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In a scene from The Office, Jim Halpert asks Pam Beasley about her strategy for an upcoming 5k. Amidst the electric hum of the break room, Pam claims, “well I’m gonna start fast, then I’m gonna run fast in the middle, then I’m gonna end fast.” Jim wonders aloud why more people don’t try this strategy, to which Pam casually quips “Cause they’re stupid.” While experienced distance runners may scoff at Pam’s approach, Streets of New Capenna (SNC) draft proves she was right.
The Rules of Engagement
SNC draft is driven by tempo. The best decks in the format pressure the opponent's life total early and often. Menace and flying make blocking difficult, but many of the threats provide value in the form of additional resources. This allows you to make tempo-oriented plays that build through the mid and late-game. This is especially true of the format's two most important mechanics: connive & haste.
The Obscura guild is built around the format's strongest keyword: connive. The connive ability allows you to discard one card and draw a new one, enabling you to secure lands early on, or ditch the ones you don't need in exchange for threats in the mid to late game. Additionally, if you discard a non-land card the creature using connive gets a +1/+1 token. The upsides you get from connive are well-suited to a format where so many games end via racing. Additionally, Obscura's flyers evade creature combat, inherently building towards racing scenarios. Besides Psionic Snoop all of the blue and white creatures with connive should be early picks. The black commons are generally less impressive.
Two beneficiaries of connive are Expendable Lackey (6th best blue common by 17 Lands GIH WR%) and Raffine's Guidance (59.1% GH WR in UW decks). Pitching these cards to connive increases the value an aggressive game plan can generate. Because this color pair will be rightfully over-drafted, knowing how to get value from your later picks is essential. My experience matches the 17Lands data, that the UW (Azorious) decks have the highest winning percentage. The meta will likely adapt, but it’s hard to deny that Azorious is currently an excellent way to get a lead and keep it.
These Cantrips Have Haste
There are surprising similarities between connive and the Brokers' blitz mechanic. Turning top-decked dorks into cycling burn spells is another avenue for sustainable pressure. Playing around a haste creature after you stabilize becomes mandatory when it’s a guild mechanic, but the fact that these blitzers leave +1/+1 counters, treasure, and tokens in their wake feels like a lot of value for essentially top-decking Durkwood Boars. Similar to the connive mechanic, blitz encourages aggression at all stages in the game. Blitz is much stronger when ahead, but it's not as narrow as that would usually imply. A well-timed blitz can steal back the board-state or swing a race.
These mechanics do what the format wants you to do: attack and accrue value so you can keep attacking. When playing against the Brokers, it’s essential that you’re making prudent attacks and not missing out on damage. Being stable is not a long-term possibility in this format. You won’t brick-wall an army of blitzers being added to a growing board. You absorb them like brutal right hooks to the ribs. So make sure your counterattacks are working to close out the game before your opponent can.
No Shortage of Three Drops
A deep arsenal of powerful three-drops will define the battlefield early in most games. The keyword-laden Jewel Thief and Inspiring Overseer are premium commons. I’d happily first pick either of these, though it's hard to draft this set and not end up with a stack of playables at three. Even later in the pack, the Maestro or Obscura Initiates both attach options and flexibility to reasonable stats. As you climb in rarity more options present themselves, including a pushed cycle of tri-color cards for each of the five families. I'm reluctant to select a three-color card early, but gambling on the upside is tempting with all the fixing present. But do so judiciously, as slow starts are often punished in SNC.
One shocking over-performer drives home the importance of tempo in this format. Having access to a Make Disappear to back up aggression, or stave off an early threat, has proven to be a reliable strategy. With the aforementioned glut at three, being able to take back the play by countering an Overseer or Corpse Appraiser is an absolute blowout. I initially disregarded this card as fringe-playable, but it is currently the top-performing blue common. While I’m somewhat dubious of that distinction, making space for this card in your forty can provide a meaningful edge. Getting out of the blocks a step faster than your opponent can be leveraged to great effect.
Draft a Curve
The strictly-better-Quench isn't the only two-drop you should prioritize. Because the options at three mana are so deep, it puts a premium on the two-drops. Raffine's Informant holds the Gust Walker trophy for SNC (awarded, by me, to the best common two-drop). Additionally, all four of the common gold two drops are strong in their respective decks. The best two-drops are in white with Backup Agent, Sky Crier, and uncommons like Citizen's Crowbar and Illuminator Virtuoso.
Though this format is aggressive, the one-drops are mostly a trap. Based on the recent trajectory of powerful one-drops in limited, I had high hopes for Goldhound. Unfortunately, the living treasure is very low impact, as is the problem with Cuthroat Contender. Brokers Initiate is a reasonable partner to facilitate a sky attack and being able to threaten five power late in the game isn't nothing, but there is no Traveling Minister or Okiba Reckoner Raid in this format. Often, the best you can do with a one drop is pitch an Expendable Lackey to connive and get yourself a counter, a card, and a fish token on layaway.
Even though the pressure-value relationship defines SNC gameplay, the format provides a couple of tools to fight against the early rush on your life total. Both Dimir (UB) and Selesnya (GW) provide three-power, lifelinking two drops at common, though they do encourage a greater commitment to the pair’s theme. Once online, the mid-game can revolve around them (17Lands has Civil Servant boasting a solid 60% win rate. Still, in personal experience, the ability to Dig Up the Body of the Snooping Newsie has felt stronger than the numbers imply). These cards don’t neutralize the effects of blitz and connive, but they’re still useful tools.
Shield counters, in theory, provide value in the form of an "extra life" for your creature. Unfortunately, they have numerous blind spots to the format's removal. Cards like Deal Gone Bad, Run Out of Town and even Hold for Ransom ignore the Shield counter (and if you’ve ever had an opponent Call In a Professional on your Rhox Pummeler, you already know). Shield counters are a little finicky when compared with the way the previously mentioned keywords dig you deeper into your deck as they hammer the board. Nevertheless, a single point of damage trades with a shield token, and obviously that's still going to come in handy sometimes.
The Finish Line
If you’re taking a lot of damage early, you can't rely on your opponent running out of gas. While you should be making trades early, you must be able to fight back. There are a lot of cards that can open up attacks and change the board state. Managing your attacks each turn is the most skill-testing element of this format and it’s easier to do this when you’re ahead. So remember that the answer to “who’s getting the beatdown” in this format may very well be both players. Build your decks prioritizing aggressive play, and you should be able to get ahead and stay ahead in Streets of New Capenna.