It's been a while that Mercadian Masques has been available online. Dazes have peaked at 15 since, and not per playset mind you. Free rolling a draft just by first picking a common certainly has some appeal, but when you sit down for a draft it is most likely not only for the money picks. Most people probably want to have a clue about what's going on, too. So what is this draft format all about? I will give you an overview about the general principles first, and then do a quick review of the individual colors.
So, Masques is very old. Back in the days where it comes from, sets had been developed for drafting only since a short time, and consequently things like Circle of Protections had just recently stopped clogging up the common slots. However, what R&D put in the common slots instead was not much better. Generally when you are drafting old sets you will see a lot of virtual unplayables. It gets better in the next block, Invasion, but here you will still have to take care to get more than 20 actual Magic cards. One consequence is, that reading signals is very important. You cannot afford to search for your colors for eight picks, but you can afford even less to be in the wrong colors.
Masques is not much different from other old sets in that the creature quality is low, I mean really low. Most creatures are also of comparable quality, being 2/X and costing 2 to 4 mana. In combination this has a bunch of effects on the draft. Aside from a few gems, most creatures are replaceable; as long as you can get any (see above). It also leads to a lot of board-stalled games as running your 2/X creatures into your opponent's will often lead to more casualties on your side.
As in other old sets, removal is still very good in Mercadian Masques. It is a bit more expensive than what a drafter back then was used to from Mirage to Urza's Saga, but it is way more potent than anything you might have seen in recent years. However it usually not so plentiful that you can afford to waste it. Take into account that creatures are generally awful and most games end in board stalls. It should be clear from that, that shooting their random three-drop for tempo is a bad idea in most cases.
Mercadian Masques is the set of spellshapers. Spellshapers help you to get additional value out of all these mediocre creatures you have to play, oh, and out of lands, too. The marginal value of many creature cards, overall lack of playables, and the existence of spellshapers suggest that playing 18 lands is a good idea in Masques draft. Although you don't want to flood out when many cards are of equal value, this is rarely an issue with good spellshapers. On the other hand you even less want to screw out, especially with the powerful white Rebel deck. Finally there are a few powerful cards that consume lands in play. So, play lands instead of dubious cards.
You will probably already know it or notice it in the draft, there are free spells in Mercadian Masques. Even if you don't want to memorize all instants you should be aware that your opponent is not necessarily helpless, just because he is tapped out. However, these free spells require adequate basic lands in play, so you can at least expect them to respect the color pie.
White is the color of rebels, and was usually considered the strongest color in the Masques only draft environment. However, white lost power as the block unfolded. Originally white had a very strong rebel theme with Ramosian Sergeant, Ramosian Lieutenant, Thermal Glider, and Nightwind Glider. These cards are still the backbone of most white decks in Masques block draft. Later replacements for these cards were Defiant Falcon, Lawbringer, and Lightbringer. Prophecy brought almost nothing to the table. To be fair Troubled Healer is one of the overall strongest commons in the set, but unfortunately the healer is not a rebel.
When drafting white your highest priority are the rebel searchers. Most of the common rebels cost two and three. The rebels that make your deck powerful usually cost three. That means, that you need those Defiant Falcons / Ramosian Lieutnant. It also means, that your deck will not be fully operational until you have four lands in play. If you also take into account, that Troubled Healer is your individually strongest common then playing 18 lands is almost inevitably correct for every white deck.
Most of the money commons in Masques block are blue, but blue is not as focused as white, and not as deep either. That makes blue mainly a support color. If you take a closer look you will find Waterfront Bouncer, Stinging Barrier, Saprazzan Outrigger, some tricks, and a bunch of flyers and other evasive creatures. There is really not much else going on here.
Back in the days of Masques draft there was some debate as to the most powerful common in blue. At first people seemed to prefer Stinging Barrier, but that later changed to Waterfront Bouncer. I must say I still prefer the barrier. Most games have no tempo, and against an aggressive black-red start Waterfront Bouncer doesn't do all that much either. If you are look to draft an aggressive black-blue deck, then you should definitely go for the bouncer, though.
Black is the color of mercenaries. It is by far the hardest color to draft. Although rebels and mercenaries look similar if you look only superficially, they play really differently. Searching up instead of down makes all the difference, but it is not only that. The quality of white's creature is so much higher, too. Nightwind Glider would be a decent card in every Limited format, but crafting a powerful deck out of Rampart Crawlers and Spineless Thugs is much harder.
If you want to go deep into black, then you should aim at an aggressive swarm deck. The key to that is Agent of Shauku. The agent can be dug up by all the good mercenary searchers and allows your chaff to attack into their gems. Some of your dudes will do damage as long as you have more creatures than they. At some point you can just pump one of your unblocked attackers for the win.
Aside from the mercenary engine black has also by far the most potent removal in the format. Naturally you will happily pick that up when you lean heavily towards black. On the other hand it makes black well suited to playing the support color, especially when you take into account that most of these cards only have a single black mana symbol in their mana cost.
Red is in many ways like black. The removal is less plentiful and a bit worse. On the other hand the creatures are better individually, although there are no mercenaries to chain. Just as in black you will get more mileage out of most red creatures if you employ them in an aggressive strategy. There are only a few exceptions, that are suited better for guard duty.
Therefore red is a good choice as the junior partner in a black-red or white-red deck. Red-green and red-blue are usually not optimal. Red-green is a bit awkward as you will end up with a lot of ground pounders, and not much else. Finally there is some potential in red-blue, but both colors have to be really open, otherwise you might end up with not enough playables.
Green is relatively deep, and has very good creatures, arguably the best in this block. The main problem with playing green is, that it you often have tempo issues when you don't draw your curve in the perfect order. Also flyers can be a problem. That is the reason why I consider Rib Cage Spider to be green's most important creature. It is just the best roadblock in the format. The spider dominates all those Gliders, Airships, Razorbacks, and Persuaders. It also blocks most of the creatures up to four mana without dying. Having established such a stop sign, your big dudes can start taking over.
Spidersilk Armor is not as uniformly good as Rib Cage Spider, but when it is good it is arguably the most powerful common in the block. Many white decks just have no way to win, once the armor is on the battlefield.
I am always surprised by how long some of the best uncommons in the set go undrafted. If a creature has good stats it is probably good. Accordingly Scoria Cat is a good card. I will not have to explain to you either, that Arc Mage is a powerful card. Aside from the obvious powerhouses, there are a few cards, that are more deceptively good. These are six uncommons that I consider very reasonable first picks, although few people seem to take them highly.
The key to Belbe's Armor and Flowstone Armor is, that you can activate them on your opponent's creatures. If you miss that you might wonder why they are any good at all. With Ballista Squad in play, or to a lesser extent Crenellated Wall, it is almost impossible to go into combat with you. Haunted Crossroads and Volcanic Wind are cards that win the endgame.
The first thing we look for in a booster is a good rare, it is the best possible outcome of opening a booster after all. If you are really lucky you will open Rishadan Port and call it a day, but there are a few other cards that will make you happy. Most of these are obvious first picks, but sometimes people pass a Jeweled Spriti or Squirrel Wrangler, not realizing that these cards just win. This dozen is about as dirty as it gets.
Of course nine of these twelve cards can conveniently be disposed of by a well timed removal spell. That is actually something I value about the old Limited formats. Sure, there are very powerful rares, but these "I thought I was fine, and now, oops, I'm dead"-moments almost never happen there. Cards like Consecrated Sphinx, Inferno Titan, or Aurelia, the Warleader simply did not exist.
I wanted to write a basic strategy article, but just to give you all in one package I would like to give you an overview over the money cards in Masques block. You can also take a look at Pete Jahn's State of the Program, it's all there. These are the cards that are worth more than five tickets at the moment. It is a foregone conclusion that especially the commons will crash hard, but even if you only get three tickets for your Ancestral Mask --instead of the seven it costs now-- that is still better value than most rares in the sets of today.