Rise of the Eldrazi is the new format to focus on for anyone who cares about Limited. Whether you’re an aspiring Friday Night Magic player or someone preparing for the next Pro-level event, improving your understanding of the new format is critical. A week after the prerelease, my local playtest group got organized and decided to run some 8-mans to see if we could figure out the set. After drafting for an entire day, one thing was for certain: we had less packs than before. Seriously though, I learned quite a few lessons. While my victories were greatly overshadowed by my failures, the knowledge that I gained along the way was worth the time.
A look at the Building Blocks
The night before drafting, I looked at the set’s commons to get an idea of which color(s) I’d want to start in, stay away from, and pair with each other. The team-sealed event at the prerelease had made me wary of Eldrazi Spawn ramp decks (at least the bad ones), though I had been missing a key element in the deck that I piloted: acceleration. We didn’t have any Overgrown Battlements or Growth Spasms in our pool, which made my deck much slower than the archetype should be on average.
I came to a few conclusions after looking at the spoiler. If I started in Green, I’d want to pair it with Black or Red; both colors make and have ways to use the Eldrazi Spawn tokens that it and Green create. Black has a more difficult time utilizing the Eldrazi Spawn tokens than Red. Bloodthrone Vampire and Demonic Appetite are the only Black commons/uncommons that make use of tokens while Red has Battle-Rattle Shaman, Lavafume Invoker, and to a lesser extent, Soulsurge Elemental. While Red has more token synergy, Black makes up for it by having better non-token utility cards like Bala Ged Scorpion, common Level up creatures, and Cadaver Imp. Black seems like it would also have an easier time dealing with large creatures when each color’s removal is compared; Vendetta and Induce Despair (in combination with Green fatties/Eldrazi) are more mana-efficient than Heat Ray.
Other questions to answer about drafting an Eldrazi Ramp deck are when to play the fatty Eldrazi creatures, when not to, and which ones to play.
If my deck has Overgrown Battlements and is Red as well, then it will be easier to ramp up to nine mana because Red has a number of common creatures with Defender (Ogre Sentry, Battle Rampart, and Vent Sentinel). If I’m not fortunate to get any Overgrown Battlements, then I’m more likely to want a deck that plays utility creatures that make Eldrazi Spawn tokens better (Battle-Rattle Shaman/Lavafume Invoker) because they are fine at any point in the game. The main problem with making a deck that is all Eldrazi Spawn tokens and giant Eldrazi monsters is that if I go all in trying to turbo out a giant Eldrazi and the opponent is able to deal with it via Regress, Vendetta, Narcolepsy, et al., my resources will be set back too far to play another one for a few turns. What seems to be a better strategy is to have permanent sources of mana (like Overgrown Battlement) so that if the Eldrazi is dealt with then it’s possible to still have enough mana in play to summon another one quickly. Cards that make Eldrazi Spawn tokens better can be dealt with as easily (if not more easily) as giant Eldrazi creatures, but at least the smaller creatures don’t require me to go all in and can still be useful on turn three and four.
If I pair Black with Green and have less cheap utility cards that made Eldrazi Spawn tokens good by themselves, then using the tokens to gain a mana advantage/ramp up seems best. If my deck doesn’t have Bramblesnap/Broodwarden/Pennon Blade/Ogre’s Cleaver in Green/Artifact, it seems like the proper way to use Eldrazi Spawn tokens is to turn a token-making card into delayed Priest of Gix. A card that I play on turn (N) will give me tokens and let me make a combination of plays on turn (N+1) possible/more efficient; there’s more mana to “do stuff” than my opponent. If my plays outnumber my opponent’s, then I should win as long as long as my card-quality is at least on par with theirs.
The giant Eldrazi creatures wouldn’t normally be playable in most Draft formats; spells that cost upwards of eight mana rarely are. Rise of the Eldrazi brings a number of high-mana creatures in the common/uncommon slot to the table; don’t be tricked into thinking they are playable simply because they exist. There are two problems with these spells: 1) they don’t do enough 2) they’re too expensive.
Ulamog’s Crusher and Hand of Emrakul are the common Eldrazi. Ulamog’s Crusher is the bargain of the bunch at “only” eight mana. The Crusher is actually fine in the right deck because its stats are much better when compared to Hand of Emrakul (an 8/8, Annihilator 2 for eight mana compared to a 7/7, Annihilator 1 for nine mana). While it’s possible to summon Hand of Emrakul on turn four by utilizing its alternate cost, it’s also possible to summon Ulamog’s Crusher the old fashioned way because you can have four mana in addition to four Eldrazi Spawn tokens. When the Eldrazi are in play, it’s much easier to deal with a Hand of Emrakul than Ulamog’s Crusher. The difference between Annihilator 1 and 2 is more significant than it appears. It usually takes a few turns to build a board of creatures robust enough to deal with an Eldrazi. If you’re Annihilated a few times before building such a board, dealing with the offending Eldrazi is going to be quite difficult.
There are also two uncommon Eldrazi: Pathrazer of Ulamog and Artisan of Kozilek. Pathrazer is too expensive for most decks to play; eleven mana is a lot for a creature that doesn’t do anything when it initially comes into play. Granted, it’s much harder to chump with Eldrazi Spawn tokens because of Annihilator 3 combined with being required to be blocked by at least three creatures. Artisan of Kozilek is the other uncommon Eldrazi; it’s actually the better of the two. Acting as a Karmic Guide allows Artisan of Kozilek to provide significant value regardless of whether the opponent deals with it. Annihilator 2 means that it won’t be as easy to recover from when compared to Hand of Emrakul.
The Green mana acceleration is the most important piece of the puzzle when drafting a ramp deck. Each color including Green has bunch of large monsters and cards that produce Eldrazi Spawn tokens. However, there is little acceleration. Overgrown Battlement, Growth Spasm, and Ondu Giant at common are required to make sure that the deck doesn’t turn into a slow clunky version similar to what I had the week before in team sealed. Overgrown Battlement is the most easily abused card, especially when paired with Red.
After looking at various Eldrazi ramp decks, I turned my attention to the other colors and their combinations. Level up seemed like a powerful mechanic at the prerelease. It’s a more flexible version of Echo; instead of being forced to pay some amount twice for an undercosted creature, you can pay an initial cost for a small creature and also be able to pay the remaining amount at some point later on for a beefier creature. If you run out of ways to use your mana, then you can pay LOTS for an even bigger creature.
I wanted to try drafting various levels of aggressive Level up decks. One of the classic problems with aggressive strategies is that your cards are much worse than your opponents because your deck is filled with smaller and faster creatures. Level up creatures seem like they might solve that problem because they are cheap and can therefore be played early and smash the opponent’s face in. Then they can Level up into better creatures that would be able to square off against the opponent’s creatures or outclass them entirely once the opponent stabilizes from the initial assault. Caravan Escort and Knight of Cliffhaven were the two commons that I had my eye on; their Level up cost is low and they attack for two.
White has other support cards to help aggro decks. Hyena Umbra is a cheap way to get a creature through unblocked for a few turns. Dawnglare Invoker acts as an evasive attacker early on and a way to force through damage in the late game. Kor Line-Slinger can tap down the opponent’s most troublesome creature while you attack. Puncturing Light is great serving as a Smite that can be used on both offense and defense. Repel the Darkness is fine as weaker version Falter. There are also various Grizzly Bears to fill out a deck’s curve with to ensure consistent draws (Lone Missionary and Glory Seeker).
The main problem with an aggressive White strategy is that there aren’t many good forms of removal. Guard Duty and Smite are both better in decks that want to block or race in the air; that means Green will not be as effective when paired with White. Green lacks removal and is filled with hordes of ground-pounders. With Green out of the picture, it was time to look at Blue, Black, and Red.
Blue lacks removal. Narcolepsy is the only true removal spell. Yes, Deprive does exist, but that requires leaving mana open all the time which doesn’t work out well when trying to beat down. Deprive is also bad in combination with Level up creatures because it becomes obvious when you have it. “Oops! I forgot to Level up my guy *sigh*. Go.” Regress is decent especially against Level up creatures because so much mana is invested in them.
There are a few notable cards in Blue. Skywatcher Adept is a reasonable Level up creature; it’s evasive and cheap to cast. Venerated Teacher can create blowouts with multiple Level up creatures in play, basically giving you virtual mana that you wouldn’t normally have over the course of a turn. Frostwind Invoker is another way to get to an “eight mana, I win” board similar to what Dawnglare Invoker does. Halimar Wavewatch is best in a flyer deck. It serves as a good defender early on and threatens to smash face if you stabilize and the opponent overextends into the red zone. The low Level up cost of Halimar Wavewatch is also what makes it attractive. Distortion Strike seems like it is going to be undervalued because the presence of expensive Eldrazi spells. People may think that the format isn’t as fast as it may be. Distortion Strike is an excellent tool to force through damage where a creature normally wouldn’t be able to connect. The low Level up cost of some creatures makes Champion’s Drake appealing. Being able to play a 4/4 Flyer for two mana is pretty nice.
Black is very appealing. It has a few Flyers (Gloomhunter and Cadaver Imp) and several Level up creatures (Zulaport Enforcer and Null Champion), all of which are good. Gloomhunter provides exactly what a deck that wants to attack is asking for: two power and evasion for only three mana. Cadaver Imp can recur back whatever dies to an opponent’s removal while serving as a minor evasive clock. Zulaport Enforcer’s Level up cost is high; four mana is a lot. However, a four-mana 3/3 is standard and being able to become an evasive 5/5 is what makes Zulaport Enforcer above average. Null Champion is also good because it can easily attack for four on turn three if the board is clear as well as being able to Level up for a cost that still allows for other plays in the same turn.
Black has multiple removal like it normally does. Vendetta is the best because aggro decks don’t care as much about their life total; being only one mana means that it is easy to stay ahead of the opponent on the board by killing their creature and summoning one of your own. Last Kiss and Induce Despair are more difficult to use, effectively trading your turn with the opponent’s; that is fine if you’re clocking them for four a turn. Bala Ged Scorpion is another removal spell, though it’s much harder to use than the others. It has its place though, as it can kill creatures that are more difficult for other removal to kill such as Mnemonic Wall and Overgrown Battlement.
There are other Black cards that are fine, but unexciting. Bloodrite Invoker might be able to steal a game if the board stalls out. [card]Zof Shade[/card] isn’t as good as the Level up creatures because you’re spending your turn for less gain. If the format didn’t have Level up creatures/mana sinks, then the Shade would be better.
Red is the last color to look at and pair with White. There are some problems that can be seen immediately. Most of the creatures are terrible; they are either creatures with Defender, have low board value, or are slow and not suited for an aggro deck. Goblin Arsonist, Goblin Tunneler, Grotag Siege-Runner, Kiln Fiend, and Lavafume Invoker are all unimpressive; none of them Level up which means you’re going to be outclassed quickly. Creatures with less than two power make it difficult to put pressure on the opponent. Goblin Tunneler requires two cards to do what Gloomhunter does by itself (most of the time). It’s nice when combined with Kiln Fiend AND an Instant/Sorcery, but that’s quite a stretch. Kiln Fiend is good in a Red/Black deck with a plethora of removal spells to trigger it, but will fall short in any other color combination. Grotag Siege-Runner is mediocre because though it can trade with troublesome Defenders while bashing for two against an empty board, it will get outclassed quickly once the game goes past turn three. Lavafume Invoker is deceptively bad in an aggro Red/White deck because there aren’t as many disposable creatures in White compared to Green or Black with their Eldrazi Spawn tokens or Blue with its flyers.
Red’s removal is the most attractive feature for an aggro deck. Flame Slash, Spawning Breath, Staggershock, Wrap in Flames, and Heat Ray can handle every board situation. Flame Slash acts like Vendetta; it’s a removal spell cheap enough that it also allows you to summon another creature in the same turn. Spawning Breath can pick off a small creature while providing some of the tempo back on the next turn when you sacrifice the Eldrazi Spawn token to do something. Staggershock is the bread and butter of Red’s removal. It acts as a two-for-one by itself much of the time. Wrap in Flames has a double purpose; it acts as Falter and sometimes removal for small creatures. Heat Ray is not the most effective in terms of mana spent, however it deals with any creature that the other removal can’t.
As I said earlier, the playtest group met up and we drafted the day away. Here are the decks that I ended up with:
This draft started with me opening Deathless Angel. I stayed with White for a few picks, taking Knight of Cliffhaven and Soulbound Guardians. Around pick five, I took a Venerated Teacher when presented with a lack of better options. Pack one finished with me entrenched in White for sure while Blue was more up in the air than anything else, figuratively speaking. Pack two started with Guul Draz Assassin over nothing. I had passed some good Black early in pack one like Arrogant Bloodlord and Cadaver Imp and was hoping that it might be open for pack two if Blue wasn’t. Splashing the Assassin was also an option because of the existence of Prophetic Prism and Evolving Wilds. Black wasn’t as open as I’d liked, but Blue was which was fine. I picked up two Deprive and a Narcolepsy.
There were a few ways that I could have made the deck, but in the end, a defensive version seemed like it would be best because of the walls in combination with the two Deprive and Angel/Assassin/Keening Stone. It would be difficult for decks to be those rares when combined with counters to protect them.
Keening Stone was good, though slow as molasses. By the time that I would play it, there would be a good number of cards in the graveyard and would only have to activate it a few times to win. I never got the chance to try Luminous Wake, but it doesn’t seem very good because it’s much more expensive than Guard Duty, though can be played on one of your creatures if you know the opponent doesn’t have much removal. Survival Cache wasn’t very good because I was always on defense and had a lower life total as a result.
In the end, this deck would have been better had I dumped Blue for Black. There ended up being much more Black available than I had seen initially. I went 1-2 with the deck.
This draft started with a Nomads’ Assembly and immediately took a more defensive route than what would have allowed me draft an aggressive deck. I took a Dawnglare Invoker, Puncturing Light, and Makindi Griffin. After that, most of what came were slower cards like Akoum Boulderfoot and Soulbound Guardians. I shifted towards a defensive midrange deck. I opened a Kargan Dragonlord in pack two and got passed Linvala, Keeper of Silence (which I was more than happy to take).
I was unsure about some of the utility cards. Lone Missionary was tempting to play because it would help stabilize against aggro decks. However, I wasn’t sure how aggressive the format was and it seemed better to run Runed Servitor instead. Emerge Unscathed seemed like it would be fine. There isn’t much good enchantment removal in the set and having a card that doubles as a combat trick made it seem fine. Countering a removal spell and then giving a creature with Narcolepsy on it protection from Blue seemed hot.
Runed Servitor seemed good enough in a deck that has good cards in it; it would let me run a two drop that could trade with one of theirs and cycle. I was happy with it. Affa Guard Hound would let me have a card that served as both protection for my bombs and as a creature if I needed some offense; it was fine. Explosive Revelation was good, though I had to keep in mind what low-CC cards got put into the deck (another reason why Emerge Unscathed didn’t make the cut). I might have overvalued Puncturing Light. There were situations where I had both in hand and didn’t have a way to attack while my opponent sat there Leveling his creatures into monsters. I went 3-1 with this deck.
The high quality of removal really forced out a lot of the other spells that could have been played in this deck. Spawning Breath is inferior to the other removal. There aren’t enough instants to make Surreal Memoir consistently good. Kiln Fiend was a possibility over a bear, but seemed more inconsistent.
This draft allowed me to force an aggressive deck. However, there were a few problems with it. Despite the Level up creatures that were present in the deck, my creatures were outclassed too quickly by what my opponent was playing. Cards like Kozilek’s Predator bought a lot of time for them to play more creatures that were simply better than mine. Much of the time I didn’t have enough mana to Level up my Outriders. I was stuck on three a lot which allowed them to get ahead on the board. Bala Ged Scorpion was especially brutal, killing one of my creatures every time and effectively moating me.
Another problem was that I didn’t get any Knight of Cliffhaven and I only had one Caravan Escort; both of those Level up creatures are better than the Ikiral Outrider. The Outrider has a place; a 2/6 Vigilance for four mana seems fine, but not in this deck. This deck needed a Battle-Rattle Shaman to make the Outrider good. I went 0-2 with this deck.
While it may be possible to draft a successful aggro deck, the proper build evaded me during the drafts. I haven’t given up on the archetype yet, but don’t expect it to be a mainstay in the future. Drafting “good cards” is probably the way to go. Hopefully you’ve understood my thought process going into the drafts that I played in, seen the mistakes as well as the gems, learned from them, and are one step closer to understanding the format.