Prereleases are definitely my favourite tournaments to play in. The big payoff is getting to see new cards, but they are also a place where I get to see old friends, and have a lot of fun in events which, while they do have some nice prizes on offer, are typically not as competitive as others.
If you're reading this article, then I'm guessing you are at least considering going to a Prerelease near you this weekend. I would strongly urge you to act on that impulse. If you are looking at playing in more tournaments, then the Prerelease is a good place to start. If you are looking to have a good time, it will be one. If you just want new cards, it is the first place they will be available.
The one slightly tricky bit about Prereleases is that building decks with and playing with new cards can be tough. How are you supposed to know how strong or fun a card is when you first see it? Building a whole deck where the cards are unfamiliar is a challenge that only really comes up at a Prerelease. Challenge accepted. Let's build a roadmap to victory.
Worldwake Up and Smell the Coffee
When you sit down to build a Sealed Deck at the Worldwake Prerelease, at least some of the cards should be familiar to you. You will have six booster packs in total to work with, but three of them will be from Zendikar. As Worldwake was designed to be a good complement to its big brother set, it makes sense that you should play with both sets together. When thinking about building a deck with Worldwake in the mix, my starting point will be to look at what I wanted from a good Zendikar Sealed Deck, and build on that.
Here's the recap on what I learned about Zendikar Sealed Deck.
Lands really matter. Between landfall and "lands that do extra things," there was always a reason that I wanted to draw more land. Because of this, unlike in most Limited formats, running 18 land (one more than I normally would) has proven just fine.
Creatures are not all that big, but they are very aggressive. It somehow worked out that creatures on Zendikar averaged out at not being all that large. A 2/2 could be considered the norm, and abilities like landfall strongly promoted getting stuck in (attacking, that is). Often these 2/2 creatures were quite cheap to cast, so you could expect to see plenty of them. What this meant was that spells that could kill creatures with a toughness of 2 would be able to kill most creatures, and that well-costed creatures with a toughness greater than 2 (Nissa's Chosen, I'm looking at you) were great blockers.
Most games came down to a race. Really expensive spells were a riskier proposition in Zendikar Sealed Deck, as those aggressive creatures could easily knock life totals low enough that more expensive spells would be too slow. Incidental life gain was quite good because of this racing. Sunspring Expedition wasn't all that exciting, as it did nothing but gain life for you, but Grazing Gladehart, Ondu Cleric, and Vampire's Bite were all just fine, as they didn't slow down your offence but definitely took the edge off that of your opponent.
Now that we have the same starting point, let's think a little bit about how we want to build a Sealed Deck. Before we start worrying about what each card can do, we should sort out our priorities. What is it that wins a game of Magic? More often than not, it won't be decking or poison counters. Let's keep things simple. If you are building a deck, you will likely be looking to reduce your opponent from 20 to zero. In Sealed Deck, barring truly epic amounts of burn spells, that will probably mean a whole tonne of creatures. Creatures are a really efficient way of getting the job done, as once you've paid mana for them, they can just keep on plugging in until your opponent is packing up his or her cards.
OK, how do you normally lose a game of Magic? Sometimes your opponent seems to have better cards, or great answers to your cards. Sometimes it is something a little more mundane involving just not having the right lands at the right time to cast your spells. Neither of them are very nice, but if we build our deck carefully, we have a fair shot at avoiding either.
So now we have the start of a plan. We want to play creatures, have good mana and good draws. We also want to try to seem like we have better cards, and great answers to our opponents' cards. Sounds easy when you say it fast right? The good bit is, thus far the fact that we don't know what any of the cards in Worldwake do doesn't matter.
For the purposes of building a sealed deck, I always want to play 40 cards. This way whatever really good cards I open, I can maximise my chances of drawing them. This goes right back to seeming like we have better cards than our opponent.
The other way that we can make our opponents think that we are having really good draws is to have a neat mana curve in our deck. This can get a little tricky. More often than not, cards with more expensive casting costs are more powerful. So we should play more powerful cards right? Well, that would be true if we thought that we could get away with not doing a whole lot in the early game. We don't think that. Getting stuck being beaten up in the early game while hoping to draw enough land to play big spells is not what I want to be doing on Prerelease day. What I consider to be a good draw is playing land each turn for at least the first four or five turns, while playing progressively better spells. To do this, I probably want to have a deck that is made up something like this:
16 creatures4 two-cost creatures6 awesome spells
4 three-cost creatures
4 four-cost creatures
3 five-cost creatures
1 six-cost or greater creatures
I don't tend to worry about the converted mana cost of awesome spells quite so much. If they are awesome, I'm probably going to be quite flexible on when I can cast them. With a mix of costs like the one above, skewed in the direction of cheaper creatures, I can make the most of the fact that I have more draw steps to find those more expensive creatures
You will notice that in the list of creatures I want to play at different costs, I haven't listed any creatures that cost one mana. This is basically down to the fact that one-mana creatures often get outclassed very quickly in Sealed Deck. It does not mean that I definitely won't be playing any; it is more that I have a very high standard that I require from a one-cost creature for it to make it into my deck. This standard normally begins and ends with "must be useful if I draw it on turn four." Scute Mob in Zendikar was a fine draw in the late game, and Kraken Hatchling was just as good at blocking if drawn on turn four or later.
The biggest trap in Zendikar was, to my mind, Scythe Tiger. On turn one, it would be the biggest creature around, but at a very steep cost. On turn two, it would probably trade with an opponent's two-cost creature, and leave you down a land. If you look back at my list of things I learned about the Zendikar format, you'll see that I really liked having lands.
In terms of colour balance for Sealed Deck, I normally try to be a consistent two-colour deck. I might play one or two cards from a third colour, if they are particularly powerful, but having just two colours means fewer losses to awkward mana draws, and being able to focus on just a couple of colours makes much of the decision making easier when building a deck.
A Whole New Worldwake
So how do we go about picking out which colours are good when we are building our Sealed Deck? The first thing I do when I crack my packs on Prerelease day is to separate out all the cards in my boosters by colour. Initially I won't be looking for individual power cards so much as a good number of solid cards in any given colour. If I have a super-powerful card without much support, then it is likely staying benched.
The first thing that will single out a colour as being a good choice tends to be its spells. While you may have noticed that I am not looking for very many spells in my Sealed Deck, spells tend to be the biggest point of difference in decks. Simply put, all creatures have a power and a toughness. Spells can vary a lot more. I want mine to be supporting my creatures and getting me through to win the game, ideally in bombastic fashion. I would rank my priorities in spells as follows:
- Killing multiple creatures
- Killing creatures
- Combat tricks
- Drawing cards
- Fixing mana
- Destroying non creature permanents
If there is a way that I can kill multiple opposing creatures with one spell, I want to be doing it. Marsh Casualties and Day of Judgment were the all-stars at this in Zendikar, but cards like Predatory Urge also stood out, allowing for more gradual killing off of an opposing team. There is a very good chance that the Prerelease card, Comet Storm, will be in my pile of 40 cards to play if I am lucky enough to open one. (You can't play the Prerelease version in your deck!) It can kill multiple creatures, as well as killing players from out of nowhere.
Having spells that let you kill multiple creatures is far from a given, but if the option is there, I would suggest taking it. After that, any way of getting up on the creature count is solid. Removal + creatures will typically be good enough to win most games, without being too cute with clever effects. With Zendikar we saw a lot of black-red decks doing well in Sealed Deck. This wasn't because of amazing black-red rares, but was more just down to that combination being where a lot of the removal came from, and it was backed up with solid aggressive creatures.
"Combat tricks" is a rather broad term. The first thing I think of when it comes to combat tricks is Giant Growth effects—spells that make creatures bigger. The best of these generally are efficiently costed Equipment. This functions like a spell, only it just keeps on plugging every single turn. If your creature dies, the Equipment carries on. Giant Growth type effects do a lot of the things that I am looking to do in Sealed Deck. Much of the time I will use them like removal spells, to turn an unfavourable combat into a favourable one after blockers are declared. On occasion they might be used to finish a hapless opponent off too. My favourite thing about instants that boost a creature's power and toughness, though, is that they put the fear into opponents. Once an opponent has seen that you can make your creatures bigger, he or she has much trickier decisions to make, when you start attacking with your 2/2 into an opposing 3/3.
As is traditional for a Prerelease Primer, I have a combat trick from the new set to show you. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present Groundswell.
Groundswell is very similar in many ways to Giant Growth. Sometimes it will be a little smaller, but those times are made up for by the times that it is a shade bigger. I should point out at this moment that upon resolution of the spell, it checks if a land has entered the battlefield under your control, and sets itself to be either +2/+2 or +4/+4. If you play a land after resolving the spell, it won't change anything. Likewise, landfall spells are not like landfall permanents—there is no triggering going on with this spell, it will simply look at what has happened thus far in the turn and either give +2/+2 or +4/+4. Having had more than one land enter the battlefield doesn't make it scale up any further.
Knowing what we know about Zendikar Limited, it seems likely that +4/+4 will be enough to let your creature win in a fight with just about everything, and will give you a lot of potential to finish off opponents too, given an opportunity. These sorts of combat tricks aren't necessarily going to be my reason for playing a colour, but they will likely see play in my deck if I choose to play that colour.
My ranking of spells is broadly defined by "what will win the game," so as we get further down the list, spells will need to be better and better to make the cut. Discard is unlikely to see play in my deck, as often decks are aggressive enough to empty their own hands pretty quickly. I will stick to worrying about killing opponents.
Picking creatures requires a little "on the fly" evaluation. The efficiency of creatures can most easily be measured by comparing their mana cost with their power. More often than not, a creature will be worth a look if its power is not much less than its mana cost. A 2/2 that costs three is fine, if unexciting, and it doesn't take too much of an ability to make it a happy inclusion. A 2/2 for four or five mana needs to have something really special to help it out.
Once we get past power and toughness, we get on to the fun bit: abilities. There are some keyword creature abilities that I'm always happy to have. Flying, trample, intimidate, and first strike all serve to make creatures much more effective in combat. One of the big reasons to play blue will often be a large amount of flying creatures, which can win even when the board gets clogged up with blockers. Other abilities I tend to look at as if they were spells. A creature with a reasonable power and toughness for its cost doesn't need much in the way of abilities to make the cut, but there are some that are really worth looking out for. Again, any ability that allows you to kill creatures is golden. Having some utility creatures that can fill the role of spells as well is great. Kor Sanctifiers was a winner for me in Zendikar due to that special combination of good power/toughness for the cost, with a handy ability as the cherry on top.
Some of the new abilities will be a little trickier to evaluate. Multikicker, from what we've seen, looks to be a winner. Remember what I was saying about one-cost creatures getting outclassed quickly the longer the game runs? Skitter of Lizards just gets better the later it is drawn, and the same can be said of many of the multikicker spells.
Allies get gradually better the more of them you have. A single Kazuul Warlord is always good, as it can just beat on its own. A singleton Ondu Cleric, though, is not ideal. If you have five or more solid Allies, then it is worth seriously looking at which others you can sneak in, because a strong Ally draw is just about one of the most powerful starts on Zendikar.
With my cards in piles by colour, having looked through for real game-winners, I will cut down to two colours, perhaps pulling out one or two cards from a third that might warrant inclusion. From there, I'll look back to my ideal mana curve, and make cuts to try to get down to 18 lands and 22 nonland cards, planning on having a consistent aggressive deck.
If Worldwake is anything like Zendikar, then we can expect a fast and furious Sealed Deck format, which is a great deal of fun. At the Prerelease, even after you've built your deck, you'll get the the chance to tweak it between rounds (still using only the cards from the six boosters you've opened). This means that the event is a great time to get other people's opinions on cards, and to remove anything that seems to be underperforming. By the end of the day, you can hope to be battling with a build that does the best your pool will allow. Depending on the size of your Prerelease, you may be able to get your cards signed by artists, or battle against a champion in the Champion Challenge to win more boosters. I'll be in London as a champion, and if you are there, I would welcome you to come over and have a game.
Have fun at your local Prerelease—I know I will!