Arcane Teachings – Tackling Triple Shadowmoor: Blue/White Aggression

Read Tom LaPille every Tuesday... at StarCityGames.com!
Tuesday, April 29th – Today’s Nick Eisel article saw Nick sharing his thoughts on the powerful U/W decks available when drafting triple Shadowmoor. Not to be outdone, Tom wades into the fray and brings us his own thoughts on the newly proclaimed Best Archetype In The Format. Where do you agree with Tom, and where does Tom disagree with Nick? Read on to find out!

The day after my last article was posted, fellow writer Benjamin Peebles-Mundy sought me out and expressed his disagreement with my sentiment that Shadowmoor Limited was slow. His arguments were well-thought out, but nothing really stuck with me until he asked me point blank “Have you drafted Blue-White yet, or does that need to happen before you get it?” I hadn’t, and that bothered me for the rest of the week; maybe he was right, and I just didn’t see it yet. This weekend I took his advice for a spin and got some results that shocked me. The Blue-White archetype in Shadowmoor draft is fast and strong, and is very good at punishing people who expect to have time to leverage their big and expensive cards. First, I’ll make the case for drafting Blue-White, and then I’ll talk about how to powerfully execute the strategy in the draft, in deck construction, and while playing.

The Columbus, Ohio FNM draft was Shadowmoor this past weekend because the store had borrowed some product from a regular who won the Prerelease. Peebles’ words were ringing in my ears as I opened my first pack, which contained a gift in the form of Armored Ascension. I bounced around between Green-White and Blue-White for a few picks, but then I got two Thistledown Duos in a row and that cemented me in Blue-White, along with a late pick Steel of the Godhead. This forced me to prioritize taking Blue-White hybrid cards very highly while also drafting with the goal of playing as many plains in my deck as possible. I ended deckbuilding with only a Parapet Watchers and a Merrow Wavebreakers as exclusively Blue cards, so I went with twelve Plains and five Islands to maximize the Armored Ascension and Rune-Cervin Riders. This being FNM, my deck was very good and the competition was not so strong, but that deck ended up 4-0 in matches and I split the finals with visiting Chicago-based next level mage Josh Wludyka.

On Saturday, we managed to put together a high-quality draft that included Josh Wludyka, Adam Yurchick, Ian Gossett, Sam Stoddard, Reuben Bresler, Brian Six, Doug Prosak, and me. This is about as good as it gets for Columbus, since six of the eight of us have Pro Tour experience, so this was a much better test than the previous night. I found myself drafting Blue-White again after starting with a few Ballynock Cohorts and receiving a gift fourth pick Armored Ascension. Remembering the Thistledown Duos from the night before, I made sure to nab as many hybrid creatures and spells as I possibly could, but no Duos showed up and I only saw a single Steel of the Godhead. I was, however, rewarded in the form of a Faerie Swarm that oddly was very much at home in the same deck was that Armored Ascension. I defeated Adam’s Red-Green monstrosity in three games in my first round. I had a slow start in game 1 that allowed his enormous creatures to carry the day, but I overran him quickly in games 2 and 3 despite a Firespout that threatened to give him enough time to come back in the decider. I beat Reuben’s Black-Red deck in two games in the second round; his creatures were all worse than mine, and his expensive spells choked his mana. I met Josh in the finals, and his Black-Blue deck finally put a stop to me with Leech Bonder, Kulrath Knight, and Midnight Banshee. He also had an Incremental Blight that he never drew against me, but I couldn’t even handle the quality of the cards that he did draw. Good beats.

In both drafts, I felt that my Blue-White decks were very naturally positioned to take advantage of the issues that my opponents’ decks had. Mike Flores has often talked about looking for “opportunities” in a Constructed format to exploit with new decks, and I hate thinking like this because I think it distracts one’s focus from the goal of just playing a deck that is just plain good, but I found myself having those thoughts about drafting Blue-White in Shadowmoor. The other allied color pairs seem to lend themselves to slower decks full of powerful cards, and the Blue-White commons naturally work to create decks that are fast enough to take advantage of that.

In practice, the most important thing for you to understand is that Shadowmoor’s Blue-White archetype is a beatdown deck. Its best creatures make it hard for opponents to block effectively thanks to pure efficiency, evasion, or other abilities. Having a very low mana curve is extremely important, and a lack of aggressive turn 2 plays can doom your deck to mediocrity. White offers some pure removal in the form of Last Breath and Curse of Chains, but the rest of Blue-White’s tricks are all at their best when you are attacking and playing a tempo-oriented game. Blue-White decks often race in the air using evasion creatures, so some amount of cards that help you hold the ground will be useful to you. However, it’s very difficult to draft an effective Blue-White control deck because of how much of the color pair’s power is unleashed only when it is on the attack, so make sure to keep your focus on beating down or you will give slower decks the chance to overwhelm you with enormous things that you can’t handle.

In the draft, you should try to get as many hybrid Blue-White cards as possible. Thistledown Duo, Steel of the Godhead, Ballynock Cohort, and Briarberry Cohort are incredibly efficient cards when operating at full power, and the only way to maximally enable those cards is to commit to prioritizing hybrid Blue-White creatures. A lesser but still valid concern is that this will also allow you to respond effectively to receiving Kithkin Rabble, Faerie Swarm, or Armored Ascension later in the draft. These cards are just incredibly powerful for their cost if you support them well, and avoiding a heavy commitment to either Blue or White while drafting Blue-White allows you to shift your focus quickly to accommodate one of these cards. This idea applies to drafting every color combination, but it is so important that I would be remiss to not mention it here.

You should also constantly think about your mana curve while you draft and build. I aim for five to six two-drops, four to five each of three- and four-drops, and two five-drops, with the rest of the deck being spells. Filling out your three- and four-cost slots is usually not difficult, but there are not really enough two-drops in Shadowmoor for you to achieve this mana curve if you do not prioritize them highly. You may also find yourself having to balance wanting to fill out your curve and wanting to take a hybrid Blue-White card. I don’t have any hard and fast rules about this, and you really shouldn’t either, but when that situation arises I tend to favor taking two-drops over hybrid cards if I need more of them, and to favor taking hybrid cards over comparable three- and four-drops.

The two-mana creatures in Blue-White that you want, in approximate order of preference, are Safehold Sentry, Somnomancer, Briarberry Cohort, Safehold Elite, Kithkin Shielddare, and Medicine Runner. Safehold Sentry is very hard to block with other low cost creatures, which makes it extremely valuable; it can also play defense when you are racing in the air later on. Somnomancer is mediocre on turn 2, but incredible later on when it can push through large amounts of damage when a single blocker would stop you from getting in. Ideally, you will play it on turn 4 or 5 to tap a blocker, but you should play it on turn 2 if that is your only option. Briarberry Cohort and Safehold Elite are just very efficient. Kithkin Shielddare makes it really hard for your opponent to attack into you so I like having one of it, but more than that threatens to turn your deck too defensive and under no circumstances will you be happy about playing one on turn 2. Medicine Runner can fill out your curve if you need another two-drop, but it is not Blue-White and having only one toughness is a liability.

The three-mana common creatures are mostly very good. Silkbind Faerie, Thistledown Duo, and Ballynock Cohort are all incredible and you should happily play as many of all of them as you can get your hands on. Thistledown Duo’s value changes dramatically depending on the number of hybrid cards you acquire, but if you’re drafting properly you should have plenty of cards that trigger both abilities. Parapet Watcher is also playable since every land in your deck will be able to pump it, but it is a very defensive card. You won’t mind it when you are racing in the air, but you don’t want to play it on turn 3 because it doesn’t attack very well. For this reason, it’s another card you should try not to play more than one copy of lest you fall away from being a beatdown deck.

The exciting four-mana creatures for your deck are Rune-Cervin Rider, Kinscaer Harpoonist, and Barrenton Cragtreads, all of which are fine in multiples. Rune-Cervin Rider is utterly insane if your particularly flavor of Blue-White draft deck leans more toward White, and he is strong motivation to play lots of Plains. Note that prioritizing hybrid cards lets you get away with more and more Plains. Many players I respect have expressed dissatisfaction with Kinscaer Harpoonist, but I disagree and I’m a huge fan of the card any time my opponent has flying defenses. Blue-White decks usually resort to attacking in the air in the midgame, and Harpoonist will often let you get through an opponent’s flying defenses. Barrenton Cragtreads isn’t exciting as a body per se, but it is both Blue and White so you’ll play multiples very happily.

The only common five-mana creature that I am excited about playing is Merrow Wavebreakers. It’s really just another twist on the flying 3/3 for five mana that we get every set, but that’s exciting enough that it’s usually awesome so I’m not honestly complaining about it. Barrenton Medic is surprisingly good at holding the ground, but once again I am not a huge fan of defensive cards in this deck and I would avoid playing more than one copy.

Your aggressive creature attack won’t work without spells and tricks to back it up, and in a bizarre twist of fate Shadowmoor gives some very strong removal to Blue and White. Past the truly exceptional Burn Trail, Shadowmoor offers only Gloomlance, Puncture Bolt, Torture, and Scar as straight removal in Black and Red, and Last Breath and Curse of Chains compare quite favorably to all of those other than Burn Trail. Last Breath is a little bit awkward for a beatdown deck to play because of the opponent’s gained life, but it’s hard to stop cards with activated abilities with any of the other spells. Curse of Chains doesn’t work against creatures that have untap abilities and doesn’t make the creature go away immediately, but it is very cheap. I’ll happily play two Last Breaths and as many Curse of Chains as I can get my hands on.

The common Blue-White tricks are also very strong. First up is Turn to Mist, which is incredibly versatile. The card obviously is a cheap way to save a creature from combat or to dodge a removal spell. However, I often find myself using it simply as a way to make a blocker go away for a turn. If an opponent is at reasonably low life, burning this card on a defending creature often gets your opponent so low in life that they have to stop attacking you to make sure they don’t die. All five of the common hybrid auras are also incredible, and this card is a convenient way to solve that problem. On top of that, Turn to Mist is a hybrid card for your Thistledown Duos. I’m completely content to play multiple copies. The same goes for Barkshell Blessing, but I have much less to say about it because there’s nothing that surprising about a retooled Giant Growth. Consign to Dream and Aethertow, however, are not as strong as the others. I’ll play one copy of each happily, but Consign to Dream isn’t a card I want to draw multiples of when you won’t always hit a Red or Green creature, and Aethertow is so awkward in practice that I’m happier if I can avoid playing any copies of it. [I sense a fight in the forums… – Craig, amused.]

The last three common tricks to talk about are Steel of the Godhead, Ghastly Discovery, and Scarscale Ritual. Steel of the Godhead is absolutely insane with the Blue-White hybrid creatures that you are taking so highly and you should play as many of these as you can get. Ghastly Discovery isn’t very exciting, but I don’t mind one of them to keep moving through lands in the late game. I haven’t had the chance to play Scarscale Ritual in a Blue-White deck yet, but it is another card I would hesitate to play more than one of. Shrinking creatures is a steep cost in a deck that wants to win quickly, and I would definitely not want to be casting a Scarscale Ritual until turn 5 or 6 because it’s more important to me to be attacking well.

When you are actually playing games with Blue-White, make sure to keep an aggressive stance as often as possible. You have the advantage in the early game and the cards in your deck are at their best when you are attacking, so attack relentlessly and don’t be afraid to burn your tricks to let you keep attacking. If you are forced to sit back, try to sculpt situations that will eventually allow you to attack effectively. The odd thing is that to some degree, you want your opponent to be attacking you back, so getting into ground stalls is undesirable. My Blue-White decks have been much more effective in pure creature races than in games where the ground is stalled and I am poking through for two to four damage per turn in the air. When possible, I try to play in ways that encourage my opponents to attack me back as much as possible so that my ground creatures can help me trade damage. The Blue and White spells in Shadowmoor are much better at poking through five or so extra damage at the end of a race than they are at completely taking over a game, so I would rather sculpt a situation in which my tricks will win the game at the last possible moment than create a stall. Steel of the Godhead is also an extremely good reason to get your opponent to try to beat you in a damage race.

I still think that Shadowmoor draft is slower than Lorwyn draft, but the Blue-White archetype offers a drafter the chance to draft a naturally strong deck that is also much faster than the competition. Draft a low mana curve and get as many hybrid cards as possible, and you’ll find yourself winning games before your opponents’ slower decks get off the ground.

Tom LaPille