How To Win With A Bad Sealed Pool

Have you ever been passed a terrible Sealed pool? Brian gives you some rules you can follow to try to salvage your tournament that he learned at GP Toronto.

You traveled four hours by car across state lines, paid the $40 entry fee for the Sealed GP or PTQ, spent the last twenty minutes registering and passing a completely broken Sealed pool that some other individual can’t help but build right, and finally the moment of truth is at hand. Anxious and excited, you fan through the pool that you will be playing, and reality sets in. You get that sick sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach as you suddenly realize that your Sealed pool is a rotten egg.

"I can’t believe I gave up my weekend, drove to another state, and paid the buy-in fee to get stuck with this ugly duckling of a pool," might be the first string of thoughts passing through your mind as you rifle through your stack, double checking to make sure you missed the two Wingsteed Riders that ought to be hidden somewhere among the wasteland of quad Commune with the Gods.

Just because your pool isn’t the nuts or doesn’t seem particularly good doesn’t mean that you are outright cold to make day 2 of a Grand Prix or Top 8 a PTQ. The fact of the matter is that most Sealed pools are pretty mediocre and that great pools are far more the exception than the rule.

I have had a lot of success over the years working hard to get the most out of mediocre Sealed pools and have definitely squeaked into day 2 with some pools that were really bottom of the barrel.

It’s fun to talk about some of the tricks and tactics that can be used to get the absolute most out of Sealed pools that don’t appear on the surface to have much to offer. I will lay out five simple rules to follow to maximize your chances of getting the most out of Sealed pools that are below average. Remember, just because one’s pool is below average doesn’t necessarily mean that your results have to be!

I stumbled upon this topic because this past weekend I managed to edge my way into day 2 of Grand Prix Toronto with what I (and my teammates) felt was an absolutely miserable Sealed pool.

Here is what I got passed:


2 Asphodel Wanderer
2 Boon of Erebos
1 Cavern Lampad
1 Felhide Minotaur
1 Gray Merchant of Asphodel
1 Insatiable Harpy
2 Mogis’s Marauder
1 Returned Phalanx
2 Returned Centaur
1 Tormented Hero

Nonbasic Land

1 Temple of Deceit
1 Unknown Shores


2 Battlewise Valor
1 Decorated Griffin
1 Divine Verdict
1 Gods Willing
1 Heliod’s Emissary
2 Hopeful Eidolon
1 Lagonna-Band Elder
1 Last Breath
1 Observant Alseid
1 Ray of Dissolution
1 Scholar of Athreos
1 Soldier of the Pantheon
1 Wingsteed Rider


1 Anax and Cymede
1 Horizon Chimera
1 Spellheart Chimera
1 Steam Augury


1 Coordinated Assault
1 Demolish
2 Flamespeaker Adept
1 Hammer of Purphoros
1 Lightning Strike
1 Ordeal of Purphoros
2 Portent of Betrayal
1 Priest of Iroas
2 Spark Jolt
1 Two-Headed Cerberus


1 Bronze Sable
2 Fleetfeather Sandals
2 Witches’ Eye


1 Aqueous Form
1 Crackling Triton
1 Coastline Chimera
3 Fate Foretold
1 Griptide
1 Meletis Charlatan
1 Ordeal of Thassa
1 Prescient Chimera
1 Sea God’s Revenge
2 Thassa’s Bounty
1 Triton Shorethief
1 Triton Tactics
1 Wavecrash Triton


1 Agent of Horizons
1 Artisan’s Sorrow
4 Commune with the Gods
2 Defend the Hearth
1 Fade Into Antiquity
1 Feral Invocation
1 Pheres-Band Centaurs
1 Nessian Asp
1 Nylea’s Presence
1 Sedge Scorpion
1 Shredding Winds

First of all, it is very rare that any Sealed pool (when you really break it down) is actually unplayable. The best Sealed pools are very easy to build because they build themselves and are really obvious. That being said, it is almost impossible to build a Sealed pool perfectly.

Even exceptionally strong pools are nearly always not built optimally; because of the high quality of the cards and synergies that are obvious, the smaller and subtler mistakes in a build (choosing between the last few cards that make the cut, cards 21-23 for instance) appear to make less of an impact on the overall result.

Big splashy bombs give you a margin of error in Sealed.

Obviously you need to know how to build good pools as well as mediocre pools, but when you don’t have a high density of game-stealing spells, it puts a lot of pressure on you to get the absolute most out of what you have.

Rule #1: Be Aggressive!!!

If you don’t have bombs-a-plenty that are capable of taking over games and winning them singlehandedly, then prolonging games is likely not in your favor. Giving opponents the opportunity to take over games with spells that are high quality or even worse giving them lots of time to draw into their powerful spells is not in one’s best interest.

There is also an assumption that Sealed tends to be a slow format, which lends a lot of players to suboptimally build their decks to be slower and clunkier than they probably should be. One way to capitalize is to get to the business of getting your opponent dead.

Being able to apply a lot of quick pressure will often force your opponents to use their stronger cards inefficiently to simply not be dead—which will very much work to a weaker pool’s advantage.

Looking at my pool from Toronto, it is pretty clear that there is absolutely zero incentive to build a deck that wants to prolong the game. There are really not any cards that can take over a game or generate a ton of advantage going long.

In fact, the good cards that I actually have in my pool specifically lend themselves to being aggressive.

On first glance over my pool, I quickly decided that my black and green cards were simply not deep enough or aggressive enough to make a formidable deck. So I honed in on my red, white, and blue cards.

Rule #2: Keep The Creature Count As High As Possible

In order to beat down, a player needs to have threats—and lots of them. It is important to stay focused and not try to get too cute.

As a general rule, I will play almost all of my removal in Sealed almost all of the time, but I also try to have an absolute critical mass of creatures.

One of the biggest challenges that I faced with my pool at Toronto was that I simply didn’t have a lot of creatures period. And while I had a few very high-quality three-drop creatures, most of my creatures were not great, and many of them were not good at being aggressive. In fact, between all of my colors there were only two total two-drops, which really complicated matters for my beatdown deck.

Rule #3:  Try To Be Two Colors When Possible

To maximize one’s ability to consistently be able to bring the beats, it really helps to try to force a two-color aggro deck. Most of the time if I am trying to force an aggressive strategy, I am happy to sacrifice some card quality and raw power level in order to be consistent.

There is no shame in "these are all of my red and white creatures, pump spells, and removal spells." In fact, these decks tend to perform admirably in Sealed (in basically every Sealed format ever) because they are so aggressive.

For the pool that I opened, I felt that white was my best color and that red and blue were both close in power level as a support color, with red having a slight edge. The best card in my pool by a wide margin was Anax and Cymede, so I wanted to be W/R.

Here is a build of W/R from my pool:

This W/R deck is level 1.

Is it aggressive? Check.

Is it maxed out on creatures? I’m playing all the ones I have.

Is it two colors? Check.

It sort of meets the qualifications that I set up previously—but not completely.

I had multiple players build my pool over the course of the day, and every single person built this deck off by maybe a card or two. I am fairly certain every single player got it very wrong.

The first three rules I have laid out are fairly intuitive once a player understands how Sealed works. The problem is that while this deck follows the confines of the word of the rules (it’s aggressive, plays as many creatures as possible, and is streamlined for consistency), the deck doesn’t actually live up to the spirit of those rules.

Aggressive Objective Failed: While the cards are sort of aggressive, the deck isn’t actually very fast or good at putting people on their heels.

Creatures Objective Failed: The deck is playing all of the creatures but only has ten actual critters, many of which can’t actually fight anything on their own.

Streamlined Mana For Consistency: While the deck technically has consistent mana, the strategy in and of itself is extremely inconsistent. There are not enough creatures to actually beat down. The deck is full of Act of Treason effects but can’t consistently create a clock. Also, the clock is probably so slow (often starting on turn 3) that the deck won’t be able to capitalize on these narrow effects.

Luckily for me, this is not the deck that I started, although I did sideboard into this deck quite a few times since so many of my friends that I respect so strongly felt this was the best version of the deck. I was pretty quickly able to confirm that the W/R deck was bad and stopped boarding into it.

What do you do when you simply can’t build a deck that fulfils the first three objectives?

Here is where things get really interesting. If a pool can be built to be aggressive, have a lot of creatures, and have good two-color mana, it can’t possibly be that bad. When a pool doesn’t have powerful good-stuff late-game cards but also can’t be a consistent agro deck, that is when things start to get interesting.

Rule #4: Be Greedy

Being greedy isn’t always bad. Sometimes greed is good.

When people talk about being greedy, they are usually just talking about doing something that is risky.

Remember that with great risk comes great reward.

When put into a position where it is impossible to play fair, well then desperate times call for desperate measures. My thinking with the pool was that I was not going to be able to beat anybody with my slow low power level and creature-light deck so I might was well build a deck that has the most possible draws that are above average.

There are a lot of ways to do things that are a little risky but can pay off big time, which is often the best course of action when the alternative is mediocrity.

For instance, one might take some liberties with their mana base or play cards that might be a little weak individually but create powerful synergies or combos with other cards.

I decided to just go for it and built a three-color deck that played to the strengths of that cards that I had.

It is necessary to be playing a deck that is actually capable of winning games and matches of Magic. Don’t stick to convention just for convention’s sake. If your deck sucks and you know it sucks, you need to take some risks and try to build a deck that is actually capable of beating people.

The mana is atrocious. I know.

However, if the mana works out, the deck has a lot of inherent synergies. I also greatly improve my creature count and quality as well as greatly upgrade the quality of my spells.

The bad mana issue is also helped by the fact that my deck has a strong scry subtheme based on two Flamespeaker Adepts.

Another strong consideration is that I got to play another Ordeal; creatures with larger toughness or evasion (Meletis Charlatan, Spellheart Chimera, and Wavecrash Triton) are much better at getting active than no creatures or small toughness weenies.

For the record, I won every game I cast a Spellheart Chimera. He was easily the best creature in my deck at carrying an Ordeal. Did you even know he tramples? So good.

Playing bad mana certainly made me have to mulligan hands because of mana issues, but the total amount of mulliganing was about the same as the W/R deck. The number of hands that were unkeepable because of mana were about the same as the number of hands that were simply too weak with the W/R deck.

Rule #5: Go Deep With Your Sideboard

Just because you register a specific 40-card set doesn’t mean that you are married to it forever.

For this tournament, I scraped and scavenged to find ways to win out of my sideboard. I brought in 22 different sideboard cards over the course of the tournament. Obviously properly using one’s sideboard to the maximum effect will improve anybody’s chances of winning in an event, but it is even more important with a mediocre pool.

Against the other fast aggro decks, I boarded out my Ordeals and combat tricks for Spark Jolts, Last Breath, and Coastline Chimera. (Spark Jolt and Last Breath are combos with Meletis Charlatan!!!) Against the more controlling decks with lots of removal, I went super deep and brought in Thassa’s Bounty and Steam Augury!

Keep in mind that a lot of cards that traditionally don’t start in decks can be great against certain types of decks, and always be looking to find these uses for cards in the sideboard.

Sealed really rewards making sideboard adjustments, so always keep that in mind.

I ultimately finished in the Top 64 at the event, and the highlight for me was definitely grinding into day 2 with a pool that was pretty much unanimously agreed upon to be bad.

The other highlight of the event was that I got to make my called shot twice.

At lunch during the byes, I told Ari and Fennel that I was going to get somebody by playing turn 3 Flamespeaker Adept and on turn 4 playing Temple of Deceit and then tapping out for another creature pre-combat and attacking and getting my opponent to lose a creature by blocking (not realizing that the land gave my guy first strike and +2/+0).

Two players so eager to trade with the Flamespeaker while I was tapped out simply forgot that I had already scryed for the turn!

Small victories, small victories . . .


Be aggressive.

Max out on creatures.

Prioritize being two colors.

But if you can’t:

Be greedy.

Make a way with your sideboard.

Lastly, congratulations to Ari Lax. Limited Master.

Well, any thoughts on how else I might have built this Sealed pool?

Did I mention that I went 2-1 with a Draft deck that featured Shipwreck Singer and Xenagos, the Reveler fighting side by side?

Greed is good.