Last updated on May 19, 2022
Smashing Success | Illustration by Slawomir Maniak
I’m here to tell you how I made the top 8 and won several Limited PTQs.
MTGO PTQs are brutal affairs, often 9 or 10 rounds of double elimination Sealed followed by single elimination Draft. You’ll need luck, perseverance, and skill to get an advantage over so many players. Anybody can have the first two, and they’re the most important attributes for success.
To win a PTQ you have to play a lot of PTQs. Nobody should expect to win any individual event regardless of how good their card pool is. There’s too much variance. A strong player can expect to have an honest chance at eventually winning a PTQ if they commit to playing a lot of them. I played every single Sealed PTQ regardless of start time. Eventually those who show up to play each time have their moment in the sun and get a good card pool and beatable opponents.
Whether or not you seize the day when it happens to you comes down to the third attribute: skill. Let’s talk about that.
Skill Borrower | Illustration by Shelly Wan
So what skills are rewarded in a PTQ? A lot of it boils down to the ability to mitigate variance.
The paths to victory are plentiful. You could open an extremely good deck, you might get paired against easier players, maybe you just draw all the right cards at the right time. Luck is always around, whether you’re able to grasp it and wear it like a cloak comes down to positioning yourself in ways that luck can favor you.
A lot of players get a good pool of cards but build in a way that doesn’t take advantage of what they have. You have to know what wins to be able to identify when you have a winning build. A lot of players also often find themselves undefeated going into the final rounds and then pair against a deck of equal or greater caliber than their own and find themselves in over their heads, squandering a little resource here and there and losing a close game to miss top 8. Most PTQ top 8 Drafts have somebody frantically messaging their friends, “I’ve never drafted this set before, what’s good?”
All this amounts to better practice gives better results. It’s no coincidence that the names you see in the prelims and single elims are the same names you see in contention for the top ranks. It takes a lot of practice to be able to consistently take advantage of luck.
Implement of Improvement | Illustration by Kieran Yanner
There’s a lot of noise out there and it’s important to tune into the rarer frequencies of winning players and block out the louder, often easier-to-find content that won’t help you. The best way to get better at Sealed is to find a top player to coach you. There are a lot available over at Metafy, including myself!
Every Sealed pool can be built in a myriad ways and deciding which deck is best can take a lot of practice. Having somebody to help guide you through some builds will teach you to think better about what you probably want in your deck each time.
Understanding things like format speed, what cards work as win conditions, how much impact the rares and removal have, and plenty of other factors add up to differentiate good players from great players. Working with a great player can activate your mind and get you thinking about what matters most when building your decks. There’s often a lot more going on than just playing all your strongest cards.
I won a lot in Theros: Beyond Death because I figured out that you’d almost always face mediocre decks relying heavily on Dream Trawler to win in the top ranks because it’s so hard to kill. But you could remove their threat and get an advantage with Dreadful Apathy and Flicker of Fate. If you didn’t have this you had to play a deck fast enough to kill before Trawler (and Kiora Bests the Sea God!) came down, or play counterspells since those cards were otherwise unbeatable and you’d eventually face them.
Being able to boil a format down to basic concepts like what sorts of decks you’ll have to beat cuts out a lot of the questions you might have during building. Hiring somebody to coach you through a few builds can save you from having to learn things the hard way through trial and error. And you can still learn a lot by talking about builds with other players if you don't want to get coaching. Two minds are greater than one!
Your Fate Is Thrice Sealed | Illustration by Steve Prescott
Mastering Sealed is hard and time consuming, so a lot of people don't even bother to look meaningfully at Draft. Plenty of PTQ-level players don't really expect to top 8 or they haven’t done legitimate Draft prep work. However unlikely it is that you’ll top 8 any individual sealed PTQ, you still have to be prepared for when you do!
I think top 8 Drafts are where a player can realize one of the biggest edges that exists in the game: being a shark drafter at a table of minnows. Good Draft practice doesn’t really exist at an easily accessible level in the current era of MTG. The only publicly available option is the MTGO single elimination queue, which can take hours to fill.
There’s a fundamental difference between the single elimination pod Drafts in PTQ top 8s and the League Drafts you see on MTGO and Arena: Leagues have a nullifying effect on the metagame. In a League Draft you’re incentivized to beat the field of possible decks. In a pod Draft you only have to draft a deck that beats the other decks at your table.
I’ve found a lot of unrecognized archetypes by drafting in pods, and my success comes from learning those undervalued strategies that don’t often work in Leagues. You can often win with any “good” deck when everybody at the table is competing for the “perfect” archetype. And you’ll never be able to identify how and why those “good” decks win if all you play are Leagues because they might not be able to beat the larger range of decks you’ll have to face. It might be impossible to recognize they’re even “good.”
Practicing Pod Drafts
Practical Research | Illustration by Ekaterina Burmak
If pod Drafts are so important, how do you practice them?
The single elim queues on MTGO rarely fire, but I still get in those as much as I can. The real level-up for me was when I found a server to organize my own Drafts. This is a tall barrier of entry for a lot of players, but Magic is a social game in a lot of ways.
It’s important to network if you want to get really competitive. Having players around you who are also trying to improve is the fastest way to improve yourself. You can organize your own pod Drafts and do several per evening in a Discord group.
You’ll see what decks win and what decks lose, and having all that information in front of you is extremely valuable since hardly anybody else has that data. You’ll also have access to the source of knowledge while the world at large will be looking at a 2-dimensional projection of it on a cave wall.
If you're a visual learner, Ben Stark has a great course over on Spikes Academy about how to build and draft excellent limited decks. I recommend checking it out.
End Hostilities | Illustration by Jason Rainville
One last tip before I sign off: these events are long and it’s important to take care of yourself! A good night's sleep, plenty of water, getting up to move around between rounds and stretching, all the little things add up to your mind working better when you’re making hard choices in game. Be good to yourself.
Don't think about how close you are to the end or what the prizes are or how lucky your opponent is or anything other than what it takes to win. All that stuff happens incidentally regardless how much you think about it and can easily distract you from being in the contemplative mind-state required to critically maneuver a 10+ hour event.
I hope I’ve given all you hopefuls some good food for thought. If any of you read this and go on to win your first sealed PTQ, I take full credit. And be sure to let me know in the comments below or over in the Draftsim Discord. You’re welcome!Follow Draftsim for awesome articles and set updates: