Evaluating Something Cool

At Pro Tour: Chicago this year, the room was buzzing about the triple-Exalted Angel deck. Now, double Exalted Angel is certainly ridiculous… But the person who had the deck still only went 2-1. If a deck with three Exalted Angels can go 2-1, then it is clear that every deck is at risk. What sorts of things does a good draft deck need, and how can you draft to support it?

One thing has become obvious to me after years and years of playing Magic: No matter how good your deck looks on paper, no matter how awesome your best bomb is, the best way of figuring out how good a deck is is to play it.

At Pro Tour: Chicago this year, the room was buzzing about the triple-Exalted Angel deck. Now, triple Exalted Angel is certainly ridiculous… But the person who had the deck still only went 2-1. If a deck with double Exalted Angel can go 2-1, then it is clear that every deck is at risk.

Why does it matter how good your deck is? Well, for one thing it is nice to know what to expect – but more importantly, properly evaluating your deck can lead to more success as a Limited Magic player.

In each of the last two drafts I’ve watched, one of the players built a deck based around Lightning Rift. This was made easier because each time the person had not one but two Lightning Rifts. It was a pretty crazy week at CMU; I have had a double-Lightning Rift deck once – and until this week, I had rarely seen another deck with double Rift, and especially not in back-to-back drafts.

Besides the obvious need for many cycling cards, what else would you want to include in a deck with two Lightning Rifts?

Nick Eisel had the first deck with double-Rift. It was actually three colors. The deck’s was base Green, with Red being the second color, followed by a small splash of Blue. It included five cycling lands, a Tranquil Thicket, three Forgotten Caves, and a Lonely Sandbar. Along with this, he had a nice collection of cyclers.

Nate Heiss had the second deck with double Rift. Instead of Nick’s three-color deck, Nate played straight Red/Blue. He didn’t have the abundance of cycling lands that Nick’s deck did, but he was playing a few off-color cyclers to give him a high cycling count.

Both of them thought their deck to be pretty insane during and after the draft, but Nick went undefeated in his draft while Nate went 1-2.

I played Nate in the last round of the draft. He crushed me in one game by double-cycling away most of my big Green fatties… But in the other two games, my Green beasts rolled him over, even though he did have Lightning Rift out in one of those games.

When Nick asked me for help on his deck, I saw right away that it was pretty good. His deck had what Nate’s was lacking – fat. Instead of having Mauler as an off-color cycler like Nate did, Nick could cast the Mauler to hold back any big attackers. The inclusion of bigger Green creatures allowed Nick’s deck to handle big creatures as well as small ones. Nate’s deck, as he later realized, was awesome at crushing little creatures, but big creatures really put a strain on his cycling theme. Since Nate’s deck was so dependent on the Rifts, it really struggled against decks that played bigger creatures.

After the draft, Nate commented that he really could have used a Slipstream Eel to hold back big creatures – but by then it was too late. If Nate had realized that during the draft, he would have had a much better chance of winning. After all, two Lighting Rifts is pretty ridiculous.

Before Onslaught Block, people were fascinated with color matchups. In Team Limited, getting good matchups was often as important as getting the more powerful cards. Common knowledge held that Green/Black was good versus Red/Black in Odyssey block… So during a team draft, one team would try to outmaneuver the other by getting the favorable pairings of matchups. Often, teams would continually fight during the draft, maneuvering back and forth.

Similarly, when you are drafting, keeping in mind what your deck is looking for is often better than simply picking the best card. The Tribal concept has made this more evident than ever. The value of cards like Daru Stinger, Whipgrass Entangler, or Gempalm Polluter vary greatly depending on the number of Soldiers, Clerics, or Zombies you are expecting to end up with. Memorizing the lists that Gary Wise or others provide will help your game somewhat, but mastering what your draft deck needs will translate into wins.

While the Tribal theme is an obvious example of this idea, I think that mana curve issues provide a more important example. Balancing your early and late-game plays is very important in Limited decks. Having a deck with three Elvish Warriors, two Festering Goblins, two Stonewood Invokers and two Wirewood Elves can look great on paper – but in practice, it may not live up to expectations.

Why? Because Festering Goblin just doesn’t go well with Elvish Warrior. They both want to come out early, but the mana cost of Elvish Warrior makes this impossible. Also, having so many two-drops in a deck is wonderful, but this example overdoes it. When Wirewood Elf has competition for casting on turn 2, it will usually result in not enough late game power. Either you ignore the Elf and cast one of your other two-drops – at which, point you have a fairly useless mana producer left in your hand – or you cast the Elf, and have a fairly weak creature coming out when it may be too late to make a difference.

The inclusion of Gempalm Strider and Stonewood Invoker as strong two-drops, the increased value of Wirewood Herald because of Timberwatch Elf, and the other colors getting more solid two-drops has really hurt the value of Elvish Warrior, in my opinion. Before, the Warrior was one of Green’s few options for two-mana plays, whereas now it is one of many. The Warrior and the Wretched Anurid have been the two cards I have most reconsidered since Legions came out. Both were small disappointments in straight Onslaught, but the inclusion of Legions has really dropped their values.

But having too many two-drops is a problem many drafters would love to have; often, decks suffer the opposite problem with lots of solid high casting-cost creatures, but not enough early plays to keep you alive for your bombs to come out. Consider keeping a hand that has six land and Rorix Bladewing. Now, Rorix is awesome – but if you don’t get lucky by ripping a few creatures off the top to live until turn 6, then in this situation Rorix will have to be wasted as a blocker.

Too often, a deck will have this problem when it has only a couple of one-and two-drops in the whole deck; nothing is worse than watching your super-awesome hand wasted because you went second and your opponent curved out with a one two and three drop. Considering how risky blocking Morphs can be in this format, a game where your first play is on turn 3 or later will often end with you being overwhelmed.

The only way to ensure that this scenario doesn’t play itself out is to make sure that your deck gets enough early plays during the draft. Resisting the temptation for another expensive creature can often bring your deck the synergy and speed that it needs to stay competitive in a fast game. While most will agree that Krosan Vorine is better than Stonewood Invoker, sometimes taking the inferior card will make for a better deck. A quick warning is in order here: Don’t go crazy with this. Taking a Stonewood Invoker over a Timberwatch Elf or a Battlefield Medic over a Daunting Defender is just wrong. Remember that the draft will have more packs than the one you are currently looking at; a little foresight and patience will often be rewarded.

Occasionally, everything in the draft is going wrong. Your first picks seem wasted, no good cards are coming your way, it just isn’t your day. The best thing to do when this happens is to put your best foot forward. Magic isn’t an easy game; sometimes it requires creative thinking to win. Zev Gurwitz demonstrated this at Pro Tour: Nice; he took a very unconventional draft and turned it in his favor. Playing in Odyssey Block, his deck came together as a burn deck. Using cards like Longhorn Firebeast and Blazing Salvo, his less-than-stellar deck focused on doing just one thing: Burn! Normally straight burn is a weak strategy but it was the only option he had. He recognized this during the draft, took a pile, and turned it into a 2-1 finisher. You can look at the whole deck list and a feature match coverage here. Even though he lost this match, he did win his other two, and if you ask him I am sure he remembers the stories from them.

A lot of name Pro Tour players have done equally great things with little to work with. Personally, it is one of the reasons I enjoy Sealed Deck so much: You are handed cards, and that’s all you have to work with. When you get a sub-par deck, you are left to either throw in the towel or find a way to win. Anybody can win with three Exalted Angels, but the wins you will get with a bad deck are remembered for much longer than those you don’t work to achieve.

The difference between winning at lower levels and higher ones is as simple as winning when you should lose. Kai pulls this off more than any other player, and that is why he currently leads on the all-time money list. Figuring out what your deck is looking for during the draft will allow you to build better decks; figuring out what you need to do to win will bring you more wins. And winning is cool.

Thanks for reading,

Mike Turian

Team CMU

[email protected]