f you have been thinking about attending your first Premier tournament, Grand Prix Columbus coming up in just a few short weeks seems like a perfect opportunity.
There are many reasons to attend. For the more competitive player, this is the best chance to qualify for the Pro Tour. Eight players earn invitations, which pass down in case a player who is already qualified makes the top 8, so finishing anywhere in top 16 is likely to earn you an invite. A slightly less experienced player can learn a lot just by participating in a large-scale event like this, at a high level of both competition and rules enforcement. Pro circuit fans will get to meet or even play against their favorite players, while casual players will enjoy the opportunity to meet Magic artists and take advantage of the card dealers set up at the event as well as the trading.
Since Columbus will utilize Sealed Deck format, a sole player will not be at a significant disadvantage he might encounter in a constructed Premier event where his deck will be matched up against designs and strategies put forth by teams of pro players.
Sealed deck play is a fun format that has received an unfair reputation with some players as “too luck-based.” While it certainly does not match the strategic depth of booster draft or Rochester draft, there are many ways in which an experienced player may even the playing field when faced against a more powerful card pool.
Deck construction is at least as important as play skill in this format. This is where a quality deck builder can really shine – while you can copy a deck list from the Internet for most constructed formats, each player must rise to the challenge of building his or her own sealed deck.
You will receive a tournament deck and two booster packs to build a deck from. The deck must be at least forty cards including the basic lands, and while you may use more than forty cards you should not do so under any circumstances. No matter what format or card pool you are working with, some of your cards are always going to be more powerful than your other cards. By playing with even a single extra card, you are decreasing the chances of drawing your best cards by a percentage that becomes significant over the course of many games. There is a school of thought that suggests playing 41 cards with 17 lands is a better mana ratio than 40:17 or 40:18 but I believe that you can figure out an appropriate land base for a forty card deck every time, based on the cards you are playing with.
When you first receive your cards, you should begin by reviewing all of them so that you know what you've got to work with potentially. Different players do this differently. Personally, I lay out my cards in six stacks (one for each color and artifact) but immediately discard cards that I know for sure will not make the cut into my deck, no matter what color I end up playing. This should help eliminate about 20% of your total card pool.
Once the cards have been laid out, you want to identify what your 'bombs' are, and what your ‘deepest colors' are. A bomb is an incredibly powerful card. In Mirrodin for example, Grab the Reins, Oblivion Stone and Molder Slug are some of the most powerful “bomb” cards. Card valuation is perhaps the most important skill when playing a Limited format and can only be learned through practice. Scott Wills writes a very helpful weekly column for magicthegathering.com called Limited Information. If you end up wanting to learn more about the strategies of booster draft and sealed play, you should tune in to his column regularly.
Once you have identified your most powerful cards, it is time to look into what your deepest colors are. A deep color is one with many solid, playable cards. This is where the majority of amateur deck builders go wrong, so be very careful! The most common mistake in building a sealed deck is to work around your bombs rather than take advantage of your deepest colors.
Suppose you opened a Molder Slug. It is undeniably one of the most powerful cards in Mirrodin and you are determined to crush your opponents with it. You end up building a green-red deck, but you are forced to use many mediocre cards because your green card selection is shallow. As a result, you will end up winning a few games hands down when you summon the Slug on turn five, but lose many more when you do not draw your one trump card and end up performing poorly in the tournament overall.
Avoid this trap by concentrating on your deepest colors. In most Sealed Play formats you want to play either a straight two color deck, or splash no more than 2-3 cards of a third color. Consistency is more important than raw power over the course of many rounds, so you want your deck to be as reliable as possible. Always utilize your deepest color. If it is incredibly deep, you may be able to supplement it with a shallow color that has the most bombs. If it is not as deep, you are better off playing your second deepest color. The one exception to this rule is when you get a below-average card pool. You may decide that the cards you have to work with in your two deepest colors just will not win many games even on a good draw. If that is the case, you will take risks in order to play with game-breaking cards you do have.
You cannot realistically splash something like Molder Slug because you need two green mana in order to cast it, and your splash should not require you to play more than three mana sources of the third color total. However, there are many bombs that make for excellent splashes. For example, your green-black deck would almost always be happy to splash red for Fireball and Spikeshot Goblin.
Another trap inexperienced players often fall into is to cram their deck with all the most powerful spells and creatures they have access to. This will often result in slow, unreliable draws, and your opponent might finish you off before all your quality creatures can come into play. It is very important to build your deck on the concept of a “mana curve”. That means you should optimally be playing with one or two one-casting cost creatures and artifact, as many two-drops as you have access to, a fair amount of three- and four-casting cost permanents, maybe three five-drops and only one or two cards that cost more than five mana. This will improve the chances of you maximizing every single turn by spending all your mana to summon bigger and better creatures.
Once you identify the colors and cards you want to play with, your next most important task is to correctly figure out your mana base. Most decks will utilize between sixteen and eighteen lands.
This number will largely depend on your mana curve (if you end up playing with slightly more of the high casting cost cards, you might consider eighteen lands). If your card pool is incredibly good, you also might consider playing one more land than you might otherwise on the premise that if you do not get mana-hosed, the strength of your bombs should be enough to win most matches. A number of alternate mana sources such as Myrs or mana elves will also help determine your total number of lands. You might play eighteen lands in a deck with no other mana sources, but only sixteen lands in a deck with three Myrs. You should also take care to play with enough creatures – 12-13 at the very least.
Traditionally you would have your prime color supported by about eight lands, your secondary color supported by 5-6 lands, and a splash supported by 2-3 lands. You should never need to draw mana of your third color in your opening hand. If the card you are attempting to splash is only good early in the game, you should not be splashing it. Instead, you want splash cards like Fireball, that you would not want to be casting until toward the end of the game anyway.
There are a few unique things about Mirrodin block that slightly affect the guidelines described above. Most importantly, you can split your mana more evenly across three colors. This is due to such a heavy artifact content of most decks. Since a large percentage of your spells require colorless mana only to play, you are not punished as much by not drawing one of your colors early. Second, there are many alternate mana sources such as the Myrs in Mirrodin, and so eighteen-land decks are rare. Indeed, fifteen land decks show up quite often when you have three or more alternate mana sources and a reasonably low mana curve.
While I did my best to cover the basics of sealed deck building in this article, it can never substitute for experience. Practice against your friends. Build decks and play them, then exchange card pools and see if your friend would build the deck differently. Ask the more experienced players in your group to see how they would build the deck from your card pool – most would welcome the extra practice themselves and you might gain a few insights. Finally, read up on how pros have been building their decks at the Grand Prix – just visit the event coverage page at magicthegathering.com and browse through archived event coverage.
Good luck – and I hope to see you at Grand Prix: Columbus.