Friday, April 26, 2013

A Design Review of Dragon's Maze

Dragon's Maze has officially been spoiled, promising a new environment of multicolor madness, an environment where cards that have grown old and familiar can shine in a completely different light. Here's my thoughts on the card designs as well as the Limited environment they have created.

1. Controlling the Speed of the Environment

Return to Ravnica was a fast set. Gatecrash was an extremely fast set. After two fast sets, Dragon's Maze tackles the tough job of slowing down the environment so that people have time to fix their mana and enjoy multicolor play.

The Gatekeeper Cycle

Sunspire Gatekeepers {3}{W}
Creature - Human Soldier
When Sunspire Gatekeepers enter the battlefield, if you control two or more Gates, put a 2/2 Knight creature token with vigilance onto the battlefield.

Opal Lake Gatekeepers {3}{U}
Creature - Vedalken Soldier
When Opal Lake Gatekeepers enters the battlefield, if you control two or more Gates, you may draw a card.

Ubul Sar Gatekeepers {3}{B}
Creature - Zombie Soldier
When Ubul Sar Gatekeepers enters the battlefield, if you control two or more Gates, target creature an opponent controls gets -2/-2 until end of turn.

Smelt-Ward Gatekeepers {3}{R}
Creature - Human Warrior
When Smelt-Ward Gatekeepers enters the battlefield, if you control two or more Gates, gain control of target creature an opponent controls until end of turn. Untap that creature. That creature gains haste until end of turn.

Saruli Gatekeepers {3}{G}
Creature - Elf Warrior
When Saruli Gatekeepers enters the battlefield, if you control two or more Gates, gain 7 life.
Most of these Gatekeepers look like they would do an amazing job of letting a slow, greedy multicolor deck stabilize in the face of an early aggro assault. The White, Black, and Blue ones are very powerful, with the Green one trailing close behind; for the specific task of stemming aggro, the White, Black, and Green ones are very good. The Red one is the odd ball out and probably has different purposes — it could go in an aggro deck, or you could form some kind of neat combo with it — but it still contributes to the overall number of high toughness creatures in the set.

In Return to Ravnica, similar-sized blockade creatures such as Towering Indrik and Trestle Troll existed, but they only offered temporary reprieve and were often broken through with effects such as combat tricks, detain, Rogue's PassageTraitorous Instinct, or Teleportal.

In that set, you couldn't just rely on blockades; it was very important to start casting spells early and steadily. It must be because of the way the format worked — most players running all-range decks, clunky removal spells, cheap combat tricks, and an abundance of incidental mana outlets for the beatdown side to take advantage of in the late game — once you were on the backpedal, it was difficult to reverse the tide, even if the actual conclusion of the game came many turns later. The overall momentum often didn't change, even if there was a temporary board stall along the way.

The few cards that could reverse the momentum of the game at low rarity were VoidwielderKnightly Valor, or maybe an Axebane Guardian - Horncaller's Chant combo. Basically, these are cards that let you put a good blocker on the board and have an additional effect. And these are the cards that the Gatekeepers in Dragon's Maze remind me the most of. The Gatekeepers are going to have a lot of stabilizing power.

Another factor to gauge the speed of the environment is the quality of the two-drops and how they stand against the defensive creatures in the format. Will early creatures get outclassed after a few turns, or will they be relevant for a large portion of the game?

For example, Gatecrash was super-fast because of the high quality of two-drops such as Basilica ScreecherDaring Skyjek, or Shambleshark, coupled with the lack of good defense. The two-drops didn't get outclassed in the late game; rather they formed back-breaking synergies with other low-drops of the same Guild. If you missed making your two-drop against some of the focused aggro decks, things weren't looking good.

Here are my card-by-card comments on the two-drops.
Boros Mastiff  {1}{W}
Creature - Hound
Battalion —  Whenever Boros Mastiff and at least two other creatures attack, Boros Mastiff gains lifelink until end of turn.
This is quite a weird design. A Boros deck wants to gain life? I think it points to two trends in Dragon's Maze.

First, the speed of the fast guilds is being diluted; this card doesn't attack as well as the Battalion creatures in Gatecrash. If there is a Battalion-based deck, it's not going to kill so much with raw speed; it's going to get help from other Guilds to set up a big attack, using mechanics such as Bloodrush, Detain, and Populate, or Izzet cards such as Pursuit of Flight, Teleportal, and Chemister's Trick

Which leads to the second, more important point — the Guild cards are designed in such a way that they need another Guild to make it good. Perhaps this Mastiff's design was chosen because it represents a combo with Bloodrush.
Murmuring Phantasm {1}{U}
Creature - Spirit
It looks like the Dragon's Maze packs are going to be full of defense to make up for the lack of defensive low-drops in Gatecrash packs.
Bane Alley Blackguard {1}{B}
Creature - Human Rogue
Yup, the speed is being toned down. This is the only mono-color 2-drop Common that Black gets in the Dragon's Maze pack. Some of the aggro strategies that existed before will be diluted.
Riot Piker {1}{R}
Creature - Goblin Berserker
First strike
Riot Piker attacks each turn if able.
While some aggro cards like Boros Mastiff have been nerfed in terms of power level, other aggro cards like Riot Piker have been nerfed in a different way — by being more conditional and risky. This card shows that aggro is not dead; it just requires a specialized build. 

While as a player I'd be wary to run this card in an ordinary deck, I do love the design of this card. Recently, too many aggro cards have been too good on their own. If you happen to collect a high concentration of those "good" cards, you end up with a deck that just so happens to have the extra advantage of being very fast as well. I feel that's wrong; speed should come as a trade-off. The aggro-est cards in most formats should be cards like Riot Piker: cards that are fast but risky to play, and require a dedicated build. 

The design of Riot Piker fits right into the philosophy of Boros, Rakdos, and Gruul.
Kraul Warrior {1}{G}
Creature - Insect Warrior
{5}{G}: Kraul Warrior gets +3/+3 until end of turn.
This looks like a very good two-drop that fits the style of cards you want for your low-drop slots in full RtR block draft; it's decent in the early game, but is useful in the late game as well. As a design, it nicely reflects the staying power that Green-based aggro cards have in contrast with Red ones.
Deputy of Acquittals {W}{U}
Creature - Human Wizard
When Deputy of Acquittals enters the battlefield, you may return another target creature you control to its owner's hand.
There seems to be a number of transguild synergies that are being featured in this set. One of them is bouncing your own creature and recasting them, which combos with many cards in the environment, including Evolve creatures, ETB Detain creatures, ETB mill creatures such as Sage's Row Denizen, and Extort creatures. They also combo with the Gatekeepers.
Tithe Drinker {W}{B}
Creature - Vampire
Most of the other simple common cards with Guild keywords seem to be nerfed compared to their counterparts in RtR or Gatecrash for some reason. At least, they don't lend themselves to mono-keyword decks like mono-Populate or mono-Battalion decks. But this particular card doesn't look nerfed at all. It would be right at home alongside Orzhov cards in Gatecrash. Designwise, I wish it was weaker! It's not fair otherwise!

In terms of game play, this looks like a great low-drop that's useful throughout the game. The Extort damage must really add up in the longer games in full-block draft.
Zhur-Taa Druid {R}{G}
Creature - Human Druid
T: Add {G} to your mana pool.
Whenever you tap Zhur-Taa Druid for mana, it deals 1 damage to each opponent.
This is an awesome design that can help aggro decks as well as mana-ramping fatty decks. 

As an aggro card design, the slow reach that this card provides is a style that I really like for interactive games. It rewards you for having dealt a lot of damage in the early game. It gives you a way to finish what you started, but it also gives time for the control player to strike back with big creatures. That type of game is better in my opinion than games in M12 or Zendikar, where aggro strategies either win by not giving the slower opponent any breathing room from beginning to end, or lose by running out of things to do in the late game.

Aggressive-Defensive Creatures
One interesting quirk of this set is that many of the creatures that can serve as an offensive force also work as defense if you need to buy time to draw your mana colors. It looks like these cards are allowing the set to pack even more defensive elements without turning the set into a mono-Wall set.

Also, the fact that these cards have offensive implications means players will main-deck more of them. There's a limit to how many purely defensive cards you can run in a deck without stifling your offensive capabilities, but these cards have proactive things to do so they don't suffer that problem.

Here are the ones at Common:
Haazda Snare Squad {2}{W}
Creature - Human Soldier
Whenever Haazda Snare Squad attacks you may pay {W}. If you do, tap target creature an opponent controls.
This looks like an excellent Boros Battalion enabler, counting as an attacking body itself while allowing other creatures to attack.
Steeple Roc {4}{W}
Creature - Bird
Flying, first strike
Nice for offense or holding off multiple attackers.
Maze Glider {5}{U}
Creature - Elemental
Multicolored creatures you control have flying.
Once again, it can provide a path to victory or it could hold off multiple attackers. I hope to talk about other aspects of this cycle later.
Hired Torturer {2}{B}
Creature - Human Rogue
{3}{B}, T: Target opponent loses 2 life and reveals a card at random from his or her hand.
This would be fun to combo with the Defender theme from Return to Ravnica, especially Lobber Crew.

As a design, I like the way this card provides a way to eventually end the game if the board gets seriously bogged-down, similar to Zhur-Taa Druid. The flavor elements are intertwined beautifully, but I don't think the function of the effects are intertwined the way a card like Black Cat is.
Maze Abomination {5}{B}
Creature - Elemental
Multicolored creatures you control have deathtouch.
 Once again, it can create stalls or break them.
Thrashing Mossdog {3}{G}
Creature - Plant Hound
Scavenge {4}{G}{G}
An excellent card at multiple stages of the game. It's also better than Korozda Monitor on so many levels.
Armored Wolf-Rider {3}{G}{W}
Creature - Elf Knight
This card's design is another example of an aggressive-defensive card. It can be played in multiples because it has good offensive capabilities, but when you're behind, or when two such creatures face off each other, they can induce board stalls as blockers. They allow games to go on longer so that multicolor shenanigans have time to happen.
Nivix Cyclops {1}{U}{R}
Creature - Cyclops
Whenever you cast an instant or sorcery spell, Nivix Cyclops gets +3/+0 until end of turn and can attack this turn as though it didn't have defender.
In Return to Ravnica, Izzet didn't have a clear identity to draft around; there were many small synergies that you could choose as the focus of your deck. One of those synergy themes, Instants and Sorceries, seems to have been upgraded into a transguild synergy. Now you can draft multicolor decks, collecting Instants and Sorceries from many colors. While it's hard to draft a mono-removal deck because everyone wants removal, removal isn't the only type of Instant or Sorcery; you can collect Selesnya token-making spells, Golgari graveyard recovery spells, Dimir card drawing spells, etc.

Nivix Cyclops is also another fun card for the Defender theme in RtR.

It's significant that many of the highly playable creatures in Dragon's Maze (Such as Steeple Roc or Maze Abomination) have stats that can hold off multiple small attackers at once. For example, a single 2/4 can make it unprofitable for several 3/2s and 2/2s to attack. The attacking player would need two creatures with toughness 3 or larger in order to attack into the 2/4 profitably. These cards are great for stabilizing and waiting for your mana draws. You're less averse to a bad starting hand; you're not required to draw the same number of creatures as your opponent in order to buy time.

This is a contrast from Gatecrash, where most of the commonly played defensive-purpose creatures had stats such as 1/1 with regenerate or 1/4. These could shrug off one 2/2 attacker, but couldn't stall the board against multiple 2/2s. In that set, you needed to draw a lot of early-castable creatures if you wanted to defend yourself, not just one defensive guy.

Overall, we're looking at a much slower environment. However, there still seems to be room for a skillful drafter to find an opening and carve out an aggro path.

Also, while the game initially gives you time to set up your mana, there are enough cards starting around turn 4 that allow you to break up board stalls or enable an attack every turn. So it doesn't mean we can sit behind some walls forever and play only slow, grindy effects throughout the game.

2. Multiple Paths to Multicolor

One danger with multicolor sets is that once players are freed from the restriction of color commitment, all decks will start to look like hodge-podge Good Stuff decks that go for the same bomb and removal cards. But Dragon's Maze seems to avoid this problem through great craftsmanship. Even the greedier 5-color decks will have multiple directions to pursue, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Now, I'm not necessarily saying you should always pursue 5-color in this environment; I'm just saying it's great that when you do go into 5-color, there are multiple types of 5-color decks you can build.

Gates Matter
While the Gatekeepers look very powerful as Commons, it's not every game that you get to cast them with bonus on turn 4. In fact, if you want their bonus ETB ability reliably on turn 4, you probably want as many Gates as you usually have lands of a particular color in a two-color deck — for example, 8-9 Gates. Even though every Dragon's Maze pack contains a Gate, that doesn't seem very likely unless you decide to seriously prioritize Gates in the first pack. In the second and third pack, only around one out of every two packs will contain a Gate. (Gatecreeper Vine and Grisly Salvage can help to a degree.)

You shouldn't necessarily value Gates that high. The Gatekeepers are fine even if you don't cast them with their ability. However, if you so happen to go for the full gate route, you do get to make use of Gatekeepers from every color. Also, don't forget that cards that reward having a high number of Gates exist in Gatecrash too: Gateway Shade, Hold the Gates, and Crackling Perimeter. While the latter two were mostly bad cards in Gatecrash draft, I wouldn't underestimate them in full block draft if you get a high number of Gates. Pinging for 4 or more damage every turn with Crackling Perimeter is like having an unblockable hexproof creature that can't block. As for Hold the Gates, I will be looking forward to testing and piloting a wacky Limited combo, using it with a certain Izzet card.

Bombs Matter
On the other hand, if you just want to pick up bombs from every pack, the Cluestones are great for splashing them, since they also accelerate into your Bombs. You may need to consolidate your deck's low-drops into a solid 2.5-color base, but depending on how much fixing you've been prioritizing, you can get a build that can splash mostly anything in the high end.

Speaking of bombs, the Primordials in Gatecrash might be good targets to ramp into, especially if they're in one of your main 2.5 or 3 colors.

Gold Matters
The common cycle of cards that enhance gold creatures can lead you to try to collect as many of them as possible over the draft.

Maze Glider and Maze Abomination seem to have the best potential of enabling attacks for the win.
Maze Sentinel {5}{W}
Creature - Elemental
Multicolored creatures you control have vigilance.
I'm not sure what this guy is good for... I'd like to put some +1/+1 counters or an Unflinching Courage on this guy rather than use it to build a focused multicolor vigilance deck.
Maze Rusher {5}{R}
Creature - Elemental
Multicolored creatures you control have haste.
Another underwhelming guy, but maybe it's better than it looks; you could ramp into it with a Cluestone or Keyrune for a surprise hit, then cast a hasted Ruination Wurm next turn? Haste also enables Battalion very well.
Maze Behemoth {5}{G}
Creature - Elemental
Multicolored creatures you control have trample.
This one seems the least exciting keyword; I wish it had better stats for itself to compensate. I assume that in most drafts you will see better cards to pick for your 6-drop slot, especially since you're not so restricted by color. It could be decent in a Gruul deck, though, since trample works well with Bloodrush.

Unlike the Gatekeepers, the Maze cycle creatures don't seem to be the kind of cards that you benefit from collecting more and more copies of, especially since they themselves are not gold and don't turn each other on.

While many of them look unexciting at the moment, just having 2 or possibly 3 copies of the Blue and/or Black one could be enough incentive to try to collect Gold creatures over the draft.

The Return to Ravnica pack has Civic Saber and Lobber Crew to shore up this "Gold matters" archetype. The Keyrunes from RtR and Gatecrash will also be a nice addition since they will help ramp into the Maze creatures as well as count as Gold creatures themselves. Maybe Pyroconvergence, a weak card so far in RtR draft, can finally find its home as well.

Transguild Synergy Matters
As I've mentioned, there seem to be many synergies that span across multiple guilds. For example, sometimes you might build around cards that care about having +1/+1 counters on your creatures, and the cards that grant +1/+1 counters are scattered across all colors.

Most of the time, you should build around these synergies in 3-color decks. 3 colors seem to be the intended default.

But I also think that the transguild themes lend a cool effect on the greedy 4 or 5 color decks as well. It means that each 5-color deck can pursue a different theme. Rather than have every 5-color deck blend into one indistinguishable archetype, one deck is trying to maximize the amount of synergy around +1/+1 counters, while another deck is trying to maximize the synergy around bouncing and enter-the-battlefield triggers, etc, etc.

Which leads to...

3. Transguild Synergies

What Happened to the Guild Decks?
It seems that linear, single-minded decks that only care about one keyword like Battalion have been made weaker for full-block draft. You can see it in some of the designs that frankly look like toned-down, half-assed cards upon first glance when compared to their counterparts in RtR or Gatecrash. Many of these cards are weaker in a vacuum, but are interesting because they do their best when combined with the themes of neighboring Guilds.

Each Guild gets one card with its keyword at Common; let's take a look at them.
Lyev Decree {1}{W}
Detain up to two target creatures your opponent controls.
As a player, I really don't like running these one-shot effects...
But it's cool that it helps Battalion decks as well as Izzet cards that trigger on Instants and Sorceries such as Nivix Cyclops. It's probably better in those decks than in a straight-up Azorious deck.
Hidden Strings {1}{U}
You may tap or untap target permanent, then you may tap or untap another target permanent.
This is the weirdest card. You want to tap a blocker before combat, so tapping it after combat damage with Cipher doesn't help much. The same goes for untapping your land for mana ramp. The Cipher happens right before the end of combat so it doesn't help ramp into a big post-combat permanent spell, since your mana pool empties at end of combat.

It may help Izzet by helping ramp into a big Overload spell, as long as it's an Instant. It helps Instant and Flash-heavy decks in general. It's weird though — when it's copied with Cipher, it doesn't work with many of the Izzet cards that care about instants and sorceries such as Nivix Cyclops. At least it gets to trigger the Cyclops before combat the first time it's cast.

It does help Orzhov because it triggers Extort while untapping lands to help to pay for it. But I'm not sure that's worth a card slot.

Another thing it could do is help with Land Auras such as Tin Street Market (I think Tin Street Market would actually be somewhere between good to powerful in this format, although not enough to make you want to play Hidden Strings). It could also untap creatures such as Zhur-taa DruidLobber Crew, Bane Alley BrokerDoorkeeper, or Izzet Staticaster.
Pilfered Plans {1}{U}{B}
Target player puts the top two cards of his or her library into his or her graveyard. Draw two cards.
Dimir's other secret keyword is mill. This card can target yourself, to assist in Golgari's Rot Farming plan. It also helps Izzet gain a critical mass of Instants and Sorceries, as well as triggering "multicolor matters" cards like Pyroconvergence and Lobber Crew.
Weapon Surge {R}
Target creature you control gets +1/+0 and gains first strike until end of turn.
Overload {1}{R}
This card works very well with Battalion, as well as Rakdos' and Gruul's attack styles. It's also good with a swarm of Bird or Centaur tokens in Selesnya. Once again, it's interesting that this card works better in conjunction with other Guilds, rather than in a straight-up Izzet deck that runs more spells and less creatures.
Rakdos Drake {2}{B}
Creature - Drake
This is mostly just a decent flyer that can't block. But compared to the previous ground-based Unleash guys, it serves as a better target for Cipher, Scavenge, or a finisher Bloodrush. 
Rubblebelt Maaka {3}{R}
Creature - Cat
Bloodrush — {R}, Discard Rubblebelt Maaka: Target attacking creature gets +3/+3 until end of turn.
This would be very good for Boros; Boros won't be able to kill with raw speed and will need to rely on these combat tricks more. This card will also help Rakdos punch through all those 2/4s.
Wake the Reflections {W}
This card is a mystery to me. It doesn't combo with any Guild and just feels like a weakened effect. I wonder if it can be used in Constructed because it can create a 5/5 trample token for only one mana. Probably not.

Selesnya seems to have taken the biggest hit in terms of having its linear archetype weakened. But drafting the Populate deck in full block draft should be fun. Even though the archetype probably isn't available very often, it should also not be stressful to try to draft it.

Over the draft you would be on the lookout for cards that make large tokens such as Advent of the Wurm, Alive // WellMiming Slime, Rapid Hybridization, or Mystic Genesis. If you pick up enough of such effects, then fine; you can scrounge up all the populate cards in the last pack such as Druid's Deliverance that other people don't want after they wheel. But if you don't have the token-makers, though, you can just avoid those populate cards and you won't get train-wrecked.
Battering Krasis {2}{G}
Creature - Fish Beast
Evolve (Whenever a creature enters the battlefield under your control, if that creature has greater power or toughness than this creature, put a +1/+1 counter on this creature.)
This is like a nerfed Shambleshark, but also forms nice synergies with Bloodrush, Scavenge, and even with Cipher to some extent.

Putting Cipher on a ground trampler might sound ineffective, but I would love to grow this creature to around 4/3 and attack, then pump it with Bloodrush to protect it. Then I'd like to Cipher a Midnight Recovery onto it to recover the Bloodrush creature, repeating the process every turn. You can't plan it to happen every time but it should be very fun when it does.

I also talked about the synergies that Boros Mastiff has with other colors.

Tithe Drinker's lifelink works well with detain, bloodrush, scavenge, as well as any Izzet shenanigans that let it attack.

Thrashing Mossdog mostly just seems to be a good card on its own. It does have a very good Scavenge cost, making it a good component in a Golgari/Dimir Rot Farming deck.

Cross-Guild Themes
While toning down the strategies that focus on single keywords, Dragon's Maze seems to be encouraging themes that encompass multiple Guilds. These are the themes that seem well-supported:
  • Spellcraft (Instants/Sorcery)
  • Steroid Doping (+1/+1 Counters)
  • Peekaboo (Self-Bounce and ETB Effects)
  • Rot Farming (Self-mill and Graveyard Use)
  • Swarming (Mass pump, Creature-counting and Triggers)
It's fun to look through the set's visual spoiler to spot the support cards for each of these themes. There are multiple support cards for each theme.

Guild Bridges
One awesome type of design we see on multiple cards in this set is cards that bridge one guild's strategy into another. Examples include Blaze Commando and Jelenn Sphinx, and many more.
Blaze Commando {3}{R}{W}
Creature - Minotaur Soldier (Uncommon)
Whenever an instant or sorcery spell you control deals damage, put two 1/1 red and white Soldier creature tokens with haste onto the battlefield.
An awesome convergence of Izzet and Boros/Selesnya.
Jelenn Sphinx {3}{W}{U}
Creature - Sphinx (Uncommon)
Flying, vigilance
Whenever Jelenn Sphinx attacks, other attacking creatures get +1/+1 until end of turn.
An awesome convergence of Azorious and Boros/Selesnya.

Archetype-based Removal
Many removal cards in this set only work well in a particular deck. These should be effective in the right deck, much like Death's Approach was in Dimir, and they should not be underestimated.
Mutant's Prey {G}
Target creature you control with a +1/+1 counter on it fights target creature an opponent controls.
Cards like this make it worthwhile to draft a deck that collects all of the +1/+1 counter mechanics from across the block. It's most reliable with Evolve and Unleash, but you could use Scavenge to shore up the numbers.
Korozda Gorgon {3}{B}{G}
Creature - Gorgon (Uncommon)
{2}, Remove a +1/+1 counter from a creature you control: Target creature gets -1/-1 until end of turn.
In the right deck, this looks very powerful as a repeatable (albeit mana intensive) removal effect. It looks best with Scavenge and Evolve since those mechanics can produce multiple +1/+1 counters, but it also has some utility in Unleash decks as well.
Krasis Incubation {2}{G}{U}
Enchantment - Aura (Uncommon)
Enchant creature
Enchanted creature can't attack or block, and its activated abilities can't be activated.
{1}{G}{U}, Return Krasis Incubation to its owner's hand: Put two +1/+1 counters on enchanted creature.
This could help farm +1/+1 counters, although due to the risk of losing the Aura to removal, you would mostly cast it on the opponent's creatures in most stages of the game.
Drown in Filth {B}{G}
Choose target creature. Put the top four cards of your library into your graveyard, then that creatures gets -1/-1 until end of turn for each land card in your graveyard.
This would be a key card for making it worthwhile to go into a Rot Farming strategy. The key cards for enabling this would be Grisly Salvage and Codex Shredder in RtR as well as various Dimir mill cards that can target yourself.
Morgue Burst {4}{B}{R}
Return target creature card from your graveyard to your hand. Morgue Burst deals damage to target creature or player equal to the power of the card returned this way.
This card looks playable in most decks that can splash its colors. But it becomes especially good in a self-milling Rot Farm deck since you get a better selection of creatures to return to hand. With enough mill, it will almost be like tutoring for your bomb card.

Overall, I love this type of archetype-based removal. WotC has been trying out various ways of making removal weaker in Limited: Avacyn Restored had many narrow, weak removal spells that were limited to killing only one small category of creatures; Return to Ravnica had very expensive, clunky removal spells. Then Gatecrash had archetype-dependent ones like Smite and Death's Approach. I think that's the best place to be. They're not auto-first picks like Doom Blade, and that makes drafting choices interesting. But during play, you do get to make an actual choice about what to target and kill with it, unlike cards that can only kill certain things such as Guise of Fire. And because they don't have extremely clunky costs, they can be used to reverse tempo and catch up from behind.

4. Aggro is Alive, but Takes Work

Attack Enablers
Even though the set has plenty of defense, there are many effects, especially at Uncommon, that enable players to attack past blockades. The set gives you time in the early game to set up your mana, then around turn 4 or later the attack enablers hit the board.

Some of the more durable cards that encourage attacks include Gruul War Chant, Gleam of BattleJelenn Sphinx, and Carnage Gladiator.

If you're getting reckless or if you have some token combos, there's Maw of the Obzedat and Showstopper.

Many of the Split cards can support a powerful alpha strike, resulting into a 2-for-1 if the opponent blocks, such as Protect // Serve, Profit // Loss, Turn // Burn, Armed // Dangerous, and Ready // Willing.

These cards can enable attacks both in the slower all-range decks as well as any focused aggro decks.

Two-Color Aggro
The set does throw an occasional bone to aggro decks. Many of these cards happen to be Gold cards. If you find that a particular Guild is undrafted in the pod and multiples of these aggro Gold cards are coming your way in the first pack, it may be possible to draft an aggressive 2-color deck much in the style of Gatecrash and Return to Ravnica. Some highly-pickable aggro Common cards include:
Tithe Drinker ({W}{B})
Beetleform Mage ({1}{U}{G})
Nivix Cyclops ({1}{U}{R})
Zhur-Taa Druid ({G}{R})
Viashino Firstblade ({1}{W}{R})
Kraul Warrior ({1}{G})
Rubblebelt Maaka ({3}{R})
Smelt-Ward Gatekeepers ({3}{R})

Once you score multiples of the key high-pickable aggro cards in the first pass, there are several aggro-only cards that could likely wheel:
Boros Mastiff ({1}{W})
Riot Piker ({1}{R})
Phytoburst ({1}{G})
Lyev Decree ({1}{W})
Weapon Surge ({1}{R})

Green and Red look like good colors for a rogue aggro deck. I can see the possibility of a crazy "mono-Lava Axe deck" with Spire Tracers, Phytobursts, bloodrush effects that grant +5 power, and pinging effects such as Zhur-Taa Druid to finish the opponent.

Some Uncommons that become better in aggressive decks are:
Carnage Gladiator ({2}{B}{R})
Spike Jester ({B}{R})
Showstopper ({1}{B}{R})... In a deck with 17+ creatures, this could easily deal 6 or more damage in the final attack. You could also draft sacrifice effects to make it better.
Toil // Trouble ({2}{B}//{2}{R})
Woodlot Crawler ({U}{B})
Gruul War Chant ({2}{R}{G})
Rot Farm Skeleton ({2}{B}{G}) ... The key piece of a Rot Farming archetype.
Bronzebeak Moa ({2}{G}{W}) ... Probably so generally powerful that I shouldn't be listing it as an aggro card. Two creatures in one turn = 8 damage? With token-making or self-bouncing, that should be easily achievable. The only thing balancing it is its low toughness outside of your turn.

It seems Rakdos also has a lot of good aggro cards, but they're mostly at Uncommon.

If you just want to draft aggressive cards, it could be possible to find a pack's worth of aggro even in the Dragon's Maze pack as long as you find an open Guild. Just remember that even if you end up with a deck that looks like something from RtR or Gatecrash draft, the slower decks now have tools they didn't have in those formats — cheaper removal than RtR, better blockers than in Gatecrash, super-stabilizing 2/4s (Gatekeepers), and a higher density of insane things to do in the late game once they have mana (such as synergies and splashed bombs). At the same time, you will probably be able to catch many control players off guard, as people are struggling to learn the environment and are building clunky decks at first.

5. Conclusion

Dragon's Maze brings enough elements to slow down the previous two sets' aggressiveness. Featuring 3-color decks that interweave Guild synergies as the mainstream, alongside many shades of 5-color and some rogue aggro 2-color decks, it's going to be an extremely varied environment with the largest number of archetypes ever. A key skill in this environment would be the ability to detect synergies that are open and concocting a deck on the fly.


  1. I feel like this review wandered between a Design perspective and a Limited-advice perspective, but I found it quite excellent regardless. Thanks, Chah.

    I'm certain it is not a coincidence that all of the color fixing in Dragon's Maze is two-color and not five-color. While it's very possible to take a lot of fixing and draft a 4- or 5-color deck, they're definitely pushing toward 3-color decks.

    Archetype-dependent removal is an interesting development and I believe a positive one. I wonder if we'll see more of that after RtR block is done.

    1. Thanks, Jay.

      I definitely strayed from one type of article to another. Something I need to watch out for.

      While I wrote that there were several shades of 5-color, I don't mean that people should try to do it as a default; rather I wanted to point out how amazing it is that all the 5-color decks don't blend into one type (regardless of whether they're frequent or not). But by spending so many words on it, it might look as if I'm emphasizing its frequency. I agree that 3-color would be the mainstream.

    2. I fixed some of my expressions around 5-color decks so that while they're possible, they don't sound like the default.

  2. I agree that this piece switches between design and limited strategy a lot, but as I find those both intensely interesting I have no complaints. Thanks for the well thought out breakdown!

    1. Thanks, Jules!

      I like switching back and forth between a design perspective and limited strategy perspective when critiquing cards.But sometimes I praise a card's design, and people mistake me for saying it's a high-pick card, so I wonder if I should use a different colored text for each perspective.

      Also, a complete flaw with my article is that I start out saying I'm going to critique the design of the cards/limited environment, but in the conclusion I end up talking about how you should draft. That was very incoherent, but I had to get it out before the prerelease.

  3. I edited in some more uses of Hidden Strings, based on feedback from a forumer named rstnme!