Removed From Game – Shards Sealed

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Wednesday, October 8th – With a Pro Tour Qualifier season underway, and following a year off from authentic high-level Sealed play, getting your build right is crucial if you want to reach the Top 8. Drawing on his experiences of watching and playing at Pre-Release and Release events, Rich brings you some strategy for the Improvers out there…

I’m such a liar. I admit it. Seven days ago I had my plan in place for this week. So confident was I that ‘Using Lorwyn To Read Your Shards Spoiler’ (or some other pithy title) would be my offering that I daringly told you about it at the back end of the last article. One thing I should have learned by now is that whenever I tell you what’s coming the following week, I invariably fail to deliver. Next week, my naked romp with Kylie. But this week, a couple of Sealed Decks for you to ponder ahead of the PTQ season that’s about to get under way. Actually, I do have a plan for next week which dovetails nicely with this article (and the Spoiler thingy will be along in a bit… Patience.), but I’m not going to tell you about it, since I’d actually quite like it to appear seven days from now. So for now it’s thinking caps on, as I bring you my Pre-Release chunk of goodness. In case you’re new to this, please bear in mind that the pool has the added juice of a third booster to go with the tournament pack, thus creating both far more problems and far more potential solutions than your PTQ 3+2 will provide.


The only card in White that was outright hideous was the Marble Chalice. Depending on my build, Metallurgeon would find a home, ditto the Sighted-Caste Sorcerer and the Gustrider Exuberant. Dispeller’s Capsule would certainly make the deck, even though the possibility existed for it to be dead, while Resounding Silence, the two Oblivion Rings and the nice 2/3 flying Sanctum Gargoyle were the main excitements. What threw me off here were the 3 Excommunicate. If the card is good, then I’m into the realm of White being a possible major color for my deck. If it’s bad, I’m possibly down to only 4 cards I actually want, which would be quite splashable. In the end, I wasn’t convinced that I was going to be able to build a tempo-ish deck, and wasn’t sure that, unlike Eventide for example, there would be numerous Enchantments around that wanted nullifying by bouncing the creature.


I was pretty unexcited by the Blue. Resounding Wave is yet another bounce spell. Esper Battlemage really depends on me playing Black to make it good, and a card like Steelclad Serpent is only a fat wall potentially. That left just Kathari Screecher and Cloudheath Drake as attractive flyers, plus always-handy tapper Fatestitcher. The rest, yuk.


Again, not a ton to write home about. Shadowfeed and Cunning Lethemancer are likely to fit in Constructed, if anywhere. I felt the Blister Beetles didn’t justify a slot in a field packed with enormous monsters, whereas against a bunch of Eventide men they’d be good times. Corpse Connoisseur needs work to make it work. Undead Leotau seemed playable, but only ideally if I was also in Red, and Onyx Goblet fell to the same charge as the Blister Beetles, that it wouldn’t do much facing down enormous men. Viscera Dragger and Tar Fiend were therefore my only two outright cards I wanted to play with.


Of the ten red cards, at least 8 were playable. Magma Spray, Soul’s Fire and Bloodpyre Elemental are all removal, although a five mana sorcery in Red that doesn’t kill a fat monster feels less than optimal. Still, I can hardly not play it if I’m in Red. The Exuberant Firestoker is mana acceleration into fatness if we have any, plus shortens games rapidly once that occurs. With only 1 toughness, the Hissing Iguanar seems to me to fit only depending on curve and whether a 3 drop is needed to stem the bleeding or force home the early advantage backed by tempo/removal. Ideally I won’t play him. The Thorn-Thrash Viashino is likely to be anywhere from okay to awesome, while Ridge Rannet is a straight cycler that just might be an Axegrinder Giant one day. Jund Battlemage is as good as the colors I end up in, with the Green likely to be more useful than the Black, since I expect the Green to be ‘gain 5 life’ i.e. block a fatty, rather than the Black ‘you take 1.’ Goblin Mountaineer and Vicious Shadows won’t make the starting lineup. Still, this is the first color that looks outright exciting, although I’m concerned that I may have missed out with those Excommunicates.


Another nice selection. Topan Ascetic can get large. The Cavern Thoctars already are large, and can get larger still. Godtoucher seems expensive to me, but if I have a stack of 5 power guys and end up playing the White, he can be really irritating to play against, i.e. he draws a removal spell. Resounding Roar is a fine trick, Rhox Charger a really nice card at the cost, Druid Of The Anima accelerates and fixes simultaneously and Jungle Weaver smoothes draws and could wind up as a serious roadblock with that 6 toughness. Drumhunter to me looks just amazing. Acceleration, and a must-kill card, unless your opponent has never heard of card advantage. And Naturalize, another that I have to start, but could find dead in my hand. Should be plenty to aim at though. Very happy with this.

2-Color Gold

Hindering Light might make it if I play blue and white, but that seems unlikely. Tidehollow Strix is outright good, but again the combination isn’t that likely so far. Agony Warp is good too, but again I’m currently thinking around red/green. Not sure what to make of Blightning. Mind Rot is just rubbish. Three random damage to the dome is frequently rubbish. Has the bargain basement two-for-one made it good? My initial guess is no.

3-Color Gold

Now in theory this is where things get splashy and exciting, and indeed that’s what happens. The two Rhox War Monks are clearly awesome, but I’m not heading in their direction. However, Carrion Thrash, double Sprouting Thrinax, and Hellkite Overlord all fit the Red/Green direction perfectly, and chances are I can find the Black without too much difficulty. In truth, my thinking here was colored by the fact that you’re not going to open a mythic rare that utterly owns Limited games all that often, so to not play with it at a Pre-Release seems kind of churlish. So, wanting to play the Hellkite Overlord, the other three were a given. So the next trick was to see what mana fixing was around.

Artifacts and Lands

Obelisk Of Naya gave me Red and Green, while three Obelisk Of Grixis would give me ‘bonus’ black along with my main red. In the lands, Crumbling Necropolis also helped for Black, while two Jund Panorama got me anything that was missing.

In the end, I majored in Red and Green, with Black as my notional splash, although I had six cards that needed Black mana to function. Here’s my list:

I went 2-1 with the deck, which was fine, but more importantly I learned a bunch of stuff along the way. In the match I lost, from a position of apparent impregnability where my opponent very nearly died, since I ripped Hellkite Overlord with him on 20, and could have hit for 8, then 12 the following turn. What saved him was putting my Rip-Clan Crasher back on top of my library with, you guessed it, Excommunicate, buying him the crucial extra turn to ice the game. Mana was totally fine throughout in terms of being able to cast things, but if you’re new to the delights of multi-color fixing and acceleration, it’s worth sounding a word of caution. Mana acceleration does nothing by itself. It wins no games, or prizes, nor does it prevent your opponent from smashing you repeatedly about the head. You can argue that with 17 land, 3 Obelisk, 3 cyclers (Viscera Dragger, Ridge Rannet and Jungle Weaver), Naturalize, Drumhunter, and Exuberant Firestoker (both of which accelerate but require 5 power around to be anything otherwise) and Druid Of The Anima, this deck has up to 27 ‘non-cards,’ and you can see a ton of them in a single game, leaving you with all the mana in the world, and a 1/1 facing down torrents of fat.

I suspect the Rip-Clan Crasher isn’t up to much, since your turn 2 on the draw of this 2/2 can be really quickly outclassed, and this doesn’t feel like a tempo format in Sealed, at least after just one go at it. Finding monsters to Devour for the Tar Fiend and Thorn-Thrash Viashino was tricky, since by the time I got there, I kind of wanted my little monsters like Exuberant Firestoker and Drumhunter for their key abilities. I never managed to get Sprouting Thrinax killed prior to dropping a Devour guy, and I suspect the Thrinax also isn’t as good as it looks. A Trained Armodon with backup sounds great. Is it? The Jund Batlemage did indeed make a lot more 1/1s than cause life loss, and the removal was about as useful as you’d expect, with Bloodpyre Elemental never in play long enough to pass priority. Undoubted star of the deck was Drumhunter, since two of my three opponents couldn’t find a way to kill it (although I did protect it with Resounding Roar once or twice) and I pretty much drew my entire library. Apparently, this wins games.

I said earlier that I felt almost morally obliged to play the Hellkite Overlord, and although I’m glad I did for the fun of it, this clearly wasn’t the best build in hindsight. Although adding Blue to a base of Green-White would give me access to a couple of nice flyers and a pair of very nice Rhox War Monks, I really don’t want to give up the Red, so Naya rather than Jund is I think what I should have built, and what would have taken me deeper into an extensive tournament like a Pro Tour Qualifier, rather than this end-of-the-day bit of fun. Here’s a Naya version of the deck:

Entire articles can and probably will be devoted to manabase, but briefly: 5 Mountains plus 2 Jund Panorama plus the Crumbling Necropolis gives me 8 sources. Both Panoramas fetch me a Forest, although ideally I’d like my first Jund Panorama to fetch my one Swamp. 3 Plains is ample for a 4 card splash, again with the Bant Panoramas fetching one, making 5 sources, plus Druid Of The Anima (although as a puny 1/1 I like not to rely on her being around). With 18 land, popping in a lone Swamp to go with 2 Jund Panorama and Crumbling Necropolis felt like a justification to play the Hellkite Overlord, and with the addition of a quality flyer and 3 top-notch removal spells with a four card White splash, this feels like a decent deck.

So now we fast-forward a week, and a small Release event. Here’s my pool:


I seriously contemplated ripping up Angel’s Herald, just in case the brains dribbled out of my ears and I accidentally played with it, since I have the Empyrial Archangel in the pool. Resounding Silence was the standout, and then it’s an Exalted theme, something I didn’t try out at the Pre-Release. The Sigiled Paladin is pretty awesome early, but requires double White. Thankfully he’s not disastrous mid-game either, as long as I’m still being aggressive, and with little 1/1s giving Exalted, aggressive is what you need to be if I’m going to play the white. Angelsong is an interesting card, since it will win you races, which seems to happen a fair bit. That said, you’d almost never hold on to it if you drew it early, with the Cycling a far more promising proposition, so this probably doesn’t make the cut if I go White. Knight Of The Skyward Eye is clearly great, if there’s the Green to activate it.


If there’s a less exciting collection of Blue spells at the Pro Tour Qualifier next week I shall be amazed. The best spell is quite possibly a vanilla 2/1 for two mana (Jhessian Lookout) with a close runner-up for the doesn’t-kill-a-5/5 Steelclad Serpent. On the plus side, oh wait, there isn’t a plus side. With a trading hat on, I’ve got a Tezzeret The Seeker to get rid of. Wish I could do the same with all the rest of this hideousness.


One standout card here, and I’m not giving prizes if you correctly identified it as Executioner’s Capsule. The flying Skeletal Kathari will probably make the deck if I go Black, and if I’m really pushing the aggro plan then Dregscape Zombie might add to my two-drops. Viscera Dragger isn’t a reason to play Black, but will certainly make it in if I do. Still not convinced by the Undead Leotau, Onyx Goblet or Blister Beetle. The Beetle I can see sideboarding in against a bunch of 1/1s, like I might be playing with…


My first port of call with the Red is to see what removal there is. Creatures are secondary at this stage. Indeed, I’m auto-disposed towards using Red removal as a splash, since historically Red doesn’t have great depth of creatures for Sealed play. That means I’m very pleased to see Magma Spray and Soul’s Fire, and more than neutral toward Vithian Stinger. I know there’s an argument against the Soul’s Fire, but if you haven’t got monsters around to deal with what you’re trying to kill, why are you trying to kill it? Because you’re losing, that’s why, and my early impression of the format is that anyone can expect to have high-power men available. Exuberant Firestoker will only make it if I have a bunch of big guys, since if I play the White (and that’s looking increasingly likely) the mana acceleration turn 3 may not be that big a deal. Thunder-Thrash Elder could provide a useful ‘life after death’ for small White men and provide some very serious fat.


Once again the Green is pretty deep. There are at least eight cards that fit right into most decks. On the creature side we have a big fat Cavern Thoctar, a nicely costed Topan Ascetic, all kinds of options with Naya Battlemage, colors depending of course, and a filler vanilla 2/2 for 1G in Cylian Elf. Plus, Elvish Visionary is a big upgrade on a simple paying 2 mana for cycling a card, which people seem to think is a good deal these days. Gift Of The Gargantuan seems fine, Lush Growth is a nice fixer, though unfortunately not an accelerant, and the two Resounding Roars are plenty acceptable on their own even without allowing for potential foolishness late game. Soul’s Might probably doesn’t make the cut, and I suspect the same will be true of Savage Hunger, even with cycling making it slightly more attractive. Of twelve cards then, only Behemoth’s Herald comes across as unplayable. With the Naya Battlemage playing nice with Red and White, the Knight Of The Skyward Eye wanting Green mana, Lush Growth sending me in that direction, I’m hoping for some support for Naya from the gold cards and the fixing.

2-color Gold

None of these point towards a color combination and scream for inclusion. I like the Tidehollow Strix, especially as it can block and kill a silly-size flyer late game thanks to Deathtouch. Tidehollow Sculler is a nice early drop, but no more than that. Can’t see Goblin Deathraiders unless I’m heavily BR, although it does trade with a 5/3. The most interesting card here is Necrogenesis. It can do nothing, and even when it can be painfully slow. However, with all these enormous bodies running around, the ability to chump block at the cost of less than a whole card becomes interesting, a fact I saw compounded later on Release day. Still, not a reason to chase after Green/Black.

3-color Gold

Rakclaw Gargantuan and Woolly Thoctar fit straight into the GRW deck that’s taking shape. At the Pre-Release I found the Carrion Thrash to not be that great, in part because it lacks the crucial five power, and partly because I never seemed to have the two mana spare, or a decent target. The question mark is whether I can squeeze Empyrial Archangel into the deck. I only need one Blue mana to cast her, so surely there should be fixing enough to make her splash viable.

Artifacts and Lands

Whereas I’m not keen on Soul’s Might, since it takes a turn and then potentially does nothing, and certainly ends its usefulness when the monster you’ve ‘equipped’ dies, the artifact Sigil Of Distinction seems a much better deal. Taking one off for each use is a neat little mechanic, both in gameplay and flavor terms, where the idea of an artifact ‘degrading’ over time is really cute. In a set that seems to be determined or at least defined by big men, allowing each new weenie to get a whopping boost in the 3-5 power range seems well worth it, and the equip cost means you can tap out to cast it, and then knock off the first counter, effectively giving your souped-up monster ‘haste.’ With double Bant Panorama and Obelisk Of Grixis, a single Island is more than sufficient for the Empyrial Archangel splash.

That left me with a deck looking like this:

All in all, I expected to have relatively few mana problems, and that held true. As we’ll see however, things didn’t go too well in the matches.

Round 1 — Won 2-1

Game 1 started the day very nicely, with an Elvish Visionary being added to with the Exalted Sighted-Caste Sorcerer. Knight Of The Skyward Eye kept up the pressure, and then a pair of Thoctars, Woolly and Cavern, took it home, with my life total still at 20. Game 2 taught some useful lessons. This time I didn’t touch my opponent, who began with a 1/1 — 2/2 — 3/3 Wild Nacatl, added to with a Goblin Mountaineer. Is this guy any good? My feeling is no, but to date I’ve played against very little evasion, and with people playing every color under the sun, I guess he might sneak by more often than not. Still, I felt I’d stabilized once I reached eight mana and pulled off the delightful Resounding Silence cycling deal. Bargain. A second Goblin Mountaineer resumed the clock, but it was an 11 turn clock, which seemed fine. Then I went from 8 life to dead, as it turns out that giving your 1/1 evasion man +3+3 and Double Strike will shorten the game quite markedly. Sangrite Surge certainly costs enough at 6 mana and at Sorcery speed, but it still won him the game. In the decider, off a mulligan to six that involved no action whatever in my opening grip, normal service was resumed. He found both his Goblin Mountaineers early, but they were quickly outclassed by Woolly Thoctar and Rakclaw Gargantuan, which despite having only three toughness makes a real nuisance of himself if you have any mana open.

Round 2 — Lost 2-0

Having beaten his Dad, Konstantinos, I now faced son Nick. After a decent start Game 1, everything changed with the arrival of Battlegrace Angel. To begin with it looked as if I might actually win the race, but first Resounding Silence and then Oblivion Ring for my Naya Battlemage ensured that the Angel took care of business. Although perhaps not as flashy as some of her super-powered cohorts costing 6/7/8 mana, as a virtual 5/5 flying lifelink for 5 mana she’s just outstanding, and is absolutely a legitimate mid, rather than late game card. Game 2 again started out brightly, but as things settled mid-game it was his Mosstodon and Rhox Charger up against Cavern Thoctar and an in-hand Resounding Silence. Unfortunately, despite having the appropriate eight mana open for the whole cycling routine, he had Sighted-Caste Sorcerer, which could Shroud itself, and an Algae Gharial, which quickly got large and had Shroud built in. When I did reluctantly use the Silence to kill his Rhox Charger, he responded with Soul’s Fire, and that was pretty much that. Both games felt unsatisfactory, since there weren’t many places I could point to and think I’d made a bad or inefficient play, nor that my opponent had done something really neat. He’d just played with good cards and won.

Round 3 — Lost 2-0

Sooooo tedious. Against local player Steve, I had two excellent games, and on another day this would have been a 2-0 victory. Playing UBW, his Turn 3 Esper Battlemage was tremendous Game 1, since it thoroughly mocked my little 1/1s, as well as discounting two per turn off the damage race later in the game. He had the most synergy of the decks I’d played to that point, in that he opened with Executioner’s Capsule, killed a guy, and then played Sharuum The Hegemon to bring the Capsule back, before proceeding to smash for five a turn until I was dead. He also had Filigree Sages, which is what enabled him to race in combination with that two points from the Battlemage each turn. All in all, he needed pretty much exactly what he had to win the race, but since a lot of players fold and make mistakes when they’re under pressure, he did well to keep cool and see the way to win. Game 2 was the most interesting I’ve played in the format thus far, since I got the perfect Aggro start with Woolly Thoctar joining Sighted-Caste Sorcerer on Turn 3 and proceeding to batter repeatedly. Add in Knight Of The Skyward Eye, and it was hard to see how he could come back into it, despite an early Executioner’s Capsule once more. Sigh. Turn 6, out came Sharuum The Hegemon once more, and this time he didn’t fetch the Capsule, but a previously chump-blocking Filigree Sages. Now the Hegemon effectively had Vigilance. What really swung it for him was the arrival of Puppet Conjurer, a token generator that increased my belief that cards like Necrogenesis might be better than they look. The Conjurer certainly locked down my fatties quite effectively, and when my Naya Battlemage came online, he had the Filigree Sages to untap his Hegemon, sealing the win.

Hmm. Not so much fun. I enjoyed playing against all three of my opponents, but of the seven duels I played, three seemed to be decided by splashy rares. It definitely feels like this is a mid-range Sealed format. Dedicated Aggro decks made up of two and three drops seem to be quickly outclassed by fatties, while getting to eight mana with room to breathe and ride uber-cards to victory seems problematic too. I suspect the most common route to victory will be based around large monsters a ‘turn early’ with mana acceleration on Turn 4, backed up by another fattie Turn 5 and a bomb Turn 6. As a footnote, I was sufficiently concerned at my inability to play anything other than Naya that I cracked five boosters at home to see if I could justify Black or Blue as a main color this time around. Nope, a ton of Green once again, and no reason not to use Red and White as the support. I’m starting to wonder whether this set resembles Ravnica for sealed play, where at the British Grand Prix that Fall, a whopping 87% of Sealed decks used Green.


At the Pre-Release I heard a ton of people say things like ‘I know I’m strong late game.’ I’m pretty confident that this is a lie of the worst kind, one that instinctively feels like the truth and leads to utter bewilderment at subsequent losses. To me, everyone is strong late game, late game beginning round about Turn 5, and if you’re building your Sealed pool around a couple of highly-costed blowouts, I recommend extreme caution. The volume of heavy-hitters in this set is enormous (no pun intended) and the idea that your giant monster is going to go the distance without being challenged by their giant monster is unlikely to work out for you often enough to make the Top 8 of a PTQ over seven rounds. All things being equal, I’d like not to be sitting around with 11 mana in play on Turn 8, waiting for my gamebreakers to show up, knowing that there are Ultimatums floating around, and plenty of them too, before we even get to gigantic flyers and Mythic Rare foolishness. In short, race to the fatness, and attack attack attack. Wherever you’re playing in your PTQ quest for a trip to Japan, the very best of luck. Next week, I’ll…

As ever, thanks for reading.