Initial Thoughts on Return to Ravnica Sealed by Tom Harle
Right, so after sadly being unable to make the Prerelease for Return to Ravnica I’ve now done enough sealed decks and drafts to vaguely think I know some things worth talking about it this awesome new format.
Practice! Practice! Practice!
Firstly: It’s very hard. No, harder than that. Bit more. Yeah that hard. All of the sealed decks I’ve opened and seen have been very difficult to build – the combination of powerful gold cards and limited mana fixing is very complex and knowing when to go for a more consistent build and when to get greedy with your splash colour(s) is going to be very key.
Sadly it’s often very difficult to tell whether you’ve built your sealed deck correctly as you just don’t really play enough games with it to get a large enough sample size and even the most consistent deck will get colour screwed occasionally but if you’re planning on doing some sealed PTQs I can’t recommend practising some sealed decks enough. If you can do some casually with some friends and actually try out the different builds and see how they feel – although it won’t give you a definitive answer it’s a lot better than just trying a single build and throwing the sealed deck away when you get knocked out of the tournament.
Mana! Mana! Mana!
One of the biggest flaws of the sealed format is how much of a slave you are to your mana – some pools just don’t open any mana fixing at all and you’re really at a massive disadvantage if you’re just playing basic lands and hoping, although that will happen. I think it’ll usually be right to let your mana fixing guide you – in the sealed deck I played at the Reading PTQ I happened to have 2 Azorius Guildgates so splashed for an Archon of the Triumvirate and left my 2 Stab Wound‘s in my sideboard – had they been Golgari Guildgates (I was base GW) then it would have been the other way around.
Draft is a very different beast as you’re crafting your deck over the 3 packs. I’ve not done as many drafts but can see that the Guildgates and mana fixing in general vary wildly in pick order from deck to deck. Straight 2 colour aggro decks are much more common in RB and GW, it seems and you can cope much easier without the fixing in them. Straight Azorius isn’t something I’ve seen drafted a lot – it tends to either be a splash of Blue in GW or a straight 3 colour UWR deck from the few drafts I’ve seen – and obviously the closer you are to 3 colours rather than 2 and a splash the more the Guildgates go up in value.
It’s definitely worth bearing in mind that they come into play tapped too – having an early land drop affect your curve can be terrible for an aggro deck (ie Rakdos) where as a slower midrange (Golgari) or 3 colour control (Azorius/Izzet) can afford to lose the tempo more.
Actually playing the game
Finally, actually playing the games is very difficult – there’s a lot of instants: combat tricks like Giant Growth and Common Bond, instant removal like Annihilating Fire or Auger Spree, bounce like Dramatic Rescue and even Hexproof from Mizzium Skin. Trying to work out which spells your opponent is most likely to have and how best to play around them is very hard but can be massively rewarding when you get it right.
Being the defending player and forcing your opponent to cast the first combat trick after blockers is actually pretty relevant so if you’re thinking of blocking and pumping, or regenerating, or something make sure they pass priority to you first – I’ve seen a few people block and immediately tap out giving the attacker free reign to cast whatever they want. Similarly it’s worth saving your tricks for when it matters and on the right creatures.
If they’re tapped out then you’re obviously safe casting your pump spell, but if they respond to your Common Bond with a Giant Growth that’s bad times for you. Similarly if you peak too soon and use your pump spell to stop your 2 drops trading then you won’t have anything left to deal with their Golgari Longlegs or similar – don’t just cast your spells because you can, think about how much advantage you’re gaining and if you might have a better spot later.
It’s definitely a very bomby format so most decks will usually have at least 1 or 2 of the very powerful uncommons or rares and saving your removal to deal with them can be key.
Overall I think it’s probably the most difficult set Wizards has ever made in terms of deck building, drafting and playing and I personally think that’s awesome – it creates a lot of really interesting game states and a lot of challenges and ways for people to outplay each other.
Now on to a few more specifics – firstly I’ve been very underwhelmed by Blue as a colour – it’s generally regarded that Izzet is the weakest guild and I think thats party due to the lack of good commons in blue: Vassal Soul, Tower Drake, Runewing and Isperia’s Skywatch are all playable cards and would have even been good to very good in previous formats but Return to Ravnica has a lot of big creatures due to gold cards being under-costed and the unleash mechanic, so making smaller flyers isn’t as good in this format as it has been. Coupled with the fact that there’s 2 common creatures with high toughness and reach (Trestle Troll and Towering Indrik) rather than the usual one makes me less impressed with the flyers deck that I usually would be.
Stealer of Secrets is a very marginal card in this format too – it’s great if you can detain a bunch of their blocker and keep hitting and drawing cards but it just doesn’t happen that often in practice, and doesn’t really fit anywhere into the Izzet decks. Frostburn Weird is the only very good Blue card at common and he fit’s quite nicely into the heavier Red Rakdos decks too so shouldn’t be going too late in draft.
I’ve heard a few people talking about an Izzet aggro deck but I think it’s more likely that Izzet should be drafted as a CounterBurn style deck – Goblin Electromancer makes a lot of the slightly overcosted blue instants and sorcerys very appealing – turning Cancel into Counterspell and curving nicely into T3 Essence Backlash or Inspiration. These two work especially well together as you can draw 2 if they play around your open counter mana – similarly with Hussar Patrol if you can splash W.
Play or Draw first?
One of the biggest questions with a new limited format is should you be playing first or drawing? Personally I’ve been having a lot of success choosing to draw in sealed but like everything in Magic it’s very deck dependent – more so your opponents deck than yours. If you’re playing against Rakdos or a fast GW or UW aggro deck then you probably want to choose to play but against the more midrange grindy decks the extra card is better.
In sealed Green and White are the two deepest colours so I’ve found that most sealed decks are usually either of both of these two as their main colours – this doesn’t tend to lead to the fastest decks in sealed so most of the time drawing first will be correct. One of the biggest considerations is the fact that it’s a gold format and you’ll often be playing 3+ colours, usually meaning your more likely to mulligan to find the correct lands. Being on the draw with 6 against 7 on the play is a much more preferable proposition than being on the play with 6 against 7 on the draw.
There does tend to be quite a lot of good playable creatures with higher toughness than power too which helps stabilize the board and devalues the power of 2 drops, things like Brushstrider have gone down in my estimates as often a Trestle Troll, Towering Indrik or Voidwielder turns up to invalidate your smaller monsters.
This leads me on to probably the most important thing – sideboarding. You should be sideboarding a lot in this format, not least because you’ve probably mis-built your deck in some way (it’s very hard to get things perfect off the bat and 2-3 rounds of games will give you a whole wealth of more information) but also because the different guilds play so differently.
Cards like Concordia Pegasus are pretty good against Azorius with their 2/1 two drop and multiple 2 power fliers but don’t really block anything good out of Rakdos or impact the board enough vs Golgari or Selesna to be that great maindeck. Similarly Brushstrider is actually quite good against Rakdos as he trades with both Thrill-Kill Assassin and Gore-Chain Walker and surviving the early rush is really all you want against Rakdos.
As Sam Black very rightly pointed out on SCG: flying as an ability isn’t that great against Rakdos – most of their guys will be unleashed and can’t block anyway – so you’re basically overpaying for your power/toughness stats. I’d be quite happy boarding out something like Zanikev Insect for the arguably much worse Catacomb Slug against Rakdos just because they can be so fast and aggressive you really want the earlier drop and more toughness.
Swapping colours altogether?
The other big sideboarding thing that people won’t do enough is swapping out whole colours and totally changing your build. It’s very common for a sealed deck to have 2 or more decent builds without much to pick between them, once you know what you’re opponent is playing you can make a much more informed decision about which deck is better in the matchup. ie. Boarding into a deck with Stab Wounds and Annihilating Fire against a deck with multiple Doorkeepers and Mercurial Chemister.
Obviously this is much easier to do Online but I’ve sometimes struggled to rebuild the deck in the 3 mins they provide so make sure to save the alternate decks out for quick sideboarding. Similarly in real life make sure to use the deck construction time to work out alternative builds and sleeve up the cards that you might want to sideboard in – de- and re-sleeving 40 cards between games doesn’t give any time to think about what you actually want to play and, of course, you can’t lay out your cards to see mana curve etc. with your opponent in front of you.
Well, hopefully that’s given you something to think about and good luck with the PTQ season if you’re playing.
Thanks for reading, thanks for sharing.