Hello! My name is Mark Jacobson and I am a Gold Pro and captain of Massdrop MTG. I love drafting and spend a lot of time analyzing each set from a Limited perspective. The hard work paid off last year with three Limited GP Top 8s including a win in Mexico City. With Ravnica Allegiance on the horizon, I thought it would be both fun and useful to try an experiment where I tried to figure out which cards in the new set might perform better in game than they seem on paper.
With Prerelease events happening this weekend, and Magicfest New Jersey the following weekend, there are ripe opportunities for being ahead of the curve in the new format. It will be some time until people have enough reps to re-analyze the cards with a big enough sample size, so for now, it’s important to rely on theory and intuition. I decided to focus specifically on the Commons as they form the backbone of the Draft format. First, I needed to go through the whole set and get a feel for what each archetype was trying to accomplish, what the removal was like, how creatures were sized, and if there were any non-obvious synergies. Then, on an individual card basis, I looked to older, similar cards as a comparison point, keeping in mind the difference between the two Draft formats. Lastly, I tried to consider failure modes, since a card’s floor can be just as important as its ceiling.
If you’re up for some homework, you can try going through the set yourself before reading the article and make a list of cards that you think might play out better than expected in the context of Ravnica Allegiance Draft. Then you can compare your results to mine. Regardless, doing a deep dive “rating” the cards in a new set is helpful for memorizing what they do!
Here are the ten cards I came up with, in collector’s number order:
1. Arrester’s Zeal
I’ve been obsessed with combat tricks starting with Shadows over Innistrad. Being able to trade up on mana and still have mana left over to deploy another threat makes one mana tricks especially potent. Arrester’s Zeal is close to Mighty Leap, a card that would often push through the final points of damage, but you are much more likely to be able to double-spell on turns when you simply use it to eat a blocker. Mighty Leap was often a pre-combat spell anyway on the turn you would use it to kill your opponent. In my decks, I found it extremely rare for me to try to use a Leap on defense to block a flyer, since I tended to be the aggressor. One thing that might hold Arrester’s Zeal back from its full potential as a win condition is the prevalence of flying tokens from Afterlife.
2. Civic Stalwart
Civic Stalwart benefits from the go-wide and flying opportunities in the set for White. Azorius naturally plays many flyers, Orzhov has Afterlife, and Mardu has a lot of aggression and disposable bodies. People knew that Angel of the Dawn would be great in M19 after Dawnfeather Eagle paved the way in Aether Revolt. Missing out on vigilance for the trigger and not having flying itself, Civic Stalwart is a lot less flashy, but I expect it to be a solid roleplayer.
3. Thought Collapse
I generally like Cancels a lot less in Draft compared to Sealed given that Draft decks are typically faster and more streamlined. However, Adapt gives you a lot of flexibility; your instant speed options all get better the more you have access to at a given time. It can be awkward to leave up mana only for your opponent to not play something relevant, but Adapt lets you contribute to the board when that happens. Passing with an on-board ability like Adapt also helps disguise the fact that you might be holding up a counter. The incidental mill might come up in a slower Azorius deck, but I wouldn’t expect it to matter for the vast majority of Simic decks. One last aspect to consider is that Simic doesn’t get access to hard removal, so in an emergency you can cash in a bounce spell on a problematic permanent and then counter it on the way down.
4. Catacomb Crocodile
More likely to be useful in Orzhov or many-color rather than Rakdos, Catacomb Crocodile does a really good job at holding the fort. Its 7 toughness is enough to survive nearly all of the big ground creatures in Simic and Gruul. Most of the bodies in Orzhov are on the smaller side, so this lets you be more choosy about where to spend your removal. In the case of hasted creatures, the Crocodile might even save you some damage in the process if your removal was going to be Sorcery speed. If there is an opportunity to get swinging with it, although three damage is not a lot, it usually requires two or three blocks to kill it, causing some tension for your opponent. Three similar cards that come to mind are Catacomb Slug, Rotting Mastodon, and Pheres-Band Centaurs. Slug was mediocre, though it had one less power and one less toughness. Rotting Mastodon was a rock-solid defender, being able to safely block Morph creatures, as none chomped it for free, at worst trading if the Morph creature had Deathtouch. Pheres-Band Centaurs was playable but thoroughly outclassed by Nessian Asp at the same mana cost and rarity.
Okay, that was more words about a vanilla 3/7 than expected. Bonus points to its flavor text.
5. Rubblebelt Recluse
Six power and five toughness is nothing to sneeze at when it comes to a five mana common. With how aggressive Rakdos and Gruul want to be, I don’t expect the downside to often be a downside. Plus, in a pinch, you can always block with it the turn it comes down. If you find a way to give it haste, such as with Riot, you’re really cooking with gas. Deathtouch creatures and chump blockers via Afterlife are two things which might hold it back, but those might be in short supply for your opponent when the rest of your deck is also applying pressure.
6. Spear Spewer
For decks that are looking to take advantage of Spectacle, a turn one Spear Spewer could single-handedly warp the game in your favor. Blade Juggler, Hackrobat, Skewer the Critics, and Spikewheel Acrobat all get to come down earlier than expected to ramp up the pressure on your opponent. If you are fast and furious enough, the damage you deal to yourself could be irrelevant, whereas the constant drain to your opponent’s lifetotal could require them to spend a real answer on the Spear Spewer. The card can be quite bad when you are behind, but that can be said about a lot of aggro-focused cards. The benefit of this one when you’re behind is that you don’t actually have to connect with your opponent in combat in order to unload some of your Spectacle cards to catch up on the board. Plus, unlike cards such as Act of Treason, Falter, or Trumpet Blast, you might actually be able to cash in the creature as a chump blocker.
7. Wrecking Beast
Seven mana is quite a lot, but Wrecking Beast should end the game in quick fashion if you manage to get it into play. Trample helps ensure that the Beast won’t simply get chumped by some tokens. Lockets can help ramp it out, since there aren’t many other ramp options available. If your opponent can simply double block to trade up, putting a counter on it and then rumbling with a potential combat trick or removal spell on the following turn will put your opponent in a bind. Be ready to board this out if your opponent has unconditional removal or is fast enough that you need to lower your curve. Or, start with it on the sideline if your deck has a low curve.
8. Steeple Creeper
Now years since Alpine Grizzly, there have been three recent common 4/2s for three mana with Frenzied Raptor, Orazca Frillback, and Onakke Ogre. Steeple Creeper’s ability dramatically changes its outlook, allowing it to take to the skies instead of being forced to trade down for a two drop when your opponent has one to block. When you’re on the back foot, the four power provides a reasonable chance to trade up on defense. Gruul decks might want to pick up some Simic Guildgates to splash for the ability. In some ways the card is better in Gruul-splash-blue, since Simic already has access to mana sinks with Adapt.
9. Azorius Knight-Arbiter
The infamous chicken from Rivals of Ixalan, Sun-Crested Pterodon, returns in a new form. This Knight-Arbiter is gold, so it makes sense that it has some upgraded aspects in terms of having full unblockability and unconditional vigilance, even though it can’t block opposing flyers. But I think where it excels is in terms of fitting into the Azorius gameplans. In a flyers deck, its large toughness and vigilance allows it to hold off aggression while pecking in for extra damage. A control deck cares more about the defense than the offense, but the card can be useful in that archetype as well. 2/5 Vigilance Unblockable is an excellent body for carrying auras and equipment, but the set only has Screaming Shield and Sentinel’s Mark available, so that aspect does not provide much benefit.
10. Simic Locket
In Guilds of Ravnica, I infrequently played Lockets, but when I did, it was only the Dimir and Izzet ones. Dimir Locket was correlated with having Watcher in the Mist to ramp out, or high impact 1-drops to play out on turn three with the Locket like Dead Weight or Thoughtbound Phantasm. Izzet Locket was correlated with Niv-Mizzet and Ral; I would look to play a controlling deck if I had one of these, else my preference was to play the color combo very aggressively. Continuing with the trend of my interest in the blue Lockets, the Simic Locket pairs quite nicely with Adapt. It gives you acceleration and an extra mana which help you with your mana sinks, and if you leave up mana to Adapt on your opponent’s end step but they kill the creature, you can instead use the mana to cash in the Locket for card draw. Unlike Dimir, there aren’t any particularly exciting cards to play on turn 3 with the Locket to catch up on tempo. Playing a precombat Locket and swinging with a 2 drop blatantly telegraphs Stony Strength, though maybe there is an interesting bluff opportunity there. If Simic is generally looking to play aggro/tempo like Merfolk in Rivals of Ixalan, the Locket might not have a home. If Simic is trying to midrange people out like in Theros, the Locket could fit right in.
So, what do you think? Did I misevaluate any of the cards?
Am I missing out on a sleeper pick? Let me know in the comments!