Limited Spotlight: A Guide to War of the Spark’s Archetypes and Nuances

Welcome back, folks! War of the Spark just landed back on Arena, and it was absolutely my favourite bot draft format, so I’m incredibly excited to see how it plays out when drafting against players! This is the very first time that’s been an option, as player drafts were only introduced in Ikoria, so I recommend you all dive into one of the deepest formats we’ve seen in recent years. WAR is still easily the format I’ve drafted most on Arena, I’ve explored every single colour pair and archetype, and nevertheless I was really sad to see it go.

Generally I recommend people try as many formats as they can, even if they only draft them once or twice, since it’s a really good way to brush up on your card evaluation skills, get out of your comfort zone, and become a better drafter overall! I’m fond of magic strategy writing as well as Limited content, so expect to find lots of more general tips about draft and magic in general scattered throughout this article.

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Drifter

I’ve been enthralled by Limited ever since I began playing Magic, almost ten years ago now. I’ve drafted more sets than I can count on every platform through wildly different eras. On Arena I draft infinitely, having profited 40k or so gems with a winrate that hovers in the 70%s, and have made top 100 mythic many times. Self-reflection and forming good habits are critical to becoming a better Drafter, and those themes feature in my articles and in each session of my Limited coaching service, where I provide real-time feedback and strategies to help you improve!

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By the end of WAR, it was a format I considered myself an expert at, with an overall winrate in the high 70%s. I mostly played best-of-three, and it was one of the absolute best formats for that – jam-packed with sweet sideboard cards and options for building in completely different ways to attack different matchups. Sadly, it’s best-of-one only this time, so I’m not going to talk about that in this article, but if you’d like to learn more about sideboarding in Draft, I do have an article for that!

I’m not expecting to retain all that knowledge, but hopefully I have enough to give people a good baseline! Before we delve into the archetypes, I want to talk a bit about what factors outside of the specific decks gave WAR its identity. Let’s start with a quick round of bullet points, before we move onto the main meat of the article:

  • Black and Blue constantly compete for best colour, but the format is very well-balanced and there are no colour pairs I would shy away from, as long as they’re open. Do keep in mind though that White has a lot of medium creatures that aren’t all that good in the format, and is easily the weakest colour – but the White decks can be really strong if you’re making good use of those creatures. I’ll talk about each pair individually later on, and how best to do that.
  • Other people will tell you that WAR is a prince format, but they’re wrong – it is a format almost always decided by its commons and uncommons, because they are just so powerful. Often the rares and mythics pull you into your colours, but just end up being 2 for 1s, which is good but not gamewinning in a format with so much value.
  • Being on the play and curving out are both big advantages in WAR, despite being a slow format, because they help you keep planeswalkers off the board and ensure your opponents don’t get full value off them, and make it easier to protect yours/have the time to best set up your other payoffs. Planeswalkers are actually a very fun aspect of WAR, since there’s so much removal for them, and the uncommon ones aren’t oppressively strong in Draft – they don’t have plus abilities so there’s a ceiling to how much value they produce.
  • Every deck plays tons of noncreature cards, thanks to planeswalkers and amass cards being spells that produce creatures. As a result, cards like Spellgorger Weird and Flux Channeler end up good in most decks without too much effort (Flux Channeler can be actively broken in some!).
  • You almost always want to be straight two colours, but there are some really wacky splashes you can do with the help of New Horizons and Guild Globe – with enough of the latter, you can splash multiple colours, and the former can let you do some crazy double colour splashes. Most of the fixing cards in the set are medium cards by themselves (those two included), apart from specific uncommons like Paradise Druid and Jiang Yanggu, so only splash when it’s really worth it. Green has a pretty big monopoly on fixing, but there are a few artifacts you can get in other colours.
  • Evasion is especially good this set, because it can pressure and kill planeswalkers, so it can actively generate card advantage. You still want your evasive creatures to have decent power though – Sky Theater Strix still wants to have 7+ noncreatures minimum, and Saheeli’s Silverwing is still too inefficient to make most decks. A card like Shriekdiver is surprisingly playable (in that it’s like a C) for example.
  • Unlikely Aid is better than it looks this format – it’s removal heavy, and there’s a few removal spells with targeting restrictions to when you attack only. I’m actively happy to have 2 copies of that card in my more aggressive decks, and 1 in most decks.
  • Try to avoid playing Wall of Runes/similar defense only cards unless you’re desperate for early game. They just line up really poorly against planeswalkers – you give your opponent so much opportunity to run away with the game when you have to rely on those cards. Similarly, 1/3 is a worse statline than 2/2 this format (but sometimes they have good effects like Burning Prophet or Erratic Visionary).

A Grindy Value Format: Slow but not that Slow

WAR is more like Kaladesh Remastered or Ikoria slow than Kaldheim or Theros: Beyond Death slow – you want to make sure you’re using your mana efficiently and curving out and you don’t want to shirk on 2 drops too much, but you should certainly still play expensive cards and be ready for long attritiony games. Games can be very back and forth – the card quality across the board is really high, so your cards will just trade evenly with each other, or each generate small advantages, rather than just overwhelming your opponents. One way to break this dynamic is to draft some of the good synergy decks, like Blue-Green Proliferate, which is absolutely crushing when the right tools come together, or to have mana sinks like Spark Reaper, which will generate continuous value (something not even the uncommon planeswalkers do, since they don’t tick up!).

Value is king in WAR, and there are really a ton of cards that generate it – learn to love the card draw, the planeswalkers, all the little advantages you gain from the cards you cast. Many of your cards have the potential to generate a lot of value, if given time and space – and your job is to make that happen! Tempo can be really important, and there’s a lot of good high end so you want to make sure you don’t pass those efficient cards too much.

Amass looks like a tack-on to some cards, but it’s deceptively great – Callous Dismissal and Toll of the Invasion are both fantastic in the format, because getting a 1/1 helps keep you alive, gives you value, provides a base for your proliferate and Army synergies, or just sacrifices to Spark Harvest or Heartfire (both of which are very good). Callous Dismissal is also a great answer to big Armies, and that comes up a lot. Toll of the Invasion gets worse in multiples (first is great, second is good, and you usually don’t want more), but I’ve played 3-4 Callous Dismissal and been happy before – it’s really not like your average bounce spell! Aven Eternal is one of the best Blue commons too, and Blue is chock-full of them! Amass 2 is where it gets really crazy – Bleeding Edge is a total blowout whenever you get to kill something, Eternal Skylord is bomb tier, and Crush Dissent is mediocre but it will sure feel horrible whenever it gets you!

Maximising Amass value requires you to keep sacrificing the creature or trading it off or proliferating it into a threat, because just putting another counter on your Army is so much worse than generating a whole new creature in a format that rewards that so much. In that way, Amass cards get a little worse the more you have, if you don’t have lots of good ways to make use of them, but luckily Black and Red (the main Amass colours) are full of sacrifice synergies. Still, it’s a reason not to take the more medium amass cards like Honor the God-Pharaoh too highly – you’ll get enough good ones that the ones without a good main effect aren’t that exciting.

Removal is excellent in WAR, and most of it hits planeswalkers (we’ll talk about them soon). Between Ob Nixilis’s Cruelty (that card’s name is referring to its spelling) and Spark Harvest, both at common, Black has the best, followed closely by Red with Jaya’s Greeting, Chandra’s Pyrohelix, and Heartfire. Blue is mostly bouncing stuff, Green has one good fight spell in Band Together, and White has mostly strong uncommon ones apart from Wanderer’s Strike, which is good but a bit inefficient, and Law-Rune Enforcer, which is good but a bit vulnerable as a creature.

Planeswalkers at Uncommon

WAR was the first format to feature uncommon and rare planeswalkers (followed shortly by M20!), and the uncommon ones are possibly the single aspect that defines the format the most. The uncommon walkers don’t have + abilities or ultimates, so they work rather differently from the mythic ones you might be used to – their potential to snowball out of control is much lower because they have limited uses. The mythic ones from old formats have a tendency to take over games, make each revolve around them and be generally unstoppable, because they provide unlimited value as long as they are alive (and they’ve become increasingly hard to kill, a trend that actually started in WAR). That isn’t the case with the uncommon ones at all – they have a set amount of value they can provide before you have to do something like proliferate them or bounce them back to your hand to get more value: the important thing is that it takes work and setup! Even the mythic ones aren’t so bad here, because almost all of the removal in WAR hits planeswalkers, and the power level is so high that you can often beat being down a card or two off them.

Planeswalkers have a lot to do with why tempo is so good in WAR – you must be able to pressure them, because they get so much worse when you do. It’s very important to have 2 drop creatures, both to protect yours and to pressure theirs, so this is not a format where you want to cut too many of them. Aim for 4 or 5 even in the slower decks, though cards like

Some of the planeswalkers like Narset and Ashiok have static abilities that are both easy to forget and really punishing when you do forget them, so WAR can start off rough for first-time drafters or people who aren’t familiar with those cards from Constructed. Still, even if you get got once or twice, try to pull through and don’t get too frustrated, because it does get much easier to remember (and the practice will help you out if you play Historic or another format where those cards are legal). It’s also worth noting that Narset is only good in some decks (the ones with lots of noncreatures, and i’ve long argued that Ashiok is bad in almost all – it’s a card that can be okay in a slow control deck that can protect it well and has ways to recur it like Aid the Fallen, and that’s the only good deck for it.

As a general rule, don’t worry about your mistakes for your first few drafts of any format. Everyone makes them because it’s really easy to, and it’s better to just focus on soaking in the cards and the interactions. Take the time to reread every card you’re not all that familiar with, and you’ll minimise them anyway!

Colour Pairs + Deck Examples

I used archetypes in the title, but I like to think of the pairs in War of the Spark as more like packages. This is because you mostly end up drafting little pockets of synergy, rather than drafting a really dedicated deck around one strategy – it’s possible to do that with decks like Simic Proliferate and Rakdos Sacrifice, but it doesn’t happen that often. That’s because the ceiling of the synergy cards is higher when you really commit to the strategy, but they’re just good in every deck, so it’s uncommon for them to be open enough that you get loads of the good enablers and payoffs.

In general, prioritise drafting good cards – don’t get too hung up on little synergies when you’re not actually that likely to get the payoffs or enablers to make them great! Decks with more good cards have a wider range of strong draws than decks with half-baked synergies, because all your cards perform by themselves rather than being reliant on drawing other cards.

You’re taking an unnecessary gamble when you sacrifice a lot of power to take a synergy card with a medium baseline early on.

Dimir (U/B)

Dimir leverages great removal with powerful Amass cards like Aven Eternal, Toll of the Invasion, and Callous Dismissal to disrupt its opponents and then win with finishers like Thunder Drake or Kiora’s Dambreaker. Common directions are:
a) more fliersy with stuff like Sky Theater Strix (a medium card, but actually reasonably playable in a set absolutely full of noncreatures), Shriekdiver (usually bad but okay filler in fliers), good blockers, and a focus on cheap disruptive spells. Callous Dismissal is better in this style of deck, though card is usually great everywhere.
b) more controlling/grindy with No Escape, Vraska’s Finisher, and card draw of some sort, whether that’s Tamiyo’s Epiphany or Spark Reaper. Toll of the Invasion tends to be better in this style of deck, though the card is usually good everywhere.

Dimir is consistently good, since blue and black are both powerful and deep, but the ceiling isn’t as high as some of the more synergy-oriented decks.

One of the best Dimir decks I had in War, and pretty representative of how they end up looking (though more powerful than most).

Izzet (U/R)

Izzet tends to focus on either noncreatures (not just spells!) matter and/or aggression. It’s one of the less consistent decks to build, since you really need to pick up some good red burn spells or Callous Dismissals, but the ceiling is really high. Spellgorger Weird, Thunder Drake, and Burning Prophet are at their best in Izzet decks, alongside stuff like Totally Lost and Honor the God-Pharaoh. Izzet decks tend to be more planeswalkery, since other people don’t want Narset and Saheeli nearly as much. Thunder Drake/Contentious Plan is a common and powerful combo, though obviously you need other good stuff to proliferate onto such as planeswalkers.

Noncreatures Matter. Heartfire might look medium here, but being able to sacrifice expended planeswalkers and Tibalt tokens made it pretty good. I boarded in a copy of Totally Lost a lot, that card is reasonable. I should have been playing the 17th land here, but I often played or boarded down to 16 in WAR because flooding out was a huge concern for Izzet in such an attritiony format where it didn’t have as many good late game tools as the other colour pairs; still, it was a mistake not to do so here.
Izzet is one of the best aggro colour pairs too!

Simic (U/G)

Simic has some of the best synergies in the format, being the best colours for proliferate packages since both colours have great payoffs and +1/+1 counters, and best leveraging cards like Contentious Plan and Bloom Hulk. Flux Channeler and Evolution Sage can propel these sorts of decks from merely being good to being the absolute nuts; Simic has the highest ceiling of any deck in the format because those two cards are so broken in it. The proliferate deck in Simic is the closest thing to an archetype WAR has, but it remains intricate and fun to Draft, since there are so many proliferate cards and payoffs that it’s difficult to pin down exactly which is best for your deck as it currently looks.

Simic can also play a decent beatdown game, but you tend to suffer from lack of removal if you’re not going hard on the synergies.

This was one of my best decks of the format, and an example of how busted Simic Proliferate can be if it really gets there. Flux Channeler and Evolution Sage are nutty cards.

Rakdos (B/R)

Rakdos is one of my favourite colour pairs: another one with powerful and synergistic decks, including perhaps the best aggressive deck, but you can also play it in a grindy way around its Sacrifice cards. This is where Heartfire, Spark Reaper, and Spark Harvest are at their best, and so are cards like Chandra’s Pyrohelix and Tibalt’s Rager, especially with Vraska’s Finisher.

Rakdos Aggro at its best – even the fast decks in this format are really dynamic and fun!
A more grindy Rakdos deck, playing a fantastic midrange beats game with lots of removal and Spellgorger Weirds. This deck was looking for Spark Reapers, and would have been significantly better with them, but did not find one. Notice the flood preparation in 2 Honors – any non-aggro deck without really busted late game in this format needs to have a plan for flood, whether that’s only playing 16 land or having Spark Reapers/Erratic Visionaries/mana sinks.

Golgari (G/B) and Gruul (R/G)

Golgari and Gruul tend to be kind of similar, in that they’re midrange beatdowny decks. Gruul is the better aggressive deck, since it has more cards with 4-power synergy and better ways to enable those, and its removal is more efficient, but it also just has a lot less of it than Golgari and really struggles to deal with big creatures where Golgari can do so with ease. Golgari is one of the best grindy midrange decks, wearing people down and removing all of their stuff, but tends to have a rough time with more controlling decks/has individually less powerful cards than say Dimir or Rakdos.

Golgari is the better deck usually, but Gruul can really get there if it gets enough good red burn/can lean into its 4 power synergies more.

BEATS BY KRONCH. A sort of mixture between Golgari and Gruul’s strategies, playing a fantastic beatdown game backed up by good removal.
Gruul has access to a fantastic tool in Bolt Bend, where it is the only deck in the format that can consistently leverage it – there’s enough good removal that Bolt Bend is usually a giant blowout when it costs 1 mana.

Orzhov (W/B)

Orzhov was one of the few white/x pairs I was routinely impressed with, because it had good proliferate synergy and sacrifice outlets to make use of White’s medium creatures late game; cards like Martyr for the Cause and Teyo’s Lightshield were much better here, since you could cash them in for the death effect or the counter whenever you wanted, often while drawing a card alongside Spark Reaper or getting absurd tempo with Spark Harvest. If you had a couple of creatures with counters on them and then were casting Wanderer’s Strike, you were getting a really busted rate.

I’m not sure how much of this was because Black was busted, but Azorius didn’t really pan out despite Blue being almost as good, so I suspect synergy was the answer.

One of the Orzhov decks that was basically a pile of removal and then had disposable creatures + sacrifice synergies to push into the late game alongside the usual white medium early aggressive plan. Yes, this deck has Oketra, but according to my notes I only got to cast it once so pretend it’s not there! Even Oketra was very beatable this format, with Toll of the Invasion/fantastic removal everywhere, and stuff like Kasmina’s Transmutation to shut it off permanently.

And here’s an example of a much more aggressive Orzhov deck, leveraging Trusted Pegasus, White’s best common creature, alongside tons of removal. The 2 drops are actively good here, unlike in other decks, just because they’ll have flying a lot. This deck could’ve used a couple more big creatures – even a card like Lazotep Behemoth would have been fine here, since that would kill rapidly with the Pegasi in the late game (that card isn’t really that bad in the format even, because there’s really a lot of small creatures to block).

Boros (W/R)

Boros was probably the second best white deck after Orzhov, since it made best use of all White’s tiny aggressive creatures and had a focused gameplan. White tended to be removal heavy in the format, so the decks would often play out like removal piles and if you have enough removal, small beatdowny creatures actually become pretty good! You could also just be Boros Control with good rare/uncommon payoffs like Sunblade Angel and Kaya.

A busted Boros aggressive deck – Trusted Pegasus is a really powerful card, and having great removal goes a long way. Even the medium creatures like Rising Populace, Teyo’s Lightshield, and Makeshift Battalion become pretty good here alongside all this proliferate. Oketra is obviously a huge bomb, but this deck would be great even without it.

Selesnya (W/G)

Selesnya was one of the decks I tried out a lot especially early on, but wasn’t usually all that impressed by because its gameplan was usually “build a huge creature with Courage in Crisis and then lose to removal”. White was the worst colour in WAR, because its creatures were small and weak and didn’t line up well with the rest of the format, and you were often pigeonholed into being a medium aggro deck if you were base white. That being said, I had success with the decks that leaned hard into Green Proliferate and mostly used white for busted uncommons like Graceful Apparition, the few good white commons like Trusted Pegasus, and removal spells like Law-Rune Enforcer/Divine Arrow, or for rares and mythics. Selesnya was still well worth going into if it was very open.

This deck has a lot of those medium creatures I spoke of, but is able to catch up by having a wealth of removal and some great rares/uncommons like Challenger Troll and Vraska.
The Charmed Stray proliferate deck was a meme deck which sometimes panned out, and was at its best in this colour pair. This is a really powerful version of it – if you’re seeing a lot of Charmed Strays on the wheel, that can be a great reason to move into Selesnya.

Azorius (W/U)

In theory, Azorius is a good fliers deck and you can get stuff like Rally of Wings which can lead to some big swings, and I have definitely lost to that card a bunch, but in practice White just doesn’t have all that many good fliers and brings Blue’s incredible power level down so you end up being akin to Selesnya in that you are a Blue deck with good White removal like Wanderer’s Strike and Prison Realm, and generally great White cards or those that have synergy with your proliferate cards. You go into it if it’s very open, and it’s often great if it is, but it’s rare, and Azorius ended up being one of my least drafted pairs.

Martyr can be a fairly awkward card since outside Black, it doesn’t die when you need it to, but at least it’s fulfilling the role of protecting planeswalkers here too, and being a cheap and synergistic card with Thunder Drakes .

You should ignore the people who tell you to totally avoid colours – they exist for every set, and they’re almost always wrong. Draft is self-correcting so when colours are worse, they tend to be underdrafted. Being in the open colours will massively improve your average deck quality over time, as opposed to just forcing the ones you think are good. High average deck quality beats out having higher highs when they’re accompanied by lots of low lows!

Use colours being worse or better as tiebreakers when picks are close. The strength of the tiebreaker depends on how much worse or better the colour is – so sometimes, it will be correct to take the B minus tier Black card in WAR over the B plus tier White card, if you have roughly the same amount in each colour, but not if the difference is way bigger than that.

The colour pairs section was mostly taken from my more in-depth article here, from back when WAR was the current format. Feel free to check out the old one if I haven’t talked your ears off enough – it does add a whole lot more info, and the format was fresher in my mind at the time, but I wasn’t writing for an audience that was new to the format as much as I was in this article so it might read weird in some places!

That’s all for now, thanks for reading, and feel free to check out the rest of my Limited Spotlight series!

Here’s my bombiest deck of the entire format, as an example of some of the wacky splashes!

Drifter

Drifter is a draft and strategy specialist, with hundreds of articles under his belt! Of special mention are his Limited Reviews and draft coaching service.