Ok, I’ll admit it, I’m pretty fascinated about the Dragon’s Maze/Gatecrash/Return to Ravnica draft format. It’s incredibly deep, quite thoughtful, and relatively well balanced.
The pack flow makes perfect sense once you understand it. I’ve put together a little ‘cheat sheet’ to help people figure out what’s happening in the draft, as demonstrated below.
I don’t believe it makes sense to try to force two colours, as it means in one of the packs you’re effectively drafting the mono-coloured cards, and the mono-coloured cards are simply of lesser power than the gold cards. Why would you want to hamstring yourself like that?
In my mind, the best strategy is to either see what three colours are strongest in your first pack and draft along those lines, or to force one of the better three-colour combinations from the start.
Which begs the question, what are the best three-colour combinations to force?
There are 10 three-colour combinations, five of which are drafted in a 3-2-1 sequence (three guilds in the first pack, two in the second, one in the third) and five of which are drafted in a 3-1-2 sequence, as demonstrated above. Each of the three colour combinations lands with a different set of keywords and synergies. I’ve outlined those, and my impression of them, in the graphic below.
From what I can tell so far – and I have not had a great deal of experience beyond anyone else – the three-colour cobminations in the 3-2-1 sequence are stronger than those in the 3-1-2 sequence. In addition, there are two guilds in particular where the reward is higher for forcing those colours early in DGM and GTC, and two more guilds that generally lead to positive results.
Part of the reason I prefer the 3-2-1 sequence to the 3-1-2 sequence is that the mono-coloured cards in RTR are(generally) stronger than those in GTC (though there are exactly the same number). Remember the RTR mono-coloured cards? In black alone you had Stab Wound, Thrill-Kill Assassin, Ultimate Price, Dead Reveler, Desecration Demon and… oh that’s right, Pack Rat.
Importantly, the format will eventually be seen as defined by its two-for-ones, of which there are many (Far/Away, Scab-Clan Giant, Ubul Sar Gatekeepers, etc). This should be brought to mind whenever thinking about the draft format.
Let’s start with the two most highly rewarding guilds to draft in Packs 1 & 2: Orzhov and Boros. These two guilds have access to the most of the premium removal, some of the most absurd bombs, and generally high-quality commons and uncommons.
Drafting Orzhov in the first pack should lead down one of two paths; either supplementing with Boros/Rackos if going aggressive, or Dimir/Azorius if going disruptive/evasive. Both these paths will leade to very good results, as both those three-colour combinations are two of the three that I currently consider ‘the best’. Both these paths give you some draft freedom in the second pack as you are still picking up two different guilds. The third pack you’ll either settle on Rakdos or Azorious. Rakdos and Selesnya were the premium guilds in raw Return to Ravnica, but I think populate suffers with the loss of good token makers in the Gatecrash pack. The power of Unleash, however, isn’t hurt by absence of other Unleash creatures, so Rakdos’ power level is maintained.
Orzhov / Boros / Rakdos is the most aggressive deck in the format. It includes creatures with excellent CMC to Power ratios, the most efficient removal, and the most absurd bombs (a snapshot: Aurelia, the Warleader, Obzedat, Ghost Council, Blood Baron of Vizkopa, Exava, Rakdos Blood Witch, Master of Cruelties, Sire of Insanity, Tajic, Blade of the Legion, Teysa, Envoy of Ghosts, Angel of Serenity, Angelic Skirmisher, Assemble the Legion, Boros Battleshaper, Boros Reckoner, Deathpact Angel, Firemane Avenger, etc etc… I mean it, etc, etc… like Mizzium Mortars, Pack Rat, it just keeps going…). With three packs you get a very real chance of drafting a deck capable of simply burning your opponent out, especially when combined with Extort. Between the early fast rush, the late game bombs, the excellent removal, and the abilty to win any race through Extort, Orzhov / Boros / Rakdos is probably the best deck in the format.
If you’re comfortable in the control space then Orzhov / Dimir / Azorius is for you, being able to pick up some of the best removal/disruption in the format, while building an excellent flash/counterspell/removal shell (think Deputy of Acquittals/Hussar Patrol/Skyline Predator/Counterspells) makes the Esper space very powerful. Cards such as Inspiration help you have something to do while holding up counterspell mana, and once-underpowered utility creatures such as Bane Alley Broker get a lot better in the shell.
Drafting Boros either leads to the Orzhov/Rakdos path I’ve already covered, or the powerful Boros / Gruul / Selesnya trio, the third of the what I currently consider the best three-colour combinations. Again, this is a 3-2-1 path where, knowing you’ll end up in Selesnya, cards such as Bronzebeak Moa and Trostani’s Summoner gain in value (noting that the Summoner is a powerful Battalion enabler). The downside of throwing away creatures on Bloodrush is negated by the fact you’re gaining extra tokens over time through populate, and your generally-bigger creatures helps turn on Battalion. The ability to also protect your Battalion through Bloodrush, or have creatures to trigger Battalion through Populate is also highly synergistic.
However, both Orzhov and Boros can lead down uncomfortable paths. For Orzhov this is Junk, where you end up with Orzhov / Golgari / Selesnya, which is relively anti-syneristic. You have a lot of mana sinks, none of which work terribly well together. Extort wants spells, and spending mana to Populate or Scavenge doesn’t help the trigger. There is some synergy between having getting creatures to Scavange onto with Populate, but the mana costs involved are rather exhorbitant, and you’d probably rather just have another creature anyway.
Meanwhile Boros can lead to Boros / Azorius / Izzet, which is an Aggro Control deck that ends up highly reliant on instants and sorciers, as place that Boros doesn’t want to be, as it relies heavily on creatures. Izzet creatures don’t generally both attack and play creatures at the same time (see Frostburn Weird, Nivix Cyclops, Aetherling, Fluxcharger, etc). Battalion is happy to work with Azorious’s evasive flyers, but overall the trio feel like they are pulling against each other. I’ll note here that both Orzhov / Golgari / Selesnya and Boros / Azorius / Izzet are 3-1-2 decks.
An alternate strategy is to cast your lot with Simic. Each of the three Simic strategies are relatively solid affairs. My prefer choice would be Simic / Gruul / Izzet rooted firmly in Ramp. Both the Gruul and Izzet creatures are fairly reliable at triggering Evolve, and the ability to ramp helps to find the mana for maximising Overload effects. With an early rush, and some of the biggest creatures on the board, it doesn’t matter whether your finisher is a Mizzium Mortars, Teleportal, Blusterquall or Dragonshift, the effect is the same: your opponent loses. This is another 3-2-1 path.
Simic can also head down the Simic / Selesnya / Azorious path. Although it’s a 3-1-2 path, it can work as the Simic cards in Gatecrash are generally strong enough to support it. The advantages are you have access to populate in order to regularly trigger Evolve, especially in battle. However you need the right Populate cards to do it – Seller of Songbirds isn’t going to cut it. Nor, generally, will the Azorius cards, though there is some utility in being able to Evolve with a flash creature (one imagines flashing in and out a Deputy of Acquittals to keep the Evolve triggers coming).
The third Simic path is Simic / Dimir / Golgari, which opens the path to decent removal and a solid ‘+1/+1 counters matter’ theme. The addition of Dimir’s evasive creatures means you have the opportunity to draft an entirely unblockable deck, including Sewer Shambler, Woodlot Crawler, AEtherling, Elusive Krasis, Soulsworn Spirit, Deathcult Rogue, Spire Tracer, which frankly sounds like an utter nightmare to play against. Combine that with some advantage from the +1/+1 counters floating around and you end up with a deck with a lot of inevitability.
That leaves two other decks. The penultimate deck is Gruul / Rakdos / Golgari, which I will dub “Team Never-Block”. You get some excellent aggressive starts that are backed up by Bloodrush and late-game Scavenge. You are really of a one-track mind with this deck, “attack”. Should you ever have to slow down, you can’t expect to have that many evasive creatures to push through. This is tempered a little by the best access to deathtouch to push through damage, or falling back on trading/scavenge. You also have some premium removal with Putrefy, red’s multitude of burn spells, and the black standards such as Grisly Spectacle and Ultimate Price. It’s a little hard to draft, being a 3-1-2 path, but probably worth attempting.
The last deck is a hot mess, Dimir / Izzet / Rakdos. It’s a deck that doesn’t know what it wants to be doing. You’d think that cipher would have a lot of synergy with Izzet, but the timing of the triggers is all wrong. Izzet wants to trigger before you hit your opponent, not after, which ends up with disappointing results. Meanwhile Rakdos, which has been desperate to just attack attack attack isn’t getting much support other than some good removal – the best being Far/Away and Turn/Burn. Maybe – just maybe – those two cards alone are enough to save the combination, but don’t think anyone’s going to be passing them to you that often. This is the worst of the worst path, a 3-1-2 that ends up with a real dog’s breakfast.
So that’s my early-impression breakdown of the 10 three-colour guild combinations. I don’t think it’s advisable to push a two-colour combination across all three packs, as you’re ultimately missing out on high-value cards for the sake of mana consistency, and I don’t think the packs are deep enough to support having a strong enough curve to make that worthwile.
My last note is on one of the first things I mentioned, about the format being defined by its two-for-ones. I think that when drafting you should take not of you ability to maximise your two-for-ones. Orzhov / Dimir / Azorius, for instance, has access to Deputy of Acquittals, which can help you gain extra value from your Sin Collectors & Ubul Sar Gatekeepers, while also blanking your opponents’ removal. At common and uncommon, Boros / Gruul / Selesnya has access Blaze Commando, Rootborn Defenses and populate cards such as Scab-Clan Giant, Sunhome Guildmage & Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage to generate incremental advantage over time. When you can’t just draft Orzhov / Boros / Rakdos and run your opponent over, the ability to survive the early game and then build advantage over time is critical. In many ways, DGM/GTC/RTR is going to a battle of attrition and the deck that knows how it’s going to build an advantage will have various benefits over one that doesn’t.
I’ll come back to visit all this as the format becomes more clearly defined, if nothing else than to figure out where I went wrong. For instance, I probably underestimate Grixis’ ability to thrive in a format insisting on value plays. The fun will be finding out just how wrong I got it. Good luck out there!