A Comprehensive Guide to Drafting M12
Right now, I’m undefeated in M12 drafts. Perhaps, as M12 is a new set and players are still finding their footing, I’m somehow ahead of the curve. Maybe I’ve just gotten lucky. In either case, I’m going to share with you some of my thoughts on draft and the nuts and bolts of M12 specifically, then you can be the judge.
The first thing that I’ve noticed from drafting core sets over the years and especially in the age of Mythics is that the limited decks are more dependent on power than on synergy. Gone are Lorwyn’s tribal dynamics or Scars block’s infect decks. In core sets, we are generally going to win by having a lot of good cards and employing basic deckbuilding principles. The opportunities for synergies are present (bloodthirst) but are usually on a much smaller scale (Mind Control + Auramancer, Sacred Wolf + Trollhide, etc).
So, just as core sets are Magic at its most basic level, so is drafting a core set. Here I focus mostly on playing the right colors and making the correct picks based on both the signals I’m sending and the signals I’m receiving. I look for the bombs, the removal, and the creatures we’ve been told are good in limited for years (for example, ones with evasion). As any draft progresses, I approach the draft like shopping for groceries: I have a mental list of what I am going to need and then I attempt to “shop” for the cards. What may be surprising to some is that this shopping list is often very specific (instead of 15 creatures, 8 removal, 17 land or something like that, I’ll think: “my deck really needs more 3-cc creatures” or “this UW deck would be complete with a Merfolk Looter or 2…”) It is amazing how often you can build a good deck when you purposefully choose your cards with some sort of plan. One of the best bits of draft wisdom I ever heard came from a teenage kid, he said, “You’re not drafting cards, you’re drafting archetypes.”
So what are some M12 archetypes?
Well, UW fliers is my favorite but you can get a lot of mileage by playing any archetype that is being underdrafted. So while UW may be the best strategy in a vacuum, it’s not going to be the best if everyone is trying to force it. Fighting your neighbors over cards is one of the last things you’ll want to do, especially if, like at my FNMs, you’re paired against players from different pods. So what else is there? BR removal, UB control (blue for fliers and black for removal and Gravediggers), GW Hexproof (Sacred Wolves and enchantments), RW removal, GBR good stuff (rampant growth to fix your mana and accelerate to your bombs), BR bloodthirst, and probably many more!
Even from the first pick of the first pack, I’m trying to set myself up with an archetype. I generally don’t like GW and I feel no differently about it in M12. I’ll try to avoid other color combinations too: UG is a good example. Now, it’s not that these color combinations can’t work but considering the cards available, I feel they’ll generally end up pretty underpowered. The Sacred Wolf deck could come together because I think that Wolves and Trollhides will generally go late but I could be wrong.
In M12, most of our bombs are going to be Rare or Mythic with only a few exceptions. I’ll take Mind Control over pretty much any other common and uncommon in the set and Fireball is next on that short list. Because I tend to stay away from green, I probably wouldn’t take Overrun and would let someone else move in that direction but a green deck with Overrun could wind up pretty amazing. I don’t consider Serra Angel a bomb but she’s certainly very good and there are a lot of cards that generally fall into that category: Oblivion Ring, Sengir Vampire, Volcanic Dragon. At common there are: Doomblade, Incinerate, Pacifism, Shock, Chandra’s Outrage, Merfolk Looter. The mage cycle is also worth mentioning as they are very high quality 2-drops with impressive abilities. I’d rate them in this order: Azure Mage, Alabaster Mage, Jade Mage, Onyx Mage, Crimson Mage but that is just a general ranking. Crimson Mage should be much higher if you’re drafting a more aggressive deck.
Generally, I don’t play a lot of 1-drop creatures in any Limited deck because they usually get quickly outclassed but some ones that stand out in M12 are: Gideon’s Lawkeeper, Llanowar Elves, and Phantasmal Bears. What they give you goes much further than that 1-mana investment. Lawkeeper will be tapping their best guy until they get rid of it, the elves will help you accelerate to your bombs, and Phantasmal Bears will trade with your opponent’s turn 2 or 3 play usually and possibly get in for 4-6 damage first. Of these, Lawkeeper is the only card I’d take particularly high but the other cards are at least defensible.
There are a great deal of 2-drop creatures that are also not very reliable: Runeclaw Bear, Goblin Piker etc. Mostly these should be obvious because they are the very definition of vanilla with no other printed abilities. Perhaps surprisingly, I think that Warpath Ghoul is not a very good 3-drop creature just because he actually makes your opponents garbage vanilla creatures useful. I try to find creatures that have a high toughness (if they’re ground creatures) because they will remain relevant longer. Arbalest Elite is one of my top picks for this category of creature because it comes along with an ability that can kill 70% of the creatures in M12 and generally the only card that will make you feel like you lost value there is Incinerate. Siege Mastodon is decent for a vanilla creature.
One thing that I think makes M12 so easy to draft is the inherent obviousness of most of the card choices: the Demon’s Horn cycle is pretty bad, most of the creature enchantments are pretty bad (Firebreathing, Lifelink, etc). Trollhide is the best of the creature enhancing enchantments and it can actually be quite good (just watch out for cards like Pacifism unless you put it on a Sacred Wolf!) The Titans and Planeswalkers are all good. Archon of Justice is good. Most of these cards, you just don’t need someone to tell you about.
I think cards like Gravedigger, Mind Rot, Divination, and their 2-for-1 ilk are actually WAY better in a core set draft, especially because they interact well with the bomb-oriented nature of the format. I’ve used Gravedigger on Archon of Justice to great effect, I’ve Mind Rotted my opponent’s Overrun or Titan, I’ve used Divination to outdraw decks with a lot of removal. And as I said before, Auramancer on Mind Control is a neat trick.
Now that we have kind of a general M12 overview to consider, let’s look at the dynamics of the draft itself.
Just as you should be aware of what your opponent is doing when you’re playing a game and not just on their turn, you should also strive to develop an awareness of what your neighbors are doing (or going to do) at the draft table. Imagine you open a pack with Serra Angel, Overrun, and Angelic Destiny and, for the sake of argument, those are definitely the top cards of the pack (and they probably would be), what do you take?
I would hate a choice like this because the clear choice is Overrun and I hate green. The reason I call it a clear choice has less to do with power level (though that is a factor) and more to do with how my neighbors are going to interpret my signals. If I take Overrun and the 2 remaining white cards are the clear next best cards, I’m setting up both of my neighbors to be white (each takes one of the cards). There is a good chance that if I take either white card, one of my neighbors will cut some of my color in pack 2 because they’ll be playing white also.
I played a draft where I was passed a Serra Angel for pick 2 and it was clearly the best card left in the pack. The first thing I did was consider what could’ve been so great that my neighbor wouldn’t have taken it. Seeing that a common was missing, I correctly concluded it was a Doomblade unless my opponent was really trying hard to avoid white which might make it an Incinerate. It might’ve been less clear cut if they had taken a Mythic.
Some players do rare draft so that’s something to look out for. Fortunately, regular rares aren’t worth much and most of the Mythics, especially the valuable ones, are very good in draft so it’s unlikely that this is what is happening. Pack 2 and 3, you could easily get deprived of some bomb Mythic by a player not in that color but the playing field is pretty even in this regard since it’s unlikely that ANYONE will pass a Planeswalker to anyone else even if they’re not rare-drafting. For the cost of a $15 draft, it’s pretty hard to disregard a $30 Mythic even if you generally don’t rare-draft. What are the odds that you will double your money from prize packs? Though that is beyond the scope of this article, I recently won 10 packs and probably only barely got $30 in cards, so make your own decision there…
Before I wrap this all up, I want to add that it’s a very good general rule to be aware of the format’s combat tricks. In this case, leaving G up can’t mean Giant Growth but 1G could be a Titanic Growth. For W we have Stave Off, which is not just effective at killing off opposing creatures in combat, dodging removal, or evading blockers, it can also make a creature enchantment like Mind Control or Pacifism drop off. I always look for a couple of these tricks to keep my opponents guessing.
So, to tie this all together at last, here are my steps for drafting M12:
1) Single out the best cards in a pack: Early on, this will generally mean the most powerful cards but later it will be the cards that best fill holes in your deck. If you’re committed to a color combination and you don’t see any good main deck cards, consider what cards you might sideboard: Demystify and Flashfreeze are good examples.
2) Keep in mind what message you’ll be sending: Ideally, you will be the only one drafting your color combination in the seats next to you but, if you have to fight over a color, it’s better to fight with the person on your left because only a third of your packs will come from that direction.
3) Be aware of what message your neighbors are sending: As soon as you ship the first pack, you’ll start noticing patterns. Maybe you’re getting good black cards (Doomblade 3rd or 4th pick), maybe you aren’t seeing ANY red cards, or perhaps the ratios are all off (5 green cards and only 1 card of each of the other colors) but it’s imperative to find your niche in the draft and try to stay there. I usually commit to a color fully in the 1st pack and am pretty sure what the other color will be (sometimes it’s a choice between 2 colors which I’ll flesh out in pack 2).
4) Shop for the cards you need: After a few picks, most of the really exciting stuff will be gone. Focus on how the cards will come together as a deck. For example, after taking a couple of Assault Griffins and already having a couple Arbalest Elites, I was looking for 3-drops because that’s what my deck needed the most. I passed up on at least 2 other Griffins because I knew they wouldn’t make my final deck. I even took good sideboard cards over them.
5) Build your deck: All the decks I’ve played so far have been 2 colors and run 17 land and this is a good general rule. Most of your actionable cards will be 2-4 casting cost with a couple of exceptions, your Gideon’s Lawkeepers at 1 and your bombs at 5 or 6.
When playing your games, an important Limited rule is to not waste your removal. Since this IS a bomb heavy format, you have nobody to blame for losing if you play your Pacifism on a Runeclaw Bear and then you can’t deal with a Serra Angel. Also, players generally aren’t bluffing and DO have a combat trick when they make a questionable attack so always consider if your creature is worth their Titanic Growth or Stave Off or what have you (a lot of time it still will be!)
Hopefully, this helps you look at drafting with M12 in a more advanced way. M12 is pretty easy once you observe what the core cards of this core set are. Many of the cards can almost be ignored completely. Building a good deck is simple if you know what the good cards are and how to be in the right colors. Thanks for reading!