The Sealed Cube and PTQ Practice
The sealed PTQ season is now in full swing. Like so many others, my friends and I are planning our various road-warrior weekends with an eye towards winning that elusive blue envelope.
Over the years, my team has developed a sort of methodology for practicing limited formats that has yielded a nontrivial amount of success. In the last couple years, several of us have qualified for the Pro Tour from limited events. Mostly from PTQs, but also by means of limited GPs. We’ve also posted a large number of top-8s in limited PTQs.
As for myself, I managed to qualify for PT Nagoya with a 16th place finish at Grand Prix Denver. Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford the trip and rapidly found myself back on the PTQ grind. At any rate, I’m super excited for the limited season and I’ve been practicing Innistrad sealed into the ground.
The biggest secret we have uncovered is simply that nobody practices sealed. Especially at the beginning of the season, before the new set is released on MODO, there is an enormous edge to be gained by grinding the sealed format instead of reverting to the popular standby of infinite drafts.
The propensity to prepare for PTQs with drafts seems to correspond with a dominant attitude that sealed is less skill-intensive than other formats. Or worse: completely luck-based.
I think Matthias Hunt put it best earlier this year at GP Kansas City when we were talking about building sealed pools. He remarked that five or six people had approached him to get his opinion on their build, and he had disagreed with every single one of them on their submitted deck.
The players who had asked his opinion were all competent, experienced players. The kind of player you can expect to face in the bubble round of a PTQ.
Assuming the existence of an optimal build for each sealed pool, someone has to be correct in this dispute, and someone else has to be wrong. Our goal each season is to be on the right side of these questions more often than our competition, by virtue of having gathered more empirical data about how different sealed builds play out.
The Sealed Cube
Cracking a thousand packs just to grind sealed games is understandably unappetizing for most of us who do not have gobs of excess cash cluttering up our houses. Fortunately, there is a convenient and cost-effective way to circumvent this problem and provide you with as many sealed pools as you have the time and gumption to build.
To wit: the sealed cube is essentially an artificial recreation of real booster packs that can be distributed to several players, and later shuffled back together for fresh pools. Matthias pioneered this idea a couple years back and we've put one together every season since.
Over the years we’ve arrived at a rough system for recreating the pseudo-randomness of real boosters. There are some flaws to be sure—namely the absence of print-runs and foils—but overall the system has proven adequate at generating likely sealed pools.
The Sections of the Cube
Putting a sealed cube together is a super easy process. The cube is divided into several sections corresponding to rarity (see below). To form a new pool, simply shuffle each section and deal out the appropriate number of cards.
- Rares and Mythics:
A given mythic appears approximately half as often as a regular rare, so this pile consists of two of each rare and one of each mythic. Each pool gets 6 cards from this pile.
Since we want to begin practicing as soon as possible after prerelease weekend (and to reduce overall cost), we use proxies for these spots. This is a pretty cheap and fast way to get your cube up and running, but if you have access to all the actual cards, then by all means go nuts.
You really want the actual card images and text to make referencing unfamiliar cards as painless as possible. We print out an image of each card, taken from Gatherer, on white paper at a low resolution (96 dpi). Then we cut out each card and stick it in a sleeve over a real Magic card.
This pile consists of three of every uncommon. Each pool gets 18.
- Commons (by color):
We divide the commons into two sections to mimic the way print runs ensure a certain number of cards of each color in a given booster. You’ll want to mark the common cards with a marker or stamp for easy sorting, preferably with a different color and symbol for each section.
The first common section consists of two of each common, divided by color. The colorless commons are sprinkled randomly into each of the five colored piles. Each pool gets 6 cards from each pile.
- Commons (random):
This pile is two of every common, shuffled up together. Each pool gets 30 cards from this pile.
- Double-faced Cards:
We've had to improvise the latest incarnation of the sealed pool to accommodate the double-faced slot in Innistrad boosters. As these cards take the place of a common, you have to adjust the numbers of commons above (5 from each colored pile and 29 from the random pile.)
The rarity of a double-faced card is supposedly the same as that of its single-faced equivalent. The numbers on this work out to 10x of each common double-faced card, 5x of each uncommon, 2x of each rare, and 1x of each mythic. Shuffle all of these into one pile and deal 6 out for each pool.
Assembling the Cube
The fastest way to get your sealed cube online is to ask a group of friends to pitch in their bulk from prerelease weekend.
It's usually not hard to find a few people in your core testing group who will agree ahead of time to donate their commons and uncommons. While people are sometimes reluctant to part with dollar uncommons like Unburial Rites or Memnite, they’ll usually be satisfied by an offer of later reimbursement.
We've found people remarkably willing to give up cards in the understanding that they will ultimately benefit as much as everyone else. It's also gotten easier each year as word has spread. This year we had already acquired every card for the sealed cube by Sunday of the prerelease!
Once you’ve put in the work to make the cube, you can deal out pools and get in several matches in about two hours. The numbers listed above support about five pools at any given time, but even grinding one-on-one can provide valuable experience.
Don’t be afraid to experiment! One of the strengths of the sealed cube is how it enables testing fringe strategies without any risk. Is there a rare you haven’t gotten the chance to play with yet? Bias one of the pools and try it out. Wondering about a build-around-me like Burning Vengeance that might be a sleeper or downright terrible? Build two different versions of your pool and see which one performs better.
Evaluating Cards in Sealed
A mistaken assumption I see many people making in sealed is that the strength of a given card or strategy is the same as in draft.
Sealed is a fundamentally different format than draft. While commons predominantly define the latter, rares and mythics in sealed are far more impactful. This is partly a function of the number of packs opened, which doubles the likelihood of opening a bomb. It is also due to the relative difficulty in capitalizing on synergies.
An example from last season of a radical difference between draft and sealed environments can be seen in the role of the infect mechanic. In Scars of Mirrodin sealed, infect was generally regarded by the pro community to be unplayable, barring the occasional appearance of some ridiculous and unlikely pool.
This was not a function of the infect creatures themselves, but rather the environment as a whole. In sealed, there were literally twice as many [card Arc Trail]Arc Trails[/card], [card Perilous Myr]Perilous Myrs[/card], and [card Necropede]Necropedes[/card] to fight through. The increased presence of these particular cards and other spot removal drastically lowered the value of a card like Plague Stinger, an obvious standout in the equivalent draft format.
The best way to ascertain the strength of cards in sealed is exactly the same as in other formats: test them directly in the context of the environment in question. Those who have done this before the first couple PTQs are likely to have an advantage over those that haven’t.
Over- and Under-valued Innistrad Cards
At this point I have personally built and tested about twenty-five or so Innistrad sealed pools. The following are some the cards I’ve found to underperform or overperform with respect to my initial expectations. I will focus on cards whose value I believe differs from their value in draft.
Skaab Creatures: It is a lot harder in sealed to get a critical mass of milling enablers like Deranged Assistant, so these guys can rot away in your hand. They are also harmed by the overrepresentation of white, whose removal spells often don’t kill their targets. You will probably always play the first Stitched Drake or [card Skaab Goliath]Goliath[/card], but be aware of how many ways you have to stock your graveyard.
Back from the Brink: This card suffers from the same problems as the Skaab creatures. Its upside is obviously way higher, and I would probably start this in any blue deck, but don’t be afraid to side it out against a removal-light opponent. I’ve seen it be a glorified, ten-mana Makeshift Mauler more than once.
Harvest Pyre: All of these graveyard dependent cards basically compete with each other for space. The first one is going to be good, and it certainly can kill the likes of Olivia Voldaren or Bloodline Keeper // Lord of Lineage, but, like the skaab creatures, this has diminishing returns in multiples.
Slayer of the Wicked: Another card impacted by white’s status as best color. You will have to wait to get value quite frequently, and sometimes you just have to run it out there. I don’t think I would splash for this in sealed until I know my opponent has some juicy targets, but its still an autoinclude if you’re maindecking white.
Cobbled Wings: In the all-too-frequent struggle to answer fliers, the wings is a nice option at common. Even strapped onto a 2/2 idiot, the wings help provide a clock. On werewolves they become downright scary. Reequipping post-combat to block is also dirt-cheap at one mana, and will rarely hamper your board development.
Creeping Renaissance: When this card is good, its a beating and a half. It’s basically an eight-for-one (except you probably won’t get a chance to flash it back before burying them with the first Crow of Dark Tidings.) It can suffer from some of the same issues as Back from the Brink, but generally is stronger for not exiling anything and for being in a color that plays more dudes and fewer skaabs.
Grimoire of the Dead: There are only three nonrare cards that answer the ol’ Necronomicon: Ancient Grudge, Bramblecrush and Naturalize. People rarely maindeck any of those. At least in game one, this card is just bonkers. Your opponent is essentially forced to race it—a much harder task in sealed than in draft. If you can combine it with a few removal spells hitting their best dudes, things get out of hand quickly.
Mask of Avacyn: Innistrad sealed is often characterized by an unanswered evasive creature smashing for huge chunks of damage. Since most of the removal is conditional, your opponent is often struggling to kill a lowly Chapel Geist. Mask of Avacyn essentially guarantees that if they didn’t remove it this turn, they will never remove it. The clincher here is the +1/+2 which distances this card quite a bit from Swiftfoot Boots, ensuring your monster passage past many defenses.
Night Revelers: I’ve found this guy to be a decent top-end in most decks. He’s better in sealed for the same reason that Slayer of the Wicked is worse: you’ll find him hasted up more often than not. If you have access to awesome bombs, then leave him on the sidelines, but don’t hesitate to revel a bit if you’re looking for ways to close out a game.
Silverchase Fox: Foxy here is innocuous enough, but I will always start one in my white decks. He will sometimes gobble up a removal spell like Claustrophobia or Bonds of Faith, but his real job is to stop broken shenanigans like Gutter Grime and Heretic's Punishment. I prefer him as a maindeck inclusion over Urgent Exorcism because two-drops in this format are unusually valuable and he’s never dead.
Thraben Purebloods: The Siege Mastodogs are quite the workhorse (workpuppy?). He stops most things on the ground—aside from flipped werewolves—while your squad of ghosts attack in the air.
Hopefully this little primer is enough to give you a head-start on Innistrad sealed and building your own practice cube. Over the next couple weeks I plan to cover a couple PTQs from this season in detail, starting with the MODO PTQ from last Tuesday (I went 7-3 for a 41st place finish and an enviable three packs of recompense).
I will be attending the Madison PTQ this weekend (last weekend by the time you read this), attempting to capitalize on all the practice my team has done this season. I’ll let you know how we fared in the next installment.
Please comment if you have any thoughts or questions. Thanks for reading!