I had an awful weekend at Grand Prix Orlando. Most of this had nothing to do with the game, but the experience provided a lens for me to evaluate the problems with Aether Revolt Sealed as a format. Those issues stem from some fundamental rules of sealed play that apply to all sets, and we can learn from them to succeed in future sealed formats.

Bad Mattress

I dopped from GP Orlando at 3-3, including my two byes. The biggest cause of my poor performance was a defective hotel bed. I discovered this over the wee hours of Saturday morning as I continually woke up in pain. When I built my deck later that morning, I was awake solely off caffeine and adrenaline. That’s not a great place to be.

Bad Pool

The pool I got was well below average. It was one of those two-of-each-awful-common type of pools, also featuring hot rares Lost Legacy and Planar Bridge. The best cards I had were Winding Constrictor, Scrap Trawler, Longtusk Cub, Midnight Oil, Harnessed Lightning, Greenbelt Rampager, Scrapper Champion, and Daring Demolition. White and blue were laughably bad, so I knew I had to find some sort of build among the Jund colors. Finding fourteen playable creatures was difficult, but my only mana fixing was a single Renegade Map.

Normally I embrace this sort of challenge, quickly build the three two-color combinations among my viable colors, pick one to register for game ones, then map out plans to swap based on each matchup. I’ve had success in the past doing this, and I’m sure I could have managed to eke out a 6-3 or 7-2 record doing so with this pool. But I was running on fumes and could barely cobble together a green-black deck in the time alloted. Even after I was done, when I had over an hour before round three would begin, I was too exhausted and demoralized to work that out. Zach Barash tried to help me out, but I brushed him off. Needless to say, things didn’t go well. After round six I dropped, went back to my hotel, got a new room, and passed out until dinner.

Despite all this, here’s how my four rounds went:

  • Round 3—Draw ten+ lands both games and get crushed.
  • Round 4—Play tight and barely win in three games.
  • Round 5—Come close to beating a much better deck but punt a close game three from fatigue.
  • Round 6—Mulligan to six-card/one-land hands both games, never draw more, and lose.

Breaking that down, I made a costly game error to lose round five, and lost my other two due to extreme mana problems. Maybe I misbuilt my mana base by playing sixteen lands plus Renegade Map and Implement of Ferocity when I should have played fifteen lands or cut the Map. I sided out the sixteenth land every match. But I’m not sure that was a misbuild, and still only accounts for the round three loss to mana flood in consecutive games.

Bad Format

But let’s talk about the fundamental tension between Aether Revolt and general sealed theory. Sealed is the slowest of competitive Magic formats. You can win quickly by curving out, but it is rare for a sealed pool in any format to provide enough cards to fill out a consistent mana curve. In draft you can pick cards in your colors to build a consistent mana curve. Some sealed pools have a great draft deck in them, but they are rare.

Most players who try to win in large sealed tournaments with a “draft” deck crash and burn. The best sealed decks are slower and full of powerful cards. People like to say that draft decks are more powerful than sealed deck, but I don’t think that’s a useful comparison. (How different would Standard metagames be with only two copies allowed of each spell instead of four? Same card pool, very different decks.) The draft metagame is faster than the sealed metagame because more players can curve out. In sealed, you get run over in some games, but not that often. You have time to develop your board and draw into your best cards. That’s why bomb rares and removal decide so many games; and it’s why formats like Fate Reforged that have overpowered, plentiful bombs make oppressive, sealed formats.

This is also why strong sealed decks generally want to play eighteen lands. When you have a pile of your best cards and time to maneuver against your opponent’s best cards, your biggest worry is that you won’t be able to cast your spells. Andrew Cuneo is famous for telling players to cut garbage cards for an eighteenth or nineteenth land, even in draft. I first learned the value of this at Grand Prix Montreal 2014. I played eighteen lands in the best pool I’ve ever had at a Grand Prix specifically because I knew I’d win almost every game where I hit my first six or seven land drops, regardless of what spells I drew. I was still new to competitive Magic then, but I saw the deeper point. And I went 8-1 with only one bye, losing to some bad luck in round three but not much else.

Theros was the best sealed format I’ve played competitively. The monstrosity mechanic was amazing for sealed play—it ensured you had solid creatures early and large finishers late. And by providing expensive mana-sinks (hello Nessian Asp and Scholar of Athreos) you weren’t punished for flooding out with ten lands. Khans of Tarkir was also good, thanks to morph playing a similar role. But Khans suffered from the common lifegain dual lands (like Swiftwater Cliffs) and morph giving everyone extra life and a colorless 2/2 on turn three. That made the format too slow and all decks blended into a brown stew of five-color good stuff decks. (I can’t hate on Khans too much, since it got me to the pro tour, but look at my sealed deck from that PTQ and tell me I’m wrong.)

Anyway, my point is this: the best sealed formats have powerful cards that pair well in various two- or three-color combinations and reward playing eighteen lands. You never want to draw too few lands in sealed, so you play extra lands to reduce the risk of that happening. Mana flood isn’t a problem because you have mana sinks—monstrosity, morph, invokers, clues, repeatable activated abilities, etc—that let you play even when you flood out. That means you play long games with tons of interesting decisions. Strong players win more. Inexperienced players still have fun, and they also learn.

Aether Revolt is the exact opposite. Go read Mike Sigrist’s fantastic synthesis of the format. He’s telling you to curve out, shave lands as much as possible, play combat tricks, and forget about mana sinks. This is spot-on for Aether Revolt, but flies in the face of normal sealed theory. Pascal Maynard wrote a piece showing how to cut lands. Something is deeply wrong with a sealed format when this is good advice.

I look forward to playing Amonkhet sealed at Grand Prix Richmond, local PPTQs, and subsequent tournaments. The early previews include high-toughness commons that suggest a slower format that rewards blocking. The new embalm mechanic will help mitigate flood. I suspect we’ll see more mechanics and cards along these lines as the spoilers continue. Bring it on!

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

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