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Treating Sealed Deck Like Constructed

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

Treating Sealed Deck Like Constructed

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.

Magic players tend to think that Limited, especially Sealed Deck, has nothing in common with Constructed, but the two disciplines actually have important similarities. The worst thing that players say about sealed deck is that it’s all luck, that all that matters is the quality of the rares in your card pool. “Sealed luck,” they say. The best players know that there’s more to sealed deck than that. As in constructed play, sealed deck requires players to be aware of and understand all the cards available in the format. Like constructed, sealed deck players need to know not only what do with their own cards but what strategies are likely to be employed in their opponents’ decks.

A good sealed deck format is a lot like a good constructed format. Today’s Standard is considered to be very healthy and interesting because it supports a wide range of competitive deck archetypes. Similarly, Shadows over Innistrad is described to be a good set for sealed deck because of the variety of deck archetypes available.

The further a player moves from believing that sealed deck is all luck towards believing that sealed deck is a lot like constructed, the more successful that player will be when confronted with the random contents of six booster packs. This matters for players all across the country this weekend because the Regional Pro Tour Qualifier tournaments are being played using Shadows over Innistrad sealed deck. The Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifier that I won in order to qualify for the RPTQ was also sealed deck, but lots of folks playing in these sealed deck RPTQs will have qualified for it by winning Standard tournaments. Does that put those players at a disadvantage at the sealed deck RPTQ? Like everything else in the sport of Magic, it all depends on how much work you are prepared to do.

You get good at sealed deck exactly the same way you get good at anything else. Practice, practice, practice. Since sealed deck is my favorite format in Magic, I tend to go a little further than other people. As a matter of fact, I like to treat sealed deck just like constructed.

Save Your Sealed Deck Card Pools

If you can get past the idea that sealed deck is random. If you can align yourself with the idea that the sealed format contains deck archetypes in the same way as in constructed, the next challenge is to identify the archetypes. If you study the full spoiler list for a set the week before prerelease weekend, as lots of players do, you can start to identify hypothetical relationships between the cards that suggest the archetypes that will be possible. Before you ever play a game with Shadows over Innistrad, you can look at the card list and imagine a lot of archetypes. Looks like you could have blue/black Zombies. That looks like a thing. Let’s see… a lot of Werewolf cards in red and green, that looks like an archetype. And so on. In other words, there are two kinds of archetypes in Shadows over Innistrad sealed deck, the ones that hypothetically exist simply due to the abilities on the cards and how they might match up across colors, and then there are the real sealed deck archetypes that have proven themselves game after game, match after match, tournament after tournament.

If you built a Standard deck how would you know if your deck was any good? Apart, that is, from the fact that maybe you assembled a list that just won the Pro Tour. The answer is that you  test it against other decks. When you get serious about practicing sealed deck you do the same thing. When I got home from the two Shadows over Innistrad prerelease events I played in I not only kept my decks together, I kept the entire card pools together. This way I could take my deck apart and hand my entire card pool to a friend and find out how he would have built the deck. This is the first step to taking sealed deck more seriously. If you need the rares from your sealed deck for a constructed deck, take them out and replace them in the sealed pool with proxies. If players you respect build the same deck that you built, or close to it, you start to have an idea that you did indeed put together the best deck possible out of your pool. If that deck was successful and especially if it seemed to play well with a certain amount of synergy, that’s a sealed deck you want to keep together. I keep my successful sealed decks together in empty Dragon Shield boxes because there is more than enough room inside for an entire sealed deck pool.

Play sealed deck, save the deck, have other people look at the card pool. Wash, rinse, repeat. Does it sound like a lot of work yet? I hope not, because it’s time to go a little bit deeper. Before he “retired from Magic” Joe Panuska, of Yo! MTG Taps fame and I were practicing a lot for Grand Prix Albuquerque. Each time he and I started working on a sealed deck pool, we did the same thing that you are forced to do at the start of any competitive sealed deck event, we registered our card pools on a deck checklist sheet, one of those sheets with boxes beside the name of each card in Shadows over Innistrad. For each pool, we registered all eighty-four cards in the total column. Then, after taking our best first cut at building a deck from the pool, we entered the cards from that deck, including basic land choices, into the played column on the sheet. This is good practice for the annoying yet necessary paperwork associated with any competitive sealed event. The same part that causes many players to trip up and get game losses from. You know what helps with that? Practice. More than simply practicing our ability to colorize and alphabetize, registering our decks gave us a record of what we did. That way we could remember what we built after we shuffled all the cards back together for the next player to examine. If you hand a friend a sealed deck pool with your deck alongside the extra cards and your friend ends up making the same choices as you did you can’t know if they honestly thought your build was the best or if they were influenced by knowing what you did with the card pool first. Personally, when I’m finished playing with a sealed deck and I know I’m about to hand the pool to another player to check out, I take all the basic lands out and disassemble the deck. Then I sort the card pool by color only and put the pool back in the deck box. When another player opens up that card pool they don’t get to look at the deck registration checklist until after they have built their best deck out of the pool. Then you and your friend can cuss and discuss the choices you each made.

After a while, you start to accumulate a bunch of sealed decks. I had eight or so pools before Grand Prix Albuquerque and a few more after. I think eight is a great number of sealed pools to “keep alive.” As I build other sealed decks, after I have eight pools, I cull the weaker pools out of my group of test pools. A pool being weak would not be the only reason I would take a pool out of my test group. I might also remove a pool that was too good, for example. If the pool had such a powerful group of rares and mythics that the pool was too easy to build, too much of a unicorn to learn anything from, I might want to remove it. I might also remove a pool from my test group if it was too much like another pool in the group.

After examining dozens of Shadows over Innistrad sealed deck pools, I can tell you confidently that the most popular archetype is green/white. Actually, the color combination doesn’t tell the whole story. Some are more green than white and contain a lot of Werewolf creatures and related effects, others are more white than green and might be more focused on investigating. Either version is likely to be interested in delirium. Green and red were a popular combination during prerelease weekend but has generally been a lot less successful since then. The next most popular color after green and white is black. Black and green decks go hard for delirium and have more creature removal but less evasion. Black and white decks are very popular, they have black’s removal spells and white’s access to flying. There’s just no getting around the fact that white is the deepest color by far in Shadows over Innistrad sealed. I’m keeping it pretty general right now but we’ll get to the brass tacks with some actual deck lists soon enough. Red and black can give you a delicious combination of Vampires and madness effects, but it doesn’t come together as often as the other archetypes. What about blue? It’s the least used color in the format. It’s not that there aren’t good blue cards in the set, it’s the fact that the other colors, randomly assembled from the contents of six booster packs, will usually render better and more synergistic decks. Blue has much better prospects in booster draft where you might be the only player in eight interested in the blue cards. In sealed, the random assortment tends not to favor blue and I’m not even guessing at this, it’s the plain truth after assembling dozens of my own sealed decks and examining at least that many sealed pools of other players. Knowing that blue is the least popular kid in the park and knowing that white is the most popular doesn’t mean anything when you are sifting through your own sealed deck card pool. In any one pool, like the one you might be building in a tournament, your white cards could be terrible and blue could totally be the right way to go. In general, though, it doesn’t tend to work out that way.

The biggest movement forward that you make in taking sealed deck seriously is when you are able to practice against builds that were put together by other people. This helps you escape from the confines of your own habits as a deck builder. The better you get a building sealed decks, the more often that your first cut at a sealed pool is going to be the best possible deck, but you’ll never be right all the time.

Examples of Sealed Deck Excellence

I was getting somewhere, I suppose, by playing my sealed pools against each other, rebuilding them, having others rebuild them, but I wanted better competition. It was time to netdeck! It’s super easy to find competitive deck lists on the internet for any constructed format. It’s much harder to find winning sealed deck lists. Harder, but not impossible. Grand Prix Albuquerque took place on the same weekend as Grand Prix in Barcelona, Spain, and Beijing, China. In the coverage available on the mothership, you can find a list of decks that went undefeated on day one in Albuquerque and Barcelona. For some reason, they didn’t post day one undefeated decks for Beijing. I would have loved to see if there were any differences between what the kids in China were doing with sealed compared to Spain and New Mexico. There were five undefeated decks in Albuquerque, seven in Barcelona. I chose six of the sickest of these and built them to practice against. They are, as you might expect, full of powerful rares. Playing against them can actually be a little demoralizing. I played one of my pools against the six undefeated decks that I built and guess what? My deck lost almost every match. The point of the exercise is to get experience against top competition. For this reason, I didn’t duplicate the entire pool, I just built the forty card deck that they smashed with. I probably won’t have to play against a sealed deck at the RPTQ as any of the six I’m about to list, but playing against them makes you think about your cards a little differently. The octagon is a harsh place.

On the mothership, this deck is listed as having an Indulgent Tormentor instead of an Elusive Tormentor. The tormentor in question was almost certainly the elusive sort and not the indulgent type because Elusive Tormentor is, you know, in Shadows over Innistrad while Indulgent Tormentor is from Magic 2015 and probably would have gotten Patrick Stein buried in the New Mexico desert somewhere if he had played it. Elusive Tormentor is actually pretty crucial to the deck, no slight intended towards Sorin or Avacyn, because the Tormentor is Patrick’s only madness outlet.

Again, getting beyond the sickness associated with having both Sorin, Grim Nemesis and Archangel Avacyn in the same deck, it’s interesting that Patrick is able to fit the seven drop Drogskol Cavalry. I agree with the choice because I think sealed deck matches give you that kind of time. Not that Shadows sealed is a slow format, lots of things happen in the early turns. You can still afford to have a seven-casting-cost card in your deck if it does enough for you. It’s tempting to imagine that it doesn’t matter what Patrick puts in his deck as long as he puts enough Plains and Swamps to play his two mythic rare bombs. Don’t be that way, I implore you, all of his choices for the deck, as well as a certain amount of play skill, went together to make this deck undefeated on day one in Albuquerque.

No, I assure you, you don’t need to have Archangel Avacyn and Sorin, Grim Nemesis in the same deck in order to have a winning sealed deck. However, it certainly helps. Remember, these aren’t just “winning sealed decks,” these are decks that went 9-0 against Grand Prix competition. I also found the fact that two of these decks had this combination of mythics a little overwhelming. But, just as with the first deck, make sure to pay attention to the other things going on in the deck. Mostly a green/white deck, the most popular color combination, Jared splashes red for Arlinn Kord and Burn from Within and black for just Sorin. His only way to dig for lands is Vessel of Nascency. This card is very important for any green deck that wants to have delirium. You can play Vessel on turn one and it’s completely possible that when you pop it on turn two you will find yourself with four different card types in your graveyard. It’s a big help that Vessel is an enchantment, obviously. He also has Loam Dryad to help solve his deck’s three difficult to cast spells. Double Murderer’s Axe seems a little crazy but Avacynian Missionaries will make you want to do crazy things. However, including both Axes must have something to do with why Jared didn’t play either of two copies of Tenacity. Hey, he went 9-0 and I so didn’t…

Do you feel like you want to give Michael Simon a little more credit, and a few less dirty looks, than the first two undefeated decks listed? What? Undefeated without Sorin or Avacyn? Yes, it’s possible. Yes, this deck has some powerful cards, even beyond The Gitrog Monster. The Gitrog Monster! I love everything about this card. If loving you is Gitrog, I don’t wanna be monster! He also has Elusive Tormentor and the uncommon-that-plays-like-a-rare, Duskwatch Recruiter. When I play a Duskwatch Recruiter and my opponent doesn’t have me under an incredible amount of pressure, all I want to do is activate Recruiter and put free creature cards into my hand. In a forty card deck with at least fourteen creatures, the Recruiter hits a creature in the top three cards of your library very often. Players in Beijing were polled for their top uncommon picks for sealed deck and Duskwatch Recruiter is the first card mentioned. Michael has lots of ways to help himself get to delirium. Explosive Apparatus seemed clunky and weak on prerelease weekend but players now understand the card to be useful against early game creatures (takes out a pesky Duskwatch Recruiter…) while also moving you more quickly towards delirium. Michael also has the aforementioned Vessel of Nascency as well as the black Vessel of Malignity. I like to play an opponent-discards-two-spells card in any sealed format, and it’s useful that Vessel of Malignity has your opponent exile two cards from his hand so as to not help him reach delirium. Michael’s deck doesn’t make that much use of delirium, but the ability to pump his two Stallion of Ashmouth is definitely useful in longer games.

Here’s another hard-working deck that managed to go undefeated without the stunning talents of Archangel Avacyn. Arlinn Kord is designed to be played early in games but that doesn’t happen particularly often in this deck. With no way to directly search for a red mana source, Arlinn just has to do her thing whenever Michael Scovazzo is able to play her. What Michael doesn’t have in the way of sicko rares and mythics he makes up for with dangerous uncommons. He has the very popular Duskwatch Recruiter as well as another uncommon that polled well at Grand Prix Beijing, Ulvenwald Mysteries. Apart from those, Michael has one of the best madness outlets in the format in Call the Bloodline. It only costs one of any color mana to discard a card from your hand to put a 1/1 black and white Vampire Knight (because Vampires are always wanted to join the knighthood) creature token with lifelink. The best card for Michael to discard to Call the Bloodline? From Under the Floorboards, naturally. I hope, in his excitement over playing From Under the Floorboards for its madness cost putting who knows how many 2/2 black Zombie creature tokens onto the battlefield that he doesn’t forget to also put his 1/1 Vampire Knight token on the battlefield as well.

Finally, a red deck! Vampires and madness? There’s a few of each, but mostly just good creatures and removal. Olivia, Mobilized for War is a fair creature, as far as game-changing mythic rares go, because she’s just a 3/3 flyer with no protective capabilities of her own. She pays you off greatly, however, for not playing lands you don’t need to play by letting you discard a card when you play another creature to put a +1/+1 counter on that creature and give it haste. If Olivia lives long enough, she’s going to help you win the game. The problem with using Olivia as a madness outlet is that you often don’t have much mana left for madness tricks after paying for the creature you are casting.

Platinum Pro William Jensen goes undefeated (with a full set of byes to start the day) with a basically fair black and white deck. He can kill a big creature with Humble the Brute and a small one with Puncturing Light and if there’s only one creature on his opponent’s side of the board, he can also make it go away with To the Slaughter. If an opposing creature is tapped, Murderous Compulsion will do the trick. I like that Jensen played Pick the Brain both to include another sorcery in his deck for delirium and also to help he take a late game threat away from his opponent before it could be played.

Fun Facts About the Undefeated Decks from Albuquerque and Barcelona

The six decks listed above are the undefeated decks from Albuquerque and Barcelona that I decided to build and play with against my other sealed pools. There were, however, a total of five undefeated decks from Albuquerque and seven from Barcelona. Among those, there are some interesting trends. Unfortunately, Seth Manfield’s pool was listed without the actual list of the starting deck, so his deck can’t be included in the following statistics.

Among the eleven undefeated decks, not including splashes, there were three BW decks, two GW decks, two RB decks, two WR decks and two GB decks. Seven of the decks used white as a main color, seven used black. Green and red were main colors in four decks each. Notice a color missing?

Only one of the eleven undefeated decks strayed from the minimum number of cards. Francisco Rubio played forty-one cards in his RW deck. Most of the decks had either fourteen or fifteen creatures. Only one deck had more, sixteen in Michael Simon’s GB deck. Two decks had only thirteen creatures, one had only twelve and one had only eleven creatures, its Rubio again. Forty-one cards in his deck but only eleven creatures. Nine of the decks stuck to exactly seventeen land. Rubio’s RW deck and Villa’s GW deck each only ran sixteen land.

All eleven players used a mix of artifacts and enchantments to augment their sorceries and instants. In many cases, this was at least in part to help with delirium. Explosive Apparatus appears in four of the decks, the most popular artifact among the eleven undefeated decks.

Puncturing Light is the most popular common with seven copies in the eleven decks. Throttle, Dead Weight and Murderous Compulsion all tied for second place, there are six copies of each of these spread throughout the eleven undefeated decks. Other popular commons played in at least two or more decks include Byway Courier, Hinterland Logger, Fiery Temper, Stallion of Ashmouth, Twins of Maurer Estate, Devilthorn Fox and Dauntless Cathar.

The best rare/mythic for going undefeated? It’s not even close. Archangel Avacyn appears in four of the eleven undefeated decks. There are two Arlinns and two Sorins. Rares that pop up frequently among the eleven undefeated decks include Burn from Within, Avacyn’s Judgment, Wolf of Devil’s Breach, Drogskol Cavalry and Slayer’s Plate.

What commons did these undefeated players stay away from? There were zero copies played of the following: Clip Wings, Equestrian Skill, Fork in the Road, Gloomwidow, Structural Distortion, Senseless Rage, Rush of Adrenaline, Magmatic Chasm, Dual Shot, Alms of the Vein, Grotesque Mutation, Shamble Back or Stern Constable. In fact, Stern Constable and Chaplain’s Blessing are the only two white commons that appear in exactly none of the seven decks that played white.

Testing Against the Best Decks

Alone and with human opponents, I spent most of my sealed deck practice time putting together, time again, my stable of eight very decent sealed deck pools. Whenever I was satisfied that I had the best deck from one of these pools, I would pit that deck against the six undefeated decks from Albuquerque and Barcelona that I built. Those matches were mostly brutal, but they helped me understand the difference between a good sealed deck and a great one. You can’t always have a great sealed deck, the guys that mostly disregard sealed deck are correct to that extent. If you don’t open the sick rares your deck isn’t going to stack up against the undefeated sealed decks from the Grand Prix circuit. That’s fine, your deck doesn’t have to be *that* good to get you where you want to be, the top eight of your qualifying tournament.

Studying these amazing undefeated decks, and playing against them, can help you remember to think a little bit outside the box when you assess your sealed deck pool. Because white is so deep in Shadows over Innistrad, it’s easy to quickly throw yourself into a white deck. This will often be the correct choice, but not always. Before you get too satisfied with an efficient creature-filled green/white deck remember the kinds of things you could be paired up against. Can you get rid of a horrifying creature on the other side of the board? If the black/white deck seems worse than the green/white deck it may still be correct to play the black/white if black gives you access to removal spells that can get rid of a giant flyer. Maybe the green/white deck curves out really well. Maybe, without hard creature removal, you can outplay a lot of your opponents and put them on the defensive by having good tempo. On the other hand, that may not work against whatever number of opponents you may face that simply opened sick nasty rares and mythics.

If there was more time and more room on the internet for a longer article I would love to share all eight of my sealed deck pools. Instead, here’s one pool. Take a look at it and think about what you might build with it before I show you what I built:

The first thing I saw when I laid out this card pool were the green and white cards. I wanted to get some creatures in play with high hopes that one of them would have flying. Then I would play Odric, Lunarch Marshal and win the game. Yeah, but is the white really that good, outside of Odric and possibly Reaper of Flight Moonsilver? Green gives you the big pig, Kessig Dire Swine, as well as an excellent uncommon in Pack Guardian. What else? Some investigate opportunities with Briarbridge Patrol and Byway Courier?

I was a little happier with my second deck choice, red and white playing as aggressively as possible. A friend of mine came up with a black/green deck that wasn’t too bad but that deck didn’t really get so terribly much from the seven green cards it played. Still, I practiced with all three of these versions. They did okay against some of my other pools. How do you think they did against my six undefeated GP sealed decks? Not very well at all. One of them, I think it was the green/white, won one match against one of the undefeated decks. That’s when I decided to go for broke. I decided to build a blue-based mill deck taking advantage of two copies of Manic Scribe and going hard for delirium to turn the Scribes into true game-stealing threats. Here is that list:

Before I start patting myself on the back for finding this diamond in the rough, I do realize that it has more going for it than a pair of deck-milling Manic Scribes. I realize that Ever After is a powerful card that can keep you alive and stocked with creatures long after another deck would be drained of cards and creature defenses. I realize that Forgotten Creation would be a good creature in any blue deck. It’s amazing, however, in this deck.

Most of the time, this deck wins by milling opponents out of cards. For this reason, you can’t keep an opening hand with four lands and a couple of terrible cheap creatures and maybe a five-drop that you won’t be playing for quite a while. This deck’s creature base isn’t strong enough for that. A good draw for this deck puts some kind of creature in play on turn one or two. Ideally, you wouldn’t play Manic Scribe until later in the game when you have delirium. You don’t really want to block with Scribe and risk your opponent having a combat trick. Also, a turn two Manic Scribe is more of a help than a hindrance to your opponent, helping them get to delirium a lot sooner than you. But, if you have no other play, you go ahead and get Manic Scribe out there and hope for the best.

This deck is generally on its back foot for the first three turns of the game. A good turn one or two would include Dead Weight for your opponent’s first creature or else Explosive Apparatus or Sanitarium Skeleton or Call the Bloodline. I have no problem trading Furtive Homunculus for an attacking 2/2. The Homunculus is not here to win the game for me. I’m likely to spend all my mana at the end of my opponent’s third turn to play Catalog. Often I’m putting a land into the graveyard with Catalog, but not always. Eventually, if Catalog doesn’t get a land into the graveyard I can play and activate Warped Landscape. Sometimes Warped Landscape is the turn three play.

This is a scrappy little deck. In most cases, its creatures are here to block and get killed and help me get to delirium so that I can play Manic Scribe and mill my opponent for three cards a turn. I love using Forgotten Creation to discard my hand in order to (a) reach delirium and (b) get me to my first or second Manic Scribe. It’s awesome that this trick works well with Gisa’s Bidding. Bidding also combos well with Call the Bloodline. Ever After is my emergency fix-it card for late games in which my Manic Scribes have been killed.

It turns out that this is the best deck that can be built from this particular card pool. Not only does it perform well against the other seven pools in my group of test decks, it also does the best of any of my pools against the six undefeated decks that I built. Against the undefeated decks, it won three matches and nearly won two others. The alternative win condition of milling out my opponent puts this deck on an even footing with decks wielding planeswalkers and even Archangel Avacyn.

Now, just because I like this one blue/black mill deck I was able to build, don’t believe for a minute that I think blue/black is the way to go. I do not. I’m going to build the best possible deck from my RPTQ sealed deck pool regardless of color. This exercise that I’ve gone through, with the practice sealed pools and the undefeated decks from the GPs in Albuquerque and Barcelona is simply a way to practice sealed deck a little bit more like the way you would practice constructed. You have to know the possible archetypes, you have to know what’s likely to happen with your pool and you have to know what could be lurking in your opponents’ decks. Competitive sealed deck isn’t something your just show up for. You should practice for it the same way you would with any other format.

One Large Gripe About the Sealed Deck RPTQ

I have one complaint about how the sealed deck RPTQs are being run, and it’s a big one. These events are having the players that reach the top eight play their all-important quarterfinal round with the same sealed deck they’ve been playing with all day. This is a terrible idea. In the long and established history of sealed deck Pro Tour Qualifiers, the format has always been sealed deck for the Swiss rounds followed by a booster draft for the top eight. This ensures that while a player who opens an amazing pool of cards might have an advantage in the Swiss rounds, he would be forced to start over and skillfully draft a deck in the top eight in order to advance beyond the quarterfinals.

The powers that be have given some reasons for not drafting the top eight, and they’re all bad reasons. I have heard that there isn’t time for a draft and the accompanying rigors of registering booster drafts in the top eight, particularly when only one round of the top eight is to be played because all four top finishers earn the same prize, a plane ticket and a seat at Pro Tour Sydney. I’ve heard it argued that a top eight draft adds additional expense to the event.

Imagine if those lucky dudes with their Archangel Avacyns and Sorins were allowed to play those same undefeated sealed decks on day two at the Grand Prix? I’m sure they would have loved the chance to do that, but day two of the Grand Prix switches from sealed deck to booster draft in order to ensure that skill, and not simply a good sealed deck, propels a player to the top of a sealed deck Grand Prix. Until now, that’s the way all sealed deck Pro Tour Qualifiers were run as well. Shame on the powers that be!

I’ll be sure to have a box of Shadows over Innistrad boosters with me at my RPTQ on Sunday. If I’m fortunate enough to reach the top eight I’ll be pressing the judge staff to allow a booster draft in the top eight. That’s the skillful way that sealed deck PTQs are supposed to be decided.

Thanks for reading.

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