Sullivan Library – Understanding Sealed

Read Adrian Sullivan every week... at StarCityGames.com!
Friday, November 13th – The Sealed Deck PTQ season continues apace, both online and off, and Adrian Sullivan has some sage advice for those hunting the Blue Envelope. Today, he shares his experience with the format, and looks over Cedric’s awful PTQ cardpool from last week…

It’s been a rough couple of weeks. I’ve been looking forward to returning to Minneapolis for a big event for quite a long time, and it almost looked like I wasn’t going to be able to make it. A sudden massive abdominal pain looked like it was going to be appendicitis, but ended up being a tear in some abdominal muscles that will likely require surgery. It isn’t dangerous, but it is, at times, incredibly painful. But, being the crazy person that I am, when I found out it wasn’t actively dangerous, I set off the surgery so that I’d be able to make it to the Grand Prix. Priorities! (And, more honestly, delaying surgery was actually more about my class schedule. Priorities… *sigh*.)

I spent several days laid up in bed, and filled with a fairly large amount of boredom. Among the many things that I started doing was playing a lot of MTGO. Most of the time I spent running sealed decks in preparation for Minneapolis and the PTQs. In many ways, I was taking advantage of the Release Events, and started going “infinite,” playing them again and again through the end of Release Events before I realized that the special events had actually ended.

There is a high-value return from this kind of practice, if you can afford to do it. Learning how to build a sealed deck is a very important skill. There was a time at a Grand Prix, years ago, where I remember eating gyros and debating with Zvi Mowshowitz about the relative skill level of hard-core PTQ players versus gravy train PT players, when it came to sealed deck. I believed at the time that the top level PTQ-regulars simply had a lot of extra experience playing in sealed that many PT players simply did not have. A player like Dave Price or Brian Kowal, I argued, was a player that might be far more likely to make their sealed deck correctly because PTQs would have given these players the practice. Price may have been a PT champ, but like Kowal, he was still constantly playing in PTQs because he constantly needed to qualify for the Tour. The PT regular, like Zvi, at the time, often had a lot of practice with draft, and often with the strongest opponents, but rarely, if ever, put together a sealed deck. In retrospect, I might have over-argued my case, but the big difference, now, is that if there ever were an “advantage” for the PTQ player, MTGO has erased much of that difference, at least if someone wants to take advantage of this.

The big problem with preparation on this level is twofold:

A — Playing sealed is twice as expensive as draft
B — Gathering opponents for sealed is difficult because it simply isn’t as fun

If a player buys a box of Zendikar for limited purposes, for example, they can get 12 drafts out of it. Doing a sealed deck instead eats up a huge portion of these resources.

When we look at how sealed decks work, now, without the 75-card tournament pack (“Starter Deck”), we have a far more radically polarized set of quality sealed decks. One of the big reasons for this is the relative heterogeneity of a Starter. There are runs in booster packs, and there are also runs in Starters, but these runs are a little bit different. For a Starter, any duplication of cards in it was typically an anomaly caused by a foil. But there is a further aspect too: the common runs of Starters were constructed to have a good cross-section of creatures, removal, and other “necessities.” Further, these necessities were paired with a certain number of card commonalities: only three rares and nine uncommons.

If we compare this to the four boosters that make up the card equivalent of a sealed deck these days, none of these things are true. If you open four packs, not only do you have the real possibility of a lot of duplication, but you also have more rares and uncommons (four and twelve, respectively), and this is without the possibility of foils making this more complicated. Especially with the introduction of the mythic rare, there is now a real possibility of massive differentiation between card pools.

So, why does sealed deck practice matter here?

Obviously, practice of any kind is important. Practicing draft, for example, is often a process of discovery. Is there a Ruinous Minotaur archetype? Maybe Mono-Black is the deck to draft, but it can’t support even three players who are deciding to play that color. Practicing Constructed will let us know how matchups play out. Practice of any kind is going to strengthen our understanding. What are the lessons you need to see in sealed?

1) How good is a “good” deck?

This is, by far, the most important thing to learn about a sealed format. If you think that your pool is good, and you are wrong, most likely you are going to be setting yourself up for failure.

If we think about the heavy variance that exists in the current sealed formats, we have to realize that, mathematically, that variance will be born out in players’ actual factual decks. If you have a 64-person PTQ, it’s likely that a random distribution of decks will result in even pretty moderately potent decks being “top decks.” Once you get to the 100 mark, or approach 200+, things begin to change. The top decks are going to be made up of decks that are more and more powerful, and, importantly, more powerful relatively speaking than decks from the past would have been.

When you have a sense of a format’s power levels, it lets you make the biggest decision that you’re going to make with your sealed deck: are you going to be building your deck for its “average” draws, or are you going to have to hope to be lucky?

If your card pool is really excellent, then you really shouldn’t be messing around with certain things. Your mana should be as solid as possible, and you should generally make sure that you can cast your spells, because if it really is as powerful as you think it is, you should be able to get there on the strength of your cards, if you’re actually casting them. On the other hand, if your card pool is poor, you’re going to have to reconcile yourself to the fact that you’re not going to make Top 8 if you allow yourself to try to duke it out “fairly.” You’re going to have to get lucky, so you’d best build your deck with that idea in mind: play less land, play land combinations that require things to work out just right. Essentially, you can’t hope to win against the decks you’ll need to beat without things going just right for you, so either put as much of the power into the deck as you can and hope it works out, or put in all of the cheap creatures you have and hope that your deck curves out just right long enough for you to draw in to the Top 8.

2) What conditional cards are good, and when are they good?

There are cards which are just no good. But in the particular card pool you have (or in the particular matchup you’re playing), they can be insane.

For me, a great example of this would be a card like Makindi Shieldmate. As Walls go, the Shieldmate is generally not nearly big enough for its cost for my liking. But if you’re playing a classic Air Force deck (typically Blue/White with a lot of flyers and some defensive spells to help out), a card like Shieldmate can go a fairly long way, if only because it can help hold off a ton of potential attackers, if only just long enough to keep you ahead in a race. More importantly, in a deck with many powerful Allies, just having an extra Ally that is reasonably defensive can help you power up your other Allies. Similarly, Spidersilk Net might be a generally terrible card, but if you’re being eaten alive by flyers, or if you’re in constant creature trades between otherwise similarly powered decks, the Net might put you over the edge.

It’s easy to decide to include Heartstabber Mosquito in your deck with Black. It’s far more difficult to decide that Vampire’s Bite is good for your deck and/or matchup. An understanding of the relative value of Spire Barrage, based on your Mountain count, is an important consideration. Accurate evaluations of cards, both in and out of context, is critical. If you haven’t played enough games, you might make the mistake in believing that, for example, Scythe Tiger, is an incredibly powerful card because you happened to have three of them in your sealed deck that also ran four Grim Discovery, or that Spire Barrage with three Mountains is reasonable, just because it happened to work out “that one time.” Evaluation mistakes like this are easy to make if you haven’t had very much experience with a format.

3) How does this format function?

Sealed and draft are radically different beasts. A winning draft deck tends to be made of some combination of the best cards from the collective cards of 8 people, and thus often have much deeper available cards that could be put into the deck, but less access to really potent cards unless you are being heavily passed to. A winning sealed deck in a larger event is made up of a more diverse card pool, and often not as deep of a concentration of a color. A simple way to see this is too look at the relative rarity of a one-color and three color sealed pool in Zendikar, as compared to a draft decks.

Since the two function differently on a fundamental level, it becomes a mistake to put too much of your emphasis on good draft decks functionality when you’re building your sealed deck. There are clear lessons that we get in a format that might not cross-apply. It’s easy to get card-valuation lessons from draft (“Marauder is good!”) and have it be true in sealed deck, but other things are far, far less true. Take note, for example, of how much more powerful very expensive spells tend to be in most sealed formats (though not all) as compared to draft.

Take the example of White-heavy draft decks as compared to White-heavy sealed decks with Zendikar. In draft, running a White-Black deck can be particularly dangerous, if you want to have access to some of the best cards. Steppe Lynx wants to be cast on turn 1. Vampire Nighthawk, Hideous Laughter, and especially Gatekeeper of Malakir can be at odds with this need. With more tightly honed decks, some of the best Black and White cards are very much at odds. While Zendikar sealed does seem to be a fast format, mixing these two colors is a bit more reasonable, if only because it doesn’t have the exact speed that is commonly associated with draft. If we’ve learned that Black/White is just a “bad” combination of colors, we might ignore the potentially potent Black/White deck that can exist as a solid Zendikar sealed deck (typically using White as the minor partner, and full of solid White creature-kill).

One of the big issues with draft is the social nature of it. It may be largely impossible, for example, to draft a decent Black/Red deck on a table of savvy drafters, if only because people recognize the strength of those colors in Zendikar Limited. At the same time, when you aren’t competing with other players for your card pool, it can be very common to have access to such decks. Witness the huge amount of Black/Red decks at the top tables of most sealed events. Black/Red is a potent draft deck, but does not have nearly as much dominance as it has sealed, if only because natural competition for resources forces more diversity in draft.

4) Have a Process

This element matters a lot. You want to be practiced enough with the process of going through and sorting a deck out that you can spend most of your time making relevant decisions, rather than making more basic decisions, or, worse, merely doing the busywork of registering. Particularly when you are playing in a larger event, registering the best deck you can have is crucial. It’s absolutely possible to make a Top 8 with a deck that is less well-honed than it could have been, but you could be shooting yourself in the foot.

The card pool, of course, matters, but these mistakes in construction are a part of the reason that less good pools can make it (see (1), above). As the pools are doled out, some number of people will get great decks but, for whatever reason, make a subpar deck, and perform at a less successful level. Having a good process is a great way to minimize the possibility of falling into this pit.

For me, I like to use what I refer to as “The Truc Bui” method. Two-time Limited PT Top 8 finisher Truc Bui was a member of Team D*ckhead (along with people like Brian Hacker, John Yoo, Igor Frayman, and Jason Zila), and one of the masters of Limited at the early tour. I definitely attribute a lot of success to his system, which I’ll simplify as the following (with some small modifications): the Superstars, the Starters, the Bench, and the Cheerleaders.

As you separate the cards by color, you’ll be distinguishing them as one of these types. The first three – the Superstars, the Starters, and the Bench – are cards that you expect you want to be playing or sideboarding at some point in the day, if you play that color. The Cheerleaders go off to the side, all together, because their only role will be to cheer you on from the side because they certainly aren’t going to go in the game.

The Superstars are those cards that are just so good that you know you want to be playing them if you’re in that color. These are your bombs, the cards that make you want to get them in your deck because their power level might shift a game.

Starters are the good, solid cards that you expect to be in play in any game, but sometimes, for whatever reason, just don’t make the cut. Maybe you need to play someone else that day, or maybe another card works best with a Superstar, and the Starters don’t always make the cut in the end, but they are good enough that they regularly get put in there. Distinguishing between Superstars (which by themselves give you incentives to consider playing a color) and Starters (which are good to great cards that make that color more solid) is an important skill that comes largely out of the combination of successful card valuation and a decent understanding of what is valuable in a format. (Harrow is a Superstar in Invasion block, for example, but probably a Starter in Zendikar block.)

The Bench are those cards that are likely sitting on the sideline, waiting for their chance to go in. These are the cards you don’t really want to play, but sometimes, it is their time. They are different than the Cheerleaders, who you’ll never play with. As above, distinguishing between the Cheerleaders and the Bench is an important skill.

With your cards laid out, some color will probably appear to be a primary color to definitely play. A color with powerful Superstars and a solid group of Starters is almost always a good place to start. From here, you’ll be looking for the other cards to compliment this baseline, often informed by economic considerations: do I need more cards on my curve, more elimination spells, more bombs. Filling in the blanks on your needs is usually the course, here.

Often, though, you aren’t blessed with an obvious base color. Perhaps your Superstars are stranded in an otherwise weak color. Perhaps your biggest collection of Starters don’t really have any standouts that even begin to approach the level of a Superstar. Here, the task can become the most challenging. You aren’t looking to put together the most powerful collection of individual cards — you’re looking to put together the most powerful deck you can.

The process is informed by all manner of things at this point. You are evaluating based on the relative quality of cards and of archetypes, but you need to also allow yourself to be influenced by an understanding of just how powerful (or impotent) your pool is. Riskier and more ambitious decisions need to be made if you are using a weaker pool, and more conservative decisions need to be made with stronger pools (relative to the best decks).

Some potential strategies in the more marginal decks:

A) Maximize Bombs

Play the highest density of your most powerful cards, as best as you can support them by mana. This strategy attempts to use the general card quality of your Superstars, and is particular valuable if you’re looking at a deck which is otherwise quite mediocre.

B) Maximize You Damage Potential

Drop your curve down, play all your crappy creatures, and play maybe slightly less land than you otherwise might. Just hope it all works out. Sadly, this is the only recourse that some decks have.

C) Maximize Critter-kill

If you just play with all of your guns, you might be able to beat a better deck simply because you’ve blown up all of their toys. Here, even a lackluster set of cards can win matches because your opponent simply might not have anything to kill you with. Usually, though, this is hard to pull off, simply because not all card pools have that many elimination spells.

D) Maximize Your Average Power

Play all the best Starters (fitting in your Superstars) you can, typically spread across three colors. This is similar to (A), above, but rather than trying to maximize your maximum returns, here you’re attempting to maximize your average returns. Savvy game theorists will recognize that this isn’t the classic/romantic split, but rather a split between the romantic and something more akin to median EV.

To try to go into the process, let’s look at a particularly wretched pool:

Poor Cedric. This pool sucks. But, as he says in his article on this pool, “You cannot just give up because a sealed pool is pretty terrible. […] My deck was laughably bad, but your opponents can get mana screwed a bunch, they can mulligan a ton, and they sure as heck can play poorly.”

So, what are our Superstars?


Roil Elemental

Bloodchief Ascension (sometimes)
Marsh Casualties



Starters abound, but they are all over the place. Importantly, though, the Black Starters are very thin. Cards like Hagra Crocodile are only good if you are very aggressive, and cards like Hagra Diabolist are only good with a reasonable number of Allies. Even if it has Heartstabber Mosquito and Hideous End, it has very little beyond that that is exciting. Blue is even shallower, but with some strong Starters (Whiplash Trap).

Ultimately I’m going to end up doing (A), (C), and (D), above, to try to make this deck work.

Here’s the space I found myself in the end:

Blazing Torch
Vines of Vastwood


Oran-Rief Recluse
Stonework Puma
Tajuru Archer
Turntimber Basilisk
Magma Rift
Hideous End

Mold Shambler
2 Nimana Sell-sword
3 Bladetusk Boar
Vampire’s Bite (kicker)

Baloth Cage Trap
Tuktuk Grunts
Hagra Diabolist
2 Vastwood Gorger
Marsh Casualties (kicker)
Heartstabber Mosquito (kicker)

2 Akoum Refuge
1 Mountain
1 Teetering Peaks
1 Soaring Seacliff
1 Piranha Marsh
4 Swamp
7 Forest

I’m running a few oddballs, as compared to Cedric. Like Cedric, I agree that running a card like Vines of Vastwood is reasonable, if only as a semi-counter to stop something from killing one of my few creatures. Here are my basic differences:

-1 Joraga Bard
-1 Geyser Glider
-1 land
+2 Vastwood Gorger
+1 Vampire’s Bite

Both my land selection (which is more exotic) and the Vampire’s Bite are both basically trying to raise the possibility of “lucky moments.” Either a Seacliff or a Peak or a Marsh all might make a kill happen. Vampire’s Bite has that ability to recoup the life loss that a slow deck like this is liable to experience. If they tap out, Biting them can make for an impressive life swing, potentially. Certainly, they could just off your critter in response, but you’re not looking to play fair here; you’re looking to get lucky.

I’ve tried to play more romantically with land for the same reason. You only need a smidge of Red to support the Grunts, the Boars, and the Magma Rift. Neither Blue nor White really give the splashable potential that the Red offers.

Ultimately, I would hope to never have this deck, but we can’t control what we’re given in the same way we can as in a draft. All you can do is try to maximize your ability to succeed with marginal cards.

I know that I’m really excited for Minneapolis. I’ve had a good history at Grand Prix in Minneapolis, and I hope to repeat that, but without the play mistakes and lack of sleep that have cost me so much in the past.

Wish me luck!

Adrian Sullivan