Compulsion’s Ikoria Draft Tier List and Strategy Update – June 2020
Under normal circumstances I would have done an update in May as well, but things have been anything but normal. May quarantines have given way to June protests, so it is anyone’s guess how long it is going to be until we return to the mean. Looking over my Tier List ratings from the initial set review back in April, I was surprised by how many I still agree with. In fact, if I would have done a Tier List update a few weeks ago I am certain several of those changes would have ended up getting switched back in this update. It goes to show how quickly the meta can transform and retrace. Still, there are about 30 cards which I felt needed to be addressed in this update. Rather than just dump all of the changes here, I decided it would be prudent to sort them and use this article to highlight some lessons I have learned in IKO Draft over the last couple months. If you want to bookmark the updated Tier List for your reference you can find it here:
In my ratings prior to set release I was fairly conservative when it came to the Cycling archetype. The tools were there but I was skeptical that dedicated Cycling decks packing Zenith Flares were going to come together often, and I was mostly wrong. As long as you are able to find Snare Tacticians and threats like Spelleater Wolverine and Reptilian Reflection to capitalize, it is generally easy to find enough cards with cycling to fill out the deck. It is also neat to have utility cards such as Shredded Sails (Go for Blood and Raking Claws being better options in Red) that can enable cycling or actually be used if the opportunity presents itself. All that said, I have found Cycling to be a high risk/reward draft. The deck was completely broken early on, but after a couple months the jig is very much up and everyone in your drafts is going to be very aware of it. I tend to avoid it unless I receive strong signals in pack 1 that it is open. After getting burned on a couple drafts where I committed to a Cycling deck in the first half only to find little support in the second has made me wary. The payoff is there sometimes though, as I am sure all of us have either drafted or gotten blown out by oppressive Cycling decks at this point.
Slow and Steady Wins the Race
It is also worth noting how slow Ikoria tends to be. Cards that initially seemed slow like Bushmeat Poacher and Blitz Leech are actually quite good. Card advantage is really important, and even a card like Cathartic Reunion ends up being playable. Even though it is card neutral, having mana sinks or ways to prevent flooding is crucial in this set, especially if your deck packs more than a couple Cycling cards. Due to the abundance of quality removal, you want your expensive creatures to create immediate value (Chittering Harvester, Archipelagore) or have survivability. Wingfold Pteron has surprised me with how much it overperforms in this set because of Hexproof. Having a good blocker and Mutate target that cannot be easily removed is a huge asset in this format. There have also been quite a few creatures that ended up being worse than they looked.
Creatures are Unreliable
Removal is just too damn good in Ikoria. Creatures that would be considered efficient in most formats tend to get tapped down, bounced, or killed outright in IKO. Your 4+ mana creatures really need to impact the board right away or they are unlikely to be more than filler. While Patagia Tiger does provide some value from its EtB buff, most White decks tend to keep a very low curve.
Mana is for Dorks
Green Ramp looked really great on paper, but it seriously underperforms in the face of good removal. Trading cards to present earlier threats is just not where you want to be in this format. And really that is the downside to playing the 3+ color ‘good stuff’ decks. Needing to play Crystals or Fertilid in order to set up your spells ends up putting you too far behind on the board most games. It is very easy to get behind on tempo and find yourself in an unwinnable position unless your opponent is completely flooding out. I can’t remember the last set where so many games end up reaching a spot where I know I am going to win 2-3 turns before I actually do (and vice versa). The abundance of removal and tempo plays can turn a small advantage into an insurmountable one in a hurry. To combat this, it is much better to establish a lot of board presence rather than relying on singular threats.
Expendable is the New Dependable
There are many tools in this set for getting value out of small creatures, but these three have overperformed my initial expectations. Grindy decks thrive in slow formats with good removal, and many of my 7-X drafts would fit that description. Sometimes there are Mutate, Human, or even Lifelink themes. Each deck is unique and incorporates different synergy, which I think is a great strength to this format. But if I had to find a common thread between my successful Drafts it would have to be that they had cheap/efficient creatures with ways to get additional value out of them and great removal options.
The Meek Shall Inherit Ikoria
It is a bit ironic that low-cost value creatures are where it is at in the Godzilla set, but here we are. Even with my Green decks I have found it better to flood the board with smaller creatures rather than ramp into expensive ones. I generally avoid Green in this set though unless there are strong signals such as a mid-pick Back for More or very late Essence Symbiote. Green isn’t that bad in this set but it ends up being the least versatile color in a grindy format like this. So what should you be drafting?
As with any set, it is really important to pay attention to signals and stay as open as possible. There are a lot of great multicolor cards that say a lot about the state of your draft when you see them late. It can be extremely rewarding in this set to find the open color(s), especially in pack 3. Premier Draft on Arena is expensive to play so players tend not to rare draft, resulting in some surprisingly great rewards for being in the right colors.
All things being equal I like being in Red at the start of pack 1 because it pairs well with any color. With the exception of the rare, absolutely busted Cycling deck coming together, I think the best decks in the format are grindy ones in some combination of Mardu colors. Weenie creatures maintain board presence and there are a ton of ways to trade them up. From there it is a sea of Tier 2 possibilities, but prioritizing Synergy between your picks is the most important thing you can do. This set has very few archetypes compared to most, but the number of themes is off the charts. Figuring out your themes after the first couple picks in pack 2 sets you up to choose the correct ‘filler’ for the rest of the draft. Keep in mind that just because two cards have the same rating on a Tier List it does not mean they will perform equally well in a given deck.
Enjoy the Last Few Weeks of IKO
I am excited to move on soon to Core Set 2021 and see what the new set has to offer. To be honest, I haven’t had too much love for Ikoria. So many of my games have been blowouts one way or the other. With 3+ color decks and the Cycling mechanic, variance has been really noticeable. Mana flood/screw has impacted a staggering number of my games. Playing fewer lands than normal is usually correct in this set, but I think that is making the variance even more noticeable. BO3 drafts do feel a bit better, but I am a sucker for that grind up to Mythic. Anyway, hopefully these last few weeks will change my mind, because it isn’t all bad. IKO has a very high skill ceiling when it comes to the Draft, I just wish the gameplay felt the same way.