Beating the best decks: Metagaming in a Sealed format

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Hey there! I’m Marcus, Danish Magic player, two-time Pro Tour competitor, bronze pro and Limited aficionado. My approach to playing, thinking about and (now, again) writing about Magic revolves around understanding the broader, general theories of Magic and then applying myself to putting them into practice in the formats as they exist now. I particularly find this gives me an edge at the start of a new Limited set’s lifetime, which is why I’m here to teach you about…

Beating the best decks: Metagaming in a Sealed format

Most of you probably have some idea what the concept of “metagaming” means in a Magic context: We’re very used to talking about “metagames” or “the metagame”, especially when it comes to Constructed. But allow me to just briefly explain how I apply the term to Limited – here to Sealed specifically.

“Meta” carries the connotation of looking at a format as distributed in layers – ideally looking from “the top” at what everyone else is doing, and tailoring your own approach to beat that: to “level” your opponents. In Sealed specifically (and in League draft play – but that is for another time), your opponents will have access to a similarly random distribution of cards from the set as you will. So how do you “level” them and end up beating the best decks?

Let’s start at level zero.

Level zero: “Play your bombs”

It sounds simple because it is – but it works. When evaluating a Sealed pool, your bombs and other best cards are generally a huge indicator of which colours to play – and an indicator that even the more inexperienced players you might face are going to be able to identify. In M19 Sealed deck, that generally means playing some amount of dragons.

Apart from the Elder Dragon cycle, most of which easily classify as “bombs”, Red has dragons ranging from rare to common and from “imminently game-ending” to, well, still quite impactful. Black also has the mythic rare Bone Dragon, and both White and Blue have big, threatening flying creatures at uncommon and up. The Elder Dragons by definition necessitates branching into a third colour, but if your pool has good defensive tools and lacks ways of finishing off the game, I would not fault anyone for splashing a Horizon Scholar or even an Angel of the Dawn in their deck – most Sealed pools in this format have a few cards that enable splashes between two mana-rocks and a cycle of common duals.

Speaking of colours, another thing worth mentioning is that, if there is a marked difference in the strengths of colours in a set, this tends to express itself in how often those colours show up in your opponents’ decks. I think M19 is one of the sets where this might be the case.

Apart from the attractive selection of dagons I’ve already mentioned, Red gets a plethora of efficient removal spells that function at instant speed and which we have learnt by now are good reasons to play the colour, even if most of them can’t really deal with a dragon on their own – more on that later. Red also has relatively few “duds” in the Rare and Mythic slot (Sarkhan is good, I think, and if you ever actually get to cast Apex of Power, it might just pay you off). But there is one colour with an even higher hit rate at Rare and Mythic:

Apart from a single, Isolate-d incident, every White rare and mythic is at least playable, and if you also disregard Suncleanser, I’m willing to upgrade that to “great”. While Sarkhan and Liliana have some tribal dependencies in order to be great, Ajani just pays you off for playing your creatures on curve, and if that’s not in the cards, well, Cleansing Nova clears up all but the most helpless of boardstates. The rest of White’s rares is an array of efficient and/or evasive threats that threaten to get out of hand quickly. If you open White rares, odds are you are playing White.

So, assuming our opponents are also going to value these cards when deckbuilding, how do we find an edge against the field at large?

Level one: Re-evaluating and including “marginal” cards

If your objective is to win the tournament you are playing in, whether online or in paper – and I am assuming that is going to be the case – you need to come prepared to beat the best decks in the room, and that is certainly going to include the decks with lots of bombs and efficient, red removal.
A rather drastic way of doing this is to “hedge” against those decks by playing cards that in no way look as sexy as the cards we’ve been talking about so far, but which give you, if not the upper hand, at least a fighting chance against those top-tier cards. If you are lucky, the other cards in your deck are powerful enough that you can afford including situational cards that can buy you an advantage against the other good decks in the tournament.

It is perfectly reasonable if your first reaction to this selection of cards is something to the effect of “drastic”. All of these are cards that we are used to think of as purely sideboard material or dubious main deck inclusions. But it is also sometimes necessary to sometimes do something drastic if you’re hoping to beat an opponent who has cards like Nicol Bolas, The Ravager and Vaevictis Asmadi, The Dire in their deck. And odds are, if you are playing a long tournament like a Grand Prix or an online PTQ, especially if you keep winning, you will at some point be facing down against exactly that.

Sure, it would be better if that Plummet was a Murder, but sometimes that’s just not the case, and you’ll be thankful you had it instead of a random Greenwood Sentinel. Bone to Ash not only catches cards like Bolas or Pelakka Wurm before they generate any value, you get paid a replacement card for your efforts. It’s not always easy to keep open, of course, and sometimes an opponent will present you with a target that isn’t a bomb but is good enough that you have to pull the trigger, but you’re still up in that exchange.

There are also less drastic ways of re-evaluating cards that might buy you an advantage against the best decks. If I’m right that most players will be attracted to White and/or Red in their sealed deckbuilding, not only are you going to be facing a lot of Shocks and Lightning Strikes, you are also going to play against a lot of people who’ve had to fill the last slots of their decks with cards like Oreskos Swiftclaw, Cavalry Drillmaster, Viashino Pyromancers and Boggard Brutes.

Creatures like these that add multiple bodies to the battlefield match up particularly well against both effective single-target removal spells and a lot of the common early-game creatures in the best colours. Odds are, if you curve Aviation Pioneer into Gallant Cavalry on the play, an opponent who relies on cards like Shock and Boggart Brute to bridge them into the later turns of the game is going to feel less comfortable about their situation. It affords you the time to hold up countermagic for their big Dragon while still applying pressure, or creates a situation where a card like Volcanic Dragon is stuck on defensive duty instead of pressuring your own life total.

Despite their lower ratio of dominating, game-changing plays, you might also be attracted to other colours for the options these might give you against the best decks in the format. Black not only has Murder and Lich’s Caress as unconditional removal spells, it also has commons like Skeleton Archer and Doomed Dissenter that helps invalidate early offense efficiently enough that you can save those removal spells for the threats that actually matter. Topping that off with discard spells and cards like Gravedigger and Rise from the Grave that can let you rebuy your own best creatures definitely makes Black a fine option should your White or Red not be attractive.

In the same way, Blue not only gives you access to countermagic (Cancel at common is less sexy than Bone to Ash, but more flexible and perfectly serviceable, and Essence Scatter is even easier to hold up), but also a plethora of evasive threats that can put severe pressure on even a well-stacked removal suite. Sure, Snapping Drake dies to Shock, but not if Departed Deckhand or Aven Wind Mage eats it first. Divination at common, Sift at Uncommon and Patient Rebuilding and Mystic Archaeologist at rare means you are likely to be able to compete in card quantity even if you feel like you might be a little short on quality.

I’m not arguing that you should be playing these cards or colours instead of your best ones – but rather, that playing them along with those merits more consideration if you want an edge against all the opponents who are at level zero. Now, what’s next…

Level Two: Finding new angles of attack

Let’s say you’re interested in not just beating the opponents fortunate enough to have a deck filled with bombs and removal, but also the other opponents who are clever enough to build their decks to have answers to opposing bombs. Those, ostensibly, you are also going to run into at the top tables. One way of doing this could be to find a new angle of attack that will tax your opponents’ removal for your bombs to end the game, or – ideally – catch them by surprise and win the game for you on your own. A good place to look for these is in the uncommons of your pool.

Cards like these – Millstone is another, colourless option – that can be deployed early (before the opponent can realistically hold up countermagic or nab them with discard spells), apply a great amount of pressure, and are not easily answered make for great ways to “steal” a game. Unlike Plummet, Naturalize does not have a ton of good targets in the format in general, and an opponent might have no ways at all to answer a turn three Psychic Corrosion, especially if their main colour happens to be Red or Black. Then, ostensibly, all you have to do is wait. The onus is on your opponent to apply pressure, and they might not hesitate to play their most powerful threats into countermagic or expose them to removal before their less valuable threats.

In the same way – although the Animator himself is vulnerable to some removal – a 5/5 artifact attacker on turn 3 might just have to trade for a premium removal spell, a Dragon, or something like Poison-Tip Archer that might have been effective against your own powerful fliers. Notice that these cards are – again – options that you can (and sometimes should) integrate into a strategy that also lets you play your best cards and give you game against others doing the same. Not at no cost – but hopefully at a low enough cost that you will still be able to beat the occasional aggressive deck or draw out of a random opponent.

Level three, and beyond…

There are ways, too, to hedge against these alternative strategies. Including a Reclamation Sage over a slightly better statted creature buys you outs against Millstone and Psychic Corrosion as well as Patient Rebuilding, at a relatively low cost. Maindecking an instant-speed Naturalize effect is more costly, but more reliable, and can buy you blowouts against the White and Blue enchantment-based removal in the set. The only limit to how much you can hedge against is the cards in your pool and in the format, but it usually comes at a steadily increasing cost.

So, whenever you sit down to play in a Sealed tournament, hopefully all of this is on your mind, and your goal is to be exactly one level ahead of the competition. At a prerelease, that is probably level one. At a GP day one, perhaps it’s level two. And on MTGO, it might be even higher…

However your deck ends up looking, it should be the result of careful consideration and deliberate decisions. If you lose to a Dragon, it is worth it to ask yourself if you could have made room for that Plummet, even if the answer ends up being no.

I hope this has been helpful, and that I get more chances to talk (at length…) about how to beat the best. It’s what I’m here for, and hopefully it is an ambition you share.

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