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A Month of Drafting Battle for Zendikar

Written by Jeff Zandi on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Limited

A Month of Drafting Battle for Zendikar

Jeff Zandi

Jeff Zandi is a level 2 judge and an eight-time veteran of the Pro Tour. He has written continuously about Magic for over eighteen years. His team, the Texas Guildmages, have the longest running regular game in history, meeting at his home every Tuesday night since 1996.

My friends and I have been drafting Battle for Zendikar for a month and I think we’ve learned a lot. We draft every Tuesday night at our weekly team meeting. These meetings have taken place continuously for the past nineteen years. There has been a lot of discussion over whether or not Battle for Zendikar is a good set for constructed play. For a large fall expansion, there have been precious few cards beyond the new dual lands that have made it into the top decks in Standard. On the other hand, Battle for Zendikar has been very warmly received by persons like myself who enjoy limited play more than constructed. BFZ is an extremely challenging set for booster draft.

Eight Draft Decks from October 2015

I’m about to share the best draft decks from our October booster drafts, but before I do, I want to tell you a little bit more about what goes on at our weekly practice. We don’t do things the same way as everyone else and I think the things that make our drafts different also help us learn more about the format.

We draft with up to eleven players and play Swiss rounds cutting to a top four. The most popular way to booster draft is to put eight players around a table randomly and then pair them in a single elimination bracket in such a way that each player’s first round opponent is the person that was sitting four spots away from their own seat and such that you cannot play the player directly on your left or right until the finals of the three round draft. There is nothing wrong with this method, it has been the method of a hundred thousand Sealed Deck Pro Tour Qualifiers (until two years ago). The first thing you do on days one and two of the Pro Tour is draft in eight man pods (even though you then play Swiss rounds). The eight man draft using a single elimination bracket is how many stores do it, and the way most booster drafts are run as side events at larger Magic events like Grand Prixs or Star City Games Opens.

Originally, we started using Swiss rounds for our drafts for one important reason. We wanted to get more play out of our cards. When you play a single elimination bracket after an eight-man booster draft, the whole thing can be over very quickly. Half your players are out of the tournament after the first round. The deck that wins a single elimination draft bracket may be the best deck that was drafted, and then again it may not be. Maybe the best drafted, best built deck lost in round one to the variance caused by mana screw or mana flood or just plain bad luck. With eight players, we play three rounds of Swiss cutting to a top four. We randomize the pairings for round one, which means you could play anyone in the draft in round one, even a player that was sitting right next to you during the draft. By the way, this is also the case at a Pro Tour booster draft during the Swiss rounds at the beginning of day one or day two play. Because we’re playing Swiss, the four players who lose in round one aren’t eliminated from the draft. Although I pair the second and subsequent rounds of the draft by hand, on paper, I follow the same rules that the computer would use at a tournament or at your local store. The four 1-0 players are paired randomly with another 1-0 player and the four 0-1 players are paired randomly with another 0-1 player. After two rounds, the two 2-0 players meet each other. They are locked for the final four cut but are asked to still play their match. The reason is that, after all, our Tuesday night drafts are meant to be PRACTICE. That means that intentional draws and strategic uses of match concessions, common in competitive play, are discouraged most of the time. After three rounds of Swiss with eight players, we typically have one 3-0 and three 2-1 records. We use the normal tiebreakers to determine which of the 2-1 records is the second place Swiss finisher, the third and the fourth. The 3-0 record plays the worst 2-1 record and the other two 2-1 records play each other. After this semifinal round, the two finalists choose to split up the booty any way they choose. The two finalists do not play out a match for some kind of winner take all haul for two reasons. For one thing, the extra hour it might take to play this match can be better spent getting another draft started. For another, we have had certain players that start owning a certain draft format, winning all the time. When this happened, interest in drafting would wane among other players.

That’s right, we play for the rares, mythics and foils. This factor alone makes our draft much more competitive than the drafts you typically find in game stores or on Magic Online or at side events at large Magic events. When you aren’t rewarded for drafting valuable rares, you are forced to draft your cards based only on their ability to make your deck better. This fall, of course, playing for the rares, mythics and foils can mean even more thanks to the sprinkling of super-valuable expedition lands. We opened a Temple Garden on the first Tuesday of the month but haven’t opened another expedition since.

When we get to the finals of our weekly booster draft, we have two draft decks that we know are very good. These decks didn’t just get lucky in a single elimination tournament, they each fought through a gauntlet of other decks through several rounds of Swiss play as well as the semifinals match. The decks listed below are the two finalists’ decks from each of our four meetings in October.

What We Learned in October

At the most basic level, the most important things we learned while drafting Battle for Zendikar in October was that blue is good and green is bad. Simply taking the blue cards won’t always get you a winner and obviously someone will draft a very good green deck from time to time, but in the largest number of opportunities, when you open the first pack of BFZ in your draft, you should be moved a little more by the blue cards than by the green cards.

In past draft formats, you could direct your draft simply by color. In other words, once you were sure you were going to be a red/black deck you could take almost any red or black card and potentially find it useful enough to put in your deck. Not so with BFZ. Battle for Zendikar draft adds the extra complication that the cards in your deck not only need to agree with each other on the mana needed to cast them (your colors) but also they also need to agree with each other in other ways. The blue/black ingest deck wants entirely different blue cards than the blue/white flyers deck. There is some overlap, but the blue/black deck would tend to choose a card like Benthic Infiltrator over Eldrazi Skyspawner even though they cost the same mana and are available and should be drafted at similar times in your draft. In other words, you want the cards in your BFZ draft deck to share common goals, to have synergy with each other. In the blue/black devoid/ingest deck, if you want to play cards that move cards from your opponent’s exile zone to their graveyard in order to produce a certain effect, you have to first play cards that can get cards into your opponent’s exile zone. In this deck, Benthic Infiltrator fills this requirement. Mist Intruder becomes a high pick for this deck. The blue/white flyers deck would be just as happy to play Eldrazi Skyspawner on turn three in order to put a 2/1 flyer in the air and gain an Eldrazi Scion token that can be sacrificed to help cast a bigger spell on a subsequent turn.

Synergy between the abilities of the cards is the number one factor for almost all of the popular draft archetypes in Battle for Zendikar, black/white allies/lifegain, blue/black ingest, red/black devoid aggro, converge decks playing three to five colors, red/green landfall, green/white allies. Blue/white flyers is the only deck that flies (sorry for the pun) in the face of BFZ’s need for synergy. You can draft blue/white flyers without worrying about any of the synergy-specific mechanics of BFZ. I won’t try to break down all of the draft archetypes at this time, but I do want to talk about the ones that made it to the finals of our October drafts.

Blue/White Flyers

Joe Panuska has been drafting with us lately, the very same rascally bigheadjoe who you can hear every week right here on Legit MTG on Joe’s infamous podcast, Yo! MTG Taps. Joe broke through to the finals in our first week of drafting the new set and he did so with blue/white flyers. One of the important factors in finding a good draft archetype is identifying the cards that are good in the deck that aren’t necessarily sought after by other players at the table. It’s especially good if these kind of picks are good in multiples. It means that you can expect to get these cards which are very playable in your deck later in the draft, freeing you up to use your highest picks on more powerful, more important cards. Once again, we’re talking about Eldrazi Skyspawner. Joe picks up three of these, and considers this card the common MVP of his deck. This card is not sought after by the other popular blue deck, the blue/black ingest/processor deck. Another card like this is Clutch of Currents. This is one of those cards that we weren’t sure about a month ago. Was a one-mana bounce spell good enough? Would the format be too fast for the awaken ability?

I had good luck at one of my BFZ prerelease tournaments with two copies of Clutch of Currents with the uncommon Halimar Tidecaller to bring back Clutch (or some other card with awaken) from the graveyard later on. Halimar Tidecaller in your deck takes the sting out of playing Clutch of Currents before you are able to play it for its awaken cost. We learned pretty quickly that Clutch of Currents is a valuable play in BFZ because it is a very effective way to set back your opponent’s big play in a format where removal, temporary or otherwise, is tricky. Not only is Clutch of Currents good, but it turns out that awaken is so good in BFZ draft that you never want to play Clutch without paying five mana for it if you can possibly help it. Clutch of Currents has become a higher draft pick, because more people appreciate the card than they did at first, but it’s still the kind of card that you can typically pick up multiple copies of in most of your blue/white drafts.

Tightening Coils is another card that didn’t get much respect early and were therefore available in numbers in a lot of drafts. In the second week of October, I drafted and played five copies of Coils. Along with two copies of 0/6 Fortified Rampart, my five Tightening Coils gave me seven cards that only cost two mana each that could essentially shut down the ground game (Fortified Rampart) or reduce a big creature into a tiny one while taking away its gift of flight (Tightening Coils). The fact that Coils takes away flying makes this card even more powerful, and essential, for blue/white flyers decks.

There are plenty of common flyers for this deck including Shadow Glider, Courier Griffin and Ghostly Sentinel in white and Cloud Manta and Wave-Wing Elemental in blue. It is not necessary to use anything higher than a fourth or fifth pick to get one of these. Also, even though this deck wins with flyers, it’s not a good idea to fill up on these common flyers. Panuska gets to the winner’s circle on October 6 with a total of eleven flyers, eight of which were commons. My blue/white flyers deck a week later got there with just seven flyers. More flyers sounds better, but make sure you remember to NOT DIE. That’s a very important thing to remember with this deck. The blue/white flyers deck does not win in a hurry. When you draft this deck, your first job is to make sure you don’t lose. Later, starting on turn five or six, you can start working on putting your squadron of flying monsters together to help you win. This is very clearly the archetype drafted by Joe on October 6 and by yours truly a week later. My October 27th deck is really a mix between blue/white flyers and blue/black and shares strategies from each. Even so, that deck plays three copies of Fortified Rampart holding down the ground and plays a single Wave-Wing Elemental as a primary win condition.

As blue/white flyers becomes a more popular draft choice, and especially blue in general, you may have to change up your draft order on the common goodies. The good thing is that so many of the cards you want are commons, it’s a deck you can confidently point yourself towards when you open a card that’s great for the deck.

I usually take a picture of my booster drafts in pick order to analyze later on. Here are the cards I took for my October 13 blue/white flyers deck in the order I took them:

Pack One
Noyan Dar, Roil Shaper – I grabbed it, then decided it was too situational
Ugin’s Insight – I jump on this card whenever I see it
Roil Spout – it’s uncommon but I rate it about it same as the common Clutch of Currents
Evolving Wilds
Tightening Coils
Eldrazi Skyspawner
Ruination Guide
Tightening Coils
Sure Strike – that’s how bad the pack was for blue drafters
Sure Strike
Vestige of Emrakul
Fortified Rampart – twelfth pick goes right in the starting deck
Wave-Wing Elemental – thirteenth pick goes right into the deck, primary win condition
Roilmage’s Trick – totally playable, I usually cut it because my blue decks are too slow

Pack Two
Scatter to the Winds – I like one counter spell in the main deck, this is the best one
Halimar Tidecaller – gets back a spell, gives your lands flying!
Kor Castigator – too aggressive for my deck, but I could have needed it for curve
Eldrazi Skyspawner
Clutch of Currents – an even better pick after taking Halimar Tidecaller
Fortified Rampart
Cloud Manta
Incubator Drone – better in the blue/black deck, I didn’t play it
Windrider Patrol – excellent uncommon, the scry 2 is amazing
Cryptic Cruiser
Salvage Drone
Dispel – for the sideboard, unlikely to come in even then
Mire’s Malice – could get in the deck if I decided to splash a little black
Oracle of Dust – perfectly playable, a giant blocker on the ground, better in blue/black ingest

Pack Three
Quarantine Field – don’t sleep on this bomb, it’s a three-for-one in a slow control deck
Ulamog’s Despoiler – not quite right for this deck, great in blue/black ingest
Benthic Infiltrator – better in blue/black but good in all blue draft decks
Tightening Coils – number three
Tightening Coils – number four
Tightening Coils – number five
Courier Griffin – the lifegain is useful, so is the toughness of three
Cloud Manta – about as aggressive as this deck gets
Spell Shrivel – I should play this card more often, it’s very decent
Drowner of Hope – better than it looks because of the Scion sacrifice ability
Anticipate – don’t get cute and try to play too many of these, maybe one, occasionally two
Broodhunter Wurm
Murk Strider
Anticipate – really, last pick…

White/Red Allies

Blake Bombich drafts on Magic Online a lot and he loves aggressive draft archetypes that take away late game turns from control decks by flat-out killing them before they can play their bombs. His first paper BFZ draft was a winner, a white/red Allies deck from October 6. Blake’s deck is full, really full, of Allies. There are seventeen Allies in all. Felidar Cub is the only non-Ally but he’s good for the deck’s aggressive curve and provides a hedge against enchantments like Tightening Coils. Apart from ally synergy, Blake’s deck has a hot curve with two one-drops, six two-drops and six three-drops. When you play eighteen creatures and only five spells, what kind of spells do you want to play? Power ups for your monsters, what else. Blake plays two copies of Inspired Charge, an impressive common power up for the whole team. He also has three pieces of removal. Touch of the Void can also go to the face. When the Allies come out in the right order, this deck is extremely deadly. I’m not surprised he has a lot of Makindi Patrol, the 2/3 for 2W that gives all your creatures vigilance until end of turn when an Ally enters the battlefield. Makindi Patrol tends to go late in drafts because he doesn’t look like much. Vigilance doesn’t help that much if all that Blake draws are the little guys, but once he starts combining first strike from Kor Bladewhirl, menace from Firemantle Mage and doublestrike from Resolute Blademaster, the deck really does come together well. Apart from being Allies themselves, Angelic Captain and Angel of Renewal are just excellent evasive creatures perfectly suited to dealing the last five or six points of damage after the ground assault has softened up an opponent.

White/Green Allies

My sixteen-year-old son Lawson has the second most finals appearances in our Tuesday night booster drafts. Pro Tour veteran Mark Hendrickson has the most. Lawson jumped right into Allies with a green and white deck that splashes blue almost strictly so that he can play a 3/4 Tajuru Stalwart on turn three of almost every game. Here’s how he does it. He plays either one of the two Islands, Evolving Wilds, Ally Encampment or one of two Fertile Thickets on either turn one or two. If he plays Fertile Thicket and doesn’t find the basic land he’s looking for, he simply doesn’t put a card on top of his library. This combination of lands, along with seven Plains, five Forests and three copies of Tajuru Stalwart add up to a 3/4 Ally on the board on turn three almost every time. I played at least a dozen games with Lawson’s deck and it was extremely consistent.

Like the white/red Allies deck built by Bombich on October 6, Lawson’s October 13 white/green deck has plenty of Allies with rally abilities, but there is a big difference in the value of these abilities and their effect on the board. Bombich’s Allies’ rally triggers do things to each other, they give first strike or vigilance to his team. Lawson’s Allies have rally triggers that do things to the board. Kor Entanglers seems like a lot of mana at 4W for not much of a creature, a 3/4, but his rally ability is quite significant. When Entanglers triggers, Lawson gets to tap a creature an opponent controls. He’s a not particularly aggressive creature that helps aggressive decks later in the game. Yup, this guy takes up your entire turn five, and Lawson’s playing two of them. However, on Lawson’s next turn, he could easily play two different Allies, like a one-drop Expedition Envoy and a three-drop Makindi Patrol, and suddenly he’s moving two defending creatures out of the way before the attack. Things get a lot crazier if Lawson has both Entanglers in play. Tajuru Warcaller costs 3GG and only gives you a 2/1 body, but his rally trigger gives your entire team +2/+2 until end of turn. That’s very powerful.

Having played a lot of games with both of the winning Allies decks from October, I would say that I like Bombich’s white/red team a little more in the early turns and I like Lawson’s white/green team a lot more the longer the game goes.

Devoid

Devoid decks go one of two different directions, either red and blue like Ian Jasheway’s deck from October 20, or red and black like Jon Toone’s from the same night.

There is less synergy in Ian’s blue/red deck, and that is to be expected. What Ian really did was marry a good blue devoid strategy with a handful of powerful red cards like Rolling Thunder and Serpentine Spike and Brutal Expulsion. He gets aggressive with ingest creatures like a pair of Salvage Drones and a Mist Intruder, then sits back on defense, when necessary, with THREE copies of Benthic Infiltrator.

Jon Toone’s red/black devoid deck from October 20 really works out better and is a better example of the archetype. Kozilek’s Sentinel is another classic example of a card that is great for red devoid decks that other decks don’t care about at all. This means you can pick up multiple copies in the draft and probably won’t have to use a high draft pick for any of them. Jon corralled three copies for his deck and says he would have played as many as he could have drafted. Sludge Crawler is tremendously useful as a one-drop because you can pump it to a 2/2 on the attack on turn two if necessary or if you don’t have a two-drop. This archetype cares less about ingest than blue/black, but the red uncommon Processor Assault (which Jon didn’t draft) needs a card to be in your opponent’s exile. To the extent that red/black devoid cares about ingest there are plenty of ways for the deck to get one or two cards into their opponent’s exile zone. Sludge Crawler, it should be said, is much better than Culling Drone even though the two cards seem similar. The number of times when Culling Drone is better because it’s already a 2/2 are small. The number of times when Crawler is better because it can pump to 3/3 or 4/4 are many and usually important. Titan’s Presence is a wonderful piece of removal that is custom fit for this deck. Vile Aggregate is a very high pick because he can get huge in this deck and because he offers tremendous defensive value, if needed, on turn three. Leaving Vile Aggregate in a pack may send a very strong signal to the player on your left that red devoid is open.

I wasn’t sure that Molten Nursery was worth the trouble for an aggressive deck like red/black devoid but it really is. Playing Jon’s deck proved that to me. It’s also interesting that Molten Nursery also has devoid and triggers Kozilek’s Sentinel and Nettle Drone. I recently drafted this deck online and got two copies of Molten Nursery and I was very happy with the results. Complete Disregard is a relatively high pick. You will always have a good target for this card during the game and this card also gets a card into your opponent’s exile zone. I like Grave Birthing a little less than my friends. I consider this card no better than a cycling land. You do get three things out of one cheap instant, exiling a card from your opponent’s graveyard while getting an Eldrazi Scion token and drawing a card. Grave Birthing is fine, but try not to play two copies.

Red/black devoid is quickly becoming my favorite thing to draft in Battle for Zendikar. I find the common removal spells easy to come by. Outnumber can be very powerful for just one red mana provided you get some creatures in play first. Stonefury is good protection from the rather large creatures that pop up in BFZ games. Touch of the Void gives you another avenue for exiling a card, is good creature removal throughout the game, and can go to the face when needed. The idea is to fill this deck with devoid creatures but if worse comes to worse, there’s nothing wrong with playing a few of the more efficient red landfall creatures as well.

Getting Weird with Draft Decks

Booster draft is a secondary Magic interest for most people. For my team, and especially for me, it’s more like a religion, a sacred thing. Each week, I have the two finalists choose and autograph one of the commons in their deck. Sometimes they make a funny or ironic choice but usually the card they pick truly was the common MVP of their deck. To their autographs I add the date of the draft. Then I take the two finalists’ decks and replace any rares, mythics and foils. Later on, I play practice games between the finalists’ decks just to experience how each deck plays. When I have collected all the winning decks for an entire month, I play a tournament, all by myself, with the winning draft decks from that month. In October, for instance, since I had eight decks, I played three rounds of Swiss cutting to a final four. Sound familiar? Then I play out the semifinals and the finals. I create a document and list the contents of each deck as well as my playoff results. For the finals I go even a little further, I write down the exact play-by-play details of the match. Crazy? I sort of agree, but I like doing it. Also, I’m not quite finished. When I have determined the top draft deck for a particular month, I keep the winning deck together and take apart all the others. The autographed cards for each deck go into a special binder.

Draft Winners Binder 2015

At the end of the year, I’ll play another little tournament, this time with the twelve monthly champion draft decks, fully aware that the Modern Masters 2015 deck from May will probably win it all. Starting this year, I’ve decided to keep the monthly draft champion decks together forever. This way, when some people want to play Magic but don’t want to draft and don’t want to bother with a more serious format like Standard or Modern, we can play with these well-practiced monthly draft champ decks.

We take booster draft deadly seriously at the weekly Texas Guildmages meetings. Battle for Zendikar draft is the most challenging (and the most fun) draft format since the original Modern Masters in 2013.

Thanks for reading.

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