This week, with Grand Prix Pittsburgh on the horizon—by the time you read this, I’ll be driving west through Pennsylvania toward the GP with a Twenty Sided Store crew including myself, The Kadar Brock, fellow HOTC author Matt “The Obliterator” Jones, and in-house Level 2 Judge Connor Hays—I’m going to talk a little bit about testing. It’s not just for Constructed formats any more!

The format of this weekend’s GP is Gatecrash sealed, with draft on day two. Unlike my last GP, Charlotte, which you can read about here and here, I unfortunately do not have any byes for this event—so proper preparation is even more important. So for the past couple of weeks, a few of us—Matt Jones, Kadar, and HOTC writer Li—have been getting together at Matt’s art studio for a little round-robin sealed testing.


The Testingdrome.

Unlike what many will tell you, testing is just as important for Limited formats as it is Constructed. Sure, you might crack the stone-nuts—or the stone worst—pool on Saturday morning at a Limited GP, and your deck will build or not-build itself (and even then you’ve got some work to do); but more commonly you will crack a middle-of-the-road pool, and you’ll need to be able to build it optimally in what always seems like an all-too-short half-hour. And to do that you’ll need practice.

What we do for sealed testing is this: Usually we try and get together at least four people, and we crack six packs each and do a timed build (usually with another five minutes tacked onto the build time, to allow for actually sorting the cards, which you won’t need to do at a real GP, when you get passed an already-registered pool). Four people is a good number for some after-work testing, because typically you can squeeze in a round-robin match against each other person, plus time for “workshopping” the pools, and talking about what the optimal build for each might be.

Matt’s studio has been a great venue for testing in space-starved New York, because we’ve got the place to ourselves and we all live pretty near it. Slight negatives (at least the first time around) included nothing out of which to drink, leaving me to pour Dr. Pepper into an empty Vitamin Water bottle I found on one of Matt’s art tables. So a couple of weeks ago I drove over there with a box of land and six packs of Gatecrash.

Pools as far as the eye can see.

Pools as far as the eye can see.

My first testing pool seemed like the stone nuts: I opened three mythics—including Obzedat—as well as other bomb rares including Alms Beast and Assemble the Legion. That’s exactly what I want to see when I sit down on Saturday. (My other two mythics were Borborymos and Lazav, Dimir Mastermind, so whatever—but still, it’s nice to crack mythics.) Unfortunately I didn’t have a single Boros Guildgate, so I was forced to somewhat raw-dog my BW-splash-red deck, splashing for the Assemble the Legion and I think something else with R in its casting cost.

Also, although I was initially really excited by my deck, I learned that I just didn’t quite have the commons and uncommons I needed to support the deck adequately. I had a hell of a lot of removal, but too few creatures, especially at the two-drop slot, which is just so key against the strong decks you are going to see in the format. I also think I played a little fast and loose (which can happen sometimes when are testing—you need to be careful to try and not waste testing time with your buddies by playing too-casually), and didn’t play the right kind of long game I needed to in order to maximize my bombs. I forget exactly what happened, but I ended up going 1-2, losing to Li’s super-aggro Boros deck, with tons of strong two-drops.

I don’t really think I could have gone with an entirely different deck in this pool—you have to play the cards you are given, after all, and I don’t think any sane man or woman could have built a deck that did not contain Obzedat, Assemble, or Alms Beast, no matter the quality of the early-drop creatures—but I definitely think I could have make slightly different choices during deckbuilding, maybe going straight RW in order to get some earlier drops into my two slot, and “splashing” Obzedat and Alms Beast. I’m not sure, of course, but that could have been more right.

Matt and Li talking to Some Nice Art Dude.

Matt and Li talking to Some Nice Art Dude.

The following week we got together again for testing, and this round—being more recent—I remember more of. I opened a thoroughly unexciting pool, featuring a Haunted Church (or whatever the hell you call the BW shockland) and Whispering Madness—stuff like that. But I did have an amazing curve and tons of creatures in Gruul, including a strong two- and three-drop slot, and 3X Zhur-Taa Swine. I could have possibly built a fiddly Simic or Dimir deck, but unless those decks are seriously strong, I’d much rather build a solid if unexciting two-color deck. I want to curve out and punish those opponents who think, “This is sealed, I have time to durdle around.”

The deck was strong. I had a Ground Assault, a Pit Fight, an Arrows of Justice, and an Act of Treason—plus a pair of Angelic Edicts and a Boros Guildgate and 2X Verdant Haven. I didn’t run any of those last four cards, though, electing to stick with straight Gruul, with one Gruul Guildgate and an even 8/8 Mountain/Forest split. I wasn’t quite sure this was right—but hey, this is testing, right?

In my first match I was paired against Kadar, who had the stone-nuts Boros, with Aurelia’s Fury, a metric fuck-ton of removal, and other nonsense, including two splashed Ghor-Clan Rampagers. I got beat in two games, though I fought him pretty hard. I was disappointed at this loss, but I didn’t let it get me down—and I was rewarded in my next two matches by straight crushing Li’s Orzhov build and Matt’s Simic deck. To be fair to these gents, both of their pools were pretty weak, Li’s in particular. That’s a good thing about red/green in this format: if you can reliably smash face—and quickly—that’s a fine strategy. I had a Ghor-Clan Rampager myself, and him plus the three Swine made it so I rarely ever had to stop turning my guys sideways.

My Gruul build.

My Gruul build.

Kadar rebuilt his deck after Matt and Li left, in order to try out another build he saw in his pool, and beat me once more (in three games) with an also-insane Simic deck, featuring Prime Speaker Zegana, who drew him like five cards in one game and firmly shut the door on what could have been a third win for me.

After we all played round-robin, each of us laid out our maindecks according to mana curve, separating the spells and the creatures, alongside other possible maindeck/sideboard options. Kadar, as I said, had the nut Boros pool, but was splashing two Ghor-Clan Rampagers off of a Prophetic Prism and, I don’t think, anything else. I argued that, given the strength of some other white cards he had left in the board (a Nav Squad Commandos among them), and the fact that he really didn’t have any fixing, that it probably wasn’t the best idea to splash the Rampagers. He disagreed, and I’m not sure which of us is right—but it’s definitely a discussion worth having.

Kadar “History’s Greatest Monster” Brock testing it up.

As for myself, I talked with the guys about whether or not I should have splashed an Angelic Edict (or two) in my maindeck, off of two Boros Guildgates. I think the answer, if we are playing with the GP in mind, is yes: You’re going to want to have unequivocal answers to big bombs, as well as problem enchantments like Assemble the Legion, which you are certain to see at the top tables. And especially when the splash is so easy (I also had a Prism), I don’t think it’s going to hurt me much to splash it. Putting two in the maindeck is maybe a bit excessive, but I can also board into the second if need be.

Matt, meanwhile, learned a thing or two as well. His was the build that we probably had the most to say about. He was running Realmwright, along with Spire Tracer. “Why are you playing these guys?” I asked him. “Because I thought I needed one-drops,” he said. So we talked about why Realmwright is terrible (he wasn’t trying to play some weird four-color build or anything), as well as why Spire Tracer wasn’t great in his deck (or maybe it was—I forget. If you have, say, a pair of Ivy Lane Denizens, I could see playing a Spire Tracer, but otherwise I don’t think he’s worth it). Matt was under the impression that you just needed to play one-drops, pretty much no matter what they were, and that’s why Realmwright was in there. And, although some people might disagree with me, I don’t think you have to play one-drops at all in Gatecrash sealed. If you have a good one, like Cloudfin Raptor or Experiment One, great—jam ‘em in there. But twos are really the make-or-break point, I think, not ones. I will run virtually every two-drop I can get my hands on in my colors, sub-par or no, but not ones.

Matt's rebuilt Simic build.

Matt’s rebuilt Simic build.

This led into a further discussion a few days later, when we did one more round-robin sealed pool prior to the GP, at Fat Cat in Manhattan’s West Village. I opened what I strangely didn’t immediately recognize as an insane Borzhov pool, and proceeded to smash face with it. My only loss was to Kadar, who this time had a nutty Orzhov pool.

But the point of discussion was about Foundry Street Denizen. It just so happened that on that same day, Monday, Sam Black had posted an excellent article about Gatecrash sealed on StarCityGames (sorry if you don’t have premium access and can’t read this). Basically, his argument boiled down to this: “Don’t play Foundry Street Denizen.” I’m being glib, but he did say that. The reason why, he said, is that in sealed, synergy is less important than in draft, for the simple reason that people are going to be opening more cards, and therefore more removal—and they are going to be running that removal. So trying to assemble some Voltron of synergistic creatures in sealed is naturally less likely, because people are more often going to be killing your shit. Simple, right?

Keeping that in mind, then, Black said that you want each of your sealed maindeck cards to be as independently powerful on its own as possible. And Foundry Street Denizen, in an illustration of this point, is definitively not that. Best-cast scenario is that you get him in your opening seven and curve out one, two, three for battalion. But let’s do a little math. If you have one Foundry Street Denizen (FSD) in your deck, you have a 17.5% chance of drawing him in your opener (on the play). In this case, if you also have a two- and a three-drop, you’re good to go. But if you don’t draw FSD in your opener—82.5% of the time—and you draw him at some other point during the game, he is just flat-out terrible. A truly disappointing top-deck, who’s probably going to do nothing more than chump-block (given that, on your opponent’s turn, he is never going to be anything more than a measly 1/1).

On a scale of one to 10, he’s going to be either a one or, say, a six. Less then 20% of the time he’s going to be a six, and more than 80% of the time he’s going to be a one. And that’s not good enough. I want ALL my cards to be fives or sixes.

MJ learning.

MJ learning.

And that’s what’s great about testing. Kadar and I are still in disagreement, but at least I know more strongly what I think, and that’s going to help me at the GP. Another thing I learned at this most recent session is that Massive Raid is pretty underwhelming. I had two in my initial maindeck build, and ended up being just so annoyed by it. The casting cost is difficult, and you’re rarely going to kill more than a 2/2 with it. (The exception being the one time when I burned out Kadar from 24 life, thanks to ASSEMBLE THE FUCKING LEGION.)

Don’t get me wrong—Massive Raid is not a bad card, I just don’t want two. After my first game, I started boarded in Smite for one of the Raids, and I was much happier with that set-up, especially given my somewhat top-heavy, bomb-heavy build (I had Angelic Skirmisher, Hellkite Tyrant, and Treasury Thrull). Smite would help me more easily get to the late-game.

So that’s the story, morning glories. May you rip sick on-color Limited bombs and never have to mull to five. If you read this column or HOTC and are going to GP Pittsburgh, hit me up at @hrslaton. While I may not have any byes, I think I’m prepared and am looking forward to make my first day two. Let’s just hope I don’t have to battle through 2,999 other players to do so.

23/17 is a Hipsters of the Coast column focused on Limited play—primarily draft and sealed, but also cubing, 2HG, and anything else we can come up with. The name refers to the “Golden Ratio” of a Limited deck: 23 spells and 17 lands.

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