Friday, December 19, 2014

Drafting the Holiday Cube: if you can't open power, open green

It's been a while since my last blog entry on limited.  I think partly, it's easy too just spin wheels if all you're writing about is one subject - a narrow one at that.  I just don't want to write about khans anymore.  I thought about writing a second article on conspiracy, but that's not a format that's relevant to most people, and honestly, tales of outlasting opponents by virtue of drafting the only reito lantern in the draft (unless my opponents had them and chose not to run them?) are not the most exciting.  That experience might still get covered, as the draft was interesting, but it's not a high priority.

Since getting to the semifinals at the last ptq which I wrote about, I have entered into something of a limited holding-pattern, doing well at times, but with no particular result or new insights which inspire me to write about limited.  I went 0-2 drop at the next PTQ, then 5-2 at the next one, for a pleasant payloud of packs, and a nice boost of pride.

Of course, a recent losing streak in the legacy cube was also dispiriting.  The ability for magic online to track your performance can be humbling:

After receiving a real thrashing in the legacy cube (and then Khans, for good measure) I was frustrated and resolved to improve.  My rating had slipped far below where I usually was, and one only has so many phantom tix.  When the holiday cube came online, I was first in line.

In my long string of cube losses, I felt like I was always just a step behind my opponents.  My decks were reasonably powerful, but a series of blue/x control decks often had the wrong answers, and my one venture into a u/r tempo deck just played worse cards, then lost.  During this time, I may have ran on the wrong side of variance, but I took the lesson of tempo from the legacy cube and determined to apply it to the holiday cube.

Even more than the legacy cube, the holiday cube reveals just how much magic is a game of mana.  The vast majority of the power nine are powerful by virtue of their ability to generate quick mana.  According to cubetutor, the holiday cube is 540 cards. While this is a large enough pool to ensure that there will be drafts with either no power or little power (as only 360 cards are actually used in any particular draft) it is small enough that you can reasonably expect to see a piece of power every once in a while, and you should certainly prepare to play against power.

How does one play against power?  Well, the first thing to do is resolve that power can be beaten.  When your opponent leads off mox jet, swamp into hymn to tourach, do not simply despair and play as though the game is lost.  The second thing to do is to formulate a drafting strategy which can compete if you are not fortunate to open power.  You could try to go mono-red and go under, but with a full ten signets and a boatload of colorless quick mana, the potential for your control opponent to trump an aggro strategy is simply too high.

After a long string of mediocre control decks, I decided to try to lean towards the green ramp deck.  Elves, although not as good as moxen, are the next best thing, and there are nine of them, with an additional five honorary elves in the two-drop slot.  They come down a turn earlier than signets.  Further, green seemed strengthened the cube update, with some duds like wild nacatl, ulvenwald tracker, and strangleroot geist getting the boot.

Nantuko Vigilante and wickerbough elder would be nice to have in the artifact-rich environment of holiday cube, but at three mana reclamation sage is just better, as you can turn-two it off of an elf, opening you up to the potential to take out an early mox, sol ring, or other form of quick mana.  Needless to say, against an opponents turn two pentad prism or signet, such a play is even better.  And while we lost two artifact-hating creatures (a third if you count thornscape battlemage) naturalize was upgraded to nature's claim, and we got krosan grip as well.  Freyalise, already a reasonable planeswalker to help you ramp to the crucial 7-8 drops, gains additional utility as her minus ability has relevance in this format more than I had initially expected.

I wasn't going to force green ramp, of course.  If not open, the green deck just falls apart, as you can either end up lacking a critical mass of the little green men, the big ramp targets, or both!  However, in my first three drafts, the color was sufficiently open that my decision to lean towards playing it was rewarded.

Only three drafts, to be sure, but the downward slide has been halted, and confidence is beginning to return.  Each of these decks attempted to exploit the potential explosive nature that early mana can give you, but in subtle, different ways.  Each deck has particular strengths which enabled it to close out games, even against decks which are chock-full of powerful synergies and broken cards.

Lesson 1: Value

I feel a little disingenuous posting this decklist after the title that I gave this post, but to be fair, I was passed the black lotus as a third pick.  That must have been some pack.  I can remember this draft well, as my first pick was a very safe sword of fire and ice.  Remember that although I went into drafting leaning green, the cardinal draft rule of staying open was still foremost in my mind, and a sword is the best way to stay open.  

Indeed, at first I thought I was going to go into some sort of u/b reanimation deck.  Dimir signet, sheoldred, and necromancy were all made as the archetype at first seemed open.  However, as the pack unfolded, reanimation spells and enablers were lacking, with color fixing being the next most powerful cards for me to take.  Fairly late powerful green cards gave me the hint that green might be open, and with some quality dual lands in my pocket, I decided to add green to the blue-black base that I had been building. 

Elves of deep shadow was an extremely important pick late in pack one, as it gave me yet another way to fix for black mana, while at the same time giving me the ramp that I would need if I ended up getting passed green in the next two packs.  Of course even if green turned out to not be open, and I were to return to a straightforward reanimation gameplan in packs two and three, terrastodon and woodfall primus are perfectly reasonable cards to play as simple entomb targets.

While I ended up with fewer elves than I might have cared for, black lotus and dimir signet helped shore up the ramp gameplan.  Using a black lotus to cast a stunted growth while they still have three cards in their deck may not be the ideal 3-for-1 that it usually is, but it remains quality disruption.  Indeed, disruption is the name of the game in the green ramp deck.  This deck had 6 ways to remove non-creature permanents, 3 ways to remove creatures, and a further 3 ways to destroy lands, always a good tool to have to cement an advantage against a land-screwed opponent.  Not a glamorous way to win a game, to be sure, but it's not crucible/strip mine, so it wasn't completely degenerate in that regard.

Sheoldred proved her worth in several games, including one notable game where her sacrifice ability was able to hit my opponent while he had a mulldrifter and inferno titan in play.  While I was able to  block the inferno titan to my hearts content, the combination of his 3 damage to my face every turn while clocking me in the air would have surely knocked me out of the game before I was able to turn the corner.  When he sacrificed the mulldrifter, I knew that it would take a remarkable amount of burn in his deck to close out the game on either that turn or the next.  With zero lifegain in the deck (obstinant baloth, I miss you!) every single point mattered, as I had just enough to go the distance, using sheoldred's ability to recur my disruptive threats.

Sheoldred stands up as a marquee card for the lesson I learned here: gaining value despite lacking pure draw spells.  So many cards were functional two-for-ones that lacking fact or fiction was no problem.  A 2/3 flier that can gobble up an artifact every turn can be just as many cards of value as a fact or fiction, adds pressure to the opponent, and is a mana cheaper to boot.  Equip a sword of fire and ice to it and the math is completely thrown out of the window, as it becomes a beastly 4/5 flier that would make exalted angel blush.  Toss in the high potential of yawgmoth's will and the instantaneous card draw of mulldrifter.

Lesson 2: Disrupt

After the success of the first draft, I felt vindicated by my faith in green.  Sure, first-picking skullclamp theoretically left me open, but I have to be honest, as I selected that card, visions of sacrificing redundant elves to the mighty clamp made me shiver in anticipation.  One of the chief stumbling blocks of green ramp decks in cube are the awkward draws of too much mana, too little payoff, and having equipment or spells (such as natural order) which can make your elves relevant when there mana has become unimportant are important pieces of the puzzle.  When you opening seven is lands plus three elves and a wall of blossoms, you have to hope to get there, and skullclamp becomes a way to hit your powerful five+ drops if you hit a land pocket.

Wanting to go green led to me taking an awakening zone embarrassingly high (can I say it was in honor of my blog's name?) but the synergy it had with skullclamp could also not be ignored.  And while I took the awakening zone earlier than one ought to take it, it was late enough that there was a good chance it would not wheel.  Given that I picked up a craterhoof behemoth later in the draft, the speculative pick paid off, as the awakening zone/craterhoof behemoth interaction gave me turn-after turn inevitability against any opponent without a wrath, similar in effect to a shrine of burning rage.

While this deck had fewer pure ramp spells than the previous deck (I count black lotus as ramp, despite it only being for a single turn), the quality of ramp was slightly higher, due to the simple addition of rofellos.  Either a turn two rofellos or a turn one joraga treespeaker + any other ramp can, if unanswered, give you a turn 3 stunted growth or plow under.  If you're lucky enough to be on the play, this can put you so far ahead either on mana (as in the case of stunted growth) or cards (as with stunted growth putting them back three draw steps) that the rest of the game becomes more of a formality.

Sure, there was than one round where I got my stunted growth mana drained, and my opponent was able to use the five mana for sphinx's revelation, but mana drain is the very worst case scenario, and it's only a single card in the draft.  If they don't have it, their gameplan can be disrupted to such a degree that not only are they robbed of the ability to threaten you, but any board you have becomes more threatening.

Even without those two cards which ramp beyond reason, even an elf by itself can give you a turn three natural order (bonus tip: wall of blossoms and natural order are best friends, and play very, very nicely together).  There are times when using terastadon to nuke your opponents three lands is the play, especially if they haven't shown any sign that they're playing white, and thus white.  Again, there exists a worst case scenario where terastodon goes badly: you nuke two of their lands and one of yours, and on their turn they use a kill spell on the 9/9 and charge in, but you're still ahead on mana in such a situation, and following up with  a thragtusk, or stomphowler, or almost any card will pull you ahead once again.  Woodfall primus, while only able to target one noncreature permanent, is at times the better option.  More resilient to removal, and giving your opponent absolutely nothing in exchange for its effect, primus can often be the creature which helps you come back from behind, in situations where you've been beaten down early on and the 3/3 elephants are more relevant than they usually are.  Knowing which eight-drop to play at the appropriate time can mean the difference between a victory and a loss.  Alternatively, entwine tooth and nail and play both at once.

With only one reclamation sage, this deck lacked many early drops that could interact, but the lesson I learned in these games was the value of disrupting the opponent.  With disruptive four and five drops coming out earlier than they should, a lack of nature's claim or a solid earlier blocker simply wasn't necessary.  Sure, I didn't have the good fortune to open power in any of the packs, but with elves substituting for moxen, I was able to mess with my opponents permanents in surprisingly flexible and powerful ways.

Lesson 3: Explode

This third deck felt like my masterpiece, the culmination of all that I had learned about drafting green in the previous two drafts.  It contained even more ramp than the first deck, and all of it stuck around, turn after turn.  In this deck, more than the others, I was vulnerable to too many elves, not enough payoff syndrome, as natural order was the only way to make a useless elf into a relevant card. However this drawback was more than compensated by just how much more explosive this deck could be in comparison to the previous two, with the addition of gaea's cradle.  Ordinarily, you have to rely on natural order or rofellos to stick a primus or terastodon early, but gaea's cradle allows your humble one drops to ramp faster, ramp harder.

As in the second deck, I had both stunted growth and plow under to disrupt whatever my plans were, early and often.  The word is out on plow under: it's a high pick, because taking two lands off the board at the same time as denying draw steps is splashy, but while stunted growth isn't as good, it serves a similar role.  If your opponent is waiting for a fourth land drop to play a card, a reasonably common situation in limited, stunted growth will hold off their ability to look at a new card for several turns.  It doesn't matter what is left in their hand; if they have no turn three play (and these things do happen, even in cube) they presumably won't have a turn four, five, or six play as you continue to develop your situation.

We tend to pigeon-hole aggro as the archetype that punishes awkward draws, but these two spells, can close out a game just as much as goblin guide into eidolon of the great revel into sulfuric vortex.

While this deck has some inherent card-advantage, it probably doesn't compare in that aspect to the first deck.  However, it contained as much disruption as deck number two, and with mox pearl, gaea's cradle, joraga treespeaker and rofellos, I was able to play out cards from my hand in a positively explosive manner.  No tooth and nail?  No problem.  Just play out an early avenger of zendikar and get enough plant tokens to make your gaea's cradle and rofellos to play out both woodfall primus and terastodon on the same turn, taking your opponent off four lands.  They might have a wrath, but their sudden lack of white mana might make casting it a bit tricky.

Not only were lands devoured, but remember that terastodon and woodfall primus say any noncreature permanent, any at all!  In round three, I was facing a grim situation of a white/black midrange value deck which had equipped a sword of feast and famine onto a token which a still-active sorin had made.  Terastodon off the top, whether it was through natural order, tooth and nail, or simply a peel off the top, took care of two  critical threats at once.  Beast within is not a fantastic card, but when you staple two of them onto a 9/9 body it is.

I've focused a lot on the mana part of the games, as more often than not holiday cube drafts and matches are shaped by mana, whether that means cheating on mana (i.e. show and tell),  assembling it quickly (sol ring, et al) or punishing your opponent for not having enough.  In such an environment, green may never be the single most powerful available archetype, as it has fewer ways to cheat on mana (natural order excluded) but it compensates for this by almost never being stuck on mana, while having a solid gameplan against aggro, combo and control.  This reliability is exactly what I want in the swiss queues, where a 2-1 record covers the entrance fee.  I'd be more leery to ramp in a single elimination queue, as a 2-1 record means less, and can't be achieved at all after an unlucky first round.  There, I'd try to lean more towards artifacts and mana-cheating spells to try and put together a higher-variance, higher-upside deck which could be more likely to go 3-0.  Still after going 7-2 after three drafts makes me feel like the deck is valid, even at times when 2-1 just isn't enough.

Lesson 4: Traps

As I close out this post, I'd like to note certain green cards in the cube which are low picks.

When your deck packs a peck of elves, your ideal curve is typically 1 -> 3, or in rofellos' case, 2 ->5. While these creatures are basically alright, they're little more than that.  If you see an ooze late, feel free to take it, as it can do work against either a graveyard-centric deck or an aggresive deck, but both of these cards match up fairly poorly against control decks which rely more on their hand and artifact mana, which comprise more of the holiday cube metagame.

Again reasonably good creatures, but both are a bit out-of-step with their draft environment.  Master is defensible as a three drop, but getting value from him is slow, slow going, and the wolves that he makes just don't measure up to many of the broken interactions you'll come up against.  If you happen to wheel a smokestack and a braids pack 1, and are a sociopath, you could user master to build that deck.  Smokestack, awakening zone: also good.  However, with 540 cards in the cube pool, the odds are too low to rely on that archetype even being possible with the packs that get opened, let alone having it be open.

Vengevine is a nice way to put the pressure on, but there essentially is no green aggro deck.  Sure, you can use his hasty nature to knock a few loyalty counters off a planeswalker by surprise, but most of the time it'll just hurt'll into a 1/1 token like the brainless good, er, plant that it is.  You'd think that the ability to recur the vine has some merit in a deck full of 1 drop elves, but if you're using your 1 mana elves to get back a 4/3, those elves have lost so much value from not adding mana in the crucial early turns of the game that you're not realistically getting much value.

I take most reasonable threats/effects over birthing pod, as taking it early restricts ones drafting style too much.  A powerful effect, but with no knowledge of what creatures may come, the chances that one ends up either with not enough enter-the-battlefield creatures or with a break or two in the chain is too high.  If you already have a creature-heavy deck and it fits with your strategy in pack 2 or 3, fine, but sometimes instead of acidic slime you have a five-mana garruk.  And sure, you could be sacrificing a yavimaya elder to the pod, but sometimes you're stuck sacrificing something like a troll ascetic for relatively little value.

Good luck with Eureka.  You do know that Emrakul is in the cube, right?

In all seriousness, there are probably green decks which want this.  Spell light decks, ideally with eldrazi, planeswalkers, and the usual suspects of woodfall primus/terastodon.

When I said that I like ways to make mana elves relevant in the late game, rancor wasn't exactly the tool I had in mind.  A 3/1 with trample does almost nothing against a huge portion of the metagame, and your big dudes are already big and not helped by rancor all that much.  If you're looking for a way to seal a game you're better off with big craterhood.

Oath of druids, meanwhile, is not actually a green card.  It's a blue or black spell which you have to cast using green mana, which apparently makes it fair.  The core strategy, if you really are in the mono-green or mostly-green ramp archetype, is to play elves, make mana, cast fatties mostly the old fashioned way.  This strategy contradicts with oath in two ways: you likely have more creatures on the battlefield than your opponent, because elves, and even if you're behind on the board there's a chance that the card revealed is an elf.  The card plays nice with cards of the grislebrand and inkwell leviathan sort.  Besides, you have a superior two drop in rofellos, which helps you cheat in not just creatures, but spells of all sorts.

This last card again suffers from falling outside of an archetype.  There was a point where heartbeat was a playable card, in storm decks which would cast this on the turn that they won the game, breaking the symmetry, but storm was, for the most part, depowered in the holiday cube.  The actual storm kill cards are still there, but many cards that you wanted are no more, including the interaction of all of the bounce lands with turnabout-style effects.  I'm no expert, but I've watched dzy ( draft storm often enough to know that the loss of all sun's dawns hurts.  Judging by his recent broadcasts, he's still forcing storm, but just looking at one of his decks at random, even forcing storm, he ended up with no actual storm cards.  You can end up with decks like, as I heard his friend say while I was writing this: "the classic three creatures survival deck."

Looking to combo off in a  recent deck, he ended up in a five-color good stuff deck, with a somewhat awkward rofellos looking to get big with only savannah, bayou, and taiga as ways to get crazy.  He had plenty of fetches to make him playable, even good, but I prefer rofellos to tap for three mana reliably.  If what you want to do is play combo in cube, just follow his stream as much as possible, all through holiday cube being up.  Then, next time holiday cube comes up, watch as much of his stream again.  Perhaps after a couple of rounds of studying this style of play, you may be ready to draft lands with your first eight picks of every pack and cobble together a nutty combo deck with whatever the other seven drafters are too conservative to pick up.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

PTQ Concord, NH: A Fairly Hazy Tournament Report - 11/2/2014

The deck has been disassembled, the cards sorted into my collection, but the memory lingers on: a bomb-heavy deck that I managed to not misplay or mis-build into a solid record.  No deck list is forthcoming, as I neglected to screencap it, but what can you do?

In a way, I was almost embarrassed to write down the sealed deck I built in Concord, as it was that crazy.  It was the sort of bomb-heavy pool that practically builds itself.  Featuring utter end, anafenza, and siege rhino, the pool was calling out to be abzan, splashing a sagu mauler with some dual lands that I had.  Not only that, but armament master and abzan charm rounded out the abzan powerhouse cards, with feat of resistance and ainok bond-kin providing some much needed early game.

A small tournament (the benefit of playing in New England on a patriots gameday) there were only seven rounds of swiss with approximately 140 players.  After quickly going 2-0, I lost a painful round against Mike, a friend of a friend who just clobbered me with mantis rider.  I hunkered down, I shook it off, I went 4-0 the next four rounds to pull it out and get into the top 8 in sixth place.  I was pleased to see a couple of players in the top 8 that I had played before: Mike, and Boaz.

The last time I had played against Boaz, we were sitting in the X-3 bracket in a Boston-area ptq, at that point playing for only pride and practice. Dispiriting indeed, we smashed two less-than-impressive decks against eachother, with absolutely nothing on the line.  I was much happier to meet him again in the top 8.  I was also happy that the only other deck that I lost to in the Swiss had also gone X-1.

My first ptq top 8, though!  Truly, I was excited.  Foremost on my mind, going into the draft, was the thought that I should make picks assuming that I'd be on the draw the majority of matches.  I'm not sure how exactly that should affect one's picks, but it was all I could think about.  I thought about five-color control, obviously, as that saucy minx of a deck tempts me always, always.  But I calmed myself with a deep breath and resolved to keep myself open to what people wanted to pass, reminding myself that I wasn't likely to see lands as late in this, a tighter pod.

And indeed, shying away from five-color proved to be a good decision, as the person immediately to my right was going that exact strategy.  Picking up on a late sultai charm in the first pack, I decided to try committing myself to a Sultai build, and I ended up with a solid, if not super exciting deck, which was more U/G tempo splashing black than "Sultai."  With winners like sultai banner and essence of spring, I wasn't over the moon with my deck, but I felt that I had ended up with something playable.  With a villainous wealth in the deck, I felt a mixture of emotions: pride, embarrassment, baller-ness, the whole gamut.

Round 1, I played against Boaz, who had settled into a straight g/b aggro deck, his deck built to support the most powerful card he had picked up: rakshasa deathdealer.  After I won game 1, he really put the screws to me game two with a first-turn ruthless ripper into a turn two molting snakeskin.  Unable to draw either of my force aways, I found myself facing down an abyss, and we moved onto game 3.  Game 3 played out in my favor, as my more mid-rangey deck was able to put up favorable blockers, and being able to hold up force away during each of his attack steps meant that I was able to interact with any trick that he could use to break through.  Onto round 2!

I could practically taste the PTQ win as I sat down to battle.  A torrent of emotions, I liked my deck, and my friends who were with me thought it was good too.  I was battling the person to the right of me, and I had picked up on the lands going very quickly in the draft, so I suspected he was on either five-color or a multicolor heavy deck.

That was the truth, as his multiple taplands attested to.  In game 1, I was able to put a clock on him, and I had force away in the nick of time to put through the last points of damage I needed to before he could start stabilizing against me.

However, emotionally, the pressure was starting to get to me.  A crowd had gathered around, and, new to the experience, I found it difficult to focus.  I made a good mulligan choice in game 2, but it was not enough, as being behind on tempo put me under even more pressure.  I made some critical misplays and in the end he powered through, with the mighty Abzan guide leading the way.

Game 3 was similar, as being a mere one win away, I felt desperate, cornered.  Desperation, and the emotions that go along with that, influenced my decisions, and I put myself into a disadvantageous position, losing the third game as well.  So wrapped up was I in my head that I missed a delve play I could have made that might have won me this game as well.  I had hoped that I could beat a trail of mystery, but the card performed for him, far more than I could have expected, having never played with or against it be

In the end, making the semifinals of my first top 8 was a bittersweet experience.  Although I could be happy that I played well in the sealed, with all of my online practice paying off, the pool I was given felt as though I didn't have to rely on playing tight, as the raw power of the cards compensated for any possible loose plays.  And although I played and drafted well up through the first round, another thing which I could feel good about, knowing that I could have potentially made my way to the finals was an even more bitter pill.

There's a lot of talk in the magic world about pick-orders, archetypes, staying open, and all of that limited jazz, but I have to wonder if it's just as important to talk about the psychological side of things.  The pressure of being in a top 8, when you're a relatively new player, is both real and powerful.  My first timed draft was a pressure cooker in itself, with the time on each pick I had evaporating more quickly than I could have imagined, and then feeling anxiety about doling out the cards to my left and right in the proper way.

So please, take that as a lesson: don't learn the hard way and lose to learn the importance of emotional self-control.  Most humans are very emotional creatures, but our emotions are simply a product of our thoughts, and we can control our own thoughts, albeit with some difficulty.  Stop.  Step back.  Take a breath.  Don't miss your delve.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Khans Sealed Builds: A Sampler Plate

I wouldn't say I'm a grinder, exactly.  Most PTQ seasons I skip: I don't tend to keep up with standard, and I have never really had a deck for modern (I briefly played pyromancer ascension online).  But every once in a while, limited ptq season comes around, and I see it as an opportunity to test myself against the field, and hopefully some day make the pro tour.

Practicing for these PTQs, to me, consists of a lot of grinding sealed events.  While I do pretty well at khans draft, the last ptq I went to ended in an embarrassing 2-4 fashion, so I knew I had a lot of work to do to even approach where I wanted to be in the format.

My own experience with games of khans sealed has been that it is all about the tempo.  The Player who stays just one step ahead of the opponent and uses well-timed instants to disrupt the opponent has most often come out ahead.  Curving out is preferred, although some pools will make that goal very, very difficult.

There is a tremendous amount of diversity in khans pools.  I've seen pools with all blue-mana fixing and no good blue cards.  I've seen pools that give the pilot an option of a choice between an aggressive deck and a control deck, and it's hard to determine which is superior.  Some pools scream to go three or more colors, where others are more straightforward.  Staying flexible seems key.

In one of my first sealed events, I was presented with a somewhat awkward pool.  Here was my first, rough draft:

There's a lot to like here.  A pair of bloodsoaked champions provide the deck with premium one-drops, a rarity in this format.  Grim haruspex and shambling attendants reward you for when you trade off your attackers.  The removal suite is solid, although kill shot is a bit awkward in an aggressive deck.

However, the deck is forced to play a few clunkers for the consistency of being w/b.  There aren't all that many warriors for rush of battle, and salt road patrol would really rather be in more of a midrange build.  Jeskai student similarly doesn't add much to the clock.  The deck I ultimately registered follows.

Far more midrangey, this deck looks to play a longer game than the first one.  Five two drops give me the opportunity to take advantage of times when my opponent is on an awkward draw, and in this sort of build the kill shots are much more effective.  And the green splash gives me some much-needed fat, and the pump spells synergized quite well with the multiple prowess creatures I had in u/w.  I don't know if you know this, but when a jeskai windscout becomes immense, that's nine damage just by itself.  This deck went 2-1.

Sometimes, you want to follow the mana and see where it takes you.  In this sealed pool, the bulk of my lands supported jeskai, so I looked to see what options I had.  Red ended up being the splash here.  The deciding factor was that red just had no good two-drops, while w/u gave me some premium ones, with the bond-kins and the elder.  The double red on arrow storm was challenging, but with six red sources I got there often enough.  And with three arrow storms and a flying crane technique, the deck had real reach.    This deck wanted to get in there, turn after turn, and simply being in u/w/r, a color combination with so many instants, put fear into my opponents.  Play with confidence!  This deck also went 2-1.

Then again, sometimes you just get a god pool.  With siege rhino, duneblast, and high sentinels of arashin appearing once I sorted by rarity, I knew I was going to try to make it work.  One particularly memorable game had me outlasting a herald of anafenza every turn to produce chump blockers while I worked my way towards duneblast mana.  Since they're rares, this pairing won't often come up, but for at least one glorious moment, they shone together.  This deck went 2-1 as well, losing one round to a very strong evasion-heavy deck which flew over my parapets while I failed to draw my sagu archers.  I would choose to play a deck with this level of power every round, if I could.

Finally, we come to my first 3-0 deck.  After going 2-1 over and over again, I was beginning to feel a bit of the always the bridesmaid, never the bride, phenomenon.  Continually going 2-1 is a pretty good winning percentage, certainly, but to perform well at a ptq, I wanted to put together a string of wins.  This deck had exactly the mix I wanted: bombs, removal, instant tricks, and methods for putting together card advantage, either simply (treasure cruise) or more trickily (dragonscale boon).  With two cheap instants in feat of resistance and force away at my disposal, my fearsome monastery flocks got in for more damage than I could have ever imagined.

In my khans sealed experience, you'll run into aggressive decks more often than you'd expect for sealed.  With this deck, I more than once used dragon scale boon to enhance the power of monastery flock, a play which most red decks won't have a good answer to, if any.

One thing to note is that you can win while not holding to the clans that are supported.  Don't blind yourself to options outside of the five wedges.  I went bant twice and had success there.  If you notice that your pool has strong mono-colored cards, take a close look and see if these cards are better in an unconventional color-pairing, like I did with bant.

There were more sealed pools, but these ones stood out to me as memorable.  Now, if you'll excuse me, it's off to do some spooky sealed for halloween!  I love mixed-block sealed formats, and although I want to perform well at ptqs, I just gotta have some fun with a goofy format.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Tasting the Rainbow: Five Colors in Khans

This past friday night, as I rolled into my LGS, I had a vision: I wanted to play powerful spells and not give a crap what colors they required.  Certainly, the recent episode of Limited Resources, where Kenji advocated for the deck, was an influence.  But I had wanted to try this out for a while, and I wanted to try to put certain ideas I had about the format into action.

One idea I had was that, if I were going to go with five colors, the main color that would be the backbone of the deck would be green.  With highland game and archer's parapet available to that color, you have some two drops which do a lot to help slow down the game and get you to turns 5+.

The second idea that I had was that I just wanted to take a variety of the dual lands, making sure I didn't have too many of any one color.  I knew that I needed to change the way I drafted, taking lands higher, but remembering what I had for lands and prioritizing what I still didn't have wasn't something I had thought about much before.  Thankfully, I was successful in this.

Of course, part of this is because Andy, sitting a couple of seats to my left, had a hunch I'd be going five color.  He had listened to the same podcast and, knowing that I would have as well, drafted under the assumption that I'd be going five colors.  I was also helped by the fact that the packs were just stacked, as disciplined drafters to my left and right took sensible mono-colored cards and shipped powerful multicolor cards that they weren't sure they wanted to commit to.  Here's where I ended up:

I'm not sure if that's exactly how I ended up with the basic lands. I mocked this up in modo to make it easy to see where I was.  I was amazed that, even with 9 non-basics, I still felt as though I wanted the banners for that extra bit of fixing.  And with a grand total of eight five-drops, I wanted the ramp.  With 18 lands and two banners, I certainly had a bunch of mana, and I ran the risk of just flooding out.

Balancing this out was the fact that a large number of cards in my deck amounted to just straight up two-for-ones.  Master the way operated functionally similar to prophetic bolt, and the soothsayer, warden of the eye, and bear's companion added additional value.  While not strictly a two-for-one, armament corps often had enough board impact that I'd name is as an honorary two-for-one.

In round 1, I found myself up against Andy, who had been sensible and played a solid, dependable, consistent sultai deck.  This led to one of the most insane games of magic I've ever been involved with where, in game 2, he resolved not one, but two villainous wealths.  The first villainous wealth revealed a warden of the eye, which allowed him to get wealth back from his graveyard for a reroll. And while I was able to navigate things such that I wasn't dead to his attackers, he had robbed me of all my real threats, and I wound up decking.  Game two took so long, with us both waging an attrition battle, that we ended up drawing the round at game three; indeed, game three began just as the round went to time.

The other memorable games came in round four, where at 2-0-1 I faced Blake's very aggresive Mardu deck.  Whereas the first round was all about value, this round boiled down to a simple game-plan: try to stay alive.  Blake is one of the more excellent drafters at our LGS, and has routinely blocked me from prize in the very last round, so I was hungry to win here.  Still, the odds seemed poor, as I mulliganed to five on game 2, already down a game, on the play.  Three lands, two spells - about the most you can ask for in a hand of five.

And despite being down so many cards, and being up against an aggressive match-up, I somehow managed to find myself holding it together.  An early highland game provided the creature I needed to block, winterflame was cast for full value, killing one threat while tapping down a mardu hordechief for a full attack step, and all the while my numerous life-lands kept my life total from going so low that I would have to make sub-optimal plays just to stay alive.  I needed a very specific combination of spells and lands to win that game, and fortunately the deck provided.

I ended the draft at 3-0-1, earning a very respectable amount of store credit.  But more than that, I felt like I had drafted in a way which prepared me for the current draft metagame.  People just want to beat down in this format, and by valuing incidental life-gain with my picks, I would routinely find myself out of the range of my opponents' reach.  I even gained a full eight life when both my sultai flayer and another blocker traded with my opponents' cards.  While it is possible to draft five color and have only the common-lands providing you with a life buoy, you're certainly running the risk of dropping a round to a timely arrow storm or charge of battle.

Friday, October 17, 2014

How many colors, exactly?

I've done some more triple khans drafts, and have continued to find myself steering away from four and five color builds.  When I first looked at khans, my expectation was that the vast majority of the time I'd be in a three color clan.  As I draft, however, I find that there's more to it than that.  Still, sometimes it is good to be in a clan:

This was what I pulled together at my LGS, a white-black build splashing green for some really, really powerful stuff.  However, in the draft I was too dismissive of just a straight b/w warrior build, which I could have gone into and possible have been even more powerful.  Similarly, I could have used the incremental growth I nabbed in the draft, and gone further into green for more power, but in picking up the powerful cards, I didn't have the picks I needed for getting lands.

In short, this draft gave me the opportunity to go in one direction towards consistency, and in another direction towards power, and I hedged, creating a middle-of-the-road deck.  I think that the deck suffered for this, and I went 1-2.  I was able to win against another just-alright deck due to some well-timed instants, but I got crushed by two mardu token decks that got out of the gate quickly and I was never able to fully stabilize against.

Well, I stabilized to a certain extent, but trumpet blast has a way of putting the last few damage through.  Heck, in round one my opponent played not just one, but two hordeling outbursts plus the ponyback brigade.  Even with me killing a couple of tokens on each of his attacks, he had so many to spare that he could just suicide them in to get me dead.

These round 1 and 3 losses to mardu tokens were disappointing, as I felt that with my early drops I should be able to stabilize quickly and take over the game, but my lands didn't cooperate.  A couple of scoured barrens or jungle hallows would have helped immeasurably.  Lesson learnt, however: I should be taking lands a bit higher, and the tokens deck is real, if it's open and the packs are there.

Going online, I tried as hard as a I could to stay open.  After opening a jeskai ascendancy, I decided to see if I could use it effectively in a deck.  I took the best blue, red and white spells that were being passed to me, and when the dust settled (and I realized that white just was not open) I ended up with a very sweet-looking u/r build.

In round 1, it did exactly what I meant it to do: it punished my four or five color opponent by establishing an early clock with a bunch of goblin pikers and disrupting blocking plans with my spells.  It was close, however, as a couple of the sanctuary lands would negate an entire wetland sambar hit, without costing my opponent much as he didn't have early plays to make anyway.  Still, I managed to pull it out.

Round 2 was interesting, as I found myself against another red/blue deck, which surprised me.  He must have been at the seat directly across from me, as we both had a lot of solid cards in those colors.  These games were all pure tempo, with whoever got on the board first and was able to follow it up with a disruptive spell pulling out the win.  In game three, I felt myself in a good position, as I was on the play and started things off well, but proceeded to just draw lands and die.  His set adrift was particularly brutal as it not only set my board back but also put me further away from drawing my threats and disruption.  One arrow storm or master the way was all I needed to win, but modo was not in a generous mood that night.

The red/blue deck in khans reminds me a lot of izzet in triple return to ravnica.  Canyon lurkers in particular fills the role of cobble brute from the set: a big dumb beater than when supported can hit your opponent for unreasonable amounts.  Flying crane technique does a similar job to teleportal, and singing bell strike and act of treason, in the proper board state, can also help reach through to just end the game.

But what about five color decks?  As a fan of the original ravnica block and the five-color green deck from modern masters, I feel comfortable going deep, and drafting more than my fair share of colors.  Have I become too disciplined?  Should I just loosen up a little?  It's hard to say.  I take the tri-lands very highly, as the last two decks show - they have tri-lands but none of the new sanctuaries.

I wonder if making four or five color works depends on drafting in a field of people trying to be disciplined and go two colors, as if most people are trying to draft a clan, they'll pick up those two color lands to support their three-color plan.  Even the allied life-lands go sooner than you'd think.  Listening to the latest limited resources, I find myself really hankering to go in that route.  Is it good enough to force?  I have a really hard time forcing myself to force: I've really trained myself to try to be receptive to what colors are flowing.  Still, tonight I'm going to keep my eyes open, and try to take lands more highly.

 Either that, or I guess I'll just take all the hordeling outbursts.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Breaking the Format: Boros aggro in triple Khans

I never meant to go boros in my first khans draft.  I see these beautiful, beautiful black-green midrange strategies, either in sultai or abzan, and my heart goes all aflutter.  I see a one-mana 0/4 with upside and my eyes perk up.  So it was with some surprise that I found myself in boros aggro, an archetype that I didn't think was even possible in triple khans, let alone any good.

It all started off with a bit of a dud pack. Abzan falconer was, I believe, the pick.  Wanting to try out the falconer, I tried to take as many simple, good white cards that I could.  When red seemed to be open, I decided to move in, theorizing that I would leave myself open to splashing either blue or black, depending.

Well, fast forward a couple of packs, and I never saw a card which was good enough to bring me into a third color.  Meanwhile, I had been picking up some late trumpet blasts, more out of curiosity than any serious strategic considerations, and I had ended up with the following monster:

Creatures: 12 total

1 Monastery Swiftspear              1 Timely Hordemate
                                                  1 Highspire Mantis
2 Seeker of the Way                  1 Summit Prowler
1 Ainok Bond-Kin                     1 Mardu Warshrieker
1 War-Name Aspirant            

2 Abzan Falconer
1 Mardu Hordechief

Spells: 11 total

1 Defiant Strike                      2 Bring Low
                                             1 Burn Away
1 Suspension Field                1 Arrow Storm
1 Feat of Resistance

2 Trumpet Blast
1 Act of Treason
1 Dragon Grip

I had one mystic monastery which I had taken early on in the draft, thinking I might want to be jeskai, but that never materialized, so it just served as a humble guildgate.  After getting the round one bye, I proceeded to go 2-1 in matches, so clearly the deck had some power behind it.  Indeed, my one loss was to a similarly aggressive jeskai deck, in the final round.  It was the first round where my low creature count really cost me, as he was playing similarly low cost threats, but he had slightly more interaction in the form of removal and the pure tempo crippling chill.  Had I hit some more of my early drops in that game, I might have prevailed, but with a mere five 1-2 drops, my luck ran out.

I don't expect this to be a common strategy.  In fact, I'd wager that 95-98% of the time you'll be drafting a wedge, so you might go through this format and never draft a two color strategy.  However, I think it pays to be open to the possibility.

That was my first draft of the format, at last weeks FNM.  This week, I had what I would consider a more typical khans draft, and in fact almost a polar opposite to the deck I drafted above.  Here's the list:

Where last week's deck was designed to be fast, last night's was designed to be slow.  Whereas last week's deck had only one mana-land, this week's had five.  From red/white to the opposite: BUG, and from seventeen lands to eighteen.

The draft started off with the rattleclaw mystic.  I hoped to situate myself in that clan, to make that card as good as possible, but red started to dry up right quick.  Meanwhile I got passed the spellsnatcher and the mystic of the hidden way, cards that excited me.  With eighteen lands and a rattleclaw, "getting" someone with the spellsnatcher seemed very viable, and with as stally as khans can be sometimes, the unblockable morph has a ton of value.  Starting off the first few picks green/blue left myself open to two clans, and when I started to see some really late but decent black cards, including very late kin tree invocations, I decided to go in.

I had noticed that the sultai wedge had a "toughness matters" subtheme, and I decided to explore that.  I would've loved to have the sultai flayer, or an extra disowned ancestor, but the deck ran smoothly as it was. Dragon's eye savants was a surprise hit for the deck, hitting for two when I didn't have the invocation, and hitting the board as an 0/5 when I did.

Ultimately the deck performed well, going 3-0 after a first round bye (what are the odds, the second week in a row???)  The third round in particular was instructive, as on game three I chose to draw against a similarly midrange temur deck.  I was able to establish good blockers, and bide my time with the spellsnatcher.  With an archer's parapet and morphed spellsnatcher on board, the pressure was on him to play something swingy to get ahead.  The card proved to be temur charm.  Unmorphing not only got me the temur charm, but saved me a 4/4 token from getting gobbled up.  With the knowledge that his next play would just get mana leaked, he scooped 'em up.  In the end, the only thing I could complain about was archer's parapet not having reach.  I mean, come on! Look at how tall that tower is!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Limited Resources Cube: A Draft Report

When you fall on hard times, sometimes you just can't draft anymore on magic online.  Sad, but true.  After two crushing defeats in the magic online cube I was tapped out on phantom tickets, but left with an internal fire burning in my heart, whispering to me: crush people in cube!

So what was I to do?  Well, I've been known to cube with people in real life, so what if that experience could be taken online, without the whole nasty money factor that you get with modo?  Of course, I had been looking to try out the Limited Resources cube for a long time.  As a long time LR fan, I had heard mention of it, and it had always been at the back of my mind, something I wanted to give a try but I never got around to.

Sometimes, what it takes is a good walloping to get your ass into gear, and after being thoroughly destroyed in a few modo cube drafts, I signed up for this past thursday's LR cube draft.  And not only would it be free, but the list of cards would be different, giving me a chance to try something new!  Win/win.

Before hand, I had given the cube a quick spin on cubetutor, seeing what archetypes were available, and trying to get a feel for each of the colors.  I quickly noticed that there was a very distinctive g/b graveyard theme in the mix, possibly incorporating blue if you got the spider spawning.  And if you got spider spawning, you could pretty much count on getting its best buddy, gnaw to the bone!

With that in mind, I took a bone shredder out of a fairly weak pack for my first pick.  Not only would this go well in a spider spawning deck, if that was open, but it would leave me open to other black options.  In more powerful cubes, black often gets left behind, as it only has one powerful planeswalker, and its powerful removal spells are often less good against decks full of creatures with comes-into-play effects.  However, a powered-down cube like this one doesn't have planeswalkers and some other bomby effects that black lacks, and the inherent power of black can shine just a little bit more.

Well, green wasn't open, ultimately.  While I kept picking up decent black cards, solidifying that as my main color, I struggled early in the draft to find a second color.  While I got great blue cards, I was getting some sweet white cards as well.  Esper control?

In the end, I ultimately couldn't justify including white in my pool, despite having a day of judgement and a little bit of white fixing.  I would have really loved to play day of judgement, because wrath effects are far rarer and thus harder to play around in the LR cube, but I opted for some more consistency.  I made a mental note to potentially side in plains for that, and the mortify and disenchant if I saw good targets, but it never came up.

The deck fell solidly into a blue/black control archetype.  I just couldn't stop myself from picking creatures that killed other creatures, with duplicant (one of my favorite all-time cards) topping the curve at that effect.  I was really happy with this, as the deck gave me both some early defenses and ways to grind card advantage.  Having five six drops was concerning, but I hoped that playing a high land count plus the signet would help me get there.  For additional synergy, I had THREE merfolk looters to help loot away any extra lands, further justifying the eighteen lands.

Round one I played against B0neReaver, and my hoped-for turn-around failed to materialize as his deck presented threats that were either well-positioned against me, or I simply played against badly.  I completely forgot that bone splitter doesn't target artifacts, which meant that it only killed an irrelevant master splicer than the crucial golem token.  I managed to land a volition reins on the behemoth sledge, hoping to use it to life-gain me back into the game, but skeletal vampire would have ultimate been the better target as it was just more important to develop my board in terms of creatures.

Round two started, and I played against DogPuppy, wielding a three color deck.  With a grisly salvage in his deck, I suspected he had been going for a graveyard/spider spawning strategy, but it hadn't been there for him.  He wasn't able to present an early threat, allowing me to build up enough mana for my swingy effects.  I decided to steal the lightning greaves, to ensure that all of my ETB creatures would be able to have their effects.

As the game wore on, I continued to grind, grind grind, with the added benefit of being able to equip the greaves onto a looter for an ultra-speedy loot!

In the next game, I was once again able to have time to build up my defenses so as to create a superior board.  Lightning greaves protected his yeva, yes, but it can only protect one creature at a time, which allowed me to enslave or otherwise deal with his other threats while continuing to build up my own board. At last, victory!  And it only took a six-mana mind control to do it!

Game three was against my third green opponent.  I guess I was right to hope out of green!  Well, I never really hopped in, but I had been actively looking for a reason to go green: a reason which never came.  Unlike my previous multicolor opponents, emerald was playing a more conservative straight green-blue build.  I knew I was in trouble when he landed a card which I just have an incredible amount of trouble defeating: juggernaut.

Yes, on the board my murderous redcap deals nicely with it, but none of my in hand cards would, and I knew that he would have some way to protect it. A briarhorn later, and I was in trouble.  I was able to build up my board with a domestication and a talrands invocation, but ultimately it wasn't enough and I succumbed to his threats.

Games 2 and three were more in my favor though.  Being on the play game 2 helped take some of the early pressure as I was allowed to reach turn three unscathed:

With three lands in hand, my plan was to essentially allow my opponent to play into a crushing life's finale, and follow it up with either mulldrifter or duplicant.  Although I decided to play the mulldrifter at five, to buy me a little more time to get more life's finale value, this was ultimately not a losing plan.

Game three was similarly "according to plan" as I was able to barter in blood for full value, following it up with any one of my sweet sweet creatures.

At long last, a 2-1 draft!  It had been a while, and it felt good to win again.  The power level of this deck was, I felt, incredibly high, so I couldn't take too much solace in the victory; how would I have done with a worse deck, after all?  Still, I felt like I was shaking off a slump.  I really enjoyed playing this style of blue-black control.  I didn't have card draw spells, and my sweepers were bad by traditional cube standards, but the inherent card advantage of my creatures was able to make up for those potential problems.

Looking back, I noticed that three of my opponents were green.  As was Asturiel, the draft coordinator!  with four players in green, I was happy I stayed out.  He had drafted the much-desired spider-spawning deck.  I wonder how high he took it?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Conspiracy Drafts: Powering through

I love high-powered draft formats.  Cube, of course, is the highest-power of all draft formats and it's hard for me to get enough of cube.  All too often, in more powered-down draft formats it feels as though one is just skimming through pack after pack where the decision making process is too easy, as there are only a few cards which stand out and the only decision, really, is which colors to go into.  When you get to pick 5, however, and there are multiple cards in each color that you're in, the decision of what to take becomes more interesting.

Does the power-level of a format make a significant difference in terms of how skill-testing it may be?  I'm not so sure.  If every card to choose from is powerful, it is certainly easier for a less-skilled drafter to assemble a deck capable of powerful things.  To create a poor deck there is an exercise in self-defeat: inattention to mana curve, playing too many colors for too little benefit, things of that sort.  I suspect that good drafters and good players are about as advantaged in a high-level format as they are in a less-powered one.

So not too long ago I wanted to take a break from conventional local game store drafting and get an in-person fix of something a little bit more high-powered.  When I heard the call ring out for a local Conspiracy draft, I was in, and in big.  One of the hallmarks of a powerful draft environment is the ability to bend and break magic in an advantageous way, and I knew that conspiracy would offer that.  After all, how often do we get draft environments with sweet commons like these?

Alright, alright.  If you're familiar with bad cards from the past, you'll know that I've tweaked these cards a little.  The first two have gained the birds of paradise ability; the third has gained additional power and toughness.  All of this is made possible with conspiracies, a mechanic in the set which affects the draft itself as much as it affects the gameplay.  At my most recent conspiracy draft, conspiracies went much later than I would hope.  Certainly, I was very judicious in passing my own conspiracies, letting only a couple by.  

Fundamentally, conspiracies reward drafting multiple cards of the same name.  The birds of paradise conspiracy is not great if you only have one target for it, but if there are junky one and two drops that nobody wants, you can get birds of paradise as much as you like.  Conspiracies are an investment; if you don't see any early on in the draft, drafting creatures with the same name is an investment for any potential conspiracies you might open or get passed later on.  I had gotten an early muzzio's preparation in this draft, and had been focusing hard on trying to get it to work, with two shoreline rangers and three zombie goliaths, so when I got a second one late in the draft, it became easily the most powerful card in the pack.  Ultimately, living the 6/5 for five mana dream was not for me, though.  Black was cut pretty hard, and in the game that followed the ability for shoreline ranger to block in the air became key.

Enter the Dack...

For most of pack one, I was blue black, with such control powerhouses as reckless spite and fact or fiction.  However, I noticed some oddly late red picks at the tail end, and made a mental note.  When I was lucky enough to open Dack Fayden in pack two, I made the decision to go all-in into blue red, possibly splashing black if the mana worked out.  Brimstone volley is less good, far less good, in a four-player (or more) game, but it's still useful, and the inclusion of a singleton reito lantern proved key in allowing me to not only deck myself with Dack, but to draw infinite brimstone volleys in the end game.  In my second conspiracy draft, I emerged victorious!

Certainly, my play was tight, and the weird diplomacy of a multiplayer game helped, but I'll remember this draft most of all for demonstrating the power of switching colors.  I could have obstinately stuck to blue-black, splashing red for Just Dack, but my deck would have emerged far less powerful.  Oddly powerful last picks sometimes may be more than just an abberation: sometimes, they can provide clues to help us navigate the draft more skillfully.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

M15: Where to Gain the Edge?

This week, M15 has hit magic on-line in full force, and eager to try out the new format more than I have already at my local game store, I decided to head on-line to do battle.  This timing was fortuitous, as the modo people, in their wisdom, decided to bribe people to play on the new client with free phantom points.

It's always difficult to write about limited.  When you create an article, or a journal entry, the goal is to create something new, to explore some facet of the experience which has not been explored.  Ideas that can improve one's play in terms of general strategy are already out there, in articles, podcasts, and conversations among players.  I assume that you don't need me to instruct you in card advantage, reading signals, and other such elementary facets of limited.  Because I like to assume that my viewer is generally with it on such fundamentals, I try to approach the aspect of limited which is constantly shifting: how the introduction of a new set affects the limited meta-game.  If we assume that everyone understands the fundamentals, then the way to get ahead is to understand the new format, hopefully earlier and with greater depth than our opponents (and hey, hope to get a good draw while we're at it).

Core sets can prove challenging in this regard, as their power is driven by relatively straight-forward bombs, and often the best route to success relies on the fundamentals, rather than oddball archetypes.  But it wouldn't be very exciting if all I left you with for advice on drafting M15 was "stay open, read signals, play good cards, and pay attention to your mana curve" would it?  So, despite my sense that M15 is not a terribly synergistic set, I shall attempt to look into this format hoping to discover small edges that we as competitors can seize, and if I must discuss aspects of limited that you already understand, hopefully you can get some value as I discuss these topics in a new context.

First, we should talk a little bit about M15 sealed.  While my sealed decks are not entirely indicative of the format in general because of the inclusion of promo cards, I still learned some important lessons from these decks and rounds.  

In my first, real-life, pool, I chose red as my color.  With lightning strike as a common, this color seemed well positioned against the many black decks I would be facing, as I would (theoretically) have access to a kill spell which for a mere two mana would take care of the black promo.  Fortunately, I did have the two lightning strikes, and was fortunate to open up a Chandra as well.  Combined with a bounty of black removal spells, I was able to construct a powerful red/black control deck which would allow me to play defense until such a time as I would land my siege dragon.  

I went 4-0, including one memorable game against a red deck where I thought I was just dead to my opponents turn 2 borderland marauder. I fell down to just a few points of life, when removal spells and a timely rotfeaster maggot were able to stabilize the situation.  While wall of fire (as seen above, in its more beautiful incarnation) is never a high pick in draft, in a sealed red/black control deck it proved incredibly important as its high toughness and threat of activation proved a potent deterrent to ground-pounders.

In my second pool, I had a larger challenge, as my pool could have gone in two different directions.  Black was an obvious choice, but whether to pair it with green or blue was an unsettled question.  Here's the deck I registered: 

This deck contained a lot of raw power: card draw, removal, bombs.  However, what it lacked was a strong early game.  Simply having two strong one-drops was not enough, and against more aggressive pools, which I saw more often than I expected to, I found myself sideboarding into a speedier b/g strategy:

Featuring more creatures, and the ability to gain tempo advantage with elvish mystics (wizards, bring back our llanowar elves, please! with the freaky headgear, preferably), this deck was better able to impact the board.  Elvish mystics are worse top-decks than the blue draw spells the previous build had, but the cost of potentially drawing them late was well worth their inclusion.  Somewhat durdly two drops also added to the cohesion of this strategy by contributing to the convoke spells.  Satyr wayfinder, in particular, seems an especially juicy creature in a convoke-heavy deck, with it's ability to tap to reduce cost and find a land to play those pricey spells.  Yes, accidentally milling my garruk sucked, but you have to fight through things like that.  Additionally, the incidental lifegain present in the deck proved useful time and again as I found myself racing: four points of life from covenant combined with another 3-5 from rotfeaster maggot adds up real quick.

Despite this very strong pool, I went 2-2.  Of course, I like to console myself with the fact that my deck went 2-0 against draws which didn't contain soul of shandalar, but that's not much comfort.  Flesh to dust, garruk, and encrust were my best answers to that powerful card that my deck contained, but I just couldn't find them in time in either of the two rounds where I lost.  The soul of innistrad round, by comparison, felt like a breeze.

Going forward we won't have access to such weighted pools, and general sealed advice will be more useful.  The best sealed pools will have sufficient two and three drops as a hedge against aggro decks, while containing powerful game-swinging spells.  With six planeswalkers in the mythic slots along with the five powerful souls, you'd better either build a deck with the ability to end games before those powerful cards can unleash their full potential or be playing them yourself.

While black and red seemed very strong in sealed, I determined not to force these colors as the drafts I joined fired.  The buzz in the community is that red is one of the stronger draft colors, and given that each color has some powerful cards to recommend it, I made a point to only go red if I were receiving pronounced signals that it was open.  Spoiler alert: it never was, and the only good red cards I'd end up taking were late, third-pack hate drafts.

I was eager to explore the power of white in particular, and see if triplicate spirits could measure up to the long tradition of evasive white token makers.  Battle screech, lingering souls, spectral procession: all powerful white spells that can cause your opponent nightmares.  Even timely reinforcements was a high-pick in its day.  When my first draft presented me with a pack 1 pick 1 spirit bonds, I decided to see if I could go into a token-heavy "wide" theme.  This was the result:

With seventeen creatures (not including triplicate spirits) this deck supported spirit bonds very well.  The nice things is, spirit bonds rewards you for something you want to be doing anyway: drafting creatures.  With removal spells being in short supply, this deck made winning with creatures alone its goal.  Pump spells and favorable trading allowed it to move past the first two rounds of red decks before splitting in the finals.  The one round where I did draw spirit bonds in my opening hand, it helped me handily crush an aggro deck as it allowed me to trade more effectively.

This was a premiere, 64-person draft where a first-pick raise the alarm out of a fairly disappointing pack led to a very interesting, quite aggressive build.  This deck supported sanctified charge even better than the previous deck did.  While it easily crushed the red deck I played in the first round, I lost a real close one in round 2 where the red deck I played against managed to whittle me down with island-walking squid tokens.  Had I had one more creature on board, I would've been able to use the sanctified charge in hand to demolish my opponent from a seemingly healthy life-total.  

After that disappointing 1-1 finish, I immediately dove into another 8-4.  Pack 1 offered up a green paragon, and curious to see if I could build around it by grabbing a bunch of solid green dudes to make even better, I kind of wound up forcing green.  Honestly, I got very lucky in this draft by being passed all those juggernauts, and to open that twingrove, as I came very close to having a very bad deck.  As it was, I was able to split the finals with this deck, grinding my way through the competition.  

Although individually most of my creatures were just alright, the small synergies added up.  Even invasive species was able to help out, by unsummoning a rotfeaster maggot that had a stab wounds on it.  It is possible that unmake the graves should have been in the maindeck, considering the satyr wayfinders enabled it's strategy, but all of my opponents made strong early-game plays were it was far better to spend my mana developing my board rather than accruing card advantage.

Red is one of my favorite colors in magic.  When I first started playing the game, my best deck was an earth elemental control deck, using lightning bolt, earthbind, and fireball to try to secure victory.  Sadly, it is rare that I find myself in red in limited these days.  Even in draft formats where it is not particularly strong, it can be a very popular draft choice, as people have dreams of blasting their opponent's face, and when it is incredibly strong it almost never seems open.  Red in m15 seems to have this reputation, and for good reason: it has more than one premium common, giving it a depth it sometimes lacks.  However, for as deep as it seems, if it continues to attract multiple drafters at each table, that theoretical depth will remain just a theory.  The most powerful red deck I drafted in m14 was a red/black sacrifice deck, and in that draft I was getting last-pick act of treasons; the deck was so open that I would have been a fool to ignore it.  

My advice for m15 is to respect the power of red: draft it if you open the red soul, or chandra, but be prepare to move out or have a different color as your main, as all those lightning strikes, borderland marauders, and nightfire giants floating around will very likely create drafters who want to fight you for picks. Further, ensure that your deck has resilience to the red deck.  Packing a high number of creatures can help you against borderland marauder + lightning strike, a start which shouldn't surprise anyone given that they're both commons.