With Pro Tour Kaladesh occurring last weekend, this limited format is being better understood by players. As is true for any limited format, the more it’s played, the more we know about it. After watching the Pro Tour and getting a significant number of drafts under my belt, I have learned quite a bit about this format. And let me tell you, it is deep! My initial inclination about this format was pretty negative. It looked like every deck had to be aggressive, and when neither deck could get on the front-foot early, the board stalled out and combat became miserable. I am pleased to share that I was wrong about this. There are plenty of aggressive lanes during the draft, but you can still durdle if you want to. What follows are seven lessons that I have learned about this limited format.
Lesson 1: Big creatures are better than usual
Four is the magic number of toughness in Kaladesh. There are a plethora of three power creatures, so Highspire Artisan as a 1/4 is the norm. Because of this, most decks try to have ways to push through this. That creates an environment where the 4 / 5 is king. It attacks through x/4’s, as well as blocks 4/x’s. Cards like Wayward Giant and Bastion Mastodon that looked like mediocre filler have severely over-performed. Now, you can’t jam that many 5-drops in most limited decks, so you still should not draft them highly, but I am happy to include these in my decks.
To expand this even more, Cowl Prowler is much better than you would expect. A 6/6 outclasses literally everything else in the format. It even makes your Hunt the Weak more potent. The card still isn’t spectacular; it’s not efficient enough and gets blocked by servos all day. But I see Cowl Prowler in the sideboard more often than it should be. It’s not flashy or cool, but it does get the job done.
Lesson 2: Two damage is not enough
Initially, I was pretty high on the cards Die Young, Chandra’s Pyrohelix, and Furious Reprisal. Don’t get me wrong, I will still play these cards when I have them, and they will be fine, but they don’t hit as hard as I thought they would. Too many decks in this format don’t have good targets and are playing beefy creatures. Yes, Chandra’s Pyrohelix will be very good in some matchups, but it is often enough lackluster and gets sided out. Because of this, I would not be surprised if Welding Sparks turns out to be better than Furious Reprisal in most decks.
Lesson 3: Combat tricks are necessary for a successful aggro deck
Aggressive decks are very good in this format. There are so many efficient, cheap creatures that you can smash them in a deck and punish your opponent for being slow or stumbling. But, in order to succeed, you absolutely need a couple of combat tricks. Because large creatures are over-performing, the opponent will often have to tap out for a creature. If you cannot attack after this happens, you are no longer the beatdown. This is how an aggro deck loses. Having the ability to attack with a combat trick allows you to maintain your lead of tempo and continue being the beatdown.
This means cards like Built to Smash and Built to Last are extremely important. If you are identifying as an aggro deck in pack two or three of your draft, you should be taking Built to Smash over most creatures. The card is irreplaceable. I have heard many argue that Built to Smash is not great because you have to be attacking for it to perform. But, if I am an aggressive deck in this format and no longer have any attacks, not only am I losing, but some random creature is unlikely to shift the game in my favor anyway. Combat tricks let you stay ahead.
Lesson 4: Mana sinks are hard to find (and use)
Most limited formats have a significant number of mana sinks (places to use excess mana). These cards provide a level of insurance on flooding, which can be quite important. This is why Quilled Wolf was such a good two drop in Shadows over Innistrad. When you had nothing else to do, it was a 6/6. And that doesn’t even account for threat of activation, which is what makes mana sinks so hard to play against. Consider Decoction Module. Sure, you can bounce your creature to get more value from an enter-the-battlefield trigger. But, one of the most powerful parts of this card is that as long as you have four mana up, the threat of activation blanks your opponent’s removal.
In the world of Kaladesh, the two new mechanics are vehicles and energy. Both require resources other than mana to use. Because of this, mana sinks are not so common in Kaladesh limited. They need to be prioritized, especially for a control deck. A deck with so much late game needs to draw and play more lands, but you don’t want to run out of things to do. This is where cards that looked bad gain additional value. Look at the card Whirlermaker. This card appears to be really poor. Seven mana for a 1/1 flier? That’s terrible in anyone’s book! However, it has surprised me regarding playability. The fact that artifacts boost so many cards and that it gives you something to do with your mana can be perfect for some of the black control decks in this format. It’s not great and won’t make the main deck every time, but as it fills a role that doesn’t have much competition. I no longer consider the card unplayable, and it can be a completely reasonable sideboard card.
Lesson 5: Land count is often not 17
I cannot recall another limited format that had such a range of land count in successful decks. There are 18 land control decks and 14/15 land aggro decks that are completely viable in Kaladesh limited. Overall, many people have discovered that the default of 17 lands is incorrect in Kaladesh more than most limited formats. I find myself playing 16 lands lot, but not so much that the default should change to 16. As previously stated, mana sinks are hard to find. This means that a large portion of decks won’t have additional places to put their mana, which means that flooding punishes much harder than usual. This is one of the only formats where you can play a 16 land deck with some 4-drops and 5-drops, so don’t be afraid to shave that land if your curve is low enough and you have no mana sinks.
Furthermore, splashing is encouraged for the control decks. With cards like Prophetic Prism and the like, with extremely powerful gold cards at uncommon, you often end up splashing, especially if you’re green. Because green has cards like Wild Wanderer and Attune with Aether, green decks can often shave a land since they have access to commons that help get access to land.
Given all of this, I have come to the conclusion that most green aggro/midrange decks are 16 land decks, most green control decks are 17 land, most non-green control decks are 18 lands, and most non-green aggro/midrange decks depend heavily on the curve and mana sinks that you have. This is just a general heuristic to assist in building, and it won’t always be correct, but it’s important to remember that this format does not consistently default to 17 lands.
Lesson 6: Green >> White = Black >> Red = Blue
This is my ranking of colors so far. Most people, myself included, pinned green as the best color in the format early on. And, as it turns out, it isn’t particularly close. But why exactly is green so much better? The main reason is flexibility. Green can play any role you desire. It has efficient creatures to beat down early with. It has giant monsters like Riparian Tiger to take over the mid-game. It even has card advantage and ramp built into Wild Wanderer to help control decks splash and maintain an advantage on resources. The color does everything you want. Because of this, I highly value picking green cards early, since I can pair my cards with any other color and have a coherent and powerful plan.
Next, we have white and black. In general there is a consensus that these two colors are the next best, but most players are unsure which is truly better. And the fact of the matter is that it depends. The white commons stand best on their own, but the black commons are better when you control an artifact. As it turns out, controlling an artifact in black, given fabricate and correct priorities during the draft, is not difficult and pulls it up closer to the ranks of white on average. Both colors have aggressive cards, late game cards, and quality removal. But the way these cards play out in the format is just not as efficient as green.
Finally, we have red and blue, so far behind the rest. We all pinpointed blue as lacking originally, but I had red pretty high. Red has Welding Sparks and good quality creatures. But red had an unforeseen issue: the color is too linear. Other than Welding Sparks, almost every red common only excels in aggressive decks. In fact, the color is so linear that team ChannelFireball had red below blue in their Pro Tour evaluations. Blue, on the other hand, is incapable of being aggressive. If you are blue, you are doomed to durdle and try to control the game. And one of the best, if not the best, blue common, Aether Theorist, doesn’t block well enough in this format. Because these colors can only do one thing well, and they don’t do it much better than the other colors, they are worse by a significant margin. Furthermore, since red and blue do opposite things, the blue-red color combination is quite bad. I pretty much consider Whirler Virtuoso a green card at this point.
Lesson 7: Combos exist!
My last discovery is a fun one. We have had plenty of limited formats revolved around synergy, but this format has a different approach. There are a lot of synergistic ways to build your decks, but certain cards pair up in very powerful ways. It is important to be aware of this while drafting because card evaluations change based on what you have. Look at Era of Innovation. This card is pretty bad at face value. Six energy is a lot, and, although drawing three cards is powerful, building up that energy can require some set-up, and sometimes the card will do nothing. Because of this, people ignore the card in many packs. If you have the card Whirler Virtuoso with Era of Innovation, you can start making thopters for one energy and one mana. That’s very good! Add Decoction Module and it doesn’t even cost energy. Or Fabrication Module and the thopters are 2/2 fliers. Or even throw in a Salivating Gremlins and beat down with a huge trampler!
There are a surprising number of “combos” available without any rares in this format. I won’t go into all of them, but if you know what to look for, they aren’t hard to spot. Keep an eye on synergies, as combos are just synergies that get out of hand. In the example above, we see energy production, and limitless energy consumption. The key was observing that Whirler Virtuoso can be broken with additional energy production.
Enter the battlefield effects are all over this format, so looking to break some of them is one way to discover combos. Recurring cards with Decoction Module is an option, but not really a “combo” per se. It should be noted that, with so many “when a creature enters the battlefield” effects, Panharmonicon can be very powerful and enable some crazy combos. But let’s focus on commons and uncommons, like the card Ninth Bridge Patrol. The card is fine, and has synergy with other cards in this format, but what happens when you have two copies of Wispweaver Angel? Well, they target themselves infinitely and Ninth Bridge Patrol becomes as large as you desire! It’s little interactions like this we should keep in mind. If it’s pack three and you have a Ninth Bridge Patrol and a Wispweaver Angel, then take the second Wispweaver Angel when you have the chance! The fact of the matter is, although it isn’t easy to compile a three card combo, having the ability to win out of nowhere is likely more valuable than having a slightly better card in your deck.
All in all, this limited format is awesome! There is so much you can do that it’s starting to feel somewhat like cube. You can zone in on a linear aggressive strategy and just be the most efficient at beating down. You can durdle around and try to play powerful spells and four colors. And you can even piece together combos! We still have a couple months left of triple Kaladesh, and there is much more to discover beyond these seven observations.