Understanding M14

If you’d like to gain an edge in M14 Limited for your next PTQ, this article is for you! Sam writes about his understanding of not just how M14 works but why M14 works that way.

I try not to write Limited articles unless I really have something to say—something deep that I feel like I understand in a way most readers won’t, something to offer. Despite the fact that I’ve probably played less M14 than any real format in recent memory, I feel like I really get M14.

Ordinarily, I’ll play several events at a Prerelease and then draft several times during the following week before the set is released. Then I’ll spend the entire release weekend drafting the set. After that, when I’m preparing for a Pro Tour, I’ll spend the next two weeks drafting around one and a half times a day in person, with several Magic Online drafts thrown in once it comes online.

For M14, I did none of that. I didn’t attend the Prerelease or play during release weekend. I had done exactly two physical drafts before it hit Magic Online. I guess I’ve played a reasonable amount online—I have 33 Windreader Sphinx Avatars online, so I think that means I’ve played 33 total Magic Online Draft and Sealed events with M14.

My numbers have been somewhat evened out because of Sealed events, but I currently own almost twice as many blue cards as cards of each of the other colors. I’m almost always blue when I draft. I have more copies each of Opportunity, Elixir of Immortality, and Staff of the Mind Magus than any red or black common. My most owned cards are Scroll Thief (33), Essence Scatter (28), Claustrophobia (27), and Divination (26).

Ben Stark has written about the idea that there are two different schools of drafting, one which he calls the easy way and one which he calls the hard way. The easy way is to learn an archetype or two, get settled into one early, and ride it through the draft. The hard way is to learn everything the set has to offer and try to read the draft and end up in whatever archetype is most open by paying attention and following signals.

Ordinarily, I draft the hard way. I practice enough to try everything, and I try to remain flexible. With M14, I’ve never been tempted to deviate from forcing blue except on a few occasions when it’s just completely cut or when I intentionally try something else just to make sure I’m not missing anything while accepting that I’m drafting suboptimally.

You see, it’s my opinion that M14 is a deeply unbalanced set and blue is just that much better.

Last week I started tweeting about how I was drafting blue, and a lot of players tweeted back at me to answer that they tried doing what I suggested and won their drafts. Since then it’s become a little harder to win. People are fighting over blue a lot more now. I still don’t see a reason to stop fighting for blue cards when I’m drafting though. I tried it, but I wasn’t happy with the results.

Great, so I think blue is the best color in M14. Real breakthrough, right? Nothing you couldn’t have figured out from about 280 characters worth of tweets if you follow me on Twitter.

So why I am compelled to write an article about it?

Well, I think M14 has a lot of serious lessons about understanding Magic, Limited, and set design in general. When this article goes up, I intend to specifically ask members of R&D to read it because I want to make sure that they understand what’s going on in this set so they can decide how much they want future sets to play like this.

It’s entirely possible that Divination is the best common in M14. I’m not sure that it is, but I know it’s up there. I’m completely sure that Opportunity is the best uncommon, and I think at least 97% of you currently think more cards in the set are better than it is than I do. I’m going to try to bring that percentage down over the course of this article.

In most sets, Divination is fine; it’s basically a filler card. You probably play it, but you get it in the middle of the pack and cutting it is a serious consideration. In M14, I’m reasonably likely to take Divination over Serra Angel pack 1 pick 1. That’s weird. I mean, I recognize that that just isn’t how these cards usually work—something really strange has to be going on to make me make a pick like that.

Why is blue card draw so much better here than in any other set I can remember?

1) There’s no real pressure in this set.

More often than not people don’t play creatures on the first two turns. Elvish Mystic is the only really threatening one-mana creature, and Predatory Sliver, which is just a Grizzly Bear most of the time, is the most aggressive two-mana creature. There aren’t any 2/1 fliers for two, and if there were Seacoast Drake would shut them down. There aren’t any 2/1 intimidators for two. There’s no exalted, no bloodrush. Not only are there no creatures that want to attack on the first two turns, but there are no real rewards for trying. Sure, you can play a Child of Night on turn 2, but what are your long-term plans for that card? It just gets shut down by everything.

The most aggressive decks are:

Slivers: This deck has a bunch of issues. First, things need to go right in the draft since there are just a few extremely important cards and you have to get them. Second, your mana has to work out since you probably have to be three colors if you’re really dedicated to Slivers unless things break perfectly. And even if all that happens, you still might need some time to assemble the right Slivers, and some removal can really bring everything down and leave you with some very unimpressive creatures.

Regathan Firecat: I guess the plan is to play this guy and then kill their blockers and hit them for huge chunks of damage? I suppose it’s a plan, but it’s hard to imagine one that’s less reliable.

Beasts: Advocate of the Beast into Rumbling Baloth. These creatures are both great. Each is solid by itself, and together they’re often dominant. This is the best aggressive plan, but when the “beatdown” deck is a three-mana 2/3 and a four-drop without evasion, I think we can expect to have some time.

R/B Sacrifice: This is basically a control deck, but it can play some x/1s and push them through with removal. It can get bursts of damage with Act of Treason, but for the most part it’s playing attrition elements and a lot of removal. If it wants to be aggressive, it has to use removal on any random creature you play, which isn’t often a good strategy.

2) Every card is a one for one.

This isn’t usually true these days. Modern Magic design has radically decreased the number of activated abilities on creatures to avoid overly complex boards. To keep creatures and gameplay interesting, a lot more creatures were given come-into-play abilities. This trend meant that many creatures had the ability to two for one your opponent by answering something and presenting a threat, which meant that there was a hidden weakness to spot removal that you were often trading a card to answer only half a card because your opponent had already gotten part of the effect from their creature.

In this set, there’s no Ravenous Rats, no Liliana’s Specter, no Gravedigger, no Acidic Slime, not even an Aether Adept. The only “enters-the-battlefield” effects at common are Archaeomancer and Auramancer, both of which require some setup and create card advantage but not tempo advantage since they put a card in your hand rather than impacting the board and are very small. Messenger Drake, Festering Newt, and Pitchburn Devils have “dies” abilities, but those are less powerful and mitigated by bounce and Pacifism, Claustrophobia, and Sensory Deprivation, all of which are common.

Even at uncommon the only “enters-the-battlefield” abilities we add are Banisher Priest, which barely counts since it only does anything while it stays in play, Fleshpulper Giant, which costs and insane amount, and Briarpack Alpha, which is one of the easiest two for ones in the set and therefore among the best uncommons.

Looking beyond creatures, there are also very few spells that offer potential two for ones. Outside of the cards already mentioned, Divination and parallel Mind Rot, Shrivel is the only common that one could expect to two for one under normal circumstances, and killing multiple one-toughness creatures that matter is a little ambitious in this set though not impossible. I suspect Fortify is a little more likely to create a two for one, but that also requires some finesse.

At uncommon there’s Opportunity, Blightcaster, Flames of the Firebrand, and maybe Rod of Ruin in addition to the token makers—Young Pyromancer, Molten Birth, Howl of the Nightpack, and Angelic Accord—which join common token makers Hive Stirrings and Sporemound as potential sources of “card advantage.”

Blightcaster requires a lot of work to get much advantage from, but the support cards are very good it’s a powerful card in the format. Flames of the Firebrand used to be an all-star in previous sets, but it’s only good here because there just aren’t that many small creatures that are important to kill. Basically, none of these cards (except Opportunity) easily get you particularly far ahead (possible exception for Howl of the Nightpack, but that’s just a very specific threat and requires a lot of Forests/very dedicated deck).

So it’s hard to two for one someone. That won’t happen much, but how easy is it to one for one?

Absurdly. Seriously. Remember how people complained that the removal was too bad and narrow in Avacyn Restored so everything lived and powerful soulbond creatures were too dominant? Well, this is the opposite. White has Pacifism, Celestial Flare, and Solemn Offering; blue has Time Ebb, Sensory Deprivation, Claustrophobia, Negate, Cancel, Essence Scatter, and, separately but worth noting, Disperse; black has Liturgy of Blood, Shrivel, Wring Flesh, and Quag Sickness; red has Shock, Chandra’s Outrage, and Act of Treason with many sac outlets in the set (and some artifact removal, but there aren’t a lot of artifacts you care about killing); and Green has Hunt the Weak, Plummet, and Naturalize along with Deadly Recluse, which is pretty similar to a removal spell.

That is a lot of removal that asks very few questions. Even blue and white (especially blue) have a lot removal.

Everything trades.

This is why I don’t think Serra Angel, Sengir Vampire, or even better cards like Air Servant are particularly exciting. Air Servant is much better because it can still matter if one of the negative enchant creatures is played on it, but I just don’t have high expectations for my five-mana creatures.

So I don’t play very many of them.

One of the most damaging concepts that people float around in Magic is the idea of “win conditions.” I win a significant portion of my games in M14 by attacking with Seacoast Drakes and Archaeomancer. My favorite “win condition” is Elixir of Immortality. When I don’t have that, I’ve played a single Tome Scour just in case my anemic creatures can’t get the job done—I can Tome Scour them, Archaeomancer it, Disperse my Archaeomancer, and do it again if I have to. Once I’m far enough ahead, it just doesn’t matter.

Obviously I’m only going to do this kind of thing in decks with Opportunity. If I don’t have Opportunity, I’ll have to try to win a regular game of Magic, but if I do and can build a deck full of cards from M14, I can expect those to trade all day, and eventually I’ll draw my Opportunity and win the game. It’s actually that easy.

What does the game look like when you don’t see an Opportunity in the draft? Well, ideally, you just chain a couple Divinations together for the same result, but let’s assume you’re not seeing those either. What happens when both players have to play “fair” Magic?

Well, none of the creatures really do anything special, by which I mean there aren’t pingers or healers or anything; it’s just a bunch of numbers battling each other. Early on in the format, when I thought I might want to attack, I was pretty impressed by Master of Diversion. It’s really good at what it does because it lets you attack through bigger numbers. Trained Condor almost does that, but it matches up so badly against so many cards that I try to avoid playing it even in decks with a lot of Scroll Thiefs. Black and B/R are pretty good at presenting a large threat while answering any of theirs, and Pitchburn Devils can potentially get you ahead in a relevant way.

I think where I’m happiest is just playing the creatures with the biggest numbers for their cost: Predator Sliver, Rootwalla, and Rumbling Baloth. Incidentally, Giant Spider is basically the worst it’s ever been. There is exactly one 3/2 common, and Giant Spider can’t even block it! Aside from being the wrong size for every fight, it also matches up horribly against Rootwalla in particular.

What all of this means is basically that every game plays out like Sealed Deck, where the game is about not playing meaningless cards and figuring out where and how to use each of your removal spells and finding ways to pull ahead. I think this is what the old-school Magic players reminisce about when they talk about how “skill testing” Magic used to be before the creatures were too good. Personally, I feel like the game is much worse here, where there’s just one obviously correct strategy and a bunch of mediocre-to-bad cards.

What’s my list of cards better than Opportunity? Well, I don’t think any rares are. I could almost see a case for Scavenging Ooze, Colossal Whale, or Megantic Sliver, but I’m pretty sure those are all worse.

As for mythics, I think one could make a case for any of Archangel of Thune; Devout Invocation; or Ajani, Caller of the Pride, but at a Grand Prix I’d take Opportunity pack 1 pick 1 rather than committing to white there. Archangel of Thune is a little overrated because it’s a creature, so it’ll just die except that it’s still a serious threat when under a Pacifism if you have other ways to gain life. Jace, Memory Adept is definitely better. I’m pretty sure Shadowborn Demon is worse, but one could try to debate the other side; ditto Liliana of the Dark Realms. Kalonian Hydra might be better—it’s just a creature, but it wins immediately if they don’t answer it. It does have a serious Act of Treason problem though. Primeval Bounty and Garruk, Caller of Beasts are both definitely better.

Yes, I think there is a chance that Opportunity is the fifth-best card in the set. I probably shouldn’t hear so many stories about people getting passed several of them.

Finally, some notes on what I think this means as far as my plan in the format:

I want to have as many blue cards in my deck as possible.

I want to keep my curve as low as possible. I think this is the major thing that a lot of people who tweeted decklists at me were doing wrong. Too many didn’t have enough one- and two-mana plays. Note that most of those decks were decks that people were going 3-0 with anyway, but I still think it’s correct to prioritize cheap spells to avoid falling behind. Essence Scatter, Sensory Deprivation, Negate, and Seacoast Drake are my preferred ways to do that, but I’m happy to play a Disperse or two and will obviously play cheap removal in another color. If everything’s trading, there’s no reason to pay a lot of mana for your half of the trade—that’s the key point here.

I want a lot counterspells. The few ridiculous bombs are so much better than everything else, and sometimes there’s no other way to answer them (Opportunity, Howl of the Night Pack, planeswalkers). Since everyone’s giving you time to answer normal threats with counterspells, there’s no reason not to load up on them.

Scroll Thief: It’s better if you can get a lot of card draw without needing to find a way to get Scroll Thief through, but one of the easiest ways to win a game it just chain removal off a Scroll Thief. There are very few creatures that block it and live for less than three mana, so you can just answer them one at a time and draw another card each time. It takes very few hits to lock up a game at this rate. Opposing Scroll Thiefs are part of why I prioritize Sensory Deprivation and Seacoast Drake.

Elixir of Immortality and Staff of the Mind Magus: This is probably the best Elixir of Immortality has ever been. Every deck does exactly what you want to do with that card, which is trade one for one enough that the average power of a card in your graveyard is much higher than the average card in your library, then shuffle it in to radically increase the power of your library, and then play a game that goes on long enough to take advantage of that. Really, what this usually means is shuffling your Opportunity in after you cast it so that you can draw it again and not deck yourself.

Staff of the Mind Magus gains over two life a turn on average if your deck is mono-blue with a good mix of Divination, Archaeomancer, and Opportunity, and that allows you to ignore small threats entirely while you set up and puts you out of range of getting burned out so you don’t have to waste counterspells. It’s one of the best ways to ensure that you have time to get the full benefit of the card advantage in the deck.

As a closing note, earlier Tom Martell sent me an email with the title “Starting To Get This Format” that said, “Blue staff was unreal. Got to cast opportunity five times in one game—that was fun. The game where my opponent opened on turn 2 Predatory Sliver, turn 3 Predatory Sliver, turn 4 Predatory Sliver, turn 5 Blur Sliver and Mana Sliver, turn 6 Battle Sliver almost felt close. I think I got down to like twelve before ending game at 30+.”

This exactly mirrors my experience with the format. When I can get the blue cards, it basically feels like I can never lose as long as my deck is even moderately cooperative.

And that’s my understanding of not just how M14 works but why M14 works that way.

Thanks for reading,


@samuelhblack on Twitter