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April 4, 2016

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Sealed Deckbuilding Tricks from the Shadows Over Innistrad Prerelease

While I don’t play much Sealed, I almost always do a prerelease event for each new set. The chance to play new cards for the first time without the pressure of making poor draft decisions, the option to change your deck between rounds, and the presence of lots of casual players makes for a unique and fun event. For the Shadows Over Innistrad prerelease I opened a reasonable pool and cajoled it into a 5-0 first place finish at a local 36 player tournament. My matches in a nutshell were:

2-0 vs RB Aggro with Flameblade Angel, Mindwrack Demon, and Devils’ Playground.
2-1 vs GWr Clue Humans (“Clumans”?) with Bygone Bishop and Tireless Tracker
2-0 vs BW Goodstuff with Elusive Tormentor and Descend Upon the Sinful
2-0 vs RB Madness Aggro with Olivia, Mobilized for War
2-0 vs GW Mediocrestuff with Traverse the Ulvenwald and Obsessive Skinner

As with any sealed format, the outcomes are heavily influenced by getting lucky or unlucky in the contents and colour distribution of your pool. My sealed pool – viewable here –  certainly had enough bombs to be a contender, but ironically the only time I felt I was beating my opponent with card quality was the final round against the other 4-0. In the other rounds my opponents had more synergy and/or equally strong rares while playing fewer colours.

Thus I’d like to believe that my result was at least in part thanks to some savvy deckbuilding decisions, and that sharing my approach to Sealed deckbuilding might help some of our good readers improve their game. Building a deck to have a coherent game plan, deciding when it’s worth playing a worse card to improve consistency, and ensuring you have a viable curve that can survive an early rush while grinding out a late game win are probably the most important skills to have in Sealed. While the dream deck will sometimes just fall into your lap, most of the time you’ll have some tough decisions to make in optimizing your starting 40.

Building a Better Sealed Deck

The first thing I usually do with a Sealed pool is to identify what, if any, game-changing bombs I have access to. All else being equal, these are the cards that win sealed games and the more of them you can play the better your results are going to be. Usually rares or mythics, it would be very unusual to have zero bombs and similarly unusual to have six or more of them. For the Shadows Over Innistrad prerelease these were the bombs I opened and immediately wanted to play if I could:

   

     

At a glance that’s the dream of six awesome rares, but keep in mind that one is a promo card (Lieutenant), one is a foil double-face card (Tormentor) and one is a non-foil double-faced card (Abbey). My six “honest” rare slots yielded a very fair three bombs, so I just got lucky with my bonus rares. Notably five of these six rares fit in Boros colours, so that was the colour-pairing I wanted to play if the pool supported it (spoiler: it didn’t).

The other thing I like to quickly identify is what mana fixing my pool has in it – particularly dual lands. While this information won’t really push you into a colour, it will give you a better sense of what’s realistic in terms of playing a third colour. My pool had a generous helping of five mana-fixing lands, as well as a pair of green mana-fixing auras.

   

 

So – Boros bombs meet Abzan fixing; not catastrophic, but not ideal either. At this point I could say that I would need a very compelling reason to play blue and that I could probably support a three colour deck without losing much consistency compared to two colours.

The last step I like to do before reviewing my pool in detail is to remove the unplayable cards. These could be niche or sideboard cards, or just plain bad. By setting them aside I don’t get deluded into thinking I have more of a given colour than I really do, and it means less cards to sift through as I’m configuring different possible decks. I review them again later to make sure nothing fits the deck I’ve built, but putting them aside early is a good habit to get into. For this prerelease I extracted these 13 cards from consideration:

The Unplayables

(13)
Aim High
Alms of the Vein
Chaplain’s Blessing
Clip Wings
Harness the Storm
Howlpack Resurgence
Invasive Surgery
Root Out
Stern Constable
Structural Distortion
Vessel of Volatility

Hopefully those three steps – identifying bombs, mana fixing, and unplayables – takes less than five minutes, and more than makes up for it by reducing the time you need to determine your colours.

To review the pool itself it’s tempting to just assess each colour individually and decide on the best two, maybe splashing a third for bombs or removal if needed. I’ve found that this is usually a waste of time however, as there may not be an obvious best colour, and sometimes the two independently best colours don’t actually yield the best deck. Instead, I like to set aside all of the creatures that I’d like to play in the deck and sort them according to mana cost. This helps visualize which colour combinations will produce a reasonable mana curve, and whether its possible to commit to a purely aggressive deck. My five-colour creature curve looked like this:

The Playable Creatures

One Drops (3)
Thraben Inspector
Town Gossipmonger
Village Messenger

Two Drops (5)
Olivia’s Bloodsworn
Quilled Wolf
Rancid Rats
Thalia’s Lieutenant
Vessel of Ephemera

Three Drops (6)
Farbog Revenant
Gloomwidow
Graf Mole
Niblis of Dusk
Pious Evangel

Four Drops (5)
Inspiring Captain
Pyre Hound
Solitary Hunter
Stitchwing Skaab

Five and Up (4)
Stomrider Spirit
Elusive Tormentor
Kessig Dire Swine
Drogskol Cavalry

I would not normally consider a one-drop playable without some kind of late game ability, but I included these three in case the Boros Aggro deck was possible. With the dearth of other aggressive Boros creatures it was pretty clear this was not an option. I immediately dismissed these three creatures from consideration as well as the Aggro enabling Thalia’s Lieutenant. What remained was a low end curve of green and black creatures that actually look good in both the early and late game. Good news for the Abzan mana fixing, not-so-good news for the Boros bombs.

While creatures are the most important part of a sealed deck, the non-creature spells still need to support the strategy and the curve. Removal spells in particular are integral to ensure you do not fold to the first rare bomb your opponent lays on the battlefield. I like to set aside all of the non-creature spells that I’m interested in playing by colour and determine to what extent they support the creature curve:

Playable Non-Creature Spells

Green (5)
Confront the Unknown
Might Beyond Reason
Weirding Wood

Black (2)
Murderous Compulsion
Throttle

White (3)
Bound by Moonsilver
Gryff’s Boon
Silverstrike

Red (6)
Burn from Within
Fiery Temper
Dual Shot
Senseless Rage
Skin Invasion
Tormenting Voice

Blue (5)
Ghostly Wings
Jace’s Scrutiny
Nagging Thoughts
Sleep Paralysis

Multicolor (1)
Nahiri, the Harbinger

The green and black spells looked like they would support the midrange strategy I had cooking. The two black removal spells were exactly what I was looking for, and the green auras would provide consistency for a splashed colour. I was not ecstatic about the green combat tricks, but I’d play them to allow more interaction if needed. Nothing in blue remotely justifies its addition to the deck, so I closed the book on that option and set the blue cards in the unplayable pile.

The question then became whether I would splash white, red, or both. I figured I would be running Burn From Within and a single Mountain no matter what, since Fireball effects are extremely good in limited, but my mana base in general was more conducive to a white splash. In the end I determined that with two Warped Landscape and two Weirding Wood my best option was actually to splash both but to do so sparingly. This meant I limited myself to the very best of my red: Burn From Within and Nahiri, the Harbinger, and the very best of my white: Silverstrike, Bound by Moonsilver, and Drogskol Cavalry. The important thing here is that I did not get greedy and try to run things like Fiery Temper or Pious Evangel. These are great cards in the abstract, but not cards I’m going to feel good about having stuck in my hand until turn seven if it comes to that.

The Green/Black ramp-into-bombs plan shaped up like this:

Four-Colour Consistency

Creatures (12)
Drogskol Cavalry
Elusive Tormentor
Farbog Revenant
Graf Mole
Hound of the Farbogs
Kessig Dire Swine
Olivia’s Bloodsworn
Quilled Wolf
Rancid Rats
Runaway Carriage
Solitary Hunter

Spells (11)
Nahiri, the Harbinger
Confront the Unknown
Might Beyond Reason
Silverstrike
Throttle
Burn from Within
Murderous Compulsion
Bound by Moonsilver
Weirding Wood
Explosive Apparatus

Land (17)
Forest
Forsaken Sanctuary
Fortified Village
Foul Orchard
Mountain
Plains
Swamp
Warped Landscape
Westvale Abbey

What Worked and What Didn’t

The only card I was patently unhappy with in this list was the Runaway Carriage. After each match I looked at what I could replace it with, and would decide each time that the potential to have a big blocker or Lava Axe was more consistent than playing a second Hound of the Farbogs, splashed Pious Evangel, or a situationally decent Macabre Waltz. I was also not terribly impressed with the copy of Hound of the Farbogs I played and would have rather had a different top end creature in that slot. It stuck for the same reason the Carriage stuck – no superior alternative (you will note neither of these creatures was on my initial list of “things i want to play” – they made the cut for curve and consistency purposes).

What really made the deck tick was some understated (unexpected) synergy. The defensive early game creatures put my opponent on the aggressive, swinging at me with multiple bodies to squeeze damage through my 1/3 and 2/4 bodies. This helped ensure that my conditional removal like Silverstrike and Murderous Compulsion worked, as well as providing more opportunities for value with my combat tricks. Together, this defensive early game bought time for me to find the missing bomb or mana to execute my end game of large resilient creatures and mana sinks (Quilled Wolf, Drogskol Cavalry, Westvale Abbey).

The cards I was most surprised by were Farbog Revenant, Confront the Unknown, and Weirding Wood. The Revenant was a good blocker against aggressive decks that could get me out of burn range once I stabilized, but also an unblockable source of damage against other grindy decks. The clues off of Confront the Unknown and Weirding Wood were worth a lot more than I would have thought – turning the former into a souped up Defiant Strike and the latter into some kind of Abundant Growth / Fertile Ground hybrid. In an aggressive deck that may not be true, but for a ramp deck looking to go late finding time and space to crack clues was trivial.

The most impressive combo I pulled off during the tournament came up twice and won the game both times, as I used Might Beyond Reason on the transformed Insidious Mist to create a 2/3 hexproof unblockable indestructible that could deal four extra damage if I was willing to invest the mana to transform it (and protect it).

Dodging the Obvious

I’d say the main mistake that I could have easily made with this pool would be getting tunnel vision on the Boros bombs and forcing a bad Boros deck through for “consistency”. I could have seen the three playable one drops, the Nahiri’s Machinations, Thalia’s Lieutenant, Gryff’s Boon, Pious Evangel and Fiery Temper and committed to pure two-colours. The problem would be combining the aggressive one-drops with the mana-hungry Drogskol Cavalry and Burn From Within making each of those cards a lot worse than they should be. By thinking it through and systematically looking at bombs, fixing, and creature curve I dodged this trap and had a much more successful tournament than would have otherwise been the case.

Until next time, may your sealed pools be full of valuable cards that are also amazing in limited – and if not, may these tips prove helpful to putting you in the prize pool!