Ultimate Masters will be the last Masters set for the foreseeable future, as WotC has stated that they will be focusing on other products that will also include reprints. Given that it’s the last Masters set they plan on making for a while, they tried not to hold back.
For Ultimate Masters Limited, the largest events will be Grand Prix Vancouver and Grand Prix Prague. You can also play Ultimate Masters Limited events on Magic Online, starting Thursday, December 6th.
Today I’ll offer some insights into the new Draft format, along with a Pick 1 Pack 1 list. Before getting to the list, let’s start by breaking down the archetypes that I could identify.
Game Plans for Each Color Combination
As always in Draft, you need to draft a coherent deck with a clear game plan. Each of the ten color combinations is different, as their commons all pull in a different direction. For each color combination, I selected four unique commons (two of each color) that excel in that color combination and exemplify what it’s trying to do, at least in my evaluation.
These are not necessarily the most powerful commons, but they are the most illustrative or synergistic, under the restriction that any common can only be showcased once. I’ll start with the three white color combinations centered on heroic, then move to the three red color combinations based around madness, and conclude with the four that care the most about the graveyard.
With heroic decks, the plan is to make a huge creature and protect it. White has the largest quantity of heroic creatures at common and uncommon, whereas green offers Prey Upon and pump spells to target them.
There is no non-hybrid green-white uncommon gold card, but there is Travel Preparations, which is one of the best cards you can have in a heroic deck. And since -1/-1 counters cancel out against +1/+1 counters, it even synergizes with Kitchen Finks and other persist creatures.
W/U heroic. Whirlwind Adept and Flight of Fancy aren’t particularly powerful by themselves, but they work well together and are perfect for this archetype. The Adept will be happy to receive a Hyena Umbra, and Flight of Fancy is perfect when paired with one of the uncommon white heroic creatures: Hero of Iroas or Phalanx Leader.
The uncommon gold cards, Plumeveil and Reviving Vapors, don’t add much to the strategy and don’t have to be prioritized, but they’re fine if you decide to draft a more defensively oriented white-blue deck.
Since heroic decks want ways to repeatedly target their own creatures, Reckless Charge and Conviction are particularly valuable. Besides, Reckless Charge on Skyspear Cavalry represents loads of damage. The red-white gold uncommon, Warleader’s Helix, has nothing to do with any of the mechanics in the set, but it’s always good.
With Rally the Peasants at uncommon, there’s also a go-wide theme that exploits Akroan Crusader, Molten Birth, and the like. I expect this will be a good backup plan when the heroic angle doesn’t work out.
The plan with madness is simple: discard spells and cast them for free. Since red has the largest quantity of madness cards, effects that allow you to discard cards at will shoot up in value when you’re drafting red.
In red-black, there’s also a sacrifice theme that exploits the synergies between Hissing Iguanar, Bloodflow Connoisseur, and the uncommon gold card Garna, the Bloodflame. That’s an alternative angle to focus on, especially if you don’t see any madness spells.
All of the key cards in this archetype are spell-based, which works well with Thermo-Alchemist at common and Mystic Retrieval at uncommon. Rise from the Tides can do amazing things in red-blue as well.
The gold uncommon, Blast of Genius, is a solid value spell for any deck. As a final benefit to drafting this color combination, you get access to both sides of the only split card in the set: Fire // Ice. It’s even a common for the first time.
Wild Mongrel and Basking Rootwalla bring back memories of Careful Study and Arrogant Wurm. Well, in this set you have Faithless Looting and Reckless Wurm, so you can basically draft a colorshifted version of the U/G Madness deck of yore.
Given that there are several big green trample creatures, Generator Servant excels in this color combination. The gold uncommon, Vengeful Rebirth, is always a good fit. And Wild Hunger, the uncommon flashback card, synergizes particularly well with Double Cleave, so that’s a combo to look out for when you’re drafting red-green.
The plan with a delve deck is to fill the graveyard and exploit it as a resource. Casting 7-8 mana delve spells on turn 4 is reasonably easy to do with the right deck.
The uncommon gold card, Countersquall, isn’t great. Forbidden Alchemy is what you want. Alternatively, focus on picking Marang River Prowler, Grave Strength, or other uncommons that exploit the graveyard. And finally, keep in mind that this color combination is the only one that can activate both abilities of Dimir Guildmage, which for some reason is the only Guildmage in the set.
Green also has self-mill and delve cards, so the archetype can function in a similar way to blue-black.
But the uncommon gold card, Urban Evolution, fits a deck with a ramp theme and a strong late-game. This means that more so than any other color combination, blue-green can emphasize mana-intensive spells and be able to cast them in time.
The plan of this archetype is to reanimate big creatures from the graveyard. Ulamog’s Crusher is the best reanimate target at common, and there’s Angel of Despair at uncommon. It’s not easy to get these creatures in the graveyard, but you do have access to Icatian Crier, and you can make fancy plans like activating Dimir Guildmage’s black ability on yourself. At uncommon, Unburial Rites, Buried Alive, and Miraculous Recovery emphasize the potential for a powerful black-white reanimator deck.
Yet, given the reliance on uncommons, this archetype may be hard to pull off. If you fail to find some of the key higher-rarity cards, then you might be able to salvage things with the Icatian Crier + Sanitarium Skeleton “engine” or by simply slapping a Mark of the Vampire on a Wingsteed Rider.
There aren’t many dredge cards in the set, especially at low rarity—Golgari Brownscale, Golgari Thug, and Darkmor Salvage are the only non-rare options—but if there’s any color combination that can act like a dredge deck, it’s black-green.
Verdant Eidolon can become a free card when dredged into your graveyard. It fits with the higher concentration of hybrid cards in green and black, and it can set up an absurd Death Denied. The uncommon gold card, Golgari Charm, is flexible but not particularly synergistic. As for Spider Spawning, well, let’s address that next.
The Spider Spawning deck. Now that I have introduced all 10 archetypes with a focus on their commons, there’s one archetype remaining—one that uses more than two colors, relies on uncommons and rares, and exploits all the cards that care about the graveyard. It’s the Spider Spawning deck.
For a historical perspective on the Spider Spawning deck from Innistrad Limited, check out this article by Marshall Sutcliffe. As he wrote, “it’s the deck you can never get on Magic Online when they do flashback Drafts of Innistrad because literally all eight players in the queue want to do the same thing.“
Sadly, we don’t have Memory’s Journey, Runic Repetition, or Gnaw to the Bone—the closest we have is Mystic Retrieval and Stream of Consciousness—but we can still find a lot of discard/mill enablers in Sultai to kickstart everything. You would focus on milling yourself with cards like Deranged Assistant, Satyr Wayfinder, Crow of Dark Tidings, and Forbidden Alchemy. Along the way, you get to exploit all the graveyard-matters cards: delve cards, dredgers, Verdant Eidolon, flashback spells, and so on. Heck, you could even flashback Unburial Rites on Ancester’s Chosen or splash Vengeful Rebirth or Blast of Genius if you have fixers like Kodama’s Reach or Dreamscape Artist.
In any case, you’re eventually winning with Boneyard Wurm, Spider Spawning, Laboratory Maniac, or Rise from the Tides. But preferably Spider Spawning. Given how much fun it was to draft this deck in Innistrad Limited, I fully expect that many people will attempt to draft something similar in the Ultimate Masters phantom Draft Leagues on Magic Online.
Pick Order List Methodology
Now let’s turn to the first-pick first-pack list. I used the following data sources to construct a ranking:
- The Draftaholics Anonymous rankings collected on Sunday December 2. Their scores for cards are derived from users who are presented with choices between two cards in a Pick 1 Pack 1 context. I scaled the ratings so that the card with the highest score became a 5.0 and the card with the lowest score became a 0.0, and I used their grades for a weight of 40%.
- The average pick number of each card within a booster on Draftsim.com. Draftsim is an online Draft simulator and practice tool where you can draft against computer opponents, and the data is based on 52,000 Ultimate Masters Drafts done by users in the last week of November. I transformed the average pick numbers so that the card with the lowest average pick number within a booster got a grade of 5.0 and the card with the highest average pick number within a booster got a grade of 0.0. I used these grades for a weight of 60%.
Since there was no LR Community review or set review by LSV for Ultimate Masters, I had limited access to the typical data sources that I use to create an aggregate ranking. But I‘m very happy to add Draftsim.com as a new data source, and I would like to thank Dan Troha for providing me with the data and for suggesting the average pick number of each card within a booster as a good representation of a card’s overall quality.
After taking the weighted average of the two grades, I subtracted 0.25 points for any multicolor card, dual land, and spell with an off-color flashback cost, and I added 0.25 points for any colorless card, split card, or hybrid card. These adjustments are made to get closer to a proper first-pick first-pack order. After all, a gold card reduces flexibility, whereas an artifact keeps your options open.
The end result was an aggregate grade for every card in Ultimate Masters. My raw data, which may double as a searchable text list, is available here. After I got a number for every card, all I had to do was to press sort, and the pick order list arose.
This methodology leads to a list that captures first impressions. Indeed, most rankings were made before anyone even had a chance to play with the cards. But it’s a good starting point for newcomers and an excellent tool for discussions. By fixing a ranking, I can make statements like “this card is overrated” or “this card is underrated” more concrete by comparing my evaluations with people’s first impressions.
Now let’s turn to the first-pick first-pack list. Remember that it’s essentially one big continuous list, to be read left-to-right, top-to-bottom. I added a few headings only to make it easier to read and so that I could intersperse some comments, but the categories are arbitrary.
These are the best cards in the set, and it seems reasonable to first-pick them over any common or uncommon.
Mana Vault is one of the few cards in the set that is not Modern-legal. But for good reason—just imagine Affinity with Mana Vault. In Ultimate Masters Limited, the artifact allows you to ramp into 5-drops like Scuzzback Marauders on turn 2, which is just ridiculous.
Out of all cards in this category, I am most skeptical about the position of Eldrazi Conscription. Like the previous two cards, it got a small boost on behalf of being a colorless card, which is why it’s so high, but I think it’s too high. 8 mana is a lot, and you can only cheat it in play with Sovereigns of Lost Alara and Iridescent Drake, neither of which are common. It does have synergy with Hero of Iroas and Heliod’s Pilgrim, but I would still prefer to start my draft with one of the better uncommons instead.
The Part With the Best Uncommons
Yes, there are rares and mythics in this category as well. Remember that it’s all one continuous list—this is just where we see the best uncommons appear. The way to read it is that Kitchen Finks should be first-picked over Shriekmaw, which should in turn be first-picked over Ancient Tomb if they’re all in the same booster together.
Kitchen Finks leapfrogged over Shriekmaw because of its flexible hybrid cost, but if I were already in green-black, I would surely pick Shriekmaw. Even as a first-pick, I think I would prefer Shriekmaw because the combination of efficient removal, card advantage, and synergy with Death Denied and Grave Scrabbler is too good to pass up.
One card that I think is overrated is All Is Dust. In this Limited format, there are relatively few colorless permanents, so the most realistic scenario is that you sweep the board symmetrically. 7 mana is too much for such an effect. Even if you’re lucky enough to retain a Cathodion, it costs too much mana to reliably set up.
The Part With the 6 Best Commons
According to this list, Faith’s Fetters is the best common to first-pick, closely followed by Fiery Temper and Last Gasp. You can never go wrong with efficient removal spells, so that looks fine to me.
Faith’s Fetters is even capable of shutting down planeswalkers, which is kind of a “new” interaction. When Faith’s Fetters was first printed in Ravnica, planeswalkers weren’t around yet, so this never came up in the original Ravnica Limited. It wasn’t until Lorwyn, about two years later, when planeswalkers were unveiled to the world.
I believe Unholy Hunger and Gurmag Angler are slightly overrated in this list. Unholy Hunger is expensive at 5 mana, and it doesn’t synergize with any of the black archetypes I discussed. Gurmag Angler, meanwhile, only excels in the blue-black self-mill deck. Black-white wants to resurrect its dead creatures, black-green wants to turn them into Spiders, and black-red wants to bring back creatures from the graveyard. Since all those archetypes already earmark the graveyard as a resource for non-delve spells, I wouldn’t first-pick Gurmag Angler that highly.
I would rather start off my Draft with key commons that can work in multiple archetypes. Wingsteed Rider for white heroic decks, for example. Or Reckless Wurm for red madness decks. Those are the types of commons that I would move up, especially since Masters formats are often about drafting a synergistic deck, and both heroic and madness require a critical mass of pieces.
There are also a few non-common cards that I feel are overrated. Leovold, Emissary of Trest is one of them. It’s the only 3-color card in a set with relatively little fixing. Among colorless commons, there’s only Terramorphic Expanse and Vessel of Endless Rest. There are a few extra fixers like Kodama’s Reach and Verdant Eidolon, but I’d rather use those to splash impactful 6+ mana cards. Splashing a 3-mana creature whose abilities might be irrelevant in a game of Limited is not as appealing to me.
Furthermore, Swift Reckoning is overrated because it doesn’t work well on offense, Sigil of the New Dawn is overrated because you’re investing 6 mana for a Raise Dead, Artisan of Kozilek is overrated because 9 mana is too much in a format without Eldrazi Spawns, and Slippery Bogle is overrated because it’ll be hard to assemble enough Auras to make hexproof on a 1/1 worth it.
Other Good Cards
I also see several rares here that look too high to me, such as Seismic Assault and Vexing Devil. My explanation for this is that people are still hardwired to first-pick rares. While this pick order list doesn’t aim to take the financial value of cards into account and there’s no benefit to taking a rare on any of the online Draft simulators, many Magic players might still click on the shiny rare, even if it won’t shine in Limited.
There aren’t many true unplayables around, as many of the cards in this final category are still key pieces for various archetypes. Hopefully, this adds some depth to the boosters to ensure everyone can get a reasonable deck.
An Ultimate Masters Bucket List
Ultimate Masters is brimming with potential, which encouraged me to collect the sweet plays, powerful combos, and awesome decks that one could assemble in this format. Hopefully you can draw some inspiration from this list.
- Assemble the combo of Seismic Assault plus Life from the Loam. If you didn’t see Life from the Loam, then Groundskeeper can act as an alternative.
- Exile Treasure Cruise or Dig Through Time to build an 8/8 Living Lore.
- Combine Through the Breach and Emrakul, the Aeons Torn and pull off this Modern-worthy combo. If you don’t have Emrakul, there are various other Eldrazi that can work just as well. If you don’t have Through the Breach, then you could use Goryo’s Vengeance or Apprentice Necromancer in response to an Eldrazi’s shuffle trigger, although that does require a discard enabler or lucky mill effect.
- Cast Repel the Darkness on two of my own heroic creatures mid-combat.
- Start off with Fume Spitter, Generator Servant, Ronom Unicorn, Bloodflow Connoisseur, or any other sacrifice outlet. Then enchant it with Pattern of Rebirth. Voila, turn-4 Emrakul.
- Build a deck around Shirei, Shizo’s Caretaker. You could pair Shirei with Fumespitter or Apprentice Necromancer, but you could go deeper. For instance, how about sacrificing Archaeomancer to Stitcher’s Apprentice, netting a 2/2 and a free instant or sorcery spell each turn?
- Use Sovereigns of Lost Alara to fetch Eldrazi Conscription. For the ultimate lucksack achievement, randomly mill over Eldrazi Conscription, then cast a turn-4 Iridescent Drake.
- Reveillark + Eternal Witness + Murderous Redcap + Phyrexian Altar + Bridge from Below in the graveyard = infinite damage and infinite mana.
- Mill over my entire deck, cast two Songs of the Damned, then hard cast Conflagrate for 20.
- Turn 1 Entomb. Turn 2 Reanimate. Wait, are we playing Limited or Legacy?
- Turn 1 Dark Depths. Turn 2 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth. Turn 3 Thespian’s Stage. Are you sure this isn’t Legacy?
With so many nostalgic combos, this format looks similar to some of my favorite Cubes. If you want a chance to open Ultimate Masters boosters at the highest level of competition, then don’t miss Grand Prix Vancouver or Grand Prix Prague.
Since the prime goal of this aggregate list is to spawn debate, let me know which cards you felt were overrated or underrated. Also, if you have sweet additions to the bucket list or alternative Draft archetype ideas, then don’t hesitate to share your suggestions in the comment section below!