I debated writing about the Channelfireball.com 5k that just finished in San Jose, but another report about Faeries seems kind of boring. I did spice it up a bit with two maindeck Puppeteer Cliques and two Loxodon Warhammers, but other than that I was basically playing the same list I played at GP Seattle.
I made Top 16 before losing to GB Elves, although I definitely could have played differently. I’m still pretty happy with Faeries, although Sower of Temptation is probably on its way out. A sideboard of Deathmarks, Plumeveils, and Flashfreezes has been quite good, and all my matches except MonoRed Burn felt quite winnable.
As I write this, Doran and Faeries are in the finals, just like GP: Seattle. Matt Nass almost got there with the Cascade land destruction deck, which aims to never play a real game of Magic. That doesn’t make the strategy invalid (Ichorid is and has been a very good deck despite not actually playing Magic for the most part), but I would personally never play the deck myself.
What I do want to talk about today stems from a conversation wrapter (Josh Utter-Leyton) and I had about drafting Shards. We were discussing the merits of various archetypes, and wrapter made a comment about how I draft. I was talking about how much I love taking Cruel Ultimatum first pick (which I would take over anything), and just going straight Grixis. Josh has watched me draft often enough, and he remarked that I seemed to like moving in on a particular deck during drafts.
By “moving in”, he meant committing quite early to the deck I aimed to draft, even to the point of taking weaker cards in order to stay on-target. An example would be first picking Tower Gargoyle, then taking Puppet Conjurer over Branching Bolt, despite Bolt being way better. Many people would take the Bolt in that situation, since it leaves you open to draft RG or 5-Color if Esper isn’t open. On the other hand, if you end up straight Esper, Conjurer is quite strong, and certainly more useful than the Bolt in your sideboard (some might try and defend the Bolt pick as a hate draft, but hate drafting in an 8-man is pretty useless).
I do want to differentiate between moving in and forcing, although they do overlap. When I talk about forcing an archetype, I mean drafting that archetype almost without fail, ignoring everything else. Sebastian Thaler was certainly forcing UW aggro in Honolulu, taking Kathari Screecher over Vein Drinker and Rhox War Monk p1p1. On the other hand, when I say I move in on a certain archetype, I mean that I don’t go in looking to draft it necessarily, but once I decide what direction I am going I commit to it. After the first few picks, both strategies are the same, but when you force an archetype you have pretty much predetermined that you will be drafting it, where moving in is pretty open until you make a pick.
Now that I have defined this inflexible style of drafting that I prefer, lets see how it relates to drafting Shards block. I can actually break up the archetypes I like to draft into only a few categories:
This one is obvious, and what most people assume is all I draft. I don’t actually just draft Esper, although it is definitely my favorite. My Esper decks tend to be controlling, although I have been known to be the beatdown from time to time, mostly depending on how many Stoneblades I can grab. [card]Arsenal Thresher[/card] is a key card in this archetype, and one of the reasons I like moving in quite early.
Five-Color (often Esper-based)
This is almost a subset of Esper, since I don’t like the pure five-color decks that have no main colors. The mana is much worse in those, and they tend to have no theme. The Esper 5c decks (which is what I drafted both times in Kyoto, although that was SSC) are basically Esper plus off-color removal and bombs, but do play differently than a normal Esper deck, since some of the really artifact-heavy cards aren’t as good. I like straight Esper much more than this, but hey, sometimes you open Nicol Bolas.
Yes, I like Cruel Ultimatum that much. I could just call this Grixis, but I rarely draft straight Grixis control unless I have Cruel Ultimatum, since Esper is for the most part just better. Once I get a Cruel though, I want to play straight Grixis with no splashes, since I hate playing Ultimatums in decks that have land that doesn’t contribute to casting them. I drafted this deck Day 1 of Honolulu, and 3-0ed with it.
WG or RG Aggro
This may be hard to believe, but I actually like drafting super-aggressive WG or RG aggro decks from time to time, which Gerry even mentioned in his last article. WG is the most common, but sometimes you get enough Rip-Clan Crashers and Jund Hackblades to make RG work. All I really want in these decks are creatures that cost three or less, pump spells, and removal.
I would say that over 90% of my draft decks end up as one of the above archetypes, and it takes some powerful opens (like Broodmate Dragon) or a draft gone poorly for me to draft anything else. If you look at those decks, they barely overlap in terms of the cards they desire, which is a big reason why I prefer to move in early on them.
These are very focused decks (almost linear), and such decks need almost every pick to maintain the focus. In order to have the 20 artifact Arsenal Thresher deck, I really can’t spend a couple early picks being flexible. Similarly, the Akrasan Squire / Qasali Pridemage / all two drop aggro deck has no use for cards that don’t fit the theme, and if I don’t commit early I will end up with exactly the kind of deck I don’t want to draft.
Traditionally, staying flexible in the first couple of picks to see what direction is the most open is the most common draft strategy, with people intentionally picking weaker but less committal cards. I don’t like approaching Shards draft with that strategy, because all of the decks I like are only interested in very specific categories of cards. There are many playable cards that don’t fit into any of the decks I like, so I have no problem with passing something like [card]Rhox War Monk[/card] for [card]Steward of Valeron[/card].
Lets take another look at the decks I like, and what kinds of cards each is looking for:
Esper: Artifacts and removal spells are basically it. Even solid cards like Talon Trooper just don’t end up making the cut in my good Esper decks, because artifact synergies with cards like Faerie Mechanist, Sanctum Gargoyle, Arsenal Thresher, Ethersworn Shieldmage and others are just too powerful. I do like having a few non-artifact bodies in the sideboard in case your opponent has the double Nacatl Savage deck, but for the most part the only non-artifacts in my deck are spells and really good creatures like Wall of Denial or Zombie Outlander.
Cruel Ultimatum: This deck is the most flexible, since most any Grixis card will do, but I do prefer to try and keep it controlling. The only limitation on this deck is really that I won’t play non-Grixis cards unless they are particularly absurd.
WG or RG Aggro: Like I mentioned before, this deck only wants low drops, removal spells, and pump spells. You almost always have to top out the curve with something like Cavern Thoctar, but that is usually limited to only a few cards, and mostly because you need 23 (or 24) playables.
You end up with a stronger deck when you commit early, since drafting a very focused deck is so rewarding. I don’t have a problem with moving in almost immediately, since the upsides are worth it and many of the traditional downsides of such a strategy aren’t as bad in this format as they have been in the past.
The main reason not to just move in is that you won’t know what color(s) are open until partway through the first pack, where you may discover that you are being cut off from whatever you first picked. That is why most people prefer to go with the flow, and try and reap the benefits of good signal reading. There are a few reasons why I am not afraid to just move in immediately:
Esper and Blue-Black are extremely strong in Conflux
The dynamic duo of Parasitic Strix and Sedraxis Alchemist are both awesome for Blue-Black decks, whether the deck is Esper or Grixis. There is such depth in the two colors, with Faerie Mechanist, Drag Down, Zombie Outlander (also the best Outlander, since most big ground idiots are Green), Traumatic Visions, Absorb Vis, and Brackwater Elemental. Esper decks even get access to Esper Cormorants, Vedalken Outlander, Court Homonculous and Darklit Gargoyle, of which the latter two often go around the table. Because of how strong Blue-Black and Esper cards are in Conflux, I am not that concerned with being cut off in Shards of Alara. If I am getting cut, then the guy to my left is getting cut even harder, and I can pretty reasonably expect to get a ton of cards in Conflux.
This actually reminds of the a gambit many players used to use during Champions block draft. When the full block was drafted, Betrayers of Kamigawa was the second pack, and White was unbelievably good (largely based on Waxmane Baku). At PT London 2005, a number of players would cut White, and even if the guy to their right was cutting White, plan on reaping the rewards in Betrayers. They would even just draft their secondary color in pack one, and since the guy to their right was cutting White, they didn’t need to, and would just pick it up in pack two.
The aggro decks ignore many of the “good” cards in their colors
If you are drafting a very aggressive deck, you can often be the recipient of a ton of cards even if you are sharing the colors of the people to your right. While you are presumably in the same Shard, the focus of your deck is likely to be so different than that of your neighbors that you can be pretty content with the cards they are passing you. If all you want are Violent Outbursts, Jund Hackblades, and Colossal Mights, you can be content while the Jund or Naya player to your right is taking Gorger Wurm, Trace of Abundance, and Borderposts. Yes, you are unlikely to get a 4th pick Oblivion Ring, but if they take Cavern Thoctar and leave you Sigil Blessing, then you aren’t harmed in the least.
Alara Reborn is an incredibly strong and deep set regardless of what colors you are in
There are so many awesome playables in Alara Reborn, and even when cut directly by the person to your right, you will still get a ton of juice out of the third pack. Sure, you won’t get as much as if the person to your right wasn’t in your same colors, but the advantages of being in a focused archetype outweigh that. I would rather draft one of these decks while somewhat cut off than a mopey unfocused deck where the colors are wide open. Just based on synergy, a crappy Esper deck can often beat even a random Jund deck that has superior card quality.
I firmly believe that there are many different ways to draft any given set, but hopefully this insight into how I choose to draft Shards of Alara can help you. If what I said makes sense, then try moving in on a deck and see how it turns out, instead of hedging your bets and just taking “good” cards like you may be accustomed to doing. There are many more decks than the ones I outlined, but these are the decks that I have grown to like drafting. Figure out what decks you like drafting, and see if your results improve if you commit to one of them earlier than you would normally.
(Riki’s article will be up tomorrow, a casualty of him running the 5k and the highly successful Judge Conference today, which I’m sure he will cover in-depth)