Zen and the Art of Drafting with a Plan
Zendikar is a great set. Its probably my favourite limited format ever, that is since I was reacquisitioned back in Time Spiral. What makes Zendikar such a fun limited set? I think it comes down to three things: bombs, manascrew, and drawn out games, all of which are minimized in Zen. The speed of the format helps greatly, since bombs that don’t impact the board right away don’t have long to take over. There are lots of cheap, fun tricks too. In my experience most games quickly become a race, and this is where tricks are at their best. Even sorcery speed removal can seriously change the math in a race, but when traps and one mana instant-speed removal start getting thrown around blocking becomes a serious risk. All of this combines to make for fast, exciting games where tight play is even more important than usual, as any misstep is instantly capitalized on. Lastly the landfall mechanic does wonders on manascrew and flood, since most decks run more land but are actually happy to draw land in the lategame(wanting to topdeck a land for once is one of my favourite things about Zen, even if landfall isn’t the most skill-testing mechanic). Gone are the days of M10, where games lasted forever and only a handful of spells actually mattered. But enough about how much I love this format, let’s get into how to draft it!
Today I want to talk about Zen, since its the new format and all, but I also like to have some theory in my articles to keep them relevant over time. Therefore I’ll look at all the color combinations of Zen drafting and discuss why we draft decks instead of piles of cards.
When a new set is released there are always a bunch of articles that crop up rating cards and providing pick orders. While this system has its uses for initial evaluation of playability and the approximate relative power level of each card, as soon as real drafting starts these pick orders tend to fall away and become mostly useless. The reason for this is synergy, and generally archetypal drafting. The ol’ saying “you don’t just draft cards, you draft a deck”(or whatever) is apt. When drafting you aren’t taking the best card in your colors every pick, you’re taking the best card *for your deck*. While piles of good cards can work once in a while, the best decks have a plan, and each card serves a purpose to carry out that plan. When deciding between two cards you should be thinking, “what does card A do for my deck, and is it needed more than card B”? A cohesive deck that knows exactly how its going to win is just what you’re looking to draft.
Plans can be broken down into three general types, basically the same as decks: aggro, control, and midrange. Obviously these are very general and there is a lot of cross-over, but it helps to put yourself in one of these categories early on in a draft to maximize every card’s value. Aggro decks plan on killing an opponent as fast as possible, so they want a very low curve with the ability to punch through for the last points of damage before their opponents stabilize. Control decks look to slow the game down with blockers that hold off multiple creatures, then take over with more powerful lategame cards. Midrange decks tend to run more creatures in the middle of the curve that can serve to both attack and block when necessary, and their strength lies in being aggressive or controlling as the situation requires. Card evaluations change wildly depending on which of these types you’re drafting, which is why its very important to identify this early and stick to it, so you don’t end up with a schizophrenic mess.
Let’s first look at each color of Zendikar and what archetype(s) it leans towards, then shortly examine every color combination. As usual I won’t discuss the obviously great or crappy cards, but rather the ones who’s values change greatly depending on your deck’s plan.
Black is the most flexible color, which also tends to leave it a little short on playables. I say this because a lot of its commons are very good, but only in either aggro or control. Cards like Guul Draz Vampire, Vampire Lacerator, and Blood Seeker range from great to solid in aggro, whereas they are barely playable in control. Similarly, Heartstabber(shut up spellcheck Heartstabber is totally a word) Mosquito and Giant Scorpion lose a lot of value in aggro but are premium cards in control. This makes black a swing color, where the second color of your deck decides if you want to be aggro or control.
Lately those sneaky Wizards folk tend to make blue look bad so it takes a while for people to figure out that it is still the best color. Not so with Zendikar, where blue got tons of efficient fliers and great bounce spells, plus a lil’ hatchling house to boot. As usual blue wants to be more controlling, but with the nature of Zendikar its hard to be too slow a control deck, so blue plays more of a tempo game as it stalls the ground and races in the air, bouncing dudes at inopportune times to make life hard for the other guy. Blue can be aggro if paired with a very aggressive color, but it works better as midrange or control.
Still providing fat like no other color can, green is all about the lategame, which makes it either midrange or control. Grazing Gladehart has proven to be Soul Warden on crack plus steroids, and in a tempo-oriented format that makes it a first pick, green’s top common in my opinion. That brings us to Harrow, which combined with Khalni Heart Expedition is the heart of the multicolor/landfall/fatty deck. Nissa’s Chosen is notable as an efficient blocker or attacker that out-muscles most of the 2-3 drops in this format, as well as dodging most of the removal. Three toughness is where its at in Zendikar. Timbermaw Larva is one card I find to be pretty underrated, as in a mostly green deck its easily a 5/5 the first time it attacks, and it only gets bigger.
Aggro is what red was made for, and it really delivers in this set. Red is my pick for best color(followed closely by Blue) as its incredibly deep and high in card quality. It knows what it wants to do and it does it well(“attack” in case you’re uncertain). Red actually has the complete aggro package with tons of early drops, removal/pump and burn to finish, so the second color only needs to provide more of the same. Goblin Bushwacker and Goblin War Paint are two cards that I always want one of in my red decks, as they are great for slapping damage in your opponents face out of nowhere.
White is similar to black in that it has cards that are good in aggro and cards that are good in control. However I have found white aggro to be much, much more effective(barring some crazy Ondu Cleric/Makindi Shieldmate ally concoction). Kor Hookmaster is amazing at swinging the tempo your way, and Nimbus Wings helps finish an opponent off, but white is still looking for a color with stall-breaker potential. Kor Outfitter makes it rather annoying to not have white as your main color, as its “ability” really isn’t worth the awkward mana cost.
On to the color combos!
BG: One of the best color combos for control, black provides some card advantage in Heartstabber Mosquito and Soul Stair Expedition, which is good at returning fatties in this archetype. Green brings the ramp and ability to splash along with the game-ending fat. Both colors have solid three toughness blockers to make sure this deck makes it to stage three.
BR: I’ll just get it out of the way and say that all of the color combos involving red are aggro. This is my favourite aggro deck(tied with RW), due to black’s handy talent for filling out the one drop slot, a skill that red is sorely missing. That combined with the most removal of any color combo makes blocking incredibly difficult. Grim Discovery is decent here, comboing well with Ruinous Minotaur and Magma Rift. Vampire’s Bite is actually playable in this deck(although not desirable), as it acts as a lightning bolt to the face and the lifelink can win tight races.
BU: As usual my favourite color combo, Zen BU does what BU does best and controls. Kraken Hatchling is my bitch-lover, holding down the fort for the low low price of 1 mana. Ior Ruin Expedition is an annoying lategame topdeck, but golden on turn 2 and it should still be fine lategame if you sandbag a couple land. Reckless Scholar provides the usual looting excellence and Giant Scorpion is a great defender, all while your blue fliers are swinging away in the air. Shoal Serpent serves as a fine blocker+finisher.
BW: One of the worst archetypes imho. The curve on this deck is just too low, even for an aggro deck, and I find it has trouble finishing after the initial rush. Therefore you need to take cards that help break through, like auras, equipment (Adventuring Gear, Nimbus Wings) and of course removal. Also I find white and black to be the most shallow colors, so you are often forced to play trash like Mindless Null and Hedron Scrabbler.
UG: Another great control deck, UG drops large blockers as it ramps up and fixes, similar to BG. However along with fatties it swings with fliers, and often plays the tempo game with bounce. This is usually the best deck for Explorer’s Scope, as it works great on Kraken Hatchling, Nissa’s Chosen and Welkin Turn. A short sidenote on this card since it is proving extremely difficult to evaluate: I find its decent in aggro decks with some landfall, close to unplayable in control decks, and it really shines in decks with early evasion as well as landfall.
UR: This is the most tempo-oriented archetype, using both bounce and removal to keep the opponent from having many creatures on the board at once. Somewhere between aggro and midrange, UR has early ground pounders before the fliers take over in the air. Whiplash Trap and Into the Roil are at a premium here topping off the curve nicely.
UW: Has a solid midrange/tempo plan, with Kraken Hatchling and Makindi Shieldmate stalling the ground while the blue fliers race in the air. Again the bounce spells are great, and Paralyzing Grasp goes up in value to make up for the lack of removal in white. Sky Ruin Drake is great at holding off attackers until its time to start taking chunks out of your opponent’s life. Kor Cartographer is noteworthy as it not only provides the usual landfall pump, but also works with Ior Ruin Expedition and Reckless Scholar to make use of that extra land.
GR: Honestly I haven’t had much experience with this archetype, and even less success. It feels like the colors are pulling in two different directions and never really find a middle ground. Soaring Seacliff is at its best here, letting Ruinous Minotaur and various green fatties connect. I’m not a huge fan of Vines of Vastwood, but this seems like the place for it if any.
GW: The other deck that might want Vines of Vastwood, GW in Zen doesn’t come close to its Shards block heights. It doesn’t quite have the curve and followup for aggro, while control is a problem without any evasion and little removal. Similar to GR but with less removal, all of your guys end up sitting on the ground watching the evasion fly past. Not a deck I would strongly recommend.
RW: Finally we come to my other favourite aggro deck. RW makes the best use of all of white’s bounce spells, using Kor Skyfisher and Narrow Escape to get even more value of out Kor Hookmaster, Goblin Shortcutter, Kor Sanctifiers, Torch Slinger and even Goblin Bushwackers. White also provides a nice redundancy in bears to make sure this deck always has 6-8 two drops. All that combined with Steppe Lynx in the one slot make this archetype hard to beat in any stage of the game.
At first I didn’t think allies would be possible in this format. With so few at common, and none of them really providing enough incentive to play the bad ones, it seemed you couldn’t really draft an effective common allies deck. However, the incentive to draft allies really comes in the rare and uncommon slots. This means you probably don’t want to start picking up allies unusually high unless you either find yourself with a ton in pack 2 or 3, or you open a really good one that needs support. As with any linear mechanic, ally’s values also greatly depend on how popular they are at your draft table. More being passed around means more for your deck, and the more the merrier.
One of the big problems with allies is that they rely on other allies to still be in play when you cast them. In a slower format that wouldn’t be a huge problem, but in Zendikar you don’t have time to sit around waiting to draw one more ally. More often than not games come down to racing, which means you’ll have to trade your guys a lot if you want to stay alive. Allies would be much stronger in a slower format where you have time to draw into more allies. Overall I’m not impressed but I admit it is possible to draft a sick ally deck if all the pieces come together.
That winds up my first look at Zendikar limited. Feedback is very much appreciated as usual, and I hope you’re having as much fun drafting this format as I am!
Tune in next time — same Pratt-time, same Pratt-channel. (I’m sorry I really couldn’t resist, I just started rewatching those. Adam West is simply stunning.)
(Jester123 on MTGO and Magic-League)