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Shards of Alara Review Part 1 September 24, 2008

Posted by James in : all, reviews, previews, strategy, tips, limited, draft, sealed , trackback

In the first installment of my Shards of Alara review, I will discuss strategy for limited tournaments (sealed and booster draft).

shards of alara logo


Many people want proof that the writer is an expert, so that they can rely on the writer’s knowledge. I have played Magic for 14 years, and I have played in booster drafts about 7 times a week for the last year. I played in at least 3 booster drafts each week for one or two years before that.

I only occasionally play in Standard events. I have won a couple standard events this year despite playing in them very rarely.

I have not yet played Shards of Alara. As of this article, Shards of Alara has not been released. This article is therefore speculative and should be challenged.

More important that relying on an author’s expertise is understanding why the author is right. It doesn’t matter who a writer is as long as the arguments are sound. I will attempt to justify some of my opinions for this reason.

Shards of Alara Prereleases

A few things I would like to mention about prereleases:

  1. The prereleases are no longer done in big events. Now they are only a week before the set comes out at smaller stores.
  2. Prereleases use the release event cards. If you go to the “launch parties” you will get the same card again.
  3. Prereleases don’t allow drafts.

The thing that bothers me most is that prereleases don’t allow drafts. This is an unnecessary rule to follow and it is basically having big brother tell us what to do. Wizards is basically saying, “Sorry you aren’t allowed to have too much fun. That way the release event will be extra special!”

Shards of Alara Overall in Limited

(Keep in mind that I am only discussing limited in this article.)

The set overall has a much weaker power level than we are used to. Elves, rogues, and merfolk were very powerful in Lorwyn and Morningtide. There were tons of bombs in Shadowmoor and Eventide, and many of them were common, such as Shield of the Oversoul. This set’s creatures and creature removal spells are weaker than usual. I don’t care much for any of the cards that aren’t creatures or creature removal spells because there is almost nothing notable in that category.

OK, so the power level of this set is lower than usual and there are fewer bombs than we may be used to. Is this a good or bad thing? We will have to find out. I personally don’t like bombs. A bomb is a card that says, “Deal with this or you lose!” What is fun about that? However, it is also fun to have a fairly high power level, like we could use in an merfolk or rogue deck while playing Lorwyn.

Mana Fixing

I already gave a critique of Shards of Alara’s mana fixing after seeing a partial spoiler. I still agree with my critique. Shards of Alara has a 3-color theme. That’s right, a lot of cards require the right three colors to play. Common sense will dictate that 3 colors is a drawback. Many people defend Shards of Alara’s three color theme by either saying (a) there will be plenty of mana fixing in the set or (b) There is plenty of mana fixing already in the game. It is true that there are about fifteen main sources of mana fixing: five triple lands, five fetch lands, and five artifacts. The artifacts and fetch lands are pretty horrible, but the triple lands are OK. Although there is plenty of mana fixing, most of it isn’t very good. I wouldn’t want more than one fetch land or mana fixing artifact in my deck. The triple lands are much better than the other forms of mana fixing, but I really hate the “comes into play tapped” drawback. I lose games because I need the mana right away all the time.

The fact that there is already plenty of mana fixing in the game (vivid lands, etc.) is irrelevant to limited. We are stuck with what we have.

What color(s) should be played?

My impression is that the best way to make a deck is to (a) pick two main colors and splash a color or (b) pick a main color and splash two colors. Although sometimes you might be able to make a true 3 color deck (or even 5 color deck), this will be an exception to the rule. There aren’t enough good 3 color cards to take this risk. (What kind of risk? Of not drawing the lands you need.)

I will analyze the benefits of each color rather than the benefits of a two or three color combination. Why? For two reasons. One, there aren’t enough multicolor cards of any one combination to be worth worrying about. There are only two red-black cards, for example. Two, none of the color combinations stands out as being great. (The colors you will end up playing are pretty random, but you get to choose your main color.)
While deciding what color is best, we should concentrate on what color has the best creatures and creature removal as commons and uncommons.

This is a list of each color and their strengths & weaknesses:

Just from looking at this list it looks like Blue is terrible, Green isn’t that great, but the other three colors are decent. Overall, I would say that White is the best color and it is possible to play a mono white deck. Despite Green being a weaker color I can imagine using green as a main color for mana fixing because it has the best mana fixing common in the set. (See below.)

Card Rank

While drafting or playing sealed it is essential to look out for the best cards to decide what colors to play. I will give three categories of best cards: bombs, first picks, and second picks. I will ignore non-bomb rares because they will not be a factor in enough games to worry about. The common and uncommon first picks will be a much better reason to play those colors.


Every bomb is a rare except for Infest, which gives all creatures -2/-2 for three mana. Scourglass and Battlegrace Angel are both white. The rest of the cards are multicolored.

first picks

All of these are common except Naya Charm and Wooly Thoctar. Blood Cultist and Branching Bolt are generally the best reasons to play a two color combination.

second picks

In general, the only cards I want to consider to be second picks are creature removal cards and some of the best creatures. Runner up: Sigiled Paladin, Courier’s Capsule.

Ideal Decks to Shoot For

  1. Mono white: I have already mentioned a lot of the great creatures and creature removal cards found in white. This can be a great deck if you can get it to work.
  2. Naya (green-red-white): Use Branching Bolt, Wooly Thoctar, Naya Charm, Magma Spray, Resounding Thunder, Druid of Anima, Wild Nacatl, and Oblivion Ring. The deck will probably be best with green as the main color, red as a secondary color, and a white splash.
  3. Red-Black: Use Infest, Blood Cultist, Blightning, Executioner’s Capsule, Bone Splinters, Magma Spray, and Resounding Thunder. Green-red-black can also be good. I don’t see many blue cards worth putting in the deck to make it into a Grixis deck (black-red-blue).

Updates (9-29-08)

I went to four pre-release sealed events and I have some more information regarding Shards of Alara sealed tournaments:

  1. I forgot to mention the new and improved Shivan Dragon, “Flameblast Dragon,” which is another bomb. There are a lot of other potential bombs, but most of them are enough colors to be considered merely first picks. Why? Multiple colors force you to waste time playing obelisks and you might not get the mana fixing you need. Not to mention it increases the odds of (a) not getting the right color and occasionally (b) mana flood.
  2. The overall strategy of sealed deck is to (a) play fewer colors and have a consistent deck or (b) play 3 to 5 colors with tons of mana fixing. It is incredibly difficult to play a 2 color deck. It is very difficult to play a 2 color deck with a splash. It isn’t too difficult to play a 3 color deck with two main colors and a minor color. Usually the main idea of the decks is to play giant creatures with lots of mana acceleration.
  3. The odds of getting mana screwed in Shards of Alara is astronomical. That is, of course, considering the fact that you will probably be playing a 3 color deck with mana fixing. Getting mana flooded is probably the most common problem because the decks tend to have at least 19 mana sources (17 land and 2 obelisks). The next most common problem is not drawing all three colors of mana. I would appriximate that you have about a 50% chance of getting mana screwed. In the last tournament I played in my first opponent got too many lands two of the games. My second opponent got not enough mana two of the games. I got the wrong color of lands and not enough mana against my third opponent. Finally, I got the wrong color(s) and not enough lands two games in a row against my fourth opponent. One player tends to be mana screwed each game, but sometimes you get lucky. Not to mention that I played several games where both players end up mana screwed.
  4. Due to the mana issues I would have to say this is the worst set ever created for the sealed environment. I really disliked playing sealed deck with revised and fourth edition because every card is overpowered or underpowered, but at least you can make a deck with some consistency. Wizards of the Coast has done such a great job at making sure that Sealed deck and draft are very playable for the last several years, and I am disappointed that this is no longer the case. Perhaps this set is made for draft, but I haven’t tested that out yet.

Related articles:


1. Recoculous.com: Magic the Gathering Articles » Shards of Alara Review Part 2 - September 26, 2008

[…] Shards of Alara Review Part 1 (Limited) […]

2. Adam - September 26, 2008

Blue is always good in limited.


Cloudhearth Drake
Coma Veil
Esper Battlemage
Etherium Sculptor
Kathari Screecher
Memory Erosion
Outrider of Jhess
Resounding Wave
Steelclad Serpent

Multicolored Blue:

Agony Warp
Bant Charm
Deft Duelist
Esper Charm
Fire-Field Ogre
Grixis Charm
Jhessian Infiltrator
Kederekt Creeper
Rhox War Monk
Tidehollow Strix
Tower Gargoyle
Waveskimmer Aven
Windwright Mage

3. Adam - September 26, 2008

^^ It looks to me like drafting WGU, UBR and UBW are both much stronger than you give it credit for.

4. Adam - September 26, 2008

Oh and it also has the best bombs - the 4/4 Flier, Stoic Angel, Rafiq, Tezzeret, Pariah Angel - just to name a few.

5. James - September 26, 2008

Adam, you mention playables but I didn’t talk about playables in the article. I only talk about the best cards, which tend to be creature removal. I will only mention a creature if it is really really good. Cloudhearth Drake for example, is a 3/3 for five mana. Yes, it is playable, but it isn’t going to compete with the best cards. I agree that Esper charm is awesome and I mentioned it. I didn’t mention any rare blue unless it was a bomb. I don’t agree that those rare blue cards you mentioned are bombs, but they might be first picks. It might be that blue is better than I gave credit for, but I still think the other colors are better. Green-Red can kill Cloudhearth Drake and another creature for a 3 mana common.

6. James - September 27, 2008

I went to a midnight pre-release today and I realized that synergy is an important element that should be mentioned in an in-depth analysis of Shards limited tournament strategy. Sacrificing creatures for devour and artifact synergy both seem pretty important in some decks. I might post follow up articles dealing with the various limited decks you might want to shoot for, and then I can give the various decks the attention they deserve.

7. Recoculous.com: Magic the Gathering Articles » First impressions: Shards of Alara - September 29, 2008

[…] Shards of Alara Review Part 1 […]

8. Recoculous.com: Magic the Gathering Articles » Drafting Shards of Alara - October 14, 2008

[…] Expect to get mana screwed more than you ever have drafting any other set. I have already criticized the mana fixing of this set here. But this is a much bigger problem than mana fixing. Why? […]

9. Recoculous.com: Magic the Gathering Articles » Drafting Shards of Alara Part 2: Green-White - December 2, 2008

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10. Recoculous.com: Magic the Gathering Articles » Drafting Shards of Alara Part 3: Red-Black - December 2, 2008

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11. Recoculous.com: Magic the Gathering Articles » Drafting Shards of Alara Part 4: Esper - December 2, 2008

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12. Recoculous.com: Magic the Gathering Articles » Drafting Shards of Alara Part 5: Naya - December 12, 2008

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