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Building a Better Sealed

One of the most consistent complaints I hear about any form of magic is that Sealed is too luck based. If you open well, you will win and if you have a bad pool, there’s nothing you can do. While this can help or hinder your chances of doing well, I strongly believe a strong finish in sealed is better influenced by knowledge of the format, and in fact demands a very different skillset to that of Draft or Constructed.

The most important thing to understand is that every sealed format is different. Each has different removal, different curves, and different bombs which dictate how the games will play out and as such how your deck should be built to account for this.

Pre-Tournament Preparation

The first step to approaching a new Sealed format is some research into the structure. Due to the in depth nature of this, it is significantly easier to do this for a single set format rather than 2 sets. There are a couple of ways to do this, either with a spreadsheet, or with physical cards. My preference is to use physical cards, usually done by printing out each card from the spoiler and using those. If possible, I recommend printing out 4 copies of each common and 2 of each uncommon. From there we need to analyse the makeup of the set. Separate each colour out with gold and colourless in their own sections.

Start by laying out the mana curve for creatures only, ignoring mythics. To help get a better idea of the overall creature curve, place all copies of each card when doing this. The reason for this is that each rarity is just over twice as common as the higher rarity so this helps to establish a reasonable baseline. Make a note of where each colour has the most and least creatures in the curve. By understanding each creature curve, you can identify quickly which colours are most likely to pair with each other. Next is to find the most common power and toughness at each point on the curve. What this does is help you learn how easily creatures can “trade up” for a higher cost creature. If there are lots of creatures with 2 or 3 power but very few with 4 or more power, than creatures with 4 or more toughness are going to be very valuable. Here you can fill in the curves with Gold and Artifact creatures in each colour pair to see how they fit in.
There are a few things that learning the power and toughness in the format can teach us. The first is that it provides an indicator of what type of conditional removal is worth playing. Cards like Reave Soul and Last Breath get better as more creatures at higher mana costs have low power.
The other main takeaway is what toughness you should be looking out for in your 3 and 4 drop creatures. Ideally the creatures you want to have at the 3 drop spot will be large enough to stop all 2 drop creatures and 4 drops large enough to stop all 3 drops.

For the removal, we will use a slightly different approach. Get each removal spell in each colour and work out what percentage of each colours creatures it can kill / neuter. Also worth noting is what colours have predominantly enchantment removal. Usually this is Blue or White, but is worth noting as it can often be correct to board in cards like Naturalize against someone playing only these colours, even if you haven’t seen an enchantment in game 1. It is rare in Sealed that someone will play colours that don’t have removal, and if you haven’t seen it in the first game, it doesn’t mean they don’t have it.

Equipment is an area that opinions vary wildly on, and are often the hardest card types to evaluate at first glance. I find that with the less obvious equipment (Usually the common and uncommon equipment) it requires either some research into the format, or some gameplay to properly understand their usefulness. Having done some of this research, you can usually see if an effect like Veteran’s Sidearm is desirable or not. If the pool you are building has many creatures with toughness of 3 and you’ve found the optimal toughness in the format is 4, then it can be a very useful effect to be able to move around 1 toughness between attackers and blockers. If there is a difference of 2 toughness, then this equipment would be worthless to your deck. I recommend trying out each piece of equipment in at least a couple of games as some of them may surprise you.

Manabase

The manabase can sometimes be difficult to build correctly. Usually you will find that 17 lands is the right amount, but a deck featuring predominantly 2 and 3 drop creatures can find that 16 is better and a deck with a high creature curve can find that 18 is usually needed. No matter how many lands you are running, it is best to try to build your deck and manabase in a way that supports drawing only one colour early and the other late. For this reason, splits of 10-7, 10-6, or 11-7 are usually best. When laying out your deck, count how many cards of each colour you have and how many are at each point on the curve. The colour with the most cards will usually be your main colour and as such should also be the colour that has the most 2 and 3 cost creatures. If this is the case, try to skew your secondary colour to higher points on the curve if possible. If you have the option of replacing a 2 or 3 cost creature in your secondary colour with a 3 or 4 cost creature instead, it can often be correct to do so. What this does is that for games in which you only have your main colour early on you will still be able to play your early creatures. After a few turns you should have drawn your secondary colour and can start playing the higher cost creatures. If you have multiple cards in your secondary colour that require 2 of that mana, it is likely better to run a more evenly split manabase, something like 9-8 or 10-8. I would not look to run only 16 lands in a deck that has multiple cards with heavy mana requirements in both colours as this will lead to missing a key colour far too often.

Practice Games

A great way to help practice for a format is to build up decks and jam them against each other. At this stage, you should have learnt enough about the format to understand what to look for in a pool. Rather than going to the trouble of randomising 6 packs and building from there, I suggest building what you believe to be optimal decks for each colour pair using no more than 2 of each common and 1 of each uncommon. Before playing any games / matches, it pays to have a look at what the glaring weaknesses are in each colour combination. A Red/Green deck is likely to be weak to flyers or large blockers and as such cards like Guardians of Meletis can be very powerful sideboard options against them. If you notice a recurring theme amongst several colours, it can change what you initially thought was only a sideboard card into something you’d like to play in the main a lot more often. Play some games and note down how often the board stalls and what turn the games end.

If there are any cards that are begging to be built around (e.g. Sphinx’s Tutelage), build an optimal deck using 2 of them if they are uncommon or 3 if they are common and play it against what you have identified as the best aggro and control decks you’ve built. This lets you know if this archetype may be viable and what pieces to look out for when opening your pool. It is far better to spend an hour building and testing this prior to the tournament only to find it is unplayable than opening your pool and wondering if it’s good enough. If you find it’s good against only one of either Aggro or Control, then at least you’ll know to look out for it as a potential sideboard option against such opponents in the tournament.

The last type of deck to try and build is a 4 or 5 colour deck. Only look for this if there is ample colour fixing in the format that will help support it. Such formats include Modern Masters 2015, Return to Ravnica block, and Shards of Alara block. Test this against the fastest 2 colour decks and see how it stands up. Sometimes the format will be fast enough that such a deck is a strong option for Midrange or Control matchups but will be a bad choice against an aggro deck. If you find this is the case, then it will be best to make sure to have a different deck to sideboard into if you find yourself up against such a deck.

By now you should have a good understanding of the format overall and the only thing left to prepare is getting some practice against the rares / mythics in the format. The best way to do this is to build up some actual sealed decks and play these against each other.

Splashing

While the test decks you built would not have had splash colours, a pool can sometimes have the option of splashing a powerful card, or sometimes demands it due to missing 1-2 quality cards in the main colours. The cards to look out for when splashing are either powerful removal spells, or creatures that have an immediate impact or are likely to win the game. In all cases, it is recommended that only cards with a single colour of mana that is not present in the remainder of the deck is splashed as it will be more likely to be cast. Ideally you will be able to have 3 sources that produce the splash colour with at least 2 of them coming from the land base. Cards like Evolving Wilds or the Guildgates are excellent for this as they can be used for the main colours if needed.

In Tournament Tips

Build what you believe to be the most optimal deck for the expected field. You should be aware of the expected field by now having done so much practice, so you will know how many colour combinations an aggro, midrange, or control deck will be effective against and be able to choose which to play should your pool allow you the option. Once you have built your deck, look through the list for reasons to keep playing lands. Once thing I have found in Sealed is that players have a tendency to hold multiple lands in their hand to bluff when they would be better suited by being in play. The first thing to look for is repeatable abilities and X spells. If you have these, playing every land you draw is likely correct. The next thing to look for is a combination of your highest cost creature and any card draw or tricks. The reason for this is you may want to hold onto a trick for several turns and then draw the creature. By playing your lands out you will be able to play both in the same turn, if you are holding multiple lands then you may not be able to do so. If you have a card draw spell you can be hindered by not playing all available lands in the turns prior to drawing extra cards. The last thing to remember is what discard options are good in the format. If other players are more likely to run cards that cause you to discard, it can of course be a great idea to hold excess lands.

During the games, one of the ways to help get ahead on tempo is to have an opponent spend their turn playing a low impact spell rather than a creature. Often you will see someone attack into your clearly superior board, making it obvious that they are at least representing a trick. In these situations it pays to know what the mana cost is of potential tricks in the format, and what the most likely creature costs are. This way you can sometimes force them into spending a trick and a turn when they could have otherwise played a more powerful creature. For example, forcing them to play a 2 cost spell on their turn 4 means they can’t develop their board and you will be able to get a board advantage on your turn. While they will often make these attacks in a position where they are not losing tempo if they have to play the trick, it can still be correct to have them spend what could be an impactful trick on a mid-size creature. Most players would rather their opponent spends a card like Titanic Growth to kill a 3 or 4 drop creature rather than wait and potentially snag a 5 or 6 drop instead. Their will of course be the occasional time that your opponent doesn’t have a trick at all, but these are few and far between.

A good habit to get into during the games is writing down every non-creature spell that your opponent plays. When building the optimal sealed pools, you would have noticed the approximate number of spells is usually around 6 to 8 depending on the colours. Blue/Black tends to be more spell heavy and can have up to 9 spells while Red/Green decks are often spell light and have only 5-6 spells. This will of course change slightly depending on the format, but successful sealed pools usually run about 15-17 creatures leaving the rest for spells. In addition to this, noting down each creature that has haste, a repeatable effect, or an enters the battlefield ability will also help. Knowing what cards your opponent has access to in games 2 and 3 makes it much easier to try to play around everything.

My last piece of advice is to be aware of what types of removal or creatures your deck is weak to and how to combat that through sideboarding. If you see multiple 4/2 or 4/3 creatures, it can pay to bring in cards like Thraben Purebloods or Catacomb Slug to invalidate their creatures.

Final Thoughts

While a lot of this advice revolves around the assumption that the format you are preparing for has little in the way of mana fixing, this method can still apply for formats such as Khans of Tarkhir in which good mana fixing is ample. In these formats, 2 colour decks can still be better than the 3 or 4 colour decks, but it would pay to build the optimal decks with a third colour splashed. I would also suggest having only 1 of each common land and no more than 1 uncommon land in the optimal builds.

I hope this helps some of you better prepare for your next sealed event, be it a Grand Prix or a PPTQ.

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