This week I decided to enter into a tournament series on MTGO for the 20th anniversary. If you didn’t see it, the TLDR is a tournament series where you need to go 4-1 or better in both a Limited and Constructed event to get a qualifier token for each, and then you can participate in the main event. By Limited, of course I mean Sealed Deck.
The cool thing about the series is all of the Masters Limited formats on the slate, including the finals which will be Modern Horizons 2 Sealed and Top 8 Booster draft. I’m interested in participating as I’ve played a lot of that format. I love Masters sets for Limited, and I think almost all of them are about as good as it gets for drafting. I was excited to play, but when I opened my sealed deck, it hit me that this isn’t as fun as it would have been if we just had a Booster draft.
I love drafting MTG…
Limited Magic is my first love. I love drafting MTG immensely. I’m known as a Limited player, but I’m not a Limited player per se. I’m a draft player. Sealed deck, to me, is an obsolete form of MTG. I will never choose to play Sealed over drafting if offered the choice. I still enjoy it somewhat, but the Constructed formats have a higher fun level than Sealed. I’d prefer any Sealed to a bad or stale Constructed format, but it doesn’t hit the spot of what I love about Magic. Sealed is something I tolerate so I can draft.
Sealed Deck is a way to play with packs that doesn’t require as much logistically from the tournament organizer. You hand players six packs, they open and register them, then build their deck. This is obnoxious.
Have you ever been to a sealed Grand Prix or other large Sealed event, registered a card pool, handed it to someone else while they handed you a fresh pile of cards and that’s what you built with? There are 100 people raising their hands for a pen. New players are also often disappointed that they don’t get to keep that awesome pool or rare that they opened. The set-up for these events is mostly not fun for anyone involved.
With 2,000 players in a live setting, it’s nearly impossible to have everyone draft since it requires too much staff and is too hard to regulate as setting up stamped cards for this size would require a huge effort. Without marking the cards, the tournament would be ripe for adding cards, so I do understand why large in-person events use Sealed Deck because it’s easier to regulate for integrity and makes sense logistically.
Sealed Deck is used as a precursor to drafting in a meaningful event (at least open-entry events). Pro Level events often don’t use Sealed Deck because they’re limited in size so it’s an easier load to handle for the logistical hoops you need to jump through to Booster Draft in person.
I often wonder if Sealed would even exist if…
I often wonder if Sealed would even exist if Magic was invented at a time when it would have gone right to the internet. If MTGO and Paper Magic were introduced simultaneously, I’d like to believe we’d never play Sealed Deck now.
We got into this mentality, and have never adjusted, that in-pod play drafting is what’s fairest or best. In-pod play is fairer in that some drafts will have a lower power level than others, so if you happen to open a weak draft pool and face off against stronger decks from other pods with stronger pools it’s not perfect. However, it doesn’t need to be.
While it may be ideal to play in pod, draft leagues are the best thing that ever happened to MTGO. It’s how we draft on Arena. Even in cash events like Arena Opens, you draft in normal league style. While it’s not very skill-intensive, it’s as enjoyable as testing. It’s rare to see a noticeable low power level in a draft, especially today when there is much less filler in packs.
At least online, we should be able to use league-style drafting on day one of large Limited events instead of Sealed. This would be a huge improvement for player experience because drafting is still the more popular form of Limited Magic.
Sealed is all luck?
There’s this narrative that Sealed is skill-intensive and not just about opening rares. Maximizing your win rate with mid-level pools requires some skill, but at a baseline, when you’re playing with solid or great players, they’re going to build their decks closely to optimally most of the time. The difference between having one on-color strong rare and four is as enormous a deck advantage as you can get in a Magic tournament.
There are no two ways about it—when LSV opens Pack Rats and Mizzium Mortars and you’re opening a pile of Shocklands, you’re not going to beat him often in Sealed Deck. This isn’t always the case in Booster Draft as your decks can be more linear and focused and the overall lower power level of your cards can be made up for in synergies.
Does this mean Sealed is all luck? Absolutely not, but it doesn’t hurt.
My biggest issue with Sealed, is that it often ruins the beautiful synergistic elements of Limited within a set. It’s a commonly used phrase that the better a Limited format is for draft, it’s worse for Sealed because it usually means that there’s a lot of synergistic interaction between cards and archetypes and a lot of it gets cut out by watered down pools of random cards. Certain synergies require you to lean into them heavily, which you can do in Booster Draft, but in sealed your great cards can become useless because the support isn’t there.
Sideboarding can be obnoxious
While playing a couple of these events, I realized another thing that bothers me about the Sealed experience that many see as a feature. Sideboarding can be obnoxious. Building Sealed pools can make sense in different ways. While some love that they can sideboard into different decks, I find it tedious. Having two minutes to change the color scheme and mana base of your deck, regardless of whether you can save something close saved in a file, is obnoxious.
It’s a skill to know when to do this, but there’s not much counter play for opponents as it’s hard to know who has a deep enough pool to do this and who doesn’t. Am I supposed to not bring in my Red Elemental Blast against my opponent’s pretty average Sealed pool because they might switch colors on me? It’s a weird dynamic I don’t particularly enjoy.
Basically, what I took away from participating in this tournament series is that despite the popularity of drafting, whether it be Booster Draft or cube, we have what I believe to be a dated idea that we can’t start any event with Booster Draft. Every other form of popular Magic gets its own tournament, but you have to advance to day two or a top eight to draft in a tournament.
As we see more content for Booster Draft and increasing love for it, we have less opportunity to enjoy playing it in a large tournament setting. I’d like that to change now that we have supportive systems in place.