oraymw's picture
By: oraymw, Matthew Watkins
Oct 25 2012 1:13pm
Login or register to post comments


Welcome back to Ars Arcanum, the MTGO stats-based column. In this installment, we’ll be digging deep in to Return to Ravnica. We’ll see the speed of the format, how the guilds compared to each other, and how splashing a third color affects your win percentage.

For my in depth overviews of recently released sets, I typically pick up a few new readers, so welcome if you haven’t read my articles before. In this column, I take an empirical approach to analyzing MTG limited formats. In this study, I watched nearly 600 draft decks from Return to Ravnica and recorded various data points. I then discuss each of those points and provide handy graphs to help you figure out the best strategies in the format. The data for this article is taken from 64-person drafts on MTGO from the dates of 10/19/12 to 10/21/12.

I’ve truly been excited for the online release of Return to Ravnica. About a month ago, I put together this article discussing the Return to Ravnica spoiler, discussing my thoughts on where the format would be headed, based only on what I could divine by crunching the numbers of the cards in the set. It’s been a tense wait to see which of my predictions would hold up after a statistical analysis. Furthermore, I’ve been drafting a lot of this set. The entire conceit of a planar city with ten guilds touches my fancy in a profound way, and I love the complexity of interactions that comes from mixing colors and guilds in different layers. For those reasons, I’ve been very excited to take a look at the set.

One thing to note is that I did end up watching more about 80 more matches than usual for this article. This is because I wanted to gather statistically relevant data on the different options for splashing in the environment. In order to get big enough numbers in each category, I had to watch a few extra 64-person drafts, but it also gave me an incredibly rich set of data which we can use to our advantage.

Let’s jump into the numbers.


Ending Turn of Return to Ravnica Draft Games

Ending Turn of Return to Ravnica Draft Games compared with M13 and AVR

These charts show the ending turn of draft games in Return to Ravnica. For the newcomers, I track the speed of a format by recording when the games are ending, and then comparing that data against other sets, in order to get a general baseline for the speed of the format. It is very typical for the bulk of turns to end between turns seven and ten. In fact, there are twice as many games that end between seven and ten as the games that end at eleven or higher. Furthermore, there are six times as many games that end between seven and ten as end at turn six or earlier. Overall, a game is 50% more likely to end between turns seven and ten as on any other turn in the game.

These charts do also give us a few specifics about RTR. Of note, this is not a particularly fast format. It isn’t as slow as some of the older formats I’ve studied, and it certainly isn’t as slow as RGD was, but it is also a bit slower than AVR, which has basically become my standard for a fast format. In fact, RTR doesn’t even come close to approaching the speed of AVR. As the set was being spoiled, I heard several players speculating that the format would be relatively fast, based on the power of unleashed Rakdos creatures, but the fact is that these level of creatures aren’t spread through enough of the set to drive down the average ending turn.

The most interesting part of these two charts is to compare the numbers between RTR and M13. Before the release of RTR, I had pointed to M13 as having the most average speed of all the formats I had surveyed. RTR turns out to be just a little bit slower than M13 overall, which tells us that it is slightly slow. We see that it lags behind M13 in the middle turns, but jumps ahead on turn eleven, and then hangs more or less in the same place for the rest of our numbers. In RTR, you should expect to reach six mana in most of your games, and seven mana in the majority. Eight mana is a stretch, though there is enough ramp in Axebane Guardian or the Keyrunes to build a deck that makes it to eight mana regularly.

What exactly is making this format slow? It seems like it would be fast, considering the high power of Rakdos and Selesnya creatures, as well as the multitude of powerful tempo plays in White and Blue. There are a few factors at work that all contribute to slowing down the environment. First, we see two key aggressive decks in the format; Rakdos and some forms of Selesnya. Both of these are able to put out three power creatures early on in the game. The problem is that every guild gets several creatures that are able to block a 3/3 effectively. Doorkeeper, Frostburn Weird, Lobber Crew, Perilous Shadow, Towering Indrik, Trestle Troll, Voidwielder, and Hussar Patrol are all commons that can put up serious obstacles in the way of an aggressive Selesnya or Rakdos deck. If a deck gets these creatures online early, their opponent is going to need to start using removal to clear the way. This is very important because any turn a player spends on a removal spell, they are not adding a threat to the board. Soon, the slower decks can land a Voidwielder that halts an assault, or a Towering Indrik that just sticks. The second major problem is mana. This format is fairly mana intensive. Many players try to stick to only two colors, but the multicolor nature of the set often means that you are forced to stretch your mana base to a third color, often by using Gates, Transguild Promenade, or Keyrunes to make your mana more consistent. These cards usually force aggressive decks to play a little bit suboptimally in the early games when they don’t get their ideal hand. The most important problem is just the mana curve. While there isn’t necessarily a shortage of two drops, most of those cards are just not all that good. There are just so many great cards with 3 or 4 toughness that a 2 mana 2/2 just isn’t going to be able to attack profitably on most boards. The aggressive decks tend to rely much more on creatures with three power, that typically cost three mana. But this means giving your opponent that one extra turn that allows them to build up defenses.

This isn’t to say that aggressive decks aren’t good. In fact, the well-tuned Rakdos deck is probably just the best deck in the format. However, there are a lot of people fighting over a fairly small set of aggressive cards, and those decks need a fairly specific mana curve in order to consistently kill their opponents before they are able to assemble powerful attrition engines that take over the game. If you end up fighting over one of the aggressive decks, then you are going to have a hard time carrying out your plan. It is important to pick up tools to fight a powerful aggressive deck, but it is equally important to have the cards in your deck to deal with a stalled out board in the midgame.

Guilds in Return to Ravnica

Guild Popularity in Return to Ravnica

Guild Win Rate in Return to Ravnica

Anyone who has spent some amount of time drafting Return to Ravnica should not be at all surprised by the Guild popularity chart from above. We see Selesnya and Rakdos easily getting the first two spots, which is expected since they are perceived as the two most powerful guilds. Azorius and Golgari come up next, with Izzet trailing the pack. Izzet is generally perceived as being the worst of the five guilds, so it is no surprise to see that it is getting drafted at about half the rate of Selesnya. It’s worth noting that this data suggests that a typical eight person draft will have two Selesnya decks, two Rakdos decks, and then three decks in some combination of Azorius and Golgari, followed by a single Izzet deck.

Most people are going to jump straight to the data for Izzet in this chart, and I’ll spend a little bit of time discussing why it is there, but first I need to talk a little bit about Selesnya. The Selesnya deck got a win rate of 56.9%, which made it the best performing guild in the format. It is worth noting that a 57% win rate is actually not all that high for the best performing deck in a format. Normally, we expect such decks to get 60% or more. Furthermore, our lowest guild still maintains a 44% win rate, which is very good for the worst deck in a format. Normally, we are expecting something more like 38%. Like M13, this format is very well balanced between all of the colors and color combinations. Every guild has the potential to win a draft, which means that it is especially important to pay close attention to signals throughout a draft.

In my RTR Prerelease Primer article I correctly predicted that Selesnya would be the best performing deck in the format. Several pros had the same thoughts about the format, so its performance in this study is not exactly a surprise. However, I noticed that many players did not realize this when they went into the prerelease. At my own local game store, I went on Thursday to preregister for the Saturday prerelease. I went in hoping to get a spot playing Selesnya, but I didn’t have to worry. Although all of the other guilds had been taken, there were still plenty of spots for Selesnya, and it was the only guild that wasn’t sold out in the prerelease. By the time I got to the top tables in the tournament, the secret was out. There were eight people that played for the 4-0 position, and four of us had GW decks, and three of the Selesnya decks won that round.

There are several reasons why Selesnya is so good in this format. The first is because of Populate. The tokens in this format are large and relevant. I had correctly predicted that there would be enough tokens to make Selesnya strong, but what I didn’t realize was that it really doesn’t take that many token producers to make a viable Populate deck. You only really need one 2/2 or 3/3 to stick on the board in order to turn on your populate, and since the removal in this format is fairly sparse, it isn’t too hard to get a 3/3 on the board and have it survive until your next turn. The second reason is because of what we saw in the speed section of this article; this format is slightly slow, and tends to stall out a little bit in the midgame. The populate deck takes a little bit of time to get running, but it will take over a game in only a few turns once you get a token engine going. The overall speed of the format is highly conducive to this type of deck. The third reason is that the Green and White cards that have nothing to do with tokens are still quite strong. Centaur Healer is one of the most efficient common creatures that I’ve ever seen. Common Bond and Giant Growth are particularly powerful in a format with a lot of creature battles and a low amount of removal. Drudge Beetle is one of the best two drops in the format. Gatecreeper Vine and Axebane Guardian are two essential commons, and they both help power out impactful cards in the late game. Even Selesnya Sentry and Stonefare Crocodile are very useful, since they have 3 power, which lets them trade with a significant number of early game threats. The fourth reason is that Selesnya also lends itself to a good aggressive deck. If you get Call of the Conclave into Centaur Healer into Common Bond, then you are going to put serious pressure on your opponent, and they will likely never come back.

The next guild that we need to talk about is Rakdos. Over the last weekend, Lee Sharpe pulled some data from all the 8-4 RTR drafts on MTGO over the course of a couple of days, and the coverage team at Pro Tour RTR shared some of the data with us. That data showed that Rakdos was the second most winning guild. However, in this study we saw that Rakdos only picked up a 49% win rate, and that it came in behind Izzet, which was the second to worst performing guild according to Lee Sharpe’s data. There are a few reasons why these two sets of data are different. First, his data comes earlier in the format. He took his data from the 17th to the 19th of October, while I took my data from the 19th and 20th of October. Formats can shift over the course of a couple of days, especially when Pro Tour coverage is going on, and people can start to get an idea of how the pros are drafting a format. Second, his data comes from 8-4 drafts, while mine comes from 64-person drafts. The 64-person drafts have a bigger prize, but they also require you to go undefeated just to get any prizes. The players in the 64-person draft are trying to be a little bit more conservative in their deckbuilding. This means that they are more likely to stick to a proven archetype, like Rakdos, instead of experimenting in other places. If more players are drafting Rakdos, then it is going to be a little bit overdrafted, and its win rate will go down a little bit. This is especially important for Rakdos. While it is a very powerful deck, it also requires you to get a high density of powerful creatures on the lower end of the curve. If you can’t get enough Splatter Thugs or Dead Revelers, then you are not going to have a consistent enough early game to put up a high win rate. Instead, these decks are going to get into the midgame, their opponent is still going to be alive, and then their opponent will start doing more powerful things like spewing out a bunch of tokens. Another problem is the fact that Rakdos has so much potential power. I’ve frequently stated that Magic players tend to have a hard time differentiating between decks with high power and decks that are going to win games. When these players are trying to pick something in a competitive 64-man draft, they are likely going to focus on doing powerful things rather than picking up the deck that is getting passed to them. This is not to say that Rakdos decks aren’t very good; I still think that it is the second best guild in the format, but I suspect that it is more susceptible to overdrafting than the Selesnya deck, since there aren’t quite enough early game pieces going around in every draft.

The big surprise here is with the Izzet deck. Most players that I have talked to agree that Izzet is the worst guild in the format. In my last article on Return to Ravnica, I also predicted that Izzet would be the worst guild. However, in this study we see that Izzet is the second best performing guild, and that it is one of only two guilds that were able to get more than a 50% win rate. I think that there are two main reasons why we see this. First, people are starting to figure out how to put together a good Izzet deck. I have seen two main ways to play Izzet; one is a control strategy that uses Doorkeeper and Lobber Crew to stop an early game assault, good removal spells to take out key creatures, and then keeps the board clear with counterspells like Essence Backlash. However, the more powerful version of Izzet is a tempo deck. Typically, this deck puts down a few powerful offensive creatures, and then tries to get in with those cards just enough times to deal 20 to 25 damage. Usually these decks rely on Stealer of SecretsCobblebrute, and Frostburn Weird as their main offensive threats. The idea is that they will play removal, like Annihilating Fire, or tempo spells like Voidwielder, to clear the board at key moments to attack with the Cobblebrute or Stealer of Secrets. The opponent will think they are in a safe position, but suddenly you will be taking out half their life total, or refilling your hand with the Stealer of Secrets. Then the deck will typically enter a stalled out late game, where the opponent is forced to hold back more creatures in case the Izzet deck draws more removal. At that point, the Izzet deck is typically looking for a Teleportal or a Blustersquall to close out the a stalled board. If the opponent is still alive, they will typically be below five life, and the Izzet player will often draw an Explosive Impact to seal the game. These decks aren’t trying to get in with offensive creatures over and over. Instead, I’ve seen them play a Cobblebrute, only get in with it two times off of a couple of Overload spells, and then just “accidentally” win the game.

These decks can often be quiet strong against both Selesnya and Rakdos. The Selesnya deck will often try to build up an overwhelming attrition advantage in the midgame, but Izzet can often steal away a game with either Teleportal or Blustersquall since either spell doesn’t really care what your opponent has on the board. Izzet is even stronger against the Rakdos deck. Cards like Frostburn Weird, Lobber Crew, or Voidwielderall have four toughness, and are good at stopping the 3 power Rakdos attackers. Meanwhile, the Rakdos deck often can’t block very efficiently, which means that you can get in key attacks with Stealer of Secrets or Cobblebrute a little more easily.

The problem with Izzet decks is that they play much more like Combo decks than anything else. They attack from a significantly different angle than any of the other decks in the format. They also require a specific set of cards in order to function properly. If you draw all of your tempo spells, but none of your key attackers, then you won’t be able to deal damage at key points of the game. If you don’t draw your Overload spells at key moments, then you won’t be able to win before your opponent gets overwhelming card advantage. Also, the deck sometimes gets bogged down with the opponent at 5 life, and is just hoping to draw an Explosive Impact, but just never sees it in time.

The best three commons for this deck are Voidwielder, Annihilating Fire, and Splatter Thug. These cards allow you to put much more pressure on your opponent early on, which means that the late game gets a little bit easier, since you are more likely to be able to attack for the key amount. The other key creatures that I’ve seen from the deck are Frostburn Weird, Cobblebrute, and Stealer of Secrets. Each of these can be very powerful attackers. When the Izzet deck gets an opening for an attack, it really wants to hit with something that has high impact, which is something that each of these creatures does. The other thing these creatures do well is change the way your opponent can attack. The Izzet deck desperately needs to be able to change roles between offense and defense on a dime. It wants to get a few key attacks in early, and then play a waiting game until it draws a game winning Overload spell. Frostburn Weird is important because it is a powerful defensive creature that can block all of the most relevant threats in the format. Cobblebrute can also block these cards and trade, which means that it will often hold back your opponent’s creatures for a turn or two. Stealer of Secrets can threaten to turn around a game entirely whenever it attacks, which means that your opponent will usually have to hold back a blocker for it, and possibly two if they expect you to have a removal spell. Because of these qualities, these creatures force the game to slow down a little bit in the midgame while you try to draw your kill spells. Those kill spells are mainly Blustersquall or Teleportal, though Chemister’s Trick can also fill in in a pinch. Izzet also loves to get its hands on a Pursuit of Flight which can turn any of the three key creatures into a threat that can win the game by itself. Also, both Inaction Injunction and Isperia’s Skywatch can be great creatures for the deck.

Since players are starting to figure out how to build good Izzet decks, it is important to learn how to play against them effectively. Izzet has three particularly vulnerable weaknesses. First, Detain is a formidable natural predator to the Izzet strategy. If an opponent can take Cobblebrute out of the equation for a turn, then they can attack past your 5/2 blocker, and do so without fear of a retaliatory strike. Since the Izzet relies on getting its attackers in when an opponent leaves a slightly vulnerable opening, it simply cannot afford to lose control of when its creatures can attack. The second weakness is lifegain. The Izzet deck is very good at dealing 20 to 25 damage, but it struggles to do more than that. Centaur Healer is probably the worst thing the deck can see, but it also doesn’t really like Daggerdrome Imp or Stonefare Crocodile, especially because both of those cards can easily pick up a few +1/+1 counters. If you gain six life off of one of those creatures, then the Izzet deck probably just won’t be able to win the game. Finally, the Izzet deck is an incredibly challenging deck to play. Oftentimes, you will be able to win against the Izzet deck simply because your opponent is a suboptimal pilot. If you aren’t able to exploit these weaknesses, then there is a key principle for beating the Izzet deck; don’t give away any damage if you can help it. Letting them get in for 2 to 4 damage early on might not seem like much, but these decks are running on very thin margins for dealing 20 damage. You don’t want to let the Izzet deck hit you whenever you can help it, because this allows them to win game from out of nowhere.

There is a lot of room to delve into the other guilds, but we’re going to move on now, since we still have a whole season to dig into these decks.


Win Rate of Decks According to Colors Being Splashed

Win Rate of Guilds Sorted by Splashes


Rates for Splashing

No Splash


Blue Splash

Average Wins








Draft Win by Popularity




 In all of my statistical studies, I like to focus on an extra detail, and for this format I decided to focus on splashing, because this is a multicolor set. In my first article on RTR, I predicted that a major part of the format would be the interaction between the different guilds, and this is made most manifest by looking at how decks are splashing.

The first thing that we need to see is that 64% of decks in the format where splashing at least one extra color. Only 4.8% overall were splashing more than one color, so we see that six in ten decks are essentially three color decks. The vast majority of those decks were based around one of the five colors, but splashed three to six cards from a neighboring color. Because of the multicolor nature, most players are trying to squeeze a little bit more power out of their decks by splashing in a few key spells. However, we also have data from the win percentages for these decks. Decks that were splashing only had a 49% win rate, while decks without a splash won 53.5% of their round one matches. Furthermore, decks that weren’t splashing tended to go on to win the draft at a rate four times higher than decks that were splashing. In fact, one-in-four decks that managed to stick with just two colors would go on to win their draft. This is an important finding; one of the most important things you can do in this format is discipline yourself in the colors that you play. There are a lot of powerful cards in Return to Ravnica, but that doesn’t mean you should be stretching your mana base to play all of them. For example, many people were splashing either blue or green in Rakdos. However, the Rakdos deck depends on getting aggressive creatures on the board early. If it stumbles a little bit on mana in the first few turns, then there is just no way to recover.

However, there was an important exception to this rule. A Selesnya deck that is splashing blue has a much higher win rate than any other deck in the format. Straight Selesnya decks have a big advantage over their compatriots that are splashing black, but adding a few blue cards to the Selesnya deck adds another 7 percentage points to their win rate, which puts them at a 65.38% win rate. This is the kind of win rate that we are looking for when we are hunting for the optimal strategy in a format, and it blows away the next highest competitor.

No card better exemplifies this point than Voidwielder. In fact, I’m going to go ahead and name Voidwielder as the best common in the set. After Return to Ravnica, people were able to see how incredibly dominant a Man’o’War effect can be, but when Voidwielder was spoiled, a lot of players were underwhelmed. They didn’t feel like they were actually getting a very good deal on their card. Personally, I thought it would be pretty good, since these kinds of cards are always better than they look, but I did not anticipate exactly how powerful it would be. There are three things that make Voidwielder so strong. First, it only has a single colored mana in its cost. This makes it easy to splash a Voidwielder, especially when you have access to Guildgates, or fixing spells like the Keyrunes or Gatecreeper Vine. Adding him to your Selesnya deck has a very low impact on your mana base, but gives you a huge upside. The second key thing is that Voidwielder has four toughness. It seems like everything in the set is attacking for three, and Voidwielder can block all of those cards. On top of that, the decks that want to play Voidwielder are mainly Selesnya with a splash, Azorius, and Izzet. All of these decks desperately want a four power blocker. The Selesnya deck wants to slow down the mid game so that it can take over with tokens. The Azorius deck wants to clog the ground so that its flyers can win the game. The Izzet deck wants to be able to block for a few turns while it sets up a devastating turn with an overload spell. The most important part of Voidwielder is that bouncing a creature is better in this format than in perhaps any format in history. The best deck in the format is Selesnya, which has token creatures as a main theme. When you have a Voidwielder against Selesnya, he is basically a Skinrender. Even worse, he takes out the tokens that the Selesnya player desperately needs in order to turn on their Populate engine. But that is not all; the Voidwielder is very powerful against Golgari, since it can negate the value from a big scavenge, which often gets you a card worth of value. On top of all this, there are several powerful auras in the format, which gives Voidwielder even more opportunities where his bounce ability trades for a card.

So far, people are not respecting Voidwielder like they should. I have twice as many Voidwielders as any other card in the set, because people just keep passing them to me, and he just keeps winning the game. If there is one thing that you should take out of the article, it is that you should be taking this guy as a top priority.


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

1.       Return to Ravnica is a slightly slow format. While aggressive decks can sometimes take advantage of this, it is also important to prioritize tools for winning a stalled out board.

2.       Selesnya is the most powerful guild in the format. This is partly due to populate, and partly due to just having very efficient creatures.

3.       Rakdos is vulnerable to being overdrafted. There aren’t quite enough early game creatures going around, which means that you are likely going to fight a little bit too hard over your most important spells.

4.       Izzet decks ended up being a very powerful strategy now that players are starting to figure out how to draft them appropriately. These decks focus on getting down high impact creatures, sneaking in a few key attacks, and then winning out of nowhere with a big overload spell.

5.       The best way to fight an Izzet deck is to not let them get in any free damage. They can win out of nowhere, so it is important to make them fight for every point of damage.

6.       The very best deck in the format is a Selesnya deck that is splashing blue.

7.       Take Voidwielder higher than you are taking it now.

That concludes our first study for Return to Ravnica. I’ll take a couple more looks at how the format evolves over the next few months. In the meantime, enjoy drafting this set as much as you can.

I did want to note that the Community Cup is going on right now. Check it out here! Our very own Heath Newton is there, representing the community, so go cheer him on. I’m still disappointed that I wasn’t able to go to the Community Cup, but next year I will definitely have the time available, so hopefully I’ll be chosen to go again.

As always, you can follow me on twitter @oraymw for updates about articles. I’ve also put up a Tumblr account at http://oraymw.tumblr.com/ where I post links to my articles. You can go there and subscribe to the RSS feed, and then you’ll be able to get updates whenever a new article goes live.


Ars Arcanum Archive





Excellent article as always by johan_djinn at Thu, 10/25/2012 - 16:25
johan_djinn's picture

I love playing Izzet, easily my favorite guild in RTR. I came to the same conclusion about Voidwielder early on as well. It is an excellent common but Frostburn Weird is another excellent candidate for best common in the set.

Johan Djinn

Good to know about the by DanielCarter at Tue, 12/10/2013 - 10:37
DanielCarter's picture

Good to know about the techniques. It is somehow helpful though to a beginner like me. - Rabbi Binyomin Lisbon