War of the Spark Limited has garnered mixed reviews from players and fans. I’m not surprised. Players tend to enjoy different aspects of playing various formats and gravitate toward what they like. There’s a reason MTG has a zillion formats, both competitive and casual—various types of games appeal to different players.
Limited is obviously different from Constructed since you build a deck on the fly. At the beginning of the year I did a series where I let players vote for their favorite way to play Magic and Limited won the race. The idea that Limited is a “universal” or “populist” format was reflected by the #1 ranking.
Today’s article discusses one of my favorite elements of playing Limited, which is specifically relevant to War of the Spark: building deranged control decks.
By now, you’ve likely heard the format is bomb-heavy, control-oriented, and grindy. Today I’m going to run through some of the fundamentals I find to be useful guidelines for drafting consistently good control decks in War of the Spark.
Let’s Talk About the Unique Context
Every Limited set offers a specific play experience different from all others. War of the Spark’s context is particularly unique with 36 different planeswalker cards at rarities extended to uncommon thrown into the mix.
This format is fundamentally different from all other formats that have come before!
One thing we should consider is how planeswalkers are particularly warping to Limited because they tend to be a recurring source of card, resource, and board advantage. From previous formats we already know that planeswalkers tend to be bomb-tastic, and a format with 36 of them is likely to be warped.
Haters Are Gonna Hate
The critique against the format is that there are simply too many bombs and the games are too bomb-centric. I respect that games frequently being decided by a bomb rare can be frustrating, but that is the world we currently live in.
I’ve been drafting the format for a few weeks and I’m winning at a clip that is significantly higher than my normal rate on Arena. With that being said, my elevated win rate also takes into consideration a significant chunk of “non-competitive decks” that felt pretty bad and like they didn’t stand much of a chance. I do think having access to at least a couple of bomb cards is important (since most of your opponents will also have the same), but with so many in the mix it’s much harder to whiff.
I have gotten the impression that it is possible to be in open colors, make solid choices, craft a focused deck with a good plan, and still struggle to beat more powerful cards. I assume this is the place where some of the negative criticism has come from. But with that said, I’ve also found that this is a format that greatly rewards creativity, thinking outside the box, and tactical strategy on an uncommon level.
I recently Demolished some opponents with a deck playing seven copies of Demolish. Not a control deck (or was it?). My point is, there is a lot going on in this format!
Another thing worth noting is that bombs often answer other bombs. While I acknowledge the format has some daunting constraints, I’ve been focused on finding creative workarounds to mitigate potential loss. Be prepared to get rekt by some rares, but know that while that is one potential type of game that can occur, there’s a diverse metagame out there!
I’ve found the “bomby” complaint to be more justified of the Sealed format. It’s pretty obvious which pools are outstanding and which ones will struggle to compete, and it doesn’t feel like there’s a ton to be done about it. But in the Draft format, I’ve felt like my decisions matter a lot and there are tons of places where I have significant options and choices.
While I acknowledge the format is defined by powerful spells, I’ve also found that WAR Draft has consistently rewarded creative deck building solutions in a way most Limited formats don’t.
There’s only so much creative space to “work around” aggro decks in formats that simply spam more cheap attackers than there are good blockers. That is not the case in War of the Spark, where I think the blockers are vastly superior to most of the common aggressive threats.
I don’t typically force specific colors in War of the Spark Limited, but I almost always find myself in blue on Arena since blue tends to have a lot of great options for generating extra resources. I’m also not opposed to getting aggressive if the cards fall that way, but I’ve had greater sustained success “going long” than “beating down.”
Many times I’ll even start with cards that feel aggressive but ultimately end up with a more controlling deck. Remember: there is nothing wrong with having awesome threats in a control deck! It’s a huge benefit.
Defending and Pressuring are Important in WAR Draft
I would describe my preferred Draft decks as control decks for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, my decks care about generating resource advantage or running my opponent out of cards and threats, more than they are about attacking my opponent’s life total directly or wanting to race (which is my basic definition of what a control deck is).
I want to be able to attack (specifically opposing planeswalkers) but that is a consequence of wanting to win the “long war of resources” more than a desire to race with my opponent. The primary reason I approach the format in this manner is because with so many game-swinging bombs and great blockers I’ve found that simply trying to put my opponent to zero with good, honest beatdown is no small task! I’d rather force a long game and bury my opponent in a sea of cascading advantage to ensure I can’t be brickwalled.
For this reason, I prefer a suite of creatures that are cheap and can be deployed before the planeswalker arms race begins, since I want to be able to block for my planeswalkers and pressure my opponent’s characters.
Pick Order, Schmick Order
War of the Spark has largely redefined how I think about traditional “pick orders” in Draft because I’ve found the value of the cards changes drastically depending on the cards you already have and the types of cards you require to shore up gaps in your curve, as well as game plan.
For instance, it is often true that if you are too light on removal, picking a middling removal spell will often do more for your deck than a better card that falls into a category where you are already loaded. A control deck needs a lot of things. Balance is one of them.
Yes, it’s important to identify the earth-shattering bombs, which is luckily not particularly difficult to do:
- Does the card take over the game if it isn’t immediately killed by generating a recurring advantage?
- Does the card kill all of my opponent’s threats?
- Is the card focused removal that also creates a token, gains life, and draws a card?
Planeswalkers and other cards with recursive abilities, Wraths, and great removal that also generates card advantage fit my loose definition of a bomb in this format. There are dozens of them and you want as many as possible, since these cards often allow you to impose your will on the game through brute strength of cards.
It’s a thing, so do it! That’s the easy part. Pick all the bombs you think you can play.
Building a Deck with a Curve and a Plan
While identifying the bombs and picking them is an exercise in basic card evaluation, I’ve found that creating a cohesive deck is much more nuanced and subjective.
The decks I want to play get on the board quickly and start extracting value as soon as possible, over and over again, until my opponent concedes. Even on Arena, my Limited decks tend to get more concessions than deal lethal damage. I’m not trying to “kill” my opponent so much as I’m trying to subdue their ability to continue playing the game by going over their head.
Sure, my cards and the board will often dictate that I simply turn ham sandwiches sideways and win a race, but that is my strategic plan B. I go into each match with the intent of hopefully going long.
It’s all fine and good to imagine winning a late game where you have everything and they have nothing, but how is this best accomplished? Well, mana curve is an important part of facilitating an endgame. It’s difficult to ride planeswalkers to victory on a board where you can’t block to protect them.
1- and 2-Drops
The cheap drops are among the most important pieces to the War of the Spark puzzle. The cheapest planeswalkers have a converted mana cost of 3, which means that getting out ahead to pressure or defend has the potential to dictate the entire sequence of play.
While War of the Spark Limited is defined by the swingy bombs, the nature of those types of impact plays can often cause us to look past our basic “pawn structure” and board development. The set-up moves we make early on matter greatly, since playing from ahead with planeswalkers is so easy and playing from behind so difficult.
While it may get overlooked in a metagame where so many games are determined by a haymaker, I can’t stress enough that addressing these fundamentals is the way to win more games. I can’t actively influence how many Ugin or Massacre Girl that I open, but I can certainly impact how and why I prioritize my common picks.
Being ahead is important because of the planeswalker subgame. We need ours to live and theirs to die, and this is true regardless of whether you are building aggro, midrange, or durdle control. I’d go so far to say this is the first rule of playing War of the Spark Draft.
Let’s talk about pawn structure, a.k.a. the cheap drops from which we’ll develop our board and strategy:
These are my favorite cheap creatures in the format because they provide synergy in decks looking to proliferate. One of the easiest ways to improve your War of the Spark win percentage is to fully embrace the mechanic.
Other than “having more bombs,” I don’t think there is anything better to do in this format than to be effective at proliferation. Here’s why:
First of all, it’s powerful. When you can trigger even one proliferate for advantage it’s worth doing, but the key is to look for opportunities to maximize your value by gaining multiple items of value from one proliferate activation. Multiple +1/+1 counters and loyalty from a single proliferate is a high rate of gain for the resource cost of casting a spell or triggering an ability to proliferate.
The trick is to set up moments that generate advantage, and I’ve found one of the best ways to accomplish this is to build around the premise that “this is what I’m trying to accomplish from the moment I draw my opening hand.”
Aside from bombs (many of which, like planeswalkers, already synergize with proliferate), I want things that are cheap and can open up platforms to proliferate from. I want a critical mass of objects that interact favorably with proliferate to soak up as much incidental advantage as possible with each passing turn.
Another guiding premise to think about when balancing your deck is to make sure you have enough things worth proliferating to justify the amount of triggers you include. It’s depressing to proliferate nothing, so I value cheap platforms that produce counters. In fact, after a few picks I’ll prioritize those types of cards over removal because I’ve found they are that important to executing a consistent strategy.
We’ve talked about pawn structure, but let’s also talk about checkmate. The most common way I’m winning games of War of the Spark Limited is through attrition. I simply create a board my opponent cannot attack into, and continue to spin my wheels and develop avenues of advantage until the game is out of reach. Often I’m killing my opponent with a flyer or making them chump or trade resources, but most of the time when I’m attacking it is because I know my opponent cannot reasonably attack me back.
I’ve actually found there are a lot of situations where I could make an attack and choose not to because I don’t want to risk a small amount of chip damage at the cost of my opponent removing a couple of blockers. I’m typically content to extract the max value and win once its safe.
The Hard Lock
People are not dummies when it comes to playing Magic, so assume others also understand the basic dynamics of the format. It’s common knowledge that the format is bomb-heavy, boards get stalled, and games go late. It helps to build in ways to break through a stalemate:
One common loop that packs a punch is Weird + Aid. The Weird can rebuy the Aid every other turn, and the combo allows you to recur all of your planeswalkers until your opponent breaks up the combo. I don’t always start the combo (because Weird is pretty underwhelming against green and red decks with fat monsters) but it’s a great card to pick and use out of the sideboard against other slow, grindy decks.
The only thing better than busted cards is the ability to play them over and over again!
The Basics of a Good Control Deck in WAR
- Prioritize picking bombs (these are the cards you leverage to win).
- After bombs, prioritize a cheap, proliferate-friendly curve to quickly impact the board and pave the way for your planeswalkers to live and theirs to die.
- The more proliferate synergy you can build into your curve the more opportunities you’ll have to generate incidental advantage over the course of the game. In the best decks, I’ve had most of my cards synergize with proliferate (which is why they were good decks!)
- The format is grindy and prone to board stalls, so make sure you have some ways built into your deck so that you can “do something” advantageous when things get gummed up and attacks are awkward.
One of the reasons I focus so hard on proliferate is because it’s a great thing to do when the board becomes stalled since it generates advantage spread across your entire team. If the game gets gummy, the player who can proliferate harder is advantaged. It’s perhaps the easiest advantage to create on a neutral board. It’s also, incidentally, the reason I don’t prefer beatdown decks in this format: A timely proliferate can quickly lock small attackers out.
It’s also the case that my “defensive” minded decks built around proliferate can often turn the corner quickly, or even just have draws that are outright aggressive. A few proliferate triggers and +1/+1 counters on creatures can quickly turn into an army that can run roughshod over an opponent’s normally curved-out creatures.
War of the Spark is an unusual format because I think pick order matters less than normal, at least with regard to competing commons. Obviously, understanding that a card like Ugin is a bomb is important, but my choice for which common to take over another is significantly less static. Identifying what your deck needs and addressing that gap is a great way to improve your odds.