Constructed Criticism - Those Crafty Phyrexians
Over the past few weeks, I've taken a liking to the Scars of Mirrodin Limited format like few before it in recent times. I was always an avid fan of the previous Mirrodin block, even with its many flaws and broken mechanics. With equal power came much diversity, and when everyone has a powerful Limited deck, no one's deck was too powerful. Mirrodin Limited taught me to first-pick Shatter and to value good equipment highly because it fit into virtually every deck you could play. In addition to that, Mirrodin taught me that bombs that weren't artifacts were bombs indeed, and there weren't many answers to these kinds of threats.
Fast-forward seven years later and here I am, looking at artifacts, on-color bombs, and Disenchant effects galore, but there's something... different. Something dark. Something just not quite right about the format that I loved and admired above all others. That darkness is a poison, and it is strong indeed.
You Have Been Poisoned!!!
Infect is such a strong mechanic, but it can get you into a lot of trouble very easily. If you consider that you must only deal your opponent ten points of poison damage, you can equate every creature in your deck to having double its power when it goes unblocked. This means that every 1/1 is really a 2/1, and every 2/3 is really a 4/3 and so on. In this sense, the creatures are virtually twice as strong as they appear, but it comes with a heavy price.
Whenever you draft infect, each creature you draft without infect will be unlikely to make the cut. That means that if you start to get weaker infect creatures, you can't supplant them with stronger non-infect creatures and expect to win. Your deck will be attacking on two fronts, and virtually giving your opponent a lot of free damage to soak up. With this problem there are a few solutions, including Tainted Strike and Grafted Exoskeleton, but I'm never happy to play either of those cards in my deck. What I am happy to have is a solid curve backed up by a removal suite and a few combat tricks.
The ideal poison deck relies on its early threats to take control of the early game. Cards like Ichorclaw Myr and Plague Stinger are so valuable because they're very hard to contain without a removal spell in the early stages of the game. Cystbearer fits in this same category, because he outclasses most other early drops in the format with three toughness. As the game progresses, these creatures become steadily worse, but they still have greater value than most two-drops do in the format. Additionally, when you can land one or two of these early threats, and back them up with a Grasp of Darkness or Skinrender, the swing in tempo will usually be too much for most decks to handle.
Like any mechanic in Magic history, it plays well with other cards containing the same keyword. This leads to a no-brainer type of drafting which I occasionally find rather boring, but the gambit made in this progression is one to behold. You have to be quite the sicko to slam down a Cystbearer as your first pick, but I wouldn't blame you. It's well known that a great poison deck trumps just about every other deck in the format. The problem is figuring out whether or not the archetype is open, and what to do if you feel like you're getting cut off.
Poison is a dangerous game to play, and you should draft it with caution. If ever the person on your right is taking poison cards, you'll likely end up with a pile of rubbish fit for the trashcan. I've found that any given eight-man table can support two very good infect decks, three good infect decks, and four mediocre infect decks. That means that as more people try to play the archetype, it gets exponentially worse, because the common creatures you're relying on to fill out your deck just stop coming around the fifth pick or so. After that, you're forced to round out your deck with random monsters that don't have infect, making for awkward deckbuilding and even more awkward life totals.
The more you draft infect, the better feel you'll have in picking up clear signals on whether or not it's open. If you don't see a creature with infect past the fourth pick, you should likely switch because otherwise your deck will become unplayable in just a few short Tainted Strikes or Vector Asps. Reading the signals for infect is the key to getting into the archetype, but none of the cards play well with the rest of the set, and for good reason. Phyrexia doesn't want to share; it wants to take over everything.
As far as Sealed Decks are concerned, it's even harder to get a good poison deck from opening six packs. With only two colors really committing to the Phyrexian cause, it's just not likely that you're going to open a vast number of colored creatures with the word "infect" on them. With that said, it's not impossible, and many Sealed pools will clearly push you towards that end. However, many people fall into the trap of trying to build poison decks when they just don't have enough cards to make it quite good enough.
With an infect deck in Sealed, much like in Draft, you should vastly limit the number of non-infect creatures in your deck. Mana Myrs can be tempting, but often they should be used as sideboard space in order to keep your poison threat count as high as possible. You'll rarely need to accelerate in a good poison deck, since most of your good cards cost two and three mana. With that said, mana Myr are always playable, so don't play random terrible artifacts in their place just because they don't have poison.
There are a few cards that usually make the cut in infect decks even if they don't have infect, such as cards like Fume Spitter and Skinrender. While these creatures don't attack in the same vein as their brethren, they do offer you ways to rid your opponent of blockers so that you can get through. While neither card is as exciting as it would be in other decks, the effects they bring to the table can be valuable for what you are trying to do, so don't be hasty to cut them. The same can be said for Sylvok Replica, or any card used to remove permanents from the opposing side of the board.
While infect is a very strong mechanic, it has its drawbacks. You can get shut out very easily, so it's a pretty big risk to move in on the archetype early in the draft. I often stick to first-picking cards like Tumble Magnet in order to keep myself open to whatever options flow my way, but I wouldn't blame you for taking Cystbearer or Plague Stinger in the first two picks. Those cards are great, and you can't really have too many of them in the archetype. Just remember that it can be a dangerous game you play, but with great risk comes great reward, as well as great failure.
Those Crafty Artifacts
The other side of the proverbial coin brings us metalcraft. This ability is strong in its own right, bearing a great resemblance to Affinity (for artifacts), but instead of reducing the cost of the spell, the spell just becomes more powerful when you control three or more artifacts. This ability forces you to value artifacts much higher than normal, as they tend to make each other grow in strength when paired together correctly. Perhaps the most interesting mechanic in the set, metalcraft gives us a reason to draft the artifacts from the plane of Mirrodin.
While it has been said that infect is the best draft strategy, it's also the least consistent. With artifacts, you always leave your draft wide open to whatever colors you want to surround yourself with. With infect, you tend to take only black and green cards, since the rest of the set has very little to do with Phyrexia's ever-growing presence. With this flexibility comes great consistency, and you can always mold your deck to fit what is being passed to you.
While your cards are perhaps a bit weaker by themselves than colored cards, that's because any deck can play them. If you recall, Woolly Thoctar was a 5/4 for only three mana because he was three different colors of mana to cast. With Scars of Mirrodin, we get a plethora of midrange creatures at the three-slot because there are virtually no multicolor spells, reducing the overall power level of the cards on their own. However, when used with metalcraft, some of these cards become incredibly difficult to beat. These metalcraft strategies are at their best when you fill your deck with various useful artifacts to surround your metalcraft cards, giving you utility to go along with your power.
Spellbombs, and particularly Origin Spellbomb, are important to metalcraft strategies because they allow you to do a multitude of things. Not only do they enable metalcraft, but they give you the ability to cycle through your deck to hit land drops, as well as provide whatever effect is printed on the card. The white Spellbomb is clearly the best of the set, providing you with an artifact even after it's cycled to draw a card, helping metalcraft while digging you deeper to your better spells. While the Spellbombs do not outright win you games, they do provide an important function for metalcraft decks and shouldn't be easily overlooked, even when their ability isn't entirely relevant.
When you're drafting metalcraft, it's very often correct to draft the artifact version of two very similar cards. For example, if you're playing white, you would much rather have Chrome Steed than Ghalma's Warden because the Chrome Steed directly affects your metalcraft, in essence pumping himself. Ghalma's Warden does no such thing, so he's clearly an inferior pick, even though he's larger when you do attain metalcraft. The same is true for utility creatures, as I would value something like Perilous Myr or Necropede much higher than Fume Spitter or something similar, because adding to your metalcraft count while providing a nice speed bump is invaluable. While Fume Spitter is good, he's just not on the same level when you're building a metalcraft deck.
If you take into consideration exactly what you're trying to do with metalcraft, you'll be able to see the picks much more clearly than if you have no real plan. While it's known that R/W is the best color combination for the archetype, sometimes the colors just don't flow your way, and you must adjust. Every color combination is possible, though some mesh together better than others. Finding the perfect combination for the cards flowing your way, as well as figuring out which of the cards coming to you work best with metalcraft, is the combination to drafting the best possible deck with the cards you've seen.
Mana Myr, including Palladium Myr, are the backbone to the metalcraft strategy. Many of the best artifacts cost between four and six mana, so accelerating to those cards while helping attain metalcraft is invaluable. They also enable cards like Embersmith, Myrsmith, and Barrage Ogre, giving you plenty of value later in the game out of an otherwise mediocre topdeck. Incidentally, the reliance on these cards can be cause for major blowouts, and is almost entirely the reason why Arc Trail is so effective in this format. Cards like Contagion Clasp and Fume Spitter are much more valuable than they would be in other formats due to the presence of Myr. This wealth of healthy interactions is impeccable design and makes for an interesting game of cat-and-mouse when deciding on whether or not to use removal on 1/1s.
While drafting metalcraft, there are a lot of specific commons you should be aggressively seeking. While you'll almost always take a removal spell when presented with one on-color, it's the incorrect pick more often than you think. Cards like Perilous Myr and Tumble Magnet go in virtually any deck, but make metalcraft much stronger in the process. I'll often take either of these two cards early on in the draft in order to keep my options open, but don't pass up amazing cards just to keep flexibility. Sacrificing power for flexibility can only get you so far. If you're set up in white already, Glint Hawk Idol is very impressive, and even stronger in multiples. Fliers are great in this format, and you can never have too many of them, so draft them highly if you're an aggressive deck.
Changing the Meaning of "Removal"
The word "removal" in Magic is synonymous with the phrase "creature removal" for the most part, but the word "removal" means something entirely different on the plane of Mirrodin. There are a variety of things that can be considered removal, including your basic artifact removal like Shatter. While Shatter is never that exciting in most formats, on Mirrodin it can easily be taken as your first pick. Shatter provides you with an answer to many of the format's biggest bombs or utility artifacts, including things like Steel Hellkite or Trigon of Corruption. Every deck will play some number of artifacts, so you'll most likely have a target for Shatter when you draw it. With so many artifacts in the set, any card that results in the destruction of an artifact is probably good, and definitely playable.
Spells and effects that destroy artifacts are particularly potent in this format against metalcraft, acting as removal as well as a combat trick. Everyone has horror stories from when they attacked their team of fliers into a Shatter, only to have their Auriok Sunchaser fall from the sky into the jowls of an Alpha Tyrranax. The problem with metalcraft is its vulnerability to these types of spells and effects, but these kinds of blowouts can easily be avoided as long as you attain a metalcraft count greater than three. This can be accomplished by sitting on your Spellbombs just a bit longer, as well as avoiding early trades with your smaller artifact creatures.
While metalcraft decks are particularly vulnerable to these Disenchant-type cards, poison decks are mostly unaffected by them, which creates another problem entirely. While it may fit with the flavor of the set that "Phyrexians aren't affected by the same things as Mirrans," this can create imbalance in the Limited design. There are only a few artifact creatures with poison, and the replacement of general removal spells in the set with cards like Shatter gives the poison drafter at the table a bit of an advantage. This very may well have been their intention from the start, but I do believe that just a bit more removal at common would've been healthier to maintain balance between archetypes.
In all honesty, I'm having a blast playing this Limited format. It has rekindled my love for drafting, and I've been doing it quite a bit lately. I'll admit that I've watched many draft videos and walkthroughs, and I've learned quite a bit from them. I'll admit that there are plenty of draft archetypes left to explore, but these two are clearly ahead of the rest. Others rely too much on niche cards, which can be troublesome if you don't end up with more than one of a particular uncommon (I'm looking at you, Furnace Celebration).
While the points made here aren't intended to delve into specifics, hopefully they'll give you a good foundation for making your own decisions. There are so many variables to consider in Limited that having a good foundation is key for making decisions on the fly, allowing you to change direction at any moment.
Next week I should be diving back into Standard for the StarCityGames.com Open in Richmond featuring the Invitational, so expect a reversion to normalcy. Thanks for reading.
strong sad on MOL