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Price of Progress: Playing by the Rules, Part 1

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The letter W!elcome back, everybody!



This past week's homework was a bit more difficult than the previous week's. This time around, you have a pool with some very obvious bombs, but the supporting cards could draw you any number of ways. With Rakdos, Lord of Riots and Desecration Demon, there is a strong gravitation toward a Rakdos deck with this pool. The Righteous Authority and Sphinx of the Chimes also make the Azorius option look enticing. But even beyond this, there are more things to think about. Just because your bombs line up with other ones doesn't give you a concrete guild identity.


Sure, the double black and red mana in Rakdos's cost make it nearly impossible to play him in anything other than a Rakdos deck, but what about the Righteous Authority? Even if you're pairing it with the Sphinx, you could look at an Izzet deck splashing for the powerful enchantment. You could even ignore the Sphinx and play a Selesnya deck with the Authority as a splash. You could break up the soulless duo of Demons and build a Golgari deck featuring just the Desecration Demon. Honestly, if you're the greediest person on Earth, you could realize that you have a pool with two Axebane Guardians and four other defenders and play five colors, cramming all of the bombs into your deck!


In any case, all of these plans have their benefits and drawbacks, and they're all based on what to expect from the Return to Ravnica Sealed Deck format. Last week, I laid out a few simple guidelines to help figure out the strengths and weaknesses of a format to aid in your card evaluation. In order to figure out which of these decks gives us the best chance of winning, we should first take a look at the format itself and try to figure out what makes it tick.

The Rules

So here are the first two of my basic guidelines for evaluating a set:

  • 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.

Let's take a closer look at both of these as they pertain to Return to Ravnica!

Everything Has a Price

How expensive and big are the best common creatures?

As I have said an innumerable number of times by now, and won't be stopping anytime soon, Sealed Deck—more than any other format—is about combat. Games are won and lost on the backs of creatures, and it is imperative that they are given the proper respect. Just as in Draft, the strength of a creature is completely dependent on the other creatures in the format. But you don't compare them to bombs; that would be unfair. No, you have to figure that since more than 70% of the cards comprising every Sealed Deck are commons, you should be comparing them to the common creatures in the format.

Selesnya Sentry | Art by Wesley Burt

Comparing creatures to an average isn't ideal, but it is a good place to start. Now, assuming all unleash creatures unleash, and only including the populate cards that themselves make tokens, here are the average stats for a common creature in Return to Ravnica:

2.5 power
3 toughness
3.5 mana

While I understand the fallacies of this approach (doesn't take into account abilities, average stats vary by guild, etc.), this does provide a great starting point for the purposes of this exercise.

First, we're attempting to use this number to determine the average speed of the format. From the average casting cost of 3.5 mana, you know that the game is going to start kicking into high gear around turn four. Turns three and four are going to be the meat of most curves, and it will be the point where the creatures start to get significantly better. Your deck will need to either contribute competitive creatures or defend against them by this point.

This isn't too far off from most Sealed Deck formats in the past. There have been examples of faster formats (Zendikar springs to mind immediately), and slower formats (Rise of the Eldrazi and Kamigawa block), but in general, this is the norm. Maybe a touch slower than the norm.

As for general creature strength, when things start kicking into gear, it looks like a 3/3 is going to be the marquee creature of Return to Ravnica Sealed. Considering the placement of the Centaur token in the forefront of Selesnya's arsenal, this seems very realistic. Cards in this format are going to be judged by how they match up with the trusty old Centaur, which means your defensive creatures have to come down before turn four and have at least a 4 toughness. The better offensive creatures are going to need a way to combat favorably with the 3/3 body, such as Splatter Thug's first strike or Selesnya Sentry's regeneration.

Kill It With Fire!!!

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?

Since spells comprise a much lower percentage of people's decks than creatures, you will likely see a higher percentage of uncommon cards among a player's spells than among his or her creatures. As such, we'll take a look at uncommon removal as well as common. Let's take a quick trip around the block and see what we're working with:





Arrest : Three mana and effectively kills anything. Weaknesses are that it is an enchantment that can be removed with cards like Dramatic Rescue or Keening Apparition, it doesn't shut off static or triggered abilities like those of Palisade Giant or Guttersnipe, and leaving a token creature on the board can be bad if your opponent has populate cards. All in all, a pretty solid card considering the limited nature of its drawbacks.






Avenging Arrow : Three mana and kills anything. Unfortunately, the creature has to be able to deal damage first, making this card much better in defensive decks that can either block with a wall or chump off a meaningless creature to enable it. I like this card more than most people, but I realize that I'm the minority.






Soul Tithe : Two mana and has the ability to kill anything. This card is incredibly situational. It's great if you get it early, when an opponent is less likely to keep the creature around and disrupt his or her development. If you wait to cast it on an expensive bomb, most people will be willing to pay to keep around the card that will win them the game. I kept a Mercurial Chemister around for seven turns with this card on it and didn't mind in the slightest.






Trostani's Judgment : Six mana, exiles anything, and has populate. This card is really good, removing any threat and often getting a creature to boot. Obviously it's much better in Selesnya populate decks, and it's expensive, but the cost is well worth the effect in my mind. Just make sure you're not dead while you wait to cast it.






Paralyzing Grasp : Three mana, keeps a creature tapped. It's cheap, which is a good thing, and it can power up Ethereal Armor, which is worth noting. Unfortunately, it runs into the same issues as Avenging Arrow, namely that the creature needs to tap before the card has any value. It combines the drawbacks of both Arrest and Avenging Arrow into a card I've never been too keen on but admit that you sometimes still need to play.






Assassin's Strike : Six mana and it destroys anything that can't regenerate. Six mana is a prohibitive cost for a spell. This is a situation where the guild basis for a deck makes a difference in the evaluation of a card. Selesnya and the controlling Azorius decks can be much slower, affording them time to hit six mana for Trostani's Judgment. For Assassin's Strike, it's much better in Golgari, which tends toward longer games than the Rakdos deck, which generally doesn't want a six-drop removal spell. If you can't remove a troublesome four-drop for two turns in Rakdos, you're probably dead.






Launch Party : Four mana and a creature sacrifice, but it can kill anything and causes 2 life loss in the process. This card is perfect for black decks of both guilds. Rakdos doesn't mind tossing away an early creature for more damage and to push through and Golgari doesn't mind losing a creature as much as most guilds thanks to the scavenge mechanic. Still, the sacrifice of a creature must be taken into account. You're never ecstatic to play this card, but you sure aren't complaining.






Stab Wound : Three mana to give -2/-2, either killing a creature or neutering it while your opponent dies in 2-point chunks. This card is absurd. It either kills cards or puts opponents on a reasonably fast clock. The one bad thing about this card is that it can cause people to make poor decisions once it's out. Creatures with Stab Wound on them become unblockable creatures with Moat to most people. They don't want to block it to lose their source of damage, and they're afraid to attack into it for the same reason. As long as you don't make a poor decision because of this card, it's insanely good. Actually, scratch that, this card is just bonkers.






Ultimate Price : Two mana to kill a monocolored creature. As much as I'd like my namesake to be better, I still have a bone to pick with it. This reminds me of Terror in Mirrodin block. Sure, it's going to kill things, many of them useful. Unfortunately, most of the good creatures in the block are multicolored, and they laugh at this card. Still, for only two mana, you are almost always getting your money's worth, making this a fine card for Sealed Deck.






Annihilating Fire : Three mana, deals 3 damage to players and creatures. This is the marquee red removal spell in this format. It kills the ubiquitous 3/3 creatures, exiles them, and can be used to deal 3 damage to the face if needed to finish a game. Very strong.






Electrickery : Two mana for 1 damage, potentially to all of an opponent's creatures. But 1 damage is not particularly amazing in this format. There are some decks (like Azorius and Rakdos) that it is better against. It can technically be used in conjunction with combat damage to occasionally wreak havoc on an opponent's side of the board. Unfortunately, there are far more times that this card simply does nothing of value. I am not a fan.






Explosive Impact : Six mana for 5 damage to creatures or players. Unlike Assassin's Strike, this is a six-mana spell that Rakdos would be more than happy to cast. Its 5 damage will kill virtually anything in the format, even most bombs, and as a Lava Axe it can clean out a quarter of an opponent's starting life total. Unfortunately, it's also six mana, which means that it's a hefty investment.






Street Spasm : Damages a creature without flying based on the mana spent, with the potential to hit multiple creatures. This is a harder card to evaluate. To maximize this card's effect, it takes a boatload of mana. Killing a 3/3 only costs four mana, which isn't bad, and killing a trio of 2/2s costs six mana, which I suppose is fine for that cost. It doesn't hit fliers, which is significant, but it can still have a major impact on the board. You are always going to play this card, but be careful how greedy you choose to be with it. Sure, it's great to try for the haymaker, but sometimes all you need is a Lightning Bolt.






Auger Spree : mana to give a creature +4/-4. This card can technically be used offensively, but the number of times I've seen that happen is infinitesimally small. This card is big enough to kill almost anything you'd want to, at instant speed, and it only costs you three mana. It's a fine splash into a deck that can support it, and an obvious all-star in a Rakdos deck.






Azorius Charm : Two mana to return a creature to the top of an opponent's library. It's a bit more of a tempo removal spell, since the creature just comes right back, but it does get rid of something for only two mana and effectively costs an opponent a draw step. It's not amazing for this ability, but it has its uses. Especially if your opponent has token creatures...






Dramatic Rescue : Two mana to bounce a creature and gain some life. I'm listing this card in the removal section because of the sheer versatility of it. It can save one of your creatures, ruin combat tricks for an opponent, and outright kill tokens. In addition, you gain 2 life, which can actually be relevant in a format that tends toward heavy combat and ground stalls. This card is very good and may be one of the most underrated cards in the set.






Golgari Charm : Two mana for -1/-1 to all creatures. It hits both players and only gives -1/-1. Generally, I'm not a fan of this card for this purpose. It's much better when it regenerates all of your creatures, potentially devastating combat for an opponent.






Izzet Charm : Two mana for 2 damage. Not great, but not bad either. The 2 damage isn't enough to kill a Centaur, but it kills just about everything else. Guildmages? Gone. Lyev Skyknight? Toast. For what it costs, it is certainly worth it.






Rites of Reaping : Six mana for a 3-point power and toughness transfer. First, you guessed it, I'm going to bring up that it costs six mana. However, this time, the effect is very powerful and it's in a guild that can afford to get to six mana. If this card was an instant it would be insane, but killing most creatures and making one of your own quite dangerous for a turn is still an impressive effect.






Selesnya Charm : Two mana to exile a creature power 5 or greater. The bomb killer, Selesnya Charm does a lot of dirty things. It functions as two types of combat tricks, either giving a creature +2/+2 or dropping a surprise 2/2 blocker onto the table. In addition, if you decide to hold out for the big guns, it can wipe away that Isperia, Supreme Judge or gigantic Lotleth Troll your opponent has. This one is all aces for me.


So there you go, a quick breakdown of the common and uncommon removal in Return to Ravnica. In general, the removal in Return to Ravnica is fairly dodgy. There are a few clear all-stars in Annihilating Fire, Stab Wound, Auger Spree, Selesnya Charm, and Arrest. Other than that, though, the drawbacks become fairly significant. We need to be able to kill a 3/3 for three or four mana, and many of the removal spells are able to do that. Many of those spells require a sacrifice, though, such as a creature for Launch Party or an attack for Avenging Arrow and Paralyzing Grasp. Still others have a six-mana cost that doesn't actually deal with the important creature until it has been around for a few turns. Finally, when bombs start flying around, it is nice to be able to simply say, "It's dead." Those cards are very limited in this format.

The effects of removal's limitations are twofold. First, you are going to be forced to play your removal, even if it isn't the greatest. Second, since the removal isn't that great, creatures become that much better. This is another reason that board states in Return to Ravnica Sealed Deck tend to gravitate toward creature stalls, and another reason that packing your deck with the best creature base you can is an essential part of building a successful Sealed Deck in this format.

Applying What You've Learned

Let's take a look at what some of you built using the card pool from last week.

First off, many of you keyed in right away on the double-demon package of Rakdos, Lord of Riots and Desecration Demon. Both of these massive fliers are veritable bombs, and certainly worth inclusion in a deck. Add to that the fact that with Launch Party, Assassin's Strike, and Electrickery, black and red sport the best removal of the pool, it seems like a reasonable choice.

Here is nightwyrm's version of the Rakdos deck, touching blue lightly for Blustersquall as a finisher:


This deck has a decent early creature base, with two each of Tavern Swindler, Frostburn Weird, and Splatter Thug. It has a very good supporting cast of creatures, including the incredibly powerful Bloodfray Giant and Rix Maadi Guildmage. All in all, this seems like a powerful deck. It beats Centaurs with the very potent Frostburn Weirds and Splatter Thugs. It tops out at two very good bombs. It can win with a fast creature rush and finish things off with Lobber Crew, or it can grind games out with the Crew and Rix Maadi Guildmage. In general, I really like where this deck is going. About the only things I'm not a super big fan of are the forced inclusions of Perilous Shadow and Sewer Shambler to finish off the creature base. There wasn't really another choice, though, and considering the circumstances, nightwyrm has built a very solid deck.


The other big guild to tug at people was the Azorius combination of Righteous Authority and Sphinx of the Chimes. The colors offered a plethora of creatures with evasion, as well as more finishers in the form of a pair of Isperia's Skywatches and a Blustersquall.

Here's what DJSamurai37 came up with:


This deck takes a different approach to winning combat than the Rakdos deck does. Rather than combat the 3/3 menace head on, this deck takes to the skies with a veritable air force of Birds and Spirits. To keep the ground-pounders from running amok, cards like the trio of Seller of Songbirds can contribute to the air force and then be sacrificed, or even kept around longer with cards like Dramatic Rescue or Rootborn Defenses.


I do have a few comments about the Azorius build. First, there were certainly two ways to go with this build. This one is a bit more aggressive, where the one packing the Walls is obviously more defensive. Which you choose to go with is a function of both play style and the contents of the deck. With the high end-game capability of the Azorius card pool, I'd personally lean more toward the defensive deck than the aggressive one, making sure that I got to my deck's strongest part of the game. I would have loved, if nothing else, to see the Frostburn Weirds make it into this deck. They are both exceptional at defense and wonderful attackers if given the opportunity, making them perfect in both the aggressive and defensive versions of the deck.

Secondly, there were a large number of people who wanted to run Sphere of Safety in their defensive Azorius deck. As defensive-minded as I am, I can totally appreciate this. Unfortunately, the card pool isn't quite there to make it work. Sphere of Safety is one of the cards in this format that gets exponentially better in decks that can really support it. Cards like Paralyzing Grasp, which would normally be less than optimal, really shine in this deck, providing both an answer to a threat as well as a power-up for the Sphere and the Ethereal Armor. If the deck had a few more reasonable enchantments in it, I could totally see breaking out the Sphere. As it is, though, I'd leave it in the sideboard.


That being said, Ethereal Armor is still a very good card. With removal being as sparse as it is, the detriment of being an enchant creature is lessened. In addition, on a 2/2 and as the only enchantment you control, it still turns the creature into a 3-powered, first-striking attacker, making it up to the task of fighting with a Centaur. Also, with the heavy evasion component of most Azorius decks, it helps to speed up the clock if played on a flier.

I like both of these decks, and I think that they are both very solid. I think I might prefer the Rakdos deck over the Azorius deck, but they are both still quite solid. As for me, I chose to go with a different approach. Here's what I built:


I really liked the unadulterated aggressiveness offered by the same red creatures from the Rakdos deck. I also liked the evasion and game-ending punch offered by the blue cards in the Azorius deck. As such, I decided to build Izzet Aggro with this pool. This deck uses the Splatter Thugs and Frostburn Weirds to take over the early turns of the game, while retaining the ability to go defensive and finish things off with fliers should things get out of control. For longer games, the deck can rely on Righteous Authority and the trio of six-drop fliers to finish things off. Blue offers great support to the aggressive plan, able to use Inaction Injunction aggressively, as well as using Blustersquall and Chemister's Trick as pseudo-Falters to finish things off.


One thing to note, and this is something we will go into in great detail here in a couple of weeks, is that I added New Prahv Guildmage to the deck, but it wasn't a strain on my mana. Even though the Guildmage costs two mana, it isn't really a two-drop in this deck. It's biggest contribution to the game comes in the later turns, where giving a Frostburn Weird, Splatter Thug, or Bloodfray Giant flying can end the game quickly, or when the detain ability can lock up a threat turn after turn. As such, I didn't have to alter my mana base to be able to play it on the early turns of the game. Splashing for early drops is generally a bad idea because the odds of drawing it and the proper mana early in the game really aren't on your side unless you play a large number of mana sources for your splash color, which messes up the mana for the rest of the deck. The same goes for splashing for cards like Axebane Guardian. What makes the Guardian good is the ability to get bigger things out faster and to splash for big threats. If you are unable to consistently get it down early, its benefit is neutralized.


Anyway, that's it for this week. Next week, we'll go over the last two points of evaluation for a format and see how they affect card evaluation. Until then, though, here's another Sealed Pool with a new set of problems:



As we've seen in the past couple of Sealed pools, when you're pulled in multiple directions, there are a number of things you have to take into consideration. This pool brings another consideration to the table: your mana base!

Happy building!


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