I wrote this article mainly to dispel the common myth that sending signals is a huge part of being a successful drafter. Concentrating on appropriately reading signals is the focus of this article.
One might assume I'd want a break from Magic after such a trip. The fact is, talking about Magic constantly—but not actually playing—charges the draft batteries for when I get home.
Additionally, I get to see high-level play from a unique perspective. This inspires me to improve and to get closer to the level of the pros we watch on the coverage stream. I find that carefully watching the pros play is a great way to start the mental process of improvement. When we see a play we don't immediately understand, it's useful to work backward and construct the line of reasoning that the player might be employing.
Along these lines, I want to talk about improving one often-asked-about aspect of Limited: signals.
Read the Sign
I'm going to start off with the biggest point I want to make about signals. This is the most important thing I will say during this article, and if it's all you take away from it, I'd be content.
The signals you send are far less important than the signals you receive.
It's a simple sentence, but I'm going to spend the rest of our time together talking about it.
I often get emails asking about signals. They are this mysterious, cool-sounding concept that drafters love to reference. Signals, though, are also wrought with confusion, misconception, and misapplication.
Definition of a Signal
I think it's worth our time to first define exactly what we are talking about here. Signals refer to a concept in Booster Draft where a person can figure out what his or her neighbors are playing (or what they should be playing) based on the cards passed to him or her in the pack. Similarly, people assume the cards they pass will be taken as a signal.
This makes sense, as there is a lot of information being tossed around a draft table. The fact, though, is that the information is heavily skewed toward one direction. Let's take a look at an example to help illustrate this.
We are at our local game store's Friday Night Magic The format is Draft. In our first pack, we have narrowed our choices to the following cards:
I can't tell you how many times I have heard people recommend taking the Drakewing Krasis from this pack, citing "signals" as the reasoning.
I think this is wrong. I would happily take the Truefire Paladin here, knowing that it may put some of my leftward neighbors into Boros.
Here is a math equation we can use to help us see why this is the case:
It's that simple. In pack one, we don't care much at all what the two or three players on our left are doing.
In pack three? Same situation.
We only really care about what colors they are in during pack two.
While one-third of the draft is still relevant, it's not enough to make up for the power loss we incur by taking less powerful cards over more powerful ones in our first pack.
To sum up the point: The people to your right have double the influence on your draft than the people on your left. When I open my first booster of a draft, my focus is to take the best card in the pack. I am far less concerned with what signals I am sending, rather than which ones I am receiving.
Answer the Call
This brings us to the other side of the coin: Reading signals sent from our right side. As little emphasis as I put on which signals I am sending in pack one, I put twice that much emphasis on the signals I am receiving in pack one.
One major key to improving at Draft is to pay keen attention to the signals we receive from the right in pack one, and (to a point) pack three.
I have some guidelines and tips about how to read, and—more importantly—how to interpret this information.
The biggest mistake I see drafters make is putting too much stock in one pick worth of information. Signals are a flow of information that gradually builds a picture of what is going on in the draft. This means that any one pick is just a small piece of a much bigger pie.
Again, we are at Friday Night Magic, drafting. We take a Cloudfin Raptor out of a mediocre first pack, then get shipped the following options:
A common reaction to this pack would be to think, "Wow! Orzhov is wide open!" While this may be the case, what if I told you that your right-hand neighbor opened Obzedat, Ghost Council? Or Deathpact Angel?
Reading that pack as a strong signal, and subsequently putting a lot of weight on that read, is a mistake. What we have here is a useful piece of information, and one that we should note, but not one that we should hang our entire draft on.
We may very well take the One-Thousand Lashes out of this pack. It's the best card here, and the information we have right now is telling us that Orzhov may be open from the player to our immediate right. The important thing that seasoned drafters will do here is to not close the book on the signal reading just yet.
The Waiting Game
I have been known to take the best card out of my initial four or five picks before settling on my colors. While you do give up some pick equity in the early stages of the draft, being patient often pays big dividends when you figure out what is open and can capitalize on it.
It's important not to prioritize staying open over actual draft value, though. Being open on colors is an early advantage. But taking Millennial Gargoyle over a good colored spell is usually wrong. If I find myself staring at two possible picks, both close in power level, I'll often take the less color-committing spell. I think of it as a tiebreaker, as opposed to a primary reason to make the choice.
You shouldn't warp your pick decision based on what cards you are sending along. You want to take the best card out of the pack, while getting a feel for what is going on to your right. Remember not to put too much emphasis on any one pick when reading for signals. Crazy things happen in a booster draft, and even though it may seem improbable that you are getting passed a great card, the explanation usually bears itself out rather logically.
After getting a reasonable sample size, act on the information you have. Don't be afraid to abandon a few early picks if you feel the signal is strong. Two-and-a-half packs worth of picks will usually make up the difference quite nicely.
A common feeling I get while drafting is that a set of colors will be flowing in pack one, will be somewhat absent in pack two, then will flow freely once again in pack three. This usually means that I am shipping along some decent stuff in my colors, which is likely to get snatched up by the players on my left. Being strong and waiting out pack two often means we get the major hookup in pack three.
Hit 'em Where They Ain't
The best-case scenario in a draft is to be the only player drafting the colors or strategy you are in. Sometimes you will just get lucky and your picks will naturally put you in this position. I, however, do not like to rely on luck if I can help it. By paying close attention to what you are being passed, you can improve the decks you draft dramatically.
You'll even develop a sort of perception that you can only really get from drafting many times. I'll often have a good feel for what colors some of my draft neighbors are in, and they will have a good idea of what colors I am playing as well.
Putting yourself in a position to change archetypes mid-draft when others will not is a great boon to your game.
Stay flexible, stay alert, and read the signals. It's almost that easy.