The State of the Format

Posted in Limited Information on July 19, 2005

By Scott Wills

Now that the Champions-Betrayers-Saviors draft format has had a few weeks to settle down, and we've also had a Pro-Tour using the format, I thought now would be a good time to go over the changes that the format has experienced and how the various colour combinations are stacking up.

Before we get into that though, one other quick addition. For those of you interested in improving in drafting in this format I'd definitely recommend checking out last week's Magic Arcana which showed off the new 'draft viewer' which is one of the best features added to any site ever for draft coverage. Using it you can replay the whole draft from the top eight of the Pro-Tour including seeing every pick each player made.

It's worth running through it from each player's perspective as it can give some unique insights into how players at the top level position themselves in a draft and how they evaluate certain cards over others. All of the players in this draft did make it through to the top eight of the Pro-Tour but there are still a few slightly suspect picks even at that level. That just goes to show just how demanding booster drafting can be at times though.

Moving on to the main bulk of the article, first of all I want to take a quick look at the best commons from each colour. We've moved from a format of three Champions packs originally, to one containing picks from three sets now, and it's useful to review the best commons from each of those sets just to see how the power levels of the colours has changed over time. Individual player opinion on how to rank the various colours is still very much mixed, but people's opinions are frequently based upon their own playing preferences. However, there are some changes to the colours that are factual and can't be ignored. Looking through them helps us analyze the colours in terms of the facts.

Reviewing the colours


Champions: Kabuto Moth, Cage of Hands, Kitsune Blademaster, Blessed Breath, Mothrider Samurai, Kami of Ancient Law, Hundred-Talon Kami.
Betrayers: Waxmane Baku, Moonlit Strider, Split-Tail Miko, Hundred-Talon Strike.
Saviors: Moonwing Moth, Kitsune Loreweaver, Plow Through Reito.

There's pretty much nothing in the latter two sets that hits the level of the best three commons from Champions. White was still popular through Betrayers largely on the strength of Waxmane Baku, but there are no dominating cards to replace the Baku or the Moth in Saviors. As a result white has fallen out of favour somewhat with many players and is no longer considered one of the top colours.

The once popular red-white deck has since fallen by the wayside. That deck often relied on Samurais, which are severely lacking once you leave Champions. Kitsune Dawnblade and Silverstorm Samurai are not worthwhile additions to a fast, aggressive deck. As a result it's very rare to see a successful red-white deck these days, and it's typically a colour combination you should try to avoid drafting because of that. The black-white decks that used to exist through Saviors have also now dropped off the radar as they used to primarily focus on Soulshift and Spirits to gain advantage and the Spirits in Saviors are far weaker than those in the first two sets.

Overall white has been weakened a lot with the addition of the third set. Right now it seems best drafted alongside blue in the traditional blue-white defensive build as that deck doesn't rely on Spirits and white still has the tools to compete in that style of deck.


Champions: Teller of Tales, Soratami Mirror-Guard, Soratami Rainshaper, Consuming Vortex, Mystic Restraints.
Betrayers: Shimmering Glasskite, Ninja of the Deep Hours.
Saviors: Shinen of Flight's Wings, Moonbow Illusionist.

Blue was strong in triple Champions and it was often found alongside white, red and black in different types of decks. The addition of Betrayers certainly hit it hard, as there was a big dearth of playable cards in that set. Saviors weakened it further still, as the second Champions booster containing all the best flyers in the format was replaced by some more mediocre alternatives. However there's also some playable filler in Saviors and blue didn't get hurt quite as much as white in the last set. As such blue is still played, although the good old days of the blue-red Arcane/Splice, or blue-white Dampen Thought archetypes are all but gone now.

Blue-green has been gaining in popularity as a tempo-based deck, especially now there are less problematic creatures like Kabuto Moth and Frostwielder that this colour combination might otherwise scoop to. Blue-white is still popular as I mentioned previously, and blue-black is still played and often has a significant Ninja theme due to the number of cards in those colours that are present in Saviors.


Champions: Scuttling Death, Nezumi Cutthroat, Befoul, Rend Flesh, Rend Spirit.
Betrayers: Okiba-Gang Shinobi, Horobi's Whisper, Takenuma Bleeder. Saviors: Kuro's Taken,
Kagemaro's Clutch.

Devouring Greed is one card in particular that has taken a massive hit over the last few months. Long gone are the days when the black decks could rely on getting a number of playable spirits as the likes of Wicked Akuba, Kami of the Waning Moon and Gibbering Kami are now only present in a single booster. It's far more common now to have a combination of Rats and Ogres and it's rare that you can draft the number of Spirits you need to turn Devouring Greed into the powerhouse it once was. Indeed I can't even remember the last time I got Greed'ed out of a limited game now.


Okiba-Gang Shinobi

With Saviors hand-size theme and a reduction in the overall speed of the format the once under-appreciated Okiba-Gang Shinobi is now considered better even than Horobi's Whisper by several Pro players.

Overall black is still a weak-to-average colour, but there are usually enough playable cards around to fill out most black decks. It is the one colour that seems to have no real favourite colour combinations, although many players still like to pair it with green. That's also one of the colours of Soulshift so if there is a chance of making a deck focusing on that it's often green that you need to pair black with. This is possible with white too sometimes, but the options are a lot weaker in both those colours than they once were. You do not want to get into a situation where you are drafting black come Saviors and yet still need a lot of playable cards because you just won't get them. Too many of its common slots are taken up by mediocre-to-unplayable commons, and there's only one great card – Kagemaro's Clutch – that you can be happy first-picking.

When pairing black with other colours, black-red is one combination that a lot of the Pro players like to avoid. It lacks any source of card advantage generally, and the aggressive cards aren't really there any more to make that deck easy to draft either. Black-red decks frequently look fine, then simply just roll over and lose without a really obvious reason why. Enough players have noticed that trend to make it common knowledge amongst them that you should try and stay away from this particular combination.


Champions: Glacial Ray, Yamabushi's Flame, Frostwielder, Ronin Houndmaster.
Betrayers: Torrent of Stone, Frost Ogre, Frostling.
Saviors: Spiraling Embers, Barrel Down Sokenzan, Sokenzan Spellblade, Akki Underling.

The best red commons in Champions were amongst the bets commons in the set. However the colour lacked depth there and wasn't always a popular primary colour as a response. Many players' first-picks were one of the two powerful removal spells, which meant that red was often over-drafted considering its comparatively weak status.

When Betrayers hit the scene red had a significant drop in popularity, as outside of Torrent of Stone there are no great commons in the set for it. Not only did it lack the quality, it also lacked the depth and for a while red was not a great colour. When it was drafted it was usually on the strength of the two Champions packs rather than because of any great cards in Betrayers.

Saviors has now turned all this around. Once again we have two excellent removal spells, except this time they're in a smaller set and so crop up in any given draft more frequently as a result. Two very good common creatures and a few other playable filler cards has once again brought red back into favour.

You only need to look at Pro-Tour winner Geoffrey Siron's deck that swept the top eight of Pro-Tour London with a 9-0 finish in games to see just what can happen if red gets under-drafted in pack one, and then ignored in pack two. Sixth pick Barrel Down Sokenzans and ninth pick Undying Flames aren't something I'd expect to see often (or even in one draft in 50 to be honest!) but if the rest of the table are out of red by the time Saviors comes around it may well be too late for them to switch, leaving you to get a few nice late picks as a result.


Champions: Moss Kami, Sakura-Tribe Elder, Kodama's Might, Kodama's Reach.
Betrayers: Gnarled Mass, Matsu-Tribe Sniper, Sakura-Tribe Springcaller.
Saviors: Shinen of Life's Roar, Elder Pine of Jukai, Inner Calm, Outer Strength.

Green was definitely thought to be one of the weaker colours in Champions, largely because it's first picks weren't really active cards, and it was quite slow in a fast format. Things picked up a little with Betrayers and have improved further now that Saviors is in the mix.

Green's recent rise in popularity is not so much because it has lot of good cards in Saviors – although it does – but it's also because it simply wasn't hurt as much as the other colours were. While it does still have its share of weak commons an initial base of Elder-Pine of Jukai, Okina Nightwatch, Shinen of Life's Roar, and Inner Calm, Outer Strength mean it's very easily to pick up a reasonable number of playable cards in the last pack. This isn't true for some of the other colours.

Green also seems to be fairly flexible when it comes to being paired with other colours. Green-red is perhaps the most common combination that comes to mind but various Pro players have expressed a preference for green-black and green-blue in addition to green-red. Green-white is even played sometimes and with its quality creatures and good combat tricks it isn't unheard of for this combination to win a draft either.


Talking amongst the European Pros I know it seems that green has now migrated from a lot of players' least favourite colour to their most favourite colour. Red-green and green-black were two popular archetypes that a lot of players listed amongst their favourites.

Red-green has a lot of payoff in the final pack of the draft. If you can establish yourself in these colours in the first two packs then when Saviors starts coming around there are lots of great cards you can pick up. Often players jostle for colours in the first few picks of a draft so you can't always rely on being able use your early picks. When the last pack comes around you're typically set in your colours then, which means you can sometimes gain a greater benefit from being in those more powerful colours. In addition to that, with green being weaker in Champions many players will pass it up in favour of more powerful cards in other colours which means there can be a lower number of green drafters than the packs might otherwise dictate.


Okina Nightwatch

The other reason for the increase in the overall power of green is the fact that the format has slowed down somewhat. This means cards like Okina Nightwatch and Moss Kami are more powerful than they might've been previously simply because you have more time to get them into play and are often under less pressure when you do.

All this will no doubt change once all players become aware of the strengths of the various colours and adjust their draft picks accordingly, but for now at least green seems to be on top of the pile.

Blue-white still remains popular amongst control players and although it has been weakened it still has the tools to compete. This deck can lack removal sometimes if it isn't grabbed in Champions but when Saviors comes around there's typically no shortage of good flyers, with three very good commons available to players. Blue also tends to be under-drafted through Champions and Saviors, which means you will often get a late pick Shinen of Flight's Wings or Moonbow Illusionist when you really shouldn't be. You can look at the draft I covered last week as an example of this where a sixth pick Kiri-Onna and seventh pick Shinen of Flight's Wings were available if I had been drafting blue.

As I said before there are several archetypes that are all but buried. Red-white is almost undraftable now as there are just no synergies between those colours any more. Black-red is another combination that is rarely successful as it frequently lacks any form of card advantage and is very susceptible to both mana screw and mana flood with no real ways to cope with either. Most of its cards trade on a one-for-one basis, and it doesn't have the aggressive creatures needed for a tempo build any more, which means it can often get outdrawn in a game.

I personally dislike black-white now too. It used to be a reasonably solid archetype that could rely on Soulshift and Spiritcraft effects to gain an advantage. There's a distinct lack of quality spirits in the latter two sets and both these colours are weak in Saviors, which means you can end up with no good picks in the last set if the packs don't break in your favour. Black-white decks often now end up being 'good stuff' decks and there typically just isn't enough good stuff to fill these colours out consistently.

Coming Soon

There won't be much to talk about over the coming weeks in terms of changes to the format although I'm sure there'll be a few modifications to everyone's pick orders and colour preferences as the different colours get over-drafted and under-drafted accordingly.

I'll try and break things up a little with a little Ninth Edition strategy when that set finally hits but I plan on doing a few more draft analyses of this block as well.

I'd also like to get some feedback on anything else you guys would like to see between now and the time Ravnica hits as there are quite a few articles to cover between now and then and I don't want to end up boring you all with the same repeated Champions-Betrayers-Saviors coverage if there are other things you'd like to see as well. If you have any thoughts, whether it's a general “Cover this topic” or a specific “I had a tricky draft situation recently, what is the best pick from this pack?” then please do email me or post in the forums and I'll see what I can do to cover it.

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