As I alluded to in my last article, the significant difference between the draft and sealed format of Gatecrash is something that I've given a lot of thought, and it's going to be the main topic of today's article. Before that, though, I want to walk through some of the traditional rules of thumbs that are out there concerning that difference and, in particular, how sealed is different from draft (since most people seem to play more draft than sealed and therefore get more used to draft). Without further ado, let's jump right in.
I: "Sealed is slower than draft"
Many of the key differences, this one included, will stem from the differing structures of the format (three packs per player with a rotation, or six with no rotation), naturally. While a sealed pool will contain double the amount of cards of a drafted pool, the pool's quality is significantly diluted by the fact that there is no selection process to determine what cards are in the pool; they are completely random. This means that while most sealed pools do seem to have a "direction" or a "strongest color", they almost never have the finely tuned structure of a properly drafted deck, something which generally slows down the format. This is, of course, a trend with exceptions: in a format where people think they have more time to develop their board, a good, fast deck can prey on many of those slower decks to great success. The general expectation of a slow format, though, also helps shape another rule..:
II: "Bombs matter more in sealed"
Not only are there twice the number of rares opened in sealed pools, you usually also have a little more time to get to that sweet spot on the curve where most bombs reside (that is, 5+ mana, generally speaking). This is one of the reasons that sealed often gets accused of being a format "completely dependent on luck" since there is no skill involved in opening well (though, how does that differ from draft?), though there are plenty of examples of good players performing very well with a pool that might come off as very lackluster. Indeed, the most important is not as much that you yourself have bombs to play (though, fortunately, almost every pool has at least a few) but that you have a plan against opposing bombs.
Removal is the obvious solution to this problem, but the bomb problem is one of the reasons why most players seems to be more accepting of counterspells in their sealed decks than in their draft decks (though personally, I am perhaps too fond of counterspells in all limited formats). The slower speed of the format combined with the necessity for bombs/answers to bombs often lead to the idea that...
III: "Splashing is more forgivable in sealed"
A great way of upping the power-level of your deck or getting some very needed removal into an otherwise impressive deck is by dipping into a third color. The fact that it is much more common in sealed to have access to really powerful cards in your other colors (since you've opened them randomly and not have to have spent an early pick on them) helps justifying this rule to some players, though it is easy to get too greedy. Again; if your deck is slow and has an awkward mana-base, you will be an easier victim of any player who might have had the luck to put together a fast deck.
Complex mana-bases also more often become a serious issue in longer tournaments (which most sealed decks are) because simple statistics say that the more games you play, the more likely it will be for a chance event such as missing one of your main colors in your opening hand is going to happen. In an 8-round sealed PTQ, you can afford only to lose a single match through the entire tournament; if your mana-base automatically will lose that one match for you, it means that you're trading that consistency for enough power to carry you through the other seven rounds (and not make any mistakes, either). Suffice to say, I think most people underestimate the negative influence on your win-rate that splashing has in limited, but especially in sealed deck, perhaps partly because they are leaning on this excuse. And talking of colors...
IV: "The stronger/deeper colors are overrepresented in sealed"
While a color which has slightly better cards than the others (is "deeper") will probably be slightly overrepresented in draft (unless people have not figured out its strength - on this topic I can recommend reading Matthew's latest Ars Arcanum article on this site - and my lengthy comments to it!), a slight difference in quality between the colors often mean a significant difference in the representation of colors in a sealed tournament, since players are not taking cards from each other like they are in draft: in Zendikar draft, it was great if either red or black was open enough that you could move in, because those were very strong colors - often 4-6 players at a table would draft either red, black or both. But in sealed, the colors might have been even more overrepresented, since everyone were opening packs where these were the stronger colors. This changed the evaluation of cards like (Marsh Treader) and (Cliff Treader) in the sealed format, among others.
While cards that benefit significantly from this eventual skewing of the format (such as creatures with protection abilities) are relatively rare, this tendency for a sealed format to shift towards the deeper colors/decks can significantly alter the "metagame" of a sealed format, thus enabling other decks that are good against those decks to do better. If there is a strong deck in the format which is particularly vulnerable to the "most common deck", it will obviously also suffer. Good examples of this in the Return to Ravnica format was the ubiquity of Selesnya: fast Rakdos decks had a problem overcoming the throng of tokens and wide variety of combat tricks of that deck and as such was weaker in sealed, whereas Azorius, with its bounce effects and evasive creatures that could effectively race it unhampered by removal, had much better success in sealed than in draft, at least initially.
Now, let's move on the specifics of Gatecrash as a limited set. Are there any of the above rules of thumb that apply differently? Are there any other oddities of the format that require their own, unique handling particular to this format? And what cards are most affected by the difference between sealed and draft? Let's start out with the things we discussed above, in a sort of reversed order.
The density of colors (or, as it were, guilds)
In Gatecrash, a lot of players early on caught on to the very strong and consistent "fast Boros" deck, and it's turned out to be quite a popular deck in draft, too. Boros' multicolored cards are indeed a strong pool of cards (though Shattering Blow is obviously not a limited card), fronted by such (common!) all stars as Wojek Halberdiers and Skyknight Legionnaire. Add to that that the set has some great removal in both red and white - and even the hybrid uncommon, (Arrows of Justice), and that White at least is among the deeper colors. Red, too, is a fine color, especially when there are no aggressive Gruul drafters to share cards like Ember Beast and Madcap Skills with. While Boros might be slightly overrepresented in drafts, I feel like it's been significantly overrepresented in the sealed format of the set.
The flipside of this is the blue guilds; Simic and Dimir are both guilds that can put up very strong decks in draft, but which are hurt quite badly by the inability to take advantage of snapping up cards that no-one else have a lot of interest in, cards like Shambleshark and Drakewing Krasis (both very powerful cards!) in Simic and (Dimir Charm), Dinrova Horror or even rare bombs like Consuming Aberration in Dimir. Not a lot of sealed pools will have the critical mass of creatures with evolve or evasion combined with a low curve or a lot of removal that make these decks tick normally, and the fact that these decks have a pretty particular blueprint from which it costs quite some deck quality to deviate makes it easier for these decks to fall flat in sealed. This is not to say that they cannot be done, but a pool with all the elements for a strong Dimir or Simic deck is much rarer than that of a solid Boros, Gruul or Orzhov deck.
Splashing in GTC sealed
The guild structure also makes color choice a lot more restrictive, and demands a lot of dedication from your mana-base: Boros has demanding early drops like Wojek Halberdiers, Truefire Paladin and (Skyknight Legionnaire), Orzhov has a lot of demand for white and black mana due to their extort mechanic (as well as cards like Gift of Orzhova, (One Thousand Lashes) and Kingpin's Pet), Gruul's best bloodrushers are the multi-colored ones (Zhur-Taa Swine, Ghor-Clan Rampager and Rubblehulk), its best two-drops are Disciple of the Old Ways and Skarrg Guildmage, and its essential removal spell is Ground Assault. Dimir and Simic, too, have cards that demand a lot from your mana-base. All of this works together to punish you quite easily for getting greedy with your mana. That said, there are ways to minimize this problem. Prophetic Prism, perhaps coupled with a guildgate, can provide an easy - if not free - way to splash a powerful card like (Clan Defiance) or Firemane Avenger. Cards like these are definitely worth the splash some of the time, though even with cards like that in your pool, consider whether you can construct a quality deck without branching out of your chosen two colors. It really does help a lot more than you think at first to be in straight two-colors. The only PTQ I've top 8-ed to date was a RTR one where I stuck squarely to Azorius despite playing 18 lands (and a keyrune).
The Speed of GTC sealed
While the sealed format still, arguably, is a little slower than the draft format for Gatecrash, it matters a lot that one of the most prevalent decks in the sealed metagame is the aggressive "fast Boros" deck. While you might be able to get away with an ambitious late-game a little easier, your deck absolutely needs to have a plan against the fast decks of the format, because there are many of them out there, and some of them are going to make it to the winning tables. The lower density of cards and ability to cherry-pick the right cards for your deck does radically alter the speed of most of the other decks in the format, though. Gruul is the only guild which seems quite unaffected (being a little slower than Boros but with a better late- or midgame), whereas Simic, Dimir and Orzhov almost all become significantly slower by the switch to sealed. Dimir and especially Orzhov has access to a lot of removal and other defensive spells while simultaneously often being unable to hit critical mass of the cards needed for a "fast deck". This results in what is often an Esper-colored "control deck" (a deck which can be drafted, too, but much less frequently worth it), whereas Simic usually ends up as a slower long-game deck instead of a very aggressive evolve deck; it really appreciates Verdant Havens and (Greenside Watchers), and Urban Evolution can be the fantastic card we all want it to be in some of these decks. Simic in sealed often ends up splashing either black or red for some mix of removal and really powerful creatures.
What this means for the evaluation of individual cards are thus most clear in the non-red colors (though cards like Molten Primordial and Hellkite Tyrant do become slightly more attractive in sealed, too, because of the speed and the unlikeliness of your deck being "too fast" to play them). Let's start with White.
Yes, I know Beckon Apparition is technically two-colored, but I'm grouping it in here because it fits the subject very nicely. The three cards above all change drastically in value from sealed to draft. In sealed, Guardian of the Gateless is an awesome addition to almost all decks playing white, and something which demands removal if your opponent is to win the game in a timely fashion, and it is excellent on the offensive as well (you would probably much rather have it than (Towering Thunderfist) if all you did was attack with it). In draft, on the other hand, Boros decks really don't want a lot (if anything) in the 5-mana slot, certainly not something which specializes in blocking, and the Orzhov deck - with all of its extort - while still being able to appreciate this every now and then, really much rather would like another decent two- or three-drop, preferably with extort or evasion. The format is enough faster and specialized that this does not grind the game to halt when it comes down; Gruul can attack into it because of bloodrush, Simic because of size, and Dimir because of evasion. And Boros has access to Act of Treason and Panic-like effects much more reliably - and has you at a low enough life total that getting past it once is enough. Angelic Edict is another card which suffers from the streamlined nature of draft; topping your curve out with three of these in a sealed Boros deck is awesome; in draft, you really rather want another Aerial Maneuver and two early creatures, even if they are somewhat lackluster. Beckon Apparition is an interesting card and a personal favourite of mine. In draft, this can often make it into both Dimir, Boros and Orzhov, all which appreciate its cheap evasion for their own reason (their keywords). In sealed, it is almost never correct to play this card, though you might still have to if the alternative is diluting an already shaky mana-base.
Moving on to red, we find that the accelerated pace and untethered aggressiveness of the draft decks also radically changes things; (Homing Lightning) is a really decent removal spell, but four mana is a hefty cost especially for Boros in draft, whereas it is much more reasonable (and will much more often be needed to deal with a problem card) in sealed. On the other hand, the tempo play of Act of Treason is much more feasible - again, primarily in Boros - in draft than in Sealed. I can imagine decks in a Gatecrash draft where I wished my Homing Lightning was an Act. That seems really sketchy out of the context of a format, but context is everything, and this draft format really is that aggressive. Sealed also makes it quite a lot more reasonable to deploy a "fireball on legs" in the four-mana 2/2 which is Cinder Elemental - a card which is sincerely unimpressive in most red draft decks, but which can to a lot of work in a sealed pool, particularly one lacking removal (more so in Gruul than in Boros, still). I could see myself splashing this card in Simic in sealed if I needed a removal or some reach to close out the game, but I can't imagine drafting a Boros or Gruul deck with that particular weakness at all.
Continuing on with Green, we have the already well-known pattern of cards that are too slow to really shine in draft, such as Rust Scarab, perform a lot better in sealed (though the Scarab is still fine in some draft decks despite being a 5-drop), whereas there are fast cards with too little impact, such as Burst of Strength and Spire Tracer, that are weakened significantly by the slower nature of sealed. Verdant Haven makes more sense in a format which is a little less hostile to splashing (sealed), though it sometimes makes the cut in green draft decks (usually only when they can't hit "critical mass" to become completely streamlined). Having a few Havens, a few (Greenside Watchers), and some gates is a perfectly viable way to enable you to play a lot of splashed bombs (if the rest of your defense is still coming together - cards like Wasteland Viper and Crocanura are crucial to keep you alive and hopefully avoid blocking with your Watchers).
In Blue, the change of pace is very drastic. Cloudfin Raptor is a legitimate first-pick in a triple Gatecrash draft, but in most sealed pools is going to be, if not bad then at least decidedly less impressive than when you can streamline your deck to put on a ton of pressure (in Blue!). Mindeye Drake, like Guardian of the Gateless, just really takes a hit in draft from its high mana cost, but is an excellent addition to almost any Blue sealed deck. Keymaster Rogue is in an interesting place; in draft, the tempo hit from playing him often makes him a card you at least never want multiples of, but in sealed his unblockable three power is often worth the investment and a great way to achieve inevitability. Tempo cards like Hands of Binding and (Spell Rupture) also take a hit in sealed, though they can still be worth including any way just on pure potential. While not particular to the sealed/draft discussion, let me just state that I really don't like AEtherize. Its potential is not worth the conditional nature of the card in almost any situation.
When we get to Black, the most obvious implication of the format difference is the need for speed, both offensively and defensively, in draft: Corpse Blockade is a good example of a card that you sometimes have to include in a draft deck as a concession to the speed with which you need to defend yourself, whereas Shadow Alley Denizen's speed is a lot more appreciable when you can craft a really fast, evasive deck that just needs ways to get a creature with a Shadow Slice in on turn six. Gutter Skulk both blocks and attacks pretty well in the fast draft format, but is a little less needed in both of those roles in sealed. Horror of the Dim can actually do some work in slow, controllish mirror-matches in sealed, especially if it's carrying something like Holy Mantle or Gift of Orzhova, but is never an ideal inclusion. You obviously want all the black removal you can get in both sealed and draft.
Wow, that turned out a little longer than I had in mind - and took a little longer to write than I had hoped. But I hope that extra content will be appreciated! Let me know what you think in the comments or at @Lobster667 on Twitter.
Until next time!