Eldritch Moon’s appearance has been a breath of fresh air for me and my friends who booster draft and play a lot of sealed deck. Shadows over Innistrad has been fun to draft and play sealed with, there’s nothing wrong with it at all, but everybody is ready for a change at some point, a chance to play something new.
A week past the initial giddiness of the prereleases, two dozen players took the challenge of competitive Eldritch Moon sealed deck in Denton, Texas, with a seat at the next Regional Pro Tour Qualifier on the line. The tournament was run by one of Texas’ two longest standing DCI judges, Jim Shuman. I happen to be the other. Both of us will be celebrating our twentieth anniversary in sanctioned judging later this year. We each took our first judge exams at Pro Tour Dallas in November, 1996. These days, Jim Shuman owns a modest but nice comic and game store called Madness Comics and Games. The cost of this sealed deck Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifier was only twenty-five dollars. There’s a catch. The only prize awarded in this tournament was the first prize seat in an upcoming RPTQ. The only way to win any booster packs was to finish in the top eight so that you could play in the top eight booster draft. Still, just twenty-five dollars. Plenty of places charge twice as much for a sealed deck PPTQ.
While the tournament was run on the cheap, it was officiated very professionally. Jim Shuman has long worked hard to develop new judges. In order to lower his expenses, he could easily have judged this tournament himself and let an employee run the store during the tournament. Instead, Jim brought in three judges from all around the area, including an old judge friend of Jim’s (mine as well) from three hours north in Oklahoma City, the excellent Matt Hoskins. Jim went out of his way to give other judges a chance to get much-needed experience running an event instead of putting the thousandth notch in his own belt. You don’t hear enough about the good things that DCI judges are doing. I was super impressed that we had three (four with Jim helping out) sanctioned judges in uniform working a PPTQ that Jim knew would only amount to a couple dozen players.
I was chomping at the bit for this tournament all week long. There’s nothing like a competitive sealed deck tournament just one week after the prereleases. The cards are still new to people, there is a lot of room for creativity. There will always be debate about how skillful sealed deck is as a competitive format, but it’s certainly a little more skillful at the beginning of a new format when there hasn’t been a lot of time to read articles about what cards to play and what cards not to play in sealed deck and booster draft.
Eldritch Moon Sealed Deck
The first thing you do in competitive sealed deck tournaments, these days, is to open your six boosters while being monitored by the player across the table from you. He is there to make sure that the only cards that get registered on your deck checklist are the cards from the six booster packs you were provided with. You open your own packs and make sure there are the correct number in each, then you pass the cards to the guy across the table and he registers them in the total column on your deck checklist sheet. So, at first glance, the only things that typically stick out are the rares and mythics. I’ve opened Gisela again, just as last week at my one and only prerelease event. While he’s registering my cards and while I’m registering his, the only thing I’m thinking about is playing white for Gisela.
Here is my sealed deck pool, alphabetically by color and set:
White Shadows over Innistrad
White Eldritch Moon
Blue Shadows over Innistrad
Blue Eldritch Moon
Black Shadows over Innistrad
Black Eldritch Moon
Red Shadows over Innistrad
Red Eldritch Moon
Green Shadows over Innistrad
Green Eldritch Moon
Other Shadows over Innistrad
Other Eldritch Moon
Assessing the Card Pool
The white cards jumped right out at me and not just because of the lucky draw of the powerful Gisela, the Broken Blade. Laying out the white cards first (just because it’s the first color listed from left to right on the deck checklist) I see that nearly every white card could conceivably go in the deck. As nice as the white looks, I assure you I haven’t made any decisions yet, there are still four more colors to look at.
There are nineteen blue cards, more than any other single color, but blue hasn’t been my bag in Shadows over Innistrad sealed deck and it looks that like trend is continuing with Eldritch Moon. The familiar Shadows cards are only a little promising. Erdwal Illuminator is a very good creature if your deck investigates and puts Clue tokens into play. Without Clues, the Illuminator is just a small flyer. Compelling Deterrence is a reliable bounce spell. Rise from the Tides is a powerful spell for blue/black decks that have Zombie synergy (what little there is) and that play a lot of instants and sorceries. This is a good late game spell for a very specific kind of deck, more for blue limited control decks, the kind of thing that became more popular to draft in Shadows over Innistrad recently. The blue Eldritch Moon cards provide some decent, hard-working cards, but no important strategies. Geist of the Archives is a good defender that you are happy to play on turn three in order to gain a free scry at the beginning of your turns. Nebelgast Herald is a fine card, a 2/1 flyer with flash that lets you tap an opponent’s creature when the Herald enters the battlefield. Ingenious Skaab is one of the block’s many 2/3 creatures. He costs only 2U and has prowess. Even better, he pumps +1/-1 for one blue mana. This is a very decent common creature for blue. Imprisoned in the Moon is disappointing as a rare, but it will make the cut every time you play blue in limited because it functions as a creature removal spell. Even better, you can hit a planeswalker with it as well. It’s funny how as time goes on and Wizards prints more and more planeswalkers, they have started making more cards that can target and potentially tame them. Along with these blue cards, I could easily play at least one copy of Convolute. A single counterspell is usually pretty good for most blue sealed decks. I also have three copies of Drag Under. These let you stall your opponent’s game while drawing a replacement card for yourself. These blue cards are fine, but they represent the ability to play blue as a supporting color for a deck of another main color. There are no cards here that strongly make you want to play blue. The most important cards in a sealed deck are creatures, especially creatures that can win the game on their own. Occasionally blue gets powerful flyers that function as bomb creatures. The second most important cards in a sealed deck are the spells that remove creatures from the board. Blue doesn’t do a very good job of permanently removing creatures from the board. It’s a long standing problem for the color when it comes to sealed deck.
The black cards, while not as impressive as the white cards, draw my attention pretty quickly. There are some all-stars from Shadows over Innistrad that I already know to be good, like Accursed Witch, Kindly Stranger and Dead Weight. In fact, all of the black Shadows cards are good enough to be in the deck. As for the new Eldritch Moon cards, I like Thraben Foulbloods for their value. A 3/2 for 2B is fine on turn three, my expectations aren’t that high for my two and three drops, I just want a good creature that I can play reliably in the early game and trade with my opponent’s early drops. It’s a wonderful bonus that the Foulbloods become 4/3 creatures with menace when you have delirium. In of themselves, a pair of Thraben Foulbloods are not a good enough reason to pursue delirium, but they profit from delirium very well. Olivia’s Dragoon is an easy play. You would take a 2/2 for 1B most of the time without any additional abilities, to fill out the curve needs for a sealed deck, but this card also gains flying whenever you choose and discard a card from your hand. That makes Olivia’s Dragoon a card that your opponent can’t take for granted when they want to fly over the top of you with small creatures. Obviously this is a good ability for madness. Since it costs no mana to discard a card to the Dragoon you can have all your mana available to pay a madness cost. Check the scenario: play Olivia’s Dragoon on turn two. On turn three, you play a third land and discard Twins of Maurer Estate and then play the Twins for their madness cost of 2B. Then you fly over the top for two points of damage. Now you have a creature that can fly when you need to and a 3/5 body on the board on turn three. That’s a good start for most sealed deck games. Campaign of Vengeance is a five casting cost enchantment that needs black and white mana, but if you’re playing both colors its more than worth the trouble. Every time a creature you control attacks, defending player loses one life and you gain one life. This is a going to be a big problem for your opponent every time. Even when your opponent uses effects that destroy a target attacking creature he will already have lost a life and you will have gained a life from Campaign of Vengeance. This card adds inevitability to your deck as long as you can continue to put any kind of creatures onto your side of the board.
The best new black card in my pool is Voldaren Pariah. For 3BB you get a 3/3 flyer that can be played for a madness cost of BBB when you discard it to Olivia’s Dragoon on turn three, for example. It gets better. When you sacrifice three other creatures that you control to Voldaren Pariah it transforms into Abolisher of Bloodlines, a 6/5 flyer. When Pariah transforms your opponent (a target opponent) must sacrifice three creatures. You could easily clear the board with this creature and be suddenly sitting with the only monster, a 6/5 flyer. Beware, when you activate the ability to transform Pariah, and after you have paid the cost of the ability sacrificing three of your creatures, your opponent can respond with a removal spell targeting Voldaren Pariah. Even though you paid the cost to transform the Pariah, it can’t transform and make your opponent sacrifice creatures unless it survives the transform process. Be careful not to get wrecked!
Here is the deck I went with:
Dead Weight – removal that helps you with delirium, better than ever
2 Steadfast Cathar – these are curve-fillers with an upside
Puncturing Light – probably better than in pure Shadows decks
True-Faith Censer – still very solid
Olivia’s Dragoon – for the curve and potentially for madness
Field Creeper – an easy way to get an artifact into the graveyard for delirium
2 Thraben Foulbloods – fine on turn three, even better with delirium
Drogskol Shieldmate – decent enters-the-battlefield effect, flash is always good
Kindly Stranger – this is the most important reason to get delirium
Spectral Shepherd – just a 2/2 flyer for three mana in this deck
Angelic Purge – removal has never been more important
Borrowed Grace – a very good card in this format
Give No Ground – good combat trick even at the high price of 3W
Inquisitor’s Ox – unexciting but valuable piece
Accursed Witch – given a choice, plays this four-drop before the others
Gisela, the Broken Blade – the MVP if they don’t kill her immediately
Markov Crusader – this cool Vampire has everything you want except flying
Campaign of Vengeance – adds inevitability to your deck
Voldaren Pariah – almost a flying Wrath of God, very good
Faithbearer Paladin – good size for the format and has lifelink
Twins of Maurer Estate – might have cut for second Paladin except for the madness
I could easily have played a second copy of Faithbearer Paladin but I didn’t want my five slot to be any larger than it already was. I believe Markov Crusader is better than a second copy of the Paladin. Vampire Noble got cut but might have been better than something else because it would have helped Markov Crusader have haste more often. Succumb to Temptation is a fine card, I just ended up cutting it. It would make the cut about half the time in sealed decks, maybe slightly more often in booster drafts. I used to like the white enchantment Hope Against Hope but I usually leave it out unless my deck just has a ton of Humans that might gain first strike as well as get larger from this aura. Repel the Abominable is a sideboard card that you want to remember you can bring in if your opponent doesn’t have many Humans in his deck when you do have quite a few Humans in your own deck.
I like a lot of the red cards in the pool but the simple fact is there aren’t enough playable red cards to fill out a deck as a secondary color and nowhere near enough good red cards to make red the main color of a two-colored sealed deck. Red is traditionally the best splash color for sealed deck, but I don’t think it’s worth splashing red, with no mana fixing whatsoever, just to get one more good removal spell into the deck. If I did, that removal spell would be the all new Spreading Flames, an instant for 6R that lets you divide six damage among any number of target creatures. This is a good spell, but not a great one. Seven mana is on the high side, especially for a red card. Six damage is very nice but a little short of a complete blowout. This card isn’t a reason to play red but I imagine you will play one copy in any sealed deck where it’s available in which red is one of your two colors. You play Stromkirk Occultist, but this card plays more like a common or uncommon than a rare. The effect is decent, you can exile the top card of your opponent’s library if the Occultist deals combat damage to your opponent. You can play that card until end of turn. Not for free or anything, you have to have the mana. Good luck with that. Mostly, this creature is decent as a 3/2 with trample for 2R and nothing more. Brazen Wolves is a whole different story, this is a common that plays like a much more precious card. A 2/3 Wolf for 2R, it gets +2/+0 when it attacks. On turn four, it attacks as a 4/3 and is unlikely to trade with whatever creature your opponent has in play by that point. I think Borrowed Hostility is a very good combat trick and I look forward to playing it often. Make Mischief is disappointing to me, primarily because it’s a sorcery and not an instant. Vildin-Pack Outcast is a DC-10 MVP (more about that next week!) and will usually make the cut in sealed deck and often in booster drafts as well. It may not transform very often, but when it does, it can be a win condition.
I found the green cards in this pool quite weak with one important exception. Among the four green Shadows over Innistrad cards, Soul Swallower is a really dangerous monster in decks that get delirium. A trampling monster that gains three +1/+1 counters can get out of hand in a hurry. I gave green a long, hard look because I know how good Soul Swallower can be. It’s interesting that there were two copies of Ulvenwald Captive in my pool. These can be good mana accelerators in the early game and then giant monsters in the late game. There just weren’t enough green creatures to make the commitment to green make any sense. Bloodbriar is a good creature if your deck has ways to sacrifice things. These opportunities come in various shapes and sizes but without them you can’t get good value from Bloodbriar. I’m not crazy about Primal Druid, although my friends like him for sealed. I don’t like playing a do-nothing 0/3 that helps my mana whenever he gets around to dying in combat or to a sacrifice effect. That’s not the best plan for fixing a mana problem, especially if you’re thinking about Primal Druid as a solution to getting a third color of mana into a deck.
Among the remaining cards, the one you come closest to playing is Geist-Fueled Scarecrow. My son thinks this one is a no-brainer, a simple 4/4 artifact creature for four generic mana with no big downside. I think the card’s downside is quite a problem, actually. Your creature spells cost one more mana. Maybe it’s not a problem if you use him aggressively and your opponent has to kill it or block with enough creatures to get rid of it. I’m afraid I will play this guy and then screw up my ability to play other four drops, much less five drops, until he leaves the battlefield. I wouldn’t suggest playing Geier Reach Sanitarium for its Looter ability because it can help your opponent as much as it helps you. It’s fine if you can catch your opponent with no cards in hand, however. Hanweir Battlements is not good enough unless you have the red creature that melds with it. Cathar’s Shield is too defensive for me in most cases. Mercurial Geists is a cool creature that I would definitely play in any blue/red sealed or draft deck, but I would never splash either blue or red to fit this in another kind of deck.
Playing the Deck
The deck played very well for me all day. I believe the key was to play this deck fairly aggressively. I believe you want to play a good number of creatures in your deck because the format is short on board-clearing effects and long on one-for-one removal. Truthfully, I only played seven games in three rounds. Having started the day 3-0 in a tournament with just five Swiss rounds I was able to take intentional draws in rounds four and five to assure myself a spot in the top eight draft. As a matter of fact, I finished the Swiss rounds as the number one seed. In the seven games I played, I mulliganed to six cards four times. Having plenty of inexpensive early game plays made taking these mulligans less painful.
There are a lot more cards with high casting costs in Eldritch Moon compared with Shadows over Innistrad. Just because there are a lot of six, seven and eight drops in the set doesn’t mean that you can or should put a bunch of them in your deck. I believe most of us on Saturday expected Eldritch Moon sealed decks to play a little more slowly than sealed decks from Shadows over Innistrad. I did not find this to be the case. Two weeks ago I suspected that Eldritch Moon might even play long and slow enough that sealed decks could possibly run eighteen land in order to more smoothly play lands each turn through turn six. I no longer believe that will be the case. I believe Eldritch Moon sealed decks need to be as efficient and low-costing as possible while allowing for the possibility of one or two spells that cost six or more mana if they are powerful enough to make a powerful impact on the game.
Sealed Deck Only Gets You So Far
The great thing about competitive sealed deck tournaments is that they propel the top eight into a booster draft. This is exactly how it should be. It means that if you are fortunate enough to open a great sealed pool you might be able to reach the top eight even if your play skills are lower than the other players who reach the top eight. However, having to draft in the top eight keeps the player with the lucky sealed pool from winning the entire event solely on the strength of that lucky open. The top eight booster draft levels the playing field.
I didn’t win the booster draft, which means I’ll be playing in more PPTQs this season. As a matter of fact, I’ll be playing in another sealed deck PPTQ this weekend.
Next time, I’ll share the things I’ve learned so far about drafting Eldritch Moon.
Thanks for reading.
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