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This Week in Sealed – Shadows over Innistrad Prerelease

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

This Week in Sealed – Shadows over Innistrad Prerelease

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.

Pretty blue prerelease boxes cleverly popped open all over the world this past weekend as we enjoyed our first opportunity to play with Shadows over Innistrad. I played in two events, one at midnight Friday night and the other on Sunday morning. Both events I participated in were held at Area 51 Gaming and Collectibles in Grapevine, Texas.

Sealed deck is in the spotlight right now. That’s good news for me because I love playing sealed more than just about anything else in Magic. I’m traveling to Albuquerque, New Mexico next weekend for the Grand Prix in order to play Shadows over Innistrad sealed deck. A lot of people won’t go out of their way to travel to a sealed deck Grand Prix, which is probably why there are less of them than there are of the constructed variety. I like it better, though, and I plan to practice a lot and study hard in order to do well in New Mexico. If things don’t go well in the Land of Enchantment, if I start breaking bad, I’ll spend the rest of the weekend in the closest Los Pollos Hermanos eating fried chicken.

Shadows over Innistrad sealed deck matters for an even bigger reason than next week’s Grand Prix in New Mexico. It’s the format for the upcoming Regional Pro Tour Qualifiers being held on the last weekend in May. Most people will have qualified for that event by playing Standard but they’re going to have to do well in Shadows over Innistrad sealed deck at the RPTQ if they want a plane ticket to Australia for Pro Tour Sydney. This is the number one thing I’ll be thinking about this month and next.

Sometimes I don’t study at all before the prerelease. It’s fun to have the completely pure experience of building a sealed deck from cards you have never seen before. That concept was central in Richard Garfield’s concept for Magic: the Gathering from the very beginning over twenty years ago. I have never really cared for finding out about a new set one card at a time two months before the set comes out. I pay no attention to the first cards being spoiled, it’s just too thin of a soup for me to enjoy. When the entire set is spoiled the week before the prerelease, that’s a different matter entirely. I checked out the set, card by card, the Monday before the prereleases, paying most of my attention to the commons and uncommons. You read up on the rares when you’re trying to figure out what the next big deck will be in Standard. When you’re a sealed deck guy like me, you care more about the commons and uncommons because you know those are the cards you will be dealing with most. You need to know about rares and mythics, too, but figuring out the commons and uncommons and how they fit together is more important when a set is brand new.

I started studying the entire spoiler on Monday. Monday afternoon I spend some quality time recording the Yo! MTG Taps podcast with Big-Head Joe Panuska and Stephen Marshall. That episode came out at the end of last week right here on Legit MTG. It’s a pretty good listen with lots of Shadows over Innistrad chit-chat plus an interesting interview with Zac Elsik, winner of the 2016 Hunter Burton Memorial Magic Open two weeks ago. Zac also won Grand Prix Oklahoma City last year.

Midnight prerelease card pool (2)>>>>

With a decent amount of study behind me I entered the arena for the midnight prerelease. Here is my card pool:

Midnight Prerelease Card Pool

Cards are sorted by color and then casting cost

Gold Cards
Fevered Visions – FOIL prelease card
The Gitrog Monster

Artifact Cards
Shard of Broken Glass
Wild-Field Scarecrow

Figuring Out What to Play

Everybody needs a system when it comes to sealed deck. You don’t want to waste time reinventing the wheel when you only have half an hour to build your deck. My system is to quickly open all of my booster packs taking only slight notice of the rare in each one. Then I sort the cards by color. Then I lay out the cards for a particular color in a single column, reading them as I go. I put creatures at the top of the column and spells at the bottom. I try to stay open-minded at this point, considering almost every card as a main deck possibility, but there are going to be cards in every color that you can quickly eliminate. I don’t bother putting these cards in the column of cards on the table. When I finish one color I start on another, preferably in friendly color order, the way the colors touch each other on the back of a Magic card. I put artifacts and colorless cards in a sixth column. I put multicolored cards with the thinner of the colors involved. This helps remind me of the trouble I’m going to have to go to in order to play a particular gold card.

Regardless of my hours spent poring over the spoiler five days before, it’s still a very new experience to look at an actual sealed deck pool laying on the table before me. I’m immediately disappointed in the white and black cards and I’m very disappointed in my blue cards. Here is my assessment of the pool in general:

White is enticing. The card I want to play most is Always Watching. It pumps all your creatures and gives them vigilance. It won’t necessarily help you come back from behind but it’s a solid way to get ahead in games that would otherwise be close. Moorland Drifter is fine as a 2/2 for 1W. It’s great that he gets flying when you have four different card types in your graveyard. He goes in either white/blue or white/black. Nearheath Chaplain is the best white creature in my pool, a 3/1 with lifelink for 3W that you don’t mind at all sending into combat. That’s because when he dies, and creatures with lifelink have a target painted on their backs, you can exile him from your graveyard for 2W to put two 1/1 white Spirit tokens with flying onto the battlefield. There’s a good removal spell among the white cards. Angelic Purge is a sorcery for 2W that can exile an artifact, creature or artifact (basically anything except a planeswalker). There is the little matter of Angelic Purge’s additional cost, you have to sacrifice a permanent you control. If you’re working on delirium, you might not mind at all putting a tapped land in the graveyard when you play this. The rest of my white cards just don’t add up to much. Just not enough creatures worth playing. Combat enchancers like Tenacity and Ethereal Guidance would have been fine if there were more white creatures in my pool that were worth playing.

Thing in the Ice is quite a card. The plan is simple, play it on turn two and then play four instants and/or sorceries as quickly as you can. When I’ve had more experience with this set maybe I will figure out a way to include the ten to twelve sorceries and instants in the deck along with an 0/4 Thing in the Ice that won’t do anything if you draw it late in the game. Equally unexciting are the three copies of Furtive Homunculus, the 2/1 skulk monster. I will freely admit that the blue cards may simply require too much outside-the-box thinking for me at this point. No color in Shadows over Innistrad allow you to get to delirium faster than blue, but I need some creatures I can depend on, not just bounce spells and deck manipulation. I like Stormrider Spirit and Niblis of Dusk and I’m completely in love with Aberrant Researcher. One thing that would make it easier to experiment with the iffier blue cards would be a series of defensive, control-minded creatures. Blue doesn’t have a lot of that.

The black is closer to being playable than either blue or white, but Indulgent Aristocrat is a 1/1 Vampire that needs to be built around, it’s more of a booster draft card than a sealed deck card. The jury is still out on Sanitarium Skeleton and I’ve got two of them. Two copies of Alms of the Vein aren’t very tasty, either. Among the creatures I like in this pool there’s Ghoulsteed, Farbog Revenant and my favorite, Heir of Falkenrath. There’s cheap sorcery-speed removal with Murderous Compulsion and a pair of expensive instant-speed answers in Throttle. Grotesque Mutation is a decent combat trick that I look forward to playing in the future.

I haven’t figured out if Shard of Broken Glass is good enough or not. Cheap to play and to equip, there’s nothing at all wrong with giving a creature +1/+0. I know this card helps you get to delirium but I fear I might also mill myself right out of the game, or close to it. I’d rather solve my delirium struggle some other way. Fevered Visions was my prerelease foil and it plays a little like an expensive Black Vise from the olden days. Not worth it, I think. Finally, I also had The Gitrog Monster and I gave serious consideration to splashing for it. This card is the right kind of gamble for me although I wish it had trample, maybe even trample instead of deathtouch.

The red and green cards did it for me. I felt a little bit like a noob running to the easiest to play cards. The cards from the other colors are more, well, colorful. The red and green cards just beat down and kill other creatures. Check out the ones that I decided to play:

The Deck

9 Forest
2 Mountain
2 Dual Shot – there are a lot of one-toughness creatures and sometimes you get a two-for-one
2 Sanguinary Mage – I have no Vampire synergy, these are simply early game blockers
2 Rabid Bite – fighting-for-dummies, just make sure you have plenty of creatures
Duskwatch Recruiter – this is an uncommon that plays like a rare, green card draw is good
Hinterland Logger – even though it’s a flip card, you don’t get excited about this one
Ulrich’s Kindred – gives Werewolf decks inevitability in the late game, only works on offense
Wild-Field Scarecrow – this one goes in every limited deck, it finds lands and helps delirium
Convicted Killer – another very vanilla flipper, but he adds to Wolf/Werewolf synergy
Graf Mole – nice big butt for a three drop, can still attack when needed
Byway Courier – the ability to get a clue when he dies makes him more than good enough
Howlpack Wolf – when you play a 3/3 on turn three the plan is to attack
Hulking Devil – generic 5/2 for four mana will make the cut in sealed a lot of times
Spiteful Motives – much better as an “instant” than it would have been without flash
Briarbridge Patrol – kind of the big brother to Byway Courier
Soul Swallower – green decks have to work hard for delirium but it’s worth it
Equestrian Skill – made the cut today but it’s not a great card
Reduce to Ashes – doesn’t kill as many things I would like, but you’ll usually like it
2 Thornhide Wolves – big and dumb, no abilities
Burn from Within – red X spells help you win games you were supposed to lose

Dissension in the Ranks is a controversial card among limited players so far. It’s intriguing because it’s either a blowout against your opponent or else does nothing at all and sits in your hand. When you are playing an aggressive deck and your opponent is as well I think it’s worth bringing in from the sideboard. I played it exactly one time and it was excellent against a red/green opponent. Stensia Masquerade might be good enough in red decks generally, but obviously it’s worth the trouble most in red/black decks full of Vampires. I saw lots of people playing Ember-Eye Wolf to fill the same mana slot that I filled with Sanguinary Mage. I think the 1/3 is better than a 1/2 with an expensive pump ability, but I did see some Ember-Eye Wolf attacks that were significant late in games. It was easy to leave out Village Messenger but now that I’ve drafted a couple of times I think this card is more than good enough in draft or sealed if your deck is aggressive enough, especially if you are playing effects that go with flip cards.

I went 4-0 at the midnight prerelease with this red and green deck. That doesn’t really mean that much, prereleases are very experimental and more casual than most tournaments. However, it did give me a good first taste of the format. I felt a little noob-ish playing red and green but after seeing four rounds of action I can tell you that red and green is going to be a good place to be in a lot of Shadows over Innistrad sealed deck tournaments.

In these first four matches I was a little disappointed at how not intricate the set played out. Of course, we’re at the very beginning of the format. Studying the set from spoilers, my first impression was that while the creature plays were less impactful than with Battle for Zendikar and Oath of the Gatewatch, there was hidden value everywhere in the new Shadows cards. I still feel that way, but playing in the midnight release showed me that at least in sealed deck, a random assortment of cards from six booster packs is unlikely to provide the blue player with enough ways to make the fractional advantages that many of his cards have pay off.

Sunday Prerelease Card Pool

Cards are sorted by color and then casting cost

Land Cards

Warped Landscape
Stone Quarry

For the second time this prerelease weekend, I can’t make the white cards work. Part of the problem is that I just didn’t get very many white cards from my six packs. I have two Inspiring Captains. They are great for powering up the team when they show up on turn four, five or six. But where’s the team? Moorland Drifter, in this set at least, is very average as a two-drop. Ditto for Paranoid Parish-Blade at three and Apothecary Geist at four. Thraben Inspector, a turn one Squire that gives you a free card draw later in the game is bound to be better than I’m currently rating him but surely he would only go in a deck where white was the main color, one that was playing for Human creature synergy. Silverstrike is not an exciting piece of removal but it can take care of any attacker it can target. Four is a lot of mana to leave open but you do what you have to do. Survive the Night is the kind of card you play when you need another instant-speed combat trick but it’s not one you should get excited about. I like Expose Evil (and this pool has two of them) but only in aggressive decks. I have Open the Armory but no enchantments worth worrying about.

I like my blue cards better on Sunday than I did in the midnight prerelease. There are the ever-present creatures, Silent Observer, Drownyard Explorers, Stormrider Spirit and Niblis of Dusk. Slightly better are Reckless Scholar and Daring Sleuth. There isn’t one win condition among these blue creatures, the 3/3 flyer would come closest in that regard. Among the spells, Welcome to the Fold might be the most powerful but it’s pretty hard to master. Play it for its face value? Okay, you have to spend four mana and can steal a creature with a toughness no bigger than two. If you are able to discard it and pay its madness cost of XUU you might be able to steal a much larger creature, but you’ll need an impressive merging of madness opportunity coupled with having a bunch of mana untapped. Then there are the playable but unexciting regular suspects. Look at cards with Catalog. Counter a creature with Deny Existence. Bounce something and possibly make them discard a card with Compelling Deterrence. You know what? I don’t find this deterrence all that compelling. Ongoing Investigation is only for the super-optimists who run blue/green. These blue cards could make a very serviceable second color for a deck. I thought very seriously about making blue the second color to go with the red cards.

I thought my black card possibilities were rather thin. Let’s start with just two non-creature spells. I love that Dead Weight is back. It’s an absolute no-brainer when black is either your main or secondary color. Creeping Dread turned me completely off when I first considered it but my son impressed me with it in booster draft. At the beginning of your upkeep you and your opponent each discard a card. If the two cards share a type your opponent loses three life. I like this one in aggressive decks that can empty their hands quickly. If you and your opponent do have to discard cards the edge is still in your favor because of the potential for your opponent to lose life when the card types match. My prerelease foil is Mindwrack Demon and I like this 4/5 flying trample monster a great deal. I have already raw-dogged him on turn four and gotten instant delirium in a booster draft. If there had been more promising black in this pool I would have made him team captain. I like Morkrut Necropod as a finisher against anything other than blue (bounce spells). I’m not even a little concerned about sacrificing a land each time I attack with him.

I didn’t get any gold cards in this pool but I did get four artifacts. There’s another Shard of Broken Glass, too dangerous to use for anything other than achieving delirium. True-Faith Censer is fine, not great, giving your dude +1/+1 and vigilance. It costs two to cast and two to equip. It gives a Human that it equips an extra +1/+0. It’s fine but it’s easy to cut as well. Runaway Carriage is basically a colorless Ball Lightning for four mana. It’s better, really, because it can fit in any deck and can be saved as either a blocker or a one-time attacker for a future turn. I’m looking forward to trying this one out sometime. Finally, there’s Explosive Apparatus. At this time I’m not ready to spend one mana to cast and three mana to activate and sacrifice this thing to deal two damage to a target creature or player. If a deck was hurting really badly for some removal I’d be more likely to consider it but it’s no solution for a big creature in any case.

Once again, it was the red and green cards that moved my needle. This time was significantly different, however, from my midnight prerelease deck. That deck was almost free of rares and contained five or six creatures with no abilities, just good power and toughness statistics. That deck was also very evenly split between the two colors. This time it was the red cards that really stood out. Green’s primary contributions included three minor Werewolf flip cards, a Soul Swallower that was much more likely to get delirium than the one earlier in the weekend and Tireless Tracker, the best card in the deck. Here’s what I built:

The Deck

7 Mountain
7 Forest
Stone Quarry
Warped Landscape – it’s pretty hard to love this much-slower version of Evolving Wilds
Neglected Heirloom – I wanted to try it, it’s not an awful waste before it flips…
Kessig Forgemaster – this is quite a nice two-drop that is troublesome to block in early turns
Quilled Wolf – just a two-drop, ability matters late, though
Moonlight Hunt – in Werewolf decks, this card reminds me of a cheaper Nissa’s Judgment, A+
Hinterland Logger
Tormenting Voice – good for madness and just generally good early or late, just play one though
Lambholt Pacifist – love the giant blocker on turn two, make sure you have bigger guys
Scourge Wolf – nice turn two play, you need plenty of Mountains to make it happen consistently
Geier Reach Bandit – hasty fun on an empty board, not a powerful rare but good enough
Tireless Tracker – the MVP, play him on turn four and THEN drop your land for the turn
Wild-Field Scarecrow – he fits in all the decks, even the aggressive ones
Uncaged Fury – great for winning a battle in combat, also a win-con on an unblocked attacker
Angelic Purge – I got cocky and splashed for this, would have been a better sideboard move
Fiery Temper – not broken in this format but it’s great to have it back, obviously in every time
Solitary Hunter – a 3/4 for four that flips into a 5/6, no abilities but he’s okay
Intrepid Provisioner – average to better than average, this deck was slower than my earlier one
Soul Swallower – playable without delirium, this becomes super serious with delirium
Pack Guardian – a 4/3 monster will always be good as a combat trick, flash makes it happen
Inner Struggle – kills most things you want to kill, but not everything
Dance with Devils – this was decent or better every time I played it
Kessig Dire Swine – decent without delirium but obviously better with it
Flameblade Angel – Like Geier Reach Bandit, this feels like a weak rare, but you play it
Burn from Within – I liked it better when red X spells were uncommon and not rare

This deck was a full turn slower than the red/green deck from the midnight release. However, with six rares and better removal, this deck is a whole lot better than the midnight release deck even though I didn’t do quite as well with it. I went 2-1-1 on Sunday afternoon with this one. My loss was against another aggressive creature deck. I lost a tough game three but also won the first game of that match on turn five!

With Stone Quarry, Warped Landscape and Wild-Field Scarecrow available I felt like it was easy to include the all-purpose white removal spell Angelic Purge. There was never a time when I was sorry to sacrifice a permanent when playing Angelic Purge but there were times when I wish I hadn’t splashed into white even for this one card. Without it I would have still played the Scarecrow but definitely not the Stone Quarry and probably not the slow-ass Warped Landscape.

Dissension in the Ranks, as with the midnight prerelease deck, was the card I most often sideboarded in. I felt bad about not including Hulking Devil, Byway Courier and slightly less bad about not including one of my two copies of Equestrian Skill (I’m on a horse!).

Wrapping it Up

If you know me at all you won’t be surprised to learn that I played a bunch of games between my midnight prerelease deck and my Sunday afternoon deck. The Sunday deck with six rares, though slower, won most of the games. I played four best-of-seven games without sideboarding and the Sunday deck won every series winning sixteen games and losing only seven.

I think red/green Werewolf decks will be the most popular decks in sealed competition this season. You can use that information to your advantage no matter what colors you choose to play. It’s unusual for red’s common and uncommon creatures to be so formidable, Werewolf flip cards are a big part of the reason they are better in this expansion set than in others. If you already liked red, as I do, this is good news for your sealed decks this season.

It would be great to build a defensive deck that can block early, play a lot of spells to get delirium and gain card advantage from clues and from madness, then win the game late with a couple of big creatures with evasion. It just looks like it’s a lot harder to find that deck in an average sealed deck card pool than it was two months or even six months ago.

Thanks for reading.

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