Your First Sealed Deck

Posted in Magic Academy on December 2, 2006

By Jeff Cunningham

Hello, and welcome back to Magic Academy! My name is Jeff Cunningham, and I am a longtime Pro Tour competitor. First and foremost, though, I am a consummate Magic player. I have played the game for over 10 years. Back when I started, no one really had a strong strategic grasp of the game, and indeed, my own understanding has been developed the long and hard way. I graduated from towering multi-color decks of all my cards, spending entire afternoons shuffling, to decks composed of entirely Scryb Sprites and Craw Wurms, to theme decks (Thallids!) and then, and only ever so gradually, to more complex designs. I took my lumps first against friends, then in huge multi-player games at a local store, then in small constructed tournaments, then in pre-releases, then in PTQs, junior championships, nationals, and only finally, finally!, the Pro Tour.

Pro Tour-Venice, 2003Along the way, I have introduced a countless number of players to the game—including both of my brothers, now strong tournament players in their own right—and have helped many players, new and established, understand the game better. I guess taking the slow road helps one appreciate the scenery; I find that I can identify with players located all over Magic's long learning curve, can fathom many tenets of the game, and have, simply, developed a strong instinct for what works. I have played with, and against, the best, and I have watched them closely.

I once sat in on an interview with Ben Rubin, Magic's first wunderkind, who had made somewhere in the ballpark of $75,000 playing the game by his 17th birthday. The reporter, sent by a local paper to do what must have at least seemed like a puff piece, was nevertheless rapt as he listened to Ben articulate part of what makes Magic so compelling. In life, and even in many other games, one's theories are often relegated to the realm of nebula. You have an idea, or an inclination, but it's hard to tell if you're exactly right. Hard to prove it. And, so, hard to improve on it. In Magic, ideas find easy and direct manifestation. Try the deck out. Apply your strategy in the draft. Are you winning? Is it working? No? Then why not? Improve. This process is so quick here, and has so many approaches that are valid.

There is something immensely satisfying in watching your theories grow and become stronger. Not just feeling that way, but seeing it. Testing it and understanding it.

Magic is a deep game. Many strategic elements blend together. New sets come out all the time. Formats change. There is no checklist of rules, only of rules of thumb. Point being, learning is going to be an active process. It is my hope, here, to introduce you to the basics. Both to common-thought, and to my own impression of it. From there, it will be up to you to integrate them into the context of your own thought.

Your First Sealed Deck

Sealed deck is a prehistoric format. It is the format that most closely emulates what playing Magic was like around the time of its inception. Nowadays the constructed formats have been divided into Standard, Classic, and everything in-between, are highly evolved, and often viciously quick. Because of the Internet, everyone knows which cards are available, and uses them to their fullest. I'm not knocking this—it's great—but what I like about Sealed Deck is that it's pretty much the same experience it was when I began playing.

Sealed Deck is a sort of microcosm of the original Magic experience. The playing field is level but diverse. Everyone is given a certain amount of sealed product, usually one Tournament Pack and two Booster Packs. From that pool of cards, and adding in as many basic land as desired, each player must build a deck of at least 40 cards. Any opened cards not put in the main deck count as part of the sideboard. (We'll get to sideboards and sideboarding later.)

In Booster Draft (see Academy 13 for an intro to Booster Draft if that term is new to you) one has much control over what their pool is. In Sealed, the skill is making the best out of what you're given. So what approaches should one use to sculpt a card pool down into a deck?

Today we'll look at the basics.

General Guidelines

In Sealed Deck you are provided with a random pool of cards from which to build a deck. Whereas in Constructed, where if even one obscure card exists, you can make an entire deck around it, or in Draft, where one could regularly attempt a strategy of their own devising, in Sealed Deck one is more at the whim of their card pool than any other format. It is a format based more on organization, and skill at building and tweaking, and less on the success of a broad strategy.

Since everyone has a random card pool—an average, general card pool, straight out of the box—you're going to see a narrower set of strategies applied. In Constructed, a Millstone deck might be viable, or an extreme combo deck. Here, everyone's going to be playing with creatures so you can rely on combat tricks being worthwhile, and creature removal being good. In short, while Constructed might resist general deck building cues, these hold much more weight in Sealed Deck since everyone is essentially working with very similar, basic tools.

Our goal here is to build an efficient deck. Assuming everyone starts with comparably powerful card pools, how will one 40-card deck get an edge over another 40-card deck? The answer is that there are many decisions to be made and they're all relevant, but there are some guidelines to help ease you into that process. The more little decisions you get right, the tighter your deck will be, and the more of an edge you'll have.

1. 40.

Oh, and about the 40-card thing: Though there is no maximum to deck size, you're going to want to play 40 cards exactly. There is no surer sign of a new player than a finished Sealed Deck of 42 cards or more. (41, we'll let slip for now…) The reason for this is that you want to draw your best cards as often as possible. The more you dilute your deck with cards that aren't as good as your best cards, the worse, in general, your deck becomes. Also, the more cards you play, the harder it becomes to predict what you might draw and so it becomes harder to focus your strategy. Further, it's just a good starting guideline to help you stay on track.

Having additional sources of mana can sometimes allow you to play fewer lands in your deck.2. 17 land +/- 1

In a 40-card deck, you're going to want to play somewhere around 16-18 land. 16 being a bit low, 17 being about average, and 18 being high. 19 is extremely high (I might have done it, in total, twice in my life!) and 15 happens every now and then, if your deck has very low mana requirements. If you are playing several mana-producing creatures or artifacts (IE, Fellwar Stone, Llanowar Elves, etc) you can sometimes play fewer lands. As a rule of thumb, for each non-land mana-producing card in my deck, I play 1 land fewer than 18, stopping at 16 or 15, but this generally applies to mana producers that cost 1 or 2. These amounts of land have proved to be good amounts to ensure one will usually play land for the first four or five turns of the game, but will generally not be flooded with land too badly in the later turns either.

3. Two Colors, then Splash

In this vein, you're also going to want to keep the amount of colors you play reasonable. You want to use your most powerful cards, but, more than that, you want to be able to cast your spells. If you don't put enough lands in your deck for each color, spells will languish in your hand. Only play enough colors so that you can support them all. It is not the case that one should “always play 2 colors”, or even “always play 3 colors”, since you will sometimes notice the best players playing 4 or 5 color decks! But pulling this off requires both experience and a very specific card pool (and may depend on which sets you're playing with as well).

So, as with all these guidelines, remember that we're generalizing here while we get you the experience to make your own informed decisions. In general, only powerful and deep Sealed Deck pools allow for straight 2-color decks. Probably about 1 in 4. The typical sealed deck is 3 colors. However, the jump from 2 colors to 3 is not as stark as it may seem. The added color is usually just a “splash”. In a primarily 2 color deck, a splash is the 3rd color, which has fewer cards—anywhere from 2 to about 5. This allows us to maintain a manageable, predictable, mana-base, while filling the deck with powerful cards.

Phantom Warrior
We'll be talking more about building your mana base late, but for now keep in mind that in the first two colors you'll normally want to put in enough land to support all your early plays. (To play Phantom Warrior, and assume we will be able to play it turn 3, when it is most valuable, we would want to play at least 7 or 8 Islands, for example). For our splash color, though, we include as little land as possible, and refrain from including cards whose value depends on being played in the early game. If Blue was our splash then, while Phantom Warrior is a solid card in its own right, we would understand that since we would only be playing a few Islands, it would not be worth playing. In your splash color, you will want to aim for cards which are valuable in the mid and late game. For example, Thundermare is a good example of a card that would fit well in a splash color. By the time Turn 7 rolls around, you'll probably have drawn one of your splash's lands, even if you don't play that many.

With all that in mind, splash cards will also normally have only one mana symbol of the color you're splashing. Trying to support a splash spell in a primarily blue-white deck, for example, is much more difficult to pull off than splashing a spell with just a single in the casting cost. While building your Sealed Deck, it's important to approach your mana-base as reasonably as possible, acknowledging the value of a good solid foundation. While you can often count with clarity the games a specific card wins you (Blaze!), the games a good mana base wins you, just as valuable, are more difficult to glean.

You will occasionally have to play a Sealed Deck that is less 2-colors-and-a-splash, and more fully 3-colors, but this is not optimal. (Again, remember that we're dealing in generalities here. With some sets 3 colors may be the norm, but generally speaking you'll normally want to aim for 2 colors or 2 colors and a splash.)

Note also that when the best players sometimes play 4 or 5 color decks, they are actually usually playing 2 main colors with 2 or 3 splashes (and several spells that “fix mana”)!

Pegasus Charger

Watch for evasion creatures that can attack despite a ground stalemate…

4. Evade

In Constructed, one might find success taking a single strategic approach to the extreme—an all-out aggro Burn deck, for example. But in Sealed Deck, you will want your deck to be robust and versatile. If the board reaches a stalemate, you will not just want to be relying on ground guys to get through.

Simple evasion creatures win a ton of Limited games. Abilities like flying, shadow, or unblockable will allow your creatures to attack without having to worry about much messy combat or a cluttered board.

Don't play a bad creature just because it has evasion, but do remember that these are very useful abilities in a Limited environment.



Dark Banishing
5. Remove

Removal plays an important role in Limited, and having even a few removal spells is a large improvement on having none.

Besides the fact that removal is just generally good in Limited environments (unlike in Constructed, in Limited Dark Banishing will virtually always have a target, and often one that costs more than the spell does), it provides solutions to specific problem creatures.

For instance, while it is not necessary to remove every creature an opponent plays, there will often be a creature that, if left unattended, will make it very difficult for you to win. Consider a Blue/White deck with many small flying creatures. If this deck does not have a Pacifism, or another solution, a single Giant Spider may pose very serious problems. A Royal Assassin may single-handedly put a wrench in the gears of any Green/White deck.

Having just a single removal spell will help overcome these obstacles.

Giant Spider
Royal Assassin

While it is not always correct to do so, if your main two colors are low on removal, you might want to plan to splash more in your third.

6. Creature Quotas

What else should we look for in creatures? Cutting from 90 cards to 40, here's a general quota of what you should expect for a creature's mana cost.

1cc: Generally, most Sealed decks don't have many (if any) "1 drops" (creatures that cost one mana). Why? You just don't get as much bang for your buck (your buck being not just a card's mana cost, but also the card itself); a 1/1 for 1 is more easily trumped by even a 2/2 for 2 than in Constructed, where you can design a deck where the added speed might be worthwhile.

However, several 1 drops are playable. You're going to want an ability that has a relevant effect on more expensive cards. (Festering Goblin, Llanowar Elves, and Infantry Veteran are good examples of what you might look for in a 1 mana spell).

2cc: A good solid deck will have 3 or 4 good two drop creatures. The golden standard here is typically a 2/2 for 2 mana, but 2/1 is generally fine as well. Barring that, we again look for any creature with a relevant ability. Anything less than that is usually not worth playing here.

Master Decoy
Zodiac Monkey


Gray Ogre
3cc: The 3 and 4 drops are the meat of a mana curve (the distribution of your spells relative to their mana cost). 1 and 2 drops are luxuries of a sort, but not having a 3 or 4 drop represents a major hole in an early game! For 3 mana, you will often have to play a few “Gray Ogres”—vanilla, or fairly vanilla, 2/2s. These are borderline, though. What you are hoping for here are:  

4cc: At 4 mana, plain or almost plain 2/2s no longer cut the mustard. A plain 4 mana 3/3, though, is a perfectly acceptable card in almost any sealed deck. Any abilities on top of that are bonuses.

Hill Giant

Another 4 mana standard is the 2/2 flyer. Again, this will generally find its way into almost any sealed deck that is playing its colors, particularly if you pick up a relevant ability on top of having the 2/2 flier.

Aven Cloudchaser

If a ground creature is worse than a 3/3, it ought to have a very relevant ability here. (Anaba Shaman)

Though 3 and 4 mana spells are very important—not playing one on their respective turns can mean a serious loss in tempo—you do not want to overload your deck with them. You're looking to play about four or five of each. More than that—especially at the 4 drop—and you risk clumping your hand with spells you can't cast in time.

5cc: You're only going to want 2 or 3 creatures that cost 5 mana. Occasionally, you'll have to play a plain 3/3 for 5 mana (Wanderguard Sentry), but this is not good.

A 5 mana flyer for 3, on the other hand, is a Limited staple. (Aven Windreader)

A 5 mana 4/4 is also something you'll almost always play here. (Flowstone Crusher)

Other than that, you'll just be on the look out for something exceptional. (Silklash Spider)

6cc: You'll want one, maybe two, sometimes none, of the 6-drops—drawing more than one in your opening hand means fewer options in the early game.

By now you're looking for great stats—5/5, or 6/4s (Craw Wurm) are passable here—or bombs (cards that have the potential to win the game practically by themselves, like Shivan Dragon).

7cc: Past 6 mana, and you're looking to play possibly one card, maybe two. You will sometimes play a 7 mana spell on the basis of its size—around 7/7 is good here. (Enormous Baloth)

Again, this is bomb territory.

8cc: At 8 mana you're looking for bombs, and bombs only. (Verdant Force).

9cc: Even if a card is nearly “win the game”, 9 mana is just too expensive. You will very occasionally play a card that costs 9, but it will be rare. 9 mana is usually over half the lands in a deck; it is less likely you will play this spell on even turn 9, than about turn 14 or 15—and most games don't go that long!

7. Don't get caught up!

Don't get caught up by flashy combos made up of cards that are otherwise terrible on their own. They're nice subthemes, but they're unreliable. You want to win most of your games, not just the ones in which you happen to draw the exact right cards.

Don't get caught up by bombs. A Shivan Dragon might win most games in which it's cast, but if you don't have other good red spells, your deck will lose when you don't draw it. Don't force yourself to play a color just because you have one great card… try to decide which colors are strongest overall.

What Do I Do When I Get My Pool?

Sealed Deck is generally timed— you'll have about 25 minutes to build. This is one of the hardest parts! I've done well over a hundred Sealed Decks, and I almost always take the full amount of time.

It's important to make the most of what you do have. In order to make your deck building decisions as clear as possible, you're going to want to be organized.

You're handed a Tournament Pack and two Booster Packs. Open them up and you'll be faced with a random assortment of cards. Now what?

Here are some quick steps.

First, divide them by color.

Next, sort through each pile. Take some time to read through the cards, evaluate, and get a general feel. Do any colors look particularly good? Do you have any bombs—cards that, even alone, provide a major incentive to play a color? Do any colors seem outright unplayable? Are any cards outright unplayable?

Again, one way to look at your task here is reducing your entire pool of cards down to the best set of 22-24 cards (to which you will add 16-18 land). The more cards you can eliminate, the easier your job will be. Even if a color has a few decent cards, if you know it just doesn't have enough going for it for you to want to play it, set it aside. Be careful though, even if a color isn't deep, it might have a few cards that would make a perfect splash!

Similarly, filter out any individual cards you think are not worth playing.

Now survey what's left. You're looking for two main colors. This means two colors that have both quantity and quality—plenty of cards, and cards that are good.

Remember, while it is not advisable to choose your colors solely based on a bomb you have, you will want that to weigh heavily in your decision. You might not play red even though you have Shivan Dragon, but you will sure have to think about it if you don't!

Once you have an idea of something that might work, assuming you have some time left, try giving it a shot with some shuffling and practice draws to see how it looks.

8. Mana Curve

We place a high emphasis on managing cards' mana costs, and being able to play our spells regularly and efficiently. The best way to appreciate these things when looking over a potential deck is by laying it out according to the turns on which we would cast spells.

Here, we can clearly see which areas are overstocked and understocked, motivating deck building decisions. Even if, in a vacuum, a certain 4-drop is better than a certain 3-drop, if you have 7 4-drops and only 2 3-drops, you'll want to play the 3-drop instead.

Note that this is not strictly the cost in the upper right corner. While you will almost certainly want to play Glory Seekers as soon as possible (turn 2) Volcanic Hammer will be effective at any point in the game. We leave it off the curve. This method does not require precision; it just aims to give a general sense of a deck's strengths and weaknesses. Arrange the cards where you think they belong.

So— examine your two colors. Does it look like a good match?

  • Is the mana curve smooth? (Enough, but not too many: 2-drops, 3-drops, 4-drops)
  • Is there general synergy between the cards? (IE—White defense to gum up the ground while blue's flyers attack)
  • Is there a nice balance between removal/spells and creatures?

If something isn't working—whether there's a hole in the mana curve, or the deck just doesn't look as good as you think it could be—go back to the drawing board. Mix and match and get a sense for what colors work best together in your specific pool.

Once you settle on something, it's time to decide how many colors you're going to play. If your deck is full and strong with only 2-colors, great! But, most of the time, you will have to decide on a splash.

Again, for your splash you're only looking for a few cards—as many as you need to fill the deck up. They should probably only have one colored symbol from your splash in the casting cost, and the more suited they are to the late game, the better, since that's when you'll be able to rely on casting them.

Good Splash

Spined Wurm

Bad Splash

Foul Imp

Once you've found a configuration that seems to work well, it's time to trim your non-land cards down to 23 +/- 1 (depending on how mana-dependent your deck is), and then add lands.

It is necessary but sometimes difficult to cut cards.

One technique I use is to add in every must-play card first. Then, I add cards one by one until the deck is full. Sometimes that can psychologically be easier than laying out something like 26 finalists and then trying to figure out what to cut from there.

9. Tending the Land

The last step is to put in the land. My technique is to first do a general appraisal, and then double-check to make sure that all the numbers make sense.

Remember, your goal here is to be able to be able to play your cards on the turns they are best. An Elvish Warrior is great on turn 2, but on turn 6… not so much.

Elvish Warrior

To be able to support cheap double-mana spells, you'll want at least 7 or 8 land in that color. Removal and late game spells are less demanding.

Look over each color and estimate how much land you think you'd need to be able to regularly cast your spells in that color on time. Add up the numbers. If it works out to the amount of room you have (it rarely does), good. If not, make tweaks. Ask yourself where you can cut corners—if you're going to have to strain either your black or your red, which one should it be, and why? Generally, you'll want to give the bit of extra support to the color you think is most powerful.

Another regular consideration is cards like Frozen Shade, which get better with extra Swamps. In this case it might be better to lean on the side of extra black mana, since in the late game it will be more useful than red mana.

Frozen Shade

10. Last Look

If you have extra time, look over your deck and ask yourself these questions:

  • 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 might be in its place.)
  • What are this deck's weaknesses, and have I done everything I can to shore them up?
  • 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 leaves something to be desired?)

Try to pinpoint the issues, and look over your pool and decide if anything can be done.

Even if you don't have time, it's worth doing this exercise after the tournament is over to see what could have been improved, or in-between rounds, with help from more experienced players. If you realize an improvement you could have made you can always sideboard into it.

Myths of Sealed Deck

Finally, I want to bring your attention to a few myths of Sealed Deck.

The first is that Sealed Deck is a luck-based format, and one's results are governed by card pools that are either insane or terrible. This is just not true, and whenever I hear someone say that their card pool couldn't have possibly provided a solid deck I consider it a weakness of that player. This has become regular practice for players at PTQs, Prereleases, and Grand Prix probably because even pros sometimes say things along these lines. (But one must remember that pros complain about everything.)

The truth is that if you build your deck right, paying attention to all the decisions, and the specific character of your pool, you will end up will a solid deck every time. Some decks will involve more challenging decisions than others, and there is some variation in power between card pools, but no one gets a free ride, and no one is written off.

When I hear a player complain about their pool I sometimes ask to look through it. I almost always find a configuration of cards that looks reasonable. The only real truth in these complaints is that perhaps they have no playable rares, or their good cards are spread across all five colors. But these things are not such a big deal. I personally can't remember the last time I've thought to myself “this Sealed Deck is really bad”. And I've probably done a thousand of them.

Additionally, Sealed Deck games are just as skill-intensive as Draft games—which is to say, very.

The second myth is that Sealed Deck is an easy format.

Read any of the number of articles surveying a number of pros on how to build a particular deck, and you will notice a trend—I have never seen two pros independently build the card-for-card same deck, and in fact the builds are very often even full colors apart! With this much disparity in opinion between even the game's best players, clearly the format is difficult to master.

Sealed Deck involves many different skills than Draft does—finding your pool's idiosyncrasies, devising sideboard plans, and making fundamentally good decisions—but it is not easy.

Thanks for reading, and join me next week when we use this article's guidelines to explore an actual card pool and look in depth at how to take our Sealed Deck building to the next level.

Good bye for now,

Jeff Cunningham

Latest Magic Academy Articles

Daily MTG

August 4, 2007

Lessons Learned by, Jeff Cunningham

Helloand welcome to Magic Academy! As this is the 48th and final installment of Magic Academy, this week we'll be taking a look back at the series. When Scott Johns first contacted me a...

Learn More

Daily MTG

July 28, 2007

Introduction to Innovation by, Jeff Cunningham

Hello and welcome to Magic Academy! This week we'll be looking at common approaches to invigorating familiar strategies. A recurring theme in Magic is innovation. Whenever a new format is...

Learn More



Magic Academy Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All