Introduction to Battle for Zendikar Draft

Posted in PRO TOUR BATTLE FOR ZENDIKAR on October 16, 2015

By Jacob Van Lunen

Jacob Van Lunen began playing Magic in 1995. He has participated in organized play at every level of competition and was a member of the winning team at Pro Tour San Diego in 2007, thanks to an innovative draft strategy. As a writer, Van Lunen has had more than three hundred Magic strategy pieces published

Battle for Zendikar introduces us to one of the most complex and exciting draft formats in recent memory. The most successful Battle for Zendikar drafters will be seeking to create synergistic masterpieces instead of simply taking the strongest cards in a particular color combination. Many unique "archetypes" encourage players to find an open lane and construct the best deck available therein.

The first thing we'll need is a solid understanding of the specific deck archetypes we should try to be drafting.

What are the archetypes of Battle for Zendikar Limited?

White-Red Allies is the most aggressive/streamlined archetype. The deck prioritizes inexpensive creatures and pump spells to run over opponents that are trying to assemble their big synergies. Resolute Blademaster turns up the heat and closes the game in short order when the deck is able to operate as intended.

White-Black Lifegain is an aggressive deck that aims to gain incremental advantages by incidentally gaining life. The deck's offensive capabilities are augmented by lifegain triggers and opponents that intend on racing often find themselves hopelessly behind.

White-Blue Fliers aims to gum up the ground with a lot of toughness before taking to the skies with flying creatures that are particularly hard to answer in Battle for Zendikar Limited.

Red-Green Landfall applies tremendous early pressure with inexpensive landfall creatures before closing the game with top end threats like Territorial Baloth. The deck takes advantage of a lot of the set's hidden synergies, often turning mana fixing like Blighted Woodland and Evolving Wilds into some tangible damage.

Red-Green Devoid combines green's best colorless spells with the red cards that make them matter. Vile Aggregate, one of the set's best uncommons, is particularly strong in this archetype where its power can quickly get out of hand thanks to green's ability to produce huge numbers of Eldrazi Scions. The Scions also enable this strategy to play an impressive top end filled with big eldrazi.

Black-Red Devoid is an aggressive deck that backs up red's colorless synergies with removal. This is one of the most impressive strategies in terms of card power levels, but its power comes with a price. A lot of players will be looking to draft this deck and the desirable cards may become few and far between just a few short picks into the draft.

Blue-Black Ingest uses ingest creatures to power up processors that offer under-costed effects at the expense of playing less than stellar ingest creatures. Blue-Red and Black-Red Ingest decks offer escape hatches for players that get cut out of the Blue-Black archetype.

Blue-Green Ramp/Tempo can go wide with Eldrazi Scions, gum up the ground, go over the top with fliers, play gigantic monsters, and overcome stalemates with cards like Adverse Conditions. The deck can be very powerful when it comes together, but finding the perfect mix of cards can be difficult.

Blue-Red Devoid uses red's colorless synergies with powerful blue cards like Eldrazi Skyspawner. The sheer power of the cards in this archetype will make it one of the most desirable decks at the draft table.

White-Green Go Wide doesn't have a lot of the synergy available to other archetypes, but mixing aggressive creatures with pump spells and trump cards like Tajuru Warcaller make the deck capable of closing games before opponents have the opportunity to stabilize.

Black-Green Sacrifice takes advantage of black's sacrifice effects like Vampiric Rites by producing huge amounts of Eldrazi Scions with green cards. The ability to chump block indefinitely and find removal spells for evasive creatures gives this deck a superb long game plan against the format's most popular strategies.

Multicolor Converge relies on card power over synergy to a certain degree. Powerful converge cards like Skyrider Elf give players additional incentive to prioritize mana fixing over spells in early picks.

We have a solid understanding of the Battle for Zendikar draft archetypes now, but this is still a difficult format to crack. Luckily, we've got some of the best players in the world to answer the questions on the tips of everyone's tongue.

How valuable are two-mana creatures in Battle for Zendikar draft?

Known Limited Master and Hall of Famer (23) Ben Stark doesn't feel that two-drops are that important in most Battle for Zendikar draft archetypes. In his words, "Usually, when my opponent plays a two-drop on the play and I don't have one, I'm pretty scared, but in this draft format, I'm generally happy my opponent has one less card in their hand."

Teammates (8) Brad Nelson and (14) Ari Lax feel that two-mana creatures, while still playable, have become less important because cards scale as intended in Battle for Zendikar Limited. Most three-mana creatures trump two-mana creatures, four-mana creatures trump threes, and so on. Nelson felt it was important to point out that specific two-mana creatures work well in specific draft archetypes that may not be obvious. For example, Oran-Rief Invoker is best in a strategy like Black-Green Sacrifice that can prolong the game and make the board complicated enough to make its activated ability relevant.

Others felt that two-mana creatures were very important in specific draft strategies. Recent World Magic Cup Qualifier winner and Limited savant Neal Oliver feels that two-mana creatures vary wildly in importance depending on one's intended level of aggression. For example, White-Red Ally decks and Red-Green Landfall decks need to apply early pressure with inexpensive creatures for their strategy to be viable.

We want to "get in a lane" and draft a specific archetype. When and how do we decide what archetype we'll be drafting?

Two-Time World Champion (15) Shahar Shenhar is usually able to identify an open archetype by seeing a higher quality uncommon for a specific archetype around fourth pick. When three players on Shenhar's right have foregone the powerful uncommon then he becomes more confident that the particular archetype is open to be drafted. Shenhar admits that it's much simpler at times; occasionally we'll open a powerful rare or uncommon and happen into an open archetype by sheer luck.

Neal Oliver likes to assign subjective weights to his previous picks to zero in on a particular archetype. For example, a previously picked Vile Aggregate will increase his likelihood to pick cards that work well alongside it. Each pick's value is assigned a weight and, once enough cards for a particular archetype have been picked up, Oliver can focus on drafting cards specifically for his desired archetype.

We want to be playing gigantic monsters. What cards do we want to play alongside them?

Platinum Pro (12) Steve Rubin feels that we need cards that help us turn the corner. Rubin would rather be playing Bane of Bala Ged, Plated Crusher, Tajuru Beastmaster, and Ruin Processor than try to get to eight mana for things like Eldrazi Devastator. Rubin feels that the most important cards for decks like these are things that let us turn the corner and stabilize against aggressive opponents; Cards like Courier Griffin are particularly good because they gain us life and block well enough to get us to our bigger bodies. Essentially, Rubin wants to be playing cards that ensure he won't be untapping in a worse position than he was on the previous turn.

(15) Shahar Shenhar is looking for cards like Kozilek's Channeler, Eyeless Watcher, and Hedron Archive when he's trying to cast gigantic eldrazi. Shenhar has been underwhelmed with Call the Scions and feels that players should seek better options to get them to their biggest spells.

How should we be valuing processors and creatures with ingest? Should we be taking creatures with ingest before gambling on the processors?

Most pro players I spoke with were in agreement that we should be valuing ingest above processors in most cases. The processors are underwhelming if we can't exile any cards so it makes sense that we want creatures with ingest as a prerequisite.

(8) Brad Nelson feels that it's important to value the cards on their own merit. Nelson wouldn't want to be spending early picks on cards that aren't strong enough on their own, like Mist Intruder. For example, Ulamog's Nullifier and Benthic Infiltrator both offer up relevant bodies for their cost and may be worth taking simply because they're good cards that happen to have a lot of upside if the draft goes well. Nelson wants each of his cards to be individually powerful.

How important is mana fixing? How high should we be picking it?

(23) Ben Stark doesn't think there's enough of a payoff for specifically going for converge. Stark feels that securing his place in a draft is important enough that he doesn't want to be valuing fixing above even medium strength spells. Shahar Shenhar feels similarly, but also noted that Evolving Wilds is strong because of landfall synergies.

(12) Steve Rubin feels that fixing is only good when the card is simply strong on its own. Pilgrim's Eye fixes mana, but also produces a bit of card advantage, speeds up a clock, and provides colorless synergy.

Time to battle!

Get in a lane and embrace your inner deck builder. It's time to draft Battle for Zendikar!