This Week in Sealed: Preparing for Grand Prix Dallas-Fort Worth

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

This Week in Sealed: Preparing for Grand Prix Dallas-Fort Worth

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.

Dominaria sealed deck is a blast! After a very satisfying and fun prerelease weekend, I competed in a Dominaria sealed deck PPTQ this past Saturday while also keeping tabs on another sealed deck PPTQ taking place near Houston. While all my friends are feverishly looking for Dominaria cards for their Standard decks (just kidding, they’re only looking for Karn) I’m the crazy one building a gauntlet of successful Dominaria sealed decks. Why? So that I can make the right decisions during deck construction this Saturday at Grand Prix Dallas-Fort Worth.

Sealed deck is my favorite format. It’s not everybody else’s. I get that. My son is off at college three-and-a-half hours away at Texas A&M. He’s getting ready for final exams, but when he heard there was a GP this weekend, he was ready to drop everything and risk his test preparations. Then he found out the format was sealed deck and he decided to stay in College Station to study. Tough but fair.

Dudes who aren’t super into sealed deck, and there will be plenty of them in the tournament Saturday, tend to think that it’s all luck. They wouldn’t dream of practicing for it or studying for it. A few of these are gifted Magic players and they might do fine on Saturday without much preparation. The rest are just plain wrong.

Dominaria has proved to be a slower-paced sealed deck format than any other in a couple of years. You routinely played sixteen lands in Rivals of Ixalan sealed. You won’t see that in Dominaria sealed. Most people are playing seventeen and plenty are playing eighteen. My favorite mana base in this format is seventeen land with some green mana ramp cards. The bottom line is that most decks want six lands in play as soon as possible. If you aren’t playing any mana ramp spells it’s entirely reasonable that you want to play eighteen land. Skittering Surveyor is not exactly a ramp spell but it will definitely help you hit your sixth land on time.

Your best bet in Dominaria sealed is most likely a slower deck capable of making the best use of your most powerful spells, many of which either cost six or more mana or cost six or more mana when kicked. Sure, it’s possible that your sealed pool has the makings for a very aggressive deck. I’ve seen some attempts with red joined either with black, white or blue. You better be sure, though. You don’t want to make the mistake of playing a bunch of two-drops against a deck that might be slow to develop but which starts dropping bombs on you after a while. You don’t want to take a knife to a gun fight.

I’m going to share the tidbits that I’ve learned about this format from the prerelease weekend as well as the weekend following.

Powerful Rares Are Powerful

The rares and mythics in Dominaria are very powerful and game-changing. You can be a better player than your opponent, you can do a better job than your opponent at assessing your sealed pool and building the optimal deck and then you can still get utterly wiped out when your opponent top decks one of their bombs. It’s difficult to hear this, but it’s true. Of course, this admission plays right into the hands of sealed deck naysayers who believe that sealed deck is all luck. Dominaria sealed being a slow format doesn’t help with the problem of your opponent’s bombs. Games are longer and therefore your opponent has more chances to draw that late game bomb and to have the gigantic amount of mana that might be necessary to play it.

Unfortunately, there’s just no getting around the fact that many Dominaria sealed deck games are going to be decided not by a clever line of attacking or careful strategy throughout the game, but by enormously powerful rares and mythics. It’s still fair, of course, because you are as likely to open these bombs as your opponent is. There’s still plenty of skill involved. You have time to play your best cards in this format regardless of their cost.

It’s a Slow Format so You Better Play Fast

The sealed format may be healthier for being slower. A slower sealed format means that more of the cards in your sealed pool are potentially useful. That means there are more decisions to make. The more decisions there are to make, the more skill that the format requires. The more skill that a format requires, the better.

I gotta tell ya… this Dominaria sealed deck format is pretty slow. HOW SLOW IS IT? It’s so slow that average games run twelve to fourteen turns. That’s not a very funny punchline, but the point is that these games take a few more turns with more interactions and, possibly because the set is still so new, you and your opponent may be playing too slowly. It can be quite difficult to play three games of Dominaria sealed inside the parameters of a fifty minute competitive match. You need to know your cards well enough that you can play quickly enough to finish all of your matches. Don’t let a win turn into a draw because the game got bogged down late. These games often get bogged down. You can’t control the card pool that you have, but you can control the pace of your play. Believe me, I’ll be taking this to heart at the GP this weekend because I had matches in the prerelease and this past weekend’s PPTQ that nearly resulted in unintentional draws.

Land Grab

There can be no doubt that this is a seventeen land sealed format as opposed to the sixteen we were playing all through Ixalan and Rivals of Ixalan. Seventeen is usually the right number for sealed deck. Dominaria is slower than a lot of formats and you have a lot of mana-hungry spells, but seventeen is good enough, particularly if you are in green. If you aren’t in green and not playing the various mana accelerations spells in green like Llanowar Elves and Grow from the Ashes, then yes, you might even end up playing eighteen lands. The argument for eighteen lands basically boils down to two points. You want the straightest line possible to getting six lands in play. Secondly, you have powerful cards in your deck, hopefully. The eighteenth land is a way of insuring that lack of mana doesn’t cost you the opportunity to play your powerful cards.

Greed is Good

A lot of limited players are only interested in sealed deck in as far as it can qualify them for a day two full of booster drafts at the GP, or for the top eight booster draft in a PPTQ. Fair enough. Just make sure you don’t try to approach the two forms of Dominaria limited the same way, because they are a little bit different.

You can definitely afford to be greedy with your sealed deck pool. There’s no big payoff for making your deck streamlined and curve-conscious the way there is in booster draft. You’ll get your opponent down to ten life and then you’ll get run over by their bigger creatures and spells around turn seven or eight. You need to be greedy with your sealed pool because you’re much more likely to win with one more bomb in your deck, even if it means you have to awkwardly splash a third (or possibly fourth) color.

Play or Draw?

There are plenty of very good sealed deck players who almost always want to draw first. They tend to construct sealed decks with a mind for late game control. They love to play an opponent who’s betting on curve and one and two-drop creatures to win the game. With Dominaria, it pays to be this kind of player if you aren’t already. The early game isn’t going to decide things often enough for you to try to go fast most of the time. Therefore, be on the draw and give yourself a slight card advantage over your opponent.

You’re playing slightly more land than in another format and that means that you’ll be facing some fairly unexciting opening hands with four and sometimes five lands. This season, these hands are often keepers. You can’t judge much about the twelve or fourteen turn game ahead of you by just your opening seven cards. You’re going to have to trust weaker hands with lots of lands. You’re going to have to hope that as you set up a strong mana board that your good stuff is coming. Similarly, if you keep an opener with a game-winning bomb that costs six or seven mana to play, you’re going to have to remain calm and accept that your deck may be off to a slow start.

Some Sealed Decks

This was my first look at the format, my sealed deck from the midnight prerelease at Common Ground Games in Dallas. This isn’t the best Dominaria sealed pool I’ve had, and it’s not the worst. I think it represents a lot of factors that you want to think about when you play this format, however, so I’d like to show you the pool first, color by color, and then show you what I built.

 

The white cards were weak and there weren’t very many of them. I like Dub a lot more now than I did when I first saw it, but this group of white cards only contains four creatures and absolutely no cards that give you a reason to play white. Having ending up splashing white, it’s good to know that I could have brought in Invoke the Divine from the board, I wouldn’t play one main if it was in a splashed color. If I had realized that I was going to splash for two different uncommon legends, I might have thought more seriously about Urza’s Ruinous Blast. I fully understand how Urza’s Ruinous Blast can be a big waste of time, wiping the board of everything except what could easily be my opponent’s most dangerous creatures. Still, it was a possibility.

I don’t think the blue cards are much better than the white. All that the blue pile offers are filler cards but very little that can actually help you win. I like Academy Drake and Cloudreader Sphinx, they are good cards but not reasons to play blue. Two copies of Merfolk Trickster would definitely be good in some kind of deck, just not this one.

There are fourteen black cards and that gives me a few more options than either white or blue. Not much in the way of removal, just Vicious Offering (very good) and Fungal Infection (decent but very limited in usefulness). I like Whisper, Blood Liturgist but it obviously needs to go in a rather specific kind of deck that can afford to give up two creatures to return, hopefully, a very powerful one from the graveyard. Maybe the Windgrace Acolytes can help put some useful things into the graveyard for the Whispers to get back later. Maybe Soul Salvage fits in the deck. I don’t want to play Divest main but might bring it in against decks with expensive creature or artifact bombs.

Fifteen red cards. Triple Fire Elemental is not super-exciting but it’s something I could see doing. I like having two Keldon Overseers, this card can swing jammed board states late in games. Decent removal with Fiery Intervention and Shivan Fire and Wizard’s Lightning. The bottom line with these cards is that you have to buy in to playing multiple Fire Elementals, a clunky and not special beast, if you want to make red a main color for a deck. Splash red for some removal spells? Totally possible.

Eighteen green cards. A few prereleases ago, my son told me something that sounds pretty obvious but which I think about every time I’ve played sealed deck since. He said that you will probably play whatever color you have the most cards for. There are eighteen green cards here, and what do you know, it seems like the most solid of the five colors in my pool. Monsters. Two Baloth Gorgers, two Primordial Wurms, Grunn, the Lonely King and Steel Leaf Champion. Of course, if you plan on playing a card that costs GGG you are likely to need nine or ten green mana sources. I’m prepared to go that deep with these green cards. It has removal with Ancient Animus, a couple of combat tricks and some serious mana fixing/acceleration with Grow from the Ashes.

The gold cards are all good. That makes sense because almost all of the gold cards in Dominaria are good in sealed. The green/black plan, centered around Slimefoot, the Stowaway, seems the most likely. What about a splash into either blue for Tatyova and free card draw or white for Arvad the Cursed and legendary buffing plus lifelink and deathtouch? Could be… Memorial of Unity is my only nonbasic land card. I think the Memorials, other than the red one, are useful enough to include in your deck if they are in your main colors. I wouldn’t want to play a Memorial in a splash color because it’s a bigger problem having it come into play tapped.

Ten artifacts seems like quite a few for a sealed pool. Maybe it’s very average, I don’t know yet. I wish Powerstone Shard was a good idea but I don’t believe it is. Guardians of Koilos seems fine but also easy to leave out unless you have a very specific plan for bouncing your own historic permanents. Juggernaut is almost always a ‘yes’, Howling Golem almost always a ‘no.’ Skittering Surveyor is the way to solve some mana problems when you’re not in green. So is Gilded Lotus. The only thing you want to know with Gilded Lotus is whether or not it is too slow to be useful. I definitely want to give it a try.

I think the curve is okay. I know we’re not trying to have a fast curve in Dominaria sealed, but that doesn’t mean you should forget about casting curves altogether. I only have one creature in the two slot, and I don’t think you should play Untamed Kavu without kicking it. I like the three-drops as good cards to get the game underway. Grow from the Ashes is better kicked but you’ll usually know on turn three whether you need to play it right away or whether you can wait until turn five or later. If, god forbid, you kept a two land hand and only drew your third land on turn three, by all means, go ahead and plays Grow from the Ashes to get your fourth land into play. If it’s turn three and you’ve played a third land and still have at least one other land in your hand, you might rather get a creature onto the battlefield. It’s shocking and amazing that Grow from the Ashes puts basic lands onto the battlefield untapped, but that feature hasn’t been extremely important so far. It’s definitely a good thing, though.

Llanowar Envoy might help filter some mana, I half-played it simply for its body, I think this card is easy to cut. This card is not a very efficient way to access your splash colors but it can make the cut often enough I guess. The hot shots on Limited Resources, a very good podcast that I really value, did not like Sylvan Awakening but I like it enough to accept its shortcomings. It’s literally the last card you want to play in a game, in a good way, because when you attack with your indestructible 2/2 Elemental lands you can often win the game. This card has already won me games, in my little bit of experience with the card, when I could not have won without it.

The most important thing about this deck is the pair of splashes for the powerful uncommon gold cards Tatyova, Benthic Druid and Arvad the Cursed. This happened several times: play Tatyova, preferably on turn six or later before I’ve played a land for the turn, then use Tatyova to draw into Arvad the Cursed to turn Tatyova into a big enough creature that I wasn’t afraid to attack with. You don’t want to fall in love with Tatyova so much that you develop a mania for drawing extra cards, as good as that is. I want combat tricks like Ancient Animus and Gift of Growth to make these legends dangerous in combat as well as having other good abilities.

The mana in this deck worked very well. Often, I played Grow from the Ashes for just one land simply because I already had either the Island or Plains. Next thing you know, you play Gilded Lotus and your mana problems are over. I will definitely play Gilded Lotus whenever I have it in this format.

I did make mistakes building this deck. I should probably have played Skittering Surveyor and Juggernaut. Juggernaut was an easy cut in this particular pool but the Surveyor really should have been in there, maybe instead of Llanowar Envoy. I’m not sure about Adventurous Impulse. It’s useful but easy to cut. It’s possible I should have played one of my Primordial Wurms but these non-trampling big boys have no abilities and they are often not worthy of your few six and seven drops. I like Short Sword but I don’t think it makes the cut every time. I ended up wishing I played both copies of Whisper, Blood Liturgist, though I don’t know what I would have cut for it. I’m sure Caligo Skin-Witch should have been in the deck. It was far too easy for me to get to six mana before my opponent was out of cards. Skin-Witch may not be much better than Divest, but at least it puts a body on the battlefield, though a weak one.

I won all my matches at this prerelease but the game were hardly blowouts and one match went to extra turns. It’s easy to run out of time with these heavy, slow decks.

Successful Dominaria Sealed Decks from Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifiers

This past weekend there were Dominaria sealed deck PPTQs around the area. I played in one at a friend’s store in Denton, half an hour or so north of Dallas. Another took place in Huntsville, an hour north of Houston, a little more than three hours south of Dallas. Haibing Hu took down the Hunstville PPTQ reaching the top eight with this black/red deck splashing blue.

Haibing Hu recently reached the semi-finals of the most recent Regional Pro Tour Qualifier in Texas qualifying him for Pro Tour Dominaria. That Pro Tour event will be the tenth of his long Magic career. Along with his Pro Tour accolades Haibing Hu is also the 2015 Hunter Burton Memorial champion. Haibing is very good at constructed Magic, but he’s very, very good at limited. He agrees that Dominaria sealed is a slow format. His deck played only a single two-drop. He feels curve is less important and that splashing for powerful cards will win you more games. He played eighteen lands in the above deck and says he leans towards eighteen lands for this format.

To a lot of people, Dominaria feels like a core set. ‘Core set’ is kind of an insulting term, to me, describing sets full of reprints without much power, focus or synergy. I think that part of the reason people feel this way is that there isn’t much tribal synergy in Dominaria. It’s a bit of a bummer to see some Goblin cards like Goblin Warchief and Siege-Gang Commander with the kind of Goblin support you might have hoped for. It’s a gold set but one which doesn’t promote playing more than a splash of a third color. Unlike a core set, the spells in Dominaria are very powerful. The synergies in Dominara sealed have mostly to do with colors and casting costs. It’s apt to describe Dominaria as a straight-forward set, as far as limited is concerned, but I wouldn’t ever confuse this set with a core set. I think we’ll appreciate this set’s complexity more when an actual core set arrives on shelves this summer. Dominaria has a lot more going for it than any core set.

I reached the top eight of my PPTQ in Denton on Saturday with a sealed deck that had the kind of synergy that some people believe is unusual in Dominaria. Here’s what I played:

The deck is clearly built around Traxos, Scourge of Kroog. This deck has ten historic cards other than Traxos with which to untap this massive 7/7 trampler for four mana. Every game where Traxos hit the board on turn four was a blowout. I had Traxos’ best friend, Voltaic Servant, for an easy combo. The pair of D’Avenant Trappers are also very happy to hear that there are so many historic cards in the deck. Of course, a pair of Serra Angels and the very powerful Evra, Halcyon Witness help things as well. I loved Rite of Belzenlok, I was never concerned about the possibility of my 6/6 token being bounced after I sacrificed a lot of creatures to it. The 6/6 Demon token doesn’t give the opponent many turns to find an answer. Rite of Belzenlok is a true bomb as far as I’m concerned.

The only artifacts in my pool that didn’t end up in the deck were Navigator’s Compass and Powerstone Shard. It wasn’t hard to include the eight artifacts in my deck, they all were valuable on their own as well as helping to enable mighty Traxos. I can’t tell you how good Icy Manipulator is in this format. There were a few playable white cards that didn’t make the deck. I could have built the deck mono white but including black as a second color gave me three removal spells and Rite of Belzenlok. I also had a Windgrace Acolyte that I almost played, a Divest and Yawgmoth’s Vile Offering. I didn’t think I could play the Vile Offering with only three legends in the deck. It’s possible that the second color could have red with Tiana, Ship’s Caretaker, Warcry Phoenix, Shivan Fire, Keldon Overseer and Valduk, Keeper of the Flame.

It’s true enough that the worst card in my deck was my 2/2 Mesa Unicorn even though the Unicorn got equipped with Short Sword often enough to gain a decent amount of life before it died.

On to the Grand Prix

What did we learn? There’s no doubt that me and Haibing had powerful rares in our decks and those cards definitely helped us reach the top eights of our PPTQs last week. Other players had rares and mythics too, I assure you. I lost a match in the Swiss rounds to a deck with both Darigaaz, Reincarnated and Karn, Scion of Urza. Even if this format is as much of a battle between haves and have-nots as feared, what is the alternative?

I’m throwing myself into this weekend’s Grand Prix and I might build as many as three sealed decks. On Friday, I’ll play in the early bird 10:30 am Grand Prix Trial attempting to go 4-0 and earn two byes on Saturday. I think I have only one bye currently. I had zero at Grand Prix Houston in January. Obviously I’ll be building a sealed deck on Saturday morning at the GP. I certainly hope to win six of my first eight rounds and enable myself to draft two or, gasp, three times on Sunday. If it doesn’t work out I’ll be excited to build one more Dominaria sealed deck on Sunday morning in the old-fashioned Pro Tour Qualifier.

If you’re also battling in Grand Prix Dallas-Fort Worth I wish you luck.

Thanks for reading.

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