Levelling Up – Opening the Draft Box

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Tiago turns his back on Constructed for this week’s Levelling Up… instead, taking advantage of the Nix Tix events on Magic Online, the Portuguese maestro powers through sixteen 8-4 TPF Drafts, and shares his thoughs on the color combinations and the format as a whole. This is an excellent overview article for those of us who find themselves floudering in the forty-card format… Enjoy!

For the past few weeks, I’ve been playing and writing about my version of Blue/Black control, in a way that eventually trapped me in a corner. Apart from minor changes, with just a couple of cards tried and swapped, the main core of the deck is already established. There’s little more to say on the topic, so I decided I would move onto something new.

Someone suggested I talk about the Standard format with Tenth Edition, a format back in vogue thanks to multiple National Championships spread across the World. The problem is that I write about formats I’m currently playing, and Standard is clearly not one of them. I haven’t played a game of Standard in over six months, and I don’t intend to do so. My Nationals is in mid September, and I have to playtest Block Constructed for two Grand Prix tournaments, Extended for a Pro Tour, and now also Legacy for Worlds. Consider the fact that Portuguese Nationals awards no prize money, and you’ll see there are very few incentives for me to playtest Standard right now… there will be plenty of decklists online available by the time the tournament rolls around.

I’ll also let you into a secret: I picked my deck for Nationals nine months ago, and I won’t be changing my plans.

Last weekend, I discovered Magic Online was running Nix Tix events again. This is a period where you can play sanctionated drafts with prizes just by bringing your own product, with no entry fee required. That, and reading the coverage of U.S. and UK Nationals, made me think… Booster Draft is as important as Standard in Nationals, but players are far less prepared for it. Sure, there’s the quarterfinals match which decides if you’ll make it to Worlds, but players don’t keep in mind that Booster Draft is played in the middle rounds of Nationals. Sometimes you’ll end the draft rounds with absolutely no shot at the Top 8, or even already in a position where you can intentionally draw in. From my personal experience, I have played many more draft rounds at Nats than Constructed rounds… for the last three years I’ve been out of contention when the final Standard rounds rolled into view.

I’m not a big fan of individual eight-man booster drafts, at least in the format used Online and at side events of major tournaments. You just play for boosters in single elimination mode, which means sometimes you have an incredibly fun or awesome deck that you won’t get to play for more than ten minutes. That all changes when it comes to Team Booster Draft. I play this format once a week, unsanctionated, with my friends in Lisbon, and I play it non-stop on the Pro Tour and Grand Prix circuit, although I admit that my lack of eight-man draft practice sometimes make me a little rusty.

Taking advantage of the Nix Tix period, I played more eight-man booster drafts online during the past weekend than I had done since Planar Chaos was released. After all, now was a good time to start getting more familiar with the format at a reduced cost. In my saved draft decks folder I managed to find sixteen recent TPF decks that were good examples of eight of the possible ten double-colour combinations.

Blue/Black — Four decks

This was the color combinations I drafted the most – four times out of sixteen. Two of them were plain Blue/Black decks, while the other two splashed: one for Firemaw Kavu and Strangling Soot, the other for Vorosh the Hunter. While I wasn’t keeping track of results, I feel this was the combination with which I had most success. It’s perhaps one of my favorites to play, although I won’t be forcing it (probably). The other day Rogier Maaten asked the clan about draft strategies for IPA, and I advised him Blue/Black/Red or Blue/White/Red. Throughout these years, no matter how the expansions change, my favorite draft archtypes have always been Blue/X, and my least favorite Green/X. Time Spiral is no different.

– Plenty of removal available, both Black and Blue, for all types and sizes of creatures.
– Many ways to generate card advantage.
– Most of the attackers have some sort of evasion.

– Can easily be overhelmed in the early game, because usually Blue and Black creatures aren’t very effective at blocking.

Cards that rise in value:

Dream Stalker: Altough it is nice to return a creature enchanted with Temporal Isolation or Utopia Vow, or even a Fathom Seer, the main purpose is not the neat tricks it can do, but the blocking duty it performs. For the same reason, Primal Plasma is more often than not a 1/6 wall, and Aquamorph Entity comes down as a 1/5 face up creature on turn 4.

Dreamscape Artist: Blue/Black is known for having many madness spells, and the Artist is an extra outlet to enable them. It truly shines if you plan to splash something, as you can probably just run a single copy of that basic land, and his ability isn’t bad by itself. It allows for an early Logic Knot, as if you use his ability getting two Islands to play the Knot, you’ll have at least two cards in the graveyard to delve.

Sample Decklist

1 Careful Consideration
1 Dreamscape Artist
1 Dream Stalker
1 Erratic Mutation
1 Foresee
1 Looter il-Kor
1 Primal Plasma
1 Sarcomite Myr
1 Spin into Myth
1 Whip-Spine Drake

1 Augur of Skulls
1 Cradle to Grave
1 Dark Withering
1 Grave Scrabbler
1 Ichor Slick
1 Mana Skimmer
1 Mass of Ghouls
1 MIndstab
1 Tendrils of Corruption
1 Trespasser il-Vec
1 Urborg Syphon Mage

1 Vorosh, the Hunter

8 Swamp
7 Island
1 Forest
1 Terramorphic Expanse
1 Urza’s Factory

Blue/Red — Three Decks

Curiously, the three times I drafted Blue/Red saw me add a splash. While on two of those occasions I splashed for greedy reasons, since I had other playables in Blue or Red (I splashed a Kaervek the Merciless once, and a Numot, the Devastator the other, both with the help of Dreamscape Artist), one time things went wrong. As happens on occassion, I ended with 18 playables after the draft. After deciding to play 18 lands, and with no more cards in Blue or Red to add, I had to search the other colors. I found an unexciting Havenwood Wurm, which I could aid with the Artist and a Fungal Reaches.

Red offers a variety of removal spells, perhaps even more than Black, which makes it a color more attractive to the other drafters at the table. In triple Time Spiral, Blue/Red meant a mix of suspend and storm spells to do some insane things. Now, with two fewer packs of Time Spiral, that doesn’t happen too often. I got the feeling that Blue/Red is more aggressive than Blue/Black, since Red creatures don’t have shadow or flying, but they are compensated with better stats for attacking and blocking. Red’s removal can also act as the final points of damage, so Blue/Red can play a better tempo game. For example, I don’t like Veiling Oddity in Blue/Black, but it’s more likely I’ll play it in Blue/Red. Sometimes you won’t even care for Walls, like the ones that shine in Blue/Black, since Blue/Red can be a tempo deck.

– Plenty of removal in both colors, although it’s all damage-based, which can make it hard to kill fatties.
– Two solid all-round colors with many picks in all three packs.

– Both colors are very attractive for drafters.
– Big creatures like Durkwood Baloth, Penumbra Spider, or Sporesower Thallid might be hard to contain or remove.

Cards that rise in value:

Stingscourger: Apart from the Red removal which we all know is good, Blue/Red has a lesser need for Walls, and Stingscourger plays a better role in the tempo plan, leaving a body to chump or double-block along with others later. In these decks, Stingscourger might be on the same level as Prodigal Pyromancer, and I’m not sure which one I would pick. It would depend on how the draft looked at that stage.

Sample Decklist

1 Coral Trickster
1 Dreamscape Artist
1 Dream Stalker
1 Fathom Seer
1 Infiltrator il-Kor
1 Jodah’s Avenger
1 Logic Knot
1 Looter il-Kor
1 Primal Plasma
1 Whip-Spine Drake

1 Dead/Gone
1 Fatal Attraction
1 Fomori Nomad
1 Gathan Raiders
1 Ghostfire
1 Magus of the Scroll
1 Mogg War Marshal
1 Prodigal Pyromancer
1 Stingscourger
1 Uthden Troll

1 Sunlance

1 Foriysian Totem

1 Numot, the Devastator

8 Island
7 Mountain
2 Plains

Green/White — Three Decks

Despite having drafted it three times and ending with solid decks, I don’t find myself attracted to this color combination for two reasons. The first is its inability to deal with Saltfield Recluse, which in turn absolutely cripples the whole attacking game plan of Green/White decks. The second reason is Green/White’s game plan of playing a total tempo game and attacking every turn. I prefer to play draft decks slightly more controlling, as an average hand might get there and become a good hand. When you play a totally aggressive deck you need a really strong opening draw. Sprout Swarm is the only card that fuels some gas in the late game, but it is possible that I’m drafting Green/White incorrectly and perhaps being too aggressive.

– Many playable cards in these colors, so most of the times you won’t be short on playables.
– Good efficient creatures and tricks, which traditionally give a small advantage over other creature tempo decks.

– Runs out of gas quickly.
– Can’t deal with creatures with re-usable effects like D’Avenant Healer and Saltfield Recluse.
– Needs strong openings.

Cards that rise in value:

Shade of Trokair: This helps in solving many flaws of the Green/White strategy. It fits as a one-mana drop to curve out a good opening, and it’s also a powerful late-game card to sink your White mana. I’m not sure where I would rate it, probably right behind Giant Dustwasp, Mire Boa, Saltfield Recluse, and Sunlance. While in other White combinations the Shade might be roughly on the same spot on the list, the gap between the Shade and the top commons is large here.

Mana Tithe: I like the Mana Tithe in Green/White because it can be absolutely crushing when played on the three- or four-drop your opponent makes, sometimes even on the five-drop. In the late game it tends to be useless, but so do the 2/2 vanilla creatures.

Sample Decklist

1 Benalish Cavalry
1 Knight of Sursi
2 Lucent Liminid
1 Mana Tithe
1 Saltblast
1 Saltfield Recluse
2 Shade of Trokair
1 Temporal Isolation
1 Whitemane Lion

1 Ashcoat Bear
1 Citanul Woodreaders
1 Durkwood Baloth
1 Giant Dustwasp
1 Havenwood Wurm
1 Imperiosaur
1 Llanowar Reborn
1 Mire Boa
1 Tromp the Domains

1 Chromatic Star
1 Prismatic Lens

1 Mystic Enforcer

9 Plains
8 Forest

Blue/Green — Three Decks

This is very similar to Green/White, although I find it a little better as Blue cards allow you to play a different game to the White ones. You can play a tempo game and a more controlish game. Blue has a little more stuff to do with its mana than White, and Shaper Parasite or Leaden Fists provide a better answer for creatures with re-usable effects like Saltfield Recluse. They’re better than Temporal Isolation or Sunlance in this situation. When you’re playing Green, whose main weapon is the creatures, you need to attack. The defending player already has the advantage of choosing the blockers, and if he controls a Saltfield Recluse, most of the time there isn’t a good board position for you to attack into. When playing Blue/Black or Blue/White you’d rather kill the real threats to your life total, take control, and then get rid of (or get around) Saltfield Recluse. When playing these Green decks, time is not on your side… unless you have Sprout Swarm.

– Can play the role of aggressor or control, depending on the draft and your draws.

– Many times you end up with good cards in both colors but with no synergy.
Saltfield Recluse again.

Cards that rise in value:

Leaden Fists: Due to the lack of removal, Leaden Fists is an important card that deals with creatures with re-usable effects. While still a good card in Blue/Black and Blue/Red, they have other tools in their colors, and their respective game plans tolerate defensive opposing creatures in play.

Venser’s Diffusion: Usually I see it as a card to finish my deck, a 22nd or 23rd card which I’ll run, but due to the Green creatures, it has a better potential to create favorable attacking and blocking situations, or to gain tempo advantage.

Sample Decklist (Blue/Green controlish)

1 Aven Augur
1 Body Double
1 Bonded Fetch
1 Dismal Failure
1 Dreamscape Artist
1 Fathom Seer
1 Leaden Fists
2 Logic Knot
1 Piracy Charm
1 Serendib Sorcerer
1 Unblinking Bleb
1 Whip-Spine Drake

1 Gathan Raiders

1 Citanul Woodreaders
1 Edge of Autumn
1 Imperiosaur
1 Jedit Ojanen of Efrava
1 Llanowar Empath
1 Nantuko Shaman
1 Penumbra Spider
1 Riftsweeper
1 Search for Tomorrow

9 Forest
8 Island

Black/White — One Deck

When I think of Black/White, I think of Rebels. If you are into White in Time Spiral and manage to pick at least one Amrou Scout, you should have no problems getting Blightspeaker in Planar Chaos, which in turn searched for top commons like Saltfield Recluse and Rathi Trapper. The creatures’ sizes can sometimes be a problem, but if you have the chain going you’ll have overwhelming card advantage without losing tempo and board position. Since searching for rebels is so important, I use a couple of tricks to ensure the chain goes off and isn’t broken. I hold up my Amrou Scout and Blightspeaker for turn 3, opting to play something else on turn 2, since the searcher won’t do anything one turn earlier. Blightspeaker is just an extra point, and you don’t want to run Amrou Scout in combat. This will give your opponent a target for cheap removal he might be holding, which he may play for tempo reasons, like Piracy and Midnight Charm or Flowstone Embrace. Second, when you’re able to search for something on turn 4, if you have plenty of targets and aren’t too behind on tempo, you can search for a second rebel searcher as insurance for when they kill the first to disrupt your chain.

– The rebel chain, for every reason already mentioned, and for any other you come up with.
– Nice mix of creatures, tricks, and removal.

– The searchers are too vulnerable, and some rebels aren’t very exciting when hard-cast.
– The creatures usually aren’t very big.

Cards that rise in value:

Blightspeaker and Amrou Scout , which in turn lead to Saltfield Recluse and Rathi Trapper.

– Two and three mana guys, since you want to play something before you start searching on turn 4. Starting from there, you want to get a rebel each turn, so you won’t have mana for your four-drops.

Sample Decklist

1 Blade of the Sixth Pride
1 Crovax, Ascendant Hero
1 Evangelize
1 Ivory Giant
1 Lumithread Field
2 Saltfield Recluse
1 Shade of Trokair
1 Spirit en-Dal

1 Augur of Skulls
1 Blightspeaker
1 Dark Withering
1 Deepcavern Imp
1 Demonic Collusion
1 Grave Scrabbler
1 Ichor Slick
1 Midnight Charm
1 Premature Burial
2 Rathi Trapper
1 Trespasser il-Vec

1 Clockwork Hydra
1 Phyrexian Totem

9 Swamp
8 Plains

Red/Green — One Deck

Many of my friends have Red/Green as their favorite colour combination, since it combines the efficient Green creatures with the efficient Red removal, resulting in (most of the time) a balanced aggressive deck with plenty of threats and removal. The second reason I see is the vast abundance of top commons for these colors in Planar Chaos and Future Sight. Usually, if you manage to get five or six good cards from the Time Spiral pack, you should have no problems getting to twenty-two or twenty-three playable cards. Cards like Utopia Vow and Brute Force aren’t top commons in those colors, so you should still be able to get them late and happily play them. When I finished this Red/Green draft I didn’t felt things had gone perfectly, but after submitting the decklist it seemed a lot better.

– Many quality cards in these colors, top commons and above average round-up playables, especially in Planar Chaos and Future Sight.
– Red’s removal and Green’s creatures merge together to create a balanced and efficient aggressive deck.

– Creatures with high toughness are hard to kill and absorb much of the damage, slowing down the offense.

Sample Decklist

1 Conflagrate
2 Dead/Gone
1 Emberwilde Augur
1 Flowstone Embrace
1 Ghostfire
1 Grapeshot
1 Riddle of Lightning
1 Rift Bolt
1 Stingscourger

1 Ashcoat Bear
1 Baru, Fist of Krosa
1 Citanul Woodreaders
1 Evolution Charm
1 Havenwood Wurm
1 Kavu Primarch
1 Nacatl War-Pride
1 Pouncing Wurm
2 Thornweald Archer
1 Uktabi Drake
1 Verdant Embrace
1 Yavimaya Dryad

10 Forest
7 Mountain

Thallids and Slivers

These archtypes are dependant on certain cards, and don’t fit any precise color combination (and each color combination can support different archetypes). I’m not the best person to discuss Thallids, as I don’t like the mechanic and I’ve never drafted it. It’s awkward to rely on Sprout Swarm, which comes so late in the draft, so I’d rather draft normally and take the Sprout Swarm as a boost for the late game instead of fuel for a whole game plan. Sprout Swarm is also highly picked. To give you a better perception of how I dislike Thallids, in my online account I only own a single Thallid Germinator, and that’s probably from a Sealed Deck card pool.

I don’t want to sound bitter, but I also dislike Slivers, although I’ll keep an eye open for them if I have a really good reason. The difference is that the power slivers are in Time Spiral, early in the draft, and quite good picks, so if you happen to have them it’s usually very early. I tried for Slivers online twice. Once when I opened Pulmonic Sliver, and again when I was passed Sedge Sliver, but both times the deck came together differently and they were simply good creatures by themselves.

However, I kept a draft in reality hoping that one day I would be able to write about it, where I sucessfully drafted Slivers. This was around Regionals time. I went 3-0 and killed my opponent with poison. I started the draft with Might Sliver out of a pack that contained nothing else, then got a second pick Riftwing Cloudskate, and third and fourth Telekinetic Slivers. I never looked back.

Sample Decklist

1 Virulent Sliver
1 Spinneret Sliver
1 Poultice Sliver
1 Shadow Sliver
2 Mesmeric Sliver
2 Telekinetic Sliver
1 Watcher Sliver
1 Reflex Sliver
1 Lymph Sliver
1 Might Sliver
3 Synchronous Sliver
(1 sliver missing)

1 Riftwing Cloudskate
1 Snapback
1 Unblinking Bleb
1 Shaper Parasite
1 Gathan Raiders
1 Evolution Charm
1 Logic Knot

I won one round with a turn 1 Virulent Sliver backed up by turn 4 Telekinetic and turn 5 Synchronous. I won another round against Green/White with Telekinetic Sliver, since Green/White can’t beat a permanent. I won the last round, but had a hard time against a heavy removal deck, since it can kill the key slivers leaving me with a bunch of mediocre dorks. I sideboarded many weak slivers for other playable cards.

Right now, based on my experiences, I have my color preferences ranked like this:

– Blue/Black
– Blue/Red
– Blue/White
– White/Black
– Blue/Green
– Red/Black
– Green/Red
– Green/White
– Red/White
– Slivers
– Green/Black

This is obviously based on my preferences and the results I’ve been achieving, and is by no means an indicator of abstract power. Unfortunately, this isn’t like Constructed where you can pick the exact deck you like the most. In most cases I’ll start by drafting the better cards regardless of color, and then see where that heads. Yet, more often than not, that leads me to Green/Black or Red/White. You should try all the color combinations, and the control and beatdown variations, to get a feeling for them. Even though you will have your preferences, which should be very diferent from my own, you won’t always be able to draft them. One of the skills in drafting is readings the signs, and quickly adapting to them.

Happy drafting!