Battle for Zendikar draft has been great. This is the first set where I am finally seeing the fruits of my past year of labor over limited. As such, I have been on top of this format and have seen a lot of success so far.
BFZ is an interesting format to draft, as it rewards a disciplined approach to drafting whereby you prioritize the deep synergies that exist between certain color combinations, such as devoid or ally strategies. BFZ also rewards limited fundamentalists who prioritze poweful effects and evasive threats, the best example being the UW skies deck. I’ve also seen, but not attempted, the greedy 4 color converge decks come together and do quite well. While some believe there is a ‘best’ deck in UR Devoid, and I can accept that the colors are both deep and have a power level baseline above the other three colors at common, I haven’t gone into any draft looking to force the colors. You aren’t behind if you’re not drafting UR. You’re behind if you’re not looking for what’s open.
I’ve found BFZ drafting to be less about what deck you end up in, and more about how well you can maneuver the draft and find your seat. I’ve thrown away more first picks in this format than any other, and sometimes I’ve even thrown away my first 3-4 picks. I do this whenever the draft tells me to, and I am quick to jump into an archetype when I know it’s coming to me.
Let’s take this week to go over the draft format as I see it, as I think I have a decent enough handle on it to explore how to navigate a draft.
There’s a process I’ve adopted and, so far, it’s been working. In order to best explain it, let’s crack a pack and do some pack one exercises.
When I open my pack one I like to organize my cards to see all potential playables. This pack is deep with mediocre playables, with only one or two cards not immediately jumping out to me as slotting in a number of decks or strategies. However, we don’t want to merely stake our claim anywhere with our pack one pick one; we have zero information outside of these 14 cards. So, I will look to begin by taking a card that meets one or both of the following:
- Objectively powerful spell or creature.
- Card that slots into a wide variety of archetypes.
These criteria allow you to take a powerful spell while staying open. Sometimes we get both, a spell like Grip of Desolation or Retreat to Emeria as our first pick, which are simply amazing cards that we are happy to play in any deck that can cast them. They are both objectively powerful and slot well into any deck of their color.
In this pack, the only removal spell is Stonefury, a card that asks us to be double red, and is high enough on the curve to lack efficiency. I do think Stonefury is a fine card and very playable, but it’s not on the same level of efficiency as a card like Complete Disregard. Other than this, the most objectively powerful card is our rare, Noyan Dar, Roil Shaper. Normally, gold cards are slippery first picks, as we need to be exactly these two colors – Blue and White – to reliably cast Noyan.
But I am still going to take Noyan.
Why? Because the power level is so high, the potential of this card taking over a game is so great, that I am willing to say to myself, “Let’s take Noyan Dar, and see what the draft has in store for me.” Because there is not another card in this pack with as much upside, and because we know nothing of what will come, let’s take Noyan and be willing to throw it away.
So let’s see what we get passed.
Now THIS is a much more interesting pack, full of strong playables. Again, we look for the same criteria as pack one, but we add in that the player to our right took the rare. This tells us nothing. We still have zero information for this draft, other than our first pick, and what we passed. We can speculate a bit, perhaps, that the rare taken from this pack has a high enough power level to be selected over the more powerful cards in this pack, but that’s not telling us much.
So which cards stand out? For me, Tajuru Warcaller is the most objectively powerful card in the pack. The ally is capable of winning games immediately for only five mana; not many other cards in the set can claim the same level of impact. Other cards are the interactive spells Clutch of Currents and Gideon’s Reproach. Conveniently, both of these spells pair well with our first pick.
Other cards to take note on are Herald of Kozilek, Tunneling Geopede, Benthic Infiltrator, and Kalastria Healer. These are each fine cards, but do not fit the criteria we are basing our initial picks on. We want to take powerful cards that can be played so long as we have the color available to us.
For this pick, I will pair my selection best with my first pick, and take Clutch of Currents. I like bounce in the format, and would be happy playing Clutch in any blue deck I draft. We can still throw away Noyan Dar if the draft dictates it.
Let’s see what we are passed….
Wow! All three uncommons are still here. This is the first pick, pick three, where I can make subtle reads on what is coming to me. Often these assumptions can be countered easily by what comes next, but it’s good at this point to become sensitive to what is being given to you.
Let’s stick to the criteria. The strongest cards in the pack are each of the uncommons, with a side note to Kalastria Healer, Lifespring Druid, and Fortified Rampart being solid playables. We have a rare and a common missing, and the pack is very light on the color blue and devoid cards. There are a few things to assume from this.
- The uncommons are still here because two of them are gold and no one before us is in black devoid.
- There was a solid interactive spell or creature at common taken. Based on the texture of the pack I will lightly derive it to be a card in any of the grixis colors.
So where to go? The easy path is to simply slam Roil Spout, which I am going to do. But we are also passing some strong ally cards to our right at this point, and have passed multiple playable devoid spells in blue and black. Someone down our left will now have two Benthic Infiltrators. This is worth nothing, as it decreases the likelihood of our moving into a blue devoid strategy after another pick or two. Also, after passing Tajuru Warcaller and Resolute Blademaster, we are sending a strong signal for someone down the line to take the powerful ally cards and draft an aggressive deck.
Finally, we see two cards we would be happy wheeling, Fortified Rampart and Coralhelm Guide. If the Rampart wheels we are very lucky, as it would give us the read that no one is taking white defensive cards from us.
Keep in mind, we are at the precipice of the middle of pack one, and will begin to see in pick four how things could be shaping up as to what strategy is open. Let’s take the Roil Spoit and see where we go.
Now we’ve got some information to work with. A quick scan will show us that the pack is all but sucked dry of both blue and green and black cards. However, two uncommons, a rare, and a common were taken from this pack, so the signal is deceptively complex. On the surface it looks as though red is very open: we are being passed two very playable aggressive red commons in Valakut Predator and Makindi Sliderunner. There is also that second Resolute Blademaster staring at us. But is it that the pack was already dry of blue and green and black cards? Or is this the signal we are actually receiving?
So now we have to make a decision, and an interesting one. The best card to go with our first three cards is Ghostly Sentinel, whereas the most powerful card in the pack is Resolute Blademaster. The red commons aside, we can now ask ourselves the question: is speculating on taking Resolute Blademaster better or worse than taking the Ghostly Sentinel? Are we missing out on a big boost to our deck if we pass the sentinel?
A better question. Which is better: the three cards you have now plus Ghostly Sentinel, or all the potential Red and White cards you stand to get for the rest of the draft?
Given that we passed two very strong ally cards, if we pass Blademaster now, we can be sure we will be fighting with someone downstream if we move into these colors after even another pick.
With all this in mind, I will speculate on taking the Blademaster. If the next pack tells me I can keep down my path of Blue White, then I will. I don’t think I am losing much by passing Ghostly Sentinel, especially if blue is really being cut.
And as it turns out, blue was far from being cut. We see two very solid cards in Dampening Pulse and Eldrazi Skyspawner. The only other notables are Demon’s Grasp and Silent Skimmer. White seems to be disappearing from the pack rapidly. Here I will happily take Eldrazi Skyspawner over Dampening Pulse. While I think they both fit the strategy we are going for, the Skyspawner gives us the early play we want, while providing a blocker on the ground. We can also ramp out Noyan Dar on turn four if there isn’t a lot of pressure on us. That being said, I think either pick is totally defensible here.
Let’s take a look at one more pack one, using the same exercise.
There are three cards that really stand out to me in this pack. Rolling Thunder, Kor Entanglers, and Eldrazi Skyspawner are each powerful. The Entanglers is perhaps slightly more narrow than the others, as it is at its best with a critical mass of allies. There is an argument for considering Clutch of Currents here, which is fine. But none of them are even close to the power level of Rolling Thunder, which I am happily taking. It is objectively the most poweful card, and will be played in any deck that can cast it.
A few things to note. There is a rare missing, and the Ondu Rising is foil. This pack is very strong and this pick feels like the most difficult to navigate. Being that it’s pick two, we know the only data point we can go with is that the rare was stronger than the best cards in this pack. There are only three defensible picks for me here.
Dragonlord Ojutai Windrider Patrol, Ruination Guide, and Complete Disregard. Stonefury is arguable but it’s not nearly the power level of the other three cards, and I would never take a suboptimal card in my color this early just to cut a color.
So which to take? To me, it’s between one of the blue cards and Complete Disregard. Let’s look at the benefits of each.
- Complete Disregard is objectively powerful, efficient, and goes in any deck that can cast it.
- Windrider Patrol is objectively powerful, a finisher, and goes into any deck that can cast it.
- Ruination Guide is powerful in the devoid deck, efficient, and has great upside if the support cards become available.
The decision is still difficult. What other considerations do we have? We passed two powerful blue cards in pack one, so there’s an argument for shipping the blue cards, sending the blue signal to our neighbors downstream, and taking Complete Disregard. Let the downstream people figure it out. But I don’t always subscribe to this strategy, because it doesn’t always work out the way you want. Say blue is open from here. Then what? Keep shipping good blue cards?
Here we have a rare, an uncommon, and a common missing. The two cards that go into our colors are Vestige of Emrakul and
Terminate Tightening Coils. The coils goes well with our Windrider Patrol, and the Vestige is on color with Rolling Thunder. The other notable cards in this pack are Unified Front, Ghostly Sentinel, and Kalastria Healer. I think the power level is kind of flat in this pack, so I will take Tightening Coils, as it is an interactive spell that combines well with my previous blue card.
Notice two uncommons, one rare, and one common are missing, and there is only the Mist Intruder as a devoid card. Overall this pack is pretty flat on power, so we will look to take a card in our color. This pick is between Coralhelm Guide, Shatterskull Recruit, and Looming Spires. I don’t think that seeing Smite the Monstrous pick four is a signal, as the card is not an efficient removal spell in this format. Also, while Bone Splinters is a removal spell, it is most often card disadvantage unless you can support token-making. I will take the Shatterskull Recruit, as it is on color with my Rolling Thunder—a card I will fight a little to play—and has pseudo-evasion in menace. Not the most exciting pick in the world, but I’m not missing out on anything.
Remember when I was talking about reading what is being passed to you? See that Tajuru Warcaller? See the Courier Griffin and Ghostly Sentinel? I think it’s safe to say we are being passed a very powerful card far too late, and with blue and black all but gone, I will snap take this Warcaller and see how I can navigate the draft based on four people passing it to me. Here I will happily throw away my blue cards, because I am trading them in for all the potential cards I will have in green that will be better than the few blue cards I have now. I can go in a few different directions from here, and the draft will dictate this, but I think it shows that if you are patient with the draft, the colors you should be drafting will emerge.
Too often I see people stick to their first few picks, and too often that ends up in a train wreck of a draft. If we have a little patience, don’t get married to any of our cards, we stand a much better chance to draft the best deck at the table than we would were we fighting someone in order to play the few cards we believe we should.
Next week I will have part one of an interview with a successful limited player and his perspective on both limited fundamentals and how to win your average game of limited.
What did you all think about this exercise? Did you like choices I made? Do you disagree? Let me know in the comments section!
Derek Gallen lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York.