By Michael Kohler
During the last PTQ season and many of the GPs that took place during, a lot of pros were asked what they thought of the Shards of Alara limited format. I think that many pros had fallen into a regular routine while drafting triple shards, a sort of slump if you will. I think that this can be seen most evidently in Luis Scott-Vargas’ most recent article on Star City Games where he talks about how his philosophy has changed in drafting Shards of Alara. In GP: Atlanta Luis says that he pushed Esper/Grixis the whole way and posted a record of 8-0-1. Additionally, he would continue this draft strategy until had a sort of epiphany during the middle of his “Drafting With” series on starcitygames.com. Now, before I go any further, I want to say that I am in no way criticizing LSV because well, he’s LSV. I am simply stating that even the best of the Magic community had gotten into a regularity of how they looked at limited. The format had seemed kind of stagnant, and in that same article LSV writes, “By the time I began the series, I had already done a large amount of triple Shards drafts, enough that I actually wouldn’t be doing almost any online if I didn’t have the series to do. I figured I had learned the format…”
So where does this leave us? Well this little thing called Conflux (the set, not the card) has decided to come along and shakes things up. After drafting with this set a few times over the weekend at my local prerelease, I am once again excited about limited. This tiny little set will shake the limited format up in a very big way, adding more variety and complexity to deck archetypes, and even adding a few archetypes to the mix.
I drafted exactly three times this past weekend and each draft gave me a lot of different information about what Conflux (not the card) was going to offer us. The first draft I entered into I went with Esper drafting a myriad of crazy fliers, including good ‘ol Kathari Screecher, along with Tidehollow Strix and Glaze Fiend. Things continued to look good as I pick up a pair of Parasitic Strix, a Faerie Mechanist, Glaze Fiend and an Aven Trailblazer. I felt that I had a drafted decently and could build something solid, but I really had no clue of what I should be hate drafting (we were doing CON/ALA/CON).
Round 1 I was paired up against Tyler, who had drafted a Black/Red deck with the usual like of Goblin Deathraiders and Magma Spray, along with the newly added Goblin Outlander, Dark Temper, and Fiery Fall. Even before I sat down Tyler was telling me that I’d simply smoke him as he wasn’t sure what he was doing and was new to drafting. I chuckled, replying that with a new set like Conflux, most of us were sort of stumbling around in the dark as well. Both of Games 1 and 2 I never felt like Tyler’s deck was able to take hold and really have a go at it giving me both games fairly easily. These games really gave me no surprises or downfalls in terms of new Conflux cards, it would be my second round of this draft that did that.
I got paired up against fellow testing partner of mine Jonathan who has significantly more drafting experience than myself, and he had drafted what I believe will become a powerhouse in the coming months, wooberg…sorry, WUBRG. Game 1 I mulliganed downed to 6 and I never really stood a chance here, and his deck did what it was supposed to (5th turn Fusion Elemental, must be nice) and mine just sort of flopped around doing nothing. While shuffling up for Game 2 we were informed we had only 15 minutes left I put my shuffling into hyperdrive, and proceeded to play the fastest game 2 of my life. Game 2 I curved out perfectly with a turn 1 Court Homunculus, turn 2 Tidehollow Strix and a turn 3 Parasitic Strix. As I continued to stick threat after threat after threat on the board, his token ground team could do nothing against my aerial assault. Game 3 of our little epic war was probably one of the closest and intense games I’ve ever played…ever. Faerie Mechanist played a huge role during this game, netting me cards such as Parasitic or Tidehollow Strix, or equivalently putting 3 irrelevant cards on the bottom of my library, no longer my problem. It was toward the middle of the game, time winding down when I found my first disappointment in this new limited format, Esperzoa. My board was Parasitic Strix, Tidehollow Strix, and then I played Esperzoa, planning on simply drain lifing my opponent for 2 a turn with the Parasitic. Jon allows it to resolve and then he simply casts an EOT Magma Spray on my Parasitic. Now this really does set me back quite a bit in my attempts to race the wooberg deck, because instead of bashing for 6 in the air and drain lifing for 2 a turn, I’m now bashing for 4 (the ‘zoa) and spending mana on a creature that doesn’t have a useful CIPT effect (the tidehollow). Additionally, this doesn’t allow me to continue to gain life with the Strix, which in turn would’ve been a great help in the later rounds. However great this tempo loss was for me, I was actually ahead on life when we went to turns. My board is a few fliers and a Salvage Slasher, totaling to about 3 turn clock, with Jon’s being some Saproling tokens and a fatty putting me also on a 3 turn clock. I then play a Parasitic Strix and give Jon a 2 turn clock, while boosting myself up to 11 life, effectively out of range for now. It is the third turn when Jon plays Dragonsoul Knight, with the full WUBRG also available to him and I now saw myself not being able to take this down. My last turn of the game rolls around and after studying the board and my hand for quite some time, I concede, the tokens and the power of wooberg was just too much for me. I then try to think of what I could’ve done differently then look at my board and realize I’d been playing with no white mana the whole game, I look at my hand one more time and it reveals a Court Homunculus, an Aven Trailblazer, and a Celestial Purge.
For the rest of that day I wasn’t really that interested in drafting more, as I was both broke and exhausted from the day, and I wanted a bit of energy for the second round of prereleases the next day. It wasn’t until my good friend JR came in wanting to draft some more that I actually sat down and watched a draft. I was quickly interested in what JR thought of the new limited format as he is a pretty established player in my area (Indianapolis). I was quick to come to the conclusion that JR had a few favorite critters from this set, all coming from the cute and cuddly Grixis shard, Brackwater Elemental, Sedraxis Alchemist, and Grixis Slavedriver. It wasn’t until I actually watched JR play a few games with this tempo Grixis list he had amassed that I was sure that this will also become a major archetype in the coming limited format.
Brackwater Elemental is one of those little sleepers in a set that I don’t think too many people pick up on right away. First off, its drawback is exactly that, a drawback, but the fact that it’s a 4/4 for 3 with unearth is still not nearly enough to warrant the dismissal of this card. I’ll explain it a bit better, if your opponent is on the play and they have a turn 2 Goblin Outlander followed by a turn 3 Ember Weaver they are in pretty good shape. However, if you have your own turn 3 Brackwater Elemental, the board is now in a state where the Jund player will only attack with the Goblin while leaving the Ember Weaver back. Because lets face it, you don’t want to lose your good creature to something that will die the moment it does something, right? This is a huge tempo swing in favor of the blue mage and it is these same tempo swings that take the Grixis tempo deck to victory
So how was the rest of my prerelease weekend? Super Bowl Sunday started off with me sitting down to draft a deck pretty similar to JR’s the night before. This deck had 2 Brackwaters, a couple Zombie Outlander (gotta love 2 drops that can block thrinaxes and thoctars all day), an Infectious Horror, and some decent removal. I sit down for the first round against playtesting partner and fellow PTQ’er BJ, who had drafted into the Esper shard. Game 1 I never really got into the game as I mulligan to 6 and he curved pretty good with a turn 1 Homunculus, turn 2 Glaze Fiend, turn 3 Parasitic Strix, turn 4 Esper Cormorants. Game 2 I decide to keep a pretty slow draw on the play and it is him this time that has to mulligan. He goes down to 6 and still gets mana screwed eventually, I land a turn 4 Infectious Horror with a turn 5 Maniacal Rage and starting swing for the fences, by about the 7th or 8th turn time is called (I honestly can’t tell you how much I hate 40 min. rounds) and I just give the match to him. I thought that this draft deck was pretty decent, and definitely deserved more games and thought, but there wasn’t much we could do.
I guess it wasn’t until this final draft of the weekend that I actually began to play like someone who pays attention to the limited format. My first pack showed me Voracious Dragon of which I took, as I’m a fan of both fliers and devour. As the draft went on (which was triple Conflux by the way) I fell into a Naya theme, with the highlights of my deck being 2 Scattershot Archers, 2 Toxic Iguanar, Ember Weaver, 2 Quenchable Fires, Voracious Dragon, and a Wild Leotau.
For the first round of the draft I was paired up against Tim, who had drafted a pretty versatile Bant-type deck, ranging from early flyers such as Aven Trailblazers to a decent late game with some fatties to top it off. Game 1 begins with me on the play and getting both of my Scattershot Archers into play pretty early. Additionally, my curve continues to get better with a turn 3 Paragon of the Amesha, all the while Tim’s fliers chipping at my life total. This stopped abruptly when I land an Ember Weaver to effectively clog up both the ground and the air putting us into a stalemate. After some debate concerning Domain I am able to clear Tim’s board via some teamwork with the Archers and the Weaver, the road to victory was rudimentary from there.
Game 2 Tim suffered pretty severe mana issues and wasn’t really able to mount much of an attack, Quenchable Fire really helped out as he was able to stabilize at about 9 life or so, and coupled Wild Leotau and the ever faithful Ember Weaver meant that I was on to the second round.
Round 2 of this draft matched me up against John, a constant at my FNM but someone I’d never had to play or actually gotten to meet before. My memory is a bit hazy on a lot of the details, but I remember him playing a Naya-ish build splashing for black for some removal I think. Game 1 I build a fast clock with a Paragon of the Amesha and threaten the big beats with a Kaleidostone on the field as well. After hitting one of my Quenchable Fires on him he is down to about 7, myself at 8. I then reset my life by gaining 8 life from Sylvan Bounty (great card in both the early and late game) to gain some time as he was gathering quite a board position. I then untap, pop the Kaleidostone and bash with the transformed Paragon, putting him down to 2. A few turns go by and his fliers started hitting chipping away at my life but it was all moot when I draw the uncounterable Volcanic Fallout and burn his dome for 2.
Game 2 was pretty quick as I curve out really good with a turn 1 scattershot Archer, a turn 2 Valeron Outlander and a turn 3 Paragon of the Amesha. The game ends even quicker after I find both of my Quenchable Fires, one of which hitting for the full 6 damage.
The final round of the final draft of this prerelease weekend saw me paired up in the mirror match facing down Danny, a pretty experienced drafter. Game 1 I fell behind pretty quickly when he got a Rakka Mar and a Kranioceros on the board together. However, the tide quickly changed when I was able to Magma Spray the Rakka Mar removing that threat from the game permanently. Additionally, my opponent made the costly error of attacking with his Kranioceros before noticing that my Toxic Iguanar had gained deathtouch due to the Rhox Bodyguard(great blocker, adds offense with Exalted and the 3 life can be very relavent) on the board. After this play mistake it took no time for my Aven Trailblazer and Squire to send this match to Game 2.
The second game of this epic finals match saw many red cards being cast down on my part, as a turn 1 Toxic Iguanar allowed me to get in some early beats along with a turn 2 Aven Squire (which is noticeably not red). After the board had stabilized double Quenchable Fires for the full 12 damage was more than enough to give me the match. 8 mana for 12 damage to the face is pretty good I hear these days.
Limited looks to have really changed quite a bit with the arrival of Conflux. And yes, I know that triple Conflux is more than the usual but the principle and theory is still the same in many ways. Mono-colored fatties such as Wild Leotau (a common no less) allow for aggressive strategies to get quicker beats in earlier instead of having to wait for that 5-7 land or to rely on subpar acceleration. No shard is left out of the mix as all of the major archetypes are given new toys and tricks to play around with. Green is once again given a big lift with the addition of Ember Weaver (also a common) giving any deck that runs green a much better chance when faced with a bunch of fliers. The 2cc slot is also starting to mesh out much better as the protection bears can really help both the early and late game as excellent blockers and getting in that extra bit of damage. Cards such as Parasitic Strix, Absorb Vis and Brackwater Elemental allow for many different decks to play the tempo game, giving multiple archetypes the edge needed for winning.
One of the strategies that surprised me most during my plethora of drafting of the weekend was wooberg (WUBRG) and domain in general. Cards such as Paragon of the Amesha and Dragonsoul Knight add both early offense and late game reach to decks with their WUBRG ability. However, the awesomeness that is wooberg could only exist now that we have all the mana fixing one could want in this format.
Shards of Alara limited left something to be desired, and I think the fact that there is so much effective fixing in Conflux is a testament to the hard work R&D puts in. Rupture Spire immediately comes to mind, and in the common slot it really helps a ton. Mana Cylix also does its job acting as a filter, Kaleidostone as pure draw and enabling the awesome wooberg powers, and Exploding Borders giving your opponent burn to the face and accelerating you. One card I’d like to talk about in particular though is Shard Convergence. At four mana, it’s not real cheap, but then again you’re going to get 4 lands, ensuring that you’re not color screwed (assuming you don’t need GG). It allows you to completely fill out your land base to maximize Domain, it thins your deck pretty effectively and also makes sure you’ll hit your land drops. When you’re behind this card isn’t that great in my opinion because it isn’t doing anything directly that will get you back into the game, minus fixing your; however, I still think that this card will be a major player in the coming limited format.
All in all I had a great time this weekend at my local prerelease, and I am definitely looking forward to Alara Reborn’s in just under a couple of months. Until then I will continue to enjoy my Conflux drafting, and the awesome powers of wooberg. I hope everyone enjoyed this article, and will join me next week when I go over what I’m testing for GP Chicago, and how the metagame for this epic event is shaping up.