I don’t claim to have all the answers, nor have I extensively tested some of my theories, so take them with a grain of salt if you’re headed to Grand Prix Las Vegas this weekend for the biggest Magic party since, well, probably ever. Still, there doesn’t seem to be an abundance of analysis of Modern Masters yet, though Ari Lax’s articles on SCG Premium is a pretty good start, so I might as well throw my hat in the ring.
When I sat down to play in the midnight release draft for MM, I didn’t expect to ever draft it again, partly because it was expensive, but mostly because it would be hard to find in just a few short weeks. It’s true that I haven’t opened any more actual boosters of MM since then, even though I do have a set quietly appreciating in my backpack. But when the set was released on MTGO at the somewhat reasonable price-point of 25 tickets per draft, I gave an 8-4 (that is, 8 boosters for 1st and 4 boosters for 2nd) a go even though I assumed bots would be offering a pittance of what chase rares were worth because Modern was not in season. Thanks to a great deck and a little luck, that one draft led to six more before my 12-hour run ended. Eight MM drafts is probably more than most people have done, so hopefully that’s enough ethos to offer a breakdown of many of the strategies available in MM. In the interest of transparency, I’ll let you know when I’m talking about a deck type I haven’t actually drafted yet, but there aren’t many. In my eight drafts, I’ve drafted six different archetypes.
General Drafting Advice
Before we dive in, it’s important to establish a few things about this format, some of which may not be obvious to everyone.
MM draft resembles MTGO cube draft in many ways. The two main similarities are in signalling and the overall power level of the cards. First, although it’s fine to draft a “good stuff” deck, I feel taking a shot at building a deck that relies on synergies is often the right call even though your first picks in many packs will be singularly powerful cards. It’s very hard to fail to assemble a passable deck by simply figuring out what deck type is being passed to you, and just going with the flow. It’s very similar to reading what guilds you’re being fed in a DGR draft. In addition, some of the most powerful cards in the set are ones that only excel in one archetype. When someone passes you a card like Esperzoa or Thundercloud Shaman, you really have to think about what that means. Check to see what’s missing first. If it’s a rare or foil, and you’re in a draft where you keep what you draft, maybe it means nothing. It could also mean that an archetype is open, and it’s time to move in.
Sometimes, the signals just don’t tell you the right things, or someone on your left opens a bomb in your archetype in pack two and cuts you hard. That’s where the power level of the cards can save you. Let’s say you got passed an Esperzoa in pack one, and you started drafting Blue/White Affinity. Things went well in pack one, but in the second pack, the person to your left opens their pack, squeals with delight, and shows the table a foil Arcbound Ravager, exclaiming “Guess I have to draft Affinity now!”
In many formats, this would be a huge problem, as your deck would probably end up several playables short. However, MM is a deep set, and many of the cards are redundant in their function. In the example, the Ravager player would get the best Affinity card in pack two from each booster, but you’ll still likely get something useful. Maybe it isn’t an Etherium Sculptor, but Frogmite works just fine. Even if you’re unlucky, and there is only one Affinity card in each pack, picking up cards like Pestermite or Blinding Beam works as well. Sure, your deck won’t be the best Affinity deck in the world anymore, but very few of the Affinity cards are plain bad on their own, and you will probably end up with a solid White/Blue deck anyway.
As we’ll see below, this safety net doesn’t exist for all the archetypes, which is why I really don’t think it’s a good idea to just jump into them until you get a clear signal. In each section, there is a risk factor listed from one to 10, with one being a very safe archetype to draft and 10 being Crackling Perimeter territory.
Death Cloud and Molten Disaster are the only sweepers. Cryptic Command and Blinding Beam do a pretty good imitation because they can act as a Falter, but those require a creature stalemate to be effective in that sense. In spots where you suspect your opponent has one of these rare sweepers, play accordingly. Given the nature of the two spells, it’s usually not difficult to keep the pressure up while avoiding a total blowout by choosing to either flood the board beyond what a Death Cloud could kill, or playing a larger creature rather than two small ones in the case of Molten Disaster. These sweepers are even less likely to be played than you might expect because do-nothing control decks are rarer than you might think in MM, and the archetypes that have access to these spells typically like to play small dorks more than wiping them off the board.
Changelings are often the safest pick. This is especially true in the early stages of a draft when considering drafting one of the five tribes (Fungus/Saproling, Rebels, Goblins, Giants, and Faeries), where signalling could be confused by a stacked pack. There are only three changelings in the set, but they can assist in hedging your deck against bad luck. Two of them aren’t actually bad by themselves either. Admittedly, the changelings are much better in Goblins, Rebels, and especially Giants who have access to both good ones, but I can see two scenarios where the other two tribes would want them. A deck with a load of Spellstutter Sprites would probably want a one drop Faerie, and it’s plausible that an Avian Changeling could be in play with both a Sporoloth Ancient and a Sporesower Thallid, allowing the flier to actually make Saprolings!
Just after each heading, there is a summary with the aforementioned risk factor and cards that I consider a signal that the deck might be open. I’m not bothering to list cards like Sword of Fire and Ice and Vedalken Shackles because those cards are amazing in any deck that can effectively use them. In my eight
Risk Factor: 3/10
Drafting the rebel deck can be tricky because it can be difficult to interpret when you’re getting a signal. Sometimes, your daddies upstream are just taking more generically powerful spells that also happen to fit into a rebel deck. In particular, Avian Changeling will probably be taken over a searcher early in drafts, and could lead to misreading your seat. With that in mind, it’s still reasonable to draft Rebel creatures rather early, as the risk factor is pretty low. A B/W deck that just happens to have a few Amrou Scouts and an Amrou Seeker is likely better for it. The real signals for this deck come when the pack begins to dry up. If you get a searcher or two late in pack one, it’s a good idea to weigh your options, no matter what you had going on up to that point. If everyone at the table saw the Rebel searcher, but declined, the deck is wide open.
The only other recommendation on drafting rebels is to draft at least one way to finish the game quickly, even if it’s a little dorky. Amrou Seekers, Avian Changelings and Blightspeakers can nickel and dime opponents, but having a breakthrough card like Sandsower, Ivory Giant, or Blinding Beam means you don’t have always be in a race, poking them for two a turn while you hope they don’t draw their insane bomb.
Risk Factor: 5/10
Drafting Affinity is pretty straightforward, but it can be dangerous because the payoff cards don’t really function without the supporting cast. In fact, Etherium Sculptor is likely the most important card in the entire deck because it’s such an effective ramper. In my first MTGO MM draft, I had first picked a Sword of Light and Shadow, and immediately moved into Affinity after getting passed a Mechanist and an Esperzoa. These two cards form a card advantage engine, but it’s barely as good as a Jayemdae Tome without Etherium Sculptor, which also happens to be the card that makes Myr Enforcer go from decent based solely on size to amazing. Of all the signal cards, Sanctum Gargoyle is the safest pick because it’s pretty good on it’s own, but that also means you are unlikely to see it late.
I listed Auriok Salvagers above because it is pretty good with many of the cards Affinity wants anyway. However, it’s a much slower strategy to employ, and for maximum return, you need either red or black mana to rebuy Pyrite Spellbomb or Executioner’s Capsule. If you already have an aggressive Affinity deck, it might be right to just pass on the Salvagers.
Risk Factor: 6/10
In this case, the Pallid Mycoderm is the only actual Fungus that’s a signal, but it’s a pretty good one. Note that I wouldn’t first pick the Mycoderm unless the pack was just plain bad, as getting cut out of the Thallid deck leaves you with a hot mess. If you end up in a good seat for it, the Thallid deck seems good, but there are two issues still plaguing the fun guy squad.
First, the low end of the curve is pretty weak. Actual Thallid is a little underwhelming unless you have a very high chance of casting Sporoloth Ancient on five. If you lead with Thallid on one, and cast the Ancient on five, you can make two Saprolings immediately, making it worthwhile. Thallid Shell-Dweller is ok, but since many strategies involve evasive creatures, he’s only OK.
The second problem with the deck is that you don’t actually interact with your opponents. The deck plays like the slowest combo deck ever. It just tries to assemble a bunch of dudes and cast an Overrun effect. It can also lose from just not drawing an Overrun. Echoing Courage is a fair substitute, but you run the risk of a blowout if the targeted creature dies.
So, barring opening Doubling Season, which makes the risk worth it, I avoid Thallids unless the signals are strong.
Risk Factor: 3/10
Despite losing in the first round the only time I drafted Goblins, I really like the archetype, mostly because the bad versions of Goblins are just slightly under average beatdown decks. You get to play two one drops that can come very, very late in Facevaulter and Festering Goblin, most removal that comes your way, and most importantly, you get to play War-Spike Changeling.
War-Spike deserves his own section. He is not a deck by himself, but any deck playing red should run him. Almost nothing can kill it in combat at its converted mana cost, and being a goblin is just gravy. Give him a Bonesplitter, and there’s nothing that isn’t rare or mythic that can take him down besides, of course, another War-Spike.
Another advantage is Goblins is the abundance of sweet uncommons and rares that are really only good for your deck. Auntie’s Snitch, Mad Auntie, Tar Pitcher, Earwing Squad, Demigod of Revenge (because of his mana cost) and even Squee, Goblin Nabob all are excellent cards that you can get late because they require a commitment to Goblins to be good.
One last thing about Goblins. The good Goblin decks are grindy, not hyper aggressive, so draft Warren Pilferers especially high. It’s not listed among the signal cards because it is actually generically powerful in a format full of 2/2s.
The rest of the archetypes, including Blue/Red mill, Domain, and Giants will be in part 2 of this mini-series, to be posted soon!