There's only one way to describe the feeling I got when I opened my first booster of Dragon's Maze: overwhelmed. I stared at a collection of gold cards, split cards, monocolor cards, lands, and artifacts. I had no idea what the rest of the draft would bring, and I had no idea how to steer it in the direction I wanted it to go.
The Draft formats of recent memory have all been somewhat simple. I don't mean to diminish the role that skill plays in a triple Gatecrash Draft or to take away from the accomplishments of the players who did well in M13 or Return to Ravnica Limited. What I mean is that in Gatecrash if you were to first pick a bomb in the Orzhov colors and choose the best Orzhov card out of every pack after that, there was a certain floor to how bad your deck could be—things couldn't really go that wrong.
Now, with Dragon's Maze, full block Draft is not so simple. The strategies are no longer cookie-cutter made for you, and there's not usually a clear, consistent signal pulling you towards a certain type of deck. I'm writing today in an effort to save some of you from that overwhelming feeling of "where do I begin?" I don't claim to be the greatest Dragon's Maze-Gatecrash-Return to Ravnica drafter in the world or to have fully mastered the many factors that can change the course of a draft. However, I have developed a system that consistently leads to solid decks and can serve as a guide for anyone struggling to navigate the complexity of the Dragon's Maze.
The Strategies of DGR Draft
Having to consider the almost-limitless number of strategies and combinations available was one of the root causes of my overwhelmed feeling. However, things became much easier for me when I began to think of things in the framework of a spectrum. On one extreme are the five-color decks that make use of the Dragon's Maze Gatekeepers, and on the other extreme are the single-guild, two-color decks.
(These decks tend to be more aggressive.) (These decks tend to be more controlling.)
While it's certainly possible to build a controlling two-color deck—perhaps Dimir or Orzhov—it's a matter of necessity that the many-color decks be slower and geared more for the late game. When you build an aggressive deck, your goal is to shorten the game. This means that you have to work more with the cards in your opening hand and have less time to draw out of a mana screw or to find the powerful cards that you may have decided to splash. This means that demanding mana requirements hurt you more the faster you're trying to be. Slower decks can more easily afford a stumble because in the long run, provided you can survive, you will eventually find your mana and take over the game.
Avoid building many-color aggro decks. This is the most dangerous pitfall for a newer player. It's so tempting to go for a W/G/R or a W/R/B aggressive deck and fit all of the great beatdown cards from all three sets into your deck. These decks will be capable of good draws and will look awesome in the games where they come out smoothly. You might even have an entire tournament where your mana works out and your three-color aggro deck performs great for you! However, these kinds of decks will not give you the level of consistency that you need to succeed in the long run.
I might as well begin by explaining why, how, and when to draft a two-color deck. Many of the best decks I've seen in this Draft format have been streamlined two-color decks. There are a number of advantages to such a strategy.
First and foremost, you have the privilege of being aggressive if you choose to do so. Anyone who has drafted the full block a number of times will be familiar with the experience of seeing something like a Rix Maadi Guildmage floating around the table pick 6 or 7—much later than the power level of the card should dictate! Even in the first pack, cards like Viashino Firstblade often do not get picked up right away. The reason is that in most cases only a two-color Rakdos drafter can use the Rix Maadi Guildmage. A Grixis Control deck has no interest in such a card, and neither does a Jund Midrange deck. Being aggressive opens you up to a whole new category of powerful cards that you can enjoy—sometimes all to yourself!
Second, you do not need to "waste" your picks on mana fixing. When drafting a five-color Gatekeeper deck, you have to put such a premium on choosing Guildgates that you'll miss out on a number of creatures and spells that would be excellent additions to your deck.
Third, when you draft a two-color deck, you typically decide to do so early, and you stick to your guns. My worst drafts have been the ones where I wavered between colors for too long. Between picking cards that don't end up in your deck and putting a high premium on mana fixing, this is where you have the largest risk of ending up short on playables.
Drafting a two-color deck means always taking the best card for your deck and typically having few regrets when the draft ends.
When should you go for a two-color deck? Frankly, it's rarely a bad idea to go for a two-color deck if that's the way you like to draft. If you take Far // Away out of your first pack, by all means feel free to build a two-color Dimir deck! However, the times when it's most important to stick to two colors is when you start the draft with an aggressive card.
If you open Tajic, Blade of the Legion, you should take him with the intention of building a two-color Boros deck. Tithe Drinker and Zhur-Taa Druid, though universally good cards (not necessarily only for aggressive decks), present strict mana requirements and put pressure on you to stay disciplined. If you first pick Punish the Enemy or Haazda Snare Squad, your goal should be to find the most open red guild or white guild, respectively, and aim for a two-color deck in that combination.
The other extreme is to build a five-color control deck with the potential to utilize the Dragon's Maze Gatekeepers. The Gatekeepers themselves are extremely efficient defensive cards and are simultaneously a big reward for drafting this strategy and a perfect way to bridge the gap between the early game and your late-game bombs.
Dragon's Maze is very important to such a deck because you'll have to put a huge premium on Guildgates. Don't be afraid to start taking them as early as the second or third pick if you want Five-Color Control to be an option. Always take a Gate over a Gatekeeper, but look for the Gatekeepers to come late (7th-10th pick or so) since not many other decks will want them. Ideally, you want about one-to-three "mana rocks" (Cluestones, Keyrunes, Verdant Haven, Axebane Guardian, Chromatic Lantern), but these cards are a dime a dozen, so there's no need to spend early picks on them.
The power of the Gatekeepers notwithstanding, the true reward of being five colors is the luxury to immediately snatch up any bomb that you open or that is passed to you in the later packs. If you're surrounded by two-color-drafters—which is likely if you've cut off all of the Guildgates in pack 1—they may open off-color bombs in Gatecrash or Return to Ravnica and pass them right to you.
A good-looking five-color deck will play seventeen or eighteen lands with at least six Guildgates. It will have two or three mana rocks, three or four defensive midgame creatures (ideally Gatekeepers), lots of removal, and three or four late-game win conditions—hopefully bomb rares, but something as simple as Risen Sanctuary can also work just fine. The final piece, which is not to be ignored, is to make sure you have at least a few defensive two-drop creatures.
Which brings me to the most important single tip I can give for DGR Draft: choose your main colors early and stick to them. A multicolor deck need not be all five colors, and it should never be split evenly among all of them. Ideally, you have one guild as your base, and the rest of your colors will be splashes for removal or for late-game spells. Deciding your base colors early means you can prioritize early drops in that guild.
For example, if I draft a W/G deck with splashes of blue and red, Call of the Conclave will be a great card for me because most of my lands will allow me to cast it on turn 2 and it will be the largest creature (for either offense or defense) at the point in the game that I cast it. Drudge Beetle, Concordia Pegasus, and Boros Mastiff will also be fine two-drops for such a deck because they at least allow me to impact the board or trade with an opposing creature in the early game, helping me to not fall behind. Something like Zhur-Taa Druid is probably not ideal since I won't be able to guarantee having red mana on turn 2. Nivix Guildmage and Goblin Electromancer have no place in a W/G/(u)/(r) deck because I won't be able to cast them early anyway and the fact that they cost two mana will be irrelevant!
My personal approach is to choose my base two colors as early as possible—hopefully by pick 4 or 5—and to be open to a splash if and only if things work out properly. I won't first pick a Guildgate, and I'll have no interest in a Rakdos Guildgate if I've started the draft with a W/G card. However, if I draft a W/G card and then see either a Selesnya Guildgate or a Gate that shares a single color with my first pick (aiding in a possible splash later on), I'll put quite a premium on the land. To put it simply, I'll take a useful Guildgate over any card that I'm likely to not really miss at the end of the draft. I won't take it over removal or a good two-drop creature, but I will take it over a vanilla midgame creature like Wind Drake or Steeple Roc.
Staying Open and Jumping Ship
I made a bold promise at the start of this article that my drafting system consistently guarantees solid decks. One might therefore expect me to offer some escape strategies in case things aren't going perfectly for you.
Well, I'd like to start by saying that "staying open" can sometimes cause more problems in the long run than it will help you avoid. The only truly bad thing that can happen is to be drafting the same guild behind the same guild, but with ten guilds and dozens of more multicolor combinations, this is actually quite rare. That one draft in a thousand where you and the person to your right both open and first pick Exava, Rakdos Blood Witch, you might just have to take your lumps.
What's more, though, is that DGR Draft has a unique dynamic. Let's say, for example, that instead of Exava, you've both opened Tajic, Blade of the Legion. Now, you may get cut off in packs 1 and 3, but you'll have Gatecrash, the most important pack, all to yourself. What's to stop you from collecting eleven or twelve great Boros cards in pack 2 and ending up with a fine deck anyway?
The main thing is that if you want to build a great two-color deck, you really can't afford to give up your first few picks in Dragon's Maze. The Haazda Snare Squad or Viashino Firstblade you pass on pick 3 in an attempt to "stay open" is irreplaceable. Even in a slower guild, like Dimir, if you don't take your Woodlot Crawler when you can, you won't have another chance. To stay open for too long will hurt your chances to draft a great two-color deck and will send unclear signals downstream, increasing the chances that you'll get cut off in pack 2.
My point is to not be afraid to dive in headfirst when the time is right. However, there are a few general principles you can employ that will help guide you into open colors.
Early in the draft, if you have a close call between a gold card and a monocolor card, I recommend taking the monocolor card. Punish the Enemy is my favorite common to start a draft with, and Haazda Snare Squad is my second favorite. In reality, these cards are weaker than Zhur-Taa Druid, Tithe Drinker, and Beetleform Mage, but they're still quite good and the quality of being single-color has value.
When you first pick Punish the Enemy, you've taken a great card for your deck, but you've also managed to delay your final decision on colors until you have some more information. You may get passed a Zhur-Taa Druid or a Carnage Gladiator or a Fluxcharger or a Viashino Firstblade, so your monocolor first pick has increased your chances of ending up in a color combination that the players to your right are less interested in drafting or have simply opened better cards for.
Taking Guildgates in the way I described above can help as well, especially if you're not in Rakdos or Boros (the fastest guilds). While you may sometimes struggle to get 23 playable Dimir cards, if you pick up a couple Guildgates early on, you should have no trouble picking up 23 playable cards spread over three colors (remembering to build with two main colors and a splash).
In some cases, it is appropriate to "stay open" for a brief period early in the draft. If I first pick Tajic, Blade of the Legion and get passed a pack with Far // Away and no standout Boros card, I will draft Far // Away with the plan to build either Boros or Dimir, not both. This way, I'll have to give up one of my first two picks, but I have two chances to find an open guild and either way I know I'll have a premium card for my deck.
I find reading signals and predicting what will happen in a DGR draft to be remarkably difficult in comparison to other sets. The main challenge is that different players have different strategies and will react differently when strange situations come up.
An especially difficult situation can arise when a player opens a gold bomb that shares one of the colors they're drafting. As an example, let's say you're confident that the player to your left has been drafting Izzet cards. If she opens a Foundry Champion—an occurrence you have no control over and zero information about—she's likely to take the Champion and perhaps switch into Boros or draft a three-color W/U/R deck. Now your efforts to "cut off" either Boros or Azorius gold cards in pack 1 may have gone to waste!
Between powerful gold cards, unpredictable players, and uncontrollable packs, I feel that the dynamics of a DGR draft can be so complex that they sometimes approach randomness. This is not to say that you should despair of trying to understand what's going on around you; only that you should not make very extreme decisions in an attempt to follow or send signals.
To Draft a Gatecrash Guild or to Draft a Return to Ravnica Guild?
The most important thing that signals can help with is to decide which should be your main colors, and which should be your splashes.
In the Draft portion of Pro Tour Dragon's Maze, my first four picks were Ruric Thar, the Unbowed; Punish the Enemy; and two Putrefys. These picks weren't difficult, but they did present me with the challenge of which guild to base my deck around and which color would be my splash. Here are the factors I considered:
Rakdos is a very fast guild. Many of its strongest cards—Rix Maadi Guildmage, Rakdos Cackler, Carnage Gladiator—are only at their best in a purely aggressive deck. And at the risk of beating a dead horse, I'll reiterate that three-color aggro decks are not good! Rakdos was my third choice as a main guild since I did not want to give up on my premium green cards but also did not want to build a three-color aggro deck.
While the bloodrush mechanic lends itself to aggression, the Gruul guild can be as fast or slow as you want it to be. Cards like Zhur-Taa Druid and Greenside Watcher are great because they represent early plays that help ramp you to larger monsters and are therefore perfect for decks that aim to dominate the midgame. Basically, I knew I wanted green as a main color, but I still had to decide between Gruul and Golgari.
So what's the single largest difference between Gruul and Golgari in the context of a DGR draft? Well, Gruul is a Gatecrash guild, and Golgari is a Return to Ravnica guild! Different players will be passing you these different packs. Here is where reading and sending signals can come in handy.
First, I asked myself what I had passed in my early packs. Though I had snatched up the good mono-red card I'd seen—Punish the Enemy—I had passed a number of good R/G gold cards, including Zhur-Taa Druid and Gruul War Chant. While at the time I could not say for sure whether the player directly to my left was drafting Gruul, these cards had to be taken somewhere downstream from me, which would mean that there would be at least some interest in Gruul cards among the players passing to me in Gatecrash.
Next, I asked myself what I had been passed in so far in Dragon's Maze. What jumped out at me, of course, were the two Putrefys. To pass such a premium removal spell could likely mean that the player to my right had no interest in either black or green. At minimum, it meant he had no interest in black and green or the gold cards in that combination. What's more is that he knew that he had passed me those Putrefys and that I was overwhelmingly likely to take them. Therefore, he'd be less likely to receive good monocolor cards in black and green in the Gatecrash pack and would be disincentivized from later switching into Golgari.
All these things considered, I decided to wait for Return to Ravnica and to make Golgari the base of my deck. This meant showing discipline and passing up on cheap red cards in Gatecrash, knowing that my deck might only have a single Mountain and no guarantee of having red mana in the early turns.
Dragon's Maze-Gatecrash-Return to Ravnica Draft is a complex and challenging format, but there's no reason to be afraid of it if you heed my advice.
- Decide your base colors early and stick to them.
- Prioritize two-drops in your main colors.
- Aggression is good, but stick to two colors if you want to be aggressive.
- If you want the option to play more than two colors, put a high value on Guildgates. Draft them over anything other than a premium card in your colors.
- Pay attention to what you're passing and what's being passed to you, but don't make overly extreme decisions based on it.
Thanks for reading, and best of luck in your upcoming drafts!
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