The Secret Lair – Prof Drafts Zendikar… Badly

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Friday, October 30th – Now that Zendikar is out, we’re in what I like to call my card accumulation phase. This is where I draft the new set like crazy in order to build up enough of a collection to fuel the silly decks I’m fond of building. This is also where I hope to open nice juicy rares like Lotus Cobra and as many fetch lands as I can lay my hands on.

Now that Zendikar is out, we’re in what I like to call my card accumulation phase. This is where I draft the new set like crazy in order to build up enough of a collection to fuel the silly decks I’m fond of building. This is also where I hope to open nice juicy rares like Lotus Cobra and as many fetch lands as I can lay my hands on.

I thought I’d give my thoughts on the format after finally getting to draft it a few times. Keep in mind my self-confessed mediocrity when it comes to Limited. If you want great insights on how to win PTQ’s or bust up Grand Prix day two’s then you’ll want to speak to the guys above me. This is more for people like me who draft for fun and draft mainly in the 4-3-2-2’s.

4-3-2-2’s. Yeah yeah, I know, but I have my reasons which I’ll talk about in another article. And I’m sure there’s plenty of you out there that draft them to.

I did quite a lot of drafts over the weekend, but rather stupidly I didn’t think to save the decklists.

No decklists and 4-3-2-2’s? screw this I’m outta here.

Hello? Anyone still out there?

Bollocks, I lost my audience again.

I find lists and lists of draft decks tend to make my eyes go blurry anyway. I’ll try and concentrate more on the big picture. And I do have one deck I remembered to save.

Anyway, on with the drafts.

Draft 1. (Mono-Black)

Okay. So I’ve looked through the visual spoiler. I have a vague idea of what the cards do and what the artwork looks like, but that’s about it. In the absence of a juicy rare or removal spell I snagged a Vampire Nighthawk from my first booster. In the absence of any kind of draft plan I decided to aggressively go for vamps and black spells and see where that took me.

Into mono-black as it happened as I saw nothing that made me want to deviate from that plan. The final deck had some juicy cards in double Disfigure, double Hideous End, Mind Sludge and a second Nighthawk. It also had some right ole stinkers in Mindless Null. At a guess I put it at solid without being exciting.

I got an easy first round against a mono-red deck. Eldrazi Monument scared the hell out of me, but then there’s an awkward pause next upkeep when my opponent read the card and realized they only had one creature out.

The second round was a lot tougher as my opponent had double Hedron Crab, Bloodghast and Sphinx of Lost Truths. I thought I was a little lucky to win this and this was reinforced by watching the replays. Yeah, that was a good time to draw a Disfigure, and there as well, and that Hideous End seemed quite timely as well. I suppose I am the King of Topdecks after all.

In the final Lady Luck switched teams and I lost game one to an iffy draw and got wrecked by Punishing Fire game two.

This was kind of what I expected. At the time I thought my deck was solid rather than amazing, and a busted landfall deck with big green fatties was probably exactly the kind of thing to do a number on me.

This was what I thought at the time. Now I’ve had more experience my opinion is this deck was actually quite strong, and one of the archetypes that’s worth forcing if you can. I was a little unlucky with my draws in the first game and trying to fight Punishing Fire when your offense is Vampire Nighthawk is a little awkward.

Draft 2

… Didn’t happen. Two picks in, one of which was Emeria, Sky Ruin, and my clock ran down and stayed at 0:00 without any new cards being presented.

Yep, another phantom disconnect.

MTGO had huge problems with big lag spikes over the weekend. Even after logging back in I wasn’t returned until the last picks of booster three. I didn’t feel like playing with half a sealed deck so dutifully fired off my event compensation claim and waited for MTGO’s servers to right themselves.

Draft 3 (Green-Red-White)

This time I went for some landfall shenanigans in Green. Well, less landfall shenanigans and more pump action with Primal Bellow and two Vines of Vastwood. I switched into Red with a Hellkite Charger, but decided I had enough fixing to still keep the Shepherd of the Lost I first picked (from a weak booster).

Round 1 I beat a black-green deck. Their draws didn’t come together and I was able to bust out fatties with Greenweaver Druid including a dragon. Game two was closer, but I was able to sneak a Shortcutter through and boost it up to exactly lethal with Primal Bellow and Vines of Vastwood.

Round 2 was up against mono-blue deck. I was a little aggrieved in the first game as I was just about racing his Sphinx of Jwar Isle when Whiplash Trap, followed by another Whiplash Trap for the trap cost when I tried to replay the bounced creatures ended that race. At least one, maybe both of the traps were topdecked, which was slightly annoying. Game two and a pair of Geopede busted through his early defenses with the help of Goblin Shortcutter. I don’t have the replay for the third game, but I think busting though a Sphinx of Jwar Isle with Primal Bellow or Vines of Vastwood was involved.

Another final. Another bunch of crappy draws. Game one my deck pretended to be mono green, Game two I mulliganed to five and a solid looking black deck beat the snot out of me in short order.

Getting the snot beat out of me in short order by a solid looking black deck became a fairly regular occurrence over the weekend.

Draft 4 (Mono-Red)

I started the draft with Emeria, Sky Ruin, but then was passed Lavaball Trap. I moved into Red and then decided to make it mono-Red when a Valakut fell into my lap. It seemed like a good idea, what with Spire Barrage at common. After picking up three Spire Barrage I thought I was going to get there. Unfortunately the wheels fell off in the third booster when the red completely dried up. With pick after pick empty of a single red card I knew I was dead in the water. My deck barely made it on playables with only twelve creatures, two of which were Molten Ravager, and I got smashed in round one fairly swiftly.

My instinct after this was to avoid red like the plague. Magma Rift felt plain rubbish in conjunction with cards like Valakut and Spire Barrage that are hungry for Mountains in play. It felt like a typical problem red decks sometimes have in limited. The lack of card advantage and even card disadvantage wrecks them in the end. Don’t even think about heavy red, was my thought after this disaster.

Yes and no.

While Spire Barrage and Magma Rift feel slow and clumsy, Red does have a solid removal spell in Burst Lightning. Unfortunately it’s such an easy card to splash nearly all the decks will grab it, rather than just the red decks (a familiar problem for red sadly). Magma Rift is probably not the junk card I’d relegated it to either, but it wants to be somewhere with a low curve. As this pretty much defines the good Zendikar draft decks I suspect this means it’s better than I thought.

Not sure on mono-red. At least I know how not to build it, or rather to make sure I have a backup plan if the color suddenly gets cut off.

Draft 5 (Green-Black-Red Allies)

By this time I’d noticed that allies, in particular Oran-Rief Survivalist, seemed quite good. A first pick Murasa Pyromancer was a good excuse to try forcing allies a little higher. The deck didn’t quite make it. The red was cut off and I moved more into green-black instead, but had good enough fixing for a pair of Pyromancer and Electropotence. I had plenty of landfall enablers but only a pair of Hagra Crocs to take advantage of them. Marsh Casualties is a definite bomb though.

Round 1 I survived a scare after dropping the first game to drawing land after land even with a Frontier Guide working overtime. His deck was also a multi-colored green abomination and I was able to take him down in games two and three with timely Marsh Casualties or a Heartstabber Mosquito. Killer Croc backed up with Frontier Guide also forced a few chump blocks.

In round 2 I had the interesting conundrum of how to beat an Eternity Vessel with no artifact removal. The answer in game one was hit him for fifteen from nowhere with a Hagra Crocodile pumped with Primal Bellow. Game two took a long time with Frontier Guide pulling every land out of my deck until I was eventually able to grind him down with enough CiP creature killing effects to kill him with one attack.

In the final I continued my trend of losing to good black decks, this time with blue. Actually, looking at the replay I played like a complete chump, getting impatient and losing what should have been a devastating Hagra Crocodile with Savage Silhouette to Vampire’s Bite when I only needed to wait until I had regeneration mana up. Once all the dust settled I thought I was in control. I only had a Tajuru Archer in play, but I had Marsh Casualties and Heartstabber Mosquito in hand.

Should be good, right.

He killed me from nowhere with Needlebite Trap and Crypt Ripper.

I don’t have a replay for game two. I remember my frustration levels rising at this time so I suspect it was to another awful draw, either a mulligan to screw or a failure to mulligan followed by drawing land after land.

I thought the deck seemed good as it had plenty of card advantage with a bunch of CiP creature killers (including Electropotence) and Soul Stair Expedition to fetch them back. It’s probably too slow and prone to iffy mana draws to qualify as a good deck though.

Draft 6 (Green-Blue)

More landfall goodness. Hedron Crabs and Roil Elemental.

Ah, blessed irony. Game one I dropped a first turn Crab only for my opponent to follow with Crypt of Agadeem. A few Crypt fuelled Mosquitoes later and it’s game two. Savage Silhouette on Roil Elemental, well that’s just savage, especially as they’re now pushing Regeneration to actually mean something. Game three and I had another draw that made me want to spit teeth. A mulligan followed by a dubious six and I died after drawing I think just one actual non-mana spell (Timbermaw Larva) the entire game.

Another Black deck. Another loss.

You might say there’s a pattern forming here.

Draft 7 (White-Blue)

This was the first time I got to draft a white deck. I had some nice rares in Kabira Evangel, Devout Lightcaster and Conqueror’s Pledge but the rest of the deck was far less impressive with a few too many Ondu Clerics. I had enough allies to make them reasonable, but the deck felt a little short on attack strength.

The first round was against another pissing vampire deck (I reckon I’m going to be sick to death of vamps by the time Zendikar is gone and I didn’t have much love for them in the first place). I also got a nasty shock when I found out Guul Draz Vampire did not work how I thought it did. I thought damage was dealt simultaneously enough that lethal damage would kill it before it got the bonus for me going to ten life or below. Apparently not. It gets the bonus and can survive.

There’s probably a good rules reason why this happens, but unfortunately it’s one of those completely non-intuitive situations that gets thrown up by the rules from time to time. I pity the poor bastard having to explain that one to a belligerent FNM player though.

Fortunately I was still able to pull the game out thanks to Arrow Volley Trap, but it was a lot tighter than I would have liked.

The next game was an exercise in frustration as I had a strong opening hand, got ahead, needed only a smooth mana draw to take it home and then failed to find the land I needed despite repeated Explorer’s Scope activations. At the same time the lag on MTGO was getting so bad I needed to repeatedly log off and back on again just to force the game to update. All the logging on and off eventually took its toll as my opponent was able to take advantage of my mana stutters to take the second and I timed out in the third in a winning position.

I dutifully emailed in my second event compensation request for the weekend straight afterwards. I’m happy to fight through some technical problems as long as they don’t cost me. In this case the frequent disconnects eating up ten or more minutes of my clock proved terminal. All the more frustrating as the next card was a Tempest Owl that, kicked up, would have finally broken through my opponent’s defense.

At this point I was angry enough that a break seemed a good idea. The technical problems aside, I find it quite funny that the Zendikar mechanics take one of the most frustrating aspects of Magic, that if-only-I-could-draw-that-f**king-land feeling everybody has at some point, and totally magnifies it. It’s especially ironic MaRo was talking this week about the land-based mechanics that didn’t make it because of the unfunness of them.

After a few Zendikar drafts on Saturday morning I was literally on the verge of punching holes in the wall from the frustration factor and I don’t even have the competitive spark I used to. It did make me think whether the land matters theme of Zendikar is such a good thing when one of the biggest sources of variability (and annoyance) in Magic comes from the uneven land draws. Landfall just makes that aspect of the game even swingier. I did wonder if this was going to be another draft format I’d end up hating like Shadowmoor.

Of course I’m a Magic junkie so by nightfall I was back online and cracking open the virtual packs.

Draft 8 (Green-Black)

Blegh. Slow and crap. The fact that the deck had two Vastwood Gorger in it tells you about as much as you need to know.

MTGO was still not in the mood to give me much loving. Up against a mono-green deck I mulliganed and failed to find a second forest or much land in general and kept drawing fat creatures I couldn’t cast while they kicked my face in with a Woodcrasher. Game two and it was they who had the mana problems. It didn’t matter as my deck couldn’t beat a River Boa by the looks of things. I ended up keeping two Vastwood Gorger at home because I didn’t want to give him an opportunity to get Quest for the Gemblades active. No removal appeared for ages, and when it did I killed things that didn’t matter — a Scute Mob when the fifth land appeared, even though I had a Giant Scorpion sitting around to take care of it. An Oracle of Mul Daya with my last removal when I needed to wait and kill whatever the Savage Silhouette on top of his library was going to go on.

Classic On Tilt signs. Usually that’s a good time to take a deep breath, go do something else and come back when the red mist has gone away.

Not me. I’m too dumb for that.

Draft 9 (Blue with a splash)

And the frustration continued.

This was actually one of the tougher decks to build. I started out blue-white and then opened Ob-Nixilis, the Fallen in pack two. I wanted to move into black, but there wasn’t any. All I saw was a Bog Tatters. At the end I was almost mono-blue. Adding white took me to around 26 playables, but as the cards I wanted to take out were all white, that left me with about three white cards in the deck and splashing for cards like Pillarfield Ox and Kor Hookmaster isn’t very exciting. Actually the more compelling reason to play white was to do silly things with Living Tsunami and Kabiri Crossroads.

I went with the white and regretted it as I was quickly outclassed game one by a Greenweaver Druid powered out Woodcrasher. My opponent was running swamps so the white vanished in favor of Bog Tatters and Ob Nixilis and some Cancels to get the playables up to 22. Game two it was irrelevant as a Grappling Hook equipped Living Tsunami quickly made short work of my mana-screwed opponent. MTGO continued it’s hatefest in game three as I got stuck with Ob Nixilis in hand and could never find a second swamp even with the help of Sphinx of Lost Truths.

Draft 10 (Green-Blue)

Not having learned anything, I still ended up with forests. This deck was actually fairly savage though. Savage Silhouette and Turntimber Basilisk is a nasty combo and I had two of each. Throw in rares like Beastmaster’s Ascension and Terra Stomper and you get a deck with firepower.

MTGO was still in the mood to screw with me. Well, actually it was more me being an idiot. Keeping land and spells is no good in a fast format if the spells are all fatties. Also making River Boa and then tapping out to pump it with Oran-Rief, the Vastwood is taking one of your toughest critters and handing it to your opponent (especially when they’re red-black) on a silver platter all tied up with bows. Basilisk combo was enough to pull the deck through the next game and I think I might have got an active Beastmaster’s Ascension in game three.

Round two and I handed out a savaging, which was less impressive considering my opponent had mana problems in game one and didn’t really do anything in game two.

Another final, another mauling from a black-blue deck. Another sh**ty draw as well as I mulliganed to five in the second game. The first game had a bit of back and forth, but Hideous End tends to have the final say when it comes to racing. I suspect I made a wrong decision by using Whiplash Trap too early instead of getting Beastmaster’s Ascension down.

I’m a glutton for punishment so I ran a couple of drafts on Sunday as well. By this time I’d had time for some reflection and realized Zendikar draft is frighteningly fast and I really needed to force black. Mainly I needed to drop my mana curves right down.

Draft 11 (Black-Blue-red)

Now this is what the doctor ordered. A fast black-blue deck with a splash for Burst Lightning easily supported with Scalding Tarn and Akoum Refuge. Refuges tend to be good with Living Tsunami as is the barely playable Piranha Marsh.

First round was a five minute beating. When they cast Bushwhacker and Shortcutter before combat and you have Whiplash Trap and an open island the appropriate expression is blowout. MTGO whacked them with the screw stick for the second game.

I had high hopes for this deck going all the way, but had the misfortune to run into a better black deck in the next round. Marsh Casualties and Malakir Gatekeeper tagteamed me into oblivion.

Another black deck, another loss.

You think black might be quite good in Zendikar?

Draft 12 (White-Red)

The one I actually have a list for:

1 Kabira Crossroads
2 Armament Master
2 Kor Skyfisher
1 Steppe Lynx
1 Slaughter Cry
3 Kor Cartographer
1 Adventuring Gear
1 Spidersilk Net
10 Plains
1 Kor Sanctifiers
1 Brave the Elements
1 Stonework Puma
1 Explorer’s Scope
1 World Queller
1 Torch Slinger
1 Goblin Shortcutter
1 Kor Outfitter
1 Burst Lightning
6 Mountain
1 Inferno Trap
1 Kor Duelist
1 Nimbus Wings

After picking two Armament Master I was sweating on not seeing any equipment, but managed to find some in the third booster. I’m still not sure on White. Skyfisher is really really good, but the rest of the Kor don’t seem either big or evasive. Brave the Elements was a very strong card though.

I thought this deck might finally go all the way, but after getting to the final I once again fell… to a Black deck.

Actually this was more of a green deck than a black deck, but I mainly saw the low end critters rather than the worse than useless fatties. To ram home how aggressive the format is I killed my opponent on turn five in game two. Game three was a straight race and again, as always, Hideous End had the final say.

The main things I’ve learned is that Zendikar draft seems really bloody fast, you need a low curve and Black is very very good.

You’ve also learned that Prof is really quite mediocre when it comes to Limited.

It’s kind of strange. At the halfway point I was more concerned about how Landfall would magnify the variance already caused by uneven mana draws. I think this might be no more different than the usual problems of everyday mana screw though.

I also thought Harrow was a high pick Green card when I suspect it’s an irrelevance. The problem I found with those kinds of decks is you need 18 land to hit the land drops regularly, but then you have cards like Harrow and Khalni Heart Expedition on top which takes the deck to over fifty per cent mana sources. I moaned quite a bit about crappy draws, but that’s exactly what happens with high power, high variance decks (although the amount of times I had to mulligan one land hands from decks with 18 lands was really f**king irritating). Sometimes they deal with the only two real cards in your hand and then you draw nothing but mana sources for the rest of the game.

I’m not even sure if any green card is a high pick card. Taken out of context the green cards don’t look that bad, but as a deck against decks of the other colors, green seems really weak.

In contrast black looks really really good. It’s got good common removal and good common efficient creatures. Not only are they efficient, but they’re evasive as well, with Surrakar Marauder being a real handful. That’s part of the problem. Not only are the creatures fast, but they’re hard to block as well. This is also exacerbated by landfall being a mechanic not really conducive to defense anyway.

In of itself this isn’t a big problem. Draft is self-correcting. If one color is dominant, more people try to force it to the point where it’s diluted down.

I’m not a big fan of draft formats like that. You can go in and try to force the dominant color, but then you find out six other people are doing the same thing and you all go home in an ambulance. You can also try and play it cute, maybe try to monopolize the whipping boy color, but if the table doesn’t get with the program someone gets too much of the good color and stomps everyone else.

This is early impressions though. I’ve written off green as a color before, only to have Neil Reeves tell me it’s his favorite for a particular format and then watched him demonstrate by casually dismembering a table.

This reminds me of Time Spiral in speed and as with that set I like to run 18 lands as missing land drops feels like a recipe for a quick death. It’s an easier decision in this set as landfall renders late land draws as not completely dead. (The above list is an exception, but it tops out one five mana card and has three Cartographer)

I definitely need to mulligan more aggressively. Funnily enough, this is the first time I’ve really used the replay function on MTGO and it was useful. While I did feel as if I got a higher than normal percentage of crappy opening hands, when I watched the replays I did have a more than a few “I kept that? Really?” moments. There’s not much that can be done about constantly mulliganing one land hands, especially when you’re already at 18 in the deck though. Sometimes you get days like that.

All things being equal, if I had the choice out of drafting Alara block, Zendikar or M10, I’d probably go with M10. M10 does have its not-£$%&ing-Overrun-again moments but there are answers to the bombs and overall it seems more balanced between the colors and more importantly between aggro and control.

Early days though. Time to get back to the Zendikar drafts. I’ve got another 14 fetch lands and 4 Lotus Cobra (I might just buy these) to pick up still.

Thanks for reading…