Priming for Origins

Posted in Perilous Research on July 9, 2015

By Jacob Van Lunen

Jacob Van Lunen began playing Magic in 1995. He has participated in organized play at every level of competition and was a member of the winning team at Pro Tour San Diego in 2007, thanks to an innovative draft strategy. As a writer, Van Lunen has had more than three hundred Magic strategy pieces published

Welcome back to Perilous Research,'s exclusive Magic Online column. We're just hours away from the Magic Origins Prerelease. Prereleases provide you with the earliest possible opportunity to play with the newest cards in Magic. Prereleases are enjoyable, casual events that encourage fun over competition. You can plan to play all day in multiple events your store runs, or drop by for a single event. Magic Online Prerelease events start less than two weeks later, but, if you're like me, you're ready to play now.

Prereleases are about having fun, but they're also a tremendous learning opportunity—especially for players that aren't very familiar with Limited formats. Today, we'll be talking about Sealed Deck strategy in preparation for this weekend's festivities.

An Opportunity to Play the Greatest Format!

When we go to a Sealed Deck tournament, we're given sealed product to open and build a 40-card deck with. The venue should provide us with the basic lands we'll need to cast our spells.

Sealed Deck is considered, by many of the game's greatest players, to be the purest and most interesting form of Magic. A lot of players have plenty of practice playing Constructed or drafting, but Sealed Deck is a format that accompanies celebration. Prereleases, Grand Prix events, and other large-scale tournaments are usually our only opportunities to play sanctioned Sealed Deck in a live environment.

Chandra's Ignition | Art by Eric Deschamps

On Magic Online, we have the opportunity to play as much Sealed Deck as we want. If we play a Sealed Deck tournament on Magic Online every day for a week, then we've just played about as much Sealed Deck as most semi-competitive Magic players would have in an entire year. The best way to get better at anything is to practice, and Magic Online allows us to transcend expectations through repetition.

Building the Deck

Sealed Deck seems like it should be easy. We just play our best cards, right? Sure, our best and most powerful cards will make a big difference, but our supporting cast and the way we choose to build and play our deck are even more important.

Let's start by talking about organizing our cards. The first thing we should do is categorize our cards by color. We should set aside any cards we'd rather not play with.

A good baseline for whether or not a card is playable in Sealed Deck is whether or not it will likely have the ability to trade for one of our opponent's cards. For example, a creature with reasonable power and toughness can trade, pump spells can trade, and removal spells can trade. A card that gains us life without affecting the board may be an important sideboard option for specific matchups, but it's not a card we want to be playing in our final 40. Games of Magic, especially games of Sealed Deck, are often about card economy. We should be constantly looking for ways to trade single cards for more than one of the opponent's cards. Playing a card that can't trade with even a single card essentially gives our opponent a form of intangible card advantage. (Card advantage: the overarching strategy that involves trading some number of cards for a greater number of cards.)

We should organize our permanent cards by casting cost, once we've organized by color and removed the cards we don't want to be playing. Then we should lay these organized piles out in rows that correlate with casting cost and columns that correlate with color. This practice allows us to clearly see what color combinations give us enough things to do on the second or third turn.

Generally speaking, we'd like our deck to have a mana curve. (Mana curve: the deck building tenant that encourages us to play more two-mana creatures than three-mana creatures, more three-mana creatures than four-mana creatures, and so on.) Achieving a smooth mana curve allows us to use our mana efficiently more often than if our cards were of completely random casting costs. In Sealed Deck, we're not afforded the luxury of an engineered curve like we are in Draft, merely ensuring that a deck has enough things to do before the fourth turn is the most important thing we'll be looking at.

We should try to identify our most powerful cards once we've organized our pool. Inexpensive removal spells that can often kill things that cost more mana fall into this category, along with very high-quality creatures and actual bombs. We can identify a bomb as a card that has the ability to win a game by itself or create a massive advantage. For example, Chandra's Ignition has the potential to destroy all of our opponent's creatures for a single card; we should strongly consider playing with red cards if we're lucky enough to open it.

We'd like our deck to have enough creatures to win the game, but enough tricks to prevent us from losing to a particularly powerful card or combination from the other end.

When learning, it's helpful to stick to the following model: Two colors, seventeen lands, at least thirteen creatures.

Some non-creature spells, like efficient removal or well-costed card draw, will always make the cut in our deck. Other spells can range from very good to unplayable, depending on our strategy. For example, Might of the Masses is very strong in decks with sixteen or more creatures, especially when those decks are capable of token production. Unfortunately, Might of the Masses borders on unplayable if our deck has thirteen creatures and no token production. Things get subjective in this portion of deck building. We should ask ourselves, "Why did I choose to play/not play this card?" when considering an inclusion. When we formulate an answer to our question, we can usually talk ourselves through what the best inclusions would be. Early on, we'll find ourselves making a lot of mistakes in terms of deck construction. That's okay! As long as we're being reasonable in regard to why we're including a card, then we can understand correct lines of thinking and use that information in our next Sealed Deck event.

One mistake that we'll see a lot is players choosing to play more than 40 cards in their Limited deck. This is a big mistake, because it shaves a percentage chance of drawing our best cards with every draw step. Sure, that 2% difference to draw a specific card isn't a huge deal, but when we're suffering that same tax with every draw step it can add up quickly. Always play 40 cards if you're trying to win.

Playing the Games

Once we've built our deck, it's time to play some matches. Prereleases are great for connecting with our local Magic community. We should introduce ourselves to our opponent. We should write their name down. We should address them by name throughout the match. Even if we lose, we'll have built rapport with another local player, thus giving ourselves more opportunities to play Magic with new people!

During gameplay, we should be trying to use our mana as efficiently as possible. For example, if we just played our fourth land, then it's probably better to play our four-mana spell than our three-mana spell, even if our three-mana spell presents a better clock or a better blocker. This is because we want to be using our mana as efficiently as possible. That three-mana card may be played alongside a two-mana card on the following turn or in conjunction with another three-drop on the sixth turn. By tapping out when possible, we're giving ourselves a better chance of getting our hand on the table faster than the opponent. This is especially valuable knowledge in a set like Magic Origins that lacks mass removal for the most part. We want to play our hand quickly.

A lot of us are comfortable with using our removal aggressively, because we've trained ourselves for Constructed. In Limited, it's best to be patient with removal, especially strong removal, and to wait for the best circumstances to use it. For example, it may seem tempting to use our Fiery Impulse on our opponent's Undead Servant to save ourselves some life. What if we have a 3/4 like Dwynen, Gilt-Leaf Daen that we can cast on the next turn? In that scenario, we likely want to take a bit of damage and let our 3/4 body trump the opponent's 3/2.

Sometimes, our opponent will attack with their Undead Servant on the following turn even though we just played our Dwynen, Gilt-Leaf Daen. This likely means that the opponent has some type of pump spell; this also gives us a tremendous opportunity on the following turn, though. We can simply take another attack for 3 damage, then leave open a single red mana on the following turn. Block when they make the follow-through attack, and use our Fiery Impulse to deal with two cards for just a single red mana.

That's how you take your Sealed Deck play to the next level. It's all about engineering two-for-ones for cards that the opponent already paid mana for. Let's discuss the scenarios in which we can engineer two-for-one trades with our instant-speed removal:

Our opponent has two copies of Conclave Naturalist, a 4/4, in play and we have a Skysnare Spider, a 6/6. We attack with Skysnare Spider. Our opponent should double block our 6/6 a reasonable portion of the time. When they do, we can use a card like Cruel Revival and destroy one of their 4/4s before it deals damage. In doing so, we've killed both copies of Conclave Naturalist for a single card.

Our opponent has a creature or permanent in play that enhances the power and toughness of his other creature(s). We can sit on our removal spell and wait for a big attack. Then we can make unanticipated blocks and likely eat a few of our opponent's creatures in addition to killing their lord or anthem.

Consider our earlier example about patience in Sealed Deck. This can be applied universally. When the opponent attacks a smaller creature into a larger creature it likely means that they have a pump spell. We should block in such a way that it gives them a great opportunity to use their pump spell and use our removal spell to deal with both the pump spell and the creature.

Magic Origins Prerelease events start this weekend! Don't miss your chance to be among the very first to play with the newest set. Space is limited at a lot of local gaming spots, so it's important to call ahead. Go forth! Play your best sealed game with Magic Origins and take your Magic experience to the next level!

Knowledge is power!

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