Core Set 2021 Draft Guide
A fresh Limited format is upon us and I suspect the transition from Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths has been jarring for most players. Although Ikoria was creature heavy and not entirely unlike Core Set 2021, there are some key differences which I would like to address first. After that, I am going to discuss each archetype in some detail and highlight the most important common and uncommon cards to Draft for each. The ‘Gold’ cards serve as great signposts for the theme of each archetype and they look straightforward enough, but I have discovered key synergies and deck strategies which I would like to share. There are already some good overview articles out there, so this one is meant to build upon those and I am going to assume you have a basic understanding of the set and are looking to deepen that knowledge and improve your decks. I would be wary of Tier Lists and rankings of ‘best commons for each color.’ Especially in this set, individual card rankings are archetype dependent and really come down to the nature and composition of each deck. Identifying powerful cards is a good starting point, but in this guide the objective is to increase your skill in recognizing ways cards can work together and building cohesive decks in M21.
Mindset Shifts for M21
With Ikoria I think everyone got used to playing fewer than 17 lands, and this was for good reason. Due of the ubiquity of Cycling cards and mana fixing via cards such as Farfinder, Ikoria had one of the lowest optimal Land/Spell ratios of any format. However, when approaching deck construction in M21 it is important to return to fundamentals. Most decks should have 17 lands in this format with some outliers here and there. In Core Set Limited, your top priority should be assembling sufficient creatures into a good curve. As a rough framework you should have about 17 creatures and sufficient spells to have a play both 2nd and 3rd turn nearly all of the time. Even though there are many great 4+ mana spells to choose from, it is important to be selective about them and limit how many you play. Sometimes you will have to make tough decisions:
This is a UW Flyers deck I drafted recently that subsequently went 3-0 in Traditional Draft. When I took this screenshot I still needed to make two cuts, which were quite difficult because there are a lot of amazing cards here. Although it might be tempting to cut a card like Concordia Pegasus in this situation, it wouldn’t be a good idea. This curve is already stretched to the maximum in favor of 4+ mana spells. So, I bit the bullet and cut one Rain of Revelation and one Gale Swooper, creating what I would consider an optimal ratio of 17 creatures, 6 non creature spells that prioritize Removal/Card Draw, and 17 Lands. Of course, there are good reasons to amend this ratio so let’s look at a couple other cases:
I have had a really good run in Traditional Draft so far and all of the decks in this article went 3-0. This example had about as low of a curve as you are likely to see in M21, allowing me to get away with playing only 15 lands. Mazemind Tome and Defiant Strike allowed me to further justify going so low.
We will discuss the GW archetype in more detail later, but this example interestingly only featured a minor +1/+1 counter theme. The real star of the deck was Daybreak Charger. Among other things, it added a lot of value to playing 1-drop creatures which were further augmented by Combat Tricks and Auras/Equipment. This is definitely an example of a deck that is more than the sum of its parts, allowing several cards that would be rated below average in a vacuum to shine. Defiant Strike was particularly good, activating Drowsing Tyrannodon, powering up Burlfist Oak or Siege Striker, and generally allowing my creatures to trade up or in some cases win combat outright. I did include Nine Lives to test it out and won a game with it against a deck racing me with two Spined Megalodon. Nine Lives effectively shut down their attacks and set me up to win. In another match I boarded it out after seeing my opponent had multiple Chandra’s Magmutt. At this point I see Nine Lives as being fairly situational, but I do like it quite a bit in bo3.
In this article I will refrain from discussing Rare cards too much, since they will be drafted much less frequently. It is good to look for cute interactions with them though, such as Primal Might on Speaker of the Heavens or Mazemind Tome with Burlfist Oak. Sometimes players go overboard building around specific rares when they find them, but overall you do want your rares to fit snugly into your deck. Just keep in mind that the best cards are good on their own while also enabling and/or paying off things your deck already wants to do. As you draft and build decks, Curve and Composition should be on the forefront of your mind, but the back should still be imagining ways each card can harmonize:
Furious Rise performed really well in Theros: Beyond Death and I think a lot of players still see it as a GR card, but I actually think RW is a better fit for it in this set. There are a lot of easy to find ways to enable it including Daybreak Charger, Igneous Cur, Basri’s Acolyte, and Battle-Rattle Shaman. We will take a deeper look into RW soon, but I do find its 3-drop creatures generally lacking. Luckily, there so many solid 2-drop options that you can easily play one second and third turn and feel fine about it. Shifting the curve in this way also allows you to get away with 16 lands since you are very likely to have plays even if you get stuck some games. From what I have seen Angelic Ascension seems like a controversial card, but I believe it is worth playing in almost any deck. On its face spending two cards to get a 4/4 Angel may seem underwhelming, but the Instant speed makes it really easy to make card neutral. Whether you are ‘countering’ a removal spell and upgrading a creature or eating a smaller creature with a surprise 4/4 blocker, Angelic Ascension tends to play really well. It also served as a neat way to enable Furious Rise in this deck.
Before we dive deeper into the archetypes, there is another distinction I would like make between Ikoria and M21 that has some fairly broad consequences. In IKO the removal was far more abundant than in this set. For example, you could easily pick up a card like Rumbling Rockslide late in the draft and it often wouldn’t even make the cut against more premium removal spells. I bring this up because even though there are some very good removal options in Core Set 2021, you are usually going to need to make sacrifices in order to obtain them in your drafts. As we explore the archetypes and their important enablers it may become tempting to take let’s say Obsessive Stitcher over Grasp of Darkness, or Conclave Mentor over Faith’s Fetters. Ultimately, earning 2-for-1’s with removal during combat or shutting down your opponent’s Bombs or key synergy is worth more than furthering your own synergy in this set. There are a lot of beneficial card interactions you can build within your deck, even with later draft picks. Removal spells are much more difficult to come by and should be valued accordingly. Additionally, the relative scarcity of removal adds value to Evasive and high-curve creatures, which will more often stick around to justify their inflated mana costs. Now, let’s take a closer look at the archetypes of M21 and which common and uncommon cards are best to draft for them.
I have broken the archetypes down by suggested deck strategy, but it is worth noting that many of these color combinations can be tweaked to run more or less aggressive. Making distinctions between Aggro/Midrange/Control/Combo decks in Limited is somewhat arbitrary.
This archetype, for example, is very often going to be best played as a low curve go-wide deck similar to the one I placed in the previous section. But, there is enough flexibility in the format to support midrange builds such as this recent 3-0 draft:
You will notice I used the trick of loading up on 2-drops again in this deck, but ran 17 lands in order to support a pair of Hellkite Punisher finishers. It isn’t a very clean deck though, you can see from the sideboard I tried to get into GR but it didn’t work out. But, it should still show how creature-heavy decks with a good curve can be successful in this format even if they don’t come together perfectly. At this point I would like to shift away from analyzing specific decks and examine the best common and uncommon cards for each archetype.
Best Uncommon Creatures
Alpine Houndmaster is almost essential for building RW Aggro, otherwise you are likely to run out of steam. After that, none of the uncommon creatures are particularly important to the deck, as it can run very well with mostly common cards:
Best Common Creatures
You definitely want to have Alpine Houndmaster before prioritizing Watchdog and Cur, but they are both quite solid in this format even if you don’t draw Houndmaster. Daybreak Charger, Basri’s Acolyte, and Gale Swooper are three of the best reasons to play White in M21 and lend themselves well to an Aggro strategy. Chandra’s Magmutt has been overperforming already high expectations as well, providing much needed reach damage for Aggro decks.
Best Noncreature Spells
So yeah, clearly removal is the priority here. But what should you draft if you cannot find these spells? Based on how M21 is playing I would generally avoid combat tricks. I don’t think you want to run cards like Sure Strike, as your creatures are generally expendable and it is almost always better to trade them out and keep building up your board. I generally like combat tricks a lot more when they have the potential to blow up stack blocks, and RW is unlikely to create those opportunities. If your deck needs ways to enable attacks I actually like Dub in this set. Playing it on Igneous Cur or Alpine Watchdog, for example, gets them out of range of Shock or Scorching Dragonfire and either threatens a ton of damage if they don’t block (Cur) or prevents your opponent from racing you until they can remove it (Watchdog). Grasp of Darkness is still going to ruin your game, but that is the risk of playing Auras and I still think they are actually decent in M21. Furor of the Bitten is even more risky because at some point your opponent may be able to eat both cards for free, but there would be a place for it in a blitzing 15 land sort of deck.
These colors combine for a surprisingly strong Aggro combination, supported by a +1/+1 counter theme that allows early drops to scale up throughout the game.
Best Uncommon Creatures
The +1/+1 counter theme is well supported with these cards. You sort of end up needing to go down one of two paths, though. Either you find multiple copies of Conclave Mentor and lots of enablers, or you need to focus on getting aggressive early and often. Either way, Vryn Wingmare is pretty sweet because you are going to have a low count of Noncreature stuff and it slows down your opponents removal on your creatures, many of which can get pretty out of control if left unchecked.
Best Common Creatures
The White creatures are the same as the RW section because they are too darn good, but don’t sleep on Drowsing Tyrannodon! It is quite easy to get attacking in this archetype and two mana 3/3’s are a huge threat in Core Set Limited. Even though the mana Ramp tends to be less relevant in GW, Llanowar Visionary is still a ‘free’ creature and well worth drafting fairly early. Trufflesnout is better than it looks as 3-mana 3/3’s are solid in core sets, it pairs really well with payoffs like Conclave Mentor, and the situational lifegain can be a great way to stymy an opponent that is trying to race you. Pridemalkin is quite good in that slot as well. Overall these colors have a lot of good options at common.
Best Noncreature Spells
Removal is a little tougher in these colors, but the thing is your creatures should be able to attack most of the time due to the +1/+1 counter support. I like Feat of Resistance quite a bit in this deck because you tend to have creatures worth saving and it furthers your theme. I think Griffin Aerie can have a place in this archetype as well due to incidental life gain on cards like Trufflesnout supporting the copies Revitalize you would need to draft to reliably trigger the aerie. Including a sub theme like that will slow down your deck, but 2/2 flyers are situated well in M21 so it can be worth it.
Nearly every other archetype falls in the midrange category, but each is unique and some rely on specific ‘combos’ while others tend to control the board more often, so I will be classifying and depicting them accordingly.
I really love this combination in M21 so far. The theme is drawing extra cards, which is already a wonderful thing to be doing in Magic: The Gathering. Finding quality removal can be a challenge, but there are many good tools for pressuring your opponent as you generate card advantage.
Best Uncommon Creatures
There are some great payoffs at the high end of your curve, but it is important to have enough support to stay alive long enough to play them. Thrashing Brontodon is always good but it is a particularly nice inclusion in this archetype to help shut down attacks. My favorites here are Lorescale Coatl and Warden of the Woods, though.
Best Common Creatures
One downside this archetype has is there is a lot of filler at common. You can still make use of it to round out your decks, but there are only a few common creatures to get excited about. I would include Keen Glidemaster as filler, but do think it performs particularly well in UG due to its large threats which tend to lack trample. It also partners well with Library Larcenist, a card I have been liking a lot. There are a few ways to get it attacking at least twice, and it is a great enabler in this archetype. Roaming Ghostlight and Llanowar Visionary are your premium common creatures, though, and you want as many of each as you can find.
Best Noncreature Spells
There are a lot of great spells in Blue, as Enthralling Hold and Teferi’s Tutelage (more on this card later) would be well worth including here as well. As I mentioned earlier removal options are pretty rough, with only Hunter’s Edge and Capture Sphere to hold down the fort. Rousing Read is absolutely amazing though, so we will call it a wash. I really like how it pairs with Library Larcenist or Warden of the Woods, but it is always great unless you make the mistake of casting it into a removal spell. Rain of Revelation is another great draw spell, and leaving mana open for it or Capture Sphere opens up the possibility of playing Fungal Rebirth. I don’t see myself casting Fungal Rebirth outside of UG, but you tend to have permanents well worth recycling and it can generate much needed blockers. Not every UG deck will want Cultivate, but getting Roaming Ghostlight or Waker of Waves out a turn earlier can be the difference between stabilizing or folding against an Aggro deck.
GR is the other Ramp archetype of the set and has the most payoff for the 4+ Power matters theme. Since we have already seen most of the best spells for this archetype I want to highlight the cards the best payoff this theme.
4 Power Matters Cards
Palladium Myr can be a great fit for this deck as well (or UG) if you have good things to Ramp into. Volcanic Geyser is also a great card in a RG deck like that. But overall there really isn’t a ton of support in M21 for this archetype, although it can still be pretty good if you find enough Red removal and put together a decent curve.
I am a huge fan of playing UW Flyers in Limited, and M21 is a fantastic format for it. Once again, we have already seen most of the key cards for this deck but i’d like to highlight some cards that are more specific to this archetype. My UW draft from the beginning of this article may be worth a second look to see how the better UW cards can really come together.
I also like Skyscanner quite a bit in decks that have Watcher of the Spheres and/or Tide Skimmer. Falconer Adept is a bit slow and needs to be granted evasion to really payoff, but there are some ways to accomplish that. Most archetypes have very little answer to Flying, making UW very powerful so long as you can control the board well enough to enable attacks.
These archetypes are still essentially midrange, but rely on synergies and mechanics which make them more reliant on specific combinations of cards to function properly. Paying attention to signals in Draft is always important, but it is crucial that you have good reason to believe these archetypes are open before committing to them, otherwise it is unlikely there will be sufficient copies of key cards to go around in your Draft pool.
This archetype in Core Set 2021 is heavily geared toward noncreature spells, so your deck composition will often only contain 14-15 creatures when you play these colors. This is because your optimal creatures will benefit from this composition due to Prowess or related abilities.
A successful UR deck is going to need to find these creatures. Spellgorger Weird is particularly important and you want to find as many copies as possible. I have grouped Common and Uncommon creatures in this section because there really aren’t that many relevant ones to this archetype. Sometimes you will find sub themes such as noncombat damage and incorporate cards like Chandra’s Magmutt and Chandra’s Pyreling, but primarily you want to be in a position to capitalize from casting the great noncreature spells available to these colors.
Best Noncreature Spells
Rousing Read and the Removal spells are the most important here. Spells like Enthralling Hold, Riddleform, and Goblin Wizardry can help you maintain board presence despite running fewer dedicated creatures. Goblin Wizardry (and Prowess in general) have overperformed what I had initially thought. These decks can make good use of Opt and even Crash Through if you find enough Prowess to make it worthwhile.
UR is very powerful when it comes together, but unfortunately nearly all of the cards I have listed in this section are also very good for other archetypes, so unfortunately you will need to fight for your important spells in draft. Finding Spellgorger Weird late in pack 1 is a good signal that the UR archetype may be open, but you can never rely on good Blue or Red spells to wrap. Here is an example of a successful UR Draft I had:
BW is the dedicated Lifegain deck, and I think it is incredibly important to Draft multiples of one particular card:
Griffin Aerie, and to a lesser extent Silversmote Ghoul and Sanguine Indulgence are good supporting payoffs, but Indulging Patrician should be your primary win condition. There are a ton of triggers for it including Revitalize and Tavern Swindler, or it can even power itself with some buffing. Again, I would want multiple copies of Indulging Patrician before diving into this archetype, but there are enough ways to support/recur it to make this archetype extremely dangerous when it comes together.
Okay, so Black can pair with White and payoff lifegain. But what about BR? BG?? I must admit that I do not consider these archetypes to be very good in M21. It is still very early and I am open to changing my opinion, but these archetypes have some things working against them. BR decks tend to feature creatures that get outclassed quickly, the abundance of lifegain in the format makes it hard to find enough reach damage in a few matchups, and the sacrifice theme seems pretty half-baked in this set. BG also suffers from a fairly unfocused theme, benefiting from creatures dying but not having very good payoffs besides Twinblade Assassins (the signpost card). BG is further troubled by its lack of relevant 2-drops. Am I saying you should never draft these colors together? Absolutely not! But in order to justify it you need to find Black cards that are individually powerful to make up for the lack of synergy. So, let’s take a look at those:
Best Black Creatures
After these cards Black falls off pretty quickly, but there are some great value creatures here. Some people are sleeping on Skeleton Archer but this is the best format for it to date, having many playable targets it can kill outright. Fetid Imp is the least of these, but it still can trade with anything that doesn’t have first strike, allowing you to hold off threats as long as you can leave a Swamp open.
Best Black Noncreature Spells
The removal spells are going to be the best reason to get into Black, but the others provide a ton of value as well. Malefic Scythe allows your creatures to continue to scale up against decks that outclass them, Sanctum of Stone Fangs provides excellent reach damage, and Village Rites is a very cheap way to respond to removal or combat tricks and obtain value. Other decks will likely have stronger creatures and/or card advantage, so all six of these noncreature spells are very important for keeping pace. If Black is open enough to find the important cards, then by all means you should draft them! However, I do find Black less overpowering in this set than it has been in (many) recent formats if you have to play a lot of filler.
Here is an archetype that has been on a lot of people’s minds. It isn’t so much an archetype as a single card that is really easy to enable and win games. The key is controlling the board long enough to get there. Without further ado:
There is basically just one Mill card in this set, but it is a doozy. If you are lucky enough to find multiple copies, Teferi’s Tutelage is worth building around with a defensive strategy and many ways to draw extra cards. This would be a natural pairing with Black, giving you access to additional removal options. Keep in mind that most Blue decks are going to prioritize drafting this card, since it is an alternate win condition even in decks that aren’t necessarily building around it. I was pretty high on this card in the set review, seeing it as an improved Psychic Corrosion, but I have seen some people sleeping on it. I am sure by now most people are catching on to how insane it can be, so I would expect Teferi’s Tutelage to typically be a one-of in other archetypes rather than a build around moving forward. But hey, if you are lucky enough to find two of these early in your draft you should definitely go for it!
Finally, there is one true combo deck in this format:
There isn’t really too much to say about these, other than if you are able to get 2-3 in play they become very powerful. So naturally you are going to have decks that run 3+ colors and are packing Shrines. I have seen a few of these decks running around. A couple have been extremely good while many seemed terrible. There just isn’t a lot of support for 3+ color ‘good stuff’ decks in this set. I think the Shrines would have been much more interesting (and seen more play) in Ikoria. Still, I anticipate Shrines will remain a thing in the M21 Limited metagame. Just keep in mind that the Black one will be hardest to find, then Green and Blue. It would be unwise to draft the Red and White ones and then go all in on a Shrine deck.
Farewell for now
I hope you learned a lot from this article and as always I’d love to discuss the set with you all in the comments. I will be grinding back up to Mythic soon with this set and plan on streaming some of those decks on Twitch if you are interested. My next article will be commentary on revisions to the Tier List. Both Drifter and I will be updating our ratings on the list as the metagame evolves and our opinions change. Until then, see you on the ladder!