Monday, April 23, 2012

DKA/ISD/ISD Format Analysis: Two Brothers Better Left Separated

Hello everyone, and welcome back to Untap Target Player!

            This weekend marks my quarterly ritual: the prerelease.  It feels like just three months ago I was suiting up for Dark Ascension’s pre-release.  Now, it’s already time for another set, and it’s a big set á la Rise of the Eldrazi.  Cool!  I won’t go into the cards I’m digging in Avacyn Restored yet, though there are a few, but I would like to go over the experience I’ve had with the most fiscally successful draft format in my Magic career. 
            When Innistrad alone was the draft format, I found it fresh, exciting and dynamic.  Archetypes like self-mill Skaab, G/W beatdown, and the almighty Dredge Spawning deck arose, and they gave you targets to shoot at while drafting your forty-five card pile.  It was a better sealed experience for me than, say, bomb-heavy Scars of Mirrodin, where infect coursed through my pile and took all the fun out of my and my opponents’ games.  Innistrad seemed like it offered a good set to jump into, and the mechanics integrated very well to create a unique and exciting draft environment.
            Enter Dark Ascension.  Although Dark Ascension had some neat cards, I’m just going to throw this out there; I feel like DKA/ISD/ISD is one of the more droll draft formats I’ve played since I first drafted in 2006.  I’ve drafted it dozens of times now, and each time, I feel like my decks (even the ones that win) get worse and worse. 
            Back in Innistrad days, archetypes framed the mindset you had while creating your deck.  If you wanted to go G/W beatdown, you needed some Travel Preparations, Orchard Spirits, perhaps, a Gavony Township if you were lucky (or two, as I was fortunate enough for one draft).  These were the pieces that you used to construct your strategy; then, if you missed, you’d audible to make a deck with some win conditions.  The blue mill yourself needed Armored Skaabs and Deranged Assistant and such to fire on all cylinders, and the Spawning deck needed, well, Spider Spawning.  This doesn’t mean you’re railroaded onto a path if you want to build an archetype, and rarely would you construct that perfect Werewolf deck with 2 Daybreak Rangers, 3 Brimstone Volleys, and an Instigator Gang.  What it did encourage was synergetic deckbuilding while providing you legitimate, though off-the-beaten-path alternatives when you missed a key piece.  Everyone’s played a Pitchburn Devils in a Werewolf deck, a Doomed Traveler in a non-token deck, and a Vampire Interloper in a U/B control deck.
            On the other hand, Dark Ascension, for me, muddied this synergetic water.  Formerly fun and creative decks like Dredge Spawning became nearly impossible to draft, former archetypes became much worse (G/W), and other color options formerly open were completely unplayable (W/R, G/B).  Dark Ascension, though mechanical brethren with Innistrad, offered a poor experience when clashed together, in my opinion.  Just about every draft, I’d take one of the uncommon lords first and never see a tribal buddy.  I’ve had a lot of P1P1 Drogskol Captain into P1P2 Fires of Undeath; good cards from each come around and I bridge between them until I finally pull a breakaway card (say, Niblis of the Breath or Stromkirk Captain, respectively.)  This created an unpleasant and uneasy drafting experience throughout.  This may be a format where drafting ISD first would help a lot, as Dark Ascension seems to provide supplements better than bases for decks.  I just found that in about every draft I was much more excited to crack into the ISD packs.  I even played it in a professional context, and it just always felt sloppy.
            Also, DKA, although it has a couple chase cards/bombs, is a pretty low-power set, especially for Constructed.  Of the 155 cards in the set, perhaps 20 are Constructed appropriate.  That’s a lot of fluff in the middle, and fluff that will only collect dust in your shoebox.  Getting packs of DKA as a prize are usually pretty depressing, too.  In a draft the other day at my local shop, despite winning the draft and cracking five packs and including the original draft, I still came up short on my monetary investment of $15.  That leaves a filmy taste in my mouth.
            But!  BUT!  DKA did do some things right.  It gave value to new archetypes, though they were certainly harder to hit.  W/B became legit and was consistent despite a lot of double-white and double-black costed cards.  It provided opportunities to pursue unique strategies with less fear of getting killed on turn 4 by 4 3/3 Spirit tokens.  Like its parent format of triple ISD, it allowed players flexibility and exploration of new interactions.  Finally, I believe it represents a paradigm shift in draft that I think I like.  Your deck quality matters, but consistency and tight play will afford you better results than a bunch of bombs thrown higgledy-piggledy between a stack of lands and filler.  This isn’t new – I’ve seen some decks in recent formats that had no business going 3-0 but did anyway.  Luis Scott-Vargas, of Pro-Tour and Channel Fireball fame and my favorite pro player to follow, won an M12 8-4 draft that I watched with three main-decked Brink of Disasters.  That’s quality right there.
            I did have fun playing this format, but it was still with some reservation.  Every deck I built felt bad, and many were bad.  Still, there were some decks that stuck out to me as I fiddled in this format. 

            Here’s a list of the superlatives in my drafting experience of DKA/ISD/ISD:

            Favorite Deck to Draft: Green/Blue durdle.  I’m not sure why, but there was something about the tempo of it that was just addictive.  I played it only a couple times, each with mediocre success, but I certainly had more fun playing those than anything else.  I’m a player who enjoys tempo decks, but for some reason, I really dug on this one.  As a relevant sidenote, Tracker’s Insight is pretty bad if you can’t get stuff out of your graveyard.
Deck I wanted to Draft and never did: Every time I sat down, I hoped to get the W/U Spirit engine going.  It beat me in the SCG Cincinnati Draft Open Semifinals and I knew it was solid.  This deck, despite dozens of attempts, never materialized for me.  Blue, in my opinion, got the proverbial shaft in DKA.  Sure, there were a couple good guys like Geralf’s Mindcrusher (in the right deck) and Stormbound Geist and the Geistflammable Beguiler of Wills, but in general, there wasn’t a lot of quality.  Nephalia Hellkite might be the best consistent, multi-deck card in DKA, either that or Niblis of the Breath.  Either way, I had a lot of drafts where my first-picked Drogskol Captain sat in my sideboard, and many where he was resigned there after just five picks.
            Deck Everyone Drafted and I always lost to:  I sat across from a lot of R/G Werewolf decks.  Things like Wild Hunger and Immerwolf and Young Wolf all provided great additions to this auto-archetype.  My attempts at it were pretty bad, and I got trounced by more than one.  Nut flipping a Scorned villager into a Hollowhenge Beast might arguably the best play Green’s got in the format.
            Oh no, I’m drafting THIS again?:  The most consistent and, ironically, most ignored deck in the format was B/R durdle.  I’d say I went for this deck about half the time, and rarely by choice.  The red and black that was getting passed was just so good.  I have a stack of Fires of Undeath from all of my drafts, and I’m pretty sure that was the most undervalued card in all of DKA Limited.  It was easy to pick up the stuff for it, and every time I drafted it, I did at least marginally well, and many times I’d win the draft outright.  I notice it’s easier to pick this deck up in paper drafts than in MTGO.  Not sure what that means.
            As an attempt to finish on a more positive light regarding DKA, DKAx3 was a pretty fun format while it lasted on MTGO.  It was way different than ISDx3 OR DKA/ISD/ISD.  This says a lot about the set and suggests that it’s completely separate dynamically from ISD.  I, also, was terrible at DKAx3.  Never one a single match. 
            Was it my favorite draft format?  No (it was Coldsnap, if you were curious).  Was it the worst?  No (That’d probably be ALA/ALA/CFX, for me.)  I had a lot of success in it, though, and I’ll look back on it fondly for that reason.
            As we look ahead to Avacyn Restored, which was spoiled today, I see a lot of possible interactions and wacky plays, and I look forward to another homogenous-set draft.  See you back later this week for another Meat and Potatoes, Avacyn Restored Edition!
            Until next time, don’t forget to untap!
PS:  Since I wrote this article on April 17th, I’ve played two more DKA/ISD/ISD drafts on MTGO to blow the last of my remaining packs and tickets. The first, where I drafted a U/W Spirit deck (finally) was hilariously underwhelming against a deck of B/R durdle.  He made quick work of me in the first round in a 1-2 match.  Second, I knuckled down into the B/R durdle deck and managed to snag a pretty consistent deck with good removal and consistency and even a Bloodline Keeper.  In the first round, I went against some failed Delver deck and easily 2-0’ed, but in the second round I played an amazingly synergetic U/W Spirit deck.  Although I was able to dispatch most of his creatures, his win condition, a Drogskol Reaver, was untouchable.  In the matches he resolved it, I had no answer for it, even a cleverly timed Traitorous Blood only delayed the inevitable.  A poor way to finish this format, but I thought it relevant to let you know.

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