This week I offer my sealed deck primer for Dragons of Tarkir, just in time for Grand Prix Atlantic City. I’ll be headed back east to battle this weekend, hang with friends, and live the dream at the Jersey Shore. I can’t say I’ve ever been excited to go to Atlantic City before, but Magic can take you to strange places.

So what do you need to know about Dragons of Tarkir sealed? Most importantly, it’s a lot of fun! The format is refreshingly balanced and fair. Removal and bombs exist with comfortable tension that leaves plenty of room to maneuver. You can generally build a solid deck around your best cards and play real games of Magic. Not all sealed formats are like this, and I’m excited to play some high level Dragons sealed this weekend. I offer this primer to help you enjoy it as well.

Plan for the long game but prepare to interact in the short game. The format lends itself to attrition battles, but you have to develop your resources to trade efficiently and gain advantage. You don’t need to curve out every game, but you need to have meaningful decisions for as many turns as possible. Use your cards, and be able to use your cards.

To do this, you should play a two-color deck. Splashing is fine for a few powerful cards that will be good whenever you assemble the card and requisite mana, but the core of your deck should be two colors. Find the two best colors in your pool, and you have probably found your deck. Even if the curve is clumped and uneven, you want to to play your best cards. This can lead to inefficient mana use, as you spend consecutive turns playing cards with the same mana cost, but you should not judge the value of each turn so mechanically. If your deck is full of powerful four drops, the combined power of your plays can “use” the leftover mana. Would you rather play Surrak, the Hunt Caller or Ancient Carp on turn five?

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Play first. Unless you know that both your and your opponent’s decks want to go long, going first will give you the initiative to control the board development and dictate the pace of the game. That said, you should build your deck to excel when it is on the draw. You want cheap interaction, card advantage, and late-game threats. If you have a powerful aggressive deck, go for it, but don’t build a deck that can’t win the long game unless you can very consistently win before you get there. If you win game one, you will probably be on the draw in game two so sideboard to make your deck good on the draw.

The premier aggressive deck is red-black, and the dash mechanic gives it a lot of staying power and flexibility that can help you plan victories in the later turns. But the small creatures and tricks archetypes are going to run into matchups they can’t win. Here’s where your sideboard comes in handy. If you end up with an aggressive draft-style green-white or red-white deck, pull out your Defiant Ogres and Echoes of the Kin Tree and figure out how to bring them in when you need a larger board presence.

Some might advocate for building the most aggressive main deck possible, and then planning to switch to your best long-game deck post-sideboard. Our own Zach Barash succeeded at this at Grand Prix Cleveland, although I think he’d tell you he didn’t plan it that way. It takes a lot of certainty to submit a main deck that you son’t consider your best, and you should be sure your game one advantage plus the deception to negate opposing sideboards outweighs choosing to play an inferior or less consistent deck in every game one of the tournament.

The best approach is to build a powerful midrange deck with versatile cards and plenty of interaction. Use your sideboard to augment your strategy and adjust to your opponent’s threats and answers, but don’t try to totally change your strategy. Blue is the weakest color, so it is least likely to fit this plan or enable useful sideboarding, but the other four colors can all get you there. I don’t recommend playing blue unless you have a strong blue-black deck that leverages exploit and powerful bombs to take over the game. Two recent sealed pools I played came with Silumgar, the Drifting Death. Both times I built a strong black-white deck and splashed blue for the dragon and one or two other strong cards. I didn’t miss anything from the rest of the blue cards in my pool.

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Let’s talk about some cards. First up, graveyard recursion. Foul Renewal is super powerful and often wins the game when it is cast. I had one opponent get back their Temur War Shaman and kill my Gurmag Angler. Just brutal. Dutiful Attendant is a real brick wall when you have a bomb in your graveyard.  Swift Warkite does a lot of work. Monastery Loremaster is totally splashable.

The best cards to splash are the cycle of rare megamorphs. Silumgar Assassin is my favorite, but Den Protector, Ire Shaman, Hidden Dragonslayer, and Stratus Dancer are also incredible and should go in any sealed deck that can splash them. They all can flip for a cheap two-for-one and provide an evasive (or lifelinking) body. But Silumgar Assassin can often be a three-for-one, because the small creatures it can kill are the ones most likely to be targeted by pump spells and auras. Hidden Dragonslayer is usually just killing a big creature, rarely one that is being assisted by another card, although it does ruin Temur Battle Rage. Stratus Dancer can get a three-for-one if it counters something like Coat with Venom, but I’ve been consistently blown away by Silumgar Assassin‘s ability to provide huge tempo swings. It’s also black, which is the best and most useful color in Dragons sealed.

Monuments are also good. After you trade all your cards, having ten mana and a monument is a great position to be in. At the least, they allow you to use your mana in the late game, even if you don’t want to tap out to attack. Just passing the turn with mana up makes it a lot harder for your opponent to attack. A 4/4 flier can block just about everything. If you do happen to have other interactive spells in hand, your opponent might walk into them if they think they can answer your monument activation. This sort of passive edge helps you eke out grindy victories.

Finally, I have been impressed by Echoes of the Kin Tree. If you have a bunch of small creatures and need to compete with larger foes, three mana bolsters can be very helpful. It’s super slow, but if your opponent is forcing you to slow down and flood with mana and small creatures, this little enchantment will put you right back in the game. If you play white and its in your pool, at least see if it can do good work in your sideboard.

Well, that’s my quick primer for Dragons of Tarkir sealed. I’ll be putting this in action at the shore this weekend, assuming I can stay away from the rum ham.

Brendan McNamara (MTGO: eestlinc, Twitter: @brendanistan) used to play Magic in the old days. His favorite combo was Armageddon plus Zuran Orb. After running out of money to buy cards and friends who were willing to put up with that combo, he left the game. But like disco, he was bound to come back eventually. Now he’s a lawyer by day and a Dimir agent by night.

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