PTQing With The New Cards

Josh is keen to avail himself of a free trip to Geneva, and has climbed off the Gravy Train in order to slum it on the PTQ circut with the rest of us. He failed last weekend, but has high hopes for the season as a whole. Last weekend’s cardpool is presented today, for us to dissect and discuss, alongside some Time Spiral Limited theory and a dose of tournament reporting. Attending Athens this weekend? Or planning to ace a PTQ? Then maybe Josh can help…

As many of you know, players of any level status with less than twenty pro points in the year are allowed to play in Pro Tour Qualifiers. That means, despite being Level 3, I am allowed to play in PTQs. It also means that Osyp, despite being Level 4, can also play in PTQs. It also means that Gerard Fabiano, despite being qualified for Worlds and Kobe through his Level 3 status, can play in PTQs. You get the idea; this is just my local PTQ scene. The competition at this PTQ then, as you have surmised, was harder than your average PTQ.

I knew this going in, and was greatly looking forward to it. I didn’t quite get to test my mettle, as you’ll see, but Osyp did win the PTQ and the flight to Switzerland that he was gunning for, and I’m relegated to playing in NYC this weekend – one final chance to prepare for Kobe.

I can pretty much skip the wake-up and travel proceedings, I hope. I’m sure you’ve read them before, and mine were hardly any different.

Indeed yada yada, we get there in the nick of time, just as it was starting; they already had pairings, but we weren’t the only ones and they didn’t hesitate to let us in.

I wasted little time alphabetizing and registering my deck; I can’t really remember it, so I don’t think it was anything special. My travel buddy registered two Twisted Abominations, Serrated Arrows, and two Spectral Forces, which (of course) he was hoping to get back. He didn’t, but whatever…

Here’s what I got back:

Ponder that while we discuss Sealed Deck for a while. I am lucky enough, from the perspective of being a PTQ player, to have played in a lot of Sealed Deck tournaments (PTQs mostly, as it turns out). I know a thing or two. There are some rules that are worth following, and others that are worth considering. They are format dependent, for the most part.

Play Enough Lands

I decided long ago that I wouldn’t really complain about “things” in Magic, because for the most part I’m pretty sure when one of these “things” happens, it’s usually my fault – and furthermore, no one gives a sh**. Sure, they listen… but you know all they’re thinking is “shut up and let me talk,” or worse… “let me walk away.”

Don’t get me wrong, I am not pointing any fingers or naming any names. If you think I’m talking about you, I am definitely not. One of these “things” is “manascrew.” (I can hear Tony Tsai telling Eric Kesselman to literally “shuffle better.”)

You didn’t draw enough lands every game of every round, and you took about 300 mulligans? You are literally the unluckiest person on earth? You actually believe all of that?

Sure, Mike Flores did tell me he went 2-5 at a Pro Tour and spent the entire day “learning how to shuffle…” but I don’t know, he’s full of it a lot of the time (then again, you knew that already).

In general, I think you should err on playing more lands than less lands. If you’re not sure, and are trying to choose between seventeen and eighteen (this is most of you, in this format, probably), then just play eighteen lands. I know that means you have to cut a card…. I know, I know. Either become good enough at the format to know which card to cut, or cut the one you are least sure of. Either way you’ll be okay; anything drastically wrong with your deck can be remedied during sideboard games in future rounds, after consulting with your friends.

Of all the decks I’ve built in this format, only one of them felt like it needed less than eighteen lands; it had two Greenseekers and two Weatherseed Totems. It was a candidate for sixteen lands, but I didn’t feel comfortable with that, so I went with seventeen. It isn’t like I’d have a use for extra mana in the late game, what with my two aforementioned Totems and spellshapers…

In general, between Spellshaping, Rebel-Searching, Flashback, Buyback, various activated-abilities, paying Echo costs, and activating totems, there seems to be enough to do with your extra lands in the late game. Don’t be afraid of drawing too many and as a result weakening your chances of succeeding.

Keep Pondering

Next I should say something about synergy, because it’s important even if you aren’t guaranteed to get it (or even recognize it). I guess it’s a vague term; I don’t have any mind-blowing examples. The way I always think of synergy is in the abstract-negative. If my whole deck wants to attack – like, for example, when I’m some White/Green fast-ish deck with good pump and damage prevention tricks, as well as a few creature-enchantments to aid me in my quest for beatdown – playing a card like Carven Caryatid really throws a wrench in my plans. Now don’t get me wrong, Carven Caryatid is a great card; that’s why I used it as an example. If my whole deck wants to attack, then playing this card that is completely out of place. No one, including the Wall itself, can figure out why it’s in your deck. That isn’t synergy. You want to avoid that situation.

As you’ll see as you’re building the Sealed Deck cardpool above, I had the option of playing Subterranean Shambler. The card is good, though limited. It gives you opportunities for card advantage and trickery, generally excellent traits in a Sealed Deck card. However, in my deck with Endrek Sahr and various other one-toughness creatures, the Shambler was relegated to his position on the bench as a sideboard card. Simple? Yeah, maybe, but no one said this was rocket science.

Again, this isn’t always possible; it is just something worth considering when you can. It becomes tricky when you have a more controllish build in your hands. You’re looking at it, and there are a bunch of random 2/2s for two, and they don’t really fit. The damage you score in the early game might hurt you more than help you… who knows? It’s important to fill out your curve so that you don’t get overrun. So in that case, you shouldn’t cut your two-drops just because you don’t want to win quickly. I hope that’s clear.

Other examples include playing all your Fungi if you have Thelon of Havenwood, and playing all your Rebels when you have Rebel searchers. Those are common-sense examples, though. The Caryatid example is the important one to understand.

Play Your Best CARDS

Everyone always says this, but it isn’t easy. If you look at my pool you’ll see the best card is probably one of the rares: Endrek Sahr, Magus of the Mirror, or even Sol’Kanar. I was lucky in that sense – they’re all Black, and if you look at the rest of the pool we can definitely play Sol’Kanar if we want to (though we’re not there yet). I got to play my good cards, cards that also happen to be rares. I had enough of them to make Black desirable enough to play, despite it being tied for worst color in the format. The key, beyond four “rare” creatures, was the fact that depth in the color existed. A pair of removal spells and some creatures to fill out my curve was the key to playing Black. I would have been happier, or at least just as happy, to have all my rares in my sideboard and a solid-consistent deck capable of winning the requisite five times to make Top 8. I guess what I’m saying is don’t play your best card necessarily… play your best cards.

Play As Much Removal As Possible.

This one goes without saying, and as such it is the last of these “rules.” Often, I find it to be worthwhile to splash a color for removal spells, or, when evaluating a color in terms of how much I’d like to include part or all of it in a deck, the removal it provides is a large part of that equation. Obviously some colors don’t have removal, or the removal they have is very limited or fake (Pacifism is good at “killing” Green creatures, but not so good at handling Red or White utility creatures… Temporal Isolation is even worse, because the creature gains shadow and can still block your shadow-Rebel).

I suppose we should examine the cardpool now.

First, we have the artifacts.

Chromatic Star
2 Venser’s Sliver
Jhoira’s Timebug
War Barge

Of these, the only card I’d be inclined to include in most decks is the Chromatic Star. In Limited it’s a mana fixer – you won’t sacrifice it to Arcbound Ravager, but it will help you cast spells. It won’t always make the cut, as sometimes I think I’d rather have another “real” spell, but it is quite good as you get the card immediately.

The rest of them are fairly sub-par, Assembly-Worker is passable, but he pretty much sucks; Venser’s Slivers are the same, barring a ton of Slivers, then they move up into the awesome category (yes, an awesome Sea Snidd). I suppose the same could be said for Hivestone, actually, but you’d need a lot for that – more than for the Venser’s Slivers, because it is dead on its own.

The Timebug is another specialty card that I consider to be playable given the right circumstances. Say you have about nine cards with Suspend. If they are creatures, they are obviously better with haste, and if they are spells they are probably cheaper or uncastable without suspend, so really give this guy a look if you have the cards. This time, I did not.

War Barge is a sideboard card, as far as I can tell. It’s relatively safe, and against a deck full of Islands I’d think it would be good.

Moving on to the Gold spells…

Dementia Sliver
Saffi Eriksdotter
Sol’kanar, the Swamp King
Ghostflame Sliver

Again, relatively unexciting except Sol’Kanar, who stands out as an awesome card in every way (should you be able to cast him.) The Slivers vary in goodness, though Ghostflame Sliver will get played if you’re Red/Black. Of course. Dementia Sliver’s ability is not too good, but he is a large sliver and not a blank like Venser’s, so give him consideration in the appropriate circumstances (writing about slivers is annoying and repetitive…) Saffi Eriksdotter is a good card, but it’s White/Green. That means that first you need to have a great White/Green base, and second you need to have enough splashable removal to make playing those colors viable. Should those stars align for you, this is a top-tier-two-drop.

Onto the Green…

Aether Web
Ashcoat Bear
Aspect of Mongoose
Chameleon Blur
Durkwood Baloth
Search for Tomorrow
Strength in Numbers
Tromp the Domains
2 Wormwood Dryad

Mediocre. Not nearly enough creatures, relatively weak tricks (though that is par for the course in this format) — two faux evaders is attractive, but just one fat creature and no depth made this an easy cut. Green was out first.

The Blue…

Spell Burst
Viscerid Deepwalker
Screeching Sliver
Dream Stalker
2 Clockspinning
Mystical Teachings
Fathom Seer
Tolarian Sentinel
Looter Il-Kor
Crookclaw Transmuter
Riftwing Cloudskate

Blue? Well, there are some really good cards here. Crookclaw Transmuter, Looter Il-Kor, Riftwing Cloudskate, Snapback, Fathom Seer, and Tolarian Sentinel are all cards I want in my deck. None of the other cards are really that bad, either (except Screeching Sliver and Clockspinning — which, unlike the aforementioned Timebug, is simply too much mana since you never want to spin without the buyback — it is called spinning and not spin, after all). I can see playing any or all of them in the right deck.

The draw to the color is obviously the evasion creatures, Riftwing Cloudskate, Crookclaw Transmuter, and Looter Il-Kor; Tolarian Sentinel is very good and dependable, but not a card I’d play Blue for. Keeping that in mind, there isn’t enough here… I think…? Question mark? I’m not going to lie to you all and say I mastered the Sealed Deck format in one PTQ that I didn’t even win, but I chose not to play a lot of Blue in my deck. (The forums are open, etc).

Bonesplitter Sliver
Thick-Skinned Goblin
2 Bogardan Rager
Barbed Shocker
Coal Stoker
Subterranean Shambler
Goblin Skycutter
Keldon Halberdier
2 Orcish Cannonade
Tectonic Fiend
Lightning Axe

Red… here’s where I may have descended into trouble. I had already assessed the Black by the time I saw the Red (I knew I’d be playing it). For the most part, individual card values don’t change, so…

Bonesplitter Sliver is a good standalone sliver. It isn’t like some of the others that are “meh but good if you have more” … this one is just pretty good. Of course, it’s better to give your whole team +2/+0 than just himself, but I digress. You can play him alone, and backed with removal he is all the more potent… Thick-Skinned Goblin, Coal Stoker, Subterranean Shambler, Goblin Skycutter, Keldon Halberdier, Tectonic Fiend — all reasonable cards, but nothing to write home about. The Goblin’s ability to gain protection from Red is excellent, and perhaps underrated. It came up in every match I played. Coal Stoker didn’t make the cut in my deck because I didn’t have much to do with RRR except for casting a Cannonade, and that didn’t seem optimal. Burning for three to get a Hill Giant is also not good value. Tectonic Fiend is a 7/7 and of course he has to attack every turn, but you’d probably want to do that anyway unless your opponent has Stuffy Doll in play (mine always did).

Now for the removal, the big draw to Red – double Orcish Cannonade and Lightning Axe. Lightning Axe does everything and costs almost no mana, so I don’t think it needs much explanation. Orcish Cannonade might be a trap, though. That double-Red casting cost is really something. The card is obviously awesome – it’s a non-gold Electrolyze that you can’t split. Sure, that’s a lot of drawbacks compared to Electrolyze, but Electrolyze was an all-star. It also didn’t deal any damage to you, but whatever. You shock something and draw a card. A pretty good deal, and I recognized this “deal” and played Red accordingly.

Here’s the deck I played, for you to consider:

Keep that in mind as I move along to the Black cards…

Uncle Istvan
Pit Keeper
Urborg Syphon-Mage
Endrek Sahr, master breeder
Deathspore thallid
2 Sangrophage
Cyclopean Giant
Dark Withering
Lim-Dul the Necromancer
Mana Skimmer
Haunting Hymn
Premature Burial

This is obviously a very deep color. It’s also where most of my rares ended up — five, including Sol’Kanar and the Uncle, is a lot. Luckily they are (mostly) good, and I was pleased to have them.

In general, I think Smallpox is too situational and Sangrophage is not enough of a card to play. Sure, you can tap it instead of taking two when it becomes inconvenient or downright stupid to take two damage, but then you are down a card and he probably only did three or six damage, plus you gave up what was likely a turn’s worth of Black mana to get him out there. In the early game that is not insignificant.

Deathspore Thallid is a card I might have misevaluated. As you saw, I didn’t include it in my deck. I think it is generally very weak, though obviously it gets better (much better) the more Fungi you can include in your deck… if he is the only one, he is pretty bad. Of course, when two of my opponents cast Stuffy Doll I was kicking myself for not playing it, as you can see I had no removal capable of removing the Doll – no Sudden Death, no Flowstone Channeler, no this or that. I boarded in the Thallid a couple of times, but wasn’t even happy with it then.

Uncle Istvan… again, I’m not entirely sure. My first and second impressions are that he is pretty weak, with only especially worthwhile characteristics against Green decks. I think he is fine against Red and Black too, but his inability to interact with flyers makes him nearly useless against the remaining two colors. To top it off, when you play him you are giving your opponent much less incentive to attack (obviously), but this means they have many more creatures with which to defend (also obvious). For a deck with something like two evasion creatures (if you count Swampwalk), this is very bad. In the end I regretted playing him, and should have played Haunting Hymn instead.

I knew Haunting Hymn was good, but I didn’t have the exact quality pinned down. I think it’s worse than Mindstab, but I should have played it because I had no Mindstab. I boarded it in each round.

The rest of Black is pretty good – a few filler creatures, and the Syphon-Mage is an excellent finisher in a deck otherwise incapable of finishing the job. The rares… well, if you didn’t get a chance to play with them yet, let me tell you:

Endrek Sahr is a monster. I lost to him at the prerelease, though it may have been the Void that followed. It triggers off suspended creatures, so it can quickly get out of hand. Even if he dies, he is quite a menace – there are few Tremor effects, so relentlessly attacking with all of your guys until your opponent dies is often the strategy you want to use, and it is often successful.

Magus of the Mirror: I wasn’t sure what to make of him. I thought at worse he’d be a 4/2 for six, which is pretty awful. I thought about it some more, and decided it would be good. I played with it, won a match with it, and decided it was awesome. (Some people told me the same along the way.) It’s very good. If your opponent can’t remove it, he probably can’t really attack you unless he can kill you in one turn, because when you flip it and attack back they’ll probably die. Good card.

Lim-Dul the Necromancer: I cast him once and couldn’t make anything die. This was a game where my opponent had seventeen Kobolds and was attacking me with just a 2/1 shadow creature, while I waited with my Magus in play. Obviously I won the game after a few more turns of him attacking me for two (with both Cannonades in play). I don’t think this is a bomb – it’s seven mana, and it’s a 4/4 non-flyer. I do think it is good and worth playing, though.

Now for the land…

Dreadship Reef
Gemstone Mine

Arena is quite good, but it doesn’t tap for mana. It’s ideal in a Green deck, where you have large men. Be careful when you read this one, because your opponent chooses which guy fights from their team. Still, it’s good. However, in a deck with six- and seven-drops such as mine, I thought that missing the land drop (no mana, but still a land), coupled with the fact that I only had a few huge guys to put in the Arena, made me skip this one.

Gemstone Mine: I wasn’t sure how to evaluate this one, but it’s fairly similar to Arena. I need all of my lands, to a point. I can’t really afford to have one stop working mid-curve in the early game. The mana fixing it provides is valuable, but I opted to splash the fewest amount of cards to avoid playing this.

Dreadship Reef: A good way to splash. Riftwing Cloudskate is a fairly ideal card to splash – it’s 1U or 3UU (obviously), but storing counters on this land means you can cast it when you draw it. Had I splashed more Blue, I would have felt comfortable knowing that I could continue to get Blue mana out of this land, even if it is expensive to wash just a single mana. Otherwise, it helps with X spells and high-end cards. I think in Sealed you want to include these only if you are both colors, especially when splashing counts.

And finally… White.

Amrou Scout
Amrou Seekers
Benalish Cavalry
D’Avenant Healer
Divine Congregation
Griffin Guide
Return to Dust
Zealot Il-Vec

A Rebel searcher and two Rebels do not make a deck. That’s basically all we have here. Just one awesome uncommon (White has something like five in total), one utility creature, and one dork. That’s it. Fortify is very playable, since it’s good both ways (unlike its Red counterparts), but on the whole, this was lacking. Obviously this wasn’t in contention for being played, but for completeness sake, I am including this breakdown.

And that leaves me with just the tournament to talk about. I realize this article has gone on for quite some time, but bear with me – I only played four rounds.

Round 1
Uneventful. In the first game I curved him out, and slipped Riftwing Cloudskate in play on turn 5 with haste. He didn’t do much except remove a guy each turn – he Evangelized me on turn 6 or so, which got him a tapped guy, so he still lost to my Syphon-Mage a few turns later, despite Jedit’s Dragoons making an appearance.

The second game was much closer. He had an Opal Guardian that became a creature, and he had a Stuffy Doll (of course). I had Sol’Kanar and Syphon-Mage. I couldn’t attack, because obviously I’d just take a lot of damage and nothing good would come of that. I Mage him a few times with some lands and Tectonic Fiend; he killed my Syphon-Mage, but I Pit Keepered it back. Eventually I found removal for all of his flyers before it got out of hand, and in the end, my Mage won the race against his Doll.

Round 2
Uneventful. He was stuck on lands in game 1 and Sol’kanar was able to attack. He didn’t have any Swamps in either game, even though he was playing Black. I don’t really remember the details, but it took a while to win in the long run. Game 2 saw him sit with seventeen Kobolds, thanks to his Candelabra Magus, and I basically couldn’t win without his help. Luckily, he was more than willing, and the aforementioned Magus of the Mirror plus double Orcish Cannonade was good enough.

I was 2-0, and feeling good. Then things went downhill.

Round 3
I was paired against a small child who is one of Jon Sonne’s barns. He, being the more skilled of the barns, was to be taken seriously. Game 1, and I was stuck on five Mountains and one Swamp for a while, but he played Gemhide Sliver which made my three (yes, all three) slivers slightly better for that turn, so I cast my Dark Witherings on his 5/5 to clear the way for all my 1/1 tokens. (Endrek Sahr died in the process of making me around ten tokens). The problem was that he had not only Stuffy Doll and Prodigal Sorcerer, but also the Scryb Ranger. My tokens were not long for the world, so I dashed into the red zone three times. Each time I dealt a bunch of damage to him, lost a bunch of guys, and took four damage. On the last turn of doing this – when on the turn previous I had knocked him down to two life (I was at nine) and had played Pit Keeper and Endrek Sahr again – I drew a land. I attacked with everyone; he blocked to stay alive (at one life). I was at four after the Doll damage. He untapped and had Strength in Numbers to drop me to zero. He played the game well. I lost. Game 2 saw me stuck on lands, and it wasn’t close.

Round 4
I was paired against another small child – smaller this time. No barn network affiliation, as far as I could tell, but he demolished me.

Turn 2 suspend Cloudskate followed by removal; Looter-powered spell/land ratio; and a lack of Swamps each game. My hands were keepable — something like three lands, creatures, and spells I could cast — I just drew more Black cards.

Game 2 saw him finish me even faster, by putting Unstable Mutation on his Looter and showing me Conflagrate for the finishing blow.

Still, it was fun.

I am looking forward to New York in a few days (when you read this, it will be tomorrow).

Would I have done anything differently? I would have just played the Hymn instead of the Uncle, but I never explored playing more Blue. Talk about that in the forums, and I’ll be sure to join in.

Hope you enjoyed reading.

Josh Ravitz

(Good luck this weekend!)