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Last week, I wrote about Sealed for the prerelease. That was based on my initial impressions of the set, but I had not played with it, given that it wasn’t available yet. Since then, I’ve played about twenty Sealed leagues, and I have a better idea of what’s going on with the format. In this article, I’ll talk about the things I think I got right and the things I got wrong, and I’ve got a couple of “what would you do?” polls to make things more interesting.
The Format Is Super Slow
In the prerelease article, I said I thought the format was slower than normal. It’s actually even slower than that.
There are two main reasons the format is much slower than we’re used to. The first is that there are almost no threatening 2- and 3-drops. Because of this, it’s not common for someone to have a threatening board presence very early in the game, which means you will usually have time to recover.
The second is that there aren’t a whole lot of ways to push through damage. Sure, you may fall to 5 or so life, but if you stabilize, you usually win. There are exceptions, of course, but a general characteristic of the format is that you can be liberal with your life total and you won’t be punished.
In previous format, if someone went turn-2 creature, turn-3 creature, turn-4 creature into an empty board, they usually just won on the spot. In Dominaria, this isn’t true. Even assuming a deck can curve this well, which is not a given when a lot of the decks have about three 2-drops, early creatures are mostly anemic and don’t attack for a lot, and then a 3/3 can brickwall everything.
The Average Card is Unlikely to Matter in a Game
My impression from Dominaria is that the average card is really bad, and the good cards are what win games. There’s simply too large a gap between the average common and the good rares, and the format isn’t fast enough to punish a bomb-heavy deck. On top of that, games are super long, so if you have a bomb in your deck you’re likely to draw it over the course of most games. So, what’s a player to do?
Two things. First, you need to make sure you play all, or most of your bombs. When you open a pool, you should immediately sort by rarity and, if you don’t see at least two good ones, throw it in the trash. Okay, don’t literally do that, but your odds of winning increase dramatically if you have cards that can win the game by themselves. In practice, this means that if I open a Lyra Dawnbringer, my deck is very likely to be white. It doesn’t matter that my other white cards are bad, because the average card quality is going to be bad no matter what, at least compared to the good cards. I’d rather have a 10 and a bunch of 5s than a bunch of 6s with no 10. If you really can’t play white as a base color, then you can splash Lyra, even if it’s double-white, as long as you have any amount of fixing.
The second thing is to make sure you put a premium on cards that can remove opposing bombs. Cards like Eviscerate and Blessed Light are very important, and you should often splash for them. In Bolas’s Clutches is a bomb and it’s often good on a splash as well.
You Should Probably Maindeck One Disenchant Effect
Originally, I thought you’d always find targets for disenchants, but they would mostly be bad. A lot of the Sagas will have good effects after the first one, and there are a lot of very powerful cards that a disenchant answers (Helm of the Host, In Bolas’s Clutches, Icy Manipulator, Weatherlight, Forebear’s Blade, and so on). Equipment in this set is also pretty good since there are a lot of board stalls. Finally, you can usually snipe an artifact creature or two. The combination of “will almost always have a target” plus “some targets are very good” means that I think it’s worth maindecking one of this effect basically every time in Sealed.
You Should Often Splash Even if You Don’t Have Fixers
In the dark, I think the answer is yes. There aren’t a lot of fixers in the format, but games go long, so you don’t need that many. A mana base of 8/7/2 with one Skittering Surveyor, for example, is very common. Of course, if you have a broken 2-color deck and zero fixers then you don’t need to splash anything, but most decks aren’t like this, and benefit from splashing either a bomb or a couple of removal spells. 8/7/3 is also a common mana base in my decks, for example.
Here’s a (very good) deck that I opened. It’s going to be U/B, but should you splash red? If you splash red, should it be just for Jhoira or also for Jaya’s Immolating Inferno? If you do splash, you’re probably cutting Thalid Omnivore and one other. When I took the screenshot, I thought that I’d maybe cut the Urza’s Tome if I were to splash, which is why both of those are set aside, but upon further consideration I’ve realized I’d probably still want it and should likely cut Stronghold Confessor instead. If you don’t play red, then you just cut both red cards. What would you do?
I think splashing Jhoira is basically mandatory. You have a lot of legends that work with it in both directions (two Rona, Yawgmoth’s Vile Offering) and some artifacts to trigger it. I think not splashing Jhoira in this deck would be a mistake.
Jaya’s Immolating Inferno is harder. It’s a very powerful card, and the deck has six legends that enable it. Not only that, but they’re often legends that will stay in play without having won you the game—if you have a Lyra or a Darigaaz, for example, then you often don’t need the Inferno, but if you have Rona or Whisperer then you still do. That said, it does cost RR, and the deck is already very good without it.
Ultimately, I opted to splash it as well. I thought the games would go long enough that I’d find two of my four red sources (I played three Mountains plus Surveyor). If you end up with the card stuck in your hand then that’s obviously bad, but it’s not disastrous. The card won me several games, though I ultimately lost the last match with it in my hand (I actually had two Mountains, I just didn’t have a legend). Once I sided it out because my opponent had way too much removal and I thought the likelihood of it staying in my hand was too great.
You Should Choose to Draw Over Half the Time
In the prerelease article, I said I thought this was a “draw” format, meaning you’d choose to draw in the dark if given the option. I still think this, though maybe not as much as I did before. I’d say that I choose to draw with about 60% of my deck.
I think drawing is OK for the most part. The format is very slow and often doesn’t punish you for having a bad curve. In some formats, a hand of five lands and two expensive spells was a mulligan. In this one you can keep, and if you draw one card you can cast on turns 1-4 you’re already good. A game plan that starts with a turn-four 4/4 is actually viable. The counterpoint is that, in this format, I think you mulligan less since more starting hands are acceptable, which makes being on the play a little bit better (since mulliganing on the draw is easier).
You have to be careful, however, not to overcompensate. Thinking “the format is slow and I want to draw” is fine. Thinking “the format is slow and I want to splash multiple colors” is fine. Thinking “the format is slow so it’s OK if my curve starts at 4” is fine. Thinking “the format is slow so I want to wait to play those spells kicked” is fine. What you can’t do is put all those things together, because maybe decks can’t punish you for choosing to draw or for having a slow curve, but some decks will punish you for choosing to draw and playing nothing until turn 5.
Here are the factors that make me choose to play:
- I have an aggressive deck. This isn’t common, but can happen. If you have multiple good 2- and 3-drops, then you can establish a powerful board before your opponent can do anything, and then you remove their first play on turn 4 and you win. If that’s the case, you want to be on the play.
- I have a powerful deck with a slow curve. If my deck is likely to win the late game no matter what but has a slow start, then I think it’s important to make sure you don’t fall too far behind.
- I have a lot of 2-for-1s in my deck. This is similar to the previous reason. If I have a lot of card advantage built-in, then I don’t need to be on the draw to have an advantage, I’ll already have this advantage if I just don’t die, which means I want to maximize my chances of not dying early.
- It’s game 2 and I’m playing versus a very aggressive deck.
Here are the things that make me lean toward drawing:
- I have more than two colors. Decks with a splash have a tougher time finding all the pieces they need, and they’re also more likely to mulligan because they’ll have more hands full of cards they can’t cast. When that’s the case, then I want to give myself the extra draw to fix things.
- I have cheap interaction. This can be cheap creatures or cheap removal spells—cards like Gideon’s Reproach, Shivan Fire, Fungal Infection and Vicious Offering, but also Vodalian Arcanist, Llanowar Scout, Ghitu Chronicler and Caligo Skin-Witch.
So, let’s take another look at my Grixis deck. Would you play or draw with it?
I chose to play. I did this because I thought I had enough sources of card advantage in my deck that I was more likely to lose because I ran out of time than because I ran out of cards. I figured that all I needed to do was survive, and then I’d have enough power to beat people anyway.
Let’s test your knowledge of the format.
Scenario #1: Game 1 with the same deck
Would you cast Merfolk Trickster at end of turn here?
I don’t think you win the game by rushing your opponent—you win the game because your cards are better and you reach the late game without dying (which is the reason I think the Confessor shouldn’t have been in the deck), especially against a G/W opponent. This is an aggressive hand, but the aggression is probably just doomed to fail since your opponent is likely to play a creature next turn that just brickwalls your 2/2, and you don’t have any good ways of getting through. At some point in the future, you’re going to Deep Freeze something and then the 2/2 really won’t do anything. If you were being rushed, then maybe I’d play it as a blocker here, but never as an attacker. I think it’s better to save it to gain some life in the future, or even to ambush a flyer with one of your ground creatures.
What would you do here?
Option 4—Play Island, pass, don’t cast Merfolk.
I decided to just play the long game here. I took 3 damage, and then on the following turn I played Phyrexian Scriptures. I think this is a very close decision, because your hand is aggressive and you could in theory tempo your opponent out and never even play the Scriptures, but I thought I’d be happy paying some life to get a 2-for-1 and then start the game with the initiative (both because I’d have a 2/4 and because I’d be the first to play something). Then you can just play Rona, get back Scriptures, and repeat if you want.
If you choose to play a card, then I like playing the Merfolk and trading more than the other options. Even if you have an aggressive hand, your opponent is likely to just cast something bigger that you’ll want to bounce, so it’s better to just trade with the 3/2.
Situation #3: R/G with a black splash
You have six total legendaries in your deck (Jaya and five others). This is a situation where you likely win no matter what, but is still interesting to find the correct play, because you could still theoretically lose. Here’s the scenario:
You’re definitely playing the Keldon Raider, but what do you discard?
I think that discarding a Forest is appealing here, since you really want to hit Jaya + Jaya’s Immolating Inferno to close out the game, but the truth is that you don’t need to do that. Unless something disastrous happens, you’re unlikely to lose if you just play a fifth land and have access to the Spider and the Fiery Intervention. The only way things could go badly for you is if you discard a land and then never draw a fifth land, and there’s no need to risk that. Since you already have everything you want, I’d just play it safe here and not loot.