Limited Spotlight: General Sealed Strategy and Approaches, for the Kaldheim Arena Open and Beyond
Hey folks! My Limited Spotlight series has focused mostly on Draft before, but now that we have the Arena Open coming up this weekend and Sealed is being supported as a tournament format moving forward, I wanted to talk about some of the ways it differs from Draft and provide some of the most important factors to consider, both when constructing your deck and playing your games. I aim this article to be useful, not only for preparing for the Arena Open, but for anyone looking to get better at Sealed. I’ll provide an overview of general concepts to help newer players, while throwing in plenty of specific advice for more advanced players too.
I’ve been enthralled by Limited ever since I began playing Magic, almost ten years ago now. I’ve drafted more sets than I can count on every platform through wildly different eras. On Arena I draft infinitely, having profited 40k or so gems with a winrate that hovers in the 70%s, and have made top 100 mythic many times. Self-reflection and forming good habits are critical to becoming a better Drafter, and those themes feature in my articles and in each session of my Limited coaching service, where I provide real-time feedback and strategies to help you improve!
Remember that if you’re not sure how good certain cards are, you can use my Limited Tier List (which I’ve been updating regularly on the fly!) to give you an overview, but Sealed is very different from Draft so you’ll need to adjust the ratings for some of the considerations I mention below. This article takes a generalist approach, rather than on the specifics of Kaldheim Sealed, but I’ve been practicing the format a ton, both with my students as part of their preparation for the Event and alone as part of mine. There’ll still be plenty of format-specific info and I’ll make sure to highlight the ways in which it differs from your average Sealed format!
Before we begin, I just want to recommend that you play best-of-one for day one of the Arena Open, rather than best-of-three – it’s just much easier to get to 7-2 than to 4-0, and those are the individual requirements to make Day 2 and have a shot at winning the $2000!
Power over Synergy
Synergy is often more important to Draft than pure power – your best cards should be significantly enhanced by the other cards in your deck, and you don’t want to play many cards that aren’t on plan or go against your deck’s theme. This is actually one of the main ways in which Sealed and Draft differ, though – in Sealed, you just open far fewer packs. Sure, you get your pick from 6 packs, rather than the 3 you open in Draft, but if other people aren’t drafting Snow for example, they won’t be taking the enablers and payoffs nearly as highly – which means you’ll actually have your pick from up to 24 packs. Oftentimes in Sealed, you just won’t open both the big payoffs and enablers you need for your synergies.
That means that it’s almost always better to go where the power is, unless you have a weird pool – the idea is that it’s better to just try to play your most powerful cards than to force a half-baked synergy that isn’t going to actually work out that well. Just because synergy is less powerful doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter though – you should certainly pick and choose the cards that best fit your deck whenever the decision is at all close. It’s just that the best cards in your deck are going to generally just be good cards, rather than things you’re including for synergy reasons – the overarching theme shouldn’t stop you from including good cards. I’ll talk about building aggressively in Sealed later on, but just note for now that aggressive decks are another kind of synergy deck and, as such, are a good deal weaker.
Snow is Weaker (mostly)
In Kaldheim Sealed, you’re opening six snow lands (you always open a snow basic or dual land in each booster, and they don’t show up anywhere else) as compared to the potentially up to 24 people will open and pass you, if they aren’t themselves playing snow – and it’s unlikely that you’ll even be able to play all of those! Cards like Shimmerdrift Vale, Replicating Ring, and Glittering Frost, which you can open alongside these, help a lot, and there’s also stuff like Horizon Seeker and Spirit of the Aldergard to fetch the snow lands you do have, but the fact that is that many decks just won’t have enough to be good Snow decks. That means every Snow payoff gets worse in Sealed, and potentially much worse if they require multiple Snow mana – so a card like Berg Strider will still usually be good enough, but Icehide Troll might well not be worth playing in your deck if you only have three Snow lands. At least Icehide Troll is still a 2/3 for 3 until the late game, but if you have cards like Icebind Pillar, which are unplayable without Snow mana, you really need to debate whether it’s worth playing – I would want at least four or five sources. Remember that you definitely want to play half-on dual lands in a lot of decks (so if you’re Red-Green, and one of your duals produces Red mana) just for Snow, and sometimes you can even play completely off-colour ones as colourless lands, if you have enough Snow payoffs to make that worth it.
Luckily, it’s all in front of you – by just looking at your Sealed pool, you should be able to tell what synergies you can support, rather than having to plan for what you might open later like you would in Draft. Synergies might be weaker overall in Sealed, but that might not be the case at all in your pool – you might just have had the good fortune to open 3 Glittering Frosts and 2 Shimmerdrift Vales, and then your Icehide Trolls and Narfi, Betrayer Kings will be amazing! Sealed is all about context, but that context is often much easier to parse than in Draft.
Bombs are King
Your best cards will often be worth multiple of your weaker cards, especially a Bomb – the average Bomb will often at least 2 or 3 for 1 in trivial fashion. So, if you have one of the best ones like Starnheim Unleashed, it makes sense to go really out of your way to play it – splash it (which the Foretell only costing W really helps with), be White if it’s at all close between that and your second best colour, really do whatever you need to do. Starnheim Unleashed will win you most of the games you draw it, and unlike in Draft, they won’t be overwhelming you as often with great synergy or with aggression – playing your bomb is legitimately the most powerful thing you can do in Sealed.
Sometimes you won’t have a pool that supports White at all, and that’s when you need to look to splashing or even being 3-colour – often it can be correct to play extra lands in Sealed to support your fixing, or just to have a less consistent mana base than you would in Draft. Don’t go too crazy though – you still want to aim for about 8 sources of each of your main colours, and 3 of a splash colour if it costs W (and more like 6 if it costs WW), but the games go longer so you get more draws to hit your splashes, and less punished by people tempoing you out.
It’s not just about your bombs, though, it’s also about answering the ones your opponents will have – it’s not going to be uncommon for your opponents to have really powerful cards, because they get twice as many chances to open those. In Draft, Bombs will almost always be first picked at the start of a pack so you won’t see as many, but they can really run free here. That means you really need to be prepared for them – unconditional removal like Feed the Serpent is fantastic, cards like Disdainful Stroke get much better, and a lot of the Bombs have flying or will be enchantment/artifacts, so stuff like Broken Wings gets better too. Even if these cards aren’t ones you want to maindeck in Draft, they might well be in Sealed. Even a card like Ravenform, which is terrible in Draft, is worth playing in Sealed if you don’t have better answers to Bombs. You still don’t want to overload on this stuff though – your deck needs to still be functional at the end of all this e.g. have enough creatures and ways to win the game, have card draw, have a reasonable-looking curve (although you can certainly have a higher curve than in Draft). If you have plenty of better answers, then eschew weaker ones like Broken Wings – your removal will handle the flying bombs anyway.
It’s not just about building with bombs in mind – you also want to play more conservatively, save unconditional answers like Feed the Serpent and Disdainful Stroke for them – often in Draft, you just want to burn removal on a random 4 drop because otherwise, you’ll get out-tempoed and die. In Sealed, not so much – being caught without an answer to a Bomb can lose you the game in very short order, and tempo doesn’t matter as much. That means playing more aggressively with your life total and being more willing to take hits, but you also don’t want to take too many and die with removal spells stranded in your hand – if you need to use them, then you absolutely should, but as a general rule that also applies to Draft, you shouldn’t use important answers on things you already have covered or that aren’t that big a problem. In general, the first unconditional removal spell is worth a lot, and you don’t want to use it on just anything – that’s why you want to have a bunch of them, so that you’re free to use the second copy you draw. If you can’t splash for bombs, then splash for answers to them!
Playing with your own bombs, it’s often better to lead on your weaker creatures and let them potentially absorb removal spells, than to run your best cards out in the first instance. Because your opponents will be playing more answers to Bombs, you really want to try to waste those and take advantage of the fact that they’ll be less prepared for the random creatures in your deck.
Another important tip is to use the removal spells that cover fewer bombs first – a card like Binding the Old Gods is an answer to every single Bomb you can think of, whereas Broken Wings can only answer fliers and artifacts/enchantments. So, if they play a flier you want to kill, then you should be a lot more willing to use Broken Wings than Binding.
Build for Slow Games
Sealed is a much slower format than Draft, and Kaldheim is a slow format to begin with. What that means is that your valuations of certain cards should change a lot. I want to preface my examples below by saying that you still need to be playing a functional deck – you can’t just have all awkward cards, you do need your regular curve plays and creature core, you can stretch your mana a little more but you still want your deck to remain consistent. People won’t kill you as fast, but they’ll certainly still kill you if you’re just sitting there colour screwed, or dropping late game play after late game play that doesn’t do anything right now.
Building for beatdown decks is very different, and that’ll be its own paragraph below – the advice I’m about to give applies to the vast majority of decks in Sealed, which are grindy midrange decks.
If you’re playing the average grindy midrange deck, cards like Maskwood Nexus and Cosmos Elixir get much better in Sealed, because they’re kind of like planeswalkers – they accrue uninterrupted incremental value, and the longer you have to amass that value, the better. When your opponents are playing to be in the best position to answer bombs rather than for tempo, and when they’re not really worrying about aggro decks at all, that naturally makes their decks much slower. That means cards like this are an easy way to go over the top – if you’re just playing the same slow midrange game as they are, you won’t necessarily win because oftentimes they’ll just have more bombs than you or more card draw, but engine cards that never stop producing value will just outlast them if given enough time. Harnfel and Kaldring are just good cards, attached to great bodies anyway, but you’re usually going to want to play the artifact side of them in Sealed – being able to go exponential is just such a rare and hard-to-replace effect, that you should be willing to make some sacrifices to set that up.
Card draw is king in sealed, and Blue/Green are easily the best colours as a result – after you’re done looking at your rares and uncommons, I’d look at those colours first. Cards like Behold the Multiverse, Glimpse the Cosmos, and Sarulf’s Packmate will put you ahead of your opponents at any point in the game – they’re just good cards rather than slow grind engines, and will enable you to play in a really dynamic way: you’ll be able to adapt to any situation much more quickly, and they’ll still be good pretty much whatever happens – even if you’re being beaten down, you’d way rather have cards like this than Cosmos Elixir.
You might recognise these four as really glacial sagas which aren’t that great in Draft, because they just take too long to have any effect. Well, as you might imagine, they get a lot better in Sealed! You still need snow permanents for The Three Seasons, but you don’t need as many, because you’re not planning to play that card early most of the time anyway – you just want to bring back Snow creatures that are threatening in the late game, like Icehide Troll and even Frostpeak Yeti. In Sealed, I’m much happier to play cards like Frostpeak Yeti, which I basically never play in Draft, because units being a little understatted isn’t as big a deal, as long as they do something in the late game. That still doesn’t mean I would ever be excited to have it, but it might be a better 23rd card than Draugr Thought-Thief, which is very weak in the late game.
Decent in Draft, Mediocre in Sealed
If you extend the idea that you want your cards to do good things in the late game rather than to be good tempo plays, there are some cards that won’t fit quite as well. That’s not to say you shouldn’t play these cards, but I’d usually want a specific reason such as having synergy – Elderleaf Mentor is actively great with Elf synergies, so you certainly don’t want to cut that card there, but it’s going to be pretty mediocre in the average deck unless you have cards like Raven Wings or sacrifice synergies to ensure its relevancy late in the game.
Elderfang Disciple is actively good in Draft, but it’s pretty mediocre in Sealed – a good proportion of the game will come down to topdecking or late game scenarios, and this card is terrible in those.
Depart the Realm is a card I would actively tell you to avoid unless you’re a very dedicated beatdown deck – it’s a card disadvantage card that really only delays the problem against bombs (and might be actively harmful if they have enter the battlefield abilities). It’s only worth playing a card like this if you can really make good use of the tempo, say out the sideboard against a deck that’s likely to outgrind you but doesn’t deal well with your creatures.
It’s usually not worth playing 2 drops that don’t do anything later on unless you have a good reason to do so – a card like Beskir Shieldmate is essentially like discarding in the late game, unless you have a lot of stuff to get it over the finish line or a lot of synergy with it. If you literally have no better 2 drops, then sure play a couple of them at most, but that’s not an exciting place to be.
Beating Down in a Slow Format
It’s rare to get the pool for a functional aggressive deck in Sealed, because you just won’t have enough good plays at every point on your curve in most pools. In Kaldheim, this effect is even worse – the format is naturally very hostile to small creatures, and there aren’t very many good 2 and 3 drops for attacking. Often, you’ll end up having to play random 2/2s for 2 and 3/2s for 3, which will really need help to attack well into your opponent’s stuff, because as soon as they play a 3/3, you won’t be able to attack with your 2/2s anymore. That means you need removal, evasion, tricks, buffs… you need a plan to stop your opponents from just blocking you, and unfortunately the odds are somewhat stacked against you in Kaldheim – many decent removal spells, from cards like Iron Verdict to Withercrown, aren’t nearly as good for aggro decks. The Boast mechanic in general is good at accruing you value, but not at getting you closer to directly winning the game.
However, it’ll be much more devastating when you do construct a good aggro deck, when you have ways to push your stuff through, because your opponents won’t be at all prepared for you: they’ll be building greedy because that’s what you do in Sealed, they’ll have more expensive cards in their deck, their removal spells will cost more, they’ll be playing stuff like Ravenform and Broken Wings which are terrible against you, and you’ll annihilate them. A decent beatdown deck is much better in Sealed than Draft, and if you have the choice between two builds that are close in power level, you should usually go for the one that attacks better.
Even if you’re not a dedicated aggro deck, and instead you’re just trying to beat down with midrange creatures, you should prioritise some cards more in Sealed. A card like Raven Wings gets a lot better, because they won’t be able to race you or punish you as easily for spending all that mana equipping over and over. It’ll force your opponents to spend removal on your weaker cards, and give more opportunities for your Bombs to take over the game. The same goes for the uncommon Equipment cycle – all of them are better from Dwarven Hammer to Draugr’s Helm, just because you’ll have the time to get more equips in. Flying and evasive creatures get better too – your opponents are less likely to be able to punish those by racing or outsizing them, and you need them more because they won’t be invalidated by expensive cards as easily. A card like Ravenous Lindwurm can stop your entire ground offense, but your fliers won’t care and they’ll need to have done significant prior damage to be able to race, which many decks won’t be set up to do.
Though Raven Wings can go in lots of different decks this format, Goldvein Pick belongs almost always in beatdown decks, especially those with evasive creatures – don’t mistake it for fixing or ramp. If you have a bunch of Runes or synergies like Runed Crown, that’s a good reason to justify it too.
The Deckbuilding Process / How to Splash
Here, I’m just going to link to one of my other Sealed articles, where I cover my entire building process and talk about splashing in-depth. The splashing part was written for M21, so you need to bear in mind that Kaldheim has much better fixing – I would recommend most Sealed pools splash in this format, and especially if you’re in Green. As I said, it’s worth stretching your mana to accommodate your best cards, and Kaldheim is a format that rewards that more than M21. Splash bombs primarily, and if you don’t have those then look for the colours that have multiple good removal spells available. Efficiency isn’t as important as unconditionality in Sealed removal, but it’s certainly much more worth splashing Squash if you can reasonably cast it for 2 rather than 5.
Some pools, with access to cards like Glittering Frost, Replicating Ring, and Horizon Seeker, or just really a ton of duals, will even be able to double splash – if you have three sources in a colour completely for free (cards like Shimmerdrift Vale and the Pathways aren’t free, since you have to pick a colour rather than it just being an add-on) then you can consider adding cards of that colour too. Don’t overdo it though – you want to splash around five or six cards maximum, because otherwise you’ll have some really inconsistent hands that just die to random creatures.
I would also recommend you start by looking at your uncommons and rares/mythics first in Step A, before just separating all your good cards – the uncommons in Kaldheim are far better than the commons, so that will usually net you better results.
Sideboarding in Sealed
Note that I recommended at the start of the article that people play best-of-one for Day 1, since I think it’s much easier to qualify. Still, if you make day 2, you’ll have to sideboard and it’s a gigantic advantage to be able to do that well, much more so than in Draft. Sealed is all about exploiting hidden information, planning around the context of your opponent’s deck (which will change radically, since sealed pools are so different), and exploiting holes in their strategy.
First off, you just have more cards available, since you won’t have had to spend draft picks on them – you’ll often have stuff like Broken Wings and Invoke the Divine just lying around waiting for the right matchup. Sideboard against their best cards – so if they have a bunch of medium flying creatures, Broken Wings might not be worth bringing in, but if a couple of their bombs fly or they have some of the great uncommon Sagas, or you just don’t have other answers to fliers and they have at least 3-4 decent targets in game 1, then great. Some
You’ll also have more random stuff that can act as sideboard cards available – e.g. a card like Undersea Invader isn’t normally very good, but if you’re playing a slower matchup and you have some defensive creature when you’re not being pressured, or a card like Weigh Down and they don’t have good small creatures, then you can just make that switch and be happy – you’ve essentially removed a useless card from your deck for a somewhat impactful one. If you find that your opponent this round is playing lots of 2/1s and is more aggressive, you may well want to board out an expensive card for a 2 mana 1/3 – a card that wouldn’t normally be at all good in Sealed, but is good against your opponent. Like I said before though, remember to preserve your deck – you still need to have enough creatures and ways to take over the game available, and it will very rarely be worth cutting your bombs or really powerful cards!
Unlike in Draft, you have access to multiple different decks you can switch between, and being able to transform completely into another deck is a really underrated tactic – lets say you have a Boros and Golgari deck that are pretty close in power level, but you ultimately decide to play the Golgari. There’s nothing stopping you from switching in game 2, especially if you’re on the play, and just destroying your unprepared opponent who boarded in a bunch of slower cards to help out-grind the Golgari! Especially if your opponent is playing a control deck, this might be a better route to victory anyway – having a bunch of cheap creatures and buffs will overload their removal, and force them to spend 4 mana spells killing 2 drops and such. In game 3, your opponent will have to worry about whether you’re going to play your game 1 or game 2 deck, and you get a lot of value just from that – they might try to hedge between them, and only make their deck weaker as a result. Don’t overdo it though – you do want your backup deck to be nearly as powerful as your regular deck, and you don’t want to be switching decks for no reason because the reasons you had for picking your regular deck still matter.
Thanks for reading, and best of luck both in the Arena Open tomorrow and in your future Sealed endeavours!