Debate rages over the best deck archetypes for Dragons of Tarkir draft. Hunter offered a good analysis last week, and many others have written on the topic at various sites. If you have Star City premium, I highly recommend Sam Black’s thoughts here. Suffice it to say, there are a wide variety of favorite or “best” archetypes, depending on who you ask.

I think Dragons is a well-balanced and intricate format where any color combination can support a winning deck if you get the right cards. To some extent, you can focus on the style of deck you like to play and draft it whenever it is reasonably open. I think this strategy tends to work for good players because they know what their pet deck needs, so they make more efficient and accurate card choices. If green-red formidable is your jam, you probably know to take [casthaven]Glade Watcher[/casthaven] highly, even if it looks interchangeable with other green two drops like [casthaven]Scaleguard Sentinels[/casthaven] or Guardian Shield-Bearer. If control is more your style, you know you can pick up Rakshasa’s Disdain whenever you want in the Fate Reforged pack, and despite its relative unpopularity, it does great work in your blue-black exploit deck.

What if you can harness that archetype-specific knowledge for every archetype? I know what grindy Orzhov decks want in most limited formats, because I’ve drafted those decks a ton (Oh how I miss you, [casthaven]Scholar of Athreos[/casthaven]!) and I’ve internalized the sort of cards and effects that make those decks sing. But you don’t need to be an expert in an archetype to know how to draft it, or to evaluate how strong it is in a given format. All you need to do is answer the question: what does this deck need?


How do you answer that question? Start with the end goal: winning. How does this deck win? Let’s start in Dragons of Tarkir with blue-black exploit. There are three main ways that Silumgar decks in Dragons can win a draft game:

  • Protect an evasive bomb that kills in a few turns.
  • Trade off everything and clean up with a random threat.
  • Peck away with an army of fliers while negating your opponent’s plan.

So what does the deck need? It needs whatever enables one or more of those strategies.

In the first category, you obviously need an evasive bomb. [casthaven]Dragonlord Silumgar[/casthaven] or [casthaven]Necromaster Dragon[/casthaven] are great, obviously, along with [casthaven]Deathbringer Regent[/casthaven], [casthaven]Icefall Regent[/casthaven], and maybe something like Sage-Eye Avengers.  As you notice, all of those cards are rare or mythic. You aren’t going to get them very often. Something like [casthaven]Ruthless Deathfang[/casthaven] or [casthaven]Belltoll Dragon[/casthaven] can sort of fill that role, at least as a largish finisher, but neither anywhere near as powerful or board-dominating as the rares. You also need to protect your bomb, which means cards like [casthaven]Negate[/casthaven], Butcher’s Glee, [casthaven]Glint[/casthaven], [casthaven]Coat with Venom[/casthaven], or perhaps a strategy of running your opponent out of removal by pressuring with weaker creatures before dropping your bomb.

Looking at this list, it doesn’t inspire much confidence as a repeatable strategy. You need the bomb, hopefully multiple bombs, and you need reactive cards that range from good ([casthaven]Coat with Venom[/casthaven]) to bad ([casthaven]Glint[/casthaven]). Surviving is also important, so you need a curve of creatures and some removal spells, which are the building blocks of nearly all successful draft decks. Note that none of the cards you “need” fill the necessary “curve and removal” core of your deck, other than maybe [casthaven]Coat with Venom[/casthaven]. Good creatures and removal demand high picks, and so do bombs if they are there. If you start the draft with Dragonlord Silumgar, you can draft around it and get a strong deck. But otherwise, you probably don’t want to try to draft blue-black with the intention of winning this way. It will be good occassionally and mediocre often.


The second winning strategy, trading off and cleaning up with the scraps, is more viable generally. You need cards that trade, card advantage to get ahead, and some random beaters that can close the door in a few turns. If the dust settles with only your [casthaven]Youthful Scholar[/casthaven] on board, your opponent will probably have a lot of turns to draw themselves back into the game. You want a [casthaven]Marsh Hulk[/casthaven] for this job. Or one of my favorite rares, [casthaven]Corpseweft[/casthaven]. That card is perfectly built for the long-game attrition strategy, while also providing card advantage. My first Dragons draft, which happened to be in the top 8 of a PPTQ, I first-picked [casthaven]Corpseweft[/casthaven], never having played with or against it, based on my assessment that it would be great at winning exactly this sort of game plan.

What cards does this strategy need? A lot of creatures that can get into combat and trade, plenty of removal spells or counterspells that trade one-for-one, and card-draw spells or graveyard recursion. Guess what? These are the cards you want to draft anyway, regardless of strategy. That tells you this is a reliable winning strategy. If you happen to get a bomb, hooray, but you don’t need them to win this way.

The final blue-black strategy uses small fliers to kill over 6-8 turns while doing whatever to keep yourself alive. Here you need a critical mass of small fliers, plus removal or blockers, or possibly lifegain. Tempo spells will be useful as well. [casthaven]Aven Surveyor[/casthaven] fits this perfectly, and you can go for sweet combos like [casthaven]Silumgar Sorcerer[/casthaven] exploiting [casthaven]Shambling Goblin[/casthaven] to kill [casthaven]Dromoka Warrior[/casthaven] while countering [casthaven]Sandcrafter Mage[/casthaven].

The first thing to notice here, is that the third strategy doesn’t really overlap with the first two. [casthaven]Ojutai Interceptor[/casthaven] fits well in the third, but is too fragile to do much in the first two. [casthaven]Vulturous Aven[/casthaven] can work in any of these strategies, but it mostly just provides card advantage in attrition or bomb strategies. And [casthaven]Necromaster Dragon[/casthaven] is nice to have in the third strategy, but not really necessary. Tempo decks lose when they have expensive bombs stuck in their hand and not enough velocity to win quickly.


So what does this tell us about drafting blue-black in Dragons of Tarkir? You want to focus on the most draftable strategy, the one with the most commons and uncommons that file key roles, with the most overlap between the deck’s specific needs and the general needs of all draft decks. The bomb strategy is available and you’ll know when you can do it, but don’t sit there drafting random blue and black cards in the hope a huge bomb will fall in your lap in the later packs and expect to win many draft matches.

Contrast that with red-green decks like I talked about last week. Those decks want efficient creatures and cheap removal spells. Throw in random combat tricks and you have yourself a deck. The critical mass of efficient beaters varies from set to set, but is pretty high in Dragons of Tarkir. So that tells you red-green will be a reliable archetype to draft. The cards will be there, you will want to use high picks on cards that you’d want to use high picks on anyway, and you won’t face too many tough draft decisions beyond “Do I want to third-pick [casthaven]Atarka Efreet[/casthaven] or [casthaven]Sabertooth Outrider[/casthaven]?”

Based on this, red-green seems a lot more reliable to draft than blue-black. The Atarka cards work together, exist in critical mass at lower rarities, and don’t require specialized card decisions. Atarka needs what every deck needs, and not much else. Silumgar needs specific combinations of cards.

Try this analysis out on some other archetypes. Use it for Modern Masters 2015 or Magic Origins when those sets hit the draft tables. And let me know what you think!

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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