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An In-depth Early Look at M21 Draft

There was a time not too long ago in Magic’s history where digital players had to wait a whole two weeks after paper pre-release to draft the newest set online. That idea is absurd to a Magic player living in 2020, one because we now get a crack at a new format mere days after the full preview comes out and two, imagine playing paper Magic.

We’re only a few days into M21’s lifespan, but thanks to MTG Arena’s early access streamer event and a slightly unhealthy compulsion to draft until I experience a slight numbness in my fingers, I’ve already been able to sneak in close to 30 drafts. I’m excited to share what I’ve learned so lets jump in!

Format overview

Building Something from Nothing

Broke: “There’s not enough build-arounds and too much junk in Core set packs to build a synergistic deck, Core set limited is just about bashing creatures into each other and seeing who wins when the dust settles”

Woke: Core set limited is about maximizing on your best cards by capitalizing on small synergies and finding value in how the commons interact.

Core sets tend to get somewhat of a bad rap when it comes to the relative lack of complexity their limited formats have to offer. I’m not going to try and argue that M21 is anywhere near as complex or synergy driven as a set like Ikoria, but you should absolutely still be trying to draft a deck instead of just a pile of good cards. While core sets of yore were generally about jamming as much power into your deck as you could to offset the few junkers you’d inevitably end up with, that hasn’t really been the case since M19 ushering in the new era of core sets, and I don’t think it’s the case with M21. Synergy is very much a core tenant of drafting this set.

Now of course, without context and a proper frame of reference, telling someone “draft a synergistic deck” is just as helpful as saying “just be better at Magic.” In every draft format there’s a learning curve to discovering what makes each archetype tick, figuring out which synergies are worth going for, and which ones aren’t. Understanding the nuances of drafting M21 will come in time as you draft the format, but I hope to give you a jump start by highlighting some of them.

Being the diligent drafter that you are, sitting down at your next draft with the intention of drafting a synergistic deck, M21 presents you with 3 main obstacles:

1) Building a synergistic deck isn’t always as easy as taking a gold signpost uncommon and following the path it leads you down since some of them are more supported by the commons and uncommons than others

If you’ve been drafting for a while, it will come as no surprise to you that barring rares and mythics, the gold signpost uncommons are some of the most powerful cards you can get your hands on. These are the cards that the play design team puts into the set to say “hey you see this card, this is what your colour pair is trying to do.” Each of them are powerful cards in a vacuum , and you’ll happily play them in any deck that can cast them, but only a handful of them are cards that I could give to a player who’s never drafted M21 before and say “draft a deck around this card’s theme and you’ll end up with a good deck.” Not all of them lead you down a path that naturally makes good use of the commons in a given color pair.

Let’s take Watcher of the Spheres

Watcher of the Spheres

A perfectly solid little beater, it clearly wants you to play a bunch of fliers, but outside of two uncommons and two mediocre commons, there’s nothing that incentivizes you or rewards you for completing the quest of drafting a bunch of fliers.

Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with drafting a classic UW fliers deck, that’s a perfectly fine plan, but it’s a little surface level and you should be looking for ways to really juice up your deck. When drafting a color pair like UW where you won’t just incidentally get paid off for drafting cards in your color, you have to look for places where you can find uniquely powerful interactions between the two colors’ cards.

Rousing Read, a card I’m quite high on, happens to play quite nicely with a number of White’s cards. Drafting these pockets of synergy elevates your deck from “decent Blue and White cards” to a deck teeming with favorable interactions.

Here’s another pocket of synergy, this time built around the fact that there are multiple White commons that enable Library Larcenist to get in for a clean attack.

I won’t get into the details of every color pair today, but I’d consider UG, BR, and WR to be a few other color pairs that ask you to really examine the card pool for uniquely powerful interactions (and they’re there you just have to look for them) rather than follow what the signpost uncommon is asking you to do. I don’t want to discount the times that you happen to end up with 3 Watcher of the Spheres or Lorescale Coatls in your pile, if the cards happen to fall in your lap, by all means, build around them because you’ll have a tangible amount of consistency with how often you’ll be able to play one of your payoff cards. This is more just a word of caution that without opening or getting passed multiple uncommon payoffs, the themes that the signposts are suggesting won’t get there with just commons.

Contrast this with the early front runner for the best deck in the format, UR spells, a deck that has a plethora of powerful payoffs and enablers a common, and a few more at uncommon to boot! I could confidently tell someone drafting M21 for the first time “If Blue and Red are open, just take the good cards and your deck will be effortlessly synergistic.”

2) The strong synergies are less explicit than they were in a set like Ikoria and there’s a bit of a learning curve to picking up on them.

Conclave Mentor

Even if you’re in one of the colour pairs like UR or GW whose signpost’s theme is well supported there are synergies that either aren’t obvious or are unintuitive at first blush. For example, lets take one of Green’s top commons, Drowsing Tyrannodon. If I asked 100 drafters “what colour pair most wants this card?” I’d wager that a good percentage of them would say RG because by design, it’s the deck that most cares about four powered creatures. This is what I assumed going into the set, but upon further inspection, GW is the deck that has the highest density of cards that enable waking up the Tyrannodon.

These unintuitive synergies are peppered throughout the set so be on the lookout for times when cards that you wouldn’t expect to belong to a given archetype actually slot in quite nicely. This is especially true when you’re the one sitting on the opposite side of the table from a cool interaction that you hadn’t previously considered. Week one of a format is the best time to learn from your opponents. Be observant and take note of these interactions so they become tools in your arsenal for future drafts.

3) A good number of the commons look bad at face value, however almost all of them have a home somewhere. The trick is identifying where.

This is the first set in quite some time that is low on what I’d call “generically good playables.”

Compared to every other set we’ve seen in the past year, M21 has a good amount of what the philistines call “draft chaff.” One of the ways that you can level up your game in basically any format is take all of the cards that you’d rate at a C minus or below, and ask yourself “in what situation does this card become a decent playable?” A week or two into a draft format, most people know what the “good” cards in a set are and even if you’ve read every set review and listened to every podcast out there to get ahead of the curve, your edge starts to fade as the rest of the world properly calibrates. You can regain that edge by understanding where the less desirable cards fit into the landscape of the format and recognize when you should be putting “bad” cards in your deck. Since M21 has less generically good playables than we’re used to, it’s pertinent that you do so sooner rather than later, as if you’re unsure where the bad cards fit in, you’re going to feel like packs are bone dry before you even see the wheel.

There’s no doubt that the P1P1 that Frank Karsten tweeted is abhorrent. Your heart would sink if that were your opening pack on day two of a GP. If I were to open that pack, I’d likely take Wall of Runes. Am I happy about it ? No. But I know that Wall lines up well against the ground threats in the format and there’s a subset of U based control decks (namely Teferi’s Tutelage decks and UB reanimator) that actually appreciate the card.

I also think the White shrine would be a reasonable card to speculate on here, it’s an awful card on it’s own but there’s a chance we pick up one of the better shrines to go with it.

Will this pick end up mattering in the grand scheme of things? Possibly not, but understanding how to maximize on the bad cards is an important skill, and one of the ways that the world’s best drafters eek out little bits of value.

Let’s take a look at another example:

This is a fairly weak pack. I think that while Falconer Adept is the best card in a vacuum, just edging out Drowsing Tyrannodon, I am fairly confident that the C minus level Setessian Training will come back to us and I like the prospects of potentially moving into a Green aggro deck with a Tyrannodon in the pile. Alternatively, there’s nothing that will reasonably come back in this pack that I’m happy about wheeling to go with the Falconer, as Gale Swooper will assuredly get snapped up from a pack this weak.

Had I not previously identified the place that I actively want Setessian Training, my Tyrannodon decks, I may have just taken the Falconer, and while that’s not a bad pick, I believe it is a worse pick than Tyrannodon here.

I challenge you to find a home for all of the bad cards in M21! Cards have feelings too, try not to hurt them.

Speed of the Format

Just as this is the first format we’ve had in a while with fewer generically good playables, this is the first format in a while that is weighted towards one speed of deck.

Sorry to break the news to all the lovers of durdle, but this is a beatdown format. While not as blistering fast as something like Zendikar or Amonkhet, M21 has many of the hallmarks of an aggressive set. The aggressive cards are better and more prevalent than the defensive ones, the cheap creatures are strong and are relevant in the late game, there aren’t a ton of catch up mechanics, and outside of rares and a few uncommons, there aren’t a ton of incentives to be a late game deck.

Creature sizing is also a large contributing factor to why the format leans towards the speedier end of things. The 4-5 mana creatures are generally stated as “Hill Giant and Hill Giant +” with many of them being no larger than a 3/3 or 4/3, not blocking well the turn they come down. In addition many of the cheap creatures are undercosted for their size, have abilities to grow with the game, or help other creatures attack into or past the more expensive creatures who already don’t block particularly well.

We have a good amount of cheap removal in this format which generally favors control decks being able to keep the aggro decks in check, but when the expensive creatures are small and your 5 drops die to Scorching Dragonfire, the advantage swings back around to the aggro decks as they’re able to leverage the removal spells more effectively than the controlling decks.

Controlling decks still exist, and we’ll touch on them in a bit, but if your goal is to win your next draft, I’d suggest drafting an assertive leaning deck.

The Top Commons

As far as colour balance goes, no colour falls too far behind in M21. I believe that Green is a hair below the rest of the colours as it’s commons don’t run as deep (there’s a lot of sideboard material mucking things up) but I’m not biasing myself away from any colour P1P1.

White

Basri’s Acolyte is an absurd card and one of the best aggressive creatures ever printed at common, take higher than you are now then higher than that. Feat of Resistance is another great aggressive tool, this isn’t your average combat trick and your white decks are happy with three of these. Anointed Chorister is sort of innocuous looking but really delivers the beats with a ton of ways in the set to pump it and being able to grow in the mid-game. Some might be surprised by the absence of Swift Response on this list. It’s a fine card, but so many of the white decks in the format are beatdown decks and don’t want too many copies of a reactive card.

Blue

Most of the Blue archetypes want to beat down-UB being the exception-and that’s reflected in its commons. Roaming Ghostlight is good on offence and defence, Mistral Singer is a scary card in a format with multiple one mana can-tripping spells and Opt is a key part to UR and UG while being a decent card everywhere else. Rousing Read gets an honorable mention here as a card that all the Blue archetypes want a copy or two of. Even UB likes it as a way to pitch a reanimation target or slap on a Spined Megalodon.

Black

I don’t think anyone will argue with Grasp of Darkness as the best Black common, but some may be surprised that I have Rise again and Deathbloom Thallid above Finishing Blow. Finishing Blow is a fine card, but it trades down on mana with so many of the things you need to kill. Thallid is super solid and plays nicely with the set’s Morbid and sacrifice themes. Rise Again gets a mention here as even though not ever deck wants this card, the ones that do really want it.

Red

Again, I don’t think anyone will take Umbridge with Scorching Dragonfire in the top spot here. Spellgorger weird is a house, even better than it was in War of the Spark. Crash Through may seem out of place over something like Shock or Chandra’s Magmutt but it’s the glue that holds a lot of the Red decks together and I want multiples if I can get them.

Green

Even though Green isn’t looking to ramp all that often in this set, Llanowar Visionary is a great card that you’ll play as many as you can get your hands on. I firmly believe that you should be taking Drowsing Tyrannodon over Hunter’s Edge, Tyrannodon is just too important to so many Green decks in the format and Hunter’s Edge, while still quite good, has a similar issue to Punishing Blow where it trades down on mana a lot of the time.

The Best Archetypes

UR Spells/Prowess

The consensus best deck in the format, UR is a tempo deck the uses cheap cantrips to power up it’s creatures and get in for huge chunks of damage. This deck functions very similarly to how the RW cycling deck worked in Ikoria, with Opt and Crash Through standing in for your one mana cyclers and the Prowess creatures acting as Flourishing Fox and Prickly Marmosets analogs.

You want to play as many Opt’s and Crash throughs as you can, and just like the cycling decks, you’ll often be running 14 or 15 lands. Goblin Wizardry is a lot better than it looks, with the tokens often being able to attack for 4 damage a piece on turn 5. This deck is heavily supported at common and uncommon so it can easily support two drafters at the table.

White Based Aggro

GW, RW, and UW are all very strong decks and my pick for the next best group of decks in the format after UR. BW aggro doesn’t come together as often, as Black’s commons are all quite defensive, but I can see mono-white decks with a few black removal spells coming together. These decks thrive on the fact that White got a lot of great aggressive commons this go around.

UB Reanimator

One of the few good controlling decks in the format, UB reanimator wants to either play a controlling game and eventually take over with a giant monster, or turbo out a turn five 5/7 Hexproof creature. In a format full of aggro decks you’d think this kind of deck would suffer, but the trick here is that the deck can go over the top of everything else so quickly that often you’re the one presenting a faster clock then your beatdown opponent. Prioritize defensive speed in this deck, and don’t be embarrassed to run multiple Wall of Runes’.

Teferi's Tutelage

This is the best home for Teferi’s Tutelage (which by the way, if you have yet to see in action, is just one of the best uncommons in the set) giving you both a way to pitch your giant monsters and an alternate win condition.

Wrapping Up

And there you have it! A good chunk of the stuff I’ve learned from my first few days of M21 drafts. I’m sure as we jam more games, more things about the format will reveal themselves and I’m excited to see where the format shakes out in a few weeks. I want to finish off by saying even though this is shaping up to be a pretty aggressive format, that’s not something to be afraid of. Aggressive formats are great teaching tools, as they force you to learn aggro fundamentals and heuristics, things that you can carry into future formats, especially if you’re someone with anti-aggro tendencies. Accept the aggro, embrace the aggro, and revel in the simple joys of counting to 20.

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