A Few Thoughts on Ikoria Draft

Tzu-Mainn Chen
May 22, 2020
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I jumped into Ikoria drafts on Magic Arena with great excitement, confident that the new human drafts would provide a better experience than the bot drafts. And in those first few drafts I had a ton of fun and success drafting 4(or 5)color removal heavy decks, grabbing all the Blood Curdles and Rumbling Rockslides I could, alongside dual lands and Farfinders. When a draft format is new and people are less familiar with the supported archetypes, you can't go too far wrong simply murdering everything your opponent plays.

  

The format quickly turned however, with Boros Cycling decks proving their superiority. This dominance would be a huge problem in bot drafts, where humans could force Cycling decks each and every time, leading to a miserable set of symmetric games. Fortunately, human drafts are self-correcting: if a strategy is excessively powerful more people will draft it, which will make it harder to draft, and players will opt for different options.

  

That's exactly what happened on Arena; I haven't faced a completely busted Cycling deck in quite awhile. Instead, I've drafted and played against a variety of powerful, fun, and interesting decks. Here are some of the lessons I've learned!

Sad Cycling

We'll start by diving… right back into Cycling? Yep - but with a twist! Sad Cycling is what happens when there are multiple Cycling drafters in a pod. Payoffs get cut, one-mana cyclers dry up, and a savvy Cycling drafter might find themselves searching for a third color. Often, that third color is Blue.

    

Why? It's because Cycling decks win one of two ways. The first is through aggression with cards like Prickly Marmosets, Reptilian Reflection, and Valiant Rescuer. The second is through tempo plays allowing a player to chip away at a life total before deploying a big finisher - think Snare Tacticians leading into an explosive Zenith Flare. If you draft RW Cycling and get forced into a third color, you're probably not going the aggro route. So if you decide to play a slower strategy, well, what better color than Blue?

    

Snap up those Gust of Winds! Revel in Capture Spheres! Take a defensive Phase Dolphin or two! Your game plan is pretty much the same - ping the opponent a few times, tie up any major threats, and cycle your way to a winning Zenith Flare or Ominous Seas. Sad Cycling is not as efficient as RW Cycling, but it still works - and hey, now you get to actually cast a Frostveil Ambush or two!

BW Humans

I hate playing against BW Humans, and it's almost entirely because of one card:

Bastion of Remembrance is the Black drain enchantment of the set, and although it feels less threatening than Ill-Gotten Inheritance from Ravnica Allegiance or Revenge of Ravens from Throne of Eldraine, it is still a uniquely frustrating card in its own right.

    

Bastion of Remembrance's effect ties in perfectly with the BW Humans go-wide strategy. Commons such as the symmetrically named Nightsquad Commando and Daysquad Marshal are great at producing multiple bodies, and Perimeter Sergeant is amazing at ensuring that your small creatures will trade up.

It does feel like more and more drafters are catching onto BW Humans; I've done drafts where Humans are curiously hard to find after the first five picks or so. But if you're in the first pack and find a Bastion of Remembrance on the wheel, well, that may be a clear signal as to what direction you should go.

Companion Drafting

Companion is a unique mechanic that leads to some pretty interesting draft picks and decks. Here's a quick breakdown of each from a draft perspective.

Gyruda's restriction is symmetrical to Obosh's, and one might think that this Demon Kraken is of a similar power level as a Companion. However, it's not. Why? It turns out that randomly cheating 0-to-1 creature into play (and yes, I've seen many 0s) isn't as powerful as abruptly doubling your damage. That's not to say Gyruda isn't very strong; if I picked it up, I'd try to make it work as a Companion! But if I found a broken odd-CMC card later, I would have no compunctions shifting Gyruda out of the Companion slot and into the main deck.

Like Lutri, Jegantha is an easy Companion to use. Hooray, you automatically have a 5/5 for 5! Just don't forget you can also take advantage of Jegantha's ability to randomly cast multiple spells in a turn, potentially giving you a board state that puts you ahead for good.

Kaheera seems like another straightforward Companion to run… except it kind of isn't. Why? In Limited, creatures are king - and Kaheera's restriction prevents the use of a lot of strong creatures. On the Green side, you can say goodbye to Almighty Brushwagg and Excavation Mole, Honey Mammoth and Greater Sandwurm. On the White side, you lose every single Human - over a third of White's creatures!

On top of that, Kaheera's ability isn't all that great. It's not as explosive as Obosh's damage-doubling, making it harder to maneuver an opponent into a corner. In my experience, Kaheera is better suited for the main deck than the Companion slot.

I hate playing against Keruga; the prospect of your opponent dropping a 5/4 on turn 5 that also draws two cards is - well, it's not a good feeling. On the flip side, I also find it oddly straightforward to play against Keruga: be as aggressive as possible and kill their permanents (and failing that, hope they don't draw their fifth land).

There's really not much else to say about Keruga. Oh, if you're planning on using it as a Companion, draft a few cyclers. Might as well do something on turns 1 and 2!

Lurrus is not a Companion that appeals to me personally - I love casting my big chunky creatures - but I can definitely see its power. Two drops such as Boot Nipper are scary at any point in the game, and being able to recast one from the graveyard turn after turn is backbreaking for your opponent.

    

Note that a Lurrus Companion deck wants to be grindy. Sacrificed Artifacts such as Springjaw Trap and Sleeper Dart become increasingly valuable in that kind of deck. And remember: Lurrus's restriction only applies to permanents. Draft all the instants and sorceries you want!

There's not a ton to say about Lutri as a Companion: draft different cards and wait until turn 5 to blow your opponent out with a copied Fire Prophecy. The only thing I'd add is: don't be afraid to flash in Lutri for no value! If you're running your opponent over (or - more tragically - if you really need a blocker), don't hesitate to throw Lutri's furry behind into the fray!

Obosh may be the strongest Companion to build around, simply because its ability fits the Rakdos playstyle perfectly: chip away in the first few turns and then blow your opponent away with guaranteed double damage.

There are a few issues to keep in mind, of course. The majority of the removal in Ikoria has even CMC, so an Obosh deck won't have access to any Fire Prophecies or Blood Curdles. But this loss is more than balanced out by the sheer explosive damage of cards such as Weaponize the Monsters and Serrated Scorpion combined with Obosh.

  

Note that opponents will often try and hold up removal for Obosh starting on turn 5. Take advantage of this instinct by simply puking out other creatures, causing your opponent to waste mana. Save Obosh for a critical moment, when your opponent's shields are down and you're ready to push in an obscene amount of damage.

Umori is my second favorite Companion to draft a deck around, because at my heart I love punching people in the face with big chunky Creatures (and I would not recommend naming any other type with Umori). Its restriction is straightforward; and so is its drawback. Playing with no instants and sorceries is not a trivial downside.

  

Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate this drawback: play creatures with spell-like effects. Mutate creatures are an obvious choice, but also look to draft creatures such as Bushmeat Poacher and Blitz Leech.

I don't think Yorion is a great Companion, simply because I've played against it a bunch and never lost to it in draft. A 60 card Limited deck has a lot of air, and although Cycling helps mitigate that issue, my experience is that a Yorion deck often just cycles into mediocrity. On top of that, there's not a ton of cards with strong enter-the-battlefield effects to blink with Yorion's ability. In Standard, Yorion does a lot of work blinking Theros Oaths and Sagas. In Ikoria Limited, your options are limited to cards like Farfinder or Frost Lynx… and only if you manage to draw them out of your 60 card deck first.

I have never seen this card used as a Companion in Limited, but if you make it work - for example in a Cycling deck with no Snare Tacticians or Prickly Marmosets - please let me know.

I'll continue to explore the ins and outs of this interested Limited format, and I hope you give it a shot as well! Let me know if you've seen any quirky decks that made you raise an eyebrow by how good they performed!



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