How to build MTG a deck in sealed with Paul Mclachlan

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In a previous article, I discussed how to evaluate single cards. Today, I’m going to write about evaluating a sealed pool, how to formulate a strategy for the deck you build, and provide examples from my playing experiences. Largely, this will be an excuse for me to wax lyrical about the various fun decks I’ve gotten to play just from cracking six packs, but hopefully you’ll get something out of this too.

At the pre-release for Dark Ascension, you’re going to get three packs of Innistrad and three packs of Dark Ascension to construct your deck (more if your name is Billy “The Handsomest Cheat in Scottish Magic” Logan). That’s only eighty four cards in total. You don’t have any idea what those cards are going to be beyond that you’ll have a descending number of commons, uncommons and rares. You’ll have six flip cards for certain. That’s it. Everything else is done on the fly.

My deck building process at sealed events is to quickly sort everything by colour. I keep separate piles for each colour and one for any multicolour cards, artifacts or non-basic lands that I open. I don’t try and gauge how powerful a colour is while I’m sorting the cards or cracking my packs, as all I’m going to get is a fleeting impression. It’s only when you’ve got a full picture that you can make an informed decision. There’s been too many times I’ve cracked an Olivia Voldaren equivalent and thought “Guess I’m red/black then” only to find myself building in that direction to my detriment when there were more robust colour combinations available.

Once my OCD has been fully satisfied, I look through the various colours one at a time and build a separate pile of reasons to play that particular colour. These will typically be bombs, removal, card advantage spells or particularly useful utility creatures. I’ve talked about most of these terms in my previous article, but let me define bombs quickly. It’s a terms that gets thrown (gettit? Bombs?) around often in Magic circles, but just to make sure everyone is on the same page: a bomb is a card that can win a game, or turn the momentum of a game by itself. These are often large, evasive creatures or high casting cast spells with a large effect on the board state.

Once I’ve done this I try to eliminate some colours. This shouldn’t be too difficult. There’s always going to be a runt of the litter, sitting there with very little reason to want to play it. You should also be able to identify your stronger colours easily as well. They’ll typically be full of spells that kill creatures.

I then begin laying out my creatures from the colours that I’ll play in casting cost order and trying to determine what combination provides the best mana curve. This is a very important step, as you can win games in limited just by hitting a decent creature curve. If you’re deck cannot do this you’ve lost out on a number of free wins across the length of a tournament.

A good creature curve is not the most important thing for a limited deck, but it is an important consideration. I see decks at every pre-release that are built by players I would consider competent who’s curve is all over the place, or has too many high casting cost cards. A good first step in improving as a limited player is building a consistent deck with dudes and removal. Once you’re comfortable with this you can start getting as creative as you like.

Once you’ve gotten your main colours narrowed down it’s time to start considering your deck’s plan.

Do you have a number of high casting cost bombs? Then it’s worth considering slanting your deck in a more controlling direction. This may mean including cards that you wouldn’t have considered playable in a vacuum.

This is the story of Phil.

At the first Zendikar Prelease I built a blue/black controlling deck. The main stay of the deck was Kraken Hatchling, who I nicknamed Phil (My Kraken). Zendikar was an extremely aggressive format, with a mechanic that discouraged blocking, but Phil was tough enough to hold off the Plated Geopedes of the world and give me time to build up to my superior late game.

If you have a tight curve of creatures, but no real late game, it may be worth playing an aggressive game plan. As I’ve stated earlier, a good creature curve will gift you a few game wins across the day. I’m not a fan of building aggressive decks in sealed, but sometimes you get pool with six good two drops and no dragons and have to shrug and get your beatdown on.

The third class of deck is a specialist type. I’m hesitant to call it combo, but it’s the limited equivalent. Let’s call it the centrepiece deck. There’s been cards from the last few blocks that are definitely “build around me” cards. I’ve talked about my love for Burning Vengeance before, but let me give you a different example.

One of my habits at pre-releases is to re-build other player’s pools (something I recommend). I will offer to look at my opponents, or sometimes I will be approached and asked to do it. At the Scars of Mirrodin pre-release, one of my friends was having a crap day and was sitting on a poor record. I had a look at their pool and rebuilt their deck around their two copies of Furnace Celebration. I included cards that weren’t fantastic on their own, but helped fuel the twin Celebrations. Synergy can trump pure power level, but the pay off has to be worth the work. If you feel that your pool is weak, try looking for combinations that could pull up the overall power level.

Let’s move on from your deck’s plan to another important factor: mana. Your lands are what fuel your deck, and you should ensure that you will have a consistent mana base. This can lead you to cut Spectral Rider from your W/B deck so you’ll be able to cast Victim of Night with greater regularity.

It’s also important to knowing when to splash off-colour cards. These should only require one off-colour mana source as a rule of thumb. You don’t want to have a deck that reqires WW UU and BB to cast all it’s spells. These sorts of mana bases will result in you haemorrhaging wins as you struggle to attain the right mix of lands. The types of cards that you should be considering splashing should be high impact; basically just removal and bombs. You shouldn’t be messing up your mana base to support a textless 3/3 flyer for five mana.

You’ll find the most support for splashing a third colour in green, but there are artifacts available that can often ease a splash – like Traveller’s Amulet in Innistrad. I’m usually against splashing a third colour unless my two main colours are lacking removal or there’s a bomb that’s too good not to play, but there have been examples where a varied mana base was the way to go.

My M11 sealed pool for the first pre-release springs to mind as a good example of this. It was a Green/Black base with splashes for red (Fireball) and blue (Foresee). Cultivate was just that good, and I had a couple of them. I even got to use Grave Titan as counter-bait in that tournament so I could Fireball my opponent to death.

Well, hopefully these ramblings have been useful. I don’t really know how to conclude the article so I’m just going to list the cards that I had in the most powerful sealed pool I’ve ever had the fortune of receiving: 3 x Hideous End, 2 x Disfigure, Marsh Casualties, Gatekeeper of Malakir, Vampire Nighthawk and Sphinx of Jwar Isle, plus some other dudes and land.

Thanks for reading,

Paul Mclachlan

P.S. Things I’ve done in pre-release tournaments with “joke” decks in game two: Burned my opponent to death with an Angel’s Mercy on the stack when they were on nine. Killed someone with three Angel tokens from a Sigil of the Empty Throne. Anyone else out there got any interesting sealed stories?


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