Getting Better at Sealed

Posted in Magic Academy on December 9, 2006

By Jeff Cunningham

This week we're going to continue where we left off last week. So, now that you know the basics, what's next? What areas should we focus on to improve at Sealed Deck?

Sealed Deck is not a format where you can storm the field. You can't read the metagame, playtest, and then build a reactionary deck with a juiced sideboard. You can't decide one archetype (or deck type) is the best and then put a high priority on acquiring it, “forcing” it, like in draft. Sealed Deck is a format for tinkering and tweaking, for making good general decisions: what colors to play, what borderline cards to include, whether or not to include a splash. Everyone in the room gets a pool of random cards and has to sculpt them into a deck. How well they perform these tasks is what will determine whether their deck is tight and solid or loose and clumsy.

Considering this emphasis of efficiency, we will really want to be able to make our decisions with the information involved laid out at clearly as possible. Organization is very important in Sealed Deck.

With this in mind, here are ten general steps I follow when I'm building a Sealed deck:

1. Sort the cards by color: This one's pretty innate. I've never seen anyone even try to build a Sealed deck without first separating it into colors.

Lay each color out in a column so that you can see at least the name of each card.

Sift2. Filter out the junk: We want to look at the important cards. Set aside all the cards that seem like junk, and even the cards that are merely mediocre. Don't worry, nothing's final, we'll come back to these later, but for now we want to focus on the good stuff.

This process doesn't need to be precise, of course; it's just to help you think.

3. Move the best cards up front: Identify your bombs, top-tier creatures, and removal, and move them to the front of their respective color piles. These cards represent major incentives for the inclusion of any given color.

4. First assessment: This process will probably begin while you go about 1-3, but now's a good time to pause, really look over your card pool, and gather some first impressions.

A big part of Sealed Deck is understanding the specific character of your card pool, the little idiosyncrasies. Is the pool unusually low on four-drops? Does the pool have plenty of support for a four- or five-color build? Is there no good removal at all? These factors will make themselves more explicitly known once you look your first potential build over, but you can start taking mental notes during this step. Try to get a feel.

The main thing you're doing right now, though, is making a general assessment.

Here are some of the things you will want to think about:

  • How strong is each color? Are any colors must-plays (plenty of cards, and good top-tier cards)? Are any colors unplayable as a main color (few cards)? In that case, would any cards in that color make a good splash if we need it (a few top-tier cards, able to be cast even in a third color)?
  • Are there any obvious synergies? Specific powerful card combinations are not something to base a deck on, but are certainly something to think about. If you know you're going to be playing blue and lots of flyers, does white happen to have a bunch of ground-stall cards that would fit in nicely?
  • Do any colors offer a particularly strong long game? What happens if the board stalls up? Here, you're looking for either evasion creatures or some sort of “gamebreaker” potential.
  • How many colors might this deck be? Are there two solid and deep colors that seem self-sufficient? Are two colors good, but need a little something extra? Or does a third color have a few cards that are just too good not to play and are easy enough to splash? Do we have a ton of mana-fixers, and the potential for multiple splashes?

With a general assessment in mind, you should be ready to try a first pass at a deck. Take your best guess at what will work (e.g., “blue/white with a few red cards”) and try it out.

5. First pass at a deck: Lay out the cards you think would go in the deck along a mana curve.

A mana curve is another method of organization. It's used because it makes a deck's basic strengths and weaknesses obvious at a glance. A good deck uses its mana efficiently, especially in the early game. If a deck has four cards that cost 2, only one card that costs 3, and then four cards that cost 4, we can quickly see where we would regularly come across trouble in a game and try to solve the problem.

Here's what you need to know about organizing a Limited deck along a mana curve:


Careful Consideration
Don't just use the symbols in the top right corner. You want to represent to yourself how your deck will function in actual terms and not just formal ones.

If it is not necessarily relevant that a card is played as early as possible (Volcanic Hammer, for example) don't put it on the curve. Put all creatures on the curve (except for weird specific cases, like Sparkmage Apprentice from Ravnica, that you may want to hold onto until an opportune time). Put especially relevant spells on the curve, one that you will usually want to play as soon as you can (Rampant Growth, Annex, Icy Manipulator). I put card-drawing spells on the curve only if they seem especially relevant (Careful Consideration from Time Spiral, for example).

Even if a creature only costs 2 mana, if you know for some reason that you will more regularly be playing it on another turn, then put it in that turn's column instead. A good example would be Imaginary Pet, which won't really roll out in a significant capacity until around turn five. A more advanced example from Time Spiral would be suspend creatures, such as Keldon Halberdier. Even though Keldon Halberdier is technically a five-drop, we will more regularly want to use its suspend ability on turn one, and so we put it in that spot, to mark that we have something to do on that that turn.


Keldon Halberdier
Anyway, once you have your deck laid out, look it over. What do you think?
  • Do you have enough creatures at all the major drops (2, 3, and 4)?
  • Are there too many expensive spells?
  • Is the overall card quality high enough?
  • Are there enough cards (22-24)? Are there too many cards? (If we have a splash, is it unnecessary?)
  • Is there enough removal? (If this deck is susceptible to a problem permanent, how will it deal with it?)
  • Do the mana requirements seem overly difficult? (Are there a lot of cards with more than one colored mana in their cost? Are those cards in one color or several colors?)

Basically, you're asking yourself does this deck look strong? And, if the answer is no, then why?

With those reasons in mind, you can head back to the drawing board with a better idea of what exactly you're looking for.

(This step might be best illustrated by an example. We'll get to one soon!)

6. Second assessment: Every pool has a few holes, like, say, not having enough 2-drops. The more you tinker, the more it'll become clear what exactly your pool's holes are, and you'll be able to do the best you can to work around them.

This is a good opportunity to flip through your rejects pile and see if a card that might have otherwise been mediocre is good for your specific pool.

Considering what might not have worked in the first pool, brainstorm other possible color configurations that might work better.

Battle_of_Wits7. Second pass at decks: Try everything out – or as much as you have time for. Remember to add and take out color-combination specific cards along the way (white's defenders go well with blue flyers, but probably wouldn't be worth playing with green fatties).

With each build, try to figure out its strengths and weaknesses, and ask yourself if it's an improvement. Eventually, though it is often difficult, you will settle on the color combination that you think makes the best use of your cards.

8. Tinkering: Once you've settled on a color combination, you'll want to invest a bit of time to fine tune your deck. This is when you'll again scour the cards you're not playing for any potential gems and make those last few cuts.

You should understand your deck by now – its strengths and weakness. Within this context, ask yourself if every card is pulling its weight.

9. Final pass: This is your last chance to settle on color combinations before getting your hands dirty with the mana.

A few final checks:

  • Is every color pulling its weight? Very often I think I have two clear-cut color choices, but once I tweak the deck, one of them has been nibbled to the point where it is not as useful as another color.
  • What are this deck's weaknesses, and have I done everything I can to shore them up? Does it have enough creatures? Enough removal? Enough evasion?
  • Is this the best I can do with my pool? (This is the sort of question you will want to ask when you feel that your pool was very strong but your build still leaves something to be desired.)

If something's still bugging you, and you have time, give it a shot.

Otherwise, you've done the best you can. Remember, you can always work on your deck in between rounds and at home to try and see what might have worked better. You can even sideboard into an entirely different deck if you like.

10. Mana Base: One of the last steps in the deck building process is figuring out the mana base. Sometimes this will happen sooner, to help decide whether a 3-color build is even viable, or to help motivate the last few cuts (ie, if you knew you were going to be a bit light on plains, it would be easier to cut that Leonin Skyhunter).

Last week, we approached the Sealed Deck mana base in more general terms. There's the simple method of looking the deck over, throwing in the mana you think should work, and then double-checking to make sure it's the best you can do (by asking yourself if you'll have enough mana to cast most of your spells for their appropriate turns). If, however, you'd like to try another technique, here are a couple – skip ahead if you don't want to get too complex just yet:

Not all double-color costs are created equal.

One way newer players consider their color requirements is to tally up all the colored mana symbols in the top right corner of the cards, and then use those as proportions to distribute mana. This method is flawed for two reasons.

Firstly, the amount of colored mana symbols in the top right corner of a card does not adequately represent how much land that spell requires to be played regularly. Foul Imp is much more demanding (motivates the inclusion of more Swamps) than Plague Wind. Secondly, direct proportions do not suit our purpose: in a game, any more than one or two of a given land is usually redundant. Even if I have ten black spells in my deck and only one red one, I'd probably prefer a Mountain after the first two Swamps. To be able to play our spells as regularly as possible we have to keep both of these considerations in mind. In short, a mana base is a balance between hitting the proper proportions and getting the minimum amount of each land to be able to satisfy the color requirements of every spell in your deck.

A more functional method of this exercise, one that will give a general sense of a deck's necessary proportions, can be done as follows. Instead of tallying up a color's actual mana symbols, tally up a modified value for each one. If it's important that you play a card early, increase the symbols. Instead of valuing a powerful early play like Hypnotic Specter at just , I would count it as . Conversely, for everything that costs more than 4, or is off the mana curve, take off a mana symbol, or half a mana symbol, from the cost (Mahamoti Djinn? , maybe and a half). Tallying this modified number will give us a much more accurate picture of the proportions we should consider.

Hypnotic Specter
Mahamoti Djinn

Eventually you will get comfortable enough with Limited decks that you will get a feel for what numbers of different lands would be minimum, a good amount, or ideal. Being able to answer the big questions on instinct leaves simple questions for tinkering – one or two extra of this land or that land above the minimum or below the ideal. Don't worry if you can't do this just yet, though.

Don't Get Too Stressed Yet!

This all might sound overwhelming, especially considering the timeframe and pressure involved in a Prerelease or PTQ Sealed build, but most of these considerations will become habit after only a couple attempts.

Once you get the hang of the process, the optimization of your Sealed Decks will depend on your sense of card evaluation and your sense of the overall format… and that's when it really starts to get interesting.

Let's Take a Shot

Next week I'll round out my Sealed series with a walkthrough of a Ninth Edition Sealed build to illustrate the above steps. Here's the pool I'll be working with:

Magic Academy Sealed Deck Pool

1 Suntail Hawk
1 Samite Healer
1 Veteran Cavalier
1 Sanctum Guardian
1 Skyhunter Prowler
1 Wind Drake
1 Anaba Shaman
1 Aven Cloudchaser
1 Oracle's Attendants
1 Angel of Mercy
1 Aven Flock
1 Blaze
1 Boomerang
1 Mana Leak
1 Remove Soul
1 Pacifism
1 Time Ebb
2 Sift
1 Bottle Gnomes
1 Dream Prowler
1 Wanderguard Sentry
1 Angelic Blessing
1 Balduvian Barbarians
1 Blackmail
1 Blood Moon
1 Crafty Pathmage
1 Dark Banishing
1 Demon's Horn
1 Dragon's Claw
1 Elvish Berserker
1 Fear
1 Foul Imp
1 Giant Cockroach
1 Giant Spider
1 Goblin Balloon Brigade
1 Goblin Sky Raider
1 Gravedigger
1 Hill Giant
1 Holy Day
1 Karplusan Forest
1 King Cheetah
1 Llanowar Behemoth
1 Llanowar Elves
1 Mind Rot
1 Naturalize
1 Natural Spring
1 Norwood Ranger
1 Order of the Sacred Bell
1 Overgrowth
1 Panic Attack
1 Peace of Mind
1 Plague Beetle
2 Raging Goblin
1 Rampant Growth
1 Ravenous Rats
1 Razortooth Rats
1 Reflexes
1 Reminisce
1 Sacred Nectar
1 Sandstone Warrior
1 Sea's Claim
1 Seething Song
1 Slay
1 Spineless Thug
1 Sudden Impact
1 Verduran Enchantress
1 Will-o'-the-Wisp
1 Zodiac Monkey

That's it for now, but I invite you to stay after class and join me in the forums.

Goodbye for this week,


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