Earlier this week I participated in the #MTGArena early access streamer event for War of the Spark and got a chance to play a ton of games with the new cards days in advance of the prerelease. It was a sweet opportunity and I decided to share it with my friends and teammates at the LGS in Livonia, Michigan. I brought my streaming rig across the border to Ontario and did my stream right from the store!
When it was all said and done, I had the chance to play seven different Sealed decks and I learned a lot about the format. In today’s article I’ll be sharing some of the most important takeaways I was able to glean about #MTGWAR Sealed, seven builds into the format.
‘Walkers, ‘Walkers, Everywhere
War of the Spark features 36 new, unique planeswalker cards, which is an unprecedented context for Limited. Not only are there are boatloads of planeswalkers in the set, but the planeswalkers also scale down in rarity, which is novel.
Typically, a set has a handful of planeswalkers and they are all mythic rares. Now, there are lots of planeswalkers at uncommon and rare, which means nearly every deck you play with or against will feature cards of this type. It’s part of the fabric of what makes the format unique.
“Lots of planeswalkers” is not a tip or a strategy—it’s merely an observation of factual data. So, what do we do with the data?
Takeaways About War of the Spark Sealed
I did seven Sealed decks. I played out each one regardless of whether I thought my pool was awesome or terrible. Here’s what I played and the record I earned with each deck:
- Dimir (7-1)
- Dimir (7-2)
- Gruul (6-3)
- Golgari (5-3)
- Esper (5-3)
- Orzhov (1-3)
- Selesnya (0-3)
It’s worth noting that my competition was stiff, since I was only playing against other members of the streamer club with early access. I will say that during my builds it was clear to me which decks were good and which decks were bad.
Takeaway #1: Speed of Format: Medium
People always tend to make the broad generalization about a Sealed format being “fast” or “slow.” While this is kind of a useful observation to think about, it’s merely a guideline.
In War of the Spark, planeswalkers play a huge role in rendering the fabric of the format. For instance, imagine that in every game of Sealed your opponent is likely to play multiple planeswalkers. How would that impact the way you choose to build your deck?
The reason I say the format feels “medium speed” (whatever that means) is derived from my second takeaway:
Takeaway #2: Focused Beatdown Appears to Be Highly Ineffective in WAR Sealed
Remember, these are generalizations and not hard and fast rules… I don’t doubt there are great pools for building an insane beatdown deck. My experience, through seven Sealed decks, was that I didn’t have a pool where I found focused beatdown to be my best option, and when it was my best option, I felt like my deck was below average for the field.
The reason I say the format is “medium” directly correlates to my experience that beatdown was ineffective. Let’s unpack that for a second within the context of a third takeaway:
Takeaway #3: There are an Above Average Number of Game Warping Uncommons, Rares, and Mythics Floating Around
It’s as simple as this: In WAR Sealed, there are a ton of uncommons that feel like rares, rares that feel like mythics, and mythics that feel unbeatable. The power level of the individual cards is extremely high, which is not too surprising in a format with uncommon planeswalkers.
The reason I believe my beatdown decks felt bad (even when they felt like my best options) is because the cheap drops are quickly outclassed by the more powerful 3-, 4-, and 5-drops. In formats where we are incentivized to play more focused beatdown in Sealed, the commons tend to line up favorably with many of the higher drops people play.
Is it possible that in seven Sealed decks I had pools that were not good at beating down, or I didn’t figure out how to build good beatdown decks? I’m going to keep an open mind and continue to look for beatdown decks in my pools, but I expect to play more midrange and control decks than curve out beatdown decks.
It’s hard to get the job done with a scrappy collection of commons when there are so many uncommons and rares that significantly outclass them. Finding the collection of colors that allow you to maximize playing the most possible bombs, while always important, feels critical in this format.
To loop back to my previous takeaway, my typical strategy for mitigating low power level has always been to lower my curve and exploit the early game, but in the Sealed events I did on Tuesday I did not find this approach to be particularly effective. When a Sealed format has lots of cards that are this powerful, it’s difficult to win by turning Grizzly Bears and Hill Giants sideways.
Here’s an example of what I mean:
I had this gem in my R/G deck. There were several games where all of my opponent’s cards couldn’t beat this card. There are a lot of cards that have a similar effect on the game, where you either kill it, play something more powerful, or lose to it outright.
Takeaway #4: The Bad Planeswalkers Are Better Than You Think They Are
Don’t underestimate the uncommon planeswalkers! It’s an easy mistake to make, but it becomes pretty obvious once you jump into the format. Just because a planeswalker seems terrible compared to Jace, the Mind Sculptor doesn’t mean it can’t have a huge impact on a Sealed game!
Takeaway #5: Proliferate is the Best Build-Around Mechanic
One of the reasons the “bad” planeswalkers are so good is due to the abundance of proliferate. For instance, many planeswalkers don’t have a positive loyalty ability, which means that they are capped with regard to how many times they can be ticked down. Well, uncap that! Proliferate generates additional loyalty, activations, and value.
The thing my “good” decks did that my bad decks could not was abuse proliferate to devastating effect. A deck that can proliferate has a huge advantage.
There are two reasons I feel comfortable talking about the Sealed format as “medium.” The first is directly related to proliferate. It’s so easy for a proliferate deck to make a few synergistic plays that simply close the door on a dedicated beatdown deck by gumming up the board with a bunch of big blockers on the ground.
The importance and power of proliferate is the final piece of the puzzle that informs my concept of War of the Spark Sealed as a medium-speed format. Don’t expect to get beat down by blistering fast, curve-out beatdown deck, but expect decks to quickly build to a synergy-based critical mass capable of winning the game.
If you can’t profitably attack planeswalkers they generate a ton of advantage. If you can’t force trades or go bigger faster, expect an opponent’s army to grow at a rate faster and larger than simply deploying creatures to the battlefield. Synergy interactions and incidental advantage (extra bodies thanks to amass, extra +1/+1 counters thanks to proliferate, and extra cards and removal thanks to planeswalkers).
The format is not grindy in the sense that everything trades and whomever has something left will win. I would consider that to be a “slow format.” The medium format I’m describing has to do with keeping up on the board and continuing to generate advantage. I had several games where there were 20+ creatures in play and nobody could attack. I had even more games where somebody’s army got out of hand and overran all of the opponent’s cards deployed to the field.
Takeaway #6: Expect Ground Stalls
I played so many ground stall games, meaning that the game arrived at a point where neither player had advantageous attacks that didn’t involve evasion, such as flying or unblockable.
There are a couple of reasons for this: First, proliferate creates a lot of big bodies in a hurry. Second, incentive to stay home and block to protect active planeswalkers.
You’ll really want to maximize the number of evasive creatures if possible, since they are ideal for attacking both players and planeswalkers over these stalls. When I know stalls are likely, it changes how I value evasion. It’s not just for racing in this format, but also dealing with planeswalkers.
Takeaway #7: Ranking the Colors and Commons for Sealed
After seven tries, I do have color preferences for Sealed.
Black on Top
My impression is that black is the strongest color in Sealed because it can do it all. It has lots of fantastic removal, good creatures, and lots of ways to generate card advantage.
My Top 3 Black Sealed Commons
- Ob Nixilis’s Cruelty – Premium removal at common.
- Lazotep Reaver – I don’t want bad 2-drops, but I want synergy 2-drops. Getting the amass token into play early and building is nice. Simply having an amass token is the easiest and best way to start exploiting proliferate early and often.
- Aid the Fallen – I doubt this will be in my top 3 Draft commons but this card is messed up in a slower Sealed format. Rebuying a creature and planeswalker is a ton of value.
Blue Not Far Behind
Blue was my second favorite color. It makes sense for a format where you need to go big to win, since blue is typically associated with a more controlling endgame. Blue is also associated with flying—an element with heightened importance in a planeswalker-centric world.
My Top 3 Blue Sealed Commons
- Callous Dismissal – There is little bounce in the format because bounce is really broken when an entire mechanic, amass, revolves around investing equity into a token! Unsurprisingly, I have this extremely good bounce spell as my #1 for exactly that reason. Un-amassing an opposing army while contributing to your own is ridiculous.
- Aven Eternal – Flying is good. Zombie Army is great with proliferate. Card is an all-star.
- Thunder Drake – Flying is good. +1/+1 counters are great, since once you have one it provides another place to extract value from proliferate.
Green in the Middle
Green also has decent proliferate options, which is why I have it as my third best color in the abstract. In Sealed, my decks that were good at proliferating were awesome and my decks that were not good at proliferating consistently lost to people who could proliferate. I don’t mean to sound like a broken record on this topic, but if you want to win I highly suggest considering building where the proliferate and/or bombs take you!
My Top 3 Green Sealed Commons
- Bloom Hulk – 4/4 for 3G would be good no matter what. Tacking on proliferate is way above average. High impact, good value, at a great rate. One of the pound-for-pound strongest commons in the set.
- Band Together – A more expensive, sorcery-speed Rabid Bite that lets you team up two creatures. The card is fantastic. It often dodges getting 2-for-1’d by instant-speed removal (since the second creature can still get the job done). It also lets two smaller creatures team up to whack a big monster. Great flavor and awesome game play.
- Kronch Wrangler – Obviously, you need the 4+ power creatures to make this work, but the upside is completely absurd. I have it at 3 because it needs help, but when this card has the proper support it does everything.
White Place, Wrong Time
Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to draft a lot of red and white beatdown decks. But I could not get these strategies to work in Sealed. I was constantly up against bigger bodies that brickwalled the ground, had better removal, better proliferate, etc.
Black has seven commons that I would snap play in any deck that could support their mana cost and would consider splashing for. White has half as many great playables that are mostly not splashable (since they are cheap creatures and removal) and twice as many “situational filler cards.”
My impression of white is that it will facilitate a fast beatdown deck in Draft, but it’s difficult to get the right mix in Sealed to actually work.
My Top 3 White Sealed Commons
- Wanderer’s Strike – I would splash this. Great card. Value and flexibility.
- Trusted Pegasus – Jumping a big ground creature in a planeswalker format is amazing. One of the most important white creatures.
- Law-Rune Enforcer – It can’t tap amass Army tokens, but other than that it’s an effective way to move big blockers out of the way to get damage through in the later turns.
Red Deck Loses
Red felt like the weakest color to me based on seven Sealed decks. While much of my perception is based on the decks I could build and how my various decks performed relative to a competitive field, it was also informed by what I played against. I was not impressed with opposing red or white decks, as they were the easiest decks to defeat. I’ll also say that I played against more opponents who were on black, blue, and green than were on red and white variants. Which leads me to believe other skilled players may have consciously or unconsciously arrived at a similar evaluation when first trying the format.
Again, red seems better suited for focused beatdown, which felt outclassed by limited access to key cards in Sealed.
My Top 3 Red Sealed Commons
- Jaya’s Greeting – Cheap removal with scry. Ding.
- Spellgorger Weird – A really good proliferate option that can grow out of control. Was great in my R/G deck that had a lot of green proliferate. I couldn’t build an Izzet deck, but Weird seems ideal in that shell.
- Turret Ogre – Big body. Triggers the 4+ power bodies matter. The reach was extremely important at defending planeswalkers from flyers.
Obviously, I expect to learn more and develop a deeper understanding of the tenets that drive War of the Spark Sealed and eventually Draft once the set is released. It was neat to play with the cards in advance of the prerelease and I tried to make the most of that opportunity, both by sharing it with the local gamers at my LGS and via stream, but also by trying to learn as much as I could in a condensed amount of time and sharing that information with you readers.
My hope is that after reading today’s article any player, regardless of expertise or skill level, can come away from the article with a basic knowledge of some basic dynamics that frame the format so that you’re not just going into the prerelease cold and having to learn on the fly.
If you’ve already played the format via the advanced access streamer program, I’d love to hear about your experience and observations about playing with the set (as I’m sure the readers would appreciate as well!), so drop a comment and let’s discuss it! If you are planning to attend a prerelease and have a specific question, feel free to drop it into the comments and I’ll do my best to get you an answer before your event.
Overall, the set felt really different from other Sealed formats. I would have expected as much with so many planeswalkers floating around! As a result, I think it makes a lot of sense to build with that in mind. I’m excited for a second crack at the format this weekend. Best of luck to everyone.