Sealed Luck

After Booster Draft became the Limited format of choice for professional players, Sealed Deck started to get a bad rap. Many players even started to refer to it as “Sealed Luck”. I embraced Draft and put together a string of strong finishes at Draft Pro Tours and Grands Prix. Fellow Hall of Famer Rob Dougherty continued to feel that Sealed Deck was the better format. While he admitted that there was a lot of luck involved in the contents of the card pool you received, he felt that Draft had its own problem variables.

The big difference he pointed out was that at least in Sealed, your card pool didn’t have to worry about human interference. In a Draft, you might be sitting between random drafters picking unpredictably and making it hard for you to end up with a good Draft pool while others at your table might be sitting in a more favorable position. In addition, there is still randomness in the packs you open and in the packs opened around you. What if the person on your left opens an amazing planeswalker in your colors in pack two and decides to switch into your colors?

Wizards of the Coast doesn’t seem to agree with Rob because they seem to have moved away from using Sealed Deck for their highest levels of events. I finished second in the first Sealed Deck Pro Tour in Atlanta, but it was also the last Sealed Deck Pro Tour. I won the first Massachusetts Sealed Deck State Championship, but it was also the last such event. Whichever you prefer, both formats still matter, though, especially if you’re playing in Limited Grands Prix, where they’re both used in the same event. As I prepared for Grand Prix: Nashville, I built and tested several Sealed Deck pools. This has led me to some strong conclusions about how to approach building Sealed pools in Innistrad block.

The biggest question you have to answer when examining your Sealed pool is which direction your pool is best able to go. There are two main archetypes to consider for Sealed:

  1. A bomb deck – Typically, the best Sealed decks are ones with multiple expensive bombs and with the ability to keep you alive until you can start playing those bombs.
  2. An aggressive deck – If your card pool can’t do that, the other exciting option is to try to build an aggressive up-tempo deck designed to kill your opponents before they can start dominating the games with their bombs.

If you can’t build a solid version of one of these two archetypes, you’re probably in for a long day. So, the first step is determining if you can build the bomb deck. If you have too few bombs, your bombs are spread out over too many colors, or you don’t think you can build a deck designed to hold your opponent off while getting ready to play your bombs, you should check out your aggro options.

Playing Aggressive

There are several things you should look for when considering your aggro options:

Creature Curve

Having a good mana curve of creatures is way more important in an aggressive deck than in a bomb deck. Aggro also needs to have a lower curve than a bomb deck. A bomb deck is happy to spend early turns on card-draw, removal, or mana development as long as its life total isn’t in too much danger. An aggressive deck needs to bring as much creature pressure as possible to bear as early as possible. A bomb deck will often forgo 1-drops and only have three or four 2-drops. An aggressive deck should have the 1- and 2-mana slots well stocked with aggressive creatures—especially 2-drops.

Evasion

Small, non-evasive creatures are usually pretty bad in Innistrad Sealed. Your opponent will usually have a deck designed to stall the game until he can start dropping bombs. Your best bet is to just bypass your opponent’s potential blockers with flyers, perhaps an Invisible Stalker, or even some intimidate. The most successful aggressive decks I’ve played in this format have all been W/U decks with a lot of flyers. It makes it hard for my opponent to stall the game and often allows me to win the game even after he plays a bomb.

Removal

Pretty much any creature removal is good in any Sealed deck. Having some removal for big creatures can make an aggressive deck a lot better, though. If you’re hitting your opponent with a couple small creatures and he plays a medium-sized creature expecting to stabilize, it can be devastating when you just kill it and keep attacking. It’s also nice if you can kill a bomb creature if your opponent plays one.

Pump

While evasion and removal are great in both archetypes, pump is much better suited to an aggressive deck. A bomb deck might not have creatures in play early that need to be pumped, and the deck might not have time to leave mana open for pump. When opponents start dropping bomb creatures, pump should be overkill. Not only is pump better for aggressive decks, it’s almost essential. Having a pump spell like Moment of Heroism or Spidery Grasp in hand can allow you to just keep swinging with everyone when an opponent drops a big creature in hopes of stopping your offense in its tracks.

Direct Damage

A really big part of playing aggression in Sealed is making sure you have enough ways to win once your opponent starts to stabilize, thus making evasion, removal, and pump so sexy. Like pump, being able to damage your opponent directly isn’t really part of what makes for a good bomb deck, but it can be great in an aggressive deck. While a card like Bump in the Night is terrible in a deck just trying to stay alive and then play a bomb, it can be a great finisher for an aggressive deck.

Playing Bombs

Obviously, if you’re playing a bomb deck, you also need to keep these things in mind. One advantage to playing aggression is that by building your deck to be as fast as possible, you’re making yourself prepared for both bomb decks and aggressive decks. Building a bomb deck requires a more delicate balance. While most of the top decks will be bomb decks, you can’t ignore the potential presence of aggressive decks. The reason this is annoying is that the types of cards that will be best for you against aggression will often be weak for you against other bomb decks.

One of the ways I sometimes address this is by making a hybrid deck if my pool allows. If I have the right cards, I’ll make an aggressive deck with a couple bombs at the top of my curve. This can give me some of the benefits of both archetypes. You might ask why I don’t always build hybrid decks . . . or at least, How do I know when to do it? These things are always defined by my card pool—like almost everything else in Sealed.

If I have a lot of expensive bombs, I’m rarely going to try to fit them into an aggressive framework. If I have a lot of expensive cards, I’ll want to play with more mana and mana development than I normally would like to in an aggressive deck. If I’m playing with a lot of mana and a lot of 1- and 2-drops, I’d be creating a recipe for a disastrous mana flood.

Here are some factors to consider:

  • The main difference between an aggressive deck and a hybrid deck is that in a hybrid deck you have a couple expensive bombs at the top of your curve in case the game goes long.
  • In decks that use an aggressive framework, you should only play two colors. If possible, you should either avoid early-game cards with multiple colored mana symbols in the costs or you should choose one color to be your base color and play significantly more mana of that type.
  • In bomb decks, it will often be the right play to splash a third color. What I find works best is to have basically a two-colored deck with mana for a third color just to pay some flashback costs and to play one or two powerful, late-game cards. This will usually allow you play with more bombs than if you just played strictly two colors. How good of an option this is will often depend on how much mana smoothing you have in the form of cards like Evolving Wilds, Shimmering Grotto, and Traveler's Amulet.
  • Sometimes it will be the right play to make an aggressive deck even if it seems that you might have the cards to build an okay bomb deck. In order for this to be the case, your aggressive deck needs to seem like a really good Draft deck, and your bomb deck needs to not be particularly special.

Colors and Synergy

There are two other main considerations when deciding what direction to go with your Sealed deck-building: depth of colors and synergy. Once you’ve laid out your cards by color, you should be able to quickly eliminate a color or two from consideration. I usually look at my green first because if it doesn’t have any bombs, I can usually eliminate it immediately. This is because green has little evasion, removal, or direct damage in this format. If I have a lot of pump in green, I might end up using it in an aggressive deck. Typically, at least one or two colors won’t be deep enough to be a base color or even a partner in a straight two-colored deck.

Once you’ve eliminated one or two colors, looking for synergies will often help you narrow down your colors further. If you have a lot of cards that go well with Vampires, you might choose B/R or you might choose U/B for Zombie-related cards. If you have many ways to fill your graveyard, you might look for colors with a lot of flashback and cards that benefit you for having creatures in your graveyard.

And That’s It

So, you may not have any control over what cards are in your card pool, but you can still make sure to build your pool in a way that will give you the best opportunity to win. I’ve lost track of the number of people who have told me their card pool just wasn’t good enough . . . only for me to look at it and see they’ve just built poorly. If you keep in mind the deck construction principles that I’ve discussed here, I hope you can avoid becoming one of these people.