the Island’s only purpose was to activate his Benalish Heralds – a feat Bryan pulled off a few times in one game. While the Emissary and the Cloak weren’t impressive, he never lost a game in which Fires was in play. He also got Spreading Plague to work for him, casting it only when he was behind and forcing his opponents to topdeck creatures that were the same color as his. After talking to his Washington posse, Bryan decided that the only red card worth the trouble was Fires (certainly not the two Skittish Kavu, which he says were his worst mistake), and he should have increased the green so that he could use Harrow and his Elves to pull of all of his deck’s tricks. If Bryan’s deck teaches us anything, it’s that for all the rules you want to make about how to build a deck or which cards are playable, there is someone not following those rules who can beat you. Anything can work.

That’s how the successful players did it. I honestly learned a few things, and had a few old ideas either reinforced or dispelled. First, it seems that anything can work, but R/B/U works a little better than everything else. It seems that good removal trumps good creatures, except when Sabertooth Nishoba is involved. It seems that the format hinges a little too much on Probe and its ilk. It seems that it’s worth fitting bomb rares in your deck. It seems 5-color-green is a two-part equation. And it seems that seventeen land is plenty for three colors. You can study the decks yourself if you want to discern any other little tidbits of information; be assured that the top 8 was one of most competent I’ve seen in a long while, so their opinions can generally be trusted if their records aren’t enough proof of their ability. There are a lot of nuances and intangibles in sealed deck; I know I couldn’t discuss every card in eleven decks in detail, but hopefully you now understand how these guys went about making some of the tougher fundamental decisions.

Of course, there was this booster draft thing afterwards, and Globus, Borteh, and Wright all managed to draft U/B/R decks, with Globus beating Borteh in the finals for the slot. So Mark qualifies for his 5th PT, while Egghead Games continues to exhibit their mastery over the Ohio Valley PTQ scene. Guptil, Manion, and the rest of the PES staff did another wonderful job, and I want to thank them for allowing me to bother everyone with questions and for giving me access to the decklists.

It was a great tournament, I learned a lot, and I hope to drop some of my knowledge at the Planeshift Prerelease on the 27th. See y’all there.

Aaron Forsythe

"I wish I could say that I learned something from this dismal experience, but I certainly didn’t learn anything on site." — John Friggin’ Rizzo

Yes, we were at the same tournament.