Drafting is a unique format in that it rewards different skills that need to be applied on the fly. You need to understand the metagame of the set—e.g. is it fast? (Gatecrash, Zenidikar) or slow? (Rise of Eldrazi, Invasion Block). In a multi-pack format, can you cut a color in the first pack to get a large payoff in the second (cutting black in Odyssey block to get hooked up in Torment)? The metagame is one of the few things you can prepare for by researching in advance—the rest relies on decisions you will need to make as the cards flow.
Those decisions involve several choices with each pack. What is the most powerful card? What are the people to my right telling me? What am I telling the people downstream? How does my curve look? Should I jump ship to another color because it looks open? Are my earlier picks powerful enough that it’s worth fighting for them? Do I have enough removal to beat the fast decks? If I’m aggressive, do I have ways to push through the last few points of damage? Can I be greedy and splash for this card? If I know some of the other players in my pod, what are they typically going to drift towards?
It’s surprising, when you step back, how many angles there are to consider. To that end, I use a lot of mental shortcuts to allow me to focus on the bigger pay-off questions, without getting bogged down in the minutiae of relative card power levels.
The most important element in a draft is being reactive (the jumping ship question). Ben Stark wrote a great article about this last month.
This is the money shot in a draft—if you correctly read what is coming upstream from you in pack one, you optimize your chances. By the third pack, everyone is settled into their colors and are more likely to pass off-color bombs and top tier commons, so understanding what is likely to flow will often give you the strongest deck. So if that’s the prime directive, why don’t we always do that?
Well, it’s often because the tactical decisions of relative power levels in the cards (and curve considerations) overwhelm our deeper strategic interests. What I do to help keep an eye on the prize is to gray-out all of the cards in a pack that don’t really matter. I only want the most powerful cards taking my attention, so I use a mental shortcut. I think of it as "tiers" of cards.
Tier one cards are cards we want as many copies of as we can get. They are the signature cards of their respective colors and seeing one come late is a signal that our "daddies" (upstream drafters) are probably not in those colors, and we should entertain the possibility of switching. I’m always on the lookout for tier one cards coming in picks 4+ and use them as a weather vane for the open archetypes.
Tier two cards are solid cards that we are also very happy to have multiple copies of. We will almost always take a tier one card over them, but they are powerful, and seeing them come later than pick 6 is a strong signal of where we want to be.
Tier three consists of the filler cards that make up half or more of any draft deck. They are largely interchangeable with other cards, and we will pick them based on curve considerations more than anything else. Tabling these cards is a moderate sign that the color is open, but I don’t read too much into it. These cards are not powerful enough to justify switching for.
You don’t really want tier four cards in your deck, but if you're forced into it, you will play them. Typically these fill a gap in the curve—hopefully you won’t have more than one or two in a deck.
Tier five is the absolute dregs, seeing these cards in a pack doesn’t represent anything in particular. If you are starting these, you are in trouble. (e.g. [card]Triton Shorethief[/card]—oddly, every white cards is at least modestly playable in this set.)
That said, I’ve included my tier list on Theros, based on quite a bit of drafting with the set. These have been my experiences with the cards.
White has a reputation as being the strongest color in Theros. Certainly the "nut" decks are usually white/X heroic with 13 or 14 lands. Interestingly, I would say that those decks are surprisingly reliant on the uncommons and rares to really make it hum.
[card]Wingsteed Rider[/card] is the only signature card in the common run. My own experiences have shown that for each crazy deck full of uncommons, there are 4 or 5 that are loaded up with [card]Traveling Philosopher[/card]s and [card]Leonid Snarecaster[/card]s. They always have access to various pumps, Ordeals, and combat tricks, but without the powerful heroic triggers, it’s a fairly mediocre deck.
That said, white’s uncommons and rares are almost universally sweet, so if you can get a clear read early on white being open, it can generate a [card]Savage Beating[/card]. One note on this—the Ordeals are very good, but ultimately they can be replaced with similar effects ([card]Chosen by Heliod[/card], as an example). The reason why [card]Wingsteed Rider[/card] is my only tier one common is that it’s irreplaceable and you want as many as you can get.
Blue has the most tier one commons by far, but it drops off precipitously after that. The power level between those top three ([card]Griptide[/card], [card]Nimbus Naiad[/card], [card]Voyage's End[/card]) and the next card is massive. I only grudgingly would say [card]Vaporkin[/card] is tier 2, it’s really more of a filler card, but it’s a slight bit better than the other choices. [card]Sea God's Revenge[/card] is just nuts, it’s probably the best uncommon in the whole set, and it’s easily splashable. I rarely see base-blue decks cropping up in Theros draft. It’s typically the off-color, but a very popular one. Unlike the other colors, blue lacks an inherent theme among the commons, making it doubly hard to center around.
Black is the most devotion-based of all the colors, with two quality commons that can abuse it and a lot of ancillary support for it. [card]Gray Merchant of Asphodel[/card] is ridiculous, it’s basically a rare hiding in the common slot and can turn around games in a way that few other cards can. Life gain is surprisingly good in the format, as there are so many combat tricks to play around, it’s often better to just take the hit and race, rather than trying to trade-off or get value. [card]Pharika's Cure[/card] is very solid for the same reason. It’s also better to think of the card as a sorcery and simply kill off a heroic creature early when the opponent is tapped out. Tempo is way more important than card advantage in this set, you can recoup the cards at later points in the game. Black should typically be defensive in its early stages, looking to take over once it has stabilized the board and life total.
Red is… shallow. [card]Lightning Strike[/card] might well be the best common in the set, but beyond that it’s a lot of filler. Unlike blue, it does have a coherent theme and some payoffs for being deep into red ([card]Two-Headed Cerberus[/card], [card]Dragon Mantle[/card], [card]Fanatic of Mogis[/card]). However, you really want to be sure that the color is wide open. You need a lot of drops to fill in your curve and you have to hope that the quality uncommons and rares get passed to you. I’ve built 3-0 mono-red or light splash decks, but it’s never something I try to force. If somebody else wants red, I won’t fight for it. Also, Paulo pointed this out the other day on his draft comments, but it’s worth repeating: [card]Lightning Strike[/card] is much better than [card]Ordeal of Purphoros[/card]. The value generated by the Ordeal is great, but Strike is an irreplaceable effect. It immediately kills a creature or domes the opponent, the Ordeal gives the other player more time to react.
Green, on the other hand, is just an odd duck. It has the highest percentage of sheer unplayables and its uncommons are nothing to write home about. That said, its rares are all pretty good and difficult to splash, so they get around the table. I’ve gotten 3rd-4th pick [card arbor colossus]Arbor Colossusi[/card] in quite a few drafts (a card I would rank as the best or second best rare in the set), and green has a couple of really solid devotion triggers. [card]Karametra's Acolyte[/card] is a lot better than it looks. This card enables monsters to come out to play as no other card in the set does. Pairing it with red can make for a very potent strategy that gets out of hand pretty quickly. [card]Nylea's Presence[/card] allows for easy splashing, making a three-color green strategy fairly reliable. Overall, it reminds me a lot of how green played during Invasion block, a solid base color that allows you to scoop up off-color bombs that other players can’t use. Blue tends to be a tough matchup, but it’s strong against the other colors. The key to green is getting hold of [card]Voyaging Satyr[/card]. Everything else in the color can be replaced with similar effects, but the ramp that the Satyr provides is critical to staying on tempo against the heroic decks or getting enough fat on the table to force the black deck to start blocking before Gray Merchants come online.
Lastly, the gold cards are all fine—so long as you are in that color pairing. Interestingly, WOTC did a good job of making most of these cards unexciting to splash, having little additional value to do so. They are amazing in their dedicated archetype ([card]Akroan Hoplite[/card] in RW aggro, [card]Battlewise Hoplite[/card] in UW heroic, [card]Shipwreck Singer[/card] in UB control), but rarely worth plopping into a different strategy. As a result, these often go around the table much later than they should, giving you a nice little present. The only cards worth splashing for are the G/x critters, as any deck that has [card]Prophet of Kruphix[/card] will also likely be happy to play [card]Polis Crusher[/card] or [card]Reaper of the Wilds[/card].
Keep in mind, the tier sheet isn’t gospel by any measure, just a general sense of the relative power level of the cards. It’s there to help you quickly find the signal amidst the noise.
Thank you for reading,