Grand Prix Oakland is on the horizon and that means it’s time to take a look at Magic 2014 Limited. While playing core set Sealed usually ranks right up there with AVR Limited, I have to admit this format is a bit of fun in the sense that you rarely outright lose to bombs. Nearly all the bomb uncommons are gone, and very few cards outside of [card]Jace, Memory Adept[/card] are auto-wins, while the rest can be dealt with via [card]Doom Blade[/card] or similar removal.

Since I work during two 60+-player Sealed events a week, observing Sealed matches and asking friends about their results ended up being an easy way to take notes on the format. Once release events started, real data collection became easy. Over the past month I’ve noticed a few patterns that were shared in both real life and online.

1. Blue is the best color… and it isn’t close.

[draft]opportunity[/draft]

Let’s get the elephant out of the room: [card]Opportunity[/card] is the best card you’ll have to beat consistently in the late rounds of a Sealed tournament. Not only does the format maintain its slower core set roots to make drawing 4 a complete beating, it also means that getting 2-for-1s over the course of the game got more important. Opportunity is a 4-for-1, and doesn’t create a window to get punished on the opponent’s turn. Opportunity is probably better than all but a handful of rares and mythics. If you go by Sam Black Tweets and stream archives, he ranks it somewhere in the top 7 cards in the set.

Blue has two of the best uncommons in M14, and after initially being disappointed where its commons stood, it’s quickly become clear that it is perfectly reasonable when you treat them as defense-oriented cards. You can drag games on and on, and eventually you’ll win via attrition when you’ve seen five or six more cards than the opponent. It isn’t quite as efficient as casting [card]Sphinx’s Revelation[/card] and laughing all the way to the bank, but between [card]Divination[/card], [card]Elixir of Immortality[/card], and [card]Opportunity[/card] it isn’t tough to set up.

Outside of that fun fact, you also have plenty of evasion creatures to pick at opponents with and [card]Air Servant[/card] by itself will win plenty of games. This is the classic way to win in core set, and it remains viable as ever, it’s just that getting ahead on cards is that much better. I think people are stuck in the mode that they really need to be doing things early, because that’s how it’s been in the last block and a half. Even in ‘slow’ sets you still needed a real curve and doing things that affect the board, or you’d simply become overwhelmed and lose.

M14 is a major breakaway from that, and Sealed moreso. You don’t really need to apply pressure to the board, and a single 2/3 will beat or block most of the format. A [card]Scroll Thief[/card] may as well be a 1/10 for how well aggressive decks are positioned against it. You remember [card]Sensory Deprivation[/card]? That barely playable common from Innistrad? You can maindeck multiples of that and have LSV dub it the blue [card]Swords to Plowshares[/card] for good measure. Hyperbole aside, it’s just very easy to brick creatures in this format and trade 1-for-1.

This means you have a massive edge in both Sealed and draft if you end up with a deck with fewer blanks than your opponent. All you want to do is trade, eventually chain some card draw, and not deck yourself. You remember the good old days where you had a [card]Millstone[/card] winning or a [card]Mishra’s Factory[/card] or two swing over and over to finally win? Same thing here. You don’t really need to “win the game” as long as you aren’t in a losing position. Eventually card advantage pulls you ahead and that’s the ballgame. In a format like Standard or Modern, you can resolve a [card]Sphinx’s Revelation[/card] for 7 and still lose because the opponent has powerful cards. In M14 Limited, unless that powerful card is [card]Jace, Memory Adept[/card], they aren’t winning once you draw 4 more cards than them.

As for draft, I fully expect to see people to come away with far fairer blue decks over the next few weeks, because there are going to be way more people in the color.

2. Green was overrated originally, but corrected itself quickly.

[draft]rumbling baloth[/draft]

Originally green was overrated due to its solid commons and the smaller size of most non-green creatures. Instead, it turned out that green had a tick more in Grizzly Bear land than everyone else and it really didn’t outclass anyone. It had the most 4/4 creatures of any color, and yet a distinct lack of Wurm’s and T-Rex’s waiting to stomp on other players. Cards like [card]Giant Spider[/card] also don’t hold down the fort as well as usual, still a playable creature and a cornerstone in Sealed, but lacking something this go-around.

By now, people have realized green is more just a balanced color instead of a supporting color where you just jam green for 10-12 solid creatures. In fact, it parallels with black in some ways—one really [card trollhide]sweet aura[/card], [card]Doom Blade[/card] ([card]Deadly Recluse[/card]), and solid if unspectacular creatures. The difference is where black throws in a few conditional removal spells, green has three of the best uncommons in the set and arguably the best common* ([card]Elvish Mystic[/card]).

*There’s a strong case for [card]Divination[/card].

Now people realize that heavy green decks are usually fighting a losing battle for card advantage. When you can get enough fat into play it’s very hard to lose, but hitting that tipping point where you can keep shoving 4/4 after 4/4 onto the battlefield is hard. Blue is very good at drawing out the game, but at some point if you get enough massive creatures out or resolve [card]Howl of the Night Pack[/card] for 5 or more, you can overwhelm them. The key is not to get into a long grind where you throw away your few large creatures and then watch as all your 3 and 4-drops get bricked by defensive guys.

3. White is a support color at best, while red simply prefers to lend a hand.

[draft]master of diversion[/draft]

White just has very few commons worth considering, and while [card]Master of Diversion[/card] and [card]Pacifism[/card] are both very good, the majority of the white commons are interchangeable with any random bear. Sometimes [card]Serra Angel[/card] and triple [card]Master of Diversion[/card] is just going to draw you in and that’s what you’ll be brawling with, but most of white’s offerings are filler and worse copies of options from the other colors.

Looking at the playable commons, we have [card]Sentinel Sliver[/card], [card]Celestial Flare[/card] is borderline and every so often you get someone who got too greedy with a [card]Trollhide[/card] or [card]Mark of the Vampire[/card]. [card]Charging Griffin[/card] is reasonable if unexciting, and the rest of the commons are all [card]Pillarfield Ox[/card]. Meanwhile at uncommon you get [card]Banisher Priest[/card] and [card]Serra Angel[/card], which are quite good, and then a whole lot of nothing. There just aren’t many engaging reasons to get dragged into the quality-black-hole that is white.

Even if you have a good white pool, you need to remember that the cards all lean aggressive and that both blue and green (the backbone of many good M14 Sealed pools) have plenty of ways to turn a ground attack into a slog. In fact, blue can just turn any game into a slog with just commons thanks to [card]Sensory Deprivation[/card], and its commons rate higher on the toughness meter. White does not have aggressive evasion outside of [card]Serra Angel[/card] and [card]Charging Griffin[/card] and it doesn’t have a lot of ways to punish opponents for blocking.

[draft]act of treason[/draft]

Red makes off slightly better since more of its commons have actual impact on the game, but once again you depend on other colors cards to optimize them. [card]Act of Treason[/card] is a great example—normally you’d need an aggressive curve to even consider it, and with a few black sacrifice outlets it’s another removal spell. Both cheap Slivers are borderline cards, and both get far better with green Slivers. You have two reasonable removal spells, looting in [card]Academy Raider[/card], and a pair of sturdy creatures in [card]Marauding Maulhorn[/card] and [card]Pitchburn Devils[/card].

At uncommon we once again see solid support cards, you love having [card]Flames of the Firebrand[/card] and [card]Volcanic Geyser[/card] to clear the way, and we have a solid fattie in [card]Battle Sliver[/card]. This is also a pretty good set of uncommons, the only drawback being a lack real threats. There’s very little evasion, and the better creatures in red have low toughness and trade with any midgame creature or anything plus a combat trick.

Meanwhile let’s briefly recap the power uncommons in blue and green:
[draft]Air Servant
Opportunity
Water Servant
Briarpack Alpha
Enlarge
Howl of the Night Pack[/draft]

Cards like [card]Woodborn Behemoth[/card] and [card]Illusionary Armor[/card] in the slower Sealed format also can just end the game in two or three swings. Howl of the Night Pack is likely the most variance-based uncommon, since making four 2/2s isn’t quite as game-ending as one would expect. It does favor you drastically, is practically unbeatable in UG, and when cast for 5 or more usually does do the trick. So not the worst for your seven mana and Forest investment.

4. Heavy black can be rewarding, but is usually just worse than a solid two-color deck.

[draft]corrupt[/draft]

Black has some sweet commons along with some of the better removal available in the format. It also features a handful of cards that simply get better the more Swamps you have access too. Sometimes in an obvious way, like with [card]Corrupt[/card], [card]Quag Sickness[/card], and [card]Nightmare[/card], and other times in a less overt way that just makes the cards better like [card]Tenacious Dead[/card] and [card]Nightwing Shade[/card]. If your deck has enough black playables then you can consider a light splash and a deck with 13-14 Swamps to power out your Swamp-based plans.

If this feels obvious to you, then please skip ahead, but I’ve seen so many people trying to make mono-black happen. There simply aren’t enough rewards. Many times you’ll be better off sidelining these cards and playing black cards that don’t hamstring your mana costs. Sometimes it’ll knock you off playing that color entirely and I feel like that’s probably a bonus for you.

Frequently though, I see people trying to min/max on a 9/8 or 10/7 split and just cripple their mana base. Corrupt is just six mana [card]Essence Drain[/card] with three Swamps, and not the massive turnaround you get with a [card]Fireball[/card]-sized version. [card]Nightmare[/card] is the same way, I’ve seen way too many people battle with a 3/3 flyer for 5B because it’s a rare that has upside. Cards like [card]Nightwing Shade[/card] are at least reasonable on their own and their mana restrictions are not nearly as crushing.

Instead, focus on black as a strong base color and pair it with decent support. If you feel you’ll frequently need more than two Swamps in play to make good use of your cards, ask yourself if that’s better than what you plan on giving up from other colors. If it isn’t, it’s all right to sideline a Quag Sickness or go down in Swamp count if you need heavier investments in mana elsewhere. This can be seen frequently in BR decks where, while they usually pair well, firebreathing and Swamp cards simply don’t play nicely with each other.

One last interesting note is that black has access to bizzaro [card]Divination[/card], a.k.a. [card]Mind Rot[/card]. In older formats you could play one comfortably or at least sideboard it against blue. In this format, I’ll start up to two maindeck against nearly anyone, and three or more against blue decks. In Sealed this should never be in your board and I’d be tempted to main as many as I could get away with. Even firing it off and nailing a land and a spell is more potent than it was in any core set I remember.

5. In Sealed, play blue. Failing that, play black or green and then team it with a good support color. Don’t start with a base color other than blue or black without bombs or power uncommons.

In reality, picking a color depends, as it usually does, on your bombs and depth. The key difference is that blue card draw can make up for many of the bombs in the format, though cards like [card]Kalonian Hydra[/card] and [card]Shivan Dragon[/card] can still end the game in as little as two swings. I just prefer starting with one of the good base colors in the set if possible, and working from there.

I frequently end up in RG in Sealed even though I dislike the color combo for draft. I don’t aim for it, but just throwing a million monsters at the problem backed by good auras and removal can win a lot of games when you don’t open [card]Opportunity[/card]. I still maintain that ideally you’ll end up in blue, since card draw only tends to get better, and Sealed comes down to minimizing your blank-to-real-spell ratio.

Here are two sample pools provided by my friend Daniel, if you want to see how you’d build them. I’ll post the actual builds later in the comments after people have had a chance to try their own.

That’s all for this week! Next week we may walk through a few Sealed pools before the big game and see what we like. Until then!

Josh Silvestri