Now that Theros has been released, I know I am personally pleased to no longer have to play M14 Sealed at Pro Tour Qualifiers. In honour of the new set release and the beginning of what I hope to be a wonderful season of Theros Sealed PTQs, I want to crack some packs and practice building a sealed deck together. I want to review some strategies for sealed pool evaluation, building and play as well as take an opportunity to discuss a few Theros cards and what we can potentially do with them.
We often hear people refer to Sealed as “Sealed Luck,” and certainly there can be some frustration when we see others appearing to win effortlessly due to nut bombs in their pool. However, there is more skill involved than some may realize and the format does often reward more experienced players. They are better able to effectively evaluate their pool; recognizing synergies, combos and underrated cards to turn a lackluster-looking pool into something much more powerful. It really is about approaching your pool in a systematic and efficient way. While there is no real right or wrong way to go about working with a sealed pool, I would like to share how I tend to approach sealed, an approach that has been successful for me in the past.
I think we can all agree that the first thing you do when you get your pool is to sort the cards in a meaningful way. There is no way you are going to be able to identify subtle interactions or quietly powerful cards if you’re looking through a mess of cards. There are a couple different ways to go about sorting the pool and you’ll have to decide which way is more effective for yourself. Some people like to do it strictly by colour, others by mana cost, and others may prefer to immediately separate the literally unplayable cards from the rest and then see what they got. What you do does depend a bit on the format. For example, in the Return to Ravnica sets it was usually the best strategy to try to sort by guilds as that was where your multicoloured cards would align. However in Ravnica/Return to Ravnica Sealed I tended to just pick the most powerful cards right off the bat, then try to cut down to 3-4 colours and then accommodate the wild colours of the deck by playing as much mana fixing as possible. Surprisingly what seems like a really bad way to build a sealed deck was a lot more successful than my attempts to build a well-curved deck of only two colours in that format. You only have so much time to build and register your deck so it is important to go about approaching your pool in a way that works best for you without wasting time.
I personally like to start by sorting my pool by rarity. I want to see what rares and mythic rares I have as they will likely be the most powerful cards in the pool and the ones I will want to build around. The uncommons are also worth looking through as some of them may be powerful enough to splash or build around as well. For example, in Return to Ravnica block Limited, I was generally of the opinion that Trostani’s Summoner was almost always worth splashing if possible. The rares in our pool are:
We have some powerful cards here and at this stage I am most interested in playing my red rares, though Celestial Archon makes a strong case for playing white. I would prefer to play Purphoros, God of the Forge if we have a token generator like Elspeth, Sun’s Champion or a lot of small creatures. I think it works well as the top end of an aggressive deck where it may turned on by devotion, or to use it as mana sink to pump our creatures or use it to give our small creatures a little more impact when they enter the battlefield later in the game. I am not as interested in it a big R/G ramp deck, though there is an argument to be made that larger red creatures with double red mana costs are more likely to turn it on and stick around to keep it turned on. It all depends on what kind of support we have.
Once I have identified the cards I am most interested in, I like to sort the cards by mana cost. This gives me a chance to see what is available in each colour at each part of the mana curve. We may have a lot of awesome black cards, but if they are all 5+ drops, it is likely we will not be able to play them. Sorted by mana cost and colour, the rest of our pool looks like this:
My first reaction to this pool is that the green is very shallow and the red is not looking like it will support our Purphoros, God of the Forge very well. Firedrinker Satyr is one of the most talked about cards from the set, and is very aggressive but I don’t like its potential to cause us a lot of damage. The red two drops are pretty mediocre, particularly Deathbellow Raider who we can’t control from running itself into death. The two-drop slot is where we really need good cards if we want an aggressive red deck, but I think the lack of power in our red there will make the colour unplayable. Even having both Purphoros, God of the Forge and Ember Swallower in our pool is not enough reason to play red when the supporting commons and uncommons are pretty bad. I rarely like playing super-aggro strategies in Sealed as they seem to be so vulnerable to anyone who has a lot of every removal and a late-game that just goes over the top of anything a weenie aggro deck could ever do. A successful aggro deck needs a lot of consistency and to some degree, redundancy, to work and it is very unlikely that you’ll find that in your sealed pool. Unless you have the nuts aggro deck in the pool, you are probably better off planning for a huge late game with a strategy to survive the early turns of the potential aggressive match-up.
Looking at the rest of our pool, white has some of the best removal with two Divine Verdicts and a Vanquish the Foul, as well as one of the best bestow creatures, Celestial Archon. I also really like the blue cards in the pool and I think some interesting plays could be set up with our two Voyage’s End, one Griptide, one Sea God’s Revenge and one Triton Tactics. One mana tricks like Triton’s Tactics are great because people are rarely cautious enough to suspect that a single open mana represents a trick. Some of the black cards like Abhorrent Overlord and Gray Merchant of Asphodel would be better if there were a greater number of lower cost black permanents to contribute to devotion, but a 6/6 flier and a 2/4 that is guaranteed to drain for 2 life are not the worst. There is some decent removal available in black in the form of Sip of Hemlock and Pharika’s Cure. I think at this point we are able to make a rough outline of our deck:
The deck features a good number of evasive creatures, a lot of bounce and a lot of removal. I very much like the thought of my opponent wasting mana making a creature monstrous only to have it returned to their hand or to the top of their library in response. Not only do they tap out a lot of mana, it also effectively counters any additional monstrous ability, such as the ones belonging to Ember Swallower and Arbor Colossus. Divine Verdict is probably one of the best removal spells in the format, but it is so readily telegraphed that it is not difficult for opponents to play around it by not attacking or blocking when they see four open mana. That is why I want Shipwreck Singer in the deck, not only as an early flying creature but as something that can force a problematic creature to attack into a Divine Verdict. The Burnished Hart may look a little out of place, but its ability to mana fix and ramp in a three-colour deck with a high mana curve is quite valuable. All the picks either have a large impact on the board, have some sort of evasion or can remove a creature (permanently or for a turn). In Sealed it is important that you either put together a collection of high impact cards or that you build a very strong synergy. It’s rare that you get a pool that naturally has strong synergy, so often you have to identify the strongest cards in the pool and put them together as best as you can. Vanilla 2/2s or even efficient 3/3s for two mana are not going to cut it. If you haven’t heard of it already, it’s time you got acquainted with BREAD:
BREAD is a way to help differentiate the power levels of cards and to determine which cards are more likely to help win the game. Sometimes we get distracted by certain aspects of a card. Maybe it has a neat sounding ability, or it has a high power and toughness that makes it seem like a really good pick. I recall that as a newer player, I often underestimated the value of good removal and would often play what seemed like a good creature over a removal spell that would likely have made a greater impact in a match. Remembering BREAD can help keep us on track when deciding what cards to play, especially once we have figured out what the most powerful cards in our pool is and are now trying to fill out the rest of the deck.
If a player is unsure about which card is more powerful between picks, they can think about how the two cards fall in the BREAD ranking. If one pick is higher up the list than another, it is usually correct to pick that one. A newer player may struggle between choosing a 2/1 flier for 2 mana and a 3/2 ground pounder for 3 mana, thinking that the ground creature is the better pick. However, if they are familiar with BREAD, they would likely choose the 2/1 flier, because power and mana costs differences aside, having some sort of evasion like flying is better than having none at all. BREAD is not a complete or perfect card evaluation system but, we can use the principle of BREAD to make a rough ranking of picks, a useful tool if we are still at a stage where our card evaluation skills are still a little shaky.
Most players subconsciously follow BREAD anyway. The first instinct in draft or sealed is to go for the cards most likely to make a splash when they are played because bombs are going to win you the game. Good removal can sometimes be picked over a bomb since it can clear a path for your bomb or preserve your life total long enough to win. The reason Orzhov was so powerful in Gatecrash Limited was that if you had enough removal and patience, you could often win by just killing your biggest threats while you chipped away at your opponent’s life total or dropped a late game bomb. There is not as much good removal in Theros and unfortunately the best removal can be difficult to splash due to restrictive colour requirements. Sip of Hemlock, Hero’s Downfall and Pharika’s Cure[/card] all require double black, and Chained to the Rocks requires a Mountain in play so it may as well be WR. But you will likely make an effort t[card]o accommodate the colour requirements of good removal and bombs because they will be the most powerful card in your deck. You would be quite happy if all the non-land cards in your sealed deck were bombs and removal, but unfortunately we do have to play a 40-card minimum deck and to meet that requirement we have to play less than optimal cards.
Our deck currently only has 17 cards and while they are the most pertinent to our plans to win, we need at least 5-6 more cards plus land to round out the curve and complete the deck. While some consideration should be given to our mana curve, it is generally better to fill out the rest of the deck based on the principles of BREAD. You really need the power level of your sealed deck to be as high as possible and unless the format is very fast, you can be forgiven for a lack of two- or three-drops if it means you are playing better cards. If you do encounter a very fast opponent, you can always side in cheaper, less powerful creatures to be early blockers. For our pre-sideboard game, I think it is better to lay out as much power and good spells as we can. We are lacking at the three-mana point in the curve and are creature-light with only 8 currently in the deck. We already have the most powerful on-colour bombs and removal in our pool, so we’ll look to fill out the curve first with creatures with evasion, then with efficient attackers or creatures with good abilities and finally (if we absolutely have to) with defenders or weak attackers based on the principles of BREAD. This is what our final list of spells looks like:
I added 4 fliers and 2 creatures with abilities to finish up the list. The additions of Vaporkin, Nimbus Naiad and Blood-Toll Harpy give a little more early aggression to our deck. I like Omenspeaker because I like scry a lot and I greatly value its ability to increase control of the next few draws. Scry will help us bypass irrelevant cards and bring more powerful cards or answers to the top of our deck. Omenspeaker can also hold off some of the early aggressive creatures like Firedrinker Satyr, Soldier of the Pantheon and Tormented Hero. Omenspeaker is an interesting example where certain aspects of the card and the way it fits into a deck make a higher pick than one would think, according to BREAD.
Usually within one of the categories of BREAD, (in this case Attacker) you would want to rank the creatures based on their stats. As a 1/3, Omenspeaker does not have an impressive body and probably will not see much combat later in the game except as a sacrificial chump blocker. But it is an example of where you may value a creature more highly based on an ability. Omenspeaker’s enter the battlefield trigger would not make it a higher pick over Vaporkin, an Evasive 2-drop in our pool, because we generally want to be more proactive and aggressive where possible with our picks. However, it does offer something that is potentially more powerful than Bronze Sable, another 2-drop creature in the Attacker category.
BREAD does not provide a clear guideline when determining the value of abilities like Omenspeaker and weighing it against other considerations such as power, toughness and mana cost. Baleful Eidolon was another potential pick at the 2-drop level because of deathtouch. We could have just as well run two Baleful Eidolons instead of Omenspeaker and a Nimbus Naiad because they can chump and kill any size of creature. It may be that with aggressive decks or decks with a lot of large ground creatures that we would side it in as a sort of extra removal and to lower our mana curve. We cannot value it as highly as a removal spell because it could so easily die to first strike damage or a removal spell before it can trade up with a larger creature. You have to be able to determine the situations in which a certain ability is more useful than another. BREAD will broadly rank creatures by their impact on the game, but it doesn’t do much to determine which creatures within a category are the better picks or when an ability is good enough to make a creature a better pick.
The last slot is a tossup between Breaching Hippocamp and Mnemonic Wall, an example of where cross-categorical comparison occurs with considerations to placement on the mana curve, ability and power/toughness. I like that Breaching Hippocamp is not competing with our best cards in the 5+ area of the mana curve and that it is a combat trick with a body attached. However, for a four-drop, the body is not much and it likely won’t make much of an impact beyond being used as a combat trick. You can get into awkward situations where you are holding up mana for the trick and end up messing up your tempo or game plan just because you try to keep the mana open. Mnemonic Wall is over-costed for a 0/4 defender, but it buys back one of our instants or sorceries. I see it having a role as a potential out when we find ourselves desperately in need of an already used removal or bounce spell. After going back and forth between the two, I finally chose Mnemonic Wall figuring the return of a removal spell to my hand is more valuable than a 4 mana trick.
The final thing to do is to decide on how many of each lands to play. Our deck is currently mostly U/B with a splash of white. The double white in Celestial Archon could cause some mana difficulties, so it may be correct to cut it; however it also comes down late enough in the game that we have a better chance of meeting the colour requirements at the time we are looking to cast it. A mistake that I see fairly often is players try to play their splash colour early on the mana curve. Maybe they figure they need to round out the curve or that the 2 drop in the splashed colour is so powerful that it is worth splashing . Unfortunately, you cannot count on getting the mana for the splashed colour in the early turns when that splashed two or three drop naturally has its greatest impact. If you draw it in your opening hand, it will likely sit dead there until you finally draw the land to cast it. By that point it’s unlikely to have any meaningful impact on the board and you would have been better off with a less powerful card in your colours that you could have cast on time. That is why it is recommended that you only splash for removal or bombs because they are generally good at any point in the game and are unlikely to be a dead card in the late game when you have the land to cast it. At our current build, it is possible that 17 lands will not be enough, but I do believe that we have enough scry and early play in a relatively slow format to be able to wait on some tardy land drops. I’ll admit I am not the best at building land bases, but I imagine 8U, 6B and 3W would work. I would also consider running 41 cards or cutting either Celestial Archon or Merchant of Asphodel to play an additional Plains.
Naturally I would love to hear in the comments how others would approach this pool and how they would build the deck differently. There is a lot of complex decision making that goes into sealed deck building and rarely will two people come up with the same list from the same pool. It can be very valuable to see how others build and how they go about evaluating cards. I attribute a lot of my success at GP Houston this year from listening to Brian Kibler and Reid Duke talk about how they build decks in their videos of RTR Block Sealed so it would be great to get a discussion going on how Theros could be approached in Sealed. Hopefully we’ll learn something from each other and gain a little more insight into this format.