It’s been an interesting couple of weeks for me. I’ve found myself reaching a whole new level of busy in my life, not only at work but at home as well.
I have a pretty good gig going at my day job with a flexible schedule, and I work four 10-hour days per week, rather than the normal five 8s. This often leaves me with a three-day weekend—which is great when you want to do a little traveling, or even if you just have a bunch of things to do around the house. What I try to do in normal circumstances is accomplish most of these tasks throughout the week, then use my Friday off to relax and unwind from the go-go-go of the past four days. Lately, I’ve been stretching those hours in the week well beyond the 10-hour mark, which cuts into the time I have to get things done, which means I end up busy during the weekend, which means I don’t have the period of rest I’m used to.
Middle-class problems. Boo hoo, cry me a river.
I’m using this not to point out how stressed out I am at work these days, but to demonstrate that a break from that stress is exactly what I need—and fortunately for me, Grand Prix Philadelphia is this weekend. It’s been some time since I’ve ventured out to a high level event, so I’m dying to scratch the competitive itch.
This GP is going to be a little different for me than many. Since the introduction of byes based on planeswalker points, I’ve lost all hope of ever starting an event 3-0 for free again. Unless I spike a GPT, it’s very unlikely I’ll ever have three earned byes. I simply don’t play enough paper Magic.
I understand and don’t even particularly mind the change from the ratings-level bye system to the PWP system, it makes a lot of sense from a business perspective. You discourage players from competing in small local events by tying their rewards to their rating in a construct where it’s infinitely easier to lose points than gain. By making the rewards about how much you play, rather than how well you play, you encourage people to play more in order to unlock those same achievements.
Still, for the very busy, slightly older, non-gaming professional, any hope of byes goes out the window.
It’s funny how you can completely forget 99% of the conversations you have with people, and yet some stand out in your mind. I’ve referenced the discussion I had at GP Montreal with Dave Ochoa before, but for whatever reason, that was part of the 1% that locked itself into my memory. He asked me what my goals were with Magic, and when I explained my thoughts at the time, he suggested that Magic Online sounds like the place I should be focusing my attention. At that point, I was barely playing online, and had no collection to speak of—which didn’t really lend itself to much enjoyment, as it becomes prohibitively expensive to play any deck in any format.
Now, a little over a year later, I play almost exclusively online. Between the busy schedule at work and at home, and the fact that I’ve moved to a different place in the city that’s almost twice as far from my preferred LGS, it’s become difficult for me to find the opportunity to play face to face with people unless I get a few guys together for a Cube draft in my basement. Factor in the multiple hours you dedicate for an IRL event vs the many breaks you can take with a MTGO 8-4, and you begin to see the appeal of the online event in comparison to the real one. Yet, despite all of these advantages, there’s something about playing a live tournament that can’t be replicated online. The feeling of the cards in your hands, the body language and interactions of the opponent sitting across the table from you, the stink of the convention center, and the roar of the sea of magicians—it’s something special, and no computer screen can capture that for me.
So despite the fact that I’ve been playing plenty of Magic, I still feel like it’s been forever since I’ve played.
A Limited GP in the Northeastern US with a set that’s both nostalgic and super fun is bound to have an insane turnout. I can’t imagine having less than 1500 players, and we’re likely going to see 9 or 10 rounds on Day One. Coming into that kind of event with zero byes is a new experience for me, and making Day Two seems almost unattainable. You basically need to open the nuts and play incredibly well to have even the smallest shot. I’ve been to plenty of GPs, many of them Limited, and I can honestly say I’ve never had a deck that I’ve been even satisfied by, let alone felt positive about. I’m hoping this isn’t more of the same. Knock on wood.
I’ve been practicing Limited for this event, which is something kind of new for me. I don’t mean drafting—that’s fun and interesting, and wholly irrelevant unless you manage to get yourself into Day 2. Very few people will ever experience drafting at a professional level event, and I think it’s strange that there’s such an emphasis put on it when such a small percentage of people really need to concern themselves with it. Consider:
In order to draft in a “professional” setting, you need to:
• Top 8 a Limited PTQ
• Make Day 2 of a Limited Grand Prix
• Play on the Pro Tour
That’s it. Those are your options. I may be missing one or two, but each of these are accomplishments in and of themselves, and yet players are jamming drafts like there’s no tomorrow, with very little emphasis on Sealed—which is the format they’re more likely to play.
To arrive at either of the first two bullet points above, you need to make it through a fairly large chunk of rounds of Sealed play first, and the sealed format is often drastically different from the draft format.
Perhaps the allure of drafting has more to do with the inference that it’s how good players pass their free time, and if you have six packs, you can either Sealed once or draft twice. Gotta get that EV.
Crafting a Sealed pool into a winning deck is a skill that takes practice and effort to improve, in the same manner that drafting a good deck does. And yet very little emphasis is placed on it.
I’ve been guilty of this myself, and I’ve been trying to correct it. Jon Corpora, my partner in crime, is a great proponent of this type of Limited practice, to the point that he carries around a box of Sealed card pools from events he’s played in for other people to analyze and play against each other. It’s been very helpful to see how other people would build a deck out of the same set of cards you’d been given, especially if you don’t bias them by telling them what you did first.
I’ve noticed that Jon and I approach the format very differently, and find different guilds to be our natural “fit,” where we’ll look to the cards of that guild first, and work our way out from there. For example, Jon is very aggressive in this format, and will look first at his Rakdos cards, trying to see how his curve plays out and what removal he has in black and red before considering splashes and other colors. He’s willing to pass up bombs in Azorius, for example, because he knows he’s unlikely to end up there unless forced in that direction. Which is not to say he’d cripple himself to play Rakdos, but rather he’ll be looking for that first. Compare it to the difference between forcing GW in triple-Innistrad draft, versus having a propensity for that deck and looking for it if it’s available.
On the other hand, I firmly believe Selesnya is the best guild in the set, and I’ll be looking to be base GW in every deck I build. Because of the mana fixing available in the set, along with the relative speed of the Sealed format, I find splashing for one or a few powerful black or blue cards is pretty simple when playing green, making it more flexible than many of the other color combinations.
On that note, here’s my personal breakdown of archetypes in RTR Sealed:
Rakdos – The “attack” deck. While you are certainly capable of coming out of the gates quickly, you often either run out of steam or see your creatures outclassed in rapid fashion. There are a few too many x-4s in the format for your one- and two-drops to have great impact beyond turn three, and unless you have a multitude of removal spells (which is possible), you’re probably a dog in the late game.
Rakdos/G – Splashing into the Golgari guild does give you a nice advantage in comparison to the non-splash deck, because you gain cards that can close out a game beyond turn 4. You maintain your removal suite (even adding to it), and you get to take more advantage of your scavenge creatures. Of the Rakdos builds, this is the one I like the best.
Rakdos/U – Essentially you’re combining two decks that try to do different things. The Izzet deck is tricksy, but doesn’t have the same beatdown capabilities you’re looking for in Rakdos. The card you really want in this archetype is Teleportal, as it lets your small unleash guys jam in for those final points of damage.
Golgari – Grindy as all hell. You have a good mix of early game and late, mostly because your early game becomes your late game. Lots of access to removal, and one of the better “vanilla” guys in the set in Sluiceway Scorpion. There are many guys in this color combination that are simply bigger than anything the opposition can throw at you, and you have some of the best bombs in the set. Dreg Mangler on turn three is a giant problem for almost every other deck.
Golgari/w – One of my top 2 favorite archetypes, this is nearly the same as Selesnya/B. You get the mana fixing and token generation of green, the populate effects and removal of white, and the removal and efficiency of black. I find this combination to be very synergistic, although I do tend to err toward the slower, more controlling versions of the deck when possible.
Golgari/R – A bit different than the Rakdos/G deck, this one is much less aggressive than the archetype outlined above. I find the deck more resilient the less you rely on attacking, and often this deck is a more midrange style, splashing for things like Auger Spree or bombs. Because of the green fixing, it’s very easy to hit your off-color splashes in a controlling deck like this.
Overall impressions of Golgari – Very strong removal, resilient, and plays well as both aggressive and defensive deck. Underrated [card korozda guildmage]Guildmage[/card], reasonable [card golgari charm]Charm[/card].
Izzet – I’m not good enough to make this deck work out. I hate to admit it that simply, but it’s the truth. At the prerelease, I chose Izzet as my guild, and was underwhelmed by my pool, which lacked threats other than the prerelease Hypersonic Dragon. I ended up playing Pyroconvergence, as I had about 15 multicolor cards, and it was great for me, but I don’t think it’s actually a reasonable strategy for non-prereleases. Since then, I’ve tried to get the deck to work multiple times, but I see it as a better splash in a Rakdos or Azorius deck than as a functional deck itself. I think more than any other guild, there are two distinct decks in the colors, and they overlap very minimally. Cards like Teleportal make you want to be very aggressive, while the multitude of draw spells and weak threats make you want to play control. It’s a tough nut to crack, and I haven’t had much luck with it.
Izzet/B – Unlike the Rakdos/U deck, this is a control shell. You’re most definitely splashing for removal and bombs, although you can find some of the more controlling black creatures as well. This is the deck that I like to play things like Essence Backlash and Thoughtflare in, hopefully with an Auger Spree and/or Stab Wound to draw into with said Thoughtflare.
Izzet/W – Another controlling deck, this one is probably leans heavily on tempo to slow down the early game until it plays some more expensive and impactful late game spells. White gives you a lot of instant-speed plays and a kind of draw-go archetype that plays some flash-y 2/4s. When it comes together, this deck can be pretty sweet, but you need a few key pieces for it to work.
Overall impressions of Izzet – Best common (Frostburn Weird), lots of drawing, but divided in intent. Mediocre [card nivix guildmage]Guildmage[/card], impressive [card izzet charm]Charm[/card].
Azorius – Some call this the best guild, some call it one of the worst. Personally, I think it has a number of very strong cards, but it has a bunch that don’t impact the board at all. Azorius is very obviously the guild of fliers, and most of your guys are about on the level of Wind Drake. The removal you have is either fantastic (Arrest, Trostani’s Judgment) or situational and sometimes awkward (Avenging Arrow, Soul Tithe). The combination of the detain mechanic and tempo-oriented spells means the guild needs to be aggressive, but with a few notable exceptions the creatures are outclassed even faster than Rakdos’, unless they’re in the air. Be careful of curve considerations, because the three- and six-drop slots can become congested very quickly.
Azorius/G – I don’t think this is actually a deck, because you’ll likely find that Selesnya/U is a much better way to look at the Bant color combination. We’ll be there in a moment.
Azorius/R – The aggressive deck to the Izzet/W’s control. I think this is one of the best ways to utilize the Izzet guild. You get to play some tricky stuff like Pursuit of Flight or Teleportal, you have access to cards like Street Spasm and Chemister’s Trick to help take care of problematic ground pounders that outclass your small guys, and you’re aggro enough for the counterspells like Essence Backlash and Izzet Charm to do good work. Again, I think this is a very tempo-heavy deck, and you’ll be trying to get ahead and then stay there by the skin of your teeth.
Overall impressions of Azorius – Strong guild with a good mix of aggressive creatures and reasonable removal spells. Feels like a good base to play your Izzet cards alongside, and a very reasonable splash for Selesnya. Best two removal spells are white (Arrest, Trostani’s Judgment). Reasonable [card new prahv guildmage]Guildmage[/card], strong [card azorius charm]Charm[/card].
Selesnya – In my opinion, the best guild. It has 3/3s for two and three, and its version of card advantage may be the best mechanic in the set. You have access to all the green fixing in the world, and so your deck can often be a mix of the best cards in your pool alongside a very powerful base of strong options. Your creatures are efficient, large, and great on offense and defense. You have fantastic options for removal as well as tricks. Really there’s nothing bad I can say about Selesnya—even the mediocre GW decks I’ve seen have still been pretty good.
Selesnya/B – What’s better than the best guild? Splashing for more insane removal. Most of the time I’ve played this combination it’s been because there are two or more Stab Wounds, or because there’s some insane bomb, or because it’s essentially free because of Guildgates/Gatecreeper Vine/Axebane Guardian.
Selesnya/U – See above, only this deck can combine the aggression of the Azorius guild along with the efficient, large creatures of Selesnya. After clogging up the ground with 3/3s, it’s nice to be able to push through the stall with some 2-3 power fliers. [card new prahv guildmage]Azorius Guildmage[/card] is a fantastic addition as well, and this is the deck where that guy’s ability really shines.
Overall impressions of Selesnya – Best guild. Best removal, best fixing, best creatures, best tricks, best everything. Best [card vitu-ghazi guildmage]Guildmage[/card], best [card selesnya charm]Charm[/card].
Four-/Five-color control – There’s a reasonable shot at making a very greedy control deck in Sealed, if you manage to open the appropriate fixing. With dual lands at common and rare, alongside Keyrunes at uncommon, you can find a ton of fixing in six packs. If you do have a number of mana options spread across the color pie, there’s something to be said for a base green (probably base GW, who are we kidding) control shell splashing for all of your sweet spells. As I mentioned above, the set has enough defensive options to allow this kind of thing to not only be possible, but a reasonable strategy, as well. Often this kind of deck will rely heavily on Axebane Guardian, so it may resemble a defender theme deck, as well. This is where you’ll see cards like Axebane Stag or Horncaller’s Chant find a home. I like this deck a bunch, but it can be a clunky mess if you’re too greedy. Buyer beware, but don’t be too afraid if the deck is there.
So that’s my impression of the Return to Ravnica Sealed format, although it’s really not so far off from the draft format, either. I think the major difference in the two is just the speed, Much like with many sets, the draft format seems to be a turn or two faster on average.
I can’t reiterate enough—take Sealed seriously. Get six packs, open them, and build a deck. Then take it apart, give the cards to your friend, and have them build a deck. Then talk about the differences between what you built and what they built. Then build another deck together. Then see if there’s any other reasonable options for another build. Repeat. As much fun as drafting can be, it’s very important to hone your skills on the format that leads into high level drafting to allow yourself the chance to make it there in the first place. Don’t get so focused on how sweet it is to draft with your friends or online that you ignore the whole first day.
Good luck, and hopefully I’ll see you this weekend in Philly. Say hello if you want. I’m still the bearded guy with the ChannelFireball shirt on—unless I’m wearing wrist guards, then I’m Caleb.