The Ixalan prerelease goes down this weekend. Soon we’ll be deep into the new Limited environment. That means it’s time to build some Sealed decks. Let’s dig deep on a topic that we spend more time thinking about during build than we do discussing before or after. How do you decide the final cuts in your main deck?

Why Your Final Cuts Matter

Most Sealed analysis focuses on the good cards that you want to put in your deck. That’s the easy part, though. Most of us can prepare a bit for a big Sealed tournament, show up, and figure out the best twenty cards for our deck pretty quickly. Sometimes I go back and forth between colors or decks, but usually you can put your best cards together without too much deliberation. But that’s where the hard part comes.

This is the crucial and difficult period of any Sealed build. You have up to twenty cards vying for those last few slots. Hour of Devastation Sealed was especially true for this because the format was slow enough that most decks could splash a few off-color cards. Often your pool has a few solid removal spells in a color you aren’t playing. Maybe there are some situationally powerful cards you could side in. And hopefully you have some random creatures left over to pick from.

On some level, the last few cards in your maindeck don’t matter very much. Just pick some that will usually do something helpful, and then tune your deck after game one with the best choices in the matchup out of your sideboard. The more powerful your deck, the less it matters what you put in spell slots 21-23. Often you’ll simply add the eighteenth land.

In theory, a quick choice of final cuts saves you energy, and most games are played after sideboard anyway. But that’s not quite true in Sealed. For Constructed decks, you labor over every choice in both your maindeck and sideboard. A Sealed tournament doesn’t provide much time to do this, but it does provide some. If you know the format and come ready to build, you’ll have at least five minutes to devote to optimizing your build. Take that time and do it.

On top of that, the “more games are after sideboard” truism isn’t as true in Sealed. It’s the slowest Magic format. I’ve won a handful of competitive matches 1-0, and it is common in slower Sealed environments for game one to be crucial. Sometimes you even build a secondary deck to bring in when time gets short for game two or three. Midrange or aggressive Sealed pools will play plenty of three-game matches, but the strong control decks need to make sure they are prepared to win game one. That means you need to maximize the value out of each spell slot in your maindeck and cover as many bases as possible. If you aren’t winning quickly, you need to be able to deal with basically everything in the format.

How it Works in Practice

So how do we decide? Let’s walk through my two day one pools from the Hour of Devastation Grand Prix in Toronto and Indianapolis. In both tournaments I received above-average pools with clear cores, and I spent half my build time polishing the back end of each deck.

Esper Control

Let’s start with my 9-0 Esper Control deck from Grand Prix Toronto. Like most strong pools, I had a lot of choices on the maginal cards to put in my maindeck. I’m not at all sure my build was best, even if the results came out well, but I’m happy with my thought process.

Esper Control—GP Toronto 9-0

Creatures (13)
Proven Combatant
Wretched Camel
Khenra Eternal
Banewhip Punisher
Baleful Ammit
Carrior Screecher
Soulstinger
Shimmerscale Drake
Unesh, Criosphinx Sovereign
Angler Drake
Striped Riverwinder

Spells (12)
Grind // Dust
Pull from Tomorrow
Supreme Will
Wander in Death
Trial of Ambition
Cartouche of Ambition
Torment of Venom
Countervaling Winds
Manalith
Traveler’s Amulet
Lands (15)
Desert of the Mindful
Survivors’ Encampment
Island
Swamp
Plains

Sideboard (18)
Unsummon
Cunning Survivor
Tragic Lesson
 Compelling Argument
Compulsory Rest
 Forsake the Worldly
Vizier of Deferment
Hour of Revelation
Aven of Enduring Hope
Angel of the God-Pharaoh
God-Pharaoh’s Faithful
Grasping Dunes
Razaketh’s Rite
Torment of Scarabs
Doomed Dissenter
Trespasser’s Curse

I spent a decent amount of time deciding I didn’t want to mess with white cards. Hour of Revelation is really hard to cast, Angel of the God-Pharaoh and Aven of Enduring Hope are both good but redundant with my white and black cards, and Compulsory Arrest is fine but loses value in long games. and My mana fixing was decent enough, but I felt my black and blue cards were strong enough on their own. Consistency is important in Sealed, as long as your cards are good enough.

I could still splash Forsake the Wordly, as I’m obviously going to want the back half of Grind // Dust, but I decided I didn’t have room. It was easy to bring in for cards that underperformed game one. Torment of Scarabs is tempting as well, but two Striped Riverwinders and Wander in Death do basically the same thing without being awful half the time. At this point, here’s the core of my deck:

Cards I Want

Creatures (9)
Banewhip Punisher
Baleful Ammit
Carrior Screecher
Soulstinger
Shimmerscale Drake
Unesh, Criosphinx Sovereign
Angler Drake
Striped Riverwinder

Spells (12)
Grind // Dust
Pull from Tomorrow
Supreme Will
Wander in Death
Torment of Venom
Trial of Ambition
Cartouche of Ambition
Countervaling Winds
Manalith
Traveler’s Amulet
Lands (15)
Desert of the Mindful
Survivors’ Encampment
Island
Swamp
Plains

That’s a great core for Sealed, though it’s much heavier on spells than I would prefer. It needs more creatures, and probably in all four remaining slots. I’d like to play another land—either a Swamp or Grasping Dunes—but with only one cycling land I was afraid of flooding and willing to take the Traveler’s Amulet gamble. With strong Sealed decks, playing an extra land in the final spell slot is often a good idea. If all your spells are great, you just need to make sure you can cast them. But in this situation, I had so much card selection and few mana sinks, so I did not want to flood out.

Before finishing off the creature curve, should we cut any spells? Torment of Venom is not amazing in this sort of Sealed deck, but it’s still quite good and can be improved with some expendable creatures that can win combat with help from Torment. The black cartouche and trial could both go, but they also work well with some cheap expendable creatures. Plus, Cartouche of Ambition wins games like few commons can. I felt it was a reason to play black over white. Trial of Ambition is nice to have in a control deck—either pick off a powerful two drop, or line it up to take out the Scaled Behemoth that you otherwise can never beat. The rest of the spells are either absolute powerhouses or mana sources, so it’s hard to cut from there.

At this point, I have to decide what four creatures to add. I want cheap ones, but they need to provide some kind of value later in the game. Proven Combatant and Wretched Camel provide enough value to earn a spot. From there, I chose the two Khenra Eternal over Cunning Survivor and Doomed Dissenter. None of these are good in my deck, but I decided the eternals were better at trading, which this deck needs to do.

So that’s how I ended up with my list. As you go through this process, remember the cards you cut. Those are your sideboard—think during each game which of them you wish you had. I brought in Unsummon, Compulsory Arrest, Forsake the Wordly, Vizier of Deferment, Cunning Survivor, and Grasping Dunes in various games to great effect.

Bant Midrange

My pool at Grand Prix Indianapolis was good, but not as strong as Toronto. My core needed to be green-white to leverage Pride Sovereign, a great suporting cast of creatures, Overcome, and tons of white removal. But the final choices were tough. Here’s what I registered:

Bant Cats—GP Indianapolis 7-2

Creatures (14)
Rhonas’s Stalwart
Adorned Pouncer
Gust Walker
Pride Sovereign
Devotee of Strength
Dauntless Aven
Quarry Hauler
Ahn-Crop Champion
Champion of Rhonas
Aven Initiate
Bitterbow Sharpshooters
Aven of Enduring Hope

Spells (9)
Beneath the Sands
Countervaling Winds
Kefnet’s Last Word
Cast Out
Sandblast
Farm // Market
Compulsory Arrest
Overcome
Saving Grace
Lands (17)
Cascading Cataracts
Painted Bluffs
Ipnu Rivulet
Desert of the Indomitable
Island
Forest
Plains

Sideboard (20)
Frilled Sandwalla
Harrier Naga
Haze of Pollen
Vizier of Remedies
Sparring Mummy
Gideon’s Defeat
Djeru’s Resolve
Renewed Faith
Cartouche of Knowledge
Desert of the Glorified
Torment of Scarabs
Gravedigger
Lethal Sting
Desert of the Fervent
Abrade
Open Fire
Chaos Maw
Puncturing Blow

I had two or three extra slots, which I decided to fill with a blue splash for Countervaling Winds, Aven Initiate, and the ambitious splash of Kefnet’s Last Word. I went for high power and an extra dimension that these cards bring. My other choices were staying in two colors and adding some mediocre creatures, or playing the two Desert of the Fervent, Abrade, and Open Fire.

Both of those look more “correct” and straightforward, but neither adds much to the core of the deck. Staying two colors and adding creatures brings consistency, which is nice, but this deck isn’t strong enough for me to be excited about that consistency. Likewise, the red splash doesn’t change the dimension of the deck, beyond three points of reach damage with Open Fire. If I had two copied that’d be more of a bonus, but just one isn’t worth splashing given all the removal I have in white already.

Splashing blue provides an awesome counterspell they likely won’t see coming, a recursive flier, and a free Faithless Looting off the back side of Farm // Market. Normally it wouldn’t be worth double-splashing, but Kefnet’s Last Word is absurdly powerful—hello Control Magic—and actually reasonable to cast off Cascading Cataracts. Blue also brings Ipnu Rivulet, which is a real card in Sealed that brings yet another dimension to the deck. I won a game with it when I couldn’t bust through, and I used it and an Island to cast Kefnet’s Last Word in another.

Post-sideboard I would often swap in red when I needed early interaction, or go down to straight green-white. Once I even sided in some black for an especially grindy matchup. But I was pleased to go for the power with the blue splash in the main deck. In one game, my opponent responded to my splashed Control Magic by saying “how did I know you had that?” to which I responded “because the rest of my deck isn’t that good.” The core of the deck is solid, but aggressively medium. The only way I could bust out of that was the blue splash, so I went for it.

In the end, you should make your final choices to shore up your deck’s weaknesses. Find the cards that reinforce your overall gameplan. But don’t be afraid to be wrong—as long as you know why you’d want each card, you can find the correct ones after game one.

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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