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Drafting Shards of Alara October 14, 2008

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

I have now drafted Shards of Alara at least fourteen times and it is much more fun than Shards of Alara sealed deck, but you should still expect to get mana screwed much more than usual. I will first discuss how this set solves our problems with mana. Then I will discuss strategy for Shards of Alara draft.

Mana Screw

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?

  1. The mana curve is high. I would never usually want to draft something with a converted mana cost of 6 or 7, but this set has tons of creatures with a high mana cost. (In fact, I consider 4 or 5 to be a high mana cost.) Such a high mana curve makes it easy for us to say, “I didn’t draw enough lands!” Even 6 lands might be “not enough lands,” which is preposterous. This has never happened before, and now that it has, you can expect to draw too few lands quite often.
  2. Since the mana curve is high, you might want to play with Obelisks or additional lands. (I sometimes will play 18 lands in my deck.) Now that we have almost assured ourselves that we won’t draw too few lands, the opposite is even more likely: We will draw way too many lands. I’ve never seen this much mana flooding in my life. And there is no way to deal with mana flooding in this set. If a ton of cards had retrace in this set, that would have just about fixed the problem and we would just play 20 lands in our decks.
  3. This set expects you to play 3 colors. Despite the fact that we have been assured that there is “tons of mana fixing” in this set, three colors is just one more reason to get mana screwed. All too often you will draw two different land types and have to wait forever to draw the correct land color. Let’s say that you are playing 5 of each land type and 3 mana fixing lands, such as triple lands. That is like playing 8 of each land, so you should be perfectly fine, right? Wrong. If we made a 3 color deck in constructed we would want at least 12 special lands (duals/triple lands/city of brass). That is about half our lands. Sorry, but 3 mana fixing lands isn’t half in a draft. You will want at least 16 lands. That means I will not feel safe until I get a draft deck with 8 mana fixing lands in it.
  4. Since there are so many giant monsters and quick cards (Wooly Thoctar, Wild Nicotyl), if you get mana screwed just for a turn or two, that will be enough for the opponent to play threats and beat your face in before you have a chance to do anything about it. Although I have played several games where both players get mana problems, just as often it is a reason to get your face smashed in immediately. This is an important factor because mana screw in many other sets, such as Tenth Edition and Lorwyn, wasn’t an immediate loss. You often had a few turns to recover before getting killed.

I find the mana issues of Shards of Alara to be a product of poor design. Shadowmoor block was the best designed set as far as avoiding mana screw, and now we get the worst designed set as far as avoiding mana screw. (Eventide in particular was a great set that helped players avoid mana screw. Not only does hybrid-mana help, but almost all the best cards had a low mana cost, so three lands might be enough to win!)

After players have been complaining about mana screw it appears that Wizards of the Coast decided to mock them by making a set deliberately created to produce mana screw. This set tells players, “If you though mana screw was bad before, now you will really get it bad! That’s what you get for complaining ya idiots!”

Sure, it’s just part of the game, but that is no reason to give up entirely on helping us avoid it.

How bad is the mana screw? I have played several tournaments in a row where I got mana screwed almost every game, and almost everyone else I play with has had the same problem in at least a couple drafts. I would say that in every 8 person draft, there is a very high chance that at least one person will get mana screwed almost every game.

Mana screw makes it difficult to figure out the best ways to draft. I don’t know if I am doing things right when I think I make a great deck that loses to mana screw. I also don’t know if I am doing things right when I think I make a not-so-good deck that beats everyone because the other people got mana screwed. Are my hunches correct, or was luck involved? I am going to assume that my hunches are correct, and blame skewed tournament results on luck factors.

Overall Strategy

I have discussed draft strategy here before the set even came out. For the most part I agree with my original ideas. In particular, try to stick with two colors and splash for a third color if necessary. I prefer to draft green-white, and my second choice is black-red. I have been undefeated in two drafts playing green-white and in one tournament playing black-red with a green splash.

It can be very difficult to only play two colors depending on the other people playing. Other people might end up in your colors and leave you with no choice but to take several cards in your third color. I have never beat everyone in a draft when this happens. (I have also ended up drafting tons of mana fixing lands and obelisks and played five colors, but I was not undefeated using this strategy.)

I will now re-analyze what I believe to be the best cards in the set. I will ignore rares unless they are “bombs.” I added Flameblast Dragon to the list because it shoots things, an improvement over Shivan Dragon, and I added Caldera Hellion


Bombs and first picks can both be considered to be common reasons to end up in certain colors. In general, you don’t want to commit yourself to more than one color right away. You want to see what you are being passed first. Otherwise there is a high chance that you won’t end up playing the card. (It is best if you can splash the card.)

The “best cards” for draft tend to be game-winning creatures and creature removal.

I have removed two cards from the “bomb” list:

These cards are both cards that I would consider taking right away, but I wouldn’t take them over a “bomb.”

first picks

Removed from the “first picks” list:

Although I would take these cards if nothing else was better, they are generally not good enough to commit yourself to playing the colors. Especially since they are both multicolored cards, and you should try to commit yourself to only a few colors early in a draft. If you already know you are playing the colors because you open them in the second or third pack, then you might want to take them.

Second Picks

These are great cards that should be taken if you know you are in the colors or if nothing is better in the pack. I added Resounding Silence to this list. I’m not sure how I missed it before.

These cards have been removed from the second pick list:

Choosing Colors

If you get good green or white cards from this list early in the draft, I would try to play green/white. If you see good red or black cards, I would try to play red/black. Notice that almost no blue cards are on this list. The only way that I would usually end up in blue is if I took some good black cards and I was passed some good blue-black cards.

Why are green/white and red/black my favorite colors:

  1. All of the multicolor cards of these colors are good. Green/white has Steward of Valeron, Qasali Ambusher, and Sigil Blessing. Black/red has Blood Cultist, Blightning, and Goblin Deathraiders.
  2. Red and white are the best colors overall.
  3. A red-white deck, or mono color deck is not much of an option in draft. There are too many two color cards in the common slot that will lean you into a two color deck.

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1. will - October 18, 2008

wat about agony warp

2. James - October 19, 2008

Agony warp is a good card if you want to play black-blue, but I’m not sure if it is good enough to mention on this list. It’s generally not good to commit to two colors early in a draft.

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