Rules For Maze Runners

Prepare to play Return to Ravnica Block Limited at SCG Sealed Open: Charlotte this weekend by reading two-time Pro Tour winner Brian Kibler’s tips to being successful in DGR Draft.

The first weekend of tournaments featuring Dragon’s Maze is in the books. The StarCityGames.com Open Series came to Somerset, New Jersey last weekend and showcased the new cards in action. While there were no truly new decks that broke out thanks to the new set, Dragon’s Maze cards were on display all over the place, from Voice of Resurgence and Sin Collector in Chris VanMeter winning G/B/W Reanimator deck to the Sire of Insanitys in Owen Turtenwald second place Jund list.

But I’m not going to talk about Standard today. Frankly, I don’t know anything about it. Truth be told, I haven’t played a game of Standard with Dragon’s Maze. I haven’t even really thought much about it. Why not? Well, by the time you’re reading this, we’ll be only a week away from Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze, which is taking place in my adopted home town of San Diego. The format for that tournament is Return to Ravnica Block Constructed, so that’s where all of my brewing brainpower has been focused.

My policy is not to discuss the format of an upcoming Pro Tour since I certainly can’t risk giving away my testing group’s ideas and I don’t want to bother talking about it at all if I feel like I have to hold things back. Seeing as I haven’t played a game of the new Standard, haven’t played Modern except for my videos since Grand Prix San Diego, and haven’t played Legacy since Grand Prix Denver, that doesn’t really leave any Constructed formats to talk about.

So let’s talk about Limited, shall we? While Return to Ravnica Block Booster Draft may be one of the formats of the Pro Tour, it’s not nearly as information sensitive as the Constructed format. I’ve done around ten drafts at this point—two with the rest of the Stone Blade Entertainment crew with our Prerelease product last week and the rest over the weekend in Las Vegas, where I met up with the rest of my testing team to start preparing for the Pro Tour. The rest of them are still there right now, while I’m meeting up with them again in Portland for the Grand Prix before everyone comes down here to San Diego.

My results so far in the format have been very solid. My average record in the drafts I’ve done so far has been about 2-1, with a few 3-0s and only one 1-2 but not a 0-3 in sight. Keep in mind that this is largely against many of the best players in the world, many of whom I’d freely admit are stronger Limited players than I am. I’m well aware that my strengths generally rest with 60-card decks, so if I’m winning consistently against strong competition with 40 cards, it probably means there’s something to what I’m doing.

Here are the general rules I’ve followed in my drafts with full Return to Ravnica block so far:

Stay Open

This is generally a good philosophy for drafting in general, but it’s particularly important in DGR Draft. You need to pay close attention to what’s being drafted to your right and react accordingly. In many formats, certain colors may be stronger in some packs than others, but in DGR some guilds just don’t exist in some packs. Sure, you can pick monocolored cards out of the dry pack to try to make up for it, but if you’re getting the scraps out of your guild’s primary set, you’re in bad shape. If you first pick a great Selesnya card like Unflinching Courage and things dry up quickly, you’ll want to jump ship to a color combination that is flowing more freely. You’re not going to do well trying to draft G/W when you’re only getting first picks out of Gatecrash.

Since Return to Ravnica features Azorius, Selesnya, Golgari, Izzet, and Rakdos, those are the color combinations you want to be getting fed from your right to ensure you’ll get a solid third pack. Look for which of these guilds has strong cards left in the pack around your third-fifth pick—that’s likely to be your best bet to get hooked up in pack three as well. While most decks will end up with three colors, you don’t want to be setting yourself up to get the dregs in the pack where your guild is the strongest.

Pay Attention to What You Pass

Similarly, you want to be aware of how the cards you’re passing will set up the drafters to your left, especially your immediate neighbor. In most formats, I generally don’t worry very much about sending signals and just pick whichever cards are best, but signals are much more important in DGR Limited for precisely the reasons I talked about above. Gatecrash is home to Gruul, Boros, Orzhov, Simic, and Dimir—if you want to get the best cards out of one of these guilds, you need to be careful about what you pass. If you open a pack with three excellent Gruul cards and one strong Orzhov card, it may be in your best interests to take the Orzhov card to better set yourself up to reap the rewards in pack two.

It’s important not to take this too far, however. You shouldn’t pick a substantially inferior card just to avoid a potential fight over colors. Your neighbor could first pick a card in the same guild as you anyway and ignore the signals you send them, which means you gave up a stronger pick for nothing. In general, I consider the value of signaling to be essentially a tiebreaker between cards that are close in quality. In this format, I’d say it may bump cards up a bit more than that, but not so much that I’d pass a bomb like Blood Baron of Vizkopa just because there are other good Orzhov cards in the pack.

Go Big or Go Home

DGR Limited is significantly slower paced than the formats that came before it. A full cycle of common 2/4s in the first pack along with fewer shots at the blisteringly fast cards of the previous sets like Cloudfin Raptor means that games will tend to reach stalemates more often. This means that a lot of cards in the older sets that weren’t particularly effective in their respective formats can have a chance to shine.

The deck type that I’ve had the most success with overall in the format has featured these forgotten fatties quite heavily. My most played archetype has been green ramp, generally either Naya or Jund, featuring mana acceleration like Zhur-Taa Druid and Cluestones to cast big creatures quickly. From the new set, Armored Wolf Rider has done a lot of work for me, providing a big body that you can cast on turn 4 off of a Cluestone or Keyrune. He frequently finds backup from the likes of Ruination Wurm and even Terrus Wurm—the latter of which benefits from the slowdown of the format in multiple ways since large creatures and scavenge are both more valuable than they once were.

The real key to this strategy is in the Cluestones. Cluestones are far better mana acceleration than Keyrunes were. The problem with playing mana acceleration in Limited is twofold. First is the cost of playing it early when you draw it, which is mitigated in this format by the reduced aggression compared to previous formats.

Second is the risk of flooding out late in the game because your deck has so many more mana sources. Cluestones help with this issue by letting you sacrifice them to draw cards at a reasonable cost, getting you closer to your action cards. At that point in the game, I’d generally far rather have a card than a small creature like those that you get from the Keyrunes, especially since the sort of deck that wants to play with Cluestones in the first place typically has more expensive and individually powerful cards than the opponent. It’s a lot more impressive to draw a Gruul Ragebeast late in the game than it is to draw a 2/2—I can tell you that from experience.

Real Estate

The real estate market in the United States may still be recovering from the crash a few years back, but business in Ravnica is booming. I’m talking, of course, about Guildgates. Guildgates are in an interesting space in the new format, both because they’re more plentiful than they’ve ever been, with one in every pack, and because they’re likely to be in particularly high demand thanks to the Gatekeeper cycle, not to mention previous Gate-friendly cycles like Armory  Guard and Ogre Jailbreaker.

Guildgates are very important in DGM Limited. Because the format lends itself to three-color decks thanks to the guild system and pack breakdown, you’re going to find yourself with really bad mana if all you have to play with are basic lands. Lots of people don’t like taking mana fixing over “good cards” for their deck, but I think much of the time you’re going to be better off with a solid mana base than a marginally stronger card than what you’d otherwise end up playing.

Baseball analysis has a term known as “value over replacement player,” which compares how much a player adds to the team to an average player at their position. When you have relatively inexpensive talent available to you, you don’t care about the raw numbers your players are producing but rather how those numbers compare to your other options.

In Draft, you frequently end up with more than the requisite number of playable cards for your deck, and you end up making several cuts to trim down to the 23 or so cards you ultimately play. You have a lot of potential replacement cards when it comes to your creatures and spells. For your land, however, the only potential replacements are basics, and the value of a Guildgate over a basic is significantly higher than the value of one marginally playable card over another.

I brought this exact idea up and was met with the challenge that if having good mana was so important, wouldn’t it make the most sense to try to draft a two-color deck every time and be as consistent as possible without sacrificing picks for mana fixing? The problem with that logic lies in the guild breakdown and the relative power of gold cards compared to monocolored cards. Many of the best cards are multicolored, and each guild only appears in two of the three sets. If you only draft a single guild, you do have better mana, but it’s at the cost of missing out on many of the best cards from the pack in which your guild is absent.

I’ve definitely seen some two-color decks and have drafted a couple myself, but being able to put together a powerful two-color deck seems to be the exception rather than the rule. I suggest prioritizing mana fixing accordingly.

Anyway, that’s all I have for this week. I hope this general overview of the format was valuable for you—it’s certainly served me well so far. I will be in Portland this weekend playing Modern with Domri and friends once again, so if you’re there don’t hesitate to come say hi. I won’t be writing next week thanks to Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze, so the next time you hear from me will be in two weeks, hopefully with a tale of victory at my hometown Pro Tour—and maybe the Grand Prix too. Wish me luck!

Until next time,