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.