A Winchester Experience (with Innistrad, without basic lands)
(Kurze deutsche Zusmmenfassung: Winchester Draft ist ein unterhaltsames, spaßiges Format. Auch ohne Länder kann man Magic spielen und damit Spaß haben, auch wenn sich einige Dinge dann ändern. Die doppelseitigen Magic-Karten sind noch größerer Mist, als ich vorher schon dachte, und Innistrad insgesamt spielt sich ganz nett, aber mehr auch nicht.)
I wanted to try out winchester draft for quite a while, and seeing that Innistrad contained many cards I wanted for my next level cubes pool, and that single prices for cards from this set were rather high, I decided to buy a booster display and use it to give winchester a whirl.
However, I screwed up my preparation: While I thought of bringing the boosters, as well as opaque sleeves (playing with checklist cards certainly wasn’t an option), several dice to use for counters and to show life totals, and even a stack of pro player cards to use as tokens, I managed to forget the basic lands – and where we wanted to draft, there were none available in the vicinity.
There was only one practical solution: We had to draft enough cards to build 40-card decks from them without adding additional land, and allow all non-land cards to be played as lands. Such a card would have the basic land types corresponding to its colors. Colorless cards would have no land type, but the ability to produce colorless mana. Everywhere else than on the battlefield, these cards are not lands. Of course, I knew from prior experience with this kind of landless limited play that it changes draft and deckbuilding decisions as well as gameplay considerably, but that couldn’t be helped – it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, since this variant is actually quite fun!
I’ll list the most important general ramifications of landless play:
1. You’ll never be manascrewed or manaflooded.
2. Once you have assembled the manabase you want, you will draw only (or nearly only) business.
3. Splashing colors becomes much less risky.
4. Cards which require the payment of more than one mana of a specific color become less attractive, since they tend to force you to play more lands than you’d otherwise need.
5. Deciding which lands to play becomes a much harder decision, adding to strategic complexity of the game.
6. Since a card played as a land is no longer a land when it changes zones, many actions – including sacrificing, bouncing or flickering lands – may have interesting implications. (I strongly recommend to install an extra rule that a card played as a land being exiled and directly returned to the battlefield from there returns as a land.)
Then there are card-specific things to keep in mind:
1. Some cards will flatout not work (for example, spells which allow you to search basic lands out of your library.
2. Some cards might work so well they need to be banned (meaning that they can ONLY be played as lands). Trepanation Blade is an excellent example here.
3. Many cards will become stronger or weaker or just play differently. Ghost Quarter, for example, becomes a Strip Mine. Mulch will just mill you for 4 cards. Milling will generally put more creature cards and more flashback cards into players’ graveyards. Delver of Secrets will flip more frequently. Frightful Illusions will much more often be able to counter spells, since players tend to avoid playing “excess” lands. Werewolves are more unlikely to transform on an oppnent’s turn, but also slightly less unlikely to transform back (since players often won’t have enough lands in play to cast two spells in one turn).
Overall, landless play really is a lot of fun for a change, but unfortunately not too well suited for less experienced players.
Still, the actual drafting process wasn’t affected too much. We shuffled together the contents of 4 instead of 3 boosters for each player, and we had to make sure that the random foil basic land which would come up didn’t get sorted out like the other basics, because, unlike those, it sits in a common slot. (There are actually reasons to draft and play it – for example, an opponent’s Ghost Quarter!)
My verdict on winchester draft: It’s really a lot of fun, and easily my most favorite 2-player draft format! The competition isn’t too hard, though: Winston draft is simply horrible, requiring players to alternately look at stacks of hidden cards and memorize their contents, and to make decisions which feel like a lottery (weighing the value of known cards versus that of unknown cards), taking too much time while doing a lot of things which aren’t actually fun. Solomon draft is skill-intensive, balanced and reasonably fast, but doesn’t really feel like drafting a deck – it’s more like constantly trading with someone and trying to rip him off, which I do not especially enjoy. Also, you can dig yourself a hole quite fast in this format, which is related to the fact that you actually make very few decisions (which are supposed to be the fun part of drafting). My personal take on backdraft (German link here) is a lot of fun, too, but serves a slightly different purpose, forcing players to play with mediocre cards and chosing the contents of their opponent’s card pool. Also, it takes much longer. Let me say this, though: Taking longer is not necessarily a bad thing for a draft – provided that you have fun all the time! But obviously, going faster can be a plus because of RL concerns.
Winchester is probably the fastest 2-player draft format (assuming that solomon drafters actually think their decisions through), but still offers plenty decisions which are all meaningful. It also provides some protection against unevenly distributed power level among the drafted cards (meaning that the order in which cards come up is less likely to give a deciding advantage to a drafter). It is moderately skill-intensive compared to other variants, with the choice between fewer but stronger, and more but less exciting cards being its signature feature. It shares the issue of being 50% draft and 50% hatedraft with practically every other 2-player draft format (winston doesn’t solve this problem, it just adds uncertainty and a lot of busywork). It offers higher redraft value for the same card pool than many draft variants, because you often pick stacks of cards, meaning that you have to react to the distribution of cards when deciding which color combinations or achteypes you want to draft (if cards are drafted one at a time, drafters will usually be able to craft their deck in specific ways much better, which can lead to repetitive strategies soon when using the same small card pool several times).
Winchester decks are roughly of the same power level as decks drafted via other 2-player variants (excluding my backdraft variant, obviously) – trust me to be able to gauge this even after playing it landless! As with most draft variants which are half hatedraft, decks tend to be three colors (even more if played landless). This means the environment is slower compared to those produced by 8-person drafts or in two-thirds-drafts. A consequence of this is that while winchester helps balancing out overall power level of decks between competent drafters, bombs will still decide games more often than in other drafts – the slow environment is one reason for this, the overall small draft pool which will usually simply not contain enough (if any) answers to certain threats another. That is not mainly an issue of winchester, though, but of the card pool used. If you play winchester – as I did – as a way to open packs from a new set, you’ll have to live with this, but with a properly constructed next level cube (it would have to be one built specifically for 2-player draft, though), that problem can be eliminated.
For me, 2-player draft in general is a matter of opportunity. If you have the option to set up a draft with more players (8 players may cause too many logistic problems, but that’s ecxactly why I designed two-thirds-draft for 4 players), you should do that – while the drafting process of Winchester is at least as much fun as “normal” draft, the larger draft pool will help to make games less swingy, and the play-to-draft ratio is just better with more players. With only one other player, fewer boosters, or fewer available time, however, Winchester is a great choice for getting your limited fix!
Finally a few words about Innistrad: Before I had actually played with them, I believed that double-faced cards would play absolutely horribly. Now that I did… I KNOW that they play EVEN MORE horribly! I am really confusticated that R&D actually expects people to draft and play with them.
I thought that winchester would make it possible to cover not yet drafted cards. However, this didn’t pan out. There was no way not to see them coming.
It was even worse using them in our decks, though. If you didn’t exactly remember what their nightside did, you effectively had to announce them to your opponent by taking them out of their sleeve. Transforming them was fiddly every time (and you still had to look at their other side quite often), and keeping them out of the sleeve while on the battlefield proved annoying and is anyways not the point of protective sleeves. All in all playing with double-faced cards feels like trying to run with slipping pants. Really an astonishing experience!
Other than that, the set seemed overall fine, but didn’t really thrill me. I concede that I might misjudge the werewolf mechanic, which played okay, but not overly exciting, because of that landless thing. But honestly, I imagine that in normal limited werewolves might actually play worse, since both manascrew and manaflood will reduce your ability to interact with them. The graveyard-based mechanics worked reasonably well, but not es well as I expected, considering that landless play should make them a bit easier to use. Morbid didn’t seem to be too relevant most of the time. The human tribal effects were somehow irritating, requiring you to keep track at all times which creatures were humans or not, and how that would change after transformation. Somehow I do not remember such issues from earlier tribal environments like Lorwyn or Kamigawa with its division into spirits and non-spirits. Maybe it had something to with the necessity to process so many things at once – playing with new cards, and having to decide which to use as lands at the same time – but I found it taxing to prepare for the possibility of Spare from Evil or Bonds of Faith in moderately complex situations. The biggest issue, however, were overpowered single cards or combinations, like Bloodline Keeper, or an Invisible Stalker wearing a Butcher’s Cleaver.
We drafted three times (and after those 24 boosters I’m still waiting for a Liliana, Garruk or Snapcaster Mage to show up, so that my display refinances itself at least partly), and the most enjoyable games were those which felt the most like generic Magic (which is, as many people do not seem to remember, a lot of fun!) Some transform cards played (logistics aside) interesting – Civilized Scholar and Cloistered Youth, for example – but overall that mechanic is not nearly worth the trouble caused by double-faced cards. It is a great set to harvest for my card pool and to enrich next level cubes, though, as I already noticed.