Reflecting Ruel – How To Build A Sealed Deck

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Friday, November 13th – Sealed Deck in Zendikar play is proving to be a tricky beast to crack. In today’s Reflecting Ruel, Olivier offers some sage advice on Sealed Deck in general, paying close attention to the current format. Will his words of wisdom be enough to speed you to the top of the PTQ pile? Read on to find out!

Sealed deck is considered by many Magic players to be the worst competitive format in the game. It is true that there must be a reason why it is not a legal Pro Tour format. It’s all about the card pool. How could it be fair that a player with a pool worth an 8/10 score has to face a player with a pool worth a 3/10 score? How could it be fair that you get a card pool with which there is nothing you can do?

Before actually starting to analyze how to build a Sealed deck, let me explain to you why I think these common ideas are false. At first, if you open 100 Sealed cardpools, you will approximately get the following:

1) “Can’t ever lose” pools : 5%

2) Very strong pools : 15%
3) Average high pools : 30%
4) Average low pools : 30%
5) Bad pools : 15%
6) “Can’t ever win” pools : 5%

Next, it is important to know that out of the 5% of decks which can’t lose, between 50% (in Zendikar/Mirrodin) and 90% (In Ravnica block) of players will build it incorrectly. This means you’ll almost never play against these decks. In the meantime, if you do build your deck optimally, you’ll always bring your deck one or two categories up, when compared to an average player with an identical pool.

Concerning the luck in card pools, how about luck in draft? In the most popular draft format, you have many more random factors:

– Your two right neighbors’ skill level determines the strength of your deck just as much as your own skill level.
– The colors into which your right neighbor goes determines what you will end up drafting, assuming you can read the signals correctly and he doesn’t switch.
– You may open fewer packs that in Sealed, but the quality of what you open is about as important.

I’m obviously not saying draft is a skill-less format. It has so many strategic aspects that one of my articles would not be enough to cover even half of them. Overall, I believe both formats are about as skill-intensive.

Let’s move on to the real deal. What does it take to optimize a Sealed pool?

At first, sort the cards by color. Then separate the playable cards of each color in three categories:

– Cards you’re willing to play
– Possible filler
– Cards you’re not willing to play.

Once you’ve done so, you must identify the strong points of you deck. Even when your pool seems weak, even when your rares are bad, there are always things you have that your opponents won’t. Here is what to search for:


Where are your creatures? What’s the point of playing your bomb colors if you end up with only 11 guys? What if, on the other side of the coin, you have twenty guys or more? It won’t leave you much space for tricks and removal.

If you want to play any aggro strategy, you should try to play between 16 and 19 guys. If you want to play mid-range or control, you’ll want between 14 and 18.

In Zendikar Sealed

The format is super aggressive, so you can’t possibly play fewer than 15 creature cards.


Which colors go the best with each other? Usually, Magic is designed so neighboring colors support each other quite efficiently. You have to find the little combos, the cards which go the best with each other, etc. Most generally, there are some color combinations which just don’t work in general:

WB: Both colors are almost always based on cards which cost several mana of the same color, and they don’t even combo together.

WG/UG: These can look good, but they suffer from lack of removal options.

On the other hand, some associations have often proved to be a success:

RB: The archetype with the most removal spells.

UW: Flyers supported by walls, Pacifism effects, and tricks (such as prevention spells, bounce spells). Rarely the best as far as raw power is concerned, but one of the best as far as synergy goes.

GR/GB: Green usually is the color with the most playables, and with the support of Red or Black removal, it should always make a decent deck.

The other synergy option concerns the creature types and tribes. Every now and again, a Sealed deck format relies on such things, such as Lorwyn block or Onslaught block. In this case, you have to examine how much each tribe is represented and how strong the cards are together. Two Timberwatch Elves and a Wellwishser are good enough reasons to run any playable Elf you’ve got, for instance. As long as the cardpool has any of the key cards of the tribe (Sparksmith, Silvergil Douser, Murasa Pyromancer), the best “family” will often simply be the one with the most playables.

In Zendikar Sealed

The synergy is much simpler to detect in Zendikar.

As the format is more aggressive than ever, you’ll often look for the same kind of synergy that’s in a Constructed aggro deck. Just play the combination of creatures which draw the better curve, and try and support them with tricks and removal. It’s simple, square, and efficient. Zendikar Sealed is not the most complex format from this perspective.

The other classic strategy is a lot more complex: Allies. They are pretty strong when you open several of the key Allies (Oran-Rief Survivalist, Umara Raptor, Murasa Pyromancer) alongside a number of cheap Allies. If you have the Allies but only two Ondu Clerics and a Stonework Puma as early drops, you’re unlikely to disrupt your opponent’s start.


A good and stable curve is often the best way to punish an unstable deck. People often play three colors, even when they don’t have the right fixers to do so. This is the best way for a bad card pool to beat a good one, by having much more regular draws in order to place an opponent under some pressure by the time they are eventually able to play any spell from their hand.

In Zendikar Sealed

Never has the curve mattered more as in the current Sealed format. Almost everyone plays 18 lands and a small curve (the Landfall magic), and except for a very few archetypes (WB and the few three-color decks), any deck should be able to cast guys from turns 2 to 5.


One of the best ways to compete with better cardpools is to surprise them with many evasive guys (Flying, Shadow, Intimidate, Horsemanship) and provoke a race before they can take control of the game. The advantage of this strategy is obviously that when it comes to racing, it helps a lot to be able to block when your opponent isn’t.

In Zendikar Sealed

As the format is about racing anyway, running flyers won’t hurt. However, they have a little less impact than in the other formats, because the player playing first should be the one triggering the race, and he is often the one who will end up winning it.


There is no very good Limited deck without a removal spell. You can’t win at Magic if you lose every time your opponent owns the board’s strongest creature. Your guys should be supported by cards allowing you to clear the board and let you attack.

Two removal spells is the minimum you should have in Sealed. With about four, you’ll be in the average bracket. With six or more, you can consider yourself lucky.

In Zendikar Sealed

One more example that proves Zendikar is definitely a unique format: removal spells are less important here than they are usually. The reason is simple: as games are faster, players have less time to draw bombs, and even when they touch the board they have less time to have a strong impact. Therefore, removal to deal with bombs is less necessary.


The weapon of people who don’t have removal spells. The point of a trick is to surprise the opponent in order to make one cheap card trade with an expensive counterpart, giving you a huge tempo advantage (as you can play a guy and a Giant Growth in the same turn, while your opponent will have tapped out to play the tricked creature), alongside a surprise effect that often allows you to disrupt their plan, as it’s much easier to play around a removal spell than around a counterspell or a prevention spell.

In Zendikar Sealed

Counterspells are almost pointless. Their point is usually to catch a bomb or a removal spell, and therefore they can be a mini removal spell themselves, but in Zendikar, they are too slow. If you pass on turn 3, as nobody ever does, you’ll be very transparent and your opponent will probably just play his second best guy. However, some other tricks like Vampire’s Bite, Shieldmate’s Blessing, or Slaughter Cry can have a huge impact, as almost every turn of a Zendikar Limited game has an attack phase.


You should go with your bombs as long as it doesn’t affect your synergy too much. You need a curve, stability, and removal. If you manage to have all of this in a great card’s color, go for it. If you are missing some of those, you need either a second bomb, or you need the other plan to be simply too bad. Then you can go with the broken card(s).

If you have bombs you believe can win the game on their own (Rite of Replication, Sphinx of the Steel Wind), just build your deck around it by doing what a control deck usually does: try and answer to your opponent’s threats one by one before then focusing on killing him with your own. Create card advantage and, when he’s running out of fuel, play your bombs and win. Of course, you’ll often just win with your non- bomb guys, but in Limited as well as in Constructed, you should always build a deck with a game plan.

In Zendikar Sealed

The situation is quite unique. On the one hand, the format is so fast than bombs don’t have much time to shine, and some of the very best cards are actually uncommon because they have an immediate impact on the game (Vampire Nighthawk, Marsh Casualties). On the other hand, Zendikar Limited is not a very rich format as far as removal spells are concerned, and most of them kill only two toughness guys. Therefore, even if the speed of the current Sealed make them less important that in the other Sealed formats, bombs are more decisive when it comes to long games.


To put it simply, play two colors as often as you can. Drawing badly, taking mulligans, being land screwed or flooded sucks, and it is one of the worst parts in the game. But it doesn’t mean you can’t control it. By playing a two color deck, you know you will get some automatic wins from opponents taking too long to find their third color. And when they mulligan to five or miss their Mountain for the first five turns, that’s the price they pay for having stronger cards but a less stable deck. But it doesn’t mean you absolutely have to stick to two colors, only that stability could become a weapon when your deck stays away from mana troubles. However, in many cases, the best choice is to play two colors with a splash for a third. Only three-color base decks should absolutely be avoided. A 6-6-6 manabase can’t work for a whole day.

In Zendikar Sealed

In Zendikar, it is recommended you run 18 lands and only two colors. The format is too fast for you to lose time trying to fix your mana, so unless you have many fixers and all your possible two color combinations are bad, sticking with two colors is the most simple approach. Why 18 lands when you’re only two colors? For two reasons. First, the format is so fast that most decks won’t recover from missing a land drop on turn 3, even if they find lands in the next three turns. Then, the landfall ability often puts you in the midgame in a situation when any draw is good. When you have a Steppe Lynx and an Adventurer’s Gear on the board, your opponent probably wants you to draw a spell.


Cards that allow you to create card advantage are great in Magic. That’s nothing new. Any removal spell which can deal with at least two creatures works here (Ashes to Ashes, Marsh Casualties), but more generally these cards are often Blue draw spells. The slower the format you’re playing, the better they are. As an example, Courier’s Capsule was pretty good in Alara Sealed, but Ior Ruin Expedition is nearly unplayable in Zendikar.

Of course, any mass removal and Nekrataal-like guys are great, but the slower the format, the better the draw spells (Compulsive Research), the multiple discard spells (Hypnotic Cloud), and any card which can generate card advantage (Battlemages, Soul Manipulation) actually are.

In Zendikar Sealed

Except for the obvious Marsh Casualties, the format doesn’t offer many ways to create card advantage in the early game. While Ior Ruin Expedition is barely playable, Mold Shambler and Heartbeat Mosquito are good cards, but not good enough to push you into a color. More generally, card advantage is not exactly what you aim for in a format where tempo is so important. You actually often play a card which creates card disadvantage (Zektar Shrine Expedition, Mark of Mutiny, Whiplash Trap).


Your deck should always have a two-color core. Then there could be several reasons for you to add a splash:

– Not enough playables in the two colors.
– Not enough removal in the two colors.
– Enough fixers to afford a splash.
– A bomb you’re not intending to leave in your sideboard

If any of those situations occur, and especially when several of them do, adding a third color is necessary. As we’re speaking of a splash, we are only referring to very few cards, between one and four most of the time. Above four cards and you run the risk of drawing several of them while not finding the right land, and your draws become more random. As for the mana you’ll need in order to play them, we’ll come back to that in a short while, but remember a splash should not include spells which cost several colored mana that don’t belonging to one of your two main colors. You can make a few exceptions for super strong cards (Bogardan Hellkite, Baneslayer Angel), but if and only if they are extremely strong, because the card will have to pay you back for the mana troubles it will cause.

In Zendikar Sealed

Unless you have a lot of fixers to afford it (if you’re Green most of the time), don’t bother splashing, as you don’t have time to struggle with your mana.


These can either make your two color deck even more stable, or a three color deck more consistent.

In some specific formats, such as the Ravnica and the Alara block, they are the first thing you look at when opening your Sealed cardpool. They determine as much as the spells themselves which color you should go into. In most formats, when it comes to fixers, it’s the Green cards you’ll have to check. With at least two Rampant Growth type spells, you can consider playing a third color.

In Zendikar Sealed

A pair of Harrows will push you to go for more than two colors. Otherwise, you will need several dual lands, fetch lands, Expedition Maps (a card I find a little slow in general, but which can be pretty useful with duals). In the rare case you have lots of these things, you can go for four or five colors, in which case you will often want an Ally based strategy.

In any other case, just don’t bother and play two colors.

The key is for you to determine where the strong points of you pool are, and up to how many of them you can fit in the 40 cards that will become your deck. The best Sealed decks shouldn’t only be judged by the power of their strongest cards, but also by how many of those strong points they manage to gather.


And finally, now that you have chosen the cards for the deck, here are a few spots of advice on how to build your manabase.

When playing a two color deck:

– If you don’t want to miss a land drop in the first 4 turns, play 18 lands.
– If you don’t want to miss a land drop in the first 3 turns, play 17 lands.
– If you can play for a while with only two or three lands, play 16.

Then in order to decide if you should play more lands of Color A or Color B, here are the few things you’ll have to look at:

– The number of cards in each color.
– The number of early drops in each color.
– The number of cheap drops with double-color mana symbol (who cares that Baneslayer Angel is WW, as with 5 lands in a two color deck you should have two Plains out of five lands anyway).
– The cards that require a maximum number of lands in one of the colors (Mind Sludge, Howl of the Night Pack, any Shade)

You can go up to 10/7 with the same number of cards in each color, but you shouldn’t go any further, and unless you have several cards in the latter category, a 9/8 split is recommended.

When playing three or more colors:

Unless you have many fixers, play 18 lands. No matter how small your curve is. If you don’t have your three different lands, your deck will be much less efficient.

You usually need at least 7 lands from a main color, and 8 if possible. Therefore, a three-color base should be:

7-7-4: When splashing three or four cards.
8-7-3: When splashing two or three cards.
8-8-2 (or 9-7-2): When splashing one or two cards.

The number of cards you play depends on how much mana you need from your other two colors in order to cast your spells. If you’re RGw and have two Nissa’s Chosen for instance, you will want 8 Forest no matter what. If you don’t have any early drops requiring several examples of the same mana to be cast, and/or if your curve is not very low anyway, you can afford to play 7-7-4 with three splash cards, or 8-7-3 with two.

That’s it for today! Next week I’ll analyze my Sealed deck from Grand Prix: Minneapolis based on this article. I’ll try and post my cardpool in the forums this weekend so you can consider how you would have built it. Next Friday, you can compare you build with the decisions I make.

I hope this will help you in your upcoming PTQs, and I’ll see you in San Diego!

Have a great week!


PS: By the way, as I was rereading this article, I noticed that I managed it talk about Horsemanship in an article supposed to help people for their upcoming PTQs!

PPS: On the subject of that ability, how is it that Tarpan can’t block creatures with Horsemanship? It doesn’t feel right.