Diving Deep into the Draft Dungeon
- Jonatan Nahnfeldt
After a week of drafting, we're back from the dungeons to take inventory of what's working and what isn't! Adventures in the Forgotten Realms is the replacement for this year's core set, and it really shows in the Limited format. What really matters is raw card quality rather than synergy.
In Strixhaven draft, Silverquill Pledgemage was one of the premium three-drops. Not because of its statline, a 3/1 for three mana is a mediocre rate, but because of the magecraft synergies. Between learn and Lessons, it was pretty trivial to trigger magecraft at least once per turn, and the spells-matter theme of the set was heavily supported. It wasn't uncommon for players to have upward of ten instants/sorceries in the main deck and access to even more in the sideboard. Compare this to a "normal" set, like Forgotten Realms, where Silverquill Pledgemage would be quite bad, as the average deck rarely contains more than five to seven such spells. Its strength lies in synergy, not raw power.
So what is raw power then? Well, it is basically a matter of what kind of bang you get for your buck. To borrow a nice acronym from Limited Resources, you want CABS, Cards that Affect the Board State. For example, Owlbear and Steadfast Paladin are the best common creatures in their respective colors. They're efficiently costed for their stats and impact the board in a significant way. They are simply just good cards, no synergy required.
In contrast, cards like Pixie Guide and Brazen Dwarf go down in value in this environment. A 1/3 for two mana is, like Silverquill Pledgemage, a mediocre rate, and they are inherently dependent on synergy to affect the board and game state in a meaningful way. They just don't do enough on their own to be worth the mana investment. Keeping this in mind, I quickly want to rattle off my color and archetype rankings for this set.
Red and black are the two deepest colors, sporting the most efficient removal and some of the best creatures. White and green are close together, both having access to excellent creatures, but suffer from the inefficiency of their common removal. Coming in last, we have blue. With both lackluster creatures and interaction at common, you very rarely want to rely on blue as your main color in this environment. With that said, the gaps between the colors are not that huge and most decks can come together pretty well.
- Black-Red Sacrifice
- Red-White Equipment
- Red-Green Pack Tactics
- Black-Green Value Venture
- White-Black Venture
- Blue-Black Evasion
- Green-Blue Value
- Green-White Life Gain
- White-Blue Venture
- Blue-Red Die Rolling
There is a difference between looking at colors in isolation and in combination, but my top three archetypes are all based in red for a reason. The same applies to why the blue archetypes all slot into my bottom five.
But let's start with the good ones! What should you be looking out for when drafting to make sure you can weasle your way into the best decks?
Black and red are my picks for the best colors in the set, and it's no surprise that the combination of the two makes for the best archetype. The deck is inherently aggressive, but there are some different approaches you can take. The best one in my mind is the tried and true "steal and sac" that is so synonymous with black-red. Act of Treason+ is available at common, and there are some very good sacrifice outlets at common too, namely Sepulcher Ghoul and Deadly Dispute.
The signpost uncommon Kalain, Reclusive Painter is less of a payoff and more of a nice bonus in this deck. It's a good way to put your Treasure to use, but there are many more ways to use them. Because of the readily available Treasure tokens, black-red is actually one of the color pairs best suited to splashing! If you're modest in your splash, like I was in one of the above decks splashing for Barrowin of Clan Undurr, you often don't even need to play any non-Mountains/Swamps!
As for what cards you should be on the lookout for when drafting these decks, I've listed some of the most important cards in each color below. A quick reminder on how I choose my key cards. They are listed in no particular order, and removal spells are generally excluded from these. Removal is often just "generically good" and doesn't offer much interesting discussion. Rather, I list the cards I consider to be the most important roleplayers mechanically and synergistically for the respective colors.
Coming in just behind black-red is red-white. This deck is slightly more complicated to make work, as you need to carefully balance bodies, removal, and Equipment. The color pair sports the most powerful signpost uncommon, Bruenor Battlehammer, which I would classify as one of the "mythic uncommons" of the set. I would gladly firstpick it in pack one and more or less force my way into the archetype. Bruenor makes all your equipped creatures absolutely massive, and the mana advantage you get from the free equip every turn is also huge.
To support the theme, there is a bunch of decent Equipment available at common. The best is probably Boots of Speed. It might look innocent, but haste can be crucial in outpacing your opponents. One of the most powerful curves you can build from just commons is: turn one Boots of Speed, turn two Hobgoblin Captain, turn three another Hobgoblin Captain plus equip. This gives you 7 power attacking on turn three—with first strike! Very hard to block, and if your opponent can't interact with this in a meaningful way, it usually spells their demise.
So what about the underperforming archetypes? Well, as mentioned, synergy is much less important than raw power in this set. So it's no surprise then to find fault with the color pairs most focused on synergy.
Blue-red is usually one of my favorite color combinations, but in spite of my biased leanings I have to admit it is just really bad in this format. The pair sports underpowered commons, especially in blue, and the best red commons don't support the theme at all. I don't believe rolling dice is inherently bad. I actually think Wizards balanced the inherent variance quite well, with reasonable floors even on low rolls, but ironically that's part of the problem. It doesn't exactly help blue-red that the best die-rolling cards at common are heavily contested by other colors. Hoarding Ogre is an excellent source of generating Treasure in black-red, and Djinni Windseer is just the best blue common and thus goes into any blue deck, not just blue-red. This leaves you with lackluster commons such as the previously mentioned Pixie Guide and Brazen Dwarf, which just aren't good at all if your deck doesn't have a double-digit number of die-rolling cards, preferably including repeatable ones as well.
Similarly, green-white suffers in the same way. There simply aren't enough life-gain payoffs at common, and engine cards like Priest of Ancient Lore, Steadfast Paladin, or Hill Giant Herdgorger are just some of the best commons of their respective color. So you have to fight over them with other drafters in either color.
For both blue-red and green-white, you dependend on very specific uncommons to be opened and passed to you, which makes both decks very hard to make work in a meaningful way. This does not mean they will never come together. But it is so much harder to pull off than with all the other less synergy-driven color pairs that they fall short in the format as a whole.
All in all, I think this set is quite good in the perspective of being a core set, and I expect it to be one that is just deep enough to entertain us until we return to Innistrad in the fall. Happy drafting!
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.