It was a big weekend of Magic in my neighborhood. It’s always exciting to go to prerelease events and play with brand new cards. I hit one of my favorite stores, Area 51 in Grapevine, Friday night at midnight. Owner (and Tony Stark lookalike) Eli Lane was friendly as usual and bought pizza for the midnight prerelease players. I stayed true to my New Year’s resolution and stayed away from the extra calories. I also stayed true to my pattern of not reading the spoiler before prerelease weekend. I don’t have an ax to grind about spoilers, it’s just that hearing about a few cards a month before a set comes out just doesn’t do much for me. I get a little more interested as the spoiler starts to fill in. The bottom line is that I just don’t seem to retain much knowledge about a set by just looking at a list of cards. I have to play with the cards in order to learn anything.
It’s actually kind of intimidating, every single prerelease, as we’re waiting for the packs to be handed out. There’s all kind of nervous conversation about this new card, or that one, and it all flies right over my head. Finally, the packs arrive. I’m happy that there are no more seeded packs. I’m aware that seeded packs were a fun idea from Wizards of the Coast to make prereleases more enjoyable for people that like to play certain colors or who may have studied the spoiler a bunch. We’re better off without them. Another new idea that I like is how Wizards prints every single rare/mythic in the new set as a special prerelease premium card. It was kind of rough when you played in a prerelease knowing that every opponent playing white had the white prerelease card. Both of these changes serve to make the prerelease Sealed Deck experience more like the competitive Sealed Deck experience. The competitive Sealed Deck experience is really what I want to talk about today.
Sealed Deck used to be more important in the competitive Magic world. Throughout most of the history of the Pro Tour, from its start in 1996 through 2013, qualifying seasons alternated between Constructed and Sealed Deck. When it was Sealed Deck season all of the Pro Tour Qualifiers would be Sealed Deck and when it was Constructed season all of the PTQs would be Constructed. This meant that serious competitive players had to be good at both Constructed and Limited. Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifiers, or PPTQs, changed all that when they arrived in 2014. These events are generally smaller than the older style PTQs and are very often held in stores. The tournament organizer putting on the PPTQ can choose from either Sealed Deck or whatever Constructed format matches the Regional Pro Tour Qualifier that follows. Most PPTQs are Constructed because they are more profitable to run than Sealed Deck. When a tournament organizer puts on a Constructed PPTQ they can charge, say, $25 and easily put three or even four booster packs into the prize pool for each paid entrant. Sealed Deck is much more expensive to put on because the TO must supply each player with six booster packs with which to build their decks. Essentially, to make as much money from a Sealed Deck event as a Constructed one, the Sealed Deck event needs to cost quite a bit more. Take that $25 entry for a Constructed PPTQ. For the same event to make as much money as a Sealed Deck PPTQ, the cost would have to be at least $37 dollars, and that’s valuing the boosters at $2 each. The Sealed Deck PPTQ that I’m playing in this Saturday is charging $40 a player and I imagine that fee is just about right. Sealed Deck PPTQs cost much more to run and attract somewhat fewer players than Standard Constructed. Which one do you think most tournament organizers will choose? Last PPTQ season there were absolutely no Sealed Deck events in North Texas. This season there are three. By contrast, my area will host almost two dozen Constructed PPTQs.
Competitive Sealed Deck is a dying art, but it’s not gone yet. That’s a good thing for me, because I’ve been much more proficient at Sealed Deck than at Constructed for my entire competitive career. I’ve qualified for and played in the Pro Tour eight times. Each time, I had to win a Pro Tour Qualifier in order to qualify. Six of the PTQs that I won were Sealed Deck.
With fewer opportunities to qualify for the Pro Tour with my Limited skills (pun more or less intended) I have to concentrate harder than ever on the few chances I get.
The first thing I’d like to get out of the way is the concept that Sealed Deck is all luck, that you can’t do well in a sealed tournament unless you get lucky and open the best cards ever. Sealed Deck is quite skillful, as a matter of fact. While anybody can search the internet for the exact list of every tournament-winning constructed deck, there are no such cheat sheets available for Sealed Deck. When you play Sealed Deck, you enter the event armed only with your play skills and your knowledge of the set you are playing with. In my midnight prerelease, I entered with some play skills but just about zero knowledge of the set. That’s fine for a fun prerelease at your local game store, but it will never allow you to win a Sealed Deck PPTQ. Sealed Deck is a great format because it forces you to be both the builder of the deck and the driver. When you play competitive Constructed you may be the driver of the deck but there’s very little chance you created the deck from scratch yourself. I’m not down on playing proven designs in Constructed, I believe it’s absolutely necessary. I’ve only ever won one important Constructed tournament with a deck I designed myself. I’ll tell you about that adventure another time.
Sealed Deck forces you to consider every option from the cards you open. That’s why the first thing I do when I get my card pool is sort it by color on the table in front of me. I make one column of cards for each color with creatures at the top and spells at the bottom. Combo decks don’t really exist in Sealed Deck, creatures are the number one way that you will get almost all of your wins. I line up these columns in friendly color order so that I can see likely color relationships quicker. With a new set I want to make sure I consider every card, so I include every card in one of the columns. In later events, when I know a lot more about Oath of the Gatewatch, I might be able to eliminate certain cards as completely unplayable.
Here’s what my card pool looked like:
Recently, in Battle for Zendikar booster drafts, I’ve been partial to black and blue Ingest strategies. I know that Ingest isn’t a part of Oath of the Gatewatch, but out of habit, I started my study of this card pool with the black cards. Not much to get excited about among the six black creatures. Two gold creatures, Cliffhaven Vampire and Ulamog’s Nullifier, would be interesting in very specific strategies like black/blue Ingest (not really a thing in Oath of the Gatewatch) or black/white life gain. The black spells are fine but none of them would really be splash-worthy in a non-black build. I don’t know if there are enough commonly played targets that can be killed with Tar Snare. I think Visions of Brutality is too risky to play. It doesn’t make your creature bigger or harder to block, it just gives your creature the ability to deal more damage when they hit your opponent. The black cards I like the best are old favorites from Battle for Zendikar: Complete Disregard, Retreat to Hagra, Bone Splinters and Grave Birthing. Drana’s Chosen is a very nice creature for a black/white allies deck.
The blue creatures are much more interesting to me than the black ones were. Five of the seven blue creatures in my pool fly. That’s solid. Gravity Negator is cool because he triggers when he attacks to allow you to pay one mere mana (it has to be colorless mana) to give another attacker flying until end of turn. On their own, Gravity Negator is a decent value as a devoid 2/3 for 3U. Jwar Isle Avenger is fine as a 3/3 flyer for 4U. The Avenger gets even better when it’s the second (or subsequent) card you play for the turn because its cost in that case is only 2U. The opportunities to play Avenger for its reduced surge cost come more often than I would have guessed. Ancient Crab costs double blue, but I like the idea of having a big 1/5 blocker on the ground that only costs three mana to play. I’m not crazy about Abstruse Interference at all. It’s nice that you always get an Eldrazi Scion token out of it even when your opponent is able to pay one additional mana for their spell. Don’t be fooled by the free Scion token, this spell simply won’t counter anything very often, it’s too situational to be good in the main deck. I could imagine bringing it in against decks that play too many expensive cards in their decks. Oath of Jace is slightly more playable, it does net you one additional card while letting you see three. In a deck without planeswalkers, however, it’s just not useful enough unless you have a mechanism for bouncing the legendary enchantment back to your hand repeatedly. My admiration for Spell Shrivel only grew as I played it more and more often in Battle for Zendikar Limited formats. I don’t think it makes sense to fill up a deck with counterspells but this one counters just about anything your opponent plays until he has a rather large number of land in play. I almost always play one if I have it. Roiling Waters is a very exciting uncommon for Limited play. Late in games, when you have seven mana available, this card gives you serious blowout potential. You bounce two of your opponent’s creatures back to his hand and draw two cards at the same time. Actually, you can choose any target player to draw two cards, but I think I will want those cards in my hand most of the time.
The white creatures win me over because every one of them makes a solid case for play in Sealed Deck. Affa Protector holds down the ground with its 1/4 body for just 2W. So does Fortified Rampart, although the Rampart has defender and cannot attack. Makindi Aeronaut does in the air what Affa Protector does on the ground. Expedition Raptor could be considered overpriced as a 2/2 flyer for 3WW. However, the support 2 ability of this card means that up to two other target creatures can get a +1/+1 counter when the Raptor enters the battlefield. This ability is a sweet way to power up flyers you played previously. You immediately attack for two more points of damage than you did last turn. It hurts a little when you play Raptor with only one other creature in play. It hurts a little more when you play Raptor on an empty board, but sometimes stuff happens. Kor Castigator is for more aggressive decks and also makes the cut in ally decks. I’m not crazy about the white spells overall. Call the Gatewatch is worthless unless you have a planeswalker to summon. It could be a dead card even if you have a planeswalker in your deck, you would have to decide how to balance the risk and reward. Iona’s Blessing could be good enough for Limited. It gives your creature +2/+2 and vigilance and the ability to block an additional creature. The third ability is the least interesting. You didn’t risk playing an enchantment on one of your creatures so that it can block. This is a risk you take in order to make one of your monsters better for attacking. Still, since your creature also gains vigilance, there will be plenty of opportunities to block even after attacking. This is still the last kind of card you want to play because it’s too easy for your opponent to score a two-for-one by using removal to get rid of your creature and Iona’s Blessing at the same time. I haven’t decided if I like Searing Light or not. The kinds of small creatures that you need to kill are not necessarily attacking you, like the colorless mana producing Hedron Crawler or Blinding Drone that can tap a creature for just one colorless mana. I’ll be happy to sideboard this card in if my opponent worries me with a small creature that I’m unable to get rid of some other way. Mighty Leap is a reprint. This card has proven itself as a good combat trick in past Limited formats. It’s a little less important in a deck as full of flyers as the deck I built, but it still has value.
Green has been the least played color in Battle for Zendikar Limited. Will that hold true with Oath of the Gatewatch? We’ll see. In any case, green is more popular in Sealed Deck than it is in Booster Draft. The solid ones in my pool are well-known reach creatures, Giant Mantis and Netcaster Spider. Both make the cut when you play green, but they don’t excite you and they don’t help you win as much as they help you prevent losing for a while. Loam Larva could be a good enough play if you really need access to a lot of colors in your deck. It’s a less-than-stellar 1/3 Insect for 1G that can let you search a basic land out of your deck and put it on top of your library. Seed Guardian is an interesting new creature, a 3/4 Elemental for 2GG that triggers when it dies giving you an Elemental token with power and toughness equal to the number of creature cards in your graveyard. Even if this card is the first creature to reach your graveyard you will get a free 1/1 token creature. You can’t lose with this card, but it costs two green mana so you can’t splash it either. Not that you should often splash green for creatures. I don’t think Bonds of Mortality can be a main deck card regardless of the fact that you get to draw a card when you play it. My opponent would need to have multiple cards with either hexproof or indestructible before I would want this in my deck. The fact that this card replaces itself with a card draw when you play it is meaningful only if your extremely tight two color deck needs one more playable. Unnatural Aggression is something of a whipping boy in Battle for Zendikar Limited formats. It’s considered a worse version of several other cards that make one of your creatures fight with one of your opponent’s. The difference is that Unnatural Aggression is an instant. Also, it’s the removal spell that you get in green, a rare concept in itself. I think you have to play it if you’re in green. Ruin in Their Wake is exactly Rampant Growth IF you have a Wastes in play. That may not be very likely on turn two. If you don’t, this card puts the basic land that you search from your library into your hand instead of on the battlefield. Not crazy about this card or Loam Larva, but I’d play them if I badly needed to reach into a fourth color and sometimes even for a third color.
I’m crazy about red cards, but more from a Constructed standpoint. I like to draft red decks when I Booster Draft but alas, red creatures often don’t make the cut when I have to pick two primary colors for Sealed Deck. Red is, however, the most popular color to splash in Sealed Deck, historically speaking. That’s what I decided to do with my deck in this prerelease. Kind of a weird pool, only four red creatures but nine red spells. None of these creatures make me want to play red. I am sort of happy with Zada’s Commando. You get a 2/1 Ally with first strike for 1R. That’s good enough for a common, but you get another ability. You can tap one of these along with another untapped Ally you control to deal one damage to your opponent. This ability makes these early game creatures do work later in the game. If my pool had a better selection of red and white Ally creatures I would be more than happy to go Commando. Among the spells, I don’t think of Consuming Sinkhole as a main deck card although my sixteen-year-old son likes the spell. It’s an instant speed Lava Axe that can deal four damage to your opponent’s face or exile a target land creature. I don’t think there will be as many land creatures in Oath/Battle decks as there were in Battle decks. There simply are fewer effects in Oath of the Gatewatch that put counters on your lands and turns them into Elementals the way that the awaken cards from Battle for Zendikar do. I could be convinced to play this card main in an aggressive booster draft deck but not in sealed, I think. Devour in Flames is a solid removal spell that deals five damage for just 2R although you do have to return one of your lands to your hand. The best of the lot is Fall of the Titans. It’s an extra rare in my pool, a foil from one of my Oath boosters. Going all the way back to Fireball from Magic: the Gathering’s first edition, I have always loved a red X spell. Having played with all the various red X spells that have come and gone over the years, I can tell you that one X in the casting cost is generally better than two X’s. The casting cost for Fall of the Titans is XXR. Two X’s. This means that if you want this spell to deal X damage to a creature or player you have to pay twice. If my opponent is at four life and I want to kill him I would need nine total mana to get the job done. Fall of the Titans takes the sting out of paying twice by letting you target two players and/or creatures. That means that you could tap nine mana and deal four damage to both your opponent and one of his creatures. Or you might choose to deal damage to two of his creatures. It even gets better than that. If you play another spell earlier in the turn, you can play Fall of the Titans for its surge cost of XR. That’s right, you can play Fall of the Titans for essentially half price if you are able to play another spell earlier in your turn. Now take the same nine mana we used in the previous example. Play a cheap spell like, from this very card pool, Outnumber. Now use the remaining eight mana to play Fall of the Titans for its surge cost to deal seven points of damage to each of up to two target creatures and players. Simply amazing. Of course, you’ll only get to play it for its surge cost if you can play another spell earlier in the turn. That means that you want some cheap spells and creatures in your deck. Even if you play a three-casting-cost spell you will reap a big reward by being able to play Fall of the Titans for its surge cost. In the history of Sealed Deck, it has long been a good move to splash red in an otherwise two-colored deck in order to take advantage of a potentially game-swinging X spell like this one.
By the way, when I’m laying out the cards in columns, I try to place multi-colored cards right in between the two colors needed to play the card. If one of the colors of a gold card is particularly weak in my pool I put the gold card in the column with that weaker color’s cards as a reminder of the price I would have to pay to play that card. Among the four gold cards in this pool I don’t figure to play any of the three creatures. Cliffhaven Vampire is a fine card, a 2/4 flyer for 2WB. Whenever you gain life each opponent loses one life. But, like several of the cards in this block’s gain life/lose life theme, this card does not itself facilitate any life gain effect. That means it has value only in a black/white deck dedicated to this theme. Grove Rambler wasn’t that great in Battle for Zendikar sealed when green/red landfall decks were a thing. It is worse now with two-thirds of your cards coming from Oath of the Gatewatch. Ulamog’s Nullifier was a very impressive card in Battle for Zendikar Limited formats but it loses some value now that card pools will have many fewer ways to exile opponents’ cards. This card is still automatically in any blue/black deck, however, simply for its ability to arrive on the battlefield at instant speed. Actually, while ingest effects will be much less frequent with only two packs of Battle for Zendikar in sealed pools, there are plenty of effects from cards in Oath of the Gatewatch that exile cards. Ulamog’s Nullifier is still very good in Oath/Battle Sealed Deck, just not quite as good as it was with six boosters of Battle for Zendikar. Roil Spout is perfect for the deck I built. Blue/white flyers is just as viable in Oath/Battle Sealed Deck as it was in Battle for Zendikar. This card is great when you can play it for its awaken cost and put FOUR +1/+1 counters on one of your lands while putting a troublesome creature on top of your opponent’s library. At the same time, you don’t want to be so excited about awaken that you refuse to play Roil Spout for 1WU sometimes to get a creature out of the way earlier in games to buy you time to build your own board position. It’s good either way. Making the best use of an awaken card doesn’t always mean waiting to play it for its awaken cost. Awaken cards are powerful because they give you the flexibility to do a little something now when you need to or do more when you have more mana available to you.
Artifacts and Colorless
My pool has quite a large selection of artifacts and cards with colorless converted mana costs. Hedron Crawler is an auto-play for me in any deck where I might need colorless mana. It also ramps your mana, I love it and will play two if I have them. Kozilek’s Pathfinder is a decent 5/5 Eldrazi for six generic mana. We used to refer to this casting cost as colorless, and you can still do that if you can keep the difference between generically colorless mana and actual colorless mana straight in your head. I’m still trying to get cozy with the concept. At any rate, you can spend a colorless mana to make a target creature unable to block Kozilek’s Pathfinder until end of turn. This is a very useful ability that some people are undervaluing. A 5/5 ground pounder is no good if it simply trades for two lesser creatures on the other side of the board (although that’s not the worst scenario). Just remember that Pathfinder’s ability is simply making a target creature unable to block the Pathfinder. The targeted creature on your opponent’s side can still block other creatures this turn, just not the Pathfinder. Ruin Processor from Battle for Zendikar is a gigantic monster for seven mana that can gain you five life if you are able to return a card from your opponent’s exile zone to their graveyard. It doesn’t look like my deck can do that sort of thing so I won’t make room for this 7/8 monster. Now we come to a card that everyone’s been talking about, Thought-Knot Seer. You get a 4/4 Eldrazi for 3C (the ‘C’ stands for colorless mana). When Thought-Knot Seer enters the battlefield your opponent reveals their hand and you get to exile a non-land card from their hand. What’s the downside? Whenever Thought-Knot Seer leaves the battlefield, and that will probably happen at some point, your opponent gets to draw a card. This is a magnificent card. It’s like a colorless Thoughtseize on turn four. Actually, maybe it’s closer to a colorless Vendilion Clique that doesn’t fly. As Vendilion Clique has taught us over the years, it’s completely worth it to give your opponent a random card from the top of their library in order to get rid of a key card from their hand. Imagine this card could be kind of bad if your opponent had multiple ways to bounce it back to your hand. Even then, each time you played it you would be ripping an important card from their hand and sending to the exile zone. This card is so good that it’s constructed-good, right away, in more than one kind of deck. In Sealed Deck, Thought-Knot Seer is going to give you a powerful monster on the ground and eliminate an important piece of removal from your opponent’s hand in many cases. I love it.
Among the non-creature spells with colorless converted mana costs, there are three small pieces of equipment. Originally printed in Conflux, Bone Saw is a humble thing. It gives your equipped creature +1/+0, nothing more. On the other hand, it costs zero mana to play and only one mana to equip. I think this card could be okay with flying decks that have not so many creatures and need a way to make every creature play slightly more impactful. You can do that with Bone Saw. You can also achieve the same thing with Hedron Blade. In a vacuum, Hedron Blade seems a lot better than Bone Saw. It gives the creature it equips +1/+1 and deathtouch when the equipped creature is blocked by one or more colorless creatures. This obviously comes up a lot in Oath/Battle Limited formats. Its cost is cheap enough, one mana to play. I’m slightly concerned with the equip cost of two mana compared to one mana for Bone Saw. I would tend to not want to play either of these. You get to put precious few cards in your deck, maybe twenty-three non-land cards. You could hope for each of those twenty-three cards to be more impactful than either of these equipment cards. Titan’s Presence is an excellent removal spell that can fit in your deck no matter what colors you are playing. To make it work, though, you need to have a good number of colorless creatures in your deck. Furthermore, these colorless creatures need to have high enough power (as in power/toughness) to equal or exceed the opposing creature that you would like to exile. Eldrazi fatties work very well for this purpose since they (a) tend to have high power values and (b) their high mana costs cause them to hang around in your hand until late in the game. To optimize Titan’s Presence, I would say you’d like to have five or six colorless creatures with a power of at least two or higher. Finally, there’s Scour from Existence. When Battle for Zendikar arrived, my first impression of this card was very favorable. Then I had it sit in my hand in many games. I learned what everyone else learned, it just costs too much to rely on for removal. However, things may be different in Oath/Battle Sealed Deck and Booster Draft. There are two factors at play with Oath/Battle that I believe make Scour from Existence a much more realistic play. First, Oath/Battle feels like a slightly slower format than Battle for Zendikar was. Second, Oath of the Gatewatch gives us Hedron Crawler and other mana acceleration cards like Ruin in Their Wake and Warden of Geometries. If Oath lets me accelerate my mana growth and the format is slow enough, then Scour from Existence becomes a better card. In any case, it’s a decent go-to from the sideboard when your opponent shows you a card that is particularly difficult to deal with like a planeswalker or even just a troublesome enchantment.
The interesting ones here are the two Crumbling Vestiges and the Wastes. I love that the Crumbling Vestiges give you a colored mana when they enter the battlefield and then stick around to provide colorless mana the rest of the time. Make no mistake, the true colorless spells and abilities in Oath of the Gatewatch use colorless mana in a way that makes it necessary to treat “colorless” as a sixth color, particularly when figuring out the mana base for your deck. After reviewing my card pool, I’m convinced the way to go is blue and white. If I want to play colorless creatures and activate colorless abilities, I need to add cards like Crumbling Vestiges and Wastes to my deck exactly as though colorless was going to be the third color splash for my deck. Wastes has the advantage of being a basic land that can be searched for by Evolving Wilds (if only I had one) or any number of green spells. It took over twenty-two years for Wizards of the Coast to break their pattern of basic lands being only Mountains, Plains, Swamps, Islands and Forests. I don’t know what to think about it from a Magic: the Gathering historical perspective but I know what to do with them in Oath/Battle Limited formats. Play them and treat them as a separate color.
I feel strongly that the best deck available from this pool is blue/white flyers. There are ten flyers in the deck. The key to making this strategy work is to build a board that can survive long enough to allow you to win with the flyers. To do this, I played four cheap creatures with little attack value but with large butts. Two copies each of Makindi Aeronaut and Affa Protector. Originally, Fortified Rampart was in there as well. Throughout the night I learned that my defenses were fine but what I really needed was another removal spell. At some point I removed Fortified Rampart and replaced it with Outnumber. I have fifteen creatures in my deck and feel that I can count on having enough creatures in play at most points in the game to make Outnumber useful. If I had it to do over again I would have chosen Devour in Flames over Outnumber even though it’s a sorcery and costs three mana compared to Outnumber’s one mana cost.
I changed the lands a little bit throughout the night. I started out with eighteen land including one Mountain, seven each Plains and Islands, two Crumbling Vestiges and one Wastes. By the end of the night I ditched the Mountain and the Wastes. The two Crumbling Vestiges were good enough, along with Hedron Crawler, to make sure I had access to colorless mana when I wanted to play Thought-Knot Seer or to activate Kozilek’s Pathfinder. The Crumbling Vestiges also proved to be enough for my two red spells. Neither red spell is meant to be played by my deck until later in the game. I simply held Crumbling Vestige until I needed red mana in most cases. Obviously there’s nothing wrong with playing one Mountain, either. I found that I did like Scour from Existence as a sideboard option. Games moved along slowly enough that when I brought in Scour from Existence I was able to get the mana I needed to play it at a useful point in the late game. The Bone Saw helped me two ways. It gave me a cheap and repeatable effect to make my flyers a little bit bigger than they would otherwise have been and it gave me a cheap spell to use to set up Fall of the Titans so that I could play it for its incredible surge cost.
Of course, the fun-loving folks you play against at a prerelease event are not the same people you will compete against in a PPTQ. Also, while you can change your deck all day long at the prerelease you have to tighten up your game at the more competitive PPTQ where you will be forced to commit (and register) a precise starting list of cards that you have to use in the first game of all your matches.
I’m super excited about the Sealed Deck PPTQ this weekend because the format is so new. I think this favors old Sealed Deck players like myself. Actually, Sealed Deck formats rarely get “solved” the way that Booster Draft formats sometimes do. Sealed Deck always rewards you for thinking on your feet, for good basic deck design, and for knowledge of the cards available. I believe I’m off to a good start where the Sealed Deck portion of the PPTQ is concerned. I drafted the new set twice on Tuesday night with my team, the Texas Guildmages, but I didn’t come up with much of a deck either time. I’ll just have to try harder if I reach the top eight draft of Saturday’s tournament.
Thanks for reading.
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