Grand Prix Albuquerque is right around the corner. Not only is it this weekend, it’s a quick trip down from Denver. The local community is buzzing about a “local” grand prix , which meant big crowds at the release weekend sealed PPTQs. I got to take a deep dive into the Shadows Over Innistrad sealed format, and I’m here to share my insights.

First things first: the format is a lot faster than on Zendikar. Gone are the days of eight-mana Eldrazi. The creatures on Innistrad are small. Mediocre-looking six drops like Morkrut Necropod and Kessig Dire Swine are your new dinosaurs, and they’re pretty good. So are two drops and three drops.

You want to be on the play. Unlike Oath-Battle sealed, meaningful interaction occurs over the first four turns. You want to get on board early. Make your opponent be the one sweating their mulligan decision because they can’t keep your early werewolf from transforming. Combat tricks play a role in Shadows sealed, and they are much better on the play. You want to attack first, creatures facing even powered creatures, with your mana available. You don’t need to cast a trick to attack favorably, so you force your opponent to choose to block. You can use a trick to exploit their choice, or simply trade and play your four drop, keeping the pressure. If your opponent has to keep tapping out to maintain board parity, you will always have the advantage in combat. Rarely does this dynamic matter in sealed, but in Shadows Over Innistrad, it does. So you need to play first.

Sealed still remains a hostile format for aggressive strategies. This is always true, to varying degrees across formats, because sealed is the format with the largest sideboard. Linear aggressive strategies are predictable, therefore easiest to sideboard against. When you have seventy cards in your sideboard, you can probably find something to thwart their obvious primary strategy. To win reliably in sealed with an aggressive deck, it better be good. Affinity still puts up wins against vicious sideboards in Modern. Consistency is the hidden power of aggro decks, which is also hardest to achieve in sealed. Sometimes you have the dense core of cards necessary, but that is rare.

So how to you build an aggressive sealed deck in Shadows Over Innistrad without banking on the pool gods hooking you up with redundant beaters and bombs? Red has some key commons that help finish games. Voldaren Duelist is the linchpin of red aggressive decks. Opponents take their lives into their hands if they hold back less than two blockers. This causes opponents to play cautiously, not pressuring the aggro deck’s life total. As a result, the red deck can plan in comfort, lining up spells over draw steps to force through lethal damage. It is a good spot to be in, and it makes aggression a viable strategy in the format.

Red has other ways to force through damage or hit for surprising amounts out of nowhere. Ember-Eye Wolf is a fireball creature in the late game, basically the same as Lightning Berserker. Malevolent Whispers plays a similar role to Voldaren Duelist. Lightning Axe plus a discarded Fiery Temper clears a wide path. Burn from Within is actual Fireball, if you happen to open it. Avacyn’s Judgment is trickier to use, but can spray a lot of cheap damage in the right deck. Spiteful Motives turns a small flier into a quick clock. And then there’s Uncaged Fury. This time around, red got the tools.

Defensive strategies need to lean on toughness, spreading out bodies, and gaining life. Gisa’s Bidding provides solid Voldaren Duelist insurance. Farbog Revenant does a surprising amount of work, and skulk helps it get in to gain a life when the opposing board is too big to block or block it. Dauntless Cathar and Ghoulcaller’s Accomplice are happy to trade off, even for a combat trick. Solitary Hunter and Silent Observer block like champions. Inquisitor’s Ox might be one of white’s best commons! Imagine that.

I finished in fourth at the PPTQ last Saturday here in town. My sealed pool was above average, but not amazing. My rares were lackluster, but I had a nice suite of uncommons for the vampire deck. I took this little number to a 4-1-1 record, drawing the last round to lock top eight.

Mad Beats

Creatures (14)
Indulgent Aristocrat
Ravenous Bloodseeker
Olivia’s Bloodsworn
Ghoulcaller’s Accomplice
Sanguinary Mage
Geier Reach Bandit
Bloodmad Vampire
Vampire Noble
Stromkirk Mentor
Voldaren Duelist
Gatstaf Arsonists

Spells (9)
Gisa’s Bidding
To the Slaughter
Fiery Impulse
Murderous Compulsion
Dead Weight
Stensia Masquerade
Murderer’s Axe
Malevolent Whispers
Tormenting Voice
Lands (17)
Drownyard Temple

Sideboard (15)
Ember-Eye Wolf
Hulking Devil
Crow of Dark Tidings
Morkrut Necropod
Creeping Dread
Grotesque Mutation
Magmatic Chasm
Vessel of Malignity
Avacynian Missionaries
Pious Evangel
Puncturing Light
Warped Landscape
Forsaken Sanctuary
Stone Quarry

This deck has so many good vampire interactions that I cut solid creatures like Crow of Dark Tidings and Morkrut Necropod in favor of Vampire Noble and Stromkirk Mentor. Both were great in combination with Olivia’s Bloodsworn. That card is amazing. Giving your creatures haste is a massive upgrade for Vampire Interloper.

Playing Ravenous Bloodseeker on turn two is the dream. There are many ways to use three mana with madness that end very well for you. This deck lacked consistency to make that a realistic scenario, but the nut draws for vampire decks are very scary. Ravenous Bloodseeker and Heir of Falkenrath are both uncommon, which makes them less oppressive in draft, but they will show up often in sealed. We’re back in the six-pack single-set world. Uncommons will show up more.

There is still plenty of room for cracking clues and going deep with Seasons Past, but those decks will have to adapt to survive the onslaught of early attacks. Graf Mole is my all star pick for doing that, along with the best control enabler possible, Wild-Field Scarecrow. Faster formats make for better control strategies, paradoxically, because the threat of aggression keeps them honest. Slow formats full of Eldrazi make everyone a control deck, which gets old after a while.

Shadows Over Innistrad appears to offer a diverse and wide-ranging metagame, where you can assemble the tools to do anything. I’m excited to battle this weekend at Grand Prix Albuquerque.

As a bonus, here’s my top eight draft deck from the PPTQ. I lost the semifinals in the Westvale Abbey mirror. That card is stupid and not very fun in limited. Expect to see a lot of them at the top tables in sealed. At least in a draft you know who has them.

Abbo, Table for Two

Creatures (15)
Ghoulcaller’s Accomplice
Thalia’s Lieutenant
Harvest Hand
Militant Inquisitor
Tooth Collector
Crow of Dark Tidings
Farbog Revenant
Apothecary Geist
Avacynian Missionaries
Inspiring Captain
Accursed Witch

Spells (8)
Ever After
True-Faith Censer
Skeleton Key
Murderous Compulsion
Behind the Scenes
Lands (17)
Westvale Abbey

Sideboard (18)
Warped Landscape
Grotesque Mutation
Biting Rain
Merciless Resolve
Alms of the Vein
Not Forgotten
Chaplain’s Blessing
Ethereal Guidance
Just the Wind
Uninvited Geist
Drownyard Explorers
Niblis of Dusk
Stitched Mangler
Invasive Surgery
Haunted Cloak
Epitaph Golem

This deck was pretty cool. Avacynian Missionaries is a nice one.

Anyway, see you in Albuquerque!

Carrie O’Hara is Editor-in-Chief of Hipsters of the Coast.

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