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Sealed Draft at the Sunday Super Series

This past summer I found myself out of Day Two at Grand Prix Washington DC. I wasn’t really planning on doing anything on Day Two, but luckily Shahar Shenhar still had the Mono-Blue Devotion deck I had lent him the week before so I could register for the Standard Super Series without much effort. As Mike Sigrist was busy winning the main event, I found myself in a Top 8 draft along with one of my closest friends (and roommate at the time) Chase Kovac. While Chase lost in the Top 4, I managed to secure an invite to Seattle to play in a tournament that I had heard good things about from those who played the previous year.

The weekend in Seattle was awesome all around, mostly for the opportunity to spend some time with many friends who live in Seattle that I haven’t seen enough of recently. Tim Aten, Josh Ravitz, Thea Steele, and Gerry Thompson all made my weekend a blast. It was also great to see European friends make the trip out—an occasion basically reserved for Pro Tours.

The tournament itself was pretty short—only 9 rounds across three different formats. I wish I had a ton to say about my Standard deck, Sidisi Whip, but I played two long games to a draw against Michael Bonde on B/G Constellation and beat a mana-screwed Michael Boland playing Jeskai Tokens. My other two losses were to Jeskai Ascendency combo—not exactly something I was prepared for. I can certainly tell you this: don’t play Sidisi Whip if you expect that deck to be popular.

The biggest learning experience for me was the Sealed Draft, an experimental format that was being played in a sanctioned environment for the first time (as far as I know). Before the draft, we opened one Fate Reforged and two Khans of Tarkir packs, with a brief minute to review the contents. After this we would draft two Fate Reforged and one Khans of Tarkir pack, and build a deck out of the entire pool of cards.

Without an opportunity to actually practice for the format in earnest, I sought advice from a number of friends about how they would approach it. Some players suggested the decks would have overall very high power levels, akin to Team Sealed. Other said that I should focus on getting a critical mass of lynchpin uncommons for certain archetypes (like Chief of the Edge). Drafting around key commons from Fate Reforged is another option, as we get to draft two full packs of a small set. In my mind, Reid Duke summed it up most succinctly by telling me “you will never have to take an Unyielding Krumar.”

Despite not practicing the format, I also had a few preconceived notions of my own. My first instinct was that most players would force an archetype based on the strongest cards in the “sealed” part of their pool. This is relatively safe, because you need fewer playables than in a normal draft—so even if you get cut off during the draft it should be pretty easy to end up with a reasonable deck.

The other alternative, and the one I thought I would likely use, was to mostly ignore the cards in my Sealed pool when drafting. I figured that the payoff for finding the open archetype during the draft portion was higher than taking advantage of a couple powerful cards from my Sealed packs. I also felt that because that strategy would be less obvious to most players, an “open” color or colors would remain open longer than normal during the draft because people were locked into drafting a certain way very early.

Of course, these strategies come with natural tradeoffs. Effectively “forcing” based on your sealed pool has the highest upside in power level. If you get paid off in draft, you will have access to higher quality cards than any other potential strategy. On the other hand, drafting more based on the packs and less on the Sealed pool will help you get the most out of the second 45 cards. Since a higher % of these cards are going to make your deck, positioning yourself for packs 4, 5, and 6 is better than forcing a strategy. However, going this route may make it more likely that you get simply outclassed on power level by somehow who forced and was rewarded. Ignoring playables from your Sealed pool also makes it harder to spend picks on lands, sideboard cards, or hate drafting.

The contents of my Sealed pool made choosing this strategy an easy decision—there was no real draw toward any color. My “deepest” color with the most playables was white, and my best individual card was Outpost Siege in red. My other strongest cards included Suspension Field in white, and Murderous Cut and Bellowing Saddlebrute in black. Beyond this, I had almost no multicolor cards of note, and three lands: two Rugged Highlands and a Tranquil Cove. This mana-fixing did not line up with my Sealed at all, as green and blue were essentially blanks. I figured going into the draft that I would keep the good Mardu colored cards in mind, but I was definitely willing to sacrifice them if blue and green turned out to be the open colors.

I found myself in a 6-man pod for Sealed Draft. My experience in 6-man drafts with Khans is that there is often an entire clan that goes undrafted at the table, but that mana-fixing is also harder to come by. I figured other players at my table would prioritize mana-fixing even more highly than normal, because they had the luxury to take lands over the borderline playables that they sometimes need to fill out their decks in a traditional draft.

For the most part these observations and theories lead me to believe that I would be best off trying to draft an aggressive deck, where I wouldn’t need to take mana highly. This was compounded by the lack of late-game bombs in my Sealed pool—I couldn’t compete on the axis of late game power as easily. The fact that we were drafting only one pack of Khans and two of Fate Reforged also led me to believe the general late-game strategy of drafting lots of morphs wouldn’t be as viable for me.

The draft pretty much went as perfectly as I could have expected. I opened Alesha, Who Smiles at Death, got passed Wild Slash, and tabled a War Flare around pick 8 or so, leading me to believe that the coast was clear for a R/W aggro deck. I focused on drafting some prowess cards (Dragon Bell Monk) and enablers (Pressure Point).

I knew I had a Jeskai Student and Defiant Strike waiting for me in my Sealed packs, so I figured these synergies would not only be generally powerful but would let me skimp on lands, something that I believe to be very important in this format. With a premium removal spell in the form of Suspension Field and a bomb rare in Outpost Siege waiting for me after the draft, I couldn’t have asked for a better turn of events. An interesting spot came up in pack 3 where I was passed Death Frenzy 2nd or 3rd pick. Death Frenzy is one of the best cards imaginable against my deck, so I immediately hated it.

This was a luxury of the Sealed Draft format. I had more than enough playables and a focused, linear strategy that I really needed to protect. I took the Frenzy over a reasonable common along the lines of Bring Low—something that would probably make my deck but not an essential piece of the puzzle.

I eventually submitted the following deck:

I think my primary mistake was choosing to include Abzan Skycaptain. Normally a very powerful card in Limited, but one that didn’t really fit my deck. Instead I would’ve preferred to play another Leaping Master, which provides similar late-game evasion but is more aggressive in the early game.

Another interesting facet of this deck was choosing to not include Sandblast, a card that pretty much always makes the cut. Basically I decided that playing a removal spell that didn’t help me push through damage wasn’t exactly what my deck wanted. I did end up boarding in Sandblast against a deck with multiple Abzan Guides that I needed to kill, but for the most part I felt it was expendable.

The matches themselves were fairly easy. I did lose a game where I stalled on lands, which was a risk of my land-light deck, but one that I felt was more than worth it. I lost a game to Wingmate Roc, but came surprisingly close to beating it, given that it came out on turn five. For the most part, I played against slow 3-to-4-color green decks with lots of tap lands and grindy cards and little early-game defense.

I could truly press my advantage in games on the play, as I typically had two or three threats on board when they were making their first play. The morph strategy that was so successful in triple Khans was a bit underwhelming against a deck filled with Grizzly Bears. It felt to me like Sealed Draft was more about extreme decks—very aggressive or very controlling, and that “normal” midrange decks were at a bit of a disadvantage given such a large card pool.

The all-star of my Sealed Draft rounds was Outpost Siege, which was unbelievably good, especially in Khans mode. Games where I had Outpost Siege let me play aggressively with my resources, knowing I would be able to recoup some card economy.

If Sealed Draft tournaments start to appear more, I think that people will have to really consider how to approach the drafting and building process. I would recommend being a little bit more open going into the draft than you would think based on having three packs of information. The reality is that on average each color is only going to have 4 or 5 playable cards, which is a boon, but not unreasonable to sacrifice in favor of an open color during the draft portion.

As for traditional Fate Reforged Limited—it remains to be seen exactly how things change. My experiences so far make me think that the 18-land preferences of triple-Khans may go by the wayside in the face of lower curves and fewer morphs. I don’t know that Fate Reforged necessarily brings more aggression, but it seems that the cards are less mana-hungry.

Hopefully I’ll have much more to say on the matter after playing Grand Prix San Jose, a format where the decks might be surprisingly similar to the ones I played with and against in Sealed Draft this past weekend.

Thanks for reading,

Matt Costa

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