The last Limited article I wrote was about a single archetype in Mirrodin Besieged / Scars / Scars draft. I felt that I’d found the best deck in that format and wanted to tell people how to draft the deck I wanted to play whenever I could.
I’ve been doing similarly well in M12 drafts, but I haven’t been trying to play any particular deck or strategy. Instead, I think I just understand the format as a whole very clearly, and it seems like a lot of others have some pretty serious misconceptions.
This first thing to do when evaluating Core Set Limited, to me, is to ask a question that may sound familiar to those of you who have celebrated Passover: “How is this core set different from all other core sets?”
M12 is the most aggressive a core set has ever been, and small creatures have it better than they ever have before. There’s no Pyroclasm, no Infest, not even a Tremor or Nausea. There’s no creature that can tap to do one damage to a creature, not even a Rod of Ruin. The closest effects are Grim Lavamancer at rare, Chandra, the Firebrand at mythic, and Circle of Flame, I suppose, at uncommon. Additionally, little creatures enable the bloodthirst creatures in red, green, and black, most of which are very aggressively costed.
The next major change is the return of the gigantic flying bomb uncommons like Serra Angel, which substantially increases the power level for the format. This is a good change though because the speed of the format allows decks that don’t have those cards to compete, and those cards offer serious incentives for trying to play a deck based on midgame creatures instead of early game creatures.
Finally, bloodthirst’s presence in the format has some substantial implications to the way that games play out. Because allowing a creature to damage you could let your opponent’s next play be substantially more threatening than it would be if you blocked, blocking is often a better choice than it would be otherwise. You won’t be happy about trading a Merfolk Looter for a Goblin Piker, but in this format it’s often better than letting your opponent play a 3/3 Blood Ogre on their third turn. This means that creatures trade more, so boards are less prone to get locked up, and tricks are more likely to get a chance to alter combat. Also, creatures like Goblin Fireslinger and Tormented Soul, which people are playing primarily to power up their bloodthirst creatures, do a lot to make sure that games won’t go extremely long.
At this point, let’s talk about how each color fits into this format.
Mono-white aggro was an excellent strategy in M11 that largely hinged on Infantry Veteran. Infantry Veteran has been replaced by Gideon’s Lawkeeper, an even better card, that can fill a similar role in an aggressive deck (pushing creatures through); however, this change was actually pretty devastating to the aggressive white decks, as players looking for them could often manage to get every Infantry Veteran opened at their table, and now, everyone is looking to take their one-drop. Also, while Gideon’s Lawkeeper can do good work in an aggressive deck, it’s a much less inherently aggressive card than Infantry Veteran, so decks that have them just have less push toward aggression.
Armored Warhorse is another card that is awesome for aggressive white decks, but often ends up working out better as a defensive card than an offensive one. The card that most rewards white-based aggressive decks is Guardian’s Pledge, which is a card that goes late, but can be devastating in the right deck.
White’s biggest hidden gem is Stave Off. At first, the card looks similar to a lot of other cards. A fine protection spell, but nothing special, a late-pick core set playable. Watching it play, it impressed me much more every time I saw it cast. The ability to target your opponent’s creatures is surprisingly huge in this format, often killing a creature by removing an enchantment from it in mid combat or saving you from an otherwise game-swinging Mind Control. As I mentioned above, the fact that creatures have to block more often than they might otherwise because of fear of a bloodthirst creature also helps increase the stock of Stave Off. Finally, the significance of the tempo jump you get by spending only one mana to keep a creature that costs more than one mana in play can just be much bigger than it would be in a less aggressive format.
*: Much higher if you know you’ll be heavy white.
Blue is nowhere near the powerhouse it has been. It lost Azure Drake, Foresee, and Scroll Thief from M11, and now it has a very different identity. Merfolk Looter is back, but, despite the fact that there aren’t a lot of great answers for him, the nature of the format means that he’s not as good as he was in M10 when he sticks around.
Blue’s cards are much more aggressive and tempo oriented than one might be used to, which is completely in theme with the rest of the set. Frost Breath is best when it’s killing your opponent, which is very much also true of Skywinder Drake. If you’re looking to gum up the board, you have to turn to Amphin Hunter, but when you’re doing that, I’d say your priorities are in the wrong place.
Phantasmal Bear deserves some discussion, just because people are sometimes shy about playing “skulking” creatures. This guy is awesome. There are very few things that incidentally target him, and even if that does happen, he probably got in a couple hits first. Usually, they have to treat him as a one-mana 2/2 or use a spell on him, and when that happens, it probably cost more than he did, so there’s no problem. His biggest drawback is that you can’t target him, but his cost more than makes up for it.
Black is traditionally defined by common two-for-ones like Liliana’s Specter and Gravedigger, which are in relatively short supply here. Instead, the color is basically just guys and removal, which gives it little to distinguish itself from red, except that its cards are all a bit weaker. The advantage is that, because it doesn’t really have its own identity, it plays very well with red, since they both basically just want to play cheap attackers, get through, play bloodthirst guys, and kill the opponent’s creatures that get in the way.
The real strength of black comes in its undesirability. It has a lot of cards that are very good if you can manage to get most of the black to yourself, and players won’t particularly want these cards if they’re using black as a support color.
Essentially, black is weak enough that having nine Swamps (i.e. having black as your primary color) isn’t enough to make cards like Sorin’s Thirst and Drifting Shade reliable and good, making your deck probably pretty weak. However, if you have seven or eight Swamps to support a few Doom Blades, Wring Fleshes, Gravediggers, and maybe a good uncommon, as well as a strong primary color, black can be just fine; or if you have eleven or more Swamps and a small splash, or maybe only Swamps, your deck could be very good. Because of this, I think Wring Flesh is actually better than Sorin’s Thirst until you know that you can safely play ten or more Swamps.
Devouring Swarm is low because I don’t like it with eight Swamps, and with ten or more, I’d rather have Drifting Shade. All the cards that cost multiple black mana move up if you know you’re heavy black.
Red is the strongest color in M12. It has three great common removal spells, and its creatures are surprisingly awesome. “Goblin” is actually a pretty solid ability because Goblin Grenade is such an amazing card if you can reliably cast it.
The card quality is high enough that red plays well as a support color or a primary color, and the weaker cards play so well with the stronger cards that the color ends up being very deep if you can really commit to it.
Goblin Tunneler and Goblin Arsonist are both much better than they ever were in Rise of Eldrazi, and I loved the Bloodthrone Vampire deck in that format. Both just do so much of what you’re trying to do in this format.
Special mention for Fiery Hellhound, which is amazing if you’re heavy red and have Goblin Tunnelers. The order of the first five cards is pretty arbitrary, and really, I think they’re all amazing, and I’m not exactly sure which is better than which other one. Goblin Fireslinger is definitely exactly the 6th best red common, substantially below the bloodthirst creatures and the removal spells, and above the Goblins, tricks, and other creatures. Personally, I prefer Goblins to non-Goblins among red’s other creatures to see if I can enable a Goblin Grenade, but also just because I want to be playing cheap creatures that will enable my bloodthirst. Bonebreaker Giant is not a card I want to be playing.
The trick to drafting green is to avoid taking things that cost five mana unless they’re two-for-ones. Green has too many expensive cards, and you just don’t want a deck full of clunky creatures that can’t stop fliers.
If you actively take Stampeding Rhinos, you might start trying to take Rampant Growths to accelerate them into play. This is a trap. Just don’t bother. You’ll fall too far behind because you didn’t spend turn two playing a creature. Goblin Piker is already ramping red into playing bigger creatures than they should be able to play for three or four mana, and it does damage too. Just focus on curving out.
Also, Plummet is much better now than this effect has been before. Black has three good common fliers; blue has two (plus one hexproof one); and white has four. Additionally, every color but green has powerful uncommon and rare fliers. Almost every deck will have at least a couple targets, and the ones that don’t are the ones you should be beating anyway. If I have one or two Plummets, I’ll play them main; if I have 3-4, I might only play one main because I can side in so many that I should have a very good matchup against the decks where they’re good.
Overrun is among the most overrated cards in the set. The nature of the format is that creatures will naturally trade, and the boards where Overrun is the card you want are much more rare than they would be in other formats. It’s a good card, but Stingerfling Spider is substantially better. (Full disclosure: I’ll take a solid two-for-one over a high variance blowout card almost every time anyway, but it’s particularly true in this case.) I’m not even sure Overrun is better than Cudgel Troll in this format.
Trollhide and Sacred Wolf are an extremely potent combination, and it’s possible to draft a deck based on putting an enchant creature on a hexproof creature. Similarly, it’s possible to draft a black deck based on putting Dark Favor on a Tormented Soul. While these decks will often win a surprising number of games, high variance strategies like this really aren’t where I try to put myself. Fortunately, Trollhide is pretty good on any creature with an ability like flying, trample, or lifelink, not just hexproof.
Other Specific Cards of Interest:
Timely Reinforcements has been absolutely amazing for me, even in decks that look pretty aggressive. It’s very easy to fall behind if you’re trying to, and a lot of decks have an extremely hard time beating it. Combined with Guardian’s Pledge you barely need to do anything else to win the game.
Arbalest Elite is a weird card to evaluate. It often goes pretty late, but I’m not really sure if it’s underrated or overrated. I’m not sad if it’s in my deck, but I’m also not sad if I have to pass it. It has a kind of effect that is very powerful and can make attacking or blocking really awkward for the opponent, but it’s also a little too slow for this format. I guess the thing to understand about it is that it works best as an aggressive card because it can threaten to shoot creatures when you’re attacking, which will make the opponent not block, and then after combat you can use the mana for something else, while if you want to use the ability defensively, you have to commit a lot of mana to the card.
Spirit Mantle is obviously a beating on a hexproof creature, but it might not be immediately obvious exactly how good that combination is. It’s really, really good. Outside of that it’s a little risky, but not bad, not a high pick, but I think you should play it more often than not, and it can be devastating.
Phantasmal Dragon is the kind of high risk/high reward card I like to stay away from if I can. While you’re never down on mana when the opponent uses a spell to kill your Phantasmal Bear, you’re almost always down if they have anything to target this guy with. The upside is much greater, and his win percentage is very high when they can’t target him, which is enough to make me play him, but I’m not going to take him over another good card.
Jace’s Archivist is an awesome card. He’s not very expensive, and his ability is extremely powerful. He has such a low cost to fundamentally change the game, and he combos amazingly well with bounce spells.
Mind Unbound is really interesting. Some decks can’t play it because they can’t actually close a game fast enough, and they’ll just deck themselves, but in other decks it’s amazing. It helps a lot if you can kill it or if you have an Elixir of Immortality. It’s playable and powerful, but it should go after the first few packs because it’s so awkward to use.
Onyx Mage is pretty amazing. He lets all your little creatures trade up, which is particularly impressive with something like Reassembling Skeletons or Goblin Arsonist (which gets to kill two creatures). All the other Mages are also good, but this is one that I think might be slightly more powerful than one would first appreciate.
Smallpox is a card. I think a lot of people don’t realize that it’s actually powerful and playable. You have to understand how it works and what your deck needs to look like to play it. It doesn’t go in aggressive decks, but control decks are entirely viable in this format.
What it does is keep a game small. If you play it when you don’t have a creature and your opponent does, it’s a three for three. If you can discard a Reassembling Skeletons, it’s a three for two. This doesn’t pull you far ahead, but it makes every other two-for-one hit a substantially higher portion of the cards they have left in the game, which makes them all better. This card is best in a deck that doesn’t have a lot of early creatures, has a lot of land (I like to have multiple Smallpox and then play 18-19 land), a reasonable number of other removal spells, and several cards like Mind Rot and Gravedigger to get ahead. Also, bombs. Control decks always want to have bombs to draw to, and Smallpox should slow the game down enough to give you a lot of extra draw steps while both players recover to find all your bombs, and that’s what it’s really about.
Sorin’s Vengeance is excellent. If you push this effect far enough, as this card does, it usually wins the game.
Stormblood Berserker is better than every common. It just ends games so quickly and easily, and even if you don’t have an enabler for it, it’s very good at enabling the next bloodthirst creature.
Goblin Grenade, as I’ve already alluded to, is very worth drafting toward. I’ve tried picking it in the first couple picks of a draft, and it sometimes hasn’t worked out, but I still think I’ll take it over mediocre cards to hope it comes together.
Tectonic Rift combines two fairly unrelated effects that are both great for stopping control decks from stabilizing against your aggressive deck, and it’s actually a very good card.
Warstorm Surge isn’t that fast, but it’s extremely powerful when it gets going. Generally best in R/G, it’s also amazing if you have ways to abuse it like Aether Adept, Pentavus, Reassembling Skeletons, Throne of Empires, or, as I managed to assemble in one round at Nationals, Garruk, Primal Hunter.
Stingerfling Spider might be the best uncommon in the set. I know that it’s better than Overrun, but I doubt anyone will let me get away with claiming it’s better than Fireball. I’m not sure that it isn’t though. I’m also pretty sure I like it more than the 4/4 fliers.
Hunter’s Insight often goes pretty late, but I’ve had more good experiences with it than bad. It’s another solid but unexceptional card, but it can lead to some very lopsided games.
Crown of Empires isn’t a card I’m too excited about because it’s so expensive to use, but it’s not bad if your curve is extremely low and you won’t have much to do with your mana in the late game. This means that it’s best used aggressively, rather than defensively, which is likely counterintuitive to some players, who I suspect would read it as a defensive card.
Crumbling Colossus is surprisingly good. It blocks well and hits hard enough that you often wouldn’t need a second hit. It’s amazing with cards like Fling and Hunter’s Insight, and it reliably turns on bloodthirst. You should probably side it out if your opponent has Act of Treason though.
Swiftfoot Boots is best in green and especially in decks with enchant creatures or big creatures. I generally don’t intend to play it or any of the equipment in this set though.
Ultimately, I haven’t found any reason to force or avoid any particular color or archetype. Strategically, I want to be aggressive if possible because the format makes it so easy, but there are a lot of seven-mana rares that basically win the game, and I’ll happily take them and try to draft a control deck. The trick is to focus on early defense, any removal spells, and any small creatures that can trade early, and there are a lot of very powerful effects that will reward you if you can make it past the early rush.
A lot of my rankings of cards are different from how other people might have them. There’s a reason I ranked the cards the way I did, but I’d also warn that you shouldn’t put too much stock in rankings, especially when they come from me.
When people ask about early picks, I often think that any of the cards they’re asking about are defensible, and I think I get better at making picks the further into a draft I go because I know what cards will work together and how I want my decks to look. If you have a plan, don’t hesitate to take a lower ranked card over a higher ranked card.
I hope this is helpful despite that, and, as always, thanks for reading.
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