Play Like the Pros: How to Build a Sealed Deck and When to Chump Block

Feature Article from Craig Wescoe
Craig Wescoe
12/22/2017 11:01:00 AM
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Today is two mini-articles jammed together with little more in common than being general strategy advice for improving your ability to win. Today I want to discuss how to build a Sealed Deck, including some higher-level strategy that pros often utilize to their advantage that non-pros will often overlook despite being competent competitive Limited players. The second half discusses what factors to consider when deciding whether or not to chump block. I've got up-to-date examples from Ixalan Limited and current Modern, but the lessons in each section are timeless and applicable to any format at any time.

How to Build a Sealed Deck

In general, these are the steps you want to take.

1. Look at the rares. The most powerful cards in your pool are usually rare, and you want to try and include the most powerful cards in your deck if at all possible. So I want to start by looking at my rares to get an idea of which colors have my pool's most powerful cards.

2. Separate out the unplayable and fringe playable cards.

3. Sort the rest of the pool by color and then lay them all out according to mana cost. This will give you a visual of which colors can fit together while maintaining a curve.

4. Look at which color combinations offer the highest density of powerful cards and removal without either being short on playables or leaving you with a gaping hole in your curve.

5. Look through your stack of fringe playables to see if any filler cards should be added to the deck.

Some other things to consider are internal synergies, especially in a tribal-based format like Ixalan. For instance, some cards work great in a Merfolk deck but are terrible in a Dinosaur deck. Similarly, some cards are good in an aggressive deck while poor in a more defensive deck. When I say you want to maximize the power of your deck, I'm not just talking about playing all the cards with the highest aggregate power level. In Core Set formats these two things are often nearly identical, but in a format like Ixalan you need to pay much closer attention to tribal synergies.

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Ideally, two of your colors will contain multiple bomb rares and those same colors will also have the best creatures and the highest density of removal spells and the curve will be reasonable. When this happens, the stars have aligned and you received a pool that players often refer to as a pool that “built itself,” meaning you didn't really have any difficult decisions in building it. When this happens, congratulations, you won the Sealed Deck lottery. When this doesn't happen, here are a few additional tips for navigating a weaker or harder-to-build pool (which are not necessarily the same thing).

Sometimes there are two different decks you can build out of your pool that are comparable in power level. For instance, maybe you can build a White-Black Vampire deck out of your pool or a Green-Blue Merfolk deck. Neither deck is noticeably stronger than the other, but these two decks are better than anything else you can build out of your pool. In these scenarios you want to consider which deck is better against which opposing strategies. For instance, maybe the Vampire deck is better against cheap fliers or more resilient to removal while the Merfolk deck is better against slower decks or decks light on removal spells. Whichever deck you end up registering, you want to sleeve up the backup deck, including the appropriate basic lands, so that you can switch into it mid-round depending on what your opponent is playing. For instance, if you decide to register the Merfolk deck and your opponent's deck is filed with removal spells, shuffle up and present your Vampire deck for game two of the match. It's legal to sideboard any amount of cards in Limited, so when you have a pool with two comparable builds, optimal strategy will often be to sideboard into your backup deck some amount of the time.

Also if you believe your primary deck and your backup deck are equally good against your opponent, your default should be to switch decks for two reasons: (1) your opponent already saw cards from your previous deck and so by switching you negate the advantage they gained from the previous game of having knowledge of the contents of your deck, and (2) to potentially weaken the opponent's deck if they sideboarded into cards that are better against your primary deck or sided out cards that are bad against it. For instance, Celestial Purge is great against black and red decks but worthless against a green and white deck. So if both decks seem equal to you in the matchup, your default should be to switch to the backup deck.

The nightmare scenario is when your pool is garbage. You don't have any powerful rares that pull you into a particular color combination, your removal spells are weak or non-existent, and there is no build that gives you a good curve that lines up with your rares or removal spells. When it's impossible to build a strong deck out of your pool, the general rule is to build to get lucky. This can mean one of two things. First, it can mean playing the most aggressive deck possible to hope to overrun the opponent before they set up and beat you with their more powerful cards. This is often the optimal strategy when your deck lacks removal and bombs. If the games go long, you will lose, so you need to end things quickly. You also have no way to deal with your opponent's creatures, so you have to rely on being ahead in combat to win games.

The second way is to play a three (or more) color deck with bad mana just to give yourself a chance to keep up on power level. For instance, maybe you have removal spells and a couple rares but they are spread out across multiple colors or are not in the same colors as the creatures in your pool. If you have good mana fixing, then you could splash or double splash for removal and/or bombs, but even if you don't have good mana fixing, sometimes the best way to salvage the pool is to just play with bad mana and hope to get lucky. Sure, you will lose some games due to drawing the wrong colors of mana, but at least you give yourself a chance to win. Losing one game to drawing the wrong colors of mana but winning the other two means you still win the match. Losing every game to having worse cards than your opponent despite drawing perfect mana will result in you winning no matches. Sometimes your best chance to win with the worst of pools is to just try to get as lucky as possible.

When to Chump Block

I often see people failing to chump block when they are supposed to or chump blocking when it is incorrect to do so. This topic doesn't get much attention in general, so here are some of the main factors you want to consider when deciding whether it is correct to chump block:

1. Do I need this creature as an attacker?

If you are racing, do the math and see what has to happen for you to win the race. Sometimes it means getting one more attack in with your Spirit Token before chumping with it. In such a case, you generally want to wait a turn to get that extra attack in before keeping it back to block.

2. Is this my last reasonable opportunity to block?

If you are being attacked by a 4/5 Tarmogoyf and your life total is four or less, it is obviously time to chump block. But what if your life total is eight and your creature is Blade Splicer? Stop and think about what cards you could draw on your next turn to get you out of this situation and then decide whether those cards work better with you being at eight life with no Blade Splicer or four life with a Blade Splicer. For instance, if you have no black mana and three copies of Dismember in your library, maybe it's better to chump block.

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On the other hand, if you have four copies of Restoration Angel you could draw, you would much rather be at four life with a Blade Splicer. That way you could block next turn and flicker the Blade Splicer before damage. This will give you an additional block with the Blade Splicer and also an extra Golem Token to attack or block with. So you want to consider what the creature can do for you if it remains on the battlefield for an extra turn.

3. Can I get more value out of chump blocking later?

Let's say you have a 0/1 Plant Token on the battlefield. Your opponent is attacking with their 4/4 Champion of the Parish. You know at some point the plant will jump in front of The Champion to preserve your life total, but before declaring blockers you want to consider what the board will look like next turn. If they play another Human, The Champion will get another bonus and be a 5/5. If you block this turn, then next turn you will take five damage from the Champion's attack whereas if you take four damage this turn, you can chump block next turn to prevent five damage. That nets you one additional life point by waiting. Of course this comes at the risk of your token getting bounced by Reflector Mage or whatnot, so it's not a hard fast rule not to block in this situation, but these are the factors that should be weighed to determine whether it's correct to block this turn or next. Just because you know you will chump block doesn't necessarily mean this turn is the correct time to do it. It may be more valuable to wait until next turn.

4. How important is my life total?

Against a Burn deck I often aggressively chump block. Attacking with a Goblin Guide? Sure, I'll block with my Spirit Token even though my life total is 13. On the other hand, if my opponent is a White-Blue Control deck, I'll happily go to one life from that Celestial Colonnade attack instead of chump blocking with my Spirit Token as long as I have a plan to deal with the Colonnade the next turn or if I have reason to not be worried about my token getting removed by something like Path to Exile before it can block next turn. The important thing to keep in mind here is to consider your opponent's overall game plan and evaluate the value of a chump block relative to the importance of your life total in the matchup.

5. Does chump blocking grant me some unrelated advantage or disadvantage?

I pretty aggressively chump block with Doomed Traveler because when it dies, it makes a Spirit Token and the Spirit Token is an upgrade to the 1/1 Soldier. I'm also happy to chump block with my creature if the creature being put into the graveyard triggers some other ability like No Mercy or is otherwise useful to my Tarmogoyf or Scavenging Ooze or whatever. Also worth mentioning, you want to consider the opposite impact chump blocking will have. If chump blocking with your Memnite will add two card types to the graveyard for the opponent's Tarmogoyf or allow them to gain that one precious life point from their Scavenging Ooze to win the race, then it may be incorrect to chump block. So you want to consider what other advantages or disadvantages might occur from your creature dying as a result of the chump block.

Concluding Remarks

I said in the beginning that the two topics are unrelated, but actually they are not. They each involve evaluating your situation based on all the information available to you and then being ready to readjust your game plan based on new information. When it comes to Sealed Deck, sometimes the optimal build is obvious – when all your rares and removal and best creatures are of the same two colors. Similarly, sometimes it is obviously correct to chump block – when not chump blocking means you take lethal damage. The interesting cases are the ones where it is not obvious what the correct decision is. It is those more difficult cases where the stronger players gain an advantage over the weaker players. And today's article focused on providing you the tools with which to navigate those more complicated scenarios so that you too can put yourself in the best position to win, just like the pros.

Craig Wescoe

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