Ravnica Block Draft Archetypes
Ravnica block introduces a new level of puzzling to competitive Limited play. Certainly in the past we see the emergence of archetypes amongst a block's available draft patterns. Usually these focus on cards that have strong synergies, namely in the normal aspects of being a controlling, aggressive, or combo-style deck. Each of these strategies would find a different way to win the game. This was the case before the release of Dissension, but now that the full compliment of colors has been defined, there is some degree of mapping that can be done to determine what won't be viable, what will be viable, and what will work.
The most important building block that we have is also the most obvious. The first consideration that each player will make going in to a new Limited format is usually the defined archetypes. We can clearly define five archetypes from the very beginning by examining which possible three-color combinations are available when choosing one guild from each set.
This leaves us with the default beginning of five distinctive archetypes to discuss. There are at least three very different ways to examine these:
1. Guild cohesion.
This aspect would focus entirely on the reliability of each of the three guilds being employed to work together toward one common goal. To determine the similarity of goals, we examine each guild's individual properties and rank the synergies in comparison to the other available default archetypes.
2. Guild availability.
Many players have already noted that some of the guilds involved in these default combinations are more (or less) available than others, because of the number of times they are used in the five branches. More popular ones dictate more players taking those colors in the desired pack, while less popular ones… you get the point.
3. Popularity contest.
Some people just feel, no matter what, that some colors are more powerful based on the raw power of some of the mono-colored cards. This means that some of these archetypes (and others to be discussed later) are more likely to be forced.
Guild Cohesion Evaluation
1. Red White Blue
Boros – Izzet – Azorius
“Bozorius” (bo – ‘zo – re – us)
Boros was introduced as the most aggressive guild. It has remained that way for many players as their opinions have relied on familiarity, and cards like Skyknight Legionnaire have left the lasting impression of this in the minds of many. This strength is played upon by some of the cards available in Dissension. There are several efficient evasive creatures in the common slot, as well as some real bombs for this type of strategy at the uncommon slot. The problem is exposed when we examine the potential for another strategy: that of control.
This three-color combination can go either way. It likely won't end in milling the opponent out, unless you've taken several Vedalken Entrancers. Let's assume that isn't the case. The control cards available include some solid Red removal, solid White removal, and Blue tempo cards. The common slot provides a backbone for both directions that Bozorius can be taken, and this means that once you've determined that these are the colors that you're in, you also have to figure out which of the two sub-archetypes you're supposed to be playing the role of.
2. Red White Black
Boros – Orzhov – Rakdos
“Borzhov” (‘bor – zäv)
This three-guild blend plays on the best removal available in the set. You have access to Galvanic Arc, Faith's Fetters, all of Ravnica's Black removal, Douse in Gloom, Pillory of the Sleepless, Seal of Fire, Seal of Doom, Cackling Flames… the list is enormous before you even start looking at the uncommon slots. This makes me lean toward playing the role of a control deck. The creatures might be aggressive at face value, but the goal of the deck overall is to keep the board clear of unmanageable creatures before pressing the advantage with a bigger, stronger creature.
The other way that this might work out is that a player may decide to take more aggressive creatures in these colors, thinking that they can create too fast a clock to be reasonably dealt with. This may be a viable line of attack, but I think the strength here definitely stresses the removal. Even a combination of smaller, faster threats, backed by the removal, seems to take the same approach as playing a control deck. Your creatures may be aggressive, but that doesn't mean that the cards in your hand are the same.
3. Blue Black Red
Dimir – Izzet – Rakdos
“Dimizzedos” (dim – ‘iz – e – dos)
This combination has already been explored a great deal in RRG, with the availability of the Izzet guild adding wonderfully to the dominating strategy of Dimir control decks. With the new format, we lose a Ravnica pack and gain fifteen rounds of Rakdos potential from Dissension. What does Rakdos bring to the table? The answer: A mechanic that leaves the guild entirely different, if not outright opposed to, the plan of the archetype. Rakdos brings to the table unparalleled aggression, with a goal of making its spells under-costed by means of emptying your hand. While a Blue/Black aggressive strategy was argued to exist, and perhaps it can gain something from Rakdos, there are a number of dissynergies to explore here.
The first and foremost is the one stated above. Emptying your hand takes away your tricks. Cards like Delirium Skeins seem to define and strengthen the Rakdos card pool. These kinds of cards make it impossible to effectively stop the other player by means of the control spells available in the first two packs. There aren't many Red and Black cards that fit the bill of the stronger Dimizzedos deck. A few include Seal of Doom and Seal of Fire. Arguably Cackling Flames could be played to great effect since, unlike the Seals, it can be returned by Izzet Chronarch. Wrecking Ball is the defining common that brings the synergies to the table in the last pack, but ultimately it looks like Rakdos wants to go with a deck that is more aggressive… and this deck just isn't it. Ultimately, I think that this archetype is hurt a great deal by having one less pack of stable creatures that do a great job of anchoring the role of the deck.
4. Blue Black White
Dimir – Orzhov – Azorius
“Dimorius” (dim – ‘o – re -- us)
Here's a control deck. Borrowing great removal from Black and White, Dimorius might be the strongest control deck available. There is room to play with similarities expressed in the Bozorius attack pattern, for sure, but this deck looks to have many more control elements than aggressive ones. Cards like Mistral Charger, Freewind Equenaut, and Azorius First-Wing are all cards in color that might lend themselves toward this kind of strategy, but the stronger cards in these colors are going to be freely available, as they aren't fitting in to the Red White player's needed common slots.
Trump control cards here include Vedalkens of all sorts, draw spells at the common slot that feel unfair when they resolve, and a lot of White and Black sprinkled on top to accommodate whatever removal was available. Defensive creatures like Tidewater Minion are more scarce without a second pack to find them, but other creatures like Guardian of the Guildpact and Minister of Impediments make the game staggeringly difficult as your opponent needs to extend their hand farther and faster to keep up. Don't overlook Overrule, either, as it often plays a strong role in making the comeback as your opponent tries to deliver the final blow. I've seen it more than one time in the past few RGD drafts that I've done, and I'm starting to think it will be a common theme that this guild-mix may employ. Here's the other memo worth getting: Soulsworn Jury is great. It's just a better version of Flame-Kin War Scout. It's more suited to the colors that it is in, and it does the job better.
5. Green Black Red
Golgari – Gruul – Rakdos
“Golgruulidos” (gol – ‘gröl – e – dos)
If you're interested in ditching the Karoo lands, this is probably the time and place. Good Green and Black go unpicked in pack one in favor of cards in either Dimir or Boros. This leaves things like Golgari Rotwurm and Shambling Shell drifting two or even three picks further around the table than we were previously used to. This means that you can take the Black removal early over these guys and still have a chance at getting them. You're probably not going to want to rely on tabling either, as someone in the fifth or sixth position might pick up on the scent, but as a guild alone at the top of one of the forty-five card arrangements, I promise you'll see them fall to 8th and even 9th more often than you thought they would.
The point that most players are making right out of the gates - and it is a good one - is that Gruul fits only in to this home. The cards in Gruul don't play well in any role other than that of the aggressor, and this particular three-color permutation is the only place that they can be found on the map outlined above. Pack two sees a lot of late combat tricks (read: Wildsize) going around for this reason. The rest of the players are much more interested in the other four colors, and that often leaves one player at the table picking up most of the good cards designed for this strategy.
Rakdos finally is done justice here, as this combination is perfectly met by all three colors. Emptying the hand is relatively reasonable to expect, as you're going to top out around the five slot and be overloaded on every Guildmage that you see… as well as many other evasive two- and three-drops. Burn and low-cost removal seals the deal and lets you hit your Hellbent quickly.
So where does that leave us? If I had to rank each of these combinations based on their synergies, forgetting entirely which one I prefer for which reason, I think I'd rank them like this:
1. Golgari – Gruul – Rakdos
Fast, aggressive creatures with a touch of removal.
2. Dimir – Orzhov – Azorius
The strongest control role overall.
3. Boros – Izzet – Azorius
Second strongest control role. Less removal, but with Chronarch and burn.
4. Boros – Orzhov – Rakdos
Aggressive or controlling, depending on the common runs in each pack.
5. Dimir – Izzet – Rakdos
Hurt a great deal by one less Ravnica pack. Still one of the strongest paths.
Now, with that said, it is worth mentioning that none of these are terrible strategies that I believe to be bad; I'm just ranking them in terms of how well their common slots all fill the same role. Ultimately, this means that the deck will be naturally cohesive and the player will be largely relegated to cutting off-color trouble-cards, signaling strongly to maintain their position at the table, and looking for uncommon or rare cards with the potential to break the archetype wide open.
These five default patterns are supported by just about every Pro, at least from the first notion. Having access to a two-color guild in each of the three packs with the likelihood for stronger spells overall as the result of utilizing both colors of each of the three guilds seems like a necessity. That is to say that I've heard, many times, over the past week or two, “I don't think it's right to break the paradigm of the three-guild paths because then you're not getting as strong of cards in at least one of the packs.” More on that later.
Guild Availability Evaluation
The availability of the guilds is a very technical aspect of this article. It is easy to conclude a few simple observations that can be observed to be factual. This is beneficial, because it gives a very real perspective on what cards are more or less likely to be going around during each pack having considered the previous pack(s).
At the surface level, I'm watching many good players absorb the five-path diagram. The next conclusion that they come to, after practicing with the format for a few days, is that there is at least one guild that fits the map that is only drafted as a part of one of the plans: Gruul. Not only that, but the plan involving Gruul is one of the strongest because of the cohesion of its commons in general. I'm not sure why this is realized first, before people see that this same argument is true for Golgari, but it seems to be a common theme both inside and outside of the people that I'm testing with.
This is in conflict with the next point observed, however. Rakdos is taken at the end of three of the five chains. Cards like Seal of Doom are almost always going to be first picks, because they are definitely well-fitting to all three of the five arrangements that Rakdos fits into. Having realized this, there is another realization that occurs.
The third pack is filler. So many of the cards in Dissension are viewed as playable in this draft format that, having acquired most of the playable deck over the first two packs, the third pack will largely be used to shore things up. Players at this point in the thought process enter pack three hoping to nab a second or third piece of removal, Karoo-lands, Signets, or creatures. This is in stark contrast to the notion with which we started out: take one guild from each pack and remain steady.
This applies, to a lesser extent, for the remaining two paths – those that don't end with Rakdos. Azorius cards will be taken second-highest to Rakdos cards during Dissension because they, simply, are the second-most needed to fill one of the five molds. That leaves two types of cards that aren't being taken as strongly: mana enablers and Simic cards.
Simic, notably, is not included on any of the three-guild paths. Nor is Selesnya. These have a common color as well, but aren't included in the paths at all because they lack a connecting guild in Guildpact. That connecting guild is Azorius, which is already noted as being taken behind Rakdos in pack three. Cue foreshadowing.
This means that we can easily assess what guilds are “the most available” according to the plan designated as the default:
Guilds in none of the default paths:
Guilds in only one of the default paths:
Guilds in two of the default paths:
The gets-around-too-much guild:
Guild Popularity Evaluation
Each of the guilds is ranked with a different degree of popularity. This is the case because each player sits down with some preconceived notion of what is the best direction to head from the outset. There are very real choices that must be made whenever a pack is opened and two cards are available that send the deck in different directions.
The strongest disposition is clear. Blue is the best color. “You want to be in Blue,” is the sentiment that seems to be most strongly covered as my group begins to explore the format. Train of Thought and Compulsive Research are so strong in the format that they often bend the game to the will of those who cast them right on the spot. Card advantage is obviously key in any Limited format, but stronger still in Ravnica block draft, as it seems to prove over and over again that draw spells are far more valuable than previous draft formats might have expressed.
The second strongest color that is looked for is probably Black. This leaves open numerous very valuable Black removal spells in the common slot, as well as setting the player up for the Golgari, Gruul, Rakdos plan. This plan is perceived as one of the strongest, too, because while it adheres to the rule of “be in a guild in each pack,” it also avoids fighting for card quality with neighbors.
This seems to be the strongest feeling at this point in our practice. Golgruulidos is seen by stronger players as being the direction worth forcing. Still, other strong players force Blue and remain open as to what their other colors can become, but would like to remain on one of the default patterns.
With these simple evaluations in mind, we determine that any path including Blue, Black, or some combination of the two is, by deduction, more popular and thus less available. This is assessed most easily by looking at the guilds that one can start out with, including Selesnya.
Selesnya is, then, the least popular. It does not guarantee a Blue or Black splash. This means that it may struggle to find ways to get ahead in the mid-to-late game, or remove problematic creatures should the game last upward of eleven turns. This leaves the Green/White guild the most open to begin with.
Dimir, then, by contrast, contains both of the two desired colors. While the strength of the picks may be highest over the first few choices, they are more likely to dwindle as soon as the second pick because of the perceived strength of the colors. Only one of Dimir's branches takes us to a very synergistic deck via the commons, but strong Blue and/or Black cards in pack one leave a lot of possibilities for splashes in to other plans, as well. This is definitely the most sought-after guild during the entire draft.
This leaves Boros and Golgari. Golgari is more popular because of the perception that it will be easier to pick up, not having to struggle for signaling with a neighbor upwind during pack one. It puts the player into the path of least resistance. Boros, by comparison, leads us in two different directions, one of which involves Black, the other Blue. As far as I can tell, that makes it the second-least drafted guild from the standpoint of Ravnica. Better players have made the observation that Golgari is the direction to be headed, and still other players want to be Blue definitively, and this leaves Boros second only to the never-included Selesnya.
In terms of starting your path, then, the popularity contest comes out like this:
Removal and card drawing.
The strongest perceived plan to be in.
Sets the player either Blue or Black, but not both.
The Finer Points
There are at least five other plans, assuming that we're considering three-color combinations when in search of archetypes. They each include two guilds from one set, along with a connecting guild in another set. This leaves one pack completely void of guilds that fit the three colors, but that means you can take role fillers more highly. It also means that you can overvalue Signets and Karoos during a pack, forcing the other players in other packs to fight more strongly for the correct mana-base. This leaves your neighbors struggling to catch up, since you cut all of their mana in a pack and you're left entirely open to two guilds, free to visit the buffet.
There's a key to execution, here. The pack where you're picking mana is ideally before the pack in which you want a two guild-festival to take place. The other key is that you want to know that your gameplan is going to be set before you start trying to force this archetype in to existence at your table. We can figure out the best way to make this happen, but we're going to have to make another diagram. This one doesn't branch from pack to pack as the previous one did because, by nature, we're talking about the potential color-combinations and how they don't link together this time.
Selesnya & Golgari
Boros & Selesnya
Simic & Azorius
Izzet & Gruul
Golgari & Dimir
In order for any of these to really work out, you need to have a pretty big hand in the cookie jar when it comes time for you to be taking two guilds at a time. You also need to know that you're already in the plan and have the common base to support it. Lastly, you absolutely have to be cutting Karoos and Signets from pack one or two so that you can get the dip that you need later.
GWB and RGW are both right out. They weren't great before, and they only get thinner with one less Ravnica pack. They don't follow the guidelines at all, either. You're taking two guilds before you ever cut someone off. Expecting a good three-color base in pack one is pretty rough to accomplish. Not only that, but you're still not cutting anyone off in pack two. GBU suffers from this same dilemma. You need to be taking both Golgari and Dimir from pack one? Those are both pretty popular, because of reasons I discussed above.
UGR, then, is a better contender because you're cutting the mana-support while passing left, then needing a bigger playables list on pack two, going to the right. The problem here is that you're forcing the plan by doing things this way and you might wind up just never seeing what you wanted because your opponents aren't desperate for mana-fixing just yet. They still see pack three as an opportunity to get the stuff that they need later, and so they just continue taking playable bodies and removal during pack two, leaving you out in the cold.
This brings us to the last one. Green-Blue-White. This guild illustrates, on the map, how you want things to go. In pack one you get to take great Blue-only spells (Dismisser, Entrancer, Peel from Reality, etc.) and exceptional Selesnya cards that will go much later than they are supposed to because they don't fit any of the default five maps at the beginning of this article. Having collected the requisite number of playable fat men and Blue tempo-stealing cards, you will, at the end of pack one, know if you should continue the plan or start looking to build from the base of cards that you took in other colors. Maybe you took a Last Gasp early or you have two Vedalken Dismissers. These are both able to lend themselves well to many other plans.
The second pack, then, illustrates the real strength of this strategy. You will want to cut mana extremely hard. You're going to wind up passing a few things that you don't want to, but trust me, having done it several times now, cutting the person who is upwind of you for pack three is very rewarding. Dissension has more playable commons and uncommons than we are used to, anyway. Imagine if you get a virtual three or four unmolested picks from the packs, and maybe more depending on how many of the signets and bounce-lands you were able to sift out. The real power that shines during Guildpact, though, is the ability to signal not what your color is, but what the person to your left will have to do in pack three. It's a bit scary to cut one type of card so strongly when you're doing it for the first or second time, but this plan leaves flexibility, too. If you don't think you should be doing it after how pack one went (you should have a lot of playable late-game bodies), you can get out.
Here are a few sample drafts to show you how things have gone for myself. I've drafted the format quite a bit, already, and while my favorite remains GWU, here are two other draft decks that I played.
- 1 Barbarian Riftcutter
- 3 Beacon Hawk
- 1 Helium Squirter
- 1 Living Inferno
- 1 Simic Guildmage
- 2 Soulsworn Jury
- 1 Torch Drake
- 1 Viashino Fangtail
- 2 Wee Dragonauts
It might not look like much, but I went 3-0 with it. There is a lot more here than perhaps meets the eye. Beacon Hawk is great with at least three guys that you want to untap. I'm counting Ocular Halo. Shielding Plax was included as a twenty-fourth card because it cantrips, but I later realized that it would work great with Simic Guildmage. I never achieved this during any of my matches. Wee Dragonauts is great with ways to set them off. Unfortunately there aren't many, here. I did end at least one game by casting Leap of Flame, replicating it once, and cast Odds on it just to pump my Wee Dragonauts. The copy or counter part didn't matter. Odds / Ends should be played more for the other side, anyway. It's a rare, which means it becomes a trick that they can't often afford to play around, and the power of it is often devastating, especially for a deck that can take out one toughness guys to make sure they sacrifice creatures that matter.
- 2 Demon's Jester
- 1 Dimir House Guard
- 1 Drekavac
- 1 Gobhobbler Rats
- 1 Rakdos Augermage
- 3 Sabertooth Alley Cat
- 1 Sell-Sword Brute
- 1 Sparkmage Apprentice
- 1 Stinkweed Imp
I originally played this deck with only 16 lands. I went 0-2 that way, mulliganing for land-issues four out of five times. I then added another mountain and played two more matches for fun, and didn't drop a game. I also had to make a choice during pick three of Dissension whether I should take Delirium Skeins #2 or Wrecking Ball #1. I took the removal, but I now believe that to be wholly incorrect. Certainly I couldn't have known that two more were coming 4th and 5th (we later decided that the people passing them made the right call in doing so), but most importantly, Delirium Skeins is flat out ridiculous.
This deck operated rather streamlined after fixing my mana issues, and made it really tough for my opponents to fight back fast enough against two-power creatures that they couldn't block. I also won whenever I cast Delirium Skeins. The consensus amongst my group seems to be that it levels the playing field with the Blue decks, and enables your Hellbent abilities with Demon's Jester being the most important one. Maybe that's obvious, though.
Closing Thoughts and Recommendations
A few things that we discovered:
1. One-toughness creatures seem to be a lot more frequent now. Carom might be fine.
2. Ickspitter is a three-mana common pinging creature. These should be going first pick.
3. Izzet has moved up in the pick order in general. This is due to both attempts to signal opponents out of Blue-Red, and the need for quality cards that fit a lot of archetypes in general.
5. It's very easy to tell when your opponent has drawn a split card. You can even tell which half they are looking at by looking at how they move their fingers to see which side they are reading. Be careful. Sleeve them in both directions, too, maybe. I stopped several opponents and told them I knew what they had just drawn.
7. Pick Delirium Skeins very highly.
My final recommendation is that people given an opportunity to try the format give a legitimate shot to GWU. Having drafted it a few times, now, I can tell you that the plan is more likely to work out, and extremely flexible. My paradigm, as a drafter, is to never force an archetype. When I start seeing super-late Siege Wurm and Guardian of Vitu-Ghazi, though, I start to wonder if I shouldn't back out of whatever plan I'm in and go back in to my favorite.
I'm not suggesting that I know UGW to be the best option. I am merely trying to point out that it is a very different strategy that your fellow drafters will not be prepared to cut or draft around, and it leaves you with a lot of power and flexibility at the same time. Maybe that's just my style.
I have put considerable time in to drafting the format and considering the strategic implications of adding Dissension to the Limited format. I hope you appreciated this article and take some of my opinions into account whether you're preparing to explore the format in the weeks ahead, or getting ready to hit up the Czech Republic in hopes of finding your name amongst the top of some of the best in the world.
Thanks for reading.