D&D: Adventures in the Forgotten Realms (AFR) Limited Set Review: Introduction
D&D: Adventures in the Forgotten Realms (AFR)
Welcome back! I’m Drifter and I’m back with my sixth MTG Arena Zone set review in a row, with thanks to Terence for formatting and hosting! Similar to other set reviews you might’ve seen in the past, I’ll be going through and rating every single card using the system below, in colour order (WUBRG). Adventures in the Forgotten Realms releases on Arena on 8th July and sadly I won’t have all the reviews out by then, since this time there’s a gap of only two days between the release of all the spoilers and the set release. Expect a couple of them to be out and the remainder to be released daily afterwards!
After the review has been entirely published, we’ll be compiling a full tier list for your viewing pleasure, which will be updated regularly over the coming months – check out the Strixhaven, Kaldheim and Kaladesh Remastered Tier Lists, which link to their attached reviews and written updates, for an illustration of what’s to come!
Please read on for my introduction, some background on the aims of this review, some points of clarification, and the ins and outs of the system I’m using. This time, we’re separating the introduction from the White set review, so click the link above if you’d like to jump ahead! I recommend you at least give the things to consider and mechanics sections below a skim first though.
I’ve been enthralled by Limited ever since I began playing Magic a decade ago. With a particular fondness for flashback and cube, I’ve drafted more sets than I can count on every platform through wildly different eras. On Arena I draft infinitely, having profited more than 50k gems with a winrate that is usually mid-70%s, and have made top 100 mythic many times. I’ve developed a solid approach and mindset through practice and reflecting on my mistakes, and I feature the techniques I use in my writing and in each session of the Limited coaching service I provide. Consider booking a session today if you’d like to learn in a more hands-on way, with feedback tailored to your strengths and weaknesses!
Things to Consider
Note: As I go through the reviews, I will add more nuances of the format to this section – some things don’t become clear until the review is underway!
- My comments are more important than my ratings in my opinion – the ratings exist more for the tier list and for people giving the review a quick skim, but my comments are where the meat of the review really lies. I will primarily talk about the specific scenarios in which the card I’m rating is good, how likely those scenarios are to come up, and how bad the failcase is if it doesn’t.
Obviously in Draft, you have a large degree of control over how often a card is good in your deck, but a good review needs to evaluate how often you’ll get enough stuff and how often it will be worth the deckbuilding cost. Usually you’ll need more than this one card as a payoff, unless you have multiple copies, and then I have to evaluate how likely it is to get multiple copies – if there are a few commons that do the same thing then great, but if you’re banking on getting specific uncommons then you weight the card highly when you already have those rather than taking it early and trying to pick them up. If a buildaround is good without much effort, it’ll obviously get a much higher grade than if you have to really work for it, but my comments will provide a lot more context and actionable advice on the matter.
- My reviews tend to include a lot of general advice in them. For this set, I’ll be continuing to use Context Corners – little asides which I’ll bubble in after card evaluations every so often. This is so you better understand some of the conclusions I reach, to separate some of the general advice from the more specific card evaluation, and to help you build your own Limited evaluation skills!
- This is primarily a Draft review and should be taken as such. I’ll try to highlight outliers when a card is much better in Sealed than Draft, but overall there are a few things one should remember about the Sealed format: Sealed is slower, you’re less likely to face aggressive decks (but if you can build a good aggressive curve, it’s even more worth doing), expensive cards and those which generate value are better, splashes* and mana sinks are better, and playing extra mana sources is more often right than in Draft. That doesn’t nearly cover all of the differences but if you keep those factors in mind, you’ll go a long way. For a more in-depth sealed strategy guide, check out this link!
- All reviews and tier lists are more accurate early on in the Draft, when picks are less contextual; this one is no exception.
- It’s very important in Limited set reviews to prioritise how you use your time, or these would just drag on forever (and they’re already extremely long!). Hence, I rate every card, but commons and uncommons are most important in terms of shaping any Limited format. I will try to spend more effort rating those, even if the rares/mythics are more complex. At the extremes of the ranges, ratings matter less – so I won’t spend too much time internally debating whether this specific bomb is an S or an A+ or whether a mostly unplayable card is a D- or an F!
- This is a first impression; the set is not out yet so I have not had the pleasure of playing with it. I’m going to get some things wrong and there’ll be some uncertainty of how things shake up. The tier list will be updated, this review will remain the same, feel free to make fun of me later on! This review, like every other review, is not the end all be all. I don’t recommend following it blindly, so much as taking it as a good guideline.
- I make a distinction between beatdown and aggressive decks in this review. To understand what I mean, click here.
- The reviews and tier list are built with human drafts in mind – they’ll still be useful for bot drafts but not as much so, since drafting those optimally involves exploiting holes in the bot algorithms.
- Early on, colourless cards tend to be better as they fit into and will enhance any deck, so they leave you more open to drafting different decks and will be good wherever you end up. We don’t take this into account in our ratings, since this only applies strongly in the first five or so picks, and then the effect drops off in importance gradually and is negligible after p2p3 (pack 2, pick 3) or so. P1p1, you want to take good colourless cards at about a grade distinction higher e.g. B instead of B-.
- When considering how good a card is in the context of the format, I will chiefly look at common and uncommon payoffs (and link to them in Scryfall links and such). If really a large number of rares act as payoffs, enough that you can reliably get one, then that might affect the grade, but that almost never happens and I will mention if it does.
- Early on, multicolour cards tend to be worse since they fit into fewer decks, and will be wasted picks if you don’t end up in those two colours. However, cards that are good splashes are often somewhat saved from this effect, depending on the format’s fixing. In a format where you can splash in either green or blue (the fixing is good enough in either colour) a green blue card is a much safer early pick than a format where you can only splash in green – twice as many potential decks can play it.
This might sound confusing at first, but the more good splash cards there are in the format, the less you need to pick them up. This is because it’s rare that you’ll want to splash multiple colours unless the fixing is really very good, so you don’t need that many splash cards and they’ll have diminishing returns, hence you don’t want to prioritise them as much early (unless they’re really busted). Also you have more information later in the draft – not taking splashes highly early means you don’t get into spots where you end up with a bunch of Gruul splash cards but have fixing in Golgari, for example.
It’s worth noting that AFR doesn’t have great fixing, and I expect only Red/Black decks with lots of treasure tokens to be able to splash consistently (and you need more of those than regular sources, since they’re one-shots). I’ll go into more detail when we see some of the treasure generation cards, and give some rough figures.
- I do factor mana cost into my ratings – if a card is easy to play in two colours, it won’t get much of a grade knock for this effect, but if it’s colour-intensive, it definitely will so a 1RRR card will receive much lower grade than a 3R card.
- Sideboard-only cards are graded as though they would go in the maindeck e.g. they generally receive bad ratings but good descriptions, unless a set is so good for that effect that you can maindeck it. That way, I can cover both best-of-one and best-of-three in one rating.
- I will refer to splashes frequently in this review. FAQ: *What are splashes? When should I splash? What makes a card a good or bad splash?
Why are reviews so weird? Why have a mission statement?
Limited reviews are very finnicky; they measure all sorts of different and wacky things. Magic is a ridiculously hard game and the ratings of cards are so contextual that having a universal and objective way of measuring precisely how good a card is is impossible. Even when you’re just considering whether to pick a card, there are a multitude of variables to account for. To name just a few, let’s take a card as seemingly innocuous as Smitten Swordmaster from Throne of Eldraine as an example: How early in the draft is it? How likely are you to be in Black? How many 2 drops do you have vs how many 2 drops do you expect to need (more in aggressive decks)? How many knights do you have or expect to end up with? Is there anything specific about the format that makes the Swordmaster pick better or worse – is black especially good or bad, are 2/1s often liabilities because ping effects are abundant or because there are lots of 1/3s or 0/4s, are 2 drops especially important because there aren’t many, are the Adventure decks just so busted that you should try to move in on those? Maybe you shouldn’t move in because, if they are busted, everyone’s going to snap up the payoffs like Lucky Clover… (especially if they’re powerful enough to get banned). What kind of balance should you strike then?
This is by no means a comprehensive list, and I could give that example for many different cards.
The reality is that in a draft, most of us won’t be considering all these factors, because we just don’t have time or we can’t be bothered, or, with practice, these things will just come naturally without thinking. But a good review has to, and if you’re doing them early then you don’t have that practice. A good review must account for all the factors that lead to making a draft pick, but do so in a vacuum rather than through direct comparison to other cards, and that’s very difficult because as you can see above, there’s really a lot to it… so you can approach a review in many different ways: a lot of them are pick orders or aim to assess the quality of p1p1s for this reason, or they just seek to capture the rather mystical concept of “general power level”. To maximise usefulness, I feel like we really need to state what we intend to do and what angle we’re approaching from specifically.
The mission statement of this review (and later tier list)
I am rating how good the cards are likely to be in the composition of the final deck, taking educated and researched guesses at what average well-drafted decks in the format will look like, and how well the cards will fit into them. For example, if a card requires auras to be useful, I’m considering how many auras you’re likely to get, how good the payoff is for getting there, how bad the failcase is if you don’t quite get there, and other considerations like how well the card fits into the format’s ideal curve – some formats have a lot of good 4 drops, so the weaker 4 drops get a ton worse, and some formats are fast so 6 and 7 drops get a lot worse. Whenever there are specific good cases for the card (like if a card is really good in aggro and not in other decks), I’ll state them and factor them into my ratings.
In this way, at least in theory, this should give a good idea of how early one should be picking the cards and how to weight them – if a card isn’t all that likely to actually work out, then it follows that you shouldn’t pick it that highly. It’s not an exact science, because players tend to under and overvalue things a lot and, as the draft meta adapts to and counteracts their whims, it changes and evolves. Draft self-corrects all the time, and a good drafter has to account for these changes. That’s not something I can solve on day one though – my updates to the tier list will have to address that.
Mechanics of Adventures in the Forgotten Realms (AFR)
First check out the Limited guide on Mechanics – I won’t be explaining how the mechanics work so much as how I rate around them!
a) Dungeons are the flashiest mechanic to be introduced, and there are a bunch of cards that say “venture into the dungeon” on them. In order to rate these cards, I have to do so in the context of each of the three dungeons, since you get to pick whichever path you want to take. So let’s go over what I think of each of the three dungeons before we start the review!
- Lost Mine of Phandelver is the dungeon I expect to venture on the most. There are a ton of cards with bonuses if you’ve completed a dungeon, and it’s tied for easiest to complete but has better effects than Tomb of Annihilation in most decks and circumstances. This is the path you want to take if your deck doesn’t have tons of Venture cards and is just dipping into the strategy, wants to enable its dungeon completion payoffs quickly, or you need an immediate payoff e.g. you don’t have many Venture cards left later in the game and need to start a new dungeon.
- Dungeon of the Mad Mage is hard to get great value off of unless you have really a ton of venture cards, since the effects are kind of medium until the fifth tier – it’s sort of like Lost Mine of Phandelver slowed down a stage, but with greater payoffs if you do complete it. If you have lifegain synergies, which are mostly in Selesnya, you’ll definitely pick it more often since the first mode is next to worthless without those and potentially very good with them. I expect the really dedicated Venture decks to go down this route.
- Tomb of Annihilation’s effects are good in a specific sort of deck or specific sort of game – one where you’re trying to burn your opponent down as fast as possible, and don’t really care about incremental value. The fact that all the modes are symmetrical means you have to be pretty far ahead, and beatdown decks in Limited often have to plan for being behind much more than they do in Constructed. The final mode is very powerful and could well be worth giving up some value, especially if you have enough Ventures to get it off really early.
I don’t expect that you should go down the Oubliette path very often at all – it’s only likely to be worth it in the very late game where you don’t have access to more Venture cards, sacrificing a land matters less, and you really need a creature.
- Within the review, I’ll try to evaluate the Venture cards in the context of all three of these dungeons, but I won’t mention them unless there’s an important difference in evaluation/specific synergy with one of them.
b) Many cards in AFR have you roll a D20 to see how good a bonus you get.
This is a mechanic I would usually be very against since I like to be able to rely on my cards, but it seems like they’ve done it in a reasonable manner by and large. In most cases, the cards are fine even if you roll low and just have a significantly better bonus if you happen to roll high – luckily there won’t be tons of cases where you just lose the game if you roll a 1 and win it if you roll a 20!
I’ll mostly be rating these cards on average case – e.g. I won’t be weighting the ratings very heavily in favour of an effect that happens when you roll a 1 or 20, but I will be on rolls that are more likely. If for example, an effect happens if you roll a 1-10 and a different effect happens when you roll a 11-20, I’ll treat the card as two separate cards and average the rating, and talk about that in my description. If the effects are hindered by variance, I’ll talk about that too e.g. if a card deals a random amount of damage to something then that’s a detriment, since you won’t be able to rely on the card to kill the things you want unless far more of the common cases do so than don’t. I’ll talk about how to properly use the card in that case e.g. maybe you want to settle for using it as 3 damage rather than 5. Luckily, that doesn’t seem to happen too often either!
c) Classes are a new kind of enchantment that give a subset of cards various bonuses (e.g. lifegain cards for the Cleric class). You can pay a certain amount of mana to level up the bonus, and you get that on top of the previous one – so at level 2, you get both bonuses and all of them at level 3. I’ll rate these as I do any other card – evaluate the baseline, then how efficient and powerful the mana sink abilities are, all within the context of how easy it is to build around that subset of cards. If a class is really good even if you only have a few cards of that subset, it’s likely to get a much higher grade than if you have to be really dedicated to the strategy to get a good payoff.
- S: Ridiculous bomb: has a huge immediate impact on the game and threatens to dominate it if unanswered. Often hard to answer. (Professor Onyx, Kaya the Inexorable, Emeria’s Call)
- A: Bomb or one of the best cards in your deck, pulls you strongly into its colour. (A+: Tanazir Quandrix, A: Sparring Regimen, A-: Swords to Plowshares)
- B: Great playable: happy to pick early, pulls you into its colour or archetype. (B+: Igneous Inspiration, B: Returned Pastcaller B-: Frost Trickster)
- C+: Good playable that rarely gets cut, or very good in the right deck. (Pigment Storm, Karok Wrangler, Divide by Zero)
- C: Fine playable, sometimes gets cut. (Snow Day, Leech Fanatic, Fortifying Draught)
- C-: Mediocre playable or decent filler, gets cut around half the time. (Sudden Breakthrough, Arcane Subtraction, Vortex Runner)
- D: Medium to bad filler, gets cut a lot. (D+: Springmane Cervin, D: Hall Monitor, D-: Detention Vortex)
- F: Cards that are unplayable in the vast majority of decks. (Dragon’s Approach, Secret Rendezvous, Fracture since it’s a sideboard card in most sets)
Grades are based on maindeck power level; if a card is good in the sideboard, I will mention it in the review. Every grade can have a sub-grade within it, but the differences are most pronounced in the C-Category, so they have their own description. Beyond that, a B+ means it’s almost an A, but not quite.
Drifter’s Context Corner: What separates beatdown and aggressive decks?
Decks in Constructed and Draft are very different. Many decks in Draft want to be ahead and attacking in the early and mid-game, and have draws that are good at that, but they’re not like constructed aggressive decks at all. Those are specifically low curve, they don’t have high end, and they make up for that with tricks and burn spells: ways to close out games against weakened opponents when their creatures can no longer attack. They completely collapse when they’re behind, so their gameplan is to always be ahead for as long as they can.
That’s just not how the vast majority of decks in Draft are. Sure, they’ll have more early game, but they’ll still have ways to play from behind because it’s so much harder to curve out perfectly in most Draft formats, and it’s very hard to break the play-draw tension or beat your opponents when they curve out better than you as a dedicated aggressive deck, because your early game cards aren’t that amazing. Your beatdown 2 drops will get stopped a lot more by opposing 3s and such, and you’re often forced to sacrifice synergy and having every card on-plan for the sake of card quality. Fast decks can still win a lot of games in Draft just by including a little high end or value, or by having a backup plan and playing in a dynamic way, because your opponent doesn’t have busted haymakers that rapidly turn the corner and punish you for not killing them by turn 5. Rigid gameplans just don’t work as well in a really dynamic format, where games are so different from each other. For that reason, most decks in Draft (we’re talking 90%+) are some flavour of midrange.
I think the distinction between dedicated aggression and what goes on in Draft is important and not always clear in people’s minds, so I use different terminology – I view beatdown decks as the much more common sort, and aggro decks as the more dedicated rarer sort. Midrange beatdown decks form part of that 90%, whereas aggressive decks are part of the 10%. A deck like Selesnya Counters in M21, one of the best decks in the format, would qualify as a beatdown deck, but not an aggressive one – it doesn’t necessarily have no high end and often it will try to grind people out or go over the top of them, but it still wants to attack early and often, and it still has some characteristics of aggressive decks.