This article is either a bit late or a bit early. If your big Sealed event was Grand Prix Charlotte, you were looking for Limited advice two weeks ago. If you are attending Grand Prix Pittsburgh, you likely haven't started preparing for it. Unless you are like me: undecided on Grand Prix San Diego with no PTQs to care about.
In my admittedly limited preparation for Gatecrash Sealed so far, this is what I've learned about approaching the format.
Aside: if you want to win a Modern PTQ, here's my advice. Play Jund. If you don't want to, play Blue Jund or White Jund, also known as BUG or Junk. The massive shift in decks showing up at events is quite odd to me when you consider the fact that Deathrite Shaman, Dark Confidant, Tarmogoyf, and Liliana of the Veil are all still legal cards.
After Grand Prix Indianapolis last December, I realized I was terrible at Sealed. I'm not necessarily referring to deckbuilding, where I am pretty good at identifying the best base configurations of most pools, but I can't play Sealed matches.
In an attempt to better understand what I'm even trying to accomplish by getting better at Sealed game play, I've put a decent amount of work into framing this properly. Understanding why what I'm doing is or isn't correct is a big step forward towards continuing to make the correct decisions.
Since then, I haven't played much Sealed, but I've felt like in the matches I've played I have been making much more focused decisions. The keyword I've been focusing on is exchanges. Obviously cards trade a lot in other formats, but Sealed is almost solely dictated by the quality of exchanges you manage to make in a game.
In Constructed, even the worst midrange mirrors often devolve into battles of powerful trumps. If said cards didn't exist, odds are you would be playing this matchup in the 0-3 bracket. Regardless of this, clunky midrange is an archetype I've tried to avoid my entire competitive Magic career. Even in Draft, very rarely should you end up with a deck that is playing this game. If you draft a deck with a lot of ways to force trades, you are likely to have also tried to pick up ways to be sure to end up on top at the end, like seven-drops. If you don't, odds are you won't win against other focused decks.
With Sealed, you don't have that luxury of choice. You need to play scrappy games where your solid card trading for their awesome one is the biggest swing that happens. The one Limited Grand Prix I did considerably well in Sealed at was because my deck consisted solely of cards that traded profitably against the format. I had 3/5s and 6/5s in a world of 2/2s, meaning that while my cards weren't immediately game ending like the top rares were, they may as well have been since my opponents just couldn't have the resources to deal with them all.
Of course, arranging these trades varies a huge amount by format. For example, I played a significant amount of Innistrad Sealed and was constantly shocked at how my seven removal spell decks could have zero outs to a given rare. The big example I can remember was Elder of Laurels, which regularly wrecked my decks full of Blazing Torch, Claustrophobia, Rebuke, and other removal spells that weren't Victim of Night or Brimstone Volley. Of course, then the player with Victim of Night would have it against their opponent's Bloodline Keeper or have Brimstone Volley against Heretic's Punishment or Curse of Death's Hold. In formats like Innistrad, the best exchanges to make were plus tempo ones to get far enough ahead that anything short of an Olivia Voldaren wouldn't be enough.
Where Does Gatecrash Tie Into This?
So, with all that, how easy is it to make exchanges in Gatecrash?
The short answer: very.
Creature sizes in this format are fairly flat. There are multiple three-power two-drops, and creatures stay at around 2/3 up until the five-drop slot. Even the "bigger" five-drops are within a single pump spell jump of the small creatures. The two guilds not saturated with bloodrush "pump spells" (Orzhov and Dimir) are stacked with removal that is fairly good at killing anything from a Wojek Halberdiers to a late game rare.
What does this mean in terms of game play?
First of all, a lot of the aggressive starts you expect from Draft just don't exist in Sealed unless your deck is very, very good. Everything trades, so you need enough low-end creatures to power through these trades and enough tricks to power through a five-drop. Few Sealed pools have this, with most of the ones that can support it being Gruul. It's too easy for non-Gruul decks to have the wrong mix of creatures and tricks and draw blanks to lose a game, while with Gruul the density of bloodrush creatures gives you enough of both.
This doesn't mean you can't fall behind on board and die if you don't keep pace. The takeaway is that weaker aggressive cards like Disciple of the Old Ways and Bomber Corp are much worse because they turn into blanks much easier than the top two-drops, and instead of those you should have Ruination Wurm, Towering Thunderfist, and Nav Squad Commandos in your deck.
Second, opting to be on the draw is quite profitable. Being up a card is huge, getting to mulligan less is huge, and getting punished less by mulligans is an even bigger edge than both. There really aren't many cards that let you recoup raw card advantage. There is no Inspiration or Thoughtflare on this half of Ravnica. You have a four-mana Mind Rot and three non-rare cipher spells capable of becoming direct two for ones, of which only one is unconditional card draw (Last Thoughts). Even then, all of the cipher spells are conditional on you having an unblocked creature in play, which often means playing cards that are bad at trading like Deathcult Rogue or Metropolis Sprite. I have Bane Alley Broker as the best non-rare in Sealed for a reason.
This isn't even accounting for the mana bases in this format. Ideally, you want to be playing a two-color deck in this format, but too often that leads to trapping yourself into a subpar build full of conditional tricks. If you have an actual good deck that is two colors, good for you. If you have a solid 22 cards and no fixing for a third color, sure. But if you can only count to 20 good cards and find three mediocre ones to fill the gaps, I would likely look for a third color.
In that case, be aware of what you are doing for that. You don't need that much fixing for it, but it does affect your other color balances. Your overlapping guild color is likely to be the heavy one, meaning splashing Orzhov Charm makes Homing Lighting awkward, and adding a splash often makes your one-drops significantly worse. This is generally pretty easy since there aren't many Sunspire Griffin style cards; most of the solid commons cost a single mana of any given color to cast up until your high rarity high drops.
The other mana issue to watch is your land to spell ratio. I really hate playing eighteen lands in any deck regardless of extort or color issues. The cards all trade, so flooding out is often a death sentence. My eighteenth mana source is usually a splash Keyrune, which also feeds into my five-drops. My seventeen land, one Keyrune decks have also stretched to 41 cards with a Prophetic Prism. Call me crazy, but I often find myself looking at a deck where in order to have my ideal curve and spell setup, I want every actual card in my deck. I'm not ever going to cut the Prism in a three-color deck, so it just hangs out as a cantrip.
Overall, this is a format for what I call Kyle Boggemes Limited. The Pro Tour finalist was known in Michigan for his unorthodox love of drawing first in Limited, even in formats as aggressive as Zendikar (scoreboard check: he finished 9th at a Grand Prix and 2nd at a Pro Tour in that format). He would regularly play most decent two for ones, ranging from Mind Rot in M13 Draft to Grim Discovery just to rebuy fetch lands for value. His two-drops would deal some damage, but they were really there to trade off for his opponent's similar cards. He tried to make all of his cards solid on their own to ensure he would have a minimum number of dead draws going late.
Short version of all of this: don't play undersized creatures with no real abilities. Try not to play mediocre tricks. Splashing good cards is often better than either of these. Try to build bigger than you expect unless you have the nuts. Play more five-drops and Purge the Profanes.
Find the open guild.
Four words, but it's the best strategy in this format. There are a couple guilds you can successfully fight over with someone on your right, but even then you probably aren't fighting over a 3-0 deck.
Step 1 is to take the best cards early. Don't worry too much about sticking to your first pick. You can easily abandon it and still win the draft. I've abandoned my first five picks and easily 3-0, 6-0'd.
How do you know when a guild is open?
Gatecrash is pretty high power at the common level. There aren't a lot of absolutely unplayable cards, and many are very solid playables. There are a number of key cards to watch for floating around 5th-8th pick that signal a color or guild is open. It's possible one was in a stacked pack for a given guild, but taking it is right. Once you see a second pack confirming that, it's likely time to move in. Below are the cards I consider to be high tier commons for signaling purposes. I've clumped them in groups of roughly similar power level since pure pick orders actually matter a lot early pack 1 in this format.
Tier 1 Commons
Spectacle is clearly the top of the bracket here. Just straight up killing everything is a big deal, especially at instant speed.
Syndic of Tithes is easily the best two-drop, and Kingpin's Pet is the only gold card above Tier 2 on power level alone. Extort is bananas, and I often play Millennial Gargoyle for the same body at four mana.
Tier 1.5 Commons
Mugging is here instead of Tier 1 because two damage isn't a lock to be removal but the tempo gained by a one-mana kill spell is game ending. That said, I could easily see taking a two-drop over it in Boros pack 2 or 3.
The Simic cards are powerful enough to belong here, but the dual color commitment is a big one early on. The reason they are this high is that if you rank them lower it's easy to send mixed signals and end up fighting over Simic in pack 2. You are the player on the right in this situation, which means you are ahead, but Simic is much better if you keep a clear path for it.
Tier 2 Commons
Executioner's Swing and Devour Flesh are to black as Daring Skyjek and Wojek Halberdiers are to white. These are your premier two-drops, capable of either clocking extremely hard (the 3/Xs) or trading way up the curve (the removal spells).
Scab-Clan Charger and Massive Raid are the last two out here. They aren't huge signals since they aren't as key in their archetypes as many other commons or uncommons, but they are pretty strong and always make the cut unlike a lot of cards below this tier.
Lots of other people list Basilica Screecher this high, but I'm routinely unimpressed with it. The body is too small to do anything on board, which is not what I want my early drops to do. I'm not going to really cut the card as extort is good, but I don't value it highly.
After settling into a guild, you then need to form an actual deck. Here are some notes on what I've felt are the best configurations for each guild.
Maxing your two-drop slot is obviously your quickest route to victory. This doesn't mean playing bad two-drops like Bomber Corp that can't attack into other two-drops, but just playing good ones. I also stay away from Foundry Street Denizen and other 1/1s for one mana.
Instead of the mediocre creatures, I like to play one or two of the bulky five-drops. Knight Watch is the worst as 2/2s can't attack into 2/3s, but if you have enough Court Street Denizens it goes up in value. Nav Squad Commandos always goes around late and is probably the best one, and Towering Thunderfist isn't shabby either.
Shielded Passage is secretly one of the better common tricks despite it often coming around last pick. It doesn't let you jump the curve, but it costs one mana. If they try to trade their two-drop for your Halberdiers on turn 3, you can Shielded Passage and play another two-drop. Passage lets you generate real tempo in the early game where other tricks don't.
Late Passages also fits into my general plan of taking two- and three-drops before any tricks or non-stellar removal (i.e., Mugging is good). Making sure I have things to attack with is more important than having things to force them through because most of the tricks are pretty similar.
Also, in case it wasn't known, Truefire Paladin is the actual Guildmage here. Sunhome Guildmage, despite a striking resemblance to the original Selesnya Guildmage, is out of place in such a fast-paced format. The Banners Raised ability is ok, but making tokens is way worse than making real creatures in a format of 2/2s and larger. Truefire Paladin, on the other hand, just wins every combat, even ones it doesn't have to enter.
I generally hate Gruul. It's usually just bad Boros or Simic. There aren't good two-drops in the color combination. They all get brick walled by 2/3s. This shortage of twos also punishes the big Gruul decks since they get run over by the other guilds.
Sometimes you have to draft Gruul because it's what is open, but that's the breaks. It's still capable of winning a draft, but you have to work much harder for it.
Multiples of the same evolve guy gets awkward fast since they don't evolve each other. I'm fine with a ton of Cloudfin Raptors and Shamblesharks as those cards are just that good, but more than two Crocanuras is not where you want to be.
Not much else to say here. Zvi pretty much nailed it all in his article, so check that out.
I never draft pure Dimir, but I win the most with "Dimir" decks. My favorite archetype by far in this format is Esper Control.
Wait, so why not just Orzhov?
Sage's Row Denizen is one piece. Having another common creature that really bogs down the ground is awesome, and it's another enabler for your easiest to grab common removal. Clinging Anemones is also acceptable, if not amazing once it hits 2/5.
Psychic Strike is another. This lets you set up a lot of lose-lose scenarios with Executioner's Swing as well as can take out some of the larger creatures your removal isn't great against. Totally Lost also adds to this plan, as well as often being true removal alongside any mill effect.
But the real incentives are Bane Alley Broker and Dinrova Horror. Both of these are absurdly powerful uncommons that go way too late for their strength. I would be willing to splash either of them without any of the other benefits. Sapphire Drake is another similarly strong game ender, albeit one that tends to get picked up much earlier.
If you are in this archetype, Primordials are awesome. Luminate Primordial has a fine trigger but doesn't hit that hard and is easier to halt, and Diluvian Primordial's trigger whiffs more than you would expect, making you settle for "just" a 5/5 flier. Sepulchral Primordial combines a giant evasive body with a game swinging trigger.
I still have some ground to cover before Grand Prix Pittsburgh, namely figuring out drafting Gruul and playing longer Sealed events to see if these principles still hold against more filtered samples of decks. Still, I feel pretty confident about Gatecrash Limited. It's not my usual cup of tea, but it's definitely a solid format for both Sealed and Draft.
- Ari Lax