As I have mentioned before in this column, core set drafting has exceeded my expectations thus far. I'm still piecing together how this new set will behave as a whole, but I wanted to highlight some of the cards and concepts that have caught my eye during the early stages of this assessment. We'll also take a first glance at a few of the more obvious strategies for this format.
There have been many words written and spoken about the changes to Slivers. The main change for us Limited players is that they now only affect the Slivers that you control. Old-school Slivers would augment even the ones on the other side of the battlefield. This led to confusing board states at times, and it feels kind of strange to play a creature that helps your opponent beat you. ("Megantic Sliver, go" in a Slivers mirror-match anyone?) I like the changes myself, though. I have to admit I don't have much of an attachment to this particular tribe.
So Slivers are back in Magic 2014. Is it a good archetype to draft? I'm still unsure at this point, but all signs point to yes. The Sliver strategy takes a tribal, linear approach to building the perfect deck. This basically means that the more Slivers you can cram in the deck, the better. If you have drafted Lorwyn before, you will know how important it is to have a critical mass of the tribe you are going for. This is also true for some of the archetypes in Modern Masters.
Ideally, we would have all on-color, Sliver-boosting Slivers in our deck. Unfortunately, this is relatively rare to achieve. These two cards act as the grease that keeps the mighty Sliver machine churning along. Sliver Construct is colorless, so it fits into any even mildly Sliver-themed deck. Hive Stirrings is white, but it will be a key card in a Sliver-heavy deck, as the biggest challenge is often just getting a critical mass of Sliver creatures on the battlefield. Getting two such Slivers out of one card can be downright explosive.
Build Around Me
If Burning Vengeance taught me anything, it's that I am a sucker for build-around-me uncommons. This is the type of card that often doesn't do much on its own, but is the lynchpin for an entire draft archetype. They are one of my favorite things about Limited, and I tend to love sets that have good ones available.
Angelic Accord definitely fits the bill as a build-around-me uncommon. Will it be good enough to carry a deck, though? That is yet to be seen. The key to approaching a card like this is to try to weave in as much incidental lifegain—not pure lifegain spells, but bonus lifegain—as you possibly can. Creatures with lifelink become essential to a deck trying to capitalize on Angelic Accord. Pure lifegain spells like Congregate aren't what I'm looking for to make my Angelic Accord as effective as it can be.
Remember, you are already playing a four-mana spell from your hand, which does not affect the board in any meaningful way on its own. If you decide to run cards like Congregate in order to make your Angelic Accord better, you have to accept the high level of risk that comes with that decision.
The good news is that it's cheap, and if you can make just one Angel creature token from it, it has pulled its weight already. I'll probably wait a bit to try it out, but my guess is that there is a deck there somewhere.
Threat of Activation
Threat of activation is another Limited highlight for me. It's the concept of having a creature with a special ability that makes it difficult to manage in combat. Usually, it's just a pump ability, where you pay mana to make the creature bigger.
We have the option of simply attacking our creature into bigger blockers, yet still have our creature go unblocked. Why? Because our opponent knows that if he or she blocks we will pump our creature up and kill his or hers.
It's not the activation itself that is doing the work here; it's the mere threat of it.
Let's take a gander at some threat-of-activation creatures from Magic 2014.
Capashen Knight is one of the more interesting examples of a threat-of-activation card I have seen in a while. It's starkly simple on the surface. It looks better than it actually plays, though. Normally, your reward for taking cards like this is that threat of activation allows it to attack through better creatures. While this is true in this card's case, the lone point of power is disappointing. Immediately, my brain jumps to the scenario where Capashen Knight goes unblocked and where I'm looking to do some damage. Which brings us to the next downside to this card: its pump ability is expensive at .
Even though it may look a little worse on paper, Rootwalla is my preferred threat-of-activation creature from these two. To compare it to the Capashen Knight: If Rootwalla goes unblocked, you have the option of hitting for 2 damage, or 4 if you have the mana to spare. In the late game, Capashen Knight is a better mana sink, but in the early-middle part of the game, Rootwalla is a better place to put your two mana.
Regathan Firecat doesn't have haste. For some reason, I see it as having haste every time I read it. A 4/1 haste for three mana at common would be pushing it, and I realize this. Still, it looks like it has haste.
Blur Sliver does have haste. And it grants haste to all other Slivers you control. We talked about Slivers earlier, but I just had to point this one out. Red, green, and white have the highest concentration of Slivers at common and uncommon. Imagine pairing this common Blur Sliver with some huge green Slivers. It can get downright ugly for your opponent in a real hurry. I like that.
Second Helping of Gravy, Please
Remember when we talked about gravy a couple weeks back? Warden of Evos Isle is a prime example of grade-A gravy being served up. If we strip most of the text from this card, it's a Wind Drake. Sure, it's an uncommon, hence the power bump, but still; this is a 2/2 with flying for three mana, with a really nice upside. Gravy at its finest.
Speaking of gravy, take a look at Messenger Drake:
A 3/3 with flying for five mana isn't exactly a bargain these days. While this was previously the standard for common fliers, we have come to expect a bit more from our airborne Snidds. Still, a 3/3 flier for five mana is darned acceptable in many decks and, when it dies, we get to draw a card. What could be better than that? (I can think of a few things, but you get my point)
And then it's time for some green gravy. How about a perfectly reasonable 4/4 for five mana? How about if we have the game go very long and make it a double order of power and toughness? (With extra gravy, of course.) Sounds tasty to me. The fact that the extra ability is tacked onto a reasonable body to start with is great. When you factor in that an 8/8 trampler ends the game very quickly, it only gets better.
Where's The Beef?
I found it. It's here:
Having 3 power and 3 toughness for two mana is kind of hallowed territory. Well, getting it without a drawback is the really sacred part. Watchwolf showed us the way back in the day, and we have a similar card currently with Call of the Conclave from Return to Ravnica. Still, those demand that we play with multiple colors of mana, and this Tusker simply asks that we play green. I think this card is going to have a big impact on Limited. I remember happily running as many Centaur Coursers as I could get my hooves on in Magic 2013, and this outpaces it by a full turn. Heavy green decks will take these early and often.
Rumbling Baloth isn't nearly as impressive, but it's still a very durable, solid place to put a bunch of flavor text. At common, these will be around, but don't make the mistake in thinking that they will come around too late.
Shiny Metal Objects
I still haven't figured out why people like to run Elixir of Immortality in their Limited decks. It essentially says, "3, discard this card: Gain 5 life." Most advanced players would never play a card that said that. Yet I see this thing pop up repeatedly in decks. It's as if people think that you draw a card when you activate it or something. You don't. Unless you have a very good reason to play this card, you shouldn't. (I want to note that the assumed lifegain deck in this set may make it worth it in some cases.)
Millstone used to be one of my favorite cards. It was between that, Snake Basket, and Ornithopter. I remember putting Millstones in my creature decks, my artifact decks, and my "combo" decks. (My decks were all terrible.)
I figured the whole reason why Millstone was colorless was to facilitate me putting it in every deck I ever made. And while that was partially true, it wasn't until more than ten years later that I learned why cards like Millstone aren't very good.
As I discussed in my "The Value of a Card" article, Millstone costs a card, doesn't affect the board immediately, and has very little impact after that. It is possible to have it be your win condition in a fully dedicated control deck, but it should rarely be Plan A.
I'm sure by the end of the set I will have drafted a few Millstone control decks, but if winning games is your goal I'd avoid it.
Shimmering Grotto is a trap card. Sort of.
You see, it looks significantly better than it actually is. Many people look at it and somehow think that they are getting a land that can make any color of mana, at no penalty. There is a big penalty for this one, however: it costs you one colorless mana to make that colored mana. That's what sets this card so far down the ladder.
The option to make colorless for "free" is nice, and ultimately the Grotto can become a useful tool in the right deck. The main thing to remember is that the mana fixing on the Grotto will add a full mana to the spells you are trying to cast. It's ok for light splashes and such, but it's not a card you want to prioritize highly during the draft portion.
It's almost time to really start getting into Magic 2014 Core Set. While it can be easy to overlook the core set, if experience is our guide, it would be a sizable mistake. Some of my favorite and best drafts have come from the last few years' worth of core set environments.
It's almost time to find out if this one can live up to that standard. I know I'm ready to find out.