Lessons Learned From Umezawa’s Jitte

This article has some discussion about a little bit of everything, but the fact that it is another excellent article from Richard Feldman should be more than enough to get all of you to read it.

I really like tournament reports, especially PTQ reports. Here’s a PTQ report for you.

The format was Kamigawa Sealed. I didn’t keep track of the deck I played, but here are the relevant parts:

*18 land

*1 Umezawa’s Jitte

*like sixteenish creatures

*some number of other spells to make 40 cards total

Here’s how the matches went:

Round 1 (W): Bye (a first for me; go figure I get it at this tournament)

Round 2 (L 1-2): Get suck on two lands (L), Jitte (W), sloppy play on my part, plus don’t draw Jitte (L)

Round 3 (W 2-0): Jitte (W), opponent misses third land drop for too long (W)

Round 4 (W 2-0): Jitte (W), Jitte (W)

Round 5 (W 2-0): Jitte (W), Jitte (W)

Round 6 (W 2-0): Jitte (W), Jitte (W)

Round 7 (ID): Draw into Top 8.

Quarterfinals: Ask opponent if he actually plans on going to London if he qualifies. Scoop when he says yes.

Props: Aaron “Darth” Hauptmann, for taking home the slot.

Slops: Umezawa’s Jitte. Because screw that card.

Now let me put this fiasco in perspective real quick. I’m a Constructed player by trade, and I really just showed up to the PTQ to hang out with some friends I knew would be there, and also to play some Magic while I was at it. I had no aspirations of qualifying whatsoever (nor of potentially taking the opportunity to attend a Pro Tour away from anyone who was playing for more than just prizes).

To be honest, I have never really taken individual Sealed tournaments seriously, since until very recently I had been under the impression that Sealed was more or less a slot machine. You know – you pay your entry fee, build your deck, and if you get multiple bombs to line up (in the right colors), coins start pouring out.

I must admit, though, certain top-notch articles earlier in the season by Chad Ellis, Craig Stevenson, and Tim Aten got me thinking maybe I had been too harsh on the format. After all, Chad and Craig, the two most vocal Sealed writers on the site, both nabbed invitations to PT London very early in the season. This showed at least some correlation between explicit knowledge of Sealed and doing well at Sealed tournaments, despite all the complaints I have heard from my good-Limited-player friends that the format was more or less random as hell. Like I said, as of the morning of this tournament, I was still in their camp. [Kamigawa Block Limited has actually been one of the more skill-based formats in some time. – Knut]

Then a funny thing happened. After one of my random Jitte punchings, my opponent happened to lament his lack of available sideboard artifact removal. Never one to miss out on a jab at Sealed, I replied, “Yeah, but it’s Sealed – what are you going to do? It’s just random like that.” His response surprised me:

“Yeah, well…at least it’s not Constructed.”

Say what, son?

Now I’d like to think I know a thing or two about Constructed, and random is about the last word I’d choose to describe it. In fact, comparing my Swiss performances at Extended tournaments this season (X-1 heading into the final round at three out of four PTQs) to my performances at Kamigawa Sealed PTQs (0-2 or 1-2 at the first two, then 5-1-1 and top eight out of nowhere at the third), one might conclude the opposite – that Sealed is what’s random.

“Bah!” I thought to myself. “Constructed isn’t random. I know it’s not; I play Constructed all the time. Is it really possible that this guy has played so little Constructed that he thinks it’s random? This has to be just ignorance of the format – I mean, compared to Sealed, of all things? Sealed is random as hell! I know it is; I play Sealed all the ti-“

Er, wait.

Come to think of it, I damn near never play Sealed. I just Booster Draft a couple times a week.

Interesting development…

Was it possible I had just been missing something? That perhaps, contrary to my intuition and observation that excellent drafters in the area frequently missed Top 8 at Sealed PTQs, that Sealed was really just a different kind of skill-intensive animal? Considering my ignorance of the format, it certainly was not out of the question that I had been making the same kind of uninformed judgment about Sealed that my opponent had made about Constructed.

Like I said, Chad’s, Craig’s, and Tim’s articles got me thinking. My opponent’s comment about Constructed got me thinkinger. But what got me the thinkingest of all was what happened after each round of this very same PTQ.

After every match, without fail, my teammate JP came up to me with a grin on his face and explained what ridiculous bombs he had just defeated with his stinker of a Sealed open. I didn’t think much of it at the time; I basically just wrote it off as “how lucky – your opponents were morons,” but after the stories just kept coming, I started wondering just how many morons in a row he had been playing against to keep pulling out these ridiculous victories.

At one point he described the following scenario to me:

“[Our friend] Josh is walking by and stops to take a look at my board. He counts that I have three land in play – those are my only permanents – and then counts the number of Dragons my opponent has in play – that would be one. He says, ‘I’ve done that math before,’ and walks away.”

“So you lost, right?”

(Grin.) “Nope!”

After each of these stories, in which JP navigated his way around a bucketful of Sealed bombs to win the match anyway, he would always end with something like, “If he hadn’t blocked wrong on turn 6,” or “had he started attacking with his River Kaijin a turn earlier,” or even “his top card turned out to be Dance of Shadows, so if I had been a turn slower on the kill…”

“…He would have won the match.”

“…He would have won the match.”

“…He would have won the match.”

Now I can draft competently, I can build decks just fine, but I know for a fact that I cannot play Limited Magic anywhere near as well as JP can.

Was that it, then? Was playskill the key to Sealed success? I had never really put much thought to the question before, but now I was genuinely curious. So I asked myself: “What separates Sealed from Draft?”

Well, you do three things in Draft:

*Draft your deck

*Build your deck

*Play your deck

In Sealed, you still do the second two things just as you do in Draft; the only difference is that the “Draft your deck” step has become randomized. To reiterate, in Sealed you do the following things:

*Draft your deck

*Build your deck

*Play your deck

Cutting out the “Draft your deck” step is really quite a big deal. The “draft your deck” step is so overwhelmingly influential on one’s success in a draft, it can easily overshadow the other two aspects of Limited Magic as a whole. (You’ll notice pros are most often quoted on their pick orders and their draft archetype of choice, and far less often on their deckbuilding or in-game choices.) This allows superior drafters to get away with less proficiency in the “build your deck” and “play your deck” departments, and still win plenty of drafts merely by playing and deckbuilding competently.

But in Sealed, there is no draft. Your cardpool is randomly assigned, and now that playing and deckbuilding are all that’s left to give you an edge over your opponent, players who have been getting by with merely average playskill and deckbuilding skill (but strong drafting skill) find themselves at the mercy of the card pool to determine their success or failure in the tournament. Hence complaints to the effect of “I lost, but there was nothing I could do; he had a better open.”

Think about it – when you draft well, building your deck becomes almost trivial. You certainly never have to ask yourself what colors you’ll be playing – God help you if you don’t know that by the end of the draft – and it usually takes little more than a minute to narrow your build down to within two or three debatable choices.

In Sealed, you do about ten times as much work in the deckbuilding step. Besides needing to know how to build for a Sealed environment (in which certain cards can be wildly more – or less – valuable than they are in Draft), you also need to be able to compare power levels of different builds across entire different color combinations. After you’ve decided on your colors, your archetype, and most of your build, then you start to narrow down your last few debatable slots.

The most common mistake you will hear Sealed players lamenting is that they discovered after round X that they had misbuilt their decks – but drafters? Almost never.

Often times, drafting well is so rewarding that even if you misbuild your deck by a card or two, and even if you go on to make a play error or two, your starting card pool will have been so much better (because you drafted it well) than those of your opponents, these mistakes will oft be forgiven and you will end up doing well anyway.

In Sealed, if you are content to merely competently construct your deck, and play at close to the average Limited player’s skill level, I have bad news – luck is all that’s left to push you over the top. Sealed doesn’t care how well you read color signals or how insightful your pick order is; if you can’t significantly outclass your opponent with your skills in deck construction or tighter play, you’re going to have to out-luck him to win.

So what do you do about this?

A lot of players who want to improve their results at Sealed PTQs will read articles about how to build their decks better. Chad Ellis, Craig Stevenson, and Tim Aten (and others, I’m sure) have already written volumes about this.

But what can you do to improve your play skill?

In Constructed, good playskill tends to revolve around knowing how to execute a certain gameplan with one’s specific deck, and especially how to play it against other decks. You’ll hear about “good control players” or “good combo players,” for instance, and sometimes as specific as “good Affinity players.”

The thing is, things are much more explicit in Constructed. You are expected to know “who’s the beatdown” in a given matchup before the first card is played. A Blue/White control deck playing against a weenie beatdown deck is going to have far less creatures, much more removal, and significantly more ways to get card advantage – especially through mass removal. Each player has to know how to play with and how to play around the key cards of the matchup in order to succeed.

In Limited, though, deck composition is much more uniform. Each deck has only a handful of removal, very close to the same number of creatures, and typically at most one piece of mass removal, if any at all.

Blue-white in Limited can be control, or it can be aggro-control, or it can even be straight-up aggro. In Kamigawa Limited, you can have a blue-white with strong offensive curve-out like Kami of Ancient Law, Samurai of the Pale Curtain, Kitsune Blademaster, Waxmane Baku, Soratami Rainshaper, and Soratami Mirror-Guard. Supplement guys like those with some removal and combat tricks, and you’re ready to go all-out on the offense.

But then you can also have a Blue/White control deck, with River Kaijin, Floating-Dream Zubera, Tallowisp, and more emphasis on less-aggressive card advantage machines such as Moonlit Strider and Hundred-Talon Kami. But how many people, when building and playing their Blue/White decks, take time to figure out which strategy they are employing?

When constructing a more controllish deck, for example, it frequently becomes important to recognize that certain cards which are perfectly playable in an aggressive deck will not really pull their weight in a control strategy. Roar of the Jukai and Devouring Rage come immediately to mind. I actually talked at great length about this concept already, so I won’t go into any more detail here.

Beyond that, sometimes you will need to switch strategies midstream. If you get behind on tempo due to missed land drops, for example, you may realize that your best chance of winning is by going even further behind on life in order to stabilize at a strong board position several turns down the road. This usually involves taking time to set up combat tricks, or bending over backwards to get the most out of your Soulshift.

If, for example, you are at ten life and your opponent is attacking with his Wicked Akuba and Thief of Hope with nothing to Soulshift and four Swamps open, you may decide that trading with the Thief is better now (even though you will potentially take a lot more damage from the Akuba, putting you closer to being Greeded out), because in the long term making him waste his Soulshift and removing the recurring damage coming from the Akuba’s Spirit trigger might give you a better shot at winning through a control strategy. If you then focus the rest of the game on playing the control deck, you might pull it out despite all your tempo loss.

Finally, always make sure you are thinking all the way through your plays. Let me relate to you one of the stories JP told me, in which he (essentially) won an entire game by a landslide on turn four, simply by making tight plays where his opponent did not.

(As an aside, the remainder of the article will focus on two very specific plays. I know certain readers have a distaste for such detail, and those of you that do should probably skip straight to the conclusion. For the rest of you, enjoy!)

Here’s the situation:

It is turn 4 of the first game of the match, and JP has just drawn his card for the turn.

JP’s board:

Nezumi Ronin

Petalmane Baku (no ki counters)

Four untapped lands (2x Swamp, Forest, Plains)

His opponent’s board:

Budoka Pupil (no ki counters)

Three tapped lands (2 Forest, Swamp)

JP’s hand:

Horobi’s Whisper

Kodama’s Might

Feral Deceiver

Long-Forgotten Gohei

This is a pretty simple board position, and a lot of players would not think twice about how they would play this turn. They’d just make knee-jerk plays X, Y, Z, and say “go.” But like I said, making the tightest play here rewarded JP with an entire game win.

So stop reading right now. Re-read the board I just described and just write down a play for the turn. Don’t even take any time if you want to – just put down whatever comes to mind. Come on, it won’t take long, and you’ll almost certainly learn something from it.

Got something down? Cool.

Let’s look at the options given by the cards in JP’s hand one by one.

Option #1) Play Horobi’s Whisper on Budoka Pupil (splicing Kodama’s Might for extra damage unless you want to hide it for the surprise factor later on) seems like a strong play. You do not want the Pupil flipping, and taking him out right now allows you to charge across for six, with Might still in hand to make sure you can get in for even more next turn.

Option #2) If you assume your opponent will not be able to flip the Pupil (from zero ki counters) next turn, and that you will be able to successfully hit it with Horobi’s Whisper before it gets out of hand, you could just attack in and play Feral Deceiver to get another threat on the table.

Option #3) Finally, you could use this opportunity to play the Gohei while your opponent does not have a very threatening board position, which allows you to get in for an extra point with Petalmane this turn, and which more importantly makes future spirit draws much more threatening.

So compare these. Which one will leave JP in the overall strongest position to win the game? Let’s take a look.

First of all, Option #3 (play the Gohei and attack with Petalmane and Ronin) is just straight-up worse than Option #2 (attack and play Feral Deceiver). Knowing that you will have to kill the Pupil before it flips – and since it is reasonable to assume that your opponent will play at least one Spirit on each of his next two turns – you will most likely have to spend your next turn Horobi’s Whispering it. That being the case, your three-mana investment in Gohei will have served to power up your Petalmane Baku to a mighty 2/3 for two turns. Putting a 3/2 on the board and getting to attack with it post-Whisper is considerably better, especially when you can then play Gohei the turn after and power up both Spirits with it, when neither has summoning sickness any more. Even better, if JP just swings with the team and the opponent tries to trade his freshly cast Spirit with one of the attackers, JP can splice Kodama’s Might onto the Whisper and get a two-for-one.

Bottom line: Option #3 is out, because Option #2 is much better. That leaves us with Option #1 or Option #2 as the optimal play.

Now there are two possible reasons that might compel you to choose Option #1 (Whisper the Pupil splicing Might for extra damage) over Option #2 (attack and play Feral Deceiver) – if you think Horobi’s Whisper might not kill the Pupil if you don’t play it immediately, or if you think it will let you push in an important amount of additional damage this turn. Since your opponent is G/B, the only things that can protect the Pupil are Serpent Skin and Blessing of Leeches, and the only way he can slip one of these on before you have Whisper mana open again is if he plays (for whatever reason) during his own main phase while you are tapped out. However, no sane Magic player will do that, both because it sets you back on tempo unnecessarily, and because it is an open invitation to be utterly destroyed by Befoul.

So since you can be confident you do not need to Whisper right now to take out the Pupil, the only remaining reason to kill it on your turn would be to push in extra damage. Thing is, you can already safely attack this turn with both your guys because of the Kodama’s Might in your hand. If he blocks either of your creatures, you can trade your Kodama’s Might for his Budoka Pupil and then play Gohei in your second main phase, utterly wrecking your opponent.

So all the Whisper will do here is net you an extra two points of damage from the spliced Might, as opposed to playing Feral Deceiver and getting in for an extra three next turn while having an extra body around for your efforts; so Option #2 ends up being better than the other two overall.

Why did JP tell me this story? Because making the correct play ended up working out better than he could have possibly dreamed. He swung in with his Nezumi Ronin and Petalmane Baku, planning on playing Feral Deceiver in his second main, and his opponent got greedy and blocked the Baku. JP cast Kodama’s Might to pump his 1/2 Baku to a 3/4, killing the Pupil for one mana, then dropped Gohei during his second main phase and rode a tidal wave of tempo advantage all the way to victory.

But how many readers actually picked the correct play there in the first place? You won’t be mising any wins from your opponent’s sloppy play like this if you never set him up for it by making the tightest possible play yourself. Even if JP’s opponent had not incorrectly decided to “call his bluff” over one point of damage (and, to be fair, a possible Ninja), JP’s tight play would have given him a much better lead-in to the rest of the game, so any future slip-up on the part of his opponent could have been enough to tip the scales in JP’s favor.

But that was just one play. Hopefully you learned something from it, but where do you go from there? It’s been said time and again that the best way to improve your play is to play with players who are better than you are. Of course, good Magic players do not grow on trees, and not all of us are fortunate enough to know players good enough (or nice enough) to teach us something out of the goodness of their hearts.

So I’d like to conclude this article with the next-best thing I can think of. I’m going to propose a situation, and invite the SCG community to debate the correct play for the situation in the forums. Unless maybe your forum handle is kaib, I can practically guarantee there is a better Magic player out there in the community somewhere, and chances are you will learn something from him just from the act of debating, even if it is over something as minor as this play. Here’s the situation:

It’s game one of Round 3 in a MTGO Sealed Premiere Event. Your record is 2-0 so far, and your opponent has the following in play:

Kitsune Blademaster (tapped)

Callous Deceiver (tapped)

A freshly played Waxmane Baku (his only untapped creature)

Three Islands and two Plains (all tapped, two of them from blind-revealing with Callous Deceiver, which flipped an Island for an extra point of damage.)

He has two cards in hand and no cards in his graveyard.

You just entered your fifth turn at 15 life, and have the following in play:

Nezumi Graverobber

Four Swamps (you just played the fourth one this turn) and one Plains (all untapped so far)

After your draw step, your hand is:

Child of Thorns


Stir the Grave

Sakura-Tribe Springcaller

Okiba-Gang Shinobi

As you can see, you are enjoying some tasty color screw! Your only creature is Nezumi Graverobber against an opponent with an empty graveyard and a full board. You are in quite a hole at this point, and you’ve got to dig yourself out somehow before your life total hits zero. The question I pose to you is this:

How do you play this turn?

Post the way you would play the turn, and an explanation of why your play is correct on the forums. The explanation is really the only important part here, because mathematically there are only a handful of different plays you can make in this situation – the crucial part is the reasoning behind the play.

So for those of you with forum accounts, have at it!

For the rest of you, hopefully the rest of the article gave you a new outlook on Sealed PTQs, or at the very least some things to think about.

Until next time!

Richard Feldman

Team Check Minus

[email protected]