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This Week in Sealed: Masters 25 Sealed Deck PPTQ

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

This Week in Sealed: Masters 25 Sealed Deck PPTQ

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.

The recent release of Masters 25 has brought out all kinds of feelings from all kinds of Magic players. Masters 25 is the latest in a biblical flood of reprint sets and it appears that there was room in the ark for cards from every possible set including core sets, three Portal sets as well as commander and Conspiracy sets. Opening a pack of Masters 25 is a nostalgic experience no matter how long you have been playing the game. I love the choice of using each card’s original expansion symbol as a watermark in the background of the text box.

If there is frustration with Masters 25 it has to do with the value of the cards in the set versus the price point. It’s strange, but balancing the value of these prestige Masters sets seems to be a very difficult job for Wizards of the Coast. The company line is that by significantly raising the prices of these Masters sets Wizards has the ability to include very powerful and fun and, yes, valuable cards from Magic’s past. It’s a tricky balancing act, either include too few valuable cards and anger the customers, or include too many valuable cards and anger the secondary market. An argument can be made that Wizards chooses the cards for their Masters sets based only on what’s good for the set, on the usefulness of each card in whatever special set they are creating. I think it’s obvious that they are also taking the overall card market into consideration.

Opening a Masters 25 booster for a tournament? This is a remarkably fun experience. Never have I seen so many cards from such a diverse pool. Plenty of the boosters have more than one rare in them, in the sense that many of the reprinted cards were rares when originally printed, like Savannah Lions, Balduvian Horde and Shadowmage Infiltrator.

Opening a Masters 25 booster for investment purposes? Good luck with that. Eladamri’s Call? I’ll try another one. Reef Worm, huh? Ball Lightning. Grenzo, Dungeon Warden? That’s a new one on me. This is when some of my friends point out that there’s a foil in every pack. And what about all the valuable uncommons? With Master’s 25, if you’re looking for value, you better hope you draw the best uncommons and that one of them is your foil card. There was only one card from Iconic Masters that called to me, Mana Drain, obviously, and I was thrilled to buy one and call it a day. Masters 25 feels like that to me, there are simply too few cards that are worth trying to open.

I don’t suggest investing in Masters 25. Playing with the set, however, is a delight. So let’s focus on the best thing about Masters 25, the way it plays in limited formats.

There was a Masters 25 sealed deck PPTQ on Saturday, March 17 at Common Ground Games in Dallas. This tournament, only a day after Masters 25 went on sale, would be an excellent test for sealed deck players. There were only thirty-nine players on this rainy March morning. I had preregistered for the tournament for my son and myself because I thought the event might sell out. Common Ground Games can hold close to a hundred players. Also, preregistering saved me five dollars off of the $80 cash price for each of the entries I was paying for.

Was attendance low because players opened some boosters on Friday and decided they didn’t like the set? I doubt it. I’m sure one issue is the high price to play in the event as well as a certain Masters set fatigue, this set arriving so soon after Iconic Masters. Someone should tell the marketing geniuses at Wizards of the Coast that just because they release twice as many products than they did a year ago it doesn’t double the amount of spending money in players’ pockets.

Opening Packs

Disappointment in my packs comes in two stages. The first gut punch comes when my half of the room is instructed to open our booster packs while the player directly across from me watches. My six rares include Cascade Bluffs, Darien, King of Kjeldor, Ball Lightning, Akroma, Angel of Fury, Courser of Kruphix and Rugged Prairie. That’s fine, we’re here to win a Magic tournament, not to win the lottery when we open packs. Still… what about the foils in my six packs? Assembly-Worker, Geist of the Moors, Supernatural Stamina, Diabolic Edict, Zulaport Cutthroat and Pyre Hound.

I didn’t play any Masters 25 on Magic Online ahead of time, so this is my first time to play with the set. When it was time to build our decks, the colors that jumped out to me were green and red. Here’s what I built:

Even before playing a single game with this deck, I know what I don’t like about it. The green and red cards had very little in the way of combat tricks or removal. Invigorate to power up an attacker or blocker, or, better yet, to power up Spikeshot Goblin so that the Goblin can kill a large monster. Vessel of Nascency helps me find a land in the early game, or a big monster. It’s good for digging for anything other than spells. That’s perfectly fine in this deck that doesn’t have many spells. Act of Treason is a little iffy in a deck that I can tell is going to be pretty slow with lots of four, five and six-drops. This is how the white cards found their way into the deck. Splashing for removal is a time-honored tradition in sealed deck, but the third color doesn’t do my deck’s mana base any favors. There are good color fixers in the set, primarily in green, but I didn’t open any of them. Vessel of Nascency is good here, and so is Courser of Kruphix. I go with the three white spells, all solid removal spells, but have to stick three white mana sources in the deck, two Plains and Rugged Prairie.

Solid but slow, that’s my impression as I look at a pair of Wildheart Invokers, two Kavu Climbers and two Elvish Aberration. I could have played a third Elvish Aberration. It was cut to make room for the white cards. I have seven red sources for Akroma, Angel of Fury. It would be dangerous to run less. I’m running only sixteen land but between Vessel of Nascency, Courser of Kruphix and the Elvish Aberrations I feel like I won’t miss many mana drops. Once this deck is over the initial hump, getting to lands four and five, the Kavu Climbers can either find me more land or move me closer to drawing land number six. The idea is to win with Akroma, this is by far the deck’s plan A, or else to live long enough to use Wildheart Invoker to power up another creature to trample through for the win.

There was a faster option with the red/green plan. Before deciding to add white for removal, I gave serious thought to playing two copies of Frenzied Goblin, along with more Mountains, to attack earlier and to use the Goblins’ ability to keep early blockers from blocking. This is not usually a plan that will work in sealed deck environments, but I gave it some thought. This plan could have included my Ball Lightning. I love an aggressive plan, but I’m not convinced this one would have worked.

Mistakes were made. Reviewing the entire card pool today, I can see some obvious mistakes. In green, I left out Colossal Dreadmaw and Presence of Gond. I left out Dreadmaw for a number of reasons. With Akroma and at least two Elvish Aberrations in my deck, how many six-drops or bigger could I actually play? Also, I’m starting to feel like Wizards of the Coast is punking us. Colossal Dreadmaw has now appeared in three sets in a row: Ixalan, Rivals of Ixalan and now Masters 25. Presence of Gond seemed like another slow card for an already slow deck. Still, it’s incredibly useful to have a cheap way to make a 1/1 token every turn.

The mistakes I made in red are more egregious. I left out two Pyre Hounds and Balduvian Horde. The Horde isn’t exactly a bomb, and it hurts a lot to play Balduvian Horde, discard a card, and then have your opponent bounce Horde back to your hand. Still, it’s a 5/5 body that you need in a sealed deck. The Pyre Hounds probably should be in there even with only a few spells. Maybe. Finally, I left out Skeletonize because my deck’s curve was already on the heavy side and because I didn’t know the speed of the format. After playing in this event, and judging another Masters 25 sealed deck PPTQ a day later, I can tell you that Skeletonize makes the cut in all sealed decks and most draft decks. I left out Humble Defector because I already have two Crimson Mages and Soulbright Flamekin doing a similar job in the deck. I think I should have played Defector just for those rare occasions when you need the Hail Mary pass, you just need one more chance to draw a card and fix a serious problem.

What about the other colors? I had three Assembly-Workers in my pool. I still wonder if there is a number of Assembly-Workers that makes this card worth playing. The strongest color that I didn’t play was white. Darien, King of Kjeldor leads a decent white team with two Geist of the Moors, Fiend Hunter, two Savannah Lions, Loyal Sentry, Whitemane Lion, Dauntless Cathar and Promise of Bunrei and Gods Willing. Might have played Fencing Ace, but probably not a single Squadron Hawk or a pair of Congregates. Green and white with Akroma, Angel of Fury on the sidelines?

Nothing much in blue. My best blue creatures were Mystic of the Hidden Way, Man-o’-War, Court Hussar. If I had played blue/green I could have had Horseshoe Crab enchanted with Presence of Gond. It’s good but not a reason to play green/blue all by itself. I could possibly have tried to go under my opponents with a fast black/red deck. My black cards include two Nezumi Cutthroats, Vampire Lacerator, Zulaport Cutthroat with Phyrexian Ghoul. Horror of the Broken Lands and Twisted Abomination for the late game? A pair of Dirge of Dreads to either cycle early or win with late.

It’s not an outstanding sealed pool, but the bottom line is that I built a safe deck based on a lack of knowledge about the format and a lack of confidence in the aggressive game. It’s that funny thing where you build sealed decks one way and booster drafts another. Sometimes you get a sealed pool that can build the kind of fast deck that plays like a draft deck. If you aren’t kidding yourself, if you really have enough aggressive cards, your aggro deck is going to be good enough to beat the slower “sealed deck” types of sealed decks. I took the safe way and built a very “sealed deck” kind of deck.

Time to Battle

I played an old friend in the first round, a guy I’ve run into at Magic tournaments for much more than a decade. Like me, he’s played all of these cards already from their original sets. Also like me, he is playing a safe and kind of slow red/green/white deck. Both games take a long time and are decided by small incremental adjustments to the battlefield. In game one I took a mulligan, but my opponent took two mulligans in game one and wound up on top. Game two was a little quicker than game one but both games made me think that the format was probably going to be a little slow. That was a mistake. Our match was slow because we both built the same slow deck.

In round two I played against a blue/white deck that got threats into the air and moved the game along more quickly. I drew well and won both games. That’s when you really know your deck isn’t very good, when you win and still don’t like your deck. In round three I was quickly trounced in two games without ever laying a point of damage on my opponent. The tournament was over for me, just like that.

Meanwhile, my son Lawson, who had also lost in round one, was now 2-1. I left the store for a while to eat and run an errand. When I returned to Common Ground Games, it was round six and Lawson was intentionally drawing into the top eight. After losing in round one, Lawson won his next eight games to put himself in position to draw into the top eight draft.

Top Eight Sealed Decks

Here the top eight sealed decks after six rounds of Swiss.

Kevin Wand 4-0-2
2-0 over Jason Baker
2-1 over Gregory Woodard
2-0 over Eric Bush
2-1 over Alex Sheuermann
Intentional draw with James Conboy
Intentional draw with Matthew Willis

Kevin Wand is Dallas/Fort Worth’s best limited player. You can count on seeing him at every sealed deck event in the area. He reaches the top eight of these events with shocking consistency. Wand is good enough at limited that I never question his mana bases. I always figure he knows what he’s doing. When a format opens the door to playing a third color, you can bet Kevin Wand will take advantage. He does so in this deck, a green base with equal parts white and black. It’s not even a splash, his deck is a truly three-colored deck. The deck plays seventeen land even with Arbor Elf because the deck wants badly to plays Plague Wind to wipe out its opponents. Wand can also clear the board with Akroma’s Vengeance. He also has great spot-removal with Fiend Hunter, Pacifism and Murder. Wand passed on some smaller creatures in his pool including Savannah Lions and a pair of Squadron Hawks.

James Conboy 4-0-2
2-0 over Lawson Zandi
2-1 over Paul Turney
2-0 over Jared Bosse
2-0 over Matthew Willis
Intentional draw with Kevin Wand
Intentional draw with Alex Sheuermann

Conboy is an excellent player and would be a favorite to reach the top eight of any PPTQ, but he was a winner today as soon as he opened his packs. Not included in his starting lineup is both an Imperial Recruiter as well as Jace, the Mind Sculptor. As for Conboy’s deck, he played a bunch of Forests in order to maximize the number of times he could play a turn one Arbor Elf or Vessel of Nascency. His deck is unusual in that he isn’t playing any non-basic lands. I know it’s strange to complain about reprints in an all-reprint set like Masters 25, but I really am bothered by the inclusion of Colossal Dreadmaw. Conboy didn’t open a Dreadmaw, but he did open a very welcome reprint from Rivals of Ixalan, Ravenous Chupacabra. He has fifteen creatures and a pair of Vessels to help him find them. He has two copies of Timberpack Wolf and leaves them in his sideboard. Oh, and he has Azusa, Lost but Seeking, another of his valuable rares that weren’t needed in the actual deck. Nice work!

Alex Scheuermann 4-1-1
2-0 over Michael Ricker
2-1 over Jason Tams
2-1 over Nick Spears
1-2 to Kevin Wand
2-0 over Joshua Goff
Intentional draw with James Conboy

Scheuermann’s deck runs great on a tight sixteen land mana base with an Arbor Elf. This is a hard-working red/green deck getting there with two each Skirk Commando and Timberpack Wolf. A pair of Crimson Mages help keep things popping by giving late game creatures haste. A pair of Epic Confrontations and the hard to get rid of Rancor made this deck a consistent winner all day.

Jonathan Litton 4-1-1
0-2 to Bruce Taylor
2-1 over Nick Templer
2-0 over Sam Morrison
2-0 over Jason Baker
2-0 over Tyler Morris
Intentional draw with Lawson Zandi

The good news with Masters 25 sealed is that you don’t have to open busted rares in order to win. On the other hand, winning with rares is also fun. That’s how Jonathan Litton did it. He has Grenzo, Dungeon Warden. He has Prossh, Skyraider of Kher. Prossh is a brand new card to me. I don’t play much Commander and definitely don’t buy Commander products. I generally don’t think of cards that are printed outside of expansion or core sets as real cards. It’s fitting that in order to make his splash-for-bombs plan work he has the best color-fixing rare in the set, Coalition Relic.

Matthew Willis 4-1-1
2-0 over Rim Van Heusden
2-1 over Bruce Taylor
2-1 over Cory Bush
0-2 to James Conboy
2-0 over Nicholas Spears
Intentional draw with Kevin Wand

Willis reaches the top eight with a very consistent green/white deck that has pairs of four useful creatures, Knight of the Skyward Eye, Ambassador Oak, Arbor Elf and Ember Weaver. Of course, Ember Weaver would have gained from some red permanents, but it’s still a good card even without red. Cards in white and green that Matthew didn’t feel he needed include Fencing Ace, Nyx-Fleece Ram and Broodhatch Nantuko. If he had drifted into red, and he didn’t have any color-fixing to help him, he could have played Ruric Thar, the Unbowed and Stangg as well some decent red cards like Chandra’s Outrage, Hordeling Outburst, Kindle and Skeletonize.

Lawson Zandi 4-1-1
0-2 to James Conboy
2-0 bye
2-0 over Gregory Woodard
2-0 over Bruce Taylor
2-0 over Cory Bush
Intentional draw with Jonathan Litton

Lawson Zandi worked pretty hard throughout the day with this deck. It’s not full of rares. It is, however, full of tricks, all the kinds of things that blue gives you to mess with your opponent. Willbender is pretty good in this format. Brine Elemental is even better. As a matter of fact, Morph is a defining characteristic of Masters 25 sealed deck play. The deck is mostly blue but still has an important green-based late game thanks to two copies of Wildheart Invoker. It seems like every Masters 25 sealed deck pool comes equipped with at least one Arbor Elf.

Sam Morrison 4-1-1
Unintentional draw with Tyler Morris
2-1 over Jonathan Wu
0-2 to Jonathan Litton
2-1 over Gregory Woodard
2-1 over Joe Panuska
2-1 over Jason Tams

Sam Morrison’s deck is most notable for reaching the top eight without the often underrated power of Forests. As intricate and powerful as Masters 25 is, it’s interesting that the best sealed pools trend towards green for one reason or another. Not this one, though. Laquatus’s Champion is the big shot in this deck, but the hard work gets done by a bunch of small red creatures and a pair of risky Balduvian Hordes. Balduvian Horde is kind of an extra rare in the set, a card that was a rare originally demoted all the way down to common for Masters 25. Considering that Morrison is playing two copies of Pyre Hound, I might have wanted to play Kindle and Trumpet Blast. Primal Clay seems playable in this format, but Morrison and some others who reached the top eight chose not to play it.

Tyler Morris 4-1-1
Unintentional draw with Sam Morrison
2-0 over Sean Dixon
2-0 over Cameron Priest
2-1 over Christopher Ham
0-2 to Jonathan Litton
2-1 over Bruce Taylor

Tyler Morris had a rollercoaster ride throughout the day with a powerful three colored deck chockful of rares. There’s Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Just in case you decide to play a spell to get rid of Jace, Morris also has Pact of Negation. He has Gisela, Blade of Goldnight. He has Fortune Thief to keep himself alive a little longer. Morris plays three colors with only Prophetic Prism to help fix his colors. He plays seventeen land… but he also plays forty-one cards. Forty would have been better. The white splash, most important for Gisela, is helped by Noble Templar’s plainscycling ability.

Masters 25 Sealed Deck Notes

I’ll show you the draft decks of the two finalists in a minute, but first I want to talk share my impressions of the Masters 25 sealed deck format.

The format is more affected by the gold cards than it is the colorless cards. It’s possible, and often desirable, to play a third color. This is more due to the excellent color-fixing and mana acceleration available in green than the need to play gold cards. The gold cards most worth playing are rares and mythics. Most of the time you won’t be tempted by your gold cards very much in the format. You need to play the artifacts even less often. Prophetic Prism is a common and a helper for color-fixing. This card would actually be important if more decks needed to reach a third color. Self-Assembler was an important card in my son’s deck. The reason was that he had two copies. Treasure Keeper is a real card, I suspect Assembly-Worker is not.

Green is a strong color. There’s nothing new about green being a popular color in a sealed deck format. However, it’s telling that among the top eight sealed decks in this event, five of them played a lot of green cards and a sixth deck splashed for green. Kevin Wand shrugged and said, “Green’s just good in sealed.” It’s a little better than average in Masters 25 sealed. On the other hand, I head judged another Masters 25 sealed deck PPTQ the day following this Dallas event, and in the Sunday event, at teammate Tim Stoltzfus’s excellent store, More Fun Games, in Denton, the top eight sealed decks only included four decks playing green. Green isn’t a must-play color, it’s not where all the bombs live, not by a long shot, but green is very solid in Masters 25.

I like that the Masters 25 sealed decks aren’t strictly defined by the rares found in each sealed pool. Yes, powerful rares make your deck better. That’s not news. However, you don’t have to open overpowering rares or mythics in order to build a winning sealed deck. That’s the sign of a good set where sealed deck play is concerned. What’s more, Masters 25 gives you so many extra rares, in a sense, because so many cards that were previously rares were included in Masters 25 at lower rarities. These former rares include Balduvian Horde, Fallen Angel (rare in seven previous printings), Iwamori of the Open Fist, Kongming, “Sleeping Dragon,” Loyal Sentry, Promise of Bunrei, Primal Clay (rare in four previous printings), Savannah Lions, Stangg, Will-o’-the-Wisp, Zada, Hedron Grinder and my favorite rarity downgrade, Shadowmage Infiltrator. These downgraded rares won’t improve your collection’s value but they will make your Masters 25 sealed deck better.

Actually, my favorite downgraded rare is definitely Iwamori of the Open Fist. This was originally a rare in a block full of legendary creatures. In Masters 25, you get Iwamori at uncommon in a format with far less legendary creatures. You don’t have to be as afraid you’re your opponent will put a difficult-to-cast legendary creature onto the battlefield without paying its mana cost when you play Iwamori. Of course, when it does happen, it’s glorious for the player who’s been holding onto Nicol Bolas or Niv-Mizzet without the correct lands in play.

Masters Sets Playability

I spent some time reviewing the other Masters sets recently and Masters 25 is the most playable of them all, at least for sealed deck. This almost doesn’t make sense. Masters 25 has cards, and mechanics, from the most different sets than any other reprint set in the history of Magic: the Gathering. Yet it plays more smoothly than Iconic Masters and Modern Masters 2017. I have to admit that Eternal Masters worked pretty well for sealed deck as well. The reason that I think Masters 25 works so well for sealed deck is exactly because it touches so many sets. R&D was more handcuffed with respect to the mechanics that they could focus on across different Magic sets. Masters 25 doesn’t provide as many straight lines to specific deck archetypes as other Masters products. Cycling and Morph and not much more complicated than that.

The original Modern Masters set from 2013 is the best of the Masters sets for booster draft with ten legitimate draft archetypes at which to aim. As far as sealed goes, decks from the original Modern Masters were much less focused. It’s useful for sealed to have common and uncommon non-basic lands to solve color issues. Modern Masters has Terramorphic Expanse at common and all five uncommon Vivid lands. The basic land-cycling cards from Masters 25 may still be better.

Modern Masters 2015 is good for sealed with the multi-color producing lands from Ravnica block, although upgraded in MM15 to uncommon from common. These are also found in Iconic Masters. There is also Evolving Wilds and the uncommon Expedition Map as well as the common Sphere of the Suns.

After waiting two years between highly successful Masters sets, Wizards of the Coast, obviously with some prodding from the corporate overlords at Hasbro, starts whipping the goose forcing it to lay more golden eggs more frequently. Eternal Masters lands in 2016. Like Masters 25, Eternal Masters touches a very large number of sets and is also very green-friendly with cards like Abundant Growth, Armadillo Cloak, Elephant Guide, Flinthoof Boar, Green Sun’s Zenith, Harmonize, Llanowar Elves, Sylvan Library and Werebear. Eternal Masters must be the most green-centered sealed format among the Masters sets. For color-fixing you get a set of two-colored lands that enter the battlefield tapped from Khans of Tarkir.

It takes only nine months for the next Masters set to arrive. Modern Masters 2017 moves the needle for most players a little bit less than the previous versions, although everyone was happy to see fetch lands reprinted, and Wizards shows some restraint and prints the fetch lands at rare and not mythic rare. For limited play, it’s nice that there is a cycle of enters-the-battlefield-tapped two-colored lands, this time from Return to Ravnica. MM17 also supplies the Ravnica block Signet artifacts, although here they are upgraded to uncommon from common. Gold cards matter more in MM17 sealed deck because there are playable common gold cards. To help with your gold cards, MM17 also gives us the uncommon cycle of triple-colored enters-the-battlefield-tapped lands from Shards of Alara. This is the Masters set with the most mana fixing.

Are you loving Masters sets yet? Good, because Iconic Masters arrives eight months after MM17. The set nobody was really waiting for. I find the card mix less interesting in Iconic Masters than any of the other Masters sets. For limited play, there are the two-colored enters-the-battlefield-tapped lands from Ravnica block just like MM15. You also get the blendy lands originally from Future Sight, but they’re rare and harder to open in your sealed pool.

Wrapping a Bow Around It

I didn’t like the value of the packs that I opened in Masters 25. However, when you rip these packs open for the pure joy of playing cards, Masters 25 shines. I’ve now opened two boxes of it and used every bit of it to build a draft cube. Masters 25 is very fun to play with in sealed and booster draft. Maybe I like it because it’s easier to play with because there are fewer narrow win conditions. Maybe Masters 25 is less expert than some of the other Masters sets.

All the problems with Masters 25 have to do with the business-side of the things, the value side. These boosters are certainly overpriced at ten bucks a pop. However, if you can get these cards for closer to seven bucks a pack, if you are able, you have a fine product that is very fun to play with.

Top Draft Decks from the Sealed Deck PPTQ

Here are the two Masters 25 draft decks from the finals of the PPTQ. These two players didn’t end up playing out the final match so here are their decks in no particular order.

Conboy left out Ainok Survivalist, Colossal Dreadmaw and Presence of Gond. There was also a third copy of Epic Confrontation in the board.

Willis drafted a Nezumi Cutthroat and a Fallen Angel that he cut from the main deck.

Thanks for reading.

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