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Drafting M12 Like a Pro

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After going 2–4 drafting Magic 2012 at U.S. Nationals, I knew I needed to do lots of work if I was going to be better prepared to draft M12 at Pro Tour: Philadelphia. I understand the basic principles of what a good draft deck should be: card advantage, synergy, power level, tempo and curve. Now I need to figure out how best to apply them to drafting with M12. To making this happen quickly enough for the PT, I need to do two things: to narrow my focus a little and to do massive quantities of drafting.

The first thing you need to know about M12 is that it’s fast. When drafting a set like Rise of the Eldrazi, playing with 7-drops is normal/expected; in M12, it’s a calculated risk. It’s gotten so extreme that it’s becoming widely accepted in pro circles that one should pick Goblin Fireslinger over Volcanic Dragon. This was backed up when I was drafting in the Draft Challenge at Philadelphia: I got a fourth-pick Volcanic Dragon in Pack 1, and I could have had another one at fourth pick in Pack 2 (I took an AEther Adept instead). In most sets and when M12 debuted, most people would be excited to first pick a card like Volcanic Dragon.

The Fireslinger/Dragon example speaks to the speed of the format, and it also applies to another key draft principle: Draft a deck, not just a collection of powerful cards. Goblin Fireslinger is not just good because it’s a quality 1-drop in a fast format; it has incredible synergy with what may be Red’s best mechanic in M12: Bloodthirst. If you want to maximize the power of your 2-, 3-, and 4-drops, playing a Fireslinger on turn one can ensure that. That way, the game will be decided before anyone even gets to 6 mana.

Let’s look at the strengths of each color in M12:

Blue

My favorite aspect of Blue in M12 is the ability to help fight variance. Divination, Merfolk Looter, and Ponder are commons that help, and Azure Mage is an uncommon that can help, too. One of my biggest problems with Magic is that I can outdraft and outplay my opponent and still lose because I draw too much or too little mana. Ponder can help you get more mana if you’re mana-tight and more spells if you’re flooded. Ditto Merfolk Looter. If you stall at 3 mana, Divination can help power you to your fourth land. If you’re flooded, Divination can help you find some gas. Azure Mage can’t help you get out of a major mana-stall, but at least he’s a 2/1 for 2, and he can help get you to 5 mana. If you’re flooded, Azure Mage is a superhero. It’s a 2-drop that gets Mind Controlled in the late game when you’re got much more expensive creatures in play.

While Blue may be the only color that really helps fight draw variance, it also brings much more to the table: evasion, creature control, and tempo. Skywinder Drake, Aven Fleetwing, and Chasm Drake are all solid common evasion creatures. With 3 power in the air for 3 mana, Skywinder Drake is especially good for aggressive tempo and for activating Bloodthirst. With Unsummon, Ice Cage, AEther Adept, and Frost Breath, Blue has as much creature control as Red and Black. While these cards may not have the finality of Doom Blade or Incinerate, they have other advantages. First, they’re less discriminating; they don’t care about size or color. Second, in such a fast, high-tempo format, bouncing and multiple-turn tapping is almost as good as destruction. As a result, the Blue cards are actually more efficient: instant removal for 1 mana, removal plus a 2/2, or removal of two creatures for 3 mana. In the case of the bounce, they’re also more versatile; they can be used to save your own creatures, especially from cards like Mind Control and Pacifism. Blue’s other big common that’s great for tempo is Phantasmal Bear. A 2/2 for 1 is incredible in this environment. While they have a big drawback, if they use an entire card on your 1-drop, that’s fine. The biggest enemy of the Bear is the Lawkeeper, and that makes Lawkeeper an even higher pick than it would be otherwise. I’m happy to draft Blue with any other color, but U/W is my favorite, combining overwhelming airpower with good ground blocking and powerful instants for a high-tempo game.

Underrated commons: Ponder and Unsummon.

White

White’s strength is how well its creatures fit into an aggressive game plan: Stormfront Pegasus, Armored Pegasus, Gideon's Lawkeeper, Benalish Veteran, Assault Griffin, and Griffin Rider especially. Guardians' Pledge, Mighty Leap, Pacifism, and Stave Off all fit nicely into an aggressive White deck, too. Griffin Rider itself is a deck-defining card. A 4/4 flyer for 2 mana is incredible. If I’m drafting White or suspect I might want to, I take any Griffin extremely early. Not only can you get Riders pretty late, but if I suck the Griffins out of the draft pool, I should get even more Riders passed to me. The thing is, none of these cards are horrible by themselves; all of the Griffins are solid flyers on their own merit, and at least the Rider is a 2-drop and your opponent needs to respect the potential threat it represents. While I love W/U, White is also good with Red, which provides good support cards for an aggressive White deck. White is also fantastic for a monocolored deck.

Underrated commons: Griffin Rider and Guardians' Pledge.

Red

The combination of burn and Bloodthirst makes Red a great color for an aggressive environment. Even relatively late-pick burn cards like Lava Axe and Goblin Grenade can be pretty amazing in the right deck. Chandra's Outrage is great because very few creatures survive it, and it hurts your opponent in the process. From a tempo perspective, it’s hard to beat Act of Treason as a finisher. With Bloodthirst, Blood Ogre and Gorehorn Minotaurs are the best aggressive creatures at their cost. Like Blue, I’m happy to play Red with any other color, but its best with Black, because they both make use of Bloodthirst and removal.

Underrated commons: Slaughter Cry and Lava Axe.

Black

Black combines terrific aggressive creatures: Tormented Soul, Blood Seeker, and Child of Night with removal; Consume Spirit, Doom Blade, Sorin's Thirst, and Wring Flesh and flyers; Duskhunter Bat, Drifting Shade, and Devouring Swarm. The main problem with Black is that its power level is so closely defined by the amount of Black mana you’re playing. Cards like Consume Spirit, Sorin's Thirst, and Drifting Shade become much more powerful in a monocolored deck. Black can be excellent with Blue or Red, but it’s best by itself.

Underrated commons: Sorin's Thirst and Blood Seeker.

Green

Green is lacking in removal and evasion, but it does have some good tools for an aggressive tempo deck: Garruk's Companion, Titanic Growth, and Trollhide especially. Green in general is underdrafted, because it’s a little weaker than the other four colors, but if you get an early Overrun, drafting Green can really pay off. I only really like Green with Red or Blue.

Underrated commons: Runeclaw Bear and Garruk's Companion.




At Nationals, I tried to completely read the draft with a slight prejudice against Green, and I wasn’t happy with the outcome. With only a couple more weeks to get ready for PT: Philly (part of which was devoted to the $75K in Chicago), I decided to narrow my focus and limit the number of archetypes I needed to learn to draft well. One of the best things about this strategy in M12 is that I find if I commit to any two colors early, I always have enough playables. The problem comes when you keep your options open too long and end up with lots of playables in three or four colors, but not enough for a strong two-color deck.

I decided to force Blue and read the draft to select a second color to go with it. In a fast-tempo format, mana problems like stalling or flooding can be completely unforgiving, so I wanted the draw-smoothing of Blue. Blue also seemed to be a fine fit with any of the other four colors. I crammed in a bunch of drafts between Chicago and Philly, mostly online. I usually ended up in U/W, U/B, or U/R and my results were very good.

This strategy almost blew up in my face at PT: Philadelphia. I first-picked a Fireball and, given the power level of Fireball, I pretty much locked into U/R on the spot. Unfortunately, I turned out to be in a horrible seat for those two colors. Not only did I fail to get any more first-pick-quality cards except for a second-pick Incinerate in Pack 2, but each pack seemed to dry up after seven or eight picks. I compensated by taking lower-pick cards and molding them into a hyperaggressive deck with lots of synergy:

An excellent early curve and two Unsummons usually let me get my opponents into range of finishing burn. Some games, this took extreme form. One game, my opponent stabilized at 12 and I Lava Axed him twice and then Incinerated him; another game, my opponent stabilized at 8 and I Grenaded him and Reverberated it. A tight loss left me with a 2–1 record that I was pretty happy with given how poor a U/R seat I ended up in, though of course I’d like to 3–0 every draft.

Perhaps the best example of how I applied what I’ve learned about M12 draft during my preparations for the PT was when I picked a Goblin Piker over a Pentavus in Pack 2. At that point, I already had a Goblin Grenade, and the path my deck was taking was becoming pretty clear. While Pentavus is more powerful than Goblin Piker, it didn’t synergize with the deck I was creating and it isn’t well-suited to the fast environment. These are the types of things you should keep in mind when drafting M12.

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