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GUILDS OF RAVNICA SEALED RAOUL ZIMMERMANN 21/11/2018

Grand Prix Warsaw is on our doorsteps and while I am sure most of us are aspiring to reach and looking forward to the Drafts on Day 2; the first order of business will be surviving the Sealed rounds. Typically, there are slightly different recipes for success in Draft and Sealed and Guilds of Ravnica is no exception. In this article, I will take a look at the general differences between Draft and Sealed and the particular properties of Guild of Ravnica which influence what a successful Sealed Deck will look like in this set.

Which Guild to rule them all?

Firstly, the five guild structure of the set and the resulting abundance of more powerful multicolour cards in the five combinations narrows the format down to a significant degree. It will be close to impossible to open a pool that features enough power eschewing the dedicated Dimir, Izzet, Selesnya, Golgari or Boros cards. Additionally, due to the way the set is designed, each colour features two overlapping guilds - White: Boros and Selesnya, Blue: Dimir and Izzet, Black: Dimir and Golgari, Red: Izzet and Boros, Green: Selesnya and Golgari. This adjacency, coupled with the fact that you get guaranteed access to six Guildgates only within these guilds, leads to decks frequently being based around one of the guilds and splashing powerful cards from an adjacent guild.

Secondly, Sealed is generally a slower format than Draft as you are at the mercy of the packs you open rather than being able to select cards that follow a streamlined game plan, as you can in draft. This favours the slower guilds in principle, as you get more time to set up and leverage your late game cards and you are less likely to be under ruthless pressure from a sleek aggressive deck. As a result, controlling strategies focused around removal, card advantage and powerful finishers tend to be the best place to be in Sealed.

Therefore, it only seems natural to examine the blue guilds in Guilds of Ravnica in regards to their power level, given that blue tends to thrive in longer games. And indeed, just judging from their mechanics, both Izzet and Dimir support a longer game plan - Jump-Start mitigates flood, and Surveil prevents it in the first place, so it looks like these guilds are well suited as a good basis for Sealed decks.

I’m blue...

Looking more closely at Dimir, it is striking how many of the cards that are at least playable if not good in the first place also have some number of Surveil tacked on, for example Deadly Visit, Watcher in the Mist, Unexplained Disappearance, Notion Rain (also note that these cards cover all the essential building blocks mentioned above: removal, finishers, card advantage). As a result, even when you don’t take into account that there are also cards that pay you off for Surveiling, a blue-black based deck will naturally be set up well for a slow game, by the virtue of many of its cards incidentally smoothing out its draws, ensuring a good balance of lands and spells. Of course, when you do take into account the payoff cards, this colour combination only becomes more appealing. Cards like Darkblade Agent, Dimir Spybug, and most of all Disinformation Campaign can generate crushing advantage as you carry on playing a normal game with Dimir. Thus, Dimir looks to be a house in the format, and I would recommend always considering a Dimir base when building a Sealed Deck.

Shifting focus towards Izzet, the first impression is similarly encouraging: Hypothesizzle provides clean card advantage coupled with the option for removal, Beacon Bolt is a removal spell that rewards you for playing more removal and card advantage spells, Crackling Drake is a finisher that replaces itself, jump-start cards like Direct Current and Chemister’s Insight give you a use for extra lands - all of these are great features for a controlling deck in Sealed. However, while almost all cards in Dimir play to this same theme and play off of each other well, the red component of Izzet throws a wrench in the works. Izzet’s cards solely oriented towards dishing out damage, like Maximize Velocity, Maximize Altitude, Gravitic Punch and Sonic Assault are at complete loggerheads with the controlling cards mentioned above. Moreover, these cards only fit in decks that are at their worst in Sealed - a deck that features many spells relying on a board presence to deal damage, which require to be used at a certain time, and that thus falls apart in the face of removal spells. Therefore, your pool can often contain Izzet cards that are at odds and to say that Izzet is leagues ahead of the rest would be an exaggeration.

That said, Izzet and Dimir are adjacent guilds and therefore naturally predisposed to be utilised together. For example, Dimir can provide the bulk of a coherent defensive deck that seeks to win the long game, while Izzet removal or card advantage spells can patch up the gaps. In that regard, these guilds work together very well. In my opinion, Grixis has all the potential for providing the best Sealed decks of the format, and the less flashy decks in these colour combinations will be very solid.

With a Grixis deck similar to this, you will be good to go

 

Non-GRN Sealed

For all the praise that I have loaded on blue and the blue based guilds, I have an equal amount of warning words about green and the green based guilds Golgari and especially Selesnya. In some Sealed formats, green decks are completely serviceable because of the colour’s propensity to offer very large creatures that can overpower the opposition. However, there are a number of reasons why this does not work very well in this format. I will expand upon these in some more detail in the final section of the article, but they boil down to an abundance of basically unconditional removal, Counterspells being stronger inclusions than usual, and the existence of a large number of Deathtouch creatures (Hired Poisoner, Pitiless Gorgon, Darkblade Agent, Nightveil Predator, Ochran Assassin). These factors make it very hard to take over the game by simply playing a very large creature.

Focusing in on the individual guilds, both Selesnya and Golgari suffer from similar problems: Their keyword abilities are awkward and their multicolour cards are simply weaker than the other guilds’. Compare Artful Takedown, Hypothesizzle and Skyknight Legionnaire to the likes of Centaur Peacekeeper, Sumala Woodreader, Rhizome Lurcher and Erstwhile Trooper (not to mention Undercity Uprising…), and the discrepancy becomes painfully obvious. Of course, there are some powerful uncommons and rares in these colours, but the fact remains that the quality of the bulk of the cards in these guilds is lacking.

This issue is partly caused and also compounded by the unexciting keywords of Golgari and Selesnya. Unlike Dimir’s Surveil, Golgari’s Undergrowth was not simply added incidentally to cards but rather you are required to hit higher Undergrowth numbers to make these cards playable in the majority of cases. A 3/3 Rhizome Lurcher, or a Kraul Foragers that gains 2 life do not cut the mustard, and Moodmark Painter’s lacklustre body make it a bad card even at high Undergrowth numbers. Wizard’s idea with the mechanic was to enable it with cards like Generous Stray, Portcullis Vine and Burglar Rat, which give you the card you invested back, allowing you to chumpblock in order to enable Undergrowth. However, this encourages putting such low-impact cards in your Sealed deck that tend to be bad topdecks and put you in peril of flooding, as cantrips always do. Additionally, even if everything works and you spend the earlier turns setting up your Undergrowth count, the payoff cards are also somewhat time-sensitive, as even a 5/5 or 6/6 Rhizome Lurcher on turn 6 or 7 is not that impressive, since your opponent will have developed a board and their mana, giving them access to a Deathtoucher, double blocks and/or more expensive counters or removal spells to easily deal with your “big finish”. Not the (s)warmest promotion for the guild.

Selesnya’s convoke suffers from similar issues. In order to make use of the ability, you are also encouraged to put curve fillers in your deck so that you can get your convoke cards out as quickly as possible ahead of the curve. However, if you do not hit your curve, and because this is Sealed you will rarely have access to an ideal mix of cards to guarantee this, you are doubly punished. On the one hand, you have low impact curve fillers remaining in your deck that now serve no purpose, and on the other, your hand may be clogged up with overcosted Convoke cards that lose their impact if they are played closer to their full manacost for the same reasons outlined above. In fact, even something like a turn 5 Siege Wurm will often just be answered by a removal spell. Add to that the fact that Rosemane Centaur, nominally your best payoff card, gets blanked by filler level cards like Wishcoin Crab and Douser of Lights and you begin to realise just how bad Selesnya is. Don’t be a slave to the conclave.

This might look ok, but it’s not

This might not look ok, but it can be

 

Golgari’s saving grace is that it is adjacent to Dimir, so Sultai decks that potentially use green creatures as a creature base (if the creature base in straight Blue/Black is lacking) while utilising blue and black removal and card advantage or that are base blue black and splash for something like Status//Statue or Affectionate Indrik can work. Sometimes, such decks branch out even further into other colours, depending on available fixing and payoff. Selesnya’s adjacent guilds are Golgari and Boros, which do not offer anything to solve the guild’s issues . In Michael Jacob's GRN Sealed spreadsheet, Selesnya, Naya and Abzan all reach average win percentages of significantly below 50% (Selesnya even as low as a dismal 23%), all with significantly negative normalized win rates, so I would suggest avoiding these combinations at all costs.

And what about Boros?

Boros is mostly about aggression and generally, aggressive decks exist in a bit of an ambivalent state in Sealed. On the one hand, it may be appealing to put on a lot of early pressure and punish the opposition for setting their deck up for the extreme late game with many expensive cards and Guildgates. On the other hand, in order to put on this pressure by curving out, you will be forced to include cards in your deck that have low impact in the later stages of the game. If you then do not draw your curve appropriately, you will be at a severe disadvantage, especially since your actually impactful cards, such as Light of the Legion or Truefire Captain, are quite likely to get dealt with by one of your opponent’s many removal spells. This is to say, there is a balance to strike, and it can be tricky to evaluate where the tipping point from “not quite good enough” to “a strong aggro deck” lies.

Generally, I consider the quality 1 drops crucial (Healer’s Hawk and Goblin Banneret) as they will typically get a lot of damage in against slower decks, provide good Mentor targets (or Mentoring in the case of Banneret) and sometimes help power out Convoke cards you might be playing. I would normally avoid Haazda Marshal and definitely not play Hunted Witness or Torch Courier however. If you have these one drops and are feeling adventurous, Maniacal Rage can become playable, as it will get in significant damage before your opponent’s removal comes online, with a secondary use being to get extra Mentor triggers. With the two drops, you want to include only the ones that have late game utility like Skyline Scout or Legion Guildmage, Mentor, or are difficult to block early, like Fresh-Faced Recruit or Ornery Goblin. From there, you want Mentor three drops to make sure your 2 drops stay relevant, and evasive creatures, typically topping the curve with Barging Sergeant and/or Intrusive Packbeast. Tricks can stand in for removal to some degree, you have to be careful that you don’t overload on cards that require a board presence, because of the removal density in Sealed - this is also a reason why Cosmotronic Wave can be a bit more of a liability in Sealed compared to Draft. Generally, a good Boros deck therefore needs proper removal. Basically, for a red/white deck not to bore us, it generally needs to have a high average card quality. If you do have a good Boros deck, it sits in a strong spot in the format, due to its punishing nature against the durdly decks.

Regarding possible splashes, as discussed before, Naya rarely has much to offer beyond the occasional bomb rare, but blue can sometimes offer removal and/or card draw (Chemister’s Insight, Hypothesizzle). In rare cases, the previously much maligned Maximize Altitude and Sonic Assault can sneak in, as the former can push damage even when your board is smaller and it synergises with the high power Mentor creatures, while the latter is similar to a Cosmotronic Wave but it deals some damage on its own (again outputting more damage with a smaller board). In general though, the Jeskai colour combination more likely appears as an UR deck splashing for white removal, which I also consider a very solid option.

My friends gave me a Boros deck

Remove-all and other unique features of Guilds of Ravnica Sealed

To conclude, I would like to make a few points that are not as guild related but that are defining features of the format. Firstly, given a large share of the format likely to be on slow controlling decks, it often makes sense to splash as many powerful cards as possible. Therefore taking a look at what splashes are best enabled by your Guildgates is an important part of the deckbuilding process. Once you have determined what is possible you can trust that long games, plenty of Guildgates and Surveil will lead to you finding the mana to cast the most powerful cards you have access to. Equally, Glaive of the Guildpact and Gatekeeper Gargoyle encourage you to play more Gates, which I would actively look to do in order to include the latter, while the former ensures that even your small creatures turn into threats later in the game.

Additionally, and as touched upon previously, removal is quite abundant in the format with every colour bar green having access to at least one (almost) unconditional removal at common (Luminous Bonds, Capture Sphere, Deadly Visit, Command the Storm), with additional cheaper and more conditional options available. This means you cannot rely on your creatures to survive (not even your bigger ones) and you need to remember to ensure that your deck has sufficient ways to win, or the possibility of recurring your win conditions.

Many colours, many powerful cards, but very few win conditions

The same pool, but green’s mediocre creatures are used to enforce your victory

The increased playability of counterspells is partly a result of these two features of the format. Since people are likely to play expensive, powerful cards, even your more expensive counterspells such as Devious Cover-up are more likely to find good targets while trading up on mana. Disdainful Stroke specifically is excellent, because it easy to hold up in the midgame as an answer to all sorts of things, be it a member of the CCDD manacost cycle, a number of powerful rares or even something like Barging Sergeant, Cosmotronic Wave or Intrusive Packbeast out of a Boros deck. Devious Cover-up also fulfils the important role of making sure your blue control decks don’t run out of win conditions - it is very possible to lose to decking with these decks and Cover-up prevents this. In fact, if you have two Cover-ups in your pool, looping them is a legitimate win condition in its own right. Finally, including counterspells is facilitated by the large number of instant speed options in the format. Even the expensive Devious Cover-up can be left up without the danger of wasting the mana if supported by alternative plays such as Artful Takedown, Hypothesizzle, Whisper Agent and/or Capture Sphere.

 

Same pool as above, an additional option to surprise opponents

 

Finally, a fair share of the time, your pool will contain some sort of Boros deck alongside some sort of two to five colour control deck, as these decks are so different that they are unlikely to overlap. In pools where neither of these options are stellar, but both are solid, you can really make life difficult for your opponents. For example, you could start the match as the above Boros deck, hoping to catch your opponent off guard with aggression. Then, having seen your opponent’s deck, you can judge whether your grindy deck matches up well against what they showed you, allowing you to potentially completely sidestep the sideboard cards that they are bringing in to beat your Boros deck. The same can work the other way around - you play a grindy game 1 with your control deck, recognise that your opponent’s deck matches up well against yours, so you pivot into Boros Aggro, while your opponent stocks up on even more expensive cards. Just be aware that this can turn into a bit of a game of chicken, since your opponent may have similar options available to them.

With that, I have exhausted all my dubious wisdom, but I hope I was able to draw your attention to some of the intricacies of this current Sealed format. I, for one, am very much looking forward to playing this Limited at the upcoming GP Warsaw in what is now my home country. I love long grindy games of Limited and very much hope that my pool will afford me such pleasure. Or, who knows, maybe I will be a member of the red and white fun police… In any case, best of luck to you in whatever Guilds of Ravnica Sealed tournament you will be playing, I hope your pool delivers!

PS: If you are attending GP Warsaw, make sure to go out for local Polish food, be it Pierogi (dumplings), meat and potato pancakes or soup served in a hollowed-out loaf of bread it’s just amazing!

About Raoul Zimmermann:

Raoul started attending GPs in 2007 with Time Spiral block. Following their World Magic Cup appearance in 2015, he co-founded Team Axion alongside Kayure Patel and Tom Law. Within the team, he enjoys collecting the data from testing and making it presentable. Raoul is from Germany and currently lives in Poland; his Magic home, however, is still very much the UK. He travels to UK events where possible, including Nationals, where he made the Top 8 in 2018. He has a few Pro Tour appearances and is eagerly looking to requalify. His favourite Magic format is Draft, as he enjoys the theoretical overlap from format to format, while the change in individual cards keeps things fresh. As such, he is always eager for a team draft with friends and has 18 boosters of various formats stocked up at home.