Saturday, July 16, 2011

Of Limited Interest #32 - Walk With Me: An Early Look at Drafting M12

Hello everyone and welcome back to another edition of The Cardboard Witch.  Before we get started I have a couple of confessions to make; first and foremost I'd like to apologize to the many readers who've emailed or messaged me on Twitter to remind me that it's been somewhere around a month since I wrote about Limited.  Unfortunately by the end of SoM block I simply wasn't enjoying draft as much as I had been; I personally thought Triple Scars was one of the more interesting formats I'd ever played but with the addition of MBS and a focus on control strategies/6CC bombs I found I wanted to play less than I had before.  Naturally I'd hoped this would change when NPH became legal but sadly it was more of the same; except this time both the removal and the disgusting bombs were even *better*.  This left me auto-forcing 2-3 color control decks every time I drafted the cycle and after a while I got pretty bored of essentially always adopting the same strategy; even though I was winning a lot.  While I certainly wouldn't call myself an "aggro" player in draft I feel that it's very important for any given format to have at least *some* quality aggro strategies to provide variety and balance; as Infect shifted towards control/combo type builds and Metalcraft aggro withered on the vine, what had been an exciting format full of options turned into something entirely less pleasant and more predictable.  Simply put I wasn't writing about my drafts because I felt they were repetitive, boring and ultimately of little instructional value; take the bomb, load up on removal spells and play to win on turn 8-10 regardless of your colors isn't exactly a complicated draft strategy.  In light of this I decided to focus on writing about Standard for a while and began desperately waiting for the release of M12.

This brings me to my second confession; despite complaining off and on for at least the past month that "Scars is so boring now" I somehow managed to miss the entire M12 pre-release weekend.  I screwed up the schedule at work and found myself working both Friday and Saturday but I *was* free on Sunday afternoon to participate in our north end location's last chance pre-release event.  Unfortunately I stayed up all Saturday night playing sealed with packs my friends had won earlier that day and play-testing Standard decks.  I slept right through my alarm and by the time I woke up round 1 had already begun in a tournament roughly an hour by subway from my home.  This was mildly disappointing to say the least but I managed to console myself by opening a couple more prize pools and rebuilding my friend's sealed decks over and over for a few days in between hours of studying the M12 spoiler.  Finally all of my preparations were rewarded last night during the M12 Midnight Release draft when I managed to go 3-0 with a U/W Flying deck that was shockingly similar to the decks I often found myself forcing in M11 drafts.  I mention this primarily because if we're going to talk about playing M12 Limited it's only fair to state that I've spent a great deal of time thinking about the format and playing practice sealed games but I've only actually drafted the set once.  Despite this lack of practical experience however I feel pretty comfortable drafting M12 going forward.  While it's certainly different than previous base sets in my opinion M12 drafting is not exactly rocket science and with a minimum amount of effort I've unearthed a number tips, tricks and observations you can use to take down your next Triple M12 draft.

Speed kills but so do explosives:  To put it kind of bluntly M12 is a significantly faster format than either M11 or full Scars block drafts were.  This is readily apparent simply from reading the spoiler; every single color in the format has multiple "above the curve" beaters in the common and uncommon slots and the general power to casting cost ratio has been altered significantly from M11.  Cards like Blood Ogre and Skywinder Drake exemplify this shift perfectly but you *know* a format is pretty "aggro" when they print a 2/2 bear for U and it's a common.  Throw in the return of uncommons like Volcanic Dragon, Sengir Vampire, Serra Angel and Phantasmal Dragon and you end up with a hyper aggressive format full of high powered beaters with some form of evasion.  Naturally in the face of all this aggression you're going to want to build cheaper, faster decks that can either go on the offense quickly themselves or respond in some way to blunt your enemy's early game assault.  Unfortunately this sudden focus on the early game seems to have lead many drafters to believe that the rules of limited have been turned upside down and that M12 is somehow the only draft format in history (I refuse to believe Zendikar actually happened) where curving out is more important than dropping bombs.  In fact I've recently overheard a number of drafters stating that "you shouldn't take disgusting card X: 7 casting cost is way too slow for this format".  This is of course a ridiculously silly idea because M12 is absolutely loaded with 6 and 7 casting cost bombs that can easily win you games all by themselves and are incredibly difficult to actually kill once they do hit the table.  This isn't meant to imply that you can ignore the speed of the format entirely when building but no rational person alive can justify passing cards like Sphinx of Uthuun, Rune Scarred Demon or Furyborn Hellkite simply because there are fast aggro decks in M12.  Ultimately the lesson here is to take your bombs and play them; just make sure you have a reasonable plan for staying alive long enough to hit 6 or 7 mana.

Big Dog's gotta eat:  While the following may seem dreadfully obvious to those of you who drafted M11 Limited, we've been joined by a whole new crop of fresh recruits who've never had the pleasure of opening a Titan in draft.  The basic rule here is that if you open a Titan you should draft it and except under the most EXTREME circumstances put it in your deck.  These cards absolutely *destroy* games of limited and pretty much regardless of which Titan you play (more on this later) your opponent will live in fear of it from the moment it hits the table to the moment it kills him or he kills it.  What's more even if he does kill it typically the Titan's enters the battlefield triggers will have already put you way ahead of your opponent in terms of board state and leached out a powerful removal effect from his hand.  In other words casting a Titan is a very easy way to win games in Limited and as such you should do everything in your power to play with any you are lucky enough to open; nobody is going to pass you one of these guys unless he's a very good drafter and the Titan in question is Primeval.  This will sometimes mean switching colors in packs 2 (always) or 3 (still usually worth it) or even branching into 3 colors if necessary with 2-3 copies of Manalith.  Even if by some miracle you open a pack 3 Titan that you can not possibly play (your first two rares were Garruk and Gideon perhaps?) it's probably better to just snap deny the card because if you intend to win that draft you *will* likely have to beat the guy you're shipping an off color Titan to.  Despite the sheer awesome power of the Titans however there is one general exception to this rule; if you open a Primeval Titan and do not already have a very good reason to be in green it's acceptable to pass it in favor of high end removal like Oblivion Ring, Fireball, Doom Blade or Mind Control.  While the concept of passing a $25+ Mythic Rare will make many players blanch the truth is that Primeval Titan is simply a very big green man in a format where you really don't want to be playing green all that often.  Functionally there's really very little advantage to be gained in M12 Limited from fishing a couple of lands out of your deck; if you already had 6 mana to cast the Titan it's a pretty good bet you have enough mana to cast everything else in your hand as well.  What's more M12 is pretty much devoid of "interesting" lands unless you've also drafted the Buried Ruin/Crumbling Colossus combo; at least in M11 you could hoped to be passed a Mystifying Maze to pair with your Primeval.  In light of this "Prime Time" is essentially a very durable Yavimaya Wurm that might help you drop a really big Fireball later in the game; this isn't meant to imply that he's a *bad* creature but he isn't good enough to justify forcing green or passing the best removal spells in the format to your opponents.

I believe you should fly:  Okay so it isn't exactly news that creatures with evasion abilities; Flying in particular, are pretty good in Limited.  M12 however takes this concept to a whole new level by literally cramming almost every color to the brim with "flyers" and other evasive creatures.  White for example has 7 creatures with flying in this set; 4 commons, an uncommon and 2 rares.  Additionally the color has 2 creatures that can gain flying (Griffin Rider, Roc Egg) and a reusable enchantment that can give *any* creature flying; albeit in the mythic slot.  Blue also has 7 "flyers" with 3 of them being commons, 2 uncommon and two rares.  As an added bonus Blue also has Harbor Servant in the common slot to give it yet another powerful evasive creature to play with; assuming the opponent has Islands to "walk" across of course.  Just for clarity "Flight" isn't a playable card so it doesn't count towards Blue's total for this discussion; although I guess you could sideboard it against other flyers if you were very desperate.  Black weighs in at 6 flyers with 3 commons, an uncommon, a rare and a mythic rare.  This doesn't however count Tormented Soul which is in many ways *better* than a flyer offensively simply because it can not be blocked.  This is of course useless *against* enemy flyers so it's probably safest to count Tormented Soul as basically half a flyer.  Even a typically earthbound color like Red has 4 flyers; although 2 of them are rares and one's a mythic.  This won't however prevent uncommon Volcanic Dragons from tearing apart unprepared opponents and when facing down a Red mage it would be wise to remain cognizant of this card.  In the common slot Red also has the high under-rated Goblin Fireslinger.  I've affectionately nicknamed him "Axe Cop" because in my experience he'll typically deal 5+ damage in a game where he comes down on turn 1; effectively mimicking the card Lava Axe in terms of damage dealt.  While not strictly an "evasive" creature the fact that he just taps to "dome" the opponent for 1 makes him very similar to a "flyer" offensively; particularly in the powerful R/x Bloothirst deck archetype here in M12.  Naturally of course Green gets kinda screwed in the "evasive creatures" department with only a rare 0/1 flyer and just one landwalker (albeit a very good one) in the entire set.  To offset this Green is forced to rely on 3 creatures with Reach (1 each at c/u/r), Plummet, Overrun and 7 creatures that either have or can get Trample (2 c, 1 u, 2 r and 2 mythics).  In light of these shocking numbers it's pretty safe to say that the Flying trait and evasive creatures in general are pretty damn important here in M12 drafting and your deck had better contain a significant number of flyers or have multiple ways of dealing with them; otherwise you will lose games to enemy creatures you can not block very quickly.  If it sounds like I'm telling you not to play Green it's because to some degree I am; we'll come back to this later in the discussion.

'Walk like a man:  This is actually one concept that I feel people who started drafting with Scars of Mirrodin will have a very easy time understanding; if you open a Planeswalker you should draft it and once again do everything in your power to play it.  This is somewhat of a departure from M11 which featured 5 Planeswalkers that could be very powerful in a deck built to maximize their potential but were otherwise "just a rare".  I remember for example passing a Jace Berelen in an M11 draft that I won for a Mind Control; I wouldn't even consider doing that with Jace, Memory Adept here in M12.  Virtually all of the M12 Planeswalkers are back breaking, overpowered, game winning monstrosities here in this format with the exception of Chandra 3.0 who is much more like the M11 'Walkers; situationally devastating but only if you build the deck around her to some degree.  Additionally I should mention that Sorin Markov kind of wreaks havoc on your mana base in a format with so many powerful double mana spells.  The truth is however that resolving and protecting a Sorin Markov will absolutely win you the game unless your opponent draws an Oblivion Ring and that's a pretty small price to pay for having to run 10 Swamps in your 2 color draft deck.  Similarly Jace, Garruk and Gideon all play extremely well in virtually any deck with the lands to cast them and a few blocking creatures to protect them; archetypes and deck styles pretty much go right out the window here because these cards just grind games out so effectively all on their own.  Unfortunately Chandra is something of a different story; she's obviously decent against 1 toughness beaters and there's no question that her minus -2 ability can win you games if combined with the right instant or sorcery (Fireball?).  These bright points aside however, on her own she just doesn't take over the game the way the other 'Walkers do in this format.  After all if you cast Jace 3.0, activate his mill ability and successfully block enough damage to keep him alive until your next main phase you've probably won the game already; you certainly can't claim the same thing about Chandra.  Of course Chandra 3.0 also happens to be a $40 or so mythic rare so I somehow doubt many people will be passing her despite her Limited inferiority to the other Planeswalkers in M12.

Load up on guns but bring your friends:  One of the first rules of base set drafting is that you never ever pass high quality removal in your colors if there's any way you can avoid it.  While naturally you're going to have to pass the occasional Mind Control when you open a Grave Titan, Garruk or other ridiculous bomb finisher but otherwise it's simply not a good idea to ship premium removal spells in any format; particularly base sets where such spells are noticeably more scarce.  This applies to cards like Oblivion Ring, Doom Blade, Pacifism, Fireball, Royal Assassin, Flameblast Dragon, Mind Control, Grim Lavamancer, Vengeful Pharaoh, Incinerate, any Titan that kills things, Chandra's Outrage and even to a degree cards like Gideon's Lawkeeper, Frost Breath (in a very aggressive deck) and Acidic Slime.  In fact many of these spells are so powerful and easy to splash you should probably just take them even if they aren't in your color (Fireball, Doomblade, Oblivion Ring).  Unfortunately many players will translate this concept into "take every single piece of removal available at all times" and while this strategy was actually pretty effective in M11 drafts it holds up poorly in a faster more aggressive M12 format.  The simple truth is that M12 is heavily populated with a number of wonderful mid-range beaters that have absolutely no problem surviving marginal removal cards like Shock, Sorin's Thirst, Arachnus Web, Consume Spirit (in a 2 color deck) or Wring Flesh.  What's more many of these creatures are powerful enough to take over games on their own; while Gorehorn Minotaurs may not exactly qualify as a "bomb" that will provide little consolation when you're starring one down with a Shock in your hand for example.  In light of this it is important to strike a careful balance between removal and high quality critters who have 4 or more toughness if you want to build strong decks in M12.  This isn't to say that marginal removal effects aren't relevant in M12 but you shouldn't be drafting them over Serra Angels, Belltower Sphinxes, Vampire Outcasts, Blood Ogres or Gorehorn Minotaurs.  Amusingly enough I would snap pick a Sorin's Thirst or a Shock over virtually any c/u Green creature except Stingerfling Spider and maybe Jade Mage; again this will come up later.                

It's not easy being Green:  So what happens to a format when you start throwing 3/3 and 4/4 beaters for 3-5 mana in every other color while simultaneously weakening Green's cardbase in response to the reprinting of Overrun?  I have absolutely no idea and furthermore no intentions of finding out because I fully intend to avoid drafting Green like the plague in this set folks.  Now before you jump all over me please understand that I'm not denying that Green has some pretty good cards in M12; the problem I have is that virtually none of these cards are common.  Simply put there is no reasonable way you can expect to win a draft with decks built around cards like Brindle Boar, Stampeding Rhino and Sacred Wolf when your opponents are countering with Blood Ogres, Gorehorn Minotaurs and even the periodic Manic Vandal.  A careful look through the spoiler will reveal that virtually every single main-deckable Green common in the set has an equivalently costed better common in another color.  I suppose you could argue that cards like Lurking Crocodile and Stampeding Rhino are actually better than some of their W/U/B/R counterparts but even so the difference is pretty marginal compared to say the vast disparity between Llanowar Elf and Gideon's Lawkeeper or Sacred Wolf and Skywinder Drake.  What's more even traditional Green Stalwarts like Cudgel Troll and Giant Spider have lost a lot of traction in M12; Incinerate is a splashable common and a 2/4 Spider isn't quite as good with so many 4/4's running around the format. Throw in the loss of Yavimaya Wurm, the absence of flyers, one marginal removal card and a bad Giant Growth and you have a recipe for a lot of 2-2 finishes in draft as far as I can tell.  Look any good Green Mage will tell you that the primary reason to play Forests in Limited is because Green critters almost always dominate creature combat; that simply is not true here in M12 and therefore it's pretty hard to justify going into green unless you open the absolute "nuts" or your pretty sure there are no other green drafters at the table.  If you have to start running Hexproof Elves , Pigs and 7CC Wurms just to make 22-23 cards you're probably in a whole world of trouble.  Finally I suppose I should mention that yes, Overrun is still an awesomely destructive card and quite capable of winning you games because it doesn't care how crappy your creatures on the table are; just that you have a lot of them.  The problem remains having to play a bunch of terrible Green creatures to get there but if you draft a couple of Overruns by all means consider forcing Green for the rest of the draft.

Eighteen and (20) life to go:  One of the first things I noticed while looking at the M12 spoiler is that it's an incredibly "greedy" set.  Let's say you open a pack with a bad Rare, no premium removal and a Serra Angel; you snap pick the Angel and promptly get shipped a pack with a Vampire Outcasts a Chandra's Outrage and a Frost Breath.  Do you really want to have to take the Frost Breath simply to avoid doubling up on mana symbols?  Of course not you want to slam the Outrage to protect your Angel and maybe fry the Vampires later!  Even if you were going to pass the removal spell you'd take the potential 4/4 lifelinking beatstick before a Frost Breath wouldn't you?  The truth is that there are an absolutely huge number of disgusting spells with double colored mana symbols in their casting cost in M12 and ideally you're going to want to play as many of those spells as you can.  Furthermore most of those spells cost between 3 and 5 mana so you're probably going to want to start your fourth combat phase with 2 land of each of your colors in play simply to maintain tempo while playing all of these broken cards.  Unfortunately this also comes at a time when there's very little mana fixing in the format; while you can argue that Rampant Growth is better than Cultivate it's not going to give you both of your double colors by itself.  Additionally I'm still out on whether or not Manalith is an adequate replacement for Terramorphic Expanse; it's probably better for 3 color decks but I wouldn't want to play those as often here in M12 as I did in M11 outside of splashed Doom Blades or Oblivion Rings.  One thing I can say for sure is that it was awful hard to destroy a Terramorphic Expanse before it fixed your mana; I can not say the same about Manalith.  In light of these facts I've come to the unfortunate conclusion that I'll be running 18 mana sources here in M12 *way* more often than I want to just to make sure I can cast all the super powerful spells with double mana symbols I intend to draft.  Unfortunately this runs somewhat contrary to my previous statement that the format is significantly faster than M11 with several more viable aggro decks to choose from.  On closer examination however these concepts are not so alien to each other; while you certainly don't want to mana flood when your opponent is dropping 3/3's on T3 and 4/4's on T4-5, you will die just as quickly if you can't answer those creatures because you're color-screwed.  I should mention that 18 mana sources won't always mean 18 land; Manalith, Birds of Paradise or cards like Merfolk Looter/Divination could easily see me running 17 or in extreme cases 16 land. 

Go with the flow:  Unfortunately I have not drafted M12 enough to correctly identify every single deck archetype available in the format yet.  Frankly as it's a core set I highly doubt there actually *be* that many defined archetypes but so far I've had no real trouble identifying the two most obvious decks in the format; R/B Bloodthirst and U/W "Skies" (Flying). In my (admittedly limited) experience both of these decks are extremely powerful, easy to build and most importantly populated with a number of wonderful commons and uncommons that all work extremely well in their respective archetypes.  This makes it *very* easy to force either archetype in an M12 draft without fear of being heavily cut off by other players at the table; even if they wanted to take all the good cards for these decks it's impossible because there are simply too many.  So far I have yet to see a set of 24 packs that wouldn't produce at least 2 great versions of either deck at a draft table and in most cases the cards could easily support 3 drafters in each archetype; although their decks would simply be "good" at that point.  What's more in opening 3 of my own sealed pools and studying the sealed pools of numerous friends I've only actually seen one set of 6 packs that couldn't make at least a decent U/W Skies or R/B Bloodthirst deck; the pool in question was piloted to a 3rd place finish by a friend of mine on Twitter after he built a 4 color control deck with a Green/Blue major and splashes of both Black and Red.  This was however in my opinion a statistical anomaly and I feel pretty confident saying that if you're having doubts about how to draft or build a sealed pool you would be wise to consider forcing either one of these archetypes here in M12.    

Well folks once again that's just about all my fingers can take for the moment; originally I had intended to provide a chart with my M12 pick rankings by color and commonality but unfortunately this article got a little "long" on me pretty fast.  M12 is a fascinating format with many subtle and not so subtle differences between M11 drafts and as such I feel like I could go on writing about it for days on end without getting bored in the slightest.  As always thanks for reading and I promise to post my pick rankings and a brief explanation of the more controversial choices next time on the blog; maybe even later tonight.  Until then gang always remember that there is *never* a good reason to pass a Rune Scarred Demon to take a Garruk's Companion when the whole world is watching.  *Nina winks*


  1. Nice article keep up the good work from TheBeme

  2. Yeah, I took R/G in tonight's draft. I placed well enough, but I agree that green is rather weak overall with the only go-to commons being Garruk's Companion and Giant Spider. My deck was only decent because of 3 each of those, plus 2 Overrun (which I never saw against Matt, the guy I lost to)

    Game 2 against Matt was fun. I drew my sideboarded Reverberate (figured it has enough targets against a blue mage) so I played Chandra's Outrage and attempted to Reverberate it... and then the Outrage got countered by Flashfreeze. That pretty much won him the match. =(

    - Dave (the Asian one) :p