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M14 Limited Lessons
Feature Article from Craig Wescoe
Craig Wescoe
8/23/2013 12:50:00 PM
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Last week I discussed what Standard will look like once Magic 2013 and Innistrad block rotate out next month. This week, in anticipation of Grand Prix Oakland, I would like to discuss M14 Limited, focusing specifically on Sealed Deck. Melissa DeTora wrote about Draft Signaling on Wednesday. If you haven't yet, I would recommend checking it out. If you're preparing for the upcoming Pro Tour Valencia PTQs or attending GP Oakland, hopefully my article today will get you through the Sealed Deck portion and into the Top 8 and Melissa's will help you to get through the draft and into Victory Lane.

This article is broken into two sections. Section 1 includes a series of five heuristics or “rules of thumb” to guide your Sealed Deck building, including examples, explanations, and MTGO illustrations. In Section 2 we move to analyzing complex board states. These tend to come up frequently in Sealed Deck matches and I cover an example in depth to show the thought processes you should go through when breaking down a complex board state in a Sealed Deck match. Then at the end I have a bonus section concerning which (or shall I say ‘witch') play the opponent should have made. My aim is for the article to be instructive and entertaining.

Section 1: Building a Game Plan from your Sealed Pool

Rule 1: Play your bombs

When building an M14 sealed deck, the first thing I look at are the Rares (and Mythics) and then the Uncommons. The strongest cards in the format are Rare or Mythic, and in some cases Uncommon, so I want to immediately identify the strongest cards I have to work with. In general, it's best to try and play the color(s) that contains your strongest card or cards. Sometimes this is not possible if the color is too shallow and doesn't contain any other playable cards, or if there is no other color in your pool that can be paired with it to make a playable deck. Usually, however, you play the color that contains your strongest card.

In the above pool my best three cards were Jace, Memory Adept, Colossal Whale, and Air Servant. So the easy decision was to play blue. The next decision was what color would be best to pair with blue. In this case black contained the highest number of playables and had some good synergy and removal spells, so going blue/black was a relatively straightforward decision. Ideally you open a card like Jace and enough support to build a deck that allows you to play it.

Rule 2: Play your removal

The second thing I look for is which colors offer me the greatest amount of removal, specifically cards that get rid of opposing creatures.

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In the above pool, it was close between playing red/black or red/green. Red contained my best cards (Shivan Dragon and Ogre Battledriver), and it also contained some of my best removal (two Chandra's Outrages and two Pitchburn Devils). The question was whether to pair it with green or black. Green offered two Deadly Recluse, Hunt the Weak, and Enlarge while black offered two Wring Flesh, Quag Sickness, and Liturgy of Blood. When the best cards and removal make it close between two builds, I then look for internal synergies. In this case I felt red/black had better synergy because it contained Blood Bairn and Vampire Warlord as sacrifice outlets for Pitchburn Devils and Young Pyromancer tokens. Black also had more ways to trigger the Pyromancer. I am also a big fan of Mind Rot in Sealed Deck and it may have been correct to run the second Mind Rot over Mark of the Vampire.

Rule 3: Splash sparingly and only when necessary

Sometimes no two-color combination in your pool affords you enough depth for a competitive deck and so you have to dip into a third color. Usually this is for a removal spell or two, or sometimes for a splashable bomb.

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The above deck is an example of getting too greedy with your splashes. Shimmering Grotto and two Verdant Havens are great enablers for a splash, but you don't want to splash three black cards and a blue card, especially in a deck that has a triple white spell ( Planar Cleansing) in addition to Howl of Night Pack. If you get too greedy, you open yourself up to losing in the following way:

#6lands7cards #cantcastanything #nicehandbro!

I can't quite put my finger on it, but this hand seems to be missing something...

The better splash would have been just the one Doom Blade and the one Clone, and only because the first splash affords you the ability to do so at little to no extra cost. I would not even run the Swamp in this build and just go off the three sources (two Havens and Grotto). Most of the time you want two to three sources of the splashed color to cast one to two cards of that color.

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This second example is a better way to splash. Lay of the Land, Manaweft Sliver, and Shimmering Grotto provide three sources for each splash color and a single Swamp and Plains give you four total sources for three total cards (Pacifism, Doom Blade, and Devout Invocation). The deck is otherwise a bit removal light and the Invocation is the best card in the pool. Sometimes you're able to play your best cards and get enough removal spells via splashing. In this case Blue and Green were the deepest colors in the pool and green afforded us the ability to splash these three cards.

Rule 4: As a last resort, prioritize power over consistency

Sometimes your pool is so weak or so spread out across multiple colors that you cannot build a two-color deck or even a two-color deck with a light splash. In such dire circumstances, some people advocate playing a mediocre two-color deck and hoping to just draw your better cards. I'm not of this school of thought. Instead I recommend playing a powerful deck with inconsistent mana. Keep in mind, this is a last resort, but in my opinion it's harder to win with bad cards than it is to just get lucky and draw your mana to play more powerful cards.

I tried going black/blue, black/green, and blue/green since those were my strongest three colors. Unfortunately blue had the majority of my creatures but few spells. Black had my removal but few creatures. Green had a few creatures, a few removal, and one of my semi-bombs ( Enlarge). Instead of playing weak cards with little synergy in my deck (e.g. Brindle Boar, Advocate of the Beasts, Armored Cancrix) I opted to just playing the strongest cards of each of the three colors and hope to draw my mana. Fortunately I did and managed to 4-0 the DE with a very mediocre pool. Sometimes salvaging is your best plan to maximize your chances to win. It's not ideal, but when you're dealt lemons, make lemon water.

Rule 5: Consider your options to switch colors

Some pools have one particular build that stands out above the rest and is the clear correct way to build the pool. Other times you have two or three different builds that are close to even in power level. When this is the case, you should consider carefully the strengths and weaknesses of each of the competing builds and be mindful of when you want to switch from one build to another, depending on what the opponent is playing. For instance, maybe your green has multiple Plummets and a Windstorm but not other removal spells. If your opponent is playing a deck filled with fliers, siding into a build that contains green will likely give you a better chance this round. Is your opponent's deck filled with mana ramp and big bombs? Maybe you should side into blue for your counter-magic. Is your opponent black? If you're planning to side out your three Accursed Spirits, maybe a different color would be better instead of black? These are the questions you should ask yourself so that you can prepare a sideboard plan in advance and be ready to execute it when you pick up your sideboard after game one. Get the necessary lands ready and in your sideboard, appropriately sleeved, so you don't have to ask a judge for lands and tip your opponent off that you are changing colors. Missing out on an opportunity to switch colors into a better deck against your opponent's particular deck can easily make the difference between a win and a loss. So be looking for opportunities to gain this advantage if your build affords you such luxury.

Now that we've covered building the Sealed Deck, let's now consider how to manage complex board states. Boards tend to get complicated in unforeseen ways in Sealed Deck matches and so I find it instructive to know what sorts of questions to ask yourself in order to figure out the best plays. Being able to win the close games is a very important skill in Sealed Deck.

Section 2: Navigating Complex Boards

Consider the following board state and then answer the subsequent four questions:

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Neither player has any cards in hand and it is my pre-combat main phase. I'm at eight and my opponent is at 10. I have seven lands, Blood Bairn, Rootwalla, Brindle Boar, two Sporemounds, and two freshly made Saproling tokens. The opponent has eight lands, two tapped Air Servants, and three untapped creatures: Scroll Thief, Battle Sliver, and Regathan Firecat.

Question 1: Did I make the correct play by attacking with everyone? Why or why not?
Question 2: What creature(s) should I sacrifice to the Blood Bairn after blocks, if any? Why?
Question 3: What generic sort of things can my opponent draw to win or not lose on his next turn?
Question 4: What generic sort of things can I then draw on my next turn to win or not lose?

Got your answers? Ok, here are mine:

Answer 1: I believe I did make the correct attack because this is the only way for me to race his Air Servants. If I hold any creature back this turn, then I won't have lethal on board the following turn. The only questionable attacker is the Brindle Boar. If he stays back, we can sacrifice our tokens to keep Blood Bairn alive and still have a blocker for Scroll Thief. But this gives the opponent a chance to chump block with Scroll Thief on Rootwalla and draw a removal spell to win if I want to keep my Blood Bairn alive (since he could kill Brindle Boar and attack with Sliver and both Air Servants for lethal). We would rather get the Boar in there so that if he wants to keep his Sliver alive, he would have to take the two damage from the pig and go to two life, at which point we could just let Blood Bairn trade with Firecat and have lethal on board even if he draws a creature or removal spell. So attacking with the pig also gives him a chance to block wrong and lose the game outright.

Answer 2: I need the Sporemounds to deal their combat damage, so I can't sacrifice them. I need Rootwalla to trade with Battle Sliver, so I can't sacrifice him. I need Brindle Board to Threaten to gain four life so the Air Servants can't kill me next turn. So my only option is whether to keep my two Saproling tokens or my Blood Bairn. It is close, but it's better not to sacrifice (depending on a card I'll mention in Answer 4). At four life, my opponent will have to draw a creature or a removal spell in order to be able to attack with the Air Servants. As far as combat math is concerned, his outs are the same whether we have a Blood Bairn or two tokens (since he blocks Blood Bairn and Sporemound and goes to one or he blocks both Sporemounds and takes the two tokens and goes to two and kills us on the swing back with the two Air Servants regardless). The one thing that not sacrificing provides us with is a blocker if he decides to attack with Scroll Thief. The only advantage to attacking with Scroll Thief is if he has a card like Volcanic Geyser or Lava Axe on top of his deck to finish us since passing allows us to draw a land to make two tokens before trading the Sporemounds for his Air Servants and likely putting him in a worse position than the odds of drawing the burn spell in a single draw step. This would be, or at least might seem to him to be, the correct play since it prevents us from having a chance to draw a removal spell on our turn to win the game. So keeping them at least gives us that last draw step to find a game-winner before he can draw the Geyser or Axe that could be on top of his library.

Answer 3: If he draws a creature or a removal spell, he can attack with his Air Servants without being dead on board the following turn because it would force me to sacrifice my Brindle Boar for four life to stay alive.

Answer 4: If he draws a creature or a removal spell, we can still draw a removal spell or a pump spell to win this turn (or a Fog for the following turn, but we aren't running Fog). The one card that would change the answer to Question 2 is if we have Ranger's Guile in our deck. If we do, then it's better to sacrifice because then if he draws a blocker and we draw Ranger's Guile, he has to block Blood Bairn and Sporemound and we can give the unblocked Sporemound +1/+1 for exactly lethal. If we instead had two Sporemounds and two Saproling tokens, he could block both Sporemounds and we would still be one short of lethal. So if you answered sacrifice, this would be the reason why that line would be correct – to let Ranger's Guile be a game-winner if the opponent draws a blocker.

In case you're wondering, he drew the blocker, attacked with both Air Servants, and I drew a land and lost the game. Still, winning in Magic is all about continually putting yourself in the best position to win each game. Over time you are rewarded relative to the quality of your decisions. Learning how to make the best decisions possible will in the long run maximize your amount of wins.

Bonus Section 1: Witch play should I make?

It's the opponent's pre-combat main phase and I'm tapped out (four lands) with Angelic Accord, Bubbling Cauldron, and a tapped Phantom Warrior. He has a Festering Newt, Blood Bairn, Bogbrew Witch, and five lands. I'm at 16 and my opponent is at 18. The game is looking close. He has active Bogbrew Witch but I have the Accord-Cauldron combo. He taps three mana to play Undead Minotaur and then the following happens:

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This was likely my opponent's reasoning that led to the above board state:

“I need to sacrifice a newt to kill that Phantom Warrior before he untaps so he can't sacrifice it to the Cauldron to make an angel. I should do this pre-combat so my Blood Bairn will get an extra damage in. *clicks Blood Bairn and is about to click Newt* Oh wait, it would be better to search out a Newt with Bogbrew Witch and sacrifice that one instead. That way I'll be able to get the extra one damage in by attacking with the Newt that's already in play. *Clicks Bogbrew Witch to activate it without first clicking ‘cancel' from the Blood Bairn activation* Woah, what happened? I just sacrificed my Bogbrew Witch to my Blood Bairn!!! [Expletives deleted']”

Instead of the game being close but him being advantaged, I ended up winning fairly easily since he accidentally sacrificed his Bogbrew Witch for no reason and now can't even kill my Phantom Warrior since Newt only gives -1/-1 instead of -4/-4 with the witch no longer in play. I've seen a lot of misclicks, but this one was pretty special.

Hopefully these M14 Limited Lessons were entertaining and instructional! I'll be putting them to the test this weekend at Grand Prix Oakland. Let me know in the forum what you thought.

Craig Wescoe
@Nacatls4Life on twitter

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