The sealed format is a fickle mistress and I am only beginning the journey of learning the key to her heart. Today, I will bring you a tale of two launch parties. In the first act, things go well. In the second act, things go horribly awry. By the end, the protagonist and the audience hope to learn something important about life.
Act One – Friday Night
I stroll into Beyond Comics from work (and therefore sans-progeny) with enough lead time to acquire and consume a Chipotle vegetarian burrito with brown rice, black beans, a dab of sour cream, a little bit of cheese, lettuce, salsa verde, approximately seventeen pounds of guacamole and a quarter jar of green Tabasco sauce. Lead time is also important because I am obsessed with completing a reasonable amount of digestion before the later rounds of the event, where I hope to have a good record and be playing against the best decks there. I blame Noyan for this pathology.
I met Noyan for the first time at a Star City Games event in Baltimore. We casually bumped into each other as a result of being paired for a feature match at the camera table on Sunday, playing Legacy. My theory is that Star City Games wanted to troll the audience and commentators by pairing together the two hardest-to-pronounce last names in attendance. Duewel-Zahniser v. Tokgozoglu. Gesundheit.
Noyan and I kept in contact after the match and at one point Noyan explained that he always loses the round after he eats food in a large tournament. He linked this to a study showing that the digestion process draws blood from the brain and decreases brain power. This apparently manifests in misplays, oversights and generally sub-optimal Magic performance. I started observing my own recent-food-consumption-to-match-loss correlation and concluded that either Noyan is right or he has cursed me with a self-fulfilling prophecy. So I eat my Chipotle burrito with approximately 1:15 left until the deck construction portion should begin. One day, Noyan, I will have my revenge! (Note: Noyan says he got this from Drew Levin, but I have already chosen my target and I can’t switch while the ability is still on the stack.)
Fast forward to the point where the Tournament Organizer passes around our packs, goes through the announcements and it’s time to open our product. I skip the smell of the packs this time due to a wicked head cold and instead listen to the sound of the packs being torn open. A few players use teeth. A few split from the middle. A few, including myself, tear from the top down. It’s a great sound and you should pause to take it in. You’ll have plenty of time to build.
I survey my pool and see a few interesting blue and white cards, but not much removal. I usually start first by considering whether or not I have a blue and white deck. This is my stand by. I play it well. I know the values of the cards. Since Innistrad, I’ve never lost two rounds in an event with the combination. Unfortunately, my only removal is a Smite the Monstrous and a Griptide. The curve isn’t exciting and it’s a bit thin for two colors. Green isn’t exciting either, so I settle down to seeing what I can build with red and black.
I am a big fan of the red/black aggro archetype in draft. It was difficult to assemble in 3x Innistrad drafts, but when it came together and you got enough removal it could be a beautiful thing. In looking at red and black, it looked very much like a red/black aggro deck that I would draft (although missing Bump in the Night!.)
Here’s the deck:
One Stromkirk Captain short of taking over as the new Old Spice guy. The major decision when assembling this deck was whether to use fewer vampires–specifically the 1RR Erdwal Rippers and lean on the Traveler’s Amulet to splash blue for Griptide, Think Twice and a few other spells. In the end, I decided that I still prefer the consistency of two colors when the option presents itself.
I was nervous (foreshadowing: unjustifiably) about this deck because it’s dependent on a number of low-toughness creatures. From my prior event and article, I was concerned with the power of first strike in this format and I incorrectly looked at my list and thought: this loses to Selhoff Occultist. And Armored Skaab, Fortress Crab, Mausoleum Guard and others. What I failed to take into account was the fact that I had 7-9 removal, depending on how you count–many of them even cheap to cast. I did recognize that I could play an aggressive game and lean on Heretic’s Punishment for reach. I also considered the combination of Heretic’s Punishment and Manor Gargoyle to be absolutely perfect for breaking a stalled board or comfortably burning out my opponent on their back foot in the mid game.
The evening’s best play sequence went like this:
I run a Neonate into a blocker and trade. I cast Wakedancer with Morbid and make a zombie. My opponent casts Tribute to Hunger on my next turn. I cast Undying Evil on my Wakedancer and sacrifice it to the Tribute. Wakedancer returns to play as a 3/3 with Morbid and makes another zombie.
The sound that followed was every tire in the parking lot of the store blowing out simultaneously.
At any rate, please enjoy some short-form match notes. I will tell you in advance that I carved through the event like a hot Butcher’s Cleaver through Avabruckian goat butter.
Round 1 – Tom w/ 5cc Lich – on the play
I remember Tom from a Legacy tournament about half an hour up the interstate. He played Merfolk in the finals against Enchantress (ow) and had me record part of the match with his HD video recorder. I was sitting next to him during deck construction and was aware that he was playing at least four colors and had 4-5 land fixing spells and was jamming all his best cards that don’t require two of one color.
In the first game, Tom starts with a mulligan of six lands and my life total does not change from 20. The Wakedancer blowout occurs and I roll him over with bodies while he’s busy fixing his mana.
In the second game, we go back and forth and he’s able to use Fires of Undeath once to keep parity with my board. After using and then losing a Tree of Redemption, we get down to where I have 2 life and he has 1 life. I am dead to Fires of Undeath if he draws a single land and flashes it back but he does not draw a land and I am able to finish him off.
1-0 (2-0 in games)
Round 2 – George w/ Travel Preparations – on the draw
I was happy with how my curve worked out in the first round, but I was worried that playing against a more consistent deck would highlight the toughness weakness of my deck. But, no looking back.
Game 1 – I have to take a mulligan due to a landless hand. George plays end of turn three Midnight Haunting and untaps into double Travel Preparations. I get worried, but I have outs. I start to develop my board, which includes a Markov Blademaster. Unfortunately, he plays Hunger of the Howlpack and I’m facing an even worse token that is out of Brimstone Volley range. I drop from 12 to 5. Luckily, I am able to kill the biggest token with Wrack with Madness and my Blademaster strengthens. I then have heart attack number two, wherein he plays an Executioner’s Hood and suddenly has Intimidate on his token. I thought I was so close. Luckily, I draw an Erdwal Ripper which has haste and take him from a lot to 0 with a large Blademaster and a Ripper as he’s tapped out and I have one life. Moral: nothing is out of reach.
Game 2 – George starts turn 2 with a Gather the Townsfolk. On turn three, he casts a single Travel Preparations and starts the clock. However, since he is tapped out, I’m able to sneak in an Edrwal Ripper, which goes up to 3/2. On George’s turn, he plays out a blocker and gets in for another attack. I am able to remove his blocker and get in with the Ripper again. At this point, we both begin building up boards and trading damage. I think this favors me since I have burn and he does not. In the end, I grind him out for the win at 7 life.
At this point, I’m quite confident in my deck. It beat the nut and semi-nut draw from Travel Preparations two games in a row.
2-0 (4-0 in games)
Round 3 – Christjon w/ BW Humans – on the play
Game 2 – This game takes a while and proves to be quite the grind. I mulligan for lands and keep my 6. Christjon has a good curve of creatures and a Jar of Eyeballs. I’m interested to see how this card works out given that I haven’t been able to play with it yet. Bottom line, we play an attrition game which causes him to get extreme value out of the Jar. The game eventually breaks open when I draw Heretic’s Punishment again. Finally, with six cards left in the library, I am able to burn him out at 4 life to his 3 right about when his Jar has looped around to digging through the less useful cards he had previously stashed on the bottom as rejects.
The match to the left of me will determine my final round opponent. There is a black, white and red deck with several Skirsdag Cultists and Vault of the Archangel. It’s playing against an America deck which is effectively UW Tempo/Fliers splashing for some removal. The America pilot was hanging out before the event and apparently took first place in a six round sealed launch party at a different store.
As they play, the America pilot remarks that he has seen my deck and seen me play and is worried about playing me. He hopes that he wins so that he can negotiate a split. Since I prefer this outcome, I encourage him by saying things like “haven’t dropped a game yet” and “I think I’m favored.” Unfortunately, as the America pilot is taking over the game in turns, the Vault of the Archangel comes online and the game ends in a draw. This means a pair down and less chance for a split. Boo.
3-0 (6-0 in games)
Round 4 – John w/ America – on the play
I end up getting paired down against the America pilot who does not want to play against me. We look at the generous prize structure and conclude that I can actually concede to him in exchange for a pack and it ends up with me getting the same prizes as a draw but with him getting more than he would with a loss or a draw. So this is a no-brainer and we sign the slip before playing.
Game 1 – I kill everything he plays and mow him down quickly without losing any life. Manor Gargoyle ensures my FLAWLESS VICTORY.
Game 2 – This game turns into quite a grind. I will spare you the gory details, but I win from 4 life to his 7 by casting Heretic’s Punishment, untapping, firing it off twice and doing enough damage to make an otherwise unfavorable attack and finish him off.
“3-1” (8-0 in games)
I open my prize packs and there is no Sorin or Huntmaster, so I lose money.
I was impressed with the performance of the deck. However, I think it was something of a perfect storm. The main lesson I learned here is that the cards did more work than I did. Here are some thoughts on which ones impressed me and failed to impress me in turn:
A few people told me that they thought this card was just okay. In my experience, it was quite insane. It effectively acts as a counter for removal. It also allows you to trade up high power, low toughness creatures up to two times, which can help in an aggressive deck. I also found it to play really well with morbid, and to make cards like Black Cat and Markov Patrician even more punishing than normal. I would be happy to pick this card in draft. If anyone tells you otherwise, they aren’t playing it correctly. It comes in the first pack in draft, so you should be able to maximize it well. I can imagine it being strong in black/white on Elder Cathar, for example.
Dark Ascension creatures are low in toughness and this can even kill several undying creatures twice.
Although I wouldn’t play this in a controlling deck unless it was a curve-filler, this was quite good in an aggressive strategy. It takes some of the sting out of having to trade evenly on creatures early on without getting damage in.
I felt that this card was the red Smite the Monstrous. It’s a solid card. Hard to pass, does great work. It kills things like flipped Ludevic’s Test Subject, kills Olivia, Bloodline Keeper, etc. But there are annoying cards like Fortress Crab against which it’s pretty lame. And it’s a bit slow.
This card was hit or miss. Some games, it was basically a blocker. Other games, it took over the board. If you pick this card early, you need every piece of cheap removal or pump that you can get.
These guys were better than I anticipated. I was constantly able to bait attacks and sneak them in for value when my opponent was tapped out. Again, this is an aggro card and it likes cheap removal. But there’s not a huge amount of haste in the format, so people tend to not count it in their race math. I would rather have one of these and a Nightbird’s Clutches than two of them.
Did you play Scars draft? Remember Pith Driller? If you’re in black, Farbog Boneflinger is your new best friend. If you don’t remember Pith Driller, I’ll say this: you’d be surprised how many creatures the Boneflinger kills. He’s usually going to be a two-for-one and even when he doesn’t kill something, he can make some blocks unprofitable and then chump, helping with race math.
I hope this helps you evaluate your chances of building or drafting the new red/black aggro archetype, post-Dark Ascension. Curtains fall on act one.
Act Two – Saturday Afternoon
Coming off of a pretty decisive win, I was excited for another release event. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t get another perfect storm of vampiric slaughter. What I was hoping for was a nice Esper build. The combination of flying, undying, combat tricks and removal seems like the strongest baseline for any compatible card pool.
Unfortunately, here is what I end up building instead:
My pool was awful. I had some good cards (many of which you see above), but they were split across all five colors, with no colors deep enough to play two or even to do a light third color splash. To field enough creatures to have a solid deck, I had to split somewhat evenly across three. I had five two-drops in the entire pool, three of which are in this deck. My only white removal was a Fiend Hunter and blue had only a single Griptide, but not Silent Departure and no other cards I was excited to play. So I settled on Jund and tried to work out the best curve and plan I could. Here are the cards I did not want to play, but played anyway:
Orchard Spirit #2 – Although not the worst card to have, I would have preferred another two-drop. I was also concerned that the Spirits were unlikely to trade in combat and maximize my Spider Spawning.
Chosen of Markov – Only four vampires to flip this and half of them are at the same spot on the curve. Just awkward.
Bloodcrazed Neonate – Not enough removal or pump tricks to make this do much other than trade with their worst creature. Again, Captain or bust.
Pyreheart Wolf – With some more one and two-drops, this would have been a nice aggro card. As it was, my curve was so bad and I was so reactive that it was just never a good drop. It also did almost nothing alongside the Orchard Spirits. I still think this card is strong and I’d like to try it again in a different deck.
In retrospect, I maybe should have run a second Caravan Vigil over one of the three drops. Although, as you’ll see from my matches, I don’t think that would have mattered either. There were no other viable candidates for these slots, so the notes above are just why I thought the cards were sub-optimal for the deck. Maybe the decision will actually matter for you and I’ll have helped!
Round 1 – James w/ Esper – on the play
James is one of my teammates, and we’d had lunch over an hour before the event at what is arguably the saddest Chinese restaurant I have ever experienced.
We actually play a game before the event starts. I curve out pretty well. He flips Ludevic’s Test Subject and I kill it with Wrack of Madness and win. I should have saved this game for the actual round. Although, in my defense, I didn’t know we would be paired.
Game 1 – I mulligan a no-lander into a hand with four land and three reasonably-curved spells. I then draw another four land in a row and my three spells can’t handle his tempo.
Game 2 – I’m keeping pace and making favorable attacks until he plays and flips his Test Subject again. This time, I have three outs: Furor of the Bitten, Kessig Wolf Run and Wrack with Madness. I draw a land and die. I’d boarded in the Furor because his card pool was better than mine, but his removal was slow and limited, so Furor seemed like a good option. I needed to lower my curve. I didn’t main deck it because it was too greedy in three colors, even with the fixing I had. I think that was correct.
Round 2 – Jared w/ Bant – on the draw
Game 1 – I die on turn 10 with a hand full of green cards and no forest.
Game 2 – He mulligans twice and I crush him in an uninteresting fashion with my massive concentration of three drops.
Game 3 – He has to mulligan. I keep a four land, three spell hand. I then proceed to draw five land in a row. Finally, I draw a spell in Caravan Vigil. Then, next turn, I draw Dawntreader Elk. Then, get this, I proceed to draw land every turn until I have fourteen land on the battlefield. I finally draw Spider Spawning, but I only have the Elk and two other creatures in the yard, so he still dispatches me with his well-established board presence.
At this point, I’m frustrated because I feel like there’s nothing I could have done. No game in this match felt skill intensive and I was on the wrong side of the shuffle failure.
Round 3 – Vanouled w/ Esper – on the draw
Game 1 – we play a pretty solid game of even back-and-forths. His card pool was again stronger than mine. I write down Feeling of Dread and Tragic Slip to play around. The card that kills me however, is Increasing Devotion. I was fine the first time, but he got me on the flashback. Ah, to have good bombs.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I board in Scorch the Fields.
I think this card is generally terrible, but as I flip through my sideboard options, I realize that it’s probably my only out to a resolved Increasing Devotion. That’s important since my deck is so slow. Not only does it wipe the first pass of tokens, but it kills a land and makes it very hard to flash back. I would basically never draft this under any circumstances. Increasing Devotion is a narrow target, but I would keep this in mind if you get it as a 14th or 15th pick or find it in your sealed pool as I did.
Game 2 – I have to mulligan a no-lander. I Keep four land, a 2-drop, and a 3-drop. Solid enough on the play. Unfortunately, I then proceed to draw four land in a row before my third spell off the top and lose.
I get the bye in round 4. The DCI pairings algorithm takes into account suicide risk. Little known fact.
I end up with a randomly doled out pack. There is no Sorin or Huntmaster, so I lose money.
I really don’t have much positive to say about the cards in this deck. My only strong impression was that Wild Hunger is probably very, very good. But it requires a better curve to maximize. I still believe Undying Evil is amazing, but I didn’t draw or get to use it all day and I suspect the only synergy I could have maximized was probably the Morkrut Banshee. Oh, that would have been beautiful. But I continue to believe that this card is good and I look forward to drafting it in the future and talking about all the sick blowouts I achieve.
Magic is a game of both skill and variance. We all know this. In fact, most of us probably would not play if it weren’t true. Every given match, game or tournament is a balance between skill and variance. You have two key tools to minimize variance.
The first tool is deck building. In limited, here are some core principles of deck building to minimize variance:
Have a good curve. Some games are won simply by playing a decent card each turn and making good decisions with them.
Generally speaking, don’t run more than 40 cards. Why would you want to draw the 41st card if it’s the worst one in your deck?
Have enough lands and balance your color sources well. Always ensure that you have the best possible chance of keeping your first hand and casting whatever you draw over the course of a game.
Build with a plan in mind. Know what you’re trying to accomplish so that you have a compass each time you come to a decision.
The second tool is play skill. If you watched the semi-finals of Pro Tour Honolulu with Kibler vs. Finkel, you may have caught Brian David-Marshall repeating one of my favorite Magic quotes: “good players make their own luck.” Through practice, good habits, preparation, mindfulness, deliberate play and strategic thinking, you can put yourself in a position to win against variance at that moment when the coin briefly flips in your favor. Neglect these things and you can also put yourself in a position to lose even when the coin flips in your favor.
But the big lesson I learned from these two diametrically opposed Sealed event experiences (other than that I prefer drafting) is that sometimes, especially in Sealed where variance is at its highest in all major formats, the coin just doesn’t flip in your favor. And that’s fine. It happens to everyone. My biggest mistake all day Saturday was that I should have maximized the fun I could have in the company of my friends. I’m a big boy. If I don’t win a few packs on a given day, I can probably just buy them. Or go get ice cream.
That’s it for this installment. Thanks for reading and supporting me. As always, please leave a comment or drop me a line if you have any feedback or questions. I write because you read. And do let me know if there’s any topic you’d like me to cover. I have a somewhat Limited set of writing skills (pun intended), but they’re here for your enjoyment.
Stay tuned for the next episode in which I chronicle my first Dark Ascension draft report. Next time in “Heavy Mattock in the Haunted Attic.”
Cue exit music.
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