You may be wondering what the hell I'm doing here instead of peering at you over a laptop from the Feature Match area. Fortunately, I have a pretty good answer to that one: I'm here to talk to you about how to build Sealed Decks. I have lost track of the number of Limited Grand Prix I have covered over the years, but they remain among my favorite events to cover. There is something about the skillsets of Limited that I really enjoy, from Sealed Deck to Booster Draft, and discussing Sealed Deck theory with the top pros at these events is one of the highlights of my weekend.
One of the most successful tools we have come up with to illustrate the skills required to properly build a Sealed Deck is the duplicate Sealed Deck exercise we break out for every Limited Grand Prix: we take a Sealed Deck pool, walk up to as many different pros as we can, and ask them for their interpretation on how to build it.
What always strikes me is how different some Sealed Decks can be—while others are so similar. There are a limited number of cards in every Sealed Deck pool, but building it is completely up to interpretation. While many of the Sealed Deck pools I have had built have yielded similar decks from different groups of players, I have never once had two identical builds from any one pool. Ultimately, it is these minute differences that separate those making Day Two of a Grand Prix and those drafting with friends on the sidelines. However, regardless of the differences in builds, the strategies that all of the top players in the world use when dissecting their Sealed Deck pools are roughly the same.
I am hoping that over the course of this series, I can provide something of value to players of all skill levels, from those of you brand new to Sealed Deck to the players who feel confident in their Sealed Deck–building skill. Now, I'm not fool enough to ask you to take this all on my word alone, but I'm hoping that the fruits of my interviews with players over the years and weeks to come will lend some gravity to what I say. After all, even those who think they understand it all still have something to learn. At Grand Prix San Jose a couple of weeks ago, Martin Juza, one of the highest-ranked players in the world and a Limited mastermind, asked me to sit in for him in a draft so he could sit behind his teammate Ben Stark, who he acknowledged was a better drafter than him. Despite being as good as he is, Juza knew Stark was doing something right that he wasn't doing, and he set out to figure out what that was.
You Have to Start Somewhere...
I apologize to the more advanced players out there, but in order to get everyone to a semi-level playing field, I must begin with the basics. While it is possible you might know everything I am about to lay out for you, please continue to read, as you might be able to pick something up you didn't know before, or perhaps gain a little bit of insight as to why something you already know is true. In any case, as Juza showed, there is always the potential to learn.
For this first article in the series, we're going to look at Magic 2013 for our examples. Although Return to Ravnica is the exciting new set, its newness actually works against us for our purposes here. M13 is a simpler set for deck building and its Sealed Deck theories are better understood at this point, so it's easier to draw on the collective wisdom of experience using that set. But don't worry, we'll start looking at Return to Ravnica Sealed Deck before this series ends.
The first thing you should do after receiving your Sealed Deck is to separate your cards by color. This should have been done by the person who registered the deck, but just in case he or she decided to be a jerk, it is something you will need to do.
With your cards separated by color, the next step is to go through each pile and remove cards that are absolutely unplayable, regardless of situation. In Magic 2013 Sealed Deck, I'm talking about cards like Clock of Omens, Index, and Bountiful Harvest. Regardless of the situation, these cards are not going to make your deck. As such, there is no point in cluttering your building space with them. After completely removing the unplayable cards, separate the remaining piles into cards that you would definitely play if you play that color and cards that are on the fence. There are many more cards that are going to be on the fence than cards that will certainly be in. Good examples of cards that are fence-sitters are Guardians of Akrasa, Mind Rot, and Trumpet Blast. These cards will certainly make the deck if they complement the deck's plan well, but otherwise they will be relegated to the sideboard.
With your cards now separated by both color and quality, your next step should be to take stock of your bombs. If you are anything like me, you probably did this as soon as you got your card pool. A card qualifies as a bomb if it has a massive immediate impact on the game or if it has the potential to win the game if left alone for enough time. We're talking cards like Jace, Memory Adept; Nefarox, Overlord of Grixis; and Captain of the Watch. As you have no doubt noticed, bombs tend to be rare or mythic rare more often than not, but there are certainly bombs that exist at other rarity levels. For example, in Return to Ravnica Sealed Deck, I would certainly qualify Rix Maadi Guildmage as a bomb, and it is only an uncommon.
Bombs are an important part of Limited play, and their game-altering power should be taken under careful consideration when building a Sealed Deck. It certainly is possible to build a very consistent, incredibly deep Sealed Deck with no bombs. However, bombs can make up for a deck having less consistency through their sheer ability to impact the game. You don't worry as much about not having the most solid curve to your deck if you hit five mana and drop a Thragtusk.
In addition to bombs, you need to pay close attention to the removal you have access to. Removal can take many forms, from the lowly Crippling Blight and Encrust to the powerful Pacifism, Murder, and Searing Spear. Removal plays a vital role over the course of Limited play, dealing with the most potent of opponents' threats, including possibly handling any bomb creatures that your opponent might play. As such, the more versatile a piece of removal is, the more potent it is in Limited.
With bombs and removal accounted for, it is time to begin examining the meat of your Sealed Deck pool: your creatures. Limited formats are, as a general rule, driven by combat. Combat damage is the most consistent method of winning Limited games and thus you should pay close attention to your creatures to give yourself the best chance of winning.
The first metric by which you should be assessing your creatures is by curve. Having a good curve is essential to a consistent Sealed Deck. Having a good curve ensures you will be able to impact the game at every stage. You will have the cheap creatures to both apply pressure in the early game and defend against opponents' creatures. You'll need medium-cost creatures to effectively bridge the early and late phases of the game. Finally, you need a top end of your curve so you have the power to effectively close out the game. Each of these phases of the game is equally important, and missing any part of the curve can have a big effect. If your opponent is firing on all cylinders and curves out well, you can find yourself running behind. A good curve can severely punish a poor one and can even negate the presence of bombs in a deck. A good example of a reasonable curve will resemble a bell curve, with more creatures that cost three or four than any other casting cost.
This curve is an idealized one, but it is simply a starting point. It can be adjusted for each format based on the average cost and power level of the creatures in that set. For example, in Zendikar Sealed Deck, the format was fairly fast due to the abundance of powerful two-drops, making the lower end of the curve far more important than the upper end. Immediately following that was Rise of the Eldrazi, which skewed the other way due to the high casting cost of the eponymous Eldrazi. These two examples perfectly illustrate how the shape of the bell curve can be skewed by the speed of the format.
Another very important thing to consider is the fact that most decks are going to be two colors, allowing you to fill holes in the curve of one color with creatures of the second color. For example, if your bombs are drawing you heavily to a color that has very few three- and four-drops in the card pool, you should strongly consider pairing it with a color that has depth at that slot. This will ensure you survive long enough to reach the point in the game when your bombs matter, rather than being forced into a hole by your deck's weaknesses. Bombs can compensate for a weaker curve, but they can't replace a good one.
One other very important thing to keep in mind is the roles of the creatures in your deck. For example, if your Sealed Deck has a large number of flying creatures as its base, cards like Kraken Hatchling rise significantly in value. Such defensive creatures provide the ground defense while your fliers handle the job of killing your opponent. In a green-blue deck with a large number of ground creatures, however, the Hatchling is actually counterintuitive to the plan of the deck. Defensive creatures like the Hatchling are meant to create a ground stall, which is detrimental to the ground-based attack of the deck. Another good example of this is a card like Guardians of Akrasa. In an exalted-based deck, the card can be quite good. In a red-white Sealed Deck with Captain's Calls, Krenko's Commands, and Trumpet Blasts, however, the Guardians are virtually useless.
Have a Deck
This brings me to perhaps the most important point when building a Sealed Deck: be aware of what your deck is trying to do. In all of my time covering Magic and writing Sealed Deck primers at Grand Prix, no statement has been more poignant, yet as easy to misconstrue, as one I heard from Sam Black: First, you want to have a deck. This incredibly straightforward point was very easy to laugh at when he first told it to me, as it seemed like the most obvious thing in the world. Yes, you obviously want to have a deck and not a collection of cards. The full gravity of what he was saying didn't dawn on me until a little further in the conversation, however.
Each deck has a plan. Say you open a deck with Talrand, Sky Summoner. With a bomb like this, it behooves you to maximize the number of instants and sorceries you play in order to maximize his effectiveness. You also want to defend against your opponents' creatures to give him time to work, so you play a larger number of defensive creatures like Kraken Hatchling, Giant Scorpion, and Guardians of Akrasa. This deck has a plan, and each card in it is furthering that purpose. If a card doesn't achieve that goal, it stays in the sideboard, even if it would have a place in another deck.
Sometimes a deck's plan isn't as clear cut as in the situation involving Talrand. Sometimes a deck's plan is something more generalized, built around a theme more than a particular card or set of cards. A good example of this is a black-red deck that often appears in Magic 2013 Limited. This deck is a heavy attrition-based deck. It runs cards like Giant Scorpion, Crimson Muckwader, and Duty-Bound Dead to make combat unfavorable for opponents, often trading creatures of lesser value to the black-red deck for creatures of much greater importance to the opponent. This deck is very defensive, and the creature and spell choices reflect that, using regenerators that more aggressive decks might eschew, highly favoring cards like Sign in Blood for their card advantage, and even using cards like Disentomb to return defensive studs to the battlefield. This is a deck with a clear identity, but one that is constructed around a theme more than a particular card.
Ultimately, it is the combination of all of these things that results in a properly-built Sealed Deck. It is a very rare occurrence when you receive a Sealed Deck that perfectly fills all of the criteria. When you do, it is a thing of beauty to behold. It is also much more difficult to control all of these elements compared to Draft, since you are at the mercy of your opens. In Booster Draft, you have the ability to sculpt your deck along a theme, whereas in Sealed Deck, you might not be able to have every card in your deck represent your deck's best interests. This is where the most difficult part of Sealed Deck building comes into play: deciding on the conformation of your deck that is capable of filling the most of these needs. It can be very difficult to find the deck that balances bombs and removal with a curve and a vision, giving you the best chance to win.
Over the next series of articles, I'm hoping to dive further into this difficult set of decisions to help you understand what it is that the best players in the world look at when they are sitting down to build their Sealed Decks and what they're seeing you may not be. Hopefully, with enough practice and coaching, these minute differences will become clearer, helping you to make the best possible decisions for your deck.
For the first assignment, here is a sample Magic 2013 Sealed Deck pool:
Why don't you give this a whirl, see what you come up with, and post your builds in the forums to share with others and see what they came up with? Next time, I'll post some versions of this pool built by some of the best Sealed Deck builders in the world and help you by revealing a little bit of their insight into these tiny decisions with big implications.
Good luck, and happy building!