Last updated on January 6, 2023

Experimental Overload - Illustration by Lie Setiawan

Experimental Overload | Illustration by Lie Setiawan

Ask a group of Magic players what they think about Core Set draft and you’ll likely be met with some polarized opinions. What’s touted as a back-to-basics palate cleanser by some is decried as a bland, overboiled potato of a draft experience by others. While the word count on Core Set cards can often make them feel like they belong in “baby’s first draft set,” especially if you’ve been drafting Ikoria for the past three months, low complexity isn’t always to the same as low difficulty. There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to mastering M21 limited.

With just under 70 MTGO drafts under my belt, I’ve learned a ton about what makes this format tick and I’m excited to share everything I know about it with you. Let’s dive in!

M21: The Big Picture

Rules of Engagement

Lofty Denial - Illustration by Manuel Castañón

Lofty Denial | Illustration by Manuel Castañón

If you told me that M21 was a long-lost set whose card file was pulled out from behind some filing cabinet in Mark Rosewater’s office, I’d believe you. This set feels like something that was designed for release in 2011 rather than 2020.

Draft formats used to be a lot less new-player friendly. Packs were filled with an alarming number of unplayables and archetype synergies were less overt, meaning if you didn’t know what you were doing, your potential to train wreck was high. You needed to find your lane to make sure you didn’t end up with a handful of Fs in your deck and the path to drafting a synergistic deck was not a paint-by-numbers affair. On top of this, each color being close to balanced was far from a given, and there were often only a few “real” archetypes in the format which led to even more new-player traps.

Thanks to what I can only assume is a shift in design philosophy and not just a half-decade long coincidence, we’ve had it real good for the past five years. In most modern sets, your thirteenth pick is often a playable card, and the archetype synergies are so in-your-face that most novice drafters can usually find their way into a decent deck based on what the cards tell them to do. Even without a ton of format knowledge, it’s difficult to grossly mis-build any given archetype because the incentives presented to you on the archetype-payoff cards act as an IKEA instruction manual of sorts.

Ikoria was the epitome of this philosophy. Virtually every card in that set was playable and it was hard to miss the giant neon sign on cards like Prickly Marmoset and Flourishing Fox that said “put cycling cards in your deck.” While M21 hasn’t completely thrown this philosophy out the window, it has elements that harken back to decades-old limited formats, and I think that’s tripped up players both new and old.

M21 is a rigid format that says, “draft how you have to, not how you want to.” The correct pick is often not the exciting or intuitive one, which can lead to some real cognitive dissonance and feel-bad moments along the way. The format has a few rules of engagement that, if you’re not following, will typically leave you lost in the fray and drafting a deck that won’t function within the confines of the format.

Rule #1: Respect the Speed

Sabertooth Mauler

Sabertooth Mauler | Illustration by Randy Vargas

Here’s an excerpt from my Ultimate Guide to Ikoria draft where I talk about the speed of that format and what it mean in regards to drafting and deck building:

“I think that deciphering the “speed of a format” has become somewhat of an antiquated measure, something us limited players place too much weight on, at least when trying to apply it to make meaningful draft and deck building decisions.

R&D has gotten better at seeding their sets to include a wide range of archetypes that offer different play styles and speeds each of the decks want to operate at. When the plans of decks range from “stick a 1-drop that grows arbitrarily large and end the game ASAP” to “gum up the ground with tokens and drain your opponent out of the game by turn 15,” telling someone the average game in this format ends on turn 8 doesn’t help them all that much when building their deck or thinking about matchups.”

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Every decision in this format should be made with the understanding that this is a fast format. M21 isn’t blisteringly fast to the point where blocks never happen or where casting a single card-draw spell means you’re basically dead, but there are enough aggressive incentives that if you’re not the one trying to draft a 16-land aggro deck, you should be warping your draft around the fact that many of your opponents will be doing just that.

The format’s speed is largely a result of how good the cheap, aggressive cards are. Pound for pound, the 2- and 3-mana creatures are just better Magic cards than the 4- and 5-mana ones. If we compare the two groups, you’ll find most of the set’s premium commons reside in the 3-mana or less group, while the vast majority of the 4+ common creatures are cards that you’ll often want to leave on the sidelines. Not to say there aren’t a few diamonds in the rough at higher mana costs, but the premium ones like Basri’s Acolyte and Gale Swooper are curve-toppers for aggressive decks, meaning they still incentivize playing cheaper cards.

This paradigm means you’re left with a “why play expensive cards when you can just play cheap ones?” situation. If your expensive cards don’t give you enough bang for your buck, why even put them in your deck in the first place? We’re left with an odd incentive structure where the cheap cards are great and the expensive cards are medium, so you’re better off just jamming a bunch of 2 and 3-drops in their deck and forgetting about the top end of your curve. As a result, the average game of M21 limited is faster than its total card pool might initially suggest.

In many formats, brick-walling the aggressive decks is as easy as just playing larger creatures, but so many of the good aggressive cards scale with the game, while the more expensive ones are static, staying around the 3/3 or 4/3 range. This means your opponent’s 2-mana card can often trade with your 4- or 5-drop, leaving you with your head in your hands asking “why the hell did I put this Blood Glutton in my deck?”

Armed with this information, we’re able to make more informed decisions when drafting and building decks. There is no such thing as too many 2-drops in this format. If you took a 1- or 2-drop every single pick of the draft, your deck would end up in a fine place. I’m ecstatic when my deck looks something like this:

In balanced formats, there’s a healthy push and pull between the tools that the aggro decks are given and the tools given to the control decks. In M21, not so much. It’s an aggro world, and the control decks are just living in it.

When you end up with a good late game incentive like Ugin, the Spirit Dragon or Sublime Epiphany, consider the fact that getting to the point in the game where those cards are castable isn’t a given, and your deck will have to be heavily skewed towards facing the aggro decks of the format. This means putting a high priority on defensive speed: if I have an Ugin, I won’t shy away from playing multiple copies of the unassuming Wall of Runes, the best blue “removal spell” for these decks.

The speed of the format has a meaningful effect on your mulligan decisions as well. Since the format is so skewed towards one end of the spectrum, controlling decks don’t have much flexibility in the range of hands they can keep.

MTG opening hand example

Let’s say we’re on the draw against an unknown opponent. The above would be a fine hand in most formats but, seeing as we don’t have a guaranteed play until turn 3 and that play doesn’t block particularly well, this is closer to a mulligan than a keep. This hand gets a bit better against a midrange or controlling opponent, but I believe that you should be making mulligan decisions assuming your opponent is a beatdown deck if you’re in the dark. If you replace any one of these spells with Wall of Runes, I think the hand becomes a snap keep which just goes to show how important getting on-board early is.

Respecting the speed of the format is not simply shorthand for “always draft a beatdown deck.” It does, however, mean that you’ll likely be punished if you think you can get away with drafting midrange or controlling piles with mediocre curves hoping to never encounter a curve out GW deck.

Rule #2: Understand That There is an Archetype and Color Imbalance

Seasoned Hallowblade

Seasoned Hallowblade | Illustration by Manuel Castañón

I assume that most of you have read or at least heard of Ben Stark’s seminal article, Drafting the Hard Way. The premise of Ben Stark’s drafting philosophy is simple: for you to optimally draft your seat at any given table, you shouldn’t get married to your first pick or have biases towards certain colors or archetypes. Instead, make sure to read signals to get rewarded with good cards in the most open colors later in the draft.

Or that’s how most people remember it, at least.

Just as Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule has oft been eroded to “practice something for 10,000 hours and you’ll master it,” Ben’s philosophy isn’t as one-dimensional as it’s often presented. A substantial part of drafting the hard way is understanding that each format is different, and you should be biasing towards or away from certain cards or archetypes based on the format’s environmental factors. Even if black is “open” in your seat, you can’t always expect to see good black cards late in the draft if there just aren’t that many good black cards in the set.

In M21, this concept of biasing towards or away from certain cards can and should be applied to how you draft. I could give you about a dozen reasons why I like the aggressive decks in M21 more than the midrange or the controlling ones, but they all boil down to this: the aggressive decks are plentiful and well-supported at common, while the controlling and midrange decks just aren’t.

The format’s premier decks—GW counters, UR spells, and RW aggro—are all aggressive-leaning decks and have such a deep and interchangeable roster of commons to choose from that there are often multiple drafters of each color pair at the table. I often bias myself into getting into one of these decks since it’s rare that your seat won’t allow for at least of one them to be draft-able. I mean, just take a look at the truck load of good cards each of these decks gets at common:

And those are only the tier 1 commons. If you take a look at the tier 2 commons that you’ll play in these decks, you’re still looking at solid playables.

On the other hand, slower decks like the UB control/reanimator deck often rely on getting multiple uncommons to function, as there just aren’t enough good payoffs or enablers at common for them. Teferi’s Tutelage is a really busted build-around, but if there’s another player at the table snapping up the cards that make the Tutelage deck good, you’re often out of luck as there’s just not enough cards in a draft to support multiple players drafting that strategy.

Midrange decks like UG card draw, GB morbid, RB sacrifice, and WB lifegain suffer a similar fate. Not to say that you can’t draft good versions of these decks—often times drafting them as makeshift aggro decks—but their themes are nowhere near as well-supported as the best decks in the format.

All right, so maybe you don’t get a sweet Teferi’s Tutelage or reanimator deck every time you open those cards early, but you can still get a decent deck drafting good blue and black cards, right?


Well… maybe?

If the answer is “yes,” it comes with the caveat of, “but not consistently.” This is where the set’s color imbalance rears its ugly head.

If you’ve been drafting M21 for a while now, you know that black’s commons up there fall behind the rest of the pack. They’re low-impact, low-synergy, and, at times, just downright underpowered.

Blue has a similar issue. It’s not in quite as poor of a position as black is, but most of blue’s cards do a much better job supporting other colors rather than forming the foundation of a base blue deck.

On the other side of the playground, red, white, and green’s commons are deep, synergistic, and powerful. Can you see a trend developing here? Once again, the aggressive colors come out on top.

All of this is to say that, if you’re trying to draft M21 the hard way, you first need to understand the imbalanced nature of its architecture. You should be biasing towards the most supported themes and colors early in the draft. This isn’t to say that other options aren’t viable options, but they should be your second choice and you need to have a pressing reason to pivot from drafting one of the better color combinations into one of the tier 2 or 3 ones.

Rule #3: Identify and Embrace Micro-synergy

Tolarian Kraken

Tolarian Kraken | Illustration by Svetlin Velinov

I think the juxtaposition between how to optimally draft some of the recent formats we’ve had and how to optimally draft M21 has thrown a lot of players for a loop. Formats from the past year or so have had decks with very spelled-out synergies with the draft often becoming quite linear once you’ve figured out what you’re supposed to be in. To explore this a bit further, I think it’s helpful to talk about synergy in terms of “macro” synergies and “micro” synergies.

Drafting a deck with macro-synergy in mind generally follows the idea that cards in your deck are there because they’re contributing towards the same linear plan. To use an example from a recent set, the cycling and mutate decks from Ikoria are basically macro-synergy decks.

You drafted cards with cycling along with Zenith Flare because you were the cycling deck. You drafted cards with mutate and cheap mutate enablers because you were the mutate deck. When drafting these decks, the kind of cards you want to pick up is clear as day and, once you’ve got enough payoffs, you’ll take enablers over just about anything.

Micro-synergies, on the other hand, are a bit less pronounced. They refer less to what your whole deck is doing and more to the favorable interactions between individual cards. To use another example from Ikoria, your BW humans decks would often grab multiple copies of Durable Coilbug because it played nicely with a lot of the cards that you’d usually find in that deck like Bushmeat Poacher and Mutual Destruction.

You wouldn’t intuitively think that your humans deck would want a card sporting insect as a creature type, but with a bit of experience or critical thinking, you can see how it’s a clear inclusion. Micro-synergies often aren’t spelled out for you and instead ask you to read between the lines and bring a bit of creativity to the table.

In M21, decks are nowhere near as linear or holistically synergistic as Ikoria’s cycling or mutate decks were. They rely much more heavily on micro-synergies. Unless you get massively hooked up with a bunch of Conclave Mentors for GW or are in a seat for the perfect BW lifegain, your decks aren’t going just to build themselves. Decks in M21 often have hints of their color pair’s themes, but drafting UW for example isn’t as easy as jamming as many fliers as you can into your deck.

When drafting this format, it’s rare that I know the exact cards I’ll want for my deck until I see them and think about how well they play with the cards in my pile. Let’s say I’m drafting GW and see a pack with Tempered Veteran and Daybreak Charger in it.

Tempered Veteran seems like a perfect fit in the archetype, but when I look at my pile and see one cards that care about +1/+1 counters plus a Siege Striker, a Drowsing Tyrannodon , and a Concordia Pegasus, I’m likely going to take the Daybreak Charger instead.

As rudimentary as it may sound, drafting with micro-synergy in mind can be boiled down to not just drafting cards that you think should belong in your archetype, but instead drafting cards that play well with the cards in your pile. If you haven’t drafted the format a bunch, it can be tricky to identify these synergies. With that in mind, here are some you’re likely to run into. Some pockets of synergy, if you will:

Rule #4: Learn to Love Mediocre Cards

I often talk about how, in modern draft sets, it’s totally fine to not know what colors you’re in until late in the draft. There are enough playables in sets these days that you can afford to bob and weave your way through the draft and without being at risk of not reaching 23 playables. But, uh…

This department has worked -1 days without Alex putting his foot in his mouth graphic

OK, OK, hold on. I stand by my claim. Slap the zero back on that sign thank you very much!

This department has worked -01 days without Alex putting his foot in his mouth graphic

While the objective power level of the cards in M21 is low, power is relative. Most cards that look anemic are actually fine in the format. I was unhappy with how a lot of my early M21 drafts turned out because, through my Ikoria-tinted glasses, my decks looked much worse than they actually were. We’ve become so accustomed to our sets being filled with powerful cards across the board that when we see cards that are slightly underpowered, we often categorize them as unplayables.

Here’s a small smattering of cards that look underwhelming, but actually fall somewhere between fine to good in the format:

M21 fine to good cards

There’s something to be said about the fact that I didn’t include any black cards in this image, but I’ll leave it up to you to make your own inferences.

The trick to making these “bad” cards good is finding spots where they excel or, to reprise our previous rule, build micro-synergies around these cards. Staunch Shieldmate is a fine 1-drop in curve-out white decks with ways to pump their creatures. Igneous Cur plays well with Rousing Read and Crash Through, and Frost Breath is pseudo-removal in UR decks that just want to force through a few large threats.

One group of cards I want to highlight is the combat tricks, namely Titanic Growth and Sure Strike. I can’t remember a format where I actively wanted as many medium-looking combat tricks as I do in M21. Most people have probably seen Feat of Resistance in action and know how absurd that card is, but Sure Strike and Titanic Growth do a decent (albeit lesser) impression of it.

Combat tricks let you leverage the plethora of cheap creatures you’ll be playing in this format. They play well with the number of ways to grant trample, let you tussle with an aura’d up creature, allow you to make a cheap and impactful play when you lose the die roll, and I find are often the last spell cast in a game, either winning a critical combat or just straight up killing your opponent. I’ll happily play the first three copies of these cards and, in some decks, I find myself wanting them even more.

Short Sword is another one that looks junky and, in fact, has been junky most times we’ve seen it. But since creatures are all fairly small in this format, the small power and toughness boost often matters.

Finding places to maximize the cards you’ll wheel is one of the keys to mastering M21 limited. You’ll find yourself having to build scrappy decks like this one and, while that’s not the easiest task, there’s a lot of fun to be had eking out wins when you aren’t handed three Basri’s Acolytes.

The Removal

M21’s removal is, in a word, polarized. On one end of the spectrum, we have cards like Scorching Dragonfire and Shock, some of the best commons in the set and cards you’ll play just about as many copies as you can get your hands on. On the other end, we have clunky 5-mana removal spells like Finishing Blow and Turn to Slag that you’re trying your darndest not to play.

Let’s go over each removal spell in the format and dive a bit deeper into what separates the premium stuff from the cards you don’t even want to touch.

Tier 1

These are the best of the best removal spells in the set. They’re all either super efficient or have a meaningful bonus attached to them. I’d be happy to first-pick any of them.

While Eliminate and Grasp of Darkness being black cards means they are lower in my pick orders than the others in this tier, I can’t in good conscious demote them to the next tier down as they’re some of the best cards in your deck when you do end up in black.

Tier 2

The spells in this tier are still pretty good. I wouldn’t be upset about first-picking most of these, but there’s often better options in the pack.

Enthralling Hold and Pestilence Haze both have an absurdly high ceiling but also have times where they’re either dead or awkward to set up properly.

Hunters Edge is a great card but doesn’t quite make it into tier 1 because it lacks the raw efficiency of the cards in that tier.

Unsubstantiate isn’t the most impressive card in the world, but it’s a nice little tempo and bounce spells get better in faster formats.

Swift Response is super efficient. The issue with it is that most of the white decks in the format are aggro decks and don’t really want this effect. You’ll play one if you have to, but you’d prefer not to. Some slower BW and UW decks can made good use of the card, but those are far less common that the white beatdown decks.

Tier 3

The real clunkers of the set. I avoid putting these in my deck unless I have literally no other ways to interact with my opponent’s creatures. So many of the threats in this format cost two or three mana so you end up trading way down on mana far too often with these cards.

The cards would be fine in a lot of formats, but in M21 you just can’t afford to have a 5-mana removal spell sitting in your hand while you take four damage from your opponent’s Drowsing Tyrannodon turn after turn. If you’re looking for interaction, it’s more practical to just play combat tricks. Your first three copies of Sure Strike should show up before you slide the first copy of Turn to Slag in your deck.

If you need any more convincing, may I remind you that M21 is a format with multiple cheap protection spells just begging you to tap five mana so they can blow you out for one.

Volcanic Geyser being in this tier might be a bit contentious, but I’m really not a fan of the card in this format. You’re not getting a good deal on either side, often spending four mana to kill a 2-drop or spending six mana for a of bit reach. Yes, there is power in flexibility, but there are often just plain better spells to include than the Geyser, especially when red is such a deep color.

I will say that the cards in this tier are fine sideboard options. Sometimes your opponent has a Baneslayer Angel or Elder Gargaroth that you just need to kill, and you can bring in a few copies of these third rate removal spells in matchups where you’re confident you won’t get run over.

The Sideboard Tier

There are some formats where you’ll main-deck Smite the Monstrous, Plummet, or Naturalize effects, but this isn’t one of them. Look for times to bring them in out of the board though. Run Afoul in particular is super efficient and it feels great when you can snipe something like a Gale Swooper with it.

Check out this interesting chart from Sierkovitz on twitter showing how many creatures the format’s conditional removal spells hit. Grasp of Darkness and Scorching Dragonfire hitting the vast majority of commons in the format is even more incentive to keep Turn to Slag and Finishing Blow far away from your main deck if you can pick up a couple copies of the premium removal spells.


Draft Navigation Tips

To expand on Ben’s tweet up there, don’t be afraid to first-pick a powerful gold card. It’s been drilled into the heads of many players that you shouldn’t take gold cards early, but they’re so much more powerful than most of the mono-colored cards in this set that it’s worth taking a rider on.

This is especially true when it’s a card like Conclave Mentor or Experimental Overload, who belong to heavily-supported archetypes. In a vacuum, your likelihood of ending up in any given color pair is one out of ten, but that changes when the likelihood that you end up in a color pair is skewed by how supported or not supported it is.

I tend to try my best to stay in one color for the duration of pack one and sometimes pack two if my seat allows it. Many of the best synergies in the set are self-contained within a given color. Drowsing Tyrannodon plus Pridemalkin or Setessan Training, for example. So, you don’t give up too much by not cross-pollinating with other colors early. By getting deep into one color, you allow yourself to easily pivot into the second most open color in your seat while simultaneously cutting your base color off from the players around you.

Getting deep into one color also helps your build a better mana base. I’m trying to play a ten to six split in my aggro decks as often as I can. Having a mana base that’s weighted towards one color helps you double-spell easier and allows you to mulligan less often.

Since GW and RW are top decks in the format and GR is a deck I’m more than happy to be in, I bias my early picks towards red, white, and green cards. It’s incredibly hard for your draft to go wrong if you latch onto one of those colors early and pick up your second color (hopefully one of the remaining two) as the draft goes on.

Pay close attention to the wheel. Since there are more junkers in M21 than your average set, you don’t often get great cards on the wheel. When you do end up wheeling a notable card, that should tell you a fair amount about what is and what isn’t open.

The Archetypes

Volcanic Geyser

Volcanic Geyser | Illustration by Clint Cearley

Before we take a look at each archetype, here’s a quick overview of take on where each deck fits into the format:

Tier 1Tier 2Tier 3

I don’t usually love talking about limited archetypes in tiers since each draft is so unique, but when there’s an archetype imbalance as clear as is in M21, I think it’s meaningful to call out the decks that either aren’t as supported or don’t come together that often.

A deck being in tier 1 means that it has both a high ceiling and consistently comes together. Tier 2 means it either has a high ceiling or comes together consistently. And, finally, the poor deck in tier 3 has a low ceiling and doesn’t come together often. I want to mention that when I talk about how good a deck is, I’m referring to how good a version of the deck built from just commons and uncommons is on average. Any color pair can be great if you open or get passed multiple A-level bombs.

In-depth deck building advice is tricky for this M21. This set isn’t like Ikoria where most of your RW decks look the same and want the same cards. Decks of the same color pair are often going to have similar themes, but may want a slightly different subset of cards, again leaning more into micro-synergy than macro. Instead of a detailed deck breakdown for each deck, I’ve included examples of a few different ways to build each color pair with notes where applicable. This is a bit more of a deck gallery than a deck building guide.

As a final note, each deck in this section went 3-0, so you have a decent idea of how well these builds performed.

Deck Gallery

GW +1/+1 Counters

Deck 1

Deck 2

Deck 3

Draft Log

GW is fundamentally an aggro deck but can play a long game by slowly growing its creatures if the game goes long. Some aggro decks are unforgiving if you don’t curve out perfectly, but this deck has game even if it stumbles a bit.

One of the best aggro decks in the format and a favorite in the aggro mirrors as its creatures quickly outclass the other aggro decks’ and growing your lifelink-ers makes racing close to impossible.

Drowsing Tyrannodon and Basri’s Acolyte are the best commons for this deck, take them over all but the most premium of removal spells.

UR Spells

Deck 1

Deck 2

Deck 3

Draft Log

UR can be built as an aggro deck or a control deck. The aggro version leans on winning with Goblin Wizardry and cheap prowess creatures, while the control version often wins through Teferi’s Tutelage or recurring removal spells with Shipwreck Dowser and Experimental Overload .

Both versions of UR will generally play as many Opts and Crash Throughs as it can to trigger its prowess creatures or spells-matter cards. You can cut a land or two depending on how many 1-mana cantrips you end up with. My general rule is to cut a land for every three cantrip spells.

One of the most supported decks in the format, it’s quite hard to get cut out of a strong UR start as there are a ton of payoffs at both common and uncommon.

RW Aggro

Deck 1

Deck 2

Deck 3

Draft Log

Not a ton of macro-synergy going on here but, like GW, there are a ton of interchangeable pieces allowing you to optimize each individual build.

Although there are no dog tribal payoffs at common or uncommon, “just take the dog” is pretty good advice. You may even be lucky enough to get hooked up with Pack Leader, which is often a bomb in this deck.

This is the deck that most wants Short Sword and will often play multiple copies to leverage their 2-drops.

You can drop down to 15 lands if you’re weighted heavily enough towards one color and your curve doesn’t go past three with a few 4-drops, but 16 lands should be your default. Again, try your best to weight your mana base towards one color when you can. Aggro decks live and die by consistency and an 8/8 mana split is often asking to lose or having to mulligan frequently.

RG Beatdown/4-Power Matters

Deck 1

Deck 2

Deck 3

Draft Log

Although billed as an RG monsters deck with large creatures, I’ve found way more success building RG as a low-to-the-ground beatdown deck. Think of it like GW but with red cards. You’ll often want to keep a low curve despite what the 4-power-matters theme may have you believe

Going a little bit bigger than the other aggro decks in the format means this deck generally has a good matchup in aggro mirrors but has a harder time going up against the control decks of the format as it’s not able to have explosive starts as often.

You’ll usually play Furious Rise since it’s pretty good here, especially if you’re playing Short Sword on your smaller creatures to 4-power. Garruk’s Uprising takes a bit more work and isn’t typically worth it. There just aren’t that many creatures that naturally have 4-power in the set.

WB Aggro/Lifegain

Deck 1

Deck 2

Deck 3

Draft Log

BW is billed as a lifegain deck but plays out much more like a normal aggro/midrange deck with slight lifegain subthemes.

This is Micro-synergies: The Deck. Sometimes you’ll have lifegain synergies, sometimes you’ll have sacrifice stuff happening, sometimes you’ll be closer to a WR aggro deck with some black cards. Really pay attention to what the cards in your pile want when you’re making picks for this deck. Your BW decks live or die by how well you tune them.

Sticking an aura on a lifelink creature and protecting it with Feat of Resistance is a potent strategy and is especially good with Indulging Patrician. Light of Promise is generally not a good card but with enough lifelink-ers and ways to protect them, it can turn into a card that’s impossible to race.

You generally want to trigger your lifegain-matters cards through combat rather than by casting Revitalize, but you’ll play the card if you have enough good payoffs.

Don’t play Radiant Fountain or off-colored dual lands just to gain life. It’s not worth the hit to your mana base, and all the lifegain payoffs care about gaining three life, not just one or two.

UW Fliers/Aggro/Control

Deck 1

Deck 2

Deck 3

Draft Log

These decks can be drafted as a white aggro deck or a blue control deck and often has only a light fliers-matters themes since most of the payoffs for having fliers are mediocre. This is the best home for Swift Response. Even the aggro versions of these decks don’t mind the card because they’re usually flying over most blockers.

UG Card Draw/Midrange

Deck 1

Deck 2

Deck 3

Draft Log

Similar to UW, this deck has a wide range of builds. Since the “card draw” theme is only lightly supported, it’s often up to you to embed your own synergies.

It can be built as a beatdown deck with Rousing Read jumping your green fatties. Rousing Read is especially good on Lorescale Coatl or Burlfist Oak. It’s also a decent home for ramp strategies or splish-splash shrine nonsense.

UB Control/Reanimator

Deck 1

Deck 2

Deck 3

Draft Log

This isn’t an easy deck to get into. You usually have to open or get passed Obsessive Stitcher and really go for it. It’s hard to just “fall into” this deck as the pieces for it mostly live at uncommon.

Prioritize Rousing Read and Crypt Lurker as discard outlets. There are a few others in the set but I’ve found these two to be the best. Rousing Read plays double duty here as you can use it to pitch a fatty early or stick it on a Spined Megalodon later.

Defensive speed is a must in this deck. Pick up a few copies of a Wall of Runes and, of course, all the cheap removal that you can get your hands on.

RB Sacrifice/Grind

Deck 1

Deck 2

Deck 3

Draft Log

Billed as a sacrifice deck although those themes are fairly light, the Act of Treason effect in this set is at uncommon so there’s not much “steal and sac” action going on.

I like building RB as a grindy midrange deck, cheap removal combined with good midrange, or late game creatures. You can draft it as an aggro deck but sometimes the defensive nature of the black cards can get in the way.

It can have a slight reanimate subtheme with Thrill of Possibility and Rise Again as well.

GB Morbid

Deck 1

Deck 2

Deck 3

Draft Log

My vote for the least desirable deck to be drafting. Not really any overt synergy aside from minor “morbid” themes and not many exciting interactions between to two color’s cards. You can make great use of Pestilent Haze as most of its creatures survive it, though.

The Shrine Deck

Deck 1

Deck 2

Our bonus deck here! While shrines haven’t proved to be the most competitive road to travel, they are really fun if you get bored of the “normal” decks in the format and can actually be pretty powerful if things line up correctly.

I am by no means an expert at drafting these decks, but Lords of Limited has a great episode on how to draft these decks if you’re interested in some shrine nonsense.

The Best Commons


MTG best M21 white commons

White’s top commons are a beating! Both Acolyte and Feat of Resistance are great cards and you’ll play as many copies of each as you can.

There are a ton of great white beatdown cards, but I gave the third spot here to Anointed Chorister as it’s cheap, scales with the game, and is great in the racing situations you so often find yourself in.


MTG best M21 blue commons

Rousing Read and Roaming Ghostlight are super close when it comes to the top blue common. I wouldn’t begrudge anyone for taking your first Ghostlight over your first Rousing Read, but I like taking the 3-drop over the 5-drop in a format as fast as this one.

The third spot is a bit tricky and will really depend on where you are in the draft. I have Opt here because there are multiple decks that actively want the card, but you’ll take Mistral Singer over it if you’re threat light by the middle of the draft.


MTG best M21 black commons

I’ve ragged on black’s commons for so much of this guide, so I won’t bemoan them any further. These are your best options when drafting black.

Deathbloom Thallid and Skeleton Archer do a good job of keeping the aggro decks in check, which plays well with what most of the black decks are doing.

Since the only exciting card of the bunch is Grasp of Darkness, it can be hard to tell when black is open. You’ll usually only be able to confidently say the color is open when you get good black uncommons late.


MTG best M21 red commons

The top two spots should come as a surprise to no one. We have two super efficient removal spells with Scorching Dragonfire being the best common in the set.

In the third spot here, I have Spellgorger Weird, but you could make a good argument for Chandra’s Magmutt taking this spot as Spellgorger can be a bit too slow on the draw and you can never have enough premium 2-drops.


MTG best M21 green commons

I’m sure Llanowar Visionary vengefully looks down at Drowsing Tyrannodon, as Visionary was the easy frontrunner for the best green common going into this format. Turns out when decks care less about ramping and more about beating face, a 2-mana 3/3 will reign supreme.

Single Card Grab-Bag

For our final trick of the night, I want to leave you with some thoughts on a few cards. I’ll be touching on some that I think are be overrated as well as underrated, while also talking about rares or important cards in the format that didn’t really fit anywhere else.

Mangara, the Diplomat

Mangara is a powerful card but, since most of the white decks in the format are beatdown decks, he doesn’t often get a chance to shine. You’re never cutting this card from your deck, but if you’re a white aggro deck going into pack three and you open Mangara, Basri’s Acolyte, Feat of Resistance, and Gale Swooper, you’re better off taking one of those commons. I’m likely to take Acolyte over this card P1P1.

Double Vision

Double Vision is a great build-around for a UR deck. I hesitate to even call this a build-around, though, because most of your UR deck are naturally set up to make use of this card. This becomes playable with around eight spells and, once you get to the 10+ range, this card becomes actively great. Especially if a handful of those spells are cheap removal like Shock or Scorching Dragonfire.

Gadrak, the Crown-Scourge

Gadrak is a good card, but not a great one. RW and aggressive UR decks generally don’t want him in the main as it generally takes too long to wake him up. I’m often relieved when my RW opponent plays this on turn three . He’s most at home in a grindy RB decks or a GR deck that’s going a little bigger than usual. A fine card to take early, but I take Scorching Dragonfire over him P1P1 these days.

Teferi’s Ageless Insight

A similar card to Double Vision but works off of a slightly different subset of cards. This one takes a bit more work to make good, but in a deck like the one just below, it can really go off. Not a card I’m looking to take early but will snap later if it looks like my deck will be able to make good use of it.

Canopy Stalker

It’s easy to look at this card and make a comparison to the underwhelming Gaea’s Protector from Dominaria and write it off, but Canopy Stalker is a good deal better than Protector was. Protector lived in a format where creature combat wasn’t the focus of the game and things were just bigger on average. Getting a counter on this card or equipping it with Short Sword means your opponent really has to change the way they play the game unless they want their x/2’s eaten up. Not a fantastic card, but I’m happy to play a copy in my GR or GW decks.


Rewind is an inherently powerful card. The issue with it is you often just don’t have decks in limited that can reliably have enough instants to make full use of it. It won’t find a spot in your deck often but look out for the times where you’re playing UR and have 10+ things to do at instant speed.

Teferi’s Tutelage

Most players know this card is busted, so I won’t go on for too long about it. That being said, I do want to point out that you shouldn’t just jam this in your UR or UW beatdown decks. You need the set up to make this card good or else you’re just playing Millstone in your Savannah Lion deck.

Baneslayer Angel Seasoned Hallowblade

This is my vote for the best mono-colored uncommon in the set. Another card that most people know is great, but I had to put it on this list both get one last crack at great Baneslayer vs Hallowblade debate. Also, I still get this card fourth pick sometimes which is just absurd.

Track Down

Another card that I’m often relieved when I see my opponent cast. There’s typically just not enough time to cast a 2-mana filtering spell in your green decks and it really hinders your curve-out potential. This isn’t a bad card, but I don’t have room for it in my decks most of the time.

Card Rankings and Wrap Up

Nine Lives

Nine Lives | Illustration by Paul Scott Canavan

And there you have it! Most everything I know about M21 draft. While it may not have been the toughest nut to crack, I’ve enjoyed the format for what it is: a back-to-basics palate cleanser that, well, sometimes feels a bit like an overboiled potato.

In all seriousness, I have really enjoyed my time with M21. The shortened games and tight combat situations lead to some exciting matches and, even though small mistakes can be unequivocally punishing, it’s also quite rewarding when you win a game by small margins.

As always, I’ll leave you with my card rankings if you’d like to use them as a reference point while drafting.

If you have any questions about the format, or want some further clarification about anything in this draft guide (or you just want to say hi!), feel free to reach out to me on Twitter. Stay safe out there, and I’ll see you for the next set!

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  • Avatar
    Pedant July 27, 2020 11:17 am

    In the second sentence, “pallet cleanser” should be “palate cleanser”.

    • Avatar
      Dan Troha July 27, 2020 11:28 am

      Fixed. Hope you enjoyed the article though!

      • Avatar
        PEDANT July 27, 2020 11:53 am

        Superb article, thanks.

  • Avatar
    Philippe July 29, 2020 6:41 am

    Excellent article, thanks a lot

    Having some difficulties to adapt from IKO durdling to M21 agressiveness. I guess I’ll try a couple of drafts to see if I can get it to ‘click’ with you advices !

  • Avatar
    Jordan July 31, 2020 8:04 pm

    Love the review, big fan of how well you covered the set as it relates to drafting, it is my favorite way to enjoy magic. There’s a little itch I can never get scratched when it comes to set reviews and that is the theme, flavor and art. Although these are not important when it comes to playing, they matter to me just as much because they add to the overall feel of a set. I’m not much of a competitive player, so me and my buddies are casual with drafts and like to treat them like a fine wine. But I always with to know what kind of value is in this set, how good is the draft experience as appose to how to draft well, maybe like a 1 to 10 rating type of thing. Just something I always wished was applied to reviews, some sets are more fun to draft than others in my opinion.

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