Weak Among the Strong: What I’ve Learned About Champions Team Sealed

Champions Team Sealed isn’t quite as much fun as draft, but it is certainly skill-testing. Chris Manning, Bruce Cowley and I have played in a couple of PTQs and Day 1 of GP: Chicago (sadly, our lack of byes meant we were one of the 6-2 teams that didn’t make day 2). So far, none of our card pools have been extraordinary (most have frankly been on the poopy side), but sometimes that just means you learn the most about how a format works. Here are some of the key lessons I’ve learned about Champions Team Sealed.

A while back I was forced to eat some of my own words. It was day one of the Team Sealed Pro Tour and two of Team Limited’s top teams (YMG and Kai Budde team) had been blown out of Day 2. This had followed a Team Limited GP in which broken cardpools had seemed (to me, at least) to be far more important than play skill, at least among the good teams. Feeling a tad bitter, I made the first post on the Wizards of the Coast forum for discussing the PT, stating that while team Rochester was highly skill-intensive team sealed (like regular sealed) involved too much luck to justify being used at the Pro Tour level.

Scott Johns called bullpoop (hey, this is a family site) and he was right. As he pointed out, the Day 2 field had a higher percentage of top players than average for a PT, and while two of the best teams had indeed been knocked out, they hadn’t lost to randoms. The data simply didn’t support my claim.

Nor did my own experience – that one recent GP aside. Team Sealed provides players with a wealth of decisions, both in deck construction and play, and decisions are what skill-testing formats are all about. I knew my own teams in the past had made deck-building errors, or, more happily, been able to overcome superior cardpools by outplaying our opponents or because they had misbuilt their decks.

Champions Team Sealed isn’t quite as much fun as draft, but it is certainly skill-testing. Chris Manning, Bruce Cowley and I have played in a couple of PTQs and Day 1 of GP: Chicago (sadly our lack of byes meant we were one of the 6-2 teams that didn’t make day 2) and are looking forward to upcoming PTQs in Connecticut and Boston. So far, none of our card pools have been extraordinary (most have frankly been on the poopy side), but sometimes that just means you learn the most about how a format works. Here are some of the key lessons I’ve learned about Champions team sealed:

Synergy, Synergy, Synergy

As I look at our decks and those built by other teams, I’m convinced that many people are misbuilding their decks because they are just putting in their “good” cards rather than the cards that really suit their decks. The best team sealed decks have a Constructed feel and, like Constructed decks, often break the normal valuation on cards.

As an example, one of the decks I looked at in Chicago was a B/R deck with double Kiku, triple Rend Flesh, double Glacial Ray (at least, it might have been triple), Befoul and some other removal just in case. In other words, an amazing control deck…and one that should have very little interest in cards with the word Devouring in them, even if it did have a handful of aggressive creatures. It was running one each of Greed and Rage.

Now Devouring Greed and Devouring Rage are both excellent cards in the right deck. But “the right deck” doesn’t just mean any deck with some spirits in it. This deck should have been looking for cards like Distress or Soulless Revival to keep Kiku in play, or other cards that fit its controlling nature, rather than trying to give it extra beatdown umph. Maybe, just maybe, the Devouring Greed belonged since the deck had three Zuberas (or should have… I think one of them was in the board?), and a control deck can often benefit from a way to gain life. But conceptually this deck was like a heavy-removal deck running Lava Axe.

By the same token, some of the best cards in a given deck can be ones that your opponents will have to read, or that at least cause a quick double-take. I played a U/W deck to a 3-1 record after the first build at GP: Chicago and suspect that if I’d played tighter (or just topdecked one of my two Candle’s Glows before my opponent topdecked his lone Yamabushi’s Flame) I would have gone 4-0 with it. The deck had insane ground defense (double Kami of Old Stone, double Ghostly Prison, double Glow) but while its flyers were good, there weren’t quite enough of them. Fortunately I had another victory path that doubled as an answer to Fear Rats or other annoying creatures: Hankyu.

Be honest. If someone played Hankyu against you, would you have to read it? More than one of my opponents did, and one of them still didn’t realize I could go to the dome for ten to snatch game one from him.

Hankyu is one of those cards that many of us dismissed out of hand when it first came out. Four mana to equip is a lot. Tapping once to put on a counter and then a second time to do a point of damage seems ridiculous when you’ve been playing with Viridian Longbow. Being forced to use all of your counters offends the control player and, I suspect, strengthens our intuitive reaction that the card must be awful. But in my deck it was so good that we called the deck “Hankyu very much.”

First of all, I had a lot of guys who weren’t going to be wasted if they couldn’t attack. Kami of Old Stone is the most unlikely-to-attack creature ever printed other than maybe Time Elemental. He’s quite thrilled to do something useful while holding down his day job as a wall. And if I had more blockers than I needed, I could start adding two counters a turn.

Second, Hankyu filled an important need familiar to U/W mages everywhere: removal. Some U/W decks are super-aggressive and deal with problems by killing their owners. Mine wasn’t going to play that game, so it needed a way to get rid of things that would otherwise kill me.

Be flexible

Team Sealed is all about getting the most out of your card pool. Sometimes the best decks are obvious – you have a bunch of good White Samurai and two Nagao that you pair with a couple of Smithers and Yamabushi’s Flame while the two Glacial Rays go with your Blue arcane deck, leaving Kodama of the South Tree and friends to hang out with the Black spirits and double Devouring Greed. But more often than not, the basic builds aren’t obvious and the tweaks are truly maddening.

In many blocks, you pretty much know the archetypes and it’s a rare card pool that goes outside of them. In Mirrodin, for example, you would always have an Affinity deck and almost always an aggressive W/r deck with equipment. There was some variety to the third deck, but not a ton.

Champions is different. The synergy can easily run across colors, and themes like spirits and arcane blend with each other in ways that can be hard to optimize. This means that if you go into your build with preconceived notions about what decks to build or if you lock in too quickly to pairing two of your colors, you may be missing out on the best build.

Chris, Bruce and I start off by identifying powerful themes, either within colors or across them (e.g. multiple Hondens, or cards like Glacial Ray or Nagao that are powerful enough singlehandedly to affect the valuations of other cards), as well as the general strengths and weaknesses of each color, which colors are base/support, etc. Then we start exploring the various fits, not getting locked into any specific deck design. Only then do we start building individual decks.

Don’t play Dampen.dec!

Most of the time this advice isn’t necessary, since it’s rare that a Team Sealed cardpool will have the tools to even try. But if you like the deck in draft, it’s almost guaranteed that you’re hoping to open one of those rare card pools. Since I’ve been drafting all sorts of different versions of Dampen I admit I was one of those hopers. During the Day-2 PTQ at GP: Chicago, we opened a cardpool that offered a very solid Dampen.dec. Two Dampens, four Etheral Haze, three Counsel of the Soratami, Peer through Depths, Reach through Mists, Consuming Vortex, two Psychic Puppetry, Petals of Insight, Eye of Nowhere, Long-Forgotten Gohei, some permission and a Red and White Honden to put the nails into the coffin.

The problem? The card pools are just too big… meaning that if you hit an opponent running a color that can sideboard against you, the odds are good that they will be able to bring in a lot more than you can handle.

Round one is a good example. I was paired against Adrian Sullivan. I was happy about that, because Adrian is not only one of the nicest guys in the world of Magic, he is also without doubt one of the sexiest. He and I had somehow never played a sanctioned game of Magic before this time. I was unhappy, however, because if anyone would figure out how best to sideboard against me, it would be Adrian.

Adrian was playing a base-Green spirit deck with multiple Hideous Laughter, some hondens and Kodama of the South Tree. You know, the good Kodama. Game one, our decks both did what they are supposed to do. Adrian brought out Soilshaper and Kodama and then attacked me for lethal damage every turn until he lost. I got to see his entire deck because he had Rootrunner in play and hoped that I might burn my Dampens in a final decking frenzy and allow him to survive by putting land on top of his library. When he tried it and I annnounced that I had an effect before he drew for his turn, he scooped.

Game two Adrian traded in his draft deck for Counter-Sliver. Or ConTroll, if you prefer. Whatever you like to call it, he boarded in four permission spells against me, as well as a Reito Lantern to make it much harder for me to deck him. He was perhaps a turn slower, but it didn’t matter because he countered two Haze/Dampens and rolled me over. Game three was much the same except I think I got a bad draw as well.

The story repeated itself throughout the day. Every Blue player brought in multiple permission spells. Black players had access to more hand destruction than I could handle. (In addition to good spells like Distress and Waking Nightmare, a total of three copies of Struggle for Sanity were boarded in against me. It’s fitting that a deck built around bad cards should be hurt so badly by another bad card.) Red players brought in Stone Rain. Even Green players could (and did!) take out the Gohei or my Hondens.

In theory there is an obvious answer to this. Win game one and then board into your secret creature deck. That was our backup plan, and in hindsight I wish I’d used it more. The problem was that the best “normal” deck we could give me wasn’t all that great. The best we could say about it was that it had game and could thus beat people who over-sideboarded to the point their deck was even worse.

If you’re tempted to run a Dampen deck, I strongly encourage you to make sure that your backup deck isn’t second-string.

Think about your Sideboarding in Advance

As noted in the discussion under Dampen.dec, Team Sealed decks offer a lot of sideboard cards. Many of them are just awful cards that are only in your sideboard because you’re the only one drafting that color – or perhaps because you register too quickly for your own good so you had to take some extra chaff.

Many cards, however, aren’t bad per se… they are just highly situational. You want to make sure that your team has the best chance of improving its matchups after boarding. This breaks down into two steps you can take before you play your first match.

First, divide the cards correctly. This goes beyond artifacts and the color(s) that are really being shared between decks. If your Green deck has two Elders and a Kodama’s Reach, it can splash almost anything. Identify the weaknesses of your decks and all the potential answers to them. Have each player identify the cards he or she would like to have, in an ideal world, and then work out the best split of cards two or more players want for their boards. (In the U/W deck above, I was given the U/B dual lands and a Pull Under for my sideboard, to make up for my lack of removal.)

It’s important when you do this to be objective for the whole team. At our first PTQ I was running a strange G/U/r deck that splashed Red for Glacial Ray and some Ryusei action. My deck had power, but was slow and I was terrified of getting rolled by Fearful rats, so we gave me the Yamabushi’s Storm for my sideboard. Bruce Cowley was running an aggressive W/R deck that had decent tricks but was extremely low on removal. My fear overpowered the fact that I had Glacial Ray and Eerie Procession to find it, whereas he might really need the removal. In hindsight, we all agreed that the Storm belonged with him rather than with me.

Second, plan out your sideboarding. In a Constructed tournament you would (or at least should) know what you plan to bring in and out for the key matchups. You can’t do that as thoroughly in a Limited event, but you should have some idea of how you will deal with situations like:

  • Your opponent’s deck is too fast for yours.

  • Your deck is better overall, but your opponent has a bomb or two that you can’t easily deal with.

  • It’s impossible to get through on the ground.

  • Your opponent decked you in game one with Dampen Thoughts.

  • Your opponent has more removal than humanly possible.

  • Your opponent has four Hondens.

Have an idea not only of what cards are coming in but also which ones are going out. And before you sit down to play, sleeve any and all cards you think you’re likely to board in. You only have a few minutes to sideboard, shuffle and present your deck, and the size of your sideboard options means that if you haven’t prepared in advance you’re unlikely to do as good a job as possible.

See you at the Team PTQs, and hopefully in Atlanta!

Hugs ’til next time,