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Apr 25 2015 7:05am
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Welcome to another installment of Ars Arcanum, the MTGO numbers-based limited series. This installment will be a draft overview for Dragons of Tarkir, Dragons of Tarkir, Fate Reforged draft. (DDF). I’ve watched one thousand matches of DDF on MTGO, gathered data from the games, crunched the numbers, and visualized the data. As always, I’ll take a look at the speed of the format, the popularity and win rates of the main color combinations, and the key principles of how to draft the format.

Dragons of Tarkir is an interesting set because of how it interacts with Fate Reforged. We’ve already seen Fate Reforged in action, but with Dragons of Tarkir, we get to see how this set is different when placed into a new environment. We also get to learn about Dragons of Tarkir, which is a very different format from KTK. Morph still has a huge impact on the format, though in different ways from Khans of Tarkir. Losing the multicolor theme in favor of a huge influx of dragons is a fascinating decision, and I like how it creates a limited format that seems a little bit simpler than Khans of Tarkir, even though KTK was my favorite limited format ever.

The goal of this article is to take a granular look at a specific time period of the format on MTGO. This is not meant to be a definitive statistical analysis of the format, but rather an examination of the draft format through the lens of numbers rather than just anecdotes, gut feelings, or theories. It’s also important to remember the dynamic nature of draft formats. Because small changes in the format can have wide-sweeping ramifications, we shouldn’t think that any data set on a format is definitive. Instead, individual data sets can help us understand principles and trends in a format. This will be a granular look at data from a small time frame in the format, but by the time this is published, it will already be outdated, so it makes much more sense to focus on understanding the principles of the format.

Speed

Ending Turns of DDF Draft

Ending Turns of DDF Draft as Compared with FKK and Triple KTK Draft

Speed is on one of the most critical elements of a draft format, since it informs every other aspect of the draft. KTK was a particularly slow format, but both FKK and DDF skew a little bit more closely to the mean. What I find remarkable here is the similarity in speed between FKK and DDF. I should note that when I ran my FKK analysis, I came to the conclusion that the format was faster overall than DDF, but some groups of pros disagreed with that conclusion. I’ve talked more about that here, and you can read about the differences between the way I look at a format and the way that groups of pros tend to analyze a format. The biggest difference is that I’m looking at the data from all the decks in the format, rather than just the ones that I think are good.

I had originally predicted that the DDF format would be faster on average than FKK, and I find it fascinating how closely these two formats mesh. It does look like DDF comes out a little bit faster than FKK. We see the DDF graph hovering slightly above FKK for all of the early turns, and then below FKK for turns Ten through Twelve, but the difference is very small. About 57% of DDF games ended by Turn 9 where only 54% of FKK games ended by turn 9, but these differences are small enough that it’s better to look at the speed of the format as being closer to the same.

I suspect that the biggest factor here is that the default speed of Fate Reforged is fast enough to form the floor for the format. The other key thing is that while the format has changed in many aspects, the biggest determining factor for speed in this block is the morph mechanic, which is still present in Dragons of Tarkir. The format still revolves around 3 mana 2/2s more than anything else, so it isn’t too surprising that the two draft formats have relatively similar speed.

The good news here is that the speed of the format doesn’t force us to make significant changes in our evaluations of Fate Reforged cards. By and large, the cards that were playable from Fate Reforged in FKK draft are still playable in DDF draft, though there are certainly some shifts in power level.

The biggest impact of the speed of the format is in relation to the six CMC dragons. These include the six CMC multicolor cycle of dragons like Savage Ventmaw or Ruthless Deathfang, the megamorph dragons which include Stormwing Dragon and Shieldhide Dragon, as well as Scion of Ugin. On top of this, we also have the dragon monuments as well as the six mana uncommon dragons from Fate Reforged. On average I have been unimpressed with all of these cards. There are some entries in the cycle that are more playable, such as Ruthless Deathfang, Shieldhide Dragon, and Noxious Dragon, but by and large, they are filler cards that you use when you need to fill out playables near your top end. In general, I would not prioritize them very highly.

It’s a little disappointing; for a set named Dragons of Tarkir, I would have hoped to see a few more dragons in limited. The Dragonlords are obviously absurd bombs, but the uncommon dragons are so unimpressive as to make the name of the set feel like a complete misnomer. Something like Dragon Clans of Tarkir would make much more sense. If these dragons had simply been 4/5s instead of 4/4s, then it would be a very different story, but in a format with the kind of speed that we are seeing, a 4/4 for 6 is often just too slow. There are decks that can take advantage of the body, but when you are facing down 5/5 tramplers for 5 mana, you just don’t have time to play a 4/4 an average of two turns later.

This also does not mean to suggest control decks are not viable; they certainly are. But with aggressive RW, RG, and RB decks in the format, it is important to build up defensive speed that will keep you from being destroyed, especially when your opponent drops a surprise Dash creature on T5 that completely throws off your combat math. In general, there are more tempo-focused decks in the format than control decks, so you usually don’t have to tune your deck for the control matchup. If you are the control deck, you won’t face too many other control decks, so you want to focus on shoring up your matchup against aggro decks in the maindeck, while potentially picking up some strong sideboard cards for the control mirror.

Popularity

Popularity of Ally Color Pairs in DDF Draft

Popularity of Enemy Color Pairs in DDF Draft

For people that have been playing DDF draft, this popularity chart should not be surprising. Between the information that have been coming out from pro players and the coverage of the Pro Tour, people have been gravitating towards certain decks in the format. It is fascinating to see the shift in popularity between FKK and DDF. In FKK, the enemy colored pairs were much more popular, and that has shifted dramatically in DDF. The least drafted allied color pair is drafted nearly twice as often as the most drafted enemy color pair. One of the most difficult things about this study was getting a large enough sample for the enemy color pairs.

The crazy thing is that there isn’t really a compelling reason why the allied color pairs should be this much more popular than the enemy color pairs. The Dragonlords are all in allied color pairs, and they are incredibly powerful, but they are also mythic rare. There are also the rare dragons, such as Pristine Skywise and Harbinger of the Hunt as well as the cycle of commands, and some of these cards are very strong, while some are barely playable. But again, they are rare, and they shouldn’t have such a dominating effect on what people are drafting. They simply aren’t opened that much. The uncommon dragons show up much more often, but as I mentioned earlier, on the whole they tend to be worse than the best commons, and some of them are barely even playable, so it doesn’t make much sense for people to be going into allied color pairs because of those cards. On top of this, if you first pick a multi-color card, it is very detrimental to your draft to stick doggedly to those colors. The enemy color pairs should definitely have more representation.

The craziest thing is that there is a cycle of powerful enemy color pair cards in the third pack. Harsh Sustenance is one of the more powerful commons in Fate Reforged, but it often wheels. Grim Contest is a great removal spell; though it is worse in this format than it was in KTK, it’s still effective against a large number of creatures, but I’ve picked on up 14th. War Flare is a powerful combat trick that tables. Cunning Strike is better now than it was before, but I haven’t yet seen one cast in the format. Ethereal Ambush is also better now, considering that Dragons of Tarkir has Contradict at the same mana cost, but those hardly get played at all.

There certainly are some allied color decks that focus in on mechanical synergy; Silumgar has Exploit, and most of the exploit enablers are in UB, while Kolaghan has some Dash build-arounds. But there isn’t enough of these mechanics going around to convince me that people should be so dialed in to just these color combinations. I believe that the biggest thing that people are doing to misdraft this set is focusing on the allied-color pairs, when they are not receiving clear reasons to do so, such as a Dragonlord.

Performance

Match Win Rate of Allied Color Pairs in DDF Draft

Match Win Rate of Enemy Color Pairs in DDF Draft

The first thing to notice about the win rate charts is that this is one of the most balanced sets that we have seen, with the exception of the BG deck. All of the other decks, except for Izzet, is within five points of 50%, whether above or below. All of the non-BG and non-UR decks are so close together that it is impossible to declare any one of them the best deck, since they are within the margin of error away from 50%, except for Silumgar and Atarka. Those two decks are the most firmly below 50%, but even they aren’t too far away; with the margin of error they both could fall at 49%. The point is that we basically have a statistical tie between these decks. We have no clear winner and no clear loser.

Of course, as soon as we add BG into the mix, things become significantly different. BG pulled in an incredible 80% win rate. When I say incredible, I don’t mean it with the connotation of “awesome” or “super cool.” I mean it with the original etymological meaning of “unbelievable.” For reference, this is the highest win rate of any deck that I have ever surveyed in Ars Arcanum. Not only does it have the highest win rate, is has it by a wide margin. Normally, I set the vertical scale of these charts to 70% because nothing ever comes close enough to 70% to make it necessary to increase the range, but BG completely broke the charts. The next highest performing deck was the UG deck from AVR; back in those days, I did the charts slightly different, so when UG came in at 72%, it fit on the chart, but as I’ve updated these articles, I moved the range back down.

I wouldn’t call this the most dominant deck that I’ve seen; that still belongs to UG, simply because the BG deck is not drafted nearly as frequently as the UG deck was. Also, there are lots of reasons to call this win rate into question. First, the sample of this study is definitely on the small side. It is possible that the 80% number would not be replicable if this study were performed another ten times during the same time window, and I honestly doubt that it would score so high again. Obviously it got a little bit lucky in this study to score so high. However, even if we just randomly assigned a large number of losses to the BG deck, it would still come in as the most dominant deck. Perhaps 80% is a figure that would only show up in about 1 in 10 studies, but a high figure like 65% is certainly in the realms of imagination. The second question is the impact of underdrafting. BG is one of the enemy color guilds, and the fact that it is less drafted than the other colors certainly has an impact on its win rate. People tend to vastly overestimate the impact of over and underdrafting, but when the win rate is as high as 80%, we could definitely imagine that about 10% of those wins would not have happened if the deck was drafted more heavily. The problem is that even if we account for these irregularities, it would still be one of the best performing decks in Ars Arcanum history. Finally, the majority of these numbers come from the week after the Pro Tour. Most of the advice coming from the top teams said that green was the weakest color, and it seems that people have been avoiding green to an extreme, and BG players have been able to capitalize on this.

I do think that BG is the best deck in the format. I think the next best contender for the title is RB or RW. I know that a lot of people have said that UB is the best deck, and I’m certain that many people are going to argue that obviously the UB deck is the best deck, even though it has the lowest win rate besides UR, but they will argue that it has such a low win rate simply because of overdrafting, and that obviously that is causing all of its losses. I don’t buy that argument at all. First, while black is the most heavily drafted color, blue most certainly is not. It’s easy to look at these numbers and assume that you are so much more likely to be cut out of your colors in UB than in any other color combination, but that is simply not true. First of all, UB makes p 18.6% of the metagame. That means that a given draft will have, on average, 1.5 UB drafters. Essentially what we are seeing is that when there is 1 UB drafter at the table, the deck performs well, but as soon as you see a second player at the table, the win rate drops astronomically. An 8 player pod can’t really support two Silumgar drafters. I don’t think that it is reasonable to think that a deck that can’t support two drafters can be called the best deck in the format; personally, I call that kind of deck a trap. The second problem is that even in one of these enemy color pairs, people will still be drafting the colors that are in your deck heavily. If I’m in BG, it’s not unreasonable to expect that I’ll have a black player and a green player in the two seats to my right. To illustrate this, I’ve made another chart.

Color Pair Overdraftedness in DDF Draft

These are the figures we get when we take the popularity of the colors in a color pair and average them out. Basically, it is saying that since white and black are the two most heavily drafted colors, WB is the color pair where you are fighting the most for your colors. UB is certainly high on this list, but when you line up the numbers this way, you see that being in an enemy color pair certainly doesn’t mean that your colors are going to be wide open. Being in BG means that you are going to get all the Grim Contests, but it certainly doesn’t mean that you are going to get all the good black and green cards. In fact, you’ll probably have to fight tooth and nail in order to pick up the premium black cards.

It’s possible that these numbers for BG are such an crazy fluke that it isn’t close to being as good of a deck as the win rate indicates, but for now, I’m going to put my money on BG, and I’ve been drafting it to a lot of success. With that in mind, I want to talk about what makes BG such a strong deck.

The most important reason to draft BG is what might be the best two commons in the format: Epic Confrontation and Flatten. I’m not 100% certain which of these is the best common in Dragons of Tarkir; my money is on Epic Confrontation, but it’s certainly possible that Flatten is better. But the key is that both of them are in BG. These two cards are very strong, and they often allow you to take down any creature in the set. I have even seen each of the Dragonlords taken down by these cards in combination with something else. They are premium removal spells in a format without premium removal spells. Having access to these two spells is a huge advantage for the BG deck. Not only are these two of the best commons in the set, but they are also powerful enough to compete with most of the uncommons and the rares. They are simply that good.

The next best reason to draft BG is that they are the two deepest colors in Dragons of Tarkir. Not only do they have the best commons, but they also have a roster that allows you to find playables late into packs one and two. Black gets Vulturous Aven, Silumgar Butcher, Marsh Hulk, Kolaghan Skirmisher, Hand of Silumgar, Dutiful Attendant, Coat with Venom, and Butcher’s Glee that are all great commons that you can get late into the pack. Green is even more deep with Aerie Bowmasters, Atarka Beastbreaker, Colossodon Yearling, Conifer Strider, Dragon-Scarred Bear, Glade Watcher, Guardian Shield-Bearer, Segmented Krotiq, Stampeding Elk Herd, and Tread Upon as commons that I’m happy to have in my deck. Even Wandering Tombshell is a decent card in a deck that is going to get all the Grim Contests, and Gravepurge is much more impressive when the creatures you are getting back are all so big.

When I draft BG, I find that the colors are so deep that it is not challenging to find as many as 18 playables out of the first two packs. This is important, because one of the biggest problems that people have with drafting green is that the Fate Reforged pack is very shallow. While that is true, people tend to overstate it; Whisperer of the Wilds is much stronger now than it used to be, since you can use it to ramp out Megamorphs and Dragons much earlier, and in the late game, you can sacrifice your creature to something with Exploit. Hunt the Weak is also surprisingly good overall, but especially in BG. By picking up cards like Glade Watcher, Colossodon Yearling, Aerie Bowmasters, or even Vulturous Aven, it isn’t difficult to turn your Hunt the Weak into a very strong advantage. Even more importantly, by being in black, you have access to an incredible suite of commons in Fate Reforged. Both Reach of Shadows and Douse in Gloom are wonderful cards in this deck, but more importantly, the deck gets access to Gurmag Angler. I don’t think that there is another card that has improved more than Gurmag Angler with the new set. It was always good, usually being a 5/5 for 4 or 5 mana. But now that there are no delve cards in Dragons of Tarkir, it’s not unreasonable for Gurmag Angler to be the only delve card in your deck, and that that point it performs as one of the best commons in the format, often allowing you to play the Angler for 2 or 3 mana, and then play something else in the same turn.

BG also benefits from a powerful set of uncommons. In DTK, three of the best uncommons in the set are in black, with Ultimate Price (the best uncommon), and then Rakshasa Gravecaller and Ukud Cobra. All three of these cards are better than most of the rares in the set, and I have first pick them all. Green doesn’t get the same quality of uncommons in DTK, but it makes up for this by giving you access to Temur Sabertooth and Abzan Beastmaster in Fate Reforged. Temur Sabertooth is just absurd, and it gets even better when you get to return Vulturous Avens and Rakshasa Gravecallers to your hand.

The biggest problem with the enemy colored pairs is that it makes it harder to play the two color bombs from this set, but I’ve actually found that this is negligible in BG. First, this is an attrition deck, so it tends to make games go a little bit longer, and it can afford to have one or two splash cards that it won’t cast until the late game. I have splashed for Dragonlord Atarka, Silumgar the Drifting Death, Dragonlord Dromoka, and Dromoka the Eternal, but I have also seen BG decks splash Necromaster Dragon, Dragonlord Silumgar, Boltwing Marauder, and more. Interestingly, by being in an enemy color pair, you actually get access to four of the allied color pairs when you splash, rather than just three in an allied color deck. This is important, because it means that when you open one of these bombs, you are much more likely to be able to squeeze it into your deck. On top of being a grindy deck that has the chance to find it’s splash lands, the BG deck is also the deck that has fixing. While the green fixing in this set is worse than in most sets, you do get access to Map the Wastes, which is fine if you have some expensive dragons that you are splashing, as well as Ainok Guide which can find you a land and then serve as Exploit fodder for a Vulturous Aven. By picking up a few strategic Evolving Wilds or Gain Lands, I’ve found it fairly easy to splash for one of the dragon bombs from these sets.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Thanks again for reading. Here are my conclusions and recommendations for the set.

1.         DDF is certainly not a slow set. This makes it difficult to easily play the dragons that this set is supposed to be about. With that said, I’ve noticed that a lot of people are over-exaggerating the speed of the format. While it is not slow, it also is not dramatically faster than the recent formats that we’ve been drafting. There are still a wide variety of decks available, and the fast decks are not so overwhelmingly fast that they push out other archetypes, though it would certainly feel that way to people that have been overdrafting UB, which has the least tools to deal with an aggressive deck.

2.         The presence of Dash means that it is especially important for control and midrange decks to build up their defensive speed and play conservatively in the midgame. Getting behind against the Dash deck means that they can put you off balance just enough in the mid game so that you will not be able to recover. But when you establish a firm defense, their creatures start to look more overcosted and much less threatening.

3.         With the exception of the BG deck, this is a very balanced format. The most important thing that you can do is to stay open and put yourself into the right colors for your seat. None of the other decks have such a clear advantage over the others that it is worth going blindly into them. Instead, this set rewards a much more reactive strategy than most formats.

4.         BG is possibly the best deck in the format, though it is difficult to be sure because it is drafted at a much lower popularity than the allied color pairs. BG is a very deep deck that also has access to some of the best commons. It is a grindy midrange deck that is able to put up formidable defense in the early game on the back of things like Glade Watcher and Hand of Silumgar, while also being able to fight against the more controlling decks in the late game.

5.         Though UB has been called the best deck in the format, the data really doesn’t support this idea. The best UB decks are some of the best decks in the format, but the bad UB decks have such a hard time beating the RB and RW decks that it’s hard to call it the best deck. Even if you do believe that UB is the best, it is so overdrafted that it is hard to make a case that it is the deck that you should be drafting.

As always, thanks for sticking through to the end of the article. If you want to find more information from me, you can check out my blog at oraymw.wordpress.com. I’ve had some pieces go up lately that I am very proud of, and I also always link to the latest Ars Arcanum from there, and I’ll be providing a few extra details that didn’t make it into the article at that location. You can also follow me on twitter @oraymw for updates about when articles go live, as well as daily discussion about Magic and limited. Finally, feel free to leave any comments below, or drop me a line at my blog or on twitter. See you next time!

Ars Arcanum Archive


2 Comments

Weird data. I have not fought by bdgp009 at Sat, 04/25/2015 - 10:36
bdgp009's picture

Weird data. I have not fought against any BG in my drafts. My only 2 8-4 wins came from a Mardu deck. Warrior build to be specific. I only play BG when i get assault formation.

Very interesting by meddler at Thu, 05/28/2015 - 15:42
meddler's picture

Most of the articles I've read from pro's rate the BG deck as the worst deck. Might be interesting to look back and see if this has been the case in previous formats.

I very much agree with you about staying open and the enemy color pairs. I've found this format rewards you for specifically committing to one color early and holding off on committing to a second as long as possible. There seem to be three reasons for this:

1. There are very powerful and splashable rares and uncommons in DTK, and they're often far and above the power level of any other card early in a pack. Passing a Draconic Roar, let alone Ultimate Price, in pack two because you've already committed to two other colors is much worse than sacrificing power level for consistency late in pack one.

2. If you don't wind up with a multicolor dragon bomb after the first couple picks of pack 2, you have incentive to move in on an enemy color pair for the multicolor commons in FRF, which all tend to suit their specific archetype very well.

3. There are even more bomb rares in FRF thank DTK, but the difference is many aren't splashable. That means taking a shot on any the usable filler in the most open looking colors during pack 1 can pay off big time in pack 3, even if you feel like you have incentive to go a different route. For example, if you're at pick six or seven in pack 1, you're base red but also second picked Epic Confrontation, and you see Dromoka Warrior, Lightwalker, Tread Upon, and a bunch of unplayables, I'd take a white card. There's a decent chance there's only one other white drafter within five seats to your left, and if they wind up abandoning white, there's a great chance you wind up with a monster pack 3, possibly getting passed a true bomb along with all the Sandsteppe Outcasts and Sandblasts you could want. Its not uncommon to be passed any of the following pretty late in FRF if no one within a few seats on your left is in the color: Citadel Siege, Mastery of the Unseen, Supplant Form, Sage Eye Avengers, Archfiend of Depravity, Palace Siege, Mob Rule, Flamewake Phoenix, Temur War Shaman, Wildcall. There is almost no deck that runs these colors that doesn't want these cards. And that's just the high quality intensive non-mythics.

I also feel like green is criminally underrated in this format. A lot of bad filler and unplayables from FRF got upgraded in DDF (Ainok Guide, Feral Krushok) and the fact that Temur Sabertooth costs GG and is getting opened in pack three instead of pack one is huge. The more important reason, though, is that the green commons in DTK seem to perform well above their pay grade. A lot of them look mediocre, but turn out to have high floors overall and then way overperform in certain matchups (i.e. Conifer Strider can shut down aggressive removal plus Heelcutter decks) or in certain decks (Glade Watcher in GR, Servant of the Scale in GW), making them deceptively better than they appear.

Part of this is also that I've had a lot of success with creature heavy decks. In other recent formats, I've found decks with 16+ creatures had ceiling caps, because you're now thin on removal and other efficient value spells. The most consistent way I've found that I have decks overperform in DDF is to zig against this instinct and build streamlined, low curve, aggressive creature decks, often with around 17 creatures. I've won a number of eight mans with decks like this that I thought were fairly mediocre, but worked way better than I realized they would.

I've come to suspect that the reason for this is that the four key creature mechanics in DTK--Bolster, Formidable, Dash, and Exploit--all do different things and can work in different strategies, but all four also overlap in this one area. Between +1/+1 counter synergy and just the nature of the mechanic, you obviously want efficient threat diversity to leverage Bolster effects. Formidable rewards you for critical mass of power, but there are plenty of common cheap and/or efficient high power creatures that allow you to diversify threats and make it more of a value mechanic (Glade Watcher, Dragon Scarred Bear, Ainok Aerialist, Stampeding Elk Herd, Qal Sisma Behemoth). The Dash guys function as modal cards that can either generate tempo (usually early) or apply immediate pressure (usually later to finish) without sacrificing much efficiency, and Kolaghan Forerunners is an underrated uncommon that gets better in go-wide strategies. And Exploit lets you take your early aggressive threats and cash them in for value if they become obsolete in the late game. The only deck that likes all of these abilities is a streamlined creature deck.

Usually slower midrangey and controlling decks can find ways to stabilize against the aggressive, low curve decks, but Bolster, Formidable, and Exploit all allow you to scale up your early plays later in the game, and Dash means big life swings are always possible unless the control deck is uber conservative.

Given this, I've actually had the most success with WG and WR decks that can provide early pressure, trade efficiently, and generate value without leaning too heavily on removal. RB and GR I've also found solid for similar reasons, but going with the traditional "threats plus removal good stuff" doesn't seem as good in this format as it usually is. It's more important that you curve out and punish slow draws with these archetypes. UG is probably the most underrated color combo as well, as they're the two weakest colors on paper and don't have any inherent mechanical synergy, but there are as many rewards as ever for just going with an aggressive tempo strategy that wants to close the game with evasion.

Black is powerful enough that any black deck can also work, though I definitely think UB and BW are overrated and BG probably underrated. I've also been underwhelmed by UW (perhaps because they have the least access to the creature mechanics noted above and want you to play more spells to trigger the Prowess-type abilities), but it can work. UR is the only strategy I both haven't seen work and can't really envision how it would work. I've had UR decks that I thought were excellent, but still required nut draws to really function like I hoped.