Maximizing your pool
Theros is coming soon, and with it will be a wave of pre-releases, releases, PTQs, and Grand Prixs with its new cards. The common challenge presented at these events will be building sealed pools for limited play. Today I’m going to talk about concepts I think are critical for success at such events: understanding your strategic position, card evaluation, and sideboarding on a match by match basis.
Magic theorists have done a good job of outlining the different basic strategies of decks: aggressive, midrange, control, and combo. Format to format they change, but aggressive decks generally follow a 1-drop, 2-drop, 3-drop, followed by evasion, disruption, or reach pattern to end a game very quickly. Midrange generally plays more expensive cards that generate value. Control tends to play a longer game than midrange, using cards that trade evenly for diverse threats (like Counterspell or Vindicate), usually combined with more card draw and powerful “finisher” effects. Combo tries to assemble (usually 2) cards that generate an unfair effect that will end the game in their favor.
One critical thing to understand about sealed deck is that almost everyone is playing midrange. Some people try to build aggressive decks with their pools, but there are rarely enough truly aggressive cards and tricks for this to work. If I had to guess, less than 5% of pools even have a chance of pulling that plan off, and most of them would be better off doing something else. Likewise, few sealed pools have the right cards to make degenerate combinations. (Though, one of my favorite sealed pools of all time had multiple untap creatures like Pili-Pala and two copies of Power of Fire; man was that deck fun to play and totally unfair.)
The secret to winning midrange matchups is to be a little bigger than your opponent. This is to say that your deck isn’t so slow that your opponent can run you over in the early game, but has enough high value cards that when the game goes on long your card quality is just way better than your opponent’s. The best example I can think of this, is that I see a lot of people putting Grizzly Bears in their sealed decks. The problem with that is that they become nearly useless when your opponent plays Hurloon Minotaur or Hill Giant. A 2/2 is great when it is part of a proactive tempo-based plan with a lot of other aggressive cards, but as a topdeck in the middle of a standstill it’s just not what you’re looking for. If I am going to play a 2/2, I want a way for it to get better when the board fills up. Either I want equipment in my deck to upgrade it, or for it to have a useful ability later. I think the last time I was excited about a non-evasive 2-drop for a sealed deck it was Torch Fiend
When choosing cards for your deck, imagine the ground is going to be stalled with lots of 2/2s, 2/3s, and 3/3s staring at each other unable to attack. What is going to be good in that situation? That exact situation happens more often than not in every match of sealed deck, so it’s what you should always be planning for. (In game 1, anyhow…) Evasion of all kinds is at a premium, as is evasion stopping abilities like Reach or tapping (Rathi Trapper).
Even I don’t always think big enough. I remember building my sealed pool for Grand Prix Paris, and consulting with Ben Stark about whether I’d built my pool correctly. He went through the cards in my sideboard and pulled out Hexplate Golem and asked why I wasn’t playing it? I explained that I already had a couple 6-drops, and I thought he was too expensive. Ben shook his head, and said that it dominated almost every creature in the format, and could sometimes attack when nothing else could because it had so much toughness. It was definitely higher impact than whatever middle sized creature I’d had in that space, and worth the cost.
The other fact about midrange matches going long means splashing is better in sealed than in limited. Often the best “team player” card you can open in your sealed pool is something like Terramorphic Expanse. A broad color fixer like this just makes your pool incredibly better. Being able to splash removal spells and bombs just feels so much better than trying to find 23 cards that will always matter in 2 colors.
I think there’s a disconnect between sealed and draft. Sealed is just way, way, way slower than draft. It’s like the EDH of limited, you get to do way more of what you want because the pressure is off. That doesn’t mean you can ignore curve entirely: you definitely want to have a considerable number of 3 and 4 drops that blank your opponent’s 2 and 3 drops, but it’s definitely okay for your spells to cost a mana more and to come out a turn behind because you can afford the time and life.
Because of the stallish nature of sealed, there are some cards that are absolute bombs: large evasive creatures like Aegis Angel, mass tapping effects like Sleep, mass pump like Overrun, or X spells like Red Sun’s Zenith. This is why a “do nothing” card like Sands of Delirium dominated its limited format: when everything is mostly stalled up, a threat that is hard to remove can win the game.
Which leads to the question: What do I do if an opponent has these cards and I don’t? This is an important question, as the deeper into a tournament you go, the more likely the winners are going to have these kinds of cards. There are two answers to this. The first is to assess whether you have control cards that can answer their gamebreaking cards. If possible, I always want a couple counterspells in my sealed pool since they can answer bomb creatures as well as removal, but also bomb spells that might not have other answers. There are also sometimes good counters that don’t actually say “counter target spell”. For example, going back to Scars block, Concussive Bolt was a card a lot of aggressive sealed pools would employ to win. I found myself boarding in Blunt the Assault against such decks: it was both a good specific answer to a problematic card, and also not a bad effect vs. their strategy.
The other option is to go aggressive. This is the best option if their deck is just better than yours. As an extreme example, I once played an opponent who cast two Sphinx’s Revelation in game 1 of a sealed match. I changed colors, boarded out a bunch of expensive cards, and brought in all my cheap creatures, flying creatures, and tricks. Sure enough, game 2 I ran him down before he could draw either one, and the third game he had to cast it for just 2 because he was digging to find cards to stabilize with. You can’t always beat a much better deck, but making them more subject to variance and less likely to see all their better cards can be the best chance you have.
Which I think means we’ve moved into discussing sideboarding. One thing great players do while building their deck and between rounds is to keep thinking about different ways to configure their decks against different kinds of opponents. Midnight Haunting isn’t the most amazing card until you are playing against a black and red deck with nearly mono-removal spells. Then suddenly getting two tokens was much better than a single creature. Likewise, that 2/2 first striker might have been great against black, red, and white opponents, but what about a blue-green opponent who only has flying creatures and huge ground monsters? Sometimes you just need to board in all of your own huge green creatures, or now you finally have a use for that awkward red 5/1. If you’ve thought ahead enough about what your sealed pool can do, and what kinds of decks you can make, and pre-sleeve it all, you can make dramatic changes to your deck. Basically, in games 2 and 3 you have the opportunity to custom build a deck against your opponent’s cards. Realistically most people don’t do this because it seems impractical, but it’s way easier than you might think.
My general principles for sideboarding are that if my opponent is slow, I should make my deck even slower and bigger (or way, way faster). If my opponent’s deck is fast, I should speed my deck up but still be bigger than him. (Maybe boarding in Grizzly Bears over my Hexplate Golem, knowing that my card quality is already going to be better.)
In Theros, I am very excited about the Bestow and Monstrosity mechanics for sealed. I feel like the best cards have a good effect for 4 or 5cc, but also have an amazing effect for 6-8cc. Since sealed games go long, but one must be careful not to be completely run over early, I feel like these cards are good at being relevant whatever phase of the game the match is in. (I should say that Knight of the Skyward Eye was one of my favorite sealed deck cards for similar reasons.)
In conclusion: Sealed is not Draft, play slower cards that are going to matter during a stall. Pre-plan sideboard configurations that are good against various kinds of decks. Customize your deck to beat the kinds of cards your opponent is playing.
If you have any questions, or would like more examples of a concept let me know and I’ll try to elaborate. Have fun with the new Theros set, and I’ll catch you here next time!