Team Sealed. It's undoubtedly one of the most enjoyable ways to play Magic — after all, who doesn't want to get together with a few friends and team up for a weekend? But, while it's an easy decision to team up with friends to compete, it's a much harder decision to work out exactly what to compete with.
In Team Sealed, each team is given 12 packs to make three decks with, and while it bears half a name with the Sealed Deck format you may be used to, it's a completely different ballgame. Not only do you have to figure out how to best split up that many cards, you also have to figure out how to do it with a pair of teammates bringing their own opinions to the table.
It's a delicate dance that requires not just strong technical knowledge but also strong communication skills. Knowing how to work with your teammates is every bit as important as knowing how to build your deck, and that's a skill that can't be learned from any number of practice builds.
It's a lesson the powerhouse team of ninth-ranked Ari Lax, Cedric Phillips and (fresh off his 10th-place finish at Pro Tour Magic Origins) Tommy Ashton know well, and when Lax found himself looking for a team for Grand Prix Detroit and Phillips and Ashton needed a third, the trio was happy to team up for the event. The result was a team with a bulletproof resume, and they were generous enough to allow me to sit with them as they built their decks for the event.
Cedric Phillips, Ari Lax, and Tommy Ashton
The first step is the easiest, and each player picked up a third of the pool and began to set aside what they considered truly-unplayable cards. Piles were then passed around as each team member had their say, and with a few exceptions (the merit of Maritime Guard in Sealed was debated), the trio agreed on what cards to discard from the start.
Par for the course in Sealed so far, and so was the next step of sorting out the colors to find the strongest starting points.
What came next is where things got tricky. In a typical Sealed Deck pool, there are one or two combinations that stand above the rest. But with 12 packs in play and so many playable cards almost any combination of colors was possible and debatably equally powerful, and sorting out the options is a time-consuming and always-difficult exercise.
The first thing the team did was look at some of Magic Origins' particular synergies. That meant looking over white-black to see if the enchantment theme was strong enough (it wasn't), and then blue-red artifacts to see if Reclusive Artificer and Chief of the Foundry were worth working to include (they weren't). With the obvious synergies out of the way, the team next moved to its only other multicolored card, Possessed Skaab, as a starting point.
Thus began the dance, with the team looking through nearly every combination: blue-black, black-red (which would allow them to make use of two Nantuko Husk and two Act of Treason), blue-red, and finally blue-white.
“What is this deck missing?” That was the constant question they asked each other as they built. With so many options at their disposal the point wasn't to simply build powerful decks, it was to build well-rounded decks by using one color to supplement the shortcomings of another.
With most of the permutations having been seen, the next step was to begin making some hard decisions. That turned into one black-red deck and one blue-red one, and after nearly completing both of those, the team circled back to the final deck: green-white.
That's where things went off the rails. The deck wasn't bad, but it wasn't consistent or overly powerful and, more importantly, didn't have a cohesive plan despite some strong cards in Managorger Hydra and a pair of Leaf Gilder.
One of the most difficult things to do when building decks in a pressured-packed team environment with a deadline looming is to know when it's time to go back to the drawing board. As the team stared down two strong decks and one poor one, they decided there was a better way, and as the clock ticked down they dismantled everything they had built in the last 10 minutes
This time, they started with the white deck, finding that the best way to make use of a trio of two-drop renown creatures was to add some of Fiery Impulse in their pool. More burn spells and aggressive red creatures filled out the curve, and this time the white deck had both power and a plan.
They circled back to the blue-black deck, and while it was disappointing to cut the Husk/Act package, the resulting control deck had the tools to take the game long as well as finish it once it got there. Finding they needed only a few of the blue and red cards for their first two decks, there were plenty left to construct a blue-red tempo deck that relied on fliers and tempo spells like Disperse that the other decks didn't need.
Taking apart everything they had built midway through the countdown was a risk, but as the team looked over their completed works, they were pleased with the difficult decision.
““Our decks turned out okay, and I think we'll be able to beat some people; these are decks that I would expect could go x-2 today,” Lax said. “It's a little annoying to have to cut the green out entirely, but it's more common than you think. I've played in seven team events, and in two or three of those we've ended up cutting out a color.”
While every Team Sealed build is different — and different teams will almost certainly disagree on how to best split the cards — Lax, Phillips and Ashton ended up with what they described as a true team of evenly-split decks.
“Sometimes you have one deck that is really good, and you know you just need to pick up a win from one of the other two,” Ashton explained. “But our decks, I can see us winning a round with any combination of us winning.”