Signals in Booster Draft

Posted in Level One on January 19, 2015

By Reid Duke

Over the span of the last nineteen years, since he was five years old, Reid has been a player, a deck builder, a collector, and a lover of the Magic world. Today, he’s a full-time professional Magic player and writer.

The basics of booster draft are relatively simple. However, the subtleties are many, and can be quite difficult to grasp. Let's delve a little bit deeper into the format.

While I'll be using Khans of Tarkir draft as an example, like everything in Level One, the guidelines below are intended to apply to any format.

One of the most important and challenging questions in a booster draft is how and when to choose your colors. It's hard to know when to stick to the colors of your first pick, when to change colors based on a perceived signal, and when to move in on a bomb card you open in pack two or three. My hope is to be able to offer a relatively simple framework that will aid you with the complex decisions you face in a booster draft.

The Tier System

The tier system is a way of gauging the relative strengths of the cards that you see in a draft. Instead of creating an absolute power ranking of all the cards in the set, which is difficult and can unnecessarily constrain your options in the draft, you simply slot each card into a tier along with cards of comparable strength. When deciding between cards of the same tier, you're free to choose the one that fits better into your deck. When deciding between cards of different tiers, you'll think more deeply and begin to consider the concept of signals. (More on this below.)

Here are the tiers that I group cards into when I'm drafting:

Bombs

Bombs are cards that are powerful enough that they frequently determine the outcome of a game all on their own. Opening a bomb in your first pack of a booster draft is like winning the lottery! They constitute the highest tier because you should pick them over anything early in the draft, and later in the draft they can make you consider a dramatic shift in the direction you're going.

Premium Removal

After bombs comes premium removal. By "premium," I mean high in quality (versatile, reliable, and mana efficient) and hard to come by (there won't be an abundance in most drafts). Unlike bombs, these cards won't win you the game all on their own, but they do give you a great amount of control over the game and can sometimes answer opposing bombs. You should be happy if you can spend your first couple of picks on premium removal.

Strong Filler

Filler refers to the cards that will make up the bulk of your deck. In most drafts, you'll be lucky if you can get one bomb and two or three pieces of premium removal. The rest of your deck will be your run-of-the-mill, bread-and-butter cards—your filler.

Strong filler are the cards that you're happy to play with and will very rarely cut from a deck. This will include the better portion of common and uncommon creatures; removal that might be a little expensive, but is still reliable; and a small handful of the absolute best noncreature, non-removal cards like Force Away.

Weak Filler and Sideboard Cards

These are the "take 'em or leave 'em" type of cards that you'll need in order to round out your deck. It's normal (and totally acceptable) to play with a couple of unexciting morphs, overpriced removal spells, or average-quality combat tricks.

Typically, you'll end the draft with more weak filler than you need. Since some of these cards might not make your main deck anyway, there's value in leaving yourself with options for sideboarding.

Mostly Useless

You can save yourself some trouble by pretending these cards don't exist; if you do, you'll only be making a mistake a very, very small portion of the time.

The First Pack: Finding Direction

The tier system can help inform your individual draft picks and, in turn, steer you in the right direction toward an effective finished product.

Pack one, pick one (abbreviated P1P1) is easy; in the absence of strong preferences regarding color or archetype, you simply pick the best card from the pack.

Pick two gets more interesting. In a perfect world, your second pick will match the color of your first pick, but does that mean you should pass up on a stronger card in order to stay "on-color?"

What you should do is first to identify the best overall card in the pack, and next to identify the best "on-color" card. Assuming they're not the same card, how large is the gap in power level? If they're in different tiers, you should take the best card. If they're in the same tier, you can feel free to take the on-color card, using the fact that it fits well with your first pick as a tiebreaker.

Say, for example that your first pick was Wingmate Roc (hurray!). Your second pack contains both Feat of Resistance and Heir of the Wilds. Heir of the Wilds is almost certainly a better card than Feat of Resistance, but the gap in power is not huge—they both fit in the tier of "strong filler." In this case, you should take Feat of Resistance, delaying your choice of a second color and leaving you more flexible and open to opportunities for the rest of the draft.

Instead, let's say that your second choice is between Feat of Resistance and Murderous Cut. Murderous Cut is a tier above Feat of Resistance, being "premium removal," and the difference in power between the two cards is large enough to be worth dipping into a new color. It's good to stay open in a draft and wait for opportunities, but what are you waiting for if not something like a Murderous Cut!?

You can continue employing this strategy as the draft progresses. When two cards are in the same tier (they're of comparable power level), take the one that fits best with your deck. When one card stands out in a class of its own, then you should consider taking it. Either you can move into a new color or you can simply speculate on a powerful off-color card just in case you decide to switch into that color later in the draft.

Signals

Recall from last time:

"When neighboring drafters learn what one another are drafting, they're able to cooperate and will both wind up with better decks. This type of understanding and cooperation can be accomplished through signaling….signaling comes in the form of what cards you pass, receive, do not pass, and do not receive from your neighbors."

Signals and the Tier System

The concept of signals is daunting, even for experienced drafters. But not to worry! If you employ the tier system, you'll be naturally acting on signals even without conscious effort on your part!

When you're passed a very strong card that stands out on a tier of its own from the rest of the pack, the tier system would have you pick that card, or at least consider doing so.

"The best example of a signal is receiving a very strong card late in the draft." In other words, if you're looking at things from the perspective of signals, seeing a card that stands on a tier of its own gives you a hint toward an open color, and you should be ready to start drafting that open color.

As you can see, the tier system and the concept of signals would lead you to the same decision in this case. So you can benefit from signals without even being conscious of it!

The Concepts Behind Signals

But if you're reading Level One, then you're an intelligent person (with good taste, I might add!), who might not want to settle for just a "trust me on this one." So let's delve a little bit deeper and try to understand more about how signals work in a booster draft.

Your goal is to draft different colors from the people around you; if you succeed, you will naturally be passed more good cards for your deck simply by virtue of your neighbors not wanting them.

You don't want to draft colors that are generally overdrafted at your table. (If six out of eight players are drafting black, black is overdrafted and the good black cards will dry up quickly.) You don't want to be sharing colors with the player on your right, or the player two to your right, or the player three to your right. You don't want to be sharing colors with the player to your left, or the player two to your left, and so on and so forth. Of course, you can't achieve all of these goals at the same time; it's simply not reasonable to expect that you can be the only drafter interested in your colors. I only wanted to note the fact that there are slight differences between all of these situations.

In pack one, you're receiving signals from the players on your right. If you're passed a strong, standout card like a Murderous Cut, that's a hint that the players passing to you might not be interested in black. I emphasize the word hint because a signal will never prove anything beyond a doubt. Perhaps your neighbor is drafting black, but took a Sorin, Solemn Visitor over Murderous Cut. Perhaps your neighbor passed the Murderous Cut, but will decide to start drafting black afterwards. Perhaps he or she simply doesn't have the same valuation of Murderous Cut as you do. However, being passed a Murderous Cut is one piece of evidence that you can take note of, and if you continue to see more signals that black is open, this evidence begins to add up and contribute toward a rough picture of what might be going on.

You can also take a signal from the absence of strong cards. Say you first-pick your Wingmate Roc and second-pick Feat of Resistance. Your third pack is disappointing, with the best white card being Sage-Eye Harrier. In pack four there's no white card, and in pack five there's only an Erase. What's going on here? Well, you're seeing an abnormally small number of white cards with a notable absence of anything exciting. This is a signal that one or more of the players passing to you might be drafting white.

In pack one, you're sending signals to the players on your left. If you pass along a Murderous Cut, it's very likely that someone downstream will wind up drafting black. If you snap up every good white card you see, it's a little bit less likely that the player to your left will be drafting white, but you can't be sure. You don't know all of the variables in that player's draft and you can never be sure of another individual's thought process.

Acting On Signals

Reading signals is about accumulating information over the course of the draft. Acting on signals, therefore, presents a bit of a conundrum. The longer you wait to act, the more certain you become about what signals you're seeing. However, the longer you wait, the less time remains for you to reap the benefits of finding the open color. Knowing how to balance these things is one of the more challenging aspects of booster drafts and will depend more on experience than on anything I can write in an article.

There are times when you should follow signals into an open color and times when you should stick to your guns.

Let's say your first pack has no bomb or premium removal and you first-pick Heir of the Wilds. Your second pack is relatively weak and you pick Force Away. Your third pack is stronger and has both Suspension Field (in the premium removal tier) and Savage Punch. This is a pretty close pick where the tier system can only inform your decision, not tell you for certain what to choose. We haven't yet assigned Savage Punch to a tier; it's noticeably weaker than Suspension Field but could reasonably be assigned to either "premium removal" or "solid filler." Moreover, you already have two different colors of cards, so jumping into a third so early comes at a cost. For the sake of example, we'll say you pick Savage Punch, but you take note of the Suspension Field as a signal hinting that white might be open.

Next, you see a pack with Mardu Hordechief as a standout card, with Wetland Sambar being the best card in your colors. At this point, you've seen two signals in a row that white might be open, and it's now a good time to act on that signal. Your green-blue deck isn't shaping up to be particularly stellar, and you won't desperately miss that Wetland Sambar. You should take Mardu Hordechief, but not because it alone is a strong enough card to make you change gears. What you're really doing is speculating on the chance of getting more strong white cards later in the draft, which reading signals has given you reason to believe might happen.

Other times, you should stick to your guns. Return to the example where you first-pick Wingmate Roc, second-pick Feat of Resistance, and follow up with some weak-filler-quality white cards. By pick seven or eight, white has dried up and you're pretty confident that one or more players on your right are drafting white. Should you jump ship?

Here, the answer is no. For one thing, Wingmate Roc is such a strong card that you're loath to give up on it. For another thing, it's late enough in the draft that you're unlikely to reap many rewards for finding an open color. By pick eight, the premium cards in pack one are already gone and you won't get passed anything spectacular even if you switch colors. Granted, it's a problem that you're unlikely to be passed good white cards in pack three. However, what about pack two? It's the players on your left passing to you in pack two, and you've sent them a reasonably strong signal that they should not be drafting white. (You've sent this signal by your failure to pass white cards downstream). You're likely to be passed very good white in pack two!

So Option A is to stick with white, get to play with your Wingmate Roc, hopefully get passed good cards in pack two, but risk a weak pack three. Option B is to jump ship, give up on your Wingmate Roc and the other four or five white cards you've picked, get marginally better filler cards to round out pack one, have an uncertain pack two, and hope for a good pack three. Between those two, I like Option A better!

Don't get me wrong, it's never ideal to draft the same colors as the player passing to you. However, the key factor here is that by the time you've gathered enough information via signals to make an educated decision, the time to switch colors has already passed. Again, knowing exactly how to make these decisions will come largely from experience.

How Should You Be Drafting?

Hopefully, this article has given you at least a loose grasp on the concept of signals. However, signals, and Booster Draft in general, are deep and complicated subjects that can take years to fully master.

If you're still new to Draft, I encourage you to start thinking a bit more about signals, and taking note of what you're seeing in a draft, and what exactly it might mean. Being aware of these things will accelerate your learning process, but for the most part your primary focus should still be on putting together your own deck, rather than trying to take on too many challenges all at once.

The tier system is a good framework for thinking about your individual draft picks. When two cards are of comparable strength, take the one that's more valuable to you in the moment—matching your colors, filling a hole in your mana curve, etc. When cards are vastly different in power level, you can consider changing colors, or at least speculating on what might come later. In this way, you'll allow yourself to naturally go to, and benefit from, where the signals are taking you.

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