Pulling Chairs From Dumpsters: Salvaging An RTR Draft

Jon Agley goes over a few more “traditional” draft strategies outside of typical guild boundaries that can be fun to explore and yield results in Return to Ravnica Draft.

I’ve enjoyed Return to Ravnica more than any Limited environment in recent memory, including “pro favorite” Rise of the Eldrazi and the surprisingly Draft-worthy Magic 2013. It hearkens back to the days of the original RGD Draft format and the less-popular but still enjoyable TPF format (opening Tarmogoyfs makes any Draft format amazing).

The same thing that makes the format enjoyable, though, can put us as players in awkward situations. Complexity by its very nature makes for interesting decisions but also makes it much easier to mess up, not only in playing the game itself but while drafting. Most of us want to draft the insane populate deck, and some prefer aggressive Golgari or Rakdos strategies. There are significant advantages to sticking to guilded decks because we’re given access to cards that typically outstrip their single-color counterparts (i.e., Call of the Conclave vs. Keening Apparition or Drudge Beetle). Sometimes, though, we “go deep” and find only after diving that there’s only three feet of water.

In these situations, we can rely on more “traditional” draft strategies outside of typical guild boundaries to cobble together something that can yield results. I want to discuss this concept, but I often have trouble setting aside the time to watch draft videos, so I’ve tried to capture a few key ideas in a shorter written format out of respect to those who don’t have the time to watch a set of videos (not to mention it’s cumbersome to have a series of videos spanning multiple drafts).

In the first example below, I started off with a preference for Golgari and was completely cut off.

I first picked Korozda Guildmage from an unremarkable pack and second picked Dreg Mangler. Out of a variety of weaker packs, I scooped up a Slum Reaper, Rites of Reaping, Gatecreeper Vine, Towering Indrik, and some other random cards. Then I was cut off. This is the kind of thing that has happened to all of us at some point or another. While potentially abandoning a near-bomb like Korozda Guildmage isn’t ideal, we need to immediately refocus our drafting technique when we’re put into a bad situation.

Amid the variety of new multicolor strategies, we might be tempted to forget one of the most basic strategies: creatures + pump spells can steal a match. Well, realistically, we never forget such a basic idea, but we often put it on the backburner.

It was with this concept in mind that I switched to Gruul. After grabbing some Annihilating Fires early in pack two, it became clear that the best possible deck I could draft would be to combine early red creatures, many of which are quite strong in their own right (Splatter Thug is really an MVP, and Gore-House Chainwalker isn’t terrible either) with pump spells and the highly underrated Death’s Presence.

I ended up winning the draft, surprising even myself, but I realized that this deck still had many of the important components common to non-populate green or red RTR decks. Namely:

  • Vanilla creatures should have a minimum of three power (if costing three or less, more if costing four or more) or four toughness. Ash Zealot doesn’t fit this definition as a ‘French vanilla’ creature, but first strike in conjunction with pump spells is sufficient for it to merit inclusion.
  • Multiple creatures should have at least four toughness (Lobber Crew, Towering Indrik).
  • The deck should have a consistent way to win a creature stall since this is common in RTR. Optimal examples include cards like Teleportal (which might be superior to Overrun as a game-winning uncommon card). In this deck, we have Death’s Presence, Korozda Guildmage, and potentially Chorus of Might (in conjunction with Goblin Rally).

In the next draft, I started off with the intention to force a Selesnya deck (some Sunspire Griffins and combat tricks). A few picks later and I ended up in a strange Junk Control deck.

I first picked an Arrest over a Nivix Guildmage then picked a Common Bond. After that, I grabbed a Stab Wound and a Trostani’s Judgment and realized when I saw Axebane Guardians going late that I might have an opportunity to draft a good control deck.

My stereotypical perception of a control deck is some sort of U/x concoction that uses countermagic and card advantage to generate a board position from which it’s difficult to lose. Although we have some decent countermagic in this set in blue, white and black definitely have the lion’s share of the powerful removal, while green gives us the ability to fix our colors. Hierarchically, I would rank the removal spells in this deck in the following order:

Even though we have good removal spells, we can’t waste them on random two- and three-drops except in an emergency, so our control deck has to be able to do two things:

  • Ramp to powerful creatures early. Risen Sanctuary is an amazing card in this archetype that’s currently picked far too late. As an 8/8, especially if we’ve been drafting the unconditional removal, it often functions as a one-sided Abyss and quickly can end the game. Archweaver is another strong creature if we have at least two Axebane Guardians or Keyrunes, though I rate it as being significantly worse than Risen Sanctuary. If we have Gatecreeper Vines, then Axebane Guardians are probably better than the Keyrunes, with the possible exception of the Golgari Keyrune because of the efficacy of Deathtouch.
  • Have other means of dealing with early creatures without wasting removal spells. I’m not a fan of Drudge Beetle in decks that can’t really abuse their ability and think that there are many better options in aggressive decks, but they do a fine job in this shell of holding off two-toughness creatures and then converting themselves to value later. This is another reason that Axebane Guardian does a better job than many Keyrunes, especially the Izzet and Azorius, which are fairly unimpressive.

The Rubbleback Rhinos are also very key in a deck like this. They’re immune to many of the tools used by the fastest aggro deck (Rakdos + Augur Spree), and they’re an excellent place to dump Drudge Beetle or Korozda Monitor counters to build a finisher.

This deck didn’t win the draft but was nearly victorious in the finals, probably due to a pilot error.

The final example that I have to share is a two-card combo deck that relies on having a specific rare. This isn’t a great deck, but it’s a really fun strategy to try at FNM or if you’re just curious as to how it plays out. Here’s a not-so-great example of the deck:

The premise of the deck is no matter what life total your opponent is at (assuming 20 or lower), Havoc Festival and Explosive Impact almost always win the game.

When you play Havoc Festival:

  • Turn X: Play Havoc Festival.
  • Opponent’s Turn X: Loses half of their life, has ten life at most.
  • Turn Y: You lose half of your life. Unless they have burn spells, this is irrelevant.
  • Opponent’s Turn Y: Loses half of their life, has five life at most. Explosive Impact after the trigger.

The caveats of this deck are as follows. First, you can’t draft it unless you already have a Havoc Festival. It’s not like the mill deck, which is draftable even if you don’t see a Doorkeeper early or a Psychic Spiral. Second, you should pick Explosive Impact as frequently as possible within reason once you have Havoc Festival. Finally, you need to pick up as many ramp spells as possible if you want to play it as a true combo deck. In this example, I did fairly poorly at this, grabbing only two Mana Blooms, a Gatecreeper Vine (not really ramp but adds a land), and a Golgari Keyrune.

Although I lost in the second round, had I found an Explosive Impact I would have made it to the finals. The deck is reasonably competitive, although it skews much more to the casual/Johnny side of things.

If you haven’t had a chance to draft Return to Ravnica yet, I encourage you to do so because there’s a lot of room to explore and have fun well outside of the bounds of traditional drafting strategies.