Secrets of Sealed
Sealed deck is one of my favorite ways to play magic. It is often maligned as being very luck-based, but that disregards the intricate decisions in both deck building and during matches. Also, the sideboarding process is very interesting, as access to your whole pool gives you many more options than in other formats. With multiple sealed Grand Prix coming up in the next two weekends, I’d like to share some of my tips for success in sealed, as well as walk through my thought process in building a couple of pools.
Compared to booster draft, sealed deck is slower, but that is not a full description. The most defining difference is that decks in sealed are less streamlined. This does slow the format down, as it is harder to have focused aggressive decks. It also means it is more important for your cards to do work on their own. Synergy does still matter however, but it appears more in small packages of cards working together, rather than overarching themes of an entire deck.
The first part of playing sealed is of course building the deck from your pool. In less competitive environments, such as a prerelease or leagues on Magic Online, you are allowed to change your build in between rounds. I suggest you take advantage of this opportunity, and try changes to the deck as you get more experience with how it plays out. When building at a more competitive tournament, however, the stakes are higher, with a strict time limit to register the deck you have to play in the first game of every match. That makes it important to practice this building process and become familiar enough with the cards to better process this large amount of information efficiently.
Even after you have decided on a build, there is still the opportunity to change during sideboarding between games. It’s a good idea to show your deck to your friends, and get as much input as you can on how to best build it. If you are doing a build on Magic Online, you can send screenshots of your builds to friends on a messenger, or post in forums or subreddits to get feedback. Discussing builds with other players is one of the best ways to improve at sealed deck.
Sometimes I have realized that a different color was actually stronger, and plan to sideboard into that different version of the deck in every match. Other times, there might be other color options that match up better against what your opponent is playing. It is valuable to keep taking time after the build is up to learn all the possible options your pool contains. Another tip is that if you think it is likely you will make major changes like changing colors, to also sleeve up the cards you will swap in, and practice the process of efficiently changing out your deck. For one, there is a limited amount of time in sideboarding, but it is also advantageous not to be obvious if you are dramatically changing your deck. Changing your build mid-match can catch your opponent unaware.
One thing I like to do that helps me be ready to sideboard better is taking notes during the game on what cards I see from my opponent. This makes it easier to think how all the cards in my deck match up. To now get more concrete, let’s look at a Core Set 2019 sealed pool:
The first important task when building is to choose which colors to play, and in this pool that decision was relatively straightforward. Red immediately jumps out with its depth of playables and removal spells. I am also drawn to black, with more removal and the powerful rare Isareth the Awakener. Also, looking through each of the other colors, there is very little that draws me into playing them. White is very shallow, Blue has a handful of solid spells, but no threats or especially powerful cards, and Green is mostly filled with mediocre commons.Often, the colors will be closer in power level than this, but it is still a good starting point to identify any colors you are highly likely to play, or that you are certainly not going to play. If you feel certain one color should get played, it pushes your focus to finding the best complementary color, and if one color is going to be avoided, the search space is also reduced considerably.
Now given that I think I should be playing red and black, I next looked at the cards I felt were almost certain to make my deck on a curve, to get an idea of what the core of the deck would be, so I could better understand how I should fill out the rest:
Our deck is flush with removal spells. Since we will often be using a lot of our cards to answer opponent’s threats, removal-heavy decks like this like to have creatures that finish the game on their own. With that in mind, I added my other top-end threats:
Rise from the Grave can both bring back an opponent’s bomb that I answer, and is especially nice to recur Isareth, which will assuredly trade off. The other creatures aren’t exciting, but a pile of large stats is what we needed.
I decided to leave all these situational uncommons and rares out of my deck. Although Thud and Inferno Hellion combo well together, they don’t fit the plan of having a few large creatures able to finish the opponent on their own. While I do have a pair of Dragons, that still doesn’t quite push either of these rares enough. Dragon’s Hoard isn’t worth it because I don’t have enough at 5 mana I really want to ramp into, and a ramp spell doesn’t really fit with a pile of removal.
Sarkhan is trickier to evaluate. At first, you might be excited to open a planeswalker. But then upon critical reading of the card, it does very little to affect the board. I do, however, have a few synergies that make it more interesting: two dragons as well as putting creatures in the graveyard for Isareth or Rise from the Grave. Also, I wondered if I could potentially back it up with removal to steal a game with the ultimate, especially against slower sealed decks. I tried playing with Sarkhan for a few matches in my league, because when it doubt you should try all the rares you can while practicing, since you don’t get as much opportunity to learn about them. Sarkhan was fine in my first game on the play turn 3, but it didn’t feel much better than a 3 drop creature, and then was a total blank in another tight game where I was under pressure. This fail case was too bad, so I think the original instinct to not play the card was correct.
Next I had some options for more cheap cards. My original build of the deck included both Doomed Dissenter and Goblin Instigator, wanting some cheap bodies to hold the ground early. However, most opponents early plays were defensive 1/3s and these cards had almost no impact, so I would prefer them to come of the sideboard if my opponent was actually trying to attack me with small creatures. Suspicious Bookcase and Marauder’s Axe are typically good cards to include in a sealed deck, as mana sinks and way to break through a board stall. However, they do not work as well with my plan of relatively few high power creatures.
These were the final cards I chose to include. Tormenting Voice is a place to spend 2 mana that is still good in the late game, and can help smooth draws as well as discarding creatures to reanimate with Isareth or Rise from the Grave. Mind Rot is a staple of sealed, where card advantage is very important. Finally, with 10 spells, Guttersnipe becomes a solid source of unblockable damage.
This leaves the following build, where I opted for the extra swamp, as my double colored black cards are cheaper. The mana here is not good, but this seems unavoidable with most of the double colored cards being too powerful to avoid.
While I decided on the base colors relatively quickly, there were a lot of decisions to make on the final inclusions, which is where I would have focused a lot of my time during a live build. These last choices were also just for our game 1 deck, and should be reconsidered during sideboarding every match. We also might want cards during sideboarding that were never considered the main deck. For example, I played an opponent with multiple copies of Daybreak Chaplain, so I brought in Hired Blade, as the 1 / 3 creature is incentivized to attack to gain life, and I thought there was a reasonable chance I could ambush it.
After playing through my league, this deck performed worse than expected. Almost all of the removal spells care about the size of my opponents creatures, so I had a hard time dealing with large green creatures or those with an aura attached. I still think, however, my options in any other colors would have been even worse.
Now here’s a second example pool:
Looking through the pool, the first things I notice are that I am most impressed by white, and that black is by far my worst color, enough that I can ignore the black cards for the rest of the build. Looking at the highlights from white laid on a curve, we see two copies of the powerful rare Leonin Warleader which suggests a go-wide theme which we could make the Inspired Charges potentially strong, as well as powerful fliers in Pegasus Courser, Angel of the Dawn, and Herald of Faith. Also, white features the strongest removal in the pool in the pair of Luminous Bonds.
Now looking for other colors that will complement white, I next turn to blue. The most striking thing about blue in this pool is are a large number of cards that care about artifacts, but only three actual artifacts plus two Aviation Pioneer. There are barely enough artifacts to enable Skilled Animator, and it would require playing some cards like Diamond Mare and Field Creeper I would prefer not to run.
My instinct is to only play the good artifacts (Axe and the Pioneers), and only play Aerial Engineer from the payoffs, as it is still great to be turned on later if I draw one of my few artifacts. This first sketch of UW would look something like this (where I would have to cut one of these cards, likely choosing Totally Lost):
If I try to include the heavy artifact package, I will have to leave a lot of good cards in my sideboard, replacing solid cards with ones to enable a synergistic game plan. One way to build in the Skilled Animator package would be as such:
This deck is fully focused on killing the opponent, either with a 5/5 artifact, or with Leonin Warleader. We have a high creature count for the Inspired Charges, at the cost of losing some of our clunkier interactive spells. This is higher variance, and in a timed build I would have selected the first option. Regardless, I would be planning to sideboard between these two builds, based on whether I felt the explosive Skilled Animator draws were necessary to beat my opponent, and how reliably I thought they could answer an early 5/5.
The last thing I would consider in the build are other secondary color options. Red is very short on playables, and it was immediately clear the RW would be a worse option than either of the above decks. The other reasonable contender would be green:
Many of my teammates have enjoyed GW decks in this format, but I don’t think this build is as powerful. Druid of the Horns is as conditional as Skilled Animator, but just offers a lower upside.
This deck played out quite well as expected, finishing 5-0 in my league. I played many games with both builds of Blue-White, trying to see if the Skilled Animators were worth it. The Animator was solid most games I drew it, but my opponents were able to deal with the 5/5 often, and I had to mulligan some hands without the target. Inspired Charge with Leonin Warleader was the real all-star as expected, so I think the first build that tries to just maximize that without other risky plans would be better in general.
Thank you for reading, and I hope it was informative to hear my thought process as I dissect a pool. Let me know how you would have handled these two builds, as there were many subtle decisions to be made. Finally, I’ll be at Grand Prix Sacramento this weekend putting this knowledge to the test, feel free to come say hi if you’ll be there too!

Previous Articles · Meet the Massdrop Teams: · *2nd* at Pro Tour Ixalan: · Unclaimed Creature Types: · Why I Never Drop From Tournaments: · The Art of Sideboard Construction - Sultai Energy: · A Commoner’s View on Pauper: · Blue Moon Beach Control: · Top 5 Modern Decks: · Storm in Vintage Cube: · An Early Look at Rivals for Standard: · A Standard Approach to Evaluating New Cards: · Drafting Rivals of Ixalan: · Team Sealed Secrets: · Steal My Standard Ideas: · Vexing Devil. Any Questions?: · Team Massdrop Rivals of Ixalan Limited Primer: · Gestation of RG Eldrazi: · Top Tim Tournament Training Tips: · What Makes Someone Bogle?: · A Pauper Adventure: · Blue Moon at GP Phoenix: · Brawling into Dominaria: · Looking at The Current Lands(cape) of Legacy · Deconstructing Dominaria Limited: · Diving into Dominaria Standard: · What are your.. drives?: · Top 10 Cards for Dominaria Modern: · Brewing Standard with Dominaria: · Dominaria Team Sealed: A Case Study: · Battlebonding in Vintage and Legacy: · Decks I Almost Played at PT Dominaria: · RB Chainwhirler for the Non-Aggressive Player: · Top 4 at GP Vegas: · Return to Core Set Limited: · Drafting Rares with Core Set 2019: · Tuning Jeskai Control in Modern:
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