A Cautionary Tale:
The year is 2012 and I am very bad at Magic.
My favorite card is Azor’s Elocutors, the format my friends and I play is some unholy mashup of INN-RTR standard and Alara block cards we found on Ebay, and aside from stumbling across a video where some guy named Jon Finkel is being interviewed about his latest Pro Tour “draft,” I know nothing about limited. But on a Friday night with nothing better to do, hand over ten bucks over to the LGS cashier, locking in as the 8th player in a draft pod that’s about to fire.
Before I get the chance to finish my “how Magic draft” Google search, our pod is called I’m at the draft table. Sitting on my hands, visibly nervous, I ask the guy next to me, “any last-minute tips for a newbie in his first draft?” His advice? “Haha yeah, I usually just take the rare out of my first pack and build a deck around that.”
I figured this guy probably knew more than me and decided to take his sage advice. To my misfortune, the rare that I opened happened to be Search the City, pretty much the worst rare you could open in Return to Ravnica.
That deck didn’t win a single game,. but man did it play a lot of Catacomb Slugs.
So what’s can you learn about drafting from my unfortunate experience? I think the story is a cautionary tale about content and power level around each rare or mythic in a set. A more experienced player than 2012 Alex would have understand the subtext of “take the rare if the rare is good.” With little to no context and certainly no ability to make a nuanced decision, I made an objectively incorrect pick.
Pack 1, Pick 1 hurdles
Most intermediate level players won’t have this issue but often falter in other places. They can identify when a card is “good” or “bad” but thinking about cards in such binary terms makes it difficult to make tough decisions when picking between the rare and good commons/uncommons in the pack . The more advanced players will often assign grades to each card, but even then, without understanding exactly why a given card is a B, it’s hard to make an informed decision when choosing between a rare B an an uncommon B Pack 1, Pick 1 [P1P1].As a community, we spend less time evaluating rares and mythics than we do commons and uncommons. The real limited junkies even split hairs about what the 7th best red common on week 5 of the format is, but the discourse around rares doesn’t usually get past: “Yeah that one’s pretty good.” It makes sense, given rares and mythics take up less set real estate than the commons and uncommons, but if your goal is to make the most informed decision it’s important to have a granular understanding of just how good each rare and mythic is.
When you crack your first pack and and you’re faced with the choice between Pack Leader and Basri’s Acolyte, you may find yourself stumped if you haven’t put in the work beforehand.
Misevaluation of rares is more common then you might think. Many players never question if a flashy looking mythic might be worse than the set’s best commons, or if that “do nothing” enchantment is actually much better than it looks. Set reviews do a good job of highlighting the format’s oddball rares early on, but don’t always cover everything. Cards that are dismissed early often get a bad grade and since you have less chances to pick them, they never get revisited.
In M21’s lifecycle, you’ve likely encountered many of the set’s rares and mythics, but you may still be confused about how the card plays out or where to pick it relative to the other cards in the set. It’s a good time to walk through an exercise I like to carry out in each format: Putting the rares into rough tiers in relation to the best commons and uncommons. Figuring out the worst rare you’ll take over the best uncommon is a good way to alleviate decision paralysis for P1P1. As I mentioned before, just putting a grade to a name often isn’t enough to make informed decisions once you start talking about picks past P1P1, so I’ll go into the “why” behind each grade.
The cards in each tier roughly in order from best to worst, but there’s certainly a conversation to be had about exact placement. As a final clarification, all rankings and comparisons are only talking about pick 1 pack 1. This is just a reference point to understand each rare and mythic, not a paint by numbers draft guide.
Tier 1: The Best of the Best
These are the best cards in the set, the cards you’ll take over every common and uncommon every time:
Terror of the Peaks: A+
It’s not like that debating which S-tier bombs is the best really matters, but Terror is my take for the best card in the set — full stop. It comes down and threatens to end the game in a turn or two. Even when the opponent has an answer that gets the dragon off the board, it slugs then in the face on the way out the door. Just a fantastic card and often worth pivoting into red for even in pack three.
Elder Gargaroth: A+
It’s funny how Baneslayer Angel isn’t even the best Baneslayer in the set. One of the common themes across the best-of-the-best cards is they’re great when you’re ahead, but also great when you’re behind. Gargroth is the epitome of this. Yes, it does die to removal, but you don’t have to slam it on turn five every time, you can try to draw out removal beforehand or play it on a later turn while holding up a protection spell.
Brash Taunter: A
Hand’s up if you’ve been personally victimized by Brash Taunter. I know I have. What looked like a slight upgrade to Stuffy Doll turned out to be one of the best (and frankly most obnoxious) cards in the set. Unless you’re exceedingly far ahead or have one of the few removal spells in the set that deal with this card, Taunter card comes down, stabilizes the board, and ends the game in a matter of turns. Trample is fairly effective against this card as only the first point of damage will be dealt to it so Crash Through becomes an oddly effective tool against the card. All in all Taunter is great and one of the few cards I’d consider splashing for in M21.
Chandra, Heart of Fire: A
While not all the Planeswalkers in this set are stellar, Chandra certainly is. Between having a bunch of loyalty, picking off small threats and refilling your hand, there aren’t many game states where Chandra doesn’t dominate when she comes down. Be careful not to use the wrong plus ability and discard your hand when you mean to deal two. Maybe it’s just a struggle I have with the card, but I’ve done this multiple times.
Baneslayer Angel: A
What a world we live in where Baneslayer isn’t the best card in the set. Should we just start calling them Mulldrifters and Gargaroths at this point? In all seriousness, Baneslayer still slays. Like Elder Gargaroth, even though she dies to most of the removal in the format, you can play around it — so consider not just jamming this card on turn five every time.
Sublime Epiphany: A
Otherwise known as Very Very Cryptic Command, it’s hard to imagine a board state where you aren’t ahead after casting this card. When you already have a good board, you slam the door on any chance your opponent had to catch up. When you’re behind you at minimum get to make a creature, bounce one of your opponent’s creatures and draw a card for your troubles. When you end up with Sublime Epiphany in your pile, be sure to prioritize Experimental Overload and Shipwreck Dowser, especially the latter as it creates a recursion loop with Epiphany.
Ugin, the Spirit Dragon: A
Even though M21 is a hostile environment for casting eight-drops, Ugin gets a pass as it’s about as close to “eight-mana: you win the game” as you’re going to get. When you start a draft with Ugin you really want to be building a deck where your goal above all else is “survive until you can cast Ugin.” So stock up on Wall of Runes, Palladium Myrs and draws spells. I’m always going to start with Ugin P1P1, but there have been multiple times where I’ve ended up in a streamlined Green White or Red White aggro deck and left the card in my sideboard.
Basri’s Lieutenant: A
Basri’s Lieutenant is a stalwart of raw efficiency. Nothing fancy going on with this card, just a lot of stats and abilities for four mana. It lets your creatures die into other creatures, is a brick wall that’s hard to attack through, and happens to play particularly well in GW, the best deck in the format.
Radha, Heart of Keld: A
Radha easily meets and surpasses the threshold of power required to first pick a gold card. She provides card advantage in the early game, turns into The Abyss in the late game, and straight up kills your opponent if you can find a way to give her trample. My bar for splashing is high in this format, but Radha is one of the few cards I’d consider trying to splash for in a Blue Green or even some Green White decks.
Primal Might: A-
Primal Might may look like your run of the mill fight spell with a bit of upside, but it plays out closer to a fight spell/Fireball split card. First and foremost, Primal Might is about as efficient and flexible as removal spells come, you aren’t getting a better deal on basically any other removal spell in the set. The fireball mode of the card turns on when you reach 5+ mana and target one of your fliers or tramplers with it, as often times you’ll get a key blocker out of the way and hit your opponent in the face for a truck load of damage.
Volcanic Salvo: A-
If I had a nickel for every time Volcanic Salvo was passed to me P1P2 in this format, I’d have just about enough to buy a Volcanic Salvo (from channelfireball.com using affiliate code CHORD of course.) This is the exact type of card that people pass on because it looks weird, they haven’t really put time into figuring out if it’s any good and they default to taking a lesser card instead. At 6 mana “destroy two target creatures” is a great card and getting to that point is much easier than it seems. You also end up with some absurd draws where you cast two-drop, three-drop, four- drop, then cast this for 1RR on turn 5 and at that point the game is basically over. There are times where your opponent is particularly removal heavy or you’re forced to trade each turn and Salvo is hard to cast, but those times are far outweighed by the times this card is absurd.
Scavenging Ooze: A-
Scavenging Ooze is just about the perfect rare for limited. It’s powerful yet never obnoxious; you’re excited to open it but your opponent isn’t filled with dread to see it on the other side of the battlefield. Ooze is nice in a format like M21 limited that focuses on combat. Creatures trading means it’ll have more than enough food to eat, will often be the biggest thing on the field and gives you a little life buffer in racing situations. The cherry on top is it also randomly hoses the Blue Black reanimator deck if they can’t kill it, so I guess maybe I should take back my comment about it never being obnoxious.
Pack leader: A-
What looks like a niche rare for some commander deck is actually one of the best cards you can open for your White aggro decks. There isn’t an overabundance of dogs running around, but it’s not uncommon for five or six of them to make their way into your deck and turning even one dog into a buffed-up, combat resistant super dog is quite good. The kicker here is that Pack Leader grants its ability to itself so even with no other dogs in your deck, this does a decent Seasoned Hallowblade impression
Jolrael, Mwonvoli Recluse: A-
Jolrael takes a little work to make good, but in the right deck she’s excellent. All of your Opt’s and Llanowar Visionaries making a 2/2 means she’ll take over the game if she sticks around for long. Even when you draw her later in the game, she threatens to make your team huge if you can hold lands for a few turns or cast a big draw spell. My one caveat with this card is not trying too hard to make her work. Don’t just jam a bunch of Track Downs in your Green White beatdown deck, but if you have 4 or 5 ways to incidentally draw cards she easily makes the cut.
Tier Two: Take these over every common and uncommon except Seasoned Hallowblade
Usually when I make these tiers, tier two is “Take these over most cards, but under the premium commons and uncommons”, but Seasoned Hallow Blade is in a league of its own so it felt odd to lump it in with the rest of the standout uncommons. This tier has a lot of gray areas and requires a bit of a closer look to get to the bottom of just how good the cards are compared to the commons and uncommons. Many of the cards in this tier are great cards, but they either don’t give you as much for their mana as Hallowblade or suffer from environmental factors present in the format (read: is a black card.) In any case, all the cards in this tier are very close to Hallowblade in power and I wouldn’t fault anyone for taking them over the uncommon.
Massacre Wurm: A-
Massacre Wurm is an absurd card but suffers a bit in this format from being both a black card and a six drop. Its stabilizing effect does make up for its cost to some degree but know that it’s not the auto-win button that Ugin is, as I’ve attacked past quite a few Massacre Wurms for lethal. I’ve seen this card go 4th pick and even though I do love a good hot take, that’s too hot for even my blood, as I can’t construct a pack where I think this card should go that late.
Demonic Embrace: B+
This is another card that l often get 3rd or 4th pick. I’m not sure if that’s due to its color or due to a miss-evaluation of the card but I’m happy to pick up what my neighbors are putting down. Embrace turns any creature into a game ending threat and mitigates most of the downsides that a typical aura has. When I have this card in my pile, I’ll try to steer into a more aggressive leaning black deck, as your controlling decks get a little less mileage out of the card and paying three life is a steeper cost in a deck looking to turtle up. Even still, If I end up in a controlling deck, I’m not cutting this card as it still plays the role of a decent finisher.
Vito, Thorn of the Dusk Rose: B+
Vito sort of looks like a build around, and you can bias your picks towards cards that play well with him, but he’s just great in any deck with creatures. Granting lifelink to your team is powerful and if your opponent is low enough on life you can pay five mana for a Lukka, Coppercoat Outcast ultimate. Vito even has some solid meme potential if you’re into that kind of thing, as you can build your own Zenith Flare with Life Goes On.
Subira, Tulzidi Caravanner: B+
Subira is a fantastic little beat down card. She’s good on curve, as a 2/3 haste generally won’t trade, especially on the play, and she’s a must kill creature later in the game. She’s particularly fond of her fiery doggo friend Igneous Cur and has a few other cute combos like Jeskai Elder and Library Larcenist.
Basri Ket: B+
Basri is a good Planeswalker but not a great one. When you can curve out with him on the play he’s fantastic and really hard to overcome for any opponent who hasn’t been keeping pace. But when you’re on the back foot, he doesn’t do much to help you and is often a liability. If you don’t think you’re in a position to have Basri survive a full turn cycle, don’t be afraid to just use his negative ability for a single use burst of tokens.
Garruk Unleashed: B+
Like Basri, Garruk is good not great, but amazing if you’ve curved into him on the play. When you’re a green deck that wants to beat down and you’ve gone Drowsing Tyrannodon into Trufflesnout into Garruk, you clock the opponent at such an incredible rate. His minus ability is fine as well. If you have to make a beast and then lose Garruk that’s still a good deal, but ideally, you’re just plusing until you win.
Garruk’s Harbinger: B
4/3 for 3 is keyword: large in this format. The hexproof from black isn’t massively relevant but I do get a sick sense of satisfaction when I play this on turn three, and the opponent taps and then untaps their two swamps. Pairs nicely with Setessan Training or Pridemalkin, serve in a 10+ forest deck, voila!
Stormwing Entity: B
A 3/3 prowess flier for five that scries 2 on ETB would already be a decent card, but when you cast this on turn 3 after casting an Opt or a Crash Through, it really feels like cheating. Even when you can’t turbo this card out, being able to double spell with this card on turn five or six is often a huge tempo swing.
Mazemind Tome: B
I really like Mazemind Tome. Part of its appeal is being colorless, and true colorless as in “I will put this card in any deck I draft” not colorless like Short Sword is “colorless.” It’s great in a midrange or control deck but is also still good in an aggressive deck. It’s a good grinding tool vs. decks trying to go bigger than you and when you’re facing an opposing aggro deck, the zero mana ability gives you some card selection while working towards a 4 point life buffer. If you’re getting beat down, you can even start to make slightly unfavorable trades when knowing that you’re buying yourself a bit of time to activate the card draw ability once you’ve stabilized.
Glorious Anthem: B
An oldie but a goodie, Glorious Anthem is great in any deck trying to beat down, and solid in any deck with 14+ creatures.
Tier Three: Take these over most cards, but under the premium commons and uncommons
For reference these are the types of cards I’m referring to when I say premium commons and uncommons; the top few uncommons in the set and the top commons in each color:
Mangara, the Diplomat: B-
Mangara is sort of flashy and has an exciting text box but in practice is less potent than quite a few of the set’s commons. Seeing as most of the white decks in the format are beat down decks and Mangara wants to play a bit of a slower game, he’s not often the four drop of choice. You’re rarely cutting this card from your deck, but if you’re a white aggro deck going into pack three and you open Mangara, Basri’s Acolyte, Feat of Resistance, and Gale Swooper, you’re better off taking one of the commons.
Barrin, Tolarian Archmage: B-
Barrin is a nice little tempo card. He’s a cool variation on Man-o’-War that can net you a bit of card advantage if you aren’t too far behind on board. While there aren’t many sick combos with Barrin in M21, you can set up a draw engine with Niambi, Esteemed Speaker if you happen to pick up both rares.
Gadrak, The Crown Scourge: B-
I often see Gadrak jammed into more decks than I think he belongs in. While there’s no deck that he’s unplayable in, aggressive decks generally don’t want him in the main as it takes too long to wake him up. I’ve found that Red Black makes good use of him since that deck wants to grind a bit longer than most other red decks in the format.
Double Vision: B-
Double Vision isn’t just a meme, it’s really good. Giving Double Vision a B- is a bit of a cop-out. When it’s in a deck that supports it, it’s closer to an A- but it does require a bit of building around. The card becomes playable with around eight spells but once you get to about ten, the card is great especially if any of those spells are cheap removal spells.
Animal Sanctuary: B-
I tend to take this card higher than most people. It’s a real threat with even just one Bird, Cat, Dog, Goat, Ox, or Snake — big breath in — on your side of the field. I see this card wheeling and I don’t think that should happen in most drafts. If you’re putting this card in your deck, just remember to count your colored mana sources, you may want to go up to 17 or 18 lands to still be able to cast your spells on time.
Ghostly Pilferer: B-
A super solid card. If you can find ways to get this in without having to activate it, it starts to snowball and even if you can’t it’s a nice little looting machine that pecks in for a few points. Bonus points if you ever draw a card from your opponent casting a Demonic Embrace from the grave.
Solemn Simulacrum: B-
Solemn is a fine value card but suffers a bit in this format due to not all that many decks wanting a 4 mana 2/2. It’s still a great speed bump in decks that want to go long but consider that it’s not always going to make the final cut.
Pursued Whale: B-
Pursued Whale is a nice payoff for a reanimator or ramp deck but of course, that comes with the caveat that those decks don’t make up a huge slice of the decks you’re likely to draft in M21.
Teferi, Master of Time: C+
Most of Teferi’s value comes from what you’re doing with the plus ability. If you’re using it to trigger his Tutelage or pitch a reanimation target, I like him a decent amount. If your deck doesn’t care about the act of drawing cards or filling up the grave, Teferi will most often give you a few loots and gain some life. This isn’t a bad floor, but it’s not inspiring by any means.
Liliana’s Standard Bearer: C+
These types of cards always play out a bit worse than they look. It’s easy to envision a situation where a large combat happens and you draw four cards off of this, but the majority of the time you’ll be flashing this in after one of your creatures trades or is sniped by a removal spell. 3 mana 3/1 draw a card is still a good card, just don’t set your expectations too high with this one.
Fiery Emancipation: C+
Most of your red decks won’t want a 6 mana enchantment, but in a slower deck like RB, this is a good top end card. It pairs particularly well with Goblin Arsonist, Chandra’s Magmutt, and Pitchburn Devils, but is also a fine stand alone card effectively tripling your creatures’ power.
Hooded Blightfang: C+
Hooded Blightfang is a nice little defensive card which plays into what most black decks in the format want to do. There aren’t many deathtouch creatures in the set so don’t expect to get a ton of triggers off of this thing but the stat line of 1/4 deathtouch usually requires two cards or a good removal spell to get past. Fetid Imp up goes up in stock a tick if you find yourself with a Blightfang in your pile as it can attack for “two” in the air.
Sporeweb Weaver: C+
Sporeweb Weaver is a great defensive option; it reminds me a lot of Hooded Blightfang. Not the splashiest card in the world but is a real pain for the aggressive decks to deal with. You won’t often want this in Green-White or Red-Green but Blue-Green and Green-Blue love it.
Karavek, the Spiteful: C+
I like to think of this one as a companion where the requirement is your deck contains no x/1’s. Karavek is powerful but requires some set up to have a deck that makes good use of him. Green-Blue is likely the best deck as most of your creatures in that color pair survive the debuff, but Blue-Black is a good home for it as well. I will say that as someone who has played a lot of white aggro decks in this format, I really hate seeing Karavek on the other side of the field.
Tier Four: Playable cards, but there will almost always be commons or uncommons better than these cards to P1P1
Temples and Fabled Passage: C+
In a set with more incentives to splash, these may be higher picks but given M21’s no nonsense nature, taking lands early to be able to play multiple colors isn’t a high priority. You’re happy to take these once you’re already settled in a color pair, but rarely am I taking them in the hopes of splashing something.
Idol of Endurance: C+
I like Idol a fair bit. You’ll generally want to aggressively trade with your opponent’s cards and then slam this after the dust has settled. It’s not the fastest way to build your board back up, but it’s a pain for the opponent when they’ve already spent a bunch of resources trying to deal with your early aggression.
Liliana, Waker of the Dead: C+
Liliana just isn’t a great card. It’s difficult to break the symmetry of her plus ability and you’re lucky if the negative ability kills an x/3. You can play the card and It’ll do things, but this is not Liliana’s finest outing.
Chandra’s Incinerator: C+
This is largely a Colossal Dreadmaw that gets cheaper when you tap your Chandra’s Magmutts. Occasionally you’ll get some value from its other ability, but it’s not something you should really consider when deciding where to draft it.
Feline Sovereign: C+
The dogs win this round! Unlike Pack Leader, the ability that Feline Sovereign grants isn’t exactly s back breaking. There will be times when it’s relevant, you may even catch an opponent who didn’t read to the bottom of the card off guard, but more times than not the disenchant ability will be trinket text. On the flip side of this, there are times that you’ll just happen to end up with 6 other cats and this card will be quite good, but that happens less frequently than the times you end up with a similar number of dogs.
Niambi, Esteemed Speaker: C+
Niambi isn’t splashy or exciting, but she does provide a good bit of utility. Sometimes you’ll save a creature from a removal spell, salvage a combat that’s gone sour, or just gain a few life in a race. You generally want to wheel this card but I’m happy to play her in any Blue White deck.
Teferi’s Ageless Insight: C
Teferi’s Ageless Insight is a lot like Double Vision except more niche and has a lower ceiling. To maximize on this card you want to draft a bunch of looting effects or cantrips like Opt and Skyscanner; it’s much less about picking up the more expensive draw spells like Rain of Revelation that already draw you a bunch of cards. Here’s a good example of a deck that makes good use of the card.
Speaker of the Heavens: C
Your white aggro decks often want one drops to ensure you have enough creatures to pump up with your more expensive cards and while Anointed Chorister is your one drop of choice, Speaker does an ok impression. There’s also times that you play Speaker on turn one, play a Daybreak Charger on turn two and your opponent has to respect the fact that you’re not that far away from being able to make angels each turn.
Heroic Intervention: C
Heroic Intervention reads like an exciting effect but is often underwhelming. A fine trick but Ranger’s Guile and Titanic Growth are often better than this. The situation where you get a sick 7 for 1 because your opponent lined up blocks against your whole team just doesn’t happen as often as you might think it does.
Containment Priest: C
Sparkhunter Masticore: C-
If you’ve got a reanimation theme going on and you can turn the “discard a card” cost into a benefit, this card is pretty good. Otherwise, it’s too much of a liability seeing as a good chunk of the removal in the format can still hit this.
Runed Halo: C-
Runed Halo is a fine removal spell if you’re a controlling white deck, but you don’t want this card if you’re planning to attack on the ground. You could ostensibly bring this card in against Teferi’s Tutelage, but I would lean towards not doing so unless you knew it was your opponent’s only way to win or you’re a deck that isn’t trying to win quickly (but most white decks are.)
Thieves’ Guild Enforcer: C-
I’m glad we get to talk about Thieves’ Guild Enforcer here as I can tease next week’s article “The Best M21 Tribal Deck You’re Not Playing!!!” I have actually found this card to be fine in decks that have a lot of removal or are milling your opponent (or happen to have an abnormal number of Rogues.) When this card is “on” it’s a good pseudo removal spell and when it’s not, your opponent will sometimes attack in with an X/1 and you can trade.
See the Truth: D+
Some Blue-Red decks will just play sorcery speed Anticipate and be fine with it. Unfortunately, there are no ways to cast it from the grave, trust me, I’ve looked several times.
Tier 5: Big Yikes
Nine Lives: Sideboard
Nine Lives is an effective sideboard card against a deck full of big green doofuses. Drop this when you’re at 5 or so and it will often gain you about 30 life against that deck which is good enough for a Blue-White deck to race the opponent or a tutelage deck to deck them.
Conspicuous Snoop: D
I was on board with this card as a fine playable if you really needed a two drop or happened to be playing multiple Goblin Arsonists, but the fact that your opponent gets to see every one of your draw steps destroys any incidental advantage you may have gained off of the card
Sanctum of all: Build Around
I’m not going to tell you not to take this card if you’re looking to have fun, and in the nuts shrine deck with a ton of fixing this card is actually quite powerful, but this is not the card to pick if you want to end up in the winners bracket.
Asuza, Lost but Seeking: D –
Asuza is a sweet card, just not for limited, you’d need a metric ton of card draw before this card becomes close to playable.
Peer into the Abyss: F
Combo kills with Teferi’s Tutelage, that’s all I got.
Grim Tutor: F
Even if you have a card like Ugin or Terror of the Peaks to go get, the tempo and life hit you take from casting this card just isn’t worth it.
I would consider playing this card if I picked up multiple Containment Priests just for the potential for sweet screenshot equity, but this one is better left for older formats.
I’m not even going to dignify this one with a write up.
Understanding a set’s commons is integral to succeeding in a format, but I’d argue that understanding the rares does not fall far behind. When the next format rolls around, I’d encourage you to take a close look at all the rares early on so that you’re not the one to pass whatever Zendikar Rising’s Brash Taunter equivalent is. I’d also encourage trying out the weird looking rares early on to get a better sense of how good the wackier cards in the set are. 2012 Alex may not have had a lot going for him, but at least he was good at that.