I’m excited. My friends are excited. You should probably be excited too. Because this weekend is Grand Prix Liverpool!
Three long months after my last GP (in Milan, we’ll skim lightly over that one), I’m finally going to be sleeving up alongside a couple of thousand other Magic players, including the best in Europe and even further afield. I really can’t wait. I just love GPs. Most of all, I love doing well in them.
This weekend those of us heading into the main event – and a good chunk of the fun lovers mucking about in the side events as well – will be tackling Fate Reforged Sealed, a format that’s probably the toughest of its kind since I’ve started playing. Because I’m a caring kind of guy, I’d like to run through my strategy for building a Sealed deck, both overall and in the current format.
DON’T start with the rares!
Part of my reasoning for putting this piece together is that Sealed deck is a format that gets undeserving lip service from strategy writers. When I read articles purporting to demonstrate how to play in any given sealed environment, I see far too many authors conflating Draft strategy with Sealed, and I read horrible, horrible sentences like “first up, take a look at your rares”.
NEVER start with the rares! That’s how dreadful decks happen!
Now I’ve calmed down sufficiently to continue (and made it nice and clear that I get pretty passionate about Limited). I’ll lay out my overview of how you should be aiming to put your pool together this weekend, using an example pool I opened in a recent Sealed Daily on MTGO.
Now, let’s start by cracking half a dozen packs…
Hmm. Nice Crater’s Claws, right?
Gotcha. STOP LOOKING AT THE RARES!
OK. So having firmly established that bomb detection comes later on, where do we start?
Start with mana.
Well, the first step in this format – and not necessarily one you need to worry about in most other Sealed formats – is to lay out your mana. Before you set your mind to anything else in your pool, find all of the non-basic lands and Clan Banners and lay them out in a row.
This format is heavily multicolour, and it’s extremely rare that you’ll open enough strong cards in any given two-colour combination to play just those colours. As such, you’ll ideally be aiming to play three colours, with four a possibility if the mana permits it.
This is why checking the state of your mana is vital. Looking at the example,
and no Clan Banners of any type.
Straight away I know that Black is the base colour that will give the best mana for splashes, and Sultai (BUG) is the easiest wedge combination to build a mana base from. I also know that I can scratch any possibility of playing, for instance, straight three-colour Jeskai (UWR). I just won’t have the mana to consistently cast my spells game after game.
Ideally, you want to have a deck composed of two base colours, and a third splash colour, with the heaviness of the splash dictated by your fixing. You should only go for a fourth colour if:
- You’re fortunate enough to open exceptional fixing (it does happen for fortune to smile down to us).
- Your pool is so weak that the only way you can build a deck with a reasonable power level is to run four colours (in this case you run a brave attempt to salvage a train wreck).
Even then, I’d strongly advise erring on the side of consistency over power, after all it doesn’t matter how good your spells are, if they’re stuck in your hand. A four-colour deck should be a sign of either good fortune, or a brave attempt to salvage a train wreck.
In terms of the number of sources of any given colour you want, your base colours should ideally be run off of a minimum of eight sources. In truth, nine or more won’t be possible very often, but you should try to avoid going down to seven sources of a colour if your deck leans heavily on it. Especially if that colour provides multiple double-casting cost spells or a high percentage of your early game plays.
Once you go down below seven sources, you’re well within the territory of a splash colour. Most splashes should be run off of five, ideally six sources. Once you get below five sources, you just won’t be able to cast those spells often enough to make it worthwhile in most decks. And you want to play new sweet cards, right?
One fallacy I want to call out right now is the idea that splashing a morph off of two or three sources is “free”. The logic runs that if you draw the land to flip the morph, great, and if you don’t, well, you have a Gray Ogre. The thing is, a Gray Ogre isn’t likely to be a worthwhile addition to your deck, and when the sources you’re splashing off come in to play tapped (for the most part), you can cost yourself dearly in tempo, even if the cost to your mana base is minimal. I’d avoid these “mini-splashes” if I were you.
Then check quality and depth.
Right, now that we’ve established what our options are colour-wise, it’s time to take a look at the cards themselves. Firstly, I like to run through my pool and set aside anything that I consider unplayable, or at best a “twenty-third card”. I’ll leave opinions on what constitutes a playable card to others, but one way or the other this is where Lens of Clarity you opened should pitch up. Maybe you have to come back later and pull out that Archers of Qarsi to make up the numbers, but for now I’d exclude it from the building process.
That done, the next step is to check and see if any of your colours are particularly lacking in depth. Often this is evident from your first run through, but either way I believe the best way to get a good overview of your pool is to start laying cards out by mana cost, left to right. Just like you’d see your pool online, to give you the best visual oversight of how each colour interacts with others on the curve. So once I’d cut the chaff, my Sealed Daily Event pool looked like this:
I swear I didn’t put the bomb rares at the front just to distract you. Seriously though, you still shouldn’t be factoring the power of your rares in just yet.
Then look two or three possible colours’ combinations.
What we can see here is that sadly, whilst Black gives us a lot of mana support, it is severely thin on the ground in quality cards. Right away I’m putting any mono-Black card that I don’t consider splashable to one side. Green, also, is pretty weak here. It has a good potential curve, but the card quality is just too low overall to justify running it as a base colour.
One thing I’ll note here is that at this stage of the building process I’ll be making a lot of snap judgements about colours or cards that I won’t be playing. Now, I once saw a great Frank Karsten article in which he broke down a Sealed pool by running through every vaguely plausible build and colour combination and assessing its strengths and weaknesses. If you’re Frank Karsten, and therefore a bit of a genius, that’s great, but for the rest of us mere mortals, there just isn’t enough time to adequately weigh up the merits of every plausible build.
The short minutes you get to spend on deck building at a GP simply disappear. You need to use the first 5 to 10 minutes of deck construction to narrow down your options as much as possible. Give yourself enough time to look over two or three possible builds. See the optimal version of each one. Here, I already know that I am excluding any base-Black or base-Green deck, and any three-colour deck which isn’t supported by my mana, such as Jeskai or Temur. There’s no point wasting time on these possibilities, when time is in such fleeting supply.
Now, you should look at rares.
So having narrowed down which colour combinations I can feasibly play, it’s time to finally put some decks together. And, yes, NOW you can start looking at your rares and working out how they fit into the possible colour combinations. It’s my firmly held belief that the power level of your high-end cards should be less of a priority than a good, consistent curve and a clear plan for the deck. See that Siege Rhino? It’s a great card, but I’m never playing it, because Abzan is clearly not a good option aside from that one bomb.
If you find yourself choosing between two builds of roughly even consistency, then bombs are a very reasonable tiebreaker, but that’s just about as far as I’ll go. And sure, if I opened a pool with two Wingmate Rocs and a Citadel Siege, or some equally obscene combination, then I’ll move heaven and earth to run White. Beyond that though, try to remember that you’re not trying to play good cards. You’re trying to play a good deck. If your deck isn’t good, those beautiful rares won’t show their true power.
In the search for that good deck I started by looking at Red-White, which had grabbed me as the most obvious possibility due to the large number of decent Red cards, due to the good curve which we can see quickly because of the way we laid out our deck, and the double War Flare, which hinted at the possibility of a cohesive weenie-rush plan.
Not a bad 23 actually, but it’s made a little awkward by having too few creatures at the three-drop slot, creatures that are a bit too weak at the two-drop slot, and a couple of average six-drops that don’t mesh so well with the overall strategy. I do, however, have two Scoured Barrens, so I checked out the possibility of Mardu:
Now we’re getting somewhere. Adding Black gives me a bomb in Kolaghan, the Storm’s Fury and access to decent early drops in Mardu Hateblade and Debilitating Injury. I trimmed a War Flare as I just didn’t have the right concentration of tiny creatures to make it more than just an OK combat trick and an occasional surprise finisher.
This deck is, overall, fine but not much more. It has a reasonable curve, a coherent enough plan, and a moderate power level. The mana is OK, but no better than that.
My next point of call was Red-Blue. Blue didn’t have super-powerful cards, but laying them out by mana cost showed me from the start that they could give me the solid curve I wanted. Blue-Red itself was a little lacking in quality, but thanks to those three Blue-Black sources, I could take a look at splashing for the two rare dragons in my pool and see how that looked:
This is better – and indeed what I ended up playing. The curve is close enough to perfect as makes no difference, there’s a good balance between aggressive creatures, tempo tricks and strong removal, and a couple of stone-cold bombs to top everything off.
The only significant downside was the mana, where I was forced to run seven Red and Blue sources to allow me six Black, which I felt was important if I wanted to reliably cast an early Debilitating Injury and ensure I was able to play my dragons in the end game. It’s very probable I should have had one more Red source in place of Swamp and settled for Smoldering Efreet or the second Sultai Skullkeeper over the Debilitating Injury, especially with multiple double-Red cards, but errors happen even in the best-regulated deck-building sessions I suppose.
Ultimately I ended up finishing a measly 2-2 after suffering a pretty unbelievable slew of mana floods. And that’s the final lesson here: no matter how well you build your pool, no matter how flawlessly you play. This is Magic. This is Sealed. Sometimes variance will come round your place and punch you right in the face.
If you play well but get mana-screwed out, or if you just run into the guy who opened mono-planeswalkers, don’t get mad about it. You’re at a GP, and not only are there about five hundred side events running, you’re taking a weekend off in a great city surrounded by awesome people. And even if you choose to ignore all of my advice about building a Sealed pool completely, take this one thing on board – whether you come out clutching a trophy or wind up with a 0-3 drop, there’s no excuse for not having a great time.
Community Question: Which Dragonlord are you planning to choose at the Dragons of Tarkir Prerelease?
Best of luck!