Nationals Pro Tour Philadelphia and five weeks of Magic Online have passed us by providing us plenty of time to learn and love (or hate) M12 Limited. One final tournament still remains for us to showcase our skills with the format: Grand Prix Montreal. This week will be a lesson based on my own approach to M12 and the differences between drafting it and playing Sealed Deck.
What's Different About M12
In one sentence M12 is defined by the necessity of trading and the scarcity of card advantage. More specifically there are two major facts about the set that make M12 Limited different from other sets:
A) Bloodthirst creatures end games fast. When they come down on curve and with counters there's no fighting them in combat. If you don't happen to have the no-questions-asked removal which is so precious in Limited there's virtually no hope of beating a turn 4 Gorehorn Minotaurs or Vampire Outcasts with bloodthirst.
Games can get out of control quickly so you need to be prepared to defend yourself from an early rush right from turn 1 if possible. You should often remove their very first creature to get ahead on tempo and give yourself some breathing room. For this reason the cheap removal spells—Shock and Wring Flesh—are much better than they might initially seem and the more expensive ones like Chandra's Outrage and Arachnus Web while still good are often rated higher than they deserve.
Naturally there's no guarantee of having a Shock in your opening hand every game. The next best option is to be prepared to trade creatures early. Goblin Arsonist and Child of Night are great cards because they trade early and provide a little value in the process. Goblin Piker and Coral Merfolk are completely fine cards as well; I rarely cut them. Perhaps the most important point though is that you need to be prepared to throw your Azure Mage in the way of a less exciting creature if all you need to do is make it to the late-game alive.
Cheap creatures and cheap removal that trade one-for-one are good. Expensive creatures that trade one-for-one are bad. It's awful to have Chasm Drake in your opening hand wait patiently to cast it and have it die to a removal spell which costs much less. Often times it's even worse than that! That Chasm Drake could be coming down to chump block a Gorehorn Minotaurs if your hand doesn't have enough early defense.
A good card in M12 Limited is one that can trade with something more expensive. Gideon's Lawkeeper Incinerate and Doom Blade are the best commons but that's relatively obvious from comparing M12 to previous core sets. Other cards that pass this test are Mana Leak and the aforementioned Goblin Arsonist and Child of Night. Ones that fail are Chasm Drake Aven Fleetwing and Warpath Ghoul.
B) Card advantage is hard to come by without uncommons and rares. The only reliable common card advantage spells are Gravedigger—which is awesome—and Divination and Mind Rot—which dangerously provide card advantage at the expense of tempo.
The scarcity of card advantage means that a single two-for-one trade can more easily determine a game than in other formats. M12 offers some quality auras but you should avoid them when you can because there's no way to come back from the hole you dig yourself if your opponent takes out two cards with a single removal spell. An exception is when you have the opportunity to enchant a hexproof creature which can be a powerful move especially against slow decks. However the hexproof creatures are overpriced and therefore fail the test of trading with cheaper cards. Both hexproof creatures and the common auras are mediocre on their own so I generally recommend avoiding both when you can. Keep them in mind as Hail Mary game plans if your deck turns out weak or if the matchup calls for it.
Dead cards are even more painful in M12 Limited than they are in other formats. I considered Deathmark a very good maindeck card in previous core sets but it's weak filler at best in M12. Swiftfoot Boots is another “dead card” that should be avoided; it's not Whispersilk Cloak! It can annoy your opponents in some specific situations but generally drawing it means you're down a card in a format whose defining characteristics are trading and lack of card advantage.
Combat tricks are doubly bad as they are dead cards in your hand until you're ready to use them and they sometimes also open you up to a two-for-one. Personally I'll play a Titanic Growth or two but combat tricks are not a key part of any deck and shouldn't be valued too highly.
Stave Off stands alone as a non-creature non-removal common that I consider very good. Part of this though is the fact that you don't always have to have it in your hand at a precise moment for it to be good. Most games where you can't use it well in combat you can knock off an aura like Pacifism or the dreaded Mind Control.
Defending yourself against dead cards and two-for-ones is a good start but if everyone knows how to do that you need to find creative ways to get your edge. One example is playing a low land count. If my deck contains sixteen lands and yours eighteen in a moderately long game I will draw one more nonland card than you on average. Make no mistake I'm not recommending that you build your deck the same way you would in M10 and then cut two lands; if you do that you will stumble and die to fully powered bloodthirst creatures. I'm recommending that you design your deck to function as well as possible on two or three lands play sixteen and take advantage of a passive advantage which your opponents may not have.
A second unconventional way of gaining card advantage is to mulligan less often and luckily this goes hand in hand with playing a low land count. Fill your deck with ones twos and threes and you can keep opening hands with only one or two lands in them.
I only mulligan in M12 Limited when I absolutely have to because it's simply very hard to win any normal game where you're down a card. I'd much rather gamble on drawing out of a mana screw than mulligan and guarantee myself a huge disadvantage. Personally I'll keep nearly any hand that has both of my colors and two to five lands. I also build my deck with a low curve and choose to draw so that I feel okay keeping appealing one-landers.
The Drafting Process
Core set draft is more straightforward than drafting a block but that doesn't mean it's necessarily easier. The fundamentals of card evaluation reading signals and mana curve are more important than they are anywhere else.
You can think of M12 as having “tiers” of cards. For example there are tons of filler creatures: Warpath Ghoul Bloodrage Vampire Blood Seeker Runeclaw Bears Brindle Boar Sacred Wolf. We could spend an hour ranking these cards but the bottom line is that your deck won't be much better or much worse depending on which of these you end up with. Similarly I don't much care whether I open a Serra Angel a Sengir Vampire or a Fireball because they're all premium cards one tier shy of the game-breaking bombs.
The “tier” mentality is helpful because it helps you decide when to draft an off-color card. After your first pick if you're deciding between two cards on the same tier you should go with the one that's the same color as your first pick. However if you're deciding between two cards that are clearly on different levels you can dive into your second color right away.
I first picked a Gideon's Lawkeeper and now I'm looking at Stormfront Pegasus and Aether Adept. The Adept is a better card but the two are both on the “strong creature” tier so I feel fine sticking to mono-white for now. This way if I see a bomb in green red or black (I could easily open one in pack two) I'll be free to take it.
Now change the Adept to a Mind Control. Clearly Stormfront Pegasus and Mind Control are on a very different power level so I'll grab the Mind Control and go U/W unless I have a very good reason to change.
In a typical draft where you know your colors from pack one there's very little risk of being short on playables so there's no reason to stress about picking up filler cards early on. In particular there's no reason to pick up expensive mediocre creatures like Bonebreaker Giant. I only want a few creatures that cost more than three in my deck anyway so hopefully they can be premium cards like Serra Angel and Gorehorn Minotaurs. It's easy to grab a vanilla five-drop in pack three if you decide your deck needs it.
Spend pack one picking up premium cards when you can and hunting for information about which colors are open and which aren't. By the time you see what you open in pack two you should be deciding on your two-color combination and can spend the rest of the draft focusing on putting together a deck with enough creatures and a nice mana curve.
In most cases what's good in Draft will also be good in Sealed. The key is building a deck capable of beating the wide range of decks you're likely to face. Have enough early defense to handle a B/R bloodthirst deck and have a strong enough late game to make sure you can win once you get there.
Remember that your opponents will have both more bombs and more removal. More bombs mean that you need to be able to close a game because otherwise you need an answer for each and every threat in your opponent's deck. However more removal means that you can't go “all-in” on an aggressive plan. It's great to build with a low mana curve and aggressive potential but make sure you can still win if your opponent removes your first two creatures and plays a five-drop. Cards like Crown of Empires are great in Sealed because they're a good part of an aggressive draw but also give you some control over the game when things go long.
In particular you need to be prepared to beat opponents with tons of removal. The points made in the “card advantage” section are all vital when you face that guy with three Incinerates and two Doom Blades. Mind Rot and Divination are both very strong auto-includes in Sealed Deck while they're iffy in many draft decks.
Having a winning record in Sealed Deck is one thing but going undefeated is quite another. If your goal is to go 9-0 or 8-1 like it or not you will have to beat Mind Controls and Overruns and Titans. The last step before submitting your deck is to ask yourself what your plan is for beating the uncommon bombs of the format. It may be that your B/R deck stands out as the best option but if you can't realistically win when your Sengir Vampire is Mind Controlled you may need to reconsider or at least be prepared with a sideboard change.
When you play your games in Sealed be constantly thinking about the threatening cards your opponents might have. If you're seeing nothing but mediocre green creatures from your 3-0 opponent there's a great chance he played green because he has Overrun or Stingerfling Spider. If your opponent has been Looting Pondering and Divinating all game don't be surprised when she plays Mind Control or Djinn of Wishes.
For the fun part this week rather than list pick orders I'll give some examples of the tiers of cards in M12 Limited.
Bomb: Grave Titan Inferno Titan Gideon Jura. If some sadistic judge gives me a pack with a Grave Titan and a foil Inferno Titan in Montreal I'll take the Grave Titan. If I'm mono-red though and have that choice pick one of pack two I'll go with the Inferno.
Basic Lands: The Rob Alexander Island I rank with the solid filler but the rest of the lands are pretty low picks.
I hope this has been helpful for those of you playing Grand Prix Montreal this weekend and for anyone who has another M12 Limited event coming up. It's a wild and hostile format but there's no reason to be afraid of it. Nothing is unbeatable from the fastest bloodthirst draws to the most powerful bombs. What it takes is careful planning from drafting to deck construction to sideboarding and gameplay. Good luck and enjoy it while you can!