When you make a pick, you are (usually) taking a card that you believe will make your deck better in some way. It is important to distinguish if that card is going to make the other cards in your deck better, if it is made better because of the other cards in your deck, if it is simply a good card that helps ensure that you will be able to put together a competitive deck (such as a cheap piece of on color removal), or if it is some combination of the three.
On its lonesome, a Stonework Puma really won't do much for you. Sure, it can block creatures with intimidate, like Bladetusk Boar (which might actually turn out to be quite relevant for you), but in general it won't be very useful unless you have a number of other Allies with relevant abilities. If you do have a bunch of other Allies, then Stonework Puma will be a very valuable card for you, as it will make many of your other cards significantly better.
One of the reasons why it becomes progressively easier and easier to take Allies with good "enters the battlefield" abilities as the draft goes on is that they both act as enablers, making the rest of your deck better, and are aided by the enablers in the rest of your deck.
- Speculative Picks
Taking an Ally in the first pack and taking an Ally in the third pack will invariably mean very different things. The Allies that you take early will be speculative picks, cards whose value will change dramatically based on the other cards that end up in your deck.
You might want to note that Allies function similarly to powerful color intensive cards in this way. If you take a Gatekeeper of Malakir early, you are doing so with the intention of drafting a heavy black deck, one where getting to won't be much of an issue. But if you don't pick up many other black cards, then your Gatekeeper of Malakir might end up in your sideboard even if you're playing black! Or, worse yet, that Gatekeeper of Malakir might end up in your light black deck as a very marginal card because of your inability to cast it in a timely manner.
However, one edge that a lot of Allies have over color intensive cards early in the draft is that even if they don't become great, they will still often be quite decent for you.
If you take an Oran-Rief Survivalist early, you should know pretty much exactly what you're getting yourself into. At the very worst you will have a Runeclaw Bear, and if you get a decent number of Allies you might end up with something pretty absurd.
But if you take an Oran-Rief Survivalist late in the draft, you will be making a completely different pick. Instead of making the pick based on what could happen in the draft, you will be making your pick based mostly on what has already happened.
- Milling them Softly
Unlike Hedron Crab, which acts almost exclusively as a victory condition for decks that have been crafted perfectly for its inclusion, Halimar Excavator acts both as a potential victory condition on its own and as a way to enable the rest of your Allies.
Halimar Excavator will be quite good in most heavy Ally decks, especially if you are able to find multiple copies of the milling Ally. Like Vedalken Entrancer, Halimar Excavator provides a meaningful defensive body while grinding away at your opponent's library. So even if you find yourself unable to deck your opponent, the board presence that it will offer you is not something to scoff at.
While your Allies will typically work together throughout the game, growing together and creating an increasingly impressive board state for you, Halimar Excavator does things a little bit differently. Sure, Halimar Excavator will lend a helping hand by activating all of your other Allies when you cast it, but after that every time it triggers it will provide a completely unique effect, giving you a new way to defeat your opponent: by toppling their library.
While most Allies become quite good if you have about six or seven Allies in your deck, Halimar Excavator needs to have a lot of friends running around for its ability to become relevant.
Unless you have ten or more Allies, or eight or nine including multiple Halimar Excavators, it is unlikely that you will be winning many games by decking your opponents. If you don't have a ton of other Allies, Halimar Excavators will still function as a Stonework Puma to trigger the rest of your Allies.
When you go into the third pack you still might not know if you are going to get enough Allies for Halimar Excavator to reliably deck your opponent. As a result, Halimar Excavator is exactly the type of card that can regularly force you into making speculative picks in the third pack!
It might turn out that Halimar Excavator will simply act as an enabler in your deck, it might get relegated to your sideboard, or it might turn into something so much more
It'll take a few drafts with Worldwake until you have a good sense of how many allies you need before you take a Halimar Excavator early. But once you are armed with that knowledge, you will be able to make some pretty exciting picks.
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Because you won't see any copies of Hada Freeblade until the third pack of a Zendikar / Zendikar / Worldwake draft you will already have a pretty good sense of how good it will be for you. If you already have five or six Allies, you can almost certainly first-pick a Hada Freeblade, as it can both create some extremely explosive starts and remain a very relevant draw later in the game. When it's working, Hada Freeblade will be a very exciting card, allowing for your Limited deck to get some Constructed-quality starts.
If your deck ends up with eight or more Allies, then Hada Freeblade will be incredible. Even if you only have a total of six or seven Allies, then Hada Freeblade will still be quite good (and will still occasionally be great).
But that leads us to an important question. How many Allies do you need to play a Hada Freeblade?
It's definitely good if you have at least five other Allies, but it's fine if you have as few as four or even three provided your other Allies have relevant abilities.
If your deck only has two other Allies, or three Allies with negligible abilities, Hada Freeblade probably won't have enough upside to justify including in your deck. This might change if you have a number of Kor Skyfishers or pieces of Equipment that really want you to have one drops, but other than that you are going to want to leave your one-mana Squire in the sideboard.
Unlike Halimar Excavator, the situations where Hada Freeblade would be a speculative pick are not going to be very exciting. If you have two or three other Allies in your deck and you're presented with a Hada Freeblade early in pack 3, you probably aren't going to take it unless the rest of the pack is pretty much empty. Barring some sort of unlikely Ally avalanche, that Hada Freeblade is probably going to end up being just another marginal or even borderline unplayable card.
Because Hada Freeblade is only really good in decks that have a heavy Ally subtheme, you will have a reasonable shot to pick one up if you are drafting Allies. The very fact that Hada Freeblade is not attractive for everyone is a very, very good thing for your Ally deck.
Hada Freeblade might also have some very real Constructed implications, possibly being just the card to make Allies a viable strategy. Sure, the deck is still going to need a bit more help, but don't be too surprised if you see people following up their Hada Freeblades with Oran-Rief Survivalists and/or Kazandu Blademasters in Block Constructed or even Standard.
- Allies during Deck Construction
When you are building your Sealed Deck, you have all of your options laid out for you. At this stage of the process, you will generally have much more control over how you will build your final deck than you do during deck building in Draft (where the majority of your deck-building decisions are made while you are picking your cards).
During deck building, you have the luxury of knowing how many Allies you have, and you will be able to make decisions accordingly.
If your Sealed pool has a boatload of high-quality Allies, then you will probably end up playing Allies. If your Sealed pool only has a couple of decent Allies, then they may or may not make the cut depending on how attractive your other options are.
But whether it's Draft or Sealed, when you are constructing your deck you shouldn't feel as though you need to run all of your Allies unless you have a very good reason to.
If you only have a couple of Allies, you will probably just want to run the ones that are good on their own. Once you have two to four Oran-Rief Survivalist / Kazandu Blademaster / Umara Raptor–type cards in your deck, you should strongly consider running your Stonework Pumas and even your Halimar Excavators, which would otherwise be borderline on their own but become just that little bit better when they have the ability to enhance some of the other cards in your deck.
- Putting it All Together: How Many Is Too Many?
In last week's article I mentioned that Tome Scour is a card that you generally don't want to play unless you have eight plus copies of them in your draft deck. After the article went up I received a number of emails from players saying that they had been under the impression that it was against the rules to play more than four copies of a card in a Limited deck.
In Limited, unlike in Constructed, there is no limit to the number of copies of a unique card that you are allowed to play in your deck. You are allowed to play any number of the cards that you have drafted or opened in your Sealed pool, as well as any number of basic lands, so long as your deck contains a total of at least 40 cards.
If you draft nine Hada Freeblades, then you can play nine Hada Freeblades, and you'll probably run a lot of your opponents over with them. If your Sealed pool somehow has six Halimar Excavators, then your opponents had better watch out, because some people are about to get decked.
In between games, you are allowed to exchange any number of cards from your sideboard and your main deck, so long as you again end up with at least 40 cards. This does not need to be an equal exchange; all that matters is that you have a minimum of 40 cards when you present your deck. If you started with 41 cards, you are allowed to sideboard down to 40. If you started with 40 cards and your opponent's only way to win is by decking you with his or her three Archive Traps, then you are welcome to sideboard so that your deck has fifty-two cards or even a hundred cards if you want to (note, though, that even if your opponent is playing a dedicated mill deck, you will probably want to keep your deck under 60 cards).