If you are interested in learning a lot about how to play Ravnica Allegiance Sealed (or Limited in general) you’ve come to the right place, because today’s article touches on many of the key tenants of the Ravnica Allegiance Sealed format. I’m going to take you for a walk through building one of the most challenging Sealed pools I’ve ever encountered.
I had an absolute blast in Cleveland last week. I wasn’t even qualified for the Mythic Championship and it might have been the most fun I’ve ever had at a Pro Tour. First and foremost, I stayed with an amazing group of Magic players. It’s always an amazing learning experience when you get to be around so many high-level players.
I sat in on the RIW Limited evaluation meeting and it was so much fun to hear Limited rankings from a diverse group of players from all over the country: Corey Burkhart, Ari Lax, Andrew Elenbogen, Max Mcvety, Kyle Boggemes, and Matt Stanky, just to name a few. The evening was capped off by an out-of-the-blue text from The Innovator himself, asking if I’d jam a few practice Standard games with him before the PT. It was like a Back to the Future II version of the old RIW Hobbies days, except instead of being a dystopian nightmare, all of the players I used to game with had grown up to become amazing human beings!
I played the MCQ Friday afternoon and the MagicFest on Saturday. Sadly, there’s not much to tell about the MF. My pool was a bowl of ranch dressing with a side of ranch. One option was Temur Aggro with solid fixing but overall low card quality, which turned out to be the highest card quality I could have sleeved up. The other option was an Esper deck that was less reliant on curving out but would have needed to play about eight cards that don’t typically make my Esper Sealed lists.
So the trade-off was: should I play a deck that really needs to curve out to be effective or do I play a deck that is a lower power level but has less pressure to hit 2- and 3-drops on time?
The most interesting part of the weekend was my Friday afternoon Sealed pool, which is the topic of today’s article. I think the pool was quite good, but extremely tricky to build. I’ll be sharing the pool and some of my thoughts, which was the theme of the weekend.
You see, my Sealed pool was one of the most fascinating I’ve ever seen. I’ve given the pool to eight other MC players to build and each player had a different take on the build process! You know things have gotten interesting when there is no clear consensus on the right build.
Those are my favorite moments in Magic, when there is no clear “correct” or “obvious” way to go about things. The process becomes about fundamentals and making decisions based on how you evaluate cards in the abstract, but also about how the overall strategy of the deck and potential matchups will play out.
Let’s Take a Look at the Cards
Let’s breeze through the card pool before I move onto specifics.
Blue is pretty good and provides us with options. The two “must-play” cards in blue are Pteramander and Verity Circle. Both are Sealed bombs. Blue also has a lot of depth of quality playables and some nice role players.
White is pretty medium. A few decent 2-drops and the Messengers stand out. Bring to Trial is a good sideboard card that is reasonable to main deck. Expose is also a consideration.
The U/W gold cards are the defining aspects of the pool. While I’m willing to consider builds of this pool that do not play Azorius cards, I have not heard a compelling argument for it yet. There are a lot of strong cards here.
How rigidly you want to stay in U/W is a major decision tree from which a zillion other options sprout.
It’s not deep, but there is high quality. Two Demise, Juggler, and Spirit make a nice black splash in Esper.
How deep into black is your Azorius deck willing to go? A good question. Grasping Thrull is amazing, but the other cards require more work to be great. Also, it’s worth noting that the deeper into black you are willing to go the better Keysa and Oligarch get.
The more black we play, the harder we make the mana. In particular, it’s hard to cast. The UUWW Sphinx hates Swamps in the mana base.
A lot of red cards but most of them are terrible. The standout is Gates Ablaze. Skewer is also worth splashing, depending on how much red you play. Daggercaster is also a nice hedge against Orzhov decks with a lot of tokens.
Not a lot here. I’d be interested to see if anybody wants to take on this angle.
A lot of cards but a lot of filler. Incubation Druid is the single best card in my pool. Open the Gates is a great enabler and mana fixer. The issue is that it’s typically terrible to splash mana fixing.
In order to crack the nut and get the most out of green, you’ll need to find a way to play the most green cards possible to justify Forests.
Some solid Gruul cards. The problem with the R/G cards, even in a 5-color deck, is that there are two Gruul Guildgates in the pool. It’s awkward that we need two different sources of R/G when our duals hit both.
A few high quality Simic cards—it’s well worth finding a way to get them into the pool.
A Colossus to go with a Gate strategy and two U/W Lockets that play nicely in Azorius or Esper decks. The further we get from straight U/W the harder it is to actually cash in the Locket.
Out of Time…
The timed build did not work in my favor this time around… the deck was so complicated to put together and I had so many options. Not just options with regard to which base colors I would start with, but significant choices about cards and overall strategy. For instance, I can build Esper decks that are dramatically different depending on how aggressive I want to be and how many black cards (and thus Swamps) I am willing to sleeve up!
5-color sets, such as Ravnica, have the potential for some “go deep” builds. Obviously, I’m always in favor of getting a build that is easy. The best decks are almost always the ones where you lay out your best cards and you’ve basically got a great deck in front of you.
In this build, I was lucky because my card quality was quite high. Compared to my Saturday pool I could easily field four different decks, each of which was significantly better than the best deck I could build in the Grand Prix. So this wasn’t an issue of “How do I figure out a way to have a passable deck,” but rather “I’m going to have a good deck. How do I maximize its potential”?
I’m just going to throw this one in as a freebie for discussion: I had a conversation with a few people about potentially being able to register for a MagicFest ahead of time and getting your Sealed pool a week in advance. I agree the logistics are a little foggy, but assume players could get their Sealed deck lists in advance and could have the week to build and test their pools against other Sealed pools before locking into a 40. It could even be a nice MTG Arena tie-in, since you could potentially redeem a code to test your Sealed pool against other people who are also attending the GP.
It could also be the kind of thing where if I know my Sealed pool is bad, maybe I could skip the MagicFest, or focus on testing some other format for the Saturday MCQ. It’s just sort of a thought exercise, and I agree such a system would have to have a bunch of specific questions addressed. The question: On principle, would you enjoy playing Sealed where you had the ability to work on building, testing, and practicing with your Sealed pool for the week before the event?
U/W Is the Place to Start
The U/W cards are the obvious highlight of this pool. Every single person who built the pool started with U/W Skies first. It’s worth noting that not a single person said they would have played straight U/W, since the black splash into Esper felt pretty free with the 2 Azorius Guildgate, Orzhov Guildgate, Godless Shrine, and potentially useful Gateway Plaza (if you want it).
I do think there are reasons to play this list and it might be the dark horse best deck in the pool!
Blue-White/Splash Black Esper: The Deck I Brought on the Date
I had at least four strategies laid out over the course of my build. The first deck that I built was Esper and once I got the warning for five minutes left in the build, it was the 40 I felt the most confident with, and so that’s what I registered:
I think this deck is pretty darn good, but there are some very nice cards hanging out in my sideboard (bottom left). Those cards didn’t make the cut.
There is a tension in this deck over how deep into black I’m willing to go. Adding more Swamps adds variance and also weakens my ability to cast Sphinx of New Prahv on turn 4, which is an extremely strong play.
The other issue I had with this deck (and I knew it during the build) is that it’s pretty slow, has on average poor damage output (not great at racing), and lines up awkwardly against Orzhov and other Esper decks. The fact that I don’t have many great answers to Orzhov-based cheap deathtouch creatures means that I’ll have a difficult time playing out of situations where my opponent deploys a threatening curve and gets aggressive.
I don’t really want to be in a position where I can’t realistically race and need to block deathtouch creatures with expensive flyers to preserve my life total. Also, I don’t want to have bad blocks against an aggressive deck and then have my opponent drop Ill-Gotten Inheritance, which I expect most of my opponents to have and play in their pool.
I went with Faerie Duelist in the 2-drop spot for precisely this reason, since it gives me a way block and eat those creatures while still progressing my board. The Faeries also up my flying count, which makes Windstorm Drake a more formidable threat.
Another source of tension in this build is whether or not to play Azorius Lockets. The card helps fix the mana and opens up space to play more Swamps, but cashing in the Locket gets more difficult for each copy of Swamp you add!
In the games where I fielded some version of this Esper deck I went 3-3-1 in games. To be fair, that record would likely have a better win percentage if I would have fielded the Esper deck post-sideboard. I played against three Ethereal Absolution/Ill-Gotten Inheritance decks that were bad game 1 matchups for me, but improved dramatically by playing a list with two copies of Expose to Daylight to answer the most problematic threats I couldn’t game 1.
5-Color: The Deck I Went Home With
The cool thing about this pool, and part of what makes it so challenging, is that whatever conclusion you eventually reach, the way you got there forced you to make fundamental evaluations about which metric matters the most.
Do you want a really consistent mana base? How greedy are you willing to be to juice up the power level? And, which types of threats/answers do you think will give you the biggest edge against the matchups you expect to play?
Based on my experience playing Sealed and Draft, I believe that Orzhov is the best guild. It’s the best guild because it’s extremely deep on playables and there are a lot of great commons and uncommons to build around. I also think that the depth of cheap deathtouch creatures makes life extremely difficult for all green decks. If the goal is to build a deck where giant monsters are fighting against smaller ones, small deathtouch creatures present a real problem!
I also think that the Esper 5-drop flyers are among the most important cards in the format:
My pool, sadly, only has one Grasping Thrull but has access to two Azorius Knight-Arbiter. The Knight is pretty far below replacement value of another one of the flyers. It also doesn’t have great blocks against deathtouch creatures in racing situations (hence the Faerie Duelists). It also is one of the worst 5-drops at racing an Inheritance.
The 5-color deck matches up better against base Orzhov decks overall, but forces me to replace straight U/W/B cards with worse green cards in order to have functional mana.
Base U/G 5-Color Build
How greedy can you be, right? The thing is that the mana in this deck isn’t actually bad. In fact, I think it’s almost an asset for how greedy I get to be. I also got to add two potent game changers:
And, not to be underestimated:
The first three swap-outs are clearly an upgrade, but the cost comes in the middle of the curve where I’m priced into playing green 3-drops in order to justify the amount of Forests necessary to ensure I can cast early Open the Gates and Incubation Druid.
The image is how I would build this deck as a game 1 deck. Keep in mind that I always play it as a post-sideboard transformation, which means that I got to play a version of this list that was sideboarded specifically for my opponent. I was 2-1 in games with this deck against opponents who cast Ethereal Absolution, but I had two Disenchants at the ready!
Which raises the question: Should I have started a copy of Expose to Daylight? I think the answer is “maybe…”
Since I played against so many Absolution/Ill-Gotten Inheritance I would have gotten rewarded big time. I should probably have played it over a mediocre card. The fact that my Esper deck was soft to Inheritance makes it attractive as well. I do think Expose is an underrated main deck inclusion. It’s also a solid answer to Gate Colossus, which can run away with games, and has utility at shattering random Lockets or Pacifisms against U/W.
Dagger Caster is another strong option. There is a build that goes deeper into red and could access the Gates Ablaze, Skewer, Dagger Caster, and Smash. The awkward thing is that red is the most shallow color and doesn’t provide much depth beyond those four cards.
Despite the fact that the mana is rough, the deck comes together whenever it has Gateway Plaza and a Shimmer of Possibility and Open the Gates to help find it. The Shimmer is great in these Gate decks since it allows you to fix your mana but also ensures you maximize the potential of finding and spamming the Gate payoffs: Colossus and Gates Ablaze.
Again, no matter how you ultimately choose to field the Gates deck there are going to be at least 10 solid playables in the sideboard. The potential to field Gates Ablaze and Dagger Caster gives you fantastic coverage against Orzhov afterlife tokens. But the Caster is going to be weak against anyone playing green.
Black-White/Splash Blue Esper: The Deck I Never Played
Another option is to leave the Sphinx in the board and gear up on Swamps:
The Esper Black deck is much more impactful in the early/mid-game and Teysa Karlov (while not a card I’ve been impressed with) is actually effective in this deck because of the afterlife tokens. Adding lifelink to my Sphinx and Thopter Tokens is also a nice payoff.
The thing I like about this list is that it’s less likely to be behind on the board by the time I start hitting my high drops, which makes them better to leverage.
Again, I’m leaving the Knight in the board, which may be wrong. I acknowledge the card is great, but the problem again becomes an issue of fielding the most synergistic deck. I’m glutted on ways to spend 5 mana once I get there and aside from the handful of great closers (Grasping Thrull, Warden, Windstorm Drake, and Gate Colossus) my deck still doesn’t have many great ways to simply end the game. Fortunately, the deck is pretty good at going full on Bee Gees and Stayin’ Alive.
Thoughts on Sealed
I love this Sealed format. Both of the pools I played had multiple decks to choose from and compelling arguments for and against taking a different approach. I also love the way I can build a bunch of different decks even without much depth of playable rares.
The Druid is a bomb. The Circle was my all-star all tournament long. Teysa had potential in the right build. Pestilent Spirit is well above replacement. I could legitimately field some powerful decks and they are all contextually powerful based on stacking synergies between the commons by making a decision to build around Gates, flyers, or an afterlife subtheme. Also, there’s potential to dip into multiple subthemes!
I also have the ability to build and hedge against certain styles of decks for game 1. I can play more deathtouch to hedge against green. I can play more sweepers to hedge around tokens. I can front load my curve to punish card advantage based decks.
So, what’s the right choice? I mentioned the idea of being able to pre-build and test a Sealed pool in advance earlier. I felt the format was so deep that building a Sealed pool almost felt like playing Constructed. It wasn’t just “I play my best 23 cards.” Rather, it was trying to figure out how I can assemble 23 of my 35 solid playables to match up against the 23/35 that most other opponents are going to field. There was certainly an element of metagaming in play. For instance, playing the Faerie Duelist to shore up specific problematic commons.
The main idea I’d like to end on is that playing Limited isn’t just spinning the wheel and hoping to get the nuts. Sure, sometimes that will happen and the build will take five minutes. Most builds, specifically for this format, are not obvious unless they have an insane bomb that forces you to commit to a specific color combination. Most pools are about figuring out how to build a deck and incorporating elements that will help in specific types of games or matchups.
I’d love to hear about different card evaluations and other ideas about how to build this pool. Which of these overall strategies do you think is the inherently best positioned? And, more importantly, why? Do you value consistent mana? Do you value maximum power level per card? Do you value being able to be aggressive?
It was absolutely fascinating to me to watch players I respect work on this pool because it really puts you to the test. There was no consensus “best build.” There wasn’t even a consensus among players that 5-color, Esper Blue, or Esper Black was the best shell! There certainly wasn’t consensus with regard to card choice within each archetype.
To me, that is what Magic is when Magic is at its best. It’s not just about playing your best cards but also building your best deck and best strategy.