Revisiting War of the Spark: The Exhaustive Draft Guide
Hello and welcome! I took a short hiatus from draft guides to do some constructed stuff (I’ll link all of my articles in the Info section at the end) but now I’m back to my roots! With the return of Ranked Draft War of the Spark to MTG Arena, I’ve sorted through some of my thoughts and experiences to bring you a huge primer chock full of analysis! This is one of my favorite formats of recent years; I drafted it extensively on Arena throughout the lifespan of the format and several times sporadically in paper, and I can honestly say that even after sixty or seventy drafts, I was still having a great time. WAR is one of the deepest formats with the most engaging gameplay I can recall and it didn’t get the acclaim it really deserved. I’m going to take this opportunity to show you why it has captivated me more than any other format on Arena.
This article will once again, be less of an archetypes guide and more of a general in-depth overview of the format. In most formats, I don’t put too much stock in archetypes; one should know the WAR archetypes but not let the idea of being in a “good” one force their whole draft into a certain direction. I recommend taking the best cards out of each pack, staying open and allowing them to guide you in a certain direction as that is the best strategy in WAR. This is the default approach a lot of great drafters use including pros like Ben Stark and LSV, and that I have used for many years and had the best results with. For more information about this school of drafting, you can find my basic draft concepts guides here (I also introduce myself in the first of these, if this is your first article of mine!).
I’ll instead be analysing, at length, features of the format and strategies to exploit those features to your advantage, and including useful tips and advice for both the drafting and playing stages. The aim is not only to help you assess the format and draft/play it better, but to figure out how to assess future formats, draw your own conclusions, learn where you might’ve made mistakes and how to correct them, and have a better understanding of draft theory. I’ve already done a Throne of Eldraine version of this article; you can find that here!
Let’s get the elephant in the room out the way – Walkers
WAR is the first format to feature uncommon and rare planeswalkers, and the uncommon ones are one of the format’s defining aspects. 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 them revolve around them and be generally unstoppable, because they provide unlimited value as long as they are alive. That isn’t the case with the uncommon ones or even the mythic ones in this format.
Uncommon planeswalkers aren’t useless after you’ve used them a few times, however; proliferate is heavily supported and you can proliferate the uncommon planeswalkers as a means of +ing them and getting additional uses. The uncommon walkers also have passive abilities that work like enchantments and warp the game in your opponents’ favour – Angrath, Captain of Chaos gives all of its controller’s creatures menace, which can be really hard to deal with and result in you taking a lot more damage than you otherwise would have. There’s a supported sacrifice theme in the set, and several cards are capable of sacrificing expended planeswalkers to get additional value out of them.
This all means that if your opponent is in proliferate colours (blue, green and white), you generally want to kill their planeswalkers whenever you have the opportunity, even if they can’t activate right now – it is often too dangerous to let them live and risk that additional use later down the line. Even in black and red, you might want to kill them to stop their passive abilities or deny them the sacrifice value from a card like Spark Reaper or Heartfire. The value of the passive ability is entirely dependent on the planeswalker – Ashiok, Dream Render and Teyo, the Shieldmage have passives that don’t do anything in most games, while most of the draw of Saheeli, Sublime Artificer is in the passive, so it’s important to look up the planeswalkers and learn what they do before you launch into a draft. Some of the planeswalkers’ passives are very easy to forget until you’re burned by them, like that of Narset, Partner of Veils, so don’t fall into that trap!
If your opponent is in black, however, you want to be a bit more careful as they could have access to Aid the Fallen, a heavily played common in the format. You could be spending a bunch of resources just to have to deal with the same planeswalker with completely refreshed loyalty (and they get a creature back to boot) – sometimes it’s worth giving them an extra activation or easy sacrifice to avoid this, if you can’t currently deal with the reincarnated planeswalker again.
Now, if you’ve played with planeswalkers in limited before, their being so frequent here might sound really annoying and a detriment to the format, but this is also the best format for dealing with planeswalkers. The removal in the format is strong (meaning that it’s harder to protect planeswalkers with creatures) and there are several common pieces that specifically hit planeswalkers, like Spark Harvest and Heartfire. There’s plenty of evasion and ways to grant evasion to things. This all means that they’re strong, but not the end all be all: some blue decks don’t even care very much about planeswalkers, because they have a bunch of Sky Theater Strixes, Aven Eternals and Thunder Drakes and the planeswalkers will just die without generating too much value.
Answering the uncommon walkers before they can get full value is critical to winning many games – let’s look at Davriel, Rogue Shadowmage as an example. The failcase of Davriel is that he discards you once (maybe even zero times in the late game), and then immediately dies to a flier or just to the pressure you have on the board. That’s really not that bad for you – Davriel is a pretty bad card when the user is behind or in the late game. However, he’s also a huge beating if he lives in the early to midgame – if you can’t kill him, he threatens to discard you three times or to do so twice, then sit in play threatening to burn you with his passive or to be proliferated and discard you again.
Luckily, Davriel has low loyalty and you can deal with him in a multitude of ways early on, but you really want to have a plan to do that as your opponent in black reaches turn 3 – whether that is a flier or a removal spell to get your 2/2 through. It’s way easier to deal with planeswalkers on the play since they are way less likely to have adequate protection to stop you killing them, and Davriel exemplifies that – I often found myself boarding him out on the draw (though that’s not going to be an option in Bo1) because his failcase is so bad. This format may be on the slower side, but planeswalkers mean you want to be on the play every game.
How much does a good WAR deck rely on rares?
A lot of people think WAR is a very bomby format but I think this is a misconception, based on evaluting the format through the lens of previous lower power-level formats. WAR, compared to the formats immediately preceding it such as Guilds and Ixalan, is at a much higher power level. The removal for both walkers and creatures is much better; there are many common creatures in WAR that are capable of generating huge value themselves, such as Bloom Hulk and Flux Channeler. In a format like this, the rares and mythics stand out less – they’re still very good and having them is a great upside, but the format isn’t dominated by them at all and I have routinely beat tons of great rares and mythics.
I felt much more equipped to handle bombs in WAR than in most formats – a card like Ugin, the Ineffable often just 2 for 1s (which is still really good, but not busted), where protecting it in other formats would’ve been very easy and it would’ve been often impossible to remove.
In general, I would recommend people don’t worry too much about whether or not they have good rares: they’re a nice addition but what determines if your deck is good, if it lives or dies, is usually the commons and uncommons.
How do colours stack up in WAR?
Colour rankings aren’t the end all be all – I would still recommend drafting what’s open, and only using colours to break ties. Still, some colours are better than others and in WAR, I think B > U > G > R > W is the ranking from strongest to weakest. Black has the best commons, is powerful and deep, and I drafted it the most in WAR. It really has everything you want – good removal (Spark Harvest/Cruelty), mana sinks (Spark Reaper), decent tempo cards that retain usefulness later in the game (Lazotep Reaver/Vraska’s Finisher/Herald of the Dreadhorde) and strong utility cards (Toll of the Invasion/Aid the Fallen). I’ll talk a bit more about importance of specific cards in the format later, but know that Black is the real deal. Black has a lot of synergy with red, as they both have good sacrifice themes and form the most successful aggro decks in the format, while still having a lot of grindy elements to help in the late game.
Blue is close to black in power level as it has good fliers (Aven Eternal/Thunder Drake), is strong against planeswalkers in general because of this, has some decent removal (Callous Dismissal/Kasmina’s Transmutation) and strong late game options (Tamiyo’s Epiphany/Spellgorger Weird/Kiora’s Dambreaker). Additionally, it has some of the best uncommons (Eternal Skylord/Rescuer Sphinx/Flux Channeler are all incredible). Blue black (best card quality, best late game, best removal) and blue green (busted proliferate synergy, best creatures) are likely the best colour combinations in the format.
has the best creatures, and some of the best proliferate synergy cards (Bloom
Hulk/Pollenbright Druid) but is held down by the removal being so good. Being
down a card to proliferate is pretty bad when your creatures can be answered in
such an efficient manner, which limits the effectiveness of cards like Courage
in Crisis and New Horizons. I’ll explain why tricks are worse in a second, and
Green has two of those at common (even Giant Growth is pretty mediocre in this
format and Steady Aim is unplayable).
Despite that, Band Together is a strong green removal option, and green’s uncommons are very strong – Evolution Sage is perhaps the best uncommon in the format, Challenger Troll is often a 6/5 unblockable that makes some of your other creatures unblockable and Paradise Druid is fantastic in any base green deck. Green can be a bit hit and miss, but if you get the good cards and leave the bad, is very powerful.
Red and green are similar in power level. Red forms the only good aggressive decks, has several strong early game cards and early game removal options, a lot of burn, and Spellgorger Weird – a strong threat that threatens to run away with the game very quickly and provides proliferate synergy. Red is a solid support colour for all the other colours that provides a significant boost to their early game power and synergy – it provides great fodder and removal for the sacrifice theme in black, good cheap spells to buff blue’s payoffs, good removal to clear the gap for red green’s big creatures and good burn to end the game once they stabilise and helps the Boros archetype a lot, since you really need to be aggressive in that pair. Since both sides are so low on resources in the late game, even the aggro decks often run tools like Invading Manticore and Honor the God-Pharaoh to help them there. Remember, it isn’t hard to get noncreature cards in this format since there are amass cards which are both creatures and spells, planeswalkers count and the removal is so good. Red’s cards that work off noncreatures, like Burning Prophet and Spellgorger Weird, are usually very good.
is pretty underpowered in this set and the weakest colour by a fair margin. The
problem with white is that it is very bad in the late game and in attrition
battles – it has a ton of medium creatures that fall off hard later on in a
format that absolutely preys on those, and you have to rely almost entirely on
your other colour for late game options in a format that is largely late-game
White has the most tricks and those are worse in this set for two reasons: 1) tricks are often used as removal tools in formats where removal is less abundant, since they can situationally kill units but in WAR, you have so much good removal that you don’t need them as much and 2) the presence of instant speed removal threatens to 2 for 1 any trick (I attack with my 3/3, my opponent blocks with their 2/3 and casts Giant Growth, I cast Ob Nixilis’s Cruelty and they lose two cards to my one), and WAR has plenty of it at common.
White also has poor synergy with most of the other colours – in theory, Selesnya and Azorius can make the biggest and baddest proliferate creatures but those tend to die to all the good removal and you’ve usually invested two cards into them at that point… The main draw of white is its good common removal options, and black already has that covered so white black tends to be quite awkward. If you draft Boros, you really won’t have many late game options at all so you will need to let your burn and strong late game creatures like Invading Manticore do the talking.
Luckily draft is self-correcting and WAR bots are pretty well-tuned at this point so white tends to be very open a lot. It’s well worth going into then, as it is a pretty good support colour – it does have some good removal (Law-Rune Enforcer, Wanderer’s Strike, Divine Arrow) at common and some fantastic uncommons, which are much easier to get since it’s usually open (Prison Realm, Sunblade Angel, multicolour uncommons like Pledge of Unity and Elite Guardmage – though these are hurt a bit because they’re all decent splashes so other people might well take them for that purpose). I would recommend prioritising late game options in your other colour when you are white/x (but not Boros). Black, blue and green do late game and mana sinks fantastically though, and you’ll have enough a lot of the time.
How slow is WAR really?
So currently we’re in the land of ELD, which makes WAR look like practically a fast format but discounting that, WAR is a value format that is on the slower side. Unlike other slow formats, you really want to be on the board in WAR though – as we saw in the Davriel example above, being on the board means you can pressure down walkers and better protect your walkers. Some colours also have additional incentives to play 2 drops – green, blue and white have proliferate which incentivises 2 drops that have counters themselves like Ugin’s Conjurant or that put counters on things like Pollenbright Druid, and black and red have sacrifice synergy like Spark Reaper and Heartfire which incentivise having 2 drops around that generate value even if they die, especially ones like Lazotep Reaver. Cards that generate 1/1 armies on 2 can function as 2 drops, because they still give you the baseline creature to make use of for the synergies above, and they have additional Amass synergy – if you Amass with an army already in play, the Amass card functions as an aura, buffing that card and giving you an immediate attack to pressure a planeswalker.
This means that the 2 drops that fit well into the synergistic elements of your deck are obviously great, but you always want to have some number of 2 drops, especially if you are the sort of deck that otherwise has difficulty answering planeswalkers (i.e. not decks with lots of evasion). I would recommend having minimum four 2 drops in every deck, and taking ones the colour you’re in has synergy with like Pollenbright Druid and Lazotep Reaver highly, even early on. There’s always a cost to having too many 2 drops without relevant late game abilities and that cost is higher in slower formats. With the good ones, you forgo that cost because you’ll have synergy with them so they’ll still be useful – whether becoming a 5/5 with proliferate later on, or netting you a card with Spark Reaper and yet you still won’t fall behind against planeswalkers.
A lot of games, even from non-aggro decks, are still decided in the early to midgame, and you need to be curving out and making good plays or you will just lose to planeswalkers and value cards. It isn’t as important to have creatures early in WAR though – you just need to affect the board and prevent planeswalkers from running away with the game, and cards like Toll of the Invasion, removal for walkers or just having one creature + removal for blockers to chip away at walkers are all fine ways of preventing that. If you are making good proactive/value plays, it’s also often fine to just let the uncommon planeswalkers run their course – if you’re getting a counters on several of your walkers and creatures from proliferate and they’re just activating their one walker, they probably won’t be able to keep up.
WAR is a much more attrition-based slow format than ELD – in ELD, you will often have adventure cards to cast or be generating value far into the late game and it is much easier to go way over the top, with cards that generate a ton of value by themselves or strategies like the mill archetype. In WAR, it is very common for games to be very back and forth and leave both players low on resources in the late game, and decking is very uncommon. Mana sinks often decide the late game in just a few turns, and you want several in every deck. Spark Reaper is the best one at common (take this at a B-/high 3.0), but Spellkeeper Weird (C+/3.0) and Vivien’s Grizzly are also quite good (C/2.5).
In other slower formats, being on the play matters less but like I said before, you really want to be on the play here because your walkers will be much better and enemy walkers much easier to handle.
High end is decent in WAR but you don’t need too much of it – you want 1-3 decent 6 or 7 drops and there are three good ones at common: Invading Manticore in red, Kiora’s Dambreaker in blue and Tithebearer Giant in black. Take these as decently high picks (around the 2.5 or C level for Tithebearer or Manticore, and 3/C+ for Dambreaker), and don’t prioritise other 6 or 7 drops – if you end up having to play a Primordial Wurm, it’s not too bad but you don’t need it. If you’re in two of the Grixis colours, you don’t need to take these as highly since you’re likely to get enough reasonable 6 drops anyway – although you might still want to prioritise Kiora’s Dambreaker for being significantly better than the other two.
The presence of planeswalkers weakens aggro in WAR – they tend to produce small creatures which gum up the ground, and they raise effective starting life totals because aggro decks will be forced to attack them. Additionally, proliferate decks can easily outsize them and make their creatures quickly useless. This means that good aggro decks in WAR usually have options to help them grind in the late game or buy them time to draw into more burn.
WAR might be slow but there are certainly good aggro decks – every red combination is capable of producing these, and all you really need is good curve plays and removal in the two colours, which isn’t that hard to make happen. People won’t be as prepared for aggro decks, since white isn’t great and a lot of the red decks are Rakdos sacrifice or Izzet spells, which are trying to grind anyway. Gruul is probably the best aggro deck in the format – it has a lot of efficient creatures, good early removal and strong proliferate synergy.
Fixing and Splashes
If you’re going to splash in WAR, make it worth it – fixing cards are generally of pretty mediocre quality, like Guild Globe and New Horizons so you can usually splash if you want, but it’s often not worth it. If you’re going to splash and you don’t have fixers that are great cards by themselves (like Paradise Druid and Leyline Prowler), splash quality cards like the best uncommons and good rares/mythics only. Being three colour is possible with a lot of fixing, but the cards that fix are of such poor quality in this format that I wouldn’t really recommend doing more than splashing a few cards. In a format so powerful, you really want all your cards to be impactful, and the colours are deep enough that I very rarely ended up with too few playables so I never needed to be three colour.
There are some pretty wacky splashes Guild Globes and New Horizons can enable though – with enough New Horizons, you can splash double colour cards like Liliana, Dreadhorde General in a Simic deck. With enough Guild Globes/Firemind Vessels/supplemental sources, you can splash cards in two colours you’re not in, like Ajani the Great-Hearted in your Dimir deck.
Key commons of the format – and a few uncommons
-Toll of the Invasion is one of the most important cards in the format, and deceptively powerful because not only does it answer any problem card cleanly, but the Army it gives you is very important in a format with Amass, Proliferate and sacrifice synergies. I would be happy to play two Tolls in most decks, but they are very bad topdecks so don’t run too many unless your deck can make exceptionally good use of the Army or has ways to loot it away late. Still, take the first at about a B-/low 3.5 level and the second at about C+/low 3.0.
-Callous Dismissal, like Toll, is much better than it first appears in this format, because the 1/1 is so useful and you can often convert bouncing a creature in the early game into also killing a planeswalker or severely disrupting your opponent.
– Aid the Fallen is a decisive way to break attrition games if you have enough planeswalkers to fuel it – you want about four for it to be good and you can sometimes play two if you have more. Most decks with those requirements should be happy to play one.
-Evolution Sage/Flux Channeler are two of the best uncommons. Evolution Sage is better, since it converts all your draws in the late game into good draws whereas Flux Channeler is more of a rich get richer sort of situation, but both are insane. The advantage you get from proliferating three or more permanents each turn is absolutely insurmountable, and there are enough cards with counters in the format to easily make that a reality.
-Spark Reaper is the best common mana sink of the format. It completely breaks the attrition games as it protects itself your threats from removal late, since you can just sacrifice them and 2 for 1 them in response. It recycles your 2 drops and Armies, and makes them into real cards – often it’s worth sacrificing your 1/1 Army to Spark Reaper before you play a card that amasses for 1, since a 1/1 and a card is better than a 2/2 in most spots. Spark Reaper can also sacrifice planeswalkers; you can use it to clean up those you have lying around on 1 counter that you haven’t been able to proliferate and get free cards out of them.
-Thunder Drake is a lynchpin of blue in this format. After it gets one counter, you can proliferate it and start to run away with the game. If you have multiple Thunder Drakes, it’s often worth prioritising cheaper cards of a similar power level over expensive ones. Thunder Drake combines extremely well with Contentious Plan – remember to cast your Plan as the second spell of the turn.
-Contentious Plan combines well with a ton of cards – from planeswalkers to Armies to Thunder Drakes. It’s not hard to get a lot of value off it in the mid or late game, and you always get your card back. Take it highly in any deck where you’re on plan to have 8 or more cards that benefit from being proliferated at the end of the draft.
-Kasmina’s Transmutation is a reasonable removal option, but it is much worse in WAR than it would be in other formats. The fact that you can put counters on the 1/1/sacrifice it to things for value means that leaving them with random bodies is asking to get 2 for 1ed later in the game. You should take it at about a 2.5/C level and be willing to cut it if you have better removal options. It is specifically quite powerful with Thunder Drake though, since it’s cheap and prevents them from racing you on the ground while your Drakes fly over.
-Bolt Bend is a card that is weak in most decks but fantastic if you have 6 or more 4+ power units. It has the ability to be one of the most backbreaking 2 for 1s and tempo plays in the format if you have a 4 power unit, stealing a great removal spell and redirecting it to their best creature and being almost impossible to play around, since it only costs 1 mana. You should take this card highly in Gruul as you’ll often have lots of 4 power units there.
-Ashiok, Dream Render – I think Ashiok is a very overrated card in the format since it doesn’t do anything by itself, and just provides a slow and easily-interactable win condition. Milling in general isn’t supported so Ashiok tends to just mill them for 12 and then they stabilise, kill Ashiok and win from there because you’re a card down for no real gain. Decking doesn’t happen often enough that 8-12 cards will really get them in the red zone; it is easy for one player to beat another on low resources with just one or two cards worth of advantage. I think there are a few narrow decks where Ashiok does belong – decks with lots of proliferate that can protect him very well and have Aid the Fallen to recur him – but in general, I really dislike him in the format and would not recommend taking him at all highly.
-Spellgorger Weird – this is red’s premier threat in the format that scales up as the game goes on and threatens to run away with it very quickly. Take it highly, don’t prioritise noncreature cards as you’ll have plenty in most decks anyway.
Phew! Well, if you’ve read any of my other articles (which I’ve shamelessly plugged a couple of times here, and will link at the end), you’ll know that when I say I’ll talk at length about things, I really do mean it! If you’ve made it to the end, thanks a lot and wow, that’s pretty impressive! I really tried to pack in as much useful information and analysis here as I could, and I really had a lot to get through after so many drafts – and I wasn’t anywhere near done when I finally hit this stopping point.
I hope I made clear many of the reasons I love WAR so much – I really think it has some of the most engaging gameplay of any format in recent years (I think the only two formats that I’ve enjoyed as much since 2016 have been Eldritch Moon and Hour of Devastation), and that the format has a fantastic balance between synergy and power that makes the draft stage very intricate and engaging. Eldraine draft can drag on a bit in places, but I never got bored of WAR and in my mind, it’s the unsung hero of slow formats done absolutely right.
As always, I’ll be around to answer any questions you have and would appreciate any and all feedback! If you’re reading this on Reddit, please consider upvoting as that really helps my articles reach a greater audience. Thanks again folks and see you next time!
Find my articles here: https://mtgazone.com/drifter/. My last draft article: https://mtgazone.com/throne-of-eldraine-draft-strategies-and-tips/
I often answer a bunch of questions on my reddit threads; the one for this article is here: https://www.reddit.com/r/MagicArena/comments/dnbhkb/war_of_the_spark_draft_guide_war_ranked_draft_is/. Of specific interest, I explained why proliferate decks are so powerful in the format, why they’re really not that hard to put together either, and gave some examples of great proliferate decks I’ve drafted. I also talked a bit about the importance of staying open in WAR, and gave some details about my winrates and experience playing the format.
I offer in-person discord coaching! If you’re interested, please private message me/leave a comment on reddit or you can DM me if you are part of the arenazone discord (linked below). Rates are negotiable.
A simplified hypergeometric calculator for magic mana bases: https://www.andrew.cmu.edu/user/kmliu/mtg_calculator.html or you can find more complex ones (and guides for them) all over the internet.
Lola’s stream (a good friend of mine and fellow infinite drafter): www.twitch.tv/justlolaman and his WAR tier list (I worked with him on the M20 one and likely will again next set): https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1z_KrNOeOEeKdpX7H5qLC4OLX_6QL-lhocg-T9Bn2cDQ/edit#gid=1225276753
The MTG Arena Zone discord: https://discord.gg/SPYMExR. Engage with your favourite arenazone content creators there, myself included!