You may have heard of the term “flavor draft.” This concept, popularized by Luis-Scott Vargas and friends, involves modifying the rules of a draft based on flavor concerns. A classic example: should a One-Eyed Scarecrow be allowed to equip a Blazing Torch? Or, with Dark Ascension: how would a Headless Skaab wear an Executioner’s Hood? And finally, how exactly does a Tragic Slip affect a ghost?
Well, I’m here to expand the definition of a flavor draft to include situations where the draft itself is dripping with flavor. Consider the subject of this draft report, in which thirteen players registered for a horror-themed draft that was hosted in the purportedly haunted attic of the oldest building in town, dating back to the 1700s. On a very windy day. With a partial blizzard. At several points, an intense gust of wind through the rafters actually knocked over objects in other rooms–some things went Bump in the Afternoon. To top it all off, I was just coming off of a sales conference for work. As a result of yelling over the music in the resort club all night over whiskey and beer, I had lost my voice and sounded like a raspy ghost of Magic’s past. I had to whisper my way through the draft.
This was to be my inaugural Dark Ascension draft. Following my previously chronicled experiences with sealed events, I was really looking forward to getting back into my drafting comfort zone and seeing how Dark Ascension affected the format. From reading the spoiler, doing some analysis and playing in the sealed events, here was my initial impression:
Undying is very, very strong. Average creature toughness is still low. The mana curve in Dark Ascension, in general, seems very awkward. RB seems less of a fringe deck, but I’m not sure about RG yet.
So, with this in mind, it was time to drafty draft!
I sat down for this draft with no particular goal in mind other than to draft a strong deck which prominently featured as many Dark Ascension cards as I could play without compromising my deck. I had a feeling I might end up in white once I looked out the window and saw snow blowing sideways and accumulating on the streets. With this portent in mind, we opened the Dark Ascension pack. Staring at me from the foil slot was a…
There were other strong cards in the pack, but the Demon was the obvious pick. A 4/4 for 5 isn’t bad. He’s a “bomb” card. He’s capable of ending games fast and he sets a clear direction for the deck. I’ll talk later in the article about how he (and cards like him) can frame an entire draft. Needless to say, I went humans. The snow was right.
The next three picks went like this:
Hey. I can read a signal.
Here’s the deck I eventually assembled:
I was happy about how this ended up. Eight Dark Ascension cards (one in multiples,) an archetype in BW that I like and a clear sense of my Plan A and Plan B strategies. The curve seemed good, and I didn’t feel like I was in too much danger of getting blow out by werewolves.
Round 1 – Jon w/ UW – on the draw
Game 1 – I was pretty sure Jon was on UW. He seems to force that archetype. It’s a pretty deep one and until now it has been my favorite standby. He starts off with a mulligan and I’m vindicated after a few lands hit play. Our dueling tempo decks race back and forth. I drop from thirteen to five against several of his fliers after attacking him down to ten. What he doesn’t know is that I’m sand-bagging Vault of the Archangel, which I play and swing myself back up to fourteen alongside a Markov Patrician from the prior turn. He manages to jump back up to sixteen from eight with some lifelink and a Moment of Heroism (which I write down,) but I flip a Ravenous Demon with two Gather the Townsfolk tokens for fodder and take the game from there.
Game 2 – He mulligans again. I put pressure on with Typhoid Rats. By which I mean, I ping him for one for a few turns. He trades something for the rats and plays a Makeshift Mauler. This would actually hold the ground nicely while he found fliers. But, sadly for him, Slayer of the Wicked eats it and I easily win the game at twenty two life from there. He tried to stem the bleeding with Claustrophobia on my Ravenous Demon, but it ate an end of turn Ray of Revelation. Shazam.
Sitting to my right was Dzi with a pretty gross UR deck. I was worried about his deck and thought he would crush his opponent and then crush me. During quiet moments in my match, I looked at Dzi’s board and tried to memorize some of his key cards to write them down in case we got paired next round. I noted down Forge Devils, Heretic’s Punishment, Grasp of Phantoms, Silent Departure and Fires of Undeath. However, he ate a game three death to land issues and I crossed off my notes never to look back.
Round 2 – Van w/ UW – on the draw
Another UW. Another lost die roll. So far, these end well for me.
Game 1 – I curve out beautifully, use my Dead Weight well and beat him down.
Game 2 – I mulligan a two-lander with a high curve and some awkward mana costs and find a better hand. Here is the deciding sequence in this game:
Van plays an end of turn Midnight Haunting. I’m cool with this. I have Sever the Bloodline.
Van untaps and plays Drogskol Captain. I take a bunch of damage. I’m cool with this. I have Sever the Bloodline.
I untap and Sever the Captain.
He gets some more damage in.
I untap and Sever the tokens.
This leaves me at five life, but it was a two-for-one trade and my developed board is enough to run him over.
Round 3 – Stephen w/ GW Travel Preparations – on the play
Game 1 – He doesn’t do any of the degenerate stuff that I’m used to seeing GW do. I think he got the thin end of white cards with all the UW players and myself in half-white at the same table. I curve out and use my removal to beat him down, ending the game at fourteen life. I only write down a Crushing Vines, which he tosses out to kill my Bloodgift Demon. Unfortunate, because it’s the only time I drew him all day.
Game 2 – Another boring game where he keeps a greedy hand, gets stuck on two lands for a bit and that’s all the edge I need to develop a board and steamroll him with removal backup.
We had enough people in the draft for the tournament organizer to run two pods. One had seven players and the other had six. In the six pod, there was a mill deck with 2x Increasing Confusion and some other nuttiness that I was worried about. But, by virtue of going 3-0 in my pod, I was able to ID with the winner of the six pod and split the prizes.
Thoughts on Dark Ascension
Overall, I enjoyed drafting with Dark Ascension more than I expected. I was nervous that it would ruin the beauty of Innistrad limited. I’m still holding judgment, but I think it might be a slight improvement. Why? It seems to have made BW, RG, RB and even UR into stronger archetypes while simultaneously reducing the insanity of Spider Spawning and Travel Preparations just enough to balance the format. There are also fewer Stalkers and fewer Cleavers. It may have actually patched the few holes in the format while not destroying the core archetypes or flavor.
Yeah, I think it’s fine. Kudos, R&D. That said, let’s take a look at some individual cards.
I was impressed with this card. The synergy with Ravenous Demon was obvious, but aside from that it puts down a reasonable amount of power. As an early play, if my opponent’s curve wasn’t exciting or their early plays were one toughness creatures, Gather was capable of getting some damage in and then holding back to chump block in a race. Had I a Butcher’s Cleaver or Silver-Inlaid Dagger, I would have felt nearly invincible. As it is, I had to settle for a few mass pump effects, which worked quite well enough.
Speaking of mass pump effects, this guy is one. Sometimes. I’d heard some grumblings about this card, but it was quite good to me in Sealed. In addition, it was a human, easy on the mana cost and held the ground well. I only ended up with Fateful Hour once, but a few 2/4 Human tokens were enough to put it away. The threat of activation was actually as important as the activation itself.
I continue to be unimpressed with this card. It was a human the entire time. Granted, I only had one vampire, and it was relegated to the roll of being fed to the Demon. Still, the tempo hit of playing a 2/2 on turn three and then using another creature which should be attacking or blocking to transform it into a 4/4 seems like a weak play. I would almost always rather have Screeching Bat.
I don’t need to say much about this guy. He’s a house. Play him in a tempo deck, get their life down low enough, wait for them to tap out and flip him for the kill. You want to play him in Black/White, so if you pick him early then you need to be prepared to either force Black/White or possibly abandon him. But never forget that he’s also just a solid body at the top end of your curve. I look forward to drafting this guy again. Very impressed.
I even harbored thoughts of letting him feed on me for nine damage just to trigger my Gavony Ironwright and then kill someone with tokens. Sometimes I’m an Archdemon of Greed, though, and need to make the right play instead.
Five mana removal. Ow. It says a lot about the design of Innistrad that I thought this card was perfectly fine. Sometimes, you gain life. But every time it just straight up kills anything (except my personal favorite, Manor Gargoyle.) That is worth a lot in Innistrad and isn’t worth any less with Dark Ascension out. It’s worse than Dead Weight, but better than Corpse Lunge.
This card worked well for me, given the mass of tokens I was able to bring to bear. Indestructible was never relevant. I wouldn’t play this card over a Moment of Heroism even with a ton of token makers, save for Increasing Devotion. However, it is a combat trick by wielding it well. Don’t overlook the opportunity.
I noticed a poetic moment during one of my games when I played this card and then looked out the window to see that the snow had stopped and the sun had broken through the sky. It was meant to be.
This guy is awkward when applying pressure to an opponent. However, in a back and forth tempo match, he chump blocks, gains life and creates a pseudo-fog effect. And then leaves behind a spirit. I generally prefer a Mausoleum Guard, because I value the extra spirit token more than two life. But he’s fine and I don’t imagine being unhappy to play him. Especially not when I have equipment.
I don’t always sink five mana into a land, but when I do I prefer Vault of the Archangel. Yes, that says Deathtouch. Since this card is in the first pack and should go highly, you can commit pretty strongly to Black/White and maximize this card by taking any token-generator and anything with undying. I would not splash this in a three color deck without having at least one and probably two fixing spells, however. It’s not really relevant until you’re grinding out a late game. But if you get there, the ability to trade up your human tokens for Makeshift Maulers is sweet.
So that’s it for new cards that I had a chance to play with and consider. I can’t wait for the next draft and an opportunity to try fresh archetypes and report back to you on their successes and failures. And now for our educational programming.
Don, my local Tournament Organizer, has long expressed frustration with his draft skills and avoided the format. I’ve taken up the crusade to mentor him to the point where he can enjoy (if not profit from) his draft events.
Side note about me: prior to the fateful day when my dad bought a 25mhz laptop, I was on path to spend the rest of my life as a teacher. After moving to the area and becoming known at our store as a limited player, I thought about the idea of starting up a draft school to up everyone’s game. I like winning and prizes are cool. Why would I want to make it harder on myself? Because getting better has a greater ROI.
So I have this Draft School idea, but not sure what to do with it yet. I started out convincing a few people to do pick orders when they open packs, just for value. We managed a semi-competitive “fun draft” for free when Don had packs to open for singles anyway. During the event, several players would confirm their picks with me. I stayed out of the colors of everyone next to me, so I wasn’t cutting their strategies. Don actually drafted a pretty solid UW fliers deck with some Stalker/Pump action. However, he concluded after reviewing his picks and seeing thee Moon Herons and a sub-optimal curve that one of his weaknesses was remembering what he had taken during the draft and making optimized picks to fill his curve, create synergies and so on.
After asking Don about it, his conclusion was that he wasn’t quite able to have a clear picture of his prior picks and therefore make the best choices each time relative to his prior picks. I think this is a common problem for new drafters in the early stages: feeling the need to memorize each pick you’ve made and then make perfect picks based on that each time. While some people are gifted with good visual recall and can keep the whole pool (or at least the relevant parts) in their head, I don’t think this is true for most of us. So I spent some time trying to think of a good approach to teaching someone how to thematically draft a more synergistic deck without trying to just remember every prior pick. There had to be some shortcut, some trick even if it was a bit lossy.
Here’s what I came up with for starters. Take a successful draft deck, line it up in pick order (filtering out irrelevant, off-color late picks) and do a “rewind the draft.” The idea was to show how, starting from the first picks, all other picks can be made correctly based on a relatively small set of information. I used the BW deck above as an example. I won’t bore you with a rewind of the full draft, but I wanted to illustrate the principle. From feedback, a lot of you reading my articles are new to limited, interested but don’t consider yourself skilled or are considering giving it a try. So, let me know if you think these little educational time-outs are interesting and useful. Here’s how we started the rewind and discussion, with commentary about how it reduces the mental chatter in the draft to a set of key principles:
Pick 1 – Ravenous Demon – after picking this card, we need to keep one general thought in mind for the rest of the draft: “value humans, and therefore white, higher than normal” – white is a deep color and humans is a good strategy, but any cheap human can be fed to the demon to end a game with a 9/9, flying, trample, banding, rampage: 3… sorry, got carried away there.
Pick 2 – Gather the Townsfolk – since we know that we value humans, we can quickly snatch up a white card that makes two of them!
Pick 3 – Vault of the Archangel – seeing this card passed to us says that black and white are almost guaranteed to be open, leaving us with a few more general rules for the rest of the draft: “don’t switch colors, keep taking cheap humans and especially tokens and first strike, which play very well with deathtouch.”
Pick 4 – Gather the Townsfolk – and, more validation that white is open, so at this point, we have a pretty solid plan.
As you can see, we’re a few picks in and we’ve picked a good plan, boiled it down to a few key ideas and we can then use those ideas to guide us through any less-than-immediately-obvious picks for the rest of the draft. Here are a few random cards we took later in the draft, as a way to illustrate picking on princples:
Elder Cathar – when we see this come around it’s 1) in our colors, 2) is a human and 3) does something good when eaten by a demon, especially with human tokens lying around. We need to know very little about what else is in the deck so far. He works with our plan.
Elgaud Inquisitor – again, this is a human and it does something good when eaten by a demon. It also makes a token, which plays well with our Vault plan.
Gavony Ironwright – in general, people other than me don’t seem to impressed with this card. Maybe it’s a debatable pick and card under normal circumstances. But in our case, it’s a human and it has the potential to do nice things with a bunch of tokens.
This is not a fool-proof strategy. It is strongest when your early picks have clear direction. Ravenous Demon basically has draft instructions printed on him/her/it. If your first pick is removal, maybe that doesn’t steer you so thoroughly in a specific direction. However, within the first pack you are generally going to want to answer the question “how do I plan to win?” Removal might be part of a few picks that say “I want fliers, combat tricks and efficient creatures.” Pick according to that strategy and you will have a strong, if beginner level approach to drafting that will continue to develop skills and attention to details that you will need throughout your profitable limited career.
That’s it for now. Thanks again for reading. I’m curious to know where you are with limited. Are you a guru? A novice? Do you despise limited, but secretly wish you could crush all your FNM buddies? I will continue to report drafts, rate cards, talk about strategies (and Chipotle!,) but I’d like to know if you like the draft school concept and are interested in reading beginner tips and tricks to build a drafting skill set. Shrug off that Claustrophobia, untap and drop me a line.
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