Magical Hack: Examining Coldsnap Draft

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Sean takes an icy plunge into triple Coldsnap Draft, examining the allied color pairings and where they stand on the ladder of strength. Is Blue/White really undraftable? In Green/Red really unstoppable? Sean reveals all…

This weekend’s Coldsnap pre-release showed us just how strange a small set can be for Limited, by taking a small set’s usual shortcomings (lack of diversity of commons in Limited) and turning it into not just a shortcoming but an overarching design theme. Everywhere you look you see what Mark Rosewater is calling the “Collect Me!” cards, from your basic snow-covered lands and the Ripple spells to subtle things: a common */* flier for 1U whose power and toughness are each equal to the number of creatures with its creature type in play… where it is the only representative of its species in the set. (Well, at common anyway.) The name of the game, at least for Draft play, is not Magic but Pokemon, because you gotta catch ‘em all!

Having seen the way Sealed Deck played out, with five booster packs of Coldsnap mixed together and called a deck, things didn’t seem too bad. Sure, there were lots of creature stalls, as players mashed their creatures into each other looking to get and keep an edge over their opponent. There wasn’t a lot of evasion for what were generally considered the popular colors (Green, mixed with Red or Black), and creature removal was generally at a premium… quite a difference from the Ravnica Block Limited we have been playing for months. Those who remember the good old bad old days of Ice Age shouldn’t be particularly surprised to see stand-offs of 5/6 Wurms with cumulative upkeep staring at each other, and with the semi-hybrid “snow mana matters” theme running through the set it’s like we’re playing with the demented cross-breed of Ice Age – Alliances Sealed Deck and the full-blown Ravnica Block. Some considered themselves lucky, not because they got four copies of their Ripple spell of choice, but because they were somehow gifted with the right snow-covered lands to put in the deck they really wanted to play.

What works moderately well for Sealed Deck suffers something of a breakdown in Draft, but then that’s the truly interesting part of the grand Coldsnap experiment. Our early drafts at Neutral Ground were spent trying to see what does and does not work, and everyone’s deck tended to start with four of this card and five of that other, with varying results. My first draft deck was mono-Red with four Surging Flames and five one-mana walking Earthquakes, fleshed out with some reasonable guys and the occasional heavy-hitting bomb like the Greater Stone Spirit that hands around extra toughness and Firebreathing like some kind of demented Easter bunny. Confident that I was truly unstoppable, I was amazed at just how hard I had to fight just to end up 2-2, as I learned that there really are an awful lot of incredibly large Green creatures out there. Some of them even gain your opponent life when their 6/6 trampling body is done kicking your butt. To do so, I had to go somewhat on tilt and do something that only Becker could be proud of, boarding in Green just for some creatures and winning on the mighty back of a 1/5 Spider… one whom I’m sure our resident grouchy arachnophile doesn’t love, because four Red mana or more clearly obviates its spider-like tendencies of having greater toughness than power.

The decks that inevitably won the most on the first day or two of drafting seemed to feature a never-ending stream of 2/1 first strikers followed up by two instants to give a grand benefit of +3/+3, meaning “just” four copies off a Ripple is lethal on turn 4. A full turn faster than my attempted opening of Bull Auroch, Bull Auroch, Bull Auroch, Bull Auroch as my turns 2 through 4 play… not that my little stampeding friends would have wanted to try and push through the wall of first strikers that appeared practically out of nowhere. White seemed best when paired with Red, rather than its traditional allies of Green or Blue, because White-Blue can’t really take advantage of White’s aggressive strength, although if all you were dropping were Miscalculations and two-drops I suspect you might be able to pull it off somehow. Of all the White decks that were drafted, it was the ones splashing for Skred and Stalking Yeti and Goblin Rimerunner that actually sealed the deal.

Of course, that some of these decks could play one card and get four, six, or maybe even eight power into play for just three mana, all of which strikes first, well… must be nice. Some experimentation was done to try and get the best degenerate deck possible, or at least a deck that is repetitive enough that you can plan a sequence of plays in advance and expect to be able to repeat it over and over throughout your matches, because with four of this and three of that and six of the other you’ll be able to rely on probably drawing one in time for its previously slotted ideal turn for casting. Drawing your lands consistently, especially your snow-covered lands, somehow seemed like a bigger problem than actually drawing the right card at the right time… but when you’re seeing basically the same cards over and over again ad infinitum (and ad nauseam), the only actual variable often seems to be the number of lands you drew with which to cast these things. Clearly the best deck in the format looks something like this:

18 Surging Flames
6 Rite of Flame
16 Mountains

Good luck getting that deck, though. Continuing to abstract what you can and cannot do in the format if things are allowed to get truly ridiculous, and as we continued to play with the various Ripple cards to figure out just which ones were worth first-picking over everything regardless of anything short of Dragon-like stature, we learned that the White and Red ones are rather awesome, that Green’s “Ripplevine Cloak” is not to be underestimated (especially given the large number of tramplers in the set, including two-drops that look quite sexy attacking with two or three of them stapled on him turn 3), and that, while expensive, the Blue one can be quite worthwhile as well… just not “pick over everything”-worthy. Sitting down for an eight-man draft, however, I really wanted to try and get a deck that looked like this:

16 Swamps
10 Surging Dementia
14 Krovikan Scoundrel

Ten is a much more reasonable number to expect to be able to get than eighteen, especially when we are talking about playing the card that is “obviously” the worst of the Ripple spells and which doesn’t happen to be a removal spell, bounce spell, aggressive creature or potentially ridiculous pump enchantment. Ravenous Rats, sans rat, just isn’t as tempting for your neighbors to pick off from you, and I can say with reasonable certainty that what I wasn’t willing to do in any of our four-on-four drafts (the first time, because I didn’t know that it might even be possible, the second time because I happened to be drafting at a table with two other players already known to take that card and play them despite the fact that several tries already had all ended in failure) is still likely to be the very first thing I try on the MTGO draft queues once three other hapless souls’ fates are not chained to my own. And clearly whatever awful creatures I actually try to kill my opponent with doesn’t really matter, so long as I have about fourteen dorks that cost between two and four mana and attack for at least two damage each.

It’s almost enough to make me want to top eight a PTQ, just to try and Surging Dementia someone out: on turn two, I have some lands and some creatures in hand, while you have a land in play and are now living off the top of your deck from here on out. Mind Twist is pretty unfair when it costs two to hit very card in your opponent’s hand, and they’ll let you play ten copies of it… but this is why we say that triple Coldsnap is the most degenerate small-set draft we’ve ever had the joy of playing, and the first that we’ve had to play as an actual draft format for any real tournaments. With so many different things worth potentially picking over absolutely everything else, in order to increase your sheer number of silly things working well together, it’s actually a rather interesting format… but one where there are a lot of decisions to be made, instead of blindly picking one thing and running with it at all costs.

Taking the limit from the practical closer towards infinity, it would be reasonable to want to pick up a large number of quite a few cards, just to play out the exact same scenario game after game. Sculpting the “perfect” opening is actually something you can do, and if you’re getting the right signals it’s even something you should be doing: all two-drops and Feasts of Flesh, to push everything else out of the way and deal cheap and quick damage as bad creatures attack, or again if we’re going to ridiculous extremes perhaps the following:

22 Sound the Call
18 Forest

Calculus and Magic have never before had so much in common, but taking the limit of where your deck could possibly go can give you an idea of about how worthwhile trying to get a monopoly on a specific card can be. Clearly our draft deck from above, the Surging Flames deck, is the best draft deck ever conceived of in Limited, able to kill on turn one off a mulligan to three on the play, so long as it gets to choose the three and doesn’t run into long patches of non-Ripple cards. Also clearly, this “best deck ever” is not going to happen for a lot of reasons, the first being that at an eight-man table you need to have 18 of the 24 packs contain a Surging Flames, and none of the other seven players can take one… pretty hard to conceive of, for an efficient removal spell that can potentially get nutty if your deck has multiples. (I suspect that even as we speak, someone is intentionally rigging the table at an eight-man on the Coldsnap beta-test on Magic Online, just to prove me wrong.)

But at the beginning of the format, we can try and look at the five allied-color archetypes and figure out how they work well enough to compare them to each other, and see which cards they want to grab more than anyone else. Exaggerating these things to infinity is fun, but not practical, because regardless of what else is happening you won’t get to play that far over into the extremes… even if it is technically possible, it’s still not exactly likely. Note that the five enemy color combinations are also quite possible, and so far we have seen Red-White as the best White deck, but so far I’ve seen Red-White tried twice now and Blue-White tried about a dozen times. With time will come experience, however, and I for one can’t wait to try Red-Blue Beatdown and Green-Blue Tempo, once I get off my drafting-monocolored-decks fix. Having run out of my Coldsnap box from the pre-release already, I can’t even promise to revisit this topic in a week’s time, since I may very well not get to draft myself again until Coldsnap is officially released. If nothing else, I’m sure I can watch those who still have packs draft and see what their results are like. (Sure, some of the people who owe me draft sets could instead repay them… but that may not be the most likely of things to expect, so I can’t make promises.)


This is perhaps one of the early leaders in triple-Coldsnap draft, sticking pretty heavily towards mono-Green with a touch of removal, or perhaps Stalking Yeti if one was lucky enough to get one. Green by itself is surprisingly capable of taking care of business, thanks to the reasonably large number of solid early drops and the potential to get very lucky indeed with Surging Might a.k.a. “Ripplevine Cloak.” Cheap drops backed up with removal, like Skred and Surging Flames, has a decent chance against anything, though it’s important to remember that Green as a whole is lacking in instant-speed tricks unless you’ve been able to nab yourself a Resize… with the “best” common pump spell being a 1/1 creature that explodes to use your combat trick, something you can see coming and have a reasonable estimate of how much of an effect it can still have.

Green’s sizable creatures work well with Red’s ability to manipulate combat, from the good (Goblin Rimerunner ability to push blockers out of the way) to the bad (does anyone know what Balduvian Warlord does yet, anyway?). Cheap attackers that work nicely together, like a large number of Bull Aurochs or copies of Sound the Call, can pour on damage quickly, letting fat monsters like Arctic Nishoba or Ronom Hulk get the last lethal crack in. Things can start out badly for the opponent, with aggressive early drops, and potentially even mana acceleration if you’ve packed some Boreal Druid to start the monster-fest one turn earlier than usual. With quickly-tumbling life totals, the opponent goes from a bad situation to a worse one… and frequently enough that worse situation involves not having quite enough blockers, or perhaps liberal use of the word ‘trample’ as the Aurochs go to town.

Drafting with Red-Green gives a lot of options, as you get to choose the focus of your deck around a flash-point in your mana curve: pick an early turn, like turn 2, and you’ll be aiming for a deck that looks something like this:

4 Surging Might
3 Skred
2 Surging Flames
2 Karplusan Wolverine
5 Bull Auroch
3 Boreal Centaur
2 Goblin Rimerunner
1 Stalking Yeti
2 Ronom Hulk
3 Snow-Covered Forest
3 Snow-Covered Mountain
5 Forest
5 Mountain

Aiming for a turn later, going from two-drop to three-drop, we start to focus more like this:

4 Skred
3 Boreal Druid
2 Boreal Centaur
7 Sound the Call
2 Goblin Rimerunner
1 Stalking Yeti
2 Ohran Yeti
2 Thermopod
1 Highland Weald
2 Snow-Covered Mountain
2 Snow-Covered Forest
6 Forest
6 Mountain

… and you can go higher in the mana curve still, accelerating into your cumulative upkeep creatures, getting out 5/6 and 6/6 creatures that are hard to handle while your opponent is still trying to make do with rinky-dink 2/2 and 3/3 creatures.


Just so we’re clear on this from the beginning, okay… friends don’t let friends draft Blue-White. As cool as it is that you can draft four copies of Frozen Solid, the first “pre-print” in the history of Magic, you’ll find that Blue-White is sorely underpowered and the best approach you can take is to get a lot of Ripple guys and evasion guys and cast Kjeldoran War Cry twice in the same attack. The cards are there for a controlling strategy, with your standard issue Pacifism variant, your standard issue tapper (with perks! Now with 100% more flying!), and some counterspell potential. The cards also just happen to be completely outclassed, because the colors both are better suited to a more aggressive tempo game than they are to letting the game drag on a while.

I haven’t figured out how to make this color combination win yet, and I haven’t seen anyone else who has. I suspect getting a lot of copies of Rune Snag and keeping to a cheap curve packed with the two-drops and Surging Sentinels is a key element, as might be eschewing all of the removal cards that don’t happen to be Gelid Shackles. When I’ve actually seen a Blue-White deck win a match without cheating (who knew you couldn’t put Gelid Shackles on Ronom Hulk? Not me, and not my opponent either…), we’ll get back to you.


Here, finally, we see some definite benefits to taking as much of certain copies of a card as you can get your hand on, as Feast of Flesh is still solid as a one-of but gets ever more ridiculous as you stuff your deck. Blue-Black’s creatures may not be the best, but they do the job reasonably well and all you really want to do is out-tempo the opponent and push the threatening creatures off the table. Admittedly, something obnoxious has to happen for you to get “that many” Feasts of Flesh, but I’ve already seen decks with six because it looks so innocent… in pack 1.

6 Feast of Flesh
2 Chill to the Bone
8 Krovikan Mist
2 Phobian Phantasm
3 Balduvian Fallen
2 Adarkar Windform
1 Frost Marsh
8 Swamp
8 Island

Black-Blue is playing a difficult game, perhaps in part because Blue is not as strong a color as we’ve seen in previous sets. While it has excellent countermagic, two solid cards at Common, an excellent counterspell you can re-use at Uncommon, and a potentially awesome (but probably just unplayable) pitch spell at Rare, you can’t really remove anything troublesome from play: Frozen Solid can answer a creature, and Surging Aether can remove anything from play for a turn, but we don’t have the Peel from Reality-level spell we’d hope might push the color into actual playability. Paired with Black, you can play a similar game to Blue-White by trying to win on the back of tempo and synergy in the attack phase, but with actual creature removal instead of hoping that countermagic can win the day.

Blue-Black at least has the hope of holding the ground, thanks to the surprisingly solid (at least for this deck) Balduvian Fallen. A 3/5 for 4 is rather large, especially against Green creatures and from a non-Green color, and the cumulative upkeep can even help turn him into rather a reasonable attacker as his power grows and grows. It also happens to be just the kind of man you want while your air force finishes the job, something that can mop up stragglers or force bad trades for a few turns while the fliers take it from there. Black’s removal is flat out better than White’s, and while you give up the opportunity to have a Ripple spell you actually care about you do get the benefit of some good cards. Fortunately, you can again focus your deck on a variety of places in the mana curve, and put more focus on snow permanents if you want to use Rimewind Taskmage as a solid removal effect. There’s room to maneuver within the “game-winning” zone, unlike Blue-White that can just do one thing (and does it much better as Red-White, besides).


Remember how we always used to make fun of Green-White? However, back in Invasion Block it was pretty clear that all you needed was a few tappers and the archetype could be pretty downright respectable. Having drafted a mono-White deck for some reason (we’re still wondering why), I have some decent respect for the color White in Coldsnap and its removal options; if Red-Green can work with just a bit of Red removal to bolster the overwhelmingly Green nature of the deck, Green-White can presumably do the same, winning all fights and preventing the opponent from playing on quite the same level at which you are bashing him down.

A key focus should be made to pay attention to your Gelid Shackles, because making their best creature unable to block was a good enough reason to play Goblin Rimerunner, and Gelid Shackles does even more to boot. Squall Drifter is also quite solid, though you are probably looking to pay a bit more attention on the three-through-five drops than you are on the early drops… Green can make up the difference quite quickly, thanks to having the biggest men for the price.

3 Gelid Shackles
2 Into the North
1 Cover of Winter
1 Resize
2 Boreal Druid
3 Squall Drifter
3 Boreal Centaur
4 Simian Brawler
1 Karplusan Strider
2 Juniper Order Ranger
2 Ronom Hulk
2 Arctic Flats
2 Mouth of Ronom
2 Snow-Covered Forest
2 Snow-Covered Plains
4 Forest
4 Plains

Sure, it’s not “degenerate,” as you take the limit of Surging Flames from zero to eighteen and smile as you shuffle knowing that all you need is three cards and the opponent is dead on turn 1, or if you can’t find the Ritual you still get to kill them on turn two unless your deck is clumped so badly that the top of your deck is nothing but lands from now until forever. (Hint: mulligan hands that have too many Surging Flames in them, you want them in the deck, not in your hand…) It is, however, solid: acceleration, fat, good use of snow mana, and okay so I got a little cute and threw in a fourteenth-pick Cover of Winter because nobody knows if it’s any good or not. Having received a fourteenth-pick Cover of Winter already in a reasonably solid draft, its being a Rare doesn’t give me sufficient reason to aggressively exclude it, especially since it is probably at its absolute best in a deck like this: best able to pay its upkeep, and able to take advantage of it by attacking with some sizable creatures.


Red-Black has some issues, in general, but they aren’t anything you can’t just keep throwing removal at. One key benefit of the archetype is that it will definitely love to get all sorts of creatures other decks don’t want, and is a perfect home for all those Krovikan Scoundrels and Goblin Furriers that get passed around to settle to the bottom of your draft pile, forgotten and unloved. Attacking for two, after all, does provide amazing pleasure. Red’s aggressive potential and solid creature removal is matched by Black’s mid-range creatures and… yep… solid creature removal.

Traditionally, Red-Black is very difficult to draft properly, requiring just the right mix of cards to pull off an aggressive tempo strategy. Sometimes, Red-Black comes off as very aggressive, and others it’s heavy control… here you find yourself lacking in truly controlling tools, but for the fact that Grim Harvest and Martyr of Ashes could potentially be a hard lock against a large number of decks.

Where Blue-White fails as a controlling color, unable to really deal with the broken potential of the other Ripple cards and finding (as always) that there are some things it just can’t deal with… like some utility creatures, most Ripple spells, and the entire Recover mechanic… Black-Red as a controlling strategy can serve quite well. With Red being effectively under-represented as a matter of course at the moment, generally considered to be the weakest of the five colors or at the very least the shallowest, Martyrs of Ashes are surprisingly easy to pick up if you want them.

2 Skred
2 Surging Flames
2 Chill to the Bone
2 Grim Harvest
4 Martyr of Ashes
2 Orcish Bloodpainter
1 Stalking Yeti
2 Zombie Musher
2 Balduvian Fallen
2 Disciple of Tevesh Szat
1 Deepfire Elemental
1 Greater Stone Spirit
1 Mouth of Ronom
2 Tresserhorn Sinks
1 Snow-Covered Mountain
1 Snow-Covered Swamp
6 Mountain
6 Swamp

Of course, Red as a control color can be rather difficult when the color most are considering to be the best is Green, home of the six-toughness fattie. Right now, having spent too many games investing too many cards into killing a single Ronom Hulk, I would be wary of trying to play Red as a controlling strategy, and depend instead on Red and Black beating down together.

4 Feast of Flesh
3 Skred
2 Chill to the Bone
2 Karplusan Wolverine
1 Stromgald Crusader
3 Goblin Furrier
3 Krovikan Scoundrel
2 Goblin Rimerunner
1 Stalking Yeti
2 Zombie Musher
1 Thermopod
2 Tresserhorn Sinks
2 Snow-Covered Mountain
2 Snow-Covered Swamp
5 Mountain
5 Swamp

The only thing I wish were in the set for this color combination is just a 3/1 for three, the kind of creature that ups your beatdown clock a little extra by beating down well despite being generally accepted as a terrible creature. If any deck ever wanted a 3/1 creature, it was Red-Black beatdown. As it is, so long as you know what you’re doing and have the guts to stick with “awful” men like Goblin Furrier and Krovikan Scoundrel because they fit your curve, which is a hard thing to do in a format with such an even power band… because clearly these two-drops are at the bottom power level of the cards in this set.

Red-Black is definitely the scariest deck to try and draft, because you’re actively putting yourself at the bottom of the pile for these things. Red is clearly the shallowest color, and even at that you’re looking to take weak cards that cost two instead of solid cards overall, just to fit how the deck works… and the best cards to want, like Goblin Rimerunner or Skred, are either highly valued or Uncommons you can’t guarantee on seeing anywhere near you. Black works a little better with Blue, or at least is a lot scarier to attempt, because instead of Goblin Furrier you can draft 2/2 fliers and at least have a reason to think that your deck might be good… and Black-Green looks better yet, with good creatures and solid removal, taking the color of great creatures and pairing it with the color of great removal. But with it not being one of the allied-color archetypes, I haven’t seen very many Green-Black decks, even though they sound like they should be good in theory.

Next week: a second look at Coldsnap drafting, with a more competitive eye for how to work your way through a format that was intended to be both repetitive and possibly even degenerate… and an idea of how well going outside of the box works, with a look at the five enemy-colored combinations.

Sean McKeown

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