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This Week in Sealed: Preparing for Grand Prix Houston

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

This Week in Sealed: Preparing for Grand Prix Houston

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.

I used to say that there was nothing better in Magic: the Gathering than a new set. These days, you have to be careful what you wish for. Wizards of the Coast is producing new material at a blinding rate of speed. This level of production makes a grizzled old player like me highly suspicious. Can the guys up in Renton keep the quality of the product high while creating twice as much of it as normal? It’s a very real concern. I wasn’t terribly impressed with the breathlessly rushed release of either Iconic Masters or Unstable. It didn’t bother me, either, I knew I wasn’t the target demographic for another anthology set or for another un-set. Long story short, I got myself a new Mana Drain and I’ll slowly put together a set of Unstable strictly for collecting reasons while sticking some cool-looking basic lands into my constructed decks. The release of Rivals of Ixalan was much more important to me than any ancillary Magic products like Iconic and Unstable.

As Rivals of Ixalan was slowly being spoiled in the weeks leading up to Prerelease Weekend, I paid only a little attention to the new cards I was hearing about. These individually spoiled cards are primarily of interest to constructed players. I’m more of a sealed deck guy, but more than that, I don’t think you can learn anything about a new set until you can look at all of the cards together. When they put out the complete spoiler, Wizards immediately had my full and undivided attention. Right away, I had two observations that didn’t really mesh well with each other. I saw expensive, powerful cards that I hoped meant that Rivals of Ixalan would make for a slightly slower limited environment where players could more fully explore everything the set has to offer. Then I saw that the commons and uncommons, the real staples of limited, were telling just the opposite story. Rivals of Ixalan wants to go fast, the same way that Ixalan wants to go fast.

There’s fast and then there’s too fast. Zendikar limited, in its day, was actually too fast. The winning sealed deck pools in Zendikar were almost all black and red and very fast. It’s unusual for one sealed deck archetype to run over a limited format the way black/red did in Zendikar. If you were planning to play a big, more expensive card in Zendikar sealed, it better be something very powerful and in the five mana range, like Eldrazi Monument, Emeria Angel (only costs 2WW), Malakir Bloodwitch or the big daddy, Ob Nixilis, the Fallen. There are bigger, badder monsters in Zendikar, but the five-drop-bomb definitely ruled the Zendikar sealed deck environment.

While I do fear that Rivals of Ixalan sealed deck is going to be too fast for some of the more intricate and interesting higher-costed cards and control strategies, I’m in no way worried about speed getting out of hand like it did in the days of Zendikar. Armed with all the knowledge I had gathered by studying the spoiler during the week, which of course is no kind of knowledge at all, I headed into prerelease weekend ready to have fun but also to start learning about Rivals of Ixalan sealed deck. Sure, I wanted to Win More Boosters at the two prereleases I played in, but my eyes were on a loftier goal… Grand Prix Houston. Folks, they’re not kidding around at sealed deck Grand Prix events these days. GP Houston has a main event entry fee of $84.99 which does include a playmat. The playmat is a $14.99 add-on opportunity that I will choose not to take advantage of this time around.

Prerelease Weekend

I’ll try to keep this part short and sweet. I played in exactly two prerelease events, one Friday night at midnight and another on Sunday morning. On Saturday I watched NFL football playoffs and slept. Each of the two prerelease events I participated in played only three rounds before handing out prizes. Fair enough. This seems to be the way things are going at a lot of prerelease events. You know, a long time ago, entire cities would gather in a single spot to play a prerelease tournament with a hundred or more players. The tournament lasted all day and top finishers went home with an entire box of brand-new product. Now we play three rounds and get shooed out the door. It’s almost like these little tournaments don’t matter at all…

My first impressions of the format, from prerelease weekend, was that card pools seemed weak with four packs of Rivals of Ixalan and two packs of original Ixalan. Of course, this was simply the small sample size of my two sealed pools.

Midnight Prerelease Card Pool

At the Friday night Midnight release, my pool was bomb-free, which is neither here nor there, but it was also a pool that couldn’t put twenty-three playables in any two colors, it seemed like. There was a possible black/white Vampires deck, but to stay two colors I would have to run a single Legion Conquistador, which is a little awkward, and a main deck (please don’t say “main board” people, please) Cleansing Ray, which I don’t think is right. The only thing the green cards could have done was supported a red/green deck with two Raging Regisaurs but no spells. I don’t play Dinosaurs without removal spells. I ended up with this red/blue Pirates deck:

That’s thirteen creatures and eleven spells. That’s every blue creature in my pool and every red one except for Rummaging Goblin. The curve of the deck is at least okay in the early game. Those five drops aren’t the best, and neither are the pair of 3/4 Raptors for 2RR that I played. Now the good news. This deck went 3-0. So why the whining about the card pool? I won against players that showed up at Midnight to look at new cards and play a couple of fun matches. I got lucky in a fun play environment. This deck wouldn’t have gone 3-0 at the Grand Prix, trust me. Still, the experience was not a waste of time. I learned how good Crashing Tide can be even when you have absolutely no chance of playing it as an instant. My son grimaced when he saw Riverwise Augur in my deck, but I liked it each time I played it. I understand that you don’t normally want to pay 3U for a 2/2 and four mana is way too much to spend for Brainstorm. However, when you put the two together, the cost is reasonable enough. Spire Winder made me a believer. Reckless Rage is worth the danger of having to kill your own creature at times, and Buccaneer’s Bravado is a must-play in Pirates decks.

At the Sunday prerelease I felt like I got an even worse card pool. I promise to only do this to you once, gentle reader. I would like you to take a look at this card pool and think about what you would have built. I’ll tell you what I did with it in a short while. These cards are listed in alphabetical order by color.

Sunday Prerelease Card Pool

The first thing I tried was black/white Vampires. I wanted badly to use my Twilight Prophet, quite frankly. When I assembled the black and white cards I found myself three cards short and with not very many creatures. In order to keep from going to three colors I put in four cards that I wasn’t very excited to include, two copies of Grasping Scoundrel, March of the Drowned and Fathom Fleet Boarder. Here’s how I built it:

Seventeen creatures including just nine Vampires. Six spells. Curve is nice and low. With a better pool I probably wouldn’t be playing a 2/5 flying Dinosaur for five mana. But it’s not incredibly bad for the deck, just a little awkward. I’ve figured out that I was wrong about Fathom Fleet Boarder, he’s worth playing even when you have to lose two life to play him. I wasn’t wrong about the Grasping Scoundrels, they belong in only the most aggressive of Pirate decks. It’s not a good thing to have both March of the Drowned and Recover in the deck. Obviously Recover is the one that stays. The March, in my mind, was another creature card. It’s definitely the twenty-fourth best card in my deck. I nearly played a seventeenth land instead of it, but couldn’t bring myself to do it.

I played exactly one match with this deck, against another black/white Vampire deck, as a matter of fact. The games were terrible, and not simply because I wound up at the losing end of both of them. It was the way the two games went. It felt like Pokemon, like the cards did nothing together. Once my opponent and I had emptied our hands, each turn was draw a card, play a card. Even though we were each playing with a lot of tribal cards, our decks lacked any kind of plan or synergy. He had more hard removal. I had a pile of two-drops that don’t do that much. In game one, by the time I drew Twilight Prophet, I couldn’t afford to play it because of my low life and the number of Vampires I had in play. This match made me think that Vampires might not be very good in Rivals, even when you have one of the better rares, which I believe Twilight Prophet to be. One of the better Vampire rares, I mean.

I scrambled to build a different deck before the second round of the Sunday prerelease. I decided to go with the good old red/green Dinosaur plan. This is what the deck looked like:

This deck is very straight-forward, the simplest and most blunt weapon that I used all weekend. Sixteen creatures and seven spells. I have almost not ever played seventeen land in either an Ixalan or, now, a Rivals of Ixalan deck. I was starting to wonder might make me play the seventeenth land. It takes having three five-drops and three six-drops. Not only do I have seventeen land, I have New Horizons and Brazen Freebooter to help me cast big things one turn earlier than I might have otherwise. Reckless Rage is a great card in the dino-deck, it’s everything that Rile never was. I can tell you that after matches with two different decks playing Charging Tuskodon, I’m not that impressed. He’s not sending through much trample damage and he’s not smashing my opponent unblocked either. At least in the Friday night red/blue deck there was the possibility of getting Charging Tuskodon up in the air with One With the Wind. That sounds like a lot of fun. In this deck, exactly the kind of deck that Tuskodon was meant to be in he’s just a guy. He’s fine… but he’s not good. Strength of the Pack was everything I thought it would be in this format. This card functions in the role that Overrun and a list of slightly watered-down versions of Overrun have done over the years. Overrun gives the green mage a way to attack for the win by pumping up the team and giving them trample. Strength of the Pack doesn’t give your guys trample, but instead gives them a permanent bonus. You can imagine how good this card can be. Let me tell you had bad it can be. I played Strength of the Pack with five creatures in play. I attacked with all of them and ended up dealing no damage to my opponent. Strength of the Pack is a good card but it’s no Overrun.

There were pleasant surprises in this deck. I’m happy with Jadecraft Artisan. You certainly hope that you get to pump up a creature that’s going into combat during the current turn. Thrashing Brontodon is a heart-stopper at just three mana. Just a strong creature with a relevant ability in this format. It’s nice to have a way to kill an artifact or enchantment in the main deck without having to play a potentially dead Naturalize. Finally, Overgrown Armasaur impressed me over and over again. Unlike a creature with a truly frightening ability, Overgrown Armasaur doesn’t get targeted with removal nearly as quickly. Because it doesn’t have trample, your opponent isn’t afraid to chump block Armasaur. It’s great to attack with a 4/4 that gives you a free chump blocker whenever it takes damage. Cacophodon made the deck because of its defensive size, but its enrage ability is not nearly as useful as that of Overgrown Armasaur.

What Would You Have Built?

Reviewing the pool, it seems like there are a number of good blue cards, but didn’t come close to playing blue. I was a little too down on blue in my review of the commons and uncommons a couple of weeks ago. The blue cards in Rivals of Ixalan are fine, but blue will probably remain less popular in Rivals of Ixalan sealed.

My son is an excellent constructed player and he thinks I should have put the white and green cards together. I’ve looked at that build but didn’t play any games with it.

Ten Sealed Decks Later…

The prerelease left me believing that Rivals of Ixalan card pools were unusually bad from the perspective of having a tight two-colored deck mostly aligned in one tribe. Plenty of people aren’t even trying to stay two-colored. There are a lot of options for fixing your mana in the common slot, and you don’t even have to play green. Evolving Wilds and Traveler’s Amulet can get you there. The uncommon two-color lands are also helpful if you randomly receive the right ones.

It certainly helped me a lot for the set to come out on Magic Online. Even more helpful are the sealed deck leagues on Magic Online. It seems like most of the limited being played online is in either a sealed deck league or a booster draft league. I play both and I love them, but the sealed deck leagues are particularly useful. I love that you can build your deck and play a single league match and then revisit your deck design without worrying that round two of your tournament is going to start before you are ready. In the online leagues you decide when to play a match. I’ve been building a sealed deck, playing two matches and then building an entirely different deck from the same pool. Then I play two more matches. I’m getting a lot more bang for my buck this way and I’m able to try more builds of the same card pool. I feel like the league system lets me play twice as many sealed decks for the same commitment of time and money.

Grinding out sealed deck games online, I’m happy to report that some things I’m hearing about the format are not true. Yes, the format is fast. No, the format does not limit you to only your two, three and four-drop spells. Magic Online keeps track of how many turns you are using in each game. My Rivals of Ixalan sealed deck games are going into turns nine, ten and eleven more than half the time. I’ve had many games go to turn fourteen or a little further. The games of eight turns or less have all been due to unusually good starts for one player against bad starts by the other. Of course, this happens in plenty of games, but it doesn’t indicate that the format is too fast to let you play your good cards.

I still believe that two colors is a lot better than three, but splashing is certainly not out of the question. I believe strongly, however, that you shouldn’t look at your card pool actively trying to play three colors. Also, I can see now that I was too worried about sticking to a tribe early on. Obviously you would like your black/white Vampire deck to have all the blessings of synergy. But you do what you have to do. I believe that a so-so artifact or unexciting card in the same colors is better than a non-bomb in a third color. Splashing for removal is always acceptable, but only the kind of removal that costs only one of the splashed color.

The format is fast enough that your deck needs a good curve for the most part. That means that you are going to play a lot of your cheaper, smaller creatures. It does not mean that you need to play bad 1/1s. My point is that your deck needs to utilize your best, cheapest tools to make sure you don’t lose the game in eight turns. There is definitely room for bigger cards in your deck, even if you play sixteen land, which I usually do. You just can’t go overboard. You can’t play four five-drops and three six-drops and maybe a seven-drop in your Dinosaur deck because you have one card in your deck that reduces the cost of Dinosaurs like Knight of the Stampede. Of course, the best reason to go into higher priced cards is because you have a bomb like one of the Elder Dinosaur Legends. I wonder how close R&D got to making these creatures Dinosaur Dragons? It wouldn’t surprise me at all. You don’t always get good rares like the Elder Dinosaurs in your card pool. I understand that concept only too well. In those situations, a card like Colossal Dreadmaw becomes your rare win condition.

On the subject of bombs, there’s no getting around the fact that many of your sealed deck opponents will have opened better cards than you. Some popular offenders include Etali, Primal Storm, Rekindling Phoenix, The Immortal Sun, Golden Guardian, Tetzimoc, Primal Death and Profane Procession. The list of rares that can blow out the game is longer than this, actually. Of these, I think I hate Tetzimoc and Profane Procession the most. Of course, I only hate them when they are in someone else’s deck. I’ll happily build my deck to take advantage of either of these bombs anytime they appear in my card pool.

Tetzimoc exacts a sort of psychological warfare on you as soon as your opponent first pays a black mana and reveals Tetzimoc from his hand putting a prey counter on one of your creatures. You know that it’s only a matter of time before your opponent drops that 6/6 monster on the board destroying all of your creatures that have a prey counter on them. Contrary to popular opinion, the best defense against Tetzimoc is not to throw your cards in the garbage and walk away. I’ve found, sometimes, that there is enough time between my flying creature getting a prey counter and Tetzimoc’s appearance on the board that some opponents have actually had to go ahead and reluctantly use a removal spell to kill my creature before they are able to play Tetzimoc. With Tetzimoc, the panic comes from knowing that he’s coming and that he might kill all the creatures you have in play when he does. I’ve had opponents that played Tetzimoc arrive on the battlefield and kill every creature I had, and then believe that the game is automatically over. The game may be far from over. Once on the board, Tetizmoc is just another dude. I mean, he’s 6/6 and has deathtouch, but apart from that. Clamp that guy down with Waterknot. Eliminate him from participating in combat by enchanting him with Luminous Bonds. Better yet, just send him to Hell with Ravenous Chupacabra or Impale. I’ve won almost as many games as I’ve lost against Tetzimoc.

Profane Procession is harder to deal with than Tetzimoc. It’s true enough that after playing Procession on turn three, your opponent has to spend five mana to activate Procession. That means your opponent can’t use Procession and actively build his board in these important turns in the middle of the game. On the other hand, neither can you. Because it’s an enchantment, it’s rather unlikely that you have a way to kill it in your main deck. Even if you do destroy Profane Procession, it doesn’t bring back the creatures that Procession has already exiled. Profane Procession is such a nightmare to play against. Not only does it get rid of your creatures, it eventually turns into a legendary land, something that’s even harder to get rid of than an enchantment, and starts returning the creatures it exiled to the battlefield on the side of the player controlling Profane Procession/Tomb of the Dusk Rose.

What is the best way to address the bombs in this format? The best thing you can do is open these bombs and put them into your deck. These bombs are out there, and in good numbers. The Elder Dinosaur Legends could easily have been mythic rares but they aren’t, they’re regular rares. You will see them all day long at any sealed deck tournament. The fact that the environment has so many bombs in it is actually yet another reason to play an efficient deck that bends towards the aggressive side. First of all, the best defense really can be a good offense. If you have no rares in your deck you should try to go fast enough that you’re opponent doesn’t live long enough to play his rares. You might be thinking about preemptive strikes against expensive bombs like the Elder Dinosaur Legends, cards like Arterial Flow or Dark Inquiry. Arterial Flow is good enough to make the main deck in sealed a number of times in this format, but it’s also easy to cut. Dark Inquiry is something I wouldn’t play main but might bring in from the board against an opponent with a slower deck that relies on too many expensive cards. I’m not in favor of playing Naturalize in the main deck. It’s a sideboard card. If they get you with Profane Procession, they just get you. Don’t make your main deck worse against the entire field just because you want to deal with Profane Procession in a possible game one situation. When you do this, you’re actually betting against yourself.

Summing It All Up

As I load up the car and head towards Houston this afternoon, I’m going to keep these things in mind with regards to Rivals of Ixalan sealed deck. Open good rares. Don’t play against other people who open good rares. Even if that plan doesn’t work out, I’m going to play as tight and aggressively as possible to limit the number of turns my opponent has to get to his best cards. You don’t have to win the game before they draw one of their spectacular rares. You just need to have put enough pressure on them that drawing their best cards doesn’t help them as much as it may have under better circumstances.

I assure you that sealed deck is a skill-based format. It’s not “sealed luck” like some people believe. It’s an extremely limited constructed format where your entire Magic collection consists of six booster packs. Variance is real, and so are bomb rares, but a better player with a weaker card pool can and usually will defeat a weaker player with a better card pool. So stay sharp and take your Dramamine, the sealed deck waters are stormy.

Thanks for reading.

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