Magical Hack: A Second Look At Drafting With Dissension

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As a result of his intensive RGD drafting – helping friends who are qualified for Pro Tour Prague – Sean has reached some interesting conclusions about the skills needed to succeed at the new format. How do you rate the Eidelons? Do you think drafting three colors is the strongest strategy? After reading this fine article, you may just change your mind…

In week two of my Pro Tour: Prague intensive practice, I’ve come to notice a few things about how Dissension changes the mix. As an active playtester helping a few New York City-area qualified players practice Ravnica-Guildpact-Dissension draft in order to understand the format for the Pro Tour starting, well, today… I’ve altered my opinion of what you should be aiming to do with these three packs based on guild interactions and power levels. The Eidolons are surprisingly playable, and given the highly Gold nature of these sets (and thus the plentiful triggers for your Eidolons to come back from the dead), it’s not surprising to see a used-up Eidolon jump back from the graveyard two or three times in a game.

The Eidolons would still be reasonably good if they were just four-mana 2/2’s with no ability that came back from the dead when you cast a gold spell. That they also have moderately reasonable abilities tacked onto them as well happens to make them even better, since having a swarm of creatures that refuse to stay dead is very good for controlling the board from incoming attackers. They can be very useful over several turns of alpha striking, thanks to their remarkable ability of picking themselves up off the floor after they’ve been killed. Making it so another creature can’t block for a turn seems to me the worst ability of the five, when you have to sacrifice a potential attacker to get there. Still, the Red Eidolon is still pretty good… and in the right deck, supporting perhaps a broken card or two, it’s downright ludicrous. (Think Lyzolda, the Blood Witch. Think Lyzolda plus triple Red Eidolon. Nice draft.)

Adding three mana of a color of your choice is pretty good; in my first draft after writing last week’s article and discussing how difficult a Selesnya-based opening can be, I had the pleasure of opening Selesnya Guildmage and ending up with Blazing Archon, and I used the Green Eidolon to cast it on turn 6 in at least one game. White Eidolon is a nightmare of a repeating trick on defense, hitting something for two and preventing three to yourself or a blocker, then coming back for more at a later date. Black Eidolon is solid but uninspiring; it’ll make the cut and its ability is fine, but not as relevant as the not-dying 2/2 part of the ability. I’m tempted to call him the worst, but he does something relevant more often than Red Eidolon does. The Blue Eidolon is a win condition in itself, and thus should be given serious consideration for first-picking if you are a Blue mage. That it supports the first pack’s Blue mill cards is also not to be laughed at, because a lost pack of Entrancers and incidental mill cards has been replaced by a much harder-to-kill Entrancer.

These unkillable 2/2s with abilities are much better than originally thought, and their potential to keep up aggressive pressure or bolster your defenses, or trade less than a card for a full card from the opponent, is incredibly strong. Some of them, from time to time, may even win the game unexpectedly by themselves, so long as they are cast with Blue mana. Isn’t it always the way?

That is merely part of the effect the Eidolons have on the draft. With it now “known” that these four mana 2/2s are actually quite good, the value of individual gold cards goes up, but not nearly so much as the value of individual hybrid cards. A gold card is still tough on your mana, and maybe you don’t want to try and squeeze in a color-heavy card just because maybe it’ll get you an Eidolon or two back. Try “squeezing in” a Centaur Safeguard just as a decent 3/1 guy, and you’ll up the Eidolon triggers without upping the Gold-ness your mana base is being asked to support. Same for another otherwise underrated card, Gaze of the Gorgon; or get Petrahydrox online to buy back Blue Eidolon, and you may need new pants.

(Yes, the Eidolons have names, not just colors. But we don’t know their names, and besides, it’s more fun to call them by their color than their name, like the Power Rangers and the Voltron lions. Who cared what the Pink Ranger’s name was? Who cares what the Blue Eidolon’s name is? We’re just going to call it Millstone Eidolon in a week or two anyway, to go with Healing Salve Eidolon, Dark Ritual Eidolon, Stun Eidolon, and holding the short end of the stick we have Death-Of-A-Thousand-Stings Eidolon.)

Speaking of needing new pants, try mixing Dredge with your Eidolon recursion, and be willing to draft Shambling Shell a little higher than you were already. He’s great with the cards in pack three, since he’s excellent with Graft and can be pretty ridiculous in this “attrition war” thing by having a recurring effect that allows you to draw a low-cost Gold card as needed to get all of your Eidolons back. Drawing a 3/1 and a 2/2 every turn can’t be too bad, can it? Dismiss the Eidolon if you want to, but I’ll happily take the ones you’re passing me. It’s even possible that these cards may have Constructed implications, what with their potential for easy Spiritcraft triggers. Expect Entropic Eidolon, if nothing else, to be tested in Ghost Dad builds by my frequent Forum participants, who keep telling me I am crazy for not maximizing my use of Thief of Hope in Ghost Dad, and for whom these can potentially be Thieves of Hope numbers five through eight. End sarcasm.

An Eidolon-heavy draw in Limited has the freedom to play out its guys and make two-for-one trades, tossing two 2/2’s in front of a 4/4 like it’s nothing, because they actively want to trade a live Eidolon for any card at all possible. In Limited, every Gold spell you play can get you a few Eidolons back, bringing an extra two, or four, or even six power back from the graveyard to impact upon the board again and add to the aggressive push or defensive wall… or even just to use their abilities, most of which are pretty solid especially if you get to use them more than once. I’ve heard players in our drafting sessions in the past two weeks say that any Eidolon whatsoever is worthy of first-pick consideration out of a pack, because full-block Ravnica draft is very frequently an attrition war between two aggro-control decks… a war of attrition that is won by the letter E and the number four.

Besides looking at the Eidolons through beer goggles, the same goggles through which I look at my “wife,” Lurking Informant, and the same goggles believed to have the rules text of “do nothing,” I’ve been expanding on my color and guild theory from last week’s article. In a fit of pique, but also a bit fed up by the explanations given for why the four-color decks drafted by the man who invented Blue/Green hybrid Naturalizes long before the Simic Combine even existed actually won matches, I remembered just how “off” I was thrown by Tim Aten recent article in which the llamas lurked ever-present in the background and Tim joked about taking any double-land over numerous good cards. Knowing that this was satire, but satire based – at least in part – on what others at the highest level are actually doing, I strapped my beer goggles on and decided to try and figure out what a four-color-pile could do, and why it could work.

I sat down to think about it and tried to figure out what it would look like if you started with the standard assumption that you will be drafting four colors instead of drafting “just” three. It’s much harder to balance a four-color deck, and in fact I figured so long as the mana fixers were there, in the form of Signets and double lands, then some configuration of solid color balance and powerful cards could be determined after the draft was completed, so long as I had an eye out to draft for synergy while I was picking the most powerful cards. Blue-mana-Naturalize Lad always excluded Green from his lists, because his justification was that he was always drafting whatever removal spells he saw and Green never has any, so it just doesn’t make the cut. Considering most people scoff at the very notion of “four color no-fixers,” and would shy away from specifically excluding Green, I figured that perhaps it worked for a deeper reason. After all, it could just be that it always worked because Naturalize Lad broke up with his girlfriend and is seeing Living Inferno steady nowadays that he’s having success, because no matter what else is going on I always see him with one in play and have been wondering if we have to start checking his pockets before the draft.

However, as unreasonable as I felt his opinion was at the time, I tried to sit down and see it from his perspective, to see what was actually going on that he wasn’t describing in his draft analysis of “take every removal spell and make the mana work later.” Clearly, Naturalize Lad had double lands and Signets, and those had been going scarcer and scarcer as the drafts progressed throughout the week of playtesting, so he too was picking them as highly as they needed to be picked if you were actually going to get any. So he’s not four-color no fixers, because he’s taking double mana cards to fix his mana and give him the base needed to support all the main colors and splashes without playing a ridiculously large number of sources. Whether he’d care about having any Green fixers seems irrelevant, because (except for Civic Wayfinder) none of the fixers are as good as a simple Signet or Karoo anyway… and thus there might be some deeper driving motive behind his success than just excluding Green because it had no removal.

Would Naturalize Lad still be excluding Green if two out of three guilds in the second pack happened to be Green, and his strategy forced him to ditch most of an entire pack just to exclude a color that was light on removal? I thought not, and I realized that perhaps he was succeeding because we were all looking to make sure we had one guild we had in our colors in each pack, and he always had two, so he got more picks and had more shots for relevant double-lands and Signets than any of us did. By that same logic, he could exclude any one color that was present in duplicate in Ravnican guilds: no Blue, because that doubles up in Dissension, and no Red, because that doubles up in Guildpact. White, Green, or Black are all viable candidates to exclude but still always have at least two guilds worth of cards to draft from, and drafting from this perspective is so much easier… because truly, the world is your oyster.

The first advantage is that since you are in so many colors, you don’t have to worry about your picks running dry. Passing an individual power card to take a double land in your colors hurts a lot less when you realize it is the double land that is not replaceable, not the solid creature or decent removal spell. There are an elite few cards you’ll take in each color over a double land, but beneath that level everything blurs into a band of generally good things and you’ll pick the best card without worrying about which color it is… after all, the color balance thing comes during deck construction, though you have to be mindful of it when picking how high to take your fixers… and which fixers you want. In one pack you could pass Izzet Signet without a care and take a moderately good card despite the fact that you are Green, Blue, Red, and Black, only to pass a much better card in the following pack to take a Gruul Signet.

But literally, with two guilds in each pack and half of any other guilds being cards you can take and play anyway, you have insanely deep packs full of the power cards you’ll see in Dissension and Guildpact. There is a very narrow margin of cards you can’t take: just one color and/or half a guild, depending on how you want to think of it. Your doors are pretty much wide open when it comes to playing bombs you open or are passed, and you can take the mana fixers you need over pretty much anything else because “generic removal spell” and “solid flier” and “decent fattie” all blend together when you have access to so much, and it’s really hard to stand above the rest: bomb, or no bomb, it’s just that simple.

Let’s take my draft deck from the other night, in which I decided to sit down and test my theory that Naturalize Lad was onto something but not telling the full story behind why he was succeeding. Instead of unabashedly excluding Green cards, I chose to unabashedly exclude White cards, because I definitely wanted Simic cards and Rakdos cards but didn’t really care to pick up Azorius cards. Pick one pack one, there are three cards that I consider relevant: Snapping Drake, Faith’s Fetters, and Dimir Aqueduct. Starting the blatant insanity with a smile, I took Snapping Drake to start my plans off, and was bare inches from taking Dimir Aqueduct. Received a choice of Faith’s Fetters #2 or Viashino Fangtail, and considered myself off to the races with a second Fetters passed and a Fangtail in my pile. Pick three was my girlfriend, Lurking Informant, because she’d have broken up with me if I didn’t draft her this time, I’d been passing her around the table like it was a swingers party I didn’t love her anymore for most of the past week. Pick four was Dimir Aqueduct over half a dozen solid cards, and that was the last double-land I saw from that pack.

Fast forward through a bizarre drafting experience in which the theory I was applying showed me just how literally I was looking at the format in a truly different way, undergoing a paradigm shift… or perhaps just not on my medication at the moment, but then I’m not on any medication so that last reasonable answer isn’t actually “it.”

Looking at it here, I wouldn’t be surprised if you wondered whether I’d slipped off my medication, too. I certainly didn’t get Naturalize Lad’s persistently double-digit number of “removal,” though even he will admit he counts some pretty sketchy cards when he counts his removal spells. Breaking it down by curve, it looks like this:

1cc: Seal of Fire; Gather Courage
2cc: 2x Gruul Signet; Psychotic Fury; Lurking Informant
3cc: Orzhov Euthanist; Lyzolda, the Blood Witch; Silhana Starfletcher; Bloodscale Prowler; Wee Dragonauts; Goblin Flectomancer
4cc: Assault Zeppelid; Viashino Fangtail; Tibor and Lumia; Snapping Drake; 3x Sandstorm Eidolon; Enigma Eidolon
5cc: Stratozeppelid
6cc: –
7cc: 2x Cytospawn Shambler; Skarrgan Skybreaker

It’s missing the aggressive two-drops, because it would rather fix its mana that turn or ramp directly to four on turn 3, preferably both with a Signet. Several games were won simply by having a good curve and dropping turn 3 Assault Zeppelid, turn 4 Stratozeppelid, turn 5 make two more drops, turn 6 make a 6/6 monster. It doesn’t look like much, but it has powerful synergy with its beatdown curve and the Red Eidolon, powerful Legendary bombs that work with the Eidolons, and the ability to completely blow the opponent out of the race. If I cast both of my Instants on the same turn, a lone Wee Dragonauts swings for fourteen in the air. Turn 4. Could you imagine a prettier draft deck if you were playing four colors, mashed full with Compulsive Researches and Wrecking Balls and Pillories of the Sleepless? Sure. How did this deck fare?

At an eight-man table practicing for the Pro Tour, this deck pulled a solid 3-1, losing one match narrowly, winning one match narrowly on the strength of recurring Eidolons, and blew two people entirely out of the water. Lyzolda, the Blood Witch plus Red Eidolon does, in fact, equal “combo,” but Lyzolda knows I don’t always have time for that and more than once jumped immediately into the graveyard herself, regretting that I hadn’t drawn Seal of Fire instead… but drawing a card for me. How did the mana work, as that is part of the core behind this paradigm shift?

Mana requires math. Looking at the above, I knew it was going to be sketchy, because I had one more Green card than I really wanted and couldn’t easily replace it with a Blue or Red card out of my sideboard. That the last Green card was the Starfletcher, the splash-color mana-fixer, bothered me, mostly because it was really only good as a three-drop and I usually wasn’t going to play it then. With my bounceland and two Swamps, I had three Black sources and two cards that required one Black mana each. Those two Swamps could cast one other spell, my Lurking Informant, if I didn’t draw Blue. With my bounceland, two Signets, and two Forests, I had five Green mana for six Green cards, one of whom I was resigned to just being kind of sketchy if I drew him in the early game, and one of which I wasn’t even really thinking of as costing Green, since I was usually going to Convoke it. Which somewhere requires a Green mana, but hey. Five sources is plenty, and starts to get close to demanding too much. Two Blue bouncelands and five Islands is seven Blue sources for seven mana worth of Blue cards, one of which could be cast with Black, and this seemed like more than enough. Two Red signets and five Mountains is seven Red sources, for fifteen Red mana worth of cards including three triple Red cards, and I really wanted one more Red source… but I failed to first-pick Steam Vents over the Izzet Chronarch that ended up not making my deck due to lack of instants, because 99% of the time doing so would be wrong. (Remember, you don’t get to keep the cards; this statement is not intended to translate to MTGO drafting unless you are sitting to my left. My MTGO nick is smcke0wn, please pass me the Steam Vents.)

Concerned about the double Red, I found out I needn’t have worried, because the mana worked very smoothly. Even in the games when I got the Starfletcher down on turn 3, he didn’t actually contribute towards fixing my colors, thus proving I was correct in really wishing he was absolutely anything else and preferably a Red or Blue card, but I couldn’t make myself cut him for Izzet Chronarch with just two cards to get back… I suffered from a temporary failure of my love of Eidolons, and it did not occur to me that even with zero Instants in the graveyard he might still be buying back some cards. Chalk that one up to experience… complain about not taking the Steam Vents to fix your mana, and then explain how the card you took over it should have been in your deck regardless. Expose your hypocrisy on the Internet as a lesson to all: next time, take both.

My team ended up losing this draft, so the lesson extends further: take both, put Steam Vents in pocket, tell no one! The combined weight of two teammates finishing at 0-7 between them really messed with the “winning” plan, despite having a diesel deck disguised as a four-color no-removal package. It’s not like those team-mates lost to the deck I’d passed, with double Fetters starting it off; they lost to everything. The lesson learned, however, is one I expect will be reiterated at Prague, where every pack has the potential to be a busty bomb-filled pack: take the A-list bombs, then take the mana, and after that everything else can follow, and will. When you’re not really discriminating against anything in your effort to draft good cards, you’ll see a lot more of them than the people who are drafting “just” one guild in each pack and “just” three colors. Just make sure you have an absolute minimum of four fixers among eighteen mana sources, and be very careful in how you calculate what makes the cut and how you do your mana base, because that can be the trickiest part of all.

Next week, we’ll have a short look at Ravnica-Guildpact-Dissension Sealed Deck, and start taking a look at Constructed post-Dissension for Regionals.

Sean McKeown
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