This is my M19 prerelease article! Core sets are usually simpler and have no new mechanics, so I’m going to skip that part and go straight to the colors, where I’ll talk about how they should behave in Sealed and how to handle their subthemes. Then, I’ll talk a bit about the speed of the format and what it means for individual card evaluations.
White can usually be aggressive or defensive, depending on how you build. In M19, things don’t seem any different. Some of the cards will be great in an aggressive deck and bad in a defensive one, and vice-versa, and it’s important that you know which type of deck you have.
Take, for example, cards like Pegasus Courser, Star-Crowned Stag, Cavalry Drillmaster, and Angel of the Dawn. Those will be some of the best cards in your aggressive white deck, but might have to stay in the sideboard of your slower deck. There are also two +2/+2 Auras, one at common and one at uncommon, and two “pump your team” effects, again one at common and one at uncommon.
In contrast, we have cards like Dwarven Priest and Daybreak Chaplain, which you will play in slower decks but might leave in your sideboard if you’re aggro. Even Take Vengeance is a card that is much better in a control deck than in an aggressive deck, though this one you’ll probably play in any white build regardless.
At first glance, the aggressive cards just seem more plentiful in white than the defensive cards, so I’d expect most white decks to be aggressive, but the real key here is that you decide which one you are and then build accordingly because the cards in white are very polarized.
White has a small subtheme—life gain (which is B/W)—and it’s a dangerous one. There seem to be a lot more life gain enablers than life gain payoffs, and most of the life gain cards are overrated by the general public. Do not take “I have a payoff” to mean that you should put every single life gain card in your deck. Ajani’s Welcome, for example, is not a good card, and having one Ajani’s Pridemate in your deck doesn’t mean you should play it. Instead of looking for cards that just gain life, you should look for cards that incidentally gain life, like Dwarven Priest or creatures with life link.
The biggest payoff for gaining life is Ajani’s Pridemate, which can quickly spiral out of control. Past that, we have Epicure of Blood and Nightmare’s Thirst in black, and then Resplendent Angel, which is a mythic and doesn’t really require any setup. And, well, that’s it! So the whole life gain payoff is basically three cards: two uncommons and a common. Those are good cards, so make use of them if you have them, but again, do not go throwing Fountain of Renewal in your deck because of your one Epicure of Blood. If you have multiple payoffs, though, then go ahead.
Another interesting detail (that shouldn’t really change how you build, but still) is that the rares in white are dramatically worse than they usually are. Back when we still chose a color at the prerelease and the goal of the prerelease primers was to help you with that choice, I always cited the strength of white’s rares as a reason to be white because you were then guaranteed a rare. In M19, the white rares are very medium. Obviously some are good (Ajani, Mentor of the Meek, Leonin Warleader) but you also have stuff like Isolate, Suncleanser, and Remorseful Cleric (which, while clearly good, is hardly a rare power level card in Limited).
Blue is a more controlling, durdly color, with several counterspells and ways of getting card advantage. This usually suits a core set very well, as there’s a big gap between the best cards and the worst cards, and having a few counterspells is a great way of dealing with the best cards. Cards like Dwindle, Essence Scatter, Sift, Divination, Salvager of Secrets, Omenspeaker, and Bone to Ash all range from OK to good in a control deck but from OK to bad in an aggro deck.
That said, there are some aggressive cards in blue. Aven Wind Mage and Snapping Drake are both better if you’re attacking, and there are some uncommons that can be powerful in aggressive decks, like Sleep, Departed Deckhand, and Aether Tunnel. Overall I think both types of builds are viable, but you’re getting the reverse of white in that most blue decks will lean toward control rather than toward aggro.
Blue has two subthemes. The first one is artifacts. There’s not much payoff for it, as you don’t want to play Gearsmith Prodigy even with a decent number of them, but Skilled Animator and Sai, Master Thopterist are pretty good if they work, and Tezzeret, Artifice Master is obviously great. There are a ton of artifacts that you might play in a normal deck anyway, but overall you shouldn’t go very much out of your way to have artifact things going on.
The second subtheme is mill, and it’s also a very dangerous one because people tend to just slam mill cards into decks where they don’t belong. That said, this is core set, and core set tends to get grindy, at which point a mill card can win the game. So if you have a defensive deck and you’re looking for a kill condition, a mill card can do just that, and, even if you aren’t, you should consider boarding it in in certain matchups. Just make sure that you don’t have a deck full of Snapping Drakes and Psychic Corrosion.
In M19, milling is done in the right way—gradual milling that eventually wins the game for you, rather than one-time chunks that do nothing. Both Psychic Corrosion and Millstone are uncommon, and it’s not unreasonable to have two of them, at which point they become legit win conditions. Millstone being uncommon in particular means that even nonblue decks can have a milling approach, and can side in a mill card versus opposing control decks. Patient Rebuilding also strikes me as a powerful card, as it’s a Honden of Seeing Winds that will win the game in six or seven turns.
All in all, I suspect that milling will be the best it has been since around 2004, with Kamigawa’s Dampen Thought. Keep your mind open to it if you have it, do not underestimate it, and make sure to side it in when it’s appropriate, which I predict will be a reasonable amount of the time. At the same time, do not randomly play mill cards in the main deck of aggressive decks.
In M19, black is again the removal color, which means that it can be a part of basically any kind of archetype. Unlike both blue and white, its good cards blend together and will be the good cards almost regardless of what else you have.
At common, we have Liliana’s Caress and Strangling Spores, both of which you’ll play in any deck that can support them. At uncommon, there’s Murder and Nightmare’s Thirst. The color also provides its own ways of getting card advantage (Gravedigger, Mind Rot, Blood Divination—effectively Macabre Waltz) and its own share of defensive 2-drops (Child of Night, Reassembling Skeleton, Doomed Dissenter).
There are two subthemes in black. The first is life gain, which I already covered. Both Epicure of Blood and Nightmare’s Thirst can be very good in the right deck, and some of the life gain cards are powerful on their own (Vampire Sovereign, for example).
The second subtheme is sacrificing. Again, there seem to be more enablers than actual payoff for this strategy, so don’t go around playing bad creatures “because you’ll sacrifice them anyway,” but keep in mind that cards like Doomed Dissenter and Reassembling Skeleton go very well with cards like Blood Divination, Ravenous Harpy, and Demon of Catastrophes.
Black also has a tribe: Zombies. There isn’t a lot of incentive to be Zombies, but one card in particular stands out: Death Baron. It’s a rare, so you can’t really plan for it, but if you do get it, it’s going to be very good. Ironically enough, pumping Skeletons seems more important in this set than pumping Zombies, as a deathtouch Reassembling Skeleton is impossible to get through, and it turns Skeleton Archer into a better Nekrataal. If you do have Death Baron, make sure that you play all of your Skeleton Archers and ways to recur your creatures. This interaction is extremely powerful.
Red is, as always, an aggressive color. There are commons with haste, commons with menace, commons that deal damage (Viashino Pyromancer, Lava Axe), and not much in the way of blocking. If you’re a red deck and you’re not aggressive, you’re either playing a lot of removal spells or late-game bombs (which, granted, there are quite a few).
The removal spells in particular stand out. Shock is cheap and will kill a lot of the 3- and 4-mana cards in the format, and Electrify will kill almost anything. Even Sparktongue Dragon gets to kill stuff, and it comes with a 3/3 flyer attached, which should be great in those games where you flood.
I think it’s worth mentioning that since life gain is a prevalent theme in this set, burn spells to the face get worse. If you’re playing against white or black (especially black), there’s a chance that after they stabilize, they’ll gain enough life to be outside of, say, Lava Axe reach anyway. So you should aim for late-game cards that offer consistent sources of damage (like Sparktongue Dragon or Fire Elemental), rather than one-shots like Lava Axe.
Red can participate in the “sacrifice” subtheme from black since you have cards like Dragon Egg, Goblin Instigator, and especially Act of Treason. Act of Treason plus any sacrifice outlet is a powerful combination that you should keep in mind while deck building.
Red also has a Goblins tribe, but there are few payoffs. Volley Veteran is a good card, and you’ll play it even with a few Goblins (and sometimes with zero other Goblins). There are three common Goblins and they all seem playable to me, so you’ll likely have at least a couple. Then we have a rare in Goblin Trashmaster, which is a fine 3/3 lord.
There’s also the Dragon tribe, but then we’re looking at higher rarities. Cards like Sarkhan, Fireblood, Spit Flame, and Lathliss, Dragon Queen can form a Dragon core, but you’ll certainly know when that happens.
Green in core sets usually means BIG. In M19, we have Thornhide Wolves and Colossal Dreadmaw at common, and Vigilant Baloth and Ghastbark Twins at uncommon. In the midrange portion, we have Centaur Courser, Giant Spider, and Bristling Boar. Druid of the Cowl and Elvish Rejuvenator round out the acceleration.
All in all, green doesn’t seem very strong to me. It has a bunch of mid-sized creatures, including two mediocre 2-drops, but it’s not great at attacking or defending. Its plan seems to be sort of “I’ll play vanilla creatures and hope that works.” This can be good if the vanilla creatures are enormous, but I don’t think they are, and there are just way too many of them.
Green is always the color of mana fixing, and in this set we have Elvish Rejuvenator at common and Gift of Paradise at uncommon. Gift of Paradise is obviously consistent fixing, but how reliable is Elvish Rejuvenator? Let’s see:
In an average 17-land deck, you’re roughly 95% to hit. Obviously, missing is a disaster, but chances are it won’t happen in a tournament, so as far as acceleration is concerned, I’d say that it’s pretty reliable.
Mana fixing is a different matter. Let’s consider a deck that’s trying to hit its 2-of by turn 5. Normally, if you’re on the play, you’ll see 11 cards, so your chances of hitting are 48%. If you draw Elvish Rejuvenator, it has a 23% chance of finding a land. So one out of every four times you draw the Elf, it’ll act as fixing. With three of a basic, it becomes 63% and 33%. In the end, the math is not so simple, because you need it to fix when you haven’t drawn the land, and if you haven’t drawn the land in your first 11 draws, then the Elf is more likely to find it, but the numbers on that still aren’t great. Assuming a 29-card deck with three lands you want in it, the Elf is only going to find the missing land 44% of the time.
So my conclusion is that the Elf is a good mana ramp card, but not a good mana fixing card. You cannot expect to find your missing land even with three sources, and with two it’s very unlikely. If you’re looking for fixing, then Manalith and the common Guildgate-like cycle in the land slot are your best bet. For those who don’t know, in M19, the “basic land slot” has roughly a 60% chance of being a basic and a 40% chance of being a dual, so in six packs you should open 2-3 duals. Keep in mind that those cards cannot be opened in a normal common slot, even though they are common, which means that they’re individually about twice as rare as a normal common (though there are ten of them and if you’re splashing then there are likely three that help fix your mana).
Given that you don’t need (or really want) green for fixing, that brings us to the question, “what do you need green for, then?” and the answer seems to be “nothing specific.” If you need some defensive 2-drops and mana acceleration in a control deck, or perhaps a finisher or two, then green can help you, and if you need some mid-sized bodies in your aggressive deck, green can also help you, but it doesn’t truly seem to excel at any of those things.
All of the tri-colored Dragons are excellent and worth stretching your mana for. As for the uncommons, they’re a little less pushed than what we’ve seen lately. It used to be that getting one or two of a “combination-defining-uncommon” (which are the cards that tell you what the color combination does) was potentially a huge boon—think Adeliz, the Cinder Wind and Tatyova, Benthic Druid in Dominaria—but the ones in M19 aren’t nearly as good. They’re still good, and you’ll still play them if you’re this color combination, but they aren’t necessarily the push toward a combination that they have been in previous sets, and I wouldn’t like to splash many of them.
The Speed of the Format
Historically speaking, core set Limited has been slow and grindy. As a general rule, the creatures aren’t as aggressive, and bomb rares are more valuable, as well as cards like Divination and Gravedigger.
I think that if I have to choose one metric to gauge the speed of a format, it’d be the 2-drops. M19 has a lot of 2-drops—every color has at least two in commons—but they aren’t particularly aggressive. Instead, it’s a lot of Walls and Omenspeakers, and 1/3 Elves and cards that gain life that are better suited for a slower archetype. Of all the common 2-drops in the format, only Viashino Pyromancer, Oreskos Swiftclaw, and Cavalry Drillmaster are ones I’d classify as “aggressive,” and those don’t carry your aggro deck forward. There’s no 2-drop that is good in both the early and the midgame for an aggro deck, like a Gust Walker was. This means that you should not play a random 2/2 for 2, because it’s not like there are no 2-drops. There are tons of them—they just don’t attack well, which means that your 2-drop is likely to just trade or get brickwalled by their 2-drop, which you don’t want as an aggressive deck.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t have an aggressive deck, but it does mean that aggressive decks should take a different form than what we’re used to. They’ll focus on the mid-sized creatures—mostly the 3-drops and the 4-drops. The format will not be as slow as some core sets we’ve seen before, but it should be slow. Expensive cards will be good, and you should try to play something that wins the game. Constant sources of damage—in particular flyers—should be prioritized for aggro decks, and, as always, remember milling.
So, if I had to sum it up:
- No theme in the format is worth playing bad cards for. Play what you have, but don’t go out of your way. This has been a constant lately in Sealed.
- Specifically, do not play bad life gain cards just because you have one or two life gain synergies—it’s not worth it.
- If you are blue or white, your cards will have very defined roles, and they’ll either be excellent or horrible depending on what style of deck you have. Make sure you know what you’re trying to do and don’t play aggressive cards in a control deck or vice-versa. In these colors, very few cards are good in a vacuum.
- Red is almost always aggressive, and black or green are a bit interchangeable, but the same kind of card is likely to be good in both archetypes. So for those colors it’s more about individual power than what you’re trying to do, compared to blue and white.
- Keep an eye out for milling—it’s a real way to win the game and you should consider boarding it in for slower matchups.
- Splashing can be done with Manalith and the Gatelands (as well as Rupture Spire if you’re desperate), so if you get a ridiculous bomb try to play it. On the other hand, green isn’t great with splashing because the only common fixer—Elvish Rejuvenator—is not reliable at finding a third color.
- The gold uncommons aren’t as good as they usually are. Play them in their color combinations, but don’t go out of your way to be that combination and don’t splash them at all costs like you would with previous gold uncommons.
- There are a lot of 2-drops in the format, but they are not aggressive. This means that attacking with a 2/2 is a bad proposition. Aggressive decks should not try to curve out with bad creatures but instead should try to outscale the board with mid-sized creatures.
I think that’s about it. Unfortunately I’m not going to be playing the prerelease this weekend. Due to a scheduling issue, GP Sao Paulo is taking place on that same day, and our prereleases will be delayed, but if you’re attending, good luck and have fun!