Magical Hack — Grand Prix Spree

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I held out writing this article as long as I could in the hopes of having access to the States decklists to begin a thorough metagame analysis… but it’s Halloween, and I’ve lost several days of prime article-writing time. I must put analyzing States and Standard off another week and instead have a look at a pair of Grand Prix tournaments that have passed by recently. In the hype for most players to prepare for States, these have gone largely unnoticed, and having a look at the available information for trends might have some benefits.

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First things first. I held out writing this article as long as I could in the hopes of having access to the States decklists to begin a thorough metagame analysis… but it’s Halloween, and I’ve lost several days of prime article-writing time, especially since traditionally my article would be due before I leave this evening for the local Witches Ball. It’s not going to be done in time for that, but still needs to be done, and this means I must put analyzing States and Standard off another week and instead have a look at a pair of Grand Prix tournaments that have passed by recently. In the hype for most players to prepare for States, these have gone largely unnoticed, and having a look at the available information for trends might have some benefits.

Unfortunately, all we have access to is what’s made it into the coverage, and for a Limited GP we don’t tend to see anything in the way of decklists until we get to the Top 8. (Our trade-off for this is that we also don’t have to see Ray “Blisterguy” Walkinshaw on the front page posing for the ladies… this time.) We can, however, mine what analysis there is in the coverage for Day 1 (Sealed Deck) tips that might be pertinent to the PTQ season, and do our best to see what we can see from the habits of successful drafters that got themselves into the Top 8 by seeing what they do when they get there. If you imagine you’re going to win a PTQ without having to draft at least once with Lorwyn, you’re clearly wrong… and at the moment it’s poised to take over MTGO, if you’re not a “PTQ player,” so there’s still clearly some interest in figuring things out.

Starting with the Draft portion of the event, we’ll look at the Top 8 results for these two GPs:

R/G Elves and Giants O
W/g Kithkin *
G/w Kithkin / Treefolk / Elves o
R/W Kithkin and Giants o
R/B Goblins and Elementals o
R/B Goblins and Giants o
U/W Merfolk etc. o
U/B Faeries etc. o
U/W Merfolk Oo
U/B Faeries *
B/G Elves etc. ooo
R/G Goblins and Giants o
R/W Elementals and Goblins o

The quick summary is that two very different archetypes won in successive weeks, with the first having a pair of more beatdown-oriented decks meeting in the finals and the second having a pair of more “tricksy” controlling decks meet in the finals. To some degree we are oversimplifying. I didn’t really bother distinguishing splash colors or non-critical tribe members, looking for the overarching trends and thus calling the deck that won in Bangkok a Blue-White Merfolk deck despite the presence of three copies of the Elemental Aethersnipe. It is the exception to the tribal-synergy rule of the rest of his deck, just like a splash color would be the “exception” to an otherwise two-color deck, when the splash is not truly telling of mixed synergies thanks to intermingled tribes.

What is interesting, though, is how many players splashed, and how much was splashed. The format has the potential to play very differently if you start out looking for the “many colors” approach, as might be exemplified here in Steve Sadin’s report for GP: Brisbane, where his “Vivid lands and many splashes” strategy takes us back after a fashion to Ravnica Block and its polychromatic madness. None of the Top 8 decks are of that variety… but Steve did well enough to place 14th in Brisbane with this as his primary draft strategy, so its absence is not necessarily telling of its quality as much as it is telling of its “newness” as a different perspective on how to draft Lorwyn.

A grand total of five decks played more than two colors… two splashing Oblivion Ring into an otherwise non-White deck, one splashing Eyeblight’s Ending, one splashing Mulldrifter, and one with a pair of Neck Snaps in an otherwise straightforward Red-Black deck. Four of the five splashed to add in removal, while the fifth tried splashing in a bit of card advantage, which makes a startling amount of sense in a Limited format with so very few opportunities for “pure” card advantage along the way. We’ll have a brief look at the color breakdown then talk about the tribe breakdown, as that is more effective a means of understanding Lorwyn than the more traditional color analysis outside of Ravnica Block’s color-pair “tribes.”

Color: Main: Splash:
Red: 7 0
Black: 6 1
Blue: 4 1
White: 6 3
Green: 7 1

In both tournaments, Blue as a color was rather underdrafted in the Top 8, especially odd considering how it has two of the theoretical “best” archetypes (Faeries and Merfolk) and is overall a popular color everywhere else you look in the tournament. The other four colors supported seven to nine drafters each taking cards of that color (out of a total of 16 possible), while four drafters took Blue cards… five if you count that one Mulldrifter, which was probably a first-pick that didn’t work out, or an easily-splashed addition that came later than it should.

With two Blue decks in each Top 8, it’s almost a surprise that it didn’t win both… but them’s the breaks. We do get to look at the two decks meeting in the finals of Bangkok with a somewhat critical eye for what makes them tick, but we’ll look at that after we see that above breakdown translated to tribes instead of colors:

Color: Stars: Extras:
Kithkin: 3 4
Elves: 5 2
Treefolk: 0 4
Giants: 4 3
Merfolk: 3 2
Goblins: 3 6
Faeries: 2 4
Elementals: 2 9
Changelings 3 10

There are a few pieces of information worth having here. “Stars” for the Changeling tribe meant a deck had at least three Changelings, where a “starring” role for that tribe is “greasing the wheels for other tribes’ synergies.” I counted creatures, not spells, because as fun as the Changeling spells are they still don’t count as a card of the appropriate type in play, giving “Do you have an X?” bonuses to the odd cross-tribe interactions as well as increasing the sheer counts of whatever you need to get what you want. Equally prodigious in their inclusion through multiple deck archetypes was the Elemental tribe, where two players went for the Elemental “theme” of R/x Elementals and the rest of the inclusions were either “slight splashes” of Elementals in other Red decks or the use of the non-Flamekin, spell-like Elementals such as Aethersnipe or Mulldrifter. Their inclusion in that capacity was present in both the Elemental-focused decks and nine of the other decks drafted, because who doesn’t like men who imitate spells or the occasional broken rare Elemental Incarnation?

Changelings and Elementals had a nasty habit of crossing into whatever decks, the first because they’re good at pretending to be a member of whatever team you want them to play on, and a few others besides… and the second because they tend to be very powerful, have spell-like effects when they come into play, or both. The odd and unexpected trend, however, was that Goblins were the next most-included splash tribe, with just over half of the drafters between both tournaments having a Boggart somewhere in their stack of 40. If the Elementals were being included because they have spell-like comes-into-play effects, the Goblins were being included because they have spell-like goes-to-the-graveyard effects, like Hornet Harasser or Mudbutton Torchrunner, or it just so happens that Boggart Loggers can likewise simulate a removal spell. (And don’t even get me started on Goatnapper… I’ll be grinning for days.)

What this is suggesting to me so far is that the Changeling tribe is in sufficiently high demand — you shouldn’t be expecting a single one to come back across the table to you, unless you’ve found a “bad” Changeling (and last I checked there really wasn’t one, even if some like Skeletal Changeling aren’t as interesting). Changeling Titan and Changeling Hero both seem to be very powerful, bomby creatures that you will see somewhat often, and even the little guys like Woodland Changeling are worth considering picking highly in comparison to an otherwise solid member of your tribe because of the variety of things they can enable. Elementals are likewise pretty common to find… but not necessarily as a cohesive tribe, which suggests to me that R/x Elementals are worth looking at as a potentially under-drafted metagame choice if you start reading signals and they seem to say that Flamekin are open. This likely has some risk because it’ll be hard to get a second color of Elementals, requiring you to pick something else the Elementals work well with and going from there… all those nice Aethersnipes and Shriekmaws are being scooped up into decks that don’t value them for their Elemental creature types, and the same goes for bomby rare Elementals like Guile or Vigor.

Likewise, it seems that there is a risk to drafting Boggarts, because a fair chunk of quality Goblins are going to be picked off into other decks that are the appropriate colors just to gain access to their spell-like effects, the same as the Elemental tribe (just limited to two colors, instead of five). With those three trends identified, let’s re-hash the numbers to see what’s going on. The Treefolk are only minimally played, likely due to their on-average high mana costs, same as the Giants… but with fewer ways to cheat and fewer high-impact, low-cost members, which is why we see four decks trying to start with a Giants theme and two more working a few members in on the side because of their considerable size. It likely doesn’t help that many decks start with the concept of being two mixed tribes carefully balanced to function properly, while the Treefolk span three colors and are somewhat thin on the ground in addition to being generally expensive, often to the point of unplayability.

Let’s look at the reasonable two-color combinations and see how well they interact:

Boros — Giants. Works well with the Kithkin focus, working as a mixed Giant / Kithkin deck. Not currently explored very thoroughly, either in theory as currently seen in strategy columns or likely in actuality, despite appearing once in each Top 8 draft. Deserves further exploration, at least in my opinion, as cross-synergies are present that can be both powerful and interesting to exploit.
Selesnya — Kithkin, and an option on Treefolk. The Kithkin decks don’t actually benefit from having Green in them, and focus quite heavily on the “White Weenie” aspects of the Kithkin tribe.
Golgari — Elves, and an option on Treefolk. Most popular deck drafted, with three players in Bangkok favoring it as their weapon of choice. Strong synergy and solid creatures… but it didn’t win the Grand Prix, and perhaps threatens to be overdrafted as five players out of the sixteen shot for a strong Elf theme, with a greater interest than any other tribe.
Dimir — Faeries. Easily considered one of the best tribes to go for, if you get the deck you want… they are “tricksy” which means that like Elementals they tend to have some spell-like benefits tacked on, or at the worst have Flash and thus offer multiple options each turn, none of which you have to actually choose until the opponent’s plays are already made. Powerful simply due to the “Flash” mechanic they share, the tendency for Flying and comes-into-play tricks or nifty triggers like Dreamspoiler Witches means they are both crafty and evasive, often with some tempo-positive abilities thrown in for good measure, like Pestermite or Spellstutter Sprite.

Orzhov — Not seen amongst the Grand Prix decks, nor obvious in interaction save for the less-good Treefolk colors. Either of the two colors would prefer to be paired with Blue, and the only other thing in common is that both Kithkin and Boggarts are cheap and like to attack.
Izzet — Not seen amongst the Grand Prix decks, but obvious interactions exist through the Elemental tribe. Mulldrifter and Aethersnipe both get along very well with the Flamekin creatures, and other beneficial interactions do exist. Probably the best way to draft Elementals, if the signals are present.
Gruul — Elves and Giants. Won the Grand Prix in Brisbane. Has strong synergy interactions in the underrated Elvish Handservant, plus “mana accelerating Elves” combine well with “expensive fat Giants”. While not a color combination sharing a single tribe, the tribes of these colors do get along reasonably well.

Azorius — Merfolk. Won the Grand Prix in Bangkok. Tightly focused and possessed of powerful interactions that control the board, and provide means for ending the game without any messy combat that allows the opponent to block. Is generally considered to be one of the two best archetypes to get, if you’re getting the hook-up for them.
Simic — Not seen amongst the Grand Prix decks, nor obvious in interaction between the eight tribes. Has access to Kithkin (very few), Merfolk, Faeries, Treefolk, Elves and Elementals, raising the question of why you are pairing Green with your Blue instead of Black or White to mesh with the Faeries or Merfolk, or Blue with your Green instead of Black or White for Elves or Kithkin, or either for Treefolk interactions.
Rakdos — Strongly Goblin-themed, very high potential for success… very likely that both your colors will be sniped at for splash removal spells or otherwise picked by players who want access to removal in one of their two colors, including key Goblins.

Combine Blue’s generally-underdrafted nature with the fact that neither Faeries nor Merfolk are picked as highly as would be suggested by frequent statements such as “I think Faeries is the best deck” or “I think Merfolk is the best deck.” This recipe smells like success to me, for your next draft, which conveniently as of the publication of this article may be very soon indeed on MTGO. “Underdrafted” archetypes are a key way to profit at drafting; in Ravnica draft, for example, the Dimir were initially quite underrated, as were the Selesnya. When their archetypes were more thoroughly understood, with Selesnya’s Affinity-like beatdown approach and the Dimir stance on board control and milling as its victory condition, both became significantly more popular… and even then, there was room for strange “hybrid” approaches, as drafting “Izzet” before there were Guildpact packs around worked astoundingly well and in the world of guilds was not exactly an “archetype” you would find yourself fighting a table for. This suggests to me that the Faerie and Merfolk archetypes have a lot of exploration left to them and will reap immediate benefits to try and understand, if for example you need to 3-0 a certain Top 8 draft this weekend.

But in addition to seeing what does work, I’m absurdly curious about what is “blank space” on that list there. Black/White is admittedly a messy, messy pile… but if you try it out and draft it correctly you have two colors with solid removal and an aggressive theme, albeit no inter-tribal synergy. Green/Blue however doesn’t seem messy… it seems to me as if something might gel very nicely from that particular intermingling, full of tricksy Faeries and potent Elves, all of which have solid aggressive potential. Marrying archetypes might get you the opening of Wren’s Run Vanquisher on turn 2 followed by “Port You” Pestermite on turn 3, dropping fast fat, a dash of evasion and a hint of an early-game Time Walk all together. Green is already potent in its removal-less, non-tricksy form, and marrying Green’s strength to Blue’s tricky potential seems as if it exactly the kind of thing that bears further exploring.

And then we have the Elementals, which we’d note were as a tribe the most underdrafted tribe there right next to Faeries… and unlike the Faeries they were the most heavily swiped-from, because every color can play their Elementals due to spell-like abilities and thus it becomes very hard to tie a two-color Elemental deck together. Every color has Elementals… and every color is willing to put them in other tribes’ decks, because Mulldrifter and friends are all quite amazing. However, everything I might want to say about aiming for Elementals has been said earlier this week by Nick Eisel, here. I will however emphasize that Smokebraider is ridiculous in a deck that is designed to make good use of him, and Glarewielder is even more powerful than Nick is giving it credit for… it is one of the top Uncommons in the set without a doubt.

What is left to look at, then, is polychromatic drafting in Lorwyn Limited… and I hope to be able to report back soon with draft walkthroughs to have a look at Vivid lands and Fertile Grounds and Elvish Harbingers enabling whatever damn-fool idea I happen to stuff into my deck regardless of color or tribe. This is a strategy reported as doing well for one Steve Sadin, Level 3 Mage in Brisbane with his Top 16 finish. This deck went 3-0, regardless of any expectations you would have when looking at it for the first time…

2 Amoeboid Changeling
1 Consuming Bonfire
1 Kinsbaile Balloonist
1 Stinkdrinker Daredevil
1 Runed Stalactite
2 Warren Pilferers
2 Boggart Sprite-Chaser
1 Brion Stoutarm
1 Axegrinder Giant
2 Goldmeadow Harrier
1 Eyeblight’s Ending
1 Mudbutton Torchrunner
1 Brigid, Hero of Kinsbaile
1 Plover Knights
1 Changeling Berserker
1 Cloudgoat Ranger
1 Avian Changeling
1 Neck Snap
7 Plains
4 Mountain
2 Swamp
2 Vivid Marsh
1 Vivid Grove
1 Vivid Meadow
1 Shimmering Grotto

There is a lot more depth to be plumbed still in this format, if four-color non-Green is in fact a viable candidate for drafting. Consider it food for thought… and a promise to return to the subject in two weeks armed with draft walkthroughs, provided that the humble designer of Blargware’s DraftCap, Mark Schmit, is able to get Lorwyn working right somewhat quickly.

Sean McKeown
smckeown @ livejournal.com

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