As you may have read, I picked up my 9th Grand Prix "top 8" this weekend with a top 4 finish at Grand Prix Nashville. Before the event I tweeted that I was feeling good about it and that I'd done more dedicated Team Sealed practice for this tournament than for every other team tournament I've ever played in combined. How did I find the time for all that?
Well, I'll let you in on a secret: it wasn't that hard…
Everyone knows it's easy to get a huge edge in team events. If all the players on your team are better than all the players on the other team, it's extremely unlikely that two of you will lose two of three games. You simply have a lot of insurance against variance. Also, team events are hard to prepare for. You can't play team events on Magic Online, and few people test Sealed in person. There aren't a lot of local team events, and many teams, especially teams of pros, are composed of people who don't live near each other. These facts mean that testing is difficult enough that it's not a high priority, since teams of good players already have a perception that they'll have a large edge either way. In the past, I've only done one or two practice Sealed builds for any given team tournament, at most.
What all of this really means is that team tournaments are highly exploitable. Having a skill edge is a massive advantage, and people aren't trying very hard to maximize theirs. Practicing for a team tournament is potentially difficult to organize, but extremely valuable if you do.
People try to use their general knowledge of Limited to guide their approach to team tournaments, but Team Sealed is very different than Draft or individual Sealed. First, you have to know how to approach building a pool, because an hour really isn't much time to figure everything out and look at every possible combination. Second, and more importantly, you have to know what a good Team Sealed deck looks like.
Team Sealed decks are incredibly powerful. It's hard to have a pool where you can't build decks that look good. To prepare for this tournament, I built a few pools, but more importantly, after I built a pool, I kept the decks together. Once I had a few, when we got together to build, I'd watch and listen to other people who were building and occasionally chime in, but what I spent my time doing was playing matches with the decks we'd built to see how Team Sealed played out and which decks were actually good.
One of the key lessons from this is that Abzan is generally terrible if you don't have a lot of legitimate bombs. The deck is trying to sit around and win a lategame, but your common creatures that have a couple extra +1/+1 counters and one for one removal isn't going to beat a deck with 3-4 bombs. A good looking Abzan deck in individual Sealed or Draft is likely just going to get crushed in Team Sealed. I considered the clan a trap unless I had several busted rares for the deck.
Jeskai, on the other hand, seemed great. Jeskai's answers are a little more narrow but a lot more efficient, and playing at instant speed is awesome. Jeskai has a proactive gameplan that can win game 1, but the real strength is in sideboarding, where you get to choose the exact answers that line up most efficiently against your opponent's strategy or bombs.
Among aggro decks, the two-color decks that just tried to play cheap creatures and removal or tricks generally weren't strong enough, but tokens and Trumpet Blast or Rush of Battle was reliably a way to use the number of cards you had access to to build a synergistic deck that could go around rares to win games against people who had more bombs.
The details of Khans of Tarkir Team Sealed aren't really important to any of you, as I know very few people who read this are going to play a single team even in this format, though I imagine a lot of the lessons will apply for Grand Prix San Jose after Fate Reforged comes out. The important thing is just to understand that, when it comes to formats people don't play a lot, a little testing can go a really long way. I'm certainly glad I took the time to open some packs and try some decks before the Grand Prix.
In under two weeks, I'll be playing another format that a lot of people don't play that much: Legacy. To be clear, a lot more people play a lot more Legacy than Team Sealed, but if Grand Prix New Jersey is anywhere near as big as StarCityGames expects, most players there won't be people who play a lot of Legacy--there just aren't that many people who really play a lot of the format.
Legacy is another format that's notoriously difficult to test for. There are so many decks, and very few people just have all of them lying around. If you want to test in person, you'll probably be playing exclusively against whatever handful of decks the people around you happen to have built. Getting some games in with your deck against a handful of decks is great -- that's valuable testing -- but the odds that you actually play against a deck you tested against will still be pretty low. You can't cram for Legacy, you have to just know how most of the decks work and what kinds of things are good against them so that you can figure out your sideboarding and gameplan on the fly once you're faced with that opponent with the cards you've registered.
Preparing is made even more difficult by Commander 2014 throwing a wrench in the works right before the tournament. It probably won't have too many cards that will have much of an impact, but Containment Priest definitely feels like the real deal to me. It's incredible against Dredge, Reanimator, and Sneak and Show, as they can't win without answering it and aren't really set up to answer it. It also turns off Green Sun's Zenith and Natural Order against Elves and other decks, as well as Birthing Pod when that card gets played. It's less important, but it also shuts down Aether Vial out of Death and Taxes and Merfolk, though that first point is something of a drawback, as Death and Taxes is one of the most obvious homes for it. It also turns Flickerwisp into a removal spell, which is a nice perk in matchups where it's not at its best. Delver and other fair decks may be popular enough that Containment Priest won't be a great maindeck card, but it's a really amazing sideboard option that would definitely make me think twice about playing a deck that loses to it, which could have a lot of ripples on the metagame that might be hard to figure out in the first week.
There are a few other cards worth looking at: Malicious Affliction is efficient enough to matter if you can easily trigger morbid. Dualcaster Mage is well-positioned in a world full or sorcery-speed Ancestral Recalls. Hallowed Spiritkeeper is my kind of card, but I may find myself a little preoccupied with Treasure Cruise for this tournament.
For myself, I want to play Treasure Cruise, and the power and synergy with Delver of Secrets is undeniable, but I also want to play Containment Priest. This means I'll most likely be looking at all the Delver decks, but especially Jeskai Delver, with Death and Taxes as another consideration, and I might try out Bant now that Council's Judgment gives it an answer to True-Name Nemesis, which is less popular than it once was anyway.
This is an incredibly hectic month for me, with Legacy at the Grand Prix, Khans of Tarkir Limited, and Modern and Standard to prepare for the World Championship. It's easy to fall behind in this Standard format that is so diverse and evolving so quickly. Seeing that Jeskai Heroic Combo won the Standard Open in Oakland last weekend makes me really regret not putting more games in with that deck before the Pro Tour. It'll be interesting to see how the metagame responds to that deck and whether it becomes a major player.
The big advantage of Jeskai Heroic Combo is that it's a proactive deck that's very hard to predict. Some games it will go wide, and you'll need a sweeper. Other games, it can make a single high toughness creature very quickly, and a sweeper will be ineffective. Sometimes you might want to try to race it to punish it for doing lots of damage to itself with its lands, but tapping out might result in you instantly losing the game. Blocking in general seems extremely ineffective, and failing to interact with it is definitely a losing strategy. You want removal, but it has Gods Willing and access to Ajani's Presence to fight that, so you need your removal to be cheap, but most cheap removal doesn't answer Lagonna-Band Trailblazer, whose inclusion I love in this deck. I suspect that, like other Jeskai Ascendancy combo decks, the real weakness of this deck is in its own inconsistency. It needs a lot of different pieces, and the only thing it has to make them all come together is a few cantrips and some scry triggers (outside of Jeskai Ascendancy itself, of course).
In a completely different direction, we have three Soul of Theros maindeck in Abzan from Eduardo Dos Santos Vieira in Santiago to go over the Abzan mirror. This looks like a completely different world from one with a deck like Jeskai Heroic Combo. Soul of Theros wasn't even the only Soul in this top 8, as Willy Edel, who previously played Abzan, had switched to Sultai Reanimator with Soul of Innistrad (a card I loved in Sultai decks I tested before the PT) with a lot of Ashiok, Nightmare Weavers in the sideboard to beat other green decks. I like the look of Willy's deck a lot, especially the number of solid interactive cards he managed to get into his deck.
Another notable takeaway from Grand Prix Santiago is the absence of Jeskai and the dominance of green. Seven of the top 8 decks were green, and the top 8 was reminiscent of the World Magic Cup after Brian Kibler introduced the world to R/G at the World Championship in 2013. Once again, Brian Kibler has found a formula to make R/G (this time with blue) work that's seen it become one of the top Standard decks.
I'd previously started work on Modern, but I've concluded that I need to put off continuing to work on the format until after Grand Prix New Jersey, when I can stop thinking about Legacy, and conveniently, a Modern Grand Prix in Madrid will have just ended, so I'll have a better idea of what to expect the format to look like.
There's a daunting amount of stuff to prepare for, but I think I can handle it by focusing on each event as it comes while trying to keep watching the other formats to avoid getting too rusty or out of touch. It's also nice and kind of amazing how relevant Khans of Tarkir Limited is right now. I've kind of gotten used to sets coming out, needing to draft them constantly before the PT, but then not really playing with them again. But with GPs coming up for me in Ottawa and Strasbourg, it's still important for me to refine my Limited game. My drafting has definitely fallen behind as I've been focusing on Constructed and Team Sealed. Ari's article was appreciated, and I need to try drafting his way some, because it doesn't really agree with where I'm at with the format, which I hope to refine and maybe write about in the future.