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Do I want synergy or bombs? Horned Turtles or Lightning Elementals? To be the beatdown or to be the control? These are the questions that define your
deck and can begin to define an entire Limited format.
With Zendikar, we encountered something we hadn’t really seen before: a lightning quick Limited format where blocking was nonsense, and seven mana
bombs were nowhere near slams. Tempest block was perhaps the closest thing to Zendikar, and even then, that was in a much different era of Magic.
Whether you loved or hated Zendikar, it was certainly a blast of fresh air in Limited. Players had to learn to play much differently than they were
used to, and to evaluate cards on a much different scale. When Vampire Nighthawk rules the roost and is the pick over pretty much everything, you know
you’re in a much different world. Â
Core sets, on the other hand, are traditionally very card-advantaged based. Give me some Sifts and Divinations any day! It turns out when you boil the
game down to its core, and you’re left with a bunch of vanilla creatures and removal spells, card advantage ends up as the king. While you certainly could draft aggressive decks, most of the decks on the top were steeped in card advantage.
With Magic 2011, we finally began to see a turn in this tradition.
M11 was carefully balanced to support both strategies. While blue was still the best color, a lot of its cardsâ€”Aether Adept, for exampleâ€”actually
supported tempo strategies. Sure, Foresee and Jace’s Ingenuity were still incredible, but the draft format made some changes pushing in a different
direction. My favorite (and most successful) decks to draft in that format were all tempo-based beatdown decks. To put it simply, Silvercoat Lion and I
became good friends.
However, M11 still had some holes in the beatdown department. Red had likely the largest problem. The red deck was there, but mostly because nobody
else wanted it. After Lightning Bolt and Chandra’s Outrage, your next best common was… Vulshok Berserker? You can only inflate the toad so many times before
you begin to realize you have a problem.
Welcome to Magic 2012.
M12 is unlike any other core set you’ve ever played with. Ever since I saw bloodthirst in the set, I began to pencil out the design in my head and
immediately knew it was going to be an aggressive experience.
From a design perspective, bloodthirst promotes both attacking and blocking, and it also means you want plenty of cards on the common level that can
turn on bloodthirst. Sure, there may have to be a couple “catch-up” cards since bloodthirst can snowball quickly, but overall a properly designed set
with the bloodthirst mechanic makes for a very aggressive format.
After playing several matches with the cards and watching several different decks of the format unfold, the verdict is in. M12 isn’t quite Zendikarâ€”but
it’s certainly a relative.
Control is certainly a lot more plausible in M12 than Zendikar. There are real forms of card advantage and selection lying around in cards like
Divination, Azure Mage, and Merfolk Looter. There are plenty of creatures with reasonable toughness like Amphin Cutthroat and Giant Spider. There are
even some good aggressive deterrents like Wall of Torches. However, one of the largest differences from Zendikar is something else: trading drops.
Zendikar had a strange dynamic where, because of the landfall mechanic, often your creatures were only larger or otherwise special during your turn.
For example, if we both have a Plated Geopede, I’m going to play a land on my turn and swing my 3/3 past your 1/1, and then you’re going to do the same
on your turn. There’s no good opportunity for blocking. As a result, we’re forced to trade blows back and forth.
The M12 dynamic is much different. While the same thing can happen if you end up on the back foot with bloodthirst creaturesâ€”say you’re forced to play
a 3/3 right after they played a 5/5, for exampleâ€”in general a lot of the creatures can trade across. Warpath Ghoul, Benalish Veteran, Garruk’s
Companion, Bloodrage Vampire, and Sacred Wolf, to name a few, are all three-drops that swap in combat with one another. Blood Ogre is the one major
exception, making the Ogre one of the most attractive aggressive creatures at common in the set.
Additionally, the low toughness on all of those three-drops (save for an attacking Benalish Veteran) makes a huge difference as well. It means that a
slew of one- and two-drops like Child of Night, Elite Vanguard, Phantasmal Bear, Coral Merfolk, and Goblin Piker, to name a few, can all trade up.
What does this mean?
Size increments are very, very important to building aggressive strategies. Ideally, you don’t want your base three-drop to trade with their base
two-drop. If that happens, then they still have a live turn three play while they spent their turn two trading with your turn three. This is conducive
to losing whether they’re playing beatdown or control; it buys control time and provides beatdown with superior position. As a result, my theoryâ€”which
was further confirmed in the games I played and watchedâ€”is that the format is less about playing a dominant creature and more about building a dominant
Let me put it like this. Let’s say each creature in your deck and your opponent’s deck ends up trading down by exactly one “drop size.” So your
three-drop trades with their two-drop, and so on. How are you going to win this game?
The answer is to simply play more creatures than they do. You have to either capitalize on them missing a drop by hitting your own, or by playing
off-curve and casting, say, a pair of two-drops on turn 4.
Now, that’s not actually how things work, because once you get into the 4-plus-drop arena, things start to get a little muddled, and the
power/toughness ratio doesn’t quite match up the same. Ideally, at that point, you want to be either holding the ground with something like Giant
Spider or working on crunching your opponent’s bones with something like Gorehorn Minotaurs. Regardless, in the first couple of turns, it actually
seems preferable to be able to play off curve when you can and just flood the board.
Additionally, this puts a lot more value into one-drops than in previous formats.
Cards like Gladecover Scout and Goblin Arsonist aren’t great, but they can certainly fit in hyper-aggressive decks. Goblin Fireslinger and Tormented
Soul were two particular cards that I expected to be better than in other formats, and after seeing them in action, I feel that analysis was spot-on.
They both performed at a high capacity in the decks they were made for, flooding the board and enabling aggressive strategies.
Of course, in a wonderful design spectacle, this board-flooding plays very nicely into bloodthirst. As long as you have more creatures than they do (or
another way to push damage through), you always have the option to turn on your bloodthirst creatures.
Being able to flood the board is important if you want to be aggressive because the other main difference from Zendikar is that control can easily
exist. The key to control in this format is knowing how to defend properly.
Unlike Zendikar, where the field was almost all beatdown, and unlike M11 where there was both beatdown and midrange/control with the cards providing a
slant toward midrange/control, M12 has beatdown and midrange/control with a slant toward beatdown.
In M11, if given no direction, your deck would likely lean on the midrange/control side because that’s where most of the cards fit. You naturally ended
up with more of those, so if you weren’t looking to draft beatdown and picking the cards properly, you would end up control. M12 seems to be the
opposite. The card pool naturally leans toward the aggressive side, so aggressive decks will be the norm.
So how do control decks survive? So far, the level to strive for seems to be outmoding their early creatures. Most importantly, this means playing
creatures you wouldn’t normally play and using them as removal spells. Coral Merfolk, for example, isn’t a 2/1 creature but is instead a Seal of Heavy
Ballista… Or something like that.
Ideally, you want to trade up your drops as discussed. However, you can also negate their creatures with early walls. Though a 0/3 for one is typically
guffawed at, a turn one Pride Guardian actually stymies any kind of aggressive start quite nicely. I’m not afraid to play him in my defensive decks.
Once you break an aggressive deck’s initial assault, the idea is to wheel it around and become the beatdown yourself while they’re still trying to
recuperate. A textbook example of how to accomplish this might look something like:
Turns 1-3: Trade with their creatures/play walls.
Turns 6+: Deploy large creatures and/or creatures with evasion and begin to go on the offensive.
Now clearly you can’t always just have a perfect draw and do that, but it seems to be what you want to aim for. Unlike other formats, you can’t afford
to take a lot of hits because bloodthirst guys can quickly overpower you.
Goblin Fireslinger, Tormented Soul, Spirit Mantle, and others do pose a problem to this plan, and that’s partially why you have to go on the offensive
yourself. It’s kind of like playing Faeriesâ€”you can’t just afford to wait around, or your Bitterblossom will kill you. You have to switch modes. If you
just plan to sit around forever, you could easily find yourself dead to anything from Tormented Soul pings to a topdecked Overrun.
A warning for everyone out there. Typically, when hyper-aggressive strategies are good in Limited, green-based midrange becomes a decent place to turn
because you can deploy large creatures quickly. I tried that in one draft already, and it did not work nearly as well as I had hoped for precisely the
Without creatures to trade off for their early drops, beatdown decks will just swarm you. I even cast a turn three Vastwood Gorger twice, and neither
time it matteredâ€”my opponent just filled the board further and was able to attack right past my 5/6. You need to be able to clog the board yourself to
stave off the beatdown strategies. Â
M12 is certainly an interesting environment, and I’m looking forward to playing it even more. M11 is one of my favorite draft formats of all time, and
I’m excited to see if the dynamic of M12 can uproot its predecessor.
To close this article out, here is what I feel the 10 most underrated M12 commons currently are from my impressions relative to what seems to be the
Blood Ogre: You might think this card is already good, but I’m here to say it’s far better than that. Pick it higher; it’s the best common three-drop
because it eats all of the other common three-drops.
Goblin War Paint: This card was decent in the aggressive Zendikar format, and it seems similarly fine here. The haste isn’t relevant that often, but
the +2/+2 puts the creature it’s on a full size grade above where it was before. Unlike Dark Favor, which still allows 3/2s to trade with 3/2s, Goblin
War Paint lets you swing right past them. (Though I suspect Dark Favor might actually be playable more than you would think in this formatâ€”+3 power is
a lotâ€”but without having tried it myself yet I’m hesitant to comment.)
It’s also worth noting Trollhide for similar reasons since I brought up War Paint, but I’m not sure yet that a three-mana pump aura is where you want
to be in this format if you’re green.
Phantasmal Bear: It’s a 2/2 for one! Yes, there are a couple cards that can make it awkward, but the card is mostly incredible. Whether it’s brawling
in your aggressive blue deck or trading with their two/three-drop, the bear is good either way.
Pride Guardian: A totally reasonable wall for fending off quick beatdown draws.
Stave Off: For a single mana it’s a decent combat trick, plus it sometimes provides unblockability, plus you can target their creatures and cancel
their auras/pump spells. If you’re a beatdown deck, that’s a ton of useful flexibility for a single mana. If you want to play off curve anyway, it’s a
good spell to fill the slot.
Stonehorn Dignitary: Every time I cast this guy it felt like I Time Walked my opponent. In this format, the combat phase is often the most integral
part of the turn, so denying them that is a huge blow that can either turn races in your favor or buy your control strategy another turn to stabilize.
Also, if you’re playing a deck filled with Gravediggers or Aether Adepts, you can pull some nice tricks with this one going long.
Unsummon: In a tempo-laden format where cards come in with conditional +1/+1 counters, this card is much better than in previous core sets. I foresee
Unsummoning several of creatures my opponent left back to block in the future.
Also, since it’s an uncommon, honorable mention to Spirit Mantle. This seems like the classic, “bad players will think it’s good because it has a cool
effect, mediocre players will think it’s bad because it’s an aura that can get you two-for-one’d and is a trick made for the casual players, and good
players will recognize how contextually good the effect is and play it.”
Spirit Mantle is in a much different place than the mediocre Infiltrator’s Magemark was. Being able to block and not have your creature die is very
powerful, and serving through anything can break the game open. Think about what they could have and don’t run it into removal, but the card is very
powerful if unchecked.
I’d love to hear any of your impressions from the pre-release! This is the limited format for a pair of Grand Prix and Nationals around the world, so
the more discussion we can have about the format, the better. Feel free to post in the forums, tweet me, or send me an e-mail at gavintriesagain at
gmail dot com so I can read your thoughts!
Otherwise, I’ll be in Cincinnati this weekend doing SCGLive coverage for the StarCityGames.com Open Series. If you’re there, I hope to talk to you
Have fun exploring M12!
In articles where I don’t discuss decklists, I record the entirety of the article. This way, you can listen to it on-the-go or while multitasking. To
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