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Price of Progress: Grading Homework

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The letter W!elcome back to another installment of Price of Progress, a feature series looking at the Sealed Deck format! We kicked things off last week with an initial glance at how to approach building a sealed deck. While it was a very basic primer, the underlying processes are incredibly important to getting better at building a sealed deck.

It's a Trap!

I was pleased to see how many people did the Sealed Deck exercise I assigned as homework last week and shared their thoughts on the message boards! As with every duplicate Sealed Deck exercise I have ever done, there was a good amount of variety among the decks you submitted. I also had a bunch of great comments and questions from you as to things I talked about in the article that I'd like to address over this week's article.


The first comment that stuck out to me came from xJudicatorx, who said that most players look at their bombs and see how many of them they can cram into a deck, and then check to see if the colors can actually support those bombs well enough to build a deck.

I admit that many players do skip ahead to see what sweet bombs they opened up, knowing they are going to try to include as many of them as they can in their decks. For the purposes of helping newer players, though, this can be a dangerous trap. A decidedly mediocre pile of cards with a bomb in it looks a lot better than it actually is. You should be playing the bombs because they fit in your deck, not playing a color because your bomb is in it. Take the September 27, 2012, Sealed Deck Builder as an example. If you look at this pool, you certainly notice the Odric, Master Tactician and the Silklash Spider. But you aren't playing green-white because you opened those bombs. You are playing green-white because you have two Pacifisms, two Prey Upons, and literally every good creature in those colors. Even if you exchanged those two rares for Jace, Memory Adept and Chandra, the Firebrand, you are going to play the insane green-white deck you have. You certainly do give consideration to the bombs when making final decisions, though. For example, you are almost certainly going to splash those two Searing Spears in your deck if you get to splash a Chandra as well.

Grading Homework

That said, most of you identified white as the strongest color in the homework pool, as well as Ajani, Caller of the Pride as one of the pool's bombs. I was also pleased to see that many people decided blue was underpowered, even though it had a veritable bomb in Stormtide Leviathan. The majority of you chose to go white-black for Ajani, Caller of the Pride and as many of the exalted creatures you could play. A good example of this comes from RedKutai:



Some dipped into blue slightly for the Harbor Bandits and Switcheroo, such as Highwayman did:



Still others eschewed the black cards to run green for the wealth of early, aggressive creatures, much like MaddAddams did:



All of these builds have merit. From my perspective, I would be more inclined to play the white- black version of the deck. I like the great combination of the creatures white and black have in this pool with the strong exalted theme. Exalted decks can have a problem quickly closing out games after getting to an aggressive start, and they are also generally weaker on defense since the creatures with exalted are generally unimpressive otherwise. For this reason, I like the fact that black has a pair of Essence Drains, which can double either as removal or finishing strokes for a low opponent. I also never overlook the ability of Crippling Blight to remove a blocker, which is incredibly useful for exalted decks.

Good Advice

Understanding that my opinion in no way counts as expert advice, I enlisted the help of recent Pro Tour Return to Ravnica Top 8 competitor and former US National Team member David Ochoa. One of the core members of Team ChannelFireball, Ochoa is well known for his article series "According to Webster," in which he uses his Limited prowess to fight on the side of good against the never-ending onslaught of evil.

Here's the list he came up with:


As you'll notice, he chose the aggressive white-black deck as his build, although it is a bit different than many of the lists I saw, notably leaving out Captain's Call and the Giant Scorpions. Here's what Ochoa had to say about his choices:

Green and black are usually the colors to be in Magic 2013 Sealed, but green is missing some of the key cards that I look for: Prey Upon, Arbor Elf, Sentinel Spider, and Acidic Slime. The double Flinthoof Boar along with Centaur Courser and double Yeva's Forcemage will lead to some nice starts, but there's not much for green to offer up beyond that. Red is even more lacking, and only has a Flames of the Firebrand and Rummaging Goblin as incentives. I'd look elsewhere to a build with black and/or white.

Black only has conditional removal with a Crippling Blight and a pair of Essence Drains, which won't be amazing against green decks, but serviceable everywhere else. Knight of Infamy is quite good, while Bloodhunter Bat, Servant of Nefarox, Duty-Bound Dead, and the two Giant Scorpions are just fine. Afterwards, the quality drops off significantly. Duress, Disentomb, Veilborn Ghoul, and Zombie Goliath are all playable, but they're never great.

White has a lot of cards, but they're mostly creatures, and there are some notables missing, like Serra Angel, Aven Squire, and Griffin Protector. Ajani, Caller of the Pride is pretty good, especially when your curve is lower than the opponent's, making it easier to protect, and works pretty well against non-exalted decks. Knight of Glory and Crusader of Odric are both quite good, and will do a lot of work in most games. War Priest of Thune is also decent, but more as an Aura Blast to get rid of Pacifism, Mark of the Vampire, and Tricks of the Trade without being dead otherwise. Ajani's Sunstriker isn't amazing because it's smaller than a lot of other creatures, but with the help of the Exalted sources, it'll perform moderately well and will be able to race quite effectively. War Falcon is worth playing since there are up to six Knight cards to activate it.

The most notable cards in the sideboard include:

1 Captain's Call
1 Pillarfield Ox
1 Safe Passage
2 Giant Scorpion
1 Liliana's Shade
1 Zombie Goliath
1 Veilborn Ghoul
1 Disentomb
2 Duress
2 Harbor Bandit
2 Switcheroo
1 Drowned Catacomb

Captain's Call is in the sideboard despite having synergy with Healer of the Pride and War Falcon because of the deck's weakness to Cower in Fear and Chandra's Fury, both of which are quite prevalent. Additionally, the 1/1 Soldiers aren't very useful once they're on the battlefield because there are only five exalted sources and no Ring of Thune to beef them up.

Safe Passage would be a good sideboard option against red decks, and it should be brought in in the dark if you play against Mountains; however, it doesn't do much against Cower in Fear and should stay in the sideboard for the remainder.

Liliana's Shade doesn't function well in a deck that isn't base black, and so it's going to be difficult to summon most of the time, in addition to being unable to beat a 4/4 in combat.

Duress and Giant Scorpion can be used to slow games down if the matchup plays out better that way; otherwise, it's better to save them in the sideboard. Duress isn't normally a card that I like to play unless you know that you're playing against a Planeswalker, Wrath, or other powerful spell like Talrand's Invocation.

Seven Swamps should be enough to cast your black spells on time, and the only concern is being able to summon Knight of Infamy on turn two. However, it's more important to be able to summon an Ajani's Sunstriker on turn two, and that means running ten Plains.

Jayemdae Tome is a concession that some games won't go your way, caused by a slow start, running into an unmovable roadblock, or having to trade unfavorably. Some games will stall out, and Jayemdae Tome will really shine there. Additionally, the deck's somewhat low curve lets you use the Tome more aggressively than would be allowed in a green deck.

Another point to consider is bringing in Drowned Catacomb, Switcheroo, Captain's Call, and even the two Harbor Bandits when paired against a deck with very high creature quality. The mana gets a lot worse, but that's a necessary evil, and you can trim an Ajani's Sunstriker in the process to make it less painful. Captain's Call becomes worth playing when siding in Switcheroo because it provides a source of low-impact creatures to trade away."

Notice that Ochoa's analysis of the cards focuses on the goal of the deck as a whole. There is a heavy exalted theme in the deck, which improves the value of Ajani's Sunstriker. The number of Knights and Soldiers in the deck makes War Falcon viable, making the deck even more aggressive. Keeping the deck strongly aggressive makes Ajani, Caller of the Pride even more effective. Because of the aggressive nature of the deck, cards like Giant Scorpion and Pillarfield Ox sit in the sideboard. Since the deck has a heavy mana requirement with the pair of Sunstrikers, he decided to avoid the mana problems that might arise from adding Islands for Harbor Bandit. Since the deck is cheap and lacks a real late-game punch, he added a Jayemdae Tome to give him something beneficial to do with his mana should the game drag on.

Simple, streamlined, and efficient, every card in the deck plays to that end. Based on what he wanted his deck to do, his evaluations of certain cards in his pool changed, which brings me to a very important question, as well as the main topic of today's article.

Playing by the Rules

I received a great question from Morphadite that many people on the message boards tried to help answer: What is the advice for recognizing an unplayable card? Are there certain aspects about cards that make them unplayable in Sealed versus other formats?

It depends.

Anticlimactic, right? Without diving too deep into Magic philosophy and game theory, cards are judged based on how they fit into the context of their format. You want your cards to do something, and you want that something to have a reasonable impact on the game compared to the effects other cards are capable of generating. It is fairly easy to see why Murder is better than Crippling Blight. They both have the potential to kill creatures, but Murder is ruthlessly more efficient at it. Murder is clearly a better card than Crippling Blight.

Things are not always as clear cut, however. Early in the days of Mirrodin Block Limited, players realized that Shatter was actually better than Terror, which was a completely foreign thought. It makes sense, though. Mirrodin was a block rife with artifacts, and most of the big bombs were artifacts themselves, which Terror can't kill. In the context of Mirrodin Block Limited, Shatter is the better card.


Every new set and block have their "rules" and figuring those out is the first step to properly evaluating cards in the format. Take the Magic 2013 Sealed Deck format. As Ochoa so astutely pointed out above, the green and black cards are the most powerful in the format. They have the best creatures and the best removal. Sealed Deck matches are almost entirely won through combat, and having access to superior creatures and ways to kill those of your opponents is essential. Another thing to consider is the enchantment theme in Magic 2013. Cards like Pacifism, Tricks of the Trade, and Mark of the Vampire are incredibly strong and you will almost certainly encounter them over a day of play. Magic 2013 has a fairly average speed. The one- and two-drops are not as overly powerful as they were in the lightning-quick Zendikar Sealed Deck format, with its Plated Geopedes, Steppe Lynxes, and Oran-Rief Survivalists. Because of this, you don't need to worry as much if your deck is a bit on the slower side. Opponents are much less likely to punish a slower deck, making expensive bombs like Nefarox, Overlord of Grixis and Stormtide Leviathan reasonable inclusions.

When looking at a set for the first time and trying to evaluate cards, keep these things in mind:

  • How expensive and big are the best common creatures? This will help you determine how fast or slow the format is, which will in turn help you decide if a slower strategy that requires some time to get rolling is viable or not.
  • What does the removal in the format do, and how effective is it when compared to the creatures? Does the removal outright kill a creature or simply do damage to it? How much damage does it do, and what is the average toughness of the creatures you're likely to face? For example, Shock is a great card in Onslaught block, with its plethora of 2/2 morphs, but it is much less useful in Return to Ravnica, which has an overabundance of 3-toughness common creatures. Or how the seemingly underpowered Ghoulflesh was a reasonable card in Avacyn Restored because there was a lack of good removal and a prevalence of good 1-toughness creatures.
  • What are the major mechanics of the set? The perfect example of this comes from Scars of Mirrodin, where the playability of cards with the infect and metalcraft keyword mechanics varied wildly from sealed deck to sealed deck. While metalcraft and infect were powerhouses in Booster Draft, where players get to craft their decks, many cards with these mechanics were unplayable in many Sealed Deck pools. For these cards to be useful, you have to have a critical mass of like cards in your deck, and many Sealed Deck pools simply couldn't support them.
  • Do the common and uncommon creatures in the format have an abundance of any keyword ability? Are there abilities that are rare? Keyword abilities significantly affect how combat plays out, which is key to Sealed Deck. A couple of good examples are flying and regeneration. Flying lets you begin to fight opponents in the air, where they might not be able to fight back. In formats with a small number of fliers, they become far more powerful than sets that have so many fliers they clog the skies. As for regeneration, when they are in short supply, they can dominate combat since they are so resilient. When there are a ton of regenerators, however, it can severely slow the format down, opening up many options when building that normally would be impossible.

More Homework!

With this in consideration, here's a Sealed Deck pool from Return to Ravnica to chew on for the week:



There's a lot of power in this Sealed Deck pool, and you're going to have to make some tough decisions. How well you evaluate certain cards in the context of Return to Ravnica Sealed Deck will make all the difference between which deck you build. Next week, we'll use this evaluation technique to break down Return to Ravnica and see how you did with your own evaluations!

Until then, happy building!


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