Weak Among the Strong: Making Top 8 with your Sealed Deck

Many years ago, back when I was probably Weak Among the Weak, let alone Strong Among the Weak or Weak Among the Strong, Matt Rauseo said you should always maindeck Annul in Urza’s Block Sealed. “Why?” I asked. “Because you need to beat the 4-0 decks.” Understanding this concept will not only change how you build your sealed decks, but it also can be instrumental in pushing you over the PTQ Top 8 hump.

Many years ago, back when I was probably Weak Among the Weak, let alone Strong Among the Weak or Weak Among the Strong, Matt Rauseo said you should always maindeck Annul in Sealed.

Always? I thought that the default assumption on cards like Annul and Shatter was that they started off in your sideboard and got brought in for games two and three if your opponent showed you enough powerful targets to merit it. True, this was Urza’s Saga, which had a lot of powerful common targets for Annul, but there were plenty of decks without enough enchantments or artifacts to justify it. So why run it main?

“Because you need it to beat the 4-0 decks.”

Matt had just shared a powerful insight into Sealed PTQs, one that I think many Pro Tour regulars don’t fully appreciate. Sealed deck is actually a fairly skill-intensive format, but there’s certainly good reason that it’s called Sealed Luck by some. The card pools vary greatly in terms of power levels. While good players will tend to do better than bad players, good players with good decks will tend to do best of all – and it’s fairly common for at least a few mediocre (or even bad) players to start off 3-0 or 4-0 on the back of a broken cardpool.

The next point to remember is that (in terms of qualifying) there is really no difference between going 5-2 and 2-5 in a PTQ. The Swiss rounds are all-or-nothing – you either make Top 8 and get to draft for the slot, or you miss and get to draft with some friends for the rares. That means in order to win the slot you have to assume that you spend the last few rounds fighting against above-average cardpools – and in Urza Block those cardpools were going to have Pestilence as well as cards like Pacifism, Despondency, and Veiled Serpent. Since Annul was great against those decks – the ones you had to build your deck to beat – it was maindeck worthy.

Every Limited season I read article after article that take sealed cardpools and try to create the best build – in the abstract. The problem with that approach is that the concept of best build in the abstract is inherently flawed. The very term “best build” is meaningless without defining what your goal is!

To illustrate, I was once in a rather bizarre Grand Prix Trial for which ten people showed up – and played sealed deck before cutting to a Top 8 draft! [I seem to remember Scott Johns also having such an experience during one of his many attempts to hop back on the Tour after retiring. – Knut] Moreover, I had registered (and thankfully not gotten back) a deck without any good cards or even a decent curve – I always think any deck has a shot but this one couldn’t win a game without total manascrew. That meant that I just had to avoid finishing ninth out of nine, in a field I knew held at least a few bad players. That meant going for a good, solid deck that had a low chance of self-destructing rather than, for example, splashing a third color for a bit of extra power. I built my deck and went something like 2-1, losing to a broken deck and beating two solid ones. I was in the draft and got the byes in exchange for the product since my opponent already had two byes and wasn’t sure he could make the GP.

The next day I played in a PTQ with eight rounds and a large number of Neutral Ground scum gentlemen to beat. That meant building a deck that could stand up against the broken decks I was going to face in later rounds, even when scum good players were running those decks.

Sunday, Sunday, Sunday!

I played R/G with both cardpools, but with differences. On Saturday, needing only not to lose too horribly, I left Lumbering Satyr in my sideboard and didn’t splash a third color. On Sunday, at the PTQ, I ran the Satyr and splashed two Black cards for removal. Of course, there were differences in the cardpools that helped me make those decisions. My Sunday curve was more aggressive, improving the odds that the Satyr’s power would matter more than giving all of my opponent’s creatures evasion. On Sunday I also had Dawnstrider, who could shut off the Satyr’s drawback. The biggest factor, however, was knowing that I had to do better than 5-3 or 6-2, which meant beating broken decks. When you’re playing R/G that means putting enough power on the table that things like “counterattacks” don’t matter much, and the chance that the “Hater” might give my guys evasion was arguably more important than the danger that it might give evasion to my opponent.

Despite some very tough matchups I was able to make the Top 8. Mike Flores then went on a rampage, demanding that the assembled Neutral Grounders beat me (I believe his words were something to the effect of, “You can’t let this YMG scum take home our slot!”) which naturally led me to turn in my seat and say, “Mike, the best part about winning this draft isn’t going to be going to the Pro Tour – it’s going to be the look on your face when I do it.”

And* it was.

In my experience, most authors and most players underestimate the importance of beating the broken decks. They want the consistency offered by two colors, even when this means running less raw power or less removal. Splashes are seen as a necessary evil of a weak cardpool when instead they are something you should be looking for in order to maximize your power.

So what happens to these players? They start off well, beating a bad player in round one and then a solid player with a weak cardpool in round two. Maybe they even get to 3-0. From then on, however, they face an incredible uphill battle, much like someone who brought their Standard deck to an Extended tournament. Worst of all, after losing in rounds four and five they battle back to end the day at 5-2 and their reasonably high finish actually reinforces their deckbuilding choices – because it feels like they were much closer to making Top 8 than they actually were.

Important aside. There is a fallacy in Constructed Magic (often seen at Worlds) in which some players think that, in a given metagame in which all the players are good (or at least not bad) and running tier one (or close to it) decks, one deck is a good choice if you need to go 5-1 or 6-0 while another is good if you only need to go 3-3. While one can create special cases where this is true, for the most part it is simply bad math. Each deck has an expected win percentage against the field, period, and the best deck for any needed score is the one you believe has the highest average score against the field.

The difference here is that while the players in later rounds are likely to be above average if you’re 3-0 or 4-0, the variance in deck power will be much lower than in a sealed deck event.

So what does this mean in practical terms?

A deck that is consistently a B-grade deck is not likely to make Top 8.

This is the most important lesson. A deck that can play as an A and will sometimes play as a C is far more likely to qualify, even if you are running the risk of losing in round one to someone who isn’t very good.

Therefore, unless your cardpool is substantially above-average, you are probably better off taking some risks to increase your overall power level.

A good example is the sealed deck I used to make Top 8 in the first all-Champions PTQ in Boston. I could have built a nice, consistent, two-color deck. Let’s compare the power level of the cards I would have run to the ones I did:

Two Colors

Three Colors


Glacial Ray

Kami of Waning Moon


Cursed Ronin

Hanabi Blast

Lantern Kami

Ronin Houndmaster


Kami of Fire’s Roar

My understanding of the set has grown since then (I often joke that I won the Champions prerelease and only found out it was a PTQ after the finals) and I now have more respect for Kami of the Waning Moon, which at the time looked like too little ability to justify a 1/1 flyer for 3. Similarly, Distress is a solid card that is better against decks with bombs and while I’ve never really been a fan of Cursed Ronin it does provide a late-game mana sink – something that is usually good to have in a sealed deck. I still hold that Lantern Kami is a sideboard card against Blue decks or very aggressive decks with lots of X/1s, but it’s certainly not awful and while Hankyu is a bit slow, I’ve definitely learned to respect it – especially in a controlling deck.

In other words, none of these cards are bad and the B/W deck would have had very good mana. Judging from recent articles, I suspect most Pros writing on the subject (many of whom are not actually playing in Sealed PTQs) would either go for the B/W build or else splash Glacial Ray and Godo depending on which of the above cards they felt were chaff.

I feel comfortable I could have had a winning record with the B/W deck, but would it really stand a good chance against the best decks in the tournament? I rather doubt it. The B/W/r deck (with just Ray and Godo) is a huge step up in power, regardless of which cards you cut to make room, and has to be a better choice. Ultimately, I chose to push even harder and made Red a legitimate third color to fit in an extra removal spell and upgrade two creatures. I’m still not sure whether this build is better than the two-card splash – but either has to be better than straight B/W.

Respect the sacrifices you have to make, and try to minimize their impact.

If you’ve had to stretch your mana in order to give your deck the necessary power, you want to make sure the games last long enough to minimize the importance of early color-screw. That means the value of good blockers goes up slightly, while spells like Lava Spike go down. Spells with double casting costs go down in value, especially ones that want to be cast early like Wicked Akuba or Kitsune Riftwalker. Card-drawing and, of course, mana-fixing gain in value – in the past I’ve often chosen Green as a base color primarily because it gave me a couple of mana-fixers. A Sakura-tribe Elder and Kodama’s Reach in your deck with two Mountains gives you almost** four sources of Red mana, substantially reducing the risk of your splash.

The best decks will have powerful threats – so unless you can overpower or out-tempo them, your deck needs as many answers as possible.

Tim Aten recently made the point that creatures are incidental to Sealed Deck success – it’s the spells that matter. This isn’t always the case, certainly – a deck with a good soulshift chain can ride that to victory quite often, and of course some creatures have spell-like abilities – but it is a lot closer to true than many players realize. Removal is the scarce resource in Sealed, and it is usually more important to have a good removal package than the most optimal creatures because second-string creatures often do pretty close to the same job as their first-string counterparts.

This plays into the last point. In the cases where I chose Green for its mana-fixing, it also offered me a solid number of creatures. It may not have given me better creatures than a different color, but they were good enough to do the job and there were enough of them to justify Green as a base color. Quite often, that’s all you really need if your spells are good enough.

Look at my 5-0 deck from the PTQ, for example. What makes it so powerful? Other than Godo and Nezumi Graverobber if it gets active, the creatures are just good. Most of the decks I faced had better creatures, including Kokusho, 8.5 Tails, Meloku and generally strong men. If you read through my report you’ll see that while my bomb creatures won their share of games, I usually won with my removal – splicing Glacial Ray onto Hideous Laughter, for example.

Sometimes, of course, you can overpower your opponents. If your deck has a great curve of aggressive creatures backed up by some ways to force them through (or at least punish crush your opponent’s resistance when he blocks, like Roar of the Jukai) you can certainly go that route. My only caution is that in my experience such decks are the exception – most often they end up in 4-3 or 5-2 because they can’t compete with the top decks. They also violate the PTQ rule for good players: play a deck that lets you outplay your opponent. A good deck whose plan is to drop out aggressive creatures and turn them sideways until the game is over certainly isn’t as mindless as it sounds but it doesn’t provide nearly as many chances for you to outplay your opponent as a more controlling deck. This brings us to our next point.

Know your game plan.

This is more of a general rule than one that applies specifically to tournaments in which your goal is an exceptional performance, but I include it here because in my many years of going over decks built by friends and opponents the most common source of error is not understanding what the deck is trying to do. I don’t mean that a deck can have only one game plan – many of the best decks have more than one possible strategic plan – but rather that people often run “good” cards that run counter to their deck’s basic purposes.

A classic example is the use of a Lava Axe spell – something whose only purpose is to damage the opponent. (Lava Spike fits this description unless you’ve got multiple removal spells to splice onto it.) Whether it’s a player burn spell like the Axe, or a Falter-style spell designed to allow an alpha strike, these spells do one thing and one thing only – move the opponent’s life total closer to (and hopefully past) zero.

Play Cards That Match the Plan. < P>None of them belong in a control deck… and yet they continuously show up there. Invariably, when someone shows me a deck full of removal and controlling creatures and I get to the Lava Axe their explanation is that they think it’s a good card. Well, it is, if your deck has an aggressive curve and expects to have its opponents teetering on the brink of death. It isn’t if the rest of your deck is trying to blunt their offense and gradually take control of the game.

The same problem arises when a beatdown deck runs a “good” card like Ghostly Prison. For three mana you have made it hard for your opponent to damage you – and have done nothing to damage your opponent or to increase your ability to damage your opponent in future turns. It may be good against another fast deck with lots of evasion, but that’s what sideboards are for.

Be aware of your sideboard options.

Sealed Deck offers up a large pool of sideboard cards, ranging from specific answers (e.g. Quiet Purity) to outright color swaps. Deciding how to sideboard after game one can be extremely difficult and it helps a lot if you’ve already thought through your main options. What will you do against a deck that crushed you with a particular bomb creature or two? What about a deck with three Hondens? What about an ultra-aggressive deck with Lava Spike and Akki Avalancher? What about a U/W control deck full of 1/4s and X/1 flyers? What about soulshift.dec? Sketch these possibilities out in advance rather than going through your cardpool and perhaps missing your Rag Dealer against a deck that beats you out of its own graveyard. Think about what cards you can afford to bring out in certain situations as well as how many situation cards, if any, you should bring in to deal with a lone bomb. (For example, if your U/B opponent has Jitte, do you automatically bring in Wear Away? If you also have Terashi’s Grasp, do you bring in both?)

Good luck in the PTQs – I’ll be playing in a PTQ every weekend starting April 16 and will let you know whatever I learn as I go.

Hugs ’til next time,


* This sentence is written with apologies to Knut, who has been after his writers not to start sentences with “And” or “But”. As a great writer once said, after listing his five rules of good writing, “Violate any of the above rather than say anything outright barbarous.”

** I say almost four because you might not have a Forest or you might be able to cast the Elder but have to fetch your other main color. Of course, in the latter case the Elder is still better for your mana than a Mountain would have been.