BFZ: Deconstructing W/U skies

There’s been some hype about the W/U skies archetype. However, the fliers in this format are relatively inefficient compared to recent sets and there are no good 2-drop fliers for the deck. Let’s crunch some numbers to determine whether there are enough cards available to support this archetype in a typical 8-person draft, which of these cards you’re competing with other decks for, whether there’s a need to prioritize flyers/defense/removal, and whether we need to focus on any particular converted mana costs while drafting the deck.

Let’s start by looking at all the colorless, white, blue, and W/U cards that I think are good options for this deck. The cards are divided into 4 categories, each with it’s own table: flying/evasion, defense, removal/tempo, and other (primarily cards that help you win faster or survive longer). Within a category, cards are organized by rarity and converted mana cost. The highlight indicates the card’s color(s): gray is used for colorless/artifact cards, yellow is used for white cards, blue is used for blue cards, and light blue is used for W/U cards. Monocolored cards require only one colored mana of their color unless indicated otherwise, so you can determine the mana cost of a card based on its color and converted mana cost. Cards with awaken have both costs indicated but are usually listed in the column for their awaken cost; since they are all in the removal or other categories, they are rarely cast on curve anyway. A thick border indicates that a card is playable by all other archetypes that share this color, a thins border indicates that a card is playable by some but not all of those archetypes, and no border means that the card will usually only be played by W/U skies.


From the table, we see that an 8-person draft has an average of about 17 fliers (plus Angelic Gift and Coralhelm Guide), 19 defensive cards, 20 removal/tempo cards, and 14 other cards. Let’s assume that there are 3 people in each color but that no one else is drafting W/U skies. In that case, we can expect to get roughly a third of the cards with thick borders, roughly half of the cards with thin borders, and most of the cards with no border. Adding up the numbers gives us “E(in final pool)”, the rough number of cards we expect to end up with given our assumptions: 11 fliers (plus 2-3 copies each of Angelic Gift and Coralhelm Guide), 11 defensive creatures, 11 removal/tempo spells, and 7 other spells. So it is possible to draft enough cards for a W/U skies deck, possibly even if you’re competing with another W/U drafter.

There are many flyers and defensive cards that cost 5+ mana, so you should focus on 2-, 3-, and 4-drops when drafting, especially since you want to start casting spells for their awaken cost once you have 5-6 mana available. There are no good 2-mana flyers in this format, so you should try to pick up some defensive 2-drops or, in their absence, any other playable 2-drops.

Why is W/U skies a powerful deck in this format even though the fliers are not that efficient? I think it’s because the deck can take advantage of spells with awaken better than most of the other decks in the format. With an aggressive draw, it can cast them without awaken for tempo. If the games goes longer, the 3/3 or 4/4 bodies are not that impressive on offense, but can gum up the ground long enough for your flyers to finish the job.

BFZ: W/B lifegain vs. W/B Allies

Battle for Zendikar has a number of lifegain cards, as well as cards that get better if you have lifegain, primarily in white and in black. Are there enough such cards for a lifegain archetype in this format? To what extent does the archetype overlap with W/B Allies? And is W/B the only possible color combination for the archetype?

Let’s start by listing the lifegain cards in the set, as well as those that get better with lifegain. Cards in yellow highlight are Allies and cards in bold provide repeatable lifegain. Each card is preceded by its cost and followed by the cost/description of the effect (no cost means the effect occurs when the card is cast).


All the lifegain in the set is either incidental (i.e., it does something besides gain you life) or repeatable. All cards that care about lifegain are creatures, most of which get bigger or gain an ability when you gain life. Kalastria Nightwatch is perhaps the most powerful non-rare among these since it’s essentially a Dragon if you have enough lifegain effects, while Nirkana Assassin is the worst since its lifegain trigger is unimpressive. Felidar Sovereign is the only one that cares about the amount of life gained.

Most of the lifegain cards in the set are white, and most of the cards that care about lifegain are black, so the deck will almost always be W/B. (Green has 3 lifegain cards but none of them are common.) If you draft a powerful white card from the list above, you may want to take a black card over a similarly powered card in another color, and if you draft a powerful black card from the list, you may want to lean towards drafting white as your second color. In a typical draft, white and black will each provide access to about 12 cards across the 2 categories, so the deck is likely to be balanced between the 2 colors and can include cards with WW or BB in their mana cost.

A W/B drafter at an 8-person draft has access to an average of 19.5 lifegain cards and 8.3 cards that care about lifegain. If you exclude the unimpressive Nirkana Assassin, the latter category has only 5.9 cards, making it difficult to reliably draft this deck, so you should only enter this archetype if you already have a couple of cards that care about lifegain, and you should prioritize them when drafting the archetype.

In a typical draft, 28% of lifegain cards and 80% of cards that care about lifegain are Allies, so even if a lifegain deck does not have any rally effects, it will almost certainly have a number of Allies. Conversely, 23% of W/B Allies have lifegain effects and 28% of them get better with lifegain, so a W/B Allies deck will likely have some cards from the list above, even if there are no synergies around lifegain. This means that if you’re drafting either W/B lifegain or W/B Allies, you can take cards for the other deck since you’re likely to have enough support for them. Looking beyond the numbers, Kalastria Healer, Drana’s Emissary, and Zulaport Cutthroat are quite powerful in both decks, so it’s clear that there is a significant overlap between the 2 decks.

Given the small number of cards that get better with lifegain, these cards are more likely to be drafted as a subtheme in a W/B Allies deck rather than as a separate archetype. When a draft has enough cards to support a dedicated lifegain deck, it is likely to look like a Skies deck, with Drana’s Emissary, Malakir Familiar, and Courier Griffin attacking in the air while Stone Haven Medic stalls the ground, and Kalastria Nightwatch switching between these roles as necessary. In that deck, lifegain can also buy you time, while life drain effects provide reach if your opponent manages to neutralize your fliers.

BFZ: Allies

Battle for Zendikar has Allies in each color as well as several powerful multicolor Allies. Consequently, it seems like Allies decks should usually be 3-, 4-, or even 5-color green, especially since green also provides access to Tajuru Warcaller and Tajuru Beastmaster, which are powerful finishers. Let crunch some numbers to determine whether this is the case.

Let’s start by looking at all the Allies and Ally tribal cards in the set by color, rarity, and converted mana cost. (Cards in parentheses are not Allies but can create Allies or have an Ally tribal ability.) Especially strong cards are bolded, and those with tribal abilities are highlighted in yellow.

Some observations:

  • White has the most Allies, followed by black and red which have roughly equal numbers. Green has only 4 Allies, although Tajuru Warcaller and Tajuru Beastmaster are both quite strong. Finally, blue has only 2 Allies, neither of which have Ally tribal abilities. 8 of the 9 multicolor Allies are W/X: 3 are R/W, 2 are G/W, 2 are W/B, and 1 is W/U.
  • Next, let’s determine the average number of Allies available to the 2-color Allies decks that seem most probable.
    • W/B has access to an average of 25.9 Allies in an 8-person draft, 9.0 of which are especially strong (bolded).
    • R/W has access to an average of 25.6 Allies, 8.5 of which are especially strong.
    • B/R has access to an average of 19.5 Allies, 3.9 of which are especially strong. This color combination does not seem very promising.
  • A R/W/B (Mardu) Allies deck seems unlikely because:
    • several of the best Allies in these colors are early drops, which are more difficult to cast on curve in a 3-color deck,
    • a third of the black and the red Allies require 2 colored mana,
    • most of the black Allies have a lifegain subtheme, which interacts well with white but not with red, and
    • there are only 2 non-rare ways to fix your mana if you’re not playing green: Evolving Wilds, which is likely to be taken early, and Pilgrim’s Eye, which does not help you cast your 2- and 3-drops on curve and is not an ideal turn 3 play in an Allies deck.
  • 18 cards have Ally tribal abilities:
    • 8 are Allies with “When ~this~ or another Ally enters the battlefield under your control, creatures you control gain X.” These abilities are not cumulative, i.e., the second trigger each turn does not confer any additional benefit.
    • 2 are Allies with “When ~this~ or another Ally enters the battlefield under your control, creatures you control get +X/+X”.
    • 4 are Allies with “When ~this~ or another Ally enters the battlefield under your control, X”, where X is one of {tap a creature, drain 1 life from opponents, make a 1/1 token, or scry 4 for Allies}.
    • Angelic Captain and Veteran Warleader are Allies that get more powerful as you have more Allies.
    • March from the Tomb reanimates Allies in your graveyard with a total converted mana cost of up to 8.
    • Ally Encampment makes it easier to cast Allies of different colors and can be sacrificed to raise a dead Ally.
  • 13 of these 18 are especially strong (bolded): 2 commons (Kalastria Healer and Tajuru Beastmaster), 6 uncommons, and 5 rares. Let’s break these 13 cards down by color:
    • White: 2 uncommons + 2 rares = average of 2.6 in an 8-person draft
    • Black: 1 common = average of 2.4
    • Red: 1 uncommon = average of 0.9
    • R/W: 1 uncommon + 2 rares = average of 1.7
    • Green: 1 common + 1 uncommon = average of 3.3
    • G/W: 1 uncommon + 1 rare = average of 1.3

    Among 2-color combinations, G/W has access to an average of 7.2 strong Ally tribal abilities, followed by B/G with 5.7, R/W with 5.2, and W/B with 5.0.

White has the most Allies and the most Ally tribal abilities, so it is likely a necessary color for any Allies deck. I believe there are 3 primary Allies decks:

  • An aggressive R/W deck that relies on cheap Allies backed by removal and combat tricks to underrun its opponent. Key cards include Kor Bladewhirl, Firemantle Mage, and perhaps Chasm Guide. The deck has access to several finishers, including Retreat to Emeria, Kor Entanglers, Resolute Blademaster, and several 4- and 5-mana rares. It’s possible that Cliffside Lookout is playable in this deck since it is a 1-drop that can trigger Ally tribal abilities and act as a finisher if drawn late.
  • A W/B lifegain deck. The key cards are Kalastria Healer and Drana’s Emissary, followed by Stone Haven Medic, Retreat to Hagra, and possibly Vampiric Rites and Zulaport Cutthroat. This deck could potentially splash green for Tajuru Beastmaster, and perhaps even Retreat to Kazandu. I’ll explore this archetype in more detail in my next post.
  • A base G/W token deck that uses Unified Front, Grovetender Druids, and Retreat to Emeria to create tokens, green and white combat tricks to push through early damage, and Tajuru Warcaller, Tajuru Beastmaster, and Retreat to Emeria as finishers. It also uses green manafixing (Natural Connection, Blighted Woodland, Sylvan Scrying, Fertile Thicket, and Seek the Wilds, the last of which can be used to find key Allies or bomb creatures instead of land) to splash bombs and removal, and to maximize spells with converge (Unified Front, Tajuru Stalwart, Skyrider Elf, and Bring to Light).

A B/G control deck may also be possible since both colors have a strong Ally tribal effect at common. However, these colors don’t have specific synergies, so it probably makes more sense to instead draft a W/B Allies deck that splashes Tajuru Beastmaster, or a base G/W Allies deck that splashes black for bombs, removal, and maximizing converge.

BFZ: Converted mana costs of colorless cards

A U/B exile/process deck I recently drafted had more 5-drops than I would have liked, so I’d like to determine whether there’s a glut of good 5-drops for that deck. Almost all my cards in that deck were colorless, so we’ll just look at colorless cards for the purpose of this analysis. Since there are also 2 other archetypes that rely on colorless cards (U/R devoid and B/R aggro), we will also examine those.

The 3 tables below list the most important cards for each of these 3 archetype by converted mana cost and rarity, with bold indicating that a card is particularly strong in the archetype. I’m more concerned about the first few turns of the game, so the lists do not include splash cards and finishers. I’m hoping this analysis will help me decide which converted mana costs I need to focus on for each of these 3 archetypes in order to end up with a good creature curve.


Some observations:

  • U/B exile/process does not have an unusually high number of colorless 5-drops, it was my deck that was unusual (it had 2 Oracle of Dust and an Ulamog’s Reclaimer, plus a Windrider Patrol).
  • In addition to Mist Intruder and Culling Drone, U/B exile/process decks also have access to 2 uncommon 2-mana non-creature spells that can exile cards (Horribly Awry and Transgress the Mind). Similarly, it has access to Complete Disregard, Grave Birthing, and Spell Shrivel (all commons) at 3 mana. Unlike ingest creatures, these only exile a single card, but they can nevertheless get your first processor online.
  • All 3 archetypes have 4+ playable 3-drops at common, so you should prioritize 2-drops when drafting. This is especially true for U/R, which has another 4 playable 3-drops at uncommon, especially since a number of its common and uncommon 3-drops are particularly strong.
  • All 3 archetypes also have a number of strong mythics and rares that cost 6+ mana that you will rarely pass. However, U/B has a number of strong uncommons at that mana cost, so you probably shouldn’t prioritize those cards unless you really need a win condition.
  • Sludge Crawler is the only playable colorless 1-drop (Salvage Drone is unplayable, and Endless One will rarely be played as a 1/1). It fits in both the B/X archetypes that want colorless creatures, but I don’t have enough experience with it yet to determine how playable it is.