The Draft format for Amonkhet is significantly more developed than a format normally would be at this stage (this stage being before the Pro Tour has even happened).
I just finished draft number 20-something while sitting here at a mediocre burger joint with sketchy Wi-Fi at the airport in Richmond, Virginia. We just crowned one of three Grand Prix Champions around the world mere hours ago. I draft like this to prepare myself for my role as play-by-play commentator at the Pro Tour and because I love drafting.
I can't imagine how many drafts the pros who are competing in the event have done thus far. The early release of the set on Magic Online is proving to be a game changer. The result is that we have a lot of data and a lot of opinions about this format, many of which I will be summarizing for you here today.
For this article we'll be taking a look at where the format stands right now, post-GP but pre-PT, and we'll explore some of the big questions yet unanswered going into the Pro Tour this weekend.
What We "Know"
While we likely know more about the format that we normally would at this point, it's far from solved. How deep can you really go? How aggressive can this format be? Is it better to be in the middle or on the fringes?
I can tell you that a large portion of the Day Two players in the GP that I covered in Richmond loved aggressive decks. And seemingly, the more aggressive the better. I had several discussions about this guy over the weekend, for example:
On the scale of aggressive to controlling, Bloodlust Inciter is about as all-in aggro as you can get. It's a 1/1 for one mana, which is effectively unplayable at those stats, so it has to make up a lot of ground with its activated ability. Does it, though?
I don't think it does. I think it's close in the right deck, that deck probably being red-green with a bunch of big green attackers to give haste to. But we saw a lot of these on the battlefield, sometimes doing good work, and sometimes chump-blocking without being activated.
My approach to evaluating Limited cards includes all likely scenarios for it rather than simply asking myself what the best case is for a card. If you cast a Bloodlust Inciter on turn one, then curve out with creatures in an aggressive deck, it's an all-star. It makes combat a nightmare for your opponent and makes your conditional attacking cards even better.
But anyone who has played a lot of Limited will tell you that things don't always go according to plan. Sometimes your aggressive deck finds itself behind in the race. Sometimes you miss your land drops, miss colors, or mulligan more than you'd like. Cards like Bloodlust Inciter shine when your plan is working, but fail miserably when it's not.
Yet people are playing the card, and quite often at the Grand Prix as well. A popular pro—and Pro Tour Champion I might add—picked it second in one of his drafts. Second pick!
My opinions on these cards aside, what can we take away from all these hyper-aggressive decks rolling around in the format?
First, I would expect that some percent of the field at the Pro Tour will subscribe to this philosophy and try to draft the most aggressive deck they possibly can. If you are planning on watching the coverage, my guess is that you'll see a fair number of red-white, black-red, and red-green decks looking to beat down.
These players aren't just looking to be assertive in this environment; they are looking to be the fastest they can possibly be. I find that interesting, as it can often backfire if the draws or matchups don't come together. Usually people opt for a more well-rounded approach that wants to be assertive but has contingency plans in case it doesn't come together.
Even though there are plenty of other strategies available in the format, this seemed to be one that many players were going for.
In the Sealed Deck portion of the tournament, we saw a strategy of going super deep on a four- or five-color deck, but this didn't translate to Draft as it's a much more hostile environment thanks to the aggressive decks we've been discussing.
What were the other strategies that people seemed to like?
There were a number of color pairs that did well besides the red-based aggressive decks. White-Black Zombies is a deck that has a high ceiling if you get the right cards, but also is fairly consistent and powerful even if you don't. Cards like the following make up a good base of creatures and synergy that can be built upon:
Throw in a few great rares, and you've got a powerful, consistent strategy that is good against the aggressive decks and has enough long game to compete with the slower, bigger decks as well.
Green-White Exert decks offer an aggressive stance but with the ability to change gears and block when needed. Gust Walker is the premiere common creature for these decks, but basically anything that says "exert" on it in combination with some decent combat tricks and the usual removal spells and perhaps a bomb or two can make for a consistent, strong strategy.
Players also often take the more assertive cards from white and combine them with good red spells to make a more theme-less aggressive deck. Often the creatures feature exert—the premiere aggressive mechanic in the set—but you also get key cards from red to help clear the way and push through more damage:
One deck that I've had success with but hasn't met with much popularity yet is the black-green deck. It combines solid creatures and removal with good-enough removal spells and -1/-1 counter synergies to make a solid, traditional midrange Limited deck.
Cards like these do a good job of both attacking and blocking, depending on what your opponent is presenting:
That reminds me, I may as well do the Cartouche power rankings here, in order:
- Cartouche of Strength
- Cartouche of Ambition
- Cartouche of Knowledge
- Cartouche of Solidarity
- Cartouche of Zeal
This entire cycle of Cartouches has proven not only playable, but good. Even my least-favorite Cartouche sees heavy play and often has a big impact on the game. And that's before you factor in the Trials.
Now that I mention it, I'll do a Trials power ranking too:
Again, these have all proven playable, and most are good. Trial of Ambition ranges from amazing (when it kills a Scaled Behemoth) to pretty bad (when it kills a 1/1 warrior token or a creature with Compulsory Rest on it). Trial of Knowledge is a great card, but it's quite slow at four mana, and you really need to be set up to take advantage of it.
The last deck that I want to mention is the Blue-Black Cycling deck. It's the deck that really takes the most advantage of cycling as a mechanic, but I've found it very tricky to get right.
Here are some of the key cards for the deck:
I snuck a rare on the list, but that's because Drake Haven is the card that most often leads people to draft this deck in the first place. It's a very powerful card if you can build around it, but you often put yourself in the position of needing to draw it to make your deck great, which isn't an amazing place to be. It puts a lot of pressure on the Shadowstorm Viziers and Hekma Sentinels to do great work for you (which they can).
What to Look for at the Pro Tour
As you sit down to check out coverage of the Pro Tour, what should you look for from the drafters playing in the event? My guess is that you'll see one faction of the drafters that will stick to their proverbial guns and just keep jamming this ultra-aggressive approach to the format.
They may even force this in a draft, meaning they may have the idea of drafting these decks before they even sit down and take the cards that go in the deck regardless of what else in the pack. This is not the strategy that I advise, but my opinion isn't the only one out there, and I think we'll see players do this even at the Pro Tour.
Most of the pros will follow the established method of staying open, reading the table, and drafting the best possible deck for their seat, regardless of archetype.
Some of the decks in the format have weaknesses to main-deckable cards (many with cycling), and I think the astute pros will prioritize these silver bullet cards a bit higher than they normally would.
Let's look at a few examples:
Forsake the Worldly is squarely on my radar as a main-deck card at this point. Cycling makes it an easy inclusion, but the targets you can hit with this can be devastating for the narrower decks in the format.
When a deck is built around the inevitability of a card like Sandwurm Convergence and you simply exile it before it does anything, that can be a massive blowout.
Perhaps an even more important card is this one:
Check out the cards this kills:
That isn't even a comprehensive list, and it doesn't count 1/1 tokens like Warriors, Cats, and Insects. And, Blazing Volley only hits creatures your opponent controls. Talk about a mirror breaker.
This one isn't as important, but it's a good tool against the hyper-aggressive decks that we talked about earlier, able to both block and even kill a lot of annoying early threats that have gotten popular.
This is another card that can completely swing a game, especially against the small "go-wide" style decks that have gotten popular. Since it's a rare, you won't see it too often, but in the right position it can absolutely turn a loss into a win, and it seems well positioned in the format right now.
Results Subject to Change
As always, Limited formats aren't a static environment. They are constantly in flux, and much will be gleaned from the Grand Prix this past weekend as well as the valuable days of team testing that happen in between the Grand Prix and Pro Tour weekends.
My prediction is that things trend back toward the middle. These super-hyper-ultra aggro decks can catch people off-guard early in a format, but they can be too inconsistent and fragile to perform on the big stage. If people cool down with those decks, maybe the big, slow decks can even make more of an appearance.
I'll be in the booth, and I hope to see you in the chat this weekend!