I spent the seventh round haunting the Top Tables in hopes of getting a feel for what was winning. Looking over twenty matches, the picture was clearer than I expected.
The most populous decks fell into two groups. First, there were dedicated or near-dedicated Abzan decks. Perhaps not coincidentally, I saw a lot of Siege Rhinos hitting play. It's a card that offers a lot and asks very little. Two-time Grand Prix Champion Seth Manfield was flying the Abzan colors, and despite taking his first loss of the day he was happy to indulge my questions about Khans sealed and Abzan in particular.
It turns out that Manfield has put a lot of work into the Sealed format specifically, via Magic Online. He said that after Grand Prix Orlando he had been convinced that Five-Color decks were the way to go, but the more sealed he played, the more he found himself favoring consistent two- or three-color decks. I asked him if the number of Abzan decks at the top tables surprised him. Far from it.
"In this format it's just so hard to put together a really aggressive deck, so you want to look at the middle and late game. That's where Abzan is the best. Outlast gets much better in sealed, you have the time to really take over a game with it. Abzan also has a real density of solid commons. The Sultai decks, they're great in the late game, but the cards are a lot thinner. Temur and Mardu you can make work, but you won't see too many Sultai or Jeskai decks."
The next most populous were the Five-Color decks. It seemed like the players who had access to a lot of nonbasics were willing to push their mana in order to get access to all their powerful spells. I watched Pro Tour Dark Ascension Top 8'er Matt Costa put on a hurt clinic with Trail of Mystery and decided to pick his brain.
"Rakshasa Deathdealer," interjected a helpful Sam Black.
"Oh I had forgotten that one, sure. To me, the bonus when you flip morphs up isn't the important part. The fact that it ensures you hit all your land drops and fixes your mana is just huge. Also it makes sure that you're set up for the lategame - you wind up with a deck of all spells. I'm really happy playing a defensive game behind a Trail of Mystery."
I asked him about five-color in general, what he looked for in it.
"When I get a pool, the first thing I do is look at the lands. To really go Five-Color you want maybe six or seven. People throw around the number eight. Somewhere in there. Then, I build the most powerful deck I can ignoring all the colored mana symbols on cards. This gives me an idea of what the pool is capable of. Then I slowly start bringing it back to reality. The thing is with morphs, you get access to powerful cards in splash colors that don't clog up your hand in the early game. I think the best Five-Color decks are a base two colors and then light splashes of the others."
Was there any consideration to how your draws would be slowed down by playing a high number of tapped lands?
"In sealed not really. The thing is you're unlikely to have anything to do on turn one, nothing on turn-two."
Sam Black nodded in agreement, saying "I think it's much more important in this format to have a morph on three than a play on two."
"Exactly. So on turn three you play a morph, turn four a morph and a tapped land, and now the world is yours."