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An Inside Look at Commander Sealed 2023!


A few weekends ago I got the chance to go out to Rochester, New York for the Commander Sealed 2023 event. Commander Sealed is an annual fundraiser organized by Dean Gootee, Matthew Vercant and a host of other great people. Dean was the original founder of Commander Sealed in 2019, Gunnar Wuher hosted the event, and Matt Vercant / Just Games of Rochester, NY sponsored it. This year's event was in support of two charities - The Trevor Project and Trans Lifeline.

Players were randomly sorted into tables and given bundles of booster packs to open and use to create a 100-card singleton commander deck. If you opened a card on the ban list, you could play it in your deck. You could also trade cards within your four-player table and it was very common for players to freely invite each other to dig through their extras.

Our starting life total was 30 for these games, as previous years showed that tables were often going to time and impacting the start time for later rounds.

After the build, players would be randomly sorted into tables for three rounds of Swiss with a cut to the top four for the final table. Last year I went 0-3, so I was keen to find a way to improve upon that record. Players could earn tickets to cash in for prizes, but I wasn't as concerned with prizing as I was with simply not going winless for a second time in a row.

Last year my strategy was to first look for a viable three-color commander Building in three colors would give me the chance to pick more of the best cards from my card pool. A two-color deck is also a good option, but going down to a mono-colored commander would mean that you'd be heavily reliant on cards from the other players at your build table.

Build Stage

In 2022 I was lucky enough to share my build table with Joe Cherries, formerly of the Nitpicking Nerds. He had been my favorite of that content creation team and was a delight to build alongside. This year my luck continued. I found myself sitting across from Alan from Mental Misplay. He was streaming his build and was a great, if slightly distracted, build table buddy. I got a chance to chat with him later in the weekend and really enjoyed his take on EDH and his stories about getting into EDH and content creation. I was able to give him a few Goblins for his Krenko, Mob Boss deck, which he piloted to a 2-1 record on the day.

We each opened fourteen booster packs. I believe there may have been some minor variation in the packs each player got, but the bundles were distributed randomly. My 14 packs, in no particular order, were all draft boosters from the following 13 sets (one set was represented twice).

  • Lord of the Rings
  • Wilds of Eldraine
  • Phyrexia: All Will Be One
  • Commander Masters
  • Dominaria Remastered
  • Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate (x2)
  • March of the Machine
  • Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths
  • Zendikar Rising
  • Commander Legends
  • The Brothers' War
  • Strixhaven: School of Mages
  • Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty

I opened three three-color commanders, only one of which had me looking through my pool to see if it was viable.

Nine-Fingers Keene
Borborygmos and Fblthp
Hinata, Dawn-Crowned

Nine-Fingers Keene might have Menace and be hard to target, but her combat damage trigger wouldn't do much. I think I opened a single Gate and didn't even bother asking my tablemates if they had opened any. I could have tried building Nine-Fingers Keene just to put myself in Sultai colors, but I decided there wasn't enough in my card pool to go for it. Borborygmos and Fblthp would have had me drawing cards and discarding lands to deal damage to target creature. I simply didn't see cards that could work with that card's unique mechanics to make anything playable.

Hinata, Dawn-Crowned was by far the most tempting of these three options. A 4/4 Kirin Spirit with flying and trample that would help protect my stuff from targeting is decent. The big question was whether I had enough cards in my pool that might benefit from Hinata's cost reduction for targeting things. I checked through my Blue, Red and White cards and decided I didn't quite have enough for Hinata to make sense. I think my big mistake was in not aggressively checking my tablemates' card pools. This was still early in the build process and I just didn't yet know how generous they would be. In retrospect I bet this would have been the right choice, but I turned my attention to my 2-color legendary creatures.

Cadira, Caller of the Small
Tatyova, Benthic Druid
Tiana, Ship's Caretaker

I was very tempted by Cadira, Caller of the Small. This Orc Ranger makes 1/1 White Rabbit creature tokens. I'd need to gather token generators for her to work, and I liked the idea of going wide with adorable bunnies.

For two mana more, I had a Simic option in Tatyova, Benthic Druid. She'd provide card draw and life gain with landfall triggers, but it was unlikely I'd be doing much more than dropping a land or maybe two each turn. Another five mana, two-color option would have put me in Boros colors. Tiana, Ship's Caretaker would let me recur my auras and equipment and would give me a flying, first strike threat.

I had learned from last year that flying and reach are very helpful in this odd format, and that a little life gain could be a huge difference at the end of the game. Last year we had a Havoc Festival token that halved our life totals on our upkeeps just to force us to wrap up the game when we went to time.

This year there was a custom dungeon the table would go through that would help us get to a winner and the first step was for everyone's life total to get cut in half.

Commander Sealed Tatyova

With both card draw and lifegain on my mind, I ended up going with Tatyova, Benthic Druid. My theory was that the card draw would help me hit my land drops and that would help me play out bigger creatures and better blockers. The life gain might also help, but I didn't end up feeling like I had anything resembling a threatening wincon. It was just a big pile of Simic nonsense, dominated by creatures and a smattering of ramp and removal.

This felt like a serviceable low powered deck that might stand a chance against other low powered decks. It has little synergy, but everyone else was in the same boat - forcing together a mishmash of random cards into a playable deck.

If you wanted to build Tatyova, Benthic Druid for more serious play you would want to load up on ramp and cards with landfall triggers. Your ramp would drive your card draw once Tatyova was on the field, and you'd be able to dig for actual threats and wincons.

Round One

My first game was against an Aragorn deck, an Imoti, Celebrant of Bounty deck, and an Abdel Adrian, Gorion's Ward / Tavern Brawler deck. I think the Aragorn deck was Aragorn, Company Leader, but it might have been Aragorn, King of Gondor.

The Aragorn player was a dad who was primarily there to help support his kid, but was playing in the event. I remember that he was sporting a fantastic orange kilt and we chatted about kilts and LARPing. I sewed my own kilt and wore it a bunch of times back when I was involved in a New England live action roleplaying (LARP) community.

The game was a long one, We ended up getting to the end game where everyone had to go through a dungeon designed to help make sure things wrapped up. There was a bit of confusion at our table as to how that end game dungeon was supposed to work, but the long and the short of it was that we all lost half our life totals (rounded up). I had been putting out lands and keeping blockers up, and might have had more lands than any of my tablemates. That ended up being my downfall, as the player on Abdel / Tavern Brawler was able to put out a hasty Eltural Survivors. That's a 0/4 Tiefling Peasant with trample and myriad which gets +X/+0 where X is the number of lands defending player controls. It murdered me quite nicely, but the myriad token copies didn't kill anyone else.

The last "room" of the end game dungeon would end with the active player losing the game, so I would have had to kill my three opponents on my next turn. I don't think I had enough to pull that off, but I never got the chance to try. The Abel player, whose deck had really put in work, passed to the Imoti player, who had also been squeezing an impressive amount of value out of the cascade triggers his commander gave him.

The Imoti player seemed to have the game. He had enough attackers to just barely kill both remaining opponents, but the new guy had some mana up. We were on that last turn where it was win or die, so Imoti swung out.

The Aragorn player, who was playing his third or fourth game ever, flashed out a Samwise the Stouthearted, blocked enough damage to survive the attack, and won the game!

I think we were all happy to see a new player show such poise and to get a win. The game was a good one and I felt like making it to the end dungeon was an accomplishment in and of itself.

I was a little annoyed at the confusion we had with how the dungeon worked, as it very directly impacted my chance of winning. Apparently, they had put out an explanation on YouTube and Twitter on how the end of game process would work, but I somehow missed it. If they keep the same end of game dungeon in place for future years, I think that will help a lot.

With a fourth straight Commander Sealed loss under my belt, I headed off to my round two table.

Round Two

This game saw me on Tatyova against two young women on Yennett, Cryptic Sovereign and a Rograkh, Son of Rohgahh / Keleth, Sunmane Familiar deck and a guy playing Glacian, Powerstone Engineer and The Prismatic Piper (on Red). The Rograkh player quipped that they were playing a very aggro deck and we all chatted about how our first rounds had gone.

I have to come clean and admit that the turning points of this game were probably misplays by yours truly.

The Rograkh / Keleth player started fast, swinging their keyword-heavy Kobold Warrior at different players. I was a bit spooked by her aggressive start and should have realized that they were spreading the damage around. The Glacian player was having a quieter start, but eventually played out a Drakuseth, Maw of Flames.

At that point I had a Deadly Recluse on the field, and I got it into my head that the Drakuseth player was absolutely, positively going to use their dragon's attack trigger to kill my little deathtouch spider.

While all this was going on, the Yennet player had played out a Felidar Retreat and was quietly putting down lands, making 2/2 cat tokens and putting counters on her creatures. She had been swinging with Yennett, but if my memory serves me she had been hitting lands and spells she couldn't cast.

I ended up being the person to throw a spanner into the mix. I bounced Drakuseth hoping to delay the inevitable removal of my deathtouch spider and open them up to attacks from the Rograkh player. I failed to make any effort to communicate that hope to her, and was a little surprised when she then sent both Rograkh and Keleth at me. I think I lost a creature by blocking and either then or on my turn I used a removal spell on something on her board.

At the time those didn't feel like incredibly bad choices on my part, but over the next few turns the Yennett player expanded her board presence on the back of that Felidar Retreat (along with other plays) and drew into a way to finish us all off.

I don't know if I could have made better choices and positioned myself or the rest of the table to deal with her, but I genuinely felt bad about how things played out and apologized for what felt like a misplay on my part. The Yennet player was in no way "given" the game - she was clearly very capable and had put together a banger of a deck, but my poor threat assessment made it easier for her to get the win.

The aggressiveness of the Rograkh player, the fragility of my Deadly Recluse, and the fact that we were all starting at 30 life may have impacted my decision making, but my tablemates were all great and I was happy to see the Yennett player get the win.

Round Three

This event wasn't about winning and losing as much as it was about getting together with kindred spirits to raise money for a great cause. I still wanted to try to get a win on the day, but I was losing faith in my little Simic landfall commander. Tatyova can do great things, but when building out of a severely limited card pool it is hard to get enough synergy to threaten a win.

My round three table saw me up against a Bhaal, Lord of Murder deck, a Liesa, Forgotten Archangel deck and a partners deck led by Toggo, Goblin Weaponsmith and Nadier, Agent of the Duskenel. I had made a few minor tweaks to my Tatyova, Benthic Druid deck between rounds, the changes were so small I don't even remember what they were.

That game went long. I made an effort to swing more in the early game, and ended up knocking the Bhaal player down at a point when he didn't have blockers and was just having terrible luck with his lands. He was running 37, but the deck just wasn't behaving.

At numerous points during the game the Toggo player had a Basilisk Collar out and was basically sitting on the ability to remove nearly any creature on the field. Most of the time I think it was some pinger but a few times I believe he had a creature equipped with a rock that he could throw at something. He played really well and had built a very resilient and interactive deck.

The Liesa player and I ended up being in a position to be able to work together to knock out the Bhaal player and the Toggo player. This time around I made some good choices with my interaction, destroying the Basilisk Collar and removing a flyer the Bhaal player had been relying upon as a blocker.

Together we knocked out our tablemates. I helped soften them up and the Liesa player used a Mirkwood Bats and a token generator to kill the Bhaal player at 3 life and swing to kill the Toggo player.

The way the game wrapped up was actually pretty amusing. It was clear, at least to me, that everyone was an experienced and capable player. The Liesa player knew I was going to try to kill them, but they were cool as a cucumber. I had a decent board but they had blockers.

You Look Upon the Tarrasque

What they didn't know is that I was sitting on You Look Upon the Tarrasque - a modal card that costs a whopping five mana. I could hold onto it and use it as a fog or I could swing out, forcing my opponent's creatures to all block a single attacker. They only had one or maybe two mana up, but they seemed so relaxed that I was convinced they had some trick up their sleeve.

I cast You Look Upon the Tarrasque and for good measure I used a control spell to take control of their Mirkwood Bats. We were all at very low life totals and I figured Mirkwood Bats might be their best option if they were going to steal the win at the last moment.

I swung out. They had nothing! I finally won a game!

Side Games

Over the course of the weekend I got a bunch of other games in. I brought six of my Muppet decks - specifically the decks that have members of the Electric Mayhem band as their commanders. Those decks are some of my favorites and it was fun to get to play them. I wish I had brought more decks, as there were lots of chances to play casual games.

I was able to kick off the weekend with a few games with Dean Gootee and friends. My Vadrik, Astral Archmage deck had a great game and my Chulane, Teller of Tales druids deck got shut down and I did next to nothing for an hour. EDH is full of highs and lows, but it was wonderful to kick off the weekend with some kitchen table EDH.

Toward the end of the weekend I got the chance to do my very first Commander Masters draft. I'm not a huge fan of drafting. I have very little experience with it, so I end up feeling a bit overwhelmed with the constant decision-making, but I tried it anyway. I ended up drafting a Selesnya (GW) partners deck with Freyalise, Llanowar's Fury and Baird, Steward of Argive.

The deck I ended up with didn't have much in the way of finishers and while I was the last one eliminated, I didn't win and didn't really love the experience. It was an interesting challenge, to be sure. Being able to partner Mono-Colored commanders did allow for some novel combinations. I think I enjoy tweaking and evolving a regular EDH deck over time much more than drafting and piecing together a 60 card commander deck.

One of the best parts of the weekend was meeting so many awesome people. You'll notice I haven't used many names over the course of this article. I'm always concerned about using someone's name and finding out later they didn't want to get mentioned, but a highlight of the weekend was getting to meet and play with a member of my Thursday night Tabletop Simulator group. Mike Gallagher came up from Long Island with his Secret Lair deck (all cards are from various Secret Lairs) and was great company.

I also got a chance to say hey to Chris, the "Commander Mechanic", and a guy I first met last year when I gave him a Clif Bar as he was running off to the next round and hadn't had a chance to get food. We even got a game in toward the end of the weekend.

There were nearly always games to be had, and the event had a full schedule of side events along with an auction and vendors.

Final Thoughts

This ended up being my only major Magic event of 2023, at least so far, and I'm very glad I went. If you haven't yet been to a CommandFest or a MagicFest, I can't recommend them enough. The chance to hang out with other Commander players, talk about EDH, and jam games all weekend long is not something to pass up.

I'm already planning to go to next year's Commander Sealed, assuming they hold it again. This year's event raised just over 44k. Special thanks should go out to Mental Misplay, the Nitpicking Nerds, and EDHREC, all of whom make major contributions. Numbers are still coming in, but it is looking like they may have gotten over 50k for the Trevor Project and Trans Lifeline.

I'll be back to writing about Wilds of Eldraine commanders next week. Thanks for reading and I'll see you next week!

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