Ultimate Masters releases on Magic Online today, and you can draft it at your local store tomorrow! I know I'll be drafting the set a ton, but most people won't have that luxury. And if you're spending this much money on a draft, there's no need to go in blind. My goal is to provide you with tools and heuristics for approaching this Draft format from the get-go. This article will focus on drafting a deck with the highest probability of winning. If your favorite card is Life from the Loam, by all means slam it first pick and have fun, but I don't think that's going to be the best strategy.
Masters formats are hard to draft. I can't stress that enough. Archetypes aren't as limited to their color combinations, and what you can and can't do is not that obvious. In Ultimate Masters, I expect you can play a Boros deck that curves out with cards like Arena Athlete, Wingsteed Rider, and Hyena Umbra. But you can also draft a Boros deck that plays Faithless Looting, Mad Prophet, and Resurrection!
The most important concept to understand when drafting any Masters set is the intersection of card quality and synergy. Spider Spawning is a fun and powerful card, but it can't go in every deck. Faithless Looting can be very powerful and efficient when paired with the right cards, but if you don't, it's card disadvantage. The best cards will sit at a medium between synergistic and powerful. Hero of Iroas may be one of the best cards in your heroic deck, but it's also a good beater with upside for any reasonable white aggressive deck. It provides a high ceiling with synergy, but given how easy it is to get just one counter on the card, the floor is fairly high. This is one of the many reasons that Young Pyromancer is such a powerful Magic card. Both Young Pyromancer and Hero of Iroas are cards I expect to be solid uncommons to first pick in Ultimate Masters
Optimal decks in Masters sets are works of art. You want to maximize synergy without sacrificing card quality. But facilitating that plan is almost impossible given that most cards don't fit this description. The draft is a balancing act. Going all in on a synergistic combo sacrifices too much consistency. Drafting a pile of fantastic cards without any synergy is possible, but often folds to a good synergistic deck. Your plan can't just be to cast removal spells and solid threats because then good luck beating Spider Spawning. It's important that you have your own synergies to maximize in order to press an advantage.
You should be able to give your deck a descriptive name as you draft it.
When drafting both Masters sets and normal sets, color combinations tend to do something specific. In Guilds of Ravnica, most decks can be described as aggro, midrange, or control. Sure, sometimes you have enough payoff to consider your Dimir deck a "surveil deck," but it's not expected. This is because, in normal Limited sets, the powerful payoffs are rarely at common.
This is not true for Masters sets, including Ultimate Masters. Look at all the madness cards at common. Fiery Temper and Reckless Wurm are real payoffs for playing cards like Faithless Looting and Frantic Search. The best decks in this format will have quite a bit of synergy. Yes, they will be some form of aggro, midrange, or control. But the difference is that you have enough synergy to define your deck. It doesn't matter which camp your Izzet deck falls into, a good version of Izzet in Ultimate Masters can be described as either Izzet Madness or Izzet Spells.
When drafting the format, make sure to keep this in mind. When looking at a pack, remember that cards of the same color are important for different archetypes. Laboratory Maniac probably can't pair with white or red. But there's enough churning through your library in black and green that it may have a home there. If you can define your deck as self-mill, you can play Laboratory Maniac. So keep track of the cards you have and how they synergize. Rather than finding your color pair, find your archetype. It's easier that way!
Take enablers highly.
While payoff cards are great, they're often narrow. I don't want to pick up Laboratory Maniac until I know I'm in self-mill. Same goes for cards like Rise from the Tides or Spider Spawning. A crucial skill in drafting is reading signals and navigating the draft to end up in the right archetype for your seat. You can draft the best payoff cards highly, but if a payoff and enabler are of similar power level, you should take the enabler unless it's late in the draft and you need payoffs.
Enablers tend to go in more decks than payoffs, as they are less narrow. This is exacerbated in Ultimate Masters because most of the synergies rely on the graveyard. They keep you open and also increase the potency of any payoff cards throughout the draft. Furthermore, they're usually designed to stand well on their own, which makes them a priority.
One-for-one removal is not as good as you think.
Removal is important in Limited. It always will be. In Masters sets, there are usually a lot more cards like Eternal Witness than there are cards like Mahamoti Djinn. There will be plenty of creatures you need to kill. It could be a heroic threat that got too big, a Laboratory Maniac with a non-existent library, or just to get a blocker out of the way to attack for lethal. However, you cannot just plan on interacting with every creature your opponent plays like you can in most sets with "removal.dec." You'll get ground down by value creatures most of the time, so draft removal, but a little lower than usual.
Lastly, given the heuristics described above, here are what I believe to be the top commons in each color and cards I can see first picking. If a common is not on this list, I would be very upset to start my draft with it.
Wingsteed Rider with both Hyena Umbra and Spider Umbra is a force to be reckoned with. One counter on this card and it can end the game all by itself. Maybe Faith's Fetters should be better, but given cards like Just the Wind and the fact that removal is less premium, I would rather take a solid synergistic threat.
The quality of this card is too high to ignore. It'll go in any white deck and you can splash it. It may be even better than I'm giving it credit for because of Heliod's Pilgrim.
This rarity downshift is pretty absurd to me. Resurrection can end the game on turn 4, and even if you didn't get a little lucky, it's a powerful lategame spell. There's only so much reanimation in the set, but it's a key archetype, so Resurrection may end up a premium common.
Rune Snag is a cheap interactive card that handles value creatures much better than removal spells. The fact that you can draft multiple and turn this card into a splashable counterspell is nothing to scoff at. I like this card a lot and plan on drafting multiples.
A giant Man-o'-War is great in Limited and Aethersnipe is no different. The flexibility of casting it for cheaper is awesome, and evoke synergizes with plenty of cards in the set. Personally, I'm looking forward to casting Aethersnipe on turn 3 and Resurrection on turn 4.
Dimir Guildmage is an amazing value creature. You can play it in either blue or black and if you can activate both abilities, you're really doing it. Unsure how highly you should be taking it, but it's a very good card.
Treasure Cruise looks especially good in this set. While usually it's hard to draft a deck that supports multiple delve cards, the enablers are good enough that I don't think it will be a problem. All it takes is a Forbidden Alchemy to turn Treasure Cruise into Harmonize, and I imagine it will be Ancestral Recall some portion of the time.
I'm not excited to first pick it, as the card does get worse in multiples, but I wouldn't be surprised if this turned out to be a format where you can play multiples!
Deranged Assistant is the only way to cheat on mana starting on turn 3. There are three other ramp cards in the set, but they all cost three mana. This places Deranged Assistant at a premium, as putting cards in the bin for delve and other graveyard synergies is a nice amount of gravy on top of an effect I already want.
Frantic Search is a card to lookout for. It's one of the best enablers if you're looking to discard a card, whether for madness, reanimation, or even pumping up Rise from the Tides or Spider Spawning. I don't want to first pick it, but depending on what your deck is trying to do, Frantic Search can skyrocket in value.
See notes from blue's section on the Guildmage. However, it should be noted that it's slightly worse without the ability to draw cards, as that tends to be a more impactful effect than making your opponent discard.
Black looks a lot more like a support color here. There aren't many commons that I'm excited to start my draft with, but there are a lot of commons that get much better if you have the proper synergy. Guildmage is a solid value creature, and the efficiency of Last Gasp does make it a removal spell I like quite a bit - especially because it can sometimes still snipe a creature with an Umbra.
I imagine that this means it won't be common to start off with black cards, but be on the lookout for what's coming late, because all the honorable mentions can be quite potent when used properly.
I have Fiery Temper pegged as the best common in the set. If you pair it with discard outlets, it's Lightning Bolt, and even without them, it's a reasonable spell. The blowouts with Wild Mongrel will be real, and god forbid you get multiples. I don't plan on passing this card very much given how easy it is to facilitate madness.
With all the graveyard and madness payoff, zero-mana enablers are few and far in between. The haste on Mad Prophet means you guarantee your value, which is quite nice. You can even wait until turn 5 to play it alongside Fiery Temper!
Fire//Ice is one of my favorite cards of all time. Fire is a great spell for any Limited deck, and if you can cast the Ice side, the card becomes very good. You get free wins sometimes by cycling and tapping a land on the right turn, and it plays well when both ahead and behind.
Satyr Wayfinder may be the best enabler for the green graveyard strategies, so I plan on taking it highly. One of the awesome things about Satyr Wayfinder is that, since it has such low probability of missing, you can actually shave a land if you get multiple!
Wild Mongrel is the card that makes the madness decks extremely potent. It's a threat all by itself for two mana and turns all your madness cards into absurdly efficient monsters. A two-drop that makes your opponent play scared is nothing to scoff at. Sign me up!
Kodama's Reach is a powerful card, but last time we had Cultivate in a Masters set, it wasn't as good as I thought it would be. Then again, that set had a lot more fixing than this one, but also had more payoff for going big. I still think the rate on Kodama's Reach is good enough to have it a top-tier common, but we'll have to wait and see!
All three of these cards look a bit unassuming, but I promise they'll each do their part. Wickerbough Elder in a world with a bunch of enchantments at common is awesome. Hooting Mandrills for fantastic double spell turns is something you should look to do and arguably play around your opponent being able to do. And lastly, Pulse of Murasa always is better than it looks. Six life is a lot more than it sounds and this set looks to pay you off with graveyard recursion!