Magical Hack: Practicing Sealed Deck

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Sean builds on last week’s Grand Prix analysis article, and questions the “proof” that values power over consistency in RGD Sealed. He presents a tasty RGD cardpool crammed with multicolor goodness… though his final card choices may seem surprising.

Building on last week’s article, I wanted to take a look at building Sealed Decks in this format with an eye to the different perspectives one can have when building their deck. Clearly the “greedy gobbler” approach did some people rather well, as the undefeated decks from the three Grand Prix tournaments could have shown. Noting, however, the trend for said 8-0 or 9-0 decks to be in the hands of “name” players, and thus to actually be 5-0 or 6-0 decks, instead of decks that battered their way to the top through eight (or even nine!) grueling rounds of competition. My suspicion is that you will also see “name” players applying similar Sealed Deck-building principles, with the possibility being that how well you draw your mana may be part of the difference that put those particular professional players head and shoulders above a field that included numerous of their peers at a variety of records.

Yes, the “name” player is likely to get the best effect out of the decks we saw last week, building their manabase better, and mulliganing better, than your average player. The inherent risks of the three-color to four-color spread that seems traditional in Sealed Deck can be mitigated, at least in part, by their superior decision-making processes, which gets that extra five percent of advantage out of their manabase. They get a little bit extra by long experience at the highest level with the benefits of the mulligan. This doesn’t mean that “the rest of us” are hopelessly outclassed, and thus shouldn’t attempt the same kinds of feats that we saw in card selection with four-color splashes and the like… as Mike Flores has recently been discussing, the key benefit or advantage the “pro” has is that they win the games they are supposed to win when the cards fall right. Less adept players give away a little bit of potential time after time as the game progresses, with every single decision that needs to be made being an opportunity to give away a percentage of your natural likelihood to win the game. That they are also a little bit better than the rest of us at making do with the cards at hand has been known for years, ever since the first time we really saw the professionals play serious Limited formats… old Jon Finkel stories from Rath Block Limited still stick in my mind, and it takes a certain quality of player to make “much ado about nothing,” as the Bard said.

We saw the undefeated decklists, and who can question the talent of the players attached? What was left unsaid last week was that this could be taken as proof that building your deck in this fashion is going to optimize your card quality versus mana consistency balance… that key point that needs to be covered with every Ravnica Block sealed deck now that we’ve got all three sets to monkey around with, and now the days of two-color decks are well and truly gone. Without a comparison to see how all players building their decks in this fashion did, or even a clear comparison of where to draw the line between greed and practicality, we cannot take a few successes to heart and call the matter conclusively done. Cleverly, your industrious author had the luxury of spending a weekend gaming, with a Neutral Ground PTQ this past Saturday and an “eleventh-anniversary $11 Sealed Deck” event to celebrate (once again) the birthday of the gaming store that brought “the gamer life” to New Yorkers for miles and miles and miles around. Having learned a few interesting lessons in how to mis-build one’s deck on Saturday, I chose to bow out at 2-1 in a very full seven-round PTQ, shaking my head at the notion that opening Hex and playing it does not necessarily mean you have built your deck properly. Taking that lesson to heart, I had a much better result the following day, ending up as just one of the two 4-0 players to walk away with first prize, the other being Mike Flores’ protégé and NY State Champion Julian Levin.

Be warned: this Sealed Deck card-pool is a cautionary tale, a field of land mines waiting to be stumbled upon as you try and squeeze in all of the things you really want but without the mana to make it happen the way it should.

You have three Red mana-fixing lands, which suggest that no matter what color combinations you settle into, if nothing else at least Galvanic Arc can expect to be in your 40. But if you look at it, your mana-fixing is incredibly narrow, without a variety of color choices being presented by your lands and Signets… oh, and by the way, there are no Signets. Usually you’ll get at least one, but the one solitary artifact is Terrarion. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not usually held to be of the same caliber to the mana-accelerating, color-fixing Signets that work more than just the once. Paring away anything but the most powerful cards, the ones you pretty much absolutely want to be playing, you get the following:


Sky Hussar


Oathsworn Giant

Faith’s Fetters

Helium Squirter

Compulsive Research

Viashino Fangtail

Galvanic Arc

Indrik Stomphowler

Moldervine Cloak

That’s eleven cards you’d love to have in your Sealed Deck, for a variety of reasons. Of them, at least one is clearly “taking liberties” with the definition, because the very-expensive and potentially poor Brightflame suffers from requiring double-colored mana of two different colors, a bunch more mana besides, and may overlap to destroy not just a few of your opponents’ creatures but also quite a few of your own, presenting no good option for really taking advantage of its power even after you do get double Red, double White, and four or five colorless besides. It also becomes an expensive solo removal spell if your opponent has anything at all to sacrifice their creatures, from the excellent Dimir House Guard to the lowly Caregiver… but these are the kinds of problems a lot of people would love to have with their Sealed Decks, an incredibly powerful but situational removal spell that can completely blow an opponent out of the water for the entirety of the game, with its mass removal plus massive life-swing in one. The rest are pretty clear: Morphling is still ridiculous in Sealed Deck, even when it’s the red-headed stepchild of Morphling and Lois Lane; Sky Hussar is a fattie flier with plenty of tricks attached, one of which is a personal Howling Mine; Oathsworn Giant breaks the parity of games in half.

Faith’s Fetters and Galvanic Arc are obvious inclusions unless something goes horribly awry, while Moldervine Cloak takes the notion of “playing fair” and throws it right out the window. Indrik Stomphowler is an efficient creature with amazing utility thrown in, in a world where Signets are a given and cards like Pillory of the Sleepless are the most powerful removal spells in the format… while Viashino Fangtail remains absurdly powerful, outright massacring some decks by itself and domineering “fair” creature combat with just a little bit of help. And in Blue, everybody’s favorite color nowadays, Compulsive Research is a card that the best drafters in the world will take over anything but a dual land on MTGO, and Helium Squirter rules the air in Sealed Deck in much the same way that Oathsworn Giant rules the ground.

That’s a lot of nice cards, and of course it’s also four of the five colors of Magic. With a lot of Red fixing built in, you could look at building a deck that is based around your other colors and just squeeze the Red in on top… except for the fact that two of your best Red cards are double-colored, Brightflame (maybe) and Viashino Fangtail. Cutting anything becomes difficult if not impossible, and the justification of playing one color but not another becomes nearly impossible: everything’s strong.

(At this point, you may want to go and leave your voice in the Forums, to discuss what you would have built and see what thoughts others are banging around. After the blank space, I’m going to show you the deck I went with, and more importantly, with just a little bit over a week left until the Limited State Championships… after the blank space I’m going to tell you how I looked at this mess of bombs and built a functional deck out of it.

(This is the song that never ends, it just goes on and on my friends… one day we started singing, not knowing what it was…)

(Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?)

(Everybody’s dead, Dave, everybody’s dead. Everybody’s DEAD, Dave. EVERYBODY’s dead. Everybody’s dead, Dave, everybody’s dead…)

(As I’m sure you no doubt read on the forums by now, Moldervine Cloak is a “good card.” Inquest gave it four stars, you know, which is, like, four times as good as Necropotence. It’s true.)

(Full speed ahead, now, we’re almost there! Better yet, light-speed ahead… no wait, light speed is too slow. We’re going to have to go right to… ludicrous speed!)

Back? I bet you none of the decks on the Forums looked like this particular 23, an “un-greedy” approach that looked to maximize power and synergy by building the best 40-card deck instead of just playing your best 23 cards. With little room to wiggle around in, thanks to the general scarcity of mana fixers (three different bounce-lands, Terrarion and one Farseek), I took two colors that looked like they worked really well together and chose the best light splash to go with them. My opinion of the best two colors was admittedly probably different than everyone else’s, despite the presence of Arc and Fangtail and Moldervine Cloak and the other plentiful Red removal like Flash Conscription and Seal of Fire. Building a Red-Green deck got me to fifteen cards I’d like, and sixteen cards I’d play, looking to finish the deck off by dipping into another color but finding any one other color a couple of cards short of finishing the deck… and the idea of playing two splash colors but still having good mana being a laughable farce.

Blue-White, however…

Here we see a deck playing for consistency instead of power, playing Red but leaving the double-Red bombs in the sideboard because even with the belief that it would be drawing quite a few extra cards I felt the card would be a liability at double-Red mana. I left the splash at Seal, Arc, and Ray of Command. I wanted to do the best I could with the cards I had, and a pile of fliers, tempo-positive cantrips that can help me push an advantage (Carom, double Remand), and the absolute guarantee that I was going to draw more cards than my opponent (the above-mentioned tempo cantrips, plus Train of Thought, Compulsive Research, and the broken Sky Hussar), and some solid defense in Benevolent Ancestor and Oathsworn Giant.

What really appealed to me, however, was the way the deck would play out, especially if I left out the double-Red cards that are so very tempting. It is this Sealed Deck, and to an extent my Sealed Deck from the day before, that taught me that the addition of Hex into a solid build wasn’t going to take me as far as the addition of four other very solid cards that played very nicely with the remainder of my strategy… while Hex would be able to get me out of games I was going to lose, but not necessarily in time, it would literally do nothing in the games in which I had an advantage. Who knew, sometimes killing six isn’t enough either.

Consistency and synergy still have a little something in them, and the mana curve of this deck can help give a hint or two to why I’d play this deck this way and leave Moldervine Cloak, Viashino Fangtail, and friends in the sideboard.

1cc: Terrarion, Seal of Fire.

2cc: 2x Remand (one foil, of course!), Carom, Train of Thought, Lurking Informant, Izzet Guildmage, Surveilling Sprite, Azorius First-Wing.

3cc: Compulsive Research, Galvanic Arc, Spawnbroker, Benevolent Ancestor, Shrieking Grotesque.

4cc: Faith’s Fetters, Torch Drake.

5cc: Helium Squirter, Windreaver, Sky Hussar, Belfry Spirit.

6cc: Flash Conscription, Oathsworn Giant.

This deck has amazing card velocity, always turning over fresh cards to work with, and using its mana very efficiently thanks to the fact that so many of its cards start in the two- or three-mana range. It can come out of the gates very aggressively with fliers, or start drawing extra cards very early in the game if it is not under significant pressure, thanks to an abundance of two- and three-mana Blue and/or White creatures… and excellent mana favoring your Blue and White spells. (That so many of your cards draw cards that allow you to draw more cards… well, that’s why if I had to name the deck, I’d have called it Catch-22.)

Of course, I can’t say with any certainty that this is right and all other ways to build the Sealed Deck are wrong. What I do know is that the other builds got to use a few more very strong cards on their own, but ran out of steam around seventeen or eighteen cards… while this deck has a very powerful synergy with itself, and doesn’t run out of steam as you’re getting to the last few cards of the deck even if Surveilling Sprite isn’t the most impressive creature… after all, it a) flies and b) can be cashed in usefully for another card, both of which are options that this deck greatly appreciates. The deck as presented here develops smoothly on a curve, has the potential to either race outright or pace the game properly (thanks to its large number of quality fliers and key defensive cards like Benevolent Ancestor), and will always see rather a few of its most powerful cards because it just draws so darn manySky Hussar, Compulsive Research, and Train of Thought are all very powerful dig spells, and with all the other incidental card-draw cards it’s rather likely that you’ll be able to chain one into another into another until you’ve got all the best your deck has to offer right at your fingertips.

Two cards, however, struck me as being better in this deck than they are currently accepted as being overall. The first is Izzet Guildmage, who can potentially do the “Remand trick” if you get five spare mana lying around, because you actually have two Remands. When the opponent casts a spell, you Remand it, then Remand your Remand… keeping Remand in hand and drawing an extra card for five mana. Forking Remands at themselves to draw more cards may not be the most impressive, but it’s not bad when stapled to an already acceptable bear, and the ability to fork Carom as well for a total of three useful targets for his ability (all of which draw cards) seems like a good deal to me. The second, however, is a 1/1 for three that gets no love: Spawnbroker.

It’s only because I know this is another one of my “pet” cards that I didn’t include Spawnbroker in the high-caliber Sealed Deck power cards listed above, but when I saw it sitting there with other Blue cards asking to get played I knew it was going to earn a special place in my deck. Spawnbroker starts out looking fair, trading creatures of an equal size… but when you’re trading your mediocre creature for their excellent creature, it’s pretty awesome. And if we want to get really greedy, we can always think about casting Flash Conscription to steal a creature, then Spawnbroker it back to them to steal their best creature… eminently fair, I say. (It may sound unreasonable, but in my first match I did exactly that in order to end up with my opponent’s Blazing Archon on my side of the board, when I had no other answers to the card once it entered play. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t really have answers to it, either.)

As listed, the deck seems a bit short of removal, but it doesn’t come across that way when you play it out… and the power of the fliers, along with the rest of the solid mana curve and synergistic cards, strongly outweighs the other options I saw when I was working on it. But that is definitely the least greedy build, not even splashing double-Red for Brightflame because I didn’t want dead cards against anything but the slowest of decks. Other builds can definitely have solid arguments behind them, but this is what I liked and it worked out well for me.

Greed doesn’t have to win every time… so I just have to wonder, are the greedily-built decks doing better across the board than the less-ambitious “fair” decks, so that even when you have a very strong “fair” deck you should be going that extra mile and tossing Moldervine Cloak in off two fixers? There is no such thing as a clear-cut Sealed Deck in this format, with a lot of different degrees of safety one can choose from… and the “reads” people get as far as what they are supposed to do, such as “play four colors or else the deck will be too weak to actually win,” are usually not as clear-cut as some people seem to be thinking. While the greediest decks did well on the first day of the Grand Prix across the globe last weekend, I still don’t think we have enough information to constitute that as proof that this is how one should always behave.

Sean McKeown

“What’s the matter, Colonel Sanders? Chicken?”