Reflecting Ruel – Mono-Color Drafting in Zendikar

Grand Prix: Oakland!

Tuesday, January 26th – In traditional draft settings, pairing two colors to accentuate the strengths of each seems the value strategy. In triple Zendikar, however, running the mono-color beats can prove surprisingly efficient. Olivier Ruel looks at drafting mono-color in triple Zendikar; with Worldwake on the horizon, a complete understanding of the current format will stand us in good stead.

You may have noticed over the last few weeks: I’m drafting multicolored deck less and less often. And I’ve observed that the more I play mono-color decks, the more I win.

Over the last month, I’ve been winning 65% of my matches when running at least 15 lands of the same type, while I was winning 59% when I was playing two colors. Today I’ll explain what I think are the reasons behind this statistic.

In order to understand why mono-color decks are good in triple Zendikar, it is important to remind yourself of a few specifics concerning the current draft format.

At first glance, Zendikar Limited is an incredibly fast format. Missing a land drop or missing a color for one turn is always bad, and often lethal. Next, removal spells are not so important in this format. Indeed, there are nearly no bombs which can win games on their own (there are some, of course, but the format is too fast for their potential to be fully exploited), nor are there broken commons which can destroy a deck on their own (like Sparksmith). Even though removal spells are still good cards, there are not many of them you can splash. Black and White only have one good splashable removal spell apiece (Disfigure and Journey to Nowhere), and only Red has splashable removal spells in any number. And even then, only one of them (Burst Lightning) is a common. For all these reasons, unless you play Green and have multiple copies of Khalni Heat Expedition and Harrow, there isn’t much of a reason to be playing one color plus one splash.

There’s also the fact that the booster pack content dropped down from 15 to 14 cards; nowadays you have more chance to be short of playables than you did a few blocks ago. It may not seem so important, but in a format which has a lot of bad commons, such as Zendikar Draft, the one or two good cards it will cost you may keep you from reaching the 22 playables you need. Therefore, you will often be tempted to be mono-color for the first few picks. Just as in any other formats, of course, but not for the same reasons.

In most formats, the schema which leads you to mono-colored deck is the same:

– You pick cards of your first pick’s color in order to stay open.
– You realize that color is wide open, and never feel the necessity to go for another.

In Zendikar Draft, staying open is not as much of a concern as not wasting any pick.

Let’s see an example of how it can impact your drafts. I have first picked Nissa’s Chosen, and I am facing the following pack:

Journey to Nowhere
Seismic Shudder
Piranha Marsh
Sky Ruin Drake
Goblin War Paint
Quest for the Gravelord
Merfolk Seastalkers
Highland Berserker
Landbind Ritual
Caravan Hurda
Beastmaster Ascension
Grazing Gladehart
Kraken Hatchling

In a classic format, in order to stay open, if I must choose between Glazing Gladehart and Journey to Nowhere, I’ll go with the White removal. The 2/2 is worth a 7/10 grade, while Journey would be around 9/10. In most formats, I would pick Gladehart over any non-Green 7/10 or 8/10 card, but I wouldn’t care so much about the signals I’m giving to my neighbors and just go with the best card when it comes to a two-point difference. In triple Zendikar, I’m perfectly happy to stay in the same color.

The small number of playables available is of course a reason, but there are many others.

The first reason is, obviously, sending clear the signals. By passing no relevant cards of your chosen color, you maximize the chances to have a great return in pack 2, and to kick your left neighbors from your color if they had first picked the same color as you. For instance, let’s stick with the above example. Let’s say the guy on my left has opened and picked Terra Stomper. I’m pretty sure I’ll send him into White by passing him this Journey, and I should be able to make him understand than forgetting about his triple Green first pick is a good idea when it is his only Green playable after one pack.

Also, some cards which are not very popular are totally insane in a mono-color deck. I’m thinking mostly of Timbermaw Larva and Spire Barrage, which are, in a mono-color deck, the best two commons in the set. They still often wheel in a classic draft. This also applies to cards like Primal Bellow (which does always make the wheel), Molten Ravager, and Crypt Ripper. Even the double-colored two-drops (Kor Outfitter, Nissa’s Chosen, Vampire Hexmage etc.) are better when you’re guaranteed the lands to cast them on turn 2. More simply, the synergy between cards of the same colors is almost necessarily good. The only exception is Blue, which has too many things missing, as far as curve, creatures, removal spells, and more general playable cards to be really strong on its own.

More generally, many color associations in the triple Zendikar draft format don’t work. At least, in many cases Color A doesn’t bring enough to Color B for you to actually want them together in your deck. Let’s take a moment to analyze the different archetypes which don’t work.

UR: Blue has so many weaknesses that it has a lot to gain from nearly any color… except for Red. Red is the most aggressive color, and Blue only slows it down. Welkin Tern would be a great card for the deck, but you can’t really splash for a card you want on turn 2, and there are only very few Blue cards you would actually want to run at all. Once again, in order to be good together, two colors must bring something to each other. The flyers and tempo cards will be appreciated by White, Black, and sometimes by Green, but Red doesn’t care much about them.

WB: Both colors have the same strong points. They have many playables and a short curve, with many decent early drops. Not only don’t bring each other anything they may need, they also have a lot of double White and double Black spells which will randomize your draws. Splashing for a Kor Hookmaster, a Kor Skyfisher and a Journey to Nowhere in a Black deck could be useful, for instance, but you shouldn’t be able to get those if you’re almost mono Black.

WG: The best Green cards need a lot of the right basic land to be optimal, and so do the early White guys. If you’re short in playables and have many fixers, maybe a few White cards can be used, but it remains a rare exception.

BG: Green doesn’t have anything a Black deck would need for support, while Black doesn’t have much Green would need, except for double Black cards (Vampire Nighthawk, Marsh Casualties, Hideous End). This archetype can work, and it can get some good results if you can get some of the top Black cards and many Harrows and Khalni Heart Expeditions to accelerate into Heartstabber Mosquito and Green big guys, as well as some Grazing Gladeharts to buy some time. However, I wouldn’t go into GB naturally, as the archetype has more chance to fail than to succeed. If I open a Black bomb (Sorin, Ob Nixilis, Nighthawk, or Casualties) and then get passed nothing but Green, I’ll probably think of a Mono-Green-splash-Bomb deck, as Green is the only color (thanks to the Expedition and Harrow) to be able to splash for double-colored-mana cards). I’ll only try to combine them if, or only if, I open or get passed many other strong Black cards.

RG: Red is the only color that has access to several splashable removal spells. It also has some efficient early drops, which is exactly what Green lacks. However, cards like Plated Geopede and the removal spells are the toughest Red cards to get and, admitting once again that Green has to be the dominant partner, it is rather unlikely you will get many of these cards. Just as for GB, I’m not saying the association can’t work – it definitely can – but in a format in which everything plays out so quickly, you don’t want to take any risks concerning your deck’s regularity. Such risks aren’t determined from the moment you build your deck after your 45 picks, or from the moment you have to decide either to keep or mulligan a hand, but from your very first pick of the draft.

Will a Mono-Green or a Mono-Red deck be more consistent than a RG deck? Yes, no question.

Will a RG deck be more powerful than a Mono-Green or a Mono-Red deck? You usually won’t know until pack 3 pick 5 or 6.

Out of the 10 two-color options, that’s a whopping five I wouldn’t like to draft. I’m not a huge fan of UB and UG either, even if I didn’t name as archetypes not to draft, because there is some synergy between those colors. The actual reason why I don’t like them is pretty simple: because they involve Blue. If I add them to the list, that’s seven archetypes out of ten I don’t feel like drafting. I think only UW, WR, and BR are the color pairings in which each color is regularly able to make the most of the other.

In most formats, you do have to go multicolor no matter what, simply because most colors don’t have what it takes to be played on their own. As far as triple Zendikar draft is concerned, Red, Green, and Black most definitely do, and White should also be fine most of the time. Only Blue doesn’t have what it takes. The only reason White often needs a second color is because it doesn’t have any cards like Crypt Ripper, Timbermaw Larva, or Spire Barrage to win games on its own. Therefore, some flyers (UW), or blasts (WR) can be pretty useful.

Concerning WR: I may not be drafting it a lot, but I still think it is the best reason to draft two colors in this format. Cards like Plated Geopede, Bladetusk Boar, and the removal spells are exactly what White lacks to be very good, and they are not cards that are hard to get, while Red often lacks good early picks and has everything else.

In conclusion, I’m not pretending to hold The One True Answer to the format. This analysis is the result of my own experience in the format, and not everyone will come to the same conclusion. The best way to make up your own opinion is to actually draft a lot and try various combinations, but I would still highly recommend trying to go for Mono-Green, as it can be very surprising.

Thanks for reading, and have a great week!


Actually, one more word. I was rereading my article about tricks in Zendikar draft the other day, and I realized I have forgotten about at least two of them. At first, if you have a card you can’t cast because you don’t have enough lands of the right type (such as Hideous End with WWWB on the board), don’t forget Kor Skyfisher can be the answer to your problem. Cast it with WW, float B, return the Swamp to your hand, and you will be able to play your removal spell.

Another trick, which is a little more complex, concerns Pitfall Trap. If your opponent attacks with three guys, and two of them die in combat, you’re free to cast your removal spell for its Trap cost at the end of combat as he only has one attacking creature at this point.