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This Week in Sealed: Competitive Success with Oath of the Gatewatch

Written by Jeff Zandi on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Limited

This Week in Sealed:  Competitive Success with Oath of the Gatewatch

Jeff Zandi

Jeff Zandi is a level 2 judge and an eight-time veteran of the Pro Tour. He has written continuously about Magic for over eighteen years. His team, the Texas Guildmages, have the longest running regular game in history, meeting at his home every Tuesday night since 1996.

Oath of the Gatewatch Sealed Deck has proven itself to be a challenging format, and Oath Booster Draft even more so. If the format contained only Oath of the Gatewatch cards, I am sure Oath Sealed and Booster Draft would be an easier format to conquer than Battle for Zendikar. With six packs of Battle for Zendikar in Sealed Deck or three packs of Battle in Booster Draft you are forced to make strategic decisions for your deck well above simply getting the colors to snap together. Battle for Zendikar did a beautiful job, maybe the best ever, of forcing players to think about synergy. You had to put cards together based on what they did, not just by color.

These are the challenges that Limited players have to deal with if they would like to win a Sealed Deck PPTQ this season and thus move a big step closer to competing at Pro Tour Sydney in August. Two weeks ago I talked about my experiences at an Oath of the Gatewatch prerelease event and how I was planning for an upcoming Sealed Deck PPTQ on the release weekend. I went undefeated in the Swiss rounds of that PPTQ but drafted poorly and lost in the quarterfinals. The following week I played in a Sealed Deck FNM to practice for another Sealed Deck PPTQ two days after that. I went 4-0 at the Sealed FNM and then went 3-1-1 in the Sealed PPTQ. I’m happy to report that in last Sunday’s PPTQ in Fort Worth, Texas, I was much more successful in the top eight booster draft and that I won the tournament. I want to share the decks from those events, and some card pools, but first let’s think about the format in general.

Oath of the Gatewatch doesn’t require players to put their Limited decks together quite so carefully. On the other hand, Oath does hit players with the earthshaking issue of how to deal with a sixth color. I thought I had been playing with colorless mana and colorless spells since I started playing in 1994 but it turns out I was mistaken. Apparently, I’ve been using generic mana to pay the costs of artifacts and Eldrazi creatures all this time. Oath of the Gatewatch confronts us with true colorless mana, something that my Sol Ring has apparently been pumping out for more than twenty years. Confusing? Yes. The point is that in Oath you have to think of the “innovation” of colorless mana as an actual separate color of mana apart from the five you are already used to. Oath tempts you with all kind of spells and abilities that require you to have actual colorless mana to play them, colorless mana you can only get from a small number of sources in your deck. The make things a little more confusing, Wizards of the Coast made a new land called Wastes that taps for colorless mana but is defined as a basic land. Because it’s a basic land you can search for it with Evolving Wilds and Loam Larva. On the other hand, you aren’t allowed to add Wastes to your sealed and booster draft decks the same way that you are allowed to add any other basic lands to your deck. This is Wizards of the Coast trying to have it both ways. Wastes is basic enough to find with search spells that can only find basic lands, but not basic enough to allow players to add all they want to their Limited decks. Gotcha. Anyway, colorless spells and their care and feeding are the primary challenge of Oath of the Gatewatch Limited formats.

How important is it to play these colorless spells? It’s very important. In their desire to make the new concept of “true colorless” tasty to the masses of Magic players like you and I, Wizards of the Coast put a little more frosting on many of the colorless cards in Oath of the Gatewatch. In most of the three dozen Oath of the Gatewatch Sealed Deck pools that I’ve looked at you would actively want colorless in the deck. The best way to handle colorless in Sealed Deck is to make it your third color, the same way as you might otherwise splash a little red into a green/white deck, I suggest you are likely to splash colorless technology into an otherwise two-colored deck. In Sealed, this is almost always going to be what you deal with, just enough Wastes and non-basic lands that produce colorless (like three or four of these) to support a small number of colorless spells and effects in your deck. This is totally fine because, as good as some of them are, you are likely to only be playing a small number, maybe between three and five, spells and abilities that require “true colorless” mana. Only mighty Kozilek, the Great Distortion requires two colorless mana (along with eight generic mana) to play. The rest of the colorless cards only have one colorless mana requirement in their casting cost and the cards in Oath that require colorless mana to activate an ability also only require one colorless mana to use.

There are two cards, however, that make you wish you had an endless amount of colorless mana. These are the rare Eldrazi Displacer and the uncommon Essence Depleter. If these are in your card pool I suggest you make room for them in your deck along with as many “true colorless” mana sources as possible.

Things would be a lot easier in Oath of the Gatewatch Limited if you were playing sealed with six packs of Oath or if you were drafting with three packs of Oath. However, no one ever said Magic was supposed to be easy. The current Sealed Deck rules dictate that you play with four Oath of the Gatewatch booster packs and two Battle for Zendikar booster packs. Booster drafts require that you draft two packs of Oath of the Gatewatch and then draft one pack of Battle for Zendikar. Because you have to force the two sets together in your decks, the choices you make are more challenging than if you were playing with Oath alone.

In Sealed Deck the issues are easier to deal with. You have two packs of cards that have abilities that are much less useful in a pool that contains mostly Oath cards. Namely, I’m talking about cards that ingest and their counterparts, the cards that move ingested cards from the exile zone to the graveyard. Ally strategies, on the other hand, are still important in Oath, so the Ally cards in your Battle boosters are still completely relevant in your Oath deck.

20160131 Im not a gamer I play cards

Two Tests

I want you to look at two different Sealed Deck pools. The first of the two is very easy to solve, I believe. It produced one of those decks you feel like you have to apologize for to every opponent, so good are the cards. A lot of times you will have one or two really good cards in your deck and players will tell you “you can’t lose with this deck” and they’re probably wrong. A deck can have a couple of good cards and still have serious challenges in other ways. Sometimes, very rarely I would say, you actually see a sealed deck that truly seems to have no weaknesses. I don’t know if you will feel this way about the first Sealed Deck pool but I do believe the right deck is pretty obvious.

Sealed Deck Pool from Comic Asylum PPTQ on January 23, 2016 – 37 players, 6 Swiss rounds

Multicolored Cards

The Deck

Listed in ascending converted mana cost order.

Prophet of Distortion – I drew so many cards and it’s fine if they spend a card to kill him
Clutch of Currents – I learned to love this card in the fall, I always play one if I’m in blue
Makindi Aeronaut – early creatures need to do double duty, offense and defense
Coralhelm Guide – this guy trades early and gives evasion when you draw him late
Hedron Crawler – ramps your mana and delivers colorless mana
Gideon’s Reproach – extremely cheap and effective removal spell
Tightening Coils – very good removal for flying decks, hardly ever gets destroyed
Eldrazi Displacer – a bomb that gets better the more colorless mana you can feed it
Wall of Resurgence – solid for the flying deck, don’t fear your land getting killed
Cultivator Drone – ramps your colorless spells, fuels your colorless effects
Reflector Mage – better than normal bounce, nice defensive creature
Matter Reshaper – a no brainer, it’s a two-for-one spell that blocks and trades
Relief Captain – maybe you have one or two other creatures when it lands, it’s fine
Gravity Negator – might be good enough WITHOUT its triggered ability
Warden of Geometries – another colorless mana source, vigilance is kind of nice
Isolation Zone – exiles a creature or an enchantment, a must play even though it costs four
Dampening Pulse – feels slow but it’s a must-play in Sealed or Booster Draft
Jwar Isle Avenger – probably good enough without surge, a no brainer with surge
Reality Smasher – almost a bomb, it’s a strong reason to play colorless
Linvala, the Preserver – wins games on its own even if you don’t gain life or get the token

I’m usually comfortable with about fifteen creatures in Sealed, this one is very unusual for me with eighteen creatures and just five spells. I’m completely fine playing a seven-casting-cost spell with just seventeen lands in the deck because of Hedron Crawler and Warden of Geometries. Also, the ability to draw cards with Prophet of Distortion speeds the deck’s ability to reach seven mana. I’m finding that I play eighteen lands much less often in Oath sealed and draft than I did with Battle for Zendikar.

Regarding the cards that I didn’t play in white and blue: Dazzling Reflection could make the cut sometimes but I by no means think it’s a very high value card. Felidar Cub is a sideboard card for when Retreat of Emeria or some other enchantment is really wrecking you. Kor Bladewhirl and Kor Scythemaster are fine creatures but I wanted my early drops to be more defensive because my deck isn’t fast. Mighty Leap is a good combat trick that I often play but so many of my creatures already fly. Unified Front isn’t good enough in a deck with just two colors unless you have a lot of Ally triggers. Among the blue cards, the two I should probably be playing are Thought Harvester and Negate. A single counterspell is a pretty good idea for blue decks, particularly in Sealed Deck where virtually every opponent will have spells of all kinds. Negate only counters noncreature spells. That’s fine, every sealed deck has noncreature spells. Thought Harvester is a nice defensive flyer that will occasionally exile cards from the top of your opponent’s library. It was the last card I cut from the deck in order to trim my bloated four-mana slot. Comparative Analysis can make the cut but isn’t wonderful. Retreat to Coralhelm is easy to cut but playable in a pinch. Umara Entangler is for aggressive decks. If I had wanted another colorless mana source for the deck I could have played Blighted Woodlands even without any green in the deck.

I got excited about red when I saw Akoum Hellkite and Touch of the Void (in FOIL) and two Cinder Hellions, but overall the red just isn’t really there in this pool. There is nothing among the green cards that makes me want to make green one of my main colors. It turns out that I occasionally wanted to sideboard in one more removal spell and the one I chose was a green one, Nissa’s Judgment. Green doesn’t get removal very often, to say the least. Nissa’s Judgment is surprisingly effective and though it costs five mana, it only requires one green mana to play it. I was able to sideboard this card in along with the green/white land Tranquil Expanse. That gave me three ways to make green mana along with Holdout Settlement and Unknown Shores. I loved this spell every time I played it. When I first read the card I thought it only used the two creatures that I put support counters on to target an opponent’s creature. As a matter of fact, after Nissa’s Judgment puts a +1/+1 counter on up to two target creatures you control, ALL of your creatures that have +1/+1 counters on them simultaneously deal damage equal to their power to one target creature your opponent controls. This spell made a lot more sense for an additional removal spell than Bone Splinters in black. I like black a lot in this format but didn’t see anything in this pool to remotely move me towards the color.

Removal effects are extremely important in this format. Bouncing with Clutch of Currents and Reflector Mage and neutering with Tightening Coils is not enough. There are creatures in the format that don’t have to attack you to hurt you. Zulaport Chainmage can make you lose two life a turn without ever attacking. Eldrazi Displacer can wreck all kinds of plans without attacking. One of my opponents at this PPTQ played Munda’s Vanguard and scared me pretty badly by making all of his creatures gigantic in short order. It’s extremely important to have some ways to utterly remove a creature from play without it having to attack you first (as with Gideon’s Reproach or Searing Light or Immolating Glare.

Here’s a short trip through my day with this deck. Game one of round one takes a long time but I eventually win with Linvala after my red/white opponent kills off my other flyers and my two other bombs. The first game is so grindy that I’m worried my deck isn’t as good as I thought it was. Game two is equally hard fought. There are only ten minutes left in the match when my opponent finally gets the upper hand with a 3/3 flyer that I can’t deal with. I’m at twelve life and start taking two a turn from his flyer because I have Dampening Pulse in play. I’m thinking about conceding in order to save a little time for game three when I draw Eldrazi Displacer. The turn I play the Displacer I have enough mana (and enough colorless mana in particular) to activate Displacer two times during my opponent’s next turn. That was enough to protect my life for another turn. Then I had enough mana to activate Displacer three times. A turn or two later and I have enough to activate Displacer four times a turn. At this point I’m targeting my opponent’s two attackers. At end of turn I’m using the two remaining activations to target my Wall of Resurgence. Each time I do so the Wall returns to the battlefield tapped and triggers putting three +1/+1 counters on one of my lands. In a little while, I have two 9/9 Elemental lands. Three turns later I have four 9/9 lands. At length, with just a minute or two left on the clock, I start attacking with these 9/9 lands and even though my opponent has swollen up to thirty-two life on the back of his annoyingly good Ondu War Cleric. I win the game just as time is called for the round. My second round opponent is playing black/white but doesn’t have as good a pool as I do even though he’s a skilled player well known in the area. He also mulligans to six in game one on the draw and mulligans to five in game two on the play. In round three I lose game one to a black/white Allies deck with Munda’s Vanguard. This was the game that moved me to side in the green/white land and Nissa’s Judgment. The card was important in games two and three. In game two, Nissa’s Judgment is directly responsible for killing the Vanguard. My opponent mulligans on the play in game three and gets a less than impressive start. Just like that, I’m 3-0. Paired with another Texas Guildmage in round four, he convinces me to take a draw and go get lunch. With two rounds remaining we both know we will have to win one of our remaining matches. I face another very good opponent in round five and he seems to get pretty mad each time my deck’s sicko rares reveal themselves. This opponent is also playing black/white but just doesn’t have the goods. My sixth round opponent is happy to intentionally draw. Just like that, I’m 4-0-2 and headed to the top eight booster draft.

In the draft I started with Dread Defiler followed by Seer’s Lantern. I move into blue with my next three picks, Thought Harvester, Gravity Negator and Jwar Isle Avenger. Then I draft Deceiver of Form and a second Seer’s Lantern. I’m not crazy about playing two Lanterns but I end up having to do exactly that because my deck ends up costing a million mana and I fail to draft enough sources of true colorless mana. My first two picks from the second pack are Mindmelter and Havoc Sower, reasonable enough, but then I go crazy and take Kozilek, the Great Distortion. It’s hard to stay alive long enough in Oath Booster Draft to play Kozilek. It’s a better card in Sealed but only when you really have the right colorless mana access and the right deck overall to accommodate such an expensive, slow, late game bomb. The third pack really torpedoed my draft. Even though I saw blue, black and colorless cards, I got nothing that could really help the deck work better. My first four picks from the Battle for Zendikar booster are Clutch of Currents, Coastal Discovery, Deathless Behemoth and Eldrazi Skyspawner. I was definitely sweating when I built my deck. I played eighteen land and knew I would have a very hard time against opponents with aggressive starts. My quarterfinals opponent, another friend of mine, is playing a three-colored Ally deck that looks a little clunky but quickly he quickly kills me in two games nonetheless. I didn’t even deal damage in game one.

I wasn’t really tested in the Sealed Deck portion. I don’t mean that my matches weren’t challenging, they were even though I had good cards. I mean that my deck wasn’t very hard to build and it was easy to be reasonably confident that I got it right. My draft was a disaster. To this point, I have only won two matches in four different booster drafts. While all the experts are saying that Oath Booster Draft utilizes a lot less synergy than with Battle for Zendikar, I feel like I’m probably missing on what synergy there is available. For draft, my brain still thinks in terms on Battle for Zendikar. Not being able to draft ingest is killing me. I’m probably only competent drafting either blue/white flyers or black/white Allies or maybe red/white Allies. I don’t quite know how to draft black/blue or aggressive black/red. Not yet, anyway.

Clear Your Palette with Friday Night Magic

In between the two Sealed Deck PPTQs, I had a Guildmage meeting at my house on Tuesday. I played in two team drafts and won one match in the first draft and went 0-3 in the second draft. Yikes! On Friday night I traveled to Madness Games and Comics in Plano, the gaming Mecca of Texas. They run Sealed Deck FNM every week for $25 along with a Standard FNM and a Modern FNM. They get close to two hundred players divided between the three formats every single week. It’s a very happening place. Now for the FNM disclaimer. Anyone who tries to tell you that FNM experiences are the same as PPTQ experiences is kidding themselves. The players at the PPTQ are better players, even when there are less of them. I’m not trying to run down the dudes that you find at Friday Night Magic. There are obviously always good players at FNM, but the competition is slightly lower than at a PPTQ. That’s fact. I’m not overrating the quality of play at PPTQs, by the way. The old PTQs provided better competition than today’s PPTQs. Star City Games Opens are more challenging than those. Grand Prix competition is slightly more challenging than SCG Opens and, shockingly, Pro Tour competition is more challenging than you find across the board at a Grand Prix. These are generalizations, but they hold up over time. It should surprise no one that there’s a pecking order for Magic tournaments. It’s easy to see when you’ve played in all the different levels. Anyway, while FNM experience should not be overrated, it’s still competition.

I went 4-0 tonight, but the one and only thing I learned about this Sealed format from the night was that you really can build around Kozilek, the Great Distortion and run over games with him. My deck only had a couple of lands that produced colorless mana but I went for Kozilek anyway. With the help of two cards that produced Eldrazi Scion tokens when entering the battlefield, and with the search/cost lowering benefits of Conduit of Ruin from Battle for Zendikar, I put Kozilek onto the battlefield in six of my nine games. I never drew less than five cards from any of these plays. Sure, you’re tapped out, but there’s a good chance one of the cards you have drawn is the same casting cost as the removal spell your opponent tries to throw at Kozilek on their next turn while you’re tapped out. Kozilek lets you discard a card with mana cost X to counter a target spell with the same converted mana cost. It’s actually an overpowered ability. Kozilek, the Great Distortion is another example of how Wizards of the Coast is bending over backwards to make us embrace the new colorless paradigm with smiles on our faces.

Test Number Two

My sealed pool for the Sealed Deck PPTQ on Sunday, January 31st was not nearly as powerful as from a week earlier. How could it be? I haven’t played the two decks against each other, but you know I will. I don’t expect my deck from this tournament to be able to handle last week’s deck at all. I wouldn’t call this week’s pool terrible, just a lot closer to average. I didn’t want to just give up when I looked at the pool, but I knew I’d have my work cut out for me. The numbers, however, are on my side a little bit. There are just twenty-nine players in today’s tournament and that calls for one less round of Swiss, five this week as opposed to six last week. That’s one less round to slog through with a somewhat weaker deck. Win three in a row and accept draws in rounds four and five. Off we go!

Sealed Deck Pool from Collected Fort Worth PPTQ on January 31, 2016 – 29 players, 5 Swiss rounds

Upon first analysis, I’m pretty sure I’m sunk. Luckily, the kind of first analysis I’m talking about is limited to taking a peek at the rare of each pack as I tore them open under the watchful gaze of the player across the table from me (part of the new Sealed Deck registration routine). Call the Gatewatch, Cinder Glade, Sea Gate Wreckage. Yuck. The lands could obviously be useful but you can in no way be excited to see them filling the six rare slots in your Sealed Deck pool. Gruesome Slaughter and Stoneforge Masterwork don’t fill you with confidence either. Remorseless Punishment? Lots of remorse, believe me.

When I pick up my pool and start sorting it into colors I try not to panic, hopefully there’s a pony under all this horse poop somewhere if I dig long enough. Many Sealed Deck tournaments have been won with good commons and uncommons. If you think you have to have the bomb rares in order to win at Sealed Deck you haven’t played enough Sealed Deck. Obviously I wish I had the riches that I enjoyed last week, but last week’s deck doesn’t matter now. I dive into this pool and try to find the best deck. After sorting, I lay out each color in a column, creatures on top and spells on the bottom. I lay out the columns next to each other in friendly color order, black followed by red, then green, white and blue. The colorless and artifact cards get their own column. This has been my process for many years. I put the multicolor cards either directly between two colors, if the colors are friendly, or in the pile of the weaker color of the two if the colors are not friendly. At a glance, I can see that my red is just awful. I put my two red/blue spells, which are both pretty good, in the red column to remind me that in order to play those two pretty good gold cards I would have to play some of that bad red. The green cards are okay but not exciting. The best creature is Tajuru Pathwarden, there are also a pair of Netcaster Spiders and a Giant Mantis. That’s a heap of defensive green creature loving but not what I’m looking for. None of these green cards should move you into wanting to play green as a main color of the deck. White is a different story. Isolation Zone is, although expensive at 2WW, a very important removal spell in this format. There are some tasty Ally cards if you want to go that way. Good luck, there are exactly two green Allies and one red Ally. If the pool leaned more towards aggression then Inspired Charge could be good. The Shoulder to Shoulders would be better. It seems terrible to have leave Isolation Zone on the sidelines but its double white mana requirement eliminates it as a splash choice. That leaves us with the black and the blue cards as well as the colorless cards. That’s the way I went.

The Deck

Sea Gate Wreckage – a must play but not a bomb, it’s a way to get a free card
Mortuary Mire – I now play this pretty often, it’s better in slower decks
Prophet of Distortion – a must play if you have colorless mana
Clutch of Currents – this bounce spell is better in slow decks where awaken is possible
Stoneforge Masterwork – worthwhile only when you have at least eight creature matches
Blinding Drone – very powerful when you have colorless mana, can block early too
Culling Drone – purely a curve choice here, ingest isn’t likely to matter at all
Sky Scourer – easy to overlook, this little guy’s damage adds up
Slaughter Drone – good curve creature, deathtouch helps him trade up
Tightening Coils – better in flying decks, a necessary evil in this deck
Kozilek’s Shrieker – solid but not amazing, the activated ability can be good sometimes
Vampire Envoy – better in Ally decks, mostly just a blocker in the air for my deck
Containment Membrane – surge makes it better I suppose, just a soft piece of removal
Titan’s Presence – good even with smaller colorless creatures in your hand
Gravity Negator – flies and helps my two big Eldrazi to fly
Havoc Sower – doesn’t get pumped that often but still a solid ground creature with upside
Null Caller – good, but remember the tokens it makes enter the battlefield tapped
Warden of Geometries – I like this at least as much as Kozilek’s Channeler from BFZ
Cyclone Sire – an impressive uncommon 3/4 flyer
Kozilek’s Pathfinder – makes the cut every time you have colorless mana to activate it
Gruesome Slaughter – this passes for a creature sweeper in my deck
Breaker of Armies – costs a lot but can do a lot of work, usually makes the cut

All three of the colorless cards that I didn’t play are artifact equipment. I don’t hate Bone Saw the way most people do and I like the way it can help enable me to play a spell for its surge cost. I also like that it only costs one mana to equip. I should like Hedron Blade more than I do, but it’s certainly not something you should try to fit in a deck. Playable but not preferred. Neither is Strider Harness. I remember this card being a little better when it first arrived in Scars of Mirrodin. Obviously a card that gives haste is best in an aggressive deck. On the other hand, aggressive decks don’t want to play an equipment that costs three to play and which does nothing all but itself.

My extra blue cards are easy to explain away. Slip Through Space is for a different deck entirely, maybe the aggressive blue/red deck that I might wish I had. Ancient Crab fits the plan of my deck in every way except that it isn’t an Eldrazi. I cut it for one of the lesser two-drops in the deck. Umara Entangler is fine in aggressive draft decks, it would be fine here to fill the curve if I didn’t already have five two-drops.

Remorseless Punishment is the most controversial card in my pool. I didn’t put it in the deck but immediately was told by friends and teammates that I should have. At their insistence I brought it in from the board a few times. The obvious appeal of this card is that it gives you card advantage, it always provides some sort of a two-for-one in your favor. On the other hand, it costs a lot and only gives you what your opponent feels they can most easily do without. If the caster of Remorseless Punishment got make the choices. This would be an outstanding card if you got to choose. Unfortunately, your opponent chooses. If they have Eldrazi Scion tokens, or creatures held down with Tightening Coils or Containment Membrane, those are the creatures that your opponent will choose to sacrifice and you will have gained nothing from this big dumb five mana black spell. In one game, however, I caught my opponent getting a bit of a slow start on the board and I got two cards from his hand and five points from his life total. I’m warming to the card. I played it two times in the tournament and it was worth the price of admission both times.

As far as the remaining black cards on my bench, Mind Raker never was an amazing card, but it was solid enough to play in decks that had even a little bit of ingest in them. I can’t justify it with only Culling Drone and Titan’s Presence capable of exiling an opponent’s card. On the other hand, I ended up switching it in for Vampire Envoy against decks that had no flyers because Mind Raker is an Eldrazi. Flaying Tendrils is a decent play if you catch an opponent playing too many little guys. It’s a better choice for draft decks. Grave Birthing is the kind of card that sometimes makes it as the twenty-third best spell in your deck, I’m glad I didn’t need to play it. Zulaport Chainmage is dangerously decent in Ally decks but definitely not for my deck. The only three cards I used from the sideboard in this tournament were Remorseless Punishment, Mind Raker and Flaying Tendrils.

My tournament experience was very different with this hard-working deck than it was last week with a stronger pile of cards. In round one I am lucky to play against an individual who got flustered and couldn’t quite get his deck registered the way he wanted by the deadline. I have compassion for him as a human being but not as a competitive player, due to some technical issues we had quite a bit of extra time. This player ended up locking in a forty-six card deck on his registration sheet. Suffice to say his resources were not optimal in game one. Game two was not that much more challenging although he got me to ten life in game one and to nine in game two with a mostly black/blue deck. In round two I face a black/white deck, the most popular color combination that I saw a week ago. Games one and two are squeakers and game three takes a very long time. We also had a time extension when we were deck checked after game one. As both our libraries are dwindling, it seems like game three is going to come down to his ability to activate Zulaport Chainmage enough times to kill me. I keep forgetting to use Holdout Settlement as a method of tapping Vampire Envoy to gain life. Even so, I could be looking at no better than a draw. I have drawn a lot of extra cards in this game, all from Sea Gate Wreckage because my opponent used a removal spell on Prophet of Distortion very early in the game long before I could have activated it. As a matter of fact, he used Immolating Glare, a card he wished he had at the end of the game when I pull victory out of the jaws of defeat by attacking with every creature I’ve got hoping that he will be required to block Breaker of Armies with his entire team. We’re in extra turns and I manage to kill him even though he’s at twenty-five life. In round three I finally run into a deck that’s just clearly better than mine. It’s a red and black deck piloted by a sharp teen-aged player who just moved to the Dallas area from Tennessee. I’m excited to have the new talent in town. He kills me fairly quickly in two games. The only damage he takes from me in game two is when he loses five life from Remorseless Punishment. At 2-1 for the tournament, I have to win round four and hope that tiebreakers are favorable for a round five draw. It turns out I was randomly paired down in round three, my round three opponent wasn’t 2-0 but rather 1-0-1. I randomly get paired down again in round four. That’s bad news for my tiebreaks but good news in that my 1-2 opponent randomly doesn’t show up. It’s a free match win. When the standings are posted before the fifth and last round of Swiss, I see that I’m in sixth place with the second best tiebreakers among players with a 3-1 record. I get paired with the player in fifth place with the best tiebreakers and we promptly agree to a draw. We play two games for fun and he gets me pretty good with his black/white deck. When the dust settles, I finish in eighth place after only really winning two matches with my deck. Crazy.

Learning to Fly

Two PPTQs, two top eights. But you can’t win if you can’t draft. I haven’t won a draft in this format yet, all I can do is try. I practice on Tuesday nights with a bunch of good Limited players. Even when I don’t win at the Tuesday night Texas Guildmages practices I know I learn stuff. Today’s top eight is interesting and talented. This is an important lesson about PPTQs. Even though these things often only attract twenty or thirty players, you can be sure that there are always eight or ten very good players in the house. The first seed of today’s top eight is Tuan Doan, a very good player who has done well in some big tournaments in the very short time he has been playing competitively. Jon Toone is the second seed, he’s a Texas Guildmage who has played in multiple Pro Tour events. I play with both of these guys on a weekly basis. Thos Fisher is the third seed. He’s been a good player for quite a few years and he’s also a sanctioned judge. Brian Tidwell is the seven seed, he’s an experienced competitive player and the man who did me the favor of drawing with me in round five. We go way back. I don’t know the other four players at all, but I do remember the fourth seed, Bradley Overbay, from a Standard PPTQ that I ran (as head judge) yesterday in my home store in Coppell, Texas. Bradley is the only person to beat me at Sealed Deck in my last fifteen matches. If this were a constructed tournament, the top eight would be paired according to seeding, the one would play the eight and the winner would play the winner of the four/five matchup, and so on. Booster Draft top eights operated differently. The eight players are randomly placed around the draft table. From that seating, the top eight bracket is built such that your first opponent is the player four seats away from you and such that you can’t face the player directly on your left or right until the finals. I don’t know who is on my immediately left, the next guy is Brian Tidwell. I don’t know the next guy, either, then it’s Tuan Doan (he’ll be my quarterfinals opponent), then it’s Jon Toone, Bradley Overbay and finally Thos Fisher.

I wish I could film all my drafts so that I could talk about all my pick choices with my teammates later. I do the next best thing whenever I draft, I keep my cards in the order than I picked them and I take a quick picture of them in this order before I start building my deck. In a tournament with competitive rules enforcement, like this event, make sure you get permission from a judge before you take the picture. Here are the cards I drafted in the order I took them.

Pack One

Eldrazi Displacer – it’s a bomb as long as you have enough colorless mana sources
Roiling Waters – can be a late game blowout if your deck has been attacking already
Matter Reshaper – underrated by a lot of players, it’s card advantage pure and simple
Cultivator Drone – blocks a little bit, makes colorless mana when you need it
Seer’s Lantern – another colorless mana source, also a mana ramp
Roiling Waters – probably wouldn’t play two of these but it was the best card
Holdout Settlement – I didn’t take lands early enough in the top eight draft last week
Seer’s Lantern – this card doesn’t get much better in multiples, don’t play more than two
Mighty Leap – I usually play one of these in blue/white Limited decks
Kor Scythemaster – better when you are aggressive, needs to be attacking
Wastes – I’m feeling very good about my access to colorless mana
Bone Saw – probably sideboard, but I have been known to play one once in a while
Unknown Shores – amazing for this to fall to thirteenth pick
Elemental Uprising – completely playable card in green decks

Didn’t see one good white card after my first pick, there’s a good chance either Thos, on my immediate right, or Bradley, on his right, is playing white. Maybe they both are. It doesn’t matter, you couldn’t pry me away from Eldrazi Displacer at this point.

Pack Two

Reality Smasher – a near bomb, bigger and more dangerous than other cards at five mana
Dimensional Infiltrator – don’t think of it as a rare, just a good solid blue playable
Immolating Glare – one of the best white removal spells in Oath of the Gatewatch
Dazzling Reflection – Somewhat playable, it’s easy to leave out. Not very good.
Kor Sky Climber – very decent. I think of it as having flying all the time.
Spawnbinder Mage – Good defender on the ground, active tapper for bigger threats.
Expedition Raptor – I’m a big fan of this creature for flying decks.
Spawnbinder Mage
Affa Protector – I like this guy for defensive decks.
Negate – my Limited podcast heroes like having one counterspell in their draft decks
Kozilek’s Pathfinder – makes the cut when you have colorless mana to activate him with
Goblin Freerunner
Consuming Sinkhole
Shoulder to Shoulder

Pack Three

Stasis Snare – cements our white, a very good removal spell
Wave-Wing Elemental – this was the win condition of many Battle for Zendikar draft decks
Dampening Pulse – always good, I would never pass it
Clutch of Currents – It was better in Battle drafts, still good I believe
Tightening Coils – good defense when you have flyers
Ghostly Sentinel – always makes the cut
Scour from Existence – I think you can safely play this seven-drop in Oath drafts
Anticipate – easy to play but easy to leave out, too. It’s a luxury and a filler at the same time.
Sunken Hollow – I opened this, happy to get a free dual land after tabling
Oracle of Dust – still playable, this was much better when ingest was a big thing
Prairie Stream – another rare land tables and this one actually goes in the deck
Skyline Cascade – I only occasionally play this nonbasic
Retreat to Valakut – I’m not giving the guy on my left a Retreat with the fourteenth pick
Dutiful Return

The Deck

Before I tell you a little about my exciting exploits in single elimination top eight playoffs, I want to tell you what’s wrong with my deck. It’s important to be objective and understand the weaknesses as well as the strengths of your deck. I went with seventeen land and two Seer’s Lantern. It’s possible the right answer would have been eighteen land and one Lantern. You feel pretty good with an opening hand of three land and a Lantern. You would not feel as good about an opening hand with two lands and two Lanterns. Still, I went with seventeen land and two Lanterns. I have aggressive creatures mixed with defensive creatures in the same casting cost slot. Your deck is sub-optimal if you’re running both Kor Scythemaster and Affa Protector. I couldn’t help it. I put every creature I drafted into the finished deck. I probably should have taken creatures over the two Roiling Waters cards. It’s awesome to have Eldrazi Displacer. The most important factor to making it useful is having plenty of colorless mana in your deck. I’ve got that under control. The way you make Displacer AWESOME is by having creatures in your deck that interact with it, that are good targets for Displacer. The only card I have that benefits from being exiled and returned to play is Expedition Raptor. Displacer is more than good enough in any deck that has colorless mana to activate it with but he is far from optimal in my build.

The last decision for the deck was Negate over Roiling Waters. I really wanted to play Roiling Waters, obviously I used my second pick in the draft on it. It came down between that card and Negate. That’s when I considered my deck’s most powerful card, Eldrazi Displacer. Negate was a card that could protect my Displacer from a removal spell giving me who knows how many extra turns to gain an advantage with the Displacer. I decided Negate was a better all-purpose solution to potential problems than Roiling Waters. I never once considered bringing Roiling Waters in from the sideboard. I considered Scour from Existence but never actually brought it in. The only cards I sided in were Mighty Leap and Shoulder to Shoulder. Both came in against opponents who either didn’t have much in the way of removal or flyers.

Tuan Doan and I are a little bummed that we have to play in the quarterfinals but we both understand it’s one of those things that happens. He’s playing an aggressive red/black deck. The decision to play first or draw belongs to whoever finished the Swiss rounds with the higher position. Tuan Doan came in first, I came in eighth. I will be playing second in game one of every match in the top eight. I mulligan to six in game one, on the draw, but Tuan’s hand turns out to be worse than mine and I win after dropping as low as nine life. Tuan is on the play again in game two and we both mulligan to six. I miss on lands badly and lose game two without ever laying a finger on Tuan. As we shuffle for game three we each wish each other a good game. We get a pretty good game in game three. I keep my seven, on the play. Tuan mulligans to six on the draw. For most of the game, Tuan deals more damage than I do. Finally I start closing down the board. Still, I drop from eight life to six to three. Now I can’t let anything through. We each have one card in hand. Mine is Negate. He draws and plays a creature, then I draw and play a creature so that I am able to block each attacker in case he alpha strikes, which he’s going to do as soon as he has one more guy than I do. My creatures are bigger but he’s ahead on life. I have six land in play but I draw two six-casting-cost creatures in a row and must tap out to play them. It sucks to play Reality Smasher and be forced to hold him back on defense. The next turn it was Kozilek’s Pathfinder. Finally, on the next turn, I draw and play a land which triggers my Wave-Wing Elemental and allows me to attack. On Tuan’s next turn he goes for it, afraid that, now at five life, he can’t wait for a bigger advantage. He attacks with all his creatures and I have to block them all. I lose creatures including Reality Smasher but manage to keep the Pathfinder alive. If I get to take another turn I can activate the Pathfinder up to two times if necessary to keep Tuan from being able to block. That’s why Tuan goes ahead and taps out for the biggest Rolling Thunder that he can cast targeting my face. I throw the Negate on the table and extend my hand. I’m not trying to be cocky, I’m just relieved.

In the semifinals I am reunited with Bradley Overbay, the kid who beat me in the third Swiss round. He plays first in game one but my deck rolls out like a dream. Between Eldrazi Displacer and Reality Smasher, Bradley sort of can’t believe how lucky I am or how stupid my deck is. I’m sure it seemed that way to him in game one, he never dealt a point of damage. It doesn’t help that he has to mulligan to six on the play in game two. This game is also brief even though it was a bit more even than the first games. Our match is over before the first game of the other semifinal match is completed. It’s my friend and teammate Jon Toone versus Thos Fisher. Jon eventually loses game one but bounces back and wins game two before losing a rather one-sided game three.

It’s me and Thos in the finals. Thos is playing green/red/white Allies but doesn’t have much in the way of creature removal. Even though he goes first in both games and has a good curve, his deck doesn’t give him the cheap creatures at the beginning of either game. Every turn that passes is better for me because a blue/white flyers deck takes time to develop. Thos deals only one point of damage to me in game one. I’m confident enough to side out Oracle of Dust and bring in Shoulder to Shoulder. I’m pretty pumped up going into game two. Thos again comes out slow. Dimensional Infiltrator drops into play at the end of his third turn and starts pecking away at his life total, two points a turn. Thos hits me one time in game two for three damage but is overwhelmed. After winning eight of the old school PTQs in my long years of playing competitively, I have at last won my first PPTQ after thirteen months of trying. I end the game with Negate in my hand again. Negate was most definitely the MVP of my deck. It’s weird that I have three of the same rares in this draft deck, Reality Smasher and Matter Reshaper and Eldrazi Displacer, that I had in my very nice sealed deck last weekend. It’s like I tried to draft my old sealed deck.

Here’s a picture of head judge Ben Johnston with finalist Thos Fisher and myself.

20160131 Ben and Thos and Zanman

Last Thoughts on Sealed Deck

I like to go fast as much as anyone this side of Ricky Bobby, so you’ve got to trust me when I say that you can’t really play a fast deck in Oath of the Gatewatch Sealed Deck and hope to be successful. A random pool of cards from six booster packs is extremely unlikely to give you the resources needed to support a blazing fast deck. When you go for a fast deck in Sealed, you end up fooling yourself, giving up on the powerful cards in your pool that you didn’t think amounted to much. This isn’t one of those formats where you can get by with ten creatures so that you can play thirteen spells with a bunch of them serving to pump up the creatures that you hardly have any of. Not a great sentence. Not a great strategy, either. In any Sealed Deck environment, the bottom line is that you have to make the best use of your limited resources.

It’s my belief that the best deck that you will build from most Oath of the Gatewatch Sealed Deck pools will be on the slower side. Having a good curve is still important. You want some small creatures because you don’t want to lose too many of your precious life points while you build your board towards more expensive late game creatures. On the other hand, this isn’t a format that you can dominate by having the fastest pile of two-drops. Oath of the Gatewatch and Battle for Zendikar just aren’t set up that way. You can draft your way into a deck like that, though not as easily with Oath as you could with Battle, but you aren’t likely to get there with an underpowered deck in Sealed.

I feel strongly that the sweet spot in Oath of the Gatewatch is the colorless creatures and colorless activated abilities. I truly believe that Wizards has made these a little overpowered for their mana costs in order to convince players that colorless mana is worth the trouble. You can profit from this design choice if you have enough ways to make colorless mana in your deck. I’ll play a couple of cards that require colorless mana with as few as three colorless producing lands. Don’t think strictly in terms of Wastes, although these are very good because they work with land search tools like Evolving Wilds and Loam Larva. There are plenty of nonbasic lands in both Oath and Battle that produce colorless mana. I think the way to go is to play two traditional colors in your deck and splash for colorless spells and effects as your third color.

Thanks for reading.

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