Walking All Over Standard
GP DC didn’t exactly go as planned, but it wasn’t a complete bust. I won more matches than I did in the three previous GP’s combined, though to be fair that was true as soon as I won rounds 4, 5, and 6. Making Day Two was good, even if I ended up getting eliminated in the second-to-last round. Despite not winning anything, I would much rather get far into Day Two than rattle off a quick 0-3 drop. My preparation could have been better, but this time it was for good reason. With Pro Tour San Juan starting five days after DC, it was hard to justify playing Standard when I could be testing Block or drafting. The Pro Tour is just that much more important, and trying to crack a completely new format is quite a daunting task, without mentioning having to learn how to draft a very complex and interesting set. I do think that GPs and Pro Tours being within a week of each other is great for logistical reasons, but having the GP the week after the Pro Tour instead of before would let players focus on each appropriately. In any case, I showed up without any firm idea of what I wanted to play, and had many options.
Initially, I was on the Mono-Red deck that Paulo Vitor ended up playing, but I decided that if I had to spend all weekend casting Goblin Guide, I would just be miserable. If the deck was head and shoulders above everything else, I wouldn’t have had a problem playing it, but since it was just another reasonable choice among many, it seemed like bad value for me. Enjoying the deck you are playing is very important, and even though you should try and avoid playing decks you know to be bad, when deciding between two relatively equal decks, pick the one you would enjoy playing more.
Luckily, I had GerryT to save the day. He was set on playing Naya (at least by around 11 PM the night before), and the changes he made definitely sold me. Not only was Naya a deck I had plenty of experience with, I actually had thrown my PT San Diego deck into my bag at the last minute, so I didn’t even have to buy new sleeves! The main change was to cut Rangers for Planeswalkers, which is basically what sold me.
After Gabe Walls and I offered a few sideboard suggestions, we were off. The final list looked like so:
The reason I ultimately chose the deck was the addition of the Planeswalkers; I really feel that if you aren’t playing Planeswalkers in Standard you are choosing the wrong deck. Just look at the Top 8 of the Grand Prix: every single deck had Planeswalkers, even Jund. Sarkhan the Mad is quickly becoming part of the stock Jund list, which was basically the last holdout among Tier 1 decks. Planeswalkers are just too awesome not to include, since all the good ones are effectively drawing you an extra card at the very least (except Elspeth, who makes up for it by being almost impossible to kill). They may have taken a little while to catch on, though to be fair, most of the early Planeswalkers weren’t on the level of Jace, the Mind Sculptor or Gideon Jura. At this point, Planeswalkers are just the best thing you can be doing, and your deck should be built with that in mind.
The other defining cards in the format are so good partly because they interact favorably with or against Planeswalkers. Vengevine and Bloodbraid Elf are great against ‘Walkers, which is an important quality to have. Obviously, Bloodbraid Elf would be awesome no matter what, since it is just absurdly broken, but Vengevine would not be the powerhouse it currently if it wasn’t great at devouring unprotected Planeswalkers.
Adding Planeswalkers to Naya lets you trap other creature-based decks (that aren’t Jund) with the Elspeth/Gideon lock, which gives you the option of switching to the control role quite rapidly. It turns out that blocking with Vengevine over and over again works also, especially when Gideon is forcing them to come trade with him. Elspeth of course can kill them out of nowhere as well, which is not to be overlooked.
In the control matchup, you now have multiple paths to victory, and grinding them out is a very real possibility. Between Vengevines, Bloodbraid Elf, Gideon, and Elspeth, Day of Judgment is not nearly as much of a problem as it used to be for Naya, and you can easily outlast the 1 for 1 removal like Path. They even get way less value out of their ‘Walkers, since you are able to kill them with your plethora of Haste guys and manlands (and even your own Planeswalkers).
See, look at how much different most matchups get with just the addition of two Gideon and two Elspeth (and two Ajani in the sideboard). The deck can still play like the “normal” Naya deck, since it still has Bloodbraids, Vengevines, Sparkmages, and Stoneforge Mystics, but it now also has all these other lines of play. It gains a ton of resilience and now can sidestep a ton of cards that previously were annoying (Day of Judgment and other creature removal being the main ones).
As for the actual tournament: I squeaked into Day Two at 7-2, and managed to keep myself afloat until the second-to-last round, at which point I picked up my sixth loss. Man, million-round GP’s are tough. Instead of being 10-4 with one round to go, I had three rounds to go, and promptly lost two of them. The deck is good, and I would play it again, though I would like to figure out a slightly different sideboard. Mythic stomped me twice, since once they hit six lands they can just cast Sovereigns of Lost Alara and hit you for 11+ damage. Path to Exile and Qasali Pridemage are your only ways to stop it at instant speed, and you don’t even really want Pridemage in your deck against them if they don’t have Oblivion Rings. GerryT did finish 10th, which is pretty sweet.
I don’t want to write too much about the deck, since I had so little input in creating it, but noting how good Planeswalkers were is worth mentioning. What I do want to talk about is Limited, since the more I play Rise draft, the more I realize how much my drafting has changed in just the last week or two. We have just scratched the surface of the format, and card evaluations are constantly changing.
One of the most striking differences between people experienced with Rise and those who haven’t drafted it much is how many “random” creatures they play. Never has the vanilla creature been so terrible, and I even include some pretty solid looking creatures in that list. Cards like Gloomhunter are pretty low on the totem pole in this format, since no matter what deck you are drafting, you need creatures that fit into your plan. Even the non-linear decks should have a goal in mind, and not just be a collection of cards. Zendikar decks were just that pile of cards for the most part, even though they did have aggression in mind. In this format, you should have a goal in mind from very early in the draft, since knowing what sort of deck you are building (and yes, I mean building, not drafting) is of paramount importance. You don’t always know what direction you are going right away, but figuring it out and drafting accordingly is crucial.
Here are a few ways you can go, with some brief words on each:
One of the most obvious archetypes, UW Levelers really only wants Venerated Teachers, Champion’s Drakes, Time of Heroes, and levelers, with the good removal spells (Narcolepsy, Guard Duty, Oust, Regress, Deprive) also making the cut.
U/x Mono-Spell Control (usually UBr, but almost always some combination of those three colors)
This deck gains incremental advantage through the use of cards like Mnemonic Wall, Surreal Memoir, Cadaver Imp (mostly for Walls), and Rebound spells like Staggershock. It has very few actual win conditions, and plays up to three counterspells maindeck. This can be a hard deck to draft, since it relies on an abundance of removal spells, but I have drafted it many times to great success. It plays almost no random guys, and in doing so also blanks a ton of their cards.
Another pretty obvious deck, this is trying to use mana ramp spells to cast big creatures, and doesn’t want to waste its time with random guys like Stomper Cub. The middle of the curve is usually blank, since all the finishers cost 7+ mana, and it splashes as much removal as it can get.
An additional note: I have found that this deck doesn’t actually need Fiends to steal wins, since Battle-Rattle Shamans, Distortion Strikes, and fliers can often do the killing.
Spawn Tokens (in some combination of Jund colors, since those are the colors that make and abuse Spawn)
This is usually Black-Red, but Red-Green is also a possibility. It can look like the mana ramp deck, since both decks use tokens, but instead of all big finishers it also uses cards like Pennon Blade, Might of the Masses, Broodwarden, and even Raid Bombardment (though that last one is only for the really dedicated decks). Bloodthrone Vampire is also a key card in the deck.
One of the more narrow archetypes, since it relies on a specific card, the Gnarlid deck is just trying to slam as many Auras on the Gnarlid as it can. Once you get three or more Gnarlids (which is definitely possible), the deck is pretty sick. Among all the decks I listed, it is most likely to play random guys, but that is because you need something to slam a Boar Umbra onto.
If you notice, none of these decks have any use for a Gloomhunter, or a Stomper Cub, or a Lone Missionary. All those cards would be perfectly acceptable in most draft formats, but not in this one. My goal for today isn’t to examine each archetype in-depth, but to impress upon readers how important it is to have an idea in mind while drafting this format. All the decks I mentioned are quite good, and all of them value cards drastically differently, even in the same colors. The Ramp deck could care less about Boar Umbra or Aura Gnarlid, and the UW Leveler deck will never play a Mnemonic Wall. Knowing what your deck is doing as early as possible is the most important thing you can do during a draft.
Of course, that is the whole trick. You don’t want to fully commit in the first few picks, because sometimes a deck isn’t open, in which case you might have derailed your draft. On the other hand, the earlier you do commit the stronger your deck will be if you do get there, since you will have not wasted any picks. Let me see if I can provide some ways to figure out the trajectory of your drafts.
Approach 1: Forcing
When you just straight up force an archetype, you are committing even before you open the pack. If you want to play UW Levelers, this means taking Venerable Teacher or Skywatcher Adept over Staggershock or Vendetta, picks that normally shouldn’t be close. Forcing can be a quite useful strategy, especially if you are preparing for a specific event and are under a time crunch. You only have to learn on archetype, after all. I do not recommend being 100% committed to forcing any archetype, since some flexibility is needed. If you open Sarkhan the Mad, you should draft him, and not take Time of Heroes, regardless of how much you want to play UW.
Approach 2: Having a Strong Bias
Here, you aren’t fully committed to a deck, but you are at least aware that you are looking to draft that deck. It is very dangerous to have such a bias and not be aware of it, since then you start to actually think that Venerated Teacher is a better card than Staggershock, which is not the case. Still, when you have a strong tendency to draft a deck, as long as you know about it, it can be a good thing. In this case, when you are faced with some relatively equal choices, you go with the one that lets you draft the deck you prefer. For example, I think that Vendetta and Narcolepsy are very close, and Vendetta has a small edge. Still, if you want to draft UW, taking the Narcolepsy there is fine, since it isn’t that much worse. Here, you would still take Vendetta over Skywatcher Adept, but when the pick is close you go with Levelers.
Approach 3: Keeping an Open Mind
This is how most people normally draft, especially during the early stages of a format. You don’t have any sort of preconceived archetype you want to be in, and just see what is open. The disadvantage to this is that you might waste a few picks, particularly if you switch midpack. The advantage is that you won’t get cut, since you are being flexible enough to get out of a losing archetype. Going UW with an UW player to your right is pretty bad, but if you are forcing it you will still end up there.
I characterize my approach as a mix of 2 and 3, which is pretty typical of most people. Everyone has their preferences, but most people won’t pass a Conquering Manticore for an Aura Gnarlid, no matter how much they may like the deck. I of course am somewhat biased towards non-aggressive decks, but I will draft anything, since a good UW levelers deck is pretty unreal, and the UR deck is pretty sweet too. I also tend to commit pretty early (and this has been true in other formats too). I think that by committing early you end up with a better deck when it works out, and overall that leads to more 3-0’s, which is what you need to do to win tournaments. I’m not blind to signals, but I tend to stick by my early picks a little stronger than most people.
If you don’t have experience with a particular archetype, I would recommend forcing it a few times just to see how good it is, after which you can move back to a more flexible approach. Once you know how most archetypes pan out and what is good in them, you will have more tools are your disposal. You know how the different cards compare to each other, which gives you the ability to move into any good deck that is open. Even if you know what Black-Red Tokens is trying to do, you can’t make picks like Essence Feed vs Spawning Breath vs Brood Birthing vs Raid Bombardment without drafting the deck a few times.
Once you find a few decks you like and are comfortable at drafting, you are pretty set. You should spend your drafts honing your ability to figure out what is open, and commit as early as possible. After all, figuring out what is open is part of the skill of draft, and part of what practice helps you figure out. Hopefully this gives you some insight into what makes Rise tick, and at the very least warns you away from cards like Stomper Cub or Gloomhunter.