Adapting to Full Block Kaladesh Limited - Massdrop East/West: Article #6
Hi there, I’m Jiachen Tao - member of Massdrop West, champion of PT Oath of the Gatewatch, Eldrazi aficionado, and limited Magic junkie. I love the constant process of card evaluation, from the release of each set until its exit, and the joy of successfully navigating a draft and landing in the right colors. Most of all, I love how limited games of Magic never play themselves out in the same manner – each one is a unique puzzle that demands to be solved in its own way. With the current block of Kaladesh and Aether Revolt reaching its maturity, I’d like to talk about how the limited environment has evolved from the original set to the full block, and how I’ve personally compensated for these changes. In order to fully understand the context of the current state of limited, we’ll start from the way things were back in triple Kaladesh.
One of the key instruments used in the evaluation of cards within a set is speed: when properly gauged, it can be used to place priority on early or late drops as the format dictates, and certain classes of cards can be excluded entirely. Kaladesh was a strange set where that is concerned, because while some games were over brutally fast, other games were played out in this bizarre fashion where a stall would suddenly be broken in combo-esque manners. The first occurrence is due to the absurdly high power level of aggressive commons and uncommons, combined with hyper efficient combat tricks and a lack of cheap removal and defensive creatures. Many games were won with leading on Longtusk Cub or Renegade Freighter, backed by Built to Last or Rush of Vitality. This incentivized players to play cheap creatures and removal either to try and outrace their opponent, or at least attempt to hold down the fort. However, most creatures in the format lacked any way to generate value once on the battlefield. This meant that games which were not won quickly turned into slow unmoving board stalls. Evasive creatures do exist, but Kaladesh had plenty of 1 for 1 removal spells, once there’s enough breathing room. In these situations, the winner will most certainly go to the player who is most prepared for the long game.
Each of the Modules (Animation, Decoction, and Fabrication) present ways to break through a board stall. Durable Handicraft and Whirlermaker, two other uncommons that were next to useless when facing down frenzied Freighters, would provide the extra edge in the midrange mirror. The most ridiculous mirror breakers, however, all involve Kaladesh’s brand new ability: energy. Whether it’s making infinite 1/1 thopters with a Whirler Virtuoso, or hard locking opponents with an Aethersquall Ancient, or just milling them out with a couple of Minister of Inquiries, energy cards were often the ultimate trump in matches not effectively over by turn 4. Luckily, our team was able to figure out both ends of the spectrum for Kaladesh fairly quickly. Armed with this knowledge, we determined that the midrange decks were not where we wanted to be. Not only were they enormously disadvantaged versus the energy-combo decks, they even felt unfavored against a good draw out of the aggro decks. We knew that most players were aware of how brutally fast the format can be, but we thought that the energy decks would be more of a mystery in the beginning. I participated in PT Kaladesh with the hope of drafting one or the other and nothing in-between. I was not forcing either archetype per se, but I did try to place a higher value on the these cards with the expectation that the decks would be more powerful even if occasionally fought-over, and also to prevent other drafters near me from getting into these decks in the first place.
Quick aside on Kaladesh sealed: these effects above are, of course, magnified in draft and greatly lessened in sealed. You’re largely unable to choose what cards you get to play with, and the aggressive decks are hit the hardest: sometimes you have Freighters but no tricks, and sometimes you have tricks but no early creatures. For those of you thinking about playing sealed with only Kaladesh boosters, midrange decks do exist there, but unfortunately this meant that you are at the mercy of any opponents who have Whirler Virtuoso & Era of Innovation in their pool, or who cracked Animation Module & Durable Handicraft. Many games were not won on a strict reckoning of board presence, but rather on whether a sufficient number of combo pieces were drawn and deployed. I personally favored maindecking at least one Disenchant effect, and was often happy to bring in counterspells as soon as I realize the games weren’t going anywhere fast.
Aether Revolt / Kaladesh
Now, with Aether Revolt in the mix, the format underwent one of the biggest changes imaginable. Cheap aggressive creatures are still around, but the presence of these don’t necessitate a fast aggressive environment – an Audacious Infiltrator blocks nearly as well as it attacks! However, the cheap offensive tricks so commonly found in Kaladesh boosters all but disappeared, and in some cases, are replaced by cheap removal that help regain tempo (Shock, Prey Upon). Not only was the aggro deck’s power level neutered, the various energy-based combo decks got hit pretty hard, too. Many of the truly broken energy payoff cards are now gone, replaced by the common and unexciting cycle of servo makers. Gone too are the incidental energy enablers (Attune with Aether being the best of them all), and with Kaladesh being the last pack opened in a draft, there isn’t even a guarantee that a payoff card can be found once you’ve gone through the trouble of picking up the generators.
It’s interesting to note here that both of the major new mechanics from Aether Revolt, revolt and improvise, generally are self-sustained and do not care for energy cards at all. Each mechanic is fairly powerful when put together, and many drafters will happily forsake the synergies in Kaladesh in order to concentrate on fully powering up the bonuses from Aether Revolt. This certainly makes sense too, as these are the two packs that are drafted first. With improvise being just a mana reduction keyword, and revolt in most cases resulting in no more than a two for one, the format has become friendlier to those who are interested in grinding out the incremental advantages from playing a midrange deck.These changes drastically affected my teammates and my approach to limited: the format has bounced back from one filled with hyper aggro and combo, to one with varying shades of midrange. It was time to put aside my preference for fast decks and energy decks. Fewer aggressive starts and a reduced number of decks boasting inevitability meant that the format has slowed down to resemble a more traditional type of limited. Card advantage became more important, and cards which were just a touch too slow in triple Kaladesh rose in the pick orders. Metalspinner’s Puzzleknot, Dukhara Scavenger, Wildest Dreams are just some of the cards which I felt were most improved in the new full block environment. My focus in a draft is now less about staying alive or winning the late game, but more about having a solid curve and presenting a strong mid-game board position.
As for sealed, the changes became even more pronounced as now it is all but impossible to have the ideal energy decks. The sealed pool I opened in GP San Jose was very mediocre: a white black concoction with solid removal, a couple of gravediggers, and no particular bombs to speak of. I would’ve dreaded my chances had this been back in Kaladesh. Instead I played against multiple other decks doing similar things and managed to end the day with a 5-1 match record. What I recall was that most of my opponents were back to playing regular magic – play the biggest spell each turn or remove the largest threat, and the goal each game was simply to control the largest creatures on the battlefield.
For reference, here’s a quick list of cards I consider poor or barely playable in triple Kaladesh, but am now okay or even happy to put in my deck strictly due to the slowing down of the format:
Experimental Aviator, Paradoxical Outcome, Tezzeret's Ambition, Dukhara Scavenger, Fortuitous Find, Morbid Curiosity, Ovalchase Daredevil, Fateful Showdown, Incendiary Sabotage, Quicksmith Genius, Cowl Prowler, Fairgrounds Trumpeter, Ghirapur Guide, Wildest Dreams, Aradara Express, Ballista Charger, Metalspinner's Puzzleknot, Torch Gauntlet, Whirlermaker
My experience is that the switch of Kaladesh with Aether Revolt cards has thrust midrange decks squarely back into the spotlight. With GP Orlando looming ahead and still plenty of limited pptq/ptqs firing off, I hope this primer has been helpful to anyone looking to get a quick update on state of the format. To the others who have already reached their own conclusions, perhaps they’ve found it useful to follow me through my own explorations. Above all, keep an open mind, and don't be afraid to challenge established wisdom by putting in the time and practice!
Thanks for reading, and please post any questions below!
If you are curious about our team, check out our intro here:
Or, check out our previous weekly articles:
1. How to Prepare for an MtG Pro Tour by Ben Weitz (https://www.massdrop.com/talk/1158/how-to-prepare-for-an-mt-g-pro-tour)
2. Approaching New Magic Drafts by Ari Lax (https://www.massdrop.com/talk/1193/approaching-new-magic-drafts)
3. Constructed Testing for Pro Tour Aether Revolt by Jarvis Yu (https://www.massdrop.com/talk/1213/recap-of-constructed-testing-for-massdrop-east-west-for-pro-tour-aether-revolt)
4. Breaking into Eternal Formats - Case Study: GP Louisville by Jon Stern (https://www.massdrop.com/talk/1240/breaking-into-eternal-formats-case-study-gp-louisville-massdrop-east-west-article-4)
5. In Good Company - Top 8 at GP Vancouver by Eric Severson (https://www.massdrop.com/talk/1285/in-good-company-top-8-at-gp-vancouver)