Magical Hack: Navigating the Draft

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Now that we have the full block of Ravnica, Guildpact, and Dissension to play with, there’s a timer ticking down: Dissension goes on sale officially in a week, and on that same day the first high-level tournament to use Dissension in draft kicks off the festivities in Prague. So, how does Dissension affect the draft format?

Now that we have the full block of Ravnica, Guildpact, and Dissension to play with, there’s a timer ticking down: Dissension goes on sale officially in a week, and on that same day the first high-level tournament to use Dissension in draft kicks off the festivities in Prague. Players who are by now no doubt experts on Ravnica/Ravnica/Guildpact draft are to “master” a format they have played little in the two weeks between the Prerelease and the Pro Tour. Getting booster packs to play practice drafts is an interesting feat, and the scramble to get packs to crack may have lead to some very interesting occurrences on Prerelease weekend. The question is a simple one, with deep implications: how does Dissension affect the draft format?

The oversimplified answer is that you lose a pack of Ravnica, and gain a pack of Dissension. We are still unfamiliar with the Dissension cards, and we’re losing that last “extra” pack of Ravnica, the set with which we are the most familiar and whose strategies are the backbone of draft decks. Being diluted from three packs to two packs, and now down to one, greatly changes how things work, taking the players from rigidly following the four guild model (triple-Ravnica) to having to navigate the draft more fluidly and pick combinations they wouldn’t have touched before in order to ensure a payoff in Pack 3. That word — “navigate” – seems to me to be the most telling: instead of taking whatever is best, objectively, and assuming things will fall into place, the drafter must be continually aware of what can be accomplished if they want to get a good deck.

Drafting is a constantly changing decision tree. Every pick you take influences your likelihood of making a certain decision in later picks, and every pick you take influences everyone around you, changing the choices that are offered to you and reacting to the signals that they are reading from you. This is known, down to our bones, about drafting: it’s an organic thing, that grows as you go through the process, and those who carefully manage information, and send signals, and cooperate with those around them to maximize their chances of success, will have a much better time of it than those who stumble around unaware of the signals they are sending and jump from decision to decision in a nonlinear manner. In the past, there have been definite rewards for keeping yourself open to receive a signal, and at other times there have been definite rewards for forcing a plan regardless of whatever else is going on. Which of these two times we are living in, if not perhaps both at once, is the question of the hour.

From my experiences with Ravnica/Ravnica/Guildpact drafting – which weren’t as extensive as perhaps some of the MTGO pros, but was extensive enough to see me drafting five days out of seven since the release of Guildpact – everything is dependent upon your experience. Every strategy has a chance for success, and given intimate knowledge of what works and what does not work, all archetypes are thus equal: none of the seven color combinations has an inherent strategic advantage, once you’ve learned their quirks and their demands and the shifts they each put upon the cards you see. Boros decks, for example, demand that you take that Sell-Sword Brute much, much higher than you would have ever expected from a 2/2 bear with a distinct downside. Blue is objectively the best color, or so the theory goes, because it is the color that has the most powerful cards in both Ravnica and Guildpact: the Izzet are insane; and the Dimir can destroy you with tempo and card advantage several turns before you even realize you are dead.

The proper way to draft is not necessarily to position yourself to take whatever is the strongest color that you are being passed, or to force a guild because you have opened a strong card. You must navigate the draft with a kind of prescience, the foreknowledge of the various shifting paths that could lie in the future, to turn your first-pick Viashino Fangtail into a forty-card winning draft deck combining three very different sets and ten very different guilds.

What all three sets means is that you can no longer open a pack and expect to get passed the cards you took in your first guild, because the second pack is very different. Taking all the cards of one guild is no longer good enough for sending a signal, because there are so many potential overlaps between the cards you are passing and the ones you are playing. Let’s say you open a weak pack and take Vedalken Dismisser as your first pick, passing (among other things) a Boros Garrison. One clear benefit of forcing Blue in pack 1 is the potential to cut off Izzet and reap rewards from the cornucopia of strong Blue-Red cards, and then follow that up by taking the also-solid Azorius cards in pack 3. Despite the fact that Vedalken Dismisser is seemingly completely unrelated to Boros Garrison, it’s quite possible that the person next in line will see a Boros Garrison coming from you… and interpret it as part of a signal that Blue/White/Red is going to be available through you.

These three sets combined present a draft format that is all about a constantly shifting array of difficult decisions, double- or triple-layer thinking to read a signal out of the background noise, and the tension of balancing the past, present, and future picks of your draft against each other. With only one of each set, it’s much more difficult to get the bounce-lands you are looking for, because there will probably be one or two “ideal” mana-fixing bounce-lands you really, really want to make your mana work, but no more than one pack to get each and a high level of competition amongst every player in the draft to take them. Within each of the three sets, then, you have to weigh the difficult decision of powerful cards against the potentially crippling hazards of a poor manabase, which gives us the “present” tension of the draft: to take the cards you are hoping to enable by having the right colors of mana, or take the cards that enable you to actually cast such spells consistently?

You will only see a maximum of fifteen cards of each guild. Each guild’s double land taps for two different colors, and so long as at least one of those colors is a color in someone’s deck they will likely give serious consideration to drafting it. The benefits of color fixing as powerful as the Karoos is well-known, to the point where people are finally starting to realize that the Karoos should be picked over most mid-level draft picks in each color… and failure to do so will be recognized as a strong signal that this color might just be under-drafted. Soy, once you see a double-land, it’s either take it or live without it… you can be certain you will not see it a second time. With many decks rewarding access to a lot of mana, and a powerful group of five- and six-mana creatures and spells floating around, the potential for card quality advantage by dropping the cost of your five-drop to only four lands seems to clearly outweigh the potential to miss a key drop lower in your curve. After all, you can play a double land at your convenience to suit the mana curve you have drawn instead of the mana curve in your deck.

It’s funny in a way that “forecast” is an ability-word in the third set, because with the coming of the third set you have to have a better sense of what is coming to you in the future. Along with this experience telling you what Pack 3 can do to your deck, a greater amount of flexibility in the decisions you are willing to make is needed, and the previous picks you are willing to strand. The game is using the present to balance your past against your future, and somehow at the end have 22 or 23 solid cards and good mana. That latter part is more important than most players realize, because a good manabase can often require a lot of careful attention, sometimes complicated math, and not taking the cards you would normally take as “playables” that you should be taking a land over. Let’s do some simple math, because this is a column that isn’t afraid to use numbers to illustrate a point.

Number of “viable” two-color combinations: ten, one per guild.
Number of “viable” three-color combinations: ten, one per guild excluded. (Black-Red-Blue, after all, is simply “not Selesnya”.)
Number of different three-color combinations: thirty, three versions of each color group, one for each of the three colors as the potential “splash” color.
Number of potential four-color combinations: five. (Hide the Nephilim!)
Number of potential five-color combinations: one. (All five colors. Derf.)

10 + 30 + 5 + 1 = 46 valid color combinations.

This is without distinguishing the nature of the four-color combinations, or differentiating any of the numerous possible differences you can have in your starting base of any number of different five-color decks… mostly because a three color deck splash one bomb isn’t different enough from a regular three color deck to warrant distinguishing between three- and four-color builds… and trying to figure out any number of “one guild, splash two colors” decks is a highly unnecessary headache, given about how often most rational human beings are going to decide to go with a fourth color instead of sticking to three. Two color and full-blown five color combinations are going to be unusual exceptions rather than the rule, and most players will stick to three rather than branch into four unless they get a bomb outside their colors: no one wants the difficulty of making four colors work from the onset, so it’s also going to be somewhat exceptional. Something like 60% of all the decks you see will be three colors in varying proportions, with another 30% splashing a few cards of a fourth color with the bounce-lands or other fixers to get away with it reasonably easily and perhaps 10% limited to two colors or going for five.

Of course, those are simply predictions from what I have seen in the past few days of drafting, between working at the NYC Dissension pre-release and a few evenings drafting at Neutral Ground… not hard and fast numbers, but instead rough guesstimates.

We started a draft format with four viable color combinations when we opened up Ravnica for the first time. Some people like myself argued that other combinations were viable in the triple-Ravnica format, like the Blue-Red decks I loved to draft when no one wanted to fight for Red by drafting Boros. Others argued a card synergy deck was viable, and so DrakeDraft was born. Still less than ten viable color combinations, which is the expected number of viable combinations since antiquity, based on the ten Revised dual lands. Now we have not just more than ten, but four times more than ten. Talk about a complex format, especially if you have to learn how to play every combination in order to know what cards you want to get for that combination.

So let’s start at the beginning, and see where each starting guild can potentially lead us as far as a decision tree goes. For Ravnica, there are five potential options: Selesnya, Dimir, Boros, Golgari, and Other.

Drafting the Ten

SELESNYA: Green-White
Pack 2: Green becomes Gruul; White becomes Orzhov
Pack 3: Green becomes Simic; White becomes Azorius

Early suggestions say that Selesnya is the weakest Guild to start with, and the reason for that belief is readily apparent: of the four Ravnica guilds, it’s the only one that you can’t build a deck with in which you get a guild to work with in all three packs. If Green-White branches into Red pack 2, the third color of that trifecta was present in pack 1 and there are no Green-White-Red cards in Dissension) unless you open a split card). If Green-White branches into Black pack 2, the third color of that trifecta was likewise present in pack 1 and there are no Green-White-Black cards in Dissension (again, unless you open a split card).

If you forego the second pack instead of the third, you can take Blue cards like Compulsive Research and Vedalken Dismisser to your heart’s content in pack 1, take the dregs of mono-colored Izzet, Orzhov and Gruul as it suits you, and roll in the wealth of two very strong guilds in Dissension. Whichever way you take it, though, you’ll start with Selesnya and have to give up one of your two remaining packs in order to get on-Guild cards. Between those options, Selesnya into Simic/Azorius pack 3 sounds the most reasonable, because you can expect a Blue signal from pack 1 to reliably lead into at least one of those two guilds, as will be pointed out as we discuss Dimir. This way you can at least get a sense of whether your plan is going to work, as you will have prior information about the person who is passing to you, where otherwise you’ll be relying on the person you’ve been passing to in pack 2 if you are trying to scoop up Gruul or Orzhov cards.

Either way, you have to double up somewhere. I’d rather double up in the third pack than the first, thanks to the strength of the Dissension pack in general, and the fact that I would rather pick odds-and-ends Guildpact cards to get my on-color playables up than to have to rely on the same from Dissension. Dissension seems slightly more “golden” than Guildpact, because Simic’s Graft cards tend to feed on each other (though they do cohabitate nicely with Bloodthirst cards), and the Black non-Red cards or the White non-Blue cards aren’t as solid as the Guildpact Green non-Red cards or the White non-Black cards. You can still happily play Ghor-Clan Savages and Ghost Wardens, but non-Blue Soul-Sworn Juries and non-Red Nettling Curses aren’t so hot, and things like Delirium Skeins only make sense if the Rakdos are doing their thing.

This is likely the guild that requires the most experience overall, as it is one of the two Ravnica guild choices that doesn’t have an easy path to walk during all three packs. Knowing which of the two packs you are going to sacrifice having a guild in, Dissension or Guildpact, should be determined by looking for a Blue signal as you take your Selesnya cards, and your ability to scoop up solid Boros or Golgari cards without costing you strong Selesnya picks. Relying on Dissension as the pack from which you draft two guilds, instead of Ravnica, gives a definite edge to G/W/U over both G/W/R and G/W/B, because it seems everyone can pretty much agree that Dissension’s cards are just better than the other two packs.

DIMIR: Black-Blue
Pack 2: Black becomes Orzhov; Blue becomes Izzet
Pack 3: Black becomes Rakdos; Blue becomes Azorius and Simic

If Selesnya is abstractly the weakest guild to start with, because you have fewer “in-Guild” options as you go through all of the packs, the Dimir decision-tree is clearly the strongest. Blue is well-loved in Ravnica, to the point where many players espouse the theory that taking any Blue card at all is better than taking a non-blue card. Compulsive Research over Selesnya Guildmage may not be “right,” but it is in a certain way defensible, if you want to get the person to your left as far out of your colors as possible and not fall for the “drafting green cards” trap that your average Blue junkie sees every time they look at a Siege Wurm. Cutting off Dimir hard in pack 1 will see definite rewards in pack 2, with both Orzhov and Izzet power cards flowing plentifully: Douse in Gloom, Pillory of the Sleepless, Blind HunterSteamcore Weird, Ogre Savant, Izzet Chronarch… there’s all sorts of goodies you’ll be happy to take.

In pack 3, getting passed the nuts Izzet cards used to be the dream: just read a signal to take Blue cards in pack 1, and the goods will be delivered to your doorstep by the second pick of pack 3. It’s not that Izzet was so much deeper than the other two guilds from Guildpact, but it was certainly the most powerful, with “card advantage” seeming to be their forte and plentiful removal flowing around the table. I for one was happy drafting Izzet in triple-Ravnica, as a Blue/Red pinger-based strategy was appropriate after it became apparent that Boros was not favored by many people while Dimir was becoming overdrafted thanks to the high quality of Black and the tempo-controlling nature of Ravnica Blue cards. Pack 3 is now pack 2, so the Torment gambit is now an effective strategy: cut the best color in pack 2 and get passed all of it, it just happens to be a guild instead of a single color. And at the worst, it’s not like Orzhov cards are “bad” either, and Dimir into Orzhov into Azorius seems very promising even as a main plan, not to mention as a backup plan.

Then the Blue mages rejoice, as they walk happily into pack 3. Blue-Black into Blue-Red into Black-Red is a solid trio, with plentiful Black-Red removal, more excellent pingers, and some dangerously powerful effects even if the “Hellbent” nature of Rakdos play is not quite what the spell-happy Dimir or Izzet want to get working for them. Wrecking Ball is “just fine,” if that is all you’re into the Rakdos for, and the power level of the third set is high overall so you may just have to settle for opening a ridiculous Guildmage or getting a four-mana double-striker that reanimates an early drop… while also having two other guilds with rich and plentiful Blue cards to choose from, not getting the Gold side of the Simic and Azorius but still not kicking Minister of Impediments out of the deck just because there’s a White mana symbol on it somewhere.

Blue-Black into Black-White into White-Blue is pretty solid as well, as the Orzhov are probably the most underappreciated guild in Guildpact; everyone knows they want to get the Izzet if they can, and Green mages are probably pretty happy to take a chance at Savage Twister or “settle” for picks like Streetbreaker Wurm and Scab-Clan Mauler. Black-White, however, has the Haunt ability, innately focused on card advantage by generating repeating effects like double discard or two shots fired by an Orzhov Euthanist. The power cards you might open are acknowledged to be among the best in the set, with Debtor’s Knell basically being game over if it gets running, and plentiful power commons like Blind Hunter, Pillory of the Sleepless and friends. While you’re at it, you can take some of the mono-Blue Izzet cards, like Repeal or Train of Thought, preparing for the third pack and the full combination of all three of your Guilds meshing together during deck construction.

Blue-White happens to accentuate the first two guilds nicely; Haunt is card advantage conscious, even if it may be a bit difficult to get to work right every time, and Transmute makes sure you always draw your best cards by Tutoring for them directly. If you happen to Transmute for a Forecast card and start gaining repeating effects that are practically impossible to remove, gaining card advantage or other resource advantages… well, these are the sorts of things that happens when two card-quality keywords meet and have babies.

If you so choose to forego pack 2 entirely and mix some Golgari along with your Dimir, you have all three guilds in the second pack to pick from, and the Simic Combine to weave them together nicely. Shambling Shell is pretty good with all the ability-sharing Graft creatures, and you’ll still be able to get plenty of solid picks in pack 2 even if they aren’t quite, well, gold.

BOROS: Red-White
Pack 2: Red becomes Gruul and Izzet; White becomes Orzhov
Pack 3: Red becomes Rakdos; White becomes Azorius

If the Selesnya are the weakest, because zero of their three potential aligned color combinations have a guild in all three packs, and the Dimir are the strongest because two of their three potential aligned color combinations have a guild in all three packs… then the Boros are the equals of the Dimir and the Golgari are downright mediocre, with just one of their three potential aligned color combinations having a guild in all three packs. Starting with the Boros Legion, the addition of Blue for Boros into Izzet into Azorius yields a very strong deck combining Forecast, Replicate, and Radiate, three abilities that like getting the most bang for their spell. The switch from Boros to Orzhov to Rakdos gives a deck with strong early game pressure, thanks to the overlap in aggressive tendencies between the Rakdos and Boros, that just gets even more powerful as it runs out of cards in hand. With the addition of Green, you see a very weak Dissension pack, as you have two guilds in Ravnica and one in Guildpact… and then you’re done, that’s it. Have fun drafting mono-colored cards unless you open a split card.

Starting with the Dimir and leading into Izzet always sounds like a powerful plan, especially since DimIzzet was openly considered to be the best two-guild combination in Ravnica-Guildpact draft. The downside of this plan is that you then lead into the third pack with a deck that wants to have plenty of cards in hand and that is unwilling to throw away resources, pretty much the exact opposite of the philosophy driving the Rakdos cards. Sure, you’ll still get Seals of Doom and Wrecking Balls and fliers and pingers, but the real strength and synergy of the Rakdos can’t be taken advantage of unless you neglect some of the aspects of the DimIzzet; Train of Thought is generally considered to be an excellent card, but it’s not something the Rakdos seem to want. Either part of pack 1 is sacrificed, or part of pack 3 is sacrificed. Not so, with Boros as your starting point.

There are very powerful motives for starting Boros instead of Dimir in pack 1, with the intention of ending up as an Izzet mage. First off is that you can still get most of the best Blue cards in the first pack without having to touch into Black – still take your Dismissers and Peels and Halcyon Glaze – while you pick up things like Skyknight Legionnaire, Viashino Fangtail, and Galvanic Arc. The commitment to take Black cards with your Ravnica Blue leads to winding up Rakdos in the third pack, where formerly powerful cards like Psychic Drain and Consult the Necrosages just don’t stretch as far as they used to. By focusing mostly on the Blue and Red aspects of Ravnica, and taking the strong White elements as you see them, many of the same cards can be taken as through the path from Dimir to Izzet… but your future includes the powerful Azorius strategy that is more in keeping with a deck of this sort than the philosophy of Izzet into Rakdos.

Boros likes the Azorius’ aggressive potential as well, and can be complemented nicely by the plentiful White fliers in the third pack. Add the tempo-positive Izzet cards like Ogre Savant and Steamcore Weird to your two- and three-drop fliers and you have the solid potential for an amazing deck, with a strong early game start and the tempo effects you need to swarm past the opponent’s defenses and stagger their attack.

Starting with the Boros Legion and adding Black likewise has solid results; while the Orzhov are not generally considered to be a “weenie” guild, their cards include some solid combat interaction (Withstand, Ghost Warden), more cards that punish the opponent for blocking (Orzhov Euthanist), and can even lead into Rakdos excellently well if you pick up Cry of Contrition reasonably early. After all, if it was good enough to make a deck that finished in the Top 16 of a Constructed Pro Tour, it’s possible that it might also be “at least okay” in draft. Orzhov still has some effects that a Boros mage could love, especially Blind Hunter and Pillory of the Sleepless, the two cards already considered by most to be the best Black-White commons. Not everything has to be Souls of the Faultless or Hissing Miasma, and picking Orzhov cards with a Boros eye for what you actually want gives you more aggressive fliers and removal spells that can technically finish a game themselves… and that definitely unbalance an otherwise even race. Following from there into Rakdos, while still being able to take some of the aggressive White fliers of the Azorius, you again complement your early game beatdown by punishing the hands of those who have a slower start than you and have your Hellbent cards turn on.

Starting with the Boros and taking on Green is the same as it was when we mentioned it in Selesnya above, sacrificing the gold-ness of the third pack to reap rewards with a strong pack 1 leading into the solid Gruul fat of pack 2. It wasn’t the best of two possible plans for the Selesnya, as far as accepting a decision that denies you a pack worth of multicolored picks goes, and here with the Boros Legion it is the worst of three possible plans. Dissension cards are so strong, and tend to require a solid commitment to the second color to use them well, that a decision that abandons getting to use Dissension gold cards is one that can seriously hurt your outcome.

GOLGARI: Black-Green
Pack 2: Green becomes Gruul; Black becomes Orzhov
Pack 3: Green becomes Simic; Black becomes Rakdos

The Golgari are very much like the Selesnya when it comes to bringing about difficult draft situations, but while the Selesnya Conclave offers no possible way to get multicolored guild picks from all three packs, starting Golgari offers at least one option that brings guild cards in all three packs: Golgari into Gruul into Rakdos. Otherwise, a sacrifice again has to be made… give up on pack 2, or give up on pack 3. By adding White to your Golgari deck, you get to double up in Ravnica by taking Selesnya cards, and follow these up with Orzhov in the second pack. By adding Blue to your Golgari deck, you get to double up in Ravnica by taking Dimir cards, and follow up with the Simic Combine in pack 3.

The first plan seems to sound better, for the most part, as you take the Golgari’s strength at making sure it never runs out of reasonable plays, add it to the mid-game aggressive fat of the Gruul, and get to mix both Black and Red, the two colors with the most plentiful removal overall. Knowing this is your plan, no Fangtails or Galvanic Arcs are going to slip by you, and highly underrated Red cards from the first pack may end up in your pile, as pretty much nobody drafts War-Torch Goblins high enough and a lot of Red cards in the first pack are similarly neglected. Black-Green’s fat, like Golgari Rotwurm and Drooling Groodion, mesh very nicely with the Gruul fat, and again: between Black and Red, you’ll have a chance to pick up plenty of removal. Pack 2 is powerful, with a lot of dangerous options and a surprising amount of utility creatures, plus there’s always the possibility of opening Savage Twister.

Leading into pack 3, you have a deck with a lot of fat and some recursion, and the potential to draft a solid mana curve including undercosted guys thanks to Bloodthirst and the generally high quality of the Golgari men. Then you get to add cheap Rakdos creatures alongside your Bloodthirst cards, and play the balancing game of living with an empty hand with the Rakdos cards and Dredging usefully every turn. Combining Dredge and Hellbent is incredibly powerful, as it negates one of the key downsides of playing with an empty hand. “Living off the top of your deck” is very different when you get to choose it, instead of being left empty and peeling lands while the opponent has both cards in play and tricks left in hand.

While Hellbent seems to encourage bad play by throwing away cards recklessly (or to less than their maximum effect), the card or cards lost getting to Hellbent can be negated by the quality of Dredge, getting something every turn while the opponent still sometimes draws lands, reducing the impact of that apparent disadvantage. So long as there is something to be gained by going Hellbent, the Golgari will be there to back you up in order to finish the game. Of course, getting access to the plentiful removal of the Cult of Rakdos to go along with what you’ve picked up in the first two packs can’t hurt either.

Your other two options are more difficult, as either one leads to doubling up in Ravnica and choosing one of the later two packs to live without colored picks in. All other things being equal, it’s easier to live without guild picks in Guildpact than it is in Dissension, so of the two options it would seem that Green-Black-Blue is going to yield more rewards than Green-Black-White, especially since the Simic are quite possibly the strongest guild for Limited in the third set. Giving up gold picks like Pillory of the Sleepless or Steamcore Weird is an easy thing to do when you can still take Orzhov Euthanists, Infiltrator’s Magemarks, and Wildsize, and live off the best non-gold cards of all three guilds in the pack. There’s bound to be something you can take that’s worthwhile, and there is amazing synergy between the Green bloodthirst cards like Ghor-Clan Savage and, well, the entirety of the Graft mechanic. Add to that all sorts of fun with Shambling Shell and you can be quite a happy mage indeed, with Golgari fat, recursion, and removal backed up by the wonderful Dimir cards and quality Blue from the first pack in general. Continue in pack 2 with more removal, more fat, and go into pack 3 looking to pick up… you guessed it… more quality removal as you poach some Rakdos cards, and the Simic cards to complete and build tons of synergy into your deck.

Green-Black-White, however, sacrifices the powerful Dissension pack, leaving you to take Seals of Doom and White fliers plus the occasional just-Green Graft guy where everyone else gets picks like Vigean (why do I always read this as “Vegan”?) Hydropon or Wrecking Ball. Guildpact is chock-full of the good Orzhov cards, and sometimes the Pillories just flow around the table like there’s no tomorrow and you pick up Ghor-Clan Savages and Wildsize to complement the Green-centric aspects of your deck. Golgari mixes with Selesnya in pack 1, and a long time ago in a draft format far, far away we saw that prove very consistently to be a popular and winning draft style. Especially with these two providing fewer options altogether for navigating the draft, it’s quite possible that you can pick up both and get what you consider to be high pick cards much later than usual in the first pack, because a lot of players will be considering Green-White to be the dregs of drafting in this block and Golgari not far ahead of it. Barring any information to suggest that “metagaming” in this fashion will be profitable, you’re just looking at a difficult to draft combination of cards that bring you no love in pack 3. It is not necessarily the best plan, although it may prove to be quite a serviceable one so long as you are able to get most of your picks from the first two packs, where your cards match your guild colors and your double lands actually fixed your mana instead of just tapping for more.

Overall, Golgari seems to me to be the least attractive option, but that may be because I have beer-goggles when I look at the Selesnya Conclave and see plentiful Blue/Green and Blue/White picks flowing my way in Dissension. Even the options you do have when you start out Golgari don’t impress me, because you could be doing so much more with your Green cards in the third set, and the Simic are to pack 3 what the Izzet were to pack 2: worth building your entire draft around if you think that you can get it.

OTHER: Off-Guild in Pack 1

We’ve discussed quite a few archetypes so far, and where you can branch off when you start with each of the four guilds of Ravnica. Obviously, then, we’ve discussed all five archetypes in which you can get one Guild in each of the three packs, and every color combination that includes a Ravnica guild. By process of elimination, then, let’s see what three-color decks don’t have a Ravnica guild in them:

Not Boros: Blue-Green-Black (Dimir-Golgari-Simic)
Not Selesnya: Red-Blue-Black (Dimir-Izzet-Rakdos)
Not Golgari: Red-White-Blue (Boros-Izzet-Azorius)
Not Dimir: Red-White-Green (Selesnya-Boros-Gruul)
Not Orzhov: Red-Green-Blue (Gruul-Izzet-Simic)
Not Izzet: White-Green-Black (Selesnya-Golgari-Orzhov)
Not Gruul: White-Blue-Black (Dimir-Orzhov-Azorius)
Not Azorius: Red-Green-Black (Golgari-Gruul-Rakdos)
Not Simic: Red-White-Black (Boros-Orzhov-Rakdos)
Not Rakdos: Blue-Green-White (Selesnya-Simic-Azorius)

Only one of the ten three-color combinations doesn’t have a Ravnica guild in them, and that is the former DrakeDraft colors, Red-Blue-Green. So what can be so attractive about this particular three-color combination? Admittedly, I was one who was always happy to end up Red/Blue in just Ravnica, so the notion of taking what was once my favorite draft archetype and ending up cutting off the Izzet while I was at it tickles me pink. Red and Blue are both very deep colors in Ravnica, even though they don’t have any gold cards to work with, and the synergy of the cards together can be pretty impressive… especially if you’ve ever gotten to untap a Wojek Embermage with your Tidewater Minion.

Red/Blue isn’t a particularly beatdown color in Ravnica — it’s more interested in choosing a controlling stance in the game — though there are some excellent cards for beating down as you still have stuff like Snapping Drake at your disposal. You get to take Green cards while you’re at it, and it’s quite possible that you can pick the enchantments and Bramble Elementals and Drake Familiars much higher than everyone else and get the ‘old’ Drake Draft synergy rolling now that Fists of the Ironwood aren’t really considered to be very important. Convoke is now the exception to the rule rather than the rule itself, because there isn’t very much Convoke worth playing out of just one pack of Ravnica. You get to start with card synergy in the first pack, taking the best Blue cards you can get your hands on (how can that be bad?) and supplementing them with Green (possibly for mana fixing; again… how can that be bad?) and Red (home of the pingers and late-pick removal spell Fiery Conclusion). You also get to pick double lands higher because they won’t be conflicting with in-guild Gold cards, but you probably won’t pick them too much higher because these tap for two, not fix your colors… unless you’re splashing or want to keep that option open.

Move over to pack 2 and you get your pick of the best of two different guilds, and two guilds worth of bounce-lands from a smaller set. These two guilds include the best guild in the set, the Izzet, which presumably you have a decent shot at if you cut off Blue and Red in pack 1 hard enough to dry up some of the competition. Even the sloppy seconds of an Izzet drafter are still pretty good, because while it’s nice to get to pick which of Steamcore Weird, Ogre Savant, and Izzet Chronarch you want out of a pack, ‘only’ getting to choose one out of two instead of one of the three is still pretty solid. You likewise get to pick undercosted monsters, more mana fixers, combat tricks, and maybe even Savage Twisters from the Gruul cards, and pick up some cheap utility drops like Tin Street Hooligan.

Move over to pack 3, and once again you’re drafting the best guild in the pack, the Simic, and you’ve even got more Bloodthirst +1/+1 counters than the average bear, meaning their synergy and the rest of your deck get along beautifully. Graft may not be a mechanic as powerful in the abstract as either Forecast or Hellbent, but in its implementation with all of the Graft creatures able to improve multiple guys, share a bunch of worthwhile abilities, or do both at the same time is pretty impressive. Add that ability-sharing madness with your Scab-Clan Maulers and Burning-Tree Bloodscales that you picked up 8th-12th and we’re talking about a potentially nightmarish deck.

If taking a Selesnya card and sacrificing pack 2 in order to clean up in pack 3 is scary, sacrificing pack 1 is scarier still. The benefits are definitely there, and you lose out in pack 1 only to clean up in pack 2, and “losing out” in pack 1 still involves drafting Blue cards, so it can’t be that bad. You’re still picking Peels and Dismissers and Compulsive Research, it just happens to be that you’re also picking Fists of the Ironwood and Drake Familiar in order to get a chance at Infiltrator’s Magemark in pack 2 and Ocular Halo in pack 3, plus possibly some of the creatures that have beneficial abilities when enchanted, like Flaring Flame-Kin.

In a format where a single two-color draft pick can mean any of three different archetypes, and a single-colored draft pick can fit in any of six different archetypes, it’s no surprise that there are a lot of different routes you can take with a single draft pick. Knowing where you can go, and what kind of cards you seem to have been passed, can combine in your mind to predict what kind of cards you’ll be getting in the third pack. As early as pack 1 you should have an idea of the cards you’ll be seeing in packs 2 and 3… and specifically which ones you value where, so when they come to you the plan can come together instead of having to make the decision all over again at that later time.

Forming a plan and acting on that plan with every step, while processing new information and comparing that information against your forecast of what you will see later and against your current plan, is critical to surviving in this draft format. You need to determine whether that plan is still valid with every pick, or whether you can expect to see a greater return on investment with a new plan that is perhaps related to the cards you have already taken but working off of a different forecast of the future. It is very much a format about keeping your options open (but not too open, and not for too long) and reading signals early, meaning that mono-colored picks are perhaps preferable to their more powerful two-colored cousins early in the first pack. A single-color pick can fit in any of six combinations, as opposed to a two-colored pick that can fit in “only” three of the ten three-color combinations. A pick that will always stay live, instead of one that may need to be outright abandoned if you end up in one of the other seven possible archetypes, has extra weight while you are still trying to gain a solid read of what is being drafted ahead of you and what your future is going to look like.

Three colors is the rule, and two colors the exception. There seems to be very little incentive to give up on two different packs entirely and choose just one guild worth of colors, especially since it’s fairly easy to justify even a fourth color as a light splash if you pick up double-lands that don’t seem to fit your (current) colors, with an eye to keeping future options open. That justification helps keep gold cards pickable in Ravnica, because even if the plan doesn’t work out exactly as expected, the extra colored mana of the fourth-color splash may still end up being “free” as the second color added by a few otherwise on-color Signets or Karoos.

In addition to planning and predicting what is going to work, and checking that prediction at all times to make sure you are still getting the same kind of signals you thought you spied out of the incredible amounts of background noise fourteen cards from Ravnica can provide, there is a constant tension to drafting with this format. The tension is the value of your past cards against the value of your future cards, and you have 43 “present” moments in which the pack available in the present asks you to make a pick that is basically a value judgment of your past picks in comparison to your future picks. If you have reason to believe around pick number seven that you may have to replace one of the three colors you’ve chosen, or else suffer a weaker set of picks in the third pack because you are being cut off, the importance of your first six picks needs to be weighed against the option being presented to you with pick number seven, and that pick needs to be weighed against the future potential of more good things coming if that signal is accurate. Choosing to keep your options open early on in the draft, if you can do so while still picking reasonably equivalent cards as far as power levels go, will help maintain the flexibility that will be needed to correctly pick three colors and three guilds to work with. Flexibility and serious advanced planning skills will likely win the day in Ravnica-Guildpact-Dissension draft… oh, and did we mention raw talent, considering that players are being given less than two weeks to practice drafting the full Ravnica block before Pro Tour: Prague?

Experience is key, and experience will likely hold up these same lessons, planning for the future and maintaining flexibility in your options and preferences. In the meantime however, that experience is sorely lacking, as is the time to earn it. Study… and grow strong.

Sean McKeown
[email protected]

“This isn’t the last song,
They don’t know us, you see;
It’s only the last song
If you let it be…”
Bjork, “The Next-to-Last Song”, from Dancer in the Dark