Today I offer one of my rare Limited articles, since talking about Standard every single week only holds so much appeal, and I’ve had a surprisingly decent time drafting Gatecrash. Not only is it fun to play a relatively aggressive format, but I’m actually making the finals of almost half my 8-4 drafts, which typically only happens in core set draft. Since I’m much worse at Limited than 60-card formats, any success usually tips me off that I’m doing something correct in the drafting and deckbuilding portions. After talking with friends post-Pro Tour, I found out what I was doing correctly, and refined it a bit.
General Format Thoughts
1. Curve Matters Over Everything Else
I had a feeling early on that curve was going to be more important in this format compared than others. What I didn’t expect was that we ended up with Zendikar 2.0, distinguished mainly by the fact that blocking is now an option (and strongly encouraged). After many drafts both on Magic Online and in real-life team drafts, I said that curve was by far the most important aspect of GTC. By then, Ben Stark had already spoiled it for those who were following the PT Draft coverage and watching his draft tech’s. After the Pro Tour, people became more focused on settling into a guild, and slower decks were getting punished more often.
The baseline for starting your curve is two mana, and if your aggro deck doesn’t have 5 creatures at that slot, you have a pretty weak deck. If you play a control deck, or simply a slower, big creature Simic or Gruul deck, and get paired up against these aggressive plans without early creatures to block, you’ll quickly get run over and that’s the end of the road. Being able to trade early is so important against Boros—even against aggressive Gruul/Orzhov decks, bloodrush and extort mean low life totals get very precarious.
My initial Orzhov and Dimir decks were mostly trash, because I didn’t understand how important it was to prioritize my curve. I eventually corrected this, then applied it to my Boros and Gruul drafting, and my win percentage online kept going up.
I wanted decks with 20 creatures and 7 two-drops, and felt great whenever I got them. Outside of [card]Mugging[/card], removal is very expensive, and combat tricks that aren’t attached to a creature feel like situational removal at the best of times. The creatures are just so much better than we’re accustomed to, and battalion makes blocking unprofitable. If bloodrush and battalion didn’t exist, these decks couldn’t be played to anywhere near the same success, because the two-drops would lose too much value against the good defenders like [card]Crocanura[/card], [card]Basilica Guards[/card], and others.
I believe it was Ben Stark who said that the format was Zendikar, but 80% of players didn’t realize it was Zendikar. That would explain why I see so many decks gleefully taking six- and seven-drops so highly, especially low impact ones like the Primordials and [card]Treasury Thrull[/card]. Six-drops that have an immediate impact like [card]Aurelia the Warleader[/card], [card]Prime Speaker Zegana[/card], and [card]Foundry Champion[/card] at least provide immediate assistance. There’s a huge gap between the quality of [card]Dinrova Horror[/card] and [card]Ruination Wurm[/card], let alone between it and [card]Sylvan Primordial[/card].
Even if you could guarantee you’d hit your first seven land drops in the first seven turns every game, the majority of 7-drops aren’t worth playing. Nearly every 7-drop isn’t worth the hassle of having a dead card in hand throughout the game, and can rarely turn the game around itself—the important characteristic that people overlook when throwing a six or seven into their Gruul or Simic deck.
Unless you’re playing 5cc looking to accelerate these creatures into play, or throwing back-to-back haymaker cards, often you could have gotten more value out a relevant card. Most of the time the games are over against Boros and Gruul by turn seven, and against Orzhov aggro the end turns come down to either eliminating all extort creatures or running them out of relevant removal.
The key to dealing with these strategies is to be slightly slower and slightly bigger. A 4/4 for 5 has a lot more impact on the average board state, and those cards aren’t even good in the guilds that have access to them. If you haven’t read Matthew Watkins article on studying GTC draft, I highly recommend taking a look when you have the time. It provides a great data point to back this up, and I’ll just highlight the takeaway on mana costs:
“1. Gatecrash is a very fast format. You need to make sure that your deck has plenty of ways to interact in the early game, or you simply will not survive.
2. On this same point, you should avoid things that cost more than 5 mana, unless they are tremendously powerful.
3. Also, if you are having a difficult decision between two cards, you should usually just take the cheaper card.”
Once I fully embraced going cheaper, including turning my 4s into 3s and pushing 2-drops higher than most removal on my pick orders, I had much better and more coherent decks. Looking purely at commons in Boros, [card]Mugging[/card] is the only removal spell I’d consider over the following:
Syndic of Tithes[/draft]
A card like [card]Homing Lightning[/card] dropped in my pick orders quickly, not because it was a bad spell, it’s quite solid as removal. However I wanted to reach a critical mass of good two-drops, and I simply couldn’t do that in many drafts without valuing them appropriately. Mugging only gets a pass because it kills so much for R and still retains value later to remove a pesky blocker when alpha striking. [card]Sunhome Guildmage[/card] or [card]Truefire Paladin[/card]? Forget about it, outside of a handful of rares I’m slamming these cards in pack one unless I’m 5-6 cards deep into another guild, and even then I’m wondering if I can switch.
I know I’m harping at this point, but I cannot stress enough about how much getting consistent curve-outs is in this format. You don’t need an infinite amount of them, but having a curve of 6 two-drops and 5 three-drops with some assistance is going to win a ton of games.
Early on, I mentioned that I personally had no idea how to draft Dimir, and that it felt like the worst guild by a fair margin. Now that I’ve got a lot more experience, I’ll amend that statement. Dimir still feels the weakest by far, and it doesn’t have many powerful things going on, however it has two things going for it that I underestimated: It has access to the deepest removal color, and a borderline playable removal spell which is an undercosted solid in Dimir ([card]Death’s Approach[/card]), and it has access to a bunch of evasion including those with decent blocking bodies. In reality, the cipher cards were massive traps, since people built decks to specifically go with them when drafting an all-around good Limited deck was the way to go.
In fact, the Dimir’s best ability isn’t even in it’s own guild. [card]Basilica Screecher[/card] is one of my favorite high-picks just to help keep me alive, or provide a clock with [card]Deathcult Rogue[/card] if I end up more aggressive. Outside of that, I don’t even like cipher cards—[card]Hands of Binding[/card] is somewhat reasonable and [card]Stolen Identity[/card] is obviously unreal, but outside of that I only consistently play [card]Last Thoughts[/card] and [card]Call of the Nightwing[/card]. Those aren’t even going to make my deck all the time either!
The biggest drawback to Dimir decks is that often they have the fewest creatures of any major archetype, which leads to one sad truth: You’ll brick off more than the opponent when it comes to drawing dudes to trade with and are very prone to just dying as a result. This is why getting a critical mass of removal is so important for the Dimir player, and why, as a Boros and Gruul drafter, I actively want to have 17 or more creature in every deck (ideally 20).
3. Abandon Ship!
Don’t be afraid to jump off of a guild if it doesn’t feel open, getting committed and locking yourself to that guild is an easy way to throw away drafts. Usually I find that people are too quick to jump off their plans because one pick was a blank for them, but since RTR the opposite has been the case. People are terrified in 8-4s of missing out on whatever they started the draft with. Even when it becomes obvious that the plan isn’t going to work out, most players would rather force other players out and trainwreck multiple people.
The two most common guilds to jump ship into are Dimir and Simic, since blue is horribly underdrafted online, and even if there’s a blue drafter they aren’t necessarily on the same pick order as you. This is overlooked constantly when drafting, and usually only apparent when you see that one guy was the mill Dimir and you weren’t. Even then, people have very strong ideas of how to make a proper Dimir or Simic deck, and you can rake in cheaper cards with ease.
Half the 8-4 events online are the Wild West and [card]Disciple of the Old Ways[/card] tables, and in the other half there’s five Boros/Gruul drafters, one Orzhov, one Dimir and 0.5 Simic. The skewed pods can actually help you out a great deal if you don’t mind jumping ship after 3-4 picks.
There are a ton of late-pick playables in this format, and this is especially true if you’re in Orzhov or Dimir. Surprisingly, though Simic is the 3rd-5th choice for most players, it remains very hard-up for playables because you really need the Simic deck to come together. Unlike Boros or Gruul, where you can get a playable deck by just picking the cheapest dorks in every pack, Simic requires a certain number of engine cards, high quantity of creatures, and most of the on-curve green cards that get picked at by other drafters.
In Gatecrash I find I can fit every draft deck into one of these 4 categories:
A) The Nuts (Being the only drafter in a guild or one of two in a deep set of packs)
B) Pile (Terrible curve or three-color pile scraping for playables, usually an Abandon Ship! gone wrong)
C) Walls + Stuff (Slow Orzhov and good Simic decks without a lot of evolve, lots of ways to stall while their keywords + 4- & 5-drops take over)
D) Gimmick (5cc, Dimir Mill, Gruul Intentions, etc.)
My favorite gimmick deck was initially the [card]Spire Tracer[/card]/[card]Madcap Skills[/card] combo deck which proved quite formidable.
Over time, I realized this wasn’t so much of a gimmick as a perfectly reasonable way to play Gruul. Load up on cheap creatures and then abuse the bloodrush mechanic so you don’t snap-lose the games you flood. If anything, I found [card]Spire Tracer[/card] was an actual Magic card even without [card]Madcap Skills[/card], due to the few flyers in the format and the threat of bloodrush* forcing people to stop blocking.
*Just block. Unless you absolutely can’t afford to lose the creature, trading for the bloodrush effect usually comes out better than taking the damage and letting them play a fresh creature. If anything, I find players are too eager to snap off a bloodrush instead of trading and playing a [card]Slaughterhorn[/card] or [card]Viashino Shanktail[/card].
General Draft Hierarchy
Note that my view skews heavily toward 15-16 land Boros & Gruul, and I emphasize battalion and creature curve more than most. I’ve also listed the rares I’ve had multiple opportunities to play with. My ranking system goes with the cards I emphasis over others, only cards in tiers 6-7 do I actively avoid playing. There’s no particular order within the tiers, since most of the top choices don’t matter unless you open [card]Sunhome Guildmage[/card] vs. [card]Spark Trooper[/card], or a foil.
Notes: [card]Aurelia’s Fury[/card] is actually not a complete soul-crushing in the 15-16 land Boros decks, it makes people rage when you flood and steals wins though.
Assemble the Legion[/draft]
Notes: Cheap creatures with relevant abilities when you’re flooded are good, who knew? [card]Assemble the Legion[/card] is actually unbeatable if you turn five it against most decks.
Notes: Again, shocking, high-end creatures are good. [card]Holy Mantle[/card] is the best non-rare non-creature I’ve played in Boros and frequently overperforms. [card]Firefist Striker[/card] and [card]Firemane Avenger[/card] are the 2nd and 3rd best battalion creatures, Elite just gets the nod because it’s a precious one-drop.
Syndic of Tithes
Notes: Self-explanatory. Lots of good 2-drops, the best 3s, and [card]Madcap Skills[/card]. [card]Ember Beast[/card] is also incredible for a 3-drop, with a drawback that only comes up in games you’re losing.
Arrows of Justice
Act of Treason[/draft]
Notes: Removal goes up in packs 2 & 3 once I have the core in place. It’s hard to justify situational or more expensive removal when I’m unsure if my curve is going to be 3-4-5 or 2-3-4. [card]Armored Transport[/card] is very unassuming, but nearly unmatched at turning on battalion every turn it lives. It also plays nearly as well with [card]Madcap Skills[/card] as Spire Tracer, and is castable when you get the obnoxious mono-Mountains or Plains starts.
Gideon, Champion of Justice
Notes: Gideon has been underwhelming every single time I’ve cast him. He’s still a PW and can do a respectable amount of damage while being very tough to kill, but I prefer my four-drops to make more of an impact. [card]Five-Alarm Fire[/card] tends to snap win the game in a turn or two, or do absolutely nothing, making it similar to Gideon, but this one only costs three. The rest are all reasonable cards that just happen to cost four mana.
Foundry Street Denizen
Gift of Orzhova[/draft]
Knight of Obligation
Court Street Denizen[/draft]
Notes: [card]Massive Raid[/card] isn’t really this bad, but in the good Boros builds it comes off as a three-mana [card]Martial Glory[/card]. [card]Bomber Corps[/card] is nuts in Boros mirrors and terrible most other places, and the other cards aren’t aggressive enough for my taste.
Notes: The best rares in all of GTC? You don’t say.
Notes: [card]Skred[/card] is worth a high pick. Stop passing Skred, especially for the stupid double-striker. [card]Wasteland Viper[/card] also has really impressed me in the amount of work it can get done as a pump spell or a blocker.
[draft]Disciple of the Old Ways
Notes: Even though I skew lower on curve, even I have to admit how powerful some of the more expensive options are.
Notes: Bread & Butter creatures and the backbone of your deck. [card]Cinder Elemental[/card] might be worth kicking up a spot and the same goes with [card]Pit Fight[/card]. Definitely move them up in your pick order if you go for the more spread-out curve with heavier drops.
[draft]Ivy Lane Denizen
[card]Greenside Watcher[/card] moves higher with 1-2 Gates
Burst of Strength
That’s all from me, thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next week.