Originally, I wasn’t planning to write an article about my trip to Dominaria Resort at all. Despite having a ton of fun hanging out with friends and finally meeting Alex (Bianchi) and Chris (Lansdell) in real life, I ended up not making day two with my fairly mediocre pool, so what would I have to tell you guys?
Then KYT reminded me of the fact that the current PTQ format is Khans of Tarkir Sealed, and I realized I could potentially help out. I generally don’t write much about Limited, because it is in my opinion way harder to discuss than Constructed. In Constructed, everyone works with the same pool of cards, and the biggest variable is the metagame. Once we assume a certain metagame is most likely to occur, for example, the average top 32 of the latest few SCG Opens together make up a pretty reasonable metagame prediction for the next SCG Open if you adjust for noticeable trends, we can discuss cards based on their merit in this particular context. Polukranos is good, because it is very good against [card]Stoke the Flames[/card] and [card]Siege Rhino[/card], two of the most played cards currently- that kind of stuff.
In Limited, this is a lot harder. Yes, you can say “a lot of the removal spells deal well with four toughness or lower, like [card]Throttle[/card] and Mardu Charm”, but your opponent is not guaranteed to have access to those. They can very well have [card]Burn Away[/card] or [card]Suspension Field[/card]s instead, making your genius plan of playing infinite [card]Sagu Archer[/card]s kind of moot. You will generally not be able to tell what cards your opponent has in their deck, aside from an estimate. [card]Duneblast[/card] is less likely than [card]Murderous Cut[/card] which is less likely than [card]Debilitating Injury[/card], but they could all be in your opponent’s deck. This creates a lot of interesting gameplay (what do you play around?), but it also means a lot for deckbuilding and card evaluation.
Cards can vary wildly in power level depending on your opponent’s deck. For example, something like a [card]Rotting Mastodon[/card] is not exciting at all, but I’ve seen decks that couldn’t ever beat it. This is also why sideboarding is so important in sealed. Yes, sometimes you are so thin on playables that you won’t have anything to sideboard in in the majority of your rounds, but most likely, this is rarer than you think. This is one of the reasons I always keep extra basic lands with my sealed deck, as sometimes that one color that you deemed “not good enough” matches up perfectly with the cards your opponent has played (to keep track of those, try writing them on your scorepad, so that you can refer to the list while sideboarding).
When building a deck in Sealed, you will want to build a deck that works on its own. There is no “hatebears” strategy in limited. You build with power, synergy and consistency in mind. I fully blame myself for not making day two at GP Orlando, even with a mediocre pool. Mediocre pools can do more than fine, and in my experience, during limited GPs you will generally see the better players float to the top regardless of how strong their deck is. Of course, having an insane pool can carry anyone, and the great player with a few insane bombs will probably do better than the great player without them, but I’ve seen many pools filled with bombs butchered by poor deckbuilding choices or poor play. I definitely made a pretty big mistake during deckbuilding, and it basically led to me losing just about every game one all day.
The mistake I made was valuing power over consistency, which was a very uncharacteristic mistake for me. To explain why I made that mistake, I’ll go over how I approached this event.
Even before the prerelease, I was spending time looking at virtual sealed pools. While doing so, I fairly quickly realized that if I wanted to be able to consistently cast my spells, I was going to need more than just one dual land. To see what I mean, take a look at this article by Frank Karsten (I’ve linked to it before, and I’m sure I will link to it again). If you want to be 90% sure you can cast a card like [card]Hordeling Outburst[/card] on turn three in your 40-card deck, you need thirteen red sources. No, that is not a typo, you need 13 red sources. Now, the average accepted manabase in limited is 9-8, but as we hopefully remember from Theros block, you really wanted 10-7 if you had a bunch of [card]Wingsteed Rider[/card]s or other double costs. Perhaps even 11-6 if you were going for a reliable turn two [card]Phalanx Leader[/card]. Karsten’s math suggests that is not even enough to get to 90% certainty, but it might be close enough.
So what does that mean for Khans of Tarkir? Well, you’ll often be playing three colors. Suppose you try to build a Mardu deck, and you end up with 6 white spells, 7 red, 7 black, and 3 multicolor spells you want in your deck. That’s 23 spells, so that leaves perfect space for 17 lands, which is what we’re used to. Now let’s assume there is not a single [card]Summit Prowler[/card] in there, and all our cards cost a single colored mana at most to cast. If we want a white source, a black source and a red source by turn 3, we’d need eight sources per color. Three times eight is 24, not 17. Even with a [card]Bloodstained Mire[/card] and a [card]Nomad Outpost[/card] in there, having a 5/5/5 split between basics doesn’t even consistently let you cast a [card]Seeker of the Way[/card] by turn five – and that’s with two fixers.
Now let’s try to make it a little easier on ourselves. We cut the white cards from our deck, and replace them with more red an black cards, but we do have to add a [card]Summit Prowler[/card] and an [card]Arrow Storm[/card] in red, and a [card]Swarm of Bloodflies[/card] in black. We are now splashing white for three multicolor cards, so it’s fine if we only draw a white source by turn five or so. To be able to play the [card]Summit Prowler[/card] on time, we’d like to have at least ten red sources (12 would be good for 90% of the games) and we kind of need ten for the Bloodflies too. So, with the same two fixers, 6R/6B/3W becomes the split of basics, which means we still only have eight red and black sources, and we are now down to four white sources, which is a full two sources too few per color overall, while we were already skimping on the 90% chance guideline. The ideal 10/10/6 would mean playing 26 lands, which is ludicrous.
It’s no wonder people suggest playing eighteen land in this format. Not only do you want to be the first one to unmorph bigger morphs with five land, you are trying to cram well over twenty colored source producers in as few slots as possible.
Thus, my first lesson was to look at my dual lands before anything else. I would not let myself be tempted by a Zurgo if my only Mardu-fixing was a Banner and a [card]Scoured Barrens[/card]. If I opened two [card]Frontier Bivouac[/card]s, a [card]Rugged Highlands[/card], and two [card]Thornwood Falls[/card], I was most likely going Temur or Sultai, as with four or five fixers, I had a good chance of being able to cast all my spells on time. Perhaps I didn’t have as many bombs as someone else in my deck, but being able to curve out consistently and cast every card I draw was better than being stuck with that Zurgo in my hand waiting for white mana.
Now, of course, as we saw on the Pro Tour, if you are stuck with that Zurgo in hand, but your opponent is also missing a color, you’re back to playing even, and whoever draws their third or fourth color first would most likely win. I didn’t plan to be in that situation ever, or if I was, I wanted to make sure I was the first to find my missing source, which meant playing a decent manabase.
I did well in multiple sealed events, working from this starting point. Very often, my opponent would stumble, I would get ahead on the board, and there was little he or she could do to get back in the game. These games also made me gravitate towards Mardu and Jeskai whenever I could build it, as they seemed to be able to make the best use out of cards like [card]Mardu Hordechief[/card], [card]Mardu Warshrieker[/card], [card]Mardu Heart-Piercer[/card] and [card]Force Away[/card]: all cards I considered to be very good because they put you ahead on board with minimal investment. Forcing a big morph creature away after your opponent spent five mana to flip it in the hope of eating one of your 2/2s felt amazing.
When I built slower decks, like Sultai, I would try fill my graveyard while keeping up with the board as much as I could, building to a point where I could cast a [card]Hooting Mandrills[/card] and a [card]Sultai Scavenger[/card] in a single turn, hopefully getting ahead on the board. The two mana creatures felt great in those decks, trading early with a morph, and I even loved [card]Rakshasa’s Secret[/card] as a way to hamper my opponent’s resources while setting myself up to play a [card]Hooting Mandrills[/card] on turn 4 to make up for not playing a 2/2 on turn three. With [card]Rakshasa’s Secret[/card], I was skipping adding to the board for a turn, but it often caused my opponent to miss a play somewhere too, and it would ramp me up to bigger delve spells, which in turn helped me make up for not adding to the board the turn before.
I did not like Abzan as much as everyone else early on, but it’s very possible that was just because most Abzan pilots would stumble too often, or couldn’t use their outlast abilities because they were constrained on colored sources. When I built Abzan, it would be because I had cards like [card]Disowned Ancestor[/card] and [card]Salt Road Patrol[/card] to make multiple small creatures useless at the same time (try swinging in with a bunch of 2/2s into a 2/5 or 2/6- that doesn’t work for long), buying me the time to find enough mana to activate outlast abilities while still casting spells.
I slowly found out that in most decks there were ways to get ahead or to not fall behind, but the easiest way remained to be: cast spells while your opponent stumbles.
Flash forward to the day of the GP, where I hung around in the hotel looking at the winning Last Chance Trial lists from GP Shanghai, while my roommates were heading out to play round one. A lot of Abzan, a lot of Mardu. A lot of bombs, and a lot of terrible manabases. 41 cards and only 17 lands in four colors, with only one dual, 16 lands and four colors. 17 lands, evenly spread over three colors. Everything I considered to be outrageous: and they had all won a trial.
This is when doubt slipped into my mind, and I didn’t even realize it yet. It was only when I had received my pool and was building a Sultai deck splashing for two red morphs off of a [card]Wooded Foothills[/card], a [card]Bloodfell Caves[/card] and two [card]Swiftwater Cliffs[/card] that I looked at the cards I was playing and thought “maybe this just isn’t good enough”. I had some great Mardu bombs, but only the one [card]Bloodfell Caves[/card] as fixing. Mardu had won most trials though, and their fixing was bad too. Maybe I was wrong, and maybe the correct strategy was to just hope your mana worked and overpower people with a strong aggressive deck.
I laid out the Mardu deck. Plenty of creatures, a curve with too many threes and not enough twos, but I’d seen that before. I had enough removal, and I had three [card]Feat of Resistance[/card] and a [card]Ride Down[/card] to plow through blockers. My curve was low enough to maybe get away with 17 lands if the colored sources worked, and I was only splashing black for creatures I could cast late and removal. I didn’t have any double colored spells early.
I put together the lands. Seven Plains, five Mountains, two Swamps, a Bloodfell Cave, and a [card]Polluted Delta[/card] and a [card]Wooded Foothills[/card] to help cast my [card]Sultai Scavenger[/card]s earlier. Not great, but time was running low, so I registered it. I really wanted to finally make that push to day two at this GP. In the last three GPs I played in, I went 5-3, 6-3, 6-3, always just falling short. Perhaps I just needed a little luck and I would make it this time.
Yeah, if only.
I lost every game one, except the ones where my opponents were also manascrewed. While my Mardu deck was strong against durdle-y decks, it was horrific at playing from behind. Combat tricks are worse, [card]Ride Down[/card] does nothing, and [card]Deflecting Palm[/card] didn’t swing close races in my favor; it was a glorified [card]Healing Salve[/card] while I struggled to stay in the game. After getting my first loss, I boarded into a Sultai deck every round, which was a lot better against all the Mardu decks I was facing. While none of my cards were spectacular, I only lost two games with that deck: one to a turn five [card]Necropolis Fiend[/card] after an aggressive start from my Mardu opponent where I was already struggling to stabilize; and one in a very close game where my Mardu-kai opponent turned around a close race with two tricks in one turn after us both being in topdeck mode for a bit. I had put him on one trick at most, but he had been patient and played very well overall, so I wasn’t too sad to lose to him. Sadly enough, it was round eight, and it was my third loss, leaving me with another 5-3 GP finish.
Please learn from my mistakes. Don’t doubt yourself, don’t get greedy in this format, and save yourself a ton of time when building your sealed pool by looking at your fixing first: it will tell you what colors you can play. Getting greedy should be a last resort. If you want to consistently do well, give yourself the best chance at doing so.
Good luck at your PTQs,
iLansdaal on Twitter, no longer on MTGO – V4 was the end of me there