Deep within the shadowy confines of Ravnica's underbelly, House Dimir waits and watches. While other guilds deal in souls and money, like the Orzhov, or violence, like the Gruul , the Dimir deal in another, far more plentiful and powerful currency: secrets. Perhaps no secret is held tighter than how exactly one goes about drafting the elusive guild. Just as you'd expect, the Dimir you see may not be the Dimir that exists beneath, and a cursory glance at the guild's card pool reveals this shifting, ambiguous nature.
First, you have the guild mechanic: cipher. The Dimir cipher cards generally lead one towards an aggressive, evasive build. Cards like Shadow Slice and Hands of Binding really push for fast games, and they need evasive creatures to ensure that the ciphers are triggered over and over again. Then, you have the grind mechanic, which appears as a sub-theme throughout the black and blue cards of the set. Cards like Balustrade Spy and Undercity Informer push decks to win not through loss of life, but through a depleted deck. They fight on a different plane than the cipher decks tend to.
Because of this duality, many Dimir decks can split down the middle, ending up with a deck that could either win through decking or through damage, though not terribly proficient at either. You end up with decks that don't have a clear plan or identity, other than simply Dimir. While the Dimir themselves would likely applaud this obscurity of identity, as a drafter, it's the surest way to die.
In order to begin to crack the Dimir code, I tracked down three of the biggest teams in Magic right now: Team SCG, ChannelFireball, and Mana Deprive d. Each sent their resident Dimir expert to me to help me dissipate some of the shadows surrounding this difficult to draft guild.
"They are all about defense," Team SCG's Andrew Cuneo revealed to me. "You need to value removal and ways to draw the game out. All of the other decks in the format are trying to win the game quickly, but if you look to race with Dimir, you find that you're slower than they are. Once you've drawn the game out, you can start to piece together your path to victory. Some of the best finishers Dimir has are Wight of Precinct Six , Undercity Informer , and Consuming Aberration ."
Alexander Hayne, of Canada's own Team Mana Deprive d, agreed with Cuneo.
"Removal has to come first, even if it seems like it's only temporary removal. Cards like Devour Flesh and Grisly Spectacle are clearly powerful and should be taken early, but cards like Death's Approach , Agoraphobia , and Totally Lost will come around later and should be snapped up as you see them."
One of the main reasons that these players believe in the strength and importance of early defense is because they understand that drawing things out plays to Dimir's strength.
"Dimir is much better in the late game than most other decks," Hayne explained. "Each turn in the game, with each card they draw, opponents are 'losing life.' Other decks can stall out as the game progresses, but Dimir always has a ticking clock."
They also realize that one of the strengths of the deck is that it is so undesired right now. As the saying goes, "one man's trash is another man's treasure." As such, you get a number of cards that are good in the Dimir deck rather late.
"Cards like Mortus Strider , Agoraphobia , Corpse Blockade , and Sage's Row Denizen are cards that are mediocre to unplayable in other decks, but they are fairly good for setting up your games in Dimir," Cuneo told me.
Though they aren't generally desired by other decks, they can be used to figure out which direction you are taking with your Dimir deck, as ChannelFireball's Conley Woods explained.
"I like to use Sage's Row Denizen to set up my view of the table," he revealed. Woods, along with Hayne, believe that there are a couple of variants of Dimir floating around. One of them focuses around the grind cards, while the other focuses on cipher. Woods likes to take advantage of the strong signals gained after a pack has completed a trip around the table to determine which he should be.
"I really like to keep myself from committing to one Dimir deck over another early in the draft," he explained. "You have to begin by taking the cards that are good, but don't necessarily speak to one deck over the other. Cards like Balustrade Spy and Sage's Row Denizen are good cards, but they don't necessarily mean you're going to focus on deck depletion the same way that Paranoid Delusions does. Because of this, I can use cards like Shadow Slice and Paranoid Delusions , which signify a particular variant, as ways to judge which Dimir deck is available to me. If I have a pack that has a multipurpose card, like the Balustrade Spy or Sage's Row Denizen , in a pack alongside a Slice or Delusions, I can take the noncommittal card and see if the other comes back. If it doesn't, I know I should be drafting the other type of Dimir deck."
Woods acknowledged that this flexible draft strategy results in fluctuating pick orders.
"In order to stay open to my particular strategy, cards that are specific to one deck generally begin fairly low in my pick order. However, once I've settled on a deck type, cards that are incredibly strong in that deck type skyrocket in value. Ultimately, you want your deck to have the correct amount of cards from each department. You need the early enablers, things that carry cipher or extort to keep you alive. You need removal and ways to stay alive. You need the cards that make your particular deck run. Once you have a reasonable number of these, the sky is the limit."
After this, Woods had an interesting departure from the philosophies of Hayne and Cuneo. While the latter had preached about the importance of defense and haymakers in the Dimir decks, Woods propped up the little guys, cards like Metropolis Faerie and Basilica Screecher . Sure, these cards are obviously role players in a cipher deck, capable of safely carrying Shadow Slice and putting opponents on a fast clock, but they seemed initially out of place in a grind deck. Woods elaborated.
"One of the most overlooked things that a Dimir deck needs it cheap spells," he explained. "The amount of life gained by extort creatures like the Screecher is one of the biggest driving forces in staying alive."
Even with this difference in opinion, all three players agreed that there are a few cards that are universally incredible in Dimir, cards that should be looked for whenever available. Here's the list of common and uncommon all-stars: Wight of Precinct Six , Sage's Row Denizen , Balustrade Spy , Devour Flesh , Death's Approach , Grisly Spectacle , Killing Glare , and Undercity Informer .
While all of these cards are clearly good for the grind deck, they are also exceptional in the rogues/cipher deck. Other cards that are specifically good in the cipher deck, should you find yourself unable to pick up on the grind plan, are Hands of Binding , Metropolis Sprite , Shadow Slice , Call of the Nightwing , Way of the Thief , and Deathcult Rogue . Interestingly, most players didn't like the idea of playing Keymaster Rogue in the cipher deck due to the loss of tempo, but they did appreciate it as a reusable trigger for Sage's Row Denizen in the grind deck. Other cards that take a high priority if you want to grind through an opponent's deck are the obvious Paranoid Delusions and the less obvious Mortus Strider . The Strider functions to stem the tide against aggressive opponents, while acting as a way to trigger the Sage's Row Denizen and a reusable sacrifice for Undercity Informer .
With the help of these players, I feel that the shadow surrounding Dimir has been peeled back just a little. If Andrew Cuneo, Alexander Hayne, or Conley Woods, I dunno, fail to show up tomorrow, I promise, I had nothing to do with it...