Like the Masters editions before it, Eternal Masters is a synergy-based set, and not a power-based set. This means that cards have very different relative power levels depending on whether they are placed in decks that are built for them. A card like Burning Vengeance can be the best card in your deck or completely unplayable depending on what you have surrounding it. Very few cards in EMA are intrinsically powerful and will be great additions to any deck of that color.
Because of this synergy/power dynamic, I think you are better served treating Eternal Masters more like you would Constructed than Limited—you’re truly drafting a deck, not just a collection of 40 cards. To get the best deck, you have 2 options:
1) You start with a strategy, and you never deviate from it.
This is the case when you first-pick a card that is central to an archetype, such as Burning Vengeance, a Honden, Sphinx of the Steel Wind, or Armadillo Cloak. You then put blinders on and you only pick cards that fit that strategy. If the strategy is open, then you’ll have a great deck; if it’s not—your deck is going to be bad. I do not recommend this option.
2) You try to see what is open and move in.
Cards have different values to different players, and it’s up to you to capitalize on that. Let’s take Shadows over Innistrad, another synergy-based set (though not as much as Eternal Masters). In that set, you could realistically be any color combination, but combinations such as WB and UW were rarely drafted successfully. The reason for this is not that you couldn’t have a good WB or UW deck—you could—but it would just be a collection of powerful cards. In WB, each card was always worth its “normal value,” not more. It was hard to get a good WB deck because every card in a WB deck was good, so everyone picked them before you—you would get 1st picks 1st, and 3rd picks 3rd. With other archetypes, you could get 1st-pick value cards 5th because while those cards were mediocre for them, they were great for you.
In Eternal Masters, it’s the same. Your goal is to move into in a strategy where you’re going to get 1st-pick value from cards that you will get 7th pick. This is accomplished by being flexible, and reading the table to see what is open. If there are 3 WR players, you’re never going to get a late Rally the Peasants. If you’re the only RW player, then you’re going to get every single Rally the Peasants that is opened by anyone. I consider RW aggro to be a better deck than UW flyers, but I’d rather be the one UW player than one of two RW players in a table.
In EMA, positioning yourself well has an incredible reward, and inherent power level isn’t as important as having a synergistic deck. In practical terms, you might think that this means you should take more flexible cards first, but I think it’s the opposite. When I say “stay open,” I mean be open to the idea that you might draft anything. I do not mean “first-pick Mishra’s Factory over anything because it can go in any deck.”
In practical terms, I believe the best strategy to approach Eternal Masters drafting is aggressively picking the powerful archetype-dependent cards. If that archetype is open, you want to be the person in it, and you can’t be if you pass those cards. To give you an example, say you open Burning Vengeance and you pass it. Now you get passed Burning Vengeance #2, and your deck is significantly worse (both because you have 1 fewer Burning Vengeance and because the person next to you is going to be the same deck).
I would first-pick Burning Vengeance over a card like Chain Lightning in this format, even though Chain Lightning goes in more decks, because chances are Chain Lightning is not going to be the key to anything. Sure, it’s good, but this format is about more than “good.” Picking Vengeance early means you can now draft the Burning Vengeance deck, and this is simply more valuable than having a Chain Lightning, which is a good card you can play in any red deck. The key to this is that you must be willing to abandon that Burning Vengeance as strongly as you were willing to first-pick it.
So, to sum it up: EMA is a format in which you want to first-pick aggressive archetype cards so that you can be in those archetypes, but you have to be willing to abandon them if you’re not well positioned to draft the deck you’re looking for.
Most creatures in EMA are small, and a lot of them have 1 toughness—1/1s and 2/1s comprise the bulk of the aggressive white, red, or black decks, and Elves are also small for the most part. 3/3s are huge and 4 toughness should let you survive most encounters. I’m a big fan of things that ping (Honden, Prodigal Sorcerer) and a very big fan of Giant Tortoise—I think it’s the best blocker in the set.
Sideboarding is very important in Eternal Masters, and if given the option between a mediocre main-deck card or a good sideboard card, you should take the sideboard card. Your priority should be cards that deal with enchantments, for the Honden/Burning Vengeance/GW decks (stuff like Seal of Cleansing). After that, you should aim for early blockers against the aggressive decks—Giant Tortoise and Mogg War Marshal are my favorites to board in, but Raise the Alarm and basically any cheap creature will do as well. Benevolent Bodyguard and Whitemane Lion are also quite good sideboard cards against decks full of Pacifism, Faith’s Fetters, and Gaseous Form.
I’ll now go over the pick orders of some of the archetypes I like the most. Keep in mind that these pick orders assume you’re already thinking about drafting the archetype (say you have an uncommon enabler already), and as such are not guides to follow blindly—normally, you’re going to want whichever one you don’t already have. Think of them as a “guide to my opinion on the general power level of the uncommons in their archetypes” rather than a flat-out pick order.
RW is a very aggressive deck—you want your curve to be super low, you want lots of flyers, and you want lots of tokens. It’s basically an archetype based around Rally the Peasants, and you should prioritize creatures over spells unless the spells are really good.
Key uncommons: None.
Top 8 Commons:
I value the creatures that get other creatures through (Cathar/Hookmaster) over the token makers (Raise the Alarm, Mogg War Marshall), but it really depends on your curve and on what type of deck you have. Everything in this archetype costs exactly 2 or 3, so it’s easy to end up with 10+ 2-drops, at which point you can prioritize 3-drops, or vice-versa. Cards that don’t make the top 8 but can still be good are Squadron Hawk, Carbonize, Stingscourger, Reckless Charge, and sometimes Undying Rage.
UR is a powerful deck that depends on 1 enchantment: Burning Vengeance. You can have a more aggressive UR deck without it, or even a control deck without it, but at this point you’re not really reaping the benefits of being UR. I’d rather get Burning Vengeance first—I don’t want to end up full of Faithless Lootings and Flame Jabs, and not have a Burning Vengeance. Most of the time I will go for this archetype if I open Burning Vengeance or if I’m passed it in pack 1, but I won’t draft a Burning Vengeance deck without its key card hoping I get there.
Top 8 Commons:
In general, I like the action cards more than the durdle-y cards—Ravings, Analysis, and Looting are all good but you can only have so many of them, and they’re usually not that hard to get. If it’s late in the draft, prioritize accordingly. As I mentioned before, I think Giant Tortoise is the best blocker in the set, and extremely underrated—most of my blue decks have 2 of them, but I never pick them early because no one else does.
Another important point with this kind of deck is that killing them can sometimes be hard, and you draw so many cards that you deck yourself, especially if you only have 1 Burning Vengeance and draw it late. Shoreline Ranger, Peregrine Drake, Warden, and Phantom Monster help with this a bit, and if you’re low on kill conditions you should prioritize them. If you can pick up a rare or a Jetting Glasskite, that’s ideal.
UG threshold is a hit-or-miss deck because there aren’t that many payoff cards or enablers. Still, I think there are enough ways to hit threshold consistently, and the payoff is there—I particularly like Mongoose against many of the UR decks. The biggest payoff by far is Wonder, so I’m much more inclined to draft this deck if I have it, and you get it semi-late because people in general don’t want to draft this deck.
There is a UG deck that doesn’t rely on threshold, but I don’t think that deck is any good, so the pick order here is going to assume you started with something like Wonder and want to be threshold. Basically, I think the Nimble Mongoose/Wonder deck can be awful or it can win, but the Llanowar Elves/Man-o’-War deck is always going to be mediocre and not what I’m looking for.
Top 8 Commons:
Honorable mention: Man-o’-War
This pick order changes a lot depending on what you have because you really want both enablers and payoff—I can see myself first-picking Dream Twist over any of those, for example, depending on what you have. The great majority of those cards go very late, because no one else wants them—they’re really only good in context. It might be weird to pick a card as weak as Nimble Mongoose over a card as powerful as Man-o’-War, but I think in context this is what you should do (which is why I think this archetype is very hit or miss and don’t recommend it unless you can already see the payoff).
BG Elves is also a bit of a hit-or-miss archetype, but it’s much easier to hit with it since there are many great Elves. It’s mostly a swarm archetype, but you get some removal as well.
Top 8 Commons:
I value the removal more than the creatures in general, as there are many good creatures. As always, adapt and pick whatever it is you’re missing. I think Eyeblight’s Ending is better than Slip here because I’m usually more interested in just killing their blocker.
5-Color is the generic name for the multi-colored control archetypes—it doesn’t have to be 5 colors, but the basic idea is always that you stall the board and play a bunch of good cards, hopefully Hondens. Those are the least synergistic Eternal Masters decks, and the ones that are interested the most in cards that are intrinsically powerful. Most of the time, those decks are base blue/something with a bunch of splashes. In some formats you need green to do it, but I don’t think that’s the case with this one as the lands usually go pretty late and you also have access to Pilgrim’s Eye, Prismatic Lens, and the land cyclers. If you do not have access to a color (of if it’s only a mild splash), then skip ahead on the list.
Key uncommons: Hondens!
Top 8 Commons:
I think Honor Guard is better than Pacifism in a control deck because its effect is very unique, whereas Pacifism’s is not. If it’s pick 1 I’m still picking Pacifism first, as it’s much better in RW, but I think if you know you’re going to be a slower deck then you want Guard—it doesn’t look that great (and in fact I routinely table it online), but you only have to play a couple games with the set to realize that the card is a pain to deal with. Most people think of it as “a way to stop removal”, and it does do that, but it does so much more—it stops Auras, Timberwatch Elf, Glare of Subdual, Wirewood Symbiote (half of it anyway), and burn to the face. Even when it comes to removal it often stops multiple, since cards like Pacifism or Faith’s Fetters don’t get rid of it, and its size is big enough to block just about anything in this format since nothing can be pumped while it’s in play. Just be careful that it does not stop triggered abilities, namely Burning Vengeance and Honden of Infinite Rage.
After Guard, there are a bunch of removal spells that you want, and they’re mostly interchangeable—it’s really going to depend on your mana and whichever you can cast early. Much like UR, this deck often has problems closing games (especially if you have Honden of Seeing Winds, which actually decks you quite quickly), so if you do not have finishers you should prioritize the land cyclers in the later packs.
Those aren’t the only archetypes for Eternal Masters (you can draft GW, RB, RG, UW, and so on), but they are the ones I like the most, and the ones I have the most experience with. I’d like to stress again that it’s much more important to have a cohesive deck than to follow a pick order, and it’s often right to take something that I didn’t even list over the first card in my list because if that’s what your deck is missing, then it’s what you should take.