Feature Article – Zendikar Limited Analysis and Wrap-Up

Grand Prix: Oakland!

Tuesday, February 9th – Limited formats are much harder to mine data from because the decklists at top events are so seemingly random. Each Top 8 booster draft will obviously contain different cards, such is the appeal of Limited. We can’t make results-based generalities like “in M10 Limited Blue/White is better than Mono Black” from a single event because in each draft the archetypes will have different cards making them up.

Every time a major Constructed event happens, the Magic pundits pounce on the results and mine all manner of information from them. From this extracted information we can get a snapshot of the format’s current meta, and in combination with past and future snapshots we see how the format has evolved over time. Savvy players will use this information to be one step ahead of the next tournament’s expected field. I’m not going to go into the process of metagaming today, Stephen Menedian and Patrick Chapin have beaten that horse deader (and better) than I ever could. I want to talk about the evolution of a limited format, specifically Zendikar.

Limited formats are much harder to mine data from because the decklists at top events are so seemingly random. Each Top 8 booster draft will obviously contain different cards, such is the appeal of Limited. We can’t make results-based generalities like “in M10 Limited Blue/White is better than Mono Black” from a single event because in each draft the archetypes will have different cards making them up. Maybe Blue/White beat Mono Black in one event, but in the next one UW didn’t open Baneslayer and Black did open Xarthid Demon and Royal Assassin. Now which deck is better? We certainly can’t study top 8 penetration for Limited events like we can for Constructed, because every three rounds the players build a new deck. The trick to watching a Limited format evolve lies in a steady stream of smaller snapshots, rather than occasional large ones. If one person, ideally one skilled person, did a regular series of drafts that were available on public record we could stack those shots on top of each other and end up with a Limited evolution flipbook. As it happens, there is such a series and I’ve taken the liberty of putting that flipbook together.

Several times a week, StarCityGames.com treats us to draft walkthroughs by Hall of Famer Olivier Ruel. I don’t need to give anyone Olivier’s resume, I think it’s safe to say he’s pretty good at Magic and consequently a good person to follow. I’m going to walk us through the “Drafting with Olivier” Zendikar draft series, adding in my commentary about the interesting aspects of each draft.

That’s enough introduction, the information should speak for itself. Let’s get started:

Draft #1: Blue/Black
Zendikar was fresh off the online shelves at this point. Due to the product shortage there wasn’t a whole lot of experienced-based knowledge about the format. Many people had a few real life drafts under their belts, but the endless stream of information that comes from drafting online hadn’t been tapped into just yet. For the most part, all we had to go on was general Limited skills that apply to any format. In such an unknown format, it makes sense that a skilled player would gravitate towards Blue and Black. Two of the first things you learn about Limited are that removal and evasive creatures are good things to have. The Blue/Black deck certainly had both of those things. The deck turned out really well. It’s the kind of generally strong Limited deck that I’d be glad to run in an unfamiliar format.

Draft #2: Red/Black
The Red/Black deck came a few days later in the same week. At that point it was starting to become clear that Red/Black is color combination you want to be in. The best players were committing to it early and making it clear to their neighbors that they won’t be seeing any Burst Lightnings this draft. One interesting thing to note is that Oli played 17 lands in this deck. That could be a testament to the lack of landfall effects and aggression of the deck, or that 18 lands hadn’t become the norm yet.

Amusing anecdote: I was judging a PTQ in Philadelphia where I saw Chris Lachmann grab a handful of Swamps and Mountains from the land station before we had even passed out the product, that’s a pretty clear indicator that he knew what he wanted to play.

Draft #3: Red/Black
Immediately after the first Red/Black deck we see another one. Red/Black was established as the best archetype at this point, and Oli drafted it accordingly. The most interesting observation about this draft in retrospect is that he was still only playing 17 lands, despite having double Zektar Shrine Expedition and double Hagra Crocodile.

Draft #4: Blue/White
In this draft we see a new anti-Red/Black archetype begin to emerge. It is not yet at the point where Kraken Hatchling is worth an early pick, but 9 of his 16 creatures have 3 toughness. And one of the remaining 7 creatures is Ondu Cleric in a deck with 5 other allies. He’s also running Kabira Crossroads, Sejiri Refuge, and double Shieldmate’s Blessing… that’s a lot of ways to slow an aggressive Red draw. The deck is clearly built to beat the best deck while maintaining some aggression of its own against the slower ones. Oli says this about his opponent’s Red deck in the finals:

“In this format, and in particular when playing Mountains, you usually don’t get a second chance when your beating is stopped. He didn’t, and I didn’t have much trouble finishing him as my guys were better than his when the first 5-6 turns were past.”

The best deck in the format is rarely the best deck for a specific tournament, and here Oli is getting one step ahead of the game and adding 8 packs to his collection for doing so. He is also running only 17 lands, which draws the eye to his Living Tsunami and Kor Skyfisher. He’s able to run fewer land than the format usually dictates, but is still unlikely to miss a landfall.

Draft #5: Mono Black
This draft marks the start of a week-long mono-color streak. Stability of your mana is another fundamental skill in limited. Thus, a player who can build a mono-color deck has an edge over decks with multiple colors. The tradeoff is that you’ll likely have to play a few filler cards, meaning cards you wouldn’t normally play but now you have to in order to reach the minimum 40 deck size. In exchange for a few weaker cards in your deck, you can afford to be a little greedier with what hands you keep, since you only have to worry about the math of drawing land vs. spell and not land vs. spell of the right color. That is illustrated in this quote:

“I get a bit scared when I manage to miss my third land drop, but it comes on the following turn, and my Hexmage/Nighthawk/Gatekeeper/Disfigure draw can’t really be stopped.”

If this had been a two-color deck, a hand like that would be a dangerous keep. Two double-color cost cards plus a triple puts you in the situation that you can’t just draw any land, you have to draw the right land. In a mono-color deck, that worry is out the window. The only thing you need to consider is the percentage of lands and spells left in the deck and the likeliness of finding land number three in two draw steps, since you know what the land will be when you find it. This deck ran 19 land, all of which were basic Swamps. He was actually statistically favored to hit his 3rd land drop with a 51% chance of drawing one on turn one and 53% on turn two.

Playing one less color than everyone else is a tried and true limited strategy. Just like savvy players were running two-color decks in Shards/Conflux/Reborn draft to great success, mono-color in Zendikar can be saucy when a color is open.

Draft #6: Mono White
Here Oli explains pack 2 pick 1 in a way that makes it very clear he thinks his deck is better off being mono-color than two-color with better spells:

“Arid Mesa is decent in the deck, but I already have four in my account, so I’d consider Kazandu Blademaster, Burst Lightning, and Adventure Gear over it. As I’m short in early good guys, I decide to go for the first striker, which should give my deck more consistency than the equipment or the Blast. If it wasn’t in the pack I’d go with the Gear, as the card is excellent in White decks, and as it keeps my draws more regular than going for a second color.”

The final sentence of that explanation is very revealing about his plan. He said that if Blademaster wasn’t in the pack he’d rather have Adventuring Gear, which is occasionally good and frequently mediocre, over Burst Lightning which is one of the top commons in the set. I understand where he was coming from at the time, but I’d love to hear from him if he still agrees with that analysis with two more months of experience under his belt.

Draft #7: Mono Black
Double Nighthawk, double Crypt Ripper, double Mind Sludge, Hideous End, double Disfigure… With a draft like this it’d be harder not to go mono-color. His picks were so good he actually left a Disfigure in the sideboard. There’s not much I can add to this.

Draft #8: Blue/Black Control
Kalitas, Bloodchief of Ghet and Rite of Replication push Oli into an extremely defensive control deck. We see our first Kraken Hatchling picks of the series, he ends up with two of them alongside counterspells, double Giant Scorpion and double Heartstabber Mosquito. If any draft deck could be controlling enough to rock Kalitas and Rite, that sounds like the way to go. Unfortunately, that’s just not an archetype that has a lot of meat to it in this format. The Blue/Black bomb-laden control experiment failed to make the finals, prompting Oli to say:

“…that’s why I probably won’t try this kind of archetype again. The problem with it is the same as the problem with three-color decks in the Zendikar Sealed format. Even if their mana seems stable, any bad draw will be punished instantly.”

We’ll see if he follows his own advice here. Spoiler alert: He doesn’t. Let’s move on.

Draft #9: Mono Red
This deck is Zendikar limited incarnate, aggression in its purest form. There is no plan B, just keep smashing until someone is at zero. And with double Spire Barrage, double Zektar Shrine, and one of every other burn spell in the format; the opponent will probably hit zero first. I judged a PTQ in Edison, New Jersey where mono Red easily went 6-0 in games through the top 8 to nab the invite. That deck is the real deal.

Mono Red is mono Red in any format though, the really interesting thing about this deck is the 19 lands, including a Soaring Seacliff. Even if we count Seacliff as a spell, that leaves this Mono Red aggro deck with 45% lands. I guess Oli really never wanted to wait four turns for a 7/1 elemental or hit for less than three with his Geopede. The Seacliff is some sexy tech in its own right, having sent Molten Ravager into the air over his opponent’s locked-down board to take game one of the finals.

Draft #10: GWur Allies
Oli states at the beginning of the draft that he wants to try forcing allies. He then gets Sea Gate Loremaster and Kazuul Warlord as his first two picks. Must be nice. Then he picks a White card, and then a Green card. Four colors in four picks, and he intends to play them all. He’s either brilliant or out of his mind. To his credit, he manages to score 6 dual lands, 2 Harrows, and an Expedition Map to fix the ridiculous mana requirements. In the end he ends up losing in the second round not to his mana, but to creatures with flying.

This draft shows that running four colors is actually somehow viable in this lightning fast format. It also shows that allies tend to remain firmly planted on the ground. If you’re playing allies, take Spidersilk Net higher than usual, and Tajuru Archer is first pickable in packs two and three.

Draft #11: GWr Allies
A combination of reading the title of this section and common sense should spoil the ending: the two-color deck with a single splash does better than the previous two-color-double-splash did. Green/White is a very strong base for any ally deck. Oran-Rief Survivalist, Kazandu Blademaster, and Ondu Cleric are straight money. Tajuru Archer is your MVP in the matches where he matters, and puts counters on your Survivalists in the matches he doesn’t. Makindi Shieldmate is very strong. Alone it blocks anything aggro decks can throw at you, once you play a second ally it starts to block and kill anything aggro decks can throw at you. A Green base also leaves open the opportunity to pick up Oran-Rief Recluse, who is fantastic at picking up the slack your ground-based ally army can’t handle.

Oli says at the end of this draft:

“What was really interesting about this draft is that I was able to keep it almost two colors. I didn’t have to lose time in order to cast Harrow, Expedition Map, Khalni Heart Expedition, or anything while they would be developing, and that’s what opened my path to success here.”

I’m not convinced that indiscriminately taking every ally you see and worrying about the mana later was ever the correct way to draft allies. They’re not Slivers no matter how hard they try to be. Allies are best played as a regular deck that happens to have highly synergistic creatures, having allies in your deck does not teleport you to a magical world in which color discipline doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, Oli seems to think at this point that four-color decks are the norm and he drafted an anomaly this time. This will prove to be his downfall in the next draft.

Draft #12 GWR Allies
Before I begin this section, understand that I have the utmost respect for Olivier and without his steady stream of drafts this article would not have been possible. That said, this draft was an amateurish train wreck. Not only does he demonstrate a strong misunderstanding of the format (which is fine, since that’s the point of these articles), but he also gets tunnel vision on one of his colors that just isn’t there. Hang in there with me as I dissect each pick and point out where I believe the wheels came off.

He opens up with a bomb in Turntimber Ranger, then follows it up with a Stonework Puma and a weak but on-color ally. Then he takes Kazandu Blademaster, which is one of the best cards he can get right now. That’s all good stuff, the problem is that he mentally digs into Green/White, but begins taking Red cards. At the end of pack one he has three playable Green cards, two strong Red cards, one good White card, and a bunch of White chaff that tabled back to him. Pack two presents five more strong Green cards, an Ondu Cleric, and a Tuktuk Grunts. By my count that’s eight Green cards, three Red cards, and two White cards that can be considered good picks, the rest is just filler. Green is obviously the base of the deck, but the second color and the splash are still up for grabs. But he seems convinced that White is a main color already and Red is the splash, as illustrated in this quote:

“Another double Red card while I still don’t have a Red fixer, but it has to be a better first pick than Joraga Bard.”

He said that about opening Hellkite Charger in pack three. He now has four Red cards, including a bomb, versus two White cards. I think he should be more worried more about whether or not his single Kazandu Blademaster is worth ruining a solid RG mana base to play. That’s pack-three-big-mistake number one. Luckily, it’s a mistake that can fix itself later. There wasn’t any mediocre White card in the pack for him to get seduced by, and he did end up with the Dragon. There’s still time for him to come to his senses and build a RG aggro deck with a strong ally subtheme. Next he picks his third Oran-Rief Survivalist, making his Green even more nuts. Pick three is where he makes a mistake that can’t be rectified during deckbuild; he takes a second Kazandu Blademaster over Plated Geopede. Now, instead of getting a fifth strong Red card he has a second mana-base-destroying WW cost creature. Pick four he takes Mold Shambler without even looking at Goblin Shortcutter.

“I could have taken the Refuge, but I think the only thing my deck needs to be very strong is stability, so the Hagra Diablost will stay in my sideboard and I won’t be needing Black mana.”

Based on this quote, he’s clearly in the mindset that he’s GWr and the only decision to be made is taking a Green Hill Giant or a fixer that could let him get into a second splash. It’s ironic that he says he took the Shambler in the interest of stability, when the pick in the interest of stability would be the Red card. Pick seven he takes Kazandu Refuge over Mark of Mutiny. The way his deck was going, the Refuge is his last chance at a playable build. But if he hadn’t dug into the GW base, he wouldn’t need to fix the mana here at all and could instead take a good card.

In the end he ends up running only five White cards, two of which demand WW on turn two to be at their best, and all of which could be easily replaced with cards he passed in pack three and cards in his sideboard. I’m a big fan of Ondu Cleric, and I’d have supported that as a splash since it doesn’t need to come down on turn two to be good. He was booty-blind to the idea of a two-mana 2/2 with three strong abilities, and in the end that cost him the entire draft.

Unfortunately, but understandably, poor drafting on his part leads him to this poor conclusion:

“I guess this draft was a very good example of why not to play allies. I mean, I did draw poorly, but this is one of these formats when you can’t afford to waste any time waiting for your mana. Most decks don’t know those problems in ZZZ, but Allies does.”

He’s partially correct, a big pile of ally creatures and awkward mana fixing is a bad strategy. “Allies” as he is describing them in this draft do not exist. There is no “ally deck” that wins by having all the allies. The way to play them is to build them into a plan that doesn’t completely rely on them. Allies should not be dismissed as a poor draft decision. Strategies that incorporate allies are extremely powerful, but they need to be a subtheme of existing archetypes, not an archetype on their own.

Fortunately, Oli learned from his initial misunderstanding and demonstrates exactly the ally subtheme principle in his very next draft.

Draft #13: UW Ally-Skies
This draft begins with Sea Gate Loremaster, which is followed by Umara Raptor, then Highland Berserker. He follows up the Berserker pick with this quote:

“I haven’t posted all my ally drafts, but I’ve been trying several types: a two-color core, three-color, one splash, two splashes etc. And so far, what has been working the best is clearly the two-color, or two + one splash.”

Thank you. Let’s continue.

The rest of the pack offers double Ondu Cleric, which makes Berserker look stupid and Blue/White look really saucy. The next two packs offer four more Umara Raptors and another Ondu Cleric. That’s the kind of ally deck I can get behind. His final list has 11 allies in two colors with no splash. Compare that to the previous draft which had 16 allies evenly distributed over three colors. Although there are fewer allies, there is also less filler, much better mana, and a much better result. The deck has zero bombs, and has some weak cards main deck (double Shieldmate’s Blessing), but it went 3-0 in matches and 6-0 in games. That shows just how strong allies are when they’re used properly. Even with five Raptors, if he had held onto that third pick Berserker and made a three color deck he would have done much worse.

Draft #14: Mono Red
Here he goes mono Red again, but it doesn’t work out as well as it did the last time. He loses in game three of round one. He weighs his options carefully, plays around the Arrow Volley Trap he knows his opponent has two of, goes all in on a plan that wins even through the trap… and then loses to Tanglesap. The lesson to be taken away from this draft is that in a format where almost every deck is trying to race straight up, Tanglesap is almost Time Walk. I’d be slow to main deck it, but I always make it a point to have one in my sideboard when I’m on Green.

It’s interesting that Tanglesap was not higher on Oli’s radar in the same format that he frequently dedicates main deck slots to Shieldmate’s Blessing.

Draft #15: Blue/Black Control
Remember in Draft #8 when Oli tries to build a control deck around Kalitas and Rite of Replication? And then he says probably won’t try it again? Well he does try it again, and here it is. This time the bombs are Sorin Markov and Sphinx of Lost Truths. Once again it doesn’t work out, the deck’s glacial slowness is made worse by the fact that both his bombs cost three mana of their respective colors. Not only does he need to completely stabilize by turn 6 or 7, he has to have one of the bombs and an even split of Islands and Swamps when he gets there. That’s not a winning proposition, and he makes a round one exit as a result.

There is more to be learned from this draft than confirming that control doesn’t work very well. I think the first mistake was assuming that the two big curve-topping spells with built-in card advantage had to be played in a control shell. Rather than doing a bunch of nothing for six turns and trying to win with Sorin or Sphinx alone, the deck could have been beating with Umara Raptors and Surrakar Marauders for the first six turns then mopped up with the Planeswalker or the 3/5 flying beatstick. Don’t fall into the trap of seeing a card with constructed applications and thinking it has the same applications in limited. You want to be aggro in this format, so find a way to make your big gnarly rares aggressive.

Draft #16: Mono Green
This draft is characterized by Oli’s quote that followed his second pick Grazing Gladeheart:

“By far the best card in the pack, and I’ve started to like drafting Green. The color is obviously weak, but it is becoming so underdrafted that it makes it interesting again.”

This draft occurred a full month before he wrote his “Drafting Green in Zendikar” article, and three weeks after Owen Turtenwald made a quarterfinals exit at GP-Minneapolis with mono Green, proving Oli’s had his finger on the pulse of the limited meta for quite some time. While everyone else was avoiding Green at all costs, he was reaping the rewards. When Turntimber Basilisk wheeled in pack one and then Baloth Woodcrasher came back around in pack two, followed by an 11th pick Primal Bellow, it became very clear that he was alone in Green.

It’s important to realize that based on when he decided to commit to Green, there’s no way the signals could have told him it was open yet. It was a complete meta call based on the general opinion that Green is unplayable. After his first pick Obsidian Fireheart, many drafters may have been tempted in pick three by the Highland Berserker, Mark of Mutiny, and/or Nimana Sell-sword in hopes of getting the Red/Black deck. But Oli took River Boa over all three, which was an educated leap of faith that Green would be open, and he was rewarded for it.

Draft #17: Blue/Green Landfall
I’m surprised it took this long for a Blue/Green Landfall deck to make the column, as it’s an archetype I’ve had a lot of success with. It’s not an archetype that can be forced as it’s dependent on having some number of big Landfall effects from the higher rarities (Woodcrasher, Roil Elemental, Lotus Cobra, etc), but it is an archetype that is frequently open if you start off with one of those effects. Oli kicks it off with a Lotus Cobra and hits the jackpot by opening Roil Elemental in pack three. Combine that with Gladeheart, Turntimber Basilisk, Woodcrasher, Territorial Baloth, and a playset of Windrider Eels and you’ve got a sick theme going. You’ll want to take Harrow highly in the archetype, but don’t worry so much about Khalni Heart Expedition because those will frequently wheel, as they’re only good in your deck.

In addition to being powerful, Blue/Green Landfall is just a fun archetype. How often in Magic do you find yourself hoping to topdeck a land on turn 12? And how often does playing a land immediately translate into doubling the power of your attack force? Man is it satisfying to do something as simple as making a land drop and then seeing three or four triggers hop onto the stack. MaRo was right when he said players would enjoy being rewarded for doing what they want to do anyway. If Red/Black is the Spike deck in this format, Blue/Green landfall is the Vorthos.

Draft #18: Red/Green
This draft looks like it could have come from a core set. There is no Landfall theme, only one ally, nothing that sets it apart as Zendikar thematically. It’s just straight Red/Green beatdown with some dudes, some burn, and some combat tricks. Unfortunately, that’s not a good thing in this set, at least not in these colors. Green is weak when it isn’t wide open and your dominant color. The last draft showed how Green’s extra land drops make Blue’s landfall pretty spicy, but Red does not have that same synergy. Outside of Plated Geopede, there’s not much incentive to want Harrow and Khalni Heart Expedition in your Red deck. The Green ramp is only that, ramp. And in this format you’re going to do poorly if your deck needs ramp for the sake of ramp. The friction between synergy and power is as old as Magic, unfortunately this deck lacks both.

Wizards R&D designs sets with limited in mind. I don’t remember who wrote it or what site it was on, but there was an article a while back that asked what would happen to the format if Persist creatures were added into 10th Edition limited. The argument was that each set is built with its own themes in mind. Persist is fair in a format like Shadowmoor with a lot of Wither effects, and although Terror is very strong in 10th edition limited, it’s pretty bad if your opponent is running Kitchen Finks and Safehold Elite. My point is that you need to take advantage of a block’s themes when you draft. If it’s considered fair in a format that playing a land gives your whole team +2/+2 or that playing a creature puts a +1/+1 counter on all your guys, don’t be the sucker who’s just casting bears and giants.

Draft #19: Black/White
Oli has said many times throughout the series that he doesn’t like Black/White because both of the colors’ best cards require heavy colored mana commitments. This draft unavoidably puts him in Black/White though, and he makes a lot conscious efforts to alleviate the mana problems he knows the archetype has. Several times in the draft he says things like “It is not the best card in my colors, but it is the best card for my deck.” At one point in intentionally passes Kazandu Blademaster and instead takes Steppe Lynx in order to shave a White mana symbol out of the list. In the third pack he takes a third Steppe Lynx over Kor Skyfisher, claiming “if the games go long I’ll lose them.” Those two picks show that he knows he’s in a suboptimal archetype and that he’s doing everything he can to optimize it.

He ends up with a very low curve, sporting five one-drops and six two-drops. He’s also running 19 lands as a testament to how all-in he is on winning with his Lynxes before the opponent can stabilize. Despite his efforts, he still doesn’t make the finals. White/Black has mana issues when you take the good cards and power issues when you take the mana-friendly cards. It’s a lose-lose situation, so do your best to avoid it when possible.

Draft #20: Mono Black
Marsh Casualties, triple Mind Sludge, playset of Crypt Rippers, that seems like a recipe for mono Black. The only weakness of the deck was the slim removal package coupled with dependence on Mind Sludge. The best way to win is to clear out the opponent’s hand with Mind Sludge every turn five (and you’ll have it every turn five), then close it out with what’s still lurking in your hand. The plan works for the first two rounds, but he loses game three in the finals when he sees nothing but nine Swamps, Disfigure, and Mind Sludge over the course of the game. With 19 lands and only three removal spells, it was bound to happen eventually.

The only controversial pick in this draft is Blade of the Bloodchief pack one pick four over Vampire Lacerator after he’d taken Marsh Casualties, Vampire Hexmage, and Mind Sludge as the first three picks. The only Black cards in pack four were Lacerator and Hagra Diabolist, I think making sure the dude next to you doesn’t get a fifth pick Lacerator is more important than experimenting with a mediocre rare. It’s entirely possible he took the Blade for the sole reason of wanting a chance to try it out, but I still don’t think I agree on any level.

Draft #21: GWR Allies
Here we see a regression back to the drafts 10-12 mess. Except this time he knows exactly what he’s doing wrong as he’s doing it. It’s a lack of discipline rather than a lack of understanding. He has powerful spells within a reasonable spread of colors, but twice he takes the flashy double-red costed card over a fixer (Pyromancer over Kazandu Refuge and Hellkite Charger over Harrow). Taking the fixers on those spots would have both reduced the number of Red mana symbols in the deck and increased access to Red mana for the Red cards that did get picked. This deck could have easily been a 3-0 GWr deck rather than 0-1 GWR, and based on his comments in the draft I’m sure he knew that. The lesson to take away from this mistake is to not get greedy. Every card in your deck can’t be the MVP, sometimes you need role players like Harrow and dual lands to have a chance at playing the game.

Draft #22: UBrw Good Stuff/Allies
This is probably one of the weirdest Zendikar drafts I’ve seen. It’s four colors, and still has to run Spreading Seas as filler to hit 40 cards. It is also splashing for Lavaball Trap. Splashing for Lavaball Trap. Did we regress into triple Shards draft somehow? Oli seems to have taken the previous draft’s lessons to heart though, and his mana fixing is off the charts for the format, especially considering the only color he isn’t playing is Green. The combination of ridiculous spells across almost every color and the requisite fixing to play them all carries him to a victory in the draft. I can’t endorse forcing or even letting the signals dictate a deck like this. But it’s worth knowing that it’s possible to succeed in this lightning fast format with goodstuff.dec, just really unlikely.

Draft #23: Mono Red
Red is wide open from the start, which is evident from a fifth pick Inferno Trap. Then we all got a nice giggle when he received a 37th pick Valakut, confirming that not only was Red open in the beginning but that nobody else jumped on the bandwagon in pack two or three. Double Spire Barrage, double Geopede, double Molten Ravager, double Bladetusk Boar, it seems that the gang is all here. The deck makes it to the finals where it is faced with its arch nemesis, a deck with turn two Nissa’s Chosen. The best part is that his opponent’s deck is RG, so Bladetusk Boar is just a bad Hill Giant. This once again confirms that while mono Red has the chops to be disgusting, there are decks that just beat it.

Draft #24: Forced Mono Green
This draft was posted right after Oli wrote an article about how to draft Green in Zendikar, and he wanted to put his money where his mouth is and prove that it works. He made a lot of bad picks early in order to guarantee nuts picks late, which is pretty much the entire philosophy of forcing an archetype. A 37th pick Timbermaw Larva and triple Grazing Gladeheart validated his efforts, and he ended up taking the draft. In the finals we see Oli sitting on the other side of his previous finals appearance, Green vs. mono Red. Just like last time we see that mono Red is a serious dog to Green, especially mono Green, and our hero emerges victorious.

Draft #25: Green/Blue Landfall-ish Aggro
This is a weird deck, but I don’t mean that in a bad way. It has all the tools of mono Green (Larva, Primal Bellow, Vines of Vastwood, Nissa’s Chosen), but it also has a small element of Blue Landfall included. It’s an interesting direction to take. I’m not sure if he’s diluting UG Landfall or enhancing mono Green. Maybe both? Maybe neither? Unfortunately he gets destroyed by a much better deck in round one, so we only got to see two games with the archetype. This might be worth testing out as a plan B when your Landfall or mono Green draft goes south.

Draft #26: Green/Red Electropotence
Oli kicks this one off by saying he doesn’t want to draft Green again, but Scute Mob is the best card in his opening pack. Nissa’s Chosen, Oran-Rief Recluse, and double Grazing Gladeheart fall in line after that pick, solidifying Green as the base color. Pick 6 in pack 1 offers him nothing great in Green, so he takes Bog Tatters and says that it’s a decent pick because he’ll probably end up with Khalni Expeditions and Harrows main deck anyway, so it’d be no problem to board in Tatters and Swamps against black decks. The very next pick drops an Electropotence into his card pool, punting Bog Tatters firmly cementing Red as the splash color. Pack 2 is uninspiring, aside from a Harrow, Turntimber Larva and Nissa’s Chosen it’s just a pack of cuts and filler. Pack 3 starts off with a gift in the form of Rampaging Baloths, followed by a second Electropotence in pick 3. That shifts the deck from Electropotence as a splash to Electropotence as a theme. He takes a Khalni Expedition over another Timbermaw Larva to ramp to his bombs and Electropotence mana as fast as possible, and rounds out the pack with two more Khalni Expeditions and a second Scute Mob (why not?).

The deck ends up with a clear plan of how to win its games. But with 19 lands, a Harrow, triple Khalni Heart Expedition, double Electropotence, and Scythe Tiger it’s not exactly surprising that he runs out of gas and can’t close out round one in the third game. The deck had all the pieces, but with so many context-dependent draws it couldn’t put them together in the right order.

Draft #27: Mono-Red Valakut
This deck is hilarious. It’s mono-Red with 21 lands plus two expedition map. You think someone is all in on double Valakut much? In Oli’s defense he does have a Hellkite Charger as well, but it’s never mentioned in the game logs so I’m going to assume it was never played or only played at points he was going to win anyway. The deck works in round one, getting Valakut(s) active and throwing free Lightning Bolts around to win the game. Round two Oli takes game one with honest beatdown plus Spire Barrage, no Valakut shenanigans at all. Game two his opponent doesn’t do anything until dropping a chump turn five, then Roil Elemental on six and Kalitas on seven. But as we’ve learned from Oli’s own miserable U/B control decks, this just isn’t the format for them. Oli takes the game before his opponent’s bombs matter. His finals opponent has the Green/White ally curve all over Oli’s face, including an Ondu Cleric. Despite that start, there is still a window in which our hero can rip Spire Barrage to win… but he doesn’t. Game two Valakut comes online, but his opponent’s guys are all big Green beasts that can shrug off a Bolt. The Red deck succumbs to Green once again.

Draft #28: Red/Black Control
Punishing Fire, Sorin Markov, Lavaball Trap, Disfigure, Gatekeeper of Malakir, and triple Burst Lightning… this deck is good, right? Wrong. We see the same thing happen here that we’ve seen before in the Blue/Black bomb-control decks Oli has built. He does a whole lot of nothing for six turns, then drops a bomb when it doesn’t matter anymore. It takes a quip from his opponent to put the reality of the deck in perspective:

“I then did something I usually don’t do: I started complaining to my opponent, saying it was frustrating to lose with such a good deck.

“He answered that he hadn’t seen a card which wasn’t a mulligan in the match, and he couldn’t see why my deck was any good. Even though I did draw pretty badly, his comments were meaningful. This type of game should remind me that a pile of great cards doesn’t necessarily make a great deck. My deck was surely good, but it was missing too many guys, and had too much difficulty handling flyers to be the nuts I thought it could have been.”

I’ve played against so many opponents over the years who’ve insisted they have a better limited deck after I beat them, then begin to pull out all their good cards to prove it. Once again, having good cards doesn’t necessarily mean you have a good deck. There’s so much more to Magic than having the most powerful effects. If you don’t like it, play Yu-gi-oh.

Draft#29: Mono-Blue with Luminarch Ascension
Alright, alright. There was a Journey to Nowhere and Shepherd of the Lost in there too, but Mono-Blue just sounds so much snazzier. Anyway, this deck is really weird. A playset of Into the Roil made lovely combos with his Journey to Nowhere and Gomozoa. Mix that in with a Merfolk Seastalkers and double Kraken Hatchling and basically, with any decent draw, this deck will never take damage from creatures without flying. The plan works in the first two rounds, Oli set up complete board stalls that were eventually broken by Living Tsunami and/or Luminarch Ascension. Round three the weakness of the deck shows through when in game three the opponent casts Nimbus Wings on a guy with a decent body and Oli is certain the game is over. Then he and his opponent both realize that he’s misclicked and put the enchantment on one of Oli’s guys instead. MTGO rules, and the nearly-mono-Blue deck wins.

I’d like to note that Blue was clearly untouched by anyone else at the table. It could have been weird packs, it could have been seven other people forcing other colors, but Blue was glaringly open the entire draft. That is the only reason this almost mono-Blue experiment worked (well, that and the misclick). I strongly encourage all the readers to avoid mono-Blue in this format if possible, and I’m sure Oli would say the same.

Draft#30: Blue/Black Aggro
If anything nails the lid on Blue/Black control’s coffin in this format, it’s the implications of this draft. Oli has zero bombs, and frankly not a single creature with a decent body outside of Shoal Serpent. What he does have is the stall tactics of a control deck: multiple Giant Scorpion, a lot of removal, a lot of bounce, and counterspells. But instead of two or three big Sphinxes/Planeswalkers/Legendary Vampires to cast on turn 47 and hope they get there, he has a handful of random dorks that attack for two along the way. The Lacerators and Marauder do enough damage that when Sky Ruin Drake finally comes down, it’s a perfectly reasonable kill condition. Just imagine how sick Sorin would be in a deck that can reliably kill with Sky Ruin Drake. I think this draft is definitive proof that picking away with two-power dudes then mopping up with a bomb is the correct way to play Sorin and the Sphinxes in this format.

Draft#31: Blue/White Skies
This deck has beats straight up the curve. Two-power Kor creatures abound in the two spot, Hookmasters at the three, Living Tsunami, Conqueror’s Pledge , and Jwar Jwar Sphinx to top it off. Remember back in draft number six when Oli rated Adventuring Gear so highly in White and I wondered if he’d still feel that way today? Apparently he does. Pack one pick three he takes the Gear not only because it’s good in White, but seems read it as incentive to go further into White. That’s very interesting, as I’ve personally never had that level of success with the card. Let’s hear more thoughts on the subject in the forums.

Draft#32: Nearly Mono-Green
Pack one pick one Terra Stomper, woof. We go into big Green from there and all the Nissa’s Chosens, Timbermaw Larvae, and Grazing Gladehearts you can eat get served up on the buffet. There are two interesting aspects of this draft, the first is Living Tsunami. Oli takes it early on because he doesn’t want to pass a card on that level, even skipping a solid Green card to get it. The final list is playing the Tsunami, and just the two Islands required to cast it. He also has Harrow and triple Khalni Heart Expedition, but that still seems awfully greedy. Living Tsunami isn’t mentioned once in the game log, but neither is being short on Green mana because of an awkward Island draw. We’d probably have to play 100 games with this deck before we really got an idea of how good or bad the Tsunami splash is, but it’s worth noticing regardless. The other aspect of this draft that’s worth mentioning is Oli’s MVP: his 45th pick Tanglesap, and specifically the sick combo of Tanglesap plus Terra Stomper. People always poo-poo Fog effects in limited, but fogging everything except your 8/8 causes serious blowouts when double/triple blocks are involved. And he even wins the last game in the finals just by fogging with it!

Draft#33: Mono-Green
The final draft I’m going to cover for this piece is yet another mono-Green, but this one doesn’t quite get there. He starts out strong, getting a lot of sick early picks, then the packs just dry up. Primal Bellow on the wheel shows that the packs really were just that empty, nobody was cutting Green from him. This trend continues and, despite Green being wide open, he ends up having to play way too much filler and not nearly enough guys. The problem is evident from his round one loss when every creature he plays is better than every creature his mono-Red opponent plays, except his opponent has a whole lot more of them. This draft illustrates why Green is considered the worst color in the format, even when you’re wide open it can still lack the depth to make a winning deck. I’m a bit confused by his quote at the end of the draft:

“In the end, I would probably have won one of those two games at least if I had drawn one-third guys, but it does make sense to lose to the deck’s biggest weakness, so there’s not much I can say.”

Every other bit of evidence towards the mono-Red versus mono-Green matchup in this column points to Green as the favorite. So I don’t understand what he meant by this at all, unless he’s not talking about the matchup but about Green’s lack of good cards.

It’s interesting to note that, for the most part, Oli’s archetypes come in clusters. A couple of consecutive Red decks, a week of mono-color, a bunch of Allies in a row, Green decks for a week straight… I don’t believe this to be a coincidence. When Red/Black is the best deck, you take Red/Black. When Red/Black becomes over drafted, you start taking slower Blue/White decks that beat Red/Black. When people catch on and start building the slower anti-Red/Black decks, you can use the extra time those slow decks give you to assemble an army of Allies. When people start fighting over Allies in the draft, you steamroll them with good old Red/Black. When everyone is fighting over all the “better” decks, you stomp through the draft with mono Green. The limited meta fluctuates as drastically as constructed formats, and the best of the best players understand how to exploit that.

So where does that leave us? Worldwake is fresh off the shelves and we’ve had three months of data rolling in to make conclusions about triple-Zendikar draft. While I think it remains clear that Red/Black is the best archetype, the format is very healthy and a large variety of decks all have what it takes to compete.

I’ve only done a few drafts with Worldwake so far, so I don’t feel qualified to make predictions about the new format we currently find ourselves in. In my limited experience it seems that Red/Black is still king in a vacuum, but if Oli’s “Drafting With” has taught us anything it’s that being the best deck is completely contextual, and that we have the power to change the context in every draft.

Limited is not completely random, the randomness ends once the packs have been opened. Every decision you make in draft needs to be based on an understanding of the format as a whole as well as specific understanding of the current meta. Forcing in Limited is the equivalent of metagaming in Constructed and if you understand the format and know how to play its trends, you will have an edge over everyone you sit down across from. Going into the new ZEN-ZEN-WWK format it may be wise to not look at what archetype your favorite authors are raving about, but looking at the next step to beat that archetype. Olivier Ruel understands that, and if you pay attention to the big picture you can too.

Brian Coval
Bosh N Roll everywhere