Forcing your Way Through the Maze with Ben Stark

Posted in Event Coverage on May 18, 2013

By Nate Price

A longtime member of the Pro Tour and Grand Prix coverage staff, Nate Price now works making beautiful words for all of you lovely people as the community manager for organized play. When not covering events, he lords over the @MagicProTour Twitter account, ruling with an iron fist.

The addition of Dragon's Maze to complete the Return to Ravnica Block has created one of the most intricate, skill-intensive Booster Draft formats we've seen in a long time. Providing the first opportunity all block to have access to all ten of the guilds of Ravnica, Dragon's Maze is composed of equal parts familiarity and uniqueness. Many of the tenets of drafting that we have held dear over the past months have to be re-evlauated in the light of this expansive and inclusive new big set. Dragon's Maze completely blows the restrictor plate off of the previous two sets. Now, rather than a directed foray into five of the ten guilds, players have access to all of the ten guilds at the same time.

Taken as a whole, a draft with Dragon's Maze is composed of two packs we've spent a good deal of time breaking down, and one that we are seeing for the first time. Return to Ravnica and Gatecrash were investigated and figured out incredibly well within the confines of their individual environments, and the lessons we learned were relatively similar for the two. First of all, due to the five-guild nature of the two sets, there were certain avenues that were closed off to players at different times over the lives of the formats. It was very hard to draft Gruul in Return to Ravnica, since the support for Gruul wasn't going to appear until the following set. We learned the importance of finding out which guild you were supposed to be in based on the table. It paidd dividends to keep yourself open in those formats, taking the monocolored power commons and uncommons and avoiding committing yourself to one of the guilds with gold cards until you figured out which guild was open.

The addition of Dragon's Maze holds some of the things we learned to be true, but turns other conventions on their heads. Much of this is due to the physical structure of the Booster Draft format itself. Two packs get passed to the left (Dragon's Maze and Return to Ravnica) and one gets passed to the right (Gatecrash). As such, you are going to have to get your guilds from Return to Ravnica from the player passing to you in Dragon's Maze, while your Gatecrash guilds come from the player you are passing Dragon's Maze to. This creates a very interesting dynamic where you have a modicum of control over the guilds you are going to have access to in Gatecrash, but you're at the mercy of the player to your right for your Return to Ravnica guilds.

Another part of Dragon's Maze that has changed matters is the slowing of the format. Since you no longer have access to three packs chock full of your guild of choice, constructing a deck that is as focused as the ones found in Gatecrash and Return to Ravnica is incredibly difficult. This, combined with the higher average casting cost and size of the creatures in Dragon's Maze, has resulted in a much slower format, one where players are far more willing to dip into a third, even fourth color to fill out their deck. Considering the insertion of all of the Guildgates into the basic land slot, as well as the addition of Cluestones, players have more than enough resources at their disposal to fix their mana. This inherent "color bleed" of the format adds a second, competing pressure to the already complicated dynamic of drafting with Dragon's Maze.

The Guildgates and their addition in the basic land slot of Dragon's Maze, combined with the larger average casting cost of creatures in the new set, has created an interesting new dynamic in the Return to Ravnica Block Booster Draft.

This combination of pressures has created a format that is incredibly volatile and difficult to draft. It is very easy to believe that you have done a great job of setting yourself up for a particular guild or set of guilds, only to find that an opponent has decided to move into one of them to get a third color. Sometimes, the packs just "break," containing very few cards of a given guild or mechanic, something that would have been reinforced by the two additional packs in triple Gatecrash or Return to Ravnica drafts. One small mistake can see the best laid plans utterly demolished, leaving players with a decidedly mediocre deck.

While the format is still in its infancy, there are a few players who believe that they have some solid theories about how to approach it. One of those players, Team ChannelFireball's Ben Stark, is reknowned and well-respected as one of the best players in the world, and particularly one of its finest Limited minds. Stark's strategy takes into account the structure of the draft and the few things that you are able to control as a drafter to give himself the best possible chance of landing a solid deck.

"I want to set myself up for one of the four best Gatecrash guilds as early as I can," Stark opened. Much of this was due to his perceptions of where the power of Dragon's Maze lies.

"Every guild has a marquee gold card at common. I think the best of them happen to be in the non-Dimir guilds from Gatecrash. Gruul has Zhur-Taa Druid, Orzhov has Tithe Drinker, Simic has Beetleform Mage, and Boros has Viashino Firstblade. I'm not sure if Wizards planned it this way or if it just worked out, but it sets you up perfectly for Booster Draft."

These gold commons in Dragon's Maze can be used to signal the person to your left into certain guilds, setting yourself up for solid picks in the second pack.

Stark explained, "You get to decide which cards the people on your left see. If you avoid letting certain cards through, you can push them out of certain guilds. If you do that for the Gatecrash guilds, you give yourself a good chance of having a good second pack, where they'll be passing the cards in those guilds to you. But you have to make sure that you don't pass something marquee and then try to move in on that guild. If I pass a Zhur-Taa Druid or two, I'm not going to change my mind and decide that I'm Gruul."

"This isn't like the older sets, where you tried to stick to drafting the powerful, monocolored commons, and figure out what guild you were as the cards came around. I think it's much better to use the gold cards in Dragon's Maze to set yourself into a guild and to push others out of it."

Stark's first full block Booster Draft was a perfect example of what he tried to convey. Beginning with a Vorel of the Hull Clade, he followed that up with a Zhur-Taa Druid and a pair of Turn // Burn's. When he received a late Beetleform Mage, he set himself on trying to draft Simic with a touch of red for his split cards. He hadn't passed any other Beetleform Mages or any other marquee Simic cards, feeling confident that he was going to be able to pick up a good second pack of blue and green cards. In the end, he ended up with a very solid Simic deck splashing for a few powerful red cards, exactly as he had set himself up to do.

Ben Stark believes the best route to victory in the full Return to Ravnica Block Booster Draft is using the marquee gold commons in Dragon's Maze to establish good signals for solid Gatecrash picks.

"I understand that sometimes, things don't work out the way that you want them to," he said openly. "To be honest, the deck that I ended up with is only a little better than mediocre and I'm not incredibly thrilled with it. If I can stay one guild, I always try to do that. But it's not always possible.Often in this format, you'll find yourself having to splash a couple of cards to fill out your deck, to get those last two or three cards. Just try not to go overboard. Don't draft two or three guilds that share colors and try to make it work. Your splash should be two or three cards, not five or six. There's nothing wrong with moving into a new base guild, but make sure you make the switch. I've done drafts before where I started out strong in one guild, saw it dry up, and switched into another that was clearly open. Even in this draft, I set myself up so that I could go Simic and splash some red cards if the Simic looked like it was coming, or I could go Gruul and maybe splash some of my blue cards if it looked like Gruul was more open than Simic."

Finding that common pillar appears to be a very solid strategy for drafting with Dragon's Maze. Rather than looking for a guild early on in the draft, look for a common color. Taking Gruul and Simic cards, as Stark did, didn't necessarily put him into a guild, but it put him into green. While he was angling towards trying to get as many cards of one of those guilds as he could, it allowed him to avoid signaling the player to his left that either Gruul or Simic was open, while allowing him to make the decision that it was in fact Simic that he wanted to be when a very clear signal came to him in the late-middle portion of the pack.

While Stark's preferred method of drafting is designed to set himself up for a strong Gatecrash deck, there will be times when you either open a powerful card in a Return to Ravnica guild, or you are simply unable to exert enough control over the person you are passing to because the packs are too rich. In these situations, you have to take the opposite approach.

"Sometimes you can't get the Gatecrash guilds," Stark admitted. "Sometimes you just open Advent of the Wurm and know you're going to end up Selesnya. Since that pack is going to be coming from the right, you don't get to 'tell' the person passing it to you which guild you're going to be. This situation is a lot more like drafting was with the triple sets. You have to be more reactive than proactive. You have to take careful note of which of the guilds from Return to Ravnica are coming around and see which ones are apparently open. When you find one, you can pounce. It's a lot more dangerous than drafting the Gatecrash guilds because you don't quite have the influence you do over that player."

This difference in spheres of control is one of the things that can make drafting with Dragon's Maze so precarious. You can exert more influence over the player to your left, but you only get to reap those rewards for one pack. You have less control over the player to your right, so you have to watch and react more, often costing yourself a reasonable portion of the first pack finding your home, but you benefit by having an incredible idea of what is going to be open in the third pack. Messing all of this up is the fact that many players end up having to dip into a third color to finish off their decks. This makes it more likely that players will snap up cards that would otherwise make your deck, thinning out your own card pool and directly hurting the work you've done establishing your guild. This can lead to a good deal of variance and can make a draft go south very quickly. To facilitate their splashes, players often snap Guildgates up higher than average to ease the strain on their mana bases. Stark takes advantage of this to cement his own strategy.

"I really like what Wizards did with the Gatekeepers and the Guildagates," Stark said. "They made a cycle of creatures that are generally fine to play on their own, but that get better if you can fulfill a certain condition. They really make drafting decisions more difficult for a lot of players, since you have to balance your selection of Gatekeepers and Gates based on how many of the other card you have. It's very impressive."

"Personally, I recognize the strength of the Guildgates, but they don't factor in nearly as much in my strategy. People generally pick them higher than I do in Dragon's Maze, but I can't often afford to do that since I want to be making sure to close off my guild. That, and if I am drafting correctly, I will tend to end up with virtually no splash cards, so I don't mind running three or so sources of mana for my splashed color. If there's a Guildgate, that's great, but it doesn't kill me if they have to be basics. I'll take them if there isn't anything else I value in the pack, but I'm certainly not going to slam a Guildgate over a card that I want to play."

Stark's view on drafting is certainly a potent strategy, one that was echoed by Zac Hill, the lead developer of Dragon's Maze.

"I really like being proactive in this draft format," Hill explained in a mirror of my discussion with Stark. "It just seems better to tell people what you want to draft and then be immediately rewarded than to be told what to do and give yourself two packs for things to have changed. You just stand a better chance of making sure that things are the way you think they are if you aim for Gatecrash. So much can happen over the course of two packs that it just seems hard to rely on Return to Ravnica. Still, if you are paying attention, you can definitely find yourself in the right seat to be rewarded come the last pack."

And the rewards are certainly there for both sets. When I asked Stark what he thought were the best guilds with the addition of Dragon's Maze, he laughed and then went into deep thought.

"Man, that's tough," he laughed. "We never had the opportunity to compare the cross block guilds since they were never around at the same time. I can definitely say this, though. Orzhov was the best guild by far in Gatecrash, and I don't think that changed. Selesnya was definitely the best in Return to Ravnica, and I think it's still strong. It's a little worse because the density of populate has gone down, but it's still a powerful strategy. Other than that, it's tough to say. It's still early."

Early it is. This is the second premier level event to feature the entirety of Return to Ravnica block, and even the most seasoned of players still haven't had enough repetitions under their belts to make any concrete judgments about the format. Still, Stark's balanced, proactive approach seems to be a very good place to start. There is still plenty of room to grow, however, and it will be interesting to see how our understanding of the format evolves as the weeks go by and more and more data comes in. Until then, I hope Stark's strategy give you at least a starting point for attempting to tackle this incredibly difficult, but insanely fun Booster Draft format.

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