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By: a small child, Ralph Wiggum
Jun 03 2010 2:37am
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As this is my first article for PureMTGO, I’d like to take a moment to introduce myself. I’ve been playing Magic off and on since Revised Edition, and playing on a competitive level since Torment. I jumped on the MTGO bandwagon on day one and have been infinite sense, playing under a number of different usernames (primarily “a small child”). Since Ravnica Block, I’ve played exclusively online. I’ve dabbled in constructed formats – mostly block and some of the specialty formats like Standard Vanguard and Standard Tribal back when those had tournaments – but my first love is and always has been limited. While I’m certainly not the best limited player, I’m pretty proud of my accomplishments – I’ve gotten my limited rating well over 1900 on many occasions (peaking at 1967 a few months ago) – and tend to grasp formats quickly.

 

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get to it!

 

There has been a lot of buzz recently about Rise limited, with many top players lauding the format as a return to classic draft as opposed to the more gimmicky sets we’ve been seeing in the last few years. I definitely agree with this sentiment, but I also feel that it misses a critically important aspect of the format. In many ways, Rise is the pinnacle of a trend that has been brewing for a long time: the demise of the unplayable and the rise of the niche bomb. If you look at old sets, one thing that immediately jumps out is the number of cards that are just god awful. It wasn’t uncommon to see a pack with five cards left, none of which you would ever be willing to play except in the most epic of train wreck drafts. Even poor limited players knew not to touch crap like this with a ten foot pole. More recently, however, these cards have been increasingly replaced by cards that are indeed unplayable in most decks but are likely to be defining staples in certain archetypes. Rise has a LOT of these cards. Consider this:

 

Shared Discovery

 

I regularly see these going as late as 12th-15th. Most decks won’t want to play this as tapping four creatures is a very steep price to pay. But in a deck that can afford to lock down a bunch of dudes for a turn, what an effect! Few things in magic win as many games as “Draw three cards.”

 

What all this means is that a drafter who is prepared to take advantage can turn everyone else’s trash into his treasure as long as he knows what he is doing and sticks to the plan. One can’t just expect to take the best card out of every pack and do well on a consistent basis – one has to start thinking about how the games are going to play out from the very first pack. Since I began writing this article about a week and a half ago, several big name players have come out and published some articles that echo these sentiments. Let me just say that I wholeheartedly agree with the vast majority of what they say, and I hope to keep going with those ideas and refine them into both a theoretical model of how we conceptualize cards and a practical approach for draft (and especially Rise draft).

 

In the rest of this article I’m going to focus on the theoretical model, and in the next I will outline the way I use the archetype driven nature of the draft format to craft an approach that allows one to take advantage of powerful but narrow cards without having to resort to risky tactics like forcing.

 

The Four Categories

 

I break down all cards into four basic categories: Forks, Cornerstones, Filler, and Sideboard. The last two categories are the most obvious so let’s get those out of the way.

 

Sideboard cards are exactly what they sound like – cards you wouldn’t want to maindeck but have important potential sideboard applications against certain archetypes. The best sideboard cards aren’t necessarily even close to maindeckable. Sometimes a really excellent sideboard card can devastate a certain matchup but be a blank elsewhere. You very rarely want to maindeck a card like that, but you’d really want it in your sideboard. These cards are also often the most difficult to evaluate as they require a developed understanding of the archetypes available and how they match up. It’s frankly too early in the format to go into a lot of depth here.

 

Filler cards are the last cards you add to your deck during deck construction. You might use them to pad your mana curve or to add some generic playables. Rarely do these cards make or break a game, but it’s not realistic to think that every card in your deck is going to be a star. You’re going to have to run some of these in just about any deck. The worst filler cards are truly unplayable, while the best are generic good stuff cards that don’t really synergize with anything enough and aren’t powerful enough to fit into the other two categories.

 

Forks are cards that you are happy to play in just about any deck with the appropriate color. I call them forks because when you draft them, they leave multiple paths open for the rest of the draft.

 

Staggershock VendettaDawnglare Invoker

 

When you take a Staggershock, you leave yourself open to just about any deck that runs mountains because it’s just a good card that you will always play.

 

Bombs are merely the best available fork cards:

 

Gideon Jura Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief

 

Drana is perhaps a better example than Gideon because she is so straightforward. You kill their guys and bash them. You don’t need synergy here. Gideon is more complex, but he is powerful enough that you’ll always play him if you are playing white. In a way forks are just really good filler cards, but I think it’s critically important to differentiate between the two because doing so is fundamental to good draft strategy. I’ll get into this distinction in more detail later.

 

Last but not least are cornerstones. Cornerstone cards anchor you in a particular archetype. They are often very powerful but also rather narrow. Either they need support from particular kinds of other cards or they require you to craft a certain type of gamestate in order to have optimal impact. Let’s look back at Shared Discovery. For this card to work, you need to both have four creatures and you need to be able to afford to tap them. You get there in two ways: you support it with cards that produce lots of creatures, and you support it with cards that create a gamestate in which tapping those creatures is only a minor cost. Accomplishing this takes some legwork at all stages of the event – draft, deckbuilding, and match play – but the payoff is a sweet three fresh cards.

 

While many people point to the best fork cards as format defining (think Spikeshot Goblin), I’d argue that in the end of the day the best cornerstones, such as Myr Enforcer and Nim Lasher are more memorable.

 

Lets take a look at Alara Block for some more recent examples of cornerstones and forks. I know this is old stuff, but I’d like to illustrate the concepts with cards that nearly everyone should be familiar with.

 

Magma Spray

 

An obvious fork, it’s great in any deck that runs red.

 

Corpse Connoisseur

 

This one is a clear cornerstone. If you don’t have unearth guys to support him he’s pretty bad, but in an unearth deck (think back to triple shards) he’s pretty sick.

 

Woolly Thoctar

 

Is this card a cornerstone or a fork? It’s certainly powerful, but think about what taking this card early does to your draft. It commits you to a very specific archetype: Naya. For thoctar to shine you need to support it with the mana fixing needed to get it out on turn three or four. Therefore, this card is a cornerstone card.

 

Bant Sureblade

 

This, on the other hand, is a fork card. While it’s not the best of the best, you’ll happily play it in almost any deck that can cast it and it leaves you open to a number of archetypes if you take it early. You could go GW aggro, Naya, UW aggro, or Esper.

 

Defiler of SoulsHellkite Overlord

 

I’ll leave you two more to debate – these cards are both very powerful but also require certain gamestates to be optimal. For defiler to work best you want to have a lot of multicolored guys or a lot of disposable monocolored guys, and for the overlord to work you need to survive to 8 mana with a reasonable board position. The also both commit you to multiple colors, but are splashable enough to not only go into one archetype. Ultimately I think defiler is closer to a fork and overlord is closer to a cornerstone, but I could go either way on both.

 

 

Enough Alara Block! Let’s get back to the relevant stuff:

 

Venerated TeacherKiln FiendBrood Birthing

 

All three of these are pretty obvious cornerstone cards. Venerated Teacher is amazing in a deck with a high density of levelers and pretty much unplayable in any other deck. Kiln Fiend might not make the cut in every red deck, but it’s extremely important to the explosive UR and BR Kiln Fiend archetypes (shocking, I know). Brood Birthing is a card that hasn’t caught on much yet, but there are definitely decks in which it shines. However, in a deck that struggles to make the first spawn token or has little use for the tokens, it’s pretty awful.

 

Now, I’m not going to pretend that this system of classifying cards is airtight. There are some interesting examples of cards that are difficult to put into one type or another. I imagine some of my previous examples might spark some debate (such as Woolly Thoctar). Here are a couple of very strong cards from Rise that are hard to classify:

 

Pestilence DemonPelakka Wurm

 

Noticing a pattern here? Both of these are extremely powerful cards with heavy mana commitments both in terms of color and in terms of total cost. These cards are easily powerful enough to be forks, but at the same time they do require you to build around them in a way that Staggershock does not. You need to play an archetype that can support the hefty mana cost and craft a game state in which you don’t die before your bomb hits. This might mean accelerating them out, or it might mean emphasizing a defensive early game in favor of a strong late game. You could make an argument that these are fork cards because of how powerful they are and because they do fit into multiple archetypes. At the same time, you could argue that they are cornerstones because in order to get the most out of them you do need to craft your plan around them to a certain extent, much like the Hellkite Overlord and Defiler of Souls that were discussed before. Maybe cards like these deserve their own category, but I’m going to resist that notion for now (although I could be convinced). For now I’ll simply take this question into consideration when describing the overall strategy.

 

Let’s take a look at a few real packs from Magic Online drafts and break them down based on the system that I described above. I went ahead and removed the basic land.

 

Pack 1:

 

Demonic AppetiteNaturalizeGrowth SpasmBattle RampartPuncturing Light

StaggershockZulaport EnforcerReinforced BulwarkVendettaMerfolk Observer

Pelakka WurmInquisition of KozilekNirkana CutthroatBear Umbra

 

Filler and Sideboard Cards:

 

Battle Rampart, Puncturing Light, Naturalize, Reinforced Bulwark, Merfolk Observer, Inquisition of Kozilek, and Zulaport Enforcer all belong in this category. Naturalize is obviously a sideboard card. The others seem to me to be filler. The merfolk and bulwark are the bottom of the barrel in you will almost never want to maindeck them and will rarely side them in either. The rampart and Puncturing Light are more playable – you aren’t excited to play them but seeing one maindeck doesn’t necessarily mean the draft has gone horribly wrong. Inquisition and the enforcer are both solid and can go in multiple archetypes, but aren’t quite of the power level required of fork cards. Inquisition could be argued to be a sideboard card in that it is much more powerful in certain matchups, but it gets maindecked often enough to go in the filler column in my opinion.

 

Forks:

 

Vendetta and Staggershock are obvious forks. They are excellent cards and go in any deck that plays their colors. They are also highly splashable. Nirkana Cutthroat is more borderline, but I think it makes the cut. You’ll happily play it in basically any Black deck and it’s a powerful card (moreso than Zulaport Enforcer). It may not be as good as the two removal spells but it’s still a fork.  I’m going to also argue that Growth Spasm is a fork. Its power level is on the low side for a fork card, but it does fill in the other side of what a fork card does very nicely: it keeps your options open. You’re almost never going to cut this from a Green deck and it enables splashes. It has enough power to almost always be played and keeps your options open, therefore it’s a fork. There are two more cards that are arguably forks but are a bit harder to evaluate: Bear Umbra and Pelakka Wurm. We’ve already discussed the Wurm. Suffice to say that the Bear Umbra has similar characteristics – it’s a very strong card that is good in a number of archetypes, but also commits you to playing a fairly heavy green deck. It has the power level of a fork, but in terms of keeping your options open it’s pretty weak – not as weak as the wurm, but weak nonetheless. For the purposes of evaluating the pack though, I think we can call both of these cards forks.

 

Cornerstones:

 

There is only one cornerstone card in this pack and it’s not a very good one: Demonic Appetite. Some of you might be inclined to put this in the filler or sideboard category, but I assure you it does not belong there. You will almost never throw this card into a deck as the 22nd/23rd card because you need one more playable. Similarly, you will almost never want to sideboard this in. This card is pretty close to unplayable, but I can imagine one situation in which it might be good: a G/B deck with a lot of copies of Aura Gnarlid, token generation, and maybe some a (Mortician’s Beetle) or two. In such a deck, the appetite would actually be quite the beating. Good in one very narrow archetype but unplayable otherwise? Yep, that’s a bad cornerstone.

 

 

Pack 2:

 

Nest InvaderChampion's DrakeOvergrown BattlementBrood BirthingProphetic Prism

Null ChampionBala Ged ScorpionGoblin ArsonistAura FinesseRepel the Darkness

Unified WillJaddi LifestriderDomesticationMomentous Fall

 

Filler and Sideboard Cards:

 

Null Champion, Prophetic Prism, Goblin Arsonist, Aura Finesse and Bala Ged Scorpion are the only filler/sideboard cards in this pack. They are all very good filler except the finesse and arsonist, but I think it’s pretty hard to call them forks. The prism is the closest because it is so versatile. The finesse and arsonist are almost unplayable, although I could see how arsonist might very rarely get sided in.

 

Forks:

 

Nest Invader, Overgrown Battlement and Domestication fall into this category. Domestication is similar to Bear Umbra as described above, but I think its good enough across the board to be a fork.

 

Cornerstones:

 

Brood Birthing and (Champion’s Drake) are both pretty obviously cornerstone cards. The Jaddi Lifestrider also fits because it’s so much better in a deck that produces a lot of tokens. You’re very unlikely to be happy with it otherwise. The same is true with Unified Will. The will is pretty close to the bottom of the cornerstone category though as it’s not exactly setting the world on fire even when you can support it. Repel the Darkness is less obvious, but I think it fits here because it’s so much better in a very aggressive deck that needs to tap blockers. That archetype is rare in this format, but if it exists it wants this card way more than any other archetype does. Finally we have Momentous Fall, which I imagine will spark some controversy. I think you could make a case for it being a fork, a cornerstone, or filler and I’ll admit that I don’t have enough experience with the card to have a strong opinion on the matter. I’ve seen games where it’s been amazing and games where it’s been awful, which tends to make me think that it’s probably a cornerstone – if you can craft a gamestate where the fall is at its best, then the card can be really powerful. But you have to put the work in when designing your deck if you hope to get there. If you can’t make that gamestate happen then the fall mostly just sits in your hand doing nothing. If you are way ahead on the board then you don’t want to sac a guy. If you are way behind you can’t afford to sac a guy. If you are only wanting to play it in response to removal then this is really a sideboard card for you. If you can get into a stall situation where you can afford to sac something big without falling too far behind, however, then this card is golden.

 

Now that you have the hang of how to evaluate cards based on these categories, we’ll put those skills to use. In my next article, I’ll discuss draft strategy and lay out an approach to Rise draft that relies on these sorts of evaluations.

 

3 Comments

Wooly Thoctar by grapplingfarang at Thu, 06/03/2010 - 12:14
grapplingfarang's picture
5

Very interesting article, I like hearing your classification instead of just the simple BREAD system. I would argue that Wooly Thoctar might be a fork though, especially with block packs. It has seemed to me that the block pack metagame has made it much tougher to draft just one shard, and most people combine Naya with either Jund or Esper, or all 5 colors together with heavy fixing. I think are many deck types the Thoctar can end up in.

Nice article! I actually by inneutral at Thu, 06/03/2010 - 15:03
inneutral's picture

Nice article! I actually think cards such as mana fixing, e.g., Growth Spasm, prophetic Prism, might deserve a category of their own. You define forks as cards that leave multiple paths open, but these cards make additional paths viable that previously were not. For example, with good mana fixing you can play multiple non-linked cornerstones (like, say, drana and deathless angel) or add additional forks into your deck (splash a flame slash in U/W).

To add something non-obvious to that, you seem to use primarily color requirement as your divide between "fork" or "cornerstone" but see cards like Enclave Cryptologist as forks as well. When I pick him, I tend to think of him as an engine for a more controlling build (after all, the longer the game goes, the greater the benefit he yields). However, decks with an aggressive curve can skimp on leveling him as they like looting to throw away extra land in exchange for gas. So P1P1 Enclave Cryptologist, P1P2 Regress can lead quite naturally into a counter based deck or kiln fiend aggro-combo without skipping a beat.

Thanks for the comments! by a small child at Fri, 06/04/2010 - 08:14
a small child's picture

Thanks for the comments! Inneutral, I think my reasoning will become a bit more clear when part II is published (I've submitted it). The point of a fork isn't just to keep your options open; a fork gives you a significant amount of power while keeping options open. Number of mana symbols is a significant concern but it isn't the main criteria for deciding -- really, it's more of a tiebreaker than anything else. There are quite a few instances where a card is easy to cast but gets classified as filler rather than fork because the power level isn't quite there. Also, Drana and Deathless Angel are both definitely forks despite their double colored requirement -- people sometimes talk about splashing Drana in non black decks despite the BB cost, and while Deathless Angel isn't quite there it is definitely powerful enough for the double white to not matter to me. As far as colorfixing goes, some of these cards do open additional paths (colorless fixers like prism and evolving wilds) but others do not (like growth spasm, which requires that you play green -- so even though it keeps your options more open, it still cuts off more than it opens up). An exceptionally powerful fixer could absolutely be a fork, otherwise it's likely to be a good filler card. Again, this will make more sense when I describe the draft strategy in the next article.

Perhaps it would be best to think of it this way: I'm evaluating cards based on two metrics -- flexibility and power. Forks are high power, high flexibility. Cornerstones are high power, low flexibility. Filler is low to medium power, any medium to high flexibility. Sideboard cards are low to high power, low to medium flexibility (and what flexibility they do have is determined by your opponent's deck more than your own).

And yes, Enclave Cryptologist is definitely a fork. It has very high power and is great in multiple archetypes. He's at his best in a controlling build, sure -- so you might start keeping your eyes open more for one of the control archetypes, but even that is a pretty wide open category with multiple directions you can go (U/B, U/R, U/G all just off the top of my hand).

Grapplingfarang -- you make a good point, particularly about triple block pack drafts. I used thoctar in part because I knew there would be some debate there. I still think he's a cornerstone because his power level is just so much different in a Naya deck than it is in any other archetype. Yes there are many archetypes that can cast him, but he's not that ridiculous in any of them except Naya, because only Naya can really consistently cast him on turn 3. If you cast him on turn 3 he's amazing. On turn 4 he's merely very good (a bit better than Wild Leotau, for example). On turn 5 he start's losing a lot of luster because you can start comparing him to cards like Mosstodon, who is on a similar power level when cast on turn 5. Mosstodon is a very nice filler card of course. But if a card performs at a high power level in one or two archetypes and a medium power level in several more, I don't really see it as being a fork. Again, it's close though in this case!