Being the most in the know player at your draft table is a lot harder than it used to be.
I remember the good ol’ days well. Pa would come home after a hard day of work at Old Man Mccarthy’s lumber mill, Ma would put the kettle on, and we’d all gather around the fire to listen to Marshall and Jon Loucks talk draft on the latest episode of Limited Resources. That was all we needed, and aside from an LSV video when we were lucky, all we had when it came to being in the know for the coming week of drafting the latest set. Some of us took our insider knowledge to our local FNM, easily 3-0ing our pod, and even those of us grinding MTGO would often encounter draft pods that clearly weren’t in the know. Formats took time to evolve, weeks, even months at times, and with a little bit of effort a good drafter could profit from a meaningful number of players not being (say it with me now) in the know.
Fast forward to 2020, draft formats don’t evolve, they explode.
The age of digital magic has rapidly accelerated the rate at which we experience each format. What are the best archetypes?– what are the best commons?– what’s the best color? are questions that you’d previously find the answer to a few weeks into a format through word of mouth or by trawling through some magic forum you stumbled upon, or of course, from your weekly dose of Limited Resources. But the way we interact with limited magic has changed and thanks to the ability to grind endless matches, crowdsource information from Twitter and Discord, and watch the best of the best players stream every step of their journey exploring each new format, these question seem to have concrete answers in mere days. On top of this all, we’ve experienced a content creation boom in the past few years. There’s a Magic podcast for every day of the week and I’m sure there’s two new ones releasing their first episode tomorrow. Everyone is in the know.
The rate at which information about new formats is disseminated means that it is increasingly unlikely that you know that much more than the person beside you in a draft. Your edge can no longer come from profiting off a gap in knowledge, as I believe you should assume that most players at the table are also in the know and not just going into the draft blind.
In this new age of digital Magic, a meaningful edge comes from an understanding that most other people at your table are in the know. Instead of drafting Blue/Red over and over weeks before others catch on to it being a good deck, you must now use the information that most players know that Blue/Red is a great deck to temper your picks and expectations of how open that deck is going to be. This of course is similar to what most constructed players know as a metagame, and while limited doesn’t have a metagame in quite the same sense, you can get a huge edge by recognizing what the level one understanding of a format is, and using that to your advantage. This doesn’t mean always zigging when people are zagging and this isn’t me saying “draft the tier two decks because people know what the tier one decks are.” What I mostly mean is develop the ability to recognize when the tier one decks are sufficiently cut at your table and learn how to optimally build the tier two and three decks when those are the correct decks to be drafting in your seat.
We’ll see how this concept applies to M21 in just a bit, but first I want to go over that level one understanding of the format, as well as some tidbits that have lead me to success in my first two weeks of drafting,
M21 Meta Recap – Two Weeks In
The most defining feature of M21, and the number one thing to keep in mind when drafting, is that M21 is a fast format. While slower decks certainly exist, I believe you would improve your winrate if you went into every draft thinking “I’m going to draft an aggressive deck.”
Not only are the aggressive decks just more supported at common than the midrange and controlling decks, but they are a good deal less finicky. Many of the pieces for the aggro decks are interchangeable, there are a ton of good tricks and two drops in the set that you’ll happily put in your deck. Conversely, the midrange and controlling strategies often need to pick up specific cards to do their thing, often relying on uncommons to function (Teferi’s Tutelage and the pieces to UB reanimator come to mind.) Not to say the decks on the controlling end of the spectrum aren’t good when they come together, but if I’m looking for consistency across multiple drafts, I’m going to be biasing towards aggressive decks more often. Feat of Resistance, Basri’s Acolyte, even something like Chandra’s Magmutt, are all clear picks over something like Obsessive Stitcher early in the draft for me, even if we discount Stitcher being a gold card.
You should be prioritizing cheap cards over expensive ones, even when the expensive ones might seem objectively more powerful on face value. My 5+ mana cards have to be exceptionally good to make the cut, and at risk of making an oversimplified blanket statement: barring rares, I’m trying my best not to include cards that cost 5+ mana at all. This really isn’t Colossal Dreadmaw’s format.
I want my manabase to be pristine in this format. I would highly advise against splashing unless you are absolutely certain it is correct to do so. You often just don’t have time to wait to draw into your fixing or lands of 3 different colors. I’m picky about my mana in two colored decks as well, often wanting to skew heavily towards one color if I can. In faster formats your opening hand matters a great deal, as those are going to be most of the cards you see over the course of the game. I’m aiming for consistency in both the cost and the colors of my spells, so playing expensive cards or trying to splash around means that your opening hands will often suffer.
This is my idea of an ideal curve in M21 and even though this kind of curve is typical for a RW aggro deck, I’m trying my best to have all of my decks have a curve that is similar to this one.
The Best Decks
UR spells, GW counters, and RW aggro hold the top spots for best decks in the format. You could argue that any of these three hold the actual top spot, but I believe that they’re close enough in both power and how consistently they come together that it’s not a meaningful distinction to make. These three decks embody a lot of what makes a good deck in this format. They’re composed of almost strictly cards that costs less than 5 mana, they have a streamlined aggressive plan, and while they certainly would appreciate a good uncommon or two, good versions of these decks can be built with just commons.
Past these top three I’ve taken a liking to GR beatdown.
I tend not to draft GR as the four power matters deck it’s billed as, and instead lean towards more aggressive builds. Decks like the ones pictured can deliver the beatdown, but also don’t fall prey to a GW or RW deck on the opposite side of the table. RG monsters just isn’t really a deck that works in the confines of this format, at least not consistently, and not without picking up a few Llanowar Visionaries.
GW, RW, and RG being some of the better decks means that early in the draft I’m biasing towards taking green, white, or red cards as I’m generally happy ending up in decks playing those colors.
Revisiting the Top Commons
My top white commons haven’t changed since the last time we checked in on them. There have been whispers from some players that I really respect that are taking Feat of Resistance over Basri’s Acolyte and while I don’t think that’s crazy, I still like Acolyte in the top spot. You’ll play as many copies of either card that you can get your hands on, so the question is really only relevant when you have to make the pick between the two. I maintain that Anointed Chorister is white’s third best common. While Gale Swooper is nice, the four drop slot gets clogged up quickly and Chorister excels in the racing situations that you so often find yourself in in this format.
Rousing Read has usurped Roaming Ghostlight as my top blue common. Efficiency is king in this format, and while Roaming Ghostlight is powerful, it’s five mana and isn’t as good when you’re on the backfoot as it may read. Often when you’re getting beaten down, this’ll bounce a cheap creature, a relatively painless tempo hit to the opponent, and not be able to block all that well. The card is still great when you’re a blue beatdown deck and you cast this on the play on turn five, but the fact that you can’t just put 3 of these in your deck comfortably has me lower on the card than I once was.
I was initially going to lament how black’s top commons are this motley crew, but then I realized I don’t feel bad for the color, it’s had it too good for too long when it comes to good commons. I’ve replaced Rise Again with Skeleton Archer in my number three slot, both because I’ve come way down on the UB reanimator deck, and Skeleton Archer does a good job at keeping the aggressive decks in check.
Shock wasn’t on my top Red commons last time which is just a massive oversight on my part. Shock is just too good in this format; cheap removal spells are a must and the card often lets you steal back the play when it’s in your opening hand.
If this isn’t an indicator of the speed of the format, I don’t know what is. Drowsing Tyrannodon taking the number one spot is something I’d never have expected going into the set. The card blocks so well, is relatively easy to wake up, and just does what the green decks want to do a but better than Llanowar Visionary. There are spots where you’ll certainly take Visionary over the sleepy dino, but I’m taking the first few copies of this little green guy over the elf in most of my drafts.
The Problem Child – Black
Black really got the short end of the stick this go around. Its commons are fairly weak outside of Grasp of Darkness, and most of the black archetypes fall flat. Take a look at Blacks roster of common creatures.
They all…kinda suck? Deathbloom Thallid, Crypt Lurker and Skeleton Archer are all fine cards, but none of them hold a candle to some of the better common creatures in other colors. One of black’s issues is that so many of the incentives in the format want you to beat down, and black’s cheap creatures just don’t tussle that well. On top of this, black suffers because it doesn’t pair well with what the other colors are doing. Red, white, and green are all aggressive colors and it’s sometimes difficult to draft a deck where the black cards don’t clash with what your other color is doing. It’s not even like a red aggro deck can easily snipe the good black cards to use as a support colour. Grasp of Darkness costs BB, and black’s other removal spell, Finishing Blow, is a card you generally try not to play in this format. This leaves black in a place where it pairs well with blue-UB is the best black deck by a decent margin-but the way to optimally build BR, WB, and GB is tricky.
For the first two weeks of the format, I believe you could get away with just not touching any black cards if you really wanted to. This was the position I advocated for, as people we’re just too willing to draft black. Many people knew that UR, GR and RW were the top decks and that black trailed behind the other colors, but you rarely encountered tables where people were hard avoiding the color. However now that more people are in the know, we’ve reached a point in the format where you do come across tables with multiple people just not touching black. I’ve seen Grasps of Darkness wheel, and 3rd pick Demonic Embraces.
I believe we’ve reached the point in the format that it’s possible to use the community’s level one understanding of the format to your advantage and draft black in pods where it’s clearly open. I’d even go as far as to say that you will train wreck a percentage of your drafts if you’re the one hard avoiding black every draft.
I want to be clear that I’m not trying to draft black, but I will when it’s clear there are no better options and it’s important to know how to draft it when the opportunity arises. The UB reanimator deck is fairly self-explanatory, but let’s walk through RB, WB, and GB, and talk about how to draft successful versions of these decks.
RB is billed as a sacrifice deck, but that theme just isn’t all that supported in this set. Sometimes the stars will align and you’ll get the nuts RB sac deck, but I’ve been drafting RB as a grindy midrange deck to a good amount of success. Cheap removal is a must to keep up with the decks that are trying to steamroll you, and with access to Shock, Scorching Dragonfire, and Grasp of Darkness, RB is well equipped in that department. If you’re able to kill a white aggro deck’s two and three drops, it’s usually fairly easy to stabilize past that point. While RB isn’t really a beatdown deck (although you will sometimes have draws with sick beatdown starts,) it has the advantage of being able to turn the corner quickly and end the game before an aggro deck can build their board back up to overwhelm you.
I find I often borrow themes from both UR and UB in my BR decks. Having access to Spellgorger Weird and Goblin Wizardry help you leverage your cheap removal spells, and I’ve often found myself with a slight reanimation sub-theme enabled by Thrill of Possibility and Kinetic Auger.
Another one of black’s themes that didn’t quite get there is BW lifegain. Just like BR sacrifice, once in a while you’ll get an insane version of the lifegain deck, but on average the best Black/White decks are just “white aggro with some black cards.” I’d had poor results with BW when I was trying to draft it as a grindy attrition deck, but once a player I really respect, BeersSC, told me I was drafting it wrong, my winrate with the color pair took a 180. I think the trick to this deck is taking the lifegain theme and making it work within the parameters of how games in this format play out. You don’t have time to be Revitalizing to bring out your Silversmote Ghoul turn after turn, but making aggressive trades to bring back your Ghoul after a lifelinker gets in a hit is very realistic. This is a pockets of synergy deck, you don’t have to go all out on the lifegain stuff, but you can still draft cards that make those payoff tick.
Auras or pump spells on lifelinkers with Feat of Resistance for protection is a pretty potent strategy. Your eyes do not deceive you, that is indeed two copies of Infernal Scarring in that first deck. Scarring isn’t “broken” in this deck, but it’s a cheap way to pump up your lifelinkers with a bit of a built-in insurance policy. The game is just over a lot of the time when you can stick a Scarring or a Dub on your Indulging Patrician.
Green black is a deck that eluded me for the longest time. There’s not really any overt synergy aside from minor “morbid” themes, and the best Green cards don’t play all that well with the Black cards. The best way I can describe GB is Pestilence Haze: The Deck. Pestilence Haze is a potent tool for combating the aggro decks that are running rampant in M21, and GB’s card pool is such that most of its creatures actually survive the sweeper.
This is a deck that you’ll certainly take Llanowar Visionary over Drowsing Tyrannodon. Tyrannodon is still fine here as an early blocker, but BG isn’t all that interested in beating down, and there’s not a ton of ways to augment the dino. Past that, this is a deck that you can certainly play Colossal Dreadmaw in if you’re set up to do so, you do want a way to end the game eventually. With its controlling, gum up the ground shell, GB is a good home if you want to dive into Sanctum nonsense, but I can not in good faith endorse that if you’re looking to win (100% endorse it if you’re looking for a good time though.)
I would generally avoid this deck unless you’re just getting absurd green and black cards late. There’s just not a ton of reasons to get into this deck especially when the gold uncommon Twinblade Maurauders isn’t one of the better cards in the cycle.
I want to leave you with a few traps to avoid, some that I fell into myself and some that I’ve seen others fall into.
1. Putting Teferi’s Tutelage in aggro decks
Teferi’s Tutelage is one of the best cards in the set, but you really need the right shell for the card to do its thing. Multiple times this week, my opponents have come out to aggressive starts leaving me on the ropes only to play Tutelage on a critical turn where basically any other spell would have meant the end for me.
You need a controlling shell for this card to be a card you want to include in your deck. Even if your UR aggro deck has a bunch of Opts and Crash Throughs, you’re better off having all of your cards contributing to the same plan and not just throwing in the misers Tutelage “just in case.”
2. Being a slow “unlearner”
Calibrating yourself to new formats takes time. If you’ve played limited for a while there are a few “soft universal truths” that I’m sure you’ve heard. “One drops are bad, combat tricks are mediocre, six drops are fine in limited” all spring to mind. While I’m not trying to argue that these statements don’t have merit, I would caution against using them as anything more than starting points. It’s easy to fall into the trap of using them as universal truths which makes the calibration process more difficult. It’s especially difficult to acclimatize to these changes when the format we just left may have really emphasized one of these ideas. For example, “combat tricks are mediocre” was true through and through in Ikoria.
In M21 combat tricks are actively good. I want 3-5 Titanic Growth/Sure Strike type cards in my beatdown decks as they help to leverage your cheap creatures, are pseudo cheap interaction, and can even help to reclaim a bit of tempo when you loose the die roll. In addition, players are often forced to tap out to get on board so there aren’t many windows for you to get blown out.
This is really a trap that you can fall into in any format but I think we’ve seen in out in full force in M21. Unlearning ideas that you’ve internalized as “true” can take time, and really throw you for a loop when a format comes around that opposes them.
Sanctum of Stone Fangs
This one tripped me up for a while, but I do think this card looking so much like Ill-Gotten Inheritance but being nowhere near as good qualifies it as a trap. Ill-Gotten Inheritance was a great card in its format, but Sanctum has a few things going on that make it a fair bit worse. Ravnica Allegiance was a medium speed format, the games lasted more turns on average meaning that you got more drains from Ill-Gotten Inheritance than you do from Sanctum of Stone Fangs. This card is also fairly bad any time past turn two. Taking turn two off to play this card is often fine, but if you draw it any time past that, it’s often just better to play a creature. IGI had the advantage of being a good topdeck as you could just dump a bunch of mana into it to get a big drain off.
If you’re in the shrine deck, this card is still good, but I don’t think you should be putting this card in your deck as a standalone shrine.
The path to being an informed drafter in 2020 can sometimes feel like there’s a lot of prerequisite reading to do. It can be overwhelming sometimes with just how much content there is out there, and how fast formats evolve, but something that’s really helped me over the years is learning to trust my gut. If you have an inkling that a certain card is better than the rest of the community seems to think it is, or if you’ve found a cool way to draft an underdrafted archetype, explore that feeling a bit more as it can be your lead to having an edge in future drafts.
There’s nothing cooler than being able to put yourself in the know.