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By: oraymw, Matthew Watkins
Jul 25 2012 8:30am
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Welcome back to Ars Arcanum. In this installment, we’ll be taking a look at data from hundreds of Onslaught Block draft decks. This article, like most of my articles, will have a section analyzing the speed of the format, along with sections dealing with archetypes. We’ll look at the best color in the format, as well as analyze why that color is performing so well. We’ll also take a look at the best archetypes in the format.

The first question I’d like to answer preemptively is “Why are you covering OLS, if it is going to be down by the time your article goes up?” This is a very good question. Normally, I like my articles to be relevant when they go up. Last week, I made an exception by covering the MTGO Cube. This week, I’m making an exception for several reasons. First, because I put so much work into my study on the MTGO Cube, I wasn’t able to cover OLS last week, and I’d like a chance to approach it. Second, the format will assuredly come back at some point in the future, and I will then link readers to this article. Third, because this is the dead time in between the paper release of M13 and its online release, I need something to talk about. AVR is sort of a dead format now that M13 is going to be released, and I wanted to put out something that is worth reading. I also thought about covering a constructed format, but I need to work out the best method for doing a study on constructed. The differences between constructed and limited are significant, especially when doing the kind of study that I normally do for my articles. Fourth, I was able to learn some interesting things about limited Magic in general, and I’d like to share those findings. Finally, I’d like to be able to eventually cover every block as it is released, and this seemed like the best week to do this study, since I’ll be able to dedicate the next few weeks to working on M13. If you are looking for something to help to prepare for the M13 MTGO Prerelease, I can point you to the primer article I did on the format, which you can find here

For the past two weeks, MTGO has had Onslaught, Legions, Scourge 4322 drafts. The prizes for the Cube drafts, which we covered last week, were given out in OLS packs, and these queues provided an opportunity to draft those prize packs. It has been a long time since I drafted OLS. When I got MTGO I was in High School, and Onslaught was the current draft format. Because of this, I drafted the set pretty heavily, all through the release of Scourge. However, in that time, I was a lot worse a limited Magic, and I can see some huge differences in the way I play the game now. I also won a lot more this time around than I did back then. For this study, I sat down and watched hundreds of OLS decks in action and took notes, and it was an interesting dose of nostalgia. I did see that Magic has come a long way since OLS; we don’t have to deal with Sparksmith level cards at common any more, and the changes that have been made have greatly benefited the game. With that said, Onslaught was the first set to really try to change the focus in Magic from spells to creatures, and the roots of those changes can still be felt today. A lot of the things we see from OLS apply directly to modern limited.

OLS Speed

Ending Turn of OLS games as compared with AVR


In this chart, we see that OLS tends to be about two full turns behind AVR. Because AVR was a fairly fast format, we can see that OLS ends up being near the middle of sets in regard to speed. It is a little bit slower than the average, but not much. It would be difficult to find a format with a more balanced speed. This means that in OLS it is important to pay attention to the early game, just like in most formats, since you need to have creatures on the battlefield in order to leverage a tempo advantage against your opponent, but you cannot sacrifice your late game, since there are plenty of powerful cards that cost six or seven mana, and you need to get these in order to close out a game.

In fact, it is a little bit extraordinary how average OLS ends up being, and this is largely the result of three factors. The first is Morph, which was one of the main mechanics of the set. You can play a creature with Morph face down for 3 mana. Face down creatures are 2/2 and are colorless, with no creature types. Because of this, every deck in the format tends to have a relevant play to make on turn three, since they can at least play a 3 mana 2/2. The second factor is Cycling, which allows you to pay a typically small cost at instant speed to discard the card with cycling and draw another card. This means that you can exchange expensive cards in the early game to find something cheap to play, or you can exchange something cheap in the late game for something more impactful. Like Morph, this mechanic gives every deck a lot of ways to use their mana to do something relevant. The third factor is that OLS has the highest average number of creatures at common out of any other format in Magic’s history, in large part due to the fact that Legions was a set made up entirely of creatures, but it is complemented by the fact that Onslaught has a higher than average number of creatures. Because creatures tend to be playable more often, decks in this format tend to have a lot of playables, since they can always through in a morph creature as their 23rd card. All of these factors together conspire to make OLS decks have a relatively high bottom end. In other words, every deck is able to find enough playables to be decent. All three factors make it so that the set is perhaps the most average set in the game.

Because of this tight balance between the early game and the late game, OLS is a very tempo oriented environment. Over and over, I saw that the decks that won were often the decks that were best able to make use of their mana throughout the game. Between playing morphs, unmorphing them, or cycling, most decks have something they can be doing with their mana at every turn of the game. This means that it is especially important that players be squeezing as much value out of their mana as possible. Zombie Cutthroat has often been touted as a powerful card because of its ability to surprise creatures by suddenly turning into a large creature, which often results in a two-for-one, but it’s most important feature is the dramatic tempo gain you get by not having to pay for the unmorph cost. Landcyclers, like Twisted Abomination or Chartooth Cougar are vital to the format, because they let these mana hungry decks find land early on, while still providing a powerful effect in the late game. The Warchief cycle can also be powerful in this set, since it allows you to play expensive creatures at a significant discount, which gains you a huge tempo advantage since you are doing more powerful things than your opponent at an earlier stage of the game.

In the next section, we’ll see some fascinating data about the strength and popularity of the colors in the format.


Colors in OLS








Average Wins












In this table, we see the Win Percentages and Popularity for each color. The first thing that should be noted is that only one color has a better than 50% win rate, and that is black at 59%. However, it is also only the 4th most popular color. Red also manages to squeak in with about a 50% win rate. Of all the studies I have done, this is the most dominating performance by any color. Even in AVR, where UG dominated the format to an extreme degree, both Blue and Green had lower than a 59% win rate.

When I saw this data, I knew that there was something strange going on, so I decided to look into it a little bit deeper. It simply doesn’t make sense that the strongest color would be so unpopular as a deck choice, unless something very strange was going on. To figure this out, I went back to old Pro Tour coverage of triple Onslaught draft and also coverage of Onslaught/Legions/Scourge, and I found out some truly fascinating details.

When Onslaught was first released, the clear frontrunners as the best colors were Red and White. Both colors got a lot of powerful commons, like Sparksmith, (Lavamancer’s Skill), Shock, or Solar Blast in red, or Battlefield Medic, Daru Lancer, Dive Bomber, or Pacifism in white. RW quickly became the most popular deck in the format, followed closely by RG, though there was also a very popular WB clerics deck, though that deck leaned more heavily on the white half of the deck. Green also got a few cards that popularly formed the base of a lot of decks, since its creatures were so efficient. Cards like Barkhide Mauler, Elvish Warrior, Krosan Tusker, Snarling Undorak, and Spitting Gourna were exceptionally strong in the format. On top of this, green had exceptional roleplayers, like Wellwisher, Wirewood Elf, or Wirewood Savage. From the coverage, it appears that the colors soon became ranked in order of power as Red, White, and Green as the best colors respectively, with Black coming up behind, and Blue being the generally avoided color. When I compared this list with the numbers from above, I was intrigued. This order, the general consensus during triple Onslaught draft, matches exactly the color popularity from the chart above.

However, things changed with the release of Legions and Scourge. Red and White had been dominating, but both of those colors were a little bit neutered in the next two sets. Meanwhile, Black and Green got exceptional goodies in Legions, while Black and Blue got some nice goodies in Scourge. Suddenly, Black was getting Skinthinner and many other efficient cards in Legions, and then it got powerhouse cards like Twisted Abomination, Zombie Cutthroat, Clutch of Undeath, and Reaping the Graves in Scourge. At the end of the full block draft format, Black was considered as one of the consensus best colors, generally right in line with Red.

This has a notable impact on people drafting OLS for the first time now. Most people that are hopping into the queues were not playing at that time, so they don’t know the history of the block, and even those like me that were drafting competitively at the time often do not remember all the particulars about how the format changed over time. What happens now is that people see the cards that they are getting in Onslaught, and they tend to be attracted to the colors that were so good in triple Onslaught: Red, White, and Green. Through the first pack, they get several powerful cards in those colors, and they decide to solidify their strategy around those colors. They are passing along a lot of the mediocre black commons in favor of these colors, so that one or two drafters end up solidified in black going into the Legions packs. What these players don’t realize is that there is going to be a sudden influx of powerful black cards in the next two packs, and most players are not positioned well to capitalize on this phenomenon. Essentially, people are severely underdrafting the strongest color in the set, simply because they do not know how much stronger it is going to get. Those few who managed to stick in black during the Onslaught pack are suddenly getting a wealth of powerful cards. They are in the best color in the set, and they aren’t even having to fight over their color’s best commons.

 One of the biggest things to learn from this is that people tend to be overly attached to the cards they pick up early in a draft. Players tend to put too much emphasis on the power level of cards they pick up in the first few picks of the first pack, and that overevaluation tends to skew the way they view cards for the rest of the draft. This is frequently known as “marrying your first pick” and this definitely shows that it is common, especially among people drafting OLS for the first time. It also shows that understanding how format changes going into packs 2 and 3 can give you a significant benefit over your opponents.

In the next section, we’ll be looking at the two color archetypes that are performing the best in OLS.


Archetypes in OLS

OLS Two-Color Archetype Popularity

OLS Two-Color Archetype Win Ratios

In the above charts, we see the win ratios and popularity of the two-color archetypes in OLS. Of note, there were a few archetypes that did not have enough representation for statistical relevance, specifically UG and UB, and both of those decks were put into the Other category. Also, there were a decent number of Mono-Colored decks spread out across all five colors, which were also put into the Other category. It should be noted that more than half of the wins in the Other category came from UB and Mono B, while those decks only represented about a third of the Other category by popularity.

First of all, we that RG is by far the most popular deck in the format, which is probably due to the powerful Red commons in Onslaught, backed up by Green’s stability for power level throughout the entire set. Next up is WB, which was also one of the most popular decks in the format back in the days of triple Onslaught. Then the deck popularities drop off rather sharply. Besides seeing that so many people are drafting RG, this chart is relatively uninteresting.

However, the win ratio chart is fascinating. First, we see that the only archetypes that were able to achieve better than a 50% win rate were the base black decks. BG and BR are extremely dominant here, about as dominant as UG  and RW were in AVR, which is actually a rarity. All of this data supports the idea that Black is the very best color in the format, but that it is being seriously underdrafted.

The second fascinating part of this chart comes when we look at the spread of the other decks. Between RW and WU, we see a very flat difference in win ratios, ending with a spread of a little less than four percentage points. What this means is that, besides the base black decks, every other deck is of about equal power level. This is a direct result of the same factors which led to the format being conspicuously average in the speed section. All the decks in the format have the same base of playable cards between all the morphs and cyclers, as well as the higher percentage of creatures in the block. Because all of the decks in the format have the same base strength, it is hard for any particular deck to come out on top of any of the others. The only way to do so is to capitalize on the powerful black cards that are currently being underdrafted.

Now, let's discuss the best performing archetypes. It isn’t hard to figure out why BR is so powerful. It gets Sparksmith and Shock as well as all of the other awesome red removal, as well as all of the black cards that we saw were so powerful in the context of the environment. But what is surprising is that BG is so dominant. While we’ve seen why the black cards are so good, let’s look a little bit deeper into why green pairs so well with the color of the skull.

One of the things we have learned from this article series is that formats are often defined by what is difficult to obtain, rather than by what is plentiful. In OLS, everyone can get 2/2s for 3. Most decks have a metric ton of options at three mana. Because of this, there are two things that most decks can’t find easily: cheap and efficient creatures or fatties. Green fills out both of these roles. In Onslaught, we see five key creatures at the cheap end. Elvish Warrior is particularly powerful since it can come down for 2 mana, but it still eats everything that your opponent will play on turn 3 and often turn 4. It is one of the best two drops in the format. Green also gets two powerful mana creatures in Birchlore Rangers and Wirewood Elf. The first can be played as a morph if you don’t need the mana, but what makes these creatures so good is that they give you access to more mana at a much faster clip than your opponent. Because OLS is such a mana tight format, these cards give you a significant edge, since you can start playing 3/3s and 4/4s while your opponents are still playing 2/2s. On top of this, green also gets four very powerful fatties in Barkhide Mauler, Krosan Tusker, Snarling Undorak, and Spitting Gourna. Each of these is a powerful creature during the middle stages of the game, but they can also be used for something earlier in the game if you don’t need a fatty. The first two cycle, which can find you lands and fast creatures, while the second two can come down as a morph if you really need them.

This theme continues in Legions. In that set, green gets Stonewood Invoker, which is a 2/2 for 2. Bears are extremely powerful in this format, because they come down on turn two, attack onto an empty board on turn three, and then they are facing down a 2/2 for 3 on turn four. You can attack into it easily, since you have open mana and can often pump your creature. Even if they do trade, you end up with an extra mana of advantage, along with the 2 damage you did earlier. On top of all this, Stonewood Invoker can be a significant threat in the late game, and it also has possibly the most important creature type in the format, because of the next card. Timberwatch Elf is possibly the most format defining common in OLS. Sparksmith is more powerful, but that card is a common in Onslaught, which means that it only shows up about half as often as Timberwatch Elf. This card is one of the most board dominating common creatures every printed. Just giving +1/+1 is often fine, but as soon as you play another elf, it turns into a +2/+2 bonus, which makes all of your creatures be able to fight and trade with pretty much anything, as well as protecting your creatures from most removal. To make it even better, Timberwatch Elf even counts your opponent’s elves, which means that you can often hose the other green decks. In addition to these cards, green gets Krosan Vorine which often doubles as removal, as well as Needleshot Gourna which effectively turns off opposing strategies. Green doesn’t make out as well in Scourge, but it does still get an essential card in Fierce Empath which will often find a Twisted Abomination in the BG deck. Furthermore, Green gets lots of cyclers in all three sets, which pairs exceptionally well with Reaping the Graves which often means that you can craft an overwhelming late game situation.



Here are the key points that we learn from this study:

1. The large number of playables along with the general similarities of cards in the environment means that most decks in OLS will be of an average power level.

2. Mana management is very important in OLS. Morphs and Cyclers have a high demand on mana, and the player that is best able to manage their mana will often be the winner.

3. While Red, White, and Green are the strongest colors in Onslaught, Black is easily the best color in Legions and Scourge.

4. Because of this, players are overdrafting Red, White, and Green, while leaving Black generally open. This creates an incredible opportunity for players to force Black, in order to get the best color without having to fight for their best cards.

5. Onslaught block in particular does not reward players for “marrying their first pick.” Players should be open to switching colors, often even into the middle of the second pack.

6. Blue should generally be avoided, unless you get a series of extremely powerful cards.

Although OLS drafts will be down by the time this article goes up, I hope that reading it will help you better process the experience you had with the environment. Also, I’ll be referencing back to this article the next time OLS comes around. It is likely that many players will not remember the lessons from this block, and that you will be able to capitalize on their mistakes when the environment comes around again.

M13 prereleases start on MTGO this week, so get out there and start figuring out the set. I won’t be able to do a statistical analysis of the format this week, since it is just prereleases, but join me back here at PureMTGO.com or MTGOTraders.com in two weeks when I break down M13. Again, if you want to get a head start on understanding the format, take a look at my M13 Limited Primer.

As always, you can follow me on Twitter @oraymw for updates about articles, or to drop me a comment. I’ve continued to get an overwhelmingly positive response about this series, and I listen carefully to any suggestions for improvements.

Until next time, “Anyone who cannot cope with mathematics is not fully human. At best he is a tolerable sub-human who has learned to wear shoes, bathe, and not make messes in the house." - Robert A. Heinlein

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Wow, is the drawing computer by MichelleIvans at Wed, 04/24/2013 - 21:29
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Wow, is the drawing computer generated or it is by hand? Either way, it is amazing. - J. Kale Flagg