Building a Better Sealed
With two Pro Tour Top 8′s and three GP Top 8′s, Ben Stark has quite a bit of experience on the Pro Tour. He recently began playing high-level events again after a four-year hiatus, and luckily for us has decided to begin writing again as well. Here is the first of hopefully many articles, so enjoy! – LSV
Building a sealed deck in a tournament is one of the most trying and difficult tasks you will face as a tournament magic player. When designing a deck for a Constructed tournament you have endless hours to playtest, tweak, and tune your deck to get it to run optimally. You can play it versus all the different types of decks you might expect to face in the tournament and examine your results. In a sealed deck tournament you normally have about 30 minutes to make a deck without any possibility of playtesting your deck versus any of the likely sealed builds you might play against and without any chance to modify your deck.
Now more than ever, since Wizards has switched to giving us six booster packs instead of 1 starter deck and 2 boosters (which is roughly the equivalent of 5 booster packs) we have a lot of options in building. With such a short amount of time to consider these options, if you want to build good sealed decks you need to already be familiar with some of the main concepts. One thing that stays constant in Magic is that while the cards are always changing, the main concepts stay pretty much the same.
When building a sealed deck you need to have your priorities in order, the most important of which is to play your removal. Everyone plays their bombs in sealed deck, so removal is key in dealing with them. Speaking of which, the next most important concept is to play your bombs. I know a lot of good Magic players whose problem is that they think as long as they aren’t mana screwed they can outplay weaker opponents. This leads them to play a more consistent two color deck in their deeper colors. Honestly, this is flat wrong in sealed deck. Play your bombs. In Grand Prix Tampa I had 1 bomb in my entire sealed pool; a lone copy of Sorin Markov. After the 3 byes I went 5-1 with my sealed, meaning I won 10 games. I cast Sorin four times and won all four of those games easily. In fact, most of my opponents conceded within a turn or two of my casting Sorin once they saw where the game was going. You're never too good for easy wins.
One key thing to remember about being a successful Magic player is that it means doing things well and chalking up wins, not outplaying everyone every game. I had to win some tough games in Tampa, but those four easy wins helped get me the same three match points that my hardest fought victories got me. That is forty percent of the games I won on the back of just one card.
Another key concept that is a lot more important in sealed deck than booster draft is card advantage, particularly in this aggressive format. While never a bad thing, in booster draft, where decks have good curves, better mana bases, and are all around faster, card advantage becomes a lot less important. In sealed deck, where a lot of the games tend to go late after each player deals with the opposing bombs, whoever has found ways to net card advantage will often find themselves in a favorable position.
9-0 including 2 Byes – Grand Prix Boston
1 Bog Wraith
1 Cemetery Reaper
2 Centaur Courser
1 Craw Wurm
1 Deadly Recluse
1 Dread Warlock
1 Elvish Visionary
1 Enormous Baloth
1 Giant Spider
1 Kelinore Bat
1 Llanowar Elves
1 Zombie Goliath
1 Divine Verdict
2 Doom Blade
1 Howl of the Night Pack
1 Rise from the Grave
1 Tendrils of Corruption
This is the deck I played to a 7-0 record (after 2 byes) on Day 1 of Grand Prix Boston. It is not terrible, but it most definitely is unspectacular. My card pool had virtually no bombs, except one Fireball with 5 total playable Red cards and no Green mana fixers or Red dual lands. With no real way to play it other than as a potential splash, I turned to Cemetery Reaper (my next best card) to win me games. I thought about splashing the Fireball but it really doesn't do it for this deck. My deck wasn't overly aggressive and the damage wasn't that likely to finish them. What my deck did have was some solutions: 2 Doom Blade and 1 Tendrils of Corruption gave me a good start in being able to deal with my opponents bombs. When I looked at my White splash, which had Divine Verdict, Pacifism, and a Safe Passage (that I left in the sideboard but brought in versus pretty much any Green or Red opponent all day), my deck definitely could deal with my opponents bombs. Now I just had to win the games.
What this deck lacks in raw power it more than makes up for in ways to get card advantage. Cemetery Reaper, Gravedigger, Howl of the Night Pack, Enormous Baloth, and even Elvish Visionary all have the potential to yield card advantage. It is extremely obvious that Howl of the Night Pack with only seven Forests is less than spectacular, and a vanilla seven mana 7/7 is going to be way less powerful then my opponent's bombs. That said, both cards won me games all day. By being able to solve your opponent’s game winning cards then having an abundance of ways to gain card advantage you can easily overcome a lack of power in your own card pool. The key mistake to avoid here is trying to build a more aggressive deck with a better curve. People tend to play almost all their midsized creatures in sealed deck so trying to be overly aggressive is almost always a mistake.
After scrubbing out of Pro Tour Austin I decided to play a generic Grand Prix trial they ran Saturday. It was Zendikar sealed so I thought it would be good practice for Grand Prix Tampa, and I am not back on the train yet so having 3 byes on the stack to use anytime for the next year if my rating slips under the necessary threshold seemed pretty cool. I opened a tailor-made Black/Red aggressive deck, which is exactly what you don't want in sealed. This one had it all though: 3 Burst Lightning, 2 Vampire Lacerator, 2 Grul Draz Vampire , 1 Bloodghast and just an all around super-aggressive Black/Red deck with removal and great cheap drops. I brought it over to my friends who were team drafting and they gave me the usual jokes about how lucky I am, how good I run, and how busted my deck was, then I beat their draft decks in some fun games.
The Grand Prix trial was a different story completely. Playing against mid-sized creatures all day I barely snuck into Top 8 at 5-2. Almost all my matches went to three games, and I was a lucky topdeck or two away from not even making it into the draft. I couldn't deal with my opponent's bombs when they played them, didn't have bombs of my own, and my deck had virtually no ways to gain card advantage. It had a sick curve and great synergy, which is why I could beat my friends draft decks. However it was a perfect example of what not to build for a sealed deck tournament.
Then came Grand Prix Tampa. I really wanted to do well in this tournament after doing poorly in Austin, and having lived in Florida my whole life I had to defend my turf. At first glance my sealed wasn't overly strong. I was definitely going to be playing Green. While I didn't have green bombs, I did have 2 Oran-Rief Recluse and 2 Mold Shambler among a solid 12 or so total playable cards. Both of these cards offer built in card advantage and removal, exactly what I was looking for out of my sealed deck. I had a Sorin Markov but only around 8 playable Black cards, including a Halo Hunter and Surrakar Maurader, both of which I didn't expect to be very good with most of the field probably playing Black. On the upside, there were 2 Disfigures and a Heartstabber Mosquito. I thought the Disfigures would be very useful in holding off the beatdown decks, and the Mosquito is easy card advantage just like the two Green cards that kill a permanent when they come into play. I did have a lot of playable Blue cards, including Welkin Tern, Umara Raptor, 2 Whiplash Trap, and plenty more, but avoiding the synergy and curve trap that I fell into in the Grand Prix trial the week before, I knew I wanted the Black. Sorin can end games on his own, and did, as I mentioned earlier in this article, and the 2 Disfigures and Mosquito offered more of the removal and card advantage I am always looking for in a sealed deck.
I went 5-1(after my three byes) only losing the last round due to some poor draws and my opponent having a bomb (Kalitas) that I didn't have many ways to deal with, none of which I drew. In booster draft, where you want your cards to be more focused, I am not an overly big fan of Mold Shambler, Oran-Rief Recluse or Heartstabber Mosquito. They are all fine cards, but most times will have to come down unkicked and will end up being rather unspectacular. In sealed deck however, they are perfect cards. They provide the problem-solving nature and built-in card advantage that leads to victories in a bomb-laden format driven by midsize creatures and imperfect mana bases. Remember when building a sealed deck to prioritize your bombs, removal, and card advantage and don't get caught up trying to make a deck that looks like it would be a good eight man draft deck. If you find any other cards to be considerably better in Zendikar sealed deck then in draft or anything you consider to be a sealed deck hidden gem please feel free to post or discuss it in the responses to this article.
Good luck in the current sealed deck PTQ season,