“Grave Titan go.”
All too often those words are followed by the guttural sound of your heart doing a nosedive into your stomach. With no cards in your hand and—oh look—a land sitting on top of your deck the game will quickly end in your opponent's favor.
Ah yes yet another sealed match you can chalk up to Fortuna. If only you could control her whimsy!
With another Sealed PTQ season on the horizon that roughly translates to some people as three months of trying to luck into a near-perfect deck and stumble to victory. Funny thing about that strategy: it's not very reliable.
The good news is that there are some ways to help shift the odds toward your side.
I actually feel Sealed Deck is much more skill intensive than players give it credit for. Figuring out the optimal build of your pool sideboarding properly each match and maximizing your resources are all elements of gameplay that make Sealed Deck interesting.
Most players despise Sealed Deck because of the lack of control and high variance associated with it. One of the largest reasons is the prevalence of bomb rares. You know the story—your pool has nothing good or maybe a middling rare at best. The guy across the table has three insane on-color rares and some good uncommons to back it up. You begin to sweat.
Don't worry. It's more beatable than you might think.
There's certainly no pretending bombs aren't prevalent in sealed. Whether you're at a PTQ or at the Innistrad Prerelease this weekend there are going to be sealed pools chock-full of on-color rares. The question quickly becomes: how do I beat them?
Now there are no completely surefire methods to fight bomb rares. You'll lose to them in Limited all the time. When the board is empty you're out of cards and your opponent rips a planeswalker there's not much you can do. However if you take various precautions you can pull the game in another direction and potentially beat even the most powerful of mythic rares.
Everyone always complains about losing to bombs. It happens to everyone even the best in the game… Yet when you watch the best players play they seem less prone to losing to those cards. What's the secret? Read on!
Discard and Countermagic
Like all other strong Magic cards bombs are just that: cards. With a handful of exceptions they can usually be countered or discarded effectively. (Note that the discard route is potentially weak against any Innistrad bombs with flashback.)
This sounds like a kind of obvious point until you start looking over how often you play cards in this category. To use M12 as an example since it's the game at its fundamental level Mind Rot Distress and Cancel always seem to be in the mix of playables but end up sitting on the sidelines after the dust settles. Even cards like Mana Leak don't always make the cut. They never quite look as attractive but they are often cards you really do want in your maindeck.
Why? They just give you more control over the game.
Just like how in Constructed many strong players favor control the same is true for Limited—you just have to realize what ways there are to control the game. Cards like Distress provide you with information and allow you to make a decision and to echo Constructed many control players feel like their primary advantage is the high number of decisions they get to make.
When you Distress someone on turn two you get to see how the next several turns are going to play out and (hopefully) build the game state to your favor using that information. Mind Rot can be used early to stunt their development forcing them to run land and/or spell light though usually I prefer to wait and save it for when they only have two cards left. Cancel is a good way to make sure you can stay ahead or at least on parity once the board is established. All of these cards are also very good at dealing with stripping away the opponent's bombs.
Distress and Mind Rot especially have slowly crept into some of my favorite black cards to play in Sealed especially in multiples. Since you so often draw in Sealed anyway you can already be up on cards pick apart their fragile hand sculpt a plan kill whatever is on their board and clean up with your stock of spells.
If you were to look over a list of well performing bomb-light sealed decks from M12 I'd imagine a high number of them lean on scrappy tools like Mind Rot Cancel and Distress. These kinds of cards aren't flashy but they are good ways to reduce the variance of Sealed because of how they fight everyone's bombs. That's exactly what you're looking for most of the time.
Sideboarding and Strategic Switching
Sideboards are one of the most underutilized resources in Limited and especially so when it comes to beating bombs. There are so many routes you can take to fight what they have and many players won't even consider them.
The most obvious is sideboarding a card specifically for one of their bombs. For example let's say that you see a Mind Control in the first game. Demystify isn't anything special and is a card you very rarely should be maindecking. However after seeing a Mind Control out of them it's a totally reasonable sideboard card. It may just be a narrow answer but Mind Control is so powerful that you can easily lose to just it and sideboarding in a narrow answer can be worthwhile.
Sideboarding in cards to fight their specific bombs is one thing I think a lot of players have fortunately caught onto. However less common is switching your strategy to fight theirs.
After building my initial deck I'll always spend a considerable amount of time figuring out other builds of my deck and grabbing the appropriate basic lands for my sideboard. Why? So I can switch into that deck if I need to.
How does this work? Well here's an example. Let's say that your opponent is a super bomb heavy deck. Their deck is powerful but a little slow. In contrast you're just a midrange W/B sealed deck. You have some early drops some midgame plays and some more expensive plays. One potential route here is to switch into a highly aggressive deck.
As a midrange deck versus a slower bomb-laden deck how often are you going to be able to overpower them? They're doing everything you want to do except better. They likely have more bombs and a better endgame; it's difficult for an okay midrange sealed pool to outdo a bomb-heavy pool.
Instead you decide that although your R/B bloodthirst sealed build was worse as a deck than your W/B midrange build in this matchup it will likely give you the best chance. Why? Well if your opponent has a lot of bombs that means that they may need time to draw into those bombs. The quicker you can aim to kill them the fewer opportunities they will have to find exactly what they're looking for.
Additionally by trying to kill them fast you can capitalize on mana costs and any stumbling that may occur to the bomb heavy deck. Your individual deck may be a little worse but your matchup is way better.
The opposite is also true. If my opponent had eight cheap removal spells backed up by bombs and I was a scrappy beatdown deck I would sideboard into a much different deck. There's probably no way you're going to overcome their removal heavy deck. Instead I would rather be a slower deck full of disruption (like the aforementioned Mind Rot/Distress/Cancel or even land destruction if you are desperate) or some kind of midrange deck.
Just like in Constructed Limited is a lot about matchup positioning. While the match results aren't as concrete as in Constructed because Limited is mostly singleton Magic it's still crucial to pay attention to and sideboard appropriately.
I think one of the largest mistakes people tend to make in Limited en masse is using their removal too early.
In a format as fast as M12 using removal quickly can be incredibly tempting. It's possible Innistrad will be a different story (Innistrad looks like a fairly slow format much slower than Scars Zendikar or M12) but when your opponent plays a turn-two Stormfront Pegasus in M12 it can take a lot of restraint to not immediately pull the trigger on your Shock.
When you have the opportunity to Doom Blade their only guy on turn five and crash in for six it can be so alluring. Sometimes it can even be right… but if you know they have a Titan (or other creature bomb) in their deck to potentially follow it up you need to make sure you can beat it.
It's a tricky balance. You can't just play in fear of what they could have but at the same time you have to respect that if you spend your Doom Blade early you will lose to their Inferno Titan if they have it and that's that.
In general I've been finding myself being patient more and more—and consistently being rewarded for it. Usually you can find a way to break open a board stall if given enough time (perhaps with a bomb of your own!) but if they have their bomb first then you absolutely need to kill it.
Zac Hill has talked before about never spending removal on anything that isn't going to kill you or otherwise demolish you in some way (Royal Assassin) and I agree with his philosophy. Take some hits if you need to (keeping things like bloodthirst in mind of course) since a lot of the time you can gum up the board fine. Once the board is at a stall then all of the removal spells you kept in your hand look incredible while your opponent fruitlessly attempts to break the board stall with other creatures.
In general I would evaluate how much damage a creature is going to deal and if you're going to have to kill it eventually. If your opponent casts a turn-two Pegasus and your deck is light on flying blockers (with none in your hand) then there's a good chance that Pegasus is good for 10+ damage which is likely worth killing.
On the other hand if your opponent plays a Blood Ogre and you have Rusted Sentinel to block it in a couple turns I'm less interested with using up a removal spell. You'll take some damage but unless you're worried about Gorehorn Minotaurs the Rusted Sentinel will hold off the Ogre anyway.
At the core of this issue just figure out how relevant a creature is going to be and go from there. When in doubt I generally would err on the side of holding the removal spell for something more threatening.
Fighting Fire with Fire
With six packs for sealed most players should have at least one bomb. One way to beat their bomb is to make sure you also have access to something that can equally steal the game.
Alexander West who has an insane Limited Grand Prix Day 2 conversion rate (and thus a very good Sealed record) taught me that the key to Sealed is often to just play your most powerful cards. Unlike draft which is more based on synergy and archetypes you can simply overpower your opponent in Sealed when you draw your best cards. Having an archetype and all is still worthwhile of course but this entire article is about how to beat bombs and how you aren't always able to—you want your opponent to have the same problem!
Similarly I'm reminded of a time when Mike Flores made Top 8 of a Kamigawa block Sealed PTQ playing the expensive and maligned Kuro Pitlord. To paraphrase Mike “I had to have something. It was my only bomb… You have to play the bombs you open.”
The more I play Sealed the more I agree with Mike. Don't get me wrong I love the deck with a nice mana curve that attacks over and over. However those decks can face difficulty overcoming a mediocre mulligan or a barrage of removal spells if they don't also have something powerful and game changing to do.
Part of fighting fire with fire is just making sure you have an endgame bomb that can break a stalemate. The other part is playing toward that bomb.
Though a lot of things happen in a game of Magic if you expect a lot of your creatures and spells to trade off and the game to go long it's not unreasonable to presume a situation where you're both racing toward your bomb(s) or it's a bomb versus bomb situation. In that case think while sideboarding about which bomb trumps the other and how you can tilt the bomb war in your favor.
Innistrad Sealed looks like a nice change of pace after M12 and I'm excited to check it out. The full spoiler isn't up as I write this (though it will be by the time you read this!) so I can't analyze the format but I can tell you one thing: there will be plenty of bombs to fight with and against.
An even slower format means bombs are even more relevant and prevalent since you're less likely to die to random creatures and more likely to have the games go longer. Hopefully this article will help you fight those wars as you head into the PTQ season and the Prerelease this weekend. It should be a lot of fun!
If you have any feedback or want to talk about situations where you beat bombs I'd love to hear from you! Feel free to post in the comments below send me a tweet or e-mail me at Gavintriesagain at gmail dot com.
Otherwise I'll be back next week with a two-part review of Innistrad in Modern. With the banned list update tomorrow and a brand new set entering the fray you won't want to miss it. I'll see you then!
Rabon on Magic Online @GavinVerhey on Twitter