Flow of Ideas – Being Boros in Zendikar Draft

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Thursday, November 19th – Zendikar is an extremely fast draft format. While initially popular, a lot of players have began to bemoan its speed, saying games are over too quick and, as a result, there is a smaller chance for skill to impact each game. While that statement is partially true, a quicker format puts the skill emphasis not on play, but on drafting.

Zendikar is an extremely fast draft format. While initially popular, a lot of players have began to bemoan its speed, saying games are over too quick and, as a result, there is a smaller chance for skill to impact each game. While that statement is partially true, a quicker format puts the skill emphasis not on play, but on drafting.

In a slower format, you can afford to bungle some picks. In Shards of Alara, you could pass on a Cavern Thoctar to take a chance on another card because you knew that a similar fatty would be just a few packs around the corner. The games took enough time to develop that you had more time for skill to directly impact each game (assuming you drew the right colors, of course), and so slightly worse cards could hold roughly the same value. Sure, Mostodon was no Rakeclaw Gargantuan, but it would fill the same slot without a significant drop-off in power.

In Zendikar, you don’t have that luxury.

The skill in Zendikar lies less in the play (though I think people underestimate how much playskill is necessary if the game becomes interactive) and more in the drafting process. In a battle of having a consistent curve, the aspect you can control is not your ability to directly draw your curve, which is governed by the fickle deity of the draw step, but to build a curve during the drafting process that will give you the best chance to curve out.

So, how does this all tie into drafting R/W? R/W (Boros) is one of the best and simultaneously underrated draft combinations in the format, and I have found tremendous success by drafting it whenever possible. That’s not to say that I won’t draft other archetypes; analogous to what I just said, I’ll draft just about anything if it’s open. Forcing in a format where speed is everything and the average card quality has such a steep drop-off is a suicidal choice. However, an archetype which is deep, seems to be consistently open, and powerful offensively while having a good mix of removal and tricks is Boros.

I first noticed this trend when Jonathon Loucks mentioned how he kept winning 8-4s with R/W early last week, then, upon reminiscing, realized that the same was true for me. I began to keep track of how often drafting Boros would lead me to victory, and after a week and a half of recording my finishes, the results are compelling: out of eight times drafting R/W, six of them led to 8-4 wins, with one of the other two losing in the finals. While eight drafts is a small sample size certainly prone to variance, both my success and the success of others with R/W is worthy of discussion.

I’m sure you all have an idea of what a “good” R/W deck looks like, Sanctifiers, Skyfishers, and Shortcutters (oh my!), but something particularly notable about Boros is often the decks can be unassuming; the sum of the cards is much better than each individually. Take a look at this recent draft deck, which didn’t drop a game:

10 Plains
6 Mountain
2 Teetering Peaks

2 Steppe Lynx

2 Cliff Threader
1 Kor Skyfisher
1 Hedron Scrabbler

2 Torch Slinger
1 Kor Hookmaster
1 Ruinous Minotaur

1 Bladetusk Boar

2 Slaughter Cry
1 Adventuring Gear
1 Unstable Footing
1 Punishing Fire
1 Goblin War Paint
1 Nimbus Wings
1 Magma Rift
1 Pitfall Trap
1 Inferno Trap
1 Conqueror’s Pledge

With only 11 creatures (12 including the Conqueror’s Pledge I never cast) the deck looks fairly unassuming. However, the deck employs two principles that are important to a successful R/W draft which are easy to miss.

1. One- and Two-Drops are Crucial

It’s no secret that two-drops are good in this format. The thing about R/W, though, is that you Just. Need. Guys. They don’t have to be great, you just need creatures to cast on turn 2 so you can start bashing. Obviously, there are degrees of power. Highland Berserker is worse than Goblin Shortcutter, which is worse than Plated Geopede, and so on. I’m even perfectly happy running Hedron Scrabbler. You just want as many cheap guys as possible. I wouldn’t be happy with less than six creatures I could cast by turn 2, and would prefer somewhere between eight and ten.

I generally don’t find pick orders helpful because I feel they trap you into thinking certain ways. Cards should fluidly move up and down the order depending on your draft so far. Still, to show you my thought processes, I want to show you rough pick orders throughout this article so you have a rough understanding of where cards fit. Understand that my pick orders show a card’s general value. Especially as you begin to move further down the list, lines between cards blur entirely depending on the draft.

With that disclaimer in place, the one- and two-drop creature pick order looks something like this:

Kor Skyfisher
Plated Geopede
Steppe Lynx
Kazandu Blademaster
Goblin Shortcutter
Kor Aeronaut
Cliff Threader
Highland Berserker
Goblin Bushwhacker
Hedron Scrabbler
Ondu Cleric
Kor Outfitter
Kor Duelist

Skyfisher is simply at the top of the pack. The ability to rebuy lands for your landfall triggers, get additional uses out of Hookmasters and Shortcutters, and have the ubiquitous power and toughness combination 2/3 on top of flying, and it’s the cheap creature I hope to have in this archetype over anything else. I think Geopede and Lynx are both better than the occasionally awkward to cast Blademaster, though if you think you’re going to end up heavier in White and have some Highland Berserkers, Blademaster might be better. (Incidentally, this raises the value of Ondu Cleric.)

Shortcutter follows closely behind Blademaster, then Aeronaut. After that there is a significant drop, though I’m finding Cliff Threader to be unblockable more and more commonly. The generic 2/1 Berserker is up next followed by the hit-or-miss Bushwhacker, then my good Scrabbly friend. After that is Ondu Cleric, which becomes significantly better if you have four or five other allies, and Outfitter, which I ideally never want to play for mana considerations. Rounding out the list is Kor Duelist, who is usually unplayable, but if you have several Adventuring Gears or (how lucky) Trusty Machetes, he can be playable.

Additionally, in the event you see them, Armament Master, Goblin Guide, and Warren Instigator are all rares that fit into this chart. Armament Master is a bomb if you have 3+ pieces of equipment you’re already going to play anyway. Warren Instigator is on the lower end of the chart as a glorified 2/2, but can move up depending on if you have any way to get value out of his Double Strike. (Slaughter Cry.) Goblin Guide is a rare which has generated a lot of discussion on the topic of its Limited viability, and I feel it’s playable. It’s not for every deck, but in this archetype I’d usually be fine with it over Highland Berserker and probably Cliff Threader, depending on how my curve looks.

2. Any Spell Will Do, Really

With all of the little guys you drafted running around, it’s crucial you have a mixture of spells that gives you an advantage. You have the early creature advantage, but you need a way to not be brickwalled by a turn 4 Shatterskull Giant. Not only do cheap creatures have value, but cheap spells are also very solid. Enchant creatures like Nimbus Wings and Goblin War Paint ensure your early drops get through without hampering your mana (which might already be behind due to Skyfishers) or preventing you from casting another cheap spell on the same turn. Yes, sometimes you end up 2-for-1’d, but on a more regular occasion they allow you to bust through and win races past what they had expected to be an adequate defense.

Removal is obviously at a premium, but there are a plethora of other options many drafters don’t even consider. Slaughter Cry, for example, is an extremely underrated trick which is usually just a removal spell for their creature, and I am always happy to lap them up late. Even the frequently 12th-14th pick Bold Defense is fine just because it gives you a way to push through some extra points and bust through a carefully manufactured defense. (As a side note, Bold Defense is especially good if you’re packing some Kor Cartographers.)

The pick order for nonartifact spells roughly looks like this, though it can easily change depending on how your deck is coming together:

Lightning Burst
Journey to Nowhere
Inferno Trap
Windborne Charge
Punishing Fire
Magma Rift
Pitfall Trap
Nimbus Wings
Slaughter Cry
Goblin War Paint
Unstable Footing
Mark of Mutiny
Arrow Volley Trap
Spire Barrage
Shieldmate’s Blessing
Zektar Shrine Expedition
Bold Defense
Narrow Escape
Seismic Shudder
Brave the Elements

In a controversial pick, I have Lightning Burst above Journey. The abilities that allow you to cast it on your opponent’s turn and to torch opponents out of the game are both valuable assets to the archetype that Journey can’t provide. Journey is also a source of paranoia, with cards like Mold Shambler, Kor Sanctifiers, and Into the Roil keeping Journey fair. After those two spells I have the obviously awesome Inferno Trap followed by Windborne Charge over Punishing Fire. Punishing Fire is great, but Charge absolutely steals games. Magma Rift is a card I really like in this archetype, as often the land isn’t that important to you and it deals with a plethora of cards which can be sticky to deal with otherwise. Pitfall Trap is a card I like less and less, but it is still quality removal that works well when creatures are repeatedly bashing. After Pitfall Trap, the line begins to become blurry and the picks begin to depend on your deck. Wings, Cry, and War Paint are all good at doing different things depending on how you think your deck is going to play out, and Footing as well as Mark are good for pushing through the last few points of damage.

Arrow Volley Trap and Spire Barrage are cards I really don’t like, especially in this archetype, but you have to respect them as removal spells. They don’t always make the cut, though. Shieldmate’s Blessing is a really underrated card that can actually you to interact with your opponent in combat, and Zektar Shrine Expedition is a card that is much better in the Mono Red archetype than R/W where you want your creatures to repeatedly do damage over time. Rounding out the list are a few situational playables and Brave the Elements, which can rank from solid to unplayable depending on your deck.

There are also some rares that are worth looking it. Celestial Mantle, Electropotence, Elemental Appeal, and Lavaball Trap are almost always unplayable in this archetype, leaving Conqueror’s Pledge, Day of Judgment, Luminarch Ascension, and Chandra Ablaze.

Pledge is great card and an easy first pick; it is strong both on offense and defense. Day of Judgment, while not at its best in this archetype, still allows you to steal games if you just play it right. Without ways to recoup card advantage in this format, a well-timed Day of Judgment is nearly impossible to recover from. Many people say that you don’t want it in the same deck as a bunch of creatures. They are wrong. If you play properly with the knowledge you have access to the card, it will crush them if they extend just slightly too far.

Luminarch Ascension is one of the most debated cards in the set. Although it looks amazing at first glance, it’s deceptively weak due to the speed of the archetype. I tend to play it if I end up with it, but I have definitely passed it before. While if it ever becomes active you certainly win, it can be difficult to get to that point in a deck full of 2/1’s and shoddy tricks if your opponent is remotely aggressive.

Chandra Ablaze is very expensive for this archetype, but she can be game swinging. You will most often -2 her then begin to Flame Javelin whatever your opponent has. Still, she is so expensive to get online that I wouldn’t first pick her and would probably end up taking her somewhere mid pack if I ever saw her that late.

Of course, you also need some more expensive creatures to round out the curve. Fortunately, White and Red are privy to some very strong drops.

The pick order for common and uncommon Red and White creatures that cost more than two:

Shepherd of the Lost
Kor Hookmaster
Kor Sanctifiers
Bladetusk Boar
Shatterskull Giant
Torch Slinger
Goblin Ruinblaster
Ruinous Minotaur
Geyser Glider
Fire Mongrel
Molten Ravager
Stonework Puma
Tuktuk Grunts
Pillarfield Ox
Kor Cartographer
Makindi Shieldmate

While Shepherd of the Lost stands on top because it can beat everything else up in combat while putting you ahead in the race, the common you want to see more than anything else is Kor Hookmaster. Hook-hands for the parry and hook-helm for the kill! I would take Hookmaster over Blademaster, and probably under Lynx depending on my deck. Hookmaster just does everything you want in the archetype: clears out blockers, prevents them from getting ahead in the race, locks down problematic creatures, and provides a 2/2. The fact that you can rebuy it with Skyfisher makes it even better.

After Hookmaster, Kor Sanctifiers is the next card you want. As a 2/3 (once again, the crucial toughness to have in this format of 2/1’s) with a very relevant ability, Sanctifiers is a fantastic creature to have on your squad. Boar is a little better than Giant despite his Disfigurability, and Slinger, although a little pricy, is still solid card advantage. Ruinblaster is a solid two power haste for three which can give you some busty draws, and if you kick him up and hit a land he can be absolutely ridiculous. Ruinous Minotaur is a card I am actually a big fan of. He almost always gets blocked and gives you a way to trade with cards like Sky Ruin Drake, but when he doesn’t get blocked you are always happy trading a land for five damage in this archetype. Geyser Glider is good, if a little on the expensive side, and after him the card quality drops off. I’m not a huge Tuktuk Grunts fan, and Cartographer can be moved upward if you have a lot of landfall triggers or Bold Defense in your deck.

I’m not going to compile all of these into one “mega-list” because, as much as I find pick orders a trap concept, compiled and compressed lists are even worse offenders. Sometimes you really need a removal spell; other times you need a cheap drop; other time you need a four-drop to round out the curve. Evaluate your position then you can use the different pick order lists to have a general idea of which cards you should take above others.

The one area which none of these lists cover is the subject of equipment. Adventuring Gear fits into this archetype really well, and I would pick it just under Magma Rift and above generic 2/1s. Blazing Torch, despite my growing dislike for it, still ranks above random creatures, but below most of the upper class spells.

The big card to talk about is Trusty Machete. In this archetype, I would only take both Burst Lightning and Journey to Nowhere over it on the common/uncommon level. While Machete is very good, I have found that the flexible removal will win you more games than Machete. However, with that said, there is a caveat. Machete is the pick over Burst Lightning or Journey to Nowhere pack 1, as well as pack 2 if you’re not sure on your archetype yet. Burst Lightning and Journey just narrowly edge out Machete on power when cast; however, Machete will always make your deck. To stay open, I would rather take Machete pack 1 pick 1, but if I knew my colors I would take Burst Lightning, then Journey to Nowhere before Machete.

Hopefully the information laid out here will help you draft this archetype, and I’d be happy to answer any questions about the Boros archetype in the forums or via e-mail at gavintriesagainat gmail dot com. Though I didn’t make my goal of qualifying for Rome, this weekend I’ll be at the Portland PTQ, where hopefully I’ll be able to draft R/W to victory in the Top 8. If you are there, feel free to stop by and introduce yourself. Hopefully I’ll talk to you soon!

Gavin Verhey
Team Unknown Stars
Rabon on Magic Online, Lesurgo everywhere else