Now that Dark Ascension is finally available online, we will begin to a see the new limited environment take shape. Up until this point, Friday Night Magic strategies have been fine and all, but a true metagame gets to take form when people all over the World are battling all through the night. The Pro Tour got to show us a few neat things about the format, like the Lost in the Woods strategy, but in general, it was difficult to tell what archetypes had changed and in what ways.
If you remember back to Innistrad limited, we had fleshed out the format quite well. At the end of triple block limited, we basically had the following break down for archetypes:
UR Control/Burning Vengeance
Of course, there are plenty of other archetypes available, but those are really the pillar of the format and the decks you will gravitate toward more often than not. Today, I want to touch on most of those archetypes and talk about how the impact of Dark Ascension has shaped them for the foreseeable future. In addition to that, there are some archetypes that were basically unplayable before that now are among the best, or at least that are perfectly reasonable to draft.
In triple Innistrad, GW aggro was hands down the best deck. Among the commons for the archetype, there were almost 10 first pickable cards from Darkthicket Wolf, to Cloistered Youth, to Bonds of Faith. The deck had a huge amount of redundancy with every 2 drop enjoying the hard work put in by Travel Preparations and other pump spells. Green was particularly deep with just about every werewolf being very good which allowed you to draft face up and scare people from drafting the same deck.
With Dark Ascension, Green took a huge hit and is easily the worst color to be in for the commons alone. White has plenty of goodies, but outside of Loyal Cathar, the color combo lost most of its face-up advantage, so it is less likely that you will be able to push people off of the archetype through information alone. Instead, the archetype has shifted toward a more stage developmental building process.
In pack 1, you are now looking to snag all of the very good White cards, from Burden of Guilt, to Niblis of the Mist, to Skillful Lunge. The occasional Green card, like Kessig Recluse or some uncommon or rare will make its way to you from time to time, but White is the place you want to be. This allows you to keep your options open for a long time as well, as UW is now a perfectly legitimate archetype as well. Assuming you stuck to your guns and wanted to play GW though, going into pack 2, you have to send a signal early on that that is what you have going on. Taking Villagers of Estwald or Gatstaf Shepherd early can still push people off of Green and leave you with a solid deck in the end.
This is an archetype that improved quite a bit, but drafting it also got more difficult due to the new class of commons. In Innistrad, this archetype was defined by its copious amounts of removal and its middle of the line creatures that gave you small advantages from time to time, like Markov Patrician or Crossway Vampire.
With Dark Ascension, much of the same remains true. The one important thing to note about your creature curve though, is that the 3-drop slot gets filled quickly. In addition to the numerous 3-drops that Innistrad offered, now you have Markov Chosen, Erdwald Ripper, and multiple uncommon 3-drops that begin to burden down the 3-drop slot. Because of this, you really need to make it a priority to draft cards in other mana slots.
Highborn Ghoul and Hinterland Hermit are both great 2 drops, with the Ghoul being the better of the two, but you cannot let them go too late as your curve might just be atrocious if they don't come to you. Russet Wolves is another important card here, as it is both a 4-drop and it manages to outwork the plethora of 2/3s in the format, like Selhoff Occultist, One-Eyed Scarecrow, or Nephalia Seakite. More so than any creature though, BR hinges directly on the removal it has available, which is were DKA shines.
Death's Caress, Fires of Undeath, and Tragic Slip are all first pick quality removal spells and likely are 3 of the top 5 commons in the set, which is a double edged sword. On the one hand, that means more of a chance that you can open up on one of those picks. On the other hand, it also makes it more likely that the person to your left opens one and takes it over the random chaff that other colors offer up. Because there are so few good flip cards in BR, especially ones that you would take with an early pick, you can very easily end up fighting with your neighbor over BR cards as the colors are fairly deep so you won't really have an idea of signaling until you have committed quite a few picks to the archetype.
GR Aggro (Werewolves)
This is my favorite new archetype to turn to as a “go-to” strategy as it was almost unplayable before but is quite good now. Previously, in Innistrad, the reason GR was so bad, was that you were basically taking the good cards from GW or BR (one half of each) but you lacked the cohesive cards that pushed either archetype over the top. GW got the same good cards you did, but even more so, and then had things like Travel Preparations and Butcher's Cleaver to really gel everything and give you direction. Similarly, BR had much more removal plus key cards to combine with said removal, like Falkenrath Noble. Really, Moonmist was the best card to meld your GR deck together, and its not the type of card you want 3 or 4 of in your deck unlike Travel Preparations.
What changed in Dark Ascension then that allows GR to be a viable archetype? Well now the strategy has lord effects and on-color flashback spells that do more than just sit in your sideboard. If you are going to go GR, you need to be on the lookout for early crucial 3-drops, the most important being Immerwolf, but Pyreheart Wolf is very close to being as good. The advantage of Pyreheart Wolf is that you can easily end up in BR still, but Immerwolf is the better of the two for this archetype. Beyond those two lord effects, Wild Hunger gives your deck a huge push in the right direction. Werewolves tend to be large but lack trample, meaning the UW player can just race over your head while they chump with Doomed Travelers. Wild Hunger changes that combat math completely and gives you some real finishing power.
If you don't end up with any of the “lord” effects from Dark Ascension, your GR deck can still operate, but you need to turn to rares or the B squad. Both Mayor of Avabruck and Kruin Outlaw will provide that lord effect that you need, but obviously counting on getting a rare flip card is a bad idea, though not mentioning them at all seems just as poor. Moonmist and Full Moon's Rise both offer some nice synergy effects for the deck, although they can often be found lacking, they can help if you absolutely need the help. I generally try to pick up 1 to 2 Moonmist in this style of deck anyway, as it can lead to some sick combat swings, and Full Moon's Rise is not terrible, but that fact that it only helps your Werewolves and not your normal Wolves is certainly a downgrade.
While the archetype may not have been all that exciting in the world of triple Innistrad, Dark Ascension has strengthened the oldest strategy in the books yet again, UW Spirits picks up so many goodies that it jumps from a deck that was barely ever mentioned, to one of the 4 best decks in the format. To say that this hinged on one card would be foolish, but one of the biggest aids in this jump is certainly Drogskol Captain.
Hexproof has proven itself to be a limited nightmare and the Captain not only grants it to every other Spirit you might control, but being a 2/2 flier himself means that even without back-up, you still have a reasonable evasive body.
Tricks are an important part of UW as they really want to alter combat math while they attack I the air, allowing them to race more efficiently Both Nephalia Seakite and Hollowhenge Spirit provide additional fliers for your clock but also mess up combat math from the opponent which can be invaluable. Skillful Lunge also provides a nice replacement to Moment of Heroism so that even though it is worse, you still get an equal (actually slightly greater) chance at picking up your 2-drop combat trick.
Because this archetype increases in value as a result of new cards, old cards naturally go up in the pick order as well. Feeling of Dread is the big winner here, as the card has always been powerful, but UW has never been that exciting of an archetype. Both Gallows Warden and Battleground Geist also get a nudge, although no one really viewed those cards as bad in the first place.
This archetype is a bit controversial at this point. I remember standing in the hall at the Pro Tour and listening to Ben Stark argue with Jon Finkel about the archetype even. Ben believes that the archetype is significantly worse as a result of losing basically an entire pack of the cards that make the deck run. Some new additions are decent in the deck, like Thought Scour, but you lose out on the essential cards like Spider Spawning and Memory's Journey. Jon on the other hand, believes that because that pack of cards are gone, assuming you are the brave soul who does move into Spiders, you should naturally have a better deck as other people are more likely to steer clear of the whole mess.
Both viewpoints hold some water, although I am more inclined to agree with Ben and avoid the archetype more often than not. To me, it just feels weird moving into an archetype where you cannot even know if you have the makings necessary for it until pack 2. The gamble just seems too large to really be worth it most of the time. If you happened to be Mono Blue or something going into pack 2 and then got shipped all of the makings of spiders, then good work, but putting yourself in UG, a terrible color combination otherwise, in hopes that the packs will work out for pack 2 and 3, is just too big of a risk in my opinion.
UR Burning Vengeance
This was always a niche archetype, and it remains so, but I wanted to specifically talk about a few of the new cards and how they impact this archetype. First and foremost is to realize that Secrets of the Dead is not Burning Vengeance. This rule of thumb applies on almost every front. If you see this late, even 10th or so, it does not mean that UR or Burning Vengeance is open in the slightest. It does mean you can pick this up late and go that direction should it make sense, but it should not be read as a signal. It also means the card is significantly worse than Burning Vengeance and a deck with 3 Secrets of the Dead still needs a lot to go right for it while a deck with 3 Burning Vengeance is insane.
Consider that you would almost never play a card that read U: Draw a card in limited, while R: Deal 2 damage, is nearly a first pick card. Burning Vengeance allows you to take control of the board and then eventually turn it on the opponent's face and killing them with it. Drawing cards is great, but all it is doing is trying to find the best card in your deck, aka: Burning Vengeance. You will play Secrets of the Dead when you get it in that deck, but I would never play more than 2, and 1 seems optimal.
Beyond that little tidbit, Faithless Looting is the most important card you can pick up that other people might not want. Mystic Retrieval is also quite good. Of course, cards like Fires of Undeath are going to be good, but you can't reasonably see those beyond pick 3. And in case it was not apparent, you should basically never sleeve up Shattered Perception.
Unfortunately for some of the other archetypes, like UB, they actually get even weaker and were not at a great position to start. They are of course occasionally viable, as almost everything is, but they will not be one of the go-to archetypes. And as for Mill-You, I think you should draft it about as infrequently as you did before, but there is one big exception here: Increasing Confusion. That can can be enough of a reason to move into mill if you have the guts to do so. That does not mean you should just slam it p1p1, but I think it is perfectly reasonable to do so.
In general I think the format shifted a bit but remains similar to Innistrad, with a handful of viable decks and then a ton of fringe archetypes that should be turned to on occasion. The flip cards lowered in power level quite a bit, which makes for the game of face-up drafting as a strategy weaken a bit, which is probably a good thing. Grand Prix Seattle is only a few weeks away, so I look forward to going and meeting all of you there! Thanks for reading!