The War Begins: A Guide to War of the Spark Limited
War of the Spark is right around the corner, and chaos comes in its wake! This set has a smattering of everything - Ravnica guild factions, Eternals, zombie Amonkhet gods, and... something else I’m forgetting. What was it? Oh yeah, planeswalkers! Lots and lots and lots of planeswalkers.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by everything going on in War of the Spark. But slow down, take a deep breath, and let’s see if we can figure out how this Limited format is going to play out...
Mechanics and Major Themes
What are the key mechanics and themes? There are a couple:
Have you ever played Limited and fallen into a deep depression when your opponent plays a planeswalker, wondering why you weren’t lucky enough to open your own? Well, good news: every single pack of War of the Spark contains a planeswalker. That means you’ll have six planeswalkers in each of your sealed pools, and you’ll open three planeswalkers in each of your drafts.
Not all planeswalkers are Mythic rarity, however. Some are rare, and these have a static ability, a plus loyalty ability, and a minus loyalty ability. Others are uncommon, and these only have a static ability and a minus loyalty ability.
War of the Spark also contains a heavy dose of +1/+1 counters cards, centered primarily in White and in Green (but spattered among the other colors as well).
This theme means that early-game annoyances can easily become late-game threats. Evasive creatures with flying, trample, or menace are especially dangerous.
Blue, Black, and Red have a specialized +1/+1 counter mechanic: Amass.
The Amass mechanic is stapled onto both creature and non-creature spells, and designed so that you’ll never have more than one amassed zombie army token out at a time. To compensate, there are no Aura-based removal spells (such as Pacifism) that harm an amassed army (the one Aura-based removal spell actually strengthens an amassed army by turning its base power and toughness into 1/1). On the flip side, you can easily make your 1/1 army stronger through additional Amass effects, or cards that grant your army abilities such as trample or flying.
White, Blue, and Green have one final mechanic in War of the Spark that synergizes with all the mechanics and themes we’ve talked about: Proliferate.
Proliferate super-charges your board full of planeswalkers and creatures with +1/+1 counters, strengthening them all in one majestic swoop. To compensate for that power, Proliferate requires careful planning to use effectively: there’s a vast difference between using Proliferate to affect one card, and using Proliferate to affect five.
So what’s the pattern here? Planeswalkers and +1/+1 counters both support slower, escalating games, often won through careful strategic planning followed through by tactical card usage on key turns. They also encourage the use of evasive creatures, either to hit enemy planeswalkers - or to bash your opponent’s life total into oblivion.
The common colorless color fixing in War of the Spark is quite poor: either fragile or expensive:
As is typical, Green has better color fixing options.
What does this mean? Unlike Guilds of Ravnica and Ravnica Allegiance (where every pack had a two-color Guild gate land), expect War of the Spark to be a predominantly two-color format, with a third color reserved for light splashes or for Green decks. Also note that War of the Spark has no multicolor cards at common. This is very much not a Ravnica guild format.
So what should you be trying to do in War of the Spark Limited? In many recent sets, Wizards likes to create “signpost uncommons” - creatures for each color pair that give an indication of how you want to play those colors. In War of the Spark, each color pair also has an uncommon hybrid mana planeswalker. Let’s look at them both!
White/Black (Orzhov): A Thousand Cuts
If you like the most incremental of card advantages, then boy, do I have the color pair for you! White/Black decks like to snipe in damage and then use cards like Cruel Celebrant to create an untenable situation for the opponent. All of this is backed up by strong and unconditional removal.
White/Black decks are perfect if you enjoy long, drawn-out games that often result in clogged boards where the last two points of damage are achieved because you have one more attacker than your opponent has blockers. Again, when playing this style of deck, it is extremely important to peck away at your opponent’s life total whenever you can.
White/Blue (Azorius): Don’t Touch Me!
White/Blue decks literally believe that they are above all others: the less interaction with your plebeian opponent, the better! For that reason it’s best to win in the skies with flying creatures, with ground interaction limited to removal spells and walls.
These decks look to carefully manage ground battles through defensive creatures, removal, and life gain. While they do that, they draw cards and deploy flying threats that ultimately win the game.
Blue/Black (Dimir): The (Annoyingly) Creeping Doom
At first glance, there’s not much in common between Gleaming Overseer and Ashiok, Dream Render: the first buffs your zombie army, and the second has a nearly irrelevant (for Limited) static ability stapled onto an ineffective repeatable ability. So what’s the deal?
The deal is that Blue/Black specializes in deceptively powerful threats that seem innocuous at first (a 1/1 hexproof army, a planeswalker that doesn’t effect the board) but which will eventually become insurmountable threats (an amassed 10/10 hexproof army, a planeswalker that wins you the game upon its sixth activation - possible with proliferate). A Blue/Black deck contains a few of these subtle win conditions, and buys time to find them with removal and counterspells and high toughness creatures.
Be warned that Blue/Black is typically a very frustrating archetype - either for you (because your deck didn’t quite come together), or for your opponent (because they can sense their inevitable doom sloooooowly approaching ten turns away).
Blue/Red (Izzet): Creatures Suck
“Waaaaaait - that uncommon’s not a creature. It’s a sorcery!” Actually it’s kind of both - a sorcery that can create a creature or supersize an existing army - and it and Saheeli are perfect representations of the Blue/Red theme of “noncreature spells matter”. Here are some other examples:
In other Limited environments, “noncreature spells matter” decks frequently have a low creature count. War of the Spark changes this dynamic somewhat due to the Amass mechanic: there’s a greater proportion of noncreature spells that will incidentally generate a creature. As a result I expect this archetype to increase in consistency and power.
Black/Red: Devils on Unicycles
“Devils on unicycles” is a perfect metaphor for what Black/Red is all about: recklessly charging forward with no thought as to consequences other than to create a spectacular exit. Oh, and it’s also the actual art of Mayhem Devil.
Black/Red is an aggressive color pair. Its wrinkle is that it often doesn’t care too much about its own survival, letting its creatures die in combat or flat-out sacrificing them - all for the sake of relentlessly pushing damage.
The key to success with this archetype is to maintain relentless pressure. For that reason it’s important to have a low curve (sometimes backed by a lower land count). The deck can even steal games when it putters out with its burn spells or haste creatures. Always Remember: if your devil on a unicycle has to stop, then it’ll probably just topple over and explode.
Black/Green: Victory from Death
Enemies attacking into the teeth and stingers of a Black/Green deck are likely to find themselves victorious - right before falling over dead themselves. These decks don’t expect their creatures to win (or survive) the early game. Instead they plan for the long term. There, they can out-grind their opponents by reclaiming their dead - or, as Leyline Prowler indicates, by casting massive threats that may or may not be in-color.
Black/Green decks have to find a curious balance of capabilities: able to survive early aggro rushes while also being able to close out long games. For that reason, decks like these require a fair amount of sideboarding skill to play effectively.
Red/White: The Growing Storm
Red/White is another extremely aggressive color pair. However, Red/White decks rely on a mass of creatures to overcome foes. This army is often backed up by combat tricks that enable them to defeat more powerful enemies.
When playing a Red/White deck, rely on a low curve to apply early pressure. If your opponent manages to stabilize, try and play towards a single combat step where you can attack - and blow out your opponent with one or more combat tricks. Once you reach that point, victory is assured!
Red/Green: PUNCHY FACE
If you think that the best combat trick is simply to have the biggest creatures on the board, then Red/Green is right up your alley! This archetype eschews subtlety in favor of simply punching an opponent in the face. And even its small creatures have the potential to grow huge.
A Red/Green deck will attack early if it can. However it’s also content to wait, knowing that its creatures will likely eventually be able to swat all others away. Other decks can have their fun with their tricks - but doing 20 damage is the most important trick of them all.
Green/White: Here’s the Beef
Green/White decks are all about the Little Creature That Could. Your early creatures may be laughable, but if you Just Try Hard and Believe, well… the combination of +1/+1 counters and Proliferate means that any creature can become huge! Your turn one 1/1 can grow bigger than Emrakul!
The key here is to make sure you survive long enough to reap the benefits of your deck. In order to do so, clog the board with high toughness creatures, fight off any initial attacks, and gain life if you can. As the game continues on, the +1/+1 counter and Proliferate effects should take over until your creatures dwarf anything your opponent can deploy.
Green/Blue: Weird Flex Deck But Okay
A little bit of ramp, a little bit of value, a little bit of evasion… Mix that all together, and what do you get? Why, it’s a surprisingly effective color pair! Green/Blue decks take some time to get going, and will often take a good chunk of damage in the early game as a result. But if it does survive - through removal or a ramped out spells played ahead of curve - then it can crush any deck through its repeatable value engines.
Playing a Blue/Green deck requires maximizing your resource usage and value - say, by using Rescuer Sphinx to bounce one of your creatures with an “enter the battlefield” effect. It also requires excellent board evaluation. Do you need to remove your opponent’s creature this turn, or can you cast a card draw spell? Is it important to play a creature, or can you spend your mana to ramp? Your ability to make decisions such as these will determine your success with this deck.
That’s all ten color pairs! Now what?
An Early, Unscientific Analysis of War of the Spark Limited
Let’s look at a possible ranking of where each archetype falls along the Aggro/Control scale starting from most aggressive to least aggressive:
Black/Red -> Red/White -> Red/Green -> Blue/Red -> Green/White->Black/Green -> Green/Blue -> White/Blue -> White/Black -> Blue/Black
In my experience, the extreme archetypes on this scale are harder to obtain (requiring either a lucky sealed pool or a disciplined draft) but have the potential to be more powerful than the archetypes in the middle. There are exceptions: for example both Ixalan and Amonkhet favored aggressive decks; and in Battle for Zendikar Green was nearly unplayable.
Does War of the Spark lean in any particular direction? Well, I’m guessing that linear strategies will prove to be extremely powerful, as +1/+1 counters and Proliferate turn linear growth into something closer to exponential. As a result I’m wary of Black/Green and Green/Blue strategies, which may be too slow to outrace the faster archetypes while not possessing enough removal to force players into a longer game.
Advice for Draft and Sealed:
Aim to be in two colors unless you open a true bomb (for example, Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God) or you’re in Green and need to splash removal. If an extremely aggressive or extremely controlling archetype is open, and you have the ability to draft selectively, go for it! But if those archetypes aren’t open, don’t worry - the midrange strategies all look viable and strong.
If your Sealed pool has a good two-color focus to it, congratulations - you’ve won the lottery. Otherwise you’ll have to make some interesting choices, and those choices usually lead to midrange decks that splash for bombs and removal. However, unless you have strong Green color fixing, I’d advise against going past three colors. And if all else fails, build the most aggressive deck possible and hope that your opponents stumble.
Good luck on Arena and in any War of the Spark Pre-Releases!
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