"Oh, this format is very easy," Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir finalist Shota Yasooka told me, while talking about his 6-0 Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch draft performance. He was being glib, of course, but his words echoed the advice of the other 6-0 drafters I talked to today. Put in a slightly different way, as Pro Tour Hall of Fame member Frank Karsten summed up, "The key is: Don't make things more difficult than they are."
Easy for him to say, right?
But for the 6-0 drafters here, it was pretty easy to say. Nick Connell, Grand Prix Pittsburgh winner Alex Bianchi, Frank Lepore, Hall of Famer Shuhei Nakamura, Player of the Year (10) Mike Sigrist, and Matej Zatlkaj joined Yasooka and Karsten, all making it through the two draft pods completely unscathed.
So how did they do it, besides "very easily"? The players I caught up with all had various tips and tricks on how their drafts went, and how they look at the format.
"It's very speedy," Yasooka continued. As a result, he likes the consistent speed of two colors. "There are many great two-color combinations: Green-white, red-white, white-black. They are all good." Yasooka played red-white in both drafts.
Hall of Famer Shota Yasooka was far from the only 6-0 drafter to praise the power of aggressive white decks in the current Booster Draft format.
This draft combination was the same for Team EUreka's strong-arm, Slovakia's Matej Zatlkaj. He was team red-white all the way. Since "Big Z" wasn't in Mexico City with the rest of his team, he missed out on most of their drafting practice. "I only drafted like fifteen times before this, not enough at all, so [my team] told me to force red-white, or at least look to white." He heeded their advice.
This comports with what Yasooka and Karsten were saying. "Speedy" aggro decks are good in the format, so if it's there, you should take it. Seeing two red-white double-drafters go 6-0 is slightly unsurprising in that environment. Almost everyone agreed that this format is much more about power than synergy, so go with where the power lies.
Zatlkaj added about red-white the importance of not splitting the archetype. "With, say, Blue-Black Control, you could start out good with removal and a couple of flying creatures, but then you start having to pick things like Sky Scourer, and they lead you in the wrong direction." He continued that since there is really no red-white control deck, if you are picking those colors, almost all the cards you pick end up in the same red-white deck, working together. See? Easy.
One of the game's greatest players, Shuhei Nakamura, also 6-0, agreed with that for everyone but himself. "Control is not very good," he told me. However, when I asked what archetypes he played in the drafts he said: "White-Black Control and White-Blue Control." I looked at him. "Yeah, but no one else should do that!" he retorted.
Shuhei Nakamura: Good at the game, and also very good at being successful despite not taking his own advice.
He said he went against his own advice because both drafts he opened Eldrazi Displacer, and thought it best to make as much use of the extremely powerful card as he could. He also had a sound strategy for this type of build, which he only learned from lots of practice.
He said just taking the white cards is not good enough to get other people out of the color because he said, "there is too much white." To combat this, Nakamura said, "If I am going to be control, I make sure I metagame to beat aggro because there're too many good white aggressive cards, so there will be maybe multiple white aggressive decks at the table."
So far, the players are saying "Aggro Aggro Aggro"—even the one who played control. Hall of Famer and math-magician Frank Karsten agreed completely. And like Karsten usually does, he has it broken down into systems. "Look to have four two-drops, five three-drops, four four-drops, and 'a bunch' of five-to-six-drops. Then look for the split to be 7 non-creature spells, and 16 creatures spells, and you should be good." This was repeated by Zatlkaj, who thought that the tricks had gotten a lot better in this format because there were so many to get.
"I like to attack," Karsten said. "This is much different than Battle for Zendikar, which often came down to big Eldrazi. Now there are many early creatures that matter."
Frank Karsten ran the numbers, and that let him run the tables in this weekend's Booster Draft rounds.
All these players saying "two-color" and "aggro" means implicitly that they are eschewing colorless if they can. Yasooka said he just flat-out avoids those cards because it just dilutes his two-color speed and consistency. Zatlkaj said similar things. "Colorless plays like a third color in the deck, plus you're spending valuable picks to the get the lands."
For Zatlkaj, he avoids colorless even in colors that usually lead to it. "For example, even for blue, our team loves drafting the Blue-Red Surge deck [instead of the Blue-x Colorless deck]. Your mana is so much better."
Though Frank Karsten certainly sees the power in the colorless cards, he had a more specific word of advice. "Don't play Wastes in your deck. It really does hamper your mana base, and the regular 9-8 split for a two-color draft is already not optimal." Frank talked about sometimes playing eighteen lands, not because he needed more land, but he just needed a certain amount of land sources with colors.
"There are some good things [about colorless]. Both Endbringer and Deceiver of Form can end games very well," Karsten said. "But for colorless, you should know whether your deck needs it." Otherwise, you are just making things more difficult than they need to be, as he said earlier.
All this is well and good, but there's one man who's cutting against the curve. Perhaps normally you might not listen to a man like that, but when he's the Player of the Year, his voices carries a little more weight. Not only does tenth-ranked Mike Sigrist disagree with the other 6-0 drafters about colorless, but he also disagrees with a fair amount of Face-to-Face Games.
"The colorless cards are way undervalued, even among my team," he said. "Aggro decks are good, but they are easy to beat if you want to. Things like Ancient Crab, Wall of Resurgence, paired with good removal, means that powerful decks can beat the smaller ones."
For Sigrist, he said this set is "all about power." And he has a draft strategy to match.
(10) Mike Sigrist bucked the advice of teammates and many other 6-0 drafters, crafting his own successful strategies to get six wins in the Pro Tour draft rounds.
"For the first two picks, I value the premium removal above everything else—Oblivion Strike, Isolation Zone, Grasp of Darkness. Then in, like, picks three through five, if there's nothing that's a real standout, I'll take Holdout Settlement or Unknown Shores."
Already, Sigrist is strongly going against the grain. Not only is he saying to spend picks on colorless lands, but he's also saying spend them early. "It'll keep my options open, and make the powerful colorless cards available to me later." Rather than use mechanics like cohort and support to get through what you need, Sigrist prefers raw power, like the power colorless cards provide in spades.
"Often I'll get passed colorless cards much later than I should, especially in the second pack, because people didn't draft the lands to support them." By taking the land early, and being confident in his mana bases, Sigrist has no problem keeping open for what comes.
"I got a Cultivator Drone thirteenth pick last draft," Sigrist said. "That happens." He continued, "The Mono-Blue Colorless deck definitely exists. Blinding Drone is the best common or uncommon for blue and you can still get it way late."
Sigrist's strategy is one that has often worked in draft as a whole. As a self-correcting format, if most people at a table think that one color or strategy is not the best, it can become the best simply because no one is drafting it. Whether or not Sigrist's anti-strategy is just good because of this or because the Player of the Year is ahead of the rest, we'll have to wait and see.
Either way, it's safe to say each of these strategies has an element of truth to them. And that element is a 6-0 finish at the Pro Tour. Though we might see these people under the lights on Day 3, they'll be sleeving up their 75-card Modern decks. Though Sunday easily forgets the draft, it's important to remember that it's the superb analyses and play with the 40-card builds that got them there.