As we approach a month since the release of Ravnica Allegiance, I have enjoyed drafting the format more than any set in some time. Gruul and Azorius stand out as the most powerful guilds—you can draft a 2-1 deck in either guild without too much effort—but I’ve found Rakdos and Orzhov quite versatile as well. You’d think that Rakdos needs to be aggressive and Orzhov has to control, but the cards are there to go either direction in those colors. And even within the control Orzhov world, you can splash into Mardu just as easily as Esper. Simic is the only guild I’ve struggled to win with. It feels like the best Simic cards do better as a splash in Gruul or in a multicolor Gates deck.

Magic Fest Cleveland will feature RNA draft in two weeks, so there is plenty of time for the draft metagame to evolve. So far, Gruul has proven to be the most straightforward deck to draft. You take a bunch of efficient creatures, throw in powerful removal like Savage Smash, a few combat tricks, and call it a day. You can’t ever hope to destroy Etheral Absolution, but if you attack relentlessly you won’t have to. The deck is not blisteringly fast—the guild lives for midrange after all—but your creatures and big and hard to answer. An opponent who falls behind on the board or misses some land drops will struggle to come back without a sweeper.

But what if you took things to the next level?

I have spoken ill of Nikya of the Old Ways in the past, because spells are my jam. Can you really draft a deck without removal? Does Gruul dare give up even the appearance of combat tricks? The previous Gruul mechanic Bloodrush plays well with Nikya—unless you want to tap a single land to discard Ghor-Clan Rampager—but the current iteration of Gruul kinda wants to cast some Savage Smash and Flames of the Raze-Boar. You’d rather pay four mana for a 5/5 with upside anyway.

Can you pick Nikya first and build around her, though? How do you go about drafting a Nikya deck? You probably want to take creatures, and even value them over premium removal. Do you hedge against not drawing your restrictive rare? The funny thing is, Nikya seems tailor-made to play with Adapt. If you somehow had a couple Frilled Mystics in your Nikya deck, you’d feel a lot better about having no spells.

You should be picking creatures anyway. Creatures are the best cards in Limited. They are how you win the vast majority of games in draft. Playing creatures is the most proactive strategy. My biggest weakness as a drafter (and I suspect I’m not alone in this) is that I don’t pick enough creatures. Spells look tantalizing—they do things—but creatures stick around. They are better than they look. Feral Maaka is a lot better than you think, simply because a 2/2 is worth a card in this format.

And that’s the thing about Nikya, too. She’s better than you think, because she encourages you to be a better drafter. She rewards you for doing something you already want to be doing. Just take a sick curve of creatures and maybe throw in a couple spells you find along the way. That’s what I did here, and the deck truly delivered. Nikya demands mana sinks, so the green Adapters fit in well. But there’s also Frenzied Arynx and Gravel-Hide Goblin at common, which are even better. Did you realize you can pump GHG as much as you want? Two drops with pump effects often get a single use, like Darkthicket Wolf. (This is consistent on two drops in RNA, with Rakdos Trumpeter and Immolation Shaman also taking all the mana you can give them.)

What about those Simic Guildgates? Steeple Creeper is just fine as Alpine Grizzly, especially with the weird Khans throwback Ferocious combo with Territorial Boar. But once you have Nikya to pay for activated abilities, it’s definitely worth a couple Simic lands to add some flying to your late-game repertoire. It didn’t hurt in this case that I snagged Gate Colossus to reward upping the gate count. If you can include it or Gatebreaker Ram in your Gruul decks, you really should.

Speaking of Khans of Tarkir, that great draft format feels like a reasonable comparison to Ravnica Allegiance. Why do I feel that way? Gates are almost as good in this format as the Thornwood Falls cycle, Adapt feels surprisingly like Morph, and the format has a lot of incidental lifegain to buy time against aggressive decks to further “replace” the life gained from your dual lands. Sauroform Hybrid is a better version of Woolly Loxodon—you give up some surprise, but you get a two drop and the hidden terrorizing effect of the looming Adapt at six mana that can induce opponents to make bad decisions. And then there are cards like Sylvan Brushstrider, Vizkopa Vampire, Impassioned Orator, and Carrion Imp that have been better than they look. An extra two or three life goes a long way. (Simic was much better in Khans, actually, thanks to cards like Icefeather Aven and Secret Plans.)

How does any of this relate to Gruul in Ravnica Allegiance? Consider this: Feral Maaka is worth a card. The 2/2 body matters for most of the game. It’s like an off-color morph you use to fill your curve, except it costs two mana and doesn’t look as fancy. And Feral Maaka is the least exciting common creature imaginable. You can get them tenth or twelfth pick. That is your fail case when drafting Gruul, and you can get them even if you are fighting others at the table for the guild. Almost every time you draft Gruul, you can do much better. That’s a good place to be in a competitive draft.

And I didn’t even mention the best mechanic in the set. Riot!

Brendan McNamara (Twitter: @brendanistan) is Editor in Chief of Hipsters of the Coast.

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