Zendikar Rising is here, ushering in a new Draft format filled with complex synergy and a host of epic new cards to play! Now is one of the best times to get an edge on your competition, jumping out to an early lead in knowledge while your foes are still learning what the cards do, so today I will cover some concepts and approaches you can use to thrive! It is a little less focused on individual cards (because the format has only been out for about a week and I haven't even seen every card in play yet), but the tips in this article will help you come out of the gates faster than a speeding Baloth!
Stay Flexible with Opinions
This first tip might sound generic, but it is one of the biggest ways you can improve your early understanding of a format. I don't know where the saying "pride comes before the fall" originated, but a Magic player who finally realized that his Prerelease card evaluations should be quick to change is a good bet. If you come into Zendikar Rising (or any other format) thinking certain strategies or cards are strong, it's easy to let that opinion guide you, even when data is saying the opposite.
If you are the sort of person who likes to prepare for a set as soon as the full spoiler is released, make sure you are willing to change your perspective once you actually have the cards in your hands. If you are instead someone who likes to go in blind, try not to let your first impressions carry too much weight. In all cases, a sliding scale is much better then sticking to one perspective on a card or archetype. For example, going into my first Zendikar Rising Draft I was pretty medium on
Tazeem Raptor. 3 mana 2/2 Flyers are often a bit weak if they don't have other text, and I was unsure how good bouncing a land would be. However, in my first Draft I ended up with 4 Tazeem Raptors, and after giving them a shot, they really performed. Turns out that bouncing your Modal Double-Faced cards back to your hand in the lategame is super powerful. Over many sets I have practiced separating my ego from my initial evaluations, and being willing to admit that I was wrong lets me adjust my gameplay and reap the rewards.
Not Everyone is on the Same Page
Once I discovered success with Tazeem Raptor I naturally started picking them earlier in my Drafts. While this is a good adjustment, it is important to remember that I am now valuing the card more than other drafters, so if I start viewing Raptor as a signal, I can easily trap myself into White when it is not open. The lesson here is simple: earlier in a Draft format, signals are less valuable.
When everyone has different opinions on the cards and there has not been time to converge towards a "normal" evaluation, you are going to be passed cards that seem odd to you. While it is fine to take those cards, try not to lock into a color based on a single pick. Other players might think differently based on their own first impressions or early experiences, so the signals they send are less valuable. Don't think "I just got passed the best Red common so the person passing to me must not be in Red," and then tunnel vision on Red, instead of realizing that the person next to you often doesn't rate the commons the same way you do. It's still beneficial to take the good cards you are passed, but don't be surprised if you get strange signals in your first couple Zendikar Rising drafts! It is always important to take each signal as just a singular data point, but this becomes even more important when a format is new.
Experiment, Experiment, and Experiment More
The beginning of a format is the best time to try out new cards. Not only is it exciting to experiment, but the knowledge you gain in your first couple Drafts can give you a long term edge. In my first Zendikar Rising Draft I played a BW Clerics deck that ended up going 7-2. I felt like I got to try out a wide range of the Black and White cards, so I had a feeling of how good they were.
In my next ZNR Draft I had the choice between
Shadows' Verdict, Kabira Takedown, and
Roost of Drakes. What do you think I chose? Spoiler alert, I chose the Blue card! I had already played Kabira Takedown (so I knew it was quite good), and I had already played a Black deck, but I had my eye on Roost of Drakes and really wanted to experiment with it. I ended up taking Roost, building a sweet Blue Red Kicker deck, and going 7-2 with that deck as well. Note: Roost is a fantastic card. I currently think it is the best Uncommon and it works well in any Blue deck because Blue has enough kicker by itself to enable it.
The win-loss ratio is not super important, but I moreso want to explain that earlier in a format it is important to try new strategies. Now that I have played a Blue/Red deck, I have a much better idea of how to evaluate cards for that archetype and how to build the deck. If I had instead settled for the "known power," of Kabira Takedown, I would have missed out on an opportunity. In that same Blue Red Draft I splashed a
Verazol, the Split Current (a fantastic bomb) using a Forest and 2 copies of
Cleansing Wildfire. I never thought Cleansing Wildfire would do much. I even forgot I had in my pool because I picked it incredibly late and put it straight into my sideboard, but being willing to experiment has shown me that it has a home, and can be actively good in the right deck! Without a willingness to experiment, I am holding myself back and leaving value on the table. Theorycrafting is all well and good, but hands on experience with a card or archetype will serve you well down the line.
Pay Attention to Losses
It's not just about winning with your sweet new cards, it's also about recognizing how you lose. This can be something as simple as "I lost to my opponent being aggressive," or "I lost games when I drew too many lands," but sometimes it comes down to play mistakes. This is especially relevant early in the format because there are always ways to mitigate your losses by shifting your card evaluations or gameplay.
In my first few Zendikar Rising Drafts I have found that the main ways I lose are to flooding out, to having my opponent play an unbeatable bomb, and to getting the last 2 cards in my hand sniped by a
Mind Drain. Now that I am equipped with this knowledge, I can adjust accordingly. In my future Drafts I can be more careful about when I play my Modal Double-Faced Cards, perhaps taking them more aggressively and replacing more of my basic land slots with them. Adjusting my play based on bomb rares is difficult, but losing to them can give me valuable information about how strong they actually are, perhaps leading me to draft a deck around them or splash them down the road.
Finally, when facing a Black deck I will always remember Mind Drain so I can hold lands or adjust my play to keep my key spells safe. These are specific to Zendikar Rising, but you can come up with a list in any new format and adjust your play accordingly. The key is to actively consider the ways you lose and then make a list of things you can do to improve. It's not useful to say, "I got run over by aggro," without then planning to improve against that kind of defeat (for example, by prioritizing
Skyclave Squid to defend yourself, a card I've been pretty happy with in basically all my Blue decks).
Trust Card Designers... Within Reason
New sets means a steady stream of new mechanics and archetypes, which are unique or hard to evaluate. I have found that mechanics that look finicky or hard to enable, such as Ascend from Rivals of Ixalan or Party in Zendikar Rising, often over perform expectations once I get my hands on the cards. Early in a format, I am willing to go deep on a new mechanic, building my entire deck around it with no guarantee of success, because if it doesn't work out then at least I'll know.
To be honest though, it usually does work out, because the people who design Magic are not trying to trick you. Trusting the card designers is akin to trusting a cube designer when you sit down to cube draft. In my first pack of cube, if I see a
Splinter Twin, I am going to assume that
Deceiver Exarch and
Pestermite are also in the cube for the infinite combo. I could definitely be wrong, but most of the time I am going to get more benefit by assuming that the pieces are there. Taking this back to Zendikar Rising, when I opened
Squad Commander I was inclined to take it because I trusted that Party would be supported. I built my entire deck around the mechanic, ending up with at least 4 of each class, and lo and behold, I ended up with a sweet Blue/White Party deck that managed to get full value off of
Squad Commander in its very first game.
While there are sometimes themes that get less support or that do not come together in Draft formats, it is still beneficial to build these decks when they present themselves in the early days of a format. You always end up gaining a ton of great information, even if your deck is not as powerful as you'd like. If you avoid a mechanic or archetype because your first impression is that it is bad (before you even play with the cards), you are going to miss out on a lot of powerful decks!
Well that just about does it for this one. Zendikar Rising is a tricky set to Draft, with a lot going on, but I've been having a blast exploring everything it has to offer! Remember that things are wild and in flux at the beginning of a format, so stay flexible, try new things, and above all, have fun on your own adventures in this epic new set!