Allow me to introduce myself; My name is Joseph Derro, I’ve been out of the competitive scene for over a decade, and my most notable accomplishment, along with teammates Paul Russell and Matt Wood, was making Top 4 at Pro Tour Seattle 2004, my first Pro Tour.
Tragically, becoming a grownup got in the way of taking magic seriously. While I’ve been consistently reading articles and played a ton of Magic Online in the last 14 years, I have barely touched a magic card since then. I’ve recently felt the call and have toyed with the idea of getting back into the competitive scene, which has driven me to play a ton of the current Draft format. I am currently second in the trophy count for the Ixalan competitive queues, and while my win-rate is nothing to brag about, there is as much or more to learn from losing than winning. I thought I might be able to save you all some tickets and provide you with some overall insights on the format, hopefully you can learn something from my theory-crafting without actually having to spend the money to find out if you’re right!
Pick orders and deck archetypes have already been covered by players much better than I am, so while I will provide some thoughts on each archetype my primary focus will be my overall approach to the format. While I agree with much that has been discussed and there will certainly be some review as a result, there are some areas where my thoughts vary wildly from the consensus and that’s why I felt like you might be able to learn something. So let’s get started, moving in order of my personal favourite archetypes:
I feel like the best versions of Merfolk are the best possible decks you can get your hands on in this format, however the average and even above average versions can be pretty mediocre. You really want to be the only, or at most one of two Merfolk drafters at the table as it’s critical to pick up rares and uncommons early. My Merfolk decks frequently have no cards that cost more than four mana and are hyper-aggressive, with a plethora of one and two-drops
While I think under perfect circumstances the best Merfolk deck will be better than the best Vampire deck, the average Vampire decks/draws are much better than the average swarm of fish. This is primarily due to the overall power level of the cards in each deck, as top-decking an Exultant Skymarcher on turn 10 during a board-stall is generally going to be much better than peeling a Glitgrove Stalker. You also have access to quality removal which is critical in this bomb heavy format, paired with the ability to get some free wins with aggressive draws.
You can really be a control deck in any colour, with the general idea being to stabilize against the aggro hordes and then win with card draw or simply just more powerful cards. That being said, the most common versions are most likely to be some portion of the Esper shard, potentially splashing one or both of red and green due to treasures.
While I do love the control decks in this format and have the most fun drafting and playing them, due to how explosive the aggressive decks can be you really need a good reason to be in this archetype. The cat is out of the bag on Sailor of Means and Prosperous Pirates so you can’t realistically expect to wheel them, and you need a few things to go right for the deck to come together. As a result, I lean towards aggro unless I open a card that propels me in this direction. The best reasons to go down this path are opening something like Golden Demise, Tetzimoc or Profane Procession. Once you have a card in your deck that can single handedly win you the game, you want to maximize your chances of seeing them by drawing the games out for as long as possible.
This can go a few different ways so I’ll touch on them all briefly.
RW/GW: I have not had success with these archetypes and avoid them at all costs, as a result I’m not really qualified to comment on them aside from suggesting that you do the same
R/G: Probably the “best” dino archetype due to the insane uncommons, but similar to the Merfolk deck in that you need to be the only person at the table drafting it to make sure those cards get to you if opened. I really only end up in this deck if I get an early Raging Regisaur or first-pick a Crested Herdcaller and get passed a Foreunner of the Empire.
While you can definitely be on the controlling side, largely due to the insane Forerunner/Needletooth Raptor combo, your average R/G deck wants to jam Tilonalli’s Knight into a 4/2 into some pump or removal and just try to run them over.
Jund/Naya/Abzan: These decks really fall under the control category but I simply wanted to call that out. If you open a Profane Procession you can definitely go Abzan control dinos, or Jund to tutor up Tetzimoc with your Forerunner, but otherwise stick to R/G.
This is essentially the only non-tribal or control archetype I’m happy to end up in. Skies has been a great strategy in Draft since the dawn of time, stall the board with Horned Turtles and kill them with fliers.
There are two synergies to note in this style of deck: the Brainstorm/Fetchland combo of Riverwise Auger paired with Legion Conquistador and the Slippery Scoundrel or Soul of the Rapids plus Squires Devotion doing a great Invisible Stalker/Butcher’s Cleaver impression.
As many others have mentioned, these decks tend to just not be as good as they look. I attribute this to two primary reasons: Vampires is a nightmare matchup because they can remove your evasive threats and make your Grasping Scoundrels look downright embarrassing by flooding the board with tokens. The other issue is that Pirate’s Cutlass comes in pack-three, and due to the aggressive nature of the format, there’s a good chance 6 or more of the drafters at the table will pick them regardless of tribe. That being said, things can certainly break the way that you should be Pirates so I’ll touch on each version briefly:
B/R: Three words, Dire Fleet Neckbreaker. If you’ve got B/R to yourself it’s not uncommon to pick up two of these along with some Forerunners to go get them. In my opinion, Neckbreaker is the only reason to be B/R pirates and unless your deck can consistently play one on turn-four with two or three pirates already in play, you’re just under-powered compared to the other tribes.
B/U: Deadeye Brawler is a much better control card than an aggro card and B/R is better at being aggresive anyway, so if I start with one I’m looking to be treasure control first, B/U second. B/U pirates really isn’t a deck I’m trying to draft.
R/U and Grixis: The R/U Pirates decks tend to look great and then just not play-out that way so again, I try to avoid the archetype at all costs. Much like U/B, Grixis wants to be a control deck as splashing in your aggro decks should generally be avoided. I am certainly open to the idea that I’m wrong about the last two categories and just drafting them incorrectly, please feel free to let me know in the comments!
Now that I’ve touched on the archetypes, here are some of my general philosophies on the format:
Your opening pack is incredibly important, maybe more so than in any other format. Because of the depth of playables, you can get a ton of information about your table by what comes back on the wheel. As a result, it’s critical that you remember or even jot down what cards you opened so that you can formulate a game-plan of how to proceed with the rest of the draft. If you first-picked a Seafloor Oracle and neither the Jungleborn Pioneer or Jade Bearer lapped but the Resplendent Griffin did, it’s time to call an audible and move from U/G to U/W.
There is a MASSIVE power disparity between the “best” cards and the good cards in this format. Direfleet Neckbreaker is a great example in the sense that it can single-handily propel an otherwise mediocre deck into one that consistently kills on turn-five. In addition, unlike its predecessor, there are great deal of playables in Rivals. As a result, my preference is to take the best card out of the first few packs and keep my options open until my first pack wheels. The cards that do or don’t come back should help cement you into the correct archetype. A good example would be opening a great Merfolk card, and then getting passed a great Vampires card and taking it over an average U/G card. Ie. first-pick Merfolk Mistbinder, second-pick Legion Lieutenant. You can then just take the best Vamp or Fish card for your next 5 picks, and use the information from your wheeled pack to lead you in the right direction
While on the subject of the depth of playables, because you are rarely going to struggle to find enough, you should prioritize good sideboard cards over average playables. I could easily write an article on sideboarding in limited and I believe it’s where the average player costs themselves the most percentage points, but for now I’ll focus on this format. Some fairly obvious cards to watch out for are Negate, Plummet, Duress, Dark Inquiry and the granddaddy of them all — Crushing Canopy. What’s less intuitive is having access to a pseudo-transformational sideboard of sorts depending on if you’re on the play or, more importantly, if you though you were the beat-down but after getting stomped game-one you realized that’s not the case. For example, replacing some Raptor’s Companions with Looming Altisaurs can completely change the dynamic of a matchup.
That’s all I’ve got for now, hopefully you found this helpful! I’ll be as active as I can in the comments so please feel free to post questions or (constructive) criticisms and I’ll do my best to reply. Good luck!