For some reason whenever a new set is added to a draft format I cannot win a match for the next month or so. This results in losing all confidence I gained from mastering the previous draft format and causes my Magic Online rating to drop 100-200 points minimum. My results always seem so much better in a single set draft format than a two set or full block format. Most likely this is because I always rely on having pretty much the same cards in every deck when there is only one set, give or take a few uncommons or rares.
In triple Champions, I could always rely on getting a Kabuto Moth, a Cage of Hands and a Kitsune Blademaster in almost every White deck I drafted and always having these cards changed the way I would make the rest of my picks. Every new block that I see I am able to make better and better adjustments to new sets but it is still a slow process. For Betrayers I would like to think about exactly how things have changed by looking at the differences in the themes of each color between the sets. Some people who have already created set in stone pick orders for Betrayers are much beyond the stage of considering how Betrayers will impact the new format, but I prefer to have more time to gather information before I make the most basic assumptions about a new set. Hopefully now that Betrayers has been released for a while, I have moved beyond my usual losing streak.
Champions was all about aggression and creatures that cost three or less mana. You never had to worry about your Cruel Deceiver being outclassed by some four or five-mana fatty later in the game because you could always cash it in on a game winning Devouring Greed/Rage after your two mana 2/1s had done their job. There was no reason to worry about drawing a 1/1 for one mana on turn 10 because games would be over long before then. One less pack of Cruel Deceivers and Devouring Greeds changes everything. In fact, you are getting no good common Black creatures with soulshift or spirits to use soulshift on in Betrayers and certainly fewer creatures that are good aggressive beaters like Wicked Akuba or Cruel Deceiver. Now you look to non spirits such as Skullsnatcher and Takenuma Bleeder for your early beats. I think people took the important tribal aspect of Champions for granted and now struggle because spirits are not nearly as good as they once were in some colors but much better in others. Out of the three dominant tribes of Spirits, Snakes and Samurai, only Snakes seem to be as good as in Betrayers. Instead of Spirits, Black is now all about Demons and Ogres while White got too few good Samurai creatures and no Samurai spells like Oathkeeper or Call to Glory. Snakes picked up Matsu-Tribe Sniper, Sakura-Tribe Springcaller and Sosuke’s Summons, so if you first picked a Seshiro or Sosuke you will have solid snake picks in both sets. However, if you first pick a Devouring Greed, you will find yourself playing sub par spirits from Betrayers such as Bile Urchin to make ends meet.
Now that the fast aggressive cards in Betrayers are not providing the same late game utility as those in Champions, what will change? Cards which are good all game long have much more value when you do not need to worry as much about gaining control of the game in the late stages with expensive cards only to have the game stolen by a Devouring Greed. Cards like Moonlit Strider that have multiple uses that will be needed at any stage of the game start to have a greater impact on the game than a turn 2 Wicked Akuba. Whether you need a 1/4, a free Blessed Breath, or to soulshift whenever you want this card will do it for you. Kami of Tattered Shoji is another White creature that seems overpriced slightly at five mana for its 2/5 stats, but its versatility in terms of going from defense to offense will make it useful in almost any game. It doesn’t matter how many one-drops your opponent has or how aggressive his deck is if you have the better creatures for late in the game there is little your opponent can do to make his two-drops into valuable cards past turn 4 or 5. Quality removal is scarce in this format, so you do not need to worry as much about all of your high casting cost creatures being dealt with easily by your opponent.
With themes like the Ninjas and lack of two-power two-drop creatures in Betrayers you are rewarded more for keeping a steady tempo throughout the game rather than relying on a furious starting pace via fast creatures and then the use of random spells as finishers later in the game. It is much easier to see what is not viable because of Betrayers than what new strategies might be viable. Red/Black spirits are much weaker, aggressive White/Red will suffer from weaker one- two- and three-drops in Betrayers and it would seem that my very favorite Champions color combination of Blue/Red is not viable at all anymore.
I really jumped the gun saying that Blue/Red would be stronger than ever as there are no really solid creatures in Betrayers beyond Shimmering Glasskite. Adding random one-drops like Frostling or Teardrop Kami does not matter when you already have a bunch of random two-drops like the two Zuberas, Guardian of Solitude, Battle-Mad Ronin etc. The deck really relied on powerful spells like Teller of Tales, Glacial Ray or Earthshaker and having one pack without any particularly powerful commons or uncommons will cripple you. If you pick up two or more of the key spells in the first two packs then you are looking good but otherwise Betrayers will only make your deck worse than it already is. Of course the Dampen Thoughts deck is also dead and you would have to be insane to try to draft it now.
Those are all some general thoughts on the format and shortly I will get into some specifics about the cards, the colors, the archetypes etc. But first I would like to share my thoughts on many uncoordinated subjects.
It felt pretty good to be on the North American ballot for the invitational and finishing 3rd was much better than I expected. Obviously Osyp deserves to win it and the results reflected that but I found the following to be hilarious:
Osyp: I knew this would happen
Osyp: I figured Mauler would win
No wonder Osyp fears me. I drafted against him and Tim Aten in Columbus when he was smart enough to try and start the draft five minutes before he had to go do coverage for the Top 8. So he made about 20 picks and then had to tag in Adam Chambers to finish it off. After the draft, Tim went over to the coverage booth and held up a piece of paper saying “WE LOST. YOU OWE THEMAULER $20.” He came up to me with the $20 in hand and said only, “Good Games.”
I was a little surprised I wasn’t on the Rising Star ballot, considering my only decent accomplishments are recent, but I guess playing on the Pro Tour for five years without making a Day 2 doesn’t really make me a Rising Star now. Not that I would come close to winning that one anyway – it is hard to believe that Aeo did not win the Rising Star ballot. Nothing against Pierre Canali, but Aeo is a true master of the game. I guess I should have voted for him instead of just assuming he would win.
I also want to give a shout out to my friend Taylor Putnam, who made the finals of GP: Seattle. He has been obsessed with qualifying for Philadelphia and had a rough time in the PTQ here a couple of weeks ago when he went all in with Psychatog, discarding all cards in hand and removing the entire graveyard, when he knew from Future Sight that his opponent had Metamorphose in hand. Yeah, his opponent’s deck was pretty strange and if you want to look up the list, it will blow your mind. Its nice to see him bounce back, and what I like the most is that he played a deck designed for PT: Houston which has no possible turn 1 play other than Foil. This gives me hope for the next Extended Pro Tour because it proves that washed up old ideas can still win in a format that mostly rewards innovative deck building skills that I will never posses. Another local player, Doug Potter, finished 9th and qualified as well. I recall heavily criticizing both their decks and doubting that they would finish well on Day 2, but I was proved wrong on that one.
Betrayers Color Specifics
Where was I… ah yes, some specifics regarding Champions block draft. I’ll kick things off with White, since that was my favorite color to draft pre Betrayers. White has solid commons, some very powerful uncommons and multiple game winning rares. Waxmane Baku is obviously the best common and while White was perhaps the least spirit reliant color pre-Betrayers, it picked up three other solid common spirits in Moonlit Strider, Kami of Tattered Shoji and Kami of False Hope. Kabuto Moth is even better than before, perhaps coming close to Glacial Ray for best common in the set and Lantern Kami is now certainly better than Devoted Retainer, so you should have no trouble finding Waxmane Baku triggers in a White-heavy deck. That said, it is still a 2/2 for three mana, which is not something I am overjoyed about casting on turn 3.
While I am not a fan of Split-Tail Miko because of all the possible ways to kill it in the format, I have to admit it is probably the second best White common. In a heads up comparison, I would choose to play Kitsune Healer over Miko most of the time for the free activation of Kitsune Healer. Then when you take the three previously mentioned solid spirits, the best of which is Moonlit Strider followed by Tattered Shoji, and you have a common creature in every casting cost one through five! That is simply amazing as you will always have cards to fill in your curve wherever you need it.
For uncommons you have Faithful Squire, the best of the flip cards by far. A 3/4 flier with two chances to prevent all damage to itself or any other creature will dominate the board on defense and especially on offense. Tallowisp is your next best pick because White has the best enchantments including Indomitable Will and Cage of Hands. Terashi’s Verdict is some pretty insane removal by White’s standards and would be better than Tallowisp if you weren’t almost guaranteed to have good enchantments in your deck when playing White. Samurai are much weaker after Betrayers and you will find that cards like Devoted Retainer which were superb in Champions might not make the cut in a good Betrayers deck. Fortunately Indebted Samurai on his own is a solid card, so that’s why he is the next best uncommon, coming in ahead of Genju of the Fields which is in last place on my list of uncommons that are always playable. I dislike the Genjus as a whole but this one is durable as a 2/5 and provides the useful life gaining ability, which sets it apart from the other Genjus which are generic creatures.
Kami of the Honored Dead is something that should not be maindeck material, but would be excellent out of the sideboard in a close matchup where an extra win condition can make a big difference. Heart of Light is something I consider to be completely unplayable barring an Earthshaker or a Kumano, because while it may be pseudo removal in a color that needs it, you are getting card disadvantage out of it and being able to deal with an un-killable blocker is not a luxury you will always have. And if you need to be giving yourself an un-killable blocker, you should wonder why random things like Harsh Deceiver aren’t getting the job done. As for rares, Shining Shoal, Final Judgment, Oyobi Who Split the Heavens and Patron of the Kitsune should all be taken over any other White common or uncommon. Opal-Eye and Kentaro are both decent but are not better than any of the good uncommons or Waxmane Baku. I think Opal-Eye is actually far, far better than Split-Tail Miko and if you wanted something to prevent damage, I would not choose to use a 1/1 for two mana with an activation cost.
Considering that Indebted Samurai and Kentaro are your only decent samurai picks, you should be drafting more spirit-themed White decks. Cards like Devoted Retainer, Call to Glory, Kitsune Riftwalker and to a lesser extent Kitsune Blademaster all are lower picks because of Betrayers. I used to love Kitsune Riftwalker as a semi-evasion creature with great defensive applications, but he just does not mesh in the spirit trigger and arcane trick heavy world of White in Betrayers. By the way, Hundred Talon Strike is a fairly bad card and all the standard White tricks from Champions are better. Don’t let the splice fool you, it will probably never be a real asset. So while White just might be the best color in Betrayers, it seems to have been weakened as a whole as a lot of Champions White cards lost their value. Instead of aggressive samurai beatdown, White is more about somewhat defensive spirit decks that will probably need fliers for the win. This might make me consider taking a Mothrider Samurai over a Blademaster next time I am presented with that choice. The Mothrider will certainly be a better offensive card in the very important late stages of the game and Blademaster’s defense can be supplied by several other creatures. I have no doubts that I will still want to draft White just as much, but I have a feeling my days of attacking for two every turn starting turn 3 are over when I draft White.
White may have gone down in power overall slightly, but that is nothing compared to what happened in Black. Betrayers is a train wreck for Black with Horobi’s Whisper being the only particularly good common and one that I actually think is fairly overrated. Splicing Whisper will very rarely happen and when Black already has so much removal, it is not needed as badly as you would think. Takenuma Bleeder is pretty good, but unless you need an Ogre in play it won’t be more than just a 3/3 body with a drawback and Black does not offer you much help getting it past a River Kaijin or Moonlit Strider inside combat. Yes the card is still very good, but when it is pretty much all Black has, it is not a reason to draft Black. Okiba-Gang Shinobi is a pretty good trick, but should rarely be used on turn 4 unless your opponent has very few cards left in hand or you can guarantee you will be able to hit your opponent with it again. The more removal you have, the better Okiba-Gang will be. Hardcasting it is not the worst option either. Skullsnatcher does not have any hope of being useful beyond turn 3 or 4 and Bile Urchin rounds out the barely playable commons.
Blessing of Leeches is a below average combat trick and with so many better tricks in other colors there is no reason to play it. Skullmane Baku is slow and fragile and it is never worth playing a card in your deck that requires two mana of the same color when it is so very underpowered. Psychic Spear is decent, but not good enough to make up for all the times you draw it turn 10 or the times it misses on turn 1, so it should never be in your maindeck but can be useful out of the sideboard. Stir the Grave is a non-splice non-arcane Soulless Revival, so if you don’t care about splice or arcane this can be a useful card. As you can see, Black picks up absolutely nothing to help out with the best common Champions spell, Devouring Greed, or Scuttling Death, the best common creature. Having nothing to soulshift takes away any card advantage game plan of Black.
As for uncommons, Ogre Marauder is a great card but I really dislike cards that cost two mana of the same color that you want to be playing early in the game. You will often not be able to cast it until turn 4 or 5 where it is not nearly as good. Throat Slitter is the best uncommon and is far better than Horobi’s Whisper. After you have him in play, if your opponent has only two creatures and attacks with one and you remove the other and kill both, your opponent will have a hard time recovering. This guy is great no matter what, but in Blue/Black with Toils of Night and Day, Psychic Puppetry, Teller of Tales or Teardrop Kami he will be insane. Ninjas are often one hit deals, and this guy is definitely the best ninja of all if you can only use his ability once. Eradicate is another fine removal spell but at this point you are left with a severe shortage of good creatures, so removal can only be so helpful. If you play vs. another Black deck that took decent creatures over removal, you will have a hard time winning. Hired Muscle is one of the weakest of the flip cards and because of the lack of spirits and arcane for Black in Betrayers you will have a hard time flipping him early. Rounding out the other playable uncommons are Three Tragedies, which is slightly better than Waking Nightmare and is a card I would want in my deck almost always if I have enough good creatures. Genju of the Fens is the poor man’s Cursed Ronin and if it is making the cut you might have some problems.
Black is not the color you want to be drafting if your other color needs spirit and arcane triggers so I am not sure what to do with this color other than to just not draft it. Devouring Greed looks great first pack, but come pack three when you are getting Takenuma Bleeders and Okiba-Gang Shinobis it will not look so great anymore. Black is now the weakest color in the block, and I would draft White/Green over Black without hesitation. [Oh dear, I can already see the forum fires on that one. – Knut]
Green was universally considered the worst color in Champions, but seems to have made the biggest improvement of any color in Betrayers. The snake tribe is still solid should you pick up a Sosuke or Seshiro along the way, with Matsu-Tribe Sniper and Sakura-Tribe Springcaller among the best common picks of Betrayers. Sosuke’s Summons is simply insane, especially with the snake legend bonuses. However, Green seems to have taken over the role of the best spirit color with excellent picks such as Child of Thorns and Gnarled Mass. There should be no problems flipping Budoka Pupil, second best of the flip cards, with also many good spirits in the uncommon slot such as Loam Dweller, Lifespinner and the insane Forked-Brach Garami.
With so many great cards, it is difficult to rank them all. Obviously if you are looking for snakes or spirits there is no definite answer to which the best cards are. Matsu-Tribe Sniper is simply amazing regardless of your tribal affiliations as fliers are a weakness of Green’s and this guy will shut down any and all fliers. Anyone who is not playing Red/Green should have at least a couple fliers in their deck and Matsu-Tribe Sniper leaves you with no worries. Of course if you have a Soilshaper and some Kami of the Hunt, then Gnarled Mass will be much better, but do not forget about or underestimate the Matsu-Tripe Sniper. I am guessing if anyone says this guy is not maindeck material every time, then they have not played with him or given him a chance. It is very easy to draft a spirit/arcane Green deck and if you do so you might be surprised just how powerful Scaled Hulk can be. When you end up with an abundance of Kodama’s Reach, Orochi Sustainer, Sakura-Tribe Springcallers and Elders, you can find a solid body to spend your mana on in Scaled Hulk.
Green/Red seems to be the new spirit deck, bringing out the best in cards like Kami of Fire’s Roar, Soilshaper, Devouring Rage and Kami of the Hunt to name a few. There is an abundance of good spirits and multiple good spirit trigger cards in Green/Red to make use of all the spirits. This might just be the most powerful color combination in CCB because of a combination of speed, fatties, mana fixing, combat tricks and great removal. Green/Red has it all now, so when I am opening my first pack of the draft the card I will be looking for is Kodama’s Might. Green/Blue will be a lot better than before because you are now guaranteed to find enough solid picks whether it be Blue fliers or Green beaters in Betrayers. Green/Blue always had potential, but what it needed was a little more variety which is just what Betrayers provides so your decks will be more equipped to handle any situation.
Blue was the most underrated color in Champions, which is strange because it could have been combined with any other color to form a solid combination. Blue is expected to provide the best fliers in any format and it comes up big in Betrayers. Shimmering Glasskite is the best common in the set by far. Yes that’s right, it is even much better than Torrent of Stone. Unlike the Soratamis, you have an impossible to kill creature that can play defense pretty well and that is something Blue can always use more of. Of course, this card is best used for attacking for two and if they don’t have a big blocker, the game will be over quickly. So if Shimmering Glasskite is the best common in the set, that means his big brother Jetting Glasskite is the best uncommon in the set which is probably a lot less controversial than saying Shimmering is better than Torrent of Stone. If you have a Torrent of Stone in hand while losing to a Glasskite, maybe you will understand. If they don’t have a Dragon, then you opponent will likely lose the game to Jetting Glasskite every time. He is also a little better on defense than Shimmering, which should only be relevant when he has summoning sickness.
Unfortunately, having the best common and uncommon in the set does not make up for the lack of other decent picks, so it would be hard for Blue to be underrated anymore since it can be accurately described as mediocre. Ninja of the Deep Hours is about as good as any 2/2 without evasion that needs to deal damage to an opponent to be useful can be. Luckily there are a few options in Blue to give it evasion, which can make it very powerful but most times it will be somewhat average. Mistblade Shinobi is every bit as good as Ninja of the Deep hours, but falls short because you almost have to play some weaker cards like Minamo Sightbender to make it good. But when you can get Mistblade Shinobi dealing damage every turn with something like a Phantom Wings, then all your other marginal creatures become a whole lot better. One of those marginal creatures might happen to be Quillmane Baku, who is needed as a big body but his ability will only be useful around a quarter of the time he is in play or less. Having the capacity to attack for three or defend with a 3/3 is a useful option when you are Blue, so this guy would be the fifth best Blue common behind Glasskite, the two Ninjas and then Phantom Wings. Why the Phantom Wings are good should be obvious, as it is not every day you get a card that can give you many options and at worst is a two-mana bounce spell.
Callow Jushi will not counter very many spells when he is flipped, but he will slow your opponent down and provide a 3/4 body, which is his biggest asset and flipping him should be no problem in Blue because of all the arcane spells. The third best uncommon for Blue, ranking behind Jetting Glasskite and Callow Jushi, is Soratami Minesweeper, which would still be the third best uncommon even if it were just a flying River Kajin. The ability will not win you games that often, but it does have potential especially in Blue/White which is a much improved color combination with better defensive cards like Moonlit Strider and Kami of Tattered Shoji. As for the two two-drop creatures Floodbringer is playable if you have no Soratami Cloudskaters and Kami of the Vanishing Touch is playable if you have no Couldskaters or Floodbringers, simple as that. I once lost a game to a Genju with Floodbringer in play and after that I gained more respect for the card. Veil of Secrecy and Toils of Night and Day are both equally solid cards but you are under no obligation to play them if you already have good spells and want to up your creature count instead. While Blue is mediocre and thin for good picks, it did not lose out as much as Black and might have gained a little ground on White to boot.
Lastly we come to Red. Let me first say that if you ever have a CCB deck that plays more Red cards than cards of your second color you will not win. Red does not have a good enough variety of cards and jamming your deck full of Hearth Kamis and Blademane Bakus will not get you anywhere. Red is however a very nice color to splash, as it offers many things you cannot get elsewhere such as the obvious burn like Yamabushi’s Flame and Yamabushi’s Storm, but also it has highly aggressive yet hard to block creatures like Ronin Houndmaster and my all time favorite, Battle-Mad Ronin. In the team PTQ where my team qualified for Atlanta, I had a deck with four Battle-Mad Ronin and three Call to Glory with nine other samurai and Takeno, lord of all samurai. Have you ever played against three 3/3 bushido 2 creatures all in play by turn 6? You will not win. I went 6-0 with the deck never having a close match all day. In my first draft in Nagoya, a Red player beside me took a Peer Through Depths second to last pick over Battle-Mad Ronin, which I received when I already had three Call to Glory. Sadly I had to go into Black instead of Red to pick up additional samurai, but I did have the pleasure of playing with Battle-Mad Ronin in two out of the last three drafts. Of course none of that is relevant to Betrayers draft strategy but maybe some people are wondering where my odd fascination with Battle-Mad Ronin started. It actually came from a losing streak of 10 matches on Magic Online where I lost ten times in a row to people who played Battle-Mad Ronin vs. me.
Obviously Torrent of Stone is the best Red pick in Betrayers but things get complicated after that. Frostling sure looks good on paper, but if you cannot make good use of his creature type, then he most likely does not belong in your deck and a Yamabushi’s Storm would be much better. While Goblin Cohort is an aggressive powerhouse in the right deck, he can also be an excellent play on defense for other decks. For the majority of decks he is somewhere in between and turns out to be highly ineffective at either of his potential uses. First Volley is a much-needed card for decks that wish to play Yamabushi’s Storm if not for all their own one-toughness creatures. I like this card a lot in a deck like Red/Green, where Kodama’s Might can be spliced and you would rather not waste a Yamabushi’s Flame on a one-toughness creature like Nezumi Ronin. Bladmane Baku can deal a lot of damage or force your opponent to block with a much bigger creature, so long as you have a lot of other two- and three-drops that are spirits. If you cannot add counters until later in the game, you will not be able to use this card effectively. Frost Ogre is reasonably priced beef that Red needs sometimes, so if you can clear the way for him you will be quite impressed. If you are spending five mana to trade with something that cost three mana though, you will be rather unimpressed.
As you can see with Red the quality of most of the cards is quite relative and since specific decks can only make use of a limited number of Red’s playable cards you will find Red to have the least amount of good picks. Shinka Gatekeeper might seem like a good idea sometimes, but it never is because he will be worse than any other card most times late in game. The lone bright spot in the uncommons for Red is Cunning Bandit who is still not a favorite of mine. I find him hard to flip and at 5/2 he is the most fragile of the Betrayers flip cycle. In many color combinations he will be difficult to flip and since you will never have more Red cards than your other color, so you will find he is hard to cast and messes with you mana. His ability is quite powerful, but I would only think he is a truly powerful card in Green/Red where you have the ability to add many counters to him and the mana fixing to make him painless to cast.
So to summarize the winners and losers, you have Green as the second best color in the set but also the most improved color in the block. There is no reason to avoid Green at all costs anymore. An already weak Black got much weaker because of the lack of spirits for the great Black soulshift creatures and Devouring Greed. White is the best color in the set, but saw a weakening of some Champions cards so comes out close to even. Champions Blue was mediocre and Betrayers managed to solidify its place in mediocrity. Red is much worse off because all of its best cards are in Champions, but it still remains a viable option to support a solid main color. I have not had a chance to draft all the different color combinations in the new format however I think it is safe to say that due to the weakening of some colors, the total number of different combinations that are viable will be much less than before where anything was possible.
I urge you not to read anything in this article as pick orders, because I despise pick orders as a method of evaluating a draft format. Many different cards change value depending on the situation and your circumstances will be different every time you draft. No pick order could ever do more than scratch the surface of how to make picks in any given draft. And if I actually discussed many of my pick orders, I would be laughed at even more than I was when I took a Kitsune Blademaster over Kabuto Moth in Nagoya.
You have to make judgments on what you will need based on the cards in your deck as well as the cards you are passing. If pack after pack is loaded with Wicked Akubas, Cruel Deceivers, Hearth Kamis and Kami of the Hunts or similar cards, you will certainly want a River Kajin or two if you are drafting Blue and that could mean taking one over a card like Soratami Savant in some circumstances.
Pick orders are a cancer on draft when looked at as absolute, so when considering my article think about the values of different cards in every situation and don’t pick a card just because it is the best common but because it will make your deck the best it can be in that given draft. Learning to think on your feet and change your opinions of cards in the middle of a draft will allow you to draft decks that are capable of winning every time instead of when you just happen to be drafting the right colors at the right time and stumble upon a deck that follows some pick order exactly.
Most importantly you must think of CCB not as Champions draft with Betrayers, but as a whole new format where you just happen to know about two thirds of the cards already. Kind of like drafting 7th Edition and then switching to 8th Edition. I just hope I can win a few matches by following my own advice now. My Magic Online rating is below 1700, which is pretty depressing to say the least. Maybe that is why people have to constantly ask me if I am “really Murray Evans?” (my account name is TheMauler). It’s the most annoying question I could ever be asked, but maybe it’s a valid question since I appear to be terrible to those who might look at my rating.
I hope you find this information useful and I can be contacted at [email protected] with comments or questions.