By Michael Scovazzo

I love Limited. Even though Vintage, Legacy, Modern, and Standard are all a blast, nothing can really hold a candle to a good draft. I even love Magic’s most maligned Limited format, Sealed. Sealed gets a lot of grief, some of which is deserved. It’s true that a portion of the time you simply get a pool that lacks the firepower to push through a PTQ or GP, but the frequency of this is far less than people claim. With proper deckbuilding techniques and principles you can find solid decks in pools that at first look horrible.

As a result, I am going to avoid rambling to you about how each game of the tournament went and instead talk about how I build sealed pools and walk you through the build of my swiss deck. I am not going to discuss card evaluation in this article because that subject is broad enough to require an article of its own.

Here are some steps to use when evaluating a sealed pool:

1. Glance through the pool. This can be done either while verifying the list in a live event or sorting by rarity and then by color in MTGO. While doing this you are looking for the “texture” of the pool. Try to get an idea of what kind of direction to take.

  • Is it a bomb-heavy pool?
  • Are there good aggro cards?
  • How is the removal?

2. Now go through each color and divide it into three piles: playable cards, cards that are the last 20–23rd maindeck cards or in the sideboard, and totally unplayable cards. Remove the unplayables to reduce clutter, and pull out any notable gold cards. Then check the artifacts and lands for fixing.

  • Are there notable cards worth splashing?
  • What colors are easiest to splash?

3. Remove the colors that just aren’t playable. If the color is splashable but otherwise unplayable save any very strong cards and put the rest aside.

4. Consider the remaining colors.

  • Which is the strongest?
  • Which is the most focused?
  • Which is the deepest?
  • Which colors have the best early game?
  • Can splashing be avoided or are all the colors too short on quantity of playables?
  • Is there an insane card in an otherwise weak color?
  • Is it splashable?
  • If it isn’t (because it has double- or triple-colored mana in its cost), can it justify the rest of the color on its own?

5. Now try to examine color combinations. Power level is important, but a consistent game plan is more important. A consistent, focused deck is better than a bomb-heavy pool any day. Even if the deepest color is slightly weaker than the other options, not having to splash may make for a stronger deck. At this point it’s important to avoid deckbuilding traps, especially concerning splashes. It’s important to never splash for your early game. Splashes should only include bombs, removal, or late-game reach. If a card doesn’t give one of these things, don’t splash it, no matter how good of a card it is. If it’s only good on turn one or two, don’t splash it, no matter how good of a card it is. If there are less than two pieces of fixing for a color, don’t splash it unless there are no other viable options. The holes in a pool can also force you into different archetypes. If the pool is short on removal, try to find a deck that is either fast or very bomb-heavy. If the decks is short on bombs, look for a consistent deck, since the deck won’t be able to recover from a stumble.

6. Once the possible colors combinations are selected lay them out by converted mana costs, with separate piles for spells and creatures in a way that easily shows how many potential plays are available at each cost.

  • Count the creatures. The more the better. If the pool doesn’t have at least 13 dudes, don’t play that deck unless it has quality late-game fatties or can splash them from other colors.
  • Does the deck have a number of plays at every mana cost of two through five (AKA curve)?
  • If the build has ten four-drops (or ten three-drops, or ten five-drops), that can be a huge problem. Make an exception for ten one- and two-cost cards if the rest of the build supports that kind of aggression. If the deck doesn’t have at least four cards to cast in the first two turns, that’s a significant black mark against that build.
  • Is the deck short on playables? If so, are there enough “filler” cards (cards “20–23”) that match the deck’s plan?
  • What splash provides the most synergy with this particular card set and plan?
  • Does the deck have too many playables? Playing the 23 most powerful cards is not always right. The deck should have a plan. Cut cards that don’t fit with that plan unless they are obscenely powerful in their own right. Cards that are off-topic belong in the sideboard.
  • Never play a card just because it does something the deck can’t otherwise do.

It’s best to repeat this process for other combinations that look viable. Sometimes it will seem obvious that one combination is the best, but building another color combination can reveal a curve and synergy that ends up making a stronger deck. Try to build a few possible lists. The more you do this for each format the easier it becomes to tell what decks will be most effective. Eventually there is a sense of when something looks “right.”

Let’s look at the pool from my MTGO PTQ finals:


Battlewise Valor
Chosen by Heliod
Dauntless Onslaught
Decorated Griffin
Divine Verdict
 Ephara’s Warden
Favored Hoplite
Heliod’s Emissary
Hopeful Eidolon
Lagonna-Band Elder
Leonin Snarecaster
Phalanx Leader
Scholar of Athreos
Setessan Battle Priest
Setessan Griffin
Wingsteed Rider
Yoked Ox


Aqueous Form
Benthic Giant
Breaching Hippocamp
Curse of the Swine
Fate Foretold
Horizon Scholar
Mnemonic Wall
Nimbus Naiad
Ordeal of Thassa
Sea God’s Revenge
Shipbreaker Kraken
Thassa’s Bounty
Triton Shorethief
Voyage’s End


Asphodel Wanderer
Blood-Toll Harpy
Boon of Erebos
Dark Betrayal
Erebos’s Emissary
Felhide Minotaur
Fleshmad Steed
Loathsome Catoblepas
March of the Returned
Returned Centaur
Tormented Hero


Akroan Crusader
Deathbellow Raider
Flamespeaker Adept
Ill-Tempered Cyclops
Messenger’s Speed
Ordeal of Purphoros
Spark Jolt
Spearpoint Oread
Two-Headed Cerberus
Wild Celebrants


Anthousa, Setessan Hero
Commune with the Gods
Feral Invocation
Leafcrown Dryad
Nylea’s Disciple
Pheres-Band Centaurs
Time to Feed
Voyaging Satyr
Vulpine Goliath

Gold, Artifact, and Land

Pharika’s Mender
Polis Crusher
Triad of Fates
Bronze Sable
Flamecast Wheel
Guardians of Meletis
Opaline Unicorn
Prowler’s Helm
Witches’ Eye
Temple of Abandon

Looking this pool over I see three possible decks:

R/W—This build has a very high creature count. Unfortunately, it is very light on removal. The only strong piece of removal is Divine Verdict, and it is at its worst in this shell. The deck is also a little thin and you will probably be forced to play Ephara’s Warden or something equally unsavory.

R/U—The blue removal definitely helps fill in for how short red is on removal. The three-drop slot is crowded, but luckily the Spearpoint Oread can be bumped up when your hand is too three-heavy. This deck would kill for another two-drop, and the hands it draws with them will be much better than the ones without. This is a great deck even with that weakness.

W/U—In my opinion this is the best deck in the pool. I built it like this, and it ended up going 5-1:

W/U Sealed Deck

Creatures (14)
Favored Hoplite
Wingsteed Rider
Hopeful Eidolon
Nimbus Naiad
Horizon Scholar
Lagonna-Band Elder
Heliod's Emissary
Shipbreaker Kraken
Leonin Snarecaster
Wavecrash Triton
Breaching Hippocamp
Phalanx Leader

Spells (9)
Voyage's End
Battlewise Valor
Dauntless Onslaught
Divine Verdict
Ordeal of Thassa
Curse of the Swine
Sea God's Revenge

There are obviously a few cards in the board that could be in the maindeck thanks to the depth of the colors. The set of Setessan Battle Priest, Fate Foretold, and Chosen by Heliod are the most glaring omissions. They are sitting on the bench for a few reasons. Even though the deck has strong cards to be targeted, it is very low on creature count. The “draw a card” enchantments were late cuts because no more creatures could be cut. Leonin Snarecaster is in the main over Battle Priest because the deck already has too many one-power creatures. It’s dangerous to play too many creatures that can’t kill the opponent. As good as Wavecrash Triton and Hopeful Eidolon are, they really are both just half a creature. (I.e., they need support to really do any damage.)

If you want to follow the entire process of creating this deck and another entire pool you can click here, where I have broken everything down piece by piece. I warn you, though—it is very, very long.

I leave you with these final notes/shortcuts:

  • I don’t usually favor splashing creatures, but creatures with bestow are an exception. They provide card advantage, usually require a single colored mana, and offer late-game push. They are actually ideal splash cards.
  • When building a deck, if you are unsure on what your 22nd or 23rd card should be, play the creature. Try to never play a deck with less than 14 dudes. If you don’t have that many, you will lose many games that you have dominated for significant portions of time simply because you didn’t have a way to close it. Having early-drop creatures yourself lets you avoid having to use your removal on your opponent’s early drops. Don’t forget that creatures with one point of power should only count as half a creature because you really can’t expect them to go the distance.
  • If you are already splashing a single card try to grab the two to three best single-colored mana cards available in the color so that your deck’s card quality will improve enough to justify a splash.
  • I didn’t talk much about mana (that could be a whole write-up on its own), but I never splash without three sources of a color. The only exception to this is when a deck has tons of draw/card selection, and the card would not get played until the late game anyway. Similarly, if a card has two of the same colored mana symbols in its cost, I’m loathe to play it off of fewer than six sources. I’ll cheat it to five if I have the card draw and the card comes down very late in the game, but I don’t feel great about it. Finally, if I want to play something on turn one (like a mana elf), I make sure to have at least eight ways to produce that card’s mana on the first turn.

Michael moved to NYC post-college and soon immersed himself in the local MTG community. He was one of the first regulars of the second iteration of the Twenty Sided Store, where he met and PTQ-ed with the vast majority of the Hipsters of the Coast writers. Yet soon Michael defected, moving from Brooklyn to Portland, Oregon, to complete the traditional hipster coming of age. He enjoys short walks and writing things in second person.

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