BNG Draft Through a Different Lens

When I was heading for Valencia last year—the Grand Prix, not the Pro Tour—I was really struggling in Theros draft. I had done 10+ drafts and my win percentage was somewhere in the 30s I believe. It doesn’t seem so complicated now, but I just couldn’t get a handle on this format.

Just drafting more wouldn’t get the job done in time, so I tried a different approach to get my head around this format. When we were going to the airport I had brought two copies of each common and one of each uncommon with the intention of building draft decks. Now, people build Constructed decks all the time, and they also build Sealed decks for practice, but nobody builds draft decks. Why not? The reason of course is that building a draft deck is an interactive experience as it happens during a draft. However, I was not interested in drafting actual decks, I just wanted to get an idea of what good decks look like. I figured if I knew then it would give my drafts some direction, and thus enable me to make better decisions.

Of course, you cannot just build any draft decks. You have to impose some restrictions on your deckbuilding. The draft decks we built had access to two of each common and one of each uncommon to a maximum of three uncommons per deck. This restriction is not completely arbitrary either. If you use this you will get a card pool that approximates the overall card pool in an average draft. That turned out to be a bit too liberal, but it still served its purpose. I learned a lot by discussing the resulting draft decks with my friends, and played a very solid Grand Prix, ending up in the Top 16.

At first I thought I couldn’t really replicate this approach for Born of the Gods, because having two of each Theros common seemed like a fine number for triple-Theros, but I was not really sure how to bring in Born of the Gods cards and still have a reasonable power level for the draft decks. Well, the power level for the Theros decks was pretty much off the charts, so decreasing that a bit wouldn’t hurt. So, the obvious solution—replacing one set of Theros commons with a set of Born of the Gods commons, isn’t so bad. In addition, I dropped the uncommons altogether. It turns out this gives you a power level that is a bit on the weak side, but a much closer approximation of actual draft decks.

I started doing this for Born of the Gods and built everything but the green decks. It was getting a bit tedious doing this by myself with nobody to discuss the build with, so I stopped at some point. However, by the time I stopped I had discovered something that might well be the essence of the draft format. As I was building these decks I noticed that I kept using the same cards. Born of the Gods/Theros/Theros (BTT) draft decks are basically just patched together from a couple of modules. I had noticed something like that when I built the Theros draft decks, but I didn’t pay too much attention to that back then. When I say, “this might be the essence of the draft format,” that doesn’t mean you do it and then everything is solved. It is just a model, and models all have their weaknesses, but I found it to be a model that works well for Theros.

How is this different from other draft formats, where does this come from, and how does it help us to draft BTT?

The question of how this modularity of Theros is different from other draft environments will also help to clarify what I mean here exactly. Let’s start with a good, complicated draft format like Modern Masters. There you draft an archetype depending on your color combinations. These archetypes are not just UW aggro, BR aggro, RW aggro, and so on, they are actually distinct decks with different synergies, thus different needs, different pick orders, and different play styles. If you draft BW you are probably drafting Rebels, if you draft UW that might be Affinity, if you are GW that means you are Saprolings, and if you are RW you are likely to be in Giants. All these decks have a white component, and they are all radically different from each other. Even the three controlling decks, Rebels, Saproling, and Giants, don’t overlap that much in their needs. In Modern Masters you are not just gluing a black control module to the standard white control module and that is your black/white control deck. Modern Masters draft doesn’t work like that. Instead, you have to learn specifically what a Rebel deck looks like, which cards it cares for and which look good, but don’t get you anywhere.

Now let’s compare this to Theros draft. Here it doesn’t really matter all that much whether you are white/blue aggro or white/red aggro. In both cases the standard white aggro module gets patched to another module. In the white/red case, the white aggro module gets patched to the red aggro module and that’s it. If you were drafting red/black aggro you would use almost the same red aggro module. Pick orders barely change depending on which colors you combine. To be fair this is part oversimplification, but nevertheless I found this to be much more accurate for Theros than for Modern Masters or even M14.

When you do know these modules you almost automatically know what will happen when you combine them. For example, if you know that you have a couple of cards from the white aggro module you know that [ccProd]Ordeal of Heliod[/ccProd] will be awesome in your deck, because it is one of the best cards in the white aggro module. There will not be much difference in whether you play that card in WR or WU. In contrast, it isn’t even part of the white control module, and thus if you are drafting BW control you shouldn’t pick this card at all.

What I didn’t mention so far is that it doesn’t make sense to combine aggro modules with control modules. This might seem obvious, but it is actually something where Theros differs from other draft formats. In many other formats a good creature is a good creature and a removal spell is a removal spell, and that’s (almost) the whole story. Of course, this is not entirely new, in fact it is not new at all. Aggressive decks have always cared for different cards than control-oriented decks. However, my impression is that in most draft formats this is much more gradual than in Theros. Either you try to be as aggressive as possible, or you try to control these aggressive decks.

There is basically not much room for midrange in Theros. I don’t say midrange doesn’t exist, but it is much scarcer. Consequently, in Theros draft you know very early on if you want to be aggro or control, and as soon as you have decided you try to push your strategy to the extreme. With that in mind it should be clear that it doesn’t make much sense to rate the cards by one number, or order them. Every card has a value for aggro and a value for control, and these are more or less uncorrelated. If you take a look at the playable subset of cards in a color in either approach, that gives you what I termed “modules” earlier.

To sum this up, in most draft environments the context of your draft decisions is created by your deck, and compartmentalizing it is meaningless because other decks have completely different needs. In Theros each module has its own, independent context, and glueing two modules together leaves you with a deck, but it doesn’t create a new context which alters your draft considerations (much).

I will now present to you these modules. There is an aggressive and a controlling module for each color but red. Red is always aggro. That leaves us with nine modules. Simple combinatorics gives that there should theoretically be 16 decks in BTT draft, six control decks, and ten aggro decks, but after taking a closer look at the modules we might suspect that this is not quite true. Let’s start with the aggro modules. I will sort the cards in each module roughly in pick order. This is not meant to be definitive, I just do it to better convey a sense of the structure of each module. If you want to follow up on this approach it also makes a lot of sense to sort the cards according to their mana cost, because then you get a better sense of where to expect holes in your curve.


Theros Aggro (12/19)

[ccProd]Wingsteed Rider[/ccProd], [ccProd]Hopeful Eidolon[/ccProd], [ccProd]Observant Alseid[/ccProd], [ccProd]God’s Willing[/ccProd], [ccProd]Leonin Snarecaster[/ccProd], [ccProd]Chosen by Heliod[/ccProd], [ccProd]Battlewise Valor[/ccProd], [ccProd]Traveling Philosopher[/ccProd], [ccProd]Lagonna-Band Elder[/ccProd], [ccProd]Cavalry Pegasus[/ccProd], [ccProd]Setessan Battle Priest[/ccProd], [ccProd]Setessan Griffin[/ccProd]

Key facts: Deep, heroic, bestow, combat tricks, great curve

Theros Control (7/19)

[ccProd]Observant Alseid[/ccProd], [ccProd]Divine Verdict[/ccProd], ([ccProd]Scholar of Athreos[/ccProd]), [ccProd]Lagonna-Band Elder[/ccProd], [ccProd]Last Breath[/ccProd], [ccProd]Ephara’s Warden[/ccProd], [ccProd]Yoked Ox[/ccProd]

Key facts: Shallow, no big creatures, awkward removal

We can see here what we know already, of course. In Theros white wants to go aggro. Most of the cards listed here as control are not even terrible in aggro, and overall there is almost no gain to prioritizing a control approach over an aggro approach.

Born of the Gods Aggro (6/12)

[ccProd]Akroan Skyguard[/ccProd], [ccProd]Loyal Pegasus[/ccProd], [ccProd]Nyxborn Shieldmate[/ccProd], [ccProd]Oreskos Sun Guide[/ccProd], [ccProd]Elite Skirmisher[/ccProd], [ccProd]Mortal’s Ardor[/ccProd]

Key facts: Heroic, heroic enablers, very good curve

Born of the Gods Control (4/12)

[ccProd]Excoriate[/ccProd], [ccProd]Griffin Dreamfinder[/ccProd], [ccProd]Revoke Existence[/ccProd], [ccProd]Great Hart[/ccProd]

Key facts: Shallow, no big creatures, solid removal

If we take a look at the aggro half we see why white is so popular in these kinds of decks. It is because the color doesn’t rely on anything from the second half of its deck. White is deep and has plenty of heroic cards as well as enablers, so white gets to go deep when aggressive, and cherrypick a few special cards from the secondary color.

Although white is clearly still much more interested in picking up aggressive cards, there might be some reward in Born of the Gods for a slower deck. Excoriate is just miserable in an aggressive deck, and admittedly it is still not super-powerful in control, but at least there it gets the job done. Griffin Dreamfinder is also a card that might do some work in control, but it is a very special card, and the reward of running is might only be high enough in a deck with multiple Baleful Eidolons. At the same time, the only card that draws us toward control in Theros is Scholar of Athreos, so we might conclude that white will not be control the vast majority of the time, and when it goes control it will probably team up with black.


Theros Aggro (9/19)

[ccProd]Nimbus Naiad[/ccProd], [ccProd]Vaporkin[/ccProd], [ccProd]Wavecrash Triton[/ccProd], [ccProd]Voyage’s End[/ccProd], [ccProd]Griptide[/ccProd], [ccProd]Prescient Chimera[/ccProd], [ccProd]Aqueous Form[/ccProd], [ccProd]Lost in a Labyrinth[/ccProd], [ccProd]Breaching Hippocamp[/ccProd]

Key facts: Shallow, high power level, power level drops quickly, bounce, not much early aggression

Theros Control (13/19)

[ccProd]Voyage’s End[/ccProd], [ccProd]Griptide[/ccProd], [ccProd]Nimbus Naiad[/ccProd], [ccProd]Prescient Chimera[/ccProd], [ccProd]Omenspeaker[/ccProd], [ccProd]Mnemonic Wall[/ccProd], [ccProd]Wavecrash Triton[/ccProd], [ccProd]Crackling Triton[/ccProd], [ccProd]Coastline Chimera[/ccProd], [ccProd]Stymied Hopes[/ccProd], [ccProd]Benthic Giant[/ccProd], [ccProd]Breaching Hippocamp[/ccProd], [ccProd]Annul[/ccProd]

Key facts: Deeper than aggressive side, bounce, lack of powerful creatures

In Theros blue was popular as a support color, but not so much as the main color, and we get to see why. It is not so deep, especially when aggressive. It works a little better as a control color, but needs help to close out games.

Born of the Gods Aggro (9/12)

[ccProd]Sudden Storm[/ccProd], [ccProd]Nyxborn Triton[/ccProd], [ccProd]Chorus of the Tides[/ccProd], [ccProd]Retraction Helix[/ccProd], [ccProd]Stratus Walk[/ccProd], [ccProd]Deepwater Hypnotist[/ccProd], [ccProd]Crypsis[/ccProd], [ccProd]Floodtide Serpent[/ccProd], [ccProd]Nullify[/ccProd]

Key facts: Very deep, good creatures, dominant tempo plays, heroic enablers, few good early creatures

Born of the Gods Control (7/12)

[ccProd]Nyxborn Triton[/ccProd], [ccProd]Retraction Helix[/ccProd], [ccProd]Chorus of the Tides[/ccProd], [ccProd]Divination[/ccProd], [ccProd]Floodtide Serpent[/ccProd], [ccProd]Nullify[/ccProd], [ccProd]Sphinx’s Disciple[/ccProd]

Key facts: Lack of early drops, undersized creatures, most cards better suited to aggressive role

Purely from taking a look at the modules, you can see a shift in blue’s focus. Where it was previously good at playing the control role and okay at being aggro, blue now has a clear preference for going aggro. Most of its card don’t do much in control decks, and those that are okay there are better still in aggressive decks.


Theros Aggro (10/19)

[ccProd]Grey Merchant of Asphodel[/ccProd], [ccProd]Pharika’s Cure[/ccProd], [ccProd]Blood-Toil Harpy[/ccProd], [ccProd]Boon of Erebos[/ccProd], [ccProd]Sip of Hemlock[/ccProd], [ccProd]Fleshmad Steed[/ccProd], [ccProd]Lash of the Whip[/ccProd], [ccProd]Scourgemark[/ccProd], [ccProd]Felhide Minotaur[/ccProd], [ccProd]Cavern Lampad[/ccProd]

Keywords: Shallow, weak creatures, most cards better in control, few but good heroic enablers

Theros Control (13/19)

[ccProd]Gray Merchant of Asphodel[/ccProd], [ccProd]Baleful Eidolon[/ccProd], [ccProd]Pharika’s Cure[/ccProd], [ccProd]Disciple of Phenax[/ccProd], [ccProd]Returned Phalanx[/ccProd], [ccProd]Sip of Hemlock[/ccProd], [ccProd]Read the Bones[/ccProd], [ccProd]Returned Centaur[/ccProd], [ccProd]Lash of the Whip[/ccProd], [ccProd]Felhide Minotaur[/ccProd], [ccProd]Asphodel Wanderer[/ccProd], [ccProd]Viper’s Kiss[/ccProd], [ccProd]Loathsome Catoblepas[/ccProd]

Key facts: Very deep, incredible power level, very good board presence

In Theros black could sometimes go aggressive, but it was certainly the premier control color. The control module is just huge, the cards are powerful, and mostly even very efficient.

Born of the Gods Aggro (10/12)

[ccProd]Nyxborn Eidolon[/ccProd], [ccProd]Asphyxiate[/ccProd], [ccProd]Felhide Brawler[/ccProd], [ccProd]Servant of Tymaret[/ccProd], [ccProd]Forsaken Drifters[/ccProd], [ccProd]Grisly Transformation[/ccProd], [ccProd]Weight of the Underworld[/ccProd], [ccProd]Necrobite[/ccProd], [ccProd]Warchanter of Mogis[/ccProd], [ccProd]Marshmist Titan[/ccProd]

Key facts: Very deep, high power level, many good heroic enablers, solid curve

Born of the Gods Control (6/12)

[ccProd]Asphyxiate[/ccProd], [ccProd]Nyxborn Eidolon[/ccProd], [ccProd]Marshmist Titan[/ccProd], [ccProd]Servant of Tymaret[/ccProd], [ccProd]Weight of the Underworld[/ccProd], [ccProd]Forsaken Drifters[/ccProd]

Key facts: Shallow, lack of good creatures, most cards better in aggro

Here we observe another shift in focus. Black wants to be aggressive in pack one, despite having a clear preference for control in pack two and three. This means, when black wants to be aggressive it is better off teaming up with a color that has good aggressive cards in Theros. Black/blue aggro especially works very well for the Born of the Gods pack, and then has the tendency to leave you stranded for the rest of the draft. Conversely, if you want to draft black/blue it might be better to favor slight worse control cards over aggro cards, and reap the rewards in pack three.

Red Aggro

Theros (15/19)

[ccProd]Lightning Strike[/ccProd], [ccProd]Titan’s Strength[/ccProd], [ccProd]Dragon Mantle[/ccProd], [ccProd]Ill-Tempered Cyclops[/ccProd], [ccProd]Spearbreaker Oread[/ccProd], [ccProd]Deathbellow Raider[/ccProd], [ccProd]Satyr Rambler[/ccProd], [ccProd]Borderland Minotaur[/ccProd], [ccProd]Two-Headed Cerberus[/ccProd], [ccProd]Minotaur Skullcleaver[/ccProd], [ccProd]Portent of Betrayal[/ccProd], [ccProd]Rage of Purphoros[/ccProd], [ccProd]Akroan Crusader[/ccProd], [ccProd]Wild Celebrants[/ccProd], [ccProd]Spark Jolt[/ccProd]

Key facts: Very deep, efficient creatures, not many but powerful ways to enable heroic

Born of the Gods (11/12)

[ccProd]Bolt of Keranos[/ccProd], [ccProd]Fall of the Hammer[/ccProd], [ccProd]Kragma Butcher[/ccProd], [ccProd]Fearsome Temper[/ccProd], [ccProd]Pharagax Giant[/ccProd], [ccProd]Nyxborn Rollicker[/ccProd], [ccProd]Reckless Reveler[/ccProd], [ccProd]Impetuous Sunchaser[/ccProd], [ccProd]Rise to the Challenge[/ccProd], [ccProd]Cyclops of One-Eyed Pass[/ccProd], [ccProd]Scouring Sands[/ccProd]

Key facts: Extremely deep, good removal, many and powerful heroic enablers, relatively weak early drops

Red is very powerful when aggressive, and that’s all that red is. There is no control side to red. Evidently red profits from pairing it with a color with good heroic creatures as it has good enablers, but no heroic creatures itself. It is thus a bit more dependent on its partner than white. Especially UR might suffer from a lack of synergy which it has to compensate for with raw power.


Theros Aggro (12/19)

[ccProd]Leafcrown Dryad[/ccProd], [ccProd]Nessian Asp[/ccProd], [ccProd]Nessian Courser[/ccProd], [ccProd]Time to Feed[/ccProd], [ccProd]Staunch-Hearted Warrior[/ccProd], [ccProd]Sedge Scorpion[/ccProd], [ccProd]Vulpine Goliath[/ccProd], [ccProd]Feral Invocation[/ccProd], [ccProd]Satyr Hedonist[/ccProd], [ccProd]Savage Surge[/ccProd], [ccProd]Agent of Horizons[/ccProd], [ccProd]Nylea’s Disciple[/ccProd]

Key facts: Deep, few dedicated aggro cards, many heroic enablers, high power level at the top, power drops off behind top three, lack of good two-drops

Theros Control (10/19)

[ccProd]Nessian Asp[/ccProd], [ccProd]Voyaging Satyr[/ccProd], [ccProd]Nylea’s Disciple[/ccProd], [ccProd]Sedge Scorpion[/ccProd], [ccProd]Leafcrown Dryad[/ccProd], [ccProd]Nessian Courser[/ccProd], [ccProd]Time to Feed[/ccProd], [ccProd]Pheres-Band Centaurs[/ccProd], [ccProd]Vulpine Goliath[/ccProd], [ccProd]Fade into Antiquity[/ccProd]

Key facts: Very efficient creatures, lack of tempo manipulation, high power level going even deeper when control

Typically for green instead of being good at real aggro or control it likes to be in the middle, playing midrange decks. Testament to that is that we have a huge overlap between the aggro and the control module. Or put differently, the differentiation is a bit more artificial here than for the other colors. However, we also have to take into account that green doesn’t usually play on its own, so even though it doesn’t like to commit to a radical strategy, the combination with another color will probably make the green mage commit.

Born of the Gods Aggro (7/12)

[ccProd]Nyxborn Wolf[/ccProd], [ccProd]Setessan Oathsworn[/ccProd], [ccProd]Swordwise Centaur[/ccProd], [ccProd]Pheres-Band Tromper[/ccProd], [ccProd]Mortal’s Resolve[/ccProd], [ccProd]Snake of the Golden Grove[/ccProd], [ccProd]Aspect of the Hydra[/ccProd]

Key facts: Efficient creatures, only one heroic creature, few good enablers, only two-drop is double green

Born of the Gods Control (5/12)

[ccProd]Snake of the Golden Grove[/ccProd], [ccProd]Nyxborn Wolf[/ccProd], [ccProd]Swordwise Centaur[/ccProd], [ccProd]Setessan Starbreaker[/ccProd], [ccProd]Satyr Wayfinder[/ccProd]

Key facts: Shallow, few dedicated control cards, not much early action

Green is still good at midrange stuff. However, if pressed it will commit much more readily to aggro now as there isn’t much going on for control decks, and most of the new cards are better when attacking.

When taking a closer look at green we cannot help but notice that this module-based approach doesn’t tell the whole story. Theros hasn’t had many of these quirky decks, the kind that you find only after some time. One part of the reason for that is that there aren’t many build-around-me cards. For example, the spell-heavy UR deck with [ccProd]Spellheart Chimera[/ccProd] is not a real deck. Yet there are at least two green decks that are completely under the radar if we try to analyze the draft environment strictly with the approach I have laid out in this article. The first deck is the black/green self-mill deck. You should know about this one, as it can be one of the most powerful decks when it comes together properly. The other deck is 5C green. This was not a popular choice in Theros and I imagine that it still is more of an attempt to salvage a draft gone wrong than an actual deck. But it is still something that people might come up with reasonably often, and that is not completely doomed, either.

Both of these decks are completely outside the focus of these modules. If you only payed attention to the modules, you would ignore these decks, because their priorities differ radically from all that is prescribed by the modules described above.

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