[MTGS Classics] Disclosing a Sealed World

I’m here to help you win your next local Prerelease. No kidding.

There are two ways I could possibly do that: I could explain some things about Sealed deckbuilding in general, or I could post the Ravnica spoiler.

Tough luck, guys. It’s gonna be Limited talk today.

This article is particularly directed at those people who want to do better at Prereleases. Prereleases are great fun, but walking away with some more boosters of the new set at the end ought to be even more fun, right? So, I’ll be talking about Sealed deck “in general.” I'll try to help you evaluate cards you've never seen before for Sealed play. I don’t think you want a bunch of abstract theories though, so I’ll spice them up with examples from the latest block, Kamigawa. But, the theory should (more or less) apply to any new environment.

One thing I won’t cover today is the mana. You should know by now that 17 lands is pretty much the right number – sometimes 16, sometimes 18. But there’s already an entire article about that.

And while I’m at it: play 40 cards. Not. More. Than. Forty. There really isn’t anything more important than that.

So, how do you decide which colours to play? And what is all this talk about a mana curve? I’ll get to that in a moment. But first, we must ask ourselves another question…

I. What cards are good?

In Limited, there are three major groups of cards: creatures, removal, and the rest. There is one simple rule about these groups: creatures are important, removal is even more important, and the rest can wait. This means that when you’re in doubt between adding a not-so-good creature (say, Quillmane Baku) or a not-so-good other card (like Toils of Night and Day) the creature should usually get the nod. The reason for this is that the creature is much more likely to be relevant; also, you should always play enough creatures. Having no creatures on the board is, after all, a certain way to die. Therefore, try to play at least 14 creatures, and when cutting cards from your deck, try to go for those cards from the third group.

Let’s go a bit more in depth about each of these groups.


Ooh, that's probably quite a good card...
As I said, creatures are the backbone of your deck. Now, which creatures should you look out for? There are several groups of useful creatures: creatures with evasion (such as Shinen of Flight’s Wings and Mothrider Samurai), creatures with good stats and/or combat abilities for their mana cost (Kitsune Blademaster, Order of the Sacred Bell, Takenuma Bleeder), and creatures with useful abilities (Kami of Fire’s Roar, Waxmane Baku). Creatures that fit into several groups are excellent cards (Teller of Tales, Soratami Mirror-Guard). Obviously if a card fits into all three categories, it must be very good. So if you open a Keiga, just jump on the table and start screaming like mad. Or, perhaps, don’t do that, but put it into your deck anyway.

One group of creatures that deserves special mention is those that give you card advantage. Card advantage is what Limited is all about, even more than Constructed. Scuttling Death and Elder Pine of Jukai are examples of cards that are great because of the card advantage they often create.

There’s one thing I feel I specifically need to mention, because I’ve seen it quite often. 1/1 creatures are generally useless bodies. A 1/1 creature needs to have a good ability to be playable, like Split-Tail Miko or Soratami Cloudskater. Some cards I’ve seen played too often are Lantern Kami, Gnat Miser, Teardrop Kami… Their abilities just don’t make them good enough to be played 90% of the time. Think twice about playing 1/1s, because their bodies won’t have enough impact. Try to think like this: if this were an enchantment with the same mana cost, would I play this card? This makes it quite obvious why you should never play Gnat Miser, while Split-Tail Miko is good. (I know, this doesn’t work with the fliers… makes you wonder what a flying enchantment looks like…) Another way to think is in term of the "clock" you set: a 1/1 puts your opponent on a 20 turn clock, a 2/2 sets a 10 turn clock. That's a big difference; that's what makes cards like Nezumi Cutthroat so good.


You know, Wizards is just trying to push it
further and further to see how expensive they
can make removal until we stop playing it...
Ah, removal. This part is easy. You just play it. Even stupidly overcosted removal, like Pus Kami and Pull Under, will generally make it into your deck (although you have to look after your mana curve – I’ll get to that later). The only removal that should usually not make your deck is very situational removal, like Call for Blood. Note that some white and blue enchant creatures are counted as removal too: Cage of Hands and Mystic Restraints are obvious examples, but Freed from the Real and Heart of Light will frequently make your deck too.

One more thing: removal that creates card advantage (usually by removing more than one creature) is generally referred to as an “insane bomb.” If you see these it might be a good idea to look if you can play that colour. Examples are Hideous Laughter, Exile into Darkness, and Ghost-Lit Raider.

The rest

And then there’s the most complicated group. I said you should minimize the number of “rest” cards in your deck. Easy to say, huh? But what are those few “other” cards I should play then? Again, there are a couple of specific groups of cards. Combat tricks, like Indomitable Will, Serpent Skin, or Inner Calm, Outer Strength, are always worth a place in your deck, because they can act as pseudo-removal in colours that are otherwise low in removal.

Next, there are cards that, again, create card advantage (see a pattern?). Some easy examples here are Waking Nightmare, Overwhelming Intellect, and the Hondens (except the white one). This kind of card will make your deck simply because card advantage wins games.

The fact that I just left out the white Honden doesn’t mean it’s not good. I’d call this third group “cards that just make it hard for your opponent to win.” Some other examples are Ghostly Prison and Molting Skin. There are also creatures that do this, like Ghost-Lit Redeemer, and the Pain in the Ass of Kamigawa Block Limited Himself, Oboro Envoy. Now, please, don’t take this last part as: “oh, life gain must be good!” It’s not. It’s NOT. Note that the life-gain cards I mentioned are cards that gain you life every turn. So leave those Joyous Respites, Vital Surges and Dosan’s Oldest Chants in your sideboard.

II. Which colours shall I play?

Ah, the pleasure of opening bombs!
With that out of the way, let’s get to the interesting part. Choosing your colours. First you should of course sort your cards by colour if that wasn’t done already. The first thing you'll probably notice about your card pool is which bombs you have. They are after all quite easy to recognize. If it cost 6 and says 5/5 flying, it’s probably a bomb. If it costs 5 and says “1R: deal 1 damage to target creature” that’s probably another bomb. If it’s a 5/4 regenerating guy that says “steal your opponent’s dead bodies”, guess what, that must be another bomb! Boy, you are one lucky bastard.

Now, have a look at each colour separately. Take out the unplayable cards and count if you have enough playables to make this colour a main colour of your deck. You should usually have at least 9 playables in each of your main colours (and preferably a bit more in at least one of them). If you don't have enough cards to play a colour, it just won't work out. Don't play a bunch of sub-par cards just because you have a bomb in that colour. Your deck has to be able to perform well without drawing that bomb, and even if you do draw it, if you're too far behind in board position by then it probably won't save you.

If you do have enough playables in some colours, you should of course try to play those colours with the most and best bombs. It’s also a good idea to play colours that work well together, for example one colour with good defensive cards (this is quite often white) and one colour with good fliers (often blue). The golden rule is to stick to two colours, and possibly splash a third. (Splashing a colour means playing a small amount of it as third colour, generally with about 3 lands of the splash colour.) If at all possible avoid going the “6-6-6” way, this is playing three colours equally (with 6 lands of each).

There are two kinds of cards you generally want to splash for: bombs and removal. Unless you have a lot of mana-fixing, don’t splash cards which cost 2 mana of your splash colour or have an otherwise heavy commitment to their colour (like Shining Shoal). Keiga is splashable, Genju of the Spires is not.

III. The Mana Curve

No. Just, no. Don't.
There is one more important aspect of deckbuilding: the mana curve. When you think you have chosen your colours, lay out the cards you think you’ll play, sorted by creature versus non-creature and by mana cost.

At this point, have a look if there aren’t any obvious “holes.” You should have enough creatures at the 2- and 3-mana spot, then fewer creatures (and cards in total) at 4 mana. The mana curve is important because having a bad curve will cause you to fall behind in the tempo of the game. For example, if your opponent plays a Skullsnatcher on turn two, Takenuma Bleeder on turn three and then Ninjutsus an Okiba-Gang Shinobi into play, while your only play is a turn four Shimmering Glasskite, you pretty much lost the game right there. However, there would be no problem if you had your own curve of, say, Floating-Dream Zubera, River Kaijin, Shimmering Glasskite.

Some rules as a help:

  • Don’t play any cards that cost 8 mana or more.
  • Don’t play more than one 7-mana card (and don’t play any if you can help it).
  • Don’t play more than 3 cards that cost six or more.
  • Don’t play more than 5 cards that cost five or more.
These are maximum numbers, so going below them is generally a good thing. If you really have a whole lot of mana accelerators you can change these numbers a bit, but this doesn’t happen often in Sealed.

What to do if you have “holes” in your curve, like no 2-mana creatures? You can look through the cards you dismissed if there’s really nothing there that you could play. Or you could look through your other colours and lay the playable cards of a third colour out as I described above, and see if that colour fills the holes better. If it does, you should seriously consider swapping out one of your first colours, even if the “new” colour has a bit less raw power.

IV. Let’s put it into practice

Here’s an example. It’s one Champions tournament pack, one Betrayers and one Saviors booster. (That technically doesn’t make sense since you can’t have such kind of pool for a prerelease… but I can’t give a Ravnica example anyway.) Try to build the best possible deck out of the following card pool:

I’ll hide my comments about this card pool for now, so you can build your own deck first if you want.

Let’s examine this card pool. I hope you noticed the two bombs here: a big evasive creature and reusable removal.

White: I think it’s obvious that the white cards in this pack are plain awesome. Hikari, Kabuto Moth, Kitsune Blademaster, Cage of Hands, and Waxmane Baku are some of the best cards you can expect to get. I hope you didn't try to build a non-white deck from this pool.

Blue: Blue also looks very good. Soratami Rainshaper, Teller of Tales, Genju of the Falls and Kira are the top cards. Blue is definitely playable.

Say bye to Kiku...
Black: This colour is tricky. Kiku is a bomb, Gutwrencher Oni, Befoul, Okiba-Gang Shinobi and Kagemaro’s Clutch are great too, but after that the only other playable cards are Wicked Akuba and Stir the Grave. That’s only seven cards, and there’s really nothing else in black you’d want to play. Another problem is the mana cost of these cards: BB for the Akuba and Kiku, while the Oni and Befoul also have double black in their cost (Shinobi as well, but you’d hope to Ninjutsu him in play). This means that, to play these cards, black better be the main colour of the deck, so you can play enough Swamps to cast them reliably. With only seven black cards to play, this just isn’t going to happen. So, say goodbye to Kiku, because there just isn’t enough black to play her, and she’s not exactly splashable either…

Red: Red looks very shallow, with fewer playable cards than black. There are however two good removal spells that cost only a single red mana: Honden of Infinite Rage and Torrent of Stone. Keep these in mind, it might be a good idea to splash them. Other than that, let’s forget red existed.

Green: Green looks good as well, and will be in contention with blue to make the deck. With Kashi-Tribe Reaver, Soilshaper, Order of the Sacred Bell, Sakura-Tribe Elder and Inner Calm, Outer Strength, green clearly has some good cards.

With white being the best colour, and black and red both refusing a position as main colour, our options are white-blue and white-green. In the latter deck it’s easy to splash the two red removal cards because of the mana-fixing in green (you can count the Sakura-Tribe Elder as an extra source of red mana). Let’s sort the two possible decks by mana cost:

That’s only 22 cards, but in this build I’d play 18 lands because it’s particularly mana-heavy. This deck has a lot raw power, with plenty of fliers, but the mana curve is quite horrible. It has only one 2-drop, nine 3-drops, again a single 4-mana creature, four 5-mana cards and one 6-mana card to top it off. This could make the deck slow and clumsy to play, which is why I would rather choose the following, aggressive build:

This deck loses a bit of the power of the former deck, but the great mana curve, the aggressive nature, and the fact that it has a bit more removal makes this build the preferable one for me. It's also possible to splash black for Okiba-Gang Shinobi and Kagemaro's Clutch, but I think the red cards are slightly better in this deck.


Now, of course, all this was just about one part of winning in Sealed deck: deckbuilding. When your deck is built, there are still games to be played, and if you’re a bad player, even the best deck can’t help you. But that topic would make me stray a bit too far from the path. I hope you both enjoyed this article and learned something from it. Don’t forget that in the end, practice is the only true road to improvement.

- Tahn


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