Shards of Alara block has a heavy multi-color theme. There are 519 cards in the block (excluding basic lands) and 238 of them are multi-color; that’s almost 46%. There is a considerable amount of mana fixing. There are even hybrid multi-color cards. It’s not uncommon for people to draft three, four, and even all five colors. The benefits of such strategies include being able to play the best spells out of each color and their respective combinations.
Unfortunately, there is a major downside: the necessity of mana fixing. Drafters often must pass on taking a powerful spell and instead take a worse card that fixes their mana. In Shards of Alara block limited (Shards/Conflux/Reborn or SCR), drafters have become too enthralled with drafting three or more colors and have overlooked the benefits of drafting two colors. Drafting Red/Black in SCR is an overlooked strategy that goes against the grain of the format but is very rewarding.
Some of the most common arguments that people use against the idea of drafting two colors in SCR are:
1. Your deck’s potential is limited too much.
2. The power level of two-color and mono-color spells is going to be less powerful, on average, when compared to tri-color spells of the same rarity.
3. In a format with lots of mana fixing and tri-color spells to reward said fixing, why not take full advantage of the format and play as many colors as possible?
Fortunately, there are strong arguments to defend against their arguments and stick to drafting two colors in SCR.
Sacrifices must be made to draft more than two colors; namely, mana consistency. There are plenty of good spells in Red and Black to draft and yield a good deck. Shards of Alara and Alara Reborn are both incredibly deep for both colors. Unless you open or get passed some very good spells that are BR/x, there’s no real reason to stray from Red/Black. Red and Black are the removal-heavy colors in any set, which means you’ll have access to most of the removal in the draft. You won’t be in the position of having to pass good removal spells so you can take tri-lands or panoramas because you won’t need the fixing. Staying with two colors means that you minimize the requisite color-fixing that is featured in all of the other drafting strategies while taking the quality spells that drafters have to pass up in order to meet their mana-fixing needs.
Powerful cards have certain qualities; they may be rare, have many colored mana symbols, or just have a high converted mana cost. When you as a drafter decide to only draft two colors, the average potential power level of your blind draft pool is going to be lower than that of one which is more colors. However, the Unearth mechanic makes up for the loss of three-color spells. From my experience drafting, Unearth is not valued as highly as it should be. With the correct deck construction, Unearth creatures are 2-for-1’s on wheels. Imagine if everyone thought that. There’s no chance that you’d ever see a Viscera Dragger or Undead Leotau wheel ever again. Combine Unearth with a modest amount of removal, and in no time you’ll be getting favorable trades in every combat step.
Mana fixing comes at many costs. In addition to the change in pick orders, there are also problems during games. The main problem is that mana-fixing will cause people to stumble on their plays because they haven’t been able to use their panorama to get a certain color. Not having the right lands in play is going to slow them down to the point of being overrun by a more aggressive deck if they’re a normal/controlling deck or not be able to kill their opponent quickly enough if they’re an aggressive deck. Losing games because of not having the right color of mana is unacceptable; drafting two colors effectively eliminates the problem.
At this point, I might have been able to convince a portion of you that there may be some legitimate merits behind drafting Red/Black. Now what? There are lots of Red cards and Black cards in Shards of Alara block and it’s important to know which ones are better than others. There have obviously been drafting articles written before this one with pick orders. Some articles might have even gone into great detail about why it’s important to take Vithian Stinger over Resounding Thunder every time. For the purpose of drafting Red/Black, I’ve formed a rough list of the order that I draft in. These picks are not completely set in stone, and there are always considerations that need to be taken into account. Some people may disagree with picks here and there. Frankly, that’s fine. I win enough of my 8-4’s and 3v3’s to satisfy my beliefs. Believe whatever you want. For the rest of you, here’s an idea of how I rate cards and a bit of explanation regarding a few of them:
Shards of Alara:
Shards of Alara is very deep for red/black. In addition to the pick order, there are certain cards that are more likely to wheel which are at their best in a black unearth-heavy deck:
Death Baron: there are 20 cards that are either Zombie and/or Skeleton creatures in pack one alone. Crusade and Deathtouch attached to a 2/2 body for 1BB is quite good. The only drafters likely to select this card are going to be heavy black which means he’ll still be in the pack quite a bit for the last half.
Minion Reflector: Unearth is already unfair. Imagine how much better it gets when you get two guys instead of one for just an additional two colorless mana. Minion Reflector is more likely to get played in a deck than Death Baron simply because it’s an artifact and doesn’t care about creature type. It’ll more likely be played in conjunction with Forests because you’ll get more value per creature than with an Esper deck. However, with a heavy Unearth deck, Minion Reflector can be abused even more than a deck packed with Jungle Weavers and Mosstodons. Minion Reflector also has incredible synergy with Hissing Iguanar, Rockslide Elemental, and Scavenger Drake, all of which are cards that you’ll be looking for already.
Undead Leotau: I’m not really sure why I see this guy wheel so much. He really does a lot of work for a late-pick common. Undead Leotau is obviously less attractive to a drafter that can’t pump it, which is probably the main reason why he is not liked. As a Black 3/4 creature, Undead Leotau isn’t going to fall victim to most of the format’s removal spells without an extra hand to help. It is also large enough to be able to trade with any large creature, even a Jungle Weaver (yes, it could trade with anything!), and require multiple smaller creatures. Combine its good base power/toughness, +1/-1 ability, and Unearth and you’ve got a versatile animal on your hands. I’m always happy to play at least two of these in every red/black deck that I draft (pretty sure I still hold the record by attacking with four of these in one turn – LSV).
Once I’ve determined that I’m drafting red/black, the draft strategy that I use for Shards of Alara is to ignore the uncommon tri-lands and panoramas as much as possible, while focusing on the quality spells. A caveat: realize that tri-lands and panoramas (non-Bant) are still useful and should be taken if there’s nothing in the top 60% of the pick order (roughly). Sometimes you’ll get an early Infest which increases the value of cards like Blightning and higher-toughness creatures like Thorn-Thrash Viashino, Thunder-Thrash Elder, Undead Leotau, and Dreg Reaver.
A typical Red/Black deck is going to focus on being aggressive. Being aggressive allows you to use your Unearth creatures to their full potential, forcing the opponent into making unfavorable trades in an attempt to stabilize their board position. Vithian Stinger and Blood Cultist allow you to make sure you get favorable trades and keep the board clear of the early drops that your opponent wants to trade away with yours. While Vithian Stinger and Blood Cultist are not very aggressive, their role is still very important. As a deck gets more Unearth cards, it’ll slow down, which is fine. Don’t be afraid of Viscera Dragger, Scourge Devil, Corpse Connoisseur, and Undead Leotau because they cost a lot of mana.
Conflux isn’t the most exciting set for Red/Black. The commons aren’t great, which gives you the opportunity to acquire mana fixing in preparation for opening a card in pack 3 worth splashing like Lavalanche or Nemesis of Reason. Dark Temper is the best common to open, followed distantly by Armillary Sphere, Fiery Fall, and Drag Down. Armillary Sphere is deceptively good in red/black. Unearth is quite demanding on mana and Armillary Sphere provides an additional source of it as well as keeping the door open for splashing something nice. What Conflux does have is a lot of filler. Cards like Absorb Vis, Goblin Outlander, Wretched Banquet, Pestilent Kathari, and Yoke of the Damned are all fine to run, but not exciting.
Pestilent Kathari: This guy is another misunderstood creature. The main problem that people point out is that he is underwhelming for the mana investment. In an aggressive deck, the idea of playing three-mana 1/1s doesn’t sit well with a lot of people; that’s all well and good. I understand their dislike. However, if these naysayers took the time to try out this odd drafting technique and then try out Pestilent Kathari, they’d see just how versatile he can be. Against exalted Bant decks, they can’t attack into this guy alone if you hold three mana up which lets you race on the ground. Against fatty Naya and Bant decks, the situation is quite similar. Both opposing decks will have to find some form of removal to deal with the Kathari; pump spells won’t do it. When you’re putting the pressure on, blocking this guy becomes a pain. In order to kill him, multiple flyers are going to have to step into the way which opens you up to the option of: 1) trading with their best creature 2) play a removal spell on the second blocker after you resolve first strike and the resulting deathtouch trigger that kills the first. Now I’m not saying that Pestilent Kathari is the best thing ever because it’s not. It is good enough to not grimace when you register it into your next 40 cards.
Yoke of the Damned: As I’ve mentioned already, there’s a lot of removal in Red/Black (go figure eh?). Yoke of the Damned is definitely one of the more situational ones. There are times where you are forced to trade Yoke of the Damned plus one of your actual creature cards (no, not tokens) for one of their creatures. In those cases, that’s where Yoke of the Damned sucks. I’ve been there and it’s not very pretty. There are other times where Yoke of the Damned turns into Terminate or Annihilate. Having a Vithian Stinger, Blood Cultist, or Blister Beetle to go along with enchantment turns all of their small creatures into serious liabilities. They will probably get ambushed by it the first time. Afterwards, they might be more cautious to play that turn six Druid of the Anima if they know that you have Blister Beetle plus Yoke in your deck. When you see this card come up as a potential pick, you can evaluate its strength by the removal that you have already. Yoke of the Damned gets better as you get more removal to combo out with it.
Wretched Banquet: This is another situational removal spell that you’ll see pretty late in Conflux. The problem that it has in Black/Red is that your creatures are going to be smaller and be in play sooner than theirs, which leads to some awkward situations. Wretched Banquet doesn’t really help much when you have a Vithian Stinger in play. However, there are a lot of board scenarios where it’s still good. Oftentimes, it’ll kill their first two-power creature if it’s in your opening hand. You’ll be able to keep up the pressure by playing another creature during the same turn because it’s so efficiently costed. Other times, you’ll be able to blow the opponent out if you’ve got a slower draw and they play something really fat as their first play.
When I saw the spoiler for Alara Reborn, all I could think of was, “Wow, this set is deep.”
There are so many playables in all of the color combinations and Red/Black is no exception. There are only a few cards that you would normally be unhappy about running in a draft deck. At this point in time, I’ve only been able to draft SCR five times with my group over this last weekend. I haven’t been Red/Black every time (3 out of 5), but have still been able to get a feel on how the cards play out.
Giant Ambush Beetle: I think this creature is going to be undervalued for a while. He’s definitely on the higher end of the cards for Red/Black. Most people are going to compare him to Bloodpyre Elemental which is somewhat logical; he’s a five-mana sorcery-speed removal that does four damage to a creature. Giant Ambush Beetle surpasses Bloodpyre Elemental’s potential quite easily. The first obvious advantage that the Beetle has is that you don’t have to sacrifice him. The situations where the creature you’re killing has less than three power is where it becomes clear how much better he is. Being able to re-buy on smashing into small creatures or just bashing the player with Giant Ambush Beetle should really make it clear how good he is. There are times when you want to kill a tapped creature, like a flyer that has been attacking you, and Giant Ambush Beetle won’t be able to help you there. That is one of the few situations where Bloodpyre Elemental has the advantage.
Sewn-Eye Drake: This is another amazing creature. Red/Black isn’t going to be terribly concerned with blocking most of the time. Having a 3/1 hasty flyer as a common is just what the doctor ordered. While it’s true that he isn’t able to survive any combat, you should be able to use removal to clear its path of whatever creatures get in its way.
Monstrous Carabid: Why would I not rate this guy around the same as a Dreg Reaver? He’s five mana for a four-power creature which is quite similar to Dreg Reaver. However, Monstrous Carabid is so much better than the former. Having more than three toughness is incredibly important; simply put, it elevates the creature to a whole new level. So much of the format’s removal deals with three-toughness creatures. The new ‘blade’ cycle of creatures in Alara Reborn can’t kill a Carabid (except a deathtouch Grixis Grimblade) which isn’t insignificant. In decks with a lot of removal, what you really want to be doing is attacking while you blow up their creatures. Monstrous Carabid is quite good at attacking (so good, in fact, that it refuses to stop – LSV). In the situations where you need something else, you can just cycle him for one mana (quite economical).
Kathari Bomber: This card is a bit harder to evaluate. Initially I didn’t like him very much. However, he can play an important role with multiple cards that you’ll be drafting often. Kathari Bomber has quite a bit of synergy with Yoke of the Damned. You create multiple sacrifice outlets to trigger Yoke (by attacking with the Bomber or blocking with one of the Goblin tokens). It also helps fuel a deck with a lot of sacrifice cards like Bone Splinters, Fleshbag Marauder, Thunder-Thrash Elder, Thorn-Thrash Viashino, Tar Fiend, and any of the rare devouring dragons. Scourge Devil also gets a lot better (not to say that it was ever bad before) as Kathari Bomber serves as a one-man army. I’d expect most people to undervalue this card.
Veinfire Borderpost: It’s pretty obvious that I undervalue borderposts in two-color decks. They just aren’t as useful. However, there are still important qualities about them which must be acknowledged:
1) Having multicolored permanents in play is important depending on how many blade-cycle bears you have in your deck. Having a 3/2 with an ability is much better than a 2/1 with none. Considering the scarcity of multicolor spells from Shards of Alara and Conflux that you’ll be more likely to draft (Goblin Deathraiders, Blood Cultist, Goblin Outlander, and Shambling Remains), it’s important to keep in mind the necessity of a Borderpost.
2) In the case where you happen to be playing Sedraxis Alchemist, having blue permanents to make it a Man-o-War instead of a Gray Ogre should be considered. Mistvein Borderpost, Sewn-Eye Drake, and Grixis Grimblade help in that regard.
Demonic Dread: I’ve heard many people compare this card to Stun. It makes a creature unable to block and you cantrip. Demonic Dread fits into aggressive decks better than Stun ever did. If you have a high number of two-drops, Demonic Dread is going to be fine. It is more efficient than Stun. Why? Compare the two cards. Stun puts a card into your hand. Demonic Dread puts a card into play. If what you care about is playing small creatures and attacking with them, then skipping the whole process of casting your creatures is going to be much more appealing. The problem with Stun was that if you played it, there would be a point in time where you wouldn’t play a creature. There are obviously going to be times where you cascade into a non-creature card like Executioner’s Capsule or some other removal spell; is that really a problem though? It’s only really bad when you hit a Bone Splinters because you’d still have to sacrifice a creature if you wanted to play it. For the most part, Red/Black decks are going cascade into removal and bears.
While it’s important to stay focused on straight Red/Black, you need to acknowledge that you might open some card that you need to take and splash. Going into Alara Reborn, there are several rares that I’d be more than happy to splash for: Dragon Broodmother, Karrthus, Tyrant of Jund, Lord of Extinction, Thraximundar, Lavalanche, Madrush Cyclops, Maelstrom Pulse, Nemesis of Reason, and Unscythe, Killer of Kings. As I explained earlier, one of the reasons why I rate the Conflux landcyclers as highly as I do is because they are both playable and because they help set up an easy one or two card splash for a bomb that you open. The borderposts and landcycling creatures in Alara Reborn go up in value. If you’re splashing one card, you won’t need more than three total sources of splash-color mana (1 basic land, 2 other sources [Rupture Spire, Valley Rannet, etc]).
Drafting two colors in Alara block isn’t a common practice. Many people think that the strategy is questionable at best; they are wrong. Drafting two colors is a strategy that I’ve used for quite some time. It definitely works. Not every two-color deck needs to be Red/Black. I used the color combination as an example because it’s a combination that I prefer. While I like to have at least Black in the mix, all color combinations can work out. I’ve made very efficient Blue/Black decks as well as Green/White, Green/Red, and Blue/White. The unseen rewards of drafting two colors are waiting for you. Go out and stake your claim.