For the past 3 years, I have always provided first-pick-first-pack pick order lists for every new set. For Shadows over Innistrad, I'll provide something similar, but two things are different.
First, the set contains a ton of double-faced cards that, when taken face-up by your neighbors, have a huge influence on your decision making early in the draft. For example, if you open a booster with Pack Guardian and Fiery Temper, then I could provide a list that puts Pack Guardian higher than Fiery Temper, but if your right neighbor first-picks Duskwatch Recruiter face-up, then you may prefer to be a red drafter behind a green drafter. For this reason, a pure first-pick-first-pack pick order list wouldn't be as useful as it would usually be.
Note that I'm talking in the context of live drafts here. A first-pick-first-pack list will still be useful for Magic Online drafts where you don't see the double-faced cards around you, but that's not what you prepare for. Although the Pro Tour format was changed from a regular live draft to a draft with sleeved boosters 2 days before the tournament, everyone had done all of their Limited preparation with non-sleeved boosters in mind.
The second thing that changed was that I joined Team EUreka. This team had their own approach towards Limited discussions, which doesn't involve a pick order list for the first-pick-first-pack decision. There were card rankings, but there was more discussion on the format and the cards that anything else. In this article, my description will follow this approach.
Most members of Team EUreka met at a rental apartment on the Monday before Grand Prix Barcelona, roughly one-and-a-half weeks before the Pro Tour. Testing started by alternating between Standard and Limited preparation. We didn't do a lot of drafts—I only did 8 or so—but we learned a lot from each other by laying out our decks after every draft to discuss our picks, our card choices, and the general performance of our decks. It takes about 20 minutes every draft, but it's a great way to learn from each other, and I recommend doing it if you want to get better at Limited with your local play group.
Colors and Color Combinations
On the day before Grand Prix Barcelona, we had a first Limited meeting where we discussed general strategies and color combinations. Oliver Polak-Rottmann had tallied up all the records in our practice drafts, and the win percentages indicated that green was the best color by far, followed by white. Black and red were in the middle, and blue had the worst win percentage of all colors.
This sort of data is easy to assemble and quite valuable, as it indicates for instance that avoiding blue would be wise. Most other testing teams collect it as well—for instance, Martin Juza always did it for Cabin Crew.
The best 2 color combinations, with overall win percentages of over 60% in our practice drafts, were green/white and green/black.
Knowing that green/white was winning a lot is nice, but it's more important to know why it was successful. We found that there were plenty of early drops in this color combination to allow you to set up a fast mana curve of, say, six 2-drops, five 3-drops, and five 4-drops, backed up with reliable removal spells (Rabid Bite and Angelic Purge) and cheap pump spells (Strength of Arms and Confront the Unknown). Between Veteran Cathar and Intrepid Provisioner, green/white was able to leverage an early Human-centric board presence into a powerful assault.
Prioritizing 2-drops was key to this deck, as it had a hard time coming back from behind, and the format is fast. Taking an average 2-drop over some expensive late-game bomb is acceptable for this style of deck. Even in other green color combinations, such as green/blue, I liked a tempo-style approach with a good mana curve over a synergy-driven deck built around clues. You need to draft a deck with a plan in this format, and Graf Mole and Ongoing Investigation offer plenty of synergies, but you don't have a lot of time to set up in this format, so just curving out into a Stitched Mangler and a pump spell was winning more games.
Black/green was the only control deck doing well in our practice drafts. The fast decks guide the format, so drafting control is difficult, but it is possible if you prioritize high-toughness blockers, spot removal spells, and late-game bombs. Green offered good blockers, black could drag the game out the game with removal spells, and thanks to the Fork in the Road plus Stoic Builder combo, you could splash any late-game bombs to win the game. Generally speaking, mana fixing is poor in this format, but this style of green/black was the exception that could realistically splash a third color.
In case no late-game bombs were present, then Kessig Dire Swine was an okay replacement. Thanks to Fork in the Road and Vessel of Nascency, achieving delirium wasn't hard, but we determined that it was better not to go all-in on it as the fast decks don't give you a lot of time to assemble delirium. Including a Moldgraf Scavenger was deemed reasonable because its fail case is still a serviceable blocker, but Autumnal Gloom was nearly unplayable because it wouldn't reliably do something in the early turns of the game.
As for the other non-red color combinations: I never understood how to draft white/black, white/blue, or blue/black, so I would try to avoid them if possible. These color combinations offered a bunch of slow, grindy cards and defensive creatures, but it's hard to block in this format and these decks never came together.
In most of the red decks, I found that a focus on pump spells and prowess creatures was the best way to go. Fiery Temper is still the best red common, but the above red cards come right below it. This meant ignoring pretty much anything that would cost more than 4 mana, such as Reduce to Ashes.
Sure, you could focus a bit more on Werewolves (Moonlight Hunt, Ulrich's Kindred, and so on) if you were red/green or focus a bit more on madness (Bloodmad Vampire, Macabre Waltz, etc.) if you were red/black, but overall the low-to-the-ground pump-spell-heavy red approach felt best. Delirium and madness is nice, but in the end, curving out, attacking, and pumping was winning the most. Fabrizio Anteri put this strategy to good use at Grand Prix Barcelona.
A Common Ranking
On the Tuesday after Grand Prix Barcelona, just a few days before the start of the Pro Tour, we held a longer Limited meeting where we went over every card in the set one-by-one to discuss experiences, starting with all the commons.
As can be inferred from my discussion above, the power level of certain cards greatly depends on the color combination that you are in, but it's still useful to have a general evaluation to start from. As a homework assignment, I sent a spreadsheet with all the commons to everyone in the team and asked them to qui individually rank each on a scale from 7 (top common) to 1 (unplayable). Nearly everyone with a laptop and working WiFi filled it in, and I determined statistics like the average ranking and the standard deviation. The sorted results can be seen below.
Click to enlarge.
You shouldn't read too much into these numbers other than a basis for a rough sort, but a rough sort can still be insightful. Cards whose ranking had a high, bolded standard deviation, which indicates disagreement, got some extra time for discussion. A quick selection of some of the comments from the resulting discussion:
- Fiery Temper may be the most powerful common, but Rabid Bite may be a better first pick because green is the best color.
- Rabid Bite is awesome: It combined well with Grotesque Mutation, Rancid Rats, Briarbridge Patrol, and Silverfur Partisan. It's poor, however, versus Jace's Scrutiny.
- There are several black removal spells ranked highly, but it's usually better to end up in a color combination from the Naya shard, so it may not be best to take them first.
- Byway Courier is a high pick because aggressive green decks have few good 3-drops.
- I queried Gatherer for all common cards in Shadows over Innistrad, which apparently yielded up the back sides of certain Werewolves. An amusing discussion ensued on whether One of the Pack deserved a higher ranking than Solitary Hunter but in the end, the conclusion was that it was completely irrelevant.
- Moorland Drifter is a high pick because aggressive white decks have few good 2-drops.
- There was a bunch of disagreement on what the best blue commons were, but in the end it seemed that all were filler cards with their own role to play as a tempo card or a way to fill in the curve with either an aggressive or defensive creature, depending on what your deck needed, and it would be rare to move into blue early in the draft.
- Uncaged Fury wins games out of nowhere, especially since multiple red commons give or have trample, and I think it should be picked higher than the list indicates. What's more, it's an excellent card to bluff. Any time you're in a tight game, you can make a weird attack to potentially force an attentive opponent to jump through a lot of hoops to play around an Uncaged Fury that you don't actually have. I may have put Uncaged Fury and Sanguinary Mage higher than some other players on the team, whereas others liked Howlpack Wolf and Voldaren Duelist better as aggressive creatures with little synergy but high power. Both could work, but it's probably best not to mix and match.
- Grotesque Mutation was better than you might expect because many games come down to a damage race, and this is one of the cards that can swing a race. Same goes for Tenacity in the uncommon slot, by the way.
- 1-toughness creatures such as Devilthorn Fox function well as blockers against opposing 3/3s, but they are not great attackers as there are a lot of 1/1, 1/4, or 1/5 blockers in the format.
- Dual Shot was deemed to be a perfectly fine card to include in the main deck of red decks—at least the first copy.
- There are certain situational cards that are nice to draft 1 of, such as Magmatic Chasm, but you don't take them too highly. Magmatic Chasm in particular is the type of card that you may want on the play but not as often on the draw. Since opponents are often aggressive as well, even fast decks sometimes have to take a defensive role especially when they are on the draw, which means that your cards need to be flexible enough to allow you to come back from behind.
Uncommon and Rare Tier 1: Better Than All Commons and Uncommons
After going over all the commons one by one, we went over all uncommons and rare or mythic cards one by one, sharing experiences and discussing options. We put them in 4 tiers to give a general indication of how powerful we thought they were. Sometimes there wasn't a consensus, in which case for the purpose of this article I simply chose where to rank a card. Gold cards or cards with off-color activation costs were rated as if you were in both colors. So let's start with tier 1: the mythics and rares that were deemed better than Duskwatch Recruiter, which was the best uncommon in our mind. Note that within a tier, cards are not ranked in order.
- Seasons Past is amazing in a controlling black/green shell, but not as high for more aggressive green decks.
- Nahiri, Olivia, Mobilized for War, andThe Gitrog Monster are great when you already are in these colors, but they shouldn't be taken this high first-pick-first-pack because 2 colors is too big of a commitment from the start, at least for gold cards of their power level.
Uncommon and Rare Tier 2: Worse Than Duskwatch Recruiter, Better Than Fiery Temper
The second tier, in arbitrary order, contained the following cards that you would be happy to pick early once you were in these colors:
- Taking into account the value of double-faced signaling, we found that Kindly Stranger, Erdwal Illuminator, Duskwatch Recruiter, Bound by Moonsilver, and Lightning Axe were the best uncommons in each color.
- Altered Ego and Anguished Unmaking are good if you are already in these color combinations, but they're closer to a Tier 4 card for the first-pick-first-pack decision.
- Startled Awake is a bit of a weird card, but it is a reasonable win condition in a deck that can stall out the game for long enough and maybe draw some cards with Pieces of the Puzzle. It also randomly combos with Just the Wind.
Uncommon and Rare Tier 3: Worse Than Fiery Temper, Better Than Byway Courier
So here we get to the non-common cards that, generally speaking, we deemed to be typically worse than Fiery Temper or Rabid Bite, but better than a card like Byway Courier, Moorland Drifter, or Voldaren Duelist. Sometimes you want to take them a bit higher or a bit lower, depending on what you have drafted so far, but typically we would peg the following cards in this range. The order is arbitrary.
- There are several situations cards here. For instance, Call the Bloodline ranges from unplayable to very powerful in a deck with madness and a possible combo with Sanitarium Skeleton.
- The tier is still somewhat broad. For instance, Stitchwing Skaab, Ulvenwald Mysteries, Obsessive Skinner are very high 3s, whereas Uninvited Geist is a very low 3.
- With Moonlight Hunt, you need about 10 creatures for it to be as good as Rabid Bite.
- Relentless Dead is tough to cast on turn 2 due to its double-black cost, but it's much better in a Zombie-heavy deck. This tribal strategy often relies on rares, but if you get one then it is something to consider.
- Triskaidekaphobia sometimes leads to a game loss for yourself, but if you have it in your opening hand, you can typically maneuver yourself into a game state where you put your opponent down to 12-14 life while you are in no danger of getting to 13 life after a single attack, and then the enchantment can win the game by itself.
- The artifacts are all decent, and may be a little high here, but an artifact is still a great pick early in the draft because they leave you open.
Uncommon and Rare Tier 4: Worse Than Byway Courier
- Since opponents are often aggressive as well, you need cards that are both good on the offense and when you are on the defense. Olivia’s Bloodsworn, Stensia Masquerade, and Nahiri's Machinations are all strong cards, but they won't help you get back from behind. Strong tier 4s nevertheless, but their situational nature is a real downside.
- Essence Flux has all kinds of sweet value combos that make it better, such as with Kindly Stranger.
- For Howlpack Resurgence, you want at least 10 Wolves/Werewolves.
- Gryff's Boon and Tenacity were pegged as lower picks than Byway Courier most of the time, but still rather high tier 4 cards nevertheless.
- Groundskeeper is weak, but could be playable with multiple Vessel of Nascency and/or Ghoulsteed.
- Village Messenger is a nice card to have in your deck when you're on the play, but not as reliable to transform immediately when you're on the draw.
- Skeleton Key is not great in general, but it's a nice combo with Ember-Eye Wolf.
- Rise from the Tides can spawn an entire archetype that has the potential to be incredibly good. But the fail-case is a horrendous deck, and we had multiple failed attempts during our practice drafts. If you know what you are doing and take Pieces of the Puzzle highly, then you can take Rise from the Tides early and build the all-spell deck, but it's risky.
That concludes everything I have on Shadows over Innistrad Limited. If you're wondering about my thoughts on certain specific cards in particular, then let me know in the comment section below!