The Casual Player’s Guide To Surviving The Guildpact Prerelease

When a mediocre-to-good player writes about Sealed, he’s always lamenting his choices by the end of the article. Oh, it’s not that the author built a bad deck — they’re a competent player, after all – but there’s always that post-game realization that maybe Black was a little more potent than they gave it credit for (and was worth splashing for), or that this creature wasn’t nearly as good as they thought it was. So how’s a novice going to cope with the trainwreck color-clash that Guildpact brings? The Ferrett walks you Limited newbies through the basics of Sealed play!

When a mediocre-to-good player writes about Sealed, he’s always lamenting his choices by the end of the article. Oh, it’s not that the author built a bad deck — they’re a competent player, after all – but there’s always that post-game realization that maybe Black was a little more potent than they gave it credit for (and was worth splashing for), or that this creature wasn’t nearly as good as they thought it was.

Sealed is about making choices quickly, and sometimes even fairly experienced players make the wrong call. So how’s a novice going to cope with the trainwreck color-clash that Guildpact brings?

As such, I’m writing this guide for you — the guy who hasn’t played a whole lot of Sealed. I’m going to assume that you’d like to be able to build a decent deck — the kind that can pull out the occasional win when your opponent isn’t landscrewed. After all, it’s hard to enjoy a tournament where every game involves you continually getting pounded down to zero life with no chance of recovery.

I live in Cleveland. That’s our local sports scene in a nutshell. It’s not pleasant.

I won’t guarantee you’ll win the tournament if you follow my guidelines… But I do guarantee you’ll have some darned close games, and probably a couple of notches in the “win” column.

So let’s get started, shall we?

Prerelease Preparation
First of all, you’re going to have to do some reading. Okay, you’re already reading this, but I mean more reading.

Bop on over to the unofficial spoiler and meet the cards you’ll be opening on Saturday. Now, personally, I hate reading spoilers, but they’re a necessary Prerelease evil; you barely have enough time to build a competent deck when you do know the cards. If you’re spending your time scanning the fine print on forty-five different completely fresh slips of cardboard, you’re going to make a poor deck and lose the whole day though.

When you’re reading the spoiler, get an idea of which cards you consider bombworthy, and which commons are above the cut. (If you don’t know, don’t worry – I’ll help you figure out what’s good and what’s not later.) If you remember the powerful cards, then you’ll know instantly when the cards in a given color are above-average, saving you some critical time.

(But keep in mind that spoilers are never 100% accurate, so there will probably be a few minor discrepancies between the spoiler and the actual card – for example, Urza’s Rage didn’t have the “couldn’t be countered” aspect in the initial Invasion spoilers, and at one point a StarCityGames.com writer misread Blazing Archon as saying “Flying creatures can’t attack you” instead of “Flying. Creatures can’t attack you.”)

Even though it’s a more casual environment, you’ll want to bring a pad and pencil to keep track of everyone’s life total. People forget sometimes, and it helps.

Then go to bed early and get some sleep. Rest before the tournament is a good thing. And when you get up, for Cripe’s sakes, take a shower. Yeah, you’re going to be doused in Gamer Funk when you enter the tournament, but there’s no sense exuding that foul, musky, and malignant odor that only comes from clueless nerds.

You’ve Got Your Cards – Now What?
First thing you do is to break them down into fourteen piles – yes, fourteen. Yes, it’s going to get a little unwieldy, and you may have to rearrange things in order to make room for your neighbor… But Ravnica is the multi-color set, and now that we have seven of the ten guilds revealed, you’ll need to have a pile for each guild, a pile for each basic color, a pile for artifacts, and a pile for lands.

This will help you decide what colors you want to play with. Flip through each stack of colors; anything good there? Figure out which colors have the goods (as defined below) and which ones don’t, then put the bad colors away to one side as soon as possible. Time’s a factor, Lois!

Sealed play is built on creatures, backed by enough tricks to force the creatures through – so you want to have a lot of creatures and a couple of tricks to protect or enhance them. The general rule is to play with 16 creatures, 16 lands, and 8 tricks.

(…Or not. The actual general rule is to play with 16 creatures, 6-7 tricks, and 17-18 land, as any experienced player knows. If you can remember that seventeen lands is much closer to the ideal, then you’ll be ahead of the game. Unfortunately, given that many Sealed novices still go by the long-discredited “33% land” rule [which would be thirteen lands] or the “50% land rule” [twenty lands], the 16/16/8 rule isn’t the greatest but it’s way better than many people’s default land builds.)

Picking Your Sixteen Creatures:
The creatures should be a mix of small and large creatures. As a rule, large creatures serve better on defense than offense, since a 6/6 behemoth can usually be chump-blocked but nobody wants to run into it. Creatures that tap creatures or otherwise lock them down count as defense.

Your offense will consist of creatures with evasion: Flying, fear, unblockability, trample, critters that can tap to do damage, et cetera. In other words, creatures that either will be strong enough to break through your opponent’s defense or creatures that can sail above it.

Generally, you’ll have one color that has creatures that are strong on offense and another that’s tight on defense… And normally, you’d try to make the core of your deck from these two colors. But this is The Multicolor Block, and it’s specifically designed to screw with the normal rules of Sealed deck. As such, you will almost certainly be building a three-color deck.

Keep an eye on your mana curve: Like all recent blocks, Ravnica is filled with a lot of very large and very pricey creatures – which are great when they do hit the board, but by the time you get that Excruciator or Razia, Boros Archangel out, you may have been smashed down to one or two life by smaller and more efficient creatures. They’re not nearly as sexy, but tiny, efficient creatures like Veteran Armorer and Golgari Brownscale are going to be your bread and butter. The mana curve pretty much starts at two mana in Ravnica, meaning that you’ll be looking for early two or three-mana blockers to start the offense (or defend yourself with) until you can get your more-expensive offense in gear.

Now, there are two mistakes that beginning players almost inevitably make:

“It’s A Slow Game.”
I’ve been editor now through five blocks, and every time people say the same thing when a set is released: “The tempo in this block will be slower.” Which is a way of saying that “We’ll be playing five-mana creatures, on average.” But that almost never happens. Draft play in particular has always been dominated by the mana costs one through three, and though in truth the mana curve has jumped a bit over the years it’s never as slow as people think it will be. The action doesn’t truly begin until turn 3 or 4 in current Ravnica Sealed (unless you’re playing Boros), but toploading a deck with big-mana spells will mean that the slightest whiff of landscrew will do you in.

Truth is, decks like efficiency. The faster you can come out of the gates, the more likely you are to win. Build your deck around a quick blitz of four-mana-and-under cards with a few high-cast bombs to seal the deal, and you’ll do well.

“Don’t Hurt Me.”
Beginning players tend to think of their creatures as an extension of their life total. They’re afraid to commit their creatures to filthy nasty combat, lest they accidentally send one to the graveyard by mistake. The truth is, good players treat their creatures like chattel, throwing them into the breach on an astonishingly regular basis, occasionally taking chances that yes, there will be an uneven trade. (Nobody wants to lose a creature, of course, but it’s not like that Seeds of Strength wasn’t going to get played eventually. And better that it’s played now, eradicating a small creature of yours, so that you can play an even bigger creature post-combat!)

The lesson is, if you have the slightest advantage, you should be pressing it with attacks, not giving your opponent time to recover. Too many players play as if their win condition is “I keep all of my creatures safe,” not “I kill my opponent.” But with mechanics like Convoke, you don’t want them to have a lot of creatures. Keep up the pressure.

Picking The Remaining Eight:
The remaining spells should fall into one of two categories: Tricks to save your creatures (Wojek Siren, Bathe in Light), and removal to get rid of your opponent’s creatures (Last Gasp and Galvanic Arc). Tricks generally have to be instants to work well, since you have to have surprise value, but reusable tricks attached to creatures are generally solid gold in the format.

Removal is getting rid of creatures. Generally we’re talking direct-damage spells (the ugly Char), destroy effects (Disembowel), or effects that bounce creatures for long enough for you to sail in for the win (Peel from Reality) – but don’t overlook effects that neutralize creatures, like Faith’s Fetters. These don’t have to be instants, because all that matters is that a creature is effectively removed from the equation.

(Note that I’m staying away from most of the spoilers because I like to be surprised, so these are all examples from Ravnica. Normally, Blisterguy would fill you in on the common cards to watch out for at the prerelease, but as of today, the full spoiler still hasn’t been released, which is no doubt causing cries of happiness at Wizards of the Coast headquarters. So you’re gonna have to dope it out on your own, just like the rest of us.)

Mass removal is gold: Anything that can destroy multiple creatures at once is valuable. There’s very little of that in this block, but that just makes it more valuable, nu?

If you get a reusable source of removal (usually attached to a creature), that can be a gamebreaker; Ravnica has a few of them, even if they are expensive (like Viashino Fangtail and, um, Trophy Hunter, I guess).

Also keep in mind that effects with drawbacks are very powerful in Limited. No one ever used Magma Burst in a winning Standard deck… But people will gladly blow two land to destroy two creatures in Sealed, and they did quite frequently in Invasion Block. If you’re used to Constructed, where you choose your cards, you’re going to have to get used to the lower power levels.

A Word On Color
Though you’ll almost certainly be building a three-color deck, do not try to build a deck with the three colors spread out evenly. That will only lead to continual manascrew; you want to build a deck that’s weighted heavily towards two colors, so you can have a good chance of drawing cards and lands in your “core” colors in the early game when you need them, and a “splash” color of three or four cards that you hopefully draw into the late game.

As such, your splash spells should be as backbreaking as possible (since you’ll be drawing them late, they should be able to break open a stalemate or destroy a pesky critter that’s preventing your victory), but they should not contain double mana.

For example: if you’re playing White and Black as your main colors, splashing for a Putrefy is a good idea, since it’ll clear out any creature in the late game. Splashing for Carven Caryatid is a bad idea, since not only is it a weak card that doesn’t alter the board significantly in the late game (aside from giving you an extra chance at drawing a card that might matter), but it has two Green mana, meaning that you’ll need to draw two out of the three or four Forests you’ve splashed into the deck.

Also note that the Signets are extremely helpful, regardless of whether you’re splashing a color or not.

Given that Guildpact’s Guilds are B/W, G/R, and U/R, it’s almost anyone’s guess as to which colors will be most prevalent. However, my guess is that you’ll almost be seeing a lot of Blue and Red, which means, “Be prepared for a lot of bounce and creature burnination.” Joy!

(Although I note that I could be wrong; I’m looking forward to seeing how things turn out this weekend!)

What About Enchantment And Artifact Removal?
In most blocks, the answer has been “Don’t bother” (with the exception of Mirrodin Block, where artifact removal doubled as creature removal), and that’s still true in Ravnica. Yes, there are some mighty powerful enchantments hanging around (I hates the Arc, m’self), but most people will be playing with creatures and tricks just like you, so the chances of finding a good target for a maindecked Leave No Trace are slim. Keep it in mind for Game 2 if you see something worthwhile, though.

What Doesn’t Work?
Big Decks. Don’t go a card beyond forty. It will be like slicing off your left arm, I know, but find the space to remove those extra ten cards. Your deck will be better for it. Yes, even though the Dimir mill strategy exists; if it wasn’t a good Sealed strategy when you were handed all Ravnica cards, how’s it going to work now that you have only a single Sealed deck of Dimir to work with?

Prevention Decks. Never forget: “Not losing” isn’t winning. Unless you have some big, powerful creature that can punch through for the game win, don’t go overboard on the “Ha ha! You can’t hurt me!” effects. Also see: Lifegain.

Creature-Light Decks. The all-counterspell deck seems like a good idea, but you’ll still spend the majority of your time in critter battles. Don’t try anything funny unless you know the format very well… which, since you’re reading this article, you don’t. That said, you can get away with eleven or twelve creatures in Dimir decks, but that involves more Dimir cards than you’ll probably have access to.

One-Card Decks. I never built up the eight mana to play the Avatar of Woe that I got in the first prerelease, since I always got killed before I got eight lands on the table to play it. Learn my lesson. Yes, Autochthon Wurm is very large, but unless you have other cards to help you survive until you can cast it, you might lose. It may well be that, painful as it is, you need to leave your huge, flashy bomb behind and play colors with a more solid makeup.

What Happens If I Just Can’t Decide?
Words of wisdom from Sheldon Menery:

“If all else fails, take your Green and Red critters and go for the beatdown.”

For God’s Sake, Ask.
There are a lot of new cards, and nobody’s really sure how they all interact yet – except the judges. Don’t be afraid to call someone over; this does not make you a jerk. It makes you someone who wants to know how things work, which is admirable and a fine thing.

The guy who’s complaining is a jerk. Now go beat him so hard his socks fall off.

The Ferrett
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The Here Edits This Here Site Here Guy