Stark Reality – Building a Better Sealed


With two Pro Tour Top 8’s and three GP Top 8’s, Ben Stark has quite a bit of experience on the Pro Tour. He recently began playing high-level events again after a four-year hiatus, and luckily for us has decided to begin writing again as well. Here is the first of hopefully many articles, so enjoy! – LSV

Building a sealed deck in a tournament is one of the most trying and difficult tasks you will face as a tournament magic player. When designing a deck for a Constructed tournament you have endless hours to playtest, tweak, and tune your deck to get it to run optimally. You can play it versus all the different types of decks you might expect to face in the tournament and examine your results. In a sealed deck tournament you normally have about 30 minutes to make a deck without any possibility of playtesting your deck versus any of the likely sealed builds you might play against and without any chance to modify your deck.

Now more than ever, since Wizards has switched to giving us six booster packs instead of 1 starter deck and 2 boosters (which is roughly the equivalent of 5 booster packs) we have a lot of options in building. With such a short amount of time to consider these options, if you want to build good sealed decks you need to already be familiar with some of the main concepts. One thing that stays constant in Magic is that while the cards are always changing, the main concepts stay pretty much the same.

When building a sealed deck you need to have your priorities in order, the most important of which is to play your removal. Everyone plays their bombs in sealed deck, so removal is key in dealing with them. Speaking of which, the next most important concept is to play your bombs. I know a lot of good Magic players whose problem is that they think as long as they aren’t mana screwed they can outplay weaker opponents. This leads them to play a more consistent two color deck in their deeper colors. Honestly, this is flat wrong in sealed deck. Play your bombs. In Grand Prix Tampa I had 1 bomb in my entire sealed pool; a lone copy of Sorin Markov. After the 3 byes I went 5-1 with my sealed, meaning I won 10 games. I cast Sorin four times and won all four of those games easily. In fact, most of my opponents conceded within a turn or two of my casting Sorin once they saw where the game was going. You’re never too good for easy wins.

One key thing to remember about being a successful Magic player is that it means doing things well and chalking up wins, not outplaying everyone every game. I had to win some tough games in Tampa, but those four easy wins helped get me the same three match points that my hardest fought victories got me. That is forty percent of the games I won on the back of just one card.

Another key concept that is a lot more important in sealed deck than booster draft is card advantage, particularly in this aggressive format. While never a bad thing, in booster draft, where decks have good curves, better mana bases, and are all around faster, card advantage becomes a lot less important. In sealed deck, where a lot of the games tend to go late after each player deals with the opposing bombs, whoever has found ways to net card advantage will often find themselves in a favorable position.

Ben Stark

9-0 including 2 Byes – Grand Prix Boston

Main Deck


7 Forest
2 Plains
1 Sunpetal Grove
8 Swamp

1 Bog Wraith
1 Cemetery Reaper
2 Centaur Courser
1 Craw Wurm
1 Deadly Recluse
1 Dread Warlock
1 Elvish Visionary
1 Enormous Baloth
1 Giant Spider
1 Gravedigger
1 Kelinore Bat
1 Llanowar Elves
1 Zombie Goliath
1 Divine Verdict
2 Doom Blade
1 Howl of the Night Pack
1 Pacifism
1 Rise from the Grave
1 Tendrils of Corruption
1 Weakness

This is the deck I played to a 7-0 record (after 2 byes) on Day 1 of Grand Prix Boston. It is not terrible, but it most definitely is unspectacular. My card pool had virtually no bombs, except one Fireball with 5 total playable Red cards and no Green mana fixers or Red dual lands. With no real way to play it other than as a potential splash, I turned to Cemetery Reaper (my next best card) to win me games. I thought about splashing the Fireball but it really doesn’t do it for this deck. My deck wasn’t overly aggressive and the damage wasn’t that likely to finish them. What my deck did have was some solutions: 2 Doom Blade and 1 Tendrils of Corruption gave me a good start in being able to deal with my opponents bombs. When I looked at my White splash, which had Divine Verdict, Pacifism, and a Safe Passage (that I left in the sideboard but brought in versus pretty much any Green or Red opponent all day), my deck definitely could deal with my opponents bombs. Now I just had to win the games.

What this deck lacks in raw power it more than makes up for in ways to get card advantage. Cemetery Reaper, Gravedigger, Howl of the Night Pack, Enormous Baloth, and even Elvish Visionary all have the potential to yield card advantage. It is extremely obvious that Howl of the Night Pack with only seven Forests is less than spectacular, and a vanilla seven mana 7/7 is going to be way less powerful then my opponent’s bombs. That said, both cards won me games all day. By being able to solve your opponent’s game winning cards then having an abundance of ways to gain card advantage you can easily overcome a lack of power in your own card pool. The key mistake to avoid here is trying to build a more aggressive deck with a better curve. People tend to play almost all their midsized creatures in sealed deck so trying to be overly aggressive is almost always a mistake.

After scrubbing out of Pro Tour Austin I decided to play a generic Grand Prix trial they ran Saturday. It was Zendikar sealed so I thought it would be good practice for Grand Prix Tampa, and I am not back on the train yet so having 3 byes on the stack to use anytime for the next year if my rating slips under the necessary threshold seemed pretty cool. I opened a tailor-made Black/Red aggressive deck, which is exactly what you don’t want in sealed. This one had it all though: 3 Burst Lightning, 2 Vampire Lacerator, 2 Grul Draz Vampire , 1 Bloodghast and just an all around super-aggressive Black/Red deck with removal and great cheap drops. I brought it over to my friends who were team drafting and they gave me the usual jokes about how lucky I am, how good I run, and how busted my deck was, then I beat their draft decks in some fun games.

The Grand Prix trial was a different story completely. Playing against mid-sized creatures all day I barely snuck into Top 8 at 5-2. Almost all my matches went to three games, and I was a lucky topdeck or two away from not even making it into the draft. I couldn’t deal with my opponent’s bombs when they played them, didn’t have bombs of my own, and my deck had virtually no ways to gain card advantage. It had a sick curve and great synergy, which is why I could beat my friends draft decks. However it was a perfect example of what not to build for a sealed deck tournament.

Then came Grand Prix Tampa. I really wanted to do well in this tournament after doing poorly in Austin, and having lived in Florida my whole life I had to defend my turf. At first glance my sealed wasn’t overly strong. I was definitely going to be playing Green. While I didn’t have green bombs, I did have 2 Oran-Rief Recluse and 2 Mold Shambler among a solid 12 or so total playable cards. Both of these cards offer built in card advantage and removal, exactly what I was looking for out of my sealed deck. I had a Sorin Markov but only around 8 playable Black cards, including a Halo Hunter and Surrakar Maurader, both of which I didn’t expect to be very good with most of the field probably playing Black. On the upside, there were 2 Disfigures and a Heartstabber Mosquito. I thought the Disfigures would be very useful in holding off the beatdown decks, and the Mosquito is easy card advantage just like the two Green cards that kill a permanent when they come into play. I did have a lot of playable Blue cards, including Welkin Tern, Umara Raptor, 2 Whiplash Trap, and plenty more, but avoiding the synergy and curve trap that I fell into in the Grand Prix trial the week before, I knew I wanted the Black. Sorin can end games on his own, and did, as I mentioned earlier in this article, and the 2 Disfigures and Mosquito offered more of the removal and card advantage I am always looking for in a sealed deck.

I went 5-1(after my three byes) only losing the last round due to some poor draws and my opponent having a bomb (Kalitas) that I didn’t have many ways to deal with, none of which I drew. In booster draft, where you want your cards to be more focused, I am not an overly big fan of Mold Shambler, Oran-Rief Recluse or Heartstabber Mosquito. They are all fine cards, but most times will have to come down unkicked and will end up being rather unspectacular. In sealed deck however, they are perfect cards. They provide the problem-solving nature and built-in card advantage that leads to victories in a bomb-laden format driven by midsize creatures and imperfect mana bases. Remember when building a sealed deck to prioritize your bombs, removal, and card advantage and don’t get caught up trying to make a deck that looks like it would be a good eight man draft deck. If you find any other cards to be considerably better in Zendikar sealed deck then in draft or anything you consider to be a sealed deck hidden gem please feel free to post or discuss it in the responses to this article.

Good luck in the current sealed deck PTQ season,

Ben Stark

32 thoughts on “Stark Reality – Building a Better Sealed”

  1. It’s good to hear more about sealed. All I ever seem to do is drafts, and whenever I hit a sealed event, I get trashed so badly because I don’t have the feel for it. Any advice for the format is good advice.

    It’s great to have another writer on ChannelFireball!

  2. Good article. I must, however, mention the grammatical error-
    “People tend to play almost all there midsized creatures” should be “their”
    Also, you are overly fond of the word “overly.”
    But good magic advice 🙂

  3. “I opened a tailor-made Black/Red aggressive deck, which is exactly what you don't want in sealed.”

    Wait, what? This is the EXTREME opposite of my and others experience with Zendikar sealed. Black/Red aggro is enormously successful. One of my opponents told me that in a survey of 100 MTGO sealed events, 65% of the 3-1 and 4-0 players were black/red aggro. I think I am something like 20-4 with the six or so black/red aggro decks I’ve played in sealed so far.

  4. @Brady

    I think it kinda depends. If you have a B/R aggro deck with a bunch of premier removal spells, then that should be a good formula. Throw in a solid rare like Bloodwitch or top uncommon like Nighthawk and your set. But the deck Ben describes, he only lists the super aggressive guys (all 1 drops and bloodghast) and a few burst lightnings. The lightings arent great at killing the guys that block lacerators all day like kor sanctifiers and mold shamblers.

    Its not hard to get a BR mostly aggressive deck with the removal/bomb priority in it too. You usually cant get a draft deck with 6 or 7 removal spells but you can in sealed

  5. Yes! Ben Stark articles! let the grammatical abortions begin! 🙂 jk

    Would it have killed you to give me a shout out? I’m not asking for a paragraph, just something simple like “Max somehow found the one Chinese restaurant in the middle of nowhere MISE!!” 😀

    All jokes aside, great article, bro, good to see you writing again.


  6. BenS Articles…I didn’t think he could cohesively put together a sentence. Just kidding Ben, nice article!

  7. what a great article. i really appreciated the sealed advice. usually you don’t get sealed advice that brings out the right sort of way to judge card quality, in a way that seperates it from the qualities cards have in draft. accidently i can see (in retrospect) that it accords with my most succesful sealed decks.

    thanks 🙂

  8. Hmm, so your overly aggressive, draft-like sealed deck wasn’t optimal against opposing, less focused sealed decks? According tot hat logic, in order to win at draft, draft a sealed-like deck.

  9. What I learned from the article is that the key to success in zendikar sealed is to do 2 things:

    1. Open Sorin Markov
    2. Play the Sorin Markov you opened.

    Seriously though, good article. Most players write off sealed us a crap shoot, but you took the format seriously and outlined some important differences between draft and sealed. One point I think may have been worth mentioning is the importance of evasion creatures in sealed. Unlike draft, creature stalemates happen a lot in sealed games, so having evasion creatures to break parity can win you games, even it is just a dumb 2-power flyer or sideboarded landwalker.

  10. @Frein

    That would work fine IF aggressive sealed decks and aggressive draft decks were of similar calibur. The reality is that it is very unlikely for you to have enough solid cards to round out a 4-0 aggro deck in any two color combination.

    In a draft on the other hand it is possible to make very potent decks with even the possibility of mono-color depending on the table.

    I am not saying that it is impossible to draft a good deck that isn't aggro. What I am saying is that sealed aggro is generally much different from draft aggro. My two cents.

  11. Interesting article I guess but you’re just wrong on many of those points as far as zendikar goes. In m10 yes, you play bombs and get card advantage. In zendikar sealed your deck quality and curve matters much more. The format is just too fast and too many cards make blocking impossible. When applying that to your supposed amazing red/black cards it’s easy to see why it didn’t do so hot. Gruul draz vampire and lacerator are pretty poor when everyone else is also playing agro. Burst lightning is a fine card but in this format removal is way less important than high quality cards like plated geopede and vampire nighthawk.

  12. erich -team elite

    Ben I would just like to open the ally nuts deck. I still think the most important thing is to see if you can do the ally theme. That is the best stragedy currently. Red and black is by far what u want to be drafting but give me ALLIES anyday

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  14. Awesome read, Mr. Incomparable!! Thank you for writing about sealed! So many people write about draft, which is understandable since it’s so awesome, but sealed deck is a differently lady with exquisite tastes.

    Will you be writing some more in regards to Lady Lucks favorite format?

  15. Nice change of focus. Sealed deck articles are almost non-existent. Thank you and welcome back Ben Stark.

  16. Nice article Ben, it was good meeting and talking to you at Boston this summer, you’re definitely one of the nicer pros I’ve had a chance to play against. I’ll take the advice to heart and hopefully it’ll help me at Minnesota. During the Detroit PTQ 2 weeks ago I think I concentrated my deck on being too consistent when I probably should’ve splashed for the Emeria Angel that would’ve won me probably another round or so.

  17. So how far woul you go with bending your consistency to fill spots with off color removal or “bombs”? In another angle; how good would they have to be to pull you from a deep but underwhelming color with a shallow pool behind it?for example if you say opened a nighthawk and 3 hideous ends and a bunch of garbage of which maybe 4 more cards didn’t make you want to dry heave at the thought of playing them, a very deep and solid blue pool, and a deep green pool with zero fixing but about 10-12 solid spells of which let’s say 2 were good card advantage, and a hellkite charger in red with nothing else, and a bunch of caravans and oxes in white. This is similar to what I have dealt with twice (with Zendikar) and I have gone two completely seperate routes both times. How would you attack this pool in regards to your prioritization formula?considering the removal 1st is pretty shallow and your best bomb is off color yet easily splashable.

  18. Nice article. Though I have tried to screw up many a sealed online, my best expirience was really when i build a slim straight r/b aggro deck. i went 5-2 with a win in the last round to squize me in on the 8th plaze (at witch point modo crashed – fun times). But it doesn’t change that it won almost every round in 10-15 min. Wich tells me two things. One: If your fast it puts higher requirements to your opponents deck to draw the cards that can halt you (and that is really only marsh casualties that does that). I have lost more times to that strategy than having found what I needed to halt it. Two: you have time to take your mind off magic between rounds/go get something to eat etc etc etc.

    I would generaly agree with you, that you need the card advantage and so on. But this format is just way faster than what we’re ued to.

  19. “If you find any other cards to be considerably better in Zendikar sealed deck then in draft or anything you consider to be a sealed deck hidden gem please feel free to post or discuss it in the responses to this article.”

    Rite of Replication

  20. Good article I found it very informative and also entertaining in the small amount of narative.

    I think the key difference that people are seeing between M10 sealed and and Zendikar seald has to do with the fact that Zendikar on the whole feels like it has less mid-sized creatures than M10 does. Maybe that’s just my somewhat limited impressions of it so far but I suspect it may have a lot to do with the success of more aggressive decks, as favorable blockers are harder to come by, so stalling their agro becomes much less likely as there are fewer cards in your pool capable of doing so.

    Maybe I’m way off base here but what the hell I just wanted to add my 2 cents.

  21. i liked the article, though i’m not exactly sure how much the info would help me. i normally don’t have any real synergy in the cards i get in this format and if i even try to go more than 2 colors, then my land cards inevitably don’t come out in any sort of useful fashion. being mana screwed or mana flooded would be less painful.

    but in general, i do think this will help out some folks. thanks for your insites.

  22. There’s something I don’t understand. Maybe it’s because I’m not as experienced as most of you are, but maybe someone around can explain me this. I understand that an aggresive BR deck is good in draft, where you can kill your opponent before he can answer, so, how can a slower deck with a worse curve take adventage of the sickness and fastness of the br aggro deck.
    In other words, if I draft a really powerfull BR deck and go with that deck to a sealed tournament, I am going to lose?
    It may be right, but I don’t understand how. Cards like Khalitas are hardly played in booster draft due to it high mana cost, because it usually hits the table too late. Also, when you play in a booster draft, you want to play all the bombs you get as well as in sealed.

    I really believe you are right, I just need someone to explain me the difference. Thanks. Nice article. 😀

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