Magical Hack – A Return To Limited

Read Sean McKeown every Friday... at StarCityGames.com!
Friday, November 14th – With States out of the way, there is little reason for the interested tournament mage not to focus entirely on Shards of Alara Limited. While Standard is certainly of interest for anyone looking at Worlds, there is nothing demanding our attention in quite the way that Shards Limited ought to. My personal States story is a heartbreaker, and not in the way that gets people laughing on the forums about how I’m terrible-with-illusions-of-grandeur.

With States out of the way, there is little reason for the interested tournament mage not to focus entirely on Shards of Alara Limited. While Standard is certainly of interest for anyone looking at Worlds, there is nothing demanding our attention in quite the way that Shards Limited ought to. My personal States story is a heartbreaker, and not in the way that gets people laughing on the forums about how I’m terrible-with-illusions-of-grandeur.

Step One: Prepare for a month for the event.
Step Two: Write articles about Standard focusing on the different facets it presents.
Step Three: Decide to play Faeries and work out the best build for me to take to the tournament.
Step Four: Cancel at 8am the morning of the tournament due to nasty, nasty stomach flu.

I’m certainly guilty in many cases of having “tournament apprehension.” While my mindset is not easily rattled, my body seems to jump into anxiety mode. (Tension, apprehension, and dissension have begun! RIFF!) A little bit of butterflies-in-the-stomach is not unusual, and passes by round 1 anyway. This was not “butterflies in the stomach,” this was the nasty bug that had knocked my girlfriend out of sorts for the past week, and it’s hard to play your best Magic when your body is just that defeated. The alarm went off at 8am for me to get out of bed and hurry over to Neutral Ground, and I told it to go die in a fire and slept till 2pm. It was the correct play, and the only reasonable one. I was happily prepared to play this before my body decided otherwise…

I had some very peculiar ideas about the tournament, such as “four Thoughtseize main or don’t bother playing,” especially since New York City is a notoriously heavy Five-Color Control / Faeries metagame. It doesn’t hurt that I learned I couldn’t lose to Kithkin even if I tried, and trust me, I tried. The plan was to present Five-Color Control with a 4 Jace deck after sideboarding, focusing on pinpoint discard, extra countermagic, and a certain Planeswalker proving even more devastating than Bitterblossom at creating a board position that overwhelms the opponent… all while having the eight man-land Faeries deck for good measure. The plan was also to present Faeries with the better-streamlined-for-the-mirror deck with four Thoughtseizes main, which was all part of the rationale that led to dropping Mistbind Clique from four-of to three-of yet again… I find that everyone else in the world loves this man more than I do, while I just want to never draw two of him at an awkward moment. Instead of getting to find out how the deck played out, I got to sleep in and curse the fact that it couldn’t wait one more day for the ick to settle in, but you can’t control everything. You can’t even try.

Moving on from sob story to victory lap, I wanted to have a look at Shards of Alara Limited to give my perspective on drafting and playing with the five Shards, as well as noting some oddities I have run into since then. I like poking around the edges of Limited formats where the perception is locked in that you must draft a certain way if you want to succeed; breaking away from the Shards to draft enemy colors has had some interesting effects for me so far, and it’s also been my perception that maybe the best use of a Shard’s mechanic might not actually be by sticking to that Shard when you try to use it.


Jund remains my favorite Shard to draft, and I’m beginning to have a better understanding of why. With a Red/Black base, you get a nice overlap of the synergistic power that is Grixis + Jund, getting to mix Unearth with Devour and otherwise focus on positive interactions from cards that want you to do the same thing over and over again. Devouring two creatures to make a Thunder-Thrash Elder doesn’t sound like the best of plans, but when you can spend just a little bit of mana to Unearth them, attack with all involved, and sacrifice those slaughtered lambs to another Devour creature or to cast Bone Splinters… well, there’s a lot of powerful synergy to be found in a Black/Red deck if you craft it right. The card from Shards of Alara that I have the most copies of, on Magic Online, is not one of those power commons that grab you and throw you into a color combination, like Branching Bolt… no, it’s Dregscape Zombie, the two-drop so critical to almost all of my plans when I am playing a Jund or Grixis-based deck.

I find the reason I like Red/Black decks is because your removal is a step above what any other color combination can put together, especially since Bone Splinters remains underrated and under-drafted from what I’ve seen. No one passes an Oblivion Ring later than third pick and there had better be some awesome cards justifying passing an O-Ring… but at this point if I had to pick between Bone Splinters and Oblivion Ring pick-one, pack-one, I take the Splinter for color preference reasons and otherwise consider them to be pretty much equal. One can pick off any troublesome permanent for three mana with no additional hoops to jump through… and the other kills any man for one mana and an additional price that is easily worked around, and doesn’t ask you to put any Plains in your deck while you are at it. The additional cost of “you must be playing Plains” is actually the steeper cost in my eyes at the moment, and I have been very, very happy to play Black-Red splash Green. My Black-Red decks are a little different than the Goblin Deathraiders / Blightning Black-Red decks, focusing a bit more on the heavier drops in the curve and card synergies rather than extra damage potential, because I have found that in the war between fatties and removal, it’s better to have both than to only have one or the other. Carrion Thrash is an excellent reason to dip into Green for your Black-Red deck, giving additional graveyard synergies to an already synergistic deck archetype while providing a 4/4 body that can stand up to the industry standard 5/3’s or just quickly attack the opponent to death when your spot removal has removed their best cards from play. Likewise, since fat rules all, Cycling Craw Wurms are a wonderful thing to have. Either he cycles early on in the game, or the game state reaches a sort of parity and you’ve spent your removal on your opponent’s best creatures and then he counts for more than a single card’s worth of cardboard when it comes to dealing damage or demanding an answer.

My previous article on Shards Limited more-or-less presented Black/Red splash Green as “my solution” to Shards of Alara draft, and can be found here. A solid example from my recent drafting is here:

3 Blister Beetle
2 Dregscape Zombie
Goblin Deathraiders
Vithian Stinger
Thunder-Thrash Elder
Viscera Dragger
2 Carrion Thrash
Scourge Devil
Undead Leotau

2 Bone Splinters
Magma Spray
Dragon Fodder
2 Jund Charm
Resounding Thunder
Branching Bolt

2 Jund Panorama
2 Savage Lands
Jungle Shrine
2 Forest
5 Mountain
5 Swamp

Again it accentuates the fun interactions of sacrificing creatures to Devour, getting ‘free’ Bone Splinters, or just keeping up aggressive pressure with some pretty quality Unearth creatures. Graveyard interactions are very potent, and as a color combination Red/Black can get some good mileage out of the game zone most other decks consider to be junk. I had a little help to get a deck as good as this, since those Jund Charms came around pretty late in the third pack and it proved that I was the only one who wanted them. Once again I find I take good mana much more highly than the people around me, since at least one of those tri-lands was a first pick out of the third pack, but with seven sources of my splash color, and either nine or ten of my main colors, I had literally no mana troubles at all while my opponents averaged one game lost per match due to tripping on their own mana. There’s nothing crazy about this deck… the only Rare I got out of the packs was a Battlegrace Angel I couldn’t make myself pass in the second pack… but there was something crazy about how I drafted it, putting the first-pick Bone Splinters in my pile and passing an Oblivion Ring to my buddy to the left. Maybe it’s crazy, and I’d love to hear some debate on it, but I have found them pretty equivalent cards and find Black so much better than White when I draft it.


I have been trying for some time to make Naya work as a draft archetype, largely because I agree with the perception that Bull Cerodon is too good not to pick highly, but every time I draft a Cerodon I find myself stuck with a Naya deck that has a hard time winning. I am happy to play around with the color requirements for this archetype, and have tried G/W, G/R and R/W as the core of the deck, always with equal disdain for my final product. I also find that many of the cards that go into this sort of deck are highly prized at the moment, as everyone seems to fight me for the Red, Green and White cards, and when I am not playing a Naya deck my opponent all too frequently is.

The best Naya decks focus on Red with either White or Green as their second color, and an accent of the third for potent gold cards. I like Red/Green Naya decks because Branching Bolt is just a huge kick in the crotch and Rip-Clan Crashers are a potent value for a two-drop. I still dislike being Naya even when I have what looks like a “good Naya deck,” because it’s just a solid curve and some removal spells; if I draw things out of order, or my opponent presents a threat I cannot actually deal with, or maybe even just something as simple as “if I lose the die roll,” the game spirals out of my reach. Plenty of times now we’ve seen Star City’s own Nick Eisel in the “Drafting With Nick” series, picking Naya cards and not getting past the first round in his draft, even when his deck looked quite good. Naya always feels like that to me: sure, it looks great, but actually playing things out it just seems like there is little synergy to the cards other than the cute “Five Power Matters” theme, and that theme can easily fall apart with one timely removal spell on your Drumhunter or the one fattie you’re relying on holding your board.

If I am going to play Red and Green together, it just comes down to the personal preference that I would rather play Swamps than Plains… and I would rather keep the commitment to Green down towards a minimum, focusing on being Red first and foremost. It’s not that Naya can’t win, it’s that I don’t see it pulling its weight. The last draft I won, I won with a Naya deck… but the last two drafts I lost in the first round, I lost with Naya decks that I thought were even better than the deck I won that last draft with.

Providing a decklist won’t really help; they always look great and play mediocre, though if you draft lands highly enough that isn’t a very big problem at least as far as colors are concerned. But either I always draw the cheap half of the deck with no fatties to end the game with, or draw all fat and no early game action, so I tend to find I’m either lacking in the ability to close the game out or backpedaling too much to really survive. Nothing is surprising about the Naya deck, except perhaps how popular it seems to be despite the fact that it doesn’t win nearly as many matches as I always think it should when I draft it. At least online, the drafting community has the biggest set of blinders in the world on when it comes to Naya.


Bant is the one thing I loathe being even more than Naya; with Naya you can at least focus on Red and White and try to play two removal colors together and draft a solid beatdown curve, but with Bant you’re lacking removal from the get-go and frequently find yourself shoehorned into a removal-light Exalted deck. This is why I don’t draft Oblivion Rings, because two out of three deck archetypes I can put it into frankly make me want to stab myself in the face. Bant is wonderful as far as I’m concerned for Constructed, but to be avoided like the plague for Draft, because these are the sorts of decks I end up with:

2 Akrasan Squire
2 Knight of the Skyward Eye
Sighted-Caste Sorcerer
Deft Duelist
2 Court Archers
Rhox War Monk
Naya Battlemage
Bant Battlemage
Rhox Charger
2 Welkin Guide
2 Waveskimmer Aven

Resounding Roar
Call to Heel
Bant Charm
Oblivion Ring
2 Resounding Silence
Covenant of Minds

2 Seaside Citadel
2 Bant Panorama
Esper Panorama
2 Island
5 Plains
5 Forest

I consider myself lucky indeed to win a match with a deck like this, while I find I have plenty of opponents who feel this is a perfectly acceptable deck option. A mess of Exalted creatures and a smattering of removal may sound like a good thing, but I don’t find myself winning matches with decks like this and I don’t find myself losing matches when my opponent is trying this trick instead. It’s not that I find Exalted to be a bad mechanic, or that I am unwilling to pick an Oblivion Ring because it never goes anywhere good for me, it’s that I find Green-White to be a poor choice and so I find if I start down this path it ends poorly for me. If I first-pick an Oblivion Ring that usually means I am going to go…


Esper is the other combination where I feel card synergy is so much more important than card quality, though apparently mine is the dissenting opinion when it comes to the card synergy of Bant and its Exalted mechanic. Blue/White, I find, is the color combination that is home to a good overlap between two mechanics, much like Red/Black is the overlap between Devour and Unearth. Rather than such an obvious overlap that includes named mechanics, Esper is the overlap between the Bant creatures’ use of Exalted and the Esper shard’s Artifacts Matter theme. This isn’t an obvious synergy like “Unearth my guy, now sacrifice him” but instead has to do with individual card synergies and how I find they stack well together to create a board position your opponent cannot break through.

We all know already that Sanctum Gargoyle is a pretty amazing creature, since he loops with a second copy of himself, or buys back a Capsule for another shot at removal or some card drawing, or ‘just’ plays Gravedigger with one of your creatures. It happens to also be a reasonably-costed flier with a solid body, and that’s something great for Exalted… I see Exalted decks playing Gustrider Exuberant (read: Goblin Sky Patrol) just because he is a flier that can pick up all those Exalted bonuses, and for one more mana Sanctum Gargoyle gets +1/+1, but more importantly also gets +GoodCard/+Doesn’tSuck. Esper gets to combine multiple removal colors, White and Black, where Bant had to struggle along with just White and maybe making its Blue cards count for something, but also gets solid card synergy and ready access to some awesome creatures to carry Exalted bonuses. Deft Duelist we all know about, it’s no secret she’s pretty awesome with four Exalted creatures on your side… but the dirty secret is Windwright Mage.

Esper’s card synergy is pretty awesome. If I just draw my mana right, and don’t get swarmed under quickly, I always feel like I’ll be able to gain an advantage in combat with Metallurgeon and Esper Battlemage, recur threats or Capsules with Gargoyles, and otherwise control the board while my opponent runs out of steam. But with a little help from Bant, you can focus more heavily on one particular Esper card, Windwright Mage… who, as a 5/5 Lifelinked flier, is like a common version of Battlegrace Angel. Sure, it takes more work to get there, but it’s also a common you can reasonably expect to see and get your hands on instead of a Rare nobody should ever pass. This means you can actually anticipate this happening pretty often, which is something Bant can’t guarantee since its equivalent (Rhox War Monk) is an Uncommon instead of a Common… and is also something plenty of people will see and want, while I find the Windwright Mage tends to go under most peoples’ radar.

Whenever there’s an overlap of multiple mechanics, I find I’m quite happy to explore that Shard, and some combination of Exalted and the “Artifact Matters” theme always seems to have potent options to explore. This deck recently ran the tables for me, the first time I tried to mix Bant’s peanut butter with Esper’s jelly:

Akrasan Squire
Deft Duelist
2 Windwright Mage
2 Guardian of Akrasa
Esper Battlemage
2 Outrider of Jhess
2 Sanctum Gargoyle
2 Welkin Guide
Yoked Plowbeast

2 Executioner’s Capsule
2 Agony Warp
2 Call to Heel
Courier’s Capsule
Esper Obelisk

Arcane Sanctum
Crumbling Necropolis
2 Esper Panorama
2 Swamp
6 Plains
5 Island

It doesn’t hurt that it’s utilizing some cards other decks frankly don’t want, as I don’t see a lot of homes for Outriders of Jhess in other peoples’ decks from what I’ve seen, but as a Blue Exalted creature it is welcome here just fine. The stress I had with this deck actually was finding the right mix of beatdown and control, because Exalted creatures tend to make poor defenders, and I was trying to utilize non-Exalted flying creatures as my “one creature” to carry the fight to the opponent. Guardian of Akrasa is actually wonderful here because they offer their bonus to make my huge Lifelinked flier go zoom in the air, but can also soak up incoming attacks so I’m not just spending that life and some more besides when my opponent swings back.

Blue/White as a controlling deck is pretty solid, but if you want a good Esper deck you’re going to need to have some Executioner’s Capsules in your deck, it’s just that simple. A good portion of the deck’s possible synergy comes from buying back that removal spell to really crush the opponent out of the game; one of my three matches with this deck was closed out by using the Executioner’s Capsule early on his first decent-sized threat, playing a few blockers to stabilize the game, and then on turn 6 having Sanctum Gargoyle come into play and get me that Capsule back… and jump back into my hand and drawing a card with damage on the stack, after my opponent attacked to get as much damage in as possible before that Capsule came to erode his board position again. Turn 7 was of course cast Capsule, activate it, cast Gargoyle again… game over, basically.


Grixis is difficult for me to differentiate from Jund, largely because I like focusing on the same key cores of the Black-Red part of that deck, and when I’m getting those goodies anyway I don’t usually want Blue, I want Green. But sometimes you open something that changes your mind, and sometimes you do something a little odd. Grixis also works as a Red-Blue deck, with the Black bridging the colors and filling in holes, basically serving for removal spells and powerful triple-colored cards like Grixis Charm but otherwise leaving you with Blue and Red working together for great justice. As an archetype, then, I find Grixis to be somewhat conflicted… unless I get a really great reason to do so, like getting a Cruel Ultimatum, I’m going to tend towards veering away from the ‘traditional,’ and the non-traditional doesn’t work very easily.

Mixing your Blue and Red cards together, though, you can find some interesting synergies… as I learned the first time I had a Fatestitcher and a Vithian Stinger on the table at the same time. Blue-Red has some strange desires. It can pull off the Unearth/Devour tricks just like Black-Red can, with Kathari Screecher performing less admirably but nonetheless filling that role. Blue offers Red something that Black doesn’t, and that’s card drawing. Both have some good slots to fill on the curve, and Dragon Fodder into Kathari Screecher into Thorn-Thrash Elder into Cloudheath Drake is a pretty respectable opening using only commons. Mix things around and get evasion creatures plus Scourge Devil and that’s not half-bad either.

But so far I’ve been drafting U/R as a controlling deck, and it starts to border on the Five-Color deck as more things get opened and potential splashes come around. Blue-Red can easily splash both Grixis and Jund if it gets enough good mana-fixing, because control decks don’t die if they skip turn two to use a Panorama, and you can start to pick up undervalued cards because the full tri-colored cards aren’t as highly picked as good single-color cards, so Charms can go around the table longer than they should and somehow tend to end up in my pile when this happens. I’ve only tried it twice, but both times I was Blue/Red splash both Black and Green, with multiple Jund Charms in my pile. Eerie.

The best such deck I drafted actually got me yelled at for being a lucksack, because my opponent swooped in for the kill, lost every creature on his side of the board, and was dead from 20 two swings later when I hadn’t controlled a single creature during his “lethal attack.” It also contains some Rare action, so I can’t say it’s “typical,” but it sure did work.

Grixis Battlemage
Viscera Dragger

Cloudheath Drake
Courier’s Capsule
Covenant of Minds
Kathari Screecher
Outrider of Jhess

Bloodpyre Elemental
Hissing Iguanar
2 Vithian Stinger
Magma Spray
Resounding Thunder

Blood Cultist
Hellkite Overlord
2 Agony Warp
Branching Bolt
2 Jund Charm

2 Obelisk of Jund

Savage Lands
Crumbling Necropolis
2 Grixis Panorama
2 Jund Panorama
2 Forest
4 Mountain
4 Island

The mana was somewhat awkward, as I am sure you can see, but the card synergy was potent and the ability to sweep a board full of weenies and start Hellkiting the opponent was pretty crazy. I didn’t think it would actually work, since what beats a Bant deck doesn’t beat a Naya deck, but I had the good fortune of facing two Bant decks and only one Naya deck in the finals, so I got a cakewalk for two matches as my opponents dropped a swarm of pitiful, weak creatures into play, then put them all into the graveyard when I cast Jund Charm. My third opponent let me do much the same, except that his Woolly Thoctar required some assistance to jump into the graveyard, which took us from “about to die during this attack” to “untap and cast Hellkite Overlord right into your face” with four Red sources to firebreathe with, letting me hit exactly 20 in two swings.

In all likelihood, this should never have worked, and certainly shouldn’t work twice. But sometimes the ugly pile of cards nobody else loved and some mana-fixing can get there, and “two enemy colors” is a solid basis for a more controlled “Five Color” deck. While you’ll have to splash across two minor colors to use any true Shard cards, you can access multiple shards of cards with light splashing, so again: proper valuation of your mana determines if you have permission to go insane or not. Another terrible terrible deck that actually did quite well was this pile:

Cloudheath Drake
2 Courier’s Capsule
Gather Specimens

Jungle Weaver
Druid of the Anima
2 Elvish Visionary
Cavern Thoctar
Naya Battlemage
Gift of the Gargantuan

Resounding Silence
2 Yoked Plowbeast
Knight-Captain of Eos

Rhox War Monk
Stoic Angel
Qasali Ambusher

2 Agony Warp
Bone Splinters

Obelisk of Esper
Obelisk of Jund

Bant Panorama
Esper Panorama
Jund Panorama
2 Plains
5 Forest
5 Island

And pile it is… but it was enough to split in the finals of the draft. (Because really, who’d be crazy enough to NOT split the finals with this thing?) But it goes to show there’s something to this… Blue-Green as the base offered me enough card-drawing to achieve deck velocity, with Gifts, Capsules, Visionaries, and just good old fashioned cycling fat… but more importantly, with controlled splashing and color discipline I got to pick from Naya, Bant, Esper, Grixis AND Jund, just not playing any Red from those. While it was far from ideal, it did have some interesting bits that I think are worth exploring… because we can leave the Shard model behind entirely, while not quite jumping into the crazy world of five color Obelisks.dec.

Sean McKeown
s_mckeown @ hotmail.com