I have played more competitive Sealed than just about anyone. I have gone to Grand Prix Toronto, Nashville, and Florence in my quest for my 20th pro point (unfortunately unsuccessfully) and have been PTQing at the same time so that I can try to get qualified for everything next year in case I missed my 20th pro point (which I did, and so far have two PTQ top 8s but no wins this season). With that in mind, I have a few insights about Sealed based on a couple of my more interesting pools:
The first pool I’m going to look at is a pool from an LA PTQ I top 8ed.
This pool had a bunch of different possible directions. black, green, and white were all possible main colors while red and green (if not a main color) were splashable. The white was very shallow. However, in this format power is much more important than depth due to needing a high artifact count anyway. Thus, I quickly chose white as a base color.
For my second color, green offered more powerful cards than black. Genesis Wave, Acid Web Spider, and Horizon Spellbomb offered sources of card advantage, while Ezuri, with Tel-Jilad Fallen and Carapace Forger offered some cute interactions. Unfortunately, my pool simply wasn’t powerful enough to play a long game regardless of how I built it.
Thus, I turned to black. The black offered some pressure in the form of Painsmith and Fume Spitters while offering removal in Grasp of Darkness and Flesh Allergy. Black also offered very swingy cards like Bleak Coven Vampires which would be a great way to make up for my deck’s lack of power.
When I looked at my deck and saw that it was not powerful enough, I knew I was going to have to get by on synergy. Metalcrafting was a given, as my two Smiths and two Vampires clearly were going to need to get full value. I immediately knew I wanted around 13-15 artifacts.
Next, I looked at Flesh Allergy. For my deck to be successful, Flesh Allergy was going to have to force through a lot of damage. Fume Spitter could help, but I wanted other ways to increase the number of creatures that hit the graveyard. Auriok Replica might’ve made the cut as a 3 mana 2/2 artifact creature, but the ability to help save some life in a race and boost Flesh Allergy put it over the top. The synergy with Allergy also made it clear that splashing Sylvok Replica was right. I needed artifact creatures anyway, and had a Copper Myr and Horizon Spellbomb to help with the splash. The next splash card was not so obvious. Oxidda Scrapmelter was clearly going to make the cut as I needed to get a little greedy to make my deck powerful enough to compete. However, it was not so clear that Vulshok Replica would be a good addition. With a Vulshok out and an Allergy in hand, it can be easy to burn someone out from ten life. Between creatures dying in combat, the Replica dying to its ability, the sacrificed creature, and the destroyed creature, it is not unreasonable to deal a huge chunk of damage out of nowhere with Flesh Allergy.
The next place I looked for some added synergy was Myr Galvanizer. With four Myr and a Myrsmith, it could provide some real power. In addition, playing all of the Myr also allowed me to cut a land which was useful.
Trigon of Rage helped my ragtag bunch of bears trade in combat, or pressure the opponent by powering up the creature that got through. Unfortunately, I only had one red source, so I could not recharge it even though I was splashing red.
Once I added all of the above cards and the obviously powerful cards, I was left with this, plus one open slot:
For the last slot, the most powerful card left was clearly Instill Infection. However, it didn’t fit the deck at all. I already had two Fume Spitters to take out small creatures, and I didn’t really want card advantage as my deck wasn’t planning on going long anyway. In addition, I needed this slot to be an artifact to even give me 13 and I didn’t feel like Instill was better for the deck than any of the non-artifacts.
The artifacts I considered for the last slot were Panic Spellbomb, Necrogen Censer, and Strider Harness. Spellbomb is not usually a card I consider when I am not base red, but as I said before, I was digging deep with this pool, and I did have a Horizon Spellbomb and a Mountain as red sources. Necrogen Censer fit with my burn plan, but I felt that Spellbomb was the better choice as it could often force through just as much damage, was cheaper, and still had some potential to draw a card. Strider Harness felt a little slow for my deck, and I ended up choosing the Spellbomb, but I think it was relatively close. Against decks with a lot of x/1s I boarded in Instill Infection, but didn’t really have many other options in the board.
While I may not have gotten lucky during the deck swap, I did get lucky during play. My opponents mulliganed a lot and had a fair amount of mana issues. Flesh Allergy absolutely carried me forcing through tons of damage, taking out bombs, and even single-handedly dealing 20 damage by taking out a Precursor Golem (3 creatures had died in combat, and he had a Rusted Relic to give the Allergy a fourth target). I ended up finishing 7-1-1 to top 8, but lost in the semifinals. I feel like this pool really exemplifies how synergy can make up for power. Sealed pools are not just a pile of your 23 best cards in two different colors. Work for every bit of interaction you can. Even the worst of pools can top 8 a PTQ or day two a Grand Prix if you build them correctly, play tight, and get a little lucky during game play.
After much deliberation, I decided to go to Florence to try and get my 20th pro point. Here is the deck I played:
I feel like overall this pool was not as strong as it seems. At first, it seemed unbeatable as it is playing 7!!! rares and has a lot of synergies like Forgemasters and Architects to power out the bomby artifacts. However, there are a few things it lacks: early game, and removal (which can be the same). For example, Neurok Replica was absolutely one of the best cards in my deck (even though it was one of the least powerful). It bought me time, and then could be used to protect my bombs in the late game.
It is very important to think about cards in context in this Sealed format. I think this deck exemplifies that principle better than most. The most glaring example of this principle is Strata Scythe. Strata Scythe is probably in the top 15 cards in the set for Sealed. However, in this deck, it shouldn’t have made the cut. I drew Strata Scythe 5 or 6 times during the GP and 3 or 4 more times in test games and once, when I was really lucky, it traded for a Shatter. I simply had very few creatures that wanted to hold a Strata Scythe. I didn’t really need win conditions as I already had bombs, and if my equipped creature got killed, the tempo loss would be insurmountable as my deck was slow to begin with. As good as the card is, Strata Scythe really did not belong.
The next important context decision is the splash cards. My splash options included: Sylvok Replica and Copper Myr, Galvanic Blast and Iron Myr, and Arrest and Revoke Existence. I almost always play Sylvok Replica when I have a Copper Myr, as three for a 1/3 artifact creature isn’t that bad and the potential to randomly have an extra removal spell is huge. Since my deck needed more removal, I figured I was definitely going to splash the Replica and either white or red. Since the red had a “free” source (I would play the Myr even if it were off-color), I figured it was the way to go. My mana had Grand Architect, Fume Spitter, and Geth, so the fewer off-color lands I had to play, the better. It was then that I turned to Razorverge Thicket. A green/white dual land isn’t usually the glue that holds a blue black deck together, but in this case, it was. The Thicket would both add a white source and make my Sylvok Replica better. There’s context rearing its ugly head again. I happily slid in the Arrest and Revoke and the dual and added a Plains.
This was my second mistake. No, splashing white was not a mistake. Playing only two white sources was. When splashing two cards, two sources is reasonable. However, if you can afford it you should play three. While I had some constraints with needing double blue early for Architect and needing early black for cycling Spellbombs, I still should’ve played a second Plains instead of a Swamp. Three times during the day I was stuck with an Arrest, a Revoke, or both in my hand and no white source to be found. While it is unclear how many of those times I would have drawn the third source, one could guess that not playing the third source probably cost me at least one game during the GP.
Assuming I cut the Scythe and add a Plains for a Swamp, there is one open slot. The most powerful on-color card in my sideboard is Heavy Arbalest. In long Sealed games, it can take over and allow you to slowly take out their whole army. However, Arbalest was clearly wrong for this deck. Arbalest takes seven mana before it does anything, and even then, it fits much better in a deck with more small creatures to use it. My deck needs early game, not late game.
The next card I looked at was Razor Hippogriff. Let’s just say I stared at that one for a long time during building. The Hippo is arguably the most powerful card in my sideboard (on par with Galvanic Blast) and has a lot of synergy with my deck. With Neurok Replica, you can bounce the Hippo to protect it, and then return the Replica and do it all over again. In addition, Hippo can return my Hellkite or Golem if they happen to die. In the end, as tempting as it was, I passed on the Hippo as my deck already had very good late game and I didn’t want to destroy my manabase.
Next up came Galvanic Blast. Above I explained why I liked the white better than the red. However, there was still the option to splash both. If I added one Mountain I would have two sources for the Blast. Like Hippo, I eventually just decided this would be too greedy.
Perhaps I didn’t have to splash a color to fit one more removal spell into the deck. Flesh Allergy was sitting right there in my sideboard, and could take out literally anything. Above, I discussed how it carried me to the top 8 of my last PTQ. Unfortunately, context was the problem once again. Just because a card was great for you before doesn’t mean it will be great in a different deck. Flesh Allergy shines when you have lots of great things to sacrifice. There are obvious ones like Necropede and Perilous Myr, and less obvious ones like Origin Spellbomb tokens or Myr in a deck without mana sinks. In addition, Flesh Allergy gains value when you can use it as a burn spell. My deck was built very controlling and rarely gets into racing situations. Thus, Flesh Allergy remained on the bench.
I didn’t consider Halt Order very seriously because it is mainly used as a source of card advantage for decks that lack them. My deck already had bombs for the late game, and Halt Order isn’t the most optimal spell to help you get there.
Twisted Image didn’t get much consideration as it doesn’t really have enough impact, even as a cantrip. The interaction with Neurok Replica is cute, and the potential to Ancestral off Precursor Golem is awesome, but in the end it just didn’t quite make the cut.
Last, but not least, is Disperse. As a colored spell that is often card disadvantage, Disperse doesn’t usually make the cut in this Sealed format. Thus, I didn’t give it its due consideration. If I had, I may have realized that it filled the same role as Neurok Replica. Early in the game, Disperse can provide a huge tempo swing by bouncing an artifact to deactivate metalcraft and force them to recast it. While normally the loss of card advantage would not be worth the tempo swing, this deck can easily make up for the loss of card advantage with its bombs. Also like Neurok Replica, Disperse can protect bombs as long as you are willing to keep up a blue and a colorless. It fills this role even better than Neurok as it is not obvious to your opponent that you have a way to protect your bomb and creates a surprise factor.
One interesting example of building in context came in a draft I did at GP Florence. Yuuya Watanabe and I were 2v2ing against Tom Raney and Kazayu Mitamura. I drafted a sweet proliferator deck (which I unfortunately 0-2d with due to some awkward draws), but Yuuya’s deck was much more interesting. Yuuya had a collection of five two mana Myr and a Palladium Myr. Most people would merely cut two Myr and play some suboptimal cards. However, Yuuya had something else in mind. After showing me his Myr suite, Yuuya promptly laid down his X spell suite. He proudly laid down 3 Exsanguinates and a Genesis Wave. Now, this was not an archetype that Yuuya had seen before, but was more about thinking on your feet. Yuuya saw that the packs were weak and that his deck was going to be underpowered, and quickly saw a way to use synergy to replace power. Yuuya’s black green non-poison 6 Myr deck 2-0d to prevent us from losing the draft. He won two of his four games without dealing a single point of combat damage, but simply Exsanguinating for ten twice. Yuuya’s quick thinking in context saved our draft.
While many people complain about the bomb heaviness of this Sealed format (which is a big problem), this format also has redeeming qualities. In this format, more than perhaps any other before it, synergy is rewarded. To win in this format, it is crucial that you understand your deck’s plan and implement it with every card in your pool. If I had played Disperse over Strata Scythe, a seemingly ridiculous move, I would be telling you about how I qualified for worlds at Florence, instead of telling you why I missed. When I played my Flesh Allergy aggro deck over my more powerful grindy green deck, I top 8ed the PTQ. Have a plan, take advantage of synergies, and take down your next PTQ.