Sealed Away, 2019 - Simon's New Year Resolutions

by Simon Nielsen on 07 January 2019, Monday

Simon Nielsen

2018 has been the best year of my life so far. I won a Grand Prix; got to pay off all my debts; stabilized myself financially to finally be able to say that I do what I love for a living. The year featured my best Magic season to date which earned me a spot as the captain of Team Denmark for the World Magic Cup, the very last one at that.

I gained so much personal confidence, changed my look to have glasses and a beard, learned to love myself and realized that I can be loved too. I visited so many places, made new friends and grew stronger bonds with old friends. I’ve experienced how willing the Magic community is to offer me places to sleep in case I need one. 2018 has been the best year of my life.

So if everything is going so well, why even make resolutions?

Well, I feel my skill level is stagnating. It feels like the increase in my results comes from previous years' hard work to get better. But right now I feel I’m not making much progress. And I know I have it in me to change that.

I have 4 Magic-related New Year’s resolutions. The first one is about Sealed, and I’m going to take a deep dive into that one today. The rest I will cover next week.

1) Become better at Sealed

No, it’s not just all luck…

In 2018, I played 3 individual Limited Grands Prix (Rivals of Ixalan in London, Magic 2019 in Turin and Guilds of Ravnica in Warsaw) and 2 Team Limited Grands Prix (both Dominaria in Bologna and Washington DC). I missed Day Two in all five of them. Go me... 

After GP Warsaw it really dawned on me that I just often don’t know what I’m doing in Sealed. People often think Sealed always just comes down to what you open but those people also frequently misbuild their pools.

I already knew that Sealed was hard to get right but now I realized just how hard it is. And not just deckbuilding, the gameplay part is difficult too and is so important in a tournament.

Why is it so hard?

It’s just Magic after all...

What I’ve found is that Sealed often comes down to striking a perfect balance. You need to attempt to thread the needle between two extremes. You want a low enough curve that you can eventually double-spell and prevent getting run over by even a medium deck on the one end. On the other you want enough late game that a medium deck cannot just outgrind you.

At the same time, you also need to be proactive because if your opponent has the better late game you must kill them before they get there. As you can see, actually playing that medium deck seems like the sweet spot. You get to randomly win games against decks that are built too much at one end of the spectrum.

(Double-spelling is a term referring to the ability to cast two spells per turn. Often in Magic, we just cast one spell a turn for most of the early to mid-game, and sometimes also only one spell a turn once we run out of cards. But those turns in between where you get to cast multiple spells can often be turns that are game deciding swings. And if your deck has too many cards that cost 4 or more mana, you don’t get to have those, even when you hit 6 or 7 mana.)

Power versus Consistency: The age-old struggle

Another axis which Sealed deckbuilding revolves around is power versus consistency. People often tell you to try and play your best cards and bomb rares because those are what matters. But often, that might mean splashing into multiple colors. Is that worth it? Well, sometimes your deck might be consistently low-powered and in that case it’s better to be inconsistently high-powered. That’s a decision you always have to make on a case-by-case basis.

While we balance these broader terms, we also need to dodge more bullets during deckbuilding. Often in Sealed, your deck will need to cover certain bases and the more reactive you are, the fewer blind spots you can have. For instance, you might seem to have a great defensive deck, but if you need to kill every single flyer in order to survive, you might have a problem.

Similarly, you can be stocked up enough on Artful TakedownHypothesizzle and Dimir Informant-style creatures, but what do you plan to do when you face a Douser of Lights?

Running out of cards can be another downfall, so your deck will need some sort of card advantage. I’ve even heard of strong Sealed players splashing for Notion Rain in their Selesnya deck to make this happen. Of course this is not something you should attempt to do every time, it’s very case-dependent, but that’s exactly what makes it hard. You can’t make any rules for how to build a Sealed deck.

Gameplay issues: The challenges don’t stop after deck submission

What I mentioned above seems to happen in-game as well. You have to manage another balancing act because you don’t want to die early but also don’t want to die late. For example, whether you use a removal spell now or save it for a potential better threat later is a decision in this vein. Whether you double-block at the risk of losing both creatures or wait for a safer answer plays in that space too. These spots come up all the time and sometimes you lose because you rushed things. Sometimes you lose because you were too patient.

Also, a great deal of forward-planning goes into games of Sealed. This is the case for all of Magic, but in Draft and especially Constructed this tends to be easier. Both those formats revolve around archetypes so much that planning and role-assignment come naturally.

In Sealed however? Your opponent attacks with their 2-drop. Do you block with yours? If you’re a slower deck, then yes. Right? What if you’re a slower deck but your hand consists mostly of your low-end and you have tools for racing? Then maybe it’s better to take the hit. You don’t know how good your opponent’s late-game is and maybe you lose the ability to win quickly if you don’t get to attack now.

What if you’re a slower deck, but your 2-drop is League Guildmage? You don’t know how aggressive your opponent’s deck is, maybe it’s better to trade it off now.

Again, the decision can end up losing you the game, one way or another. Playing this balancing game against an unknown entity is what I find so difficult. Also, I’ve found myself to be rather bad at doing the long-term planning required to make these decisions.

So what can I do about it? 

I think the big first step is to just play more Sealed and play it smart. Most of these things come down to experience. Whenever there’s a decision where either option could cost me, I need experience to decide which side to lean on. Just like a tightrope dance, mastering Sealed will take practice.

I underestimated it often. I’d do five Sealed events and feel fine about my chances. But since I’ve now realized that Sealed is so much different than Draft, just five practice runs simply won’t cut it.

My next Limited event will be GP Prague, and although I haven’t really started my preparation yet, you can bet that I’m going to run through so many Ultimate Masters Phantom Sealed Leagues. Just watch me, I won’t even play more than a handful of Drafts. I don’t even care how I do on Day Two, I just want to get there. This is going to be my one challenge to see if I have moved myself.

Getting the best help: For practice and experience, grinders are gold

I have a lot of friends who have not yet been on the Pro Tour, but they grind away at the PPTQ scene. These are the people I need to turn to for help. They practice the format on MTGO for their online and live PPTQs and they play in these tournaments every week. They have experience, and they are probably better than me at it even without professional success.

I stated planning as another weak spot. One idea to tackle that is to make a habit to always announce my plan out loud while I play online. I should do it multiple times per match so I’m aware if my plan changes. Just to verbalize my plans and make them more than just an abstract thought.

I think this might help me consider a concrete game plan as I make these tough decisions. I think this might even carry over into live matches, where I have the advantage of speaking Danish, which most of my opponents won’t be able to understand. I’ll look dumb saying my game plan out loud in front of my opponent but I don’t care much for looking silly as long as I improve. With time, I should be able to internalize this process.

Learning by Teaching: Use every tool to improve

Maybe I can use these tools as I prepare for GP Prague and going forward into 2019. Another tool I could use is to teach about Sealed. I already learned a lot just by writing this article and I also just covered the topic of sealed in my coaching session at the Magic Mastermind (and shameless plug, if you’re interested in a unique coaching experience, check out the MTG Mastermind!).

This article ended up quite in-depth but I have even more new year’s resolutions to cover next week! So stay tuned for more content like this. Hopefully you either learned more about Sealed or at least gained more respect for it. Maybe this even inspired you to realize your own weak points in Magic and set out to deal with them!

This article was written by Simon Nielsen in a media collaboration with Snapcardster.com.




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