Recurring Nightmares – No Dragon in the Maze

The conversations overheard at a prerelease give an insight into a wider world of Magic than I normally am exposed to. For each of us worrying about the best tech, the newest lists, and preparing for our next event, there’s a dozen or more players who just want to use some cool cards at home with their friends—and the prerelease is one of the few times those two worlds collide.

It’s tough to break out of the mindset of, “winning = good, losing = bad” long enough to stop analyzing my mistakes and start having fun. I think this is the draw of formats like Commander, Cube Draft, and Momir Basic for many competitive players—it allows us to set aside all of the baggage that comes with being out to win, and remember what it felt like when we were picking up new cards and thinking, “WOW, this guy is cool looking!” rather than, “there’s no way you’d ever cast this 8-drop in Limited.”

The most common exchange I heard during the DGM prerelease was a variant on this conversation:

“There’s no big Dragon in Dragon’s Maze.”
“Don’t worry; there’ll be another Dragon for you in M14.”

As someone who’s become jaded with the new trend of six-drop flying monsters that kill your opponent if you untap with it, it’s actually refreshing that there’s no big Dragon in DGM. Of course, some people just want to collect all the Dragons, you know?

It says a lot about the depth of this game that two people can find entirely different things to enjoy about it—with barely any overlap—and still be utterly passionate about it in their own way. At the same time, it blows my mind that I can have so little in common with someone that spends their free time doing the actual same thing I do during mine.

First impressions:

Yet again, Wizards created a prerelease format that was both entertaining and completely unlike anything we play elsewhere. As such, most of the impressions gained from playing the prerelease format are irrelevant to both the DGR sealed and draft formats. The card evaluations should hold up, however, and there are some interesting changes to the overall format that will likely hold true.

The specific format of the prere was incredibly slow, but I don’t expect the DGR format to be the same. As Josh Silvestri pointed out in his prerelease Primer, the average toughness of creatures in Dragon’s Maze is greater than their power—which means there’s often going to be a glut of creatures on the board, and stalemates are likely. Because the hyper-aggressive cards from RTR and Gatecrash are limited to only those available in the guild packs, you were hard-pressed to come up with a deck capable of winning through the staunch defenses presented by your opponent over the course of the first few turns.

That said, one of the losses I took on the weekend was from a Simic player who curved out perfectly with evolve creatures—crushing me before I could stabilize. It was possible to build a reasonable aggressive deck, but not likely.

I knew that in all likelihood, I’d be trying to go for a controlling build with whatever guilds I chose. That meant I’d be avoiding Boros, Gruul, and Rakdos.

[draft]Krasis Incubation[/draft]

In my first prerelease flight, I went Simic with a Selesnya kicker. I specifically chose Simic because of [card]Krasis Incubation[/card], though the fact that it’s my affiliated guild did not hurt, and Incubation delivered as expected. Between using it as a four mana [card]Arrest[/card] in colors that don’t usually get Arrest, and allowing it to incubate your own creatures to turn them into threats, the flexibility seemed like a great place to be. In reality, there was never a point where I could afford to play it on my own creature, but even as a solid removal spell it did wonders.

My particular build had infinite [card]Rootwalla[/card]s—featuring [card]Kraul Warrior[/card], [card]Beetleform Mage[/card], and [card]Frilled Oculous[/card]. Of the three, [card]Beetleform Mage[/card] highly overperformed, and was a brick wall that most of my opponents couldn’t punch through. The fact that it gained evasion when you wanted it to was excellent, and it exceeded my high expectations at all turns.

[draft]Deadbridge Chant[/draft]

Knowing that the format was slow, I splashed [card]Deadbridge Chant[/card]. While it was a greedy choice, I wanted to get a feel for how good the card was, as I felt like it was a high variance card, and there was no better time than the low-stakes prerelease to give it a spin. In the four games I resolved the spell, I lost none.

In two, I drew two cards—one of which was a removal spell, the other a land. In the other two games, I returned at least one creature to the board. I’ve heard differing opinions on the card from players who have given it a shot, but in a slow, plodding format like this event was, it was great. As to the future of the card in Constructed, I think the comparison to [card]Staff of Nin[/card] is a good one—and with the addition of [card]Putrefy[/card] to the card pool, enchantments are going to be a safer play than artifacts.

The only other rare I got to play in my pool was [card]Ready // Willing[/card]. I managed to utilize both halves of the spell over the course of the flight, and even cast Ready in response to an opponent’s [card]Supreme Verdict[/card] during one round. Obviously I won that game. It was an excellent combat trick, turning races in your favor in every way imaginable. When you can spend the six mana for both halves, you can alpha strike every turn with no fear, as the worst-case scenario involves you untapping your indestructible, lifelinking team and being ready to block their board.

One thing I was particularly surprised by was the unreliability of the mana, despite the fact that there were at least two Guildgates in color, a shot at extra Guildgates in the land slot of four packs, and Cluestones at the common rarity. I was certain that our mana would all be perfect at all times, and said as much to Jon Corpora before the night began. Obviously I lost round one to missing green mana in game 2, and white mana in game three, and this resulted in the following gem:

Look, man. Sometimes it happens. The odd thing was, players were complaining about mana screw most of the night—and not in the normal everyday way most Magic players complain about it. It seemed like the Cluestones were nowhere near as effective as you’d want them to be, and the fact that you were more likely three colors than not (often splashing a fourth) meant the tertiary color was very difficult to come by. I was not impressed by the mana in any of the decks I faced on the weekend.

After going X-1 in the midnight release event, I decided it would be a great idea to get up in the morning and head to the early flight on Saturday. In hindsight, this was a terrible idea. I don’t have the constitution to keep doing this kind of thing anymore. Sometimes I forget that it’s been almost a decade since I could casually pull all-nighters with no fallout over the course of the next few days. Getting old sucks. My advice: avoid it if you can.

In the second prerelease I decided I wanted to give Dimir a shot, and was lucky to hit Azorius as my partner in crime. Or justice, I suppose.

[draft]Jelenn Sphinx[/draft]

Having played with some Azorius cards in the first event, I knew certain ones were going to be excellent. Cards like [card]Jelenn Sphinx[/card] and [card]Deputy of Acquittals[/card] were awesome, and the fact that my pool had two of each of these cards made me feel very good about my chances. Unfortunately, my Dimir cards were all garbage, with the lone exception of a [card]Dinrova Horror[/card]. Orzhov was there to back me up, though, so the pool ended up being a fine one.

I managed to hit a [card]Temple Garden[/card] in a land slot, which combined with a [card]Prophetic Prism[/card] I wanted to play anyway to make my minor green splash basically free.

As I mentioned, [card]Jelenn Sphinx[/card] was fantastic. Having a [card]Dancing Scimitar[/card] with Vigilance was awesome, and the fact that it turned my so-so fliers into a real air force was obviously amazing.

[draft]Deputy of Acquittals[/draft]

[card]Deputy of Acquittals[/card] acted as an [card]Ambush Viper[/card] often enough, but also allowed me to recycle some of my detain creatures, and served as reliable counter for removal spells. I expected a lot of great things from this little bear, and was satisfied with its performance. Having two allowed me to brick wall a ground creature for a long time, as I could block and return one each turn.

[draft]Tithe Drinker[/draft]

On the list of “cards I opened two of” was [card]Tithe Drinker[/card]. In a slow format like this one, extort will really win the day. More than one game came down to who could draw spells to extort, and having a free couple of life points on tap when you needed them was very good. [card]Tithe Drinker[/card] actually allowed me to win a game where I went to 1 life against Orzhov, until I got to slam both of these, followed by another 2-drop, all in one turn and extort for each spell. I quickly pulled away from there. Even as a turn two play that’s just slightly better than [card]Syndic of Tithes[/card], the Drinker is already quite powerful. I’d play as many Syndics as I could in a deck, and so it stands to reason I’d play 24 Drinkers and 16 lands in a New York Minute.

[draft]Lavinia of the Tenth[/draft]

The second biggest bomb in my pool was [card]Lavinia of the Tenth[/card]. Two important features arose from playing Lavinia. First, she allows you to tap out on turn 5 with absolutely no drawback. This basically makes her free, if you hit her on-curve. Since your opponent is unlikely to have more than a couple four-drops in play by then, their entire team (and any artifact mana sources) are detained, getting you a free attack with your creatures and an untap step before the opponent can crack back. Second, protection from colors in a multicolor block is insane. All of the creatures with protection are very good, and red is the color you really want to be safe from. I managed to pair her with [card]Deputy of Aquittals[/card] only once, but it was as good as you’d expect it to be.

The actual bomb of my deck was also my green splash. I was wary of playing Beck // Call, though I assumed that most of the time I was just playing Call. Essentially it was [card]Lingering Souls[/card] in a deck with two [card]Jelenn Sphinx[/card], so I couldn’t imagine I would ever not want that. As it turns out, it was as good as I’d hoped, and I only cast it for six mana once. The other three times, including my first game of the day, I spent 8 mana on it, and drew four cards. I never lost a game in which it resolved. I didn’t ever find a good window to cast Beck on its own, but then again, I never played against someone with a [card]Trostani’s Summoner[/card], either. I really wanted to, though. My deck had [card]Supreme Verdict[/card] (which I still don’t consider a true bomb in Limited), and casting Verdict into Call was a surefire way to end the game.

Lest I stick merely to the cards I physically played, and thus only show you ¼ of the decks I saw on the weekend, there are plenty that I was impressed by on the other side of the table, as well.

[draft]Carnage Gladiator[/draft]

[card]Carnage Gladiator[/card] was singlehandedly the most frustrating card to play against. It did everything you wanted it to do in an aggressive deck. It punished me for both blocking and not blocking. It regenerates, making it particularly difficult to deal with through combat. It focuses my attention on it, since I can’t afford to sit there and take a beating. Though I could easily block it for days with cards like [card]Jelenn Sphinx[/card], I can’t afford to do that, since I was hemorrhaging life as I did. When I eventually did find a way to kill it, my opponent got Down // Dirty, and played it again. With the Esper deck from day two, I lost three total games—and two were to this card.

[draft]Korozda Gorgon[/draft]

Though I did not play either with nor against it, I heard amazing things about [card]Korozda Gorgon[/card]. It makes sense that a repeatable removal spell would be great (they typically are in Limited), and Gorgon plus green evolve guys creates a build your own shotgun that I imagine many decks have a difficult time dealing with. My friend Al had a combo of the Gorgon, an evolve creature, and [card]Rot Farm Skeleton[/card] going, which made it very difficult for his opponent to win.

[draft]Zhur-Taa Druid[/draft]

[card]Zhur-Taa Druid[/card] was possibly the best card in the format (daring words, I know), and gives a strong reason to be RG going forward. All the other mana acceleration in the block costs three, or is conditional. Your choices are [card]Greenside Watcher[/card] (requires you to open with a Gate on t1), [card]Gyre Sage[/card] (has to be evolved, and so can’t accelerate on t3), or 3-mana artifacts—so it makes sense that even a 2-drop [card]Llanowar Elves[/card] is strong.

While not exactly on the same level of aggression as [card]Burning-Tree Emissary[/card], it does ramp you into your higher mana spells faster, and allows you to play both a Keyrune/Cluestone and a two-drop on turn 3—and then you’re just miles ahead of the opponent. It also means you can continue to press your mana advantage and get damage in, even in the face of a board stall. This keeps the pressure on the opponent despite them having better blockers that you can’t push through. All said, there’s just zero downside to be had with Druid, and I don’t think I’d hesitate to first pick it in the full block draft format.

As far as draft goes, I can’t wait. It’s going to be a very different experience than any format we’ve seen, including the first iteration of RGD drafting in the original Ravnica block.

Because we’re drafting the set in reverse order, Dragon’s Maze is a very important set to understand. You have to be aware that drafting guilds that are represented in one set and not the other is a dangerous proposition. Planning to play a deck that’s focused on Dimir and Simic, for example, will lead you to be flooded with picks in pack two, but grasping for playable mono-colored cards in pack three. Much like the original Ravnica block, a strategy for shards that comprise a guild from each set are probably going to be the way to go. This is going to be both easier and more difficult because of the DGM pack, since signals will be a bit more loose in pack one, but will likely shake themselves out in the second and third pack. This is a format where playing nicely with your neighbors will be even more important.

Of course, since the mana in this format is so “good,” you’ll have more flexibility to change from one plan to another, and could even splash fourth colors for swingy cards if you had to move mid-draft. A lot of this will be determined by how aggressively the Guildgates are drafted, since they’re the more reliable way to fix your mana. In the single-set drafts, they tended to go around pick 6-8, but I have a feeling they’ll be a lot more sought-after, despite being more prevalent overall in the draft itself.

In terms of the overall speed of the format, I believe two things will work to slow it down. First, the fact that you’re likely going to be in a three color combination, rather than two, means you’ll be slower just as a product of your mana being less stable. With one set being drafted, you could be the hyper aggressive Boros deck, and have perfect mana by turn 2, while playing a one- and two-drop. That’s much less likely to be possible in a format where only 1.5 packs have aggressive Boros cards. Second, the pace of Dragon’s Maze is much slower than the previous two sets, despite having a 3/1 haste for 2 mana. With a higher density of defensive cards in the block, we’re likely going to see the fundamental turn slow down a bit, and perhaps blocking will be moderately better. Not a lot better, mind you—we’re still in a block where two colors have creatures that double as pump spells, but you don’t need to be attacking to win in DGR the way you did in Gatecrash.

It’s been interesting to me to see a bunch of the old favorites from Return to Ravnica make their triumphant homecoming. I can’t say I really missed [card]Rix Maadi Guildmage[/card], [card]Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage[/card], or [card]Pack Rat[/card], but they do seem a bit more toned down and reasonable now that the chance to open them is cut by two-thirds.

In any case, I’m excited to start drafting the full block—RGD is one of my favorite formats (though I force 15-land Gruul Aggro in every draft), and I think DGR is well on its way to becoming one of my favorites, as well. The next few months should be a great time for Limited Magic, so enjoy it while you can!



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