Close Calls

Posted in Limited Information on November 18, 2008

By Steve Sadin

In last week's bonus exercise you were sitting down in Game 1 of the Top 8 of a PTQ with the following deck:

PTQ Top 8 Deck

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You won the die roll, chose to play first and drew your opening hand of:

Savage Lands
Dregscape Zombie
Kathari Screecher

Do you keep or mulligan?

In order to figure this out, let's break down the hand, and the implications of each of the cards in it, one step at a time.

Dregscape Zombie

On the play this is a particularly tough choice. You have two spells that you can definitely play early (the Dregscape Zombie and the Infest), and a Kathari Screecher that you will be able to play as soon as you draw a blue source. Because we have the Infest, we don't have to worry about getting blown out early on. That means that we're going to have plenty of chances to draw a blue source and turn on our Kathari Screecher (as well as the rest of the blue cards in our deck). And while Dregscape Zombie might not be the most impressive body, just having a creature can have a pretty big effect on the board.

We have enough lands for the deck to function well into the midgame, and the right spells to get us into the midgame without a hitch, but we don't have the deck's splash color. Is that a problem?

Yes and no.

As a general rule, missing the deck's splash color usually isn't a good reason in and of itself to mulligan a hand. The odds that you are going to get a better mana draw than, say, the one featured in this hand on six cards is pretty low for most decks. A good reason for mulliganing a hand that's missing its splash color is something like: all, or all but one of the spells in your hand are of your splash color; or you don't have any spells that you can play before turn four without your splash color; or the hand just plain isn't good.

Another factor to consider: this deck has two Infests and three Kederekt Creepers, as well as a host of other blue, blue-black and black-red cards, and that means that it's pretty likely that your six-card hand is going to have more mana problems than this one has.

So now we get to the other obvious weakness of this hand: its utter and total lack of big plays. This means that we run the risk of getting thrashed to death by something as simple as a Rhox Charger or a Mosstodon. Or, perish the thought, a Rhox Charger AND a Mosstodon ....

Rhox Charger

This charge is impossible to refute. The one thing that I can say positively about this aspect of the hand is that you will have time to draw cards that are relevant in the mid to late game, whereas you generally have almost no time to draw cards that are relevant in the early game.

After a bit of deliberation, I would choose to keep this hand. Yes, you can and will mulligan into a slightly better hand a lot of the time, but it's very difficult for this deck to draw into a hand of significantly better quality. The risk/reward exchange just doesn't work out in your favor when you have a nearly equal chance of devastation, striking similarity, or mild improvement.

On the draw I would keep this hand without giving it much thought. Because this hand has Infest and very little pressure, it is significantly better on the draw than it is on the play, where I still think it's worth keeping.

I'll have more on mulligan decisions soon both because I think it's a fascinating topic and because they decide way more games than you probably realize.

When Do You Start a Naturalize?


The incredible density of artifacts in Mirrodin block meant that artifact destruction was awesome. In fact, back in Mirrodin block Limited, Shatter was one of the best removal cards in the set—it was even better than Terror!

If Ancient Grudge had been around then, it would have been one of the bombiest cards in the format. But in Time Spiral Limited, the only time it saw play was in the rarest of occasions where it would get boarded in if an opponent had, say, an Akroma's Memorial and a Prismatic Lens.

Right now in Shards Limited, we're somewhere in between those two extremes. There are a good number of playable artifacts and enchantments in the set, but they aren't plentiful enough that you can bank on almost everyone playing several.

The existence of the Obelisks insures that if you play a Naturalize, you're probably going to have at least one target in your opponent's deck. But is that enough to make it worth main-decking?

In Sealed, if I open up a Naturalize and I'm playing green, it's pretty much always going to wind up in my main deck. There are so many Oblivion Rings and Cloudheath Drakes (and of course the occasional Tower Gargoyle) that you will often have an excellent target. Add to that the fact that peoples' mana bases in Sealed are often fragile enough that killing an early Obelisk can cripple them. So, even if Naturalize isn't "good" against your opponent's deck, there will be plenty of times when it is actually great against them.

To give you a sense of just how good Naturalize is in Sealed, I was recently talking to a friend of mine about Sealed decks, and he was telling me about the Sealed pool he got in a PTQ recently (which he went on to win). He was playing Naya and started a Gifts of Gargantuan over Dispeller's Capsule. At the end of every Game 1, he swapped out his Gifts of Gargantuan for his Dispeller's Capsule. I think this is a bit better than Dispeller's Capsule is on average in sealed, but his example is very valid and you should probably start Dispeller's Capsule in any deck that has a reasonable amount of white and no Naturalize.

Gift of the Gargantuan
Dispeller's Capsule

If you're drafting, it becomes a lot more difficult to justify main-decking a Naturalize. Now I'm not going to give a strict prescription on why you shouldn't start it in a draft, but the burden of proof is certainly on the Naturalize. If I pass a lot of good artifacts and enchantments, or I don't have any other good options, I'll usually play Naturalize. But in any sort of reasonable artifact/enchantment–light situation, I'll usually leave my Naturalize(s) in the sideboard for when I get paired up against a deck that really doesn't want to see one played.

Drafting for your Sideboard

Now I know I just said that I usually will not main-deck Naturalize, but I'm still looking to take it somewhere in the middle of each pack. Just because I don't want to main-deck Naturalize doesn't mean that I don't want to have any. In fact, I'll try to have two or even three Naturalizes in my board if I get the chance, because when they're good, they tend to be really good.

A good question to ask yourself when you're thinking about whether or not to take a card for your sideboard is, "Would the card for my main deck be significantly better than the last card I'm going to cut?" If there answer is no—that card wouldn't be a significant improvement—then you probably want to go with the potentially awesome sideboard card.

Just like when we were thinking about whether or not to mulligan our hand earlier in the article, if you have a close sideboard vs, main-deck pick question, it ultimately comes down to a risk/reward calculation.

If you're giving up nothing to get something, then go with something. If you'd be giving up a little to get the chance at a lot, then you should probably take the chance at a lot. If you'd be giving up a reasonable amount to get a chance at a lot, then you have a tough problem on your hands.

You might decide that you get more out of having a slightly better card every game then you would out of having a top notch card some games or you might decide that you're better off the other way around. But as long as you're thinking about this question clearly then you will probably come to the right conclusion.

When Do You Drop Executioner's Capsule?

Executioner's Capsule

So you have an Executioner's Capsule and an open black mana. What do you do?

Well, it depends. If you only have one black source in play, then you will usually want to play it. If you know or suspect that your opponent has Giant Growth effects and you don't have any instant-speed combat tricks that would invalidate the Giant Growth, then you should probably play it. If you're worried about discard, then you should probably cast it.

If you have a million mana, including several black sources, and you are not afraid of a Giant Growth effect, then you will probably want to hold it until you need to use it. If you're afraid of a Naturalize killing it, then you should probably hold it till you need it, or at least hold it until you can safely leave two mana up to pop it if you need to.

As a general rule of thumb, I've taken to just playing the Executioner's Capsule. The times when your opponent is able to significantly alter their play to the point where they can bait you into using your Executioner's Capsule before you really need it are far outweighed by the times that you just feel stupid because you have to waste a mana on a critical turn.

Sanctum Gargoyle

Sanctum Gargoyle is a card that I see people constantly undervaluing.

Once you get deep into a draft then you'll have a better sense of just how good Sanctum Gargoyle will be for you. If you've got some Executioner's Capsules or Courier's Capsules, then you're probably going to be willing to go to some pretty extreme lengths to pick up whatever Gargoyles you see.

Sanctum Gargoyle

Even without a top-notch target or a chance at a strong target, Sanctum Gargoyle is still a reasonably high pick for me. Sure, it's easy to get spoiled, but a 2/3 flier for four is still a good deal.

But these aren't the situations where people tend to undervalue Sanctum Gargoyle. In my experience, the situations where people tend to undervalue Sanctum Gargoyle the most are in the first pack

If it's early in the first pack and I don't have any particularly good targets, I will still feel comfortable taking Sanctum Gargoyle extremely early, just on the chance that I will get something, or some things, good to bring back.

I think that people treat a pack 1 Sanctum Gargoyle the same way they would treat it in pack three, and that just isn't right. Of course you don't have any good artifacts when you're making your third pick—you've only taken two cards so far!

The risk/reward on a pack 1 Sanctum Gargoyle tends to work out pretty well in its favor. It's always going to be good, and it's often going to be great. To top that off, if you already have a Sanctum Gargoyle or two, you can draft complimentary cards higher than you would normally.

Etherium Astrolabe

Etherium Astrolabe

Etherium Astrolabe is another card that I think people tend to undervalue. While undervaluing Sanctum Gargoyle means that it goes a bit later in drafts than it probably should, undervaluing Etherium Astrolabe means that it's seeing almost no play.

Etherium Astrolabe is very playable, and it can even be pretty good in the right deck. While it can be slow and cumbersome to get going, the ability to cash in your Obelisks for new cards is very valuable. If you're playing other artifacts that can, say, get into combat situations, even better.

You don't always have to main-deck it, but if you find yourself with a slow, Obelisk-heavy deck, then I'd definitely recommend that you at least consider the artifact recycler.

You should always keep your eyes peeled for cards like Etherium Astrolabe, as they can provide you with a late game plan where none might have otherwise existed.

Bonus Exercise

Before I get into this week's bonus exercise, I'd like to say that I was really impressed by the quality of the discussion in last week's forums. There was a really good dialogue about the hand, with good arguments from both sides and there was a really good conversation about whether Infest is relatively better or worse than it was in Onslaught block.

In case you're wondering, I think that Infest is pretty good now, but it was noticeably better in Onslaught block because there were always so many morphs to kill.

Anyway, keep up the great work!

As for this week's exercise, you've just received your Sealed Pool at Grand Prix–Atlanta. You're fortunate enough to have three byes, so you know that your going to be playing against pretty tough opponents with pretty tough decks. You need a record of 4-2 or 4-1-1 in played matches to advance to Day 2 (but obviously you're hoping for more).

Grand Prix–Atlanta Sealed Pool

How do you build this deck?

Shards of Alara Sealed Pool

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