I played a second prerelease yesterday, and again the fun factor and learning experience were awesome. This time I cracked a fancy-looking Azorius box, pulling an equally brutal card pool that still had an extremely high-quality Izzet skew. You’re getting a much longer, more thorough, more competitive breakdown and set analysis today, informed by two days of intense focus and total immersion - you can put my check in the mail now.
Whereas Saturday’s deck stuck to its out-of-the-box guild (Izzet) with an easy splash for just a few adjacent-guild gold cards (Azorius), my deck yesterday was a through-and-through three-color build. Here’s the deck that took me to 4-0-1 plus 1-0-1 in Top 4, pulling in 27 more packs on the split:
CREATURES - 13
SPELLS - 9
LAND - 18
* I didn’t realize until typing the decklist last night that my creature-spell-land ratio is identical to Saturday, with the exception of cutting a single spell for the 18th land. In reality I can’t quite recall if the last card I cut (for land #18, probably Plains #5) was a second Dramatic Rescue, an underwhelming four-drop (I don’t like the flash Hussars and the double-detain guy only seems good in an aggro build), or some random non-defensive two-drop. More importantly, you can see that the consistency of my two decks indicates not only the consistency of my card valuations but also my preferred play style - as well it should.
* The curve is substantially higher here than Saturday, with a seven-drop, FOUR six-drops, and straight-up creature gaps at four and five. Didn’t notice the gap during construction, don’t care; look at the rest of the deck. This is not your standard homogeneous midrange sealed deck, and it has exactly the support my five (five) Limited bombs wished for at the printer.
* The Big Issue: double-colored costs in all three colors. I wasn’t too concerned about hitting them, as they’re all late-game plays that are usually substantially better multiple turns after you’re even able to cast them anyway. You don’t necessarily want to tap out for the Dracogenius at six any more than you’d be thrilled to have to Cancel or Supreme Verdict on-curve (rather than just blocking some dumb centaur with a turn-three Lobber Crew). That said, I did feel uneasy running a land mix that, all tallied up, had only seven sources of each of its colors, none of which was really a splash. However, the deck had an overwhelming amount of card-draw, and all told, I only struggled once to find a Plains for Palisade Giant and once to find a Mountain for Niv-Mizzet. The other times I untapped with Niv-Mizzet, I was able to activate him three to four times a turn.
* Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius
1. Being a fatass flier and champion blocker/attack-disincentivizer is obviously good no matter what the abilities are; by contrast, I would never EVER block even a 0/1 with Chemister unless the opp has 0 cards and/or 0 mana and/or I’m gonna die if I don’t).
2. As a side bonus: 5 toughness. This means N-M doesn’t die to any of the crappy - and in this environment, sadly best I guess - common removal spells: Annihilating Fire and Auger Spree (which I’ve never seen cast). It does die to both six-mana common kill spells, but whatever. That’s why you play counterspells in U/x RTR Limited.
3. When you’re safe to attack, N-M can apply serious pressure at the same time that he does what Chemister does, and can even draw a card a turn for 0 mana if he connects and you need to potentially pay, you know, 10 mana to Syncopate a relevant play - which I did in the semifinal.
4. His board control is infinitely better against 1- and 2-toughness, where Chemister’s is used almost exclusively (if you’re smart) to kill things with a 3 toughness or above.
It’s very likely that Niv-Mizzet is ultimately the better card, but it’s clear that one way or another these will be my top two picks in draft - the only other bombs I’d put even close to this level off the top of my head are Vraska and Wrath effects. I can say definitively that both Niv and Chemister are better than Jace IV. Period.
* Supreme Verdict
* Azorius Charm
* Dramatic Rescue
* Lobber Crew
Honorable Mentions (Basically all the other cards)
Counterspells are good. Cancel is one of the best removal spells in the format - look the set over again and compare what answers kill what threats - while Syncopate is equally great and randomly better against scavenge, early aggro, land-screw, expensive late-game bombs…
Card-drawing is good. Duh. Inspiration is just as good as Divination always is in Sealed, and way better with counterspells. Thoughtflare is expensive, and marginally risky without at least two other cards in hand on casting - but fully better than Inspiration in the late game, which a deck like this is entirely built to play toward.
Money is no object when it comes to unconditional removal in this set. Costs aside, Trostani’s Judgment and Explosive Impact are two of the most versatile removal spells in the set, and I would have played them if I had them. Palisade Giant, as you’ll see below, could have easily come out for either one, as they both answer the set’s multitude of splashy bomb rares. Dramatic Rescue could potentially come out for one as well. Judgment is playable without a single token-producer in your deck, without question. And in addition to killing players and pretty much every creature in the set except Desecration Demon (and Hover Barrier!), Explosive Impact kills Jace IV and, with proper timing, the mighty Vraska too.
* Archon of the Triumvirate
I still think that, in a vacuum, this was the best prerelease promo for the long game - next being Grove of the Guardian, which was substantially better outside a vacuum with even an average populate pool - but even my deck didn’t play that long of a game.
I’m not saying I would cut this from future sealed decks, but…look my list over again and tell me if you think, without a prerelease guild booster, that any all-RTR sealed deck is ever going to play as glacially slow, meticulous, and controlling a game as this deck. It will never, ever happen, and that’s why I really don’t know the value of this card. It’s probably still playable, and will probably win board stalemates in the Azorius mirror.
But I will tell you that when we decided to put a chunk of our prize pool toward top 8 draft on Saturday night, having not had an Archon in my sealed pool to test out that day, I gladly first-picked a Transguild Promenade over it.
* Izzet Charm
* Palisade Giant
But when it’s not good, it’s sure as hell an expensive Fog.
* Isperia, Supreme Judge
However: 4 toughness. In a set where it seems like every creature at common and uncommon has 4 toughness, Isperia dies to Auger Spree just as handily as Doorkeeper does, and - though that never happened in my games - that’s a problem to consider.
Under-curve fliers are okay, I guess. Isperia’s Skywatch and Tower Drake are mediocre at best. I’d play them again, and I never actually sided them out. However, one random late-game detain was almost always irrelevant in a deck that was a) so well-defended in the first place and b) not looking to “push through damage” when it could already “decide how my opponent gets to play.” Skywatch is playable, but it’s absolutely a weaker Skymark Roc or Lyev Skyknight for 150-200% the cost, respectively. I surprisingly had no problems keeping WWW open for Tower Drake, and it plays just like Frostburn against x/2s.
First strike is okay too. Splatter Thug was easily the bottom card in my deck both days, and first to be sided out for Dramatic Rescues - but it does have some uses in common with Frostburn, as a creature that can randomly give you the offensive just as well as it can play defense (or more often than I expected, against Centaurs, defense by offense). And though the only (good) sub-rare cards that his 2-power blocks are relevant against are Knights and Rakdos one- and two-drops, his first strike is one fair reason to keep the Izzet Charm or maaaybe consider Electrickery. And though it’ll come up less, he goes toe-to-toe with Ash Zealot and Precinct Captain and sometimes lives. Having said that, if I knew what I know now, I might have cut him for a Dramatic Rescue on both days.
Detain seems like it only shines in high concentrations, mainly on the offensive. Once I was cutting Azorius Arresters for 0/4 walls, Azorius Justiciar just looked like a helpless Hill Bear. Inaction Injunction is also a card that tickles both my Johnny and Spike sides in a number of ways - I suspect it’s quite good, being Renewed Faith early or netting a free swing for zero cards late, but it was clearly not for these decks. The only sub-rare detainers I’d auto-include in a control deck are Lyev Skyknight and the faux-detaining, Knight-token annihilating, Rakdos-busting Skymark Roc. Can you tell I like that card?
Counterspells are good, but there’s a limit. As discussed in my last debriefing, I tried Essence Backlash on day one, won one game off of it that I would have won anyway with Pyroconvergence out, and cut it. It’s too narrow for its cost. If it said “target spell” it would have been auto-in. Likewise, Fall of the Gavel is sort of the opposite card, and it lured me both days, but I just couldn’t stomach the cost and it is absolutely not worth dropping Thoughtflare or Inspiration for.
Removal in this set is sparse and overcosted, as you should know by now. On one hand this would suggest you should probably take whatever removal you can get; on the other hand, Avenging Arrow is a piece of crap; on the other hand, it can hit anything but Rubbleback Rhino and enables Azorius Charm-like combat mind games that will be less expected because it’s such a bad-looking card; on the other hand it’s not Azorius Charm by a mile, nor is it Cancel or Syncopate; on the other hand you should probably take whatever removal you can get. But I threw two copies back into my pretty box each day - right after I threw out an Annihilating Fire, on day two - because Avenging Arrow is a piece of crap.
Bad cards are still bad. I hope you understand not to play Trained Caracal and Bellows Lizard. And if you play Seller of Songbirds, which is worse than either of those by acting like it’s better, you deserve what you get. <3
Now that we’re through all that pesky Spike evaluation jive, here’s the fun stuff:
* In the semifinals I had Supreme Verdict in my opening seven. I played nothing for four turns in my usual stoic manner, facing down Centaur Healer and Wayfaring Temple. I take three from the Healer, then on his turn five I throw my hand down in maximum frustration: “Right, of course, now you play your creatures first and swing for like eight damage. Fine.” He plays a first-main Golgari Decoy, I happily take six. Untap, Wrath. Win.
* Against said dude who’s too good to play Seller of Songbirds but did so anyway, we had the most iceberg-fast UWR mirror conceivable. Game one came down to holding back Niv-Mizzet until turn nine so I could back it up with Cancel (which I knew would play out as the lands were flowing at a perfect rate all game). Once it came out, I saw his spirit just sort of fade, which is a tell I can’t begrudge him; likewise, next turn I arranged all my blue and red sources in separate columns and said, “I’m not even gonna bluff that I’m not counting how many activations I have open.” GG.
* In the same control mirror, I forget which game, I was pinging away with Lobber Crew and taking small hits from some random tokens and…Pegasi. At this point I think I had little game-winning action other than my defender clock, with Dramatic Rescue and Supreme Verdict in my hand. I was about to bounce my Crew and Wrath, when I made the same call I made later in the aforementioned semifinal: “This is a good play, but let me wait one more turn.” He plays out Palisade Giant, which would normally shut down my Lobber Crew (and later on tells me I gave my only disheartened tell of the game when it hit the board, which might have been a bluff). I untap with a clear, nigh-unstoppable plan, and that’s when things get weird: I point Dramatic Rescue at Lobber, and he responds with…Dramatic Rescue at Lobber. I stared in utter, absolute confusion at the free 1-for-0 he was giving me, not realizing he thought I was just trying to stall the game by gaining a little life. After a bizarre moment trying to figure out what his intent was, I picked up my wall, wrote his life up by two, and cast Supreme Verdict. Then some other stuff came out and whatever GG.
(EDIT 11:40pm - Also just realized this evening that his impulsive misplay meant he could have otherwise Dramatically Rescued his Giant from my Verdict. Whoa.)
* My favorite play of the day, for pure wackiness: in an earlier game, I took a risk and tapped out for Niv-Mizzet with no way to defend him. Opp untaps, Trostani’s Judgment. Damn. Okay. I suck. Draw Isperia. Okay. I’m not too severely behind on life, but this is clearly my last huge wrecking ball in the deck. Gotta play right. Cast Isperia. Removal! Dramatic Rescue. Cast again! Swing into a Pegasus. Avenging Arrow! AZORIUS CHARM, SON. Draw it again, cast it again, swing twice through that random damage-preventing Aura, win. Yeahhh.
This is already monstrously long, so I’ll try to keep the closing brief. In my early assessment of the Limited environment after two days and a draft, I suspect:
Normal Sealed Deck will be a slow, long-game format not unlike the original Ravnica block.
Truly three-color decks will be less prevalent than everyone thinks.
Populate decks will be way weaker than everyone thinks, and will be all but an auto-lose against UWx. However, the absurdly favorable ratio of cheap pump spells to cheap removal at common and un- will keep Selesnya viable - and will make green a very common splash/third color, maybe even in the off-guild triad of URg.
Azorius-based aggro-control will be the sealed deck to beat, as Rakdos won’t often have the concentration of aggro drops it can pull in a draft, and detain as a whole enables a potent board without being as dependent as populate is on individual cards.
The best sealed decks will be those with the Izzet bombs, though this will obviously be a less commonly cracked pool than general goodstuff Azorius or Izzet. Out of the possible color combinations, UWR will be the natural choice for Izzet, and America decks with Izzet bombs will be the most powerful decks available.
Rakdos will be much more aggressive and dangerous in Draft than in Sealed, but it (and Selesnya) will be heavily overdrafted in the nascent days of the environment - and in casual settings, maybe for the whole duration of triple-RTR.
Rakdos will also be the hardest deck to play, due to the long-term thinking required by unleash - with less than a perfect curve in hand, many players will be dramatically over-unleashing for a while (or under-unleashing against control).
Azorius will also be more aggressive in Draft, and will probably be the most underdrafted until competitive draft strategies settle down.
The top four draft picks may be Niv-Mizzet, Mercurial Chemister, Vraska, Jace, and…Arrest. In that order.
Rogue’s Passage will be a first pick in packs two and three - for players who have ascertained that they’re not playing SixWallControl.dec ;D
Phew! That escalated quickly. Drop me a line with your prerelease experience, your thoughts on the set and the Limited game, and tell me what I’m wrong about! I saw very little Golgari in action for one thing, so…what did I miss?
✖ i'm Stefano.
░▒░ i make things work.