The coverage at Grand Prix Seattle was rife with discussions of how fast the Sealed format is and how one can’t really play a control deck. I’m here to tell you that just ain’t so. Aggressive decks do work better in this Sealed format than they have historically, but I still think it’s generally better to play high impact cards than to channel the spirit of Wild Nacatl. Here is the Sealed deck I played to an 8-1 finish on day 1, and my thoughts behind the cards I chose:
2 Torch Fiend – I usually don’t really like Grizzly Bears or their slightly less tough cousins in Sealed. I’d much rather play a bunch of 2/3s to blank everyone else’s vanilla 2/2s. (Which is why I don’t want to play 2/2s myself as I feel like they quickly get blanked by other people’s bigger guys.) However, I knew more people than usual were going to be beating down and I wanted a line of defense against that. These guys also served the double purpose of providing outs to the many good pieces of equipment and the fairly powerful uncommon artifact creatures. I like Grizzly Bears a lot more when they can serve some purpose in the late game, whether pumped by a Lord, a piece of equipment, or like in this case where they can be cashed for Shatters.
1 Stitcher’s Apprentice – Actually my “23rd card” in this deck but a chronic over-performer. I like that in many board states Stitcher can play the role of an expensive Avacynian Priest. I also like that he can make all of an opponent’s removal spells (especially removal enchantments) into bad versions that give me a 2/2 afterward. He is also reasonable early game for trading with other people’s 2/1s and keeping Gather the Townsfolk tokens home.
1 Hanweir Watchkeep – This guy is kind of a dream as far as “stoppers” go. He can be played early and blanks at least one attacker for many turns. Then, once the board has stabilized with better cards in play, he makes a fearsome beater. His only downside as a blocker is that your opponent can skip a turn to flip him and then race your 5/5.
1 Civilized Scholar – In Sealed, as in the rest of Magic, there’s a lot of variance. Moreover, past turn 6, it’s unlikely that you’ll need your drawn lands unless there are expensive flashback spells in your deck. This guy does it all, smoothing your draws early, gaining card advantage (in terms of quality), and can trade with most big creatures in a pinch. A Looter is one of the best things you can have in Sealed, since he gets to activate so much more often in this format than anywhere else.
1 Stitched Drake – Probably the second best blue common from Innistrad after Silent Departure. This is huge for a flying creature, big enough to fight any of the non-rares in the format and win. I think a lot of Sealed decks lose long games if they don’t have good answers to fliers, and just having a lot of removal spells isn’t quite enough in this format since there are so many 1/1 flying tokens. Bigger flying/reach creatures or One-Eyed Scarecrows are necessary if you aren’t just racing. Obviously, he’s also a pretty good clock on his own in the air when your ground creatures are holding/stalling the field.
1 Afflicted Deserter – To be honest, I would’ve preferred a Russet Wolves here. Since I didn’t get any of the 2/3s I’m so fond of, I didn’t really have any creatures in the early part of my curve that just made Grizzly Bears stop and stay home. There were plenty of situations where Afflicted Deserter had to trade down for tempo reasons. He did get to Smash to Smithereens an artifact or two, though, so it wasn’t a total loss. A 5/4 is not a bad body, but rarely seemed like it was going to do more than trade with an opponent’s similarly oversized creature (or more likely with two of their obsolete 2/2s). I did feel a lot more comfortable facing the inevitable Butcher’s Cleavers or Geistcatcher’s Rig with a third card that would take care of them.
1 Creepy Doll – This card was perfect for my deck! One of my real fears in Innistrad is getting overwhelmed by a pack of enormous werewolves. There aren’t that many ground creatures that can hold them off very long. Creepy Doll makes every ground creature think twice before they get in your face, which is wonderful. Creepy Doll is also a pretty good attacker in a stalled board. He doesn’t get through for much, but slowly nibbling away is better than no progress at all.
1 Nearheath Stalker – An awesome defender and can put pressure on an empty board. The undying mechanic is extremely powerful, and I would have to have a reason not to play any of them other than Young Wolf (which I think is just too small to matter). This card also has good synergies with Stitcher’s Apprentice and Fling.
1 Havengul Lich – To play a “control” deck in Sealed, you need to survive to the late game, and then you’d best hope your late game is better than your opponent’s. Being able to flashback every creature in my own yard and some of my opponent’s certainly fit the bill. There were a lot of matches I played where we attritioned each other’s boards and hands and then I got to drop this guy and it was better than drawing a fresh seven. I just had infinite gas as long as he was on the table.
1 Skirsdag Flayer – I list this guy near the top of my curve because I don’t expect to be able to cast him very early. I also would prefer to give my opponent options on burning his cheap removal spells on other creatures before I put this frail guy on the table. I chose to splash him since he’s a reasonable removal spell, and combined with Havengul Lich I have the potential to just kill every creature my opponent plays if I need to.
1 Geistcatcher’s Rig – I love this card. Killing big flying creatures is a huge boon in any deck, as are large artifact creatures than can handle guys with intimidate. This guy dramatically cuts down chances of losing to evasion of every kind. 4/5 is also a great set of stats, trading or keeping home pretty much every non-green creature in the format or providing a fast clock.
1 Moonveil Dragon – My other sweet bomb. With a few exceptions, the mass fire-breathing and 5/5 flying body ended the game the turn it was played or immediately afterward. Not a remotely fair card in Sealed.
3 Geistflame – Gaudenis Vidugiris speculated that this might be “one too many Geistflames.” His concern was that if an opponent’s deck (or hand) didn’t have many good targets, I could be sitting on a pile of blanks. After playing the tournament with this deck, I don’t think it’s true or really could be true. There are just so many X/1s in the format, especially utility guys that need to die or fliers, that this card never felt like it ran out of targets. Even when they don’t have X-1s, it can still be an inefficient removal spell: 3RR to kill an X/2 isn’t the worst. On the other hand, my loss in the Swiss against Owen came partially on the back of the fact that I was holding a bunch of Geistflames game 1 and had only a single red source to power them with, while he didn’t play a single guy with less than two toughness. I would still run them all back if I could do it over again. In addition to my early critters, these were an excellent line of defense against a lot of aggressive cards.
1 Wrack with Madness, 1 Claustrophobia, 1 Bone to Ash – These were my “Get Out of Jail Free” cards: removal that deals with any creature. It’s true that Wrack isn’t perfect against undying creatures and Claustrophobia doesn’t work against anything with utility powers, but having answers to huge and powerful bombs is the final key to a control deck. I was a little trigger happy with Bone to Ash if I needed more resources to win, but the other two I would avoid using if at all possible against non-red opponents so that I could use them in an emergency. (Against red decks I generally play a lot more aggressively, since they probably have some combination of Devil’s Play, Alpha Brawl, Fling, and/or Brimstone Volley, all of which end games from nowhere.)
1 Fling – Friend and local Magic luminary Mike Gurney told me to never cut this card from a Sealed pool. I was skeptical, as I’ve always been a little displeased by the card disadvantage generally implied. However, in a format with so many blue and white enchantments shutting creatures down, I could see where it would be useful. It’s also fine if they use a removal spell and you get to Fling for card parity. However, I think the ability to interact with what my opponent is doing is a high priority for me in Sealed, so I was somewhat willing to do it even for (occasionally) a high price. The card worked out very well; I think I pretty much never had to 2-1 myself to use it as a removal spell. This was largely because I had a bunch of other reasonable removal spells and could generally afford to hold the Fling for the perfect moment. The card also provided a lot of reach: there were a few games where being able to dome my opponent cut my clock by a turn in a way that swung the match. In the end, and as is often the case, Mike was right, and I don’t think I’ll even grumble in the future when putting Fling in my Sealed decks.
1 Think Twice, 1 Divination – Whenever I’m playing a long game, I want every way to gain advantage on my opponent. These are both automatic 2-1s and increase the frequency with which I draw my best cards. I’m not sure what my upper limit on cards like this would be, but I’m guessing it’s at least four. I also really like that these cards combat both getting mana flooded and mana screwed. There were definitely at least three games where these two cards and Tower Geist kept the mana flowing and my curve developing where if I hadn’t been running them I would’ve stumbled. These cards also make splashes a lot better, since the deck gets better at assembling the off-color lands with the off-color cards.
1 Evolving Wilds, 2 Swamp, 7 Island, 7 Mountain – A pretty standard 8-8-3 to support the two main colors and the two splash spells. I commented to Sam Black before the GP that if I could guarantee one common in my Sealed pool I would want to guarantee one colorless mana fixer (i.e. Traveler’s Amulet, Shimmering Grotto, and Evolving Wilds). There are just so many more options for which spells you can play out of your pool that I feel any pool with one of these cards is going to be a lot stronger than one without. Given the choice of 83 random cards and one fixed card, I would certainly snap pick an Evolving Wilds over any other common.
Overall this card pool had everything I wanted to play control: early removal and creatures, a reasonable curve, (a solution to) fliers, card advantage, universal removal, and some nice bombs. I might have liked to have a Dissipate or Lost in Mists in my sideboard to deal with some of the bomb non-creature permanents, but you can’t have everything! I’ll talk a little bit about the cards that almost made it, since that is probably also telling:
Screeching Skaab – I would board this in against an aggressive deck to provide one more early answer to a Grizzly Bear or against a very slow deck in order to take the aggressive role. I mostly just think this is a dead card whenever you draw it against the average (implicitly midrange) Sealed deck.
Slayer of the Wicked – I was tempted to play 1 Swamp, 1 Plains, 1 Evolving Wilds to splash this and Havengul Lich. However, I don’t think this is much better than Skirsdag Flayer, since there are a lot of important creatures he just doesn’t kill. Moreover, both splash cards get a lot worse when Evolving Wilds can’t set them up at once, and the chance of drawing the mana for them naturally decreases by 50%. Even if Slayer were quite a bit more powerful I still think I’d stick with the more consistent splash. He’d have to be something on the order of Shriekmaw (removal and serious threat with evasion) before I’d want to split my splash color into two.
Shattered Perception – This pool doesn’t really have many expensive cards beyond the Moonveil Dragon. I wouldn’t mind holding lands past somewhere between six-to-eight in hand in the hopes of a Windfall payday. I like Faithless Looting a lot, and this seems like a somewhat worse version. I never ran into a slower deck than mine, but I’d consider boarding it in there, trying to beat them on card quality (unless I wanted to try to beat them on speed).
Haunted Fengraf – I’m pretty intrigued by this card. It seems like a really good way to control mana screw and mana flood. I’ve been considering playing it as an eighteenth land, since it provides mana early and resources later. It’s particularly interesting in Sealed where little creatures tend to board stall while good creatures tend to get in the graveyard via removal spells. It also seems good in blue decks with a lot of Skaabs to manipulate what is leftover in the bin. I felt like this deck had enough variance control in the form of its blue card draw and the Looter, but if I hadn’t been blue I would’ve looked hard at this one.
My technical play was not the best this tournament: I played my games adequately but not exceptionally. I would say the biggest mistake I made was failure to play around the Morbid mechanic all of day 1. In one round my W/G/R opponent had one Human token (I had Geistflamed the other) and attacked it into my Stitcher’s Apprentice on his turn 3. Since I wanted to conserve my life total, and am pretty much always on “call” vs. tricks, I blocked his 1/1 without really thinking about it. There was no trick, just a 4/4 Ulvenwald Bear for my trouble. I certainly would’ve been a lot happier with him keeping his 1/1 and going to nineteen. My deck can often handle giant creatures around turn 5, but risking such big creatures so early in the game can be disastrous. In this case the Bear ended up taking twelve of my life points and serving as The Abyss for several turns. Only using my Havengul Lich to recast my Moonveil Dragon 3 times ended up bailing me out of the situation I put myself in.
Similarly, in my feature match vs. Owen I left up RR3 for my Geistflame against his board of Typhoid Rats, Markov Patrician, and Butcher’s Cleaver. I was hoping I might blow him out by killing one of his creatures in response to an equip, though this wasn’t particularly realistic as it was only his turn 5 and he was still developing his board (and frankly, he’s a pretty good player and probably going to be suspicious when I pass turn 5 with a handful of red and blue cards). Instead, he attacked, I killed his guys, and he got to cast Wakedancer with morbid. As the game developed, that extra 2/2 cost me at least one draw step and decreased the number of outs I had to his board. I deeply regretted not just killing them both on my turn, but honestly had not really thought about the downside of not doing so. I like the morbid mechanic since it forces a player to consider what might usually be automatic decisions about blocking or when to cast spells. The moral of the story is to think about the implications of actions a lot more when facing black or green mana in this format.
My favorite round of day 1 was round 4 against another player who had a Havengul Lich. Fortunately I got mine online first to return my Skirsdag Flayer to play and got to Flay his Lich before he Flayed mine. He then Makeshift Maulered his Lich out of play so I couldn’t have two. I got to spend seven mana a turn to kill his best guys for a couple turns before he found a removal spell for my Lich. Mostly I was just lucky to draw my bomb before him and work him over with it, but sometimes being lucky with powerful cards is just a lot of fun.
The best play I made during day 1 was reading a B/W aggro opponent for holding a Rebuke in hand. He had eight lands in play and was still holding three cards. Most players only hold one land in hand to bluff a spell (unless facing a black deck, in which case they often hold two lands plus any spells they might have in case of a discard two), and he seemed pretty calm when I played my Moonveil Dragon. We had a stalled board where I had more creatures but his were bigger than mine. Reasoning that he had it (since there were few spells he wouldn’t have played by now), I just started sending in my smaller creatures and using the firebreathing to trade up for his bigger creatures. Eventually he was forced to Rebuke my attacking Werewolf when he ran out of blockers, and the next turn I was able to send the Dragon in to finish the job.
I got a short, poor night’s sleep at home due to needing to drive an hour back and forth between the site. For the draft I had a very strong preference for drafting U/W tempo decks. In Honolulu I kept an eye on all of Jon Finkel drafts at our house, and he pretty consistently drafted U/x tempo decks. I decided it was probably something I wanted to practice drafting more if the best Magic player in the world preferred it. My suspicions were confirmed in doing two-player Rochester drafts with my fiancÃ©e. Even when I had a very powerful Jund deck, she routinely destroyed me with U/W tempo-fliers. Finally, in Magic Online even when I assembled the stones in other colors, it felt like I was still a coin flip to lose the draft to someone who was drafting U/W. If the cards looked much better I was willing to move into green, but I generally wanted to avoid red (good spells, bad creatures) and black (great rares and uncommons, bad commons).
In Draft 1 Efro was 2 players to my right and opened a Huntmaster of the Fells. I figured that will put him in G/R, which is promising for my plans to play U/W. I P1P1 Increasing Devotion over Death’s Caress. In P1P2 I chose Relentless Skaabs over Death’s Caress and Wrack with Madness. I liked not picking the red card because of where Efro was likely to be. Caress is a very good card, and the player to my right is probably blue, but I think the color was deep enough that I was willing to draft it right behind another blue drafter. P1P3 I chose Loyal Cathar over Death’s Caress since it is on plan, and should let the players around me know I was pretty serious about playing white. I hoped the player on my right had only drafted blue so far and would leave the white cards to me so he could get good cards on the way back in pack 2. I picked up reasonable blue and white playables through the rest of the pack and felt alright about my colors. Pack 2 went nicely; I opened a Grasp of Phantoms (over Silver-Inlaid Dagger), then picked Midnight Haunting, another Grasp of Phantoms, Avacynian Priest, Deranged Assistant, Lantern Spirit, and another Deranged Assistant. The final pack went something like Sturmgeist, Fiend Hunter, Dearly Departed (over Voiceless Spirit), Doomed Traveler, then a bunch of reasonable filler. I was pretty pleased to wind up with the following deck:
1 Fiend Hunter
1 Dearly Departed
1 Doomed Traveler
1 Lost in the Mist
1 Increasing Devotion
1 Relentless Skaabs
1 Loyal Cathar
1 Faith’s Shield
1 Niblis of the Mist
1 Saving Grasp
2 Grasp of Phantoms
1 Midnight Haunting
2 Deranged Assistant
1 Abbey Griffin
1 Avacynian Priest
1 Village Bell-Ringer
1 Sharpened Pitchfork
1 Selhoff Occultist
1 Lantern Spirit
1 Mask of Avacyn
I’m not sure if I built the deck 100% correctly. It has some great fliers and a powerful late game in the form of Increasing Devotion. It’s possible I should have played more removal in the form of Sensory Deprivation and Chant of the Skifsang. The problem was that in addition to Efro’s Huntmaster of the Fells, I’d seen a Garruk and a Bloodline Keeper passed around, and I was concerned that if I wasn’t proactive enough people would draw and play these and other uncomfortable bombs. It’s also possible I should have only been playing one piece of equipment, though both of those cards had performed well for me in the past, and I liked the idea of upgrading Deranged Assistants and other small creatures into more serious threats later. I was also sorry that at some point in the Draft I hadn’t picked up a Feeling of Dread. I feel like that’s the card that had killed me the most on Magic Online, and it would have been particularly great with Deranged Assistants milling their way toward it.
Round 10 I had the highs of variance playing against a R/B Vampires deck. Game 1 I got some fliers going in the air which were going to lose the race against his Vampires backed up by Vampire Lords…until I topdecked Increasing Devotion and radically changed how quickly he could kill me. The first five chump blockers were enough to get me to the next ten chump blockers, and I put the game away. Game 2 was a savage affair in which a Deranged Assistant flipped a Dearly Departed on turn 3, and on turn 4 I cast Increasing Devotion for five 2/2s. There was no real coming back from that for the other side.
Round 11 was the lows of variance playing against eventual runner-up Iain Bartolomei’s U/B deck. I won game 1 with a solid hand on my side with him being slightly flooded. Game 2 I had the near-perfect opener of Island, Plains, Deranged Assistant, Fiend Hunter, Saving Grasp, Grasp of Phantoms, and Sharpened Pitchfork. I was anticipating being able to exile three creatures with the Fiend Hunter/Saving Grasp combo and get some more additional tempo off the Grasp. Unfortunately the promise of the hand never played out as I didn’t see another land until turn 6 or so when I was pretty much dead. Game 3 was a short affair where I mulled to six, kept a hand that was solid if I drew a Plains, and again bricked. I’m still pretty sure it was better than an average five on the play and it was a fine keep. At every tournament, I figure that about one in ten rounds is just going to be lost straight up to variance, and that I had just paid the piper. I was disappointed, but it’s part of the game.
Round 12 I kept Island, Island, Island, Deranged Assistant, Lantern Spirit, Relentless Skaabs, Faith’s Shield. Unfortunately, I didn’t draw another mana source until I was already dead, which happened fairly quickly as my opponent ran out a turn 4 Garruk who got to work. I think I gave myself the best chance to win by allowing Garruk to fight my Lantern Spirit putting him at one loyalty, giving me a chance to kill Garruk with Faith’s Shield on Deranged Assistant if I drew one of my nine plains and to resolve my Skaab if I drew one of my five remaining Islands. Losing a third straight game to mana screw, I began to tilt a little bit. In game 2 I started with a hand of Plains, Island, missed my third land drop, and went over the edge…
…and this is where I should have called a judge and went to the bathroom. I don’t usually go on tilt; I’m a pretty calm player and person in general. Sometimes I get a little nervous or psyched out when playing under the camera, and sometimes I want to win so badly I can taste it, but usually I’m on an even emotional keel. I didn’t really have a strategy for being so angry and frustrated. Being on tilt is certainly a huge hindrance to playing well, and I needed to get over it if I was going to win. In every sport you get timeouts for whatever reason, and the bathroom break is the legitimate way to stop the clock and get a breather in a Magic tournament. A couple minutes of walking, a drink of water, maybe splashing some water on my face, all would have given me some time to calm down, get some perspective, and return to playing the best game of Magic I could. Instead…
… I ripped my third land to cast a Selhoff Cultist, noticed my opponent was also having mana troubles, and plunged into our game. Over the course of it I would miss one free point of damage, an on-board kill, a way to force lethal damage, and finally a play that was odds-on to bail me out on the penultimate turn. Which is to say, that my greatest opponent that round was myself, and I lost. I was so preoccupied with feeling sorry for myself, so certain that I was getting screwed by variance, feeling so defeated, that I failed to see or take the opportunities the game presented to me. I refuse to allow myself to play with that attitude again. I will call that time out and give myself a few minutes to recover. (And to you, gentle reader, I recommend that you have a plan for dealing with yourself. Contemplate yourself and your mental states while playing, and come up with strategies for altering your outlook when it is getting in the way of your success.)
After the match I took that walk, had that drink of water, and splashed some water on my face. Breath in, breath out, water under the bridge. I listened to some music and enjoyed the view of Tacoma afforded by the fifth floor of the convention center. Relaxed, I returned for the second draft.
In the open, there was a Soul Seizer two seats to my right and two Scorned Villagers three and four seats to my right. I thought I might try to go green if no one took the Villagers since they are pretty reasonable fourth and fifth picks most of the time. Soul Seizer unfortunately isn’t always a first pick, so I wasn’t going to get a read on whether either of the players to my right was going to be in blue. (Though the odds of one of them being blue was high, especially since Patrick Chapin was sitting to the right of me.) P1P1 I was greeted by the choice of Geralf’s Mindcrusher or Niblis of the Urn. I really like Niblis as an aggressive card, and it fits right in to the ideal U/W deck I would like to force. Mindcrusher is more powerful, and if he gets accelerated out feels both fast enough and extremely unfair. After seeing that no one was drafting a Werewolf or the Soul Seizer, I drafted the Mindcrusher in anticipation of U/G.
P1P2 I saw another Niblis of the Urn and nothing else on its power level. Pat took the Beguiler of Wills. I decided I should consider the possibility of W/G in case both seats to my right were drafting blue. (I don’t mind being behind one blue drafter, but being behind two isn’t so hot.) In the next pack I had the choice of Nephalia Seakite or Griptide. I like both of these cards a lot, and decided that I was going to go ahead and work on the assumption that blue was open enough, choosing the Seakite. The next pack was a big decision: Kessig Recluse, Scorned Villager, or Drogskol Captain. The Captain is more or less the ideal card in the W/U decks that I wanted to be playing, so I decided I was not going to be green after all and moved in. The Griptide in the next pack was a nice gift. I think the card is great, and can’t understand why it sometimes tables. After that I picked up two Midnight Guards and a Screeching Skaab, making me feel pretty comfortable in my color choice. Pack 2 was mediocre for me, and I suspect that the Niblis of the Urn I passed P1P1 and the Griptide that I passed from the Seakite pack probably gave someone to my immediate left the go-ahead to also be U/W. P3P1 I didn’t open any playable U, W, or artifact cards, and ended up just hating the Kessig Wolf Run out of the pack. At many points in packs 2 and 3 there was just nothing for me, and I regretted not moving into the clearly more open color of green.
I wound up with a bad to mediocre U/W deck with only a couple of fliers and two big blue creatures (the Mindcrusher and a Skaab Goliath) to smash with. What really ended up saving me was two Moment of Heroism. I think every match I played came down to a race over life in one way or the other, and Moment of Heroism was the decider each time. I used to think the card was only above average or good, but it’s excellent and I’ve clearly been under-drafting it. A Moment of Heroism on a Skaab Goliath is a pretty brutal life swing! I won’t go into all the games, but I wound up 3-0ing my final pod mainly on the back of the combat trick. I’m a little disturbed that the archetype is strong enough that even when the cards don’t really come together it can win a pod.
It took a while after the Top 8 announcement for it to settle in that at 10th place I had gotten three Pro Points and was now locked for Gold status. It wasn’t the trophy or Top 8 that I’d come looking for, but I’d actually just had a damn good tournament. Another year on the Pro Tour is pretty sweet, and I’m looking forward to it.
Until next time, happy gaming.