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By: Cheater Hater, Vincent Borchardt
Dec 14 2016 1:00pm
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Welcome back to the Modern Flashback Series! Call this the calm before the storm—there isn’t much other news to talk about, and I’ll have plenty of non-Flashback content next week, so let’s get to Dragon’s Maze!
 
All of Return to Ravnica block was building up to Dragon’s Maze: all ten guilds would show up (with their mechanics) and multiple ten-card cycles would quickly fill up this small set. No gold set had attempted to feature all ten color pairs equally (Invasion split up allies and enemies, original Ravnica had four guilds max at once, and even Alara focused on allied pairs through the shards), so how could Dragon’s Maze do it? To be honest, it mostly failed: the set felt very unfocused, and nothing other than Voice of Resurgence really stood out. The full block format isn’t awful though.
 
The set also needed to be warped in order to keep the ratios equal: at common there are ten artifacts (the Cluestones, which are your “in case of emergency” mana fixers), ten gold cards, and the rest are mono-colored, but all the uncommons are multicolored (which includes the split cards). That’s strange, and means your color decisions will mostly be based on which guild uncommons you open. The draft process itself is also unique: remember it’s reverse-chronological, which is Dragon’s Maze → Gatecrash → Return to Ravnica. The base-level strategy is three-colors (as every shard/clan has at least one guild in each set), and your Gatecrash guild is both what you get the most information on in pack one and generally the stronger pack in general (the aggro-cards generally have better stats than the midrange cards in Return to Ravnica). I’m sure you can go a lot deeper with signaling and such, but in a flashback draft the players probably won’t be at that level.
 
Since this set isn’t building upon the previous sets like a traditional block structure, I’ll be going through the cards in a slightly-different way. First I’ll go through the mono-color cards quickly, but then I’ll cover both two-color and three-color combinations (since all of them can theoretically be archetypes). For the guilds, I’ll cover the Dragon’s Maze cards for them obviously, but I’ll also cover what you would want from the “other” large set for that guild. The shards/clans will cover the guilds that make it up, as well as where you want to take it (and if you want to play it) But that’s getting ahead of myself—onto the mechanics.
 
Mechanics:
 
As I mentioned, every single guild mechanic returns, but only on two cards: a common and a rare. Instead, a lot of the space is spent on Split Cards and an extension of the Gates-matter theme.
 
Split Cards/Fuse:
Split Cards were the bonus at the end of the previous Ravnica block, so how can we make them special this time? Why not go all the way back to the beginning of our long journey and bring back a form of Entwine? Granted, Fuse doesn’t seem quite as neat if you put it like that, but Split Cards are interesting enough without that. As for the cards themselves, some are worth playing on their own in the right deck (Alive, Burn, Away, lots of the rare ones), but in even those cases it’s worth splashing the other color.
 
Gates-Matter:
When I mentioned the common distribution above, I wasn’t being entirely truthful—all ten Guildgates are reprinted at common, but they don’t appear in the common slots. Instead, they have their own slot (like a Timeshifted card), and while it mostly contain Gates, it can also contain a shockland or Maze's End. However, for the purposes of Limited, Gates are actually better than shocklands, both because of all the Gates-matter cards in the previous sets, but also because of the Gatekeepers. These are all 2/4’s for 4 with a reasonable benefit if you control two gates. The important part is that you are (virtually) guaranteed a Gate in each pack, so you can realistically spend most of your first eight picks taking Gates over everything but clear bombs, pick up a couple Gatekeepers that tabled, then play everything good you see along with a lot of other Gates-matter cards.
 
Mono-Color Cards:
White:
Boros continues to get the bulk of help from white, as while Boros Mastiff’s main asset is being a Glory Seeker with upside, both Haazda Snare Squad and Lyev Decree help get creatures through. Sunspire Gatekeepers is probably the one of the two best Gatekeepers due to its synergy with Populate (though Wake the Reflections probably isn’t what you want—it isn’t even an Instant!).
 
Blue:
Very slim pickings here—sure, Wind Drake is fine, and Runner's Bane is a good anti-Gatecrash card (though all the pump through Scavenge, Evolve, and normal pump spells hurts it a lot), but when Maze Glider is easily in your top-half of the color, something’s gone wrong.
 
Black:
So much for Grisly Spectacle: hello Fatal Fumes (and yes, it’s sadly playable). As for the other cards, Maze Abomination is decent and Rakdos Drake looks bad but is a fine vessel for Cipher triggers and Scavenge (assuming you’re already Unleashing it).
 
Red:
Rubblebelt Maaka allows us to welcome back Brute Force (and good red pump spells in general—Titan's Strength is just a couple sets away) while giving us the option for a Hill Giant to boot. There’s also a surprising amount of First Strike with both Riot Piker and Weapon Surge, and both First Strike and the “attacks if able” clause on the former are better with Bloodrush in the format. Even the expensive burn spell Punish the Enemy is fine since it’s removal and reach at the same time (and three damage kills most important things).
 
Green:
Green continues getting good creatures, as Battering Krasis, Kraul Warrior, and Thrashing Mossdog all have decent stats. Unfortunately the non-creature spells are lacking as you would expect—even Mutant's Prey rarely gets there, even with all the counter sources of Evolve, Scavenge, Unleash, and Common Bond among others.
 
Guilds:
Azorius (White/Blue, RTR):
The Azorius gold cards are fine, but they seem to go better in other guilds (Deputy of Acquittals’s gating effect is best when Evolving creatures, Jelenn Sphinx wants to be in the swarm strategies of Boros and Selesnya, and Ascended Lawmage wants to be enchanted by a Madcap Skills or Unflinching Courage). As for the guild, the aggressive Azorius cards can reach Battalion, but the fliers like Cloudfin Raptor probably help it more.
 
Dimir (Blue/Black, GTC):
Dimir gets a lot of good gold cards: Far/Away and Warped Physique are great removal spells, Haunter of Nightveil stops swarms, and even Pilfered Plans is fine as a Divination with upside. Of course, the problem is that you still are relying on Gatecrash’s Dimir cards, and thus aren’t benefiting from the strong Gatecrash pack. The gimmicky mill deck could still work, but you only get Pilfered Plans from Dragon’s Maze and Doorkeeper from Return to Ravnica (please don’t play Chronic Flooding).
 
Rakdos (Black/Red, RTR):
Morgue Burst continues the trend of Rakdos “Chinese menu” cards that make no sense in Rakdos (especially since Unleash means the cards are understatted as printed), but Carnage Gladiator more than makes up for it. Toil/Trouble also is nice, as it combines a Sign in Blood with a Lava Axe (both halves can target your opponent). As you would expect, the aggressive Return to Ravnica guild gets a lot of help from the aggressive set, as your Unleash creatures want to be attacking for Battalion anyway.
 
Gruul (Red/Green, GTC):
It’s surprising how crucial Zhur-Taa Druid is to the ramp side of Gruul, as it ramps, provides a clock while ramping, and even is a creature you can Bloodrush onto in a pinch. Gruul also gets a lot of powerful uncommons, as Scab-Clan Giant is fine (either they have a lot of small creatures and you don’t care which one dies or they have a large creature you know you can kill or trade with), Gruul War Chant is another Overrun-style effect, and a Fused Armed/Dangerous is basically always a game win if it resolves (either you alpha-strike for the win or wipe their team). Return to Ravnica has plenty to provide a Gruul deck, whether it’s a Tenement Crasher to ramp into or a Splatter Thug to Bloodrush onto.
 
Selesnya (Green/White, RTR):
Trostani's Summoner is obviously the flashiest gold card, and Unflinching Courage has the clearest power (being a virtual reprint of Armadillo Cloak), but don’t overlook Bronzebeak Moa. Just playing a single creature each turn makes it a 5/5 for 4, but just a simple Knight Watch or Eyes in the Skies makes it an 8/8 (the latter at instant-speed), to say nothing of Trostani's Summoner. Moving to Gatecrash, you’re obviously looking for token-producers, and beyond the boring Knight Watch, you also have Urbis Protector’s Angel and a Miming Slime Ooze clone.
 
Orzhov (White/Black, GTC):
Tithe Drinker may only be a common, but just being an upgraded Child of Night is great in this format. Maw of the Obzedat is also powerful, even if it doesn’t really fit Orzhov’s strategy at all. However, the biggest benefit to Orzhov in the full block format is that it is slower, making Extort much better when you can afford to slow down your curve to get all the Extort triggers.
 
Izzet (Blue/Red, RTR):
Strangely, Dragon’s Maze gives Izzet two main reasons to go heavy into instants and sorceries with Nivix Cyclops and Fluxcharger—why did it take this long? Turn/Burn also is great as either a two-for-one or a reliable removal spell. In addition, if you care about instants and sorceries, you’re more interested in Cipher (even if you need First Strike to make it a real combo) and Goblin Electromancer gives you more value overall.
 
Golgari (Black/Green, RTR):
Putrefy may be the obvious power in the set, but Korozda Gorgon shouldn’t be overlooked: the 2/5 Deathtouch for 5 is nice, and the ability is another way to complicate combat (even if it’s better with Evolve and Unleash than Scavenge—note that it can let your Unleashed creatures block as well). The self-mill aspect also gets a payoff card with Drown in Filth, and Balustrade Spy is a much better way to self-mill than anything in Return to Ravnica.
 
Boros (Red/White, GTC):
Boros’s gold cards continues to be split into the aggressive cards and the midrange consolation prizes. On the aggressive side, Viashino Firstblade is a clear replacement for Skyknight Legionnaire, while Warleader's Helix is just a bigger Lightning Helix. The midrange side isn’t awful, as while Gleam of Battle is very expensive it wins board stalls, while Blaze Commando has decent stats and a reasonable trigger (note that it’s just deal damage, so burning a creature counts). The important two-drops you get from Return to Ravnica are Gore-House Chainwalker and Azorius Arrester, but even a Concordia Pegasus enables Battalion reliably. Don’t forget the token-producers either, as an end-of-turn Eyes in the Skies can surprise an opponent. Finally, Dynacharge is miles better than any pump spell you had in Gatecrash.
 
Simic (Green/Blue, GTC):
Apparently WotC wanted to make up with Simic after snubbing it for so long, since Beetleform Mage is basically a common Air Elemental and Krasis Incubation is a Cage of Hands-style Arrest that makes almost no sense in Simic (the only things close to this are Ice Cage and Arachnus Web). As for your creature curve, you’ll want to focus on high-power things in Gatecrash, as cards like Voidwielder, Towering Indrik, and the Defenders have the high-toughness end covered.
 
Shards/Clans:
Bant (Green/White/Blue, Selesnya/Azorius, Simic):
Simic is your Gatecrash guild where the power comes in, and while Selesnya’s tokens work well with that, Azorius’s main purpose here is high-toughness creatures and a bit of evasion.
 
Esper (White/Blue/Black, Azorius, Dimir/Orzhov):
A controlling color combination, but it can be aggressive when small fliers combine with Cipher (and Detain gets them through). It also helps that the raw card quality of Orzhov lets you avoid Dimir’s lesser cards.
 
Grixis (Blue/Black/Red, Rakdos/Izzet, Dimir):
A trio where you’re only getting Dimir in the Gatecrash pack? It’s not like the pairing of Rakdos and Izzet is that great either—stay away.
 
Jund (Black/Red/Green, Rakdos/Golgari, Gruul):
An average color trio: the anti-synergy of Unleash and Scavenge is here, but the raw stats of those creatures works well with Bloodrush.
 
Naya (Red/Green/White, Selesnya, Gruul/Boros):
A very aggressive color combination, as Populate and tokens in general help you get Battalion (and Boros has a lot of Soldiers as well), while Gruul is always nice support. I’d put this near the top of the trios for certain, as long as you can make the mana work in an aggressive deck.
 
Abzan (White/Green/Black, Selesnya/Golgari, Orzhov):
Are there any synergies here? Again, the raw stats are good, but you ideally want synergies to make colors more than the sum of their parts.
 
Jeskai (Blue/White/Red, Azorius/Izzet, Boros):
While Naya exploited Boros by ensuring Battalion, Jeskai is a more generally-aggressive deck with good cheap creatures and Detain to get through. Izzet isn’t at its best here, but an aggressive deck generally doesn’t want to be completely three colors anyway.
 
Sultai (Blue/Black/Green, Golgari, Dimir/Simic):
As a counter to Abzan, this has most of the +1/+1 counter synergies in a clan (minus red Unleash creatures), but I feel like the initial stats aren’t great, with too much of the power being backloaded. Granted, part of this is due to Dimir, but it feels like the trio unfortunately under-performs in the average case.
 
Mardu (Red/Black/White, Rakdos, Orzhov/Boros):
This color combination is strange. On one hand it’s a super-aggressive deck that always wins a race with Rakdos’s big creatures and Battalion, but Orzhov isn’t more than a finisher there. On the other hand, it could build a boardstall that breaks through with one big Battalion-fueled attack, but Rakdos and boardstalls don’t go well together. Maybe the versatility is the actual strength of this clan?
 
Temur (Green/Red/Blue, Izzet, Gruul/Simic):
The king of anti-synergies: Simic wants you to play your creatures in a specific order to Evolve them, Gruul wants to play early creatures then Bloodrush onto them, and Izzet isn’t a creature guild at all! Again, you have good card quality, but you’re mostly throwing away the Return to Ravnica pack to get there—it’s not as bad as Grixis throwing away Gatecrash, but it’s not where I’d start with the format.
 

We’re almost done with this Year of Modern Flashbacks, as we’re done with the last block, and only have a single core set left. Next week we end this year with Magic 2014.

Vincent
@CheaterHater1 on Twitter