Solving the Sealed Deck Debate with Science

Wednesday, December 8th – GCB’s hosting a Sealed Deck tournament with the infamous Finkel draft crew – for science! He’ll give four groups the same five Sealed pools and see how each team builds them. Build them yourself and vote in the poll!

I played my first Sealed Deck tournament sometime in the mid 1990’s. After opening our Revised Edition Starter decks and two booster packs, we were given twenty minutes to “trade” with other players before building — an interesting experiment which, of course, never made it into the DCI-sanctioned version of Sealed play. Since then, Magic has changed a lot, but Sealed Deck has not. Neither have the complaints about Sealed Deck as a tournament-worthy format.

Personally, I find Sealed Deck to be a fun and extremely skill-testing format. I’m not sure how much I agree with the usual complaints, but I know that I almost always wish I had done something different with my Sealed pool after getting to know it and having a few other eyes on it. I often wonder how many people are able to find their Sealed pool’s “ideal” configuration during their first thirty minutes during deck construction. I also wonder how much consensus there really is in Sealed-deck building. Just because everyone has a criticism for every Sealed deck build they look at doesn’t necessarily mean that they would’ve done better if they started with the same pool. Hindsight is always 20/20, and the critic is necessarily working from a greater pool of information: they’ve seen the way the deck’s actual owner already configured the deck: a huge amount of information.

Scars of Mirrodin, to me, feels like one of the more challenging Sealed formats in a while. With all the artifacts, it’s not as easy as “pick your best colors”—you can play four colors with ease because you rarely need enough colored mana for it to matter, or you can focus in and build with just one or two. This is a great time to look deeper into the Sealed format.

So, let’s look specifically at some of the usual complaints about Sealed Deck:

1. Some Sealed decks are so bad they are essentially worthless.

2. Some Sealed decks are so good they are almost unbeatable.

3. Some decks are easy to build, while others are extremely difficult.

4. Sealed Deck tournaments are very bomb-dependent. (“Whoever draws their bombs most wins.”)

One of the fascinating things about these complaints is that they generate meta-complaints (and meta-boasts).

– The “I’m too good for Sealed-Deck players” boast: “My deck is terrible, but I crushed him anyway.”

– The “I got a lucky deck but unlucky draws” complaint (often involves strange card valuations): “I can’t believe I lost with this deck, I had five Acidic Slimes!”

The first Sealed Deck PTQ I ever Top 8ed, I opened a pool which was, as far as I could tell, a completely bananas B/u deck in Odyssey/Torment. I lost round 2 to a guy who went Wild Mongrel, Call of the Herd, Call of the Herd, removal, removal, removal. Suddenly, my deck didn’t look so good.

However, I won out, having to play my last round because long-time PT journeyman Mike Thompson was undefeated and didn’t want me in the Top 8. I beat him, but he got revenge in the semis and took home the invite. He told me before the Top 8 that after opening and looking at his Sealed deck, he immediately tried to think of an excuse to tell the judges that would allow him to drop without playing any rounds and get his money back. He said it was an abysmal pool… and then he buckled down, built the best deck he could, and started the PTQ 6-0, locking up Top 8 going into the final Swiss round.

I decided that day that I needed to change my attitude towards Sealed decks. Magic players are prone to excuse-making anyway, and the Sealed format feeds that vulnerability.

I’ve devised an experimental tournament which I hope will illuminate a number of questions:

1. How distinct is the power level of a Sealed deck?

2. How obvious is a good Sealed deck vs. a bad Sealed deck?

3. How obvious is the “correct” build of a Sealed deck, if such a thing exists?

4. Can a good player win despite their Sealed deck, or is the deck too important?

5. Most importantly: what’s the relationship between the cards you open and your chances for success?

Now, I have set up and constructed this tournament specifically to try to answer these questions, but I’m also hoping to set up a framework for further research. I think this format is going to be a lot of fun, and I think there are a lot of things that can be done with it: think about revising the system and running one yourself in this or future formats!

So, here’s the plan:

I have recruited twenty Magic players: all have had at least moderate PTQ-level success, and some regularly receive votes for the Hall of Fame. They were recruited from the infamous Jonny-draft mailing list: the same group of enthusiastic gamers that started the Vintage Rotisserie craze. These twenty players have been put into four “pods” or “groups” a la World Cup soccer, each group having five players in it. The groups are:

Red Pod:

Matt “F-ran Dynamo” Ferrando
Tony “Shark” Tsai
Christopher Manning
Paul Jordan
Marshall Louis Reeves

Green Pod:

Jon Becker
Tim McKenna
Chris “Meddling Mage” Pikula
Brook North
Tom Martell

Blue Pod:

Hashim Bello
Luis Neiman
Dan O’Mahoney Schwartz
Jake Van Lunen
Eric Tam

Black Pod:

Jamie Parke
Eric Smith
Gaudenis Vidiguris
Adam Rubens
Mark Schmit

Like World Cup, everyone will play one match against each other member of their group, then the top 2 finishers in each group will proceed to a seeded Top-8 playoff.

Sounds a little awkward, but otherwise not too strange? Well, here’s the trick: I’m opening exactly five Sealed decks and randomly assigning them to each player with no duplicate decks within groups. “Group play” will consist of the exact same five card pools regardless of group, with different pilots and different builds.

Deck construction will take place in privacy and within a time limit. Due to scheduling and location concerns, two of the pods (red and green) will be played out on Magic Online. The other two are going to be played out in person, with entire pods in attendance: the plan is to podcast or even video capture some of the action.

But here’s the fun part: first, you all get to see the decks and guess which ones will be the most successful. Vote in the poll, and leave your thoughts on how you’d build each deck in the comments.

Deck 1: Lean on your uncommons

Deck 2: You’re all under Arrest

Deck 3: Who needs mana Myr?

Deck 4: Constructible rares for your sideboard

Deck 5: How lucky!

Download the MTGO files for these Sealed pools!

Deck 1

Deck 2

Deck 3

Deck 4

Deck 5

After we’ve played out the tournaments, we’ll look at the results: how similarly did people choose to build? Which decks performed better than expected? Which performed worse? Were there any unexpected or unpopular builds that turned out better than expected?

Just how easy is it to look at a Sealed deck and determine how successful it will be? How easy is it to find that optimal build? If your deck looks bad, is there hope?

Head to the forums with your speculations, and watch this space for the results

Deck 1: Who needs Mana Myr? (Baseline: 16)

The two Arc Trails, two Turn to Slags, and a Shatter make red a pretty obvious base color, but I’m open to discussion on that assumption. Do we just go for the obvious white support with the Sunblast Angel? If so, is this the easiest of the five builds?

Deck 2: You’re all under Arrest (Baseline: 11)

White seems obvious, but what else? It gives you about sixteen obvious cards; we can fill up with mediocre artifacts. Note the lack of artifact removal: green for Sylvok Replica? Red for Embersmith? Or blue for the Grand Architect? Black for Grasp of Darkness and a poison sub-theme?

Deck 3: An infectious idea (Baseline: 11?)

Perhaps the toughest build of the bunch. Can infect be good with no black removal and no Untamed Mights? There are four poisonous two-drops, including two Stingers. Is Green, with its removal, an auto-include? G/W perhaps? Or is this deck too weak that way, and we should instead gamble on infect?

Deck 4: Constructible rares for your sideboard (Baseline: 4)

Do you play your bombs or your removal? Is there a way to utilize all those Molder Beasts, or the Tempered Steel?

Deck 5: How lucky! (Baseline: 21)

Do you register quickly and show off to your friends, or are there some tough choices here? With such a high-octane deck, do you try to minimize disastrous draws with an extra land? After the first 21 “obvious” cards, what do you fill in with and why? Just how many mana Myr is too many? What kind of record will this deck finish with?