Chaos In The Northeast #22: Drafting (Part 1)
Is there a better way to play Magic? Maybe, maybe not, but the more I played, the more my interest in draft grew. It combines so many of the best elements of Magic, from deck building and knowledge of the set to creating the metagame of your table and literally building worse decks for your opponents while strengthening your own. It's fun to watch, play, read about, and gamble with. Ultimately, this is THE format for all aspiring Magic players. Once you've become addicted, there is no turning back.
Many people lump all Limited formats together, but the difference between Draft and Sealed deck is enormous. Both require many similar skills (knowledge of the cards, practice, the ability to create a deck from a random pile of cards), but from that point forward Drafting requires another whole block of skills, leaving Sealed Deck bland and lifeless by comparison.
I'm not going to do a card-by-card analysis; Gary Wise has done a very solid write up of Invasion and Planeshift on Sideboard and I would recommend that anyone unfamiliar with the sets (particularly from a Limited perspective) should read through his stuff. Make sure you set aside some time, as his review is very comprehensive and it will take a while to go through. What I'm going to do is touch on some of the basic principles of good drafting, the possible deck archetypes you can draft, and how to make them a bit more successful.
Deckbuilding in Draft
Initially, with Invasion only in the mix, it was thought that there were really only six decks archetypes; the five allied color pairs and the hated 5-Color Green decks, who will happily steal everyone else's bombs. This is still basically true, but their relative strengths have changed. Additionally, some colors can develop as Control OR Beatdown, which gives you a bit more depth to each archetype. Planeshift adds the "Lair Lands", Terminal Moraine, Mana Cylix and all of the various Battlemages, so it appears that several three-color draft styles may also become more viable than ever before.
Deck Building Tip #1 - It's all about the monsters
The primary thing to focus on when drafting is to establish a solid base of creatures, and having a good mana curve to go along with them. This may seem obvious, but I've seen far too many decks that end up with only four to five playable creatures and twenty-plus playable tricks. This will not get the job done.
How highly you draft creatures will depend on the specific deck you are trying to develop and what you've drafted so far. The R/G archetype typically wants to load up on 2/2 Grizzly Bears such as Yavimaya Barbarian, Nomadic Elf, Quirion Sentinel and Thornscape Familiar, as well as going after the various three- and four-drop Kavus, such as Ancient Kavu or Kavu Aggressor. It's will try to keep it's curve fairly low in an effort to out tempo an opponent, probably leading up to a five casting-cost Serpentine Kavu, or maybe two at the high end. U/B, on the other hand, will dig for the Flyers and may put a high stock on small regenerators like Nightscape Familiar to hold the ground. I'll go into more specific details about each color later on, but basically, keep your curve in mind as you draft and make sure you've got the creatures to fill those slots.
A key point is if you are given the choice of first picking a creature capable of removing other creatures (say Flametongue Kavu) vs. a straight removal spell (such as Terminate in Planeshift), you will probably want to draft the creature first. I cannot think of a circumstance where I would draft the Terminate first, since the Kavu deals with a creature AND leaves a 4/2 body in it's wake. While this is not always a hard and fast rule, those creatures that can kill others (such as Tsabo's Assasin, Pyre Zombie, etc.) will usually be the better pick.
Tip #2 - Your opponents all know Tip #1
Every skilled drafter is going to try and draft monsters too, so getting ways to deal with their monsters should be your secondary (and occasionally primary) priority. Each color has tools for dealing with opposing creatures. U/W/G all have the common tappers in Invasion; white also has Shackles, Hobble, and a variety of tricks like Pollen Remedy that will allow your creatures to trade unfairly with theirs. Green has the lightest amount of pure removal (Wallop and Canopy Surge are about it), but a very deep pool of tricks that can allow their creatures to push through opposing ground stalls. Blue packs a load of bounce spells and counter magic, with a fair number of them (Repulse, Confound, Exclude and Recoil) generating card advantage for you in the process. Black, of course, just kills stuff flat-out, and Red packs the most flexible removal with lots of burn. I won't tell you to always draft removal (G/W can get along fine without actually "killing" any creatures), but make sure you can deal with them in some way.
Tip #3 - Play into your strengths
This is not so easy. Other players may say always draft R/B, as it's the strongest color combination, or always draft U/W as it's underdrafted at the tables. These are fine points - but in the long run, any color combination can be made workable. The trick is playing the archetype you feel comfortable playing. If you are playing at the highest level (and thus are probably not bothering to read this piece since you know all this), you may find yourself comfortable with each and every type of color mix, in which case, the strength is to play against the table, not into your own deck. However, most of us probably won't feel that comfortable early on. I've been drafting Invasion, Invasion, Planeshift three or four times a week since the prerelease, and I still don't feel that comfortable with branching into certain color combinations.
That said, if you're a control player, U/W, U/B or U/B/r might be the decks you'll want to look into. The key to playing them is generating massive card advantage and using your evasive creatures to carry the day. Personally, I rarely ever have the patience for these sorts of decks and I've found them to be more prone to color screw, so I'm generally happier basing a deck around Green. I like playing aggro-control, using the tappers during my turn to clear a path for big creatures, etc. This is my style, but it's not for everyone.
Tip #4 - Play a deck, not a pile of cards
This requires a certain amount of practice, but it's critical to building a solid deck. A good example, I was watching a three-on-three draft at YMG this past weekend. Dan had picked up a very early Obliterate and went about building his deck around it. Basically a speedy R/G deck with lots of Sac lands, an Attendant and some discard (a Hypnotic Cloud, Bog Down and Thunderscape Battlemage) to really allow for a one-sided use of the card. Many times a certain "bomb" card can allow you to center your theme. Additionally, drafting five or six copies an underutilized spell (say, Turf Wound), can help you develop off-the-wall decks that no one could have expected. I'm not trying to push Turf Wound on you; just keep in mind that odd strategies can develop, if you keep your eyes open.
Tip #5 - Don't be afraid to fight for your colors
Very straightforward, choose your colors and go with it. Reading the signals coming from your right is important, but if you first picked a Pyre Zombie, don't be totally afraid of fighting for it. When the swing comes around, you'll get the first pick of all the R/B cards (since between you and the guy to your right, you'll have bled them dry for several places), and this can possibly even force the guy to your right out of it, thus hooking you up in Planeshift. (It's unlikely, but stranger things have happened.)
If you have to choose between playing a deck you don't feel comfortable with and fighting for an adequate deck in your colors, that's up to you. I've seen people share Red/Black or U/B successfully before, but if the person to your right is W/G and so are you, I'd suggest getting out of it before it's too late.
Tip #6 - Draft finishers aggressively; you probably won't get another shot at them
If I could give you just one piece of advice for most decks, it's this; make sure you have a solid finisher. Be it a Dragon, Ghitu Fire, Rout, Keldon Necropolis, Obliterate, Molimo, the giant Hippo, Breath of Darigaaz, or some sort of one-sided board sweeper like Barrin's Spite or Wash Out, the ability to break through a stalemate and alpha strike is invaluable.
Tip #7 - Play into your color's strengths
Each color combination has certain strengths and weaknesses. I'll go into the specifics in a moment, but as a general rule, it's very easy to get too many high casting cost spells in an aggressive deck, or too many weak spells for a control deck. Each color and color combination can support both a more controlling version and a more aggressive version of its respective decks. Keep in mind which cards will advance the strategy you are trying to play.
On that note, lets take a look at the most powerful color combination in Invasion-Planeshift.
Black/Red is an enormously popular draft archetype. The basic goal is to assemble a collection of decent creatures costing anywhere from one to five mana (and with Planeshift in the mix, you've got a lot to choose from), a fistful of creature removal and a smattering of discard to seal the deal. Interestingly, this archetype is not really the fastest (it has a dearth of efficient Grizzly Bears; just Shivan Zombie and the uncommons, really), but it gets a ton of big creatures in the three to four casting cost range. Basically, this deck will want to play out creatures over the first four to five turns, then kill anything that would keep them from turning sideways. Pure brutality mixed with very little elegance.
This combination also makes best use of the strongest common card in Invasion - Agonizing Demise - has a nice selection of beefy creatures in the common and uncommon slots, and some of the most stupidly broken rares in the format (can you say Pyre Zombie? I thought you could...), R/B was most likely the strongest color combination in the format before Planeshift even entered into the mix. What we have now is utter stupidity.
B/R gains the greatest number of tools out of Planeshift to continue along its path of utter destruction. Terminate, Mire Kavu, Lava Zombie, Volcano Imp and Caldera Kavu are all insanely good commons that are best in the R/B archetype. Add to this other flexible powerhouses such as Magma Burst and Bog Down and you can quickly see why this deck is one of the best two-color strategies available.
The R/B archetype is so deep that a table will see two or three people drafting it exclusively. Since the 5 Color Green Mages, the R/G Mages and the U/B Mages may all dip into it as well, it's not unusual to see as many as 6 people drafting some elements of the deck. This overdrafting can be the one thing that keeps the R/B players from dominating the table entirely.
The key to playing this deck is to come out strong and sure. In the long run, R/B's major problem is that it can run out of gas. Very little pure card drawing is available for the dynamic duo, so cards that generate any form of card advantage (Such as Bog Down, Ravenous Rats and Recover) should make the cut into your deck unless it's incredibly aggressive. Typically, Red/Black ends up developing into a mid-game deck, since its creatures are, on average, as large or larger than any other archetype - plus it can deal with pretty much any creature regardless of its size.
Now in sealed, most players will tell you flat out to check out your R/B before digging into any other color, the reason for this is the relative depth of playable commons. In draft, this means that the R/B archetype can support more drafters (usually) than any other. However, this does not mean that it's always the best route to go. While the other colors are a bit thinner, there will probably be fewer people drafting them. This allows the other archetypes to flourish and compete with the primary monster.
More than any other deck, R/G relies on tempo to carry it to the finish line. It's all about the Grizzly Bears and mana curves. You've get a ton of playable creatures that give you two power for two mana - and when combined with Red's burn to sweep away the early blockers, this deck can usually get fourteen to sixteen points of damage in with astonishing speed. The problem comes in dealing those last few points.
Planeshift really hurts this deck more than it helps it. With over half of the Red creatures virtually unplayable in R/G, it gets notably worse. Green's lack of solid creatures in the three to four casting-cost slots doesn't help anything, either. While Magma Burst is certainly a huge addition to this deck, and some of the uncommons like Flametongue Kavu or Strafe can be stupidly good, as a whole your deck is going to win or lose on the strength of your creature base drafted during the first two Invasion packs.
Particularly valuable to this archetype are Ancient Kavu and Kavu Aggressor. Three power creatures for three or four mana are very hard to come by, so draft them early and... aggressively.
These decks, more than any other, need solid finishers. There are so many good bears in the format that you should not need to draft any individual one too early. Keep your eyes open for the one or two good finishers you'll need to end the game (particularly Obliterate, Ghitu Fire, Flametongue Kavu, Breath of Darigaaz, or several of the legends, including splashing for a Dragon). Since you've got green as one of your base colors, it's really easy to develop a third color, but make sure that it does not mess up your curve too much. A 4-5 Color Green deck plays out very differently from a base R/G tempo deck.
5 Color Green
Speaking of which, lets have a look at the single most obnoxious archetype to ever rear it's head. This deck is all about DA BOMBS. Your goal here is typically to center the deck around two colors, either G/R or G/W (occasionally I've seen it G/U too), with an emphasis on cards that let you dig basic lands out of your library or using spells that can generate all five colors easily. Invasion was filled to the brim with these spells; between Harrow, Nomadic Elf, Fertile Ground, Frenzied Tilling, Quirion Elves, Trailblazers, and Sentinels, this base Green deck could easily then branch into every other color. Planeshift adds very little in the common slots to support this - just Quirion Explorer and Primal Growth - but it does add a few uncommons, like Terminal Moraine and Mana Cylix, that can support the effort as well.
The benefit to this strategy is threefold: First, you'll almost never have mana problems; built correctly, this deck will simply steal games when it's opponent's get color hosed, yet not falling victim to that dreaded curse itself. It can even force a color screw through the use of Frenzied Tilling, which can just be a kick between the legs to a struggling opponent. Second, it makes best use of the domain spells. This is a pretty minor benefit, and you should never really go out of your way to draft them, but I do have to admit, Gaea's Might goes from being decent to dragon-killing good in short order. Lastly, and most importantly, it will allow you to snap up any bombs that float by. Being able to first-pick a Sabertooth Nishoba, second-pick a Barrin's Spite and third-pick Smoldering Tar is pretty ridiculous. Obviously, when your developing this deck, you'll want to keep your off-color bombs (typically U/B and either W or R) to a minimum, but running a few won't hurt you at all.
This archetype typically spends the first four to five turns developing its mana base and laying out the utility creatures (mana fixers, tappers, etc.), and then once the mana ramping has been accomplished, start unloading powerhouse spells and creatures. When I play this deck, I can usually get up to six-mana by turn 5 consistently. This allows for quick use of Spinal Embrace, casting Dragons, Routing, or doing whatever is necessary to establish board dominance. The Battlemages also really sing in this deck, since you'll be able to draft any to all that you see and probably use both kickers to maximum effect.
Although this archetype is commonly referred to as 5-Color, my builds are usually four colors. I tend to center on G/W or G/R and splash the adjacent colors. There is nothing wrong with going the full five...But don't feel you have to, either.
If this archetype has a real problem, it's that you can send truly confusing signals to the person to your left. They typically won't have a clue what your drafting and if they start to dig into green, you could have a problem on the swing. I tend to value Harrow and Trailblazers a bit higher than most, and if I can scoop those up in the first swing, at least I'll have the basic tools in place. Primal Growth is very playable if you're forced to use it, but Harrow is a much better option, as is the Trailblazer, so try to draft those first. If you can't get them, well Growth will go late in most Planeshift packs, so if you're trying to choose between a bomb and a mana fixer, you can probably take the bomb and look for the Growth to come back to you on the swing.
My personal favorite archetype to draft, this combination MUST put a high stock on the common tappers and Shackles. Much like R/G, you can rapidly develop into three or more colors, but in this case, that's not such a bad thing. It just needs to maintain the center on G/W.
Since you're accessing the same basic run of commons as R/G, it should come as no surprise that the decks play out similarly. The big difference is that with the tappers, Shackles, Hobble, and Acolytes, W/G has a bit more late-game staying power; the tradeoff is a slightly weaker creature base and a real vulnerability to bombs like Stalking Assassin, Tsabo's Assassin, and the various Masters (all of which are little more than speed bumps to R/B or G/R). The Acolytes can help to some extent, but don't waste time. Kill your opponent as fast as you can.
To this end, we are going to dig into - surprise, surprise - more Grizzly Bears. Llanowar Knight, Nomadic Elf, Quirion Sentinels, and Thornscape Familiars all help your early offense. Combined with a good mix of tappers, Shackles and Hobble you can usually keep your opponent's ability to block them at a severe disadvantage. Armadillo Cloak is of course huge here, and you'll want a few 2/2 white flyers to help punch through ground stalls and Pincer Spider to gum up the ground.
Like G/R, this deck archetype is not helped much by Planeshift. You get the worst of the common gating creatures (Steel Leaf Paladin), Gerrard's Command, Samite Pilgrim, Hobble, Pollen Remedy, and the best Familiar, but that's about it for the common run. You do, however, get access to some of the best uncommons in the format. Both Battlemages are nuts, (particularly if you can activate their off-color kickers), White gives you Lashknife Barrier (a card I've happily first picked) and Voice of All. Fleetfoot Panther eats up the gold slots, while Green coughs up the playable Alpha Kavu (who is usually much better in R/G), and a bomb in Mirrorwood Treefolk, assuming you've got the correct mana to use him.
The basic commons and uncommons of G/W may not be the strongest, but this is somewhat offset by the fact that no more than twp people at a table will typically be drafting them. This means you can get incredible rares as late picks, with cards like Nishoba, Noble Panther, Ancient Spider, Questing Pheldagriff and Eldamri's Call that can take your deck over the top. Of course, while you can say of any color combination that getting good rares will make your deck (duh), G/W's are the most likely to get passed around a bit.
Next week, we'll look into the U/W and U/B archetypes, and we'll go more deeply into the tricks you can use to force the draft into your line of thinking. Drafting is about a whole lot more than the card pool available, and I'll try to relate some real life experiences to go along with it. It should be a lot of fun, or at least more interesting than Standard.
Hope to see you then,