Let’s Talk About The Rise Of Mardu In Strixhaven Draft

Ryan Saxe follows picks from top Arena drafter Alex Nikolic and gets new insights into the power of Lorehold and Silverquill decks.

Blade Historian, illustrated by Cristi Balanescu

A week ago, Alex Nikolic raced to the top of the Magic Arena Limited ladder only drafting white decks. It seems like the information that Temur late-game decks were the place to be finally propagated through the community to the point where white was open all the time. I talked to Alex recently, and his strategy still hasn’t changed. In fact, it has adjusted from almost always Silverquill to being some combination of Mardu, occasionally branching out to blue or green.

I’ve had success with every archetype except for Lorehold, so I set out to learn from Alex. Today, I’m going to go through a few picks from his recent Lorehold trophy. I’ll explain what I would have done, and then why Alex made a different decision. I found this process extremely useful to help shine a light on how I make slightly different decisions that lead me down a path to not draft Lorehold (which is likely why I haven’t had success with the archetype). This isn’t to say my previous approach is wrong, but it does give me an artificially poor view of a potentially good archetype.

Pack 1, Pick 2

The Picks So Far:

Inkling Summoning

The Pack:

Blade Historian Master Symmetrist Snakeskin Veil Start from Scratch Biomathematician Bury in Books Excavated Wall Fractal Summoning Mage Hunters' Onslaught Rise of Extus Stonebound Mentor Vortex Runner Quandrix Campus Silverquill Campus

The Pick:

Alex says this pick is clearly a Blade Historian, because it’s just the best card in this pack. I questioned this. Pack 1, Pick 1, my rankings of these cards are:

  1. Bury in Books
  2. Rise of Extus
  3. Blade Historian
  4. Master Symmetrist

While they’re all cards I’m happy to start my draft with, given the start of Inkling Summoning, I think I would end up on Rise of Extus. I think blue is the best color, and Bury in Books is the best blue common by a good margin (especially since it’s the only clean answer Prismari and Quandrix get to large Fractal tokens), but pairing Rise with Inkling Summoning sounds like a great start to a draft.

However, the data at 17Lands.com suggests I’m underrating Blade Historian. The card has a better win-rate (assuming in opening hand or drawn) than all the other cards in this pack by at least a full percentage point. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s the correct pick, but given that I expected it to be lower, I think I should re-evaluate my priors on the card in light of my minimal experience with or against it. I have always beaten it, and I have never won with it. But that’s not because it failed to impacted the battlefield, and rather because it was removed. A four-mana threat that says “remove this or I win” should be taken very highly.

Think about Archmage Emeritus. I would take that Pack 1, Pick 1 over all the options in this pack. It’s a four-mana play that poses a very similar question. It’s easier to cast, but I don’t think that should be a night-and-day difference, especially given that Alex, the top Limited player on Arena, has a preference for white decks. In fact, if I look at the data, Emeritus doesn’t even have that high of a win-rate. I’m not claiming to know what the correct pick is here, nor saying the data suggests it is Blade Historian. However, upon reflection, I think I need to re-evaluate my blue preference and start drafting differently in order to open up the avenues to drafting Silverquill and Lorehold more often.

Pack 1, Pick 4

The Picks So Far:

Blade Historian Environmental Sciences Inkling Summoning

The Pack:

Putrefy Fortifying Draught Solve the Equation Curate Eureka Moment Expanded Anatomy First Day of Class Guiding Voice Illustrious Historian Resculpt Springmane Cervin Unwilling Ingredient

The Pick:

Just like I believe you should highly prioritize Environmental Sciences, I believe you should highly prioritize Expanded Anatomy. Basically every single deck I draft, even the slow ones, wants a copy. The vigilance throws off racing, and plopping it onto a flyer or lifelinker is game-ending. Given that Expanded Anatomy is best in aggressively slanted white decks, I figured this pick was a no-brainer.

However, Alex took Guiding Voice.

P1P4: Voice VS Anatomy is always close for me. The tiebreaker here for me is simply that I have two Lessons and no learn.

Alex Nikolic

The pick may be close, but I didn’t think it was. I think one of the more difficult parts of this format is balancing your learn cards and your Lessons. Many times I go into Pack 3 with too much learn and not enough Lessons, or vice versa. This is a reminder that fluidity in pick order with respect to your current pool starts incredibly early in this format, and Alex is thinking about this balance in the beginning of Pack 1 — another adjustment I think I should probably be making.

Pack 1, Pick 5

The Picks So Far:

Blade Historian Environmental Sciences Guiding Voice Inkling Summoning

The Pack:

Deadly Brew Shock Start from Scratch Bury in Books Charge Through Cogwork Archivist Eureka Moment Infuse with Vitality Mage Duel Pop Quiz Tome Shredder

The Pick:

What’s interesting is, if I had gone my way this draft, I would very happily take this Bury in Books and lean into Dimir as I describe in my article earlier this week. That doesn’t mean Alex made the wrong pick, but rather we currently have different approaches to the format.

I have a preference towards blue, Alex has a preference towards white. I have a preference towards control, he has a preference towards aggro. Within these contexts, our picks make sense. But, I’ll note, Alex has been winning more than I have. And, given my preferences, I haven’t given myself the opportunity to branch out, and writing this article reviewing his draft is really showing me that.

Given this, Alex isn’t even looking at Bury in Books or Mage Duel. He’s just happy to take Shock. In fact, he says he would take Shock Pack 1, Pick 1 over Heated Debate. This got me thinking, and another discussion revealed that Shock is much more valuable than Lash of Malice. It boils down to the architecture of the red decks with respect to the black decks. Black decks have an abundance of good early plays. Prismari completely lacks them, so one-mana interaction is as premium as it gets in that archetype. And for Lorehold, the damage to the face is relevant and so is magecraft triggering for one mana.

Overall, Alex made a good point that I’m undervaluing Shock if I would rather hedge on a different color here.

Pack 1, Pick 6

The Picks So Far:

Blade Historian Shock Environmental Sciences Guiding Voice Inkling Summoning

The Pack:

Claim the Firstborn Mentor's Guidance Big Play Charge Through Cogwork Archivist Fuming Effigy Infuse with Vitality Letter of Acceptance Owlin Shieldmage Serpentine Curve

The Pick:

Serpentine Curve seems tempting, but with my pool already, I would likely end up on Claim the Firstborn or Fuming Effigy as solid cards in Lorehold. Claim is particularly potent against large Fractal tokens, and I think it’s not being played enough. But just when I thought I understood how Alex drafts, he took me for a turn.

He took Owlin Shieldmage.

This pick didn’t make any sense to me, especially after taking Shock. I thought we were locked into Lorehold. Apparently not. Alex said he loves Silverquill, and this hedges in that direction. But, more importantly, that Owlin Shieldmage is just an impressive card in these decks, and he’s often happy to splash it in variants of Lorehold and Witherbloom that could use ways to punch through damage, particularly with evasion. Splashing Owlin Shieldmage really wasn’t something I expected, but I agree, if that’s something I’m willing to do, then it’s probably the correct pick given Environmental Sciences is already in the pool.

Pack 1, Pick 8

The Picks So Far:

Blade Historian Shock Environmental Sciences Guiding Voice Inkling Summoning Owlin Shieldmage Stonebound Mentor

The Pack:

Lorehold Apprentice Start from Scratch Campus Guide First Day of Class Prismari Pledgemage Spirit Summoning Square Up Thrilling Discovery

The Pick:

Alex is clearly in the right archetype given that Square Up is the only non-castable card for a Lorehold deck in this pack. This pack tells me that I want to be Lorehold given the lack of black cards to make Silverquill seem less likely, so a good two-drop with a potentially relevant ability seemed perfect. I would take Lorehold Apprentice. Alex took Spirit Summoning, but believes it was a mistake.

His original logic was that he wanted to keep Silverquill open as an option, but upon review he came to the same conclusion I did, that it’s much more likely to end up Lorehold. However, he still doesn’t agree with Lorehold Apprentice. There are plenty of two-drops in Lorehold, and Apprentice isn’t even one of the best. He would rather take Start from Scratch as a potentially powerful Lesson to have access to.

This one I can probably blame my lack of experience in Lorehold. I figured the Apprentice would be a premium two-drop, but if that’s not the case, a Lesson that provides good coverage seems correct. Inkling Summoning, which is already in the pool, is a better creature to get than Spirit Summoning, supporting the logic that the only reason to take Spirit Summoning would be to stay open to Silverquill.

Going over other players’ drafts is a great way to help check your biases, and I think mine need a thorough re-evaluation to open the door for white aggressive decks. Alex took this one all the way to seven wins, and you can see the deck below.