10 Big Lessons From 10 Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty Draft Trophies

Learning from MTG wins can be just as important as learning from losses. Jake Browne shares Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty Draft lessons derived from trophy-winning decks.

Memory of Toshiro
Memory of Toshiro, illustrated by Sidharth Chaturvedi

I spent the first 48 hours of Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty (NEO) drafts learning how to swear again. I got back to the basics. Truly connected with each of George Carlin’s seven words that aren’t fit for TV or this column.

Combat was a nightmare. Blocking seemed doomed, with channel turning creatures into tricks to blow you out. Not blocking was equally awful, as ninjutsu gave a second life to Virus Beetles everywhere. Sagas, which had been chiefly awful or niche in Dominaria, were suddenly world-beaters. Nothing made sense, which in turn made perfect sense.

Today, I want to run through a few individual Draft trophies and explain how I figured out Magic’s non-Secret Lair version of The Upside Down.

This Format Can Be Lightning-Fast

Back in my day, one-drops in Limited were either awful and commons or okay and rares. We also Time Walked uphill both turns. In NEO, I’m disappointed if my deck doesn’t have something to cast on Turn 1. Or eleven things, as was the case was with this deck. One-drops are the new two-drops for aggressive decks.

What changed? You’ll notice that most of these cards serve a purpose in the early and late game. Simian Sling, for example, is happy chipping in for a couple of points until a creature needs a Monkey buddy to help push it over the top. Reinforced Ronin can get you a couple of surprise points of damage out of nowhere, and then you can channel it away for a more relevant card later. If you’re on the fence about a one-drop, ask yourself, “How upset will I be if I draw this on Turn 7?”

Conversely, It Can Move at a Glacial Pace

Sometimes, the name of the game is staying alive. My average win with this Azorius deck came on Turn 10.85, compared to 7.57 for the Rakdos deck, and even that number feels low. When you dump eight cards from your graveyard to the battlefield, scoops happen.

White tends to play the slowest games, with sweet payoffs like Brilliant Restoration or Farewell to punish overzealous opponents. At common, you need to prioritize cards that set you up for future turns, like Era of Enlightenment and Imperial Oath (not pictured), because white control decks tend to run a lot of answers that may not be relevant in your specific matchup. Sometimes you need a Repel the Vile, other times a Lucky Offering. Having the correct card at your disposal is essential.

Multicolor Green Decks Are Back

Big green piles aren’t just something Bruce Banner hates picking up in the morning anymore. It’s been since Kaldheim that I’ve actively been looking to get into a base-green deck that can splash whatever it wants, but here we are again. Of course, having a cycle of duals at common doesn’t hurt, but it’s the incidental lifegain from cards like Geothermal Kami and Azusa’s Many Journeys (not to mention said duals) that keeps your head above water.

These decks tend to focus on enchantments since every color has Sagas you’re actively looking to play, with red being the least desirable outside of Fable of the Mirror-Breaker and The Kami War. As such, I find myself leaning Bant or Sultai most frequently. Two cards that continue to impress me in four-color builds: Spinning Wheel Kick and Imperial Oath. The former is a great way to spend all the mana you invariably accumulate, while the latter ensures you draw fewer lands while clogging up the ground. I never hesitate to pick up a Blossoming Sands to make it nearly free.

Or, Draft a Mono-Colored Deck

Single-color decks aren’t that widespread, but mono-red, in particular, has been on fire in this format. Somewhere, Paul Sligh nods approvingly. The deck takes advantage of several artifacts-matter cards that aren’t on the radar of most other archetypes and cobbles together a proactive 40-card list that preys on limping midrange decks. While you’re deciding to mull or stay, it’s the big cat crouched in the weeds of every nature video on predation.

I mostly find myself in this deck when it’s clear that Izzet Artifacts is open. “Why not Izzet?” asks Zoidberg from a meme a decade ago. Well, I find blue slows you down far too much without the payoffs it provides for Dimir and Simic decks. So if you’re going to venture into a second color, make it one that can support the aggression off a splash.

Adding Creatures to Sagas Changed Everything

After taking a Greasefang, Okiba Boss, I was convinced I had train-wrecked my draft. My Vehicle quality was poor at best and involved a questionable splash. It felt like something you’d draft in the first week of the format to learn a hard lesson.

Then I cast a bunch of Life of Toshiro Umezawas and didn’t drop a game.

Memory of Toshiro isn’t a particularly powerful creature, but when considering the front half, this is essentially two total cards in one, spread out over three turns. That’s bonkers for an uncommon. Getting a Turn 5 Imperial Oath off its mana ability is nothing to sneeze at, either. The mistake most people continue to make is evaluating the merits of Sagas based on the quality of creature you wind up with, not considering the value accrued along the way.

Small Pockets of Synergy Generate Big Results

I’m on the draw and cast a Turn 2 Tribute to Horobi. My opponent waits until they’ve accrued their maximum allowance of free Rats, then attempts to Repel the Vile the Tribute. In response, I cast Storyweave and untap with a 5/5 flying Echo of Death’s Wail that I draw cards from as I proceed to run away with the game. I have not cast Storyweave since.

In NEO, I’m a big proponent of viewing each card through the lens of what your deck wants to do, rather than where it fits in some nebulous pick order. In a vacuum, I wasn’t impressed with Golden-Tail Disciple. However, in my Azorius example above, it can combine with Michiko’s Reign of Truth to swing me out of the red zone. Planar Incision shines in optimized Simic decks full of enters-the-battlefield effects. This is one of the few times I highly encourage people to “do their own research.”

I’d Rather Ninja Than Warrior (or Samurai)…

Welcome to my “Aged Like Milk Draft” winner of the column. Above you’ll see my first trophy of the format. While there were some picks I’d love to have back, this run showed me how much heavy lifting a little synergy can do. Conveniently not shown: the Invoke Despair I thought I’d never cast.

Dimir is still among the top archetypes in NEO (you can read my ode to it above), but it’s also the most popular deck. Even then, it was a week (and a dozen or so drafts) before I wound up in that lane again. That was fine. Figuring out quickly it was a pauper format rather than a prince helped inform decisions about decks in other archetypes and seize on the power of the mythic uncommons. 

…Not Counting Boros

That is, unless you wind up in Boros. Without Isshin, Two Heavens as One; Raiyuu, Storm’s Edge; and fortuitous draws allowing me to take three consecutive combat steps, this deck would have been free lunch for my opponents. I’ve struggled with playing Samurai Warriors because each turn represents massive lost potential when you’re attacking with a single creature. If they answer your solo swing, all that’s left is a squad on defense that doesn’t defend particularly well.

Getting multiple Imperial Subduers onto the battlefield seems critical in my matches both with and against Boros, as opponents can lean too heavily on a single Bamboo Grove Archer to hold down the fort. Typically, your strong decks will result from no one else at the table biting. I’ve seen many Asari Captains available Pick 10 or later lately, with Risona, Asari Commander wheeling in a draft yesterday. When that happens, know how to draft it: cheap interaction and as many copies of Imperial Oath as you can jam in there. A 2/2 Samurai token with vigilance is what I’m trying to throw into combat.

Don’t Be Afraid to Splash

Would you be surprised to learn that there’s a Saga in this list that wins you more games than every mythic and rare in Innistrad: Crimson Vow that isn’t named Toxrill, the Corrosive? According to 17Lands, you’ll win 67.2% of games you start the game with or draw Fable of the Mirror-Breaker. Compare that to 66.9% with Halana and Alena, Partners or 65.8% with Avabruck Caretaker, and you can see what a little flexibility can get you.

If you’ve been paying attention to these lists, you’ve noticed I’m not averse to single-card splashes. In this primarily Selesnya deck, I don’t even have a red dual for fixing, depending on Commune with Spirits to dig me to a Mountain or Greater Tanuki to fetch one. Fable (and Reflection of Kiki-Jiki on the flip side) represented enough potential swing in power level that I shoehorned it in there. It won me several games I had no business winning. Don’t lock yourself out of possibilities when you open something broken in Pack 2 or 3. If nothing is exciting at the end of your early packs, speculate on an allied or enemy dual. Future you will thank you.

Please Don’t Make Me Draft Gruul

The one archetype I haven’t trophied with: elusive Gruul. To find this example, I went to the 17Lands list of recent trophies. Out of the 500 7-X decks, seven were Gruul. Only one was Platinum-ranked or higher. This is that deck. Cue the Law and Order noises.

It’s, ostensibly, a fine list anchored by the best green uncommons in Kappa Tech-Wrecker and Blossom Prancer. That might be the best thing Gruul has going for it: access to green. But, unfortunately, there’s only so much I can say about a phantom decklist that haunts me with its baffling record, so I’ll reiterate that I don’t like to or want to draft this archetype.

Lessons Still to Learn

I’m interested in what everyone is still trying to crack about the format, so don’t hesitate to hit me up on Twitter and let me know what still confounds you. I’m assuming we’ve all accidentally Assassin’s Ink’d our own creature thinking it was a Twisted Embrace at this point, so hit me with big-picture thoughts, and I’ll do my best to answer. But, before that, my questions for you:

  • Should Samurais always be Mardu decks and not just Boros?
  • Which matters more in Gruul: Iron Apprentice or Invigorating Hot Spring?
  • How many Life of Toshiro Umezawas would you play in one deck? What about Imperial Oaths?
  • Have you cast a Discover the Impossible and had it go well?
  • What’s the fourth-most-common creature type in NEO?
  • Pick 1, Pack 1. You can start a draft with any of the mythic Dragon Spirits. Which one do you choose?
  • How many sacrifice outlets are in this set?