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Price of Progress: Looking at Mechanics

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The letter H!ello again, everybody! Welcome back to my little slice of heaven for a continuation of our discussion on Sealed Deck. A few weeks ago, I set the stage, delivering the four biggest points to consider when evaluating cards in a Sealed Deck format. A couple weeks ago, I began our evaluation by looking through the first two points: determining the average stats on a common creature and evaluating the removal based on that fact. This week, we'll pick up where we left off and explore the final two points on our list.

Mechanically Speaking

  • What are the major mechanics of the set? The perfect example of this comes from Scars of Mirrodin, where the playability of cards with the infect and metalcraft keyword mechanics varied wildly from sealed deck to sealed deck. While metalcraft and infect were powerhouses in Booster Draft, where players get to craft their decks, many cards with these mechanics were unplayable in many Sealed Deck pools. For these cards to be useful, you have to have a critical mass of like cards in your deck, and many Sealed Deck pools simply couldn't support them.

Blight Mamba | Art by Drew Baker

Much as we saw in our first trip to Ravnica, each guild in Return to Ravnica has its own distinct, flavorful keyword mechanic. Azorius has detain, Izzet has overload, Rakdos has unleash, Golgari has scavenge, and Selesnya has populate. These five mechanics abound in the set, and it is impossible to properly evaluate a card without taking into account their impact on the game.

In Magic, mechanics fall between two extremes: linear and modular. There is a great article that clearly spells out the differences between the two here. In short, linear mechanics are those that reward you for playing more cards with the same mechanic. Good examples of this are Slivers and Allies. In both of these cases, playing more Slivers or Allies made each of your other Slivers and Allies better.


Modular mechanics, on the other hand, don't pigeonhole players into playing a particular card by necessity. Good examples of this are mechanics like cycling and kicker. Just because you have cards with cycling or kicker in your deck doesn't mean you need more cards with those mechanics to maximize the use of them. They stand alone, on their own merit.


As they relate to Sealed Deck, linear mechanics tend to be more underpowered in Sealed Deck than in any other format. Linear mechanics get better for each card with the mechanic in your deck. In Sealed deck, players have no control over the contents of their pools. You could open up fifteen Allies across two colors... or two. Since the average Sealed Deck pool is less likely to have a whole bunch of cards with any one particular mechanic, linear mechanics tend to not reach the critical mass required to make them as strong as they need to be to compete. Modular mechanics, on the other hand, don't really have such restrictions. Since they don't have any particular benefit for playing more of them, they are just as powerful in an average sealed deck as they are in one packed full of the mechanic.

Mechanics' Guild

Let's take a look through the mechanics of Return to Ravnica and see how they stack up.

Detain: While each detain card doesn't particularly get better with the inclusion of each additional detain card, the deck as a whole certainly can. In an aggressive deck, the ability to chain together detain cards on successive turns can let a player completely overrun the defender before he or she knows it. That being said, detain is still good on its own. It's certainly more modular than linear, and it tends to be better in aggressive decks than in defensive ones. Sure, bombs like Martial Law can be good in both, but detain is at its best when it is allowing a player to attack, while keeping the opposing creatures from being able to attack back. Detain is what helps decks win races. As such, detain will always be good, but it will be best in aggressive decks that have multiple instances of the mechanic to ensure that it stays ahead in the race.


Overload: As a more modular mechanic, overload is an interesting mechanic to judge. It only appears on spells, which are not the focal point of Sealed Deck. But many of the spells it appears on are combat related, which is what Sealed Deck is all about. Cards like Chemister's Trick, Downsize, and Teleportal are all ridiculously good when overloaded, but terribly unimpressive when cast without it. In fact, most of the cards with overload tend to be unplayable if not cast for the overload cost. Mizzium Skin and Street Spasm might be the only exceptions. Overload won't be the focus of your deck the same way that populate or detain can be, and the lower number of spells in most Sealed Decks means there will generally be fewer overload cards in your deck than those of other mechanics. As far as building your deck goes, overload should get less consideration than the other mechanics.


Unleash: Another great modular mechanic, unleash doesn't really get better in multiples, and it doesn't require any supplementary cards. You just play your unleash guys, choose which mode you want them to be in (90% of the time they get unleashed), and start attacking. There are a few unleash cards that are very good without the counter on them from time to time—such as Grim Roustabout, Thrill-Kill Assassin, and Splatter Thug—but in general the extra point of power puts them over where they should be on the curve and gives you the offensive upper hand. As such, unleash is far better in aggressive decks that can take advantage of having larger creatures.


Scavenge: Scavenge is almost a perfect modular mechanic. It doesn't reward you for having multiple cards with scavenge in your deck. It doesn't really require you to have a certain type of creature to scavenge onto. True, you will get more bang for your buck out of a deck that has creatures that can better take advantage of their increased size, but that won't stop you from playing any scavenge creatures you can. In general, if your deck can support the colors for a scavenge card, you've got no real reason to avoid playing it.


Populate: Populate is a mechanic that requires you to have tokens for it to be effective. The more tokens you have, the better your populate cards get, because they will have more targets. While the populate cards themselves don't get that much better with the addition of more populate cards, they certainly have a linear relationship with token generators. As such, populate is best when your deck has the token generators to support it. While 1/1 Birds and 2/2 Knights will occasionally be what your deck wants to get the job done, the real power in the populate mechanic is making 3/3 Centaurs. Remember that 3/3s are the average common creature in the format, so the ability to generate a 3/3 and a secondary effect is going to be quite strong. Some populate cards can be effective with a low number of token generators, but most of them go from marginal to very good with the critical mass of tokens.


The most important thing to take from this as it relates to Sealed Deck is that there are only really two mechanics that it might be difficult to build a Sealed Deck around and can trap players who aren't looking out for them. Detain can be good even if you only run a couple of cards with it, but it gets much better when you have the ability to chain them together in an aggressive deck. In addition, unless you open a card like Martial Law, detain tends to be much better in an aggressive deck than in a more controlling deck.

Populate, on the other hand, can be a big trap. The mechanic requires a reasonable number of token generators to be good. If you have them, the linear nature of this mechanic means these cards are going to potentially be overwhelmingly powerful. If you don't, say if you have a deck heavy on the Centaur Healers and not on the Centaur's Heralds, they will be overpriced for their effects and generally not worth playing. Don't sacrifice the quality of your deck by playing them if you don't have the cards to support them.

On to the next point!

Watch out for Fliers!

  • Do the common and uncommon creatures in the format have an abundance of any keyword ability? Are there abilities that are rare? Keyword abilities significantly affect how combat plays out, which is key to Sealed Deck. A couple of good examples are flying and regeneration. Flying lets you begin to fight opponents in the air, where they might not be able to fight back. In formats with a small number of fliers, they become far more powerful than sets that have so many fliers they clog the skies. As for regeneration, when they are in short supply, they can dominate combat since they are so resilient. When there are a ton of regenerators, however, it can severely slow the format down, opening up many options when building that normally would be impossible.

The first thing to note about Return to Ravnica is the abundance of fliers. White and blue are loaded with them, which isn't anything new, but it can pose a serious risk when combined with their guild mechanic, detain. Decks tend to deal with fliers in one of a few ways. First, you can have fliers of your own. This lets you fight them on even terms. Second, you can also have creatures with reach, which again evens the playing field. Third, you can simply rely on using removal to deal with them, but chances are you'll have less removal than they will have fliers. Lastly, you can simply look to outrace them with larger creatures on the ground than the fliers.


Detain kind of wrecks all of these strategies but removal, which isn't a great plan on its own to begin with. The ability to remove any creatures that might get in the way of your fliers, like creatures with reach or other fliers, lets the fliers' deck get one turn ahead on the clock—perhaps more if multiple cards with detain are used. Decks that look to block fliers look to keep the clock as extended as possible until they can get advantages in some other area of the game—usually on the ground. Creatures with reach are a delaying tactic. Detain takes away the ability to delay, giving the advantage to the attacker. Since Sealed Deck is about killing opponents with creatures, most decks don't play a large number of defenders with reach, and as such one detain card is all it would take to get through with an entire air force in one turn. Against ground attackers, detaining the largest attacker while sending the entire team in the air can give the fliers enough of an advantage to straight up win the race.

Detain makes fliers incredibly more powerful than they would be otherwise. As such, it is important to have ways to deal with them. Brad Nelson has started playing Aerial Predation in his Golgari decks, which is something I am a big fan of. At one point, I wasn't that big a fan of cards like Trestle Troll and Towering Indrik, but I'm beginning to see them as necessities now. The combination of detain and fliers changes the complexion of the battlefield.


Other than flying, none of the other common keyword mechanics are particularly prevalent. First strike and regeneration are around, but not in particularly large numbers. In fact, there is only one common and one uncommon regenerator. First strike has a bit more of a presence, but it isn't comparable to the sixteen fliers at common or uncommon. As such, there is less alteration you have to do to deal with them than you do for fliers. If you are only likely to face one or two regenerators or first strikers in a given match, you don't need to be as mindful of them when building your deck.

On to the Homework!

Your most recent homework was a little bit different than in the previous weeks. There were four absolute bombs in the pool, but their mana costs were very restrictive. You have Isperia, Supreme Judge, which requires both double white and double blue. Armada Wurm requires double white and double green. Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord requires double black and double green. Mizzium Mortars costs only a single red for the base version, but to overload it requires triple red. To top it all off, other than a pair of Izzet Keyrunes, this pool had no real mana fixing.


Now, despite the lack of mana fixing, many of you decided that the power level of the rares still warranted splashing for them. For example, sonofobadiah decided to play black-green-white, taking advantage of the Seek the Horizon and Gatecreeper Vine to play both Jarad and the Armada Wurm.


Admittedly, this version of the deck has more mana fixing than the other possible combinations, but not much. Especially considering that the Armada Wurm is a splash, this seems like it could be a little risky. One thing it does have going for it, though, is the fact that it's effective at any stage in the game. If you don't get to cast Armada Wurm until super late, you don't mind as much since you will likely be able to take over the game with it then and there.


Other readers, such as Zindaras, were drawn to Isperia and the Mizzium Mortars. The presence of two Izzet Keyrunes gave many people confidence that the combination of red, white, and blue was possible. Here's Zindaras's list:


Again, the fact that Isperia is effective at any stage in the game is worth noting, as it makes it much better when you draw it late. The same goes for Mizzium Mortars, although it tends to get a little worse as the game drags on. I'm not too keen on running multiple cards with multiple red off of only five Mountains and a couple of Keyrunes, though, especially when you really want to be able to cast those Annihilating Fires early if the situation calls for it.


When I built this pool, I intentionally added rares that overlapped colors. Armada Wurm and Isperia share white, while the Wurm and Jarad share green. Mizzium Mortars was added because I wanted to add a bunch of solid red cards to accompany it and possibly form the base for a deck that people might be willing to splash another rare into. All in all, I think this goal worked out very well. There were submissions of every three-color combination that featured these rares, which means I at least made them all enticing.

For me, though, I was much happier sticking to two-color decks. Phoclam24 called the three-color decks a trap and built three different two-color decks, featuring each major rare except for Jarad. While I agree that the three-color builds were intended to be traps, I don't want to say people were strictly wrong for trying to build them. There is a lot of power in those bombs, and they are all perfectly reasonable cards to cast in the late game. This holds especially true for Armada Wurm. Casting Isperia may not ultimately be enough to get you back into the game, but Armada Wurm often can be.

The mana for the three-color decks was intended to be the issue here. Mizzium Mortars is simply unsplashable, even with two Keyrunes. If you wanted to play it, you had to be base red. Fortunately, the red was such that you were capable of building a solid foundation if you chose to. The main problem I see in splashing for these rares isn't in the splashing of the rares themselves; it's what it does to the rest of your deck. Splashing for cards without the right amount of mana fixing can lead you to play a bad mana base. You almost always want seven or eight of your main colors' lands, and only a couple of the splash color's. To do otherwise invites a host of potential problems in playing the cards that actually make up the base of what your deck does. Think back on the number of times you've played a three-color deck and found yourself in a situation where you couldn't cast the cards in your hand. It's incredibly frustrating. In my experience, you are more often than not simply better off making a deck that is incredibly consistent with its mana than splashing for power when you can't fix it. Here's what I built:


I had two other builds as well, my favorite of them being a Boros deck (I know they don't exist yet) that splashed for Isperia off of the two Keyrunes and a pair of Islands. After some thought, I just decided to go for the consistency. This is a nice, aggressive deck that will never have mana problems, has a great finisher, and has some reasonable removal. That's all I want in a deck.

More Homework

Next week, I'm going to go into a little more detail about the math behind mana bases and how they can really screw you up if you get too greedy with your build. Until then, here's another little bit of homework to work on:


Checking my Messages

I want to say that I really appreciate all of the feedback I've been getting in the message boards about this series. I'm glad so many people are enjoying it and taking the time to post their builds. I really do read every post that gets made and even the ones that get emailed directly to me.

Between doing coverage and being a full-time student, it's been hard for me to carve out the time I'd like to devote to everything everyone posts. This week, though, I'm going to try and make a day where I can take the time to respond to as many people as possible, especially when they ask me questions. You have been so supportive of what I've been doing that I really feel like I owe it to you to leave no question unanswered. So if you've asked a question before that I haven't had a chance to get to, keep posting it and I promise that I'll respond in some form, even if it's devoting an entire article to answer you!

Keep working and keep posting!


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