Last weekend I was given the honor of doing Twitch commentary alongside Kat Light for the first ever RIW Hobbies Prerelease Invitational event in Livonia, Michigan. The idea for the event was that all of the Michigan based pros would gather for a Ravnica Allegiance Draft Camp and all of that testing would be broadcast live on Twitch.
Not even an epic blizzard could stop Michigan’s finest players from braving the treacherous freeways to tackle the new Limited format. To be fair, this is Michigan. Snow is no stranger to everyday life.
I had a blast doing Twitch coverage for the @RIWHobbies #MTGRNA “Prerelease Invitational.” Huge turnout and great time despite a blizzard! The Michigan MTG scene is amazing and I ❤️ my LGS. pic.twitter.com/0a6XX8MxVL
— Brian DeMars (@BrianDeMars1) January 20, 2019
And yes, I even wore a tie for 11 straight hours of nonstop coverage. We had two pods going at all times and those pods were stacked: Defending Pro Tour Champion Andrew Elenbogen, Corey Burkhart, Ari Lax, Kyle Boggemes, Max Mcvety, Zach Allen, Adam Hernandez, and Stuart Parnes, just to name a few! The event reminded me of the Michigan glory days when people used to joke that our FNM Top 8s were more stacked than the Pro Tour! At the very least, Michigan MTG is in a great place right now.
I got to watch and commentate on six featured drafters, 12 full BO3 matches, and did more deck techs and matchup analyses than I could keep track of. I was in a unique position to see things from many perspectives in the booth, and today I’d like to share what I observed with you all.
I know I’ve been doing a ton of MTG Arena BO1 material lately but today is good old-fashioned, back-to-basics tactics for when you sit down in an actual eight-person pod and crack some packs. So whether you are heading to CFB’s MagicFest event in New Jersey this weekend or looking to destroy your friends at FNM these are the major themes that came out of the Michigan Pro Draft Camp last weekend.
I’ll have a cheat sheet for drafting against bots on MTG Arena later in the week once I’ve acquired more data. Today is all about cracking packs and playing Magic in its purest form.
1. #MTGRNA Draft Playlist: “Slow Jamz to Grind To”
“The format is slow and grindy. The games tend to go long. Card advantage matters a lot.”
But first, some background:
The featured players in Saturday’s event were also learning the format, the same as everybody else. I did seven Sealed events on Thursday to help learn the cards in advance of coverage but was unable to do or watch any Drafts on Friday because it was my wife’s birthday. It was a little inconsiderate of her to have a birthday on the same day #MTGRNA Drafts went live on Arena but what can you do?
The average across 16 players was approximately one Draft and one Sealed event each. The outlier was K-Boggs, who had done 30+ simulations.
In advance of the event there was a lot of excitement about aggressive red and green decks. I can confirm Gruul was the archetype I played against the most on Arena Sealed. But by Saturday morning my Twitch Discord channel was blowing up with reports about Esper, Orzhov, and 3-4 color control decks hitting seven wins on Arena. So I was prepared and open-minded to many possibilities unfolding in high level BO3 paper Drafts.
I believe the pod players started the day with a predisposition toward wanting to favor aggression and curve-based decks. It’s certainly a “playing the odds” strategy since most Limited formats tend to favor beatdown.
With that being said, game after game and round after round, it appeared that the aggressive decks were outmatched by the more controlling ones. In particular, I cite the afterlife mechanic. The Orzhov cards are automatic 1.5-for-1s since when they trade they leave behind 1/1 flying Spirit tokens. It’s also worth noting how much more relevant a 1/1 flyer is compared to a 1/1 vanilla creature.
Allegiance reminds me a lot of RtR, which was defined by grindy games, high toughness blockers, bombs, and evasive damage. The fact that ground stalls tend to occur makes the flyers matter, a lot.
“Be aggressive, prioritize 2-drops, and punch their face off.” I do not love this approach for this set.
2. First is the Worst, Second is the Best. Take the Draw.
The format is slow and grindy, and card advantage is king. Dare we take the draw? Yes!
I saw Tom Ross tweet about how taking the draw is an underutilized tactic in Magic just a few days ago. Well, it wasn’t underutilized in the games I watched. Given the option between taking the play or the draw, players chose the draw about 50% of the time. Absurd, but smart.
I’d like to present a narrative that I believe is key to understanding how many games of RNA Limited play out:
“The matchup is an aggressive 2-color red or green deck versus a grindy black or white (possibly 3-color) deck. 2C Aggro wins the draw and puts itself on the play because it needs to create and sustain pressure, or be unfavored going long. Gruul’s hand has bad mana, lacks a 2-drop, or has some problem where it can’t curve out and must take a mulligan.
Gruul is now down to six trying to draw a functioning hand that can curve out against a deck full of 2-for-1s.”
The reverse is also true. The slow decks are also badly punished for missing land drops and want the draw. It’s like you are taking the draw for the chance the opponent mulligans and has a non-functional draw. Most hands with most decks are not fast enough to punish you for being on the draw and so it’s advantageous to “get people” when they mulligan on the play and to protect yourself against the same outcome.
The moral of the story is that more games come down to who has something left at the end than being beatdown with a lightning fast curve and dying with extra cards in hand that you didn’t have time to deploy.
3. Orzhov is the Format Defining Guild
At least, that was the experience I noticed at the Draft Camp. Afterlife is far and away the most powerful guild mechanic—it gives mages a ton of material to play with, and both black and white are deep in removal options.
In the last two Drafts of the night (so the ones where players were at peak experience), straight B/W Orzhov took the 3-0 banner home both times. In one of those Drafts, the finals was an Orzhov mirror!
Here’s the final 3-0 of the night from Kyle Boggemes:
Kyle’s deck was a treat to watch on camera twice. There was one sequence where he 2-for-1’d an opponent five consecutive plays in a row. Gross. Dead Revels to rebuy deathtouch and afterlife creatures is nasty against a fair deck.
4. Deathtouch Punishes Green Badly
Speaking of deathtouch, let’s talk about that for a moment and why it is hugely important to RNA Limited.
Another reason why I’ve been so impressed with controlling black decks is because the set is absolutely saturated with deathtouch at common and uncommon. The mechanic badly punishes the larger green creatures on the battlefield. There are also deathtouch and first strike combat tricks that belabor the point. Give my afterlife token deathtouch and draw a card? Trade it with your 6-drop?
It is a very common sight to see a 1- or 2-cost deathtouch creature holding back a 4-6 drop monster on the ground. It’s another reason why flying and evasion are so important against these B/W decks.
Cheap deathtouch creatures also provide yet another useful angle for controlling black decks by enabling spectacle. The same can be said for the 1/1 flying afterlife tokens. I saw many games where the defending player’s creatures were simply too good to block a deathtouch creature, which allowed it to push through damage and/or trigger spectacle.
Yet another reason why I love B/W is because deathtouch and afterlife creatures both appear to be the best ways to enable the black Rakdos spectacle cards. You know Orzhov is great when it is also the best Rakdos deck!
Total Orzhov move. All of your guild related mechanics belong to us!
5. Assemble the Guildpact! You Can and Should Play More Than 2 Colors
Guilds of Ravnica pushed us into playing straight 2-color decks. It wasn’t a hard rule, but it was nice guideline. The reason? The games were nasty, brutish, and short.
In particular, Boros and Dimir decks were extremely focused and efficient at building to critical mass, and imposing their will on the game. If you fell behind, God help you because you likely needed a rare to bail you out against good commons curving out.
Afterlife changes this dynamic considerably. Not only is it the best mechanic, but it rewards taking your time, going slow, and climbing the tree into higher drops. Remember, it’s the player with something left in the tank or the player who is able to go bigger who often wins the game.
One thing I noticed toward the end of the Draft was that the green and red decks that performed well focused less on pure beatdown and tended to branch into a third color to increase their overall power level.
Despite being a format defining archetype, B/W decks don’t win quickly. In fact, they are quite slow. It became clear that getting underneath these decks didn’t work, that every card mattered, and that getting the most out of each exchange was crucial in overcoming Orzhov’s Death of a Thousand Stings approach.
Having cards that put them off balance or required actual targeted removal was huge. In particular, the 3+ power flyers that match up well against B/W’s 2/3s and 1/1s in combat. Splashing another color to increase the overall number of gold cards or perhaps add more big flyers was a successful strategy.
While B/W was the most consistent and best performing archetype throughout the day, I was also impressed by 3-color green decks like Bant and Temur, which outperformed Rakdos and Gruul. We saw 3-0 Bant, 3-0 Temur, and 3-0 4-Color (not blue) green on camera. The 4-color deck was “Rares.dec” and included the free win machine:
Absolution is the single best card you can have in this format. Another reason why B/W is great! The card isn’t even a mythic! I’m 0-7 in games where an opponent has cast it against me on MTG Arena. So another payoff of a Gate-based deck is that you can simply play with a bunch of great rares that other people can’t use! If you are Gruul and open an Absolution, time to splash!
I liked Simic quite a bit from what I saw, but was most impressed with it in 3-color shells such as Temur or Bant. The flyers, bounce, and card draw are huge. While I think that Orzhov is the default “format defining deck,” I do think that Simic is the guild that matches up best against it on the battlefield.
Ravnica Allegiance is a really fun and interesting set for Limited. Aside from Ethereal Absolution wrecking what would otherwise be really great games of Magic for no reason, I am really enjoying exploring and learning about the format.
The biggest takeaway is that I’d advise a plan that is prepared for Orzhov’s 2-for-1 chains, 1/1 Spirits, and deathtouch clogging up the ground. Don’t be afraid to utilize outside the box tactics, like prioritizing mana fixing and powerful multi-color spells, or taking the draw when you win the die roll to minimize running out of gas and stumbling on lands when you mulligan.
The Orzhov afterlife is a sweet way to live. It’s on the other guilds to devise a strategy that can stand up to these ghosts who are rich in… well… everything!