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This Week in Sealed: Sealed Deck for Smarties

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

This Week in Sealed: Sealed Deck for Smarties

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.


Is Magic a game of skill or a game of luck? The consensus opinion is that Magic is a game of skill that involves many elements of luck, primarily the luck of the draw. That’s constructed Magic. To what extent do you think the balance between skill and luck is tilted when you play sealed deck? Does the skill portion decrease a little bit? Does it decrease a lot? Wizards of the Coast started taking sealed deck seriously in 1995 when Ice Age arrived. I’ve been playing sealed deck competitively ever since then and I hate it when people describe sealed deck as being completely or even mostly luck based. “Sealed luck,” they call it. I believe I have some evidence to the contrary. The case in point is a Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifier held in Dallas, Texas last Saturday at Common Ground Games. There were six Swiss rounds of sealed deck play followed by a randomly seated top eight booster draft. The two players I know best in the top eight are seated next to each other and end up facing each other in the finals. When you play Magic all the time, like so many of us do, it’s easy to forget that this is one of the more complex games in the world, a game dominated by smarties. It’s possible that the two smartest gentlemen in the tournament faced each other in the finals. Scot Martin is a Texas Guildmage and Pro Tour veteran who has played competitive Magic since the beginning. He is also has a computer science degree from Rice University. Bassel Said is fifteen years younger than Scot Martin. Bassel grew up in Lebanon and came to America to study at Harvard when he was seventeen. Bassel has only been playing Magic for three years.

Forty-six of us were in our chairs bright and early on Saturday morning on release weekend to take a shot a qualifying for the Regional PTQ that could send today’s winner to Pro Tour Dublin a few months down the road. Sealed Kaladesh product and deck checklists were being handed out and our esteemed head judge was calling out registration instructions when player number forty-seven arrived late and sat next to me at the end of the row of numbered tables. The late arrival was Bassel Said. Bassel and I became friends when he first started playing Magic back when Theros arrived in 2013. Bassel is a very smart individual with a bright future ahead of him, both inside and outside of Magic, but he has a strangely consistent reputation for showing up late and playing slow. Dozens of heads nod and roll their eyes as Bassel clomps through the room, late to the event once again. There are no particularly negative ramifications, he misregisters a player’s sealed pool in his hurry to catch up but the problem is minor.

Originally, my plan was to write a Kaladesh sealed deck article about me winning the PPTQ myself. A lot of factors came together to make that not happen on Saturday. One of them was playing against Bassel Said in round one. I followed that loss with another in round two. Just like that, I’m heading to the movies to watch The Magnificent Seven. After the movie, which I gave a magnificent three out of four stars, I returned to the scene of the crime to see how my friends were doing. I timed it perfectly. They were finishing the sixth and last round of Swiss play when I returned.

I’m going to share the five most successful sealed decks from the event. These are the decks of the top five Swiss finishers. One deck went 5-1, the other four each went 4-0-2. Along the way I’ll share some sealed deck insights to help you (and to help me) do better in the next competitive Kaladesh sealed deck tournament. I’m playing in another Kaladesh sealed deck PPTQ on October 15th while most of DFW’s competitive hotshots will be taking part in the Standard regional championships.

For Your Consideration, Two Sealed Deck Pools

Scot and Bassel each went 4-0-2 in the Swiss rounds. Along with one intentional draw, they each also had one unintentional draw, it occurred when they played each other in round four.

Age before beauty, they say. Here is Scot Martin’s card pool. What color, what cards, in the pool attracts your attention?

Scot Martin’s Sealed Deck Pool

At first glance, the Verdurous Gearhulk obviously jumps out at me. Maybe because it was the best card in my own sealed pool today. The red creatures look good to me but I don’t see any bombs there. I like the aggressive group of red creatures but I’m unsure how aggressive you can afford to be in this format. My own pool sent me towards an aggressive deck and it got me absolutely nowhere today. Before round one, and before I had seen his deck, Scot asked me what I thought about Captured by the Consulate. I told him the card was a necessary evil. It’s worse than Revoke Privileges in most ways, and Revoke Privileges is a common. Scot said he was fine with it if he had flying creatures with which to attack. That’s a good point. This is one of those cards that players complain about because it’s a rare that plays like a somewhat disadvantaged common. But you still have to play with it if you’re playing the white cards. The rest of Scot’s white cards are average but basically playable. I would have been excited about having two copies of Inspired Charge even though I haven’t managed to make that type of attacking deck work yet in this format.

Here’s what Scot went with, from lowest casting cost to highest:

I would love this deck if I weren’t so concerned about the problems of going aggressive in this format. The problem with aggressive decks is the same as always, you might get off to a very fast start only to eventually run into a point of the game where your opponent’s plays are just a lot more powerful than yours. Scot’s curve is aggressive with five cards in the one-casting-cost slot, eight in the two slot and five in the three slot. Scot also has two four-drops and three five drops. It’s almost all monsters, seventeen creatures and just six spells. Three of those non-creature spells are pseudo-creature vehicles, Ballista Charger and a pair of Sky Skiffs. In case you didn’t get the memo, you play every Sky Skiff that you find in your pool.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Scot went a long way without having that much to work with. There are only two rares/mythics in his deck, and while the Gearhulk can certainly be called a bomb, you can’t say that about Pia Nalaar. Pia Nalaar is a hard-working card that doesn’t automatically win anything. Even Scot’s number one card, Verdurous Gearhulk, doesn’t absolutely crush games the moment he arrives. These are blue collar rares and Scot had to work hard for his wins.

I love the synergies in Scot’s deck. I like the way that he can play Thriving Grubs on turn two and then back it up on turn three with Kujar Seedsculptor to help the Grubs attack as a 4/3 monster on turn three. When the other Thriving Grubs or Voltaic Brawler arrives the energy they provide can be used to make the already larger Thriving Grubs from turn two even bigger. The Brawler can do the same tricks with trample and a slightly bigger initial body but it doesn’t accumulate +1/+1 counters the way that Thriving Grubs does. Either way, these four two-drops work together to pile up the early game damage.

Chief of the Foundry gets me every time. Each time I see him in my pool I want to build my whole deck around him. Scot doesn’t do that here, he plays only the artifact creatures that make the most sense. I have been overrating Chief slightly and trying to make every sealed deck an artifact deck. Kaladesh doesn’t really work that way, the way Mirrodin did all those years ago. With Kaladesh, it’s all about finding the artifacts and the cards in your colors that work best together. Scot doesn’t jam in terrible artifacts just to trigger Salivating Gremlins but he does recognize that cards with fabricate work pretty well with them. Scot doesn’t go too far with vehicles. He can obviously afford to play three of them considering he’s playing seventeen creatures.

We can all gain hope from Scot’s 4-0-2 performance from this deck. You really can get there in Kaladesh sealed even when you don’t have all the rares. The undefeated sealed decks from a couple of Grand Prixs earlier this year using Shadows over Innistrad illustrated a giant divide between card pools that had a lot of very good rares in them versus those that did not. It’s impressive that Scot went undefeated with a simple attacking deck that only sports two rares/mythics in it.

Now let’s look at a second card pool, the one I registered myself for my late-arriving friend…

Bassel Said’s Sealed Deck Pool

In this pool, the white cards jump out at me the most. Angel of Invention is a limited bomb, only time will tell if she will also be good for constructed. Almost all of Bassel’s white cards are playable, although all of the non-mythic-rare white cards are merely support. I don’t see the blue cards working at all. Sometimes your pool laughs at you, like with three copies of Failed Inspection and two copies of Revolutionary Rebuff. Likewise, in black, the three copies of Dukhara Scavenger. Black does have a sick rare in Gonti, Lord of Luxury. Its ability to reach four cards deep into your opponent’s library to steal the best card can be game-changing. Then Gonti can trade with a big attacking creature thanks to deathtouch. I like Rush of Vitality as an interesting combat trick. Surprise lifelink effects change games. I’m crazy about two copies of Tidy Conclusion. Unfortunately, that’s a lot of black mana symbols for just a handful of cards. I doubt I’d play the black cards. The red cards look good to me. There’s removal all over the place with Chandra’s Pyrohelix and Harnessed Lightning and Welding Sparks. Along with those, you can give me Demolish (maybe not main deck) and about three creatures and maybe even Start Your Engines as a finisher. Of course playing a lot of red with the white would help make Depala, Pilot Exemplar better.

Bassel preferred the green cards. He like the mana fixing from the green cards so much that he ventures somewhat deeply into a red splash with only a single Mountain. Actually, he restrains his third color urges and plays only three red cards. I think it’s impossible to leave a card like Welding Sparks out and it’s possible that Wayward Giant is better for his deck than Bastion Mastodon. I’m not sure about that. What I am sure about is that Bassel has so many cards dedicated to mana production that really could play any card in his pool. I like the way Wild Wanderer passively find you a basic land and put it into play while delivering a solid enough 3/2 monster for the battlefield. Two copies of Servant of the Conduit give him a way to accelerate his mana and play a four-drop, perhaps a Wild Wanderer, on turn three. Bassel chose to play Attune with Aether instead of a seventeenth land. That’s a little crazy but I like it. Bassel’s deck rarely draws too much mana and rarely gets color-starved. With Attune with Aether and eight Forests Bassel has a good chance to solve his mana problems early in the game. It’s possible that he could use one more Forest and one less Plains thanks to Attune with Aether and two copies of Servant of the Conduit. I think I would have built white/red with this pool but Bassel’s version solves mana problems. Nothing hurts worse in sealed deck than not finding the mana you need. Bassel’s deck ramps so consistently that it’s too bad he doesn’t have bigger things to build towards.

In comparison with Scot’s deck, it’s easy to see that Scot’s early turns are for attacking where Bassel’s early turns are for setup. Bassel only has one more rare/mythic in his deck than Scot has, but the power difference feels bigger than that. Bassel’s rares are just a little bigger, Angel of Invention, Depala and Smuggler’s Copter. I built these two decks and played them against each other in several dozen unsideboarded games. Scot’s deck wins more than half the time. Bassel’s wins seem to be more based on getting two or all three of his best cards online. Scot’s deck, in this matchup, wins quickly enough that his Verdurous Gearhulk usually amounts to saving just a single turn or else giving a flying creature four +1/+1 counters.

More Successful Sealed Decks from the PPTQ

This is one of the ways you get better at sealed deck, and what a surprise, it’s almost the same thing you do to get better at constructed. Step one, see what cards the winners are playing with. Don’t get hung up on the awesome rares in these decks, plenty of hard work is being done, game after game, with the common and uncommon choices made by these players.

Here are the remaining starting decks of the other players from this PPTQ that finished 4-0-2 or better.

James played four vehicle cards, two each Sky Skiff and Renegade Freighter. He left one other vehicle, Ovalchase Dragster, in the garage, which I believe was wise. What wasn’t wise was playing forty-one cards. I’m sure James thought he needed whatever it was, and I’m sure he would point out that he finished first in Swiss with a 5-1 record with forty-one cards. It’s still bad, though. Playing more than forty cards in limited is just asking for trouble. I think he should have either cut Bastion Mastodon, his only five-drop, or else the Filigree Familiar. Actually, the best candidate to send to the sideboard is Built to Smash. He had a Hunt the Weak and Nature’s Way in green, but I believe James went the right way with red and white. If you’re counting rares, James has three of them in his deck.

Six booster packs and Cory doesn’t have any duplicates in his deck! Cory has two vehicles and four rares in his deck. His is the third deck in this tournament to go 4-0-2 or better with Pia Nalaar in his deck. I don’t think this is a card that defined these decks’ success, but it is a very good card with just no downside. Like James Clennon, Cory plays Bastion Mastodon. I didn’t mean to degrade this card when I suggested James could have left it out, I was just trying to cut his deck down to forty cards. Bastion Mastodon is a solid, if not spectacular, artifact creature at the top of the curve for these decks. At 4/5, this is a very big body. By the time this big metal elephant is in play you clearly have the extra white mana to give him vigilance. Just a big dumb common, Bastion Mastodon fills a nice hole in a deck filled, like most red/white decks in this format, with smaller creatures.

Cory’s deck has the power of Fumigate, a board-clearing card. He has Combustible Gearhulk, a card that can win the game for you the turn it enters the battlefield. And, of course, Pia Nalaar.

Brock is one of the very best players in North Texas. He finished fourth at Grand Prix Houston earlier this year. Brock has the only undefeated deck in today’s field that is primarily green and also the only undefeated deck with no red in it. His three rares include Master Trinketeer, Bristling Hydra and Multiform Wonder. All three of these are creatures and none of them really shake up the board when they land. In other words, what Brock battled with all day was a hard-working deck that did all of its work in the red zone. Nineteen creatures and just four spells including just one piece of hard removal, Hunt the Weak, and a single vehicle card, Renegade Freighter. He didn’t leave any vehicles in the sideboard, but one artifact that might have been good for his deck that he did leave out is Decoction Module. Brock may have stuck to the strict code of only putting creatures and things that deal with creatures in his deck. Still, maybe he could have cut a creature to include Decoction Module, a card that would have helped generate energy counters for Multiform Wonder and make it more of a bomb in his deck.

What Did We Learn?

I didn’t graduate from a college anywhere near as respected as Scot’s Rice University or Bassel’s Harvard, but I learned a number of things from this Kaladesh sealed deck event. Decks are generally two colored, splashing for a third color is not commonplace. One reason may be that the format is a little faster than expected. These five very successful decks all had tight curves that topped out at the five-casting-cost slot. Vehicles have proven their usefulness enough that the most successful decks are playing about as many of them as they have available. The player who finished eighth in the Swiss rounds (4-2) did choose to play just one of his two Sky Skiffs. Would two Sky Skiffs have helped him finish higher?

Having reviewed these five sealed decks carefully, I feel better about my own deck for the day. After losing my first two matches and dropping out, I feared that red/green aggro had just been a bad idea. I’m sure now that it wasn’t. It may have been a bad deck for other reasons, but these five successful decks were all fairly aggressive. No one played blue and black, and no one went for anything like a slow control deck. I also feared that this format might only be won by players lucky enough to have four or more rares in their deck. That doesn’t seem to be the case either. I do believe that quite a few of the rares in this set are so swingy, so game changing, that they can unbalance the format. Still, even the good rares in Kaladesh require some skill to maximize. There is a big payoff in this format for synergy, choosing the right commons and uncommons, colored cards and artifacts, to make your strategy work optimally.

I’ll get another chance at a Kaladesh sealed deck PPTQ on October 15th. Wish me luck!

Thanks for reading.

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