Silvestri Says – BNG Limited

Today we’ll be taking a break from Standard chat and instead take a look at some early data from Theros draft with Born of the Gods. As always, I’ll thank Rolle for providing me with the data to get a birds-eye view of the format. Notably, this is all from the initial prerelease drafts we saw, so games were taken from those particular queues.

Let’s start with the card win % for Born of the Gods cards. The usual disclaimers apply: Because of how the data is collected in that it can only see when cards are played and not when they rot in hand, the win percentages will bias toward higher CMC cards and certain classes of cards. Pump and falter spells in particular get hit hardest since they are frequently only cast when winning or when they end the game the same turn they were cast. Counterspells and auras have lesser bias, and in general I find those numbers are closer to reality.

Also, this is not a draft guide. This is a look at cards from a wide perspective and an attempt to give a little more distinction than, “this card is good” and “this card is very good.” The data here, while not the holy grail of card evaluation, can at least give a little context to some of these debates by introducing a source of information you could never hope to see on your own.

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Note that the “Likely Win %” takes into account the percentage of time you’ll be able to cast your spell. Its percentages are based on the average likelihood that you will reach the CMC in number of lands across all the replay games. Note this tends to have a more accurate turnout when it comes to commons, and reverses the typical data bias for high CMC cards. I leave it up to the reader to determine which win % model feels better.

Obviously [ccProd]Aspect of Hydra[/ccProd] isn’t the greatest card in the history of Theros Block Limited, in the same way that [ccProd]Messenger’s Speed[/ccProd] doesn’t actually have the highest chance of winning you games for Theros. If you skipped the disclaimer, go back and read it again because when you take into account how the data is collected there are some biases built in. There’s nothing we can do about that except try and apply reasonable criteria to them.

We can see from the Born of the Gods data that most of the top commons people pegged early on have continued to perform at a high level. Red got boosted by [ccProd]Fall of the Hammer[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Bolt of Keranos[/ccProd], while black got the other end of the balancing stick and got stuck with an overcosted [ccProd]Myr Enforcer[/ccProd]. [ccProd]Retraction Helix[/ccProd] is one of the more impressive blue commons and goes nicely with [ccProd]Voyage’s End[/ccProd] as another cheap way to interact with big monsters. [ccProd]Akroan Skyguard[/ccProd] is good? Like [ccProd]Wingsteed Rider[/ccProd] level good? You don’t say…

See what’s interesting is that the majority of commons you would assume are good are actually near the top of the list this time around. Usually there are a few that stand out as particular oddities, such as the auras in M14. The odd man out is [ccProd]Deepwater Hypnotist[/ccProd], which is largely filler as far as creature quality is concerned. I think it’s pretty fine as far as filler goes—attacking with it on turn two largely means a clean attack on turn three, possibly turn four and onward if you have a bestow.

The uncommons, on the other hand, confused the heck out of me. [ccProd]Mischief and Mayhem[/ccProd] being the top slot wasn’t a shock since it’s an excellent finisher and we know the data loves those. However, having played with the card a number of times I can say it lives up to its high billing here. It’s the closest thing we’ve had to [ccProd]Overrun[/ccProd] in a while, as most players can’t deal with two 5+ power attackers, let alone ones with evasion or after some board pruning. Worst-case, you eat the opponent’s worst two creatures, which is usually good enough and something green can’t typically do. [ccProd]Kraken of the Straits[/ccProd], on the other hand, gets a huge boost from being seven mana and the finisher of choice for slow control strategies.

Still, even if you take all the usual quirks into account and manually deduct points in your mind, [ccProd]Ornitharch[/ccProd], [ccProd]Fanatic of Xenagos[/ccProd], and [ccProd]Raised by Wolves[/ccProd] would be your top three, and all of these are excellent. In fact, Raised by Wolves is my favorite card in the set to open and is one of the best stabilizers in the format, and yet another excellent green uncommon. In general, where red got some of the key commons the color was lacking overall, green got a bunch of power uncommons.

Cards that surprised me in their lower standing are [ccProd]Akroan Conscriptor[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Thunder Brute[/ccProd]. Conscriptor felt like a card that was oppressive if you had a way to trigger him, but perhaps that was the critical failing. Many of the best uncommons need some help to function, but those all involve having creatures and many can be played as a lesser card if none are available. Akroan Conscriptor demands that you have heroic triggering spells left over for your 5-drop and that may be require a lot of discipline and a higher spell count. A high power-level may not be enough justification to have it as a high pick despite how attractive the ability is.

None of the other uncommons stood out as particular oddities, though I think [ccProd]Archetype of Courage[/ccProd] goes way too late online. I consistently see it 5th and 6th pick, and it makes combat a complete nightmare while not being a horrible three-drop on its own. I guess people see it as just a 2/2 first strike, but there are so many situations where a single large creature can’t rumble into multiple first strikers and it obviously dominates the white mirrors. Outside of that quirk, I don’t have much for underrated or overrated uncommons.

Rares and mythics are always weird to rate because they naturally have smaller sample sizes and there’s no guarantee you’ll ever see them even if you do draft them. Even out of 20,000+ games, most of the rares only make a few hundred appearances—the most played being [ccProd]Hero of Iroas[/ccProd] at 442. Notably, the majority of top slots are either creatures or spells that make creatures, with the exceptions being [ccProd]Gild[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Hunter’s Prowess[/ccProd]. Much like Mischief and Mayhem, it’s easy to write Hunter’s Prowess off as bias, but it is incredibly powerful from even mediocre board positions. It isn’t difficult to draw 3-5 cards and unless you’re completely strapped on mana or already near death can likely convert that into an easy win. There aren’t many ways to make up that kind of card advantage in this format and there’s only a few cards that punish you for casting Prowess.

Really though the key is that outside of some color rebalancing this draft format is following the same principles that applied for triple-Theros. Let’s look at the color archetype breakdown and see if the same decks are still winning.

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My basic disclaimer for archetype results can be summed up thusly: Drafting has a metagame and there’s no end-game for it. A huge portion of your experiences will be determined by your draft group, public knowledge about the format, and most importantly drafters expectations.

I’d like to bring up something Rolle mentioned to me when showing him a draft of the article that I feel really drives this home. There is ultimately no “truly objective” card or color evaluation, it is always taken in relation to the draft meta that it came from. To take an extreme example: “If 7 out of 8 drafters at a table are blue then Retraction Helix is a worse card in that meta, and if extrapolated out over thousands of drafts then the stats will show it with a much lower win %. Why? Because we can expect the decks that are playing it to lose more often due to lower overall deck quality.

So, we can largely put decks into four categories:

1) White-based heroic
2) UG/UB tempo
3) Rares
4) Everything else

Based on what colors are succeeding you can put together that white and blue are largely deeper than the other colors. When you look at the top commons, a key point is redundancy. Rolle counseled to look harder at the best commons among the sets, and he was dead on about how white and blue are very similar in both sets.

Want a bounce spell? [ccProd]Retraction Helix[/ccProd], [ccProd]Voyage’s End[/ccProd], and [ccProd]Griptide[/ccProd] are all options.

Good heroic common? [ccProd]Akroan Skyguard[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Wingsteed Rider[/ccProd] are practically brothers.

Looking to fill out your aggressive curve? [ccProd]Bronze Sable[/ccProd] is probably Philip Yam’s #1 card, and white and blue have no shortage of aggressive filler in both sets.

To sum it up with another quote: I think this should probably sway your direction from say P1p3 when you are considering which color to move in on—U and W are likely to be “safer” choices because even if they end up getting cut, you have a greater chance of seeing a reasonable number of playables from pack one, reaping the rewards pack two, then going back to drafting your secondary color in pack three.

As for the specific color combos, Boros heroic replacing Azorius as the top dog isn’t too big of a shock, since red now has solid removal to complement its attackers. Also notable is that Magic Online has skewed toward drafting blue throughout Theros, and at this point players may actually be overdrafting the color compared to red. Going from universally maligned to playable is the most likely explanation for the win swap. You can run 16-land aggro plans pretty easily with a red base in this format, while the heroic guys are widely known to be some of the best picks around. What’s nice is that you still have players who steadfastly dislike going red in this format, and this can reward you in the single Born pack.

One of the big takeaways is that over time while heroic decks may be the best strategies, the best color combo of them won’t necessarily stay constant. It’s also been seen that colors and strategies getting massively overdrafted will hurt them in the short-term. So while this information may be correct as this article goes up, a week from now, many of the top picks could be considerably worse, as more people aim to be in the same archetype as you.

If anything, people stick too heavily with strategies that have worked for them in the past and just continue to chug away with them. You really need to keep an open mind once enough information about the format has become public knowledge. Everyone knew in Magic 2014 that blue was the best color, and for a while it was actually the third or fourth best choice every draft because too many people were looking to jump in. A great point that I’ve learned throughout my discussions with great Limited players is that there is no cost to changing your preference of color or archetypes. It isn’t like you sunk 300 bucks into your draft deck, so switching really isn’t a big deal.

I group UG and UB together, even though they don’t quite fit the same theme, because they share the same goals. They want to dominate the early-mid game with bigger creatures or guys that screw up combat while utilizing their spot removal to take out any major threats. The late game then becomes a few giant end-game monsters or a flier taking out the opponent. Both of them make amazing use of blue’s bounce spells, and [ccProd]Retraction Helix[/ccProd] must have been a godsend to help out with additional early plays, and being able to sneak a 5-drop out while still holding a usable trick. UB may be the most spell-focused of the archetypes and UG may use larger creatures, but in general both are aiming for the same end game.

The third main archetype I usually see is just a deck based around a couple bomb rares received in the first 16-17 picks. It isn’t uncommon online to get shipped a bomb rare or two in Theros if someone has already felt committed to two colors out of the BNG packs. I’ve definitely gotten weapons far later than I ever did in Theros draft, and I feel like that’s the most likely explanation.

Finally, there’s everything else in the format. This largely consists of building a bestow creature and not dying in the meantime, but you could definitely do things differently. Most of the time these decks don’t seem to be on purpose, but rather mixed signals leading to minor pileups when trying to craft one of the stronger archetypes. Sadly I can’t measure this phenomena, but looking at Grand Prix Mexico City helps identify the usual sequence. Look at Marc Lalague’s winning draft deck and how he got to that point. Michael Hetrick had a similar performance in his 2nd draft at the Pro Tour where he didn’t switch out of his initial game plan and everyone else chugged along with their own plans.

It doesn’t always end in disaster though, Marc’s deck had a good chunk of cheaper removal mixed in with some passable creatures in UR. Despite being in a little-played color combination that was almost a total trainwreck he still took it down in the end. While ideally you want to be in the open colors, you can still fight other players over colors. It just doesn’t really benefit you in the same way as it would in other formats with deeper colors. Or if this was Gatecrash you could get away with people having the wrong card evaluations for the first month of the format.

In the end, what happened with Born of the Gods? Well if you liked Theros draft and the strategies employed by those decks, you’ll love this new format. It feels like Born of the Gods was made explicitly to smooth out the rough edges from Theros without drastically altering any strategies. Red got enough goodies to become playable and black took a big hit while the other three colors largely retained their positions. The two major mechanics of bestow and heroic still drive the format and the vast majority of decks people draft. So if you didn’t like Theros… Well I’ll see you again for Journey to Nyx.

For those attending the 10k this weekend I’m hoping to get out a mini-article as a run-up to that. I’ll actually be the scorekeeper for the event so I no longer have a personal stake in it. If you asked me for my top three picks right now I’d put them as WU Control, GRb Monsters, and WB Control. With WU Control at the top of the pile by a slight margin simply because all the margins in Standard are pretty small right now. I’d love to list [ccProd]Ephara[/ccProd], but that was before the massive GR Monsters resurrection over the past two weeks. Same reason I won’t recommend Boros Burn to players, even though I like the deck. It’s too weak to that popular matchup, when there are plenty of other viable options.

Hoping to see many of you at the PTQ this weekend!

Josh Silvestri

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