Ravnica Allegiance Draft Strategy Analysis!

Quick draft hit MtG: Arena for Ravnica Allegiance this past weekend, and if you’ve been eagerly awaiting the quicker and cheaper way to jump into an Allegiance draft, your patience has been rewarded. So, how’s the format shaping up? Is Rakdos the oft-maligned, seldom truly unplayable deck? Is resolving an Elf-Lizard-Wizard and 2-for-1-ing your opponent into the next queue really the high we’re looking for? 

An Introduction

I should probably introduce myself before we get stuck in – I’m Kristen. In times past I decided to have a go at the Pokemon TCG because card games looked fun and I liked shiny things. I managed to be pretty good, and was regularly making top 8s at Regionals with a top 16 at Nationals during my first season. The game didn’t quite capture my full attention though, and after hitting top 8 of the first Regionals of my 2nd season I ended up discovering Magic – the rest is history. I can regularly be found piloting Boros decks at Commander tables in Yorkshire (for better or worse!) but my true love is Limited, so let’s just jump right into it.

Curving Out

The first thing I’ve noticed is that Allegiance is, by and large, a slower format than Guilds of Ravnica. The faster decks have to use more mana than Boros to kill you, and lifelink/lifegain feels more plentiful. The times when the games tend to end quickly is when one player curves out, and at that point ‘snowballing’ is probably the wrong word – sitting across from a turn three Rhythm of the Wild with a counterspell in hand has a way of making life flash before your eyes.

As luck would have it, most of the 3 drops you have to worry about (actually, most of the 3 drops) are sitting at uncommon or higher. Just looking at the numbers, we can see that Allegiance has only 13 3 drops (not counting spectacle), compared to 19 in Guilds. With a roughly 10% chance of hitting any common in a booster,  you’re around one third less likely to see a 3 drop in Allegiance. That’s pretty noticeable.

As for the 3 drop commons in Allegiance themselves, they are by and large fairly lackluster, with the multicoloured 3 drops being slightly more relevant. Beyond Aeromunculus, I’d say that Steeple Creeper is the most serviceable of these – but we’ll figure out why a little later.

What’s the plan, Bolas?

There’s one thing that’s clear with Allegiance, and that is that Wizards aren’t going to be spoon-feeding us any hints as to what may be about to play out in the 3rd set we’ll spend on Ravnica. We’ve all got our assumptions, but the true plan is yet to be revealed. I’m really hoping they’ve dropped us some sweet hints in flavor text and card art, but unless a plucky Redditor steps up to the plate to help figure it out, I’d say we’re going to have to wait (I’m still holding onto the fact this guy (Discovery//Dispersal) is really holding a chunk of Lazotep and not scrunched up parchment).

Planning, however, is actually a key part of Allegiance. With 3 drops being a little worse and less plentiful, our opponent curving out is less of a worry, and so being able to play out your hand in the most efficient way is a lot more important.

Removal can be cheap in this set, but it’s often conditional. Whilst that can be awkward in aggressive formats, it means that cards like Bring to Trial are better when those power 4 creatures rarely come in at 3-mana. I’d also consider a card like Cry of the Carnarium to be worse than Golden Demise was in Rivals of Ixalan because of how situational it is. It’s very often the case that the deck that can cast this card can’t cast it profitably, either because losing board presence in Rakdos is not want you want to be doing, or because you’ll lose your Afterlife triggers. At the higher end for Black we have Consign to the Pit. The card is solid, but playing more than 2 will be difficult given how easily splashable they are for other decks.

The variety of threats and answers means that many games can be a 1-for-1 exchange until one player runs out of gas. This is particularly noticeable when you and your opponent are playing within the Azorius and Orzhov range, where resolving a flyer first and keeping your opponent’s flyers out of range (or just out of commission!) is key to winning the game. The sheer prevalence of flyers, and how easy some of them are to splash, means that a lot of games are decided in the air, with Skatewing Spy and Aeromunculus allowing Simic to be a part of the conversation too.

Few flyers can hit for 4 power without some kind of buff, however, which means that 4 toughness is the sweet spot here (Remember Steeple Creeper? More like Staple Sleeper). The board will often get gummed up in these matches, which means that you can sometimes hold onto your removal a little longer than in Guilds. Toughness 4 is also pretty nice against Rakdos, who can struggle to get over more swole creatures.

Juggling Blades

It’s probably a good time to talk about Rakdos. If it wasn’t hard enough to be in a guild that requires you to damage your opponent to play your spells on curve (spells that are arguably worse than comparable spells in other colours that don’t even require spectacle), we’re fresh off a set in which players actively avoided drafting Golgari or Selesnya because they weren’t that ‘good’ – an argument for which this isn’t the time or the place.

Given the above, it’s not easy to convince the more casual drafter that has heard Rakdos is ‘unplayable’ that they should give it a chance. It’s even more difficult to convince the semi-enfranchised drafter that cares about EV – they’re simply not willing to take the risk.

But hold on up a minute, what makes Rakdos so bad? Well, it’s not inherently ‘bad’ for a start. Anyone that stops at that level of analysis won’t be able to recognise how good Rakdos is when it’s good – and when it is, it’s super playable, thanks to the sheer card quality of some of the red and black cards available. The issue arises from the fact that Rakdos faces too much competition from other drafters for the cards it needs to function effectively.

Gruul can splash black easy and straight up take the red cards. Orzhov can splash red easy and straight up take the black cards. Azorius can splash black easy. Simic can splash red easy… apparently there’s a Gates deck?

I don’t need to tell you twice – you know how to splash, and chances are you’ve been playing limited a long time. To illustrate the issue, I’ve jotted down a quick list below of just a few key cards you won’t see often enough when drafting Rakdos – I’ve not even included the red cards that Gruul will be taking highly too, or things like Blade Juggler, which is a completely fine way to curve out that Gruul and Azorius would be happy to play if they were already splashing.

As you can see, most of the Rakdos removal suite is going to be gobbled up by other players, and so is the card advantage. That’s because it’s good. No wonder Angrath, the Flame-Chained spiked in price recently.

Unfortunately, should you find yourself with the Rakdos seat thrust upon you, and the packs begin breaking poorly, you might be in for a bad time. I’m a great believer in the ‘Drafting the Hard Way’ ethos that players like Ben Stark have championed (because it is the correct way to draft), but I’ve found that durdling through my first few picks and realising I’m meant to be Rakdos can be pretty awful. On the other hand, if you’re in Rakdos because you opened Theatre of Horrors pack 1 pick 1, you’re probably going to have a much better time.

The bottom line is this: if you get the ‘build-around’s’ and the highly picked cards, you’ll probably be okay.

Ill-Gotten Inheritance

So, splashing is pretty good. You’ve cheated the Rakdos player out of one of their premium spectacle enablers, and in doing so, hit upon a controversial card.

There are those that think you should be able to wheel this, that it’s not worth taking highly, and that playing an enchantment on turn 4 is not where you want to be (Wilderness Reclamation fits only in very few Adapt-heavy decks, for example). Those are all valid points, and generally speaking, I would agree.

I’m very much of the camp, however, that thinks this card is a mistake at common. Not because of the rarity, but because of the casting cost. If it had been printed at 2BB, rather than 3B, then Rakdos may have had more chance at picking up this key piece of their gameplan, and fewer decks would be able to jam it in for instant value. As it stands, however, a highly splashable card of this calibre is just too good.

It might not look like much, but the sustained life swing on this card adds up fast. Playing it down at 4 is mostly never optimal unless your opponent stutters out of the gates, but boy can this card do some work. It has single-handedly won and lost me more games than I can count. When you’re on the receiving end of this, it’s like seeing the countdown to the bomb – you have exactly this many turns, and if you don’t manage to solve it, you’re dead. Though it can be a fun challenge, this goes from fun to irksome quickly when the board is at parity, or you’ve tanked some damage and are in the more controlling role, wanting to come back from behind

On the other side of the coin (hehe), I can’t think of any games I’ve resolved this card and gone on to lose. The ability to instant speed swing life totals by 8 points in the late game is often what determines the outcome of the match – that’s if death by 1000 cuts wasn’t enough for you.

An example of a deck that will happily take multiple copies of Ill-Gotten Inheritance. I actually passed on the 3rd and 4th to take solid curve fillers, and I’m not convinced a 3rd copy would have been unwelcome.

Any black deck wants this card, and any deck capable of splashing wants this card. I currently think this card is being under-drafted, but I don’t suspect it will stay that way for long. Eventually, of course, it will be over-drafted, but until we see that day, what can you actually do?

Maindeck Enchantment removal?!

In my opinion, if there was ever a recent format where the answer to this question was close to a Yes, it would be this one. Between Ill-Gotten Inheritance, Rhythm of the Wild, Theatre of Horrors, Simic Ascendancy, and Ethereal Absolution, there are always going to be reasons to sideboard it in. If you factor in the arrest effects of Lawmage’s Binding, Sky Tether, and Slimebind, the occasional nutso High Alert, and the ability to turn your opponent off fixing their bad draws in Dovin’s Acuity and Eyes Everywhere, enchantment removal is close to being relevant in most games. Picking off a Sentinel’s Mark is just gravy. When the removal is stapled to flexibility in the case of Cindervines, Mortify, and Expose to Daylight, or a huge beater like Sunder Shaman, I’m sold, and I think If I was given Emergency Powers I’d nearly go as far as saying a Crushing Canopy effect in this set may have been warranted.

Summary Judgment

Ravnica Allegiance is shaping up to be a pretty sweet draft set. It feels fresh, with the shift in speed and mechanics helping distinguish it from Guilds of Ravnica. I’m still a little unsure on how impactful the enchantments should be, and if I’m truly honest, I’m not sure they’re able to be interacted with enough – but I’m hopeful the format will balance itself out. Right now, however, I’m gonna jump straight back into the draft queue. We’ve had an… interesting week when it comes to the future of Magic in general, but I’m not going to deny that Arena is doing exactly what it says on the tin, and I can’t deny I’m having a lot of fun. Hopefully you found this piece at least a little interesting, even if it confirmed the things you were already thinking. I’ll catch you in the queue.

 

We’d like to thank our guest writer Kristen for allowing us to publish her whirlwind-stop tour of Ravnica: Allegiance limited, we hope you enjoyed it as much as we did. If you like what you see, make sure to follow her @TheKristenEmily and follow us here on Master of Magics for more Magic: the Gathering content! Thanks for reading!

In response...