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How to Succeed at a Magic the Gathering Pre-release - Game Articles - Pair O’ Dice Games

How to Succeed at a Magic the Gathering Pre-release

With Lorwyn days away, friends are asking me how they should prepare for the pre-release tournament of this new Magic expansion. The answer is essentially the same as for any other expansion set, and I’ll cover the bases for everyone looking to get the most out of the experience.

First of all tournament newbies often ask when to show up and what to expect. The details vary a bit by location, and the best way to find out is to check with your nearest tournament organizer. What I can tell you about is the tournament itself.

Pre-release tournaments are generally as casual as it gets for a Magic competition. That’s not to say there aren’t some people in attendance who are veterans, or in some cases too pushy and competitive, but they are designed to be easy-going affairs and can still offer a good time to those who’ve never tried a tournament before. Running Saturday and Sunday, I find that planning to go on the second day finds smaller crowds and less pressure than the first day of the pre-release.

Sealed Deck Building

There are multiple event options at most current pre-releases, but the most popular is still the sealed-deck tournament. Each player receives a starter and two boosters, from which to build a 40 card deck within a given time span. Deck building is easily half of the challenge, perhaps more so when every card in your available pool is brand new.

Some basic tips when building your 40 card deck:

  • Don’t make your deck more than 40 cards. Sure, the rules allow you to use all the cards in your new packs if you want, but keep it down to 40 and your best cards will come up more frequently. Your unused cards are also your sideboard (you’re not limited to only 15), so you can swap as much as you need after the first game of a match.
  • Use a lot of creature spells. Creatures are the most efficient damage dealers and even the most bland 2/2 can serve a stronger role than that funky rare you think you just have to play instead. Aside from dealing damage to your opponent, they are your main line of defense. Many creatures also have useful and reusable abilities, though you shouldn’t underestimate a “vanilla” creature if it has solid power/toughness for its cost.
  • Fit your creatures to the mana curve. This actually goes for all spells you use, but is especially important for your creatures; you want to be able to drop bigger and badder threats every turn if possible. Having a hand full of 4- and 5-casting cost creatures does you no good when you have only two mana to spend. Try to spread your creatures out over a range of casting costs, with the most creatures stacked up at the slot for the casting cost of three mana, and tapering off to smaller stacks the further the cost gets from three mana.
  • Include creatures with evasion. Creature with flying, shadow, or other abilities that make them hard to block are considered to have “evasion”. They often give you an opportunity to hit your opponent for damage when other creatures can’t, or can’t do so safely. Therein lies the edge.
  • Take advantage of card advantage. After creatures, some of the most valuable cards are those which can give you card advantage in some way. That includes drawing multiple cards, but also a destroy or damage effect that allows you to take out two of your opponent’s cards with just one of yours. As drawing one card per turn is generally one of the few constants in the game, and cards are your biggest resource, any time you can come out ahead of your opponent card-wise you will have a big advantage.
  • Don’t set up your opponent to receive card advantage. The opposite of making your own card advantage is putting yourself in a position where your opponent can easily get card advantage over you. That means the majority of creature auras are out. As soon as you stack an aura on one of your own creatures, you’re giving your opponent the chance to take out both of your cards with a single removal spell.
  • Include removal spells. Removal spells can be a source of card advantage, a plus as shown above. Even without that benefit, removal can offer the opportunity to eliminate a creature of your choice. When you get to take one of your cards and remove the best card your opponent has on the table, you are increasing the value of your card proportionally. Remember that removal comes in different forms. A red direct damage spell can be removal. That green creature-pumping spell can also be removal, when it’s played at just the right moment in combat to make your creature bigger than your opponent’s creature it is blocking.
  • Keep your color requirements simple. Building a three-color (or four or five) deck is usually a bad idea. Certain sets (Ravnica, for example) promote many-colored decks but most do not make it so easy. Building a mono-color deck may be a good bet, if you have enough playable cards in a single color. The obvious advantages include never having to wonder if the next land you draw is going to be the right land. This translates to far fewer unplayable cards in your hand. Going two-color is usually very reasonable, as not every sealed deck card pool will contain 20+ solid cards in a single color. The odds are, in fact, definitely against it as the average color will get 15 cards (less if the set has lots of artifacts and special lands), and of those only a certain percentage will be strong and playable together. Using two colors provides a wider selection of viable card options, and the drawback of requiring two different basic land types is manageable.
  • Include enough land. Many beginners, and even some people who are not beginners, like to stuff more spells into their deck than they should; after all, spells bring creatures into play or blow up your opponent’s creatures, while land is just land, right? Of course, land is usually the primary source of mana to fuel all your spells. Skimping on land might mean that you can’t drop a fourth land on turn four, and your heavy hitters have to wait that much longer before they can join the fray. Even worse, it might mean you don’t get enough land in your opening hand, which can lead to a quick death no matter how good those extra spells were.

    How much land do you need? It really depends on the average casting cost of spells in your deck, but a good rule of thumb for a 40 card deck is to include 18 land. Decks with a mana curve slanted toward the low end (let’s say average casting cost less than three) can get away with 17 land. Less than that is usually asking for trouble, unless some of those spells are additional mana sources; even then, you need to make sure you have enough land that you can draw some at the beginning and get the ball rolling. It may be comforting to think that by including fewer land you won’t be glutted late in the game, but most often these games get decided in the first several turns so a late game glut isn’t as likely to be a problem anyway.

Selecting the Right Colors for your Sealed Deck

If you’ve absorbed the tips above, you may be thinking, “Okay, so I know I want to limit myself to two colors and about 22 spells total, but how do I choose which two colors? Which 22 spells?” In the end it all comes down to which cards you open, but there are some things to keep in mind that can help:

  • Don’t be swayed by big flashy rares. While some of those big rares are worthwhile, many are expensive enough that, even when drawn, they might not see play before the game is basically decided. Cool rares can be great, but rarely should they be the basis for selecting a particular color for your deck. It’s more important to cover the basics with the 7-10 solid commons and uncommons before you consider the expensive or quirky rares.
  • Start by dividing creature and non-creature spells. Your deck should have a lot more creatures than non-creatures in it, and the easiest way to pick colors is to see where the most creatures are. While sorting, you may want to drop any really poor creatures off in their own pile; there are always some creatures that are just too expensive, or with drawbacks that are just too difficult to accommodate, and these should be considered as a last resort only.
  • Divide non-creature spells. I like to pile up “unplayable” spells apart from the rest, so I will know not to consider them when deciding on colors or cards. To do this quickly, simply classify spells by two types: important spells like removal, card drawing, bounce, etc. in one pile and less desirable spells (life gain is often in this category, as are many auras) in another.

If one color dominates the playable creature and non-creature stacks you have an obvious answer. Otherwise you’ll have to weigh the two-color combinations, but starting with the highest number of playable creatures will let you move on from selecting colors to selecting specific cards more quickly.

Choosing the Right Cards for your Sealed Deck

Once you think you know the color(s) you will use, start selecting cards for your deck and laying them out by casting cost. Make stacks from one mana to spells costing up to six or seven (more than that is begging for trouble, only in rare cases will an ultra-expensive spell see the light of day). This will help illustrate the mana curve of your deck, which is another way of saying that you want to keep an eye on how many spells in your deck cost one, how many cost two, etc.. If you arrange your stacks so that each card’s title bar is visible, you’ll see different stacks grow like bar graphs, and in a deck with a good mana curve they will take on the shape of a nice bell curve, centered around casting cost three.

As you’re laying out cards, if you notice that you have a lot of five-mana spells but almost none that cost four, you will want to try and re-balance your curve if possible. This helps ensure that your deck is able to cast spells more consistently and has less chance of winding up with a handful of expensive creatures but nothing to play on turn one or two.

Beyond those basics, selecting the right cards for your deck comes down to judging the relative value of each card, both individually and as part of a group with the rest of the cards forming your deck. This is a difficult skill to learn, even the pros sometimes disagree on one card’s value over another.

  • Consider the card as a whole. No matter how good the effect is, remember that you must pay the casting cost (and any additional costs or requirements) to use it. Some cards have huge effects, but for a huge cost and these aren’t always as valuable as they may seem at first glance.
  • Focus on general purpose spells. A removal spell that destroys zombies is only good if you’re facing zombie decks, where a spell that destroys target creature is good in any deck. Don’t select cards that are only good in certain conditions, unless you are certain your deck will create those conditions reliably (you can’t rely on your opponent’s deck to do something specific, like include forests for your forestwalking Elf). Keep in mind that you can swap cards into your deck in the second and third rounds of a duel, when it’s perfectly acceptable (and advised) to swap in that zombie killing spell once you know you’re facing zombies.
  • Build using a solid foundation. Make sure that each card you select is valuable on its own and does not require a combo with another card in your deck to be worthwhile. If a spell is worthless when you only get half the combo, chances are you’re in for disappointment more often than success.
  • Build for synergy. While each card should form a solid foundation, whenever you can include cards that work well with each other you’re potentially strengthening your deck. If two cards are each good on their own but together they’re stellar, all the better!
  • Avoid conflicting card combinations. Since sealed deck limits your available pool greatly, you don’t often get many opportunities for synergy. Instead, you might have to settle for avoiding conflicts. A card that deals damage to players whenever they discard is great with that new Hypnotic Specter wannabe, but not so great with a bunch of spellshapers. Including them both in your deck is asking for trouble.

That covers most of the basics, and a little intermediate territory as well. If you’re looking for more, try my MtG Deckbuilding Tips article.

The questions of how to play your deck once you’ve built it are worth a whole separate article. Maybe I’ll write those up for the next pre-release. Until then, enjoy the new Magic set!

One last note: remember that “success” at a pre-release can be measured in many ways. Some players are concerned with how many wins they score, others with which new cards they unwrap and take home, and then there’s my personal favorite measure, how much fun I have that day. Have fun, and be nice to your opponent!

  1.  
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    Edd Says:

    Hey Scott I am going to participate on the mirrodin besieged pre release next Satuday. Thanks for the tips.

  2.  

    Glad to hear it, and good luck Edd!

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    Lou Says:

    Scott,
    Really appreciated the article. I’ve been playing MtG since pre-Ice Age days casually and mostly multiplayer format. Haven’t played in any tournament style games in a long time. I thought your advice was very helpful and I plan to use the strategies in the upcoming New Phyrexia prerelease this weekend. Thanks again!

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    James L-S Says:

    Thank you very much for the advice. I am going to the Magic 2012 core set prerelease next sunday. BTW I am new to magic.

  5.  
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    Tonwhy Says:

    I’m going to the Magic 2012 prerelease too, i’m hoping to draw something good and following this guidelines maybe even get into the top 3^^ all dreams right now, but maybe that’ll change the moment i can see what cards i have as my pool.

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