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Careful Consideration – Eight Thoughts about Eight-Mans

After Pro Tour: Austin, I’ve reignited the fire for Magic and have been really enjoying doing Zendikar events online, primarily Draft. I floundered around a little bit by experimenting with various Draft archetypes and card evaluations, taking card X over card Y when I know Y is solid but I don’t have a good read on X. This is a bit expensive as an approach and resulted in losing games I otherwise would not have because of card quality, but I think the experience gained from this sort of exercise is very valuable. I’m willing to make short-term sacrifices and try “bad” cards in order to achieve long-term gains.

Zendikar Draft is quite skill-intensive and at this point in the Limited season, I think people are collectively behind the curve relative to other Draft formats. Two months into triple Time Spiral Draft, people had figured out most of the archetypes and had a reasonable idea of pick orders and which cards slot in where, and the same can be said for triple Shadowmoor and to some extent triple Lorwyn (although Lorwyn was so rich with hidden synergies and subtle interactions that people were learning things about the Draft format all the way up to the release of Morningtide).

After a bunch of Drafts and some Sealed tournaments, here are ten things that I’ve picked up on that I wouldn’t have said at the Prerelease:

Black is good, but overdrafted

Black is clearly the best color, but it’s also drafted heavily and it’s hard to get a Draft where your black is deep. I end up with black as a splash or with a predominant color like blue with just a few black cards like the Hideous End or Disfigure I first picked. If I’m looking at a pack with a strong black card and a card of comparable quality in another color, I’m more inclined to take the off-color card and send the black along.

It’s not that I don’t want to be in black, but I find that people are taking it very aggressively and I’m a lover, not a fighter. That said, if I open a Sorin or a Vampire Nighthawk, I’m not going to hem and haw. I’m going to take the card and be happy with it.

Two drops, two drops, two drops!

Zendikar is a very fast format and I want to be the beatdown as much as possible. So many games are over by turns five or six, so often the high casting-cost bomb is just stuck in your hand and unable to do much of anything.

This is basically the idea behind Jon Loucks’s Kor Skyfisher over Shepherd of the Lost pick in his article this week. While I don’t necessarily agree with him, I think he does correctly value aggressive creatures that can come down on turn two and start smashing noses. I’ve had the most success when drafting aggressive two-casting cost creatures and just playing bears and attacking every turn until they are dead. There are enough ways to punch through guys and make your attacks profitable (Soaring Seacliffs, Teetering Peaks, Goblin Shortcutter, Kor Hookmaster, Bold Defense, Windborne Charge, Whiplash Trap, Into the Roil, landfall and Surrakar Marauder/Plated Geopede/Steppe Lynx, Disfigure/Hideous End/Burst Lightning/Journey to Nowhere) that this strategy actually works.

In other formats you would play a bunch of bears and they would play a 3/3 and you would be sad. Here, because a lot of the best creatures are best on the attack and don’t block well, (Plated Geopede, Windrider Eel, Steppe Lynx, Welkin Tern) it’s less likely they’ll be able to be in a position to make an attack awkward. If you can put so much pressure on them that they have to chump block or trade a Windrider Eel with your Welkin Tern, all the better, especially if you have three others guys to back him up.

These very aggressive decks do have a weakness however, which leads me to

The best black uncommon may not be Vampire Nighthawk

Vampire Nighthawk is an extremely strong card, but I have seen more games won with Marsh Casualties than any other card. Slower controlling decks don’t have as hard a time with the Casualties, but the draft has to go pretty well for those controlling decks to be the best at the table. Generally speaking, I think the aggressive decks are the best, and Casualties does a great job of disrupting their strategy.

Nighthawk also wins games on his own and is pretty hard to kill (and sometimes he even comes back with the help of a Soul Stair Expedition or even Grim Discovery), but Marsh Casualties feels like it’s a bigger blowout.

Disfigure is the best black common, not Hideous End

If I open a pack and those are my two choices, I’m taking Disfigure. The value of Disfigure is pretty high because many of the format’s creatures have two toughness (including Nimana Sell-Sword, whom you can kill with the trigger on the stack), plus it’s splashable. Hideous End is perfectly fine, but because black is the best color, I’ve at times found myself with Hideous Ends in my hand which were useless as I was getting beaten down by a Guul Draz Vampire or taking early Surrakar Marauders beats, unable to kill whatever.

It also helps that green is the worst color, and they’re the most likely to have big dumb animals that you would want to kill. But because their animals are pretty mediocre compared to the rest of the format’s, Hideous End loses value there as well.

White/black is awkward is one isn’t the dominant color

I do like WB as a color combination because there are a lot of small, efficient guys who come down early, plus you can back it with removal. I love me some bears, and Kor Aeronauts and even Kor Outfitters are fine creatures to have in a white deck. But if you’re combining that with Gatekeeper of Malakar and Vampire Lacerators, it can be a little awkward. I’m not saying you should stay out of the Lacerators, but the best success I’ve had is when sticking to one color with my later drops being in the other for the most part. Something like predominately white with Disfigures and Hideous Ends that don’t have to be played early, allowing me to run something like 10 Plains and 7 Swamps.

Crabs aren’t as good as they look

When someone first drafted the Hedron Crab deck and milled people into oblivion, a lot of people (myself included) got excited over this as a tier one draft archetype, somewhat like mill was a great archetype in triple Ravnica Draft.

The problem is that the archetype isn’t really one you can force. If Hedron Crab were common, then it would be a different story. But if your win condition is a pair of 0/2s that your opponents can save the removal for, you might have a problem.

That’s not to say it can’t be done. I’ve successfully drafted the double Crab, quadruple Kraken Hatchling, triple Harrow decks, but virtually everything has to go right in order for you to have the best deck at the table. Otherwise it ends up as an okay but not great deck much of the time.

Landfall is great, but I hate relying on it

Unless you’re drafting a landfall archetype like UG landfall which is going to shine as long as you hit your land drops, I’m actually becoming less and less of a fan of the mechanic.

I’m not saying to put down the Steppe Lynxes and Plated Geopedes, but landfall presents two problems:

1. When you miss your land drops, not only do you not get to play the spells in your hand, but it makes your spells in play much weaker.
2. If you play more lands to trigger your landfall guys, unless you have a lot of ways to use your mana late, you increase your chance of flooding.

It’s not a gamebreaker, but if my landfall guys are Steppe Lynxes and Plated Geopedes, I want to hit my land drops every turn. But if I run more lands in order for that to happen, then I’m running lands over spells in a deck with a low curve. It can be a little awkward.

Artifact creatures are underrated

Stonework Puma was initially going around really late in Drafts, as it was just a colorless Scathe Zombies – or so we thought.

Even if you don’t have a lot of allies, Puma doesn’t care about intimidate, and that can be huge. Even Hedron Scrabbler (with the affectionate nickname of “scrabbles”) trades with a Surrakar Marauder. I wouldn’t start ol’ Scrabblypoo, but I don’t mind picking up one or two late and putting him in the board. And in a pinch, he does also turn sideways for two.

One of the things I really like about drafting is that things ebb and flow and there is a metagame, just like in Constructed formats. They aren’t as defined, but as cards become more and less drafted, archetypes open up and close down. Some colors get overrated, others underrated, and things shake out differently than they would, say, a month from now. Look how long it took for people to figure out how to draft Esper decks properly in triple Shards of Alara Draft, or how long it took for people to realize that Karoos were first pickable. It also means this is an opportunity to take advantage of the inefficiencies in the format, and that we’re having discussions over whether or not to take Kor Skyfisher over Shepherd of the Lost; or the fact that if you open a pack with Marsh Casualties, Vampire Nighthawk, and Trusty Machete, there is no consensus first pick means that we don’t know exactly where we stand on the card evaluation for this format just yet.

To me, that’s a good thing.

Yours draftingly,
-Zaiem

zaiemb at gmail dot com
zbeg on Twitter

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