Sealed gets a bad reputation because it’s seen as “luck based” or “random” but the fact of the matter is that the more prepared Sealed players win more. This gets complicated by the big difference between Sealed and Draft, and sometimes great drafters never get the chance to draft on Day 2 of Grand Prix simply because they weren’t as prepared for Day 1. Over the years, Sealed has had assigned to it a series of rules such as “always draw first” or “never play an aggressive deck,” but of course these statements are meaningless without context and reevaluation. Today I’ll break down BFZ Sealed, from deckbuilding to some important in-game considerations that can help you at GP Atlanta.
1. Build for Power, Not Synergy
As usual this Sealed format is slower than the Draft format, and so you’ll have more time to find your bombs. That’s why it’s important to build your deck in a way to actually find game-changing spells. I’m not going to leave cards like Rolling Thunder, Grip of Desolation, or Guardian of Tazeem in my sideboard unless there’s just no way to support them. Meanwhile, all-star synergy cards that are normally fantastic in draft such as Resolute Blademaster, Ruination Guide, and Kalastria Healer are not options I’m particularly excited to warp my deck around.
Most pools will fall short of a true synergy deck, at which point you’ve worked very hard to build a deck that will be inconsistent and get run over by your opponent’s singularly powerful cards. Even innocuous cards like Cloud Manta and Wave-Wing Elemental are powerful cards that stand on their own, and are the type of cards that make up the backbone of a good BFZ Sealed deck. Of course there are some synergy cards like Vile Aggregate that have a high enough floor that they’ll still make every deck they can, but seen through a different lens, these cards are really just power cards with a synergy bonus. It’s hard for Vile Aggregate to be less than 2/5 in BFZ Limited and it just gets better from there almost regardless of how your deck is constructed.
2. Get Greedy
Some formats punish you for adding a 3rd color to your Sealed deck, but BFZ is not one of them. The set doesn’t have a plethora of mana-fixing but it’s enough to get the job done, and if you’re lucky enough to open an Evolving Wilds or two, you should try to push your deck to be as powerful as possible. I’ve splashed From Beyond off 2 Fertile Thickets, a Forest, and 2 Evolving Wilds while playing a base-Grixis deck. The best part is that I had 5 green sources for my splash, but once I had access to green, I now had extra sources of other colors.
Fertile Thicket seems like a particularly underappreciated card. It doesn’t let you fully cheat on mana sources because you still need to find the exact basic that you’re looking for (and no, I’m not Frank Karsten and I haven’t done the math), but it does help fix your mana, and provides both extra land drops in a mana-intensive format while enabling converge. If you’re fortunate enough to open a pair of Fertile Thickets and an Exert Influence you’ve got a really nice start to a Sealed deck.
3. Play vs. Draw is Matchup Dependent
When Wizards decided to return to Zendikar they realized that they needed to somehow combine both the original Zendikar and Rise of the Eldrazi environments. Because of that, we now have Sealed decks capable of being very fast or very slow. While it’s uncommon to see a good aggressive deck with a strong Ally curve, it is possible. Additionally, some Sealed decks will have a glut of powerful cards and can have monstrous curve out potential. Even just a turn-3 Eldrazi Skyspawner into a turn-4 Vile Aggregate is impressive, and yet isn’t particularly hard to achieve. Because of this I like to play first in game 1 if I win the die roll, even if my deck’s game plan isn’t to curve out. I have a little more breathing room against good starts, and I’m less likely to get overrun by a series of bounce or removal spells in the midgame.
Once I’ve seen the matchup, I have way more information, and can choose to draw in games 2 or 3, which is often correct. This thinking is why it’s tempting to just draw in game 1, but the advantage you gain when drawing first is correct is slight compared to the danger of being on the draw when it’s wrong.
In Magic Origins Sealed you could never choose to draw because Sealed and Draft decks were both about curving out. In BFZ Sealed, most decks aren’t super punishing because they just aren’t built to curve out like Draft decks. Games will go longer, and the extra card can end up being quite useful. It’s still less important than it might be in other formats simply because of the awaken mechanic, which can generate card advantage and benefits a player on the play that happens to make their first 5 or 6 land drops. This isn’t the vast majority of games, but can happen more often in a de facto 18-land format.
4. Have a Plan for Each Stage of the Game
There are 3 distinct stages of each BFZ Sealed game, and without a plan for each you’ll have a misbuilt deck, or allocate your resources incorrectly during your games:
Stage 1: Mana development and early pressure or early defense (turns 1-3)
Evolving Wilds and Fertile Thicket are both fantastic starts to help smooth out your early turns, but some decks are more focused on building the board immediately. However, there are ways to meaningfully build a board, and ways to throw cards away simply to play a creature. A turn-1 Expedition Envoy is almost assuredly a deckbuilding error because your deck won’t be able to capitalize enough on early pressure. You’re unlikely to have enough Allies to warrant playing such a card, and by turn 3 or 4 the card will be completely neutralized by an X/3 or an Eldrazi Scion. However, Kor Castigator is a completely reasonable 2-drop in a slightly more aggressive deck that can attack for a good amount of damage before trading, and isn’t a complete embarrassment if it needs to block. Plan your curve based more on individual cards’ strengths than based on the cards surrounding them on-curve.
Similarly, if your deck is looking to win a longer game, include cards that make that a possibility but can still be useful later in the game. My favorite example of this is Tide Drifter. While the card is a great early blocker, the +0/+1 becomes highly relevant later on as the board becomes more complex and makes combat a nightmare for your opponent. Compare this to Stone Haven Medic which is also a defensive card, but that falls short without the necessarily life gain payoffs. Once again, it is unlikely you’ll have enough synergy to make the Medic worth investing a whole card and a bunch of mana into, and it’s best left in the sideboard.
Stage 2: Evasive threats, removal, and tempo spells to stabilize or force through damage (turns 3-6)
This is the part of the game when two midrange decks start to establish who’s the beatdown. A player will usually begin to get ahead, and here’s where evasive threats like Cloud Manta enter to continue to pressure life totals, while cards like Giant Mantis allow for some breathing room. Games can be won in stage 2 by backing a good early lead, at which point premium cards such as Complete Disregard can help end the game quickly. Games are rarely so one-sided, however, and what happens more often is that that same premium removal spell gets used when it shouldn’t. Think about your role and make sure you’re either speeding up or slowing down the game appropriately.
Stage 3: Haymakers (turns 6+)
Reaching stage 3 is the key to maximizing your wins. You have all you mana out and now it’s time start dropping Eldrazi, Rolling Thunders, Grip of Desolations, and whatever other absurd spells you have access to. The nice news is it doesn’t take many of these to decide games, so if you played out stages 1 and 2 with this endgame in mind, you’ll likely have a victory on your hands. Of course, it is BFZ Limited so your opponent will also have haymakers. Building your deck with those in mind is key, and some common ways to stop big spells, like Mire’s Malice or Spell Shrivel, become important at this point. Additionally, cards that can help you stop massive threats are similarly good, and you’ll feel pretty great if you have an Eldrazi Scion lying around for 5 turns that kills an opposing Eldrazi via Bone Splinters. Stage 3 is where preparations turn into actions, and lead to the most exciting turns of any good Limited game where the winner is determined.
Ultimately BFZ Sealed still has many of the same patterns as previous Sealed formats, but it is nuanced in its own ways. Decks can be fast or slow, but typically they’re on the slower side and are best when built with single powerful cards in mind. Planning for the late game is important for this reason and is why stretching your mana base to play more powerful cards across many colors is a winning strategy if it’s a viable option in your Sealed pool. Of course, practice is always important too, so take these lessons and apply them to your own game. I’ll be battling in Atlanta this weekend so feel free to stop by and say hi if you see me there.