With the exception of drafts that occasionally go truly awry, we frequently find ourselves playing with an unimpressive pool of cards, only to do very well in a tournament. On the other side of this coin, I frequently come out of a draft very happy with my cards only to pull off a mediocre finish. I found this to be the case in the KTK Prerelease and recent M15 drafts, and it was constantly mentioned in coverage at GP Orlando. I think that, overall, our visions of our pools are shrouded by a few things: rares, money cards, synergies, curve, and good creatures.
Issue #1: I Opened a Bomb Rare
Especially in Draft, but no less true in Sealed, opening a big bomb makes us feel really good about our deck. Having something like a Nissa or Sarkhan in the forty makes us feel like we’re always drawing to a win. Make no mistake, having big and tough-to-deal-with cards can really make a deck shine. Unfortunately, planeswalkers and even most other bombs generally require significant support to make a major impact on the game. Most decks these days are packing some kind of removal. If your game plan is to play a bunch of two-drops or bad morphs until you can throw down a [card]Siege Rhino[/card] and take over the game, your Siege Rhino is likely in for a very unfortunate surprise. While bombs are important, a deck is made up of having a series of threats that can’t go unanswered. In this way cards like [card]Abzan Guide[/card] or even the lowly [card]Aniok Bond-Kin[/card] can’t go unanswered for a long time without becoming a serious thorn in your opponent’s side. While I’d love to play a [card]Savage Knuckleblade[/card], two or three [card]Abzan Battle Priest[/card]s are likely to have a larger overall effect on your pool than one sexy rare.
One important question I like to ask is: if I took away my rares, how would I feel about my deck? If your deck still feels pretty good, then you’ve probably got a pretty good deck. If you feel like you just cut the core of the deck, you’re in for an uphill battle in this set of games. While I might be thrilled if my pool contained [card]Utter End[/card], [card]Zurgo Helmsmasher[/card], and [card]Savage Knuckleblade[/card], none of these cards are really going to push me over the top if my deck isn’t already there.
Issue #2: I Already Made My Entry Fee
When I enter a draft, pulling a couple of $5 cards can quickly change my mentality of the draft. After I’ve opened $12 worth of cards, any other wins are simply gravy. This creates a situation where I’m happy with my deck (even if it isn’t very powerful) simply because it has already made me a winner. It may be that the cards I’ve pulled don’t have any real synergy, but either way, I’m drafting on someone else’s dollar at this point. If anyone asks, I’d say my pool is great because of the value, even if my deck is terrible. If we need to truly assess our deck, we need to look at the power level of the cards we’re playing with, now how much they’re affecting our ticket count.
Issue #3: I’ve Got This Cool Synergy
This is perhaps one of the biggest ways we betray our decks. I recall in M14 having a deck with a [card]Rumbling Baloth[/card], [card]Marauding Maulhorn[/card], and [card]Advocate of the Beast[/card]. The combo potential of dropping an Advocate on turn three into a Baloth on turn four and swinging with a 5/5 on turn five (in a very slow format) was awesome. Or maybe I’d get to drop the [card]Marauding Maulhorn[/card] and swing in with a 6/4 on turn five. It’s a nice synnergy and it made my deck a little more powerful.
The problem was that M14 was a format full of removal, and every time that the Advocate of the Beast didn’t get killed, the Rumbling Baloth would. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a perfectly fine synergy that made my deck better. But the fact that I had the combo didn’t really push my deck over the edge, but it sure felt like it did. Even in a best-case scenario, I’d only see the Advocate about once a match and there was no guarantee it would be at the same time as my other Beasts.
Finding synergy makes Limited exciting, but we really can’t depend on a combo to consider our deck powerful. There’s very few situations in which pulling it off will make a substantial difference in a game. In GP Orlando, there was a guy playing five [card]Jeskai Windscout[/card]s. This wasn’t about synergy, it was about hitting people in the face for two or three while your other cards gummed up the ground. Cards like [card]Rush of Battle[/card] aren’t awesome because you have a bunch of warriors in your deck. They’re awesome because they make all your durdly creatures into a game-ending threat.
Issue #4: She’s Got These Awesome Curves
Having a solid mana curve in your deck is really important. But more important than that is having important spells to cast. Being able to drop a 2/1 or 2/2 on turn two is a decent deal in Khans of Tarkir due to Morphs and all the other early ground threats. Filling that slot instead with [card]Debilitating Injury[/card], [card]Feat of Resistance[/card], or [card]Savage Punch[/card] is great once things get moving. But if you’re two-drop slot are full of cards like [card]Taigem’s Scheming[/card], [card]Valley Dasher[/card], or [card]Trail of Mystery[/card], you’re going to need some very specific plans to make your deck good. Sticking them in your deck so you have something in the two-drop slot isn’t necessarily going to make your deck better.
While doing nothing on turn two is kind of a bummer, it’s worse to do nothing and lose a card in the process. None of these cards do nothing, but if you aren’t going to take advantage of a raid trigger on turn three from Valley Dasher, all you’ve done is dropped a very easy-to-kill creature on the battlefield for your opponent to play a 2/3 into. A slightly worse curve of better cards is better than a good curve of bad cards.
The other side of things is that you may have a deck without any curve considerations. KTK has a number of fantastic four-drops. They’re very powerful and playable and you want lots of them in your deck. The only problem is that you can’t afford to put lots of them into your deck. While you’ll realistically be able to play two two-drop creatures in one turn, or even a two- and a three-drop creature, you’ll almost never play two four-drop creatures in a turn. If the good cards in your hand are all four-drops, you’re going to play one on turn four, one on turn five, one on turn six, and one on turn seven. Assuming your opponent’s deck got off to any kind of decent start, you’re going to be in real trouble when you start plopping them down and they have a couple of answers.
Issue #5: I’ve Got All These Good Creatures
Unfortunately, good cards do not always make a good deck. I can’t think of the number of times I was very happy with the power level of my deck only to find that I didn’t have any solid win conditions.
Surprisingly, one card that keeps coming up as a win condition in Abzan decks is [card]Alabaster Kirin[/card]. With cards like [card]Ainok Bond-Kin[/card] holding down the ground, sometimes all you really need is a reliable way to get in two damage per turn. Alabaster Kirin serves that purpose. While it isn’t an impressive card, I frequently find that my decks without it are lacking a certain finisher quality.
Even big creatures like [card]Siege Rhino[/card] don’t necessarily pack the punch necessary to break through a stalemate. If the game comes to parity, I want something like a [card]Krenko’s Enforcer[/card], [card]Accursed Spirit[/card], or [card]Mystic of the Hidden Way[/card]. Even if these options aren’t available, big dumb fliers like [card]Venerable Lammasu[/card], [card]Riverwheel Aerialist[/card], and [card]Abomination of Gudul[/card] will frequently get the job done. Though evasion isn’t the only way, having a way to close out games is vital.
There’s lots of other options for close-out cards. Big swing cards like [card]Rush of Battle[/card] or [card]Incremental Growth[/card] can all push you over the edge when the game stalls out. While these cards aren’t going to do anything for you when you’re behind, they’ll clearly make a huge impact when the game slows down.
Cards like [card]Treasure Cruise[/card] can help as well, but you need to be drawing towards something that can make profitable attacks. The issue here with just having good cards is that they don’t guarantee profitable attacks. If all you’ve got is good value cards, you need to be out valuing your opponent by hitting their big cards with removal while protecting your own big cards. A plan like [card]Forge Devil[/card], [card]Forge Devil[/card], [card]Lighting Strike[/card], [card]Lighting Strike[/card], [card]Stoke the Flames[/card], [card]Covenant of Blood[/card], [card]Covenant of Blood[/card] is a win condition. But if you’re just going to play good creatures, you likely don’t have any way to punch through. You don’t win the game by playing good creatures—you win by turning them sideways and damaging your opponent.
I think that it is important to be able to accurately assess the power of our decks. In Draft, this can be particularly challenging because you just don’t know if you happen to be at a table that played nice, opened good cards, or were acting as the hate-draft mafia.
In Draft, it’s possible that you’re mediocre deck is the best mess of cards at the table. But in Sealed, we should be able to compare our deck with a normal standard to see what we’ve put together. Let’s focus on how successful our deck can be with all the cards in our pool rather than focusing on the big cards, money cards, funky synergies, perfect curves, and suite of solid creatures. In order to win, we want win conditions, bombs, a smooth curve, good creatures, and some synnergy, not lots of any one of those.
Money cards don’t hurt, either.