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Silvestri Says – Team Sealed

This week I want to cover the basics of Magic 2015 Team Sealed before Grand Prix Portland this weekend. While I won’t be playing, I’ll be there working at the event and have spent a fair amount of time helping friends test for it. So I want to share some of what I noticed.

Removal

Most of the Magic 2015 removal ranges from bad to slow and everywhere in between. Unless you play red, in which case you have all the best removal, it’s all instant speed and all of it ranges from OK to awesome. I can’t get enough Cone of Flame, Stoke the Flames, and Lightning Strike into my decks to support my random assortment of red creatures. White is no slouch with Devouring Light and Pillar of Light being reasonably priced, and black still has Stab Wound and Ulcerate for some really solid uncommon removal. I’m far less impressed with the offerings it has at five mana, but removal on the whole in this format is far from ideal.

If you want to use the blue “removal” such as Void Snare, Turn to Frog, Polymorphist’s Jest and Into the Void effectively you really need to pair it off with a solid creature color. While it does clear the way for big boom booms in green, I really haven’t found much need for removal in most of my base-green builds and often any combat trick would be just as effective. Paired with aggressive red or white starts it has a bit more interest, since those creatures largely inhabit the ground and you can really take advantage of the tempo boost.

Cards to Look For

Kird Ape Cycle

All four of these are very strong and typically warp how any future combat plays out. Not only do all of them have good P/T to mana ratios with their static buffs, but their abilities being multiple use is unreal in the late game. This becomes most apparent with Murk Lurker and River Marshal where you can easily win the game at six or eight mana respectively. As it turns out, winning races with your entire team having lifelink or tapping down two of your opponents creatures is pretty easy.

Sunblade Elf is certainly still playable, but only being a 2/2 and its ability being more heavily reliant on having a board knocks it down a peg. Obviously the dream is Triplicate Spirits and then getting in there with the team, so you can’t sideline this guy. I’ve just been disillusioned by how often you actually use the ability and very impressed by the rest of the cycle.

Power Commons/Uncommons

(Plus the aforementioned Kird Ape cycle.)

Bombs

The Stone Cold Nuts

Soul of Theros is the best card in the format and it’s one of those bombs that’s amazing on its own and unbeatable with any support. Hornet Queen provides its own support in the form of an army that dominates combat while the Queen finishes the game up in a tidy manner. Both of these cards are easily at the top of their class. Spectra Ward is down a grade, but it’s only five mana and a rare, meaning you’ll be seeing it a whole lot more than the other cards on this list.

Mildly Unfair

(For Nissa and Garruk the caveat is that they need to be in the appropriate deck. People often overlook the real cost of being forced to play a very specific mana base with these cards.)

Most of these are pretty obvious, they swing the game after untapping or provide a massive amount of value. Hornet Nest isn’t actually that good if people play around it carefully, but most will blunder into it or be too scared to trigger it. Against decks without a bunch of flyers you can pretty safely just sit back and draw a bunch of free cards. Resolute Archangel is another card that’s pretty fair until a race situation breaks out, and then she suddenly ends the game. I put a lot of stock into cards that can turn around losing game states.

You’ll notice I don’t think highly of the other Souls, and in large part it’s because they only generate small amounts of value at a slow pace. Soul of Zendikar is close since generating 3/3s is actually worthwhile in Sealed and force the opponent into immediate action. Meanwhile, spending 17 mana to draw 2-3 cards is not really my cup of tea considering those spells also require mana to be cast.

Cruel Sadist is the weakest card on the list and people underrate her because she doesn’t break the game when in play. She’s also a 1-drop, which means you’ll always be able to cast her, she can just grow into a 4/4 and dominate the game by herself and she makes double-blocking pretty awful. The only thing knocking her down is that she’s too slow to get going in the late-game and doesn’t beat other bombs.

After those it becomes a real debate between other rares/mythics vs. Cone of Flame or Triplicate Spirits. Nissa, Worldwaker and Garruk, Apex Predator both came closest to making it up to the big leagues, held back by having significant restrictions placed upon either ‘walker. Nissa is at her best generating 4/4s, but again it forces a very specific set  of restrictions on you and unless you were heavy green to start with it can be very awkward.

Garruk is good for a seven mana card, but has nowhere near the impact of a Hornet Queen on the average game and is essentially a seven-mana Vraska if you blow a creature up and the opponent has any real board. People overrate the opportunity cost of having a 7-mana card in your deck and the percentage of games you’ll actually cast it. If you have one, you had better be sure it wins the game when it hits the table. Hornet Queen pulls you back from the abyss while Garruk kills a guy or makes a blocker and then you still lose if you’re significantly behind.

Why do I list these cards when all of them feel obvious? Some players will be going into this GP blind or with only a handful of Sealeds under their belt. It also serves as a refresher, since if you don’t know what bombs you’re up against, it’s a lot harder to properly configure against them. Note that Negate isn’t exactly an all-star against most of the nutso cards in Magic 2015 while Plummet hits a few key ones and expensive removal that can deal with Souls gets better. Cards like Encrust and Phyrexian Revoker also serve a very real purpose in this format where quite a few of the good rares have activated abilities.

Duplicates

Five Welkin Terns doesn’t necessarily make blue the best color in your pool, but you sure get a sweet aggressive evasion deck right off the bat. Tern down for what? How many Hammerhands is too many? Do we split our playset of Lightning Strikes or does one player laugh maniacally?

Looking out for three or more of strong commons is one of the easiest ways to start building potential deck bases while quickly sorting the rest of your playables. This is especially true if the duplicates only go in one particular kind of deck instead of a general good card. Knowing you already have a base color that’s suited toward a certain style is important.

Level of Focus and Quality

One thing people tend to overlook when playing Team Sealed is that on average the decks are focused in the way draft decks are rather than a typical Sealed deck. In Sealed, almost every deck falls under a midrange definition and you simply slide the scale one way or the other, rarely do you ever see anything truly aggressive in the traditional sense. In Team Sealed with twelve packs you can often reach the critical mass of relevant commons and uncommons that fit under the draft aggressive archetypes. Even better is that you often don’t want to share these cards and don’t want late-game bombs, leaving the only debate over how to properly distribute the removal.

In Magic 2015 specifically, this can generally refer to all the red one- or two-drops which don’t really fit into other archetypes. What also helps is that red has multiple effective ways to negate blocking either via Frenzied Goblin or Hammerhands, so you can get through even more damage early on. There’s also a distinct lack of strong defenders in this core set and even Trained Armodons are hard to find, making attacking early and often an even more appealing route for one of your teammates to take. Here’s some refreshers on basic Team Sealed strategy.

(As taken from Steve Sadin’s piece on Team Sealed.)

Build Three Good Decks

Gee, I wonder how you’d like your ideal team configuration to be? If you open a strong enough pool and have a competent deckbuilder, then this is the go-to configuration to create your deck. In essence this is the ‘ol 8/8/7* idea and while it sounds great in theory, it can be very difficult to pull it off in a practical manner. Sometimes the cards won’t break for you and you simply have to saddle someone with a weaker deck. More often though, even if you do get a strong pool, building three individually strong decks that actually play out as well as they make look on paper is incredibly difficult. People underrate this and even worse they often have poor team dynamics in deckbuilding, which means critical decisions either get rushed or optimal possibilities aren’t even looked at in the time limit.

*Perfect packs and builds means everyone plays a 10-point deck. Realistically the best pools from the GP will end up in that 25-27 range and it’s possible to build ideal decks, but usually it means someone gets hosed.

In Magic 2015 this will often mean you build base-green and base-red and then go from there. Obviously this isn’t set it stone, but both of these colors tend to be deep and red can often be made into its own, more aggressive deck that leaves some premier cards for a 2nd deck and can take just 4-6 cards from a support color to function. I like red/blue tempo in M15 Sealed for this exact reason, you get to make use of all the two-drops and cheap bounce that otherwise doesn’t quite make that big of an impact. You also have a great home for a few cards like Pathmage and Glacial Crasher that don’t necessarily slide into more controlling variants. It turns a card like Illusory Angel from a strong midgame drop into an outright bomb when you can consistently drop it on turns 4/5 and support it with cards like Hammerhands and Inferno Fist.

If you want to evenly distribute the wealth among your teammates, that’s great, just beware of color conflicts.

Build Two Extremely Strong Decks and One Deck with the Leftover Cards

This is what will happen to most teams after they start building, make some decks they like and then hear the 10-minute mark while the unfortunate soul who lost the high roll for either of the good decks silently weeps. Not only is it highly demoralizing for someone on your team, but usually it’s the deck that’s given the least amount of thought or experimentation. Usually it ends up as the first remotely playable looking deck gets written down and that’s the end of it. If you do choose to go this route, please at least figure out your two good base decks ASAP so you have the maximum amount of time to try to salvage the 3rd build. This can mean the difference between your teammate playing a 3 or a 5.

Build One Completely Overpowered Deck, and Two Good Decks

This is more of a pipe dream than a realistic plan, since not only does it require a good pool, but also enough communication and skill to figure out two decks that are 6s or better alongside your obvious 9-10 pointer.

Figure Out if You Have a Gimmick Deck

With twelve packs at your disposal some combinations are going to give you a critical mass of certain cards that let you play strategies that usually don’t work in a normal Limited format. Even better is that these strategies usually take cards nobody else wants, meaning your teammates end up with better decks. In Magic 2015 there’s three I’ve seen that have had reasonable success and can take advantage of situational cards.

1) Ensoul Artifact

Get three or four of these into a Sealed deck with 8-9 artifacts and suddenly you have enough consistency that this is a real plan. While it’ll most certainly force you to play some baddies like Ornithopter, Tormod’s Crypt and so on; there’s a lot of upside and playable artifacts in the format. A 5/5 is typically a six-mana card in this format, so trading two cards and 2-4 mana for one (spread out usually) is a great deal. If you hit on the Darksteel Citadel lottery then obviously you’ve got a massive edge on the opponent.

What’s even better about this type of deck is that it pairs up well with almost any other color and doesn’t require a ton of support. If you have enough Ensoul Artifact and artifacts to consider this strategy, then you won’t be stealing too many cards from the other two players.

2) Illusory Angel and Cheap Spells

Same concept as Ensoul Artifact, only a little less restrictive on the secondary condition. Any 0-1 cost spell lets you cast Angel early instead of only artifacts. You can play this in a normal deck, but if you end up with enough Angels it becomes increasingly better to warp your strategy around it. There are only a handful of cards that deal with Air Elemental and combined with bounce or Negate you can significantly increase your chances of flying to victory. Since Angel is only 2U you can also just jam it in with very aggressive decks, taking advantage of cards like Foundry Street Denizen, Forge Devil, and Hammerhands. Taking an aggressive red shell, playing all your ones and twos while backing them with a bunch of Angels can be very deadly against the slower Sealed decks.

3) Life Gain and Ajani’s Pridemate

So Soulmender may be a legitimate card in this format against the average midrange pile of cards. There are no giant finishers in this format outside of Sanctified Charge, which means boards can get clogged and you have a fairly reasonable amount of time to gain life. Sungrace Pegasus is a solid playable in Sealed and goes nicely with your new life gain plan. A few Ajani’s Pridemate and a handful of life gain creatures can make a very real strategy. It also benefits cards like Heliod’s Pilgrim, buying you time to cast the various enchantments you fetch up and even Boonweaver Giant.

I’m sure there are others and you should take a minute after sorting out your pool to see if you’ve been fortunate enough to get a valid niche strategy.

Tricks in Magic 2015

Tricks for this format in a nutshell: Most of them are bad, and good luck playing around the good ones. Convoke makes it a complete chore to play around a defensive player or even just a player who taps out for Triplicate Spirits. The three big ones that people run into with gusto are Gather Courage, Turn to Frog, and Devouring Light. Note that cards like Ranger’s Guile and Sanctified Charge are also very playable, but those can actually be telegraphed whereas the other three options are only truly non-options in a small number of scenarios. In fact, a wily opponent can represent a trick like Gather Courage practically the entire game at little cost.

Attacking into tricks actually gets even worse in this format because of convoke, so every dead creature means one less mana if you’re playing a green or white deck in this format. The biggest downside about being aggressive in this format is your almost duty-bound to see if the opponent has it or not. On the plus side, if you do have a more defensive deck, there are no full-on falter effects or X-spells that just kill you like past core sets.

In essence, it’s going to pay against convoke tricks to either have complete discipline or have none at all. Playing it half and half just gives the opponent more time to develop and eventually get some value out of you anyway. Spewing it early at least lets you know exactly how far behind you are in the game. Also, being the guy with the trick on top of the opponent’s trick is very good in this format, especially with Turn to Frog turning off abilities. Just remember that pump spells still beat Turn to Frog whether or not they resolve before or after it. Learn those layers.

Archetypes I Like

Note I’m talking purely from my experiences with Team Sealed.

RU Tempo

I talked about this earlier in the article and think it’s one of the best archetypes for a format where part of the importance is not haumphing the good cards from teammates. This deck loves piling on the two-drops people don’t want, ignores most of the card drawing, and instead only steals bounce spells that are largely overrated with a few flying beaters. It takes the best advantage of Hammerhand and Foundry Street Denizen alongside the various 2/1s. It even gets to take advantage of odd stuff like Generator Servant into Glacial Crasher, a haste 5/5 trampler on turn four isn’t bad by any stretch.

Essentially you have the typical aggro rush approach backed by Hammerhand, Void Snare, Frost Lynx, Into the Void, and Amphin Pathmage to get clear of blockers. In some Sealed formats that wouldn’t be enough, however blocking without trading is tough in this format and you can easily pick and choose your battles. One note is to keep the creature count high, you’d much rather have an 18-19 creature deck with around five tricks than trying to play mono-sweet spells. The only real exception is if you’re trying for a Brood Keeper strategy, though often white or black is a better fit for that particular plan.

WG Convoke

This one is obvious and I suspect every team with a reasonable number of token generators will have it as an archetype. There’s not much to say, Raise the Alarm, Triplicate Spirits and various green creatures work well together. Meanwhile Sunblade Elf and Sanctified Charge are decent finisher spells and you have access to every convoke combat trick in the book. There’s a lot going for this type of strategy and little downside since the removal is very expensive. You also have one of the best sets of commons in the format when going this route, which is very good for a 12-pack format.

WU Evasion

Do not play this deck like a control build or you’ll lose. This deck is based almost entirely around getting in early and often with cheap fliers and building tempo with bounce on four- and five-drops. You really want a Dauntless River Marshal to help force through damage and this is the other good home for Amphin Pathmage. You really don’t care about drawing more cards than the opponent, you just want to make sure the few guys that fly or have reach from the opponent are gone. Other than Festergloom there’s no cheap sweepers so just dumping everything onto the board to set up Sanctified Charge or the blowout Polymorphist’s Jest is a reasonable game plan.

WB

I prefer this deck when some of the early life gain comes together, since it’s one of the few decks that has a decent mix of defensive and evasive creatures. Cards like Sungrace Pegasus and Typhoid Rats can buy time while Carrion Crow and Accursed Spirit chip away at the opponent’s health. You can also get pretty aggressive early on with Oreskos Swiftclaw and Kinsbaile Skirmisher while using Gravedigger and Sign in Blood to not fall too far behind card-wise. This combination is more of a mish-mash of good cards than a cohesive gameplan, but it covers enough bases that it usually works out. Unlike UG, where the blue is largely an afterthought to the power green brings to the table.

Good luck this weekend at the GP and have some fun! Portland is a great city and I’ll be sure to enjoy it while I’m there.

Josh Silvestri

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