Battle for Zendikar had been in the wild for just over a week, with its Magic Online Prerelease just beginning over the Grand Prix Madison weekend. If you run that math on that you’ll find virtually no time for anyone to prepare for a Limited format using the digital approach. But there was one person that found a way and the time.
He’s also someone on camera but never the ones set on feature matches.
Rich Hagon, longtime competitor but more often coverage staff for Grand Prix and Pro Tours, put plenty of time into working through what the Sealed Deck format looks like. In fact, his plan was over three stages.
“There are three ways for me to be super efficient about playing Sealed Deck,” Hagon explained. “Phase one is where I’m spellslinging for Chimera in Beeston, Nottingham. I played against 40 different Sealed decks. Players in the store would just come and play against me with every sort of power and pace and style of deck. People don’t know what’s going on day one but you get to see them all in action. No one’s been told you can’t play with this card. You really see it all.”
Commentator Rich Hagon spent hours preparing with Battle for Zendikar Sealed Deck, bringing dozens of pools and decks with him to Grand Prix Madison.
“Phase two is simple: Magic: The Gathering cards are purchasable,” Hagon said. “By buying packs and building decks over and over and over you are start seeing patters in colors, seeing the same cards that don’t make the cut, the automatic inclusions, cards that would work if they cost one mana less. Gradually what you develop is almost like a flow chart since you’re going to go through the fundamentals every time by sheer brute force.”
“Phase three is that you can look at other Sealed pools,” Hagon continued. “Give me a random selection of commons and uncommons and see what this does. For Modern Masters I looked at over 200 Sealed pools. Unlike in an event there’s no penalty for looking at a terrible pool or great rares: You’re just learning the cards and learning the format.”
It sounds easy then: Just look at pools then build them. Hagon was quick to explain there’s much more to the story.
“What you have to do then is test everything you think you’ve learned in the real world,” he said. “To do that you keep your Sealed decks and play the decks against your friends. I’ve played a sixteen deck tournament going down to the finals. Depending on what that amazing deck was, or how the deck you thought was amazing actually worked, is what you can understand what you can expect in the format.”
With a days of Sealed efforts behind him Hagon turned his eye to what the pros in Madison were up to. The first takeaways were clear.
“Once you get into Battle for Zendikar – from talking to pros and all the setup for this weekend and even seeing the metagame and what people are actually playing – this format is super interesting,” he said. “It’s not overpowered. Rares and mythics don’t always have a home: It’s not a format where you get to play all your rares. Some need work, and some don’t fit into the decks of their colors. There are cards that basically don’t belong. There’s a lot of fair rares in the set. Grul Draz Overseer is a great example. It’s a 3/4 flyer, and things get bigger – clearly a good card. What it isn’t is a card where my opponent got to six mana, cast Overseer, and I just lost.”
“If you get to Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger that’s great but I’ve heard many Desolation Twin losses,” Hagon said. “I watched a player attack with both 10/10s and Turn Against dealt with them. In another game a player put two Eldrazi Scion tokens in the way, then cast Murk Strider to bounce the 10/10 token, then used Tightening Coils to make the creature it a 4/10 so he could block it with his 5/5. The rares are terrific cards but they don’t just end the game.”
Is there any card that just simply wins the game outright? “Rolling Thunder is closest to the cards that ‘Oh, you have Rolling Thunder? I’m just dead.’” Hagon explained. “But there’s also plenty of games where it’s just a six mana removal spell for a four toughness creature that’s beating you down. It doesn’t define the format.”
Rares and mythics are just one small piece of Sealed Deck pools. Hagon noted that it was synergy that seemed to define the power level of decks. “One of the places that’s really interesting is what people weren’t sure what devoid meant in the way of gameplay. Colorless is a massive deal in the set. Nettle Drone or Vile Aggregate or Molten Nursery – and interesting card sop far on Day 1 – are all cards that want you to have colorless cards,” he said. “Going in one might have asked ‘Why would I play Molten Nursery if it’s only going to deal three damage?’ Nursery is in the deck with sixteen, seventeen, eighteen colorless cards and so it kills things and kills opponents. It’s one of the unexpected standouts: Devoid just by being colorless means a lot.”
Awaken was another key lesson from the pros. “The format isn’t quick,” Hagon continued. “You can be aggressive but not a sense where it goes one-drop, two-drop, remove your creatures and make more. As a result awaken is powerful. A big lesson from today is that there was an assumption that with awaken you might put put Rush of Ice the spell as a one-drop and the other as a five-drop. Because the format is slower you end up in a situation where if you can’t cast your awaken spells as awaken you are sad. If you’re casting it without awaken you’d better have a good reason: They want to be six and seven mana spells.”
There was one more key point Hagon picked up. “Removal is not utterly stellar,” he said. “You don’t get to reach out and kill everything necessarily. You get to manage your removal and players get to develop their strategies. There are still bomb moments where Serpentine Spike just three-for-one’s you out of nowhere or Breaker of Armies taunts your troops, but it doesn’t happen a lot.”
While it’s still early in the format’s life, the complexity is obvious. “We watched six people build on camera and each had radically different challenges,” Hagon said. “Whatever pack of six you open you’re going to face different challenges. From looking at everything up to now we’re still opening six boosters and saying ‘Now this is a strange one. What are we going to do with this?’ It’s one of the best Grand Prix for Sealed I’ve been to in a long time. It’s just great.”