Team Sealed Secrets: Top 4 in Grand Prix Indianapolis
Last week I was lucky to get to play my favorite format of Team Limited at Grand Prix Indianapolis alongside friends Benjamin Weitz and Neal Oliver, and even luckier that we finished in the Top 4. With Wizards pushing team tournaments this year, there will be plenty upcoming chances to play Team Limited, including more tournaments on the release weekends, for both Dominaria this spring and the set codenamed “Spaghetti” this fall. I can’t recommend the format highly enough. Not only is it fun and exciting to share the wins with your friends, the strategy in building a team sealed pool is deep and interesting.
The Texture of the Format
In order to build the best decks, it’s important to have the right expectation of what you are likely to play against. In general, team sealed decks are more powerful than both sealed and draft decks. Twelve packs is enough to assemble more focused and synergistic decks than regular six pack sealed deck, so expect to play against good versions of any of the most powerful draft archetypes. There is a higher density of rares and top tier uncommon, as your opponents are able to find a deck for all of these powerful cards they open.
Taking Rivals of Ixalan as an example, there are many streamlined aggressive versions of Merfolk, Vampires, or Pirates. Cheap removal like Moment of Craving is well-positioned against most opponents, as removing the uncommon lords is essential to survival.
However, just a deck full of removal will not cut it. Something like a GB midrange deck full of removal and beefy creatures would be a solid option in regular sealed, but will struggle against many of the hard-to-answer rares in the format, such as Tetzimoc, Primal Death, Profane Procession, or The Immortal Sun.
One of the worst matchups in limited is playing a deck that wants to prolong the game against a deck with a much better late game. Because of the higher density of rares, the threshold for a “good late game deck” is higher, making midrange strategies the biggest losers moving to the team sealed format compared to draft or regular sealed. To compensate for this issue, it is important for the deck to be able to adjust post-board. Thinking through how each deck will match up against different archetypes in the format and distributing the cards in the best way to minimize weaknesses is an important part of deckbuilding.
The Deck-Building Process
The deck-build process is the most important part of the tournament. While 60 minutes may seem like a long time to build a sealed deck, there are a lot more options to consider in splitting 12 packs into 3 decks than just identifying the best single deck in a pool of 6 packs. Furthermore, deck-building mistakes cannot be corrected during sideboarding. I have often realized a different second color would have been a better deck, and sideboarded into the better build in every round of a sealed tournament. For team sealed, however, the pool must be split between the three players, with each only having access to their third of the pool for sideboarding. With only one chance to find the best color distribution, it is important to be prepared for the build process.
Before the tournament, I recommend practice the build process at least a couple of times. This was extra challenging for Grand Prix Indianapolis on the weekend of the set release. I booked an extra early flight to make sure I’d have time Friday evening to practice building with my teammates, and attended some prelease events to get some packs to bring with me (my two normal sealed pools turned into one practice pool, and my prizes alongside Neal’s from a Friday side event let us build three times). This is one area where a dedicated team can increase their tournament equity. The very best way to get ready for a team sealed tournament would be to meet up with your team and another three person squad, each build a sealed pool, play your decks against each other, then trade pools to try building with the other one. Finally, the six of you can compare how you would build each pool, aided with the information of how the first build’s decks played out. Most competitive teams will all play the limited format a lot, but not as many put in the effort to directly practice team sealed.
To start the deck-build process, I recommend splitting up the colors, and working together to lay out each color’s playables on a mana curve. The multicolored, lands, and colorless cards can go in the middle, as good multicolored cards can be signposts for decks to try, and colorless cards must find the deck they fit best in. I like to have each of us who lays out a color then share with the group what are its important qualities. What are the most powerful cards in the color? What synergy cards draw us toward a particular strategy? Does the color have a glut or a hole in its mana curve? Is it deep enough to be split between two decks? At this point, you are trying to all distill and digest the information in the pool as efficiently as possible.
Now it’s time to start assembling some decks. I like to start with whichever color pair has the strongest draw. Often the gold cards will help give this direction. For example, our Day 1 pool had two copies of Azor, the Lawbringer. With a restrictive mana cost making it infeasible to splash, it was pretty easy to conclude we were supposed to have a base blue-white deck. If you can identify one color pair in the correct build, the search space of possible arrangements among all decks becomes greatly reduced.
Still, finding the best color configurations between all three decks often requires looking at multiple iterations and taking the majority of build time. People sometimes wonder if they should be building two great decks and one mediocre deck, or dividing their power evenly. I like to think of the goal as maximizing the total power of the whole pool, while making sure each deck at least has plans against the different archetypes in the format. One heuristic I like to use is to minimize how much power you are leaving behind in the sideboard. While I don’t suggest you go overboard and try to splash every gold card in the pool (especially in a fast format like Rivals), this can be a good mindset towards making the most of what your pool has to offer.
In the case of our pool, we had a plethora of gold cards. Two copies of Raging Regisaur alongside matching dinosaur uncommons and rares drew us into the next deck.
With multiple blue-black and red-black pirate gold cards, we tried a few configurations of the pirate tribe. First we tried to play base blue-black, splashing Dire-Fleet Neckbreaker alongside our 3 Kitesail Corsair to attack with 4/1 fliers. While a powerful interaction, it was better overall to let the Azor deck keep all of the fliers and instead play this streamlined red-black list:
With color combinations chosen, there are many decisions left in choosing the final decklists. With any colors being shared, you must decide which cards are more important to either deck. In our pool, we decided to only splash red in the dinosaurs deck to have more consistent mana, leaving all the aggressive red creatures and cheap double colored burn spells for the pirates deck.
In finalizing decklists, it is important to think through how each of these decks matches up against the format. For example, our last addition to the red-green deck was Tilonalli’s Crown. While not very powerful, we realized that this deck was vulnerable to quick starts, especially with evasive 2/1 creatures like Goblin Trailblazer and Kitesail Corsair. While the Crown plays well on my own dinosaurs for the enrage trigger, the reason it made the cut was to try to help shore up this weakness.
In reality, this weakness against evasion played out even worse than expected. I ended up playing this deck, and consistently lost to fliers. Not having access to Plummet in our pool was a big issue. Form of the Dinosaur was also underwhelming. Ben suggested we play it because it can gain a large amount of life to swing a race, and help remove evasive threats. In reality, it was awkward to have an expensive spell that wasn’t always good to cast, and hard with the double red. It might have been correct to simply play another Colossal Dreadmaw instead.
The final card choices for the Azor deck were another example of thinking through weaknesses and how games would play out. We maindecked our copy of Hornswoggle, expecting a lot of bomb creatures like Tetzimoc and worried about creatures with activated abilities that couldn’t be stopped by the blue-white answers of bounce spells or auras. We also decided to play Siren’s Ruse. While there were a handful of pirates we could target, the main reason it was included was to protect Azor. Because of the clause that delays sorcery speed answers, the most common way our opponents could stop Azor would be auras like Luminous Bonds.
Finally, we had to choose who would pilot each deck. I recommend saving this choice until the end of building, as it helps think about the set of decks as a whole, and not tunnel in on your list. I have even heard players go so far as to fight over more powerful cards for “their” deck, which is completely opposite from the true goal of maximizing overall team success. Each player should try to choose a deck they are most comfortable with or best fits their play style. In our case, Neal was drawn to the sweetness of winning with double Azor, Ben liked the style of the red-black aggro deck, so I took the dinosaurs.
Things started smoothly, with everybody winning in the first round. Then in round two, we had a feature match where I played against an aggressive black-white deck. I made a big mistake in the first game, losing when I tried to use Tillonalli’s Crown to stop a flier, but my opponent had a pump spell to save his creature and make his creature lethal. Not only could I have played around this pump spell, I also conceded when I still had a way to survive a turn. I lost easily the next game, and Neal was overrun by merfolk, so we already had our first loss.
I was quite disappointed with how poorly I played that turn and that I might have had a chance to win the match for my team otherwise. Ben and Neal weren’t worried about it, and just joked that we needed to lose once on Day 1 because I have always done terrible if I go undefeated on the first day of a tournament. Having supportive teammates who can take a loss in stride is really important. And fortunately, that was our only loss all day. Neither Ben nor Neal lost another match, and I got carried through to a 7-1 record overnight, even though I never contributed a meaningful win all day! Although some matches I did not finish because they both won, but given how poorly my dinosaur deck was playing out, I was probably going to lose those matches.
Day 2 brought a new sealed pool. After again seeing all the colors laid out, I was immediately drawn to the multitude of synergistic merfolk cards.
I was extremely confident this would be one of the final decks. Not only was it quite strong, many of the merfolk here would not be playable in any other deck. These strong tribal synergies make Rivals of Ixalan easier to build than other team sealed formats, as many pools will have a deck like this pop out, with many cards that only fit into one archetype.
Neither color here was deep enough to split, so we needed two more decks from the other three colors. Black had three copies of Ravenous Chupacabra (hey you gotta get pretty lucky to Top 4 a Grand Prix!) and Red featured two copies each of the combo pair of Forerunner of the Empire and Needletooth Raptor. Mixing these colors would include way too many 4-drops, so we ended up sharing White with its plethora of two-drops and building the following decks
I mentioned earlier that all removal decks are not ideal for team sealed, but 3 Chupacabras is too much power to ignore and we did a great job making those into a consistent game plan. This deck consistently two-for-ones the opponent, and has a few hard to interact with finishers in Golem Guardian, Arch of Orazca, and Zetalpa, Primal Dawn. Neal made a great decision here to include both discard spells in Aerial Flow and Dark Inquiry, a great example of thinking through how matches are going to play out. We want to run our opponent out of resources, and the biggest weakness of this deck would be noncreature rares that we can’t answer with Chupacabra. Furthermore, this Beast can help offset the tempo loss of attacking their hand on turn 3. We all agreed this grindy strategy was a perfect “Neal deck.”
We then complemented the Forerunner of the Empire / Needletooth Raptor package with all of the white dinosaurs. These low power 4-drops aren’t maximized in an aggressive deck, so we built an unusually slow version of red-white to best capitalize on the power of the Red Forerunner, with a 5 through 8 mana dinosaur to search for in addition to the Needetooths. Ben took this deck and I chose to sleeve up Merfolk.
We were immediately put to the test with a match against the legendary Peach Garden Oath team of Owen Turtenwald, Huey Jensen, and Reid Duke. I lost a very close game 1 to Owen, then came back with a Naturalize for his Profane Procession to win game 2. Then as things were heating up in the third game, my teammates let me off the hook, we had already won the match.
(You can see coverage of this round here: https://www.twitch.tv/videos/220896969?t=01h11m10s)
Finally it was time for me to start contributing meaningful wins to the team, as my streamlined merfolk deck played out much better than dinosaurs in the day before. We did take one more loss in round 11, in a very close match that all came down to my game 3 against green-white dinosaurs. We worked together to navigate the key final combat steps in a close race, where we had to balance blocks between not dying while still preventing lethal next turn. I decided to lose if my opponent had a pump spell, but the way I blocked let me opponent’s Slash of Talons deal 2 damage to finish off a large creature. He was able to survive my counterattack and narrowly win the match.
We made it unscathed through the other rounds, making it back for the feature match for a Round 13 victory that ended up bringing us to Top 4.
(You can see coverage of this round here https://www.twitch.tv/videos/220896969?t=04h24m30s)
We weren’t sure if our tiebreakers would be good enough to let us draw in the last round, but fortunately we were paired up against PVDDR, Efro, and Ben Stark’s team, who had already beaten everybody else. They were able to concede to us and still be guaranteed first seed, and now we had a round off before the Top 4. The extra time was perfect, because I had a long call to make with Alaska Airlines, as I certainly wasn’t making my 6:30pm flight now.
We were matched up against the eventual winning team of Fei / Yeh / Zhou in the quarterfinals, in a 3-on-3 team draft. We had lost to them in the very close round 11 match, but I felt confident here. This was the sixth Grand Prix Top 8 for both me and Ben, and hopefully this would be the time we would actually win the tournament.
There are fancy strategies you can employ to try to sabotage your opponent’s decks, but I think they are overrated and can easily backfire. You can’t know for sure if your opponent you are passing to in the draft is in a certain color, and an erratic draft strategy could just as easily ruin your teammate’s deck two seats down. We were still of course planning to hate-draft any powerful rares because the risk of giving a bomb to the team you are playing against is too high.
The one piece of strategy we discussed before the draft was to try as hard as possible to remember every single card we passed and saw in the draft. We would only be playing one match against the player across from us. Since we can talk during deckbuilding, by sharing information about what we saw during the draft, it is possible to identify all the key cards that each of our opponents took. That way, we could have a strong idea of what deck we would be playing against and tailor our decks to beat them.
I felt confident coming out of the draft with a more aggressively slanted red-green dinosaurs deck.
I was also happy to see Ben had a very solid version of red-black pirates.
The draft did not go as smoothly for Neal, and we deduced he would be playing against another blue-green merfolk deck. It would be excellent if he could steal that match, but we were expecting Ben and I to carry him through with our pair of solid decks.
Unfortunately, our luck finally caught up to us when it was time to play the matches. I eventually lost a very long game 1 against black-white vampires, where he was able to clog up the ground with 5/5 Dusk Chargers and neutralize all of my threats. Still, I was ready to improve the matchup with some sideboarding and hoped to get a faster draw in the next game. Before I could shuffle up for game 2, however, I got the news from my teammates. They had each already lost their matches, and we were out of the tournament. With Ben and Neal carrying me in so many rounds, it was understandable their luck would run out.
(You can watch this round here https://www.twitch.tv/videos/220896969?t=09h02m21s)
Even though we fell slightly short of the trophy, it was an amazing weekend. I had wanted to play with exactly Ben and Neal for a long time. While I have had multiple chances to team with each of them, logistical issues kept us from ever all playing together. Neal had been taking a step away from Magic, so it was awesome to “pull him out of retirement” and back onto the Pro Tour. Furthermore, this result guarantees that Ben can make it to the remaining Pro Tours this year, which is great news for the Massdrop West Pro Tour Team Series Team, currently 5th in the Team Series Race.
Speaking of which, the Pro Tour is now only a week away. We will be drafting this new Rivals of Ixalan limited format, as well as playing the exciting Modern constructed format. Keep an eye out for our teams, Massdrop West and Massdrop East. Thanks for reading!
· Meet the Massdrop Teams: http://dro.ps/mtg-team-announce · *2nd* at Pro Tour Ixalan: http://dro.ps/ixalan· Unclaimed Creature Types: http://dro.ps/ari-creatures· Why I Never Drop From Tournaments:http://dro.ps/eric-nevergiveup· The Art of Sideboard Construction - Sultai Energy:http://dro.ps/jon-sideboard· A Commoner's View on Pauper:http://dro.ps/mark-pauper· Blue Moon Beach Control:http://dro.ps/scott-bluemoon· Top 5 Modern Decks:http://dro.ps/pascal-modern· Storm in Vintage Cube: http://dro.ps/ben-storm· An Early Look at Rivals for Standard: http://dro.ps/shaun-rivals· A Standard Approach to Evaiuating New Cards: http://dro.ps/rob-newcards· Drafting Rivals of Ixalan: http://dro.ps/tim-ixalan
Francisco Fidel Vazquez, MarkJacobson, and 1 other