After fifty or so Drafts, I believe Orzhov is the best guild in the new set. Simic, Azorius, Rakdos, and the Gates archetype are all fine as well, though slightly worse than Orzhov. I’ve been hating Gruul, but it’s probably still fine if you’re the only one drafting it. I guess I would compare Gruul to Selesnya of the last set power-level wise.
Before I go into more details, a few of the reasons why Orzhov is so good is because you get what I believe are the two best commons, Blade Juggler and Grotesque Demise, and its mechanic, afterlife, which is built-in card advantage. While most of the gold commons are quite good, the Orzhov ones (Final Payment, Imperious Oligarch, and Grasping Thrull) are all great and once I’m in the color combo, I wouldn’t be unhappy having to first pick any of them. I can’t say the same for Rakdos Roustabout or Rubblebelt Runner.
Giving an exact pick order is very hard but I’ll try to talk about all the relevant cards, give you as many points of reference as possible, and try to get into the nuances of the archetype so that you can get a good feel for what you should be looking for during your Draft.
Angel of Grace, Spawn of Mayhem, and Seraph of the Scales are all ridiculous and easy first picks. Kaya, Orzhov Usurper is a bit more interesting. I’ve made a point of taking it high to get a better feel for it, and while it’s not great, I think its power level is on par with a playable common. It can get rid of afterlife tokens, buy you a decent amount of life, and there are also some relevant 1-drops in the format (Sky Tether, Pteramander, Footlight Fiend, and Twilight Panther).
I believe Blade Juggler is the best common in the set, and you should pick as many as you get. My max has been four and while I’ve seen other people get four as well, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone get more. Removal is usually king in Limited, but Juggler has a unique effect and the presence of Dead Revels makes the card even more appealing.
Grotesque Demise is also absurd. Not only is that type of card usually printed at uncommon, it’s especially good in Allegiance as it helps you fight afterlife creatures and takes care of the adapt ones before they become a bigger problem.
Grasping Thrull is another one of those “mythic commons” and despite being a 5-drop, I doubt you’ll ever get too many. Imperious Oligarch is busted too, and you’ll also want as many as you can get your hands on.
While Final Payment is very good, I have it a bit lower in my pick order than most, since you usually don’t want to play more than two and Orzhov has access to so much good removal on top of deathtouch creatures and Bladebrand.
While maybe not qualifying as a premium common like the five listed above, Dead Revels is a key card in Orzhov (and Rakdos as well) and one of the reasons I value the good creatures so much. I’m usually happy with exactly two copies in my white-black or black-red decks. I’ll take the first one highly, probably above any commons but the premium ones, and hope to get a second one somewhere along the way.It’s almost impossible not to trade in Allegiance and creatures will die, letting Dead Revels shine in every game you play.
Ill-Gotten Inheritance is an interesting one and by far the card my viewers ask me about the most often. Its effect is unique so it can be hard to rate, but I think seeing it as a good 4-drop, similar to how Grasping Thrull is a good 5-drop, isn’t a bad way to describe it. While it’s usually very good against Rakdos, Orzhov, and Azorius, it doesn’t line up quite as well when your opponent is just pumping out a 4/4 or a 5/5 every turn.
Vizkopa Vampire, Twilight Panther, Noxious Groodion, Carrion Imp, Syndicate Messenger, and Senate Griffin are all decent curve-fillers, and you’ll usually have to play some copies of these cards. As far as the 4-drop goes, I think I like the Messenger better.
While I’m not excited to play the card, I’ve been impressed with Catacomb Crocodile as his stats come in handy in some matchups and I think it’s better than Knight of Sorrows against most decks. Definitely one of my “most improved” players.
I really like Locket in this color combination, the same way I liked Lockets in Golgari more than I did anywhere else in the last Draft format. Your games tend to go long, and the card goes up in value if you can’t get your hands on any other form of card advantage (Blade Juggler, Dead Revels). It also goes up in value the more 5- and 6-drops you have, and if you pick up multiple Basilica Bell-Haunt but no Guildgates. They don’t always all make the cut, but I would never been unhappy to play up to two.
I like to pick Bring to Trial highly over some of the filler commons (Vizkopa Vampire and company), especially when my Draft is going well and I feel like I’m going to end up with more than enough playables. Despite the fact that I almost never main deck it, it’s such an amazing sideboard card against green decks and against the Gates deck.
To a lesser degree, being able to pick up an Expose to Daylight or two can be valuable.
Plague Wight can be very good in Rakdos, but I don’t think it’s anything special in Orzhov.
Undercity Scavenger looks like it should be decent, but there are a lot of other good 4-drops and you don’t always end up with that many afterlife creatures. It’s a decent sideboard card against a deck with a bunch of Lawmage’s Bindings.
I hope I pretty much never have to include any of the other commons in my deck.
Mortify, Consecrate // Consume, and Basilica Bell-Haunt are all better than Juggler once you’re Orzhov. Mortify is also a better first pick first pack than Juggler. The split card probably is as well, but not Bell-Haunt because of its slightly lower power level and mana requirement.
Pitiless Pontiff can be near unbeatable for some decks and it probably falls into the category of cards I would pick over Juggler once I’m settled into white-black, but not as a first pick.
The first Angelic Exaltation is very good and you almost always play it, but I think I would take most of the premium commons and uncommons over it.
I usually don’t main deck Bloodmist Infiltrator, but it can come in handy if you feel like you need the extra evasion or to race your opponent. My very first Orzhov Draft on Arena had two copies, as well as two copies of Vindictive Vampire with a lot of afterlife creatures. The deck felt unstoppable.
Knight of the Last Breath is slightly too expensive to always make the cut. I will usually play my first Debtors’ Transport over it, but it can come in handy if you’re lacking win conditions. I almost never play Drill Bit but it’s a fine 23rd card.
Archway Angel is usually not a high pick, and by the time you are willing to pick it, it will probably already be gone from the pack.
Bankrupt in Blood is more of a sideboard card. I might have main decked it once but I did get to live the dream of sacrificing two pacified creatures.
Rally to Battle is a serviceable trick, but usually doesn’t make the cut.
Sky Tether is probably the card that loses the most value from Azorius to Orzhov. I don’t pick it highly at all and when it ends up in my pile, I usually keep it in the sideboard, but I can easily see being wrong about this one.
I got wrecked a couple of times by Cry of the Carnarium but have never picked/played it myself. You might want to hate draft it in a real life pod, even though it’s probably awkward for any black deck to play except for maybe a black-based Gates deck.
Sentinel’s Mark has seemed all right when my opponent has cast it but is still very mediocre, in my opinion. I do have an anti-Aura bias though, so take it with a grain of salt.
Clear the Stage is basically unplayable in Orzhov.
I’ve drafted the archetype a lot, and I’ve tried to pick the rares as highly as possible even when I was pretty sure it was the wrong pick power-level wise. Still, you can only get so big of a sample size, so proceed with caution.
Ethereal Absolution is the best rare in the format.
Kaya’s Wrath, Teysa Karlov, Pestilent Spirit, and Hero of Precinct One are all better than Mortify (the best uncommon), even though Pestilent Spirit is better in Rakdos and you might want to splash if you get the Hero early on.
Lumbering Battlement, Priest of Forgotten Gods, and Unbreakable Formation are all around Basilica Bell-Haunt’s power level with a slightly bigger question mark on Formation as I haven’t seen it in action a ton. The Priest is also not the easiest to rate as it is very good against green decks and not as good against afterlife.
I’ve played Revival // Revenge a few times, but have never used it for the Revival part. As for Revenge, I’m still not sure if it’s better or worse than the premium commons. I might take Thrull and Oligarch over it, but maybe not Final Payment.
The same goes for Tithe Taker even though like most cards, it can go lower or higher in value toward the end of the Draft, depending on what you already have.
I haven’t played with Warrant // Warden in straight Orzhov, but Warrant is a solid trick and probably on par with Bedeck’s power level.
I wouldn’t look to splash, as I feel Orzhov already kind of has it all: good creatures at every point in the curve, lots of good removal, and card advantage—but sometimes the Draft just takes you there. If a pack is fairly weak, you might want to pick a Rakdos or an Azorius card (usually something like a Lawmage’s Binding or a Get the Point), or Guildgate over a bad filler to set up for a potential splash. I wouldn’t try to force a 3-color deck from the get-go as sometimes the packs don’t cooperate and the fixing just isn’t there.
To give you a better idea of what a good Orzhov/Esper deck looks like, especially if you haven’t had a chance to Draft much, here are the ones I’ve 3-0’d with in Competitive Leagues on Magic Online.
I hope this article was insightful, and as usual, let me know if you have any questions, if you would like me to go into more details about a specific card or pick, or if you feel like I might have missed the mark somewhere.