If a card is common, does that mean you can rely on getting it? Well, it depends on what card it is.
If you're counting on getting an Arrest or a Galvanic Blast, then you are going to be pretty disappointed the bulk of the time. Even if a number of high-quality removal spells are opened at your table, because people (correctly) value removal very highly, your neighbors are going to jump on opportunities to pick them up. Because top-notch removal spells tend to get picked so early, if you aren't fortunate enough to open any kill spells in your color, you really can't count on getting passed any.
If you're trying to draft infect, you can't assume that you are going to get passed a bunch of Plague Stingers and Cystbearers, because if anyone else at the table is fighting you for infect they are also going to go out of their way to grab all the good infect creatures that they see.
- Things You Can Count On
So if you can't plan on getting passed the cards that you really, really, want because, well, everyone else wants them too, what types of commons can you rely on getting?
Role players like Crush and Tel-Jilad Defiance. Frequently dismissed cards like Necrogen Censer and Golem Foundry. Filler cards like Oxidda Daredevil and Moriok Reaver. Effective but often redundant cards like Alpha Tyrranax and Molder Beast.
These cards, like the Arrests and the Galvanic Blasts of the world, show up very frequently in drafts because they are commons (duh). While you can't count on getting a Galvanic Blast late because there are plenty of people at your table who should/would be willing to first pick it, when was the last time that you saw someone who had even a marginal amount of experience drafting the format spend an early pick on a Moriok Reaver or a Tel-Jilad Defiance?
While you can assume that you are going to get passed some very good infect creatures in pack 3 if you've already gotten passed a number of good infectors in pack 1 (it's open, yay!), you can't assume that you are going to get passed an Instill Infection, a Grasp of Darkness, or even a specific infect creature. Even if the players to your right are not in infect, they could easily be in black and will happily take any high-quality removal that they can get their hands on.
And even if the two players who are immediately to your right are not in infect or in black, if there are players further to your right who are also in green-black infect (and let's face it, most draft tables have between two and four infect drafters), then they are also going to want to pick up the Cystbearers and Plague Stingers that you so desire.
But if you know that you passed a few Equipment with living weapon in pack 1, and you really want to get a copy (or two) of Tel-Jilad Defiance for your sideboard. That is something that you can easily make happen.
How can you take advantage of the fact that there are common cards (in every set) that go very late in most drafts, and can help fill out your deck in some significant ways?
- Taking It to the Top
Unless you are drafting a hyper-aggressive deck, you are going to need to pick up a couple of finishers. If you don't have any finishers (or an excellent plan involving a lot of removal and/or a good way to completely lock up the game), then you are going to lose a lot of games that go long because your opponent will be able to simply overpower you.
There is no way that you will be able to reliably get an awesome finisher like Carnifex Demon, or Hoard-Smelter Dragon, but there are some big cards that can fill out the top of your curve pretty nicely. Flameborn Hellion, Scrapdiver Serpent and Alpha Tyrranax are all common, and they all tend to go pretty late.
Do these cards go late because they aren't very good (in most decks/situations)? Well, in the case of Flameborn Hellion... yes. This 5/4 haste creature that must attack every turn just doesn't cut the mustard a lot of the time. Unless you specifically craft your game plan around winning with Flameborn Hellion, it's just going to be another card.
However, if you do draft your deck with Flameborn Hellion in mind, it can do some pretty fantastic things for you. If you Quicksilver Geyser your opponent's two blockers and then cast a Flameborn Hellion, your opponent is going to take quite a bit of damage.
Are most decks able to do this? No, of course not. Does the fact that this sequence of plays rarely comes up make it any less effective than it would be if it were one of the most commonly executed endgame strategies in the format? Actually, quite the opposite—the fact that it rarely happens will make it more effective as you will be able to kill your opponents seemingly out of nowhere with this one-two punch.
But if you aren't executing a strategy that depends on Flameborn Hellion, it's going to be mediocre at best. The fact that Flameborn Hellion is so frequently dismissed (and rightfully so, I might add) means that you can, in fact, craft a plan as early as the first pack that revolves around getting a Flameborn Hellion or two.
If I get two Quicksilver Geysers early, I'm going to look to draft a blue-red evasion deck. This is the kind of deck that should, in all honesty, have trouble killing most opponents—except for the fact that I have a real plan for how I am going to close out the game, a plan that most players won't see coming even if they are very familiar with the format.
While Flameborn Hellion requires you to sculpt a plan around it for it to become noteworthy, Scrapdiver Serpent is a much more traditional finisher. Scrapdiver Serpent's only downside is the fact that it costs a lot of mana to cast. But once you do get to seven, you get a card that is as powerful as a Dragon, a Demon, or an Angel. Unless your opponent is trying really hard to rid his or her deck of artifacts, your Scrapdiver Serpent is probably going to be an unblockable 5/5. A couple of hits from that and the game will likely be yours.
If you have a little bit of acceleration, you might be able to get Scrapdiver Serpent out as early as the fifth turn. Not bad for a card that often goes eleventh pick or later... is it?
While seven mana is a lot for a card, the fact that Scrapdiver Serpent is a true finisher that you can reliably pick up late can give you quite a bit of breathing room while you're drafting. No, you might not want to play with any copies of Scrapdiver Serpent, but when push comes to shove, it's way better to have a slightly overcosted finisher in your deck than it is to play a deck that is full of glaring weaknesses.
If you've been following this column at all over the last few months, you are probably painfully aware of how much I love Alpha Tyrranax. Because of the very existence of Alpha Tyrranax, I don't need to worry about spending early picks on finishers in my green decks. I can instead spend those picks on removal spells, and other cheap, efficient cards that everyone covets. Because Alpha Tyrranax frequently goes late, I know that I am going to end up with between one and three of them in pretty much all of my (non-poison) green decks.
When I'm drafting green decks, I know how I plan on closing out my games even before I'm done with the first pack. I get to load up my deck with the most efficient creatures possible (Tangle Mantis? Don't mind if I do!), some accelerators (Viridian Emissary is pretty excellent when you are trying to simultaneously survive the early game and ramp up to the point where you can cast, well, your Alpha Tyrranaxes), and every piece of removal and good trick that I can get my hands on.
Is this type of deck anywhere near as complex as one that looks to abuse player expectations by casting Quicksilver Geyser and then following it up with a Flameborn Hellion to deliver the killing blow to a completely unsuspecting foe? Not at all. But you don't always have to do something particularly clever to craft a strategy that takes advantage of unappreciated commons.
- Filling Holes in Your Curve
It's important for you to be aware of what mediocre but playable creatures are available for each color. Sure, it's true that Moriok Reaver isn't very special. But if you have a deck that desperately needs a three-drop, you could do a lot worse than a vanilla 3/2 that only costs a single colored mana to cast.
So if you're in the middle of a draft and things aren't going too well for your black-white deck (maybe you switched colors and you're playing catch up on playable cards, or you're getting cut off on one or both of your colors but you still are trying to salvage something), then you might find yourself in a position where you need to choose between taking a decent three-drop like a Moriok Reaver, or a decent four-drop like a Ghalma's Warden (when you are on pace to end up with around twelve to fourteen artifacts). Given that you will be able to bank on getting a Moriok Reaver or a Blistergrub to help fill out your curve later, you might choose to take the Ghalma's Warden in your deck that desperately needs some more power.
But if you're drafting white-green, two colors that are pretty light on three-drops, then you might find yourself in some spots in the second pack where you need to take a decent but unremarkable three-drop like Loxodon Wayfarer to help fill out your curve—despite the fact that there are a number of "better" but more expensive cards in the pack. (Don't worry, that Loxodon Wayfarer should do a good job of clogging up the ground while you work your way towards Alpha Tyrranax mana.)
- Finishing Things Up
As long as your expectations are in line with reality, you can take advantage of the cards that are playable, but inessential, in most decks to round out your decks. So while you shouldn't count on getting a late Plague Stinger, or seeing a Kemba's Skyguard seventh pick, if you need a playable black three-drop or a good finisher in blue or green, you shouldn't have much trouble getting one.