PTQing With Theros Sealed

Josh breaks down his most recent PTQ cardpool and extracts vital lessons about the speed and tempo rules of the Theros Limited format.

Today I’m pleased to be writing about a new Limited format. I do want to take this opportunity to focus on Sealed Deck, as I think it’s interesting and certainly relevant to any aspiring pros. I’m lucky that I have an editor that lets me write about what I want to whenever I want to, as long as it’s relevant. The opportunity to learn not just from reading but from writing an article is not one that often presents itself to me, and I am excited at the prospect. Even simply organizing my thoughts in an outline before I started writing was tremendously useful.

There are always lessons to be learned from individual formats, at the beginning or the end, universal truths and otherwise-common knowledges that simply don’t apply in a particular case and it’s important to keep abreast of all of this information as you continue to evolve as a player and competitor. This game that we all love and continue to play evolves as we do, and sometimes the changes can be subtle despite their importance.

Yesterday I played in my first Theros Sealed PTQ. I didn’t win. I was relatively under-prepared for the format, with just a handful of matches under my belt. Some of those matches were played with ‘seeded’ boosters in a prerelease setting, making that preparation more like “learning the cards” than “learning the format.” Learning the cards is important, but knowing how the set is designed to be played with and won with is even more important. Sometimes you have to visualize the design of the set in order to truly understand where your head has to be while playing.

There are several constraints in this format that you must be aware of before you can even attempt to correctly build a Sealed deck.

I think the most important of these constraints is that because of how many combat tricks there are, and how many ways there are to “enhance” a creature (temporarily or permanently), blocking becomes very unattractive. The fact that there are blue effects like Aqueous Form and a Merfolk with a Heroic ability to remove blockers leads you to realize that blocking is not only unattractive, it’s unreliable. In addition to this, people continue to praise “big bodies” that are “good at blocking” but in reality, those creatures that can ONLY block (i.e. Yoked Ox) eventually will die to a Bestow creature, or an Ordeal, or a trick, and then you will be down a card. I think it’s better to find another way and just play better cards. You need to find another way to win in combat. If our only option is to race, then lifelink will quickly become the most important combat ability in this format where otherwise it might normally be something like flying or trample or first strike. Gaining life is extremely valuable in this format, and makes something like Ordeal of Heliod even better. It also means that Lagonna Band-Elder, which looks a lot like a Barony Vampire at first glance, is something far closer to Centaur Healer instead. Of note, one card in particular – Triton Tactics – is so aggressively costed and so versatile that it should usually be played, and it does enable you to actually make good blocks. It seems like a card that will almost always win the race for you, one way or another.

The next thing to discuss is the removal situation. If you’ve spoken to any of your friends who have been playing the format, they may have told you in hushed tones that the removal is bad in this format. For the most part I need to learn this stuff for myself, so while I heard the same thing I quietly dismissed it with an “oh” and moved on, but it’s true. There are unconditional removal spells at rare but those aside, the removal is lacking in this format.

Lash of the Whip and Rage of Purphoros are very similar, and you trade instant-speed and a potential to be a combat trick for scrying away a land in the mid-game, but in reality these cards just aren’t that strong. Creatures quickly reach five toughness in this world, and when they don’t there are enough cheap ways to blow out your effect that you may not want to cast it in the first place. Triton Tactics evades them and can potentially have additional value, Gods Willing can absolutely ruin you for one mana, and to a lesser extent Titan’s Strength can keep a good creature around as well. In blue there’s also Stymied Hope at two mana, which will see more play than it might otherwise due to “Scry 1.” These cards all seem marginal at first glance (the “answers,” that is), but once you unravel the format a little and find the heart of everything lies in the Heroic mechanic, Titan’s Strength and Gods Willing start looking a lot better. In the same vein, you can see that Pharika’s Cure is actually one of the better cards in the format: it deals with Heroic creatures early and gains you a bit of life to give you some breathing room. Its cost is prohibitive at two black, but there are a lot of upsides to being heavily devoted to black. In Red, Magma Jet and Lightning Strike are fast enough to kill heroes while also potentially finishing a game, so these are the ones you want to be playing. Last Breath is a nice card against the heroes, but giving someone a four life advantage can be tricky to overcome, and in the later game this won’t find a target that is both good and important all that often. Finally there is Sip of Hemlock which, while quite slow, is the only non-rare card that can kill anything provided you aren’t dead, can cast it, and it resolves.

It’s important to note as well that removal in this format is hamstrung by space constraints in deckbuilding. Can you really afford to play a marginal removal spell like Lash of the Whip when you are trying to focus on getting as many Heroic triggers as possible? I don’t think you can. The same goes for something like Read the Bones which (while a fine card) is actually a little slow for this brutally tempo-oriented format, and which takes the space of your 23rd card be it a Boon of Erebos or a Chosen by Heliod or whatever. Like I said, in another format Read the Bones would be an all-star!

The bounce is at least as good as the removal is bad, however, which is another sweet score for blue — in addition to having two of the better non-rare heroes, it also has access to Griptide and Voyage’s End, reliable tempo plays in a world where that’s exactly what you’re looking for. In addition to those, Sea God’s Revenge has the potential to be a blowout and you get a little scry action on top, and this is interesting. Part of me wants to get more than Scry 1 for spending six mana, but, the effect is so powerful that it doesn’t make sense to tack on a huge scry.

There are a lot of marginal cards in this format that simply have “Scry 1” tacked on at the end of their text. These cards are probably almost all justifiably playable for that reason, but it’s very important to note that scrying is not the same as drawing a card, if anything it’s probably more like a little less than half a card. This means that in Limited Omenspeaker is pretty underwhelming and Stymied Hope is only okay, both Lost in a Labyrinth and Spark Jolt are narrow role-players rather than auto includes, and the list goes on. A card like Sea God’s Revenge doesn’t need to say Scry at all and it is probably still very good. I think it’s important to evaluate a card without the Scry text and see how much you want to be playing that effect in your deck. This way, even when the scrying goes poorly the card still did something useful, and it will really shine when you get a bonus out of the Scry. Gods Willing and Titan’s Strength are cheap Heroic enablers that are excellent effects and very efficient, effects you’d likely play without Scry, although without Scry Titan’s Strength would probably look more like Brute Force, the point remains. You need to be careful not to jam your deck full of cards that are only in there because you like the idea of scrying.

Finally that brings us to Heroic. We already know that there are tons of ways to enhance our creatures and the removal is kind of terrible, which makes loading up our guys that much more attractive. This means that the good heroes are at a premium, and if you get some of them that’s really where you need to go with your pool. Hopefully the rares and enhancers follow suit, but it could lead to some interesting deckbuilding tensions. The most interesting thing is that a card like an Ordeal which is not especially easy to trigger on its own is suddenly not only playable but among the best cards in the format to go with your Heroic creatures. In another format they’d be unplayable or borderline playable, depending on their trigger. Who wants to gain ten life? Well in this format, I do. It’s also interesting to note that if you draw two ordeals, putting them on the same creature is quite nice as the second helps trigger the first faster and choose which one triggers when as you see fit.

In addition to the Ordeals, there is a cycle of auras that draw a card when they come into play. These cards all have marginal effects: +0/+2, draw another card when the creature dies, +1/+0, etc… but combined with heroes, these cards go from mediocre filler (a “23rd card”) to a high pick and a card you’re happy to draw every game, possibly in multiples.

This more-or-less defines how we have to think about the format to build our decks. There are some outlying keywords like Devotion but I think they are not quite as complicated to understand. Grey Merchant of Asphodel may very well be the best common in the set, but it requires a specific set of circumstances for you to maximize it. Of course, if you have multiples then the work is done for you. The gods are trickier. The threshold to play a god in your Sealed deck is probably not very high, but while the games where your god becomes a creature will be some of the easiest games you’ve ever won, the games where you cast a god that doesn’t turn on will probably be incredibly frustrating. In draft I don’t think the gods are especially high picks, but am willing to admit I might be wrong.

With all that in mind we can take a look at my Sealed deck from the PTQ:

Sealed Deck - Sorted by rarity

Of course, the first thing you do in real life is verify your Sealed deck against the registration sheet in front of you. I was kind of frustrated to see a Purphoros crossed out because it was in fact a Purphoros’s Emissary, but then I saw the Dragon and later the Nylea and felt okay. Mind you this was before I had made up my mind about the gods, but I digress.

Sealed Deck - Sorted by color

Looking here, you can see what I began to see early on in the process – by the numbers, red and black are by far the deepest. Keep in mind that I hadn’t thought enough about this format and that there seemed to be a plethora of removal in red and black which I was (perhaps foolishly) eager to try out for myself. The cards that did stick out to me were the Keepsake Gorgon, the Stoneshock Giant, the Stormbreath Dragon and the rest of my rare creatures which had me really questioning my build. Daxos, Anax, the Prophet, Nylea… of course in the end you’d end up with a janky three color UWR deck that wasn’t good or consistent, and I was okay with not going in that direction. The blue has 2 Vaporkin, an Emissary and a Chimera, along with a Griptide and a few filler cards, the white has a Favored Hoplite, a Hopeful Eidolon then nothing, the red was deep enough but which color would be the splash? How bad was our mana going to be? Did it matter? I still wanted to try the removal. I admit that if I had known more about the format this build process would have been different, but I don’t think the results would have been that different.

This is the deck I submitted for the tournament:

PTQ Sealed Deck

Now even without knowing just how mediocre the five-drop removal spells were, I already felt like I wasn’t doing that great with the two-drops that I had to play. I also didn’t realize how mediocre the 4/3 Minotaurs were in this format, I’m more accustomed to them doing some work; in this format, they seem to just trade down or get blown out by any combat trick. I would not hire them again if I could avoid it. As the clock ticked down I hemmed and hawed about the final cards: Spark Jolt, Scourgemark, Titan’s Strength, Read the Bones, Felhide Minotaur, Disciple of Phenax and Rescue from the Underworld were the cards I was thinking about specifically, and I think I got it wrong. I really like Disciple of Phenax in a deck that wants to be devoted to black, or a deck that wants to play a more controlling game, and, for that matter, most of the time those are probably the same more often than not. For this deck, I felt I had a distinct lack of black mana symbols on my cards and that most of the time the Disciple was only going to show me two cards. Coupled with the fact that I didn’t want to slow down to cast it with this deck (theoretically) was that I felt it might inhibit my opponent from attacking me (I wanted them to attack me, so I could attack them back; I felt my deck was more aggressive than usual) and for both those reasons I didn’t want to play it in this deck.

I played Read the Bones and boarded it out pretty often. I don’t think it’s good in this format and I don’t think most normal decks really want it unless their curve is extremely low, or their deck has enough ramp that they can take advantage of the extra cards by casting them in a timely fashion. Rescue from the Underworld is another mistake that I made. I felt that since I had what I felt were three “bomb” creatures a timely Rescuing of one or two of them from the Underworld would serve me well. In reality this card was underwhelming when I cast it, and sometimes it was just too slow to cast. I think the card has a home in a Grey Merchant deck, but obviously this wasn’t that deck.

I wish I had played an extra land or Scourgemark and started the Titan’s Strength. I think casting an early Titan’s Strength for profit or even three damage can be great, and it can really smooth out your draw. In my mind I just thought I had so much scry that my mana situation would be okay, but in reality most of my scry (which I actually didn’t have that much of) wasn’t very accessible, since it cost five mana. You can’t save yourself from manascrew with a Rage of Purphoros! I wish I had played a few more rounds to learn more about the format, but we left when everyone in our car was dead and our morale was low.

So, this is our PTQ season and I think the format is actually interesting and playable. I do think that Prognostic Sphinx and Abhorrent Overlord should have been at a higher rarity, as they are quite hard to beat and very disruptive to game play (due to their somewhat lower rarity) but at least they aren’t uncommons. I think it’s important to spend time considering and practicing the Sealed Deck format to succeed at the PTQ level, and let’s face it, everyone loves to draft so you can get plenty of practice there whenever you want.

What do you guys think about the Sealed Deck format or the format in general? Let me know in the comments!