A third look at Kaladesh
I concede that Zeromagic has seen times where I was more creative with my titles…
There has been a weekend with two limited Grand Prixs since I last talked about Kaladesh, and I also did a few drafts – with moderate success, going 2:1 thrice. Extrapolating from that experience and the information available online, I can now weigh in on the discussion about its dynamics, especially the speed of the format.
Players seem to be really divided on that topic, so here is my take: The format is a bit faster than I expected at first, but I wouldn’t quite call it “fast”. Let me explain my idea of how I categorize formats into fast, slow or medium fast: Essentially, it is about focussed aggressive decks being advantaged or disadvantaged, which translates into the number of aggressive decks supported by a table being higher or lower than the number of dedicated lategame decks.
The mere existence of aggressive decks doesn’t make a format fast – there were aggressive decks even in the notoriously glacial Magic 2014 – and neither does the average goldfish kill. Also, the necessity to run 2-drops doesn’t mean a format is fast (although the absence of that necessity certainly means it’s slow!), because almost every draft environment since at least a decade has been tempo-conscious.
The relevant question is how difficult it is to stop those aggressive decks! In Zendikar, that was nearly impossible – you were forced to race instead, since blocking just didn’t work. In Theros, blocking was also hard, because there was quite a lot cheap evasion, because heroic and bestow made creatures very big very fast, because combat tricks were strong and efficient, and because removal was expensive and inefficient. Those were fast formats. I would also count Shadows over Innistrad among the fast formats before Eldritch Moon was added to it.
Battle for Zendikar, on the other hand, was a slow format, because it wasn’t too hard to get into the lategame, and so was Khans of Tarkir. But where does Kaladesh fall?
Well, that set is sending a few conflicting messages. On one hand, the thriving creatures really want to attack; two of the three common vehicles are cheap, efficient beaters; and the combat tricks are very strong. On the other hand, there aren’t that many cheap evasive (like Welking Tern) or overpowering (like Steppe Lynx or Plated Geopede) creatures; the number of 2-drops is actually not that high (and some of them play more of a defensive role); the removal is comparably efficient; big, cheap creatures to brickwall weenies are plenty; fabricate gums up the ground with tokens; and while especially Red has a few ways to close out a game against a single big blocker, it has little burn that can go to the dome to finish off a player without combat damage.
Usually, people tend to underestimate the speed of a new draft format, so when several pros are now going on record saying that Kaladesh draft is fast, that gives me pause. But then again, other pros are saying exactly the opposite, and playtesting dynamics can sometimes give rather skewed results. I believe that the following might have been happening here: Too many people who thought the format to be slow (and slower than it actually is) drafted too durdly decks. That gave those players going for an aggressive approach two advantages: Firstly, their decks were stronger than they could expect if their archetypes weren’t underdrafted. Secondly, their opponents were easier prey than they would be if people were aware that they needed to add to the board early and consistently instead of fooling around with Puzzleknots and other spells without board impact. If the number of aggro decks per table increases, and everyone is aware that they need to field an early defense, things might even out a bit.
My current prediction is that Kaladesh draft will turn out to be medium fast, like Dragons of Tarkir was. In a slow format, you will usually get away with dropping your first creature on turn three on the draw, while in a really fast format, you need to get on the board as early as possible and cannot afford more than two or three cards that cost more than four mana. Medium fast formats are about maintaining board presence in all stages of the game, forcing you to both run a good number of cheap drops (or cheap removal) and a powerful lategame, ideally escalating from two-mana plays to five-mana plays without a hiccup, since taking a turn off might cause you to fall behind and not get a chance to come back. That was how Dragons of Tarkir played out, and so far, Kaladesh reminds me a lot of that environment. You can still draft quite aggressive decks, but you can also draft decks which are able to stop those.
This is my stance right now, but I am still in the process of absorbing and analyzing information.
For those who care, a few words on another topic: I have reconsidered some choices for my Limited Card Pool.
Saheeli’s Artistry will not make it – I like the card, but it is not too original or essential, and I just noticed that it would be the only creator of noncreature tokens in my pool. For that one card (which would also only show up every third draft in a cube, since it is certainly a rare), this extra complication isn’t worth it.
I am still sad that I had to remove Jayemdae Tome from my pool, but it just got never played, because it is so slow. I am afraid that the same is true for Whirlermaker, but then again costing one mana less is some help, and immediately adding board presence (albeit just a little) might just make the difference. I’ve seen the card crop up in a couple lists, and although I am still not convinced of its validity in Kaladesh, some of my cubes might create an even more favorable environment for it, so I’ll give it a whirl.
On the other end of the spectrum, Key to the City is a bit powerful for my taste, and it is also a bit close to the more elegant Jalum Tome, but it might still be a good option for a cube with an overall higher power level. I do have an opening for a low-cost rare artifact, and the Key might be a decent choice.