Harnessing the forces of randomness to your benefit is at best a difficult task. When you could find yourself thrown anywhere on the map, as we often are in Sealed Deck, having a well-developed set of skills to find your way to where you want to be can serve you quite well. A good grasp of the guidelines of the format will take you farther than an innate, static ranking of card strengths. All too often you’ll hear a story about a player who opened Card X and chose to warp their card pool to fit it. Sometimes that player crushes the game with their Purity or with Garruk Wildspeaker. Much more often, however, that player suffers a loss for the folly of their choices when they draw weak Kithkin and no 6/6 flier, or the Fertile Ground and a few Treefolk that they’d figured would “do the job” filling out the deck with nary a Planeswalker in sight.
Having a good plan is kind of like having a map, and it’s much more important than most people realize when it comes to building their Sealed Decks. You might say that it’s rather preposterous to think that you value Card X at Y value and just add the sums of each color’s “point value,” not putting things in context and making the more rational choices that we’ve learned are the bread and butter of a difficult Sealed Deck pool. You might also say it’s rather preposterous that humans are nothing more than moist robots that are slaves to their initial programming and do as it bids unswervingly… but humorist Scott Adams has done well in life indeed presuming exactly that. The study of neuro-linguisitic programming, a modern and newfangled branch of psychology that seeks to understand the brain and psyche as if it were a layered series of static but re-writeable programs, has suggested that whether you realize it or not you’ll weight decisions based on prejudices and past experiences. Presuming that your brain works differently just because you are a beautiful and unique snowflake is perhaps a bit naÃ¯ve.
But rather than depress you about being a moist robot, or share the gloomy perspective where your co-workers would be so much easier to deal with if only you’d finally give up and start thinking of them as nothing more than noisy furniture, there is a caveat to this quick and contentious lesson in psychology. Kurt Vonnegut once said, “Be careful who you pretend to be, because you are who you pretend to be.” If your brain is just going to follow a set guideline marked out by its programming, that can be a good or a bad thing… it depends on the programming. You can, however, teach the brain new skills and processes for weighting and biasing anything, including the magical cards, and a patient and rational approach to deckbuilding can overcome biases put into place by your moist robot brain.
Or, you know, go ahead and splash that Guile off two Islands, a Shimmering Grotto, a Fertile Ground and a Smokebraider. I’m sure it’ll work out just fine for you, every time. Long story short, sitting down and thinking is better than sitting down and doing, and thinking of how you’ll implement your plan is a key step to take in the highly synergistic world of Lorwyn Limited. Let’s have a look at an interesting Sealed card-pool I pulled this past weekend at a PTQ in Boston, where there are a lot of different directions you can go and plenty of tools to work with:
Miscellaneous: FOIL! Forest, Moonglove Extract, Wanderer’s Twig, Footbottom Feast, Hoarder’s Greed, Needle Drop, 2 Fertile Ground, Primal Command, Woodland Guidance, Heal the Scars, Whirlpool Whelm, Protective Bubble, 2 Battle Mastery, Triclopean Sight, Oblivion Ring.
Faeries: Faerie Trickery, Nightshade Stinger, Oona’s Prowler, 2 Thieving Sprite
Merfolk: Aquitect’s Will; Merrow Harbinger; 2 Stonybrook Angler; Sygg, River Guide
Treefolk: Rootgrapple, Cloudcrown Oak, Oaken Brawler, Sentry Oak
Giants: Axegrinder Giant, Hillcomber Giant
Kithkin: Goldmeadow Dodger, Kinsbaile Balloonist, Kinsbaile Skirmisher, Kithkin Greatheart, Knight of Meadowgrain, Springjack Knight
Elves: Gilt-Leaf Ambush, 2 Warren-Scourge Elf
Elementals: Consuming Bonfire, Ethereal Whiskergill, 2 Faultgrinder, Flamekin Bladewhirl, Flamekin Brawler, Flamekin Spitfire, Mournwhelk, Mulldrifter, Nova Chaser, Smokebraider, Wispmare
Goblins: Tarfire; Fodder Launch; Adder-Staff Boggart; Boggart Loggers; 2 Boggart Sprite-Chaser; Bog Hoodlum; Facevaulter; Hornet Harasser; Wort, Boggart Auntie
Shapeshifters: Crib Swap, Nameless Inversion, Shields of Velis Vel, Wings of Velis Vel, Changeling Hero, Fire-Belly Changeling, Ghostly Changeling, Skeletal Changeling, Woodland Changeling
I’ve seen a fair share of Lorwyn Sealed decks so far, and have noted that more than a few of them give you permission to go splash-crazy and squeeze four or even all five colors worth of cards into your deck. I started by seeing where the potential for that lay, and with two Vivid lands, a Wanderer’s Twig, two Fertile Grounds and a Smokebraider I have to admit that it was pretty easy to contemplate going a little splash-crazy. I very quickly knocked the color Green out of contention entirely, though, as looking at it you see the most miserable assortment of Elves, a Changeling Grizzly Bear, and a lone tree as your creatures. The other four colors, however, would not be so easy.
You have two very powerful Rares vying for contention, Sygg and Wort; both can be “game over” if you get them running as part of a plentiful tribe. Sygg, however, didn’t really have friends… so it was pretty clear that either Red or Black was going to be a main color, splashing the other or even just going Red/Black. White’s traditional problem of having plenty of 2/2’s continues, with some 2/4 action thrown in for variety, and I quickly narrowed it down to the cards that were easy to splash for: Changeling Hero, Crib Swap, and Oblivion Ring. Blue likewise narrowed down quickly, mostly due to being almost as lacking as Green after you flip past the Mulldrifter.
The question still remained, just how crazy do you want to get? You can easily splash just the Mulldrifter off two Vivid lands and the Smokebraider, with maybe an actual Island for the Wanderer’s Twig if you feel like including it and can afford trying. Likewise, two Vivid lands plus a Plains plus the Smokebraider and Wanderer’s Twig would buy you the White splash with minimal harm, and you’d just have a game or two where you’d struggle a little for the right color of mana. In every other game you’d just drop bombs and score wins based on the high power of your cards. Ultimately, I narrowed it down to two choices: I could run B/R splashing Mulldrifter if I didn’t mind throwing in a slight dash of “janky combo,” or a more straightforward and powerful four-color deck that would have a bit of janky mana instead of “janky combo.” Reaching the point where I was content to have to decide from here took a significant amount of time, and as I envisioned putting the plan into motion instead of just being a moist robot who followed his programming and splashed colors because he thought he could get away with it, I felt more and more content with my “janky combo.”
Lorwyn is a world of shifting card valuations, and building a cohesive plan can make up for shortfalls in card power if you let it. My experiences in Sealed Deck so far had suggested that if I wanted to I could easily splash the White, merely accepting that my deck was now a “wants to draw first” deck because that extra card can really help smooth mulligans due to imbalanced hands. That extra card could very well win the game when it looks like I’ll mostly be trying to go one-for-one with my opponent, stacking my removal against his powerful threats and expecting to stay ahead of the game. Plenty of times, I wouldn’t even look at Boggart Sprite-Chaser, as my MTGO account tells me I’ve still not drafted a single one… and that’s not just because MTGO refuses to let me draft during any sane hour of the night or day. If I were to just follow my moist-robot programming and do Red-Black with the double splash, I’d likely have a solid deck still… but I’d lose a lot of the synergy that is available in the card-pool, if you let the more consistent deck have the pieces you’re cutting for off-color removal.
Already you have a straightforward Black-Red deck with potent removal and some recursion, and a game in which you draw Wort, Boggart Auntie should generally be a game you win, quite possibly by a mile. Some of the cards don’t fit as well as they could — Nova Chaser is in because he can make a huge damage swing in the game very early on, dropping your opponent into the defensive from the get-go, but there’s not quite as many Elementals to champion as you’d ultimately like even after counting the Changelings — and some are generally forgotten but can work very well to protect bombs. Mournwhelk makes it in because any form of card advantage can be vital for a Red-Black deck, and this can cut off an opponent’s end-game plans. It also gives our Smokebraider that extra little bit of oomph if you can actually cast this guy and get to keep the 3/3 body. Footbottom Feast is strong in this deck because it can require your opponent to have an answer to Wort twice, or just win the mid- to late-game by specifically stacking the right two or three cards on top of your deck when it comes to a topdeck war. With little opportunity for true card advantage, card quality advantage can fill the gap and this does provide that by stacking the top of your deck.
But with two copies of Boggart Sprite-Chaser and Thieving Sprite vying for space against the White spells, I kept envisioning how the game would play out. With two Sprite-Chasers you can expect to have one in your opening hand just often enough to really think about sculpting the rest of your deck around “that draw,” adding evasive power to the deck and yet more cheap fliers in the two-drop alongside the rare (and stupidly aggressive) Oona’s Prowler. I could choose between on-color synergy or off-color power, and chose to go with (at least for me, in this format) “the road less traveled.”
My deck was as follows:
1 Vivid Crag
1 Vivid Creek
1 Consuming Bonfire
1 Moonglove Extract
1 Fodder Launch
1 Nameless Inversion
1 Footbottom Feast
2 Thieving Sprite
1 Oona’s Prowler
1 Flamekin Spitfire
1 Nova Chaser
2 Boggart Sprite-Chaser
1 Boggart Loggers
1 Hornet Harasser
1 Wort, Boggart Auntie
1 Axegrinder Giant
1 Skeletal Changeling
1 Fire-Belly Changeling
1 Ghostly Changeling
Very clearly, those Changelings are the glue holding this deck together, making Nova Chaser playable instead of abysmal and turning the Sprite-Chasers into solid playables instead of embarrassing dreck. I’d had quite a strong card-pool to work with, and what it came down to was having the ability to sculpt a deck instead of just picking it up like a heavy object to try and stave my opponent’s skull in. “Play every removal” is advice I hear bandied about a lot in this Sealed Deck format, especially since the “fixer” lands and Wanderer’s Twig make it so very easy to make an honest attempt at playing every removal spell in your card pool. What I went with instead was a more consistent, solidly aggressive deck… quite an oddity from the Sealed pools I’ve seen, where I’ve ended up firmly in the controlling role with a Blue-based deck or playing four colors and giving honest consideration to the fifth with a Green-based deck.
The tournament itself was quite interesting. I’d driven up the night before with Mike Pustilnik, burgeoning documentarian Gabe Carlton-Barnes, and Neutral Ground regulars Paul Allison and Robert Seder, caught unpleasantly in the rain on I-95 as we passed through Connecticut, then later happily missing a deer-related accident thanks to my fast reflexes. Apparently “deer happens,” at least on the stretch from Boston to Connecticut on the Massachusetts Turnpike, and we came to a screeching halt in the fast-lane with at least two feet to spare. Honest concerns about having spent all of our luck right there had to be voiced, because I’m pretty sure if my reflexes weren’t quite as fast I might not have knees right now. My pool was solid, but I’ve only begun recuperating from my own “programming issues” when it comes to playing this game well. I’d been on a solid bender at PTQs and on MTGO for something like two months prior to deciding to play in a PTQ this weekend past, and worse yet actually driving four hours to get there and crashing on a couch the night before.
Remember that part about changing your programming? I’d clearly had to do it in the deckbuilding process — success during release week on MTGO had taught me that two colors splash two colors was very powerful and could be quite consistent if you know how to make a mana-base, which is one part of deckbuilding I can generally get right. (The other part, which starts with “picking the right deck”, I can still use a bit more mental training on… I often aim to know what the best decks are, but too often choose another as my weapon rather than face mirror matches. Believing you are a worse player than the opponent can be a crippling crutch indeed, especially when it’s not necessarily true.) I’d made a solid profit during Release Week playing decks that splashed like crazy and basically tried to capitalize on all of the Rares and removal spells in the pool… so really, I had an inherent bias to sneak in the White too and see what developed. That deck would have looked like this:
1 Vivid Crag
1 Vivid Creek
1 Oona’s Prowler
1 Flamekin Spitfire
1 Nova Chaser
1 Boggart Loggers
1 Hornet Harasser
1 Wort, Boggart Auntie
1 Adder-Staff Boggart
1 Axegrinder Giant
1 Skeletal Changeling
1 Fire-Belly Changeling
1 Ghostly Changeling
1 Changeling Hero
Maybe that deck would have been good, too… but would it have capitalized on things in quite the same way? The “all removal” decks tend to try and answer the opponent’s questions, and sometimes have to play catch-up with their removal on whatever the opponent has just because they spent too much of the game without the exact proper color of mana they’d been waiting on. It certainly wouldn’t have the ability of seizing tempo right from turn 2 as the more color-consistent Sprite-Chaser build does, and I felt that there were just enough Faeries (both real and artificial) to consistently have the Chasers as 2/3 fliers whenever I drew them.
But I’d just invested a lot of myself in trying to do well, and while I could readily envision playing a turn 2 Sprite-Chaser and a turn 3 Thieving Sprite every game in the tournament and doing well, I couldn’t readily envision myself playing four colors of mana and never cursing at my deck for offering up the wrong land. “Consistency versus power” is an age-old argument that certainly applies to Sealed Deck in general and this format of Sealed Deck in specific, but what it really came down to was that I’d grown comfortable believing Lorwyn Sealed to be a “Draw First” format barring exception… and I’d just been handed “the exception.” I’d driven four hours, cheated Death once already, and cheated Poverty while I was at it… I had to borrow $50 for the trip and pick up passengers in my car to even consider attending the PTQ, as the middle of the month always grows a little awkward for me until my paycheck on the 15th. I’d battled Depression to get the motivation to even move in the first place… my darling new girlfriend Anita has traipsed off to Egypt for a seventeen-day vacation-of-a-lifetime, and won’t be seen for another two weeks following this particular tournament, leaving me with the chore of feeding her cats while she is away if I’d be so kind. Just because it’s still something of a new relationship doesn’t mean you’ll not miss the presence of someone you’ve grown accustomed to having in your life, and perhaps wish that you’d had the ability to go as well.
I’d grown tired of being bad at the game, and didn’t want to drive four hours to roll down and die to my first opponent. You’d assume this is generally true of anyone, but my play hadn’t been showing it for months and really the things I had to get over in order to get back into serviceable form were entirely in my head, murky things resultant from the enormity of the errors I’d made in choosing to tie my fate to that of my fiancÃ©e Nicole as she played the role of an anchor seeking the Marianas Trench. I can’t say I played perfectly, because there was a game or two where “which role I should take” proved unclear and didn’t necessarily work out… but I wasn’t finding the one worst play to make and then making it, as had been my habit for months before.
Tying in with the starting theme of reprogramming what you’d grown used to perceiving, I guess you could say instead of figuring out what I was doing wrong in its minutiae, I reprogrammed why I was playing wrong: this time, I came to win.
I could go through the rounds of the tournament in greater detail, but it wouldn’t necessarily be informative. I didn’t have to mulligan terribly frequently, as I had consistent mana, a decent mix of removal spells, and a solid mana curve… and as the aggressor in most of my matches, complicated play wasn’t really necessary because I was typically advantaged.
Round 1 I was given an opening that allowed me to fight a card-advantage war, starting with Smokebraider into Mulldrifter followed by Mournwhelk, then trading both for my opponent’s cards and repeating the process with Footbottom Feast. I think even I can win when I’ve drawn four additional cards, forced my opponent to discard four cards, and gotten to trade my opponent’s early creatures away. The second game wasn’t quite as ad but he was already demoralized by getting smashed by “a better deck,” and I’d looked for every opportunity to win while my opponent had already relented to getting savaged by “a better deck” or “a good player.”
In the third round, I was forced to play the controlling role when I wasn’t as equipped as I’d wanted to be for that, short on the mana I needed to effectively deploy Consuming Bonfire and Fodder Launch in time to answer an ever-growing Veteran of the Depths and a Brion Stoutarm. I’d attempted to position myself to pull through if I drew two lands in a row, deploying first the Bonfire then a Goblin + Fodder Launch before the Veteran grew to be 6/6, but missed on the second land draw after successfully containing Brion Stoutarm and was down the first game… then played an intricate dance trying to empty my opponent’s hand and budget his threats down to just the manageable Knight of Meadowgrain, only to have the opponent rip Aethersnipe off the top of his deck and turn my “just barely stabilized” board into “openly routed.” A turn of mercy off the top of his deck would have let me kill the Knight finally and start to come back, but instead I’d literally took 18 already from that pesky Knight over the course of our battles and the Aethersnipe turn forced chump-blocking just to stay alive… but this is why we play the game instead of just compare plans and sign match slips.
Fourth round opponent got a game 1 concession to Lilliana Vess about to fire in the Black-Red mirror when I couldn’t contain her, but I battled past the next two (bringing in Hoarder’s Greed, and choosing to draw first) to stay in the tournament. Fifth round opponent got his teeth kicked in by the Sprite-Chaser draw two games in a row, and wondered what it was I’d managed to lose to… that being some solid planning that required things to go my way as probability favored, but did not guarantee, against a high-power four color deck that drew well. Sixth round opponent got kicked while they were down, again having lost the first game and playing conservatively instead of aggressively to contain all of my opponent’s possible outs instead of â€˜just’ his probable outs, knocking them out of the tournament.
I fought this hard only to face a 5-0-1 player in round 7 who had a strong deck that included Dread, the murdering of which cost me heavily in the first game to the point where I didn’t have tools to contain or race his other cards effectively. It was sad, before he cast Dread I was winning that game… but isn’t that always the story with these Elemental Incarnations? I pondered the sideboard swap, going so far as to consider even switching fully to White altogether to have more consistent access to removal that would stop Dread, but won the second off of solid discard to contain his plays and a strong aggressive draw with the Sprite-Chaser opening… exactly what I’d envisioned when I’d chose my path for the tournament at the start of the day.
In truth, however, I should have sided into the more powerful deck… and foolishly made the mistake that kept me out of the Top 8, by not recognizing when I needed to change the role I had selected for myself during deckbuilding because I needed more threats that could contain a 6/6, since I couldn’t race “nasty thing that kills all my creatures.” I’d gotten lucky in having a potent and aggressive draw to battle back to 1-1 in the match, but ended up sticking to my guns instead of making the five-card switch of —2 Sprite-Chaser, -2 Thieving Sprite, -1 Mountain for +1 Plains, +1 Wanderer’s Twig, +1 Changeling Hero, +1 Adder-Staff Boggart, +1 Oblivion Ring, +1 Crib Swap in order to better contain his most powerful cards. It was especially relevant because his deck could already neutralize the Sprite-Chasers to mere 1/2 size with reasonable ease, while I couldn’t neutralize the worst my opponent could do to me… and with a slightly land-heavy draw in the third game I didn’t have the tools to kill Dread when he appeared again, ushering my opponent into the Top 8.
Fortunately, I still hadn’t come all this way just to lie down and die. There wasn’t much of an outside shot available to me, but with 150 or so players in an 8-round tournament, the possibility was at least there that if things go right I might be able to punch someone out of contention and crawl into the Top 8 over their dead body. Likewise, I’d come in a car with four other people, three of whom were likewise right next to me at 5-2, all who likewise lost round 7 to fall out of contention. We could have accepted our defeat and shuffled through the last round in order to get some packs… or we could keep up hope that one of us would have the luck of getting to be the dreamcrusher and punch someone out of the Top 8, and let one of us three in if one of us managed to have the luck of obtaining the best tiebreakers in our bracket.
It wasn’t a likely event. A lot had to happen, very little of which was guaranteed, and at least some of which would depend on the players at 6-1 with worse tiebreakers… if they risked the Top 8 on the results of someone getting paired down and drew in when it wasn’t a sure thing, this hope disappeared. You can only control so much of your destiny, however, so we all resolved to do as best we could and see if somehow the fire to win that last round somehow converted in the luck of sneaking in at 8th. And then we saw the pairings, and unfortunately for him it was one George Wilkinson of Boston scheduled for destruction at 5-1-1… and me, scheduled to deliver it to him. It wasn’t some epic battle of the titans, vying at the top table; he was in with a win and mentioned it, but I unfortunately had to inform him that I hadn’t driven four hours and almost died in a deer-related incident just to lie down now.
Articles by Zac Hill in “Chatter of the Squirrel” and by Craig Jones in “From the Lab” both have good solid argumentation as to why overall it might be a good plan to consider the concession. I’m well-versed in the game theory behind it all, but really, I saw an opportunity to claw my way in over his dead body, and I took it, and I high-fived my car-mates after because I’d viciously and savagely throttled poor unlucky George to keep him out of the Top 8. He was a nice guy and didn’t deserve having his hopes cut out from under him, but he didn’t have to drive home with three other players who you’d just convinced to rally in hopes that maybe if the numbers work out right we might get to enjoy the schadenfreude of punching someone in the junk and sneak in instead of them.
When the results were tallied and the dust settled, I’d finished ninth, first in our bracket in tiebreakers… it seems I’d made it safe to draw into the Top 8 for a few people after all, and can live with that result because at least I’d tried to create the opportunity and control what I could control.
Next week, I have to improve from just one major strategic error to exactly zero major strategic errors if I’m to improve my finish that minimum of one critical slot in the Swiss to try and make the tournament mine… and I think I’m ready to do that. I’ve spent months bemoaning my fate instead of controlling it, accepting excuses for bad play and choosing girlfriend-related activities over “playing Magic,” when you can’t win it if you aren’t in it. Admittedly I’d still be quite happy to choose girlfriend time over Magic time at least some of the time… but I have two more PTQs where that isn’t even an option, and all I want is to punch some people’s lights out one after another because the tournament is mine to win if I try hard enough. Maybe that’s arrogant… but I don’t really think so, since clearly I was in it to win it last week, and eight more deserving people made the cut to elimination because they frankly got more match points than I did. I think if I focus on the game instead of the excuses I’ve been making for not doing well at it, next time I can be one of those eight… that’s all. You have to think that, if you’re not just playing for fun, and while I am having fun, I’m playing to win.
s_mckeown @ hotmail.com