Chatter of the Squirrel – Misconceptions about Shards of Alara Limited

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Friday, October 10th – The preoccupation with piecing together a “Shard” is probably the root cause of the misconception that this format is anything but blisteringly fast. People will sit and lollygag around, casting Obelisks and cracking sac-lands, and I have no idea what format they think they are playing.

The physical process of writing this article is hard. I have been full-steaming-ahead a policy paper since Friday, and blasting two consecutive sixteen-hour workdays on a sleep schedule so erratic I barely know what day it is. My organs feel like they have been replaced by either cotton or ghosts. Things carry a sepia hue. I am listening to music, which I never do when I write because it inhibits my perception of the way language sounds, only to just be reminded by my co-workers that I had not in fact plugged in my headphones and so was blasting Sly and the Family Stone (awkward in and of itself) voraciously throughout my entire office. Now we’re at “Ends” — I’ve unintentionally titled at least three of my short stories after Everlast songs, also awkward – and headphones successfully plugged, so Magic it is.

I’ve been playing a ton of Shards of Alara Limited, it being much easier to put together an eight-man draft than it is to convince a bunch of people who aren’t going to Berlin to nevertheless playtest Extended. I figure I can make at least some of my $1400 plane ticket back in “casual side drafts,” if nothing else. This Sealed format is proving to be incredibly difficult to crack, and drafting-wise it’s taken me a good eight or so drafts to start to get a handle on how to make some progress in the format. In some ways it’s been incredibly frustrating. I was extremely disappointed in myself this past Sunday for allowing myself to get noticeably angry at the result of a game of Magic for the first time in a long time. This is something I have very little tolerance for, and am still trying to figure out what may have caused this distinct lapse in judgment. I didn’t lash out at anybody, but I have very little patience generally for anger and unmoderated emotions, especially in myself, and as much as I’ve talked about the irrationality of getting angry at the natural patterns of variance and the implied insecurity of entitlement, it was disheartening watching it rear its head in my own life again. I don’t know if the natural tension involved with living in a foreign country has something to do with it, or the rapidity at which time seems to move, or the impending deadline of Berlin, or the stress of work, or the reality of routine, or something else as yet undiscovered. At any rate, the process has been valuable if nothing else because it has made me focus of the evolution of my Shards Limited game and piece together a theory from what frequently appear to be scattered bits of glass. It’s a far cry from living in Madison, where I was surrounded by such Limited mastery daily that it felt easy to rip that format in half.

I’ll hit up Sealed first and then move forward to draft, talking about the key similarities and differences between the two formats while hopefully bringing to light a thing or two you haven’t thought about before.


The first thing I have to say is this: you can’t always just throw all your best cards together, put in your mana fixing, insert a couple of basic lands, and shuffle up a deck. I mention this first because it leads very smoothly into my second lesson, which is: frequently, you should just throw all your best cards together, put in your mana fixing, insert a couple of basic lands, and shuffle up your deck. The key, then, is to understand when you’re in which situation.

Part of your decision is made for you by the quality of manafixing you open. I really, really like the sac-lands in Sealed because a) you don’t have to cast that many two-drops and b) games frequently go so long that the positive percentages you generate from deck-thinning effects really do add up, especially in multiples. But I see a lot of people take a look at their cards, build a deck, and then see if they can get their manafixing to support their spells. This is exactly incorrect. The very first thing you need to do is look at your non-Obelisk fixing, see what that can support, and then see what kind of mileage your Obelisks can generate for you as well. The reason you have to separate these two processes is that Obelisks allow you to cast different classes of spells than the lands do. Goblin Deathraiders, for example, is an extremely powerful spell, but not if it is only coming out on turn 5. See also Windwright Mage, whom I tend to like more than most.

This need to focus on mana is related to another misconception, though, which is that because mana is more difficult, you need to play a higher density of lands and mana sources. In fact, my experience has been the exact opposite. Normally I advocate eighteen-land Sealed decks, electing to draw first in almost all cases, whereas in this format I find myself frequently choosing to run sixteen (though still choosing the draw). The reason is more theory-dependant than it is format-specific. No matter how difficult it is to build a manabase, no matter how stringent your color requirements are, you are going to win very few long games if fifty percent or more of your deck is mana sources. I did run one seventeen-land three-Obelisk build, but I had three Courier’s Capsules and two Sanctum Gargoyles to get them back. The problem is that so much of Sealed Deck is prioritizing threats; you don’t use your Oblivion Rings on creatures you can kill with Magma Sprays, because eventually the opponent is going to drop something like a Carrion Thrash and you’re just going to have nothing. Because of that, your deck has to have high enough velocity that non-threats suddenly become threats just because you’re running out of time. In something like a 17-land 2 Obelisk deck with very little card-drawing, you’re going to find that you’re really relying upon drawing meaningful spells turns 8, 9, and 10, without any real way to influence what’s sitting on the top of your deck. You don’t ever want to have to spend a valuable removal spell on a non-evasive 2/2 or some mediocre 3/3. But if you’re drawing too many mana sources, you are eventually going to have to because you’re not going to be able to trade one-for-one with your creatures. This is one of the reasons I am not that big a fan of the 2R/2W “Add a colorless mana to your mana pool/do something if you control a man with five power” guys. The Green one is good because it draws you out of a stall, but the Red and White ones actually decrease the threat density of your deck without even remotely fixing your colors.

This Sealed format actually reduces a lot of my natural edge because it encourages people to be greedy. Normally people are doing things that are effective in draft like playing cards like Cylian Elf, and I just take four damage and stop caring. Now that I’m not going to be that lucky, resource management is more important than ever. Point being, you are really going to want to minimize the number of pure mana sources you’re choosing to run. My ideal manabase is something like 16 land (including 3-4 Sac-lands, 6 Forests/G CIPT-lands) 2 Druid of the Anima, and 1 Obelisk for the standard good-stuff five-color deck. You can’t always get your way, of course, but if nothing else it’s good to at least be cognizant of this.

I mentioned that you can’t always build good-stuff five-color decks. Sometimes this is because of your mana, but other times it’s because you open a high density of cards that simply lose value in the Solar Flare-like “five color big” archetype that is basically characterized by developing your mana in the early turns and then dropping bomb after bomb. You have to play five-color like that, frequently, because you’re spending time and percentage points (randomly drawing your three off-color basics, for example) ensuring that this diverse manabase works, so you have to compensate with raw card power each and every time you cast a spell. Because of this, there are a number of extremely good cards that you can rarely run if you’re going the full-five. Principal among these are Sigil Blessing, Goblin Deathraiders, Akrasan Squire, Wild Nacatl (though depending on the manabase he can still be fine), Rip-Clan Crasher, and Hindering Light. For the creatures, obviously you want to deploy those guys on turns 1 or 2 or else they lose a good chunk of their effectiveness. But with Blessing and especially Hindering Light, the combination of awkward mana costs (when you’re trying to cast multiple spells per turn), the need to keep mana open if a good opportunity to cast the spell has yet to present itself, a relatively small density of creatures in the deck, and a lack of value in and of itself mean that frequently these otherwise-powerful spells have to be relegated to the bench.


The most common misconception about Shards draft that I’ve seen reveals itself in a conversation I had with a friend of mine a couple days back. I was asking himself how the draft went, and he said something like “I started out in Esper, but the mana fixing wasn’t really coming so I had to shift into Bant, and I picked up a couple good Exalted guys so my deck worked out okay.”

You don’t have to start out in a “Shard.”

You don’t even have to draft a Shard. In fact – though I suspect once people better figure out how to balance mana with power and begin to regularly make use of the excellent three-color spells like Kederekt Creeper, this will become less true – my best decks have been straight two-color aggressive builds that could not possible care any less about these supposed “Shards” that make up this newfangled place called “Alara.” In fact, many of the mechanics in competing Shards have incredible synergy with one another. Devour and Unearth is the most obvious, but Unearth is also mighty with Exalted, and Exalted plays very well with the “Guys with 5 power do X” mechanic from Jund. Esper’s mechanic doesn’t really overlap much, sure, but it’s not like you need to be playing Affinity, either; a Sanctum Gargoyle with only two or three targets, or a Metallurgeon that only interacts with four of your creatures are still perfectly reasonable, because when they do work they are extremely good. Even my best “Jund” decks are usually just R/G, making use of some decent fixing to play Oblivion Ring.

This preoccupation with piecing together a “Shard” is probably the root cause of the next misconception, which is that this format is anything but blisteringly fast. People will sit and lollygag around, casting Obelisks and cracking sac-lands, and I have no idea what format they think they are playing. Wild Nacatl, Tidehollow Strix, Rip-Clan Crasher, Goblin Deathraiders, Akrasan Squire, Excommunicate, Blightning, and Lightning Talons all can end the game very quickly, or else are so difficult to deal with or so immediately powerful that they make it easier for other spells to end the game. Exalted puts pressure on you from the second turn. Unearth means that there will come a turn where a Black deck is going to be able to throw a lot of range at you at once. Thorn-Thrash Viashino demands a removal spell quick. Et cetera. Maybe it’s because so few people have sat down and tried to draft one-splash-two or two-color aggressive decks that they haven’t realized the power of the set’s aggressive cards. Maybe it’s just because it’s so enticing to play big monsters with powerful effects. Maybe it’s because people want to play by the “theme” of the set if they can. I don’t know. But I promise you: if you think this format is slow, you’re doing something wrong.

I guess the last thing I have to say about draft is that it’s incredibly challenging to figure out how highly you should take cards that fix your mana. I honestly don’t know the answer. I am pretty sure that the comes-into-play-tapped lands are good enough to take first through fourth, and should basically never be in a pack fifth or later. They simply enable too many things – from minor splashes to even-more-solid bi-color early drops to “turning on” the Cycling abilities on the Resound spells to enhancing good-anyway cards like Sighted-Caste Sorcerer or Knight of the Skyward Eye. Sac-lands should probably hover around 5-7, and Obelisks could be 6-11th picks depending on how badly you need them. That said, I think almost all manafixing should be aggressively hate-drafted unless there is something you need in the pack. For one thing, you can probably find a use for it yourself. But I have seen too many decks made by mising a late sac-land or Obelisk that would otherwise have simply nightmarish manabases otherwise, and you don’t want to enable those types of decks to win games. Punish people where it hurts.

That’s it for this week. Sorry about the delay. I’ll be back on schedule next week, I promise!