Sealed Deck With Guildpact: Tricks of the Trade

With the Ravnica/Guildpact Sealed Deck Pro Tour Qualifier Season in full swing, we are finally beginning to iron out the difficulties inherent in the format. Today, Chad throws his hat into the ring, dispensing wisdom regarding mana base math; tempo and card advantage; and Limited bombs. Excellent advice for those yet to qualify for Pro Tour Prague.

When a new format comes out, the wrong advice I hear most often from Pros is to concentrate on Draft practice rather than on Sealed Deck. There are some advantages to this – Drafts are generally easier to get, especially online, and drafting typically exposes you to more cards so you can build up a sense of valuations more quickly. That said, Draft has some severe weaknesses as a form of preparation for Sealed Deck. Card valuations are often different in Draft, both because you can build your deck around early picks and especially because Sealed formats tend to be slower. A Sealed bomb may be a Draft unplayable (or barely playable), simply because in Draft you can’t count on playing it.

Sealed Deck also presents different challenges in deck construction than Draft, especially when it comes to colors. If you go four or five colors in Draft, it’s usually either because you drafted Civic Wayfinders or Compulsive Research, or bombs in many colors early. In the first case, your mana is already good – in the second, you have time to Draft them. In Sealed you may get a pool where the card strength pulls you to multiple colors but your fixers make that hard. If you don’t practice Sealed Deck you’re likely to be faced with deck-construction challenges that you haven’t dealt with before.

Ravnica Sealed Deck was reasonably cool and fairly straightforward. The power of guilds meant that a typical card pool would have a dominant color-pair. at which point you might be done or you might dip into a third color (and/or second Guild). With Guildpact now representing a big chunk of your spells, it’s almost certain that you won’t find all – or most of – a deck within a single guild. Three-color decks are almost mandatory, and four- and five-color decks are quite common. The format is slower and the builds are often much harder. I’ve done something north of twenty Ravnica-Guildpact-Guildpact Sealed Deck matches online, and two PTQs so far. I finally think I’m starting to get a handle on the format. Time to share my evolving rules:

Choose to Draw

Drawing is preferable in Sealed formats, where mana is tough and games are rarely decided with a quick rush. The only thing that makes this even a question in Ravnica block is the presence of the Karoo lands. It’s not uncommon to do nothing on turn 1 and then want to play a Karoo land on turn 2 – and if you do this on the draw, you have to discard a card. Too bad. You’re sometimes better off going second even if you lose the extra card from drawing, and the odds are good that you’ll play something before you need to run a Karoo land.

Tempo vs. Card Advantage: 60% card advantage

Sealed Deck matches very rarely end with a blowout – unless one deck fails to show up – and often end with a topdeck competition or some sort of card advantage engine. Perhaps the most disgusting example of the latter happened to me online when my opponent killed one of my creatures with Ribbons of Night and then played Izzet Chronarch…and Ribbons wasn’t his best target. Such engines are not that uncommon, and are one of the main things the Izzet guild has going for it. I’ve won multiple games with Chronarch (followed by either Repeal or Peel from Reality on Chronarch), especially when the spell being retrieved generates card advantage itself.

Tempo remains an important factor to consider. There are so many good tricks and instant-speed removal that the difference between an awful attack and a fantastic one can be as simple as whether your opponent is tapped out or not. Wildsize, and especially Orzhov Euthanist, become insane when your opponent is forced to block. Tempo can also turn into card advantage because the pressure you apply can force your opponent either to tap out or to use up removal spells, leaving him unable to disrupt your engine.

Big Green Monsters are surprisingly good

How often has Green simply been outclassed by other colors? Remember the days when a decent U/W deck had a big matchup advantage over R/G? Ground creatures would be stalled by efficient walls, and pump would get trumped by bounce (or just ignored, with one wall replacing another)… while evasion creatures took the day. Green was good in Invasion block because it fixed mana, and because it combined a ton of bears with good pump (and that strategy died off in Apocalypse), but the idea of taking the day with large Green men? That’s for beginners, surely.

Things have changed. Evasion creatures are less plentiful and, more importantly, slower. Good ground blockers are less common – particularly ones that can kill oncoming attackers. Meanwhile, Green creatures aren’t strictly bigger but they are cheaper – in some cases much cheaper. The Bloodthirst mechanic gives you a 3/3 trampler for two mana; a Hill Giant with a mix of lure and evasion; and the almost-invincible Ghor-Clan Savage. Adding roughly one mana to the typical evasion flyer while subtracting one from the typical “dumb Green fatty” makes a big difference in how that matchup plays out.

Despite having no feet, this Wurm kicks ass

The design of Black in Ravnica block also gives a boost to Green. Craw Wurm for five mana is good in almost any Limited format, but he’s even better in Ravnica block because so much of the removal is toughness-based. When the signature common removal spells in Black are Last Gasp and Douse in Gloom rather than Terror or Dark Banishing, and when the sexy 187 uncommon gives -2/-2 rather than “kill your fatty,” it rapidly becomes clear that Black has a harder-than-normal time with Green as well.

This, in turn, means that spells that can remove big monsters are at a premium. As hard as it may be to believe, I suspect that Disembowel is actually better than Last Gasp in Sealed (although not in Draft). Naturally, you don’t choose between them in Sealed Deck, but when you’re making a list of spells that are so good you almost have to splash them, Disembowel should be on that list.

Golgari is everywhere…at least at the top tables

Black may have some trouble with fatties but it’s still the best answer, especially when it’s making up half of the Orzhov guild. A stroll by the top tables seems consistently to show that G/B dominates, usually with Faith’s Fetters and Pillory of the Sleepless and/or Gruul guild fatties (and Savage Twister) playing support.

This means a few things. First, you have a metagame to build for and it includes fat, removal, and (in many cases) enchantments. I generally dislike permanents that make other permanents unblockable, but I can see why people are fans of cards like Ivy Dancer and Restless Bones. The Bones, in particular, offer a nice balance of regenerating blocker if you’re on defense or evasion if you’re on offense. Sacrifice outlets go up in value given the likelihood of hostile Auras, and Sundering Vitae becomes playable main deck.

It also means that if you’re undecided between your B/G/W and R/U/x builds, it’s probably best to leave Izzet on the sidelines. Invasion-only Sealed Decks often allowed really tempting Five-Color Green builds that were inferior to R/B/U. If the best decks are consistently in the same two or three colors, it’s a good bet that those colors are just better – even if something else does looks good. Unless your card pool features some rare bombs, or you’ve got some other reason to think that you’re at least a couple of standard deviations from the mean, you should probably go with proven success.

Bombs and Mana

Ultimately, it all (usually) comes down to bombs and mana. Most average creatures are filler, and while it’s great to have good filler rather than passable filler, that usually won’t be what makes or breaks your deck.

Decisions, decisions...

The challenge becomes a balancing act between the desire to run as many of your powerful cards and your ability to cast them. My first step is often to see how many “pure” mana fixers I have – cards like Spectral Searchlight or Civic Wayfinder that can generate any missing color. If I have four or five of them I simply take the best cards in each color and then build my deck around them. For example, looking at Rick Rust’s list from last week, I would have noted the Spectral Searchlight, Civic Wayfinder and double Silhana Starfletcher. My first Draft would have been not three colors, but five:

Golgari Rot Farm
Orzhov Basilica
Spectral Searchlight
Plague Boiler
Elves of Deep Shadow
2 Silhana Starfletcher
Trophy Hunter
Civic Wayfinder
Greater Mossdog
Gruul Nodorog
Siege Wurm
Fists of Ironwood
Scatter the Seeds

Ghost Warden
Orzhov Euthanist
Stinkweed Imp
Douse in Gloom
Steamcore Weird
Flight of Fancy
Blind Hunter
Ghost Council of Orzhova
Pillory of the Sleepless
Izzet Chronarch

Yes, that’s too many cards, and I’m really pushing my luck trying to run a spell that costs BBWW, but this is a highly yummy set of cards. I’d have to lay it all out and look at my mana options more thoroughly before making a final cut, and it’s probable that I’d go down to four colors in so doing – most likely by cutting the White, in which case I would be very happy indeed with my manabase and might not run even a single Signet.

This raises a rather obvious question – should you run land-kill? There are enough common and uncommon land destruction spells that you can sometimes put together a decent set, and just one random hit on a key Karoo land might win the game on the spot. If ever four-mana land destruction should work, surely this is the format? My current view is that it’s still not a good plan. The mana cost is too great, and for every game where you cripple their ability to cast spells there will be two where you spend a card and a turn and do nothing relevant. I’ll occasionally sideboard in land-kill, but I don’t think I’ll ever maindeck it unless my build somehow forces me too.

G or R or W or B or U is much better than GG, RR, WW, BB or UU

In one of Craig’s recent Sealed Revealed articles, there was debate in the forums over whether to run Golgari Brownscale. A 2/3 for three mana is a decent card, capable of holding off multiple bears or trading with many four-drops. The dredge ability is solid, giving you a potential source of life or guaranteeing you a decent body when that’s all you need. If he cost 2G, I would run him quite often…but he doesn’t. 1GG is much harder to cast, especially on turn 3, and as a result I almost never run him.

Some cards are so powerful you suck it up and run them anyway, and fatties in your base color can be easy enough to cast, but in general you should be wary of cards with the same double-mana requirement.

Mana requirements in two colors, by contrast, are rarely a significant problem unless both colors are a splash. This works out for two reasons – “heads & tails math” and the nature of mana fixing.

The basic idea of “heads & tails math” is that if you flip a coin multiple times, you’re more likely to get a mix of heads and tails than you are all heads or all tails. Let’s say you flip it four times. There’s a 25% chance of all heads and a 25% chance of all tails but a 50% chance of getting one of each. In mana terms, this means you’re more likely to draw one Forest and one Island than two Forests or than two Islands, so a spell that costs UG will be easier to cast than one that costs UU or GG. This is true even if one color is base and the other is secondary: if you have 9 Forests and only 5 Islands, you’re still more likely to draw one Forest and one Island before you draw two Forests.

The nature of mana-fixing is fairly straightforward – when you have a choice, you get what you don’t have. You may only have two Swamps, two Islands and one Plains in your deck but there’s a good chance you’ll have drawn one of your splash lands when it’s time to cast Civic Wayfinder.

Practice, practice, practice

Some people say they don’t get much benefit from practicing a format. A smaller number may actually believe it. They’re all wrong…almost certainly wrong for themselves, and definitely wrong for the rest of us. I have one Pro Tour Top 8 to my name, and it’s the one where I was in love with the format and practiced it constantly. At Pro Tour New Orleans I was one of only two people who failed to make Day 2 with Benzo, while two other YMGers made Top 8. Rob and the Hump have more skill than I do, but I can say with confidence that I missed Day 2 because I didn’t practice the deck enough.

Buy some starters and boosters. Instead of drafting for the cards, play for the cards. Better still, play and then go over each other’s card pools and figure out what you might have done differently. Try out a few different options and see how they work. Get familiar with mana requirements and what you can and can’t get away with. Learn the format’s tempo. It’s great to open a busted Sealed Deck, but practice is more likely to take you to the Top 8.

Hugs ‘til next time,