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Feature Article – Humans or Monsters (English)

Hello everyone, it’s been a while. It seems more than a month has passed since my last article was posted at the beginning of February. The translator was quite busy recently and we temporarily reduced the pace to one article per month. Additionally, because I have spent over a month traveling continuously to participate in American Grands Prix I have had little time to write during my stay in the U.S. Since I normally spend no more than two weeks away from Japan, this lifestyle of non-stop travel was surprisingly different. For example, a trip that takes three hours by car is never said to be “short” in Japan.

I began writing this article with the intention of having it published in time for Grand Prix Nashville, but unfortunately that has not become a reality. I think I will write about the Dark Ascension limited format and drafting in particular. At the Pro Tour and in preparation for Grands Prix I have been practicing a fair amount, and the environment has changed considerably.

Although most professional players have already said this, it is still an idea that bears mentioning. This limited environment is very fast. For example, in most environments choosing to play second is usually the optimum strategy when playing sealed deck. But with Dark Ascension I always choose to play first, short of a case where the packs I received were very weak and my only path to victory is to attack my opponent’s mana base. This is true even with sealed deck.

In Dark Ascension draft, a deck’s strength is determined by the number of creatures it has that cost two or fewer mana. If I have less than four such cards, I will usually start thinking about the next draft.

Among recent sets, limited formats where tempo takes priority are a common theme. Triple Innistrad shared this trait, as did Magic 2012. However, you need to be cautious of the fact that Dark Ascension is quite a weak set when you look at its overall power level.

So although the cards are weak in terms of power level, the format itself is fast. Intuitively, that seems like a pretty strange thing to say, doesn’t it? To begin with I’m going to explain this seemingly contradictory statement, and afterwards I will take a look at individual card valuations.

In the context of limited, what does “a set with a weak power level” mean exactly? I think the easiest way to understand this is by looking at the basic size of the set’s creatures. In the two mana cost range, the reasonable size for a creature is 2/2. This is an unchanging common law for any limited environment, and in the past several years most sets have had a high overall power level. As for 3/3s and 4/4s, in Shards Block if a creature cost three mana it was a 3/3 and similarly a four cost creature was a 4/4 or a little smaller. This started a trend where 3/3 flyers and 4/4 ground creatures having the same mana cost was the standard. With the arrival of Dark Ascension, three mana cost creatures are 2/2s or only marginally bigger, four mana cost creatures are 3/3s or a little smaller, and in particular their toughness is two or less. In contrast with past sets, Dark Ascension creatures generally have one less toughness, and 2/1s and 3/2s are common in the environment.

This is linked to the fact that dealing with creatures is difficult in this format. This aspect of the environment is further exacerbated by Innistrad’s introduction of double-faced cards and the keyword ability Morbid, making circumstances such that a 2/2 summoned on turn two can continue on attacking no matter how much time passes.

Once you cast a werewolf, you must force your opponent to steadily play spells from their hand in order to prevent it from flipping back into a much weaker creature. All decks need to have sufficient lower mana cost spells to combat this mechanic. If you end up trading creatures your opponent might follow up with two larger creatures in their second main phase, or alternatively get a zombie token or -4/-4 bonus from a Morbid trigger. This kind of concern means that around two points of damage will often go unblocked.

Because there is always this sort of psychological pressure, the game naturally tends to develop in a way where life totals diminish more quickly. And Flashback spells simply seal the deal.

Overall the power level of this set’s cards is low.

This applies to every card type in the environment, and can be said not just for creatures but for spells as well. Innistrad Block’s removal is also considerably below average. [card]Shock[/card] costs five mana ([card]Geistflame[/card]), [card]Doom Blade[/card] can kill only half of the creatures in the environment ([card]Victim of Night[/card]), and [card]Pacifism[/card] and tap down effects also have strange restrictions regarding humans ([card]Bonds of Faith[/card], [card]Avacynian Priest[/card]). Blue alone has direct removal. Dark Ascension is a slight improvement, but the fact that the cards are rather weak remains unchanged.

However, a single card that can be cast twice is an entirely different story. Moreover, this is an environment where spells that deal damage and ignore defenses take priority, even more so if you can apply that pressure a second time.

The Innistrad and Dark Ascension allied color Flashback spells are the only cards which have the potential to become the pillars of a limited deck, in particular the four commons which you can anticipate getting multiples of. Innistrad has only three such cards: green/white [card]Travel Preparations[/card], white/blue [card]Feeling of Dread[/card], and blue/black [card]Forbidden Alchemy[/card]. Dark Ascension added the green/red [card]Wild Hunger[/card] and red/black [card]Fires of Undeath[/card] as Flashback spells that are high on the pick order. These two-color crossover cards were extended to become the format’s archetypes.

Moreover four of these five combinations have a tribal association, and the last centers around one of the environment’s keywords.

By linking the four uncommon lords introduced with Dark Ascension to their corresponding Flashback spells, you can almost definitively associate the tribes with these allied color pairs. Of course, you can also put together a blue/black vampire deck or a white/green spirit deck. However, I think it is undeniable that this was much more common in triple Innistrad. With Dark Ascension, most werewolf decks are red/green, whereas zombies are blue/black, vampires are red/black, and spirits are blue/white.

Blue/white, red/green, blue/black, red/black, and of course white/green: the previous format’s strongest archetype. I couldn’t possibly leave it out when considering Dark Ascension draft.

But it’s not just the color combination. In truth, there is another important element. I haven’t yet mentioned the strongest tribe: humans. It was also the best tribe in triple Innistrad, and even now with Dark Ascension humans continue to be the most powerful.

But frankly, humans seem out of place as a category in a tribal draft. You usually see humans as white cards, and they can be classified as a “tribe” with the characteristic of gaining a bonus when something dies. However, black and red have excellent tribal support humans at uncommon and above, and because werewolves enter the battlefield as humans you can include them in the count. The number one human for blue/white is [card]Stitcher’s Apprentice[/card], creator of homunculi.

It doesn’t hold true to the framework I set out earlier about a tribe being two specific colors, but white plus any other color can make a human deck. In short, in addition to the five combinations I mentioned previously white/black and white/red are powerful archetypes in this environment. Aside from that, the blue/black/green mill and [card]Burning Vengeance[/card] archetypes from triple Innistrad draft are still around. However, it seems mill is eliminated as it is now a very risky proposition because Dark Ascension lacks any sort of support for the deck. At least, I wouldn’t try it.

Finally, I will discuss valuation of double-faced cards. When I take a double-faced card, I am not sending a strong signal. In particular, when considering what to take the player on my left will be almost unconcerned with my choice. Because Dark Ascension’s double-faced cards are not particularly strong, taking them at the outset of a draft creates difficulties. In fact, they compare poorly to other cards in the same colors. Naturally you need to be concerned about what colors the player on your right is going into and if there are things you should avoid make your best effort to do so. However, if you steer clear of the colors the players on either side of you are taking your own color options decrease considerably. Even if you send a signal by picking a double-faced card there is the risk that someone else went into the color and drained the packs of the strong cards. The choice never seems to end up favoring you. Of course, if you see [card]Huntmaster of the Fells[/card] the story is somewhat different.

The rest of this article will be an evaluation of each archetype and my ordering of the top ten common picks from Dark Ascension starting with the strongest per usual.

White/Blue

I mentioned this already, but humans are this format’s strongest tribe, and the best cards among them are white. In short, white is without a doubt the strongest color. As for why white/blue ranks highest among the archetypes, the main reason is because this combination most easily lends itself to a powerful deck. This pairing combines the best human creatures in white with blue’s flyers and removal that is reasonably consistent: [card]Pacifism[/card] effects and bounce spells. Additionally, between Innistrad and Dark Ascension there are two Flashback spells. They can be added to humans, spirits, or a deck with a mix of both. I don’t think I need to discuss the strength of [card]Feeling of Dread[/card], and much like that card [card]Saving Grasp[/card] is an easily used low mana cost spell. These cards are at the level where I want one copy in my deck. And of course, taking [card]Fiend Hunter[/card] goes without saying.

As for [card]Griptide[/card] and [card]Burden of Guilt[/card], it seems that regardless of how many [card]Griptide[/card]s you manage to pick most will end up in the your deck, whereas because [card]Burden of Guilt[/card] consumes mana turn after turn it is a card that you would want to limit to two copies. I think it would also be alright to disregard this rule up to a third copy, but no further.

When you draft white/blue it becomes essential to prioritize picking spells in the two mana range. In any case, it’s crucial to ensure that you have spells costing two or less. If you are faced with a troublesome choice where a two mana creature is one of the options, my advice is the following: you should always take the two mana creature. Although blue’s two highest ranked cards are positioned as such because they are truly superior, sometimes you must consider passing over even these in order to snag two mana spells.

[draft]Stormbound Geist
Nephalia Seakite
Loyal Cathar
Gather the Townsfolk
Griptide
Burden of Guilt
Silverclaw Griffin
Niblis of the Mist
Screeching Skaab
Saving Grasp[/draft]

White/Green

I’m sorry to say that in Dark Ascension no alternative to [card]Travel Preparations[/card] presents itself, and I think that cards that are suited to white/green are few and far between. If anything, it often seems to be the case that decks that began as mono-white or mono-green move into white/green after picking [card]Travel Preparations[/card]. However, there are still two Innistrad packs remaining after Dark Ascension. As before white/green is in first or second place for strongest archetype, and compared to white/blue it has the advantage of a wider range of choices for two mana creatures combined with a greater degree of flexibility.

I think that taking that type of spell a little early is a good idea. It doesn’t have a huge influence on my pick evaluations, but starting with Dark Ascension one factor you must be cautious of with white/green is making sure to decide whether white or green will be your main color and avoiding difficult to use cards that show up afterwards. Whether you select white or green, the color restrictions are rather severe.

I recognize that I may favor [card]Dawntreader Elk[/card] a little too much. Although this section is about white/green, the Elk allows for [card]Wild Hunger[/card]’s position on the list. However, it is not just that it allows you to fix your mana and enable flashback; it also lets you trigger Morbid with your own creatures. I think this makes it a very good match for this format. It’s a great feeling to cast [card]Ulvenwald Bear[/card] as a 4/4 for four mana and summon a creature with pseudo -[card]Travel Preparations[/card] counters. If I were putting together a green deck, I would always want around two copies of this card.

[draft]Dawntreader Elk
Burden of Guilt
Kessig Recluse
Ulvenwald Bear
Wild Hunger
Niblis of the Mist
Scorned Villager
Loyal Cathar
Gather the Townsfolk
Silverclaw Griffin[/draft]

Red/Green

In comparison with white/green, which gained nothing particularly exciting from Dark Ascension, red/green is the color combination that benefited the most from the set. Compared with the other colors, it received many tools in the form of two mana creatures and these in turn formed a strategy when paired with [card]Wild Hunger[/card]. The important idea here is that when using [card]Wild Hunger[/card] you must plan to have your creature survive the attack. In short, an ideal target should have two or more toughness.

[card]Scorned Villager[/card] is not as strong in a white deck where the creatures tend to be smaller, but the value of mana creatures increases in a deck where games are won by high casting cost cards. [card]Nearheath Stalker[/card] is never a particularly strong card, but generally speaking it two for ones your opponent in combat and is a card I like to have one copy of. It alone has high enough power that even if it trades when targeted by [card]Wild Hunger[/card] it usually does some significant damage.

[draft]Dawntreader Elk
Wild Hunger
Fires of Undeath
Scorned Villager
Kessig Recluse
Ulvenwald Bear
Nearheath Stalker
Wrack with Madness
Forge Devil
Young Wolf[/draft]

White/Black and White/Red

In truth, with these two combinations I have no real guidelines for choosing commons in Dark Ascension. With white/black I would recommend starting with [card]Lingering Souls[/card] and a mono-white base and almost always including [card]Skirsdag Flayer[/card]. For white/red, I start with red’s rare cards and if I notice white coming around I pick up [card]Burning Oil[/card].

Blue/Black

At Grand Prix Seattle, “Swamp” was the most common reply when players were asked what card’s valuation had changed the most with the coming of Dark Ascension. However, the reason for this can be attributed almost exclusively to [card]Tragic Slip[/card].

I have to confess that I did not get a strong impression of these final two archetypes. The outline of this deck’s composition is well-defined, and moreover I have given drafting it a try. However, its results have often been rather poor. It certainly has the two best pieces of removal. [card]Tragic Slip[/card] and [card]Death’s Caress[/card] are powerful spells. [card]Highborn Ghoul[/card] is also a two mana creature with appropriate power and toughness and a relevant ability. Still, aside from these there are no other cards I would like to use. I have no doubt that [card]Undying Evil[/card] is a good card, but it is not the kind of card I would play in many decks. The absolute worst is [card]Headless Skaab[/card]: it cannot block when it enters the battlefield, on the offensive it is not terribly impressive, and compared with [card]Stitched Drake[/card] or even Makeshift Mauler it is remarkably inferior. Blue/black often lends itself to being a control deck, but the necessary elements it would require to curb its opponent’s opening moves are noticeably lacking in Dark Ascension.

The only other cards I value in this archetype specifically are [card]Screeching Skaab[/card] and [card]Thought Scour[/card], which increase the possibility of summoning a third turn [card]Stitched Drake[/card]. Moreover, I feel that [card]Tragic Slip[/card] is the sole truly strong card. When I have played blue/black I have found that the general pattern I end up following is picking mono-blue through much of Dark Ascension and picking up [card]Forbidden Alchemy[/card] and black during Innistrad.

[draft]Tragic Slip
Death’s Caress
Nephalia Seakite
Stormbound Geist
Highborn Ghoul
Griptide
Screeching Skaab
Undying Evil
Reap the Seagraf
Thought Scour[/draft]

Red/Black

Blue/black was strong in triple Innistrad and if you can devote yourself to gathering the necessary parts it is possible to build a solid deck with the coming of Dark Ascension. However, with red/black this is not the case. This is partly because red/black was also the weakest combination in triple Innistrad draft. The truth is I have completely given up in the matter of what to do with this pairing. In thinking about the quality of the environment’s creature removal, it becomes clear that a strategy that simply aims to gather up all of the best removal spells won’t really function. This format requires removal to be able to dispose of blockers, or at least be able to deal with a limited number of creatures. However, killing every single creature that hits the board is too difficult a task. Furthermore, the efficiency of creature protection spells is vastly superior. There are no powerful creatures in red/black which dodge removal. This is the real problem.

I think that perhaps turning this into a vampire tribal deck would be the fastest and easiest. However, maybe putting several copies of [card]Falkenrath Torturer[/card] and [card]Traitorous Blood[/card] in the deck might be more correct, as these are the cards with the highest winning percentages in this archetype.

My impression is that although there are better creatures for red/black at uncommon and above, you cannot guarantee getting them. Personally I would prefer not to play these colors.

[draft]Fires of Undeath
Tragic Slip
Death’s Caress
Highborn Ghoul
Undying Evil
Nearheath Stalker
Wrack with Madness
Hinterland Hermit
Russet Wolves
Falkenrath Torturer[/draft]

Well, I think those are my draft guidelines. At this time my standard draft plan is to go white or red/green, as I like both quite well. However, someone in Nashville may bring a new draft theory to light, and immediately following that is the Grand Prix in Mexico City, and after that Grand Prix Manchester. But that’s a good thing. Thank you for reading this far.

Until next time,
Shuhei Nakamura

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