Weak Among the Strong: Archetypes and the Best Card, Part 1

My last article took care of getting you to the Top 8, so now it’s time to win the draft once you get there. This week we’ll look at the nature of draft archetypes in the abstract (with specific examples, naturally) and how to think about the interaction between draft archetypes and card valuation.

In the forum discussion from Anton Jonsson article on the B/W spirits archetype, a number of questions were raised about drafting archetypes in general. Then Nick Eisel wrote an article describing the main archetypes in Champions – as well as the consequences of “allowing” your neighbor to park his trucks on your lawn. Neither the forum discussion nor Nick’s article touched on the fundamentals of archetypes, however, which remains an important set of topics to cover. Understanding and exploiting archetypes – as well as knowing when sheer card power trumps lack of fit – is one of the major differences between average Limited players and good ones. My last article took care of getting you to the Top 8, so now it’s time to win the draft once you get there. This week we’ll look at the nature of draft archetypes in the abstract (with specific examples, naturally) and how to think about the interaction between draft archetypes and card valuation. Next week we’ll look at some practical rules for drafting archetypes, such as when to commit to an archetype and how to decide between the best card overall and what might be the best card for your deck.

What are Limited Archetypes?

In simplest terms, the Limited archetype is where Limited takes a step closer to Constructed. Card valuations in Constructed formats vary substantially from those of Limited formats – let me know when someone runs Godo at Regionals – not merely because Constructed players have more card power at their disposal but because they can build decks where synergy changes the value of cards.

When a Limited deck moves from being a pile of cards (however good each card may be) to being a (good) archetype, each card in the deck becomes better than it was alone. Your Soratami Rainshaper has more time to deliver flying beatdown because Kami of Old Stone is preventing a fattie from racing or a pair of X/1s from attacking at all. Your Scuttling Death doesn’t just kill two creatures and get back a spirit – it gets back Gibbering Kami or Burr Grafter, which gets back Hana Kami which brings back Soulless Revival to restart the chain. Your Lava Spike doesn’t just do three to the dome – it puts a third counter on Blademane Baku and gives it fear via Kami of Waning Moon, allowing you to swing for another seven.

The most extreme example of a Limited archetype is almost certainly the Dampen Thought deck of triple-Champions draft. A Dampen deck might not have a single card that was good in the abstract and yet still be incredibly hard to beat. Whereas Ethereal Haze might be borderline or chaff in a normal deck, the Dampen deck’s ability to splice on a Millstone effect or creature bounce (or both!) turned a card that would normally table into something worthy of a first pick.

Deconstructing an Archetype: Blue/White control

To understand how archetypes work, I’m going to go through the fundamentals of two different archetypes. I’m going to use a mix of contemporary and historic card examples to illustrate themes that extend beyond a given set.

U/W control has been a viable archetype in virtually every block in history. The most fundamental reason for this is that each color is the best at one of two tasks that have great synergy: Blue has the best flyers (with White typically coming second) and White is the best at shutting down ground combat, with a combination of high-toughness creatures and damage-prevention. When the deck works, the end result is an opponent who can’t attack on the ground and is outclassed in the air.

The archetype also maximizes benefits of other color strengths. Blue’s card-drawing is naturally most valuable in a long game. Whether it’s activations of Merfolk Looter or spells like Concentrate, Deep Analysis, Petals of Insight or Counsel of the Soratami, it’s clear that Blue outperforms any color in a game where nothing happens over several turns. White is the best color to create that situation.

U/W also has its weak points. It typically has very little removal available; this means that powerful utility creatures – ranging from Timberwatch Elf to Kiku to whatever Tims are in the set – can be devastating. Lack of removal also means that Fear can be a weakness – a Champions U/W deck hates to see a Nezumi Cutthroat on turn 2.

Because of these dynamics, certain classes of cards gain or lose in value when drafting U/W control:

Removal clearly gains in value. U/W decks are the most likely (other than Green decks with mana-fixing) to splash a third color. This is partly because they are best able to get away with it – in a slow game with card-drawing you’re more likely to be able to cast your splash – but also because they benefit so much from shoring up their scarce resource. Similarly, U/W decks want whatever removal is in their colors – even “bad” removal like Mystic Restraints.

Ground pounders lose in value. Kitsune Blademaster is a good card in U/W, but not nearly as good as he is in R/W. In U/W he’s probably on par with River Kaijin, and is worse against Red, where Glacial Ray, Yamabushi’s Flame or Hanabi Blast can take him out.

Defensive creatures gain in value. Comparing R/W and U/W, how badly would your R/W draft have to go before you’d run Kami of Old Stone? In U/W he’s a great four-drop, basically shutting down whatever your opponent’s biggest creature is and often keeping multiple X/1s from attacking at all – the virtual card advantage that is often discussed in U/W and B/W control decks.

Durable flyers gain in value. Shimmering Glasskite is arguably the best common in the format. On its own it’s hard to argue that it’s as good as either Waxmane Baku or Horobi’s Whisper, but in terms of what it does for the archetypes it goes in I suspect the Glasskite does at least as much. Jetting Glasskite is, of course, absolutely absurd. U/W is rarely interested in cards like Soratami Cloudskater that can fly in for some damage but won’t stick around, and the Champions X/1 flyers have definitely decreased somewhat in value now that there are so many Betrayers commons that kill them.

Sometimes U/W gets a creature that serves both its offensive and defensive purposes – and such creatures are almost always first picks unless their mana cost is prohibitive. Kabuto Moth is probably White’s best common in any archetype other than Dampen, but I think U/W is the archetype that shows its full power as turn after turn the opponent is unable to attack or block effectively. Teller of Tales’s special ability enables it to push through damage or shut down attackers – often both. Less extreme examples include Moonlit Strider – as a 1/4 for 4, it fits in well with White’s plan to clog up the ground. Its sacrifice ability is a great combat trick for protecting U/W’s key creatures, and finally soulshift can get back a broken Kabuto Moth or simply another solid blocker like River Kaijin. Vigilant Drake was like the police – it protected and served.

So how does drafting the U/W archetype affect card valuations in CCB Draft?

Some of the card valuation changes have already been discussed and are fairly obvious. 1/X ground guys like Harsh Deceiver are much better in U/W than in other archetypes and a strength of the archetype is that you will generally pick up these solid cards with late picks. The real beauty of an archetype is when cards nobody wants are actually good in your deck.

Perhaps my favorite example is Heart of Light. In the abstract, Heart is a terrible card – if you cast it on your own creature you’re spending two cards to create a super blocker, which is generally a bad deal and gets awful if your opponent has removal for it. If you cast it on your opponent’s creature you stop it from attacking but give him a super blocker. Isn’t that bad?

Not necessarily – and not in U/W. Remember that U/W’s core mission is to clog up the ground and then rule in the air. Remember that its weaknesses are utility creatures and fear creatures, stemming from its lack of removal. While it’s true that U/W will sometimes want to attack on the ground, giving up that ability in order to shut down a big ground threat is usually more than worth it. When you consider that Heart of Light can take care of many of U/W’s biggest nightmares – from commons like Sakura-Tribe Sniper to Nezumi Cutthroat to Frostwielder to rares like Kumano – and you can understand why I’m happy to know how late I’ll often get them.

Aside. There is a non-rules error in StarCity’s “Ask the Judge” rulings on Heart of Light which must naturally be pointed out:

Q: If I get into combat with a creature, stack damage, then move Heart of Light onto it with a Kitsune Mystic or some such thing, does either creature deal damage? If that doesn’t work, then can I instead put it onto their creature, stack damage, so they deal none, then move it off, so they die and my creature takes no damage? I guess what I’m asking is; is there a way to abuse this through moving it round during combat. It feels like there should be, but I’m not sure that either of the above will work?

A: Heart of Light does not prevent a creature from assigning combat damage, only from dealing it. All that matters is that whatever creature that is ‘wearing’ the Heart of Light when combat damage is dealt will have all combat damage assigned to it and from it prevented. There is no way to abuse this, as it does not matter which creature has the Heart of Light when combat damage resolves, both the blocking and attacking creature in each situation will not deal any damage.


I added the bold to show where the error lies – silly judges, you should know better than to say there’s no way to abuse something! The only thing missing for the Kitsune Mystic/Heart of Light trick to work is first-strike. If a Kitsune Blademaster gets double-blocked by two Order of the Sacred Bell, Kitsune Mystic can move Heart of Light onto the Blademaster after its first-strike damage has killed one of the Bells and prevent it from being killed by the other. This is reminiscent of the Urborg Phantom/Nightscape Apprentice trick, where the Apprentice gave the Phantom first-strike and then the Phantom activated its damage-prevention ability before regular damage resolved.

End aside.

Deconstructing an Archetype: R/X Ultra-aggro

In nearly every set there is a very fast aggro deck, almost inevitably with Red as one of its base colors. This is unsurprising, since this strategy works well with Red’s efficient weenies and central themes of direct damage and “you can’t block” spells like Falter or Unearthly Blizzard.

Typically the partner color in the deck is Green, White and/or Black depending on the dynamics of the specific set. In Urza Block it was Green, whose one-mana, two-power commons and beefy uncommons gave R/G an unsurpassable curve. By the time the opponent stabilized the board, a Falter would usually be more than enough to force through lethal damage, and if you dealt with that you might still fall to Acidic Soil.

There seem to be two fast Champions beatdown decks – R/W (often called “Jank”) and R/B. Both have aggressive creature curves – White comes out slightly ahead in straight-up combat due to Bushido, while Black offers better evasion (e.g. Nezumi Cutthroat, Kami of Waning Moon and more spirit triggers for Kami of Fire’s Roar), plus more removal to get blockers out of the way for good. R/G exists as well, of course, but tends to be more of a mid-range deck with lots of aggressive four-drops whereas the Ultra-aggro archetype typically ends its curve at four with few drops at that cost. (Having a low curve enables it to seize tempo and to run more spells, making it possible to force through additional damage even after an opponent’s more expensive creatures have “stabilized” the board.)

The ultra-aggro archetype is all about the early game. It knows that its spells will eventually be outclassed, but plans to deal twenty damage before “eventually” happens. When the deck works it will outpower the opponent early on and then continue to force through damage as the opponent gradually stabilizes. If it wasn’t able to force through enough before that happens, it will either build for an alpha strike or use a finisher. Because it runs more spells than most opposing decks and because any relaxing of defenses can result in death, the ultra-aggro deck often forces its opponents to make a difficult choice. If they start to counter-attack they might suddenly die as Lava Spike and a cheap spirit trigger Kami of Fire’s Roar and allow a lethal strike. If they hold back and play it “safe” they allow the Ultra-aggro deck time to draw a finisher or enough burn to take them out.

So what cards gain or lose in value when drafting R/X Ultra-aggro?

Cheap creatures (and spells) gain; expensive ones lose. Akki Avalanchers is better in this deck than Frost Ogre, because while Frost Ogre hits much harder it costs one million mana. Akki Avalancher comes out on turn one and gets down to business. Nick Eisel had this to say about our lovely Goblin:


For all of you out there who like Akki Avalanchers, I really just don’t see it. I don’t know why you’d want to sacrifice precious lands for a couple of damage in the first place, and you certainly can’t do this in the early game. When it comes time that you may want to use the ability it’s unlikely that guy is ever getting through anyway, so that essentially makes it a 1/1 that can possibly trade for an X/3 in the late game when you have a few extra lands laying around. Not something I want in most of my decks unless I’m mono-Red and going for pure aggression.

Based on this (and on Nick’s preference for control decks in general), I suspect he doesn’t see it because he hasn’t played it enough. Ultra-aggro decks should have more men in play than their opponents and hit the top of their mana curve sooner. Many’s the time I’ve played Kami of Fire’s Roar and happily sacrificed a land to my Avalancher, knowing that I’d never need four mana again for the rest of the game. Late game? What late game? If you’re talking about the mid game, who are you going to block? If your two-drop or three-drop wants to trade with my Avalancher and a land, that’s often fine with me – my two-drop and three-drop are still in play and I have another threat for you to deal with. Finally, if you do manage to stall the ground I’m going to build up for an alpha strike – and when I do, my one-drop is going to hit for three damage, making the chances that my strike will kill you a lot better than if he were an average two-drop!

Awkward-to-block guys gain. Pure evasion is great but often hard for you to come by. Fortunately, every set has creatures that make blocking difficult. They can only be blocked by two creatures, they gain a bonus when blocked, or for some other reason it’s hard to get a fair trade out of a creature with similar cost. These creatures are perfect for the mission of pushing through the damage.

Bushido is the main source of “awkward-to-blockness” in Kamigawa. To see how it plays out, imagine you’re on the play and lead with Avalanchers. Your opponent has no one-drop, so you swing for one and add Battle-Mad Ronin*. He plays a bear – pick a bear, any bear. You drop Ronin Houndmaster and whisper, “Smithers…release the hounds.” Depending on your hand, you either swing for three or bring along the Avalanchers. If the former, your opponent can’t profitably block either of your attackers and pretty much has to drop to 16. If you add in the Avalanchers he either takes four (or six if you can afford to pitch a land) or trades his bear for your Avalanchers and a land**.

Either way, your quick start and awkward-to-block creatures means that your opponent has to soak up damage instead of trading (if he’s smart, he’d love to trade his two-drop for yours). Even his three-drop may not be able to trade with your attackers, or you may simply have removal for it, in which case turn-three repeats and already your opponent is getting close to single digit life totals.

The counterpart to guys that are awkward to block is the “you can’t block” effect. Kami of Fire’s Roar takes a single defender out of combat every time you play a spirit or arcane spell and most sets have some sort of Falter effect*** that prevents some or all blocking for a turn.

Player damage. In my last article, I discussed the tendency of players to put “player damage” spells like Lava Axe (or Spike) into control decks. They don’t belong there – but they do belong here. Lava Spike deals three damage for a card, which isn’t terribly exciting, but in this archetype it doesn’t take much more for that to be quite good. Naturally it’s great if you’re able to splice Glacial Ray onto it, but even if it triggers Kami of Waning Moon so that one of your bears gets in an extra hit you’ve already upgraded from Spike to Axe. Moreover, the threat of doing so is what creates such difficult decisions for your opponent when he’s at 7 life and the board looks stabilized.

Is Kami of Old Stone a good card?

The answer is clear – it depends. In U/W control the answer is yes because it does an excellent job of achieving one of the deck’s central goals – clogging up the ground. In R/W Jank the answer is no because it does virtually nothing to achieve the deck’s goal of pushing through damage. The same logic applies to Ghostly Prison – a very sexy card for U/W control and at best an interesting sideboard card for Jank. Card value in the abstract is meaningless – what matters is how well the card fits with your deck archetype.

Next time I’ll cover some practical strategy for taking archetypes into account in actual drafts.

Hugs ’til next time,


* It took me quite some time to show proper respect for Battle-Mad Ronin (and if Ninjas hadn’t come around I might still underestimate him), but he’s extremely hard to block – he reminds me of Kyren Sniper, except he starts shooting a turn earlier and I’m not allowed to forget to do a point of damage. It may well be that he is better than the average bear – a bear will trade with most opposing two-drops, while the Ronin pushes past them to deliver the good news.

** Of course, many two-drop “bears” in Kamigawa have a toughness of one, in which case your one-drop has dealt a point of damage and then traded with its better, leaving you well-ahead in the exchange.

***Bedlam was the king of falters, preventing blocking forever – but of course, it suffered from costing four mana and the danger that it might be Disenchanted before the declare blockers step. Plus it was a rare, and Ultra-aggro players pride themselves on winning with bad commons, not rares.