Is that a cool breeze I feel on my face? I don't remember opening the window, but I'm definitely feeling a bit of a...draft...in here, if you know what I mean. And I think you know exactly what I mean. I'm talking about the fan on my computer working overtime to cool my rapidly overheating computer as I leave Magic Online running for hours on end to play draft after draft of Guilds of Ravnica, causing it to eat up all my system resources since it probably has a memory leak somewhere. I'm talking about putting myself in close proximity to that fan, so I feel the slight breeze as it struggles to keep my computer cool, causing my senses to feel as though a draft has entered the room, even though all the windows are closed and no actual draft is occurring. That's what I'm talking about.
Grinding hours late into the night drafting a new set is just how Richard Garfield drafted it up, all those years ago. Well, maybe not, but let's pretend. And having said that, I will now abruptly transition directly to something serious. I've been struggling with personal issues lately and it has sapped my will to play Magic. I didn't play a single game of Magic in the two weeks after the World Championship, and the only reason I've started again is because I got drafted to play Grand Prix Denver this weekend, a Team Sealed event, with Seth Manfield and Corey Baumeister and I refused to let them down by being unprepared for the event.
I'd love to write about Standard right now, but frankly I don't know enough about how the format has progressed in the past week to be able to say anything truly meaningful and so I will stick to talking about the one current thing I do have some knowledge about, Guilds of Ravnica draft.
I'll be honest, I'm not a huge fan of this format, but I can't tell if my personal life is affecting my ability to enjoy it or not. To me, the format feels very straightforward in that your best bet is to figure out which guild is open and try to draft the most cohesive deck around that guild's mechanics as you possibly can. It's very one-dimensional. Gameplay seems to be solid, but it feels a lot like a core set where, with the exception of Izzet, most of the guilds seem to just revolve around creatures, tricks and removal. It's very much a nuts and bolts kind of format. Solid Limited fundamentals and a knowledge of creature combat and how to maximize it will do wonders for success, if nothing else.
I personally have never drafted a deck that didn't fall into one of the five guilds in Guilds of Ravnica, although I have drafted a number of decks that have splashed powerful cards from other colors. Most commonly, I've found this to be Dimir decks splashing powerful Golgari cards, Golgari or Selesnya decks splashing powerful cards from the other green guild, or various Jeskai or Grixis control decks that play as many removal spells across the two guilds as possible.
The simple fact is that the gold cards are very powerful, and it's hard to end up with a great deck if you've taken away your ability to play these powerful gold cards. This means that almost every time it's correct to simply play a deck based around one of the five guilds. My article is going to reflect that philosophy in terms of what I discuss.
To me, each guild has a theme, and I'm not just talking about the guild mechanic. I'm more referring to a style of play that the cards in that guild promote. I think to maximize success within that guild, it's important to have a plan while drafting and draft the kinds of cards that allow you to play the brand of Magic that best makes use of them. That's going to be my focal point in discussing each guild.
Golgari is one of the most powerful guilds in Guilds of Ravnica. That may seem like a ridiculous statement, but all will be explained. Golgari is easily the most maligned guild in Guilds of Ravnica. It's extremely underdrafted on Magic Online and is commonly believed by quite a few people to be the worst guild in the set for Limited.
I don't agree, and perhaps it is because it is so underdrafted that I think it's a viable choice, but I've had the most success with Golgari and Dimir decks, leading me to believe that Golgari isn't nearly as bad as it has been made out to be. I'm actively happy to be drafting the heeby BG's if it's open. I guess you could say that Golgari is my guildy pleasure.
Golgari's theme is to grind. I unfortunately don't have an axe anymore, after I lost my Virginia state axe license, but that won't stop me from grinding nonetheless. Hide your black pepper. The key to Golgari is to slowly accumulate small advantages while making it difficult for your opponent to effectively attack you until you reach a point in the game where your payoff cards are able to do powerful things to start pushing through.
The Golgari mechanic is undergrowth, which rewards you for having creatures in your graveyard. On the surface, it seems like the gameplan you would want is to value cards that dump creatures into your graveyard and then value payoff undergrowth cards that reward having creature cards in your graveyard.
In practice it doesn't really work like that. The fact is that there actually aren't a whole lot of cards that directly put cards from your library into your graveyard. Glowspore Shaman at uncommon and Underrealm Lich at mythic are, I believe, the only Golgari guild-affiliated cards that directly put cards from your library into your graveyard for the purposes of fueling undergrowth. I don't even think Glowspore Shaman is a good card, at least not one I pick highly, even though it generally makes my deck.
Instead, the gameplan is to rely on creature combat to put creatures into the graveyard. The best way to accomplish this is to prioritize creatures that either trade efficiently in combat or that generate advantages with enters the battlefield abilities. When I say that the Golgari theme is to grind, I mean that you want to trade resources with your opponent as often as you possibly can. This favors you as the game goes late and you can draw into powerful undergrowth cards that will dominate the late game.
When I draft Golgari, I want to end up with cards like Burglar Rat, Generous Stray, District Guide, Plaguecrafter, Hired Poisoner and the like as my early creatures. Ironshell Beetle is weaker, but also can serve this role. These creatures generate small early advantages or trade favorably in combat, and then my goal is to trade them off for whatever I can, either by setting up double and triple blocks in combat or by sacrificing these creatures after they've gotten their enter-the-battlefield value to cards like Severed Strands, Plaguecrafter or occasionally Undercity Necrolisk.
I try to avoid creatures that don't offer to produce card advantage in any significant form. Wary Okapi, Devkarin Dissident, Child of Night, Spinal Centipede are reasonable creatures, but not ones I'm excited to put into my Golgari decks unless I can trade them effectively in combat. Likewise, Erstwhile Trooper is not a good card in these decks. It doesn't offer an advantage and its ability creates card disadvantage. Creating card disadvantage just to fuel undergrowth is not a winning Golgari strategy, with the exception of extremely strong cards like Charnel Troll. Allow undergrowth to occur naturally through favorable interactions and trades with creatures that generate natural advantages.
As I go up the curve, I'm okay with playing creatures that don't generate immediate advantages if they happen to be big enough to hold off lots of small creatures. I'm totally okay playing cards like Undercity Necrolisk, Wild Ceratok, Douser of Lights or Kraul Forager as four and five-drops, since they are big enough to hold off 2/2s and allow me to save cards like Hired Poisoner for bigger game.
In terms of the undergrowth mechanic itself, outside of rares, the only payoff cards I care about are Rhizome Lurcher and Vigorspore Wurm. Rhizome Lurcher simply has great stats, which is good enough for me. Vigorspore Wurm, on the other hand, has a lot to offer as a finisher. For one, it threatens a ton of damage the turn you play it, often forcing a chump block from the opponent. Secondly, it pairs well with Ochran Assassin, threatening to kill every single untapped creature your opponent has while also allowing you to freely attack with all your other creatures. It also pairs well with Swarm Guildmage as a Guildmage activation for menace plus Vigorspore Wurm's natural combat ability makes it a seven-power unblockable creature, which ends the game quickly.
On the topic of Guildmages, I'm going to go on record and say that every single Guildmage is a good card, including the Golgari one. I thought that Swarm Guildmage's abilities were very underwhelming on paper, but the menace has proven extremely valuable for finishing games, and the life gain has likewise been very useful for undoing chip-shot damage from flying creatures long enough to find a removal spell, Kraul Harpooner or simply a dominant board presence to win the game in the meantime.
One advantage that Golgari has is that it is the only guild in the set that gets an enormous benefit out of another guild's mechanics. The five guilds in Guilds of Ravnica all have mechanics that don't really synergize very well with each other, with one exception. Golgari makes great use of surveil, which can fuel undergrowth and dig to the payoff cards. Deadly Visit is a phenomenal removal spell in Golgari as killing flying creatures or creatures that refuse to trade easily on the ground is extremely valuable, and digging for land six for Vigorspore Wurm or dumping no-longer useful creatures or lands into the graveyard to dig for payoffs has enormous value. Price of Fame is also, unsurprisingly enough, a slam-dunk card for Golgari.
I saved the best for second. I think that Dimir is the strongest guild in Guilds of Ravnica, and I do just say that because it's the guild I've had the most personal success with.
When you look at the Dimir cards, you see defensive bodies like Dimir Informant and Watcher in the Mist along with card advantage and removal spells and it would be really easy to conclude that Dimir is supposed to be a control deck.
I think that is completely wrong. I've actually found it is very difficult to win with Dimir if you build it like a control deck, as guilds like Selesnya and Golgari can grind through control elements really well, and individual cards like Dawn of Hope can beat any amount of card advantage. Golgari is the only real control guild, in my opinion.
Dimir's theme is synergy. The winning strategy with Dimir is to take as many cards that generate beneficial effects when you surveil and combine them with as many cards that surveil as often as possible. It seems extremely simplistic to boil an entire guild down to this, but that's where we are.
Payoffs like Dimir Spybug, Thoughtbound Phantasm, Disinformation Campaign, and Darkblade Agent are the core to a solid Dimir deck, and you want to back those up with the best surveil enablers like Deadly Visit, Watcher in the Mist, Price of Fame, Discovery // Dispersal and others if you can. However, it's actually fine to just pair these cards with any surveil cards you can get your hands on. Except for Bones Appetit – also known by its printed name, Barrier of Bones – I am not opposed to playing pretty much any card with surveil on it.
Dazzling Lights, for example, is normally a card that wouldn't be a good Limited card, but when it picks up a Disinformation Campaign and puts a +1/+1 counter on two creatures in addition to screwing up your opponent's combat step, well things start to look a bit differently. Unexplained Disappearance, a two-mana Unsummon with marginal upside, is not a card I would normally be excited to play in Limited, but here I'm pretty happy to run it because surveil can produce so many great additional effects with the right payoffs.
This is going to sound weird to say, especially when we're talking about the blue-black color combination, but there is a real cost to playing too many removal spells in Dimir, especially ones that don't have surveil slapped onto them. If you get a good surveil-plus-payoff-engine going, you don't actually need that much removal as you will likely be running your opponent over with card advantage and creatures that grow out of control. One or two pieces of removal in a game should be enough. It's only when you don't get synergies online that removal becomes essential, and that's where you fall into the trap of some guilds, like Golgari or Selesnya, having natural resiliency to one-for-one removal spells.
Izzet is a very...polarizing...guild. Great Izzet decks can seem nigh unbeatable as they just run you the hell over with card advantage, removal and a quick clock all smashed into one, but weak Izzet decks can look really awful with undersized creatures and tempo-oriented cards that are ineffectual without the right situations being present. Izzet is high-risk, high-reward, which, to be fair, is exactly how the Izzet Guild would want it.
The theme for Izzet is tempo. Izzet is a spell-based guild, with Jump-Start, the flashback Clone, as its mechanic. This can manifest itself into two types of decks, ones that look to put big creatures into play early and then push through damage with spells, or ones that seek to generate lots of card advantage with spells while plucking away with small value creatures. Either way, it's easy to fall behind against Izzet decks and tough to catch back up when you do. It's also easy to fall behind with Izzet and struggle to catch back up as well, to be fair.
Since Izzet is a spell-based guild, most Izzet decks are going to have less creatures than a lot of the other guilds since they need a critical mass of spells to support them. The creatures you want to play are ones that interact favorably with spells such as Goblin Electromancer, League Guildmage, Wee Dragonauts, Piston-Fist Cyclops, and Murmuring Mystic. Leapfrog is occasionally worth it as well, although I'm not as big of a fan of that one. A lot of these cards are uncommon, and it's safe to say that Izzet is a guild that might struggle to win games on the backs of commons alone, unless you end up with a lot of Detroit Piston-Fist Cyclops to create some true malice in the palace.
Crackling Drake is also quite good, of course. I didn't mention any of the XXYY creatures in the other sections but suffice it to say that all of the four-mana uncommons at those casting costs for the guilds are very powerful effects and worth first-picking even though they really push you into a guild. Since you pretty much always want to be drafting along guild lines, and since a lot of the mono-color cards are basically guild-specific cards anyway, you're often committing to guilds rather than committing to single colors with picks, anyway. For example, you could take Fresh-Faced Recruit over a stronger gold card with the idea that you can play it in Izzet, Selesnya, or Boros, and it leaves you more open, but the truth is that it's not that great of a card in either Izzet or Selesnya. Even though it can be played in any of the three guilds, it's really just a Boros card predominantly, so taking that over something like Legion Guildmage doesn't really leave you more open, it just leaves you with worse cards.
As I alluded to earlier, there are two main Game Plans for Izzet, which sometimes can overlap or evolve into each other as a game progresses, but also sometimes depend significantly on the construction of the deck.
The first gameplan is to attempt to legitimately tempo your opponent out with aggressive creatures and jump-start spells to push through damage. This would look like cards like Piston-Fist Cyclops, Leapfrog, Wee Dragonauts, and maybe even Fire Urchin combined with cards like Maximize Altitude, Gravitic Punch or Sonic Assault to deal huge chunks of damage and leave your opponent on the back foot.
The second gameplan is to use the jump-start spells to generate actual card advantage. This method uses cards like League Guildmage and Murmuring Mystic along with cards like Chemister's Insight, Direct Current, Hypothesizzle and other removal spells to draw cards and keep your opponent's board clear. This gameplan looks to run your opponent out of relevant cards while your card count stays high and then just win with whatever remains.
Both are viable strategies and some Izzet decks can play both roles depending on which cards they draw or how the game plays out, and sometimes Izzet decks can even switch roles mid-game depending on how it plays out. I think Izzet has the highest ceiling of any guild, but since the guild relies a lot on uncommons and spells over creatures to fuel it, the floor is also quite low. Your floor can only ever be so low if your deck has 17 creatures in it, and that's not the Izzet way.
More like Bore-os, am I right? Okay, I'm not right. I actually really like the Boros Legion and don't mind drafting it, but it's been my worst performing guild. I think Boros is good despite my abysmal record, but it's heavily overdrafted right now and bad Boros decks get outclassed really easily since they rely so heavily on favorable combat exchanges.
The key to Boros is power. The best Boros decks play the most efficient and combat-effective creatures at each part of the curve and look to close the game out quickly with aggression. The best Boros decks aren't necessarily all-in aggro strategies that must win the game quickly to stand a chance, but rather decks that start putting pressure on early while also churning out progressively scarier and scarier threats as the game progresses. You want your creatures to naturally be able to create favorable attacks or exchanges in combat so that you don't have to rely as much on spells to push creatures through, and that's the core tenet for Boros.
Boros is all about the curve. You want a lot of two-drops and three-drops and then a handful of powerhouse four-drops to round out the curve. You don't generally want to play a lot of five-plus mana plays unless they are legitimate bombs or can help your cheaper creatures get through in combat, like Intrusive Packbeast or Hellkite Whelp. Typical Boros decks might not play more than 2-3 five-mana spells total.
In Boros, being able to continually attack with your creatures and grow your board presence with the mentor keyword is extremely important. For this reason, pump spells are actually really good in Boros, because they can let you attack with all of your creatures without risking important ones dying, and pump spells can also create power-imbalances between your creatures, allowing the mentor mechanic to trigger in spots where it otherwise wouldn't.
In a lot of cases, pump spells are better than expensive removal spells in Boros because of their mana efficiency. You can play a pump spell and another creature in the same turn frequently, whereas the same is not true if you have to kill a 3/3 with Command the Storm. The cheap removal spells, like Justice Strike, Lava Coil, and Luminous Bonds are quite excellent, though, as one would expect.
The biggest key in Boros is to have the right creatures. If you end up with the replacement-level Boros creatures, then your deck probably isn't going to be very good. If you end up with Goblin Locksmiths and Tenth District Guards instead of Boros Challengers, Legion Guildmages or Fresh-Faced Recruits as your two-drops, there might be some sad times in your future. When your opponent plays a Hunted Witness on turn one, suddenly your Goblin Locksmith is a Goblin Locked-Out of relevancy, whereas a Fresh-Faced Recruit could probably still swing in for another few turns before needing a boost to get through in combat. Likewise, if your opponent plays a Generous Stray on turn three, you'll really wish your three-drop was a Roc Charger, Skyknight Legionnaire, or Wojek Bodyguard instead of a Blade Instructor.
Cards that push through damage like Cosmotronic Wave or Intrusive Packbeast can be really good cards to get those final points of damage, but that all relies on having been able to make favorable attacks earlier in the game. If your opponent is at 18 life, it's going to be a lot less effective to be able to Cosmotronic Wave and hit for nine damage and then still be in a losing spot. These cards can be hit or miss for that reason. Draw too many of them early and you lack the pressure to make them relevant. It's usually worth having a few to win topdeck fights later, but not an effect worth overloading on.
More like Selesny-ugh, am I right? Ok, this time I actually am. I think Selesnya is the worst guild in Guilds of Ravnica for draft, which surprises me some, as I thought it looked pretty good when the cards were first being spoiled. First impressions can be deceiving. Never judge a Book Devourer by its cover.
Selesnya's theme is escalation.
Selesnya's mechanic is convoke, which allows you to play bigger-than-normal creatures ahead of schedule. The problem with this strategy is that there is a lot of good removal and good deathtouch creatures in the format, which means that getting that Siege Wurm out on turn five isn't necessarily even that good if it just dies or trades with their one-drop creature. If that's the case, all the mediocre creatures used to ramp it out ahead of time end up becoming embarrassing as the game stretches on longer and longer.
When I say that Selesnya's theme is escalation, I mean that's important to continually develop a bigger and bigger board with Selesnya via convoke, while also finding ways to make the creatures that ramped out the bigger ones relevant late, either by going wider than your opponent or by pumping them up. It's not just about convoking out big creatures, it's about having a gameplan for when your opponent has deathtouch creatures to trade off with your hexproof nine-drop or removal spells to handle your Siege Wurm. That's easier said than done, and a lot of Selesnya's power relies on rares and mythics like Camaraderie, Dawn of Hope, Venerated Loxodon, March of the Multitudes or Trostani Discordant to provide relevant plays later in the game and relevant ways to make your two and three drops do something. Even a Flower // Flourish or two are sometimes much needed to be able to punch through later on.
Selesnya's reliance on rares to push through in combat is largely why it's fairly weak, but it does have some natural advantages too. The first is that a lot of its bigger creatures can embarrass decks like Boros' smaller fare when played ahead of curve and really stymie their offense. If Boros can't push damage early, it can struggle to win late. The other is that Selesnya is fairly good at grinding through decks that can't produce relevant pressure. Eventually, Selesnya will draw enough big convoke creatures later in the game to overpower the opponent, or it can grind through removal with cards like Conclave Cavalier or Sumala Woodshaper, which makes it good against Dimir decks that are focused more on control than surveil synergy. Weirdly enough, with lifelink creatures and a plethora of Centaur Peacemakers, sometimes games devolve into weird board stalls where your opponent can't turn the corner until too late and they just end up milling out before they can kill you.
There are two other things that give routine looking Selesnya decks a fighting chance. One is that Rosemane Centaur is a very good common creature that comes down early enough to put on serious pressure while still being a relevant play when "hard" cast at five mana later. The other is that Conclave Cavalier is absolutely disgusting. It plays offense, defense, is hard and punishing to trade with and embarrasses non-enchantment removal spells. A couple of Conclave Cavaliers can win some games almost by themselves.
Even though I spent this entire section talking about how it's important to make smaller creatures relevant later on in Selesnya, I actually don't think targeted pump spells are good in this archetype. In fact, I think they are actively bad. Your big creatures are large enough to brawl without them and being able to punch through once with a small creature doesn't accomplish enough. I think Boros decks and the occasional Might of the Masses in Golgari are the times where pump spells are highly valued, unless you somehow end up with a very Boros-looking aggro Selesnya deck, instead of the typical escalation ramp-into-convoke strategy.
For what it's worth, I don't like Siege Wurm, Worldsoul Colossus or Arboretum Elemental that much as far as convoke creatures go. I much prefer loading up with Rosemane Centaurs and then playing a Flight of Equinauts or two as a top end. Flying is a much more relevant combat keyword than hexproof or trample with so many deathtouch critters running around.
And with that, I think I feel the wind howling through my house again. I don't know about you, but I think it's time to draft again…
Which is why I've fired up a Core Set2019 draft on Magic Arena. Priorities, priorities.
- Brian Braun-Duin