Drafting Consistently

Posted in Limited Information on December 22, 2009

By Steve Sadin

I'm very proud of this article. I feel that it draws attention to some of the finer points of signaling without being too cumbersome or circular.

Hopefully you will enjoy rereading this article as much as I enjoyed writing it.

This article originally ran on September 1, 2009.

You're in the Top 8 of a Magic 2010 Premier Event on Magic Online.


Your first pack looks like this:

Essence Scatter
Giant Growth
Snapping Drake
Centaur Courser
Jackal Familiar
Veteran Swordsmith
Safe Passage
Air Elemental
Tempest of Light

You take Nightmare, deciding to let the people to your left fight over the giant stack of blue cards in the pack.


Here's the second pack:

Snapping Drake
Sparkmage Apprentice
Llanowar Elves
Craw Wurm
Canyon Minotaur
Wall of Faith
Zombie Goliath
Angel's Feather
Mold Adder
Wall of Frost
Coat of Arms

While the blue cards are certainly the most appealing cards in the pack, you aren't interested in taking any of them because you've already passed so much blue.

After considering taking Llanowar Elves or Sparkmage Apprentice, you eventually settle on Weakness, hoping to further solidify yourself in black.

Then you see the third pack:

Lava Axe
Serpent of the Endless Sea
Zombie Goliath
Soul Warden
Horned Turtle
Llanowar Elves
Snapping Drake
Dread Warlock
Howl of the Night Pack

What do you take?

The key thing that we have to understand when determining the correct third pick in this draft is what assumptions have already been made. The biggest assumption that has been made in this draft is that there is significant value associated with passing along all sorts of good blue leftward in order to set ourselves up for a powerful pack 2.

For that reason, it would be completely schizophrenic to take a Clone or a Snapping Drake with our pick here.

Sure, you might be of the belief that the best pick here would be a blue card, especially because of the high density of good blue cards that we've gotten passed so far. But if you were willing to drafting blue while passing good blue, then your previous picks would likely have been very different.

I'll get back to the draft in a moment, but I need to make a digression first.

Making the Correct Pick Given Your Beliefs

Sebastian Thaler

At Pro Tour–Honolulu, current German National Champion Sebastian Thaler famously first picked a Kathari Screecher over a Vein Drinker and a Rhox War Monk. He did this because he thought that white-blue evasion was the archetype that gave him the best chance of doing well at that Pro Tour.

The entire pack: Banewasp Affliction, Blightning, Bloodthorn Taunter, Dragon's Herald, Excommunicate, Jungle Weaver, Naturalize, Obelisk of Grixis, Resounding Scream, Rhox War Monk, Scavenger Drake, Sighted-Caste Sorcerer, Vein Drinker

While Vein Drinker would have been considered by most to be the best card in the pack, and thus the clear first pick, that wasn't even a consideration for Thaler. He knew what he wanted to draft, and he knew exactly what he was willing to do to get it. In fact, for Thaler, opening up a high-quality card that did not conflict with his intended colors of white and blue was a very good thing, because it would encourage a player downstream of him to go into that color(s).

Vein Drinker
Kathari Screecher

Given what Thaler believed, taking Kathari Screecher over Vein Drinker was 100% correct. I wouldn't have made the pick because I didn't share Thaler's theory about the format at that event and while I'm willing to argue with his underlying theory, passing the Vein Drinker is certainly the right pick.

Rhox War Monk

Passing the Rhox War Monk is an entirely different story, and it's not a pick that I can support given Thaler's strategy. Assuming that Thaler was not interested in splashing a third color in his white-blue deck because he believed that he got significant value out of drafting a hyper-consistent two-color beatdown deck (a reasonable thing to assume given this very pick), then Kathari Screecher is the stronger card, on average, for him.

But not everyone shared Thaler's beliefs about the format. Rather, very few people shared his beliefs. And while Kathari Screecher is a card that he valued highly, it is unlikely that anyone else at his table would share this valuation (to prove this point, he got another Kathari Screecher tenth pick).

However, people do value Rhox War Monk highly, and getting passed a Rhox War Monk is a good way to encourage someone else to draft a base white-blue deck. Which is the worst thing that Thaler could do given that his strategy (like all drafting strategies) benefits greatly from having a low density of players competing for his color(s).

This fact is even truer for a deck like white-blue beatdown in Shards / Conflux / Reborn Limited than it is for most, because this archetype gives up a lot of card quality on individual picks in order to put together a deck that has the coherence of a Constructed deck.

Because of this, given my understanding of Thaler's beliefs, I would have taken the Rhox War Monk out of this pack even if I didn't think I was that likely to play it because I wouldn't want my leftward neighbors to get the wrong idea about what was going on in the draft, especially if the only reward that I was going to get for doing so was a Kathari Screecher.

And Now Back to Your Regularly Scheduled Programming

The pick comes down to Dread Warlock and Howl of the Night Pack.

If the pilot of this draft thinks that stubbornly trying to force mono-black is the strategy that gives him or her the highest expected value, then by all means that person should go ahead and take the Dread Warlock.

If the player successfully cuts off black completely (which doesn't seem like it will be too tough to do at this point), then he or she is likely to get paid off extremely well in pack 2. Additionally, even if one or two of the rightward players are in black, the drafter might be able to take enough black cards in pack 2 to discourage the people to the right from being in heavy black, thus setting us up for more black-intensive cards in pack 3 ....

Dread Warlock
Howl of the Night Pack

But if the drafter instead thinks that there is value to shoving a color towards those to his or her left, and then following signals to see which color or colors are particularly open, then the correct pick would be Howl of the Night Pack.

The key thing to take away from this pick, and from Thaler's pick, is that if you believe that a certain strategy is correct, don't be afraid to take a stance on it. Sure, it might turn out that your underlying strategy is flawed in some way, but you aren't going to do yourself any favors by flip-flopping in and out of a strategy. Just make sure that the pick that you are taking is actually the best one given what you believe.

But we actually shouldn't be in this position in the first place unless we do share those theoretical beliefs. Let's reexamine the theory that got us to this point in the draft.


A Weak(ness) Pick

While Weakness is a fine card, it isn't what you would consider "special" no matter what unit of measurement you are using.

So why spend your second pick on it? Even if you started the draft with a black-intensive card like Nightmare, by the end of the draft it is very unlikely that you will be lacking cards that are comparable in power level to Weakness.

Sure, it can be tough to cobble together 23 solid playables if you are trying to go mono-black or primarily black with a light splash, but if you don't get the requisite number of playables, that's probably about a good an indicator as any that you shouldn't have been mono-black.

The best reason to take the Weakness out of the second pack is that you honestly believe you can force mono-black from that spot. The only problem with this is that Weakness isn't a good enough card to seriously impact anyone's draft.

And even if you believe that forcing mono-black is a good strategy, that doesn't mean that the people around you do (and if they do, you're already in trouble). So the presence of that Weakness will barely affect their drafts. Because of the minimal impact the Weakness will have on the draft, I wouldn't spend this pick on it.

I wouldn't take a blue card out of this pack either. Assuming you took the Nightmare first pick, the player to your left would probably take Air Elemental second (though he or she might take Sleep).

The next player who sees the pack would see a pack with Sleep, Snapping Drake, Essence Scatter, and Divination. This is as good a sign as any that blue is available, so that player would probably take a blue card unless he or she already has a good reason not to.

That means that it's likely that the next two players are taking blue cards (or at least two of the next three are). So if you have an opportunity to continue encouraging them to do so, you should. By all means, then, you should pass the Snapping Drake and the Wall of Frost even though (and especially because) they are the two best cards in the pack.

Given this, my pick would be between Sparkmage Apprentice and Llanowar Elves. I think that both of these picks are completely defensible and should be ranked based on color / archetype preference.

I like drafting green in M10, so I would take the Llanowar Elves. But that's assuming I agree with the theory that led this drafter to take Nightmare first.

Back to the Beginning: Nightmare vs. Air Elemental vs. Sleep

While Sleep is, in my opinion, the weakest of these three cards, this pick is still very close. I haven't had much success drafting heavy black in M10, mostly because of the difficulty associated with decisions such as the one we were faced with in pack 2 of this draft (and to a lesser extent the original pack 3 question).

You just can't force mono-black with a second pick Weakness. If I got passed a Nightmare I would feel inclined to take it, but I just hate spending my first pick on such a color-intensive card.

Yes, there's a lot of blue in this pack that my neighbors will snatch up, but there's just enough good blue that I stand a decent chance of getting something back ninth pick.

I would take the Air Elemental out of this pack. It offers nearly the same power level as an optimal Nightmare at a fraction of the color commitment. (I would then have followed it up with Snapping Drake and Clone, but that's neither here nor there.)

Play or Draw, Continued

Last week I proposed that if your opponent chooses to draw first in game 1 or 2, then you should often follow suit and choose to draw first yourself if you lose a game.

My reasoning behind it was that there is that your opponent likely knows something that you don't know, so even if you don't know why he or she made the decision to go second, you should respect it.

But, as Hall of Famer Zvi Mowshowitz reminded me in an email, it's important not to give your opponent too much credit. If your opponent makes a mistake, you should be there to take advantage of it. And if you think that your opponent made a mistake when he or she chose to draw first, you should be eager to take advantage of it.

Just stop and think why your opponent might have chosen to draw first. If you can't think of any good reasons, then you should happily choose to play first. Even if you can see a legitimate argument for drawing, if you still think that it's right to play, then you should play.

While it's easy to outthink yourself (as I did about this topic last week), playing first is typically the right decision for a very good reason.

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