Peebles Primers – Drafting With Ben and Nick: Shards of Alara

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Tuesday, September 30th – Shards of Alara is here, and it’s time to crack the fresh Limited format! Today, Benjamin Peebles-Mundy drafts along with Nick Eisel in a triple-Shards draft, notating and commenting on each pick and displaying the draft in the popular “Drafting With” format. If you’re looking for the heads-up before your first sanctioned Shards of Alara draft, look no further!

Magic at Carnegie Mellon for me at least has always been defined by Limited. We met every Tuesday at “The O” to draft until the sun came up the next day only playing Constructed between draft rounds when there was a tournament coming up. This trend has continued and we’ve begun drafting on Wednesday and Friday nights as well. Western Pennsylvania had more than one location running the Prerelease events and so the CMU crew split up in an effort to win as much product as possible. After the vast majority of us won product across the multiple events we headed to CMU to draft with our winnings until four in the morning.

This article is a sort of two-headed endeavor between myself and Nick Eisel; I watched over Nick’s shoulder as he drafted in the first ever CMU Shards team draft and I wrote down every card in every pack. Magic Online draft.txt files might be easier but it’s going to be a while until that’s a luxury we have. This means that the format is the same as a “Drafting With” article but that there’s an added bit of room for human error.


Before the draft even began Nick and I discussed what we thought were the best strategies. I think that the main thing we agreed on was the fact that while most of the best Sealed decks from earlier in the day had been slow and greedy the best of the best were decks that could just run over the greedy decks while they were finding their feet. Nick and I both thought that some sort of Red/Green/White deck would obviously be the best at this but that Blue/White/Black could also be quite strong in that department. The general idea was that RGW had the fastest guys and the most power and that UWB had evasion and disruption.

In short we weren’t looking to draft a slow control deck. We were looking to kill people.

The Draft

Pack 1 pick 1:

Right out of the gates we got hit by one of the tougher common picks I think you’ll see in Shards draft. Going in I believed that Branching Bolt was the best possible common so I thought that Nick should take it. However due to the fact that Nick wanted to be able to draft either RGW or WUB Nick felt that he should take the Oblivion Ring. I could see the logic in this sort of a decision so I didn’t fight too hard. In fact I didn’t do much fighting at all since the other members of the draft felt as though it was unfair to have two people discussing picks when the set was so young.

Now that we’ve drafted multiple times I think that this pick is absolutely correct. Oblivion Ring will never be a middle-of-combat two-for-one blowout like Branching Bolt can be but it will always answer whatever it is that needs answering and it can do it in many different decks you’ll end up in. In short it’s more likely to make your deck and even if both it and the Bolt would make the cut I’m pretty sure it’s going to actually play better than the Bolt.

It’s worth noting that neither Resounding Silence nor Tower Gargoyle was given much consideration. The Silence is just going to be a lower pick than Oblivion Ring in decks that have the ability to cycle it and that ability is certainly not guaranteed. The Gargoyle is absolutely nuts on turn 4 and very strong much later but it locks you into one deck right from the start. Beyond that it’s not the hardest creature in the world to answer given that it gets hit by things like Naturalize and Volcanic Submersion. I’m not saying it’s bad just that I don’t believe that it’s on the same level as Oblivion Ring or Branching Bolt.

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 1 pick 2:

There’s really not much to work with in this pack. If we want to keep our options open as much as possible we can take the Sanctum Gargoyle. If we want to pick the strongest card in the pack then we’re looking at Resounding Thunder. While Nick went against my initial evaluation of Branching Bolt over Oblivion Ring partly due to the consistency issue neither of us was so wed to keeping our options open that we wanted to pass the removal spell.

This pretty much moves us into Red/Green/White unless we end up leaving one of these picks on the bench. However Nick and I both thought that Red/Green/White was the place to be so we were not feeling too bad about that.

If we had taken Branching Bolt this would still be the pick though if we had taken Tower Gargoyle I think I would go with Sanctum Gargoyle over either the Thunder or Windwright Mage. Taking a 1WUB card and then a 2R card doesn’t make much sense to me and while Windwright Mage at his best is pretty nuts he’s only a bit better than a 2/3 Flying Gravedigger. Additionally Windwright Mage is extremely hard to cast on turn 3 if you don’t spend the first two turns fixing your mana.

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 1 pick 3:

Given that we’ve got a Red card and a White card in our stack we’re looking to pick from the RGW trio. Unfortunately this pack didn’t seem to be too exciting when we first looked at it. Nick and I immediately dismissed Lightning Talons which left us to decide between Cylian Elf Quietus Spike and Naya Panorama. The Spike was the first we threw out just because it costs six mana to get online and doesn’t actually buff the creature. In a controllish deck I can see using it to fend off large attackers with even the smallest blockers but it doesn’t do too much to get your big guys through or even help that much once they’ve connected. Picking the Panorama here would be fine as it does give access to all three colors we’re looking to play but in an aggressive three-color deck having a land that produces colorless the turn you play it and requires an investment of time and mana to create actual colored mana can be a big drawback.

In the end Nick settled on Cylian Elf though he wasn’t too happy about third-picking a 2/2 for 2. After having drafted this set a number of times I don’t think that either of us would be sad about this pick if the draft were taking place now. These decks really want strong attackers early on and while the Elf isn’t as strong as the Knight of the Skyward Eye or Rip-Clan Crasher you take what you can get and are more than happy to have this creature in your pile.

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 1 pick 4:

The two cards in our colors are essentially junk so Nick went past them without spending much time debating their merits. The 1/2 Flying could be good in a deck that focused on the Exalted mechanic but I don’t think it’s going to be worth spending an early pick on even in those cases; you’ll get them on the lap back around. That left Nick to take Bant Panorama giving him access to Green and White mana with one land.

Of course that sounds pretty underwhelming. Because of that Nick went with the Tidehollow Sculler even though it’s outside his Shard’s colors. The presence of the card fourth pick is a decent signal that the coast is clear for the Sculler’s colors and in general it’s just a very strong card. If the deck winds up RGW like it seems to be heading then we won’t lose much value by not having Bant Panorama but if we end up in something other than RGW we might be very happy to have such an amazing two-drop in our pile.

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 1 pick 5:

Both Rockcaster Platoon and Jungle Weaver cost a hefty seven mana and while they’re quite strong in the slower sealed format they are certainly not ideal in the same draft deck as 2/2s for two mana. On the other hand Rakeclaw Gargantuan is a very nice attacker for five mana and makes very nice attackers out of other men. His three toughness is a bit of a liability in a format with Branching Bolt Resounding Thunder and Agony Warp but the power and the ability are very nice for the cost.

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 1 pick 6:

This seems like a good place to talk about Obelisks. In this first draft as well as the eight-man draft running in parallel to this one the Obelisks were being taken very highly due to how powerful they had made the various Sealed Decks in our Prerelease. However the Draft format (as usual) is much more focused than the Sealed format and playing an Obelisk on turn 3 can be a death sentence. It’s not too unlikely for someone to be attacking you for two on the second turn and for five or more by the third so if you’re just getting your mana working in the first few turns and plan to start unloading some hefty cards starting turn 4 you might just be too far behind to ever catch up.

The best manafixing is in my opinion the Uncommon taplands. White and Green both have solid one-drops so they can be a little bit annoying but the lands should be easy to slide into your curve at some point and they don’t ask much of you before they start cranking out your colors. Nick thinks that the Panoramas are better and I can see that he might be right in some decks but I think that the general case favors the taplands. Panoramas do give your Wild Nacatls more power than the taplands and they do thin your deck but they can only really tap for one color of mana and they take two mana to start doing that. Additionally they can hurt you if you’ve got some absurdly costed card in your deck but still need a different color; I was burned in the Sealed tournament by the fact that my Panorama had to find a Plains while I was holding Violent Ultimatum.

So coming back to the draft I think that if you want to take a mana-fixer out of this pack then the one to take is Crumbling Necropolis and not Obelisk of Naya. Unfortunately the Necropolis is mostly worse than a Mountain for this deck though it could theoretically allow us to cast Tidehollow Sculler or cycle Resounding Thunder. In the end I think both of the fixers are weaker in this deck than either Welkin Guide or Mosstodon. We just picked a Rakeclaw Gargantuan which is very similar to Mosstodon but I think better so I don’t think we have an immediate need for a second 5/3 for five. Welkin Guide on the other hand is a decent flying body attached to a very strong ability. We have both little guys that can be outclassed and big guys that can be chumpblocked and making a 2/2 Flying while sending a Rakeclaw Gargantuan to the skies as a 7/5 seems like a great way to lock up a game.

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 1 pick 7:

I just sang the praises of Welkin Guide but you do have to keep in mind that it’s a 2/2 Flying for five mana. Picking it over another five-drop is very valid but picking it over a two-drop with the same stats is pretty hard to justify. Keeping in mind that I think that the early turns are extremely important I certainly agree with Nick’s choice of the Elf over the Bird.

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 1 pick 8:

There’s just not much for us here. Splashing a two-drop seems like a good way to get into trouble especially when it means extending into your fourth color. Nick took the Windwright Mage because the Lifelink can really hurt a deck built on 2/2s and because he didn’t want to pass yet another good artifact creature to the opponent sitting next to him.

If this were not a team draft I think you would want to make sure to pass the Mage instead of hatedrafting it. If you give your neighbor a late Windwright Mage to go with his Tower Gargoyle and Sanctum Gargoyle you’re helping your chances of getting solid cards for your deck in the second pack. You are sharing White with them so you won’t get many Oblivion Rings but you’ll still be helping make your own deck better.

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 1 pick 9:

This is a pick between the Talons and the Spike. Lightning Talons seems like a pretty strong Aura to me but it’s still an Aura that doesn’t make the creature harder to kill so you run a big risk of losing extra cards when your creature dies. I don’t think the Spike is that exciting and Nick didn’t think that it would make the final cut but it’s more likely to make the deck than the Lightning Talons.

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 1 pick 10:

The only card in our colors is Savage Hunger. I’ve seen it played but only in decks that just couldn’t get to 23 playables. I’ve only seen it cast once but Cycling makes it pretty good as far as awful last cards go.

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 1 pick 11:

I think that this is actually a debatable pick. Nick went with the Spider because he could Cycle it early but if you’re planning on casting the creature I think the Rhino is better. The Hurricane ability can be used to burn players out of the game or clear the skies and that’s pretty strong even if he can’t just straight-up block fliers.

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 1 pick 12:

Unless you’re planning on using Exalted to make an unblockable 4/4 I don’t think you should be playing Goblin Mountaineers. Mosstodon on the other hand is a pretty solid guy to see so late in the draft.

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 1 pick 13:

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 1 pick 14:

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 2 pick 1:

The cards in our colors are Gift of the Gargantuan and Thorn-Thrash Viashino. I actually like the Gift a lot in Sealed but I think that it suffers from the same problems as an Obelisk in Draft. However drawing it off the top in the mid- or late-game is pretty good whereas drawing an Obelisk on turn 6 is never really something that you want to have happen. Still I don’t think it’s a first-pick caliber card for a draft deck like ours.

The Viashino is also something I’m not too excited by. Making a 4/4 with possible Trample for four mana is pretty good but you need to have a lot of fodder to Devour and you don’t want to just be throwing away your 2/2s for 2 to make that upgrade. There are times when you build an 8/8 and kill the bad guy with it but that’s not this deck.

After a ton of deliberation Nick picked the Savage Lands saying that he couldn’t wait for people to talk about it in the forums. I think that this is actually a great pick since it gives us access to two of our main colors as well as Black which will give us an outside chance at Cycling the Resounding Thunder that we picked up in the first pack. Good mana-fixing is especially important in aggressive decks like ours since you just can’t afford to stumble on your colors when you’re trying to make sure that you kill the opponent as soon as you can.

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 2 pick 2:

Magma Spray is just great removal in this set. It’s cheap and gets the job done and it even makes sure that the guy is gone permanently so that you don’t get burned by Unearth Sanctum Gargoyle or Carrion Thrash. If we were in the hyper-aggressive all early-drop deck I still think that Magma Spray would be the pick over Rip-Clan Crasher just because it makes sure that the little guys will get through the opposing little guys.

Druid of the Anima is a very high pick in the deck that Nick is drafting and without the Spray in the pack I’m certain that the Druid would be the pick here. It’s acceleration and fixing that comes out quickly and it lets you jump from two to four which is much more impressive than three to five. Still it’s not on the same level as Magma Spray.

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 2 pick 3:

Vithian Stinger has been very strong every time I’ve seen it in play in this format. It shoots down Exalted creatures that pump the one that’s doing the attacking it clears out things like Tidehollow Strix and the Unearth generally tends to make sure that he’s always at least a two-for-one or maybe just an answer to the opposing Stinger. Had I been the one making the picks the Stinger would be it.

However this was Nick’s draft and he went with Bull Cerodon. That’s not something I object to that much as the Cerodon is just a great play at any point and works well with our Mosstodon and Rakeclaw Gargantuan. Additionally there are the various Drumhunter creatures that enjoy having fatties to turn on their abilities and various other synergystic reasons to take the 5/x here.

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 2 pick 4:

Skullmulcher pretty much requires you to Devour two creatures to get a body that’s worth the mana cost and while the creatures it eats are replaced by random cards you have to have things like Dragon Fodder or Elvish Visionary to eat to make that worth your time. Of course you’ll run the Skullmulcher when you have him; I’m just saying that I don’t think he’s an extremely high pick.

Topan Ascetic on the other hand is a great creature. On defense he comes out as at least a 3/3 for three and when you attack he can be as big as you need him to be. My favorite piece of his puzzle is how well he works with the Exalted mechanic. If your deck is packed with Exalteds then you already don’t want to be tapping more than one attacker and the guys like Sighted-Caste Sorceror that you have pumping him get to work double-duty. Nick’s deck isn’t going down this Exalted path but he could easily pick a few of them up and even without Exalted the Llanowar Behemoth mechanic is very strong.

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 2 pick 5:

This is a pick between a vanilla bear and a bear with an amazing ability which really isn’t a hard decision. The only time I would be taking the Cylian Elf here is if I’m in Red/Green and am just splashing White but that’s not where Nick is headed so the Knight’s ability breaks the deal wide open.

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 2 pick 6:

Assuming Green is one of your base colors the Nacatl is quite strong. I wouldn’t mind picking up a Cylian Elf second or third and there aren’t too many places where the Wild Nacatl isn’t better than the Elf. This was the point at which Nick stated that he thought Panoramas were superior to taplands as they would make sure he always had a fully-pumped Nacatl but despite that fact I still think that the no-effort fixing is superior.

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 2 pick 7:

We’re back to deciding between the Gift and the Viashino and Nick still doesn’t have the sort of deck that will have abundant dorks to feed to the Viashino.

I think that it would be legitimate to hatedraft the Strix here but it’s not like the Strix is so good that your team will lose multiple matches to it. Mostly I would just be wondering why the guy we thought was UWB next to us managed to pass it when he saw it sixth pick. Of course there’s a chance that the Master of Etherium we opened managed to make it all the way to him.

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 2 pick 8:

The only playable in our colors is the Rannet. Soul’s Might is essentially an Aura and while it does make the creature better against toughness-based removal it doesn’t do anything about Oblivion Ring Resounding Wave Executioner’s Capsule or Resounding Silence (and others).

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 2 pick 9:

If it weren’t for the fact that Nick had zero four-drops at this point I think that the pick would be Tar Fiend. It’s not that I would be planning on casting the Fiend but I would want to make sure that it doesn’t wind up in the other team’s hands. Without anything to do on the fourth turn though I think we need to take the Ogre here. Plus his one toughness isn’t so bad alongside Rakeclaw Gargantuan.

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 2 pick 10:

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 2 pick 11:

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 2 pick 12:

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 2 pick 13:

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 2 pick 14:

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 3 pick 1:

I think that Excommunicate is strong in aggressive decks but I don’t think that it approaches the same power level as Oblivion Ring. The only question then is if there’s something not in our colors that’s so strong we need to hatedraft it and the only thing that comes close is the Prince of Thralls. I don’t think that you really need to worry about a 7/7 for eight mana that doesn’t have any way to protect itself especially when hatedrafting it would mean that you lose out on a card as strong as Oblivion Ring.

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 3 pick 2:

Ever since Quasali Ambusher was spoiled people have been talking about how amazing it is so I don’t think that I need to convince you that it’s the right pick here. If I do consider that it’s at least a 2/3 Reach creature for three mana and that at best it’s all that for free and you get to pick off a smaller baddie. Even if you don’t get to eat a 2/2 mid-combat it’s very nice to play a regular curve that includes a free 2/3. You don’t need to block with it after all.

The only other card in the pack that is worth discussing I think is Hissing Iguanar. At this point we were all thinking of it as a pretty average guy but since then it’s come to be one of my favorite aggressive picks. If you have a fast deck that includes some Iguanars you can rest assured that your opponent will need to make some very awkward plays to avoid dying to the burn ability. I’ve played games where I just got two Iguanars into play and then ran my guys into theirs until they died; any combat trade with two Iguanars in play is a Scorching Missile at your opponent. Be happy to take this guy highly.

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 3 pick 3:

Oblivion Ring number one is pretty strong and Oblivion Ring number three is even stronger. The Rare Knight-Captain is pretty strong but it costs five mana and dies to almost every piece of removal in the set so I don’t think it competes with top-notch removal spells like the Obv Ring.

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 3 pick 4:

This pick just fills out Nick’s high end with another solid fatty. The Thoctar is nice because it’s got enough toughness to avoid the removal that doesn’t destroy creatures outright and it even has something like Firebreathing if five power isn’t enough for you.

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 3 pick 5:

If it weren’t for the fact that we’ve put our neighboring opponent on the Esper colors I think we would need to hatedraft the Bant Charm here. However it’s very unlikely that the Charm will make the opponent’s deck so we just need to think about ourselves. Naturalize is a great sideboard card to have against the deck that’s playing the Master of Etherium and might even be good against someone with a greedy manabase built on Obelisks. I can even see there being times where you maindeck it in Draft but in general I’d love to have one or two for my sideboard.

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 3 pick 6:

Another Nacatl is a great gift for our deck. There are Red/White decks splashing Green that might want the Scourge Devil instead of the Nacatl but Nick’s deck is shaping up to be splashing the Red removal so the early 2/2 or 3/3 is going to outperform the upgraded Snidd. That’s not to say that Scourge Devil is bad; I’ve had some great experiences with it already it just doesn’t happen to fit Nick’s deck very well.

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 3 pick 7:

The Guardians are quite strong when they’re Exalting a guy alongside their friends but I don’t think that they’re all that great on their own. Besides that Nick is sitting on a three-color deck without a ton of mana-fixing so the Jund Panorama will give him a nice way to dig up Red or Green mana.

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 3 pick 8:

As with the last pick Nick is just trying to make sure that he can have the best mana possible at this point. This Panorama again only fixes two of his colors but that’s better than fixing none of them.

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 3 pick 9:

Earlier I talked about how Obelisks did not impress me in draft but this is an Obelisk we want. Nick doesn’t have a whole ton of three-drops sitting in his pile and only has one Incurable Ogre to play on turn 4 so jumping up to his 5/x creatures sitting at five mana and above will be very good for him. Plus it fixes all three colors.

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 3 pick 10:

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 3 pick 11:

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 3 pick 12:

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 3 pick 13:

Nick’s Pick:

Pack 3 pick 14:

Nick’s Pick:

The Deck

Nick built an aggressive deck with strong early game and strong late game. I’m sure that he wished he had more three- and four-drops but you have to make do with what you have in team drafts.

2 Wild Nacatl
2 Cylian Elf
1 Knight of the Skyward Eye
1 Elvish Visionary
1 Bloodthorn Taunter
1 Quasali Ambusher
1 Topan Ascetic
1 Incurable Ogre
1 Welkin Guide
1 Rakeclaw Gargantuan
1 Bull Cerodon
1 Cavern Thoctar
1 Jungle Weaver
1 Magma Spray
1 Naturalize
3 Oblivion Ring
1 Gift of the Gargantuan
1 Resounding Thunder
1 Obelisk of Naya
1 Savage Lands
1 Jund Panorama
1 Bant Panorama
6 Forest
5 Plains
3 Mountain

The last cards to make the cut were Bloodthorn Taunter Naturalize and Gift of the Gargantuan. Nick didn’t really pick the Taunter with the idea of playing it but it was a decently aggressive creature that had four big targets to Haste up. The Naturalize made the maindeck because no one on his team was in the Artifact deck so chances were good it would be a live removal spell against two or three of the opponents. The Gift was included because Nick didn’t have a lot to do on the third turn anyway and because the mana- and creature-fixing would be nice.

As it turned out the draft was over after Nick’s first two matches. In the first he played against the Artifact deck that had the Strixes and Tower Gargoyles but managed to overwhelm them (and the supporting Metallurgeon) with Rakeclaw Gargantuan and multiple Oblivion Rings. The second match was a Red/Green/White mirror and after a couple of ridiculous misplays involving Quasali Ambushers and Topan Ascetics Nick’s fatties managed to take down the win.

General Thoughts

The thing that I enjoyed most about drafting Shards the night of the Prerelease was watching just how fast people changed their evaluations of the cards. I was sitting out watching matches while fourteen people played out their drafts and it was clear that people were still stuck in their greedy Sealed Deck mindsets for the most part. Everyone realized that draft was a faster more consistent format but there were still plenty of four- and five-color decks at the tables and the decks playing multiple strong two-drops tended to be running people over.

By the third draft that night Obelisks were routinely making a lap or two around the table while cards like Goblin Deathraiders and Hissing Iguanar were disappearing after just a few picks. The question that I’ve been mulling over in my head since then: what is the right way to combat this aggressive trend?

Every deck I’ve drafted so far has been the aggro deck when I play my matches. I’ve had decks with Nacatls and Rip-Clan Crashers I’ve had a deck with something on the order of twelve Exalted creatures and I’ve had decks that just burn people out with Hissing Iguanar. Every time I’ve been afraid of one specific common creature: Kederekt Creeper.

Now chances are good that I’m overvaluing him due to how difficult he is to cast but making a 2/3 blocker that has Deathtouch to guarantee a trade in the worst-case scenario seems like a great way to beat the decks built on 2/2s for two. Unfortunately I haven’t yet had the chance to draft a deck that can take advantage of the Creepers so I don’t actually know how great they will turn out but they have tended to stay in the packs for a while so counting on seeing a few doesn’t seem like much of a stretch.

One other way to beat aggressive decks seems to be by drafting Windwright Mages and Exalted creatures. Pumping your Mage up to a 3/3 or 4/4 will make sure that you’re always ahead when it comes to racing and the Guardians of Akrasa that you use to give the Exalted bonus will do a good job of holding down the fort while the Mage goes to town.

I assume that after a few weeks we won’t just find ourselves in a spot where the two-drop deck is the undisputed master but in the early days of Shards draft it seems like the motto is kill or be killed.

As always if you have any questions feel free to contact me in the forums via email or on AIM.

Benjamin Peebles-Mundy
ben at mundy dot net
SlickPeebles on AIM