If this is your first prerelease tournament, then this is the article for you. Sealed deck play can be tricky if you’re a casual player or not used to the environment – reading this article (and the ancillary reading) will ensure that you don’t embarrass yourself.
Now let’s get one thing straight. I am not a great Sealed player; in fact, in my first prerelease tourney I had my butt handed to me so many times that it actually became detachable.* But being the smart weasel that I am, I asked two of the smartest players I know, Jeff Moeller (1797 Limited rating) and Sheldon Menery (1635)** for generic advice on Sealed formats to learn what I did wrong. And advice they gave, which I have helpfully boiled down for you.***
First of all, do some reading. If you’ve never been to a Prerelease tourney before, go read Benjamin Baer’s fine article on Prereleases (at http://www.starcitygames.com/news/magic/000922Baer.htm) to learn what you can expect from the tourney experience. (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.) Then go read Omeed Dariani Sealed primer at http://www.starcityccg.com/html/magic101/courses/buildsealed.html to get an idea of the issues that come up during Sealed. I’ll give you slightly more concrete advice on deckbuilding in a second.
And lastly, and most importantly, bop on over to MTGnews and read the Invasion spoiler lists. There are going to be a ton of new cards out there, and you don’t want to spend the precious time you’ll be given to build decks reading the fine print on a hundred cards, desperately trying to figure out what each of them do. Don’t memorize everything, but get a good idea of which cards you consider playable and which are unworthy crap in any environment. Keep in mind that spoilers are never 100% accurate, so there will probably be a few discrepancies between the spoiler and the actual card.
Then go to bed early and get some sleep. Rest before the tournament is a good thing.
SO NOW YOU’VE GOT YOUR CARDS – NOW WHAT?
First thing you do is to break them down into seven colors – the five colors, artifacts, and gold cards. Then break those seven piles down into two subpiles – creatures and noncreature spells. Then decide what colors you want to play with.
As a rule, you’ll want to go with a deck that has 16 creatures, 16 lands, and 8 noncreature spells. Most of the time you want to go with a two-color deck for mana consistency, but in the multicolor environment that Invasion offers, a three-color deck may be workable – it depends on what lands and mana-producers you get.
(As a rule, if you go three-color, you’ll go with two main colors and perhaps two or three "splash" cards in your third color. And for God’s sake, if you splash a color, make sure it doesn’t have a double-mana requirement. That’s just asking to get mana-hosed.)
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. Your offense will consist of creatures with evasion: Flying, unblockability, critters that can tap to do damage, et cetera. In other words, creatures that will break through your opponent’s defense.
Generally, you’ll have one color that’s strong on offense and another that’s tight on defense. Make the core of your deck from those two.
Keep an eye on your mana curve: Try not to make a deck top-heavy (all expensive creatures) or weenie-riffic. Look for early two or three-mana blockers to defend yourself with until you can get your more-expensive offense in gear.
PICKING THE REMAINING EIGHT SPELLS:
The remaining spells should fall into one of two categories: Tricks to save your creatures, and removal to get rid of your opponent’s creatures.
Tricks to save your creatures are usually instants that will save your guys from destruction: In the Masques block, a well-timed Withdraw could do it, or a Ramosian Rally could save the day, or a Wild Might or a well-targeted Steal Strength might be the critical edge you need. Tricks generally have to be instants to work well, since you have to have surprise value.
Removal is getting rid of creatures. Generally we’re talking direct-damage spells, enchantments that give minuses to creatures, or just plain burial effects – but don’t overlook effects that neutralize creatures, like Arrest or Muzzle. These don’t have to be instants, because all that matters is that some creature can no longer hurt your guys.
(Removal can sometimes take on strange forms, like Falter from Urza’s Block – if they can’t block when you come in for that final attack, then you’ve effectively removed them AND damaged your opponent. Bonus.)
If you get a reusable source of removal or tricks, that can be a gamebreaker. See also: Predator, Flagship and Crooked Scales.
Also keep in mind that effects with drawbacks are VERY powerful in Limited. Nobody ever played with Troubled Healer (sac a land to prevent two damage) in Constructed, but getting rid of a land to protect a creature made it a must-pick in Sealed. The threats are inconsistent enough in Sealed that ANY threat can work.
WHAT ABOUT ENCHANTMENT AND ARTIFACT REMOVAL?
I couldn’t possibly say it better than Mister Sheldon did in his initial email to me:
"Artifact and enchantment removal really depends on the environment, which you should analyze before going in. However, some enchantments and artifacts are autowins when they hit the table, so what it comes down to is that you don’t really need them, except when you do, and then you REALLY need them."
In other words, in the absence of an in-depth analysis of the environment – and if you could do that, you wouldn’t be reading this, right? – it might not be a bad idea to pack one or two.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK?
Heavy Counterspells. My initial mistake. I had four counters in my deck, and nothing to do once something hit the table. Don’t rely on counters to stop the big threats, because you might not have it when you need it.
Lots of Enchantments. Unless you have enough creatures to enchant, OR said enchantments serve as tricks or removal, they’re dead weight.
Heavy Card-Drawing. My other mistake. I forgot that unless I had something good to draw INTO, I was pretty helpless.
Lifegain. You’re not playing multiplayer, here.
Creature-Light Decks. The good players will swarm you unless you REALLY have a lot to back it up – and you probably don’t.
Really, Really Expensive Spells. I never built up the eight mana to play my Avatar of Woe, but I built a substandard deck around it – learn my lesson. Urza’s Rage is very potent, but you can’t count on getting the twelve mana you need to play it. It may well be that, painful as it is, you need to leave it aside UNLESS it’s in a deck that would play red anyway.
If the majority of your spells tend to be expensive (three or above), you may wish to play with 17 land. If you play with three colors, definitely go with 17.
WHAT HAPPENS IF I JUST CAN’T DECIDE?
More words of wisdom from Unca Sheldie:
"If all else fails, take your green critters and go for the beatdown."
ANY OTHER HINTS?
Hold Your Spot Removal. A lot of novice players will just blast away at anything that comes out – and they’ll be really sorry when that 4/6 flying, "return a creature every turn" Reya Dawnbringer hits the board. As Jeff Moeller says, "Sometimes you have to get beat down for a while early in Sealed deck in favor of getting your creatures out."
Don’t Overextend. There is a fair amount of mass removal in Invasion, so don’t just put everything out because you can. There is a chance that everything might get wiped away, so only commit totally when you’re sure you can win.***
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. If all of the judges are like the magnificent Sheldon (who runs a fine tourney), you have nothing to fear. Don’t be afraid to call someone over.
Sometimes You Eat the Bear, Sometimes the Bear Eats You. There is a large luck element to Sealed, and occasionally you’ll just get a deck where, as Sean McKeown puts it, "God hates you." Don’t get discouraged.
– The Ferrett, Sheldon Menery, and Jeff Moeller
* — I went something like 1-3 and came in 27th out of 40, if you must know. You tourney players may now heap scorn upon me. Wait, you already are.
** — This was before Mr. Menery became the BMOC here, writing his fantabulous column and all.
*** — Any major errors in here are my fault in translating, not theirs.
**** — My personal take. Be warned that I am a suckolicious weasel and not the Sealed GODS that Jeff and Sheldon are.