Happy New Year! It’s 2014, finally. Good riddance to the last twelve months. Overall it’s been a tough year for so many of us around the world. Yet somehow, 2013 was fantastic for drafting Magic cards. For me, personally, Magic was a real bright spot. The team at Wizards of the Coast R&D has really figured out how to make amazing draft environments, and we players have been showered with awesomeness all year. I can’t wait to see what Born of the Gods brings to the table in the coming months. We’ve been on a great run since Magic 2013 came out 18 months ago.

This week I look back at the five draft formats of 2013: Gatecrash, Return to Ravnica Block (DGR), Modern Masters, Magic 2014, and Theros. For each format, I will share a memorable draft deck or two, and reflect on what made each set fun or sometimes not so fun.

Gatecrash

gatecrash

Who can durdle in the face of such aggression?

My two least favorite color combinations in Magic are white-red and red-green. Boros and Gruul were powerful and oppressive decks in Gatecrash draft. All I ever want to do is draw cards and make the game last forever. So you might have guessed that Gatecrash was not my jam, and you’d be correct. As the most aggressive format since Zendikar, Gatecrash made it hard to do anything other than slam two drops and attack attack attack. The Gruul and Boros mechanics, bloodrush and battallion, only work when you attack, and Simic’s evolve mechanic demands a deck chock full of creatures, leaving little room for interactive spells.

This deck is what you are supposed to do in Gatecrash:

Boringos

Creatures (18)
Foundry Street Denizen
Firefist Striker
Skinbrand Goblin
Syndic of Tithes
Wojek Halberdiers
Sunhome Guildmage
Boros Reckoner
Warmind Infantry
Armored Transport
Scorchwalker
Spark Trooper

Spells (6)
Massive Raid
Mugging
Act of Treason
Madcap Skills
Aerial Maneuver
Lands (16)
10 Mountain
Plains

Sideboard (9)
Bomber Corps
Fortress Cyclops
Knight of Obligation
Guardian of the Gateless
Nav Squad Commandos
Knight Watch
Millennial Gargoyle
Shattering Blow
Furious Resistance

Do you like attacking? Good, because that is all you will ever do. Drafting three packs of the same cards, with such clearly defined archetypes, leads to a lot of redundancy. Look at all those two- and three-ofs in my deck. Sure, there’s some spice like the Boros Reckoner I first-picked to start the draft, but other powerful creatures like Guardian of the Gateless and Knight of Obligation languish in the sideboard, waiting for a slow game that never comes. The blazing speed of the format makes splashing a fool’s errand, which further solidifies each archetype. If you are a Boros drafter, you are nothing else, and you slam all the overpowered two drops like Wojek Halberdiers and Daring Skyjek. Mugging is a windmill slam first pick. Not much room for subtlety there, and that led the format to growing stale quickly. Unless you really enjoy beating face, or you are a durdlicious glutton for punishment, there wasn’t much to encourage you to draft Gatecrash for the twentieth or thirtieth time.

While the Boros deck above is what you were supposed to draft, here’s what I always wanted to be drafting:

Let's Get Dimirious

Creatures (15)
Basilica Screecher
Duskmantle Guildmage
Gutter Skulk
Incursion Specialist
Bane Alley Broker
Corpse Blockade
Deathcult Rogue
Mortus Strider
Nightveil Specter
Sage’s Row Denizen
Undercity Informer
Balustrade Spy
Keymaster Rogue
Dinrova Horror

Spells (8)
Death’s Approach
Hands of Binding
Dimir Charm
Psychic Strike
Aetherize
Call of the Nightwing
Shadow Slice
Lands (17)
Island
Swamp

Sideboard (15)
Frilled Oculus
Keymaster Rogue
Clinging Anemones
Horror of the Dim
Beckon Apparition
Immortal Servitude
Spell Rupture
Scatter Arc
Skyblinder Staff
Shadow Slice
Mental Vapors
Last Thoughts
Whispering Madness
Paranoid Delusions

Two drops and early defense are so essential to survival in Gatecrash that it skews any non-beatdown deck into jamming as many early plays as possible. I managed to 3-0 with this deck, although looking back on it now I think Frilled Oculus should have been in the main deck over the ultimate durdle card, Mortus Strider. Oh my visions of milling opponents to death with Sage’s Row Denizen, Undercity Informer, and Mortus Strider. Good luck with that. If you can survive to get that engine going, you’ve already won. This deck’s true path to victory was tempo attacking with evasive creatures and ciphered Hands of Binding, with a Shadow Slice or Call of the Nightwing to finish it out.

And Bane Alley Broker. That card. So good. Love? I want it in every limited deck I play for the rest of my life. It’s kind of annoying that its artwork is airbrush-sexualized (which Magic could still use a lot less of than the limited amount it has), because I truly read this one for the articles.

All of that said, I still appreciate Gatecrash and recognize the importance of variety in limited formats. Every set can’t be slow or even midrange. Magic offers so many strategies, and appeals to so many players of varying playstyles. It’s important to make some sets for people other than me. Gatecrash did that, and I am thankful it allowed the Boros legion to get its smashy smash out of its collective system to make room for the series of slower formats that followed.

Return to Ravnica Block (DGR)

nuts and gum

I am the target demographic.

Vareity. Brewing. Mix and match strategies. Play all the awesome cards. Figure out how to cast them. Splash Mountain! I’ve written about my love for full block Return to Ravnica draft, and while I know it is not the most-loved format, it will always hold a special place in my heart. I won more matches and more drafts in DGR than any other format. When Modern Masters came out, I just kept jamming DGR because it was so fun and I was so successful.

In a nutshell, a successful DGR draft deck centers in one guild, ideally a guild that nobody else is drafting, and it uses whatever available fixing to splash a handful of powerful spells to take the guild strategy over the top. The Dragon’s Maze cluestones were much maligned for being weak and always wheeling in draft, but I loved that I could pick two or three up in the back half of the Dragon’s Maze pack. As long as I had 20 powerful cards in my deck, I could afford to “waste” two or three slots on weak mana rocks.

Sometimes, you get a solid two-color deck and you barely need to splash at all:

Lord, Izzet I?

Creatures (15)
Gore-House Chainwalker
Rakdos Shred-Freak
Goblin Electromancer
Simic Fluxmage
Nivix Cyclops
Sage’s Row Denizen
Smelt-Ward Gatekeepers
Cobblebrute
Bloodfray Giant
Keymaster Rogue
Batterhorn
Maze Rusher

Spells (8)
Dynacharge
Rapid Hybridization
Massive Raid
Homing Lightning
Blast of Genius
Pursuit of Flight
Toil // Trouble
Far // Away
Lands (17)
Dimir Guildgate
Rakdos Guildgate
Izzet Guildgate
Mountain
Island

Sideboard (9)
Leyline Phantom
Maze Abomination
Cancel
Downsize
Hands of Binding
Sacred Foundry
Executioner’s Swing
Morgue Burst
Skygames

This deck was awesome. I spent a lot of time in triple Return to Ravnica draft trying to figure out how to make an Izzet deck work. The best strategy fit one of my favorite gameplans: get it 8-10 damage early, then amass cards for a single turn kill to do the rest of the damage. Teleportal was the best card for that, which sadly didn’t make it to me in this draft, but I was quite pleased with how this Izzet deck turned out.

The unsung heroes of the deck were the five guildgates and the two Smelt-Ward Gatekeepers. Threaten effects are great at swinging races in your favor, but at the cost of spending an entire card just for tempo and damage. The red gatekeepers could fairly reliably provide me a threaten, while still leaving behind a 2/4 body. That is especially useful as a blocking shield in case your opponent can manage to survive the alpha strike. Having all those black guildgates also let me get full value out of the two awesome fuse cards in the deck, Toil // Trouble and Far // Away. Toil // Trouble is especially useful here as it provides another way to deal a surprise 6-8 damage to finish a game after the initial onslaught has been stopped.

While we’re on the topic, let me say again how much I love the fuse cards. Super charms. Such versatility! Down // Dirty, which isn’t even one of the better fuse cards, epitomizes how valuable the fuse cards could be when building a deck. The green side gives you a Regrowth and the black side a Mind Rot, at the extra cost of one mana each. Both cards are playable in limited, and sometimes very good, but generally putting those cards is your deck is a luxury. Limited decks have only forty cards, and each card slot is very valuable. I would be willing to play either Treasured Find or Mind Rot in my draft decks, but I never have room to play both. With Down // Dirty, I can put both effects into one card, and cast whichever is useful in any situation. When you look at an actually insane fuse card, like Far // Away, which does the same thing but with Unsummon and Diabolic Edict,  you can see how much value the card provides. Versatility is incredibly powerful in Magic, and especially in limited where our options are, shall we say, limited. Fuse cards, along with charms and other split cards, are my favorite in Magic. DGR let me play them, and I love DGR for that.

Sometimes in DGR you got to go deep:

Chicago Style

Creatures (13)
Shadow Alley Denizen
Tithe Drinker
Syndic of Tithes
Kingpin’s Pet
Selesnya Sentry
Sin Collector
Sewer Shambler
Hellhole Flailer
Skyknight Legionnaire
Pyrewild Shaman
Zarichi Tiger
Ascended Lawmage
Voidwielder

Spells (10)
Assemble the Legion
Knightly Valor
Debt to the Deathless
Toil // Trouble
Profit // Loss
Stab Wound
Angelic Edict
Dimir Keyrune
Izzet Cluestone
Boros Cluestone
Lands (17)
Azorius Guildgate
Izzet Guildgate
Mountain
Swamp
Plains

Sideboard (10)
Ethereal Armor
Tower Drake
Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage
Maze Glider
Maze Behemoth
Maze Sentinel
Mindstatic
Aetherize
Thespian’s Stage

This deck looks like a hot mess. Playing it I felt unbeatable. The fact I could brew a monstrosity like this, and repeatedly do so and 3-0 draft pods, is why I love DGR. This is basically a mediocre Orzhov deck with some insane Boros, Rakdos, and Azorius cards folded in, yet it is amazing.

I’ve decided to include a third deck in my DGR tour. This one is not as good as the first two, but it highlights an important part of the DGR draft metagame. What  do you do when you draft a Gatecrash guild in pack one and then get cut from those guild cards in pack two? I offer to you:

Cow Tools

Creatures (16)
Spire Tracer
Bellows Lizard
Blistercoil Weird
Rakdos Cackler
Skinbrand Goblin
Kraul Warrior
Drudge Beetle
Crocanura
Stonefare Crocodile
Bloodfray Giant
Cobblebrute
Batterhorn
Scab-Clan Giant
Rubbleback Rhino

Spells (7)
Madcap Skills
Forced Adaptation
Gruul War Chant
Burst of Strength
Mutant’s Prey
Biomass Mutation
Lands (17)
Overgrown Tomb
Mountain
Forest

Sideboard (12)
Naturalize
Maze Rusher
Beck // Call
Wear // Tear
Trostani’s Judgment
Krasis Incubation
Izzet Staticaster
Boros Guildgate
Wind Drake
Runner’s Bane
Simic Cluestone
Boros Cluestone

If you draft a Return to Ravnica guild in pack one, you can read the signals being passed to you and make plans for how open you expect your guild to be, and plan what mono-colored or splash cards you need to take out of the Gatecrash pack to fill your expected holes. If you draft a Gatecrash guild in pack one, you have to cut any cards that might push someone to your left into drafting the same guild in the Gatecrash pack, where they will then destroy your deck by taking all the best guild cards before you get the chance. That can work if the packs cooperate, but sometimes you get stuck taking the best Gruul cards in the Dragon’s Maze pack but still have good Gruul (or red or green) cards in the pack that you have to pass along, sending a bad signal. This deck was exactly that.

I started my draft with a Gruul War Chant, which I consider a very strong incentive to draft Gruul. The problem was, I had to pass a bunch of good Boros and monocolored red, so I knew it was likely someone to my left would go into some sort of aggressive red deck. There wasn’t much else for me to take in the Dragon’s Maze pack, so I figured at least I knew what was coming (or not coming) in pack two and planned accordingly. When I got passed two Madcap Skills early in pack two, along with a Skinbrand Goblin but not much else good for a Gruul deck, I decided to maximize early drops and swarm with my Gruul War Chant and friends. Seeing this, I was able to snap up two Spire Tracers and other weak cards on the wheel of the Gatecrash pack, and I ended up with a fairly strong hyper-aggro deck.

I managed to make the finals of the Magic Online 8-4 before succumbing to an actually strong deck. Still, I felt making the finals with this deck was a major accomplishment and a testament to the importance of understanding a draft format and adjusting to the reality on the ground. If you want to draft Gatecrash guilds in DGR, you have to know what to do when you get cut, or when you expect you will get cut.

Modern Masters

amen_corner

Kodama’s Reach extends over Glacial Ray’s Creek.

I’ve written previously about why I think Modern Masters is a good but not great draft format. Two big issues limit its awesomeness and prevent it from being one of the truly great masterpiece draft formats. First, it is all reprints, so there is only so much Wizards R&D can do to perfect the balance. Second, it is limited release, so there’s not much point in developing a depth to reward thirty or fifty iterations of the draft format. Thus, we have a lot of clearly-defined archetypes with limited but not great options to brew outside those bounds.

On top of that, some of the archetypes are bad. Black-green dredge is very hard to make work, while red-white giants is just a mess of underpowered cards plus Thundercloud Shaman and Cloudgoat Ranger. Blue-red storm/arcane can be very powerful and fun, but the draft has to go well for that deck to function. I just got crushed in a MMA team draft, winning one game out of three matches, when I got all the pieces for blue-red arcane except for the win conditions. One Dampen Thought and two Glacial Rays aren’t going to get there no matter how many spells you can splice them onto.

So what happens when you can’t pull together a deck in a specific archetype and you have to combine two decks to make something close to good? You get a deck like this one I drafted in a Magic Online swiss queue:

Rogue Shakespeare Stout

Creatures (16)
Blightspeaker
Rathi Trapper
Spellstutter Sprite
Tidehollow Sculler
Thieving Sprite
Dreamspoiler Witches
Latchkey Faerie
Murderous Redcap
Warren Pilferers
Earwig Squad
Tombstalker

Spells (7)
Drag Down
Peppersmoke
Death Denied
Absorb Vis
Traumatic Visions
Lands (17)
Swamp
Island
Plains
Vivid Creek

Sideboard (17)
Death Cloud
Street Wraith
Facevaulter
Traumatic Visions
Take Possession
Logic Knot
Erratic Mutation
Dampen Thought
Saltfield Recluse
Kataki, War’s Wage
Amrou Scout
Otherworldly Journey
Blinding Beam

This deck was actually pretty good, and went 2-1. Earwig Squad was the real all-star, prowling on turn three off such notable rogues as Rathi Trapper and, well, Rathi Trapper. Modern Masters does have some interesting cross-archetype synergies, so try to use them when you are stuck in a jam. And despite my criticisms, MMA really is a wonderful draft format with incredibly challenging and deep games.

Magic 2014

opportunity_cost

Stay in school, kids.

The previous year’s core set, Magic 2013, was perhaps the best core set draft format ever. It was well balanced and incredibly fun, with many flavorful one-off cards that truly capture why Magic is such an amazing game. Xathrid Gorgon? Krenko, Mob Boss? Deadly Recluse? Yes please! Magic 2014, while not as fantastic as Magic 2013, was a worthy successor. M14 strikes me as the throw-back draft set, capturing the feel of an older era of magic where card advantage spells mattered more than the creatures you played. Elixir of Immortality was a main-deck win condition!

I had a lot of fun drafting M14. It was an especially nice respite from the stressful complexity of drafting DGR and MMA. While the iconic decks were heavily blue, perhaps the most enjoyable draft deck I had in the format was this little token number:

Say Hello to My Little Friends

Creatures (13)
Elvish Mystic
Deadly Recluse
Advocate of the Beast
Ogre Battledriver
Briarpack Alpha
Giant Spider
Rumbling Baloth
Marauding Maulhorn
Pitchburn Devils
Woodborn Behemoth
Battle Sliver
Sporemound

Spells (10)
Shock
Giant Growth
Plummet
Ranger’s Guile
Bramblecrush
Thunder Strike
Trollhide
Volcanic Geyser
Howl of the Night Pack
Lands (17)
10 Forest
Mountain

Sideboard (8)
Windstorm
Thunder Strike
Cyclops Tyrant
Seismic Stomp
Demolish
Burning Earth
Tidebinder Mage
Serra Angel

Howl of the Night Pack. Ogre Battledriver. Game.

Theros

spoon

Merchants of soul they don’t mind / They’ll take your soul I need mine

Finally we get to Theros. The draft format has proven to be very balanced and diverse. Aggro decks are strong but not oppressive. Monstrosity and bestow provide long game card advantage and inevitability. Devotion and heroic can enable crazy combo decks while also working in more linear attacking strategies. The rares are mostly fun and useful without too many being insane bombs. Even Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, the biggest “bomb” in the format, is tricky to use because many white decks want to win before six mana spells become relevant.

Theros presents many choices in drafting, deckbuilding, and gameplay. Almost any color combination can work well, and so many cards are playable in some way. Skillful play wins games. A turn two Ordeal of Purphoros can lead to a non-interactive game, but mostly the format led to fun and complex games.

I’ve written a lot about Theros over the past months, so I won’t say much more here. Instead, I leave you with one of the most insane decks I’ve drafted in the format, which I got in a Magic Online 8-4 draft on New Year’s Eve. Just look at this crazy thing. I was certainly in the open colors, and I easily won the draft without dropping a game. I’ve been a doubter of Vice President Bident (of Thassa) in limited, but no more! The card is like Whip of Erebos, instead you draw cards instead of gaining life. Except when you have Horizon Chimera, and then you do both. What a way to end a fantastic year of limited Magic!

Where's Thassa?

Creatures (15)
Sedge Scorpion
Leafcrown Dryad
Voyaging Satyr
Agent of Horizons
Horizon Chimera
Nylea, God of the Hunt
Nylea’s Emissary
Thassa’s Emissary
Nessian Asp
Prescient Chimera
Prophet of Kruphix
Horizon Scholar
Vulpine Goliath

Spells (7)
Voyage’s End
Time to Feed
Curse of the Swine
Thassa’s Bounty
Bow of Nylea
Bident of Thassa
Lands (18)
Island
Forest

Sideboard (11)
Time to Feed
Hunt the Hunter
Shredding Winds
Dissolve
Gainsay
Stymied Hopes
Wavecrash Triton
Benthic Giant
Pheres-Band Centaurs
Breaching Hippocamp

Here’s to another year of great drafting! What will Born of the Gods and Journey Into Nyx bring to the table? Will Magic 2015 continue the trend of amazing core set limited? How awesome will it be to draft the online-only Vintage Masters? I can’t wait to find out!

Brendan McNamara (MTGO: eestlinc, Twitter: @brendanistan) used to play Magic in the old days. His favorite combo was Armageddon plus Zuran Orb. After running out of money to buy cards and friends who were willing to put up with that combo, he left the game. But like disco, he was bound to come back eventually. Now he’s a lawyer by day and a Dimir agent by night.

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