The Sealed Cup

Posted in Latest Developments on August 17, 2012

By Zac Hill

Zac is a former game designer/developer for Wizards of the Coast and was the lead developer for Dragon's Maze. His articles have appeared in The Huffington Post, The Believer, and on Currently he serves as the chief operating officer of The Future Project, a nonprofit education initiative, and holds a position as a research affiliate in the MIT Game Lab.

World Magic Cup Week? A whole week?!! And we haven't even finished a World Magic Cup yet!

Even though I'm writing this before my plane has even left for Indianapolis, I've got the WMC on the brain. It's mega-exciting any time something totally new happens in the Magic world, and I can't wait to see how our latest venture pans out. By the time this goes live, yours truly will be yammering away on a webcast along with Rich Hagon, Brian David-Marshall, Rashad Miller, Marshall Sutcliffe, and Sheldon Menery, watching some of the greatest players on the planet battle it out for more than $100,000 in prize money. You can check out the coverage here.

I'm particularly excited to be a part of this event because the global inclusiveness of Magic at the highest level was what really drew me into the game. There's something uncanny, something almost transcendent, about the experience of creating tight friendships across six continents—something that could only happen now, in a globalized world, with a game like Magic, that lifts people above the borders of nationality and language and enables them to participate in something universal. I grew up in Memphis, TN, grew up in the American South, and in all likelihood would have never left the country had something like Magic never helped lift me out of it to experience the broader world. Instead, I've traveled to more than thirty different countries. I've tasted wild boar steak in Prague; bak kut teh in Kuala Lumpur; kimchi in Daegu; chicken rice in Singapore; and (perhaps most deliciously) one very, very good Paulaner Salvator in Berlin. I've playtested on teams composed of players from Belgium, the Netherlands, Slovakia, France, Croatia, and Denmark (all of whom were much, much better than me!). So it's a privilege of unspeakable proportions to get to participate in perhaps the most visible celebration of Magic's planet-spanning outreach that has ever been.

Another intriguing aspect of this event, of course, is the cross-section of unique formats players will find themselves playing (which you can find here) I was talking to Marijn Lybaert earlier today, and he mentioned how challenging it was to meaningfully playtest—much less brew up decks for—such a wide diversity of environments. "Instead," he said, "it's more important to get used to the formats"—to be comfortable playing against Mana Leak one round and Bloodbraid Elf the next and Servant of Nefarox a few rounds after that. This event features more diversity than even the older-school three-format World Championships: Standard, Booster Draft, Team Sealed, Modern, and Block Constructed. With all that on the table, it's nearly impossible to account for everything.

I want to spend some extra time talking, though, about the Team Sealed portion. Part of this is because I won't ever actually shut up about Magic 2013, naturally. Another part is that it's coming up tomorrow. But I think when you get down to it, it's mostly because a lot of people tend to think of Sealed Deck as kind of a crap-shoot, kind of devoid of skill relative to most other Limited formats. There are people who disagree—Owen Turtenwald and Olivier Ruel come to mind—and I myself think it's pretty skill-testing due to how few people ever playtest it, but certainly there are pools where you open up Grave Titan, Primeval Titan, Fireball, and Overrun and start running around making "hee-haw" noises and pumping your fist in the air over and over again (or is that just me?).

Grave Titan | Art by Nils Hamm

In Team Sealed, though, you open up so many booster packs that a lot of decks look more like what you'd make in draft—only all of them are there at once. Draft very much tests the skill of figuring out how to create a deck from a pool of cards as you go, but there aren't a lot of formats that ask you to select several different optimal strategies from what's already there. In regular Sealed play, there are usually one or two decks that make themselves evident to you from the get-go and you get to the point pretty quickly where you're fine-tuning the last couple of slots. By contrast, Team Sealed typically presents you with something like five reasonable decks—but you only get to play three of them! Moreover, many of them take essential cards from one another, which affect in turn what those decks will need to draw away from the other decks, creating a kind of draft-like ecosystem during the very process of deck construction itself.

What are particularly cool to me are the cards and archetypes that can sometimes explode out of nowhere given the right kind of pool. They're not always going to be available, but they make their presence known in ways that would never be possible given the confines of regularly Sealed play. A few of those have really stood out to me during my playtests:

Mind Sculpt

Mind Sculpt is not the kind of card you want to start windmill-slamming into Limited decks:

"Mill you for seven." "Okay, still got twenty-five to go..."

Even casting two of them is only going to help you out in a very long game. At around three, though, it starts to get kind of interesting. It's not too hard to stretch a game out for thirteen turns. At four it's backbreaking, obviously—the game just ends.

What happens in Team Sealed sometimes is that you open five or so Mind Sculpts and a few Archaeomancers to go along with them, and suddenly you're off to the races. The deck I landed was four Sculpt, three Archaeomancer, three Divination, and three Vedalken Entrancer. The really enticing thing about this archetype is that because you're playing so many cards your teammates don't really ever want, you open up the opportunity to make their decks a lot more powerful in the process. It's therefore pretty important not to lump the first couple of Sculpts into the "unplayable" pile without really thinking about them. You can miss out on something that's very, very powerful.

Mind Sculpt

Negate and Rewind

You're never going to argue with an Essence Scatter, obviously, but the rest of the format's countermagic enjoys quite the boost in Team Sealed, too. Most of the other cards we've talked about so far are powerful because of largely the same kinds of stuff that come up in Booster Draft: when you look at more cards, you open up access to the kinds of synergies that render narrow, linear cards more powerful than Hill Giants and Giant Growths.

However, there's another element of Team Sealed that doesn't really share a whole lot in common with Booster Draft. The reality is, you're going to be looking at a lot of bombs. Twelve rares are going to come out of those packs. As are Switcheroos, Talrand's Invocations, Volcanic Geysers, Oblivion Rings, Public Executions, Garruk's Packleaders, and everything else. You're going to be staring down some boom-boom-dollars. And you're going to want to have a way to deal with those cards.

I tend to like Negate in Core Set Sealed generally-speaking, just because there are always powerful noncreature cards you want to have answers for. That said, it's even better here. Rewind, though, gets the biggest boost. Ordinarily, this is not a card you want to slam into your deck. Four mana is a ton for a reactive spell, and this isn't Constructed—you don't always have things to do after you untap. The thing is, though, you know some bad stuff is coming. If your opponents really didn't open up any bombs after twelve packs—well, you're probably doing okay for yourself. If they did, though, sometimes it's worth paying a little bit too much on the front end for some insurance that, when it comes down to it, you've got an answer that works.


Primal Huntbeast

I mention this little guy only because I know the following thing is going to occur. One player puts together an utterly bananas white-blue tempo deck with fifty-two thousand flying creatures and a bunch of sick tempo spells. The second player has the green deck to end all green decks, with oversized monsters all the way up the curve and some Prey Upons to get threats out of the way. That leaves you, the black-red player, sleeving up what seems like the most monstrous deck that has ever been—like twelve kill spells, Murders and Searing Spears and Turn to Slags and Essence Drains and Public Executions and even like a Liliana of the Dark Realms for good measure. You're beaming ear-to-ear at this massive, massive face-smashing.

Then the Huntbeast comes down on turn four, and you slump in your chair.

Don't be that person. Have a plan. Maybe it's paying four every turn on a Duty-Bound Dead, maybe you're the luckiest and you have a Mutilate or Magmaquake. Whatever. I am just telling you right now: I warned you!

Primal Huntbeast

Roaring Primadox

Oh, the King of the Jungle. That was this card's playtest name, and we kept on making him worse and worse. 5/5? Maaaaaaan. Obviously the card was intended to be a combo-enabler of sorts, and obviously the "drawback" was always a wink-wink-nudge-nudge upside (and we even put in Bond Beetle, if it wasn't obvious enough what was going on with Elvish Visionary and Yeva's Forcemage).

In Team Sealed, though, this card can do some truly ridiculous things. It's not too unlikely to open up multiples, and from there the world is your oyster. Ravenous Rats? Bloodhunter Bat? Archaeomancer? Attended Knight? Battleflight Eagle? Insert-Word-Here of Bolas? Thragtusk?? It's definitely possible to bust pools where you practically build Naya Pod decks with 4/4 bodies attached, iterating advantage after advantage until your opponent is buried beneath the weight of massive value.

Just watch out: Team Sealed pools also feature a pretty large number of removal spells, so it's important to not get too attached. Your board of Rats and Visionaries might get lonely out there if nobody's around to pick them up and get 'em back on the bus.

Roaring Primadox
Bond Beetle

Trumpet Blast

How many Krenko's Commands, Attended Knights, and Captain's Calls does it take before you start to just be real about it and call yourself a combo deck?

There are some other goodies, too. Sure. Goblin Arsonist fits nicely into this strategy, as does the high-risk high-reward Reckless Brute. Kindled Fury can actually net a fair amount of value for you, as can the somewhat underwhelming Glorious Charge. But it's Trumpet Blast—I hear Magic Online's "Brrn-em Brrn-EEEEEM" blaring even as we speak—that turns most frequently into a straight up "you're dead." Even if you don't quite deal the full 20, it's not too hard with the Searing Spear/Chandra's Fury/Volcanic Geyser package to get the rest of the way there.

Again, as with Mind Sculpt, your teammates aren't usually chomping at the bit for 1/1 tokens or mediocre power-pumping combat tricks, so you usually don't steal too much from them by going into this deck either.

Trumpet Blast
Captain's Call

Anyway: this is all a bunch of speculation, at the end of the day. I might be wildly off-base. I can't wait to see what the players actually do with the format once they get their hands on it, and I'm hugely honored to be a part of the action. Go ahead—tune in and join us for three straight days of play. Quite simply, it really is history in the making.

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