The Switching Hour

Posted in Limited Information on March 3, 2009

By Steve Sadin

Akrasan Squire

You're still in the same draft pod you were in last week. You first-picked the Akrasan Squire over a Grixis Charm, Sprouting Thrinax, and Court Archers. Second pick you took Knight of the Skyward Eye over Scavenger Drake, Courier's Capsule, and Blister Beetle. Third pick you took Resounding Silence over Tidehollow Strix and Fire-Field Ogre.

You then get passed a pack that contains:

Court Archers
Dragon Fodder
Incurable Ogre
Lightning Talons
Resounding Wave
Goblin Deathraiders
Onyx Goblet
Welkin Guide
Tower Gargoyle

What do you take?

This pick is fairly straightforward for me. You simply have to take the Tower Gargoyle. Yes, you've passed some good blue-black stuff, but you cannot ignore a gift this great when it comes to you this late.

Tower Gargoyle is better than any card (and probably any two cards) that we've already drafted. And that's a big deal, but not for the reasons you might think.

One of the most common ways that players can end up getting into direct fights with their neighbor to their right is if they begin their draft with an exceptionally strong card.

I was doing a draft the other day where I opened up a pack with Woolly Thoctar, Knight of the Skyward Eye, and Agony Warp. I took the Woolly Thoctar and passed along the pack assuming that the player to my left would probably take the Agony Warp, but he might take the Knight of the Skyward Eye.

Next pack I took a Sigiled Paladin and passed another Knight of the Skyward Eye and another Agony Warp. In the following pack I took an Akrasan Squire over a Court Archers and a Tidehollow Strix.

I was pretty sure that the player to my left was in blue-black and I would get an awesome hook-up in pack 2. Turns out, that wasn't the case. Turns out that the player to my left had also opened up a Woolly Thoctar of his own and was never able to bring himself to switch even though he could feel the lean that he should be in blue-black.

The reason why he couldn't bring himself to switch was because he already had a Woolly Thoctar which was as good as, if not better than, every card he was getting passed. Since he was still getting good cards there just wasn't enough incentive for him to switch.

Signals are tricky. Even if you are getting a reasonable signal to go one way, it isn't necessarily right for you to do it. Yes, the player to my left had a good sense of what was going on, but by the time it became clear to him that I wasn't touching any blue-black it was way too late for him to switch colors profitably.

If the player to my left had tried to switch midway through the pack, say when I passed him the Tidehollow Strix, then he would have had to have abandoned his previous picks, which were pretty good, and he would have gotten very few picks in pack two because the player to his immediate left was almost certainly in blue-black by that point.

My deck wound up being good (I went 2-1), but it was nowhere near as good as it would have been had the player to my left taken something, blue, black, red, or marginal first pick.

Let's zoom back to the bonus exercise draft. At this point in the draft, our cards are fine so far, but they're all expendable, making it quite easy to pick up the Tower Gargoyle. To top it all off, even if we move into Esper we can still play most of the cards that we already have.

So if you're ever in a spot where you have the choice between taking an awesome card fourth pick or a marginal card in your colors, take the awesome card.

You Can't Always Switch

In the "Woolly Thoctar" for everyone draft, the player to my left was presented with some really hard questions of whether or not to switch into blue-black. The first time he got passed an Agony Warp, it wouldn't have made much sense for him to take it because there was another good card in the pack that was in his colors.

But the Agony Warp was the best card in the pack. It was reasonable for me to think that the player to my left would have cemented himself into some sort of blue-black deck.

Sometimes you have no choice but to fight with your neighbors. When the cards blatantly tell you what you have to draft, there just isn't much that the people around you can do to change that.

Switching Back

Just because you made a decision to switch colors doesn't mean you have to stick with it. In our bonus exercise draft we got a pretty late Tower Gargoyle (well, late for Tower Gargoyle). But that doesn't mean we're married to drafting an Esper deck. In fact, Tower Gargoyle could very easily be the only Esper card we end up with the entire draft. And that's fine. Sometimes you have to make picks that might not work out because, if they do work out, things are going to turn out really well for you.

Magic is a game of risks. Even if you are doing something that you consider to be safe, you're taking a risk. In Magic, the word "safe" is synonymous with phrases like "less risky" not "guaranteed."

Yes, taking the Court Archers out of that pack might be the "safe pick," but it's also the wrong pick. If we ignored the Tower Gargoyle and instead went with the noticeably less impressive Court Archers, we could easily be setting ourselves up for great hardships when we realize that the player to our right is in Naya (or Bant, or a heavy green deck, or ...).

So, while there is some risk associated with taking the Tower Gargoyle and attempting to move into Esper when we've already passed some good blue-black stuff, if we stay aware and are willing to jump out of Esper if it doesn't look like we're on pace to get a good deck, then that shouldn't be a problem.

Admittedly, we probably wouldn't have to switch back out of Esper as we've already gotten a very clear signal that blue-black isn't being drafted to our right. But, if the Esper suddenly dried up, we should be prepared to make a change back as we are going to be fighting pretty hard in pack 2 and we simply might not get enough cards to build a deck.

In fact, a lot of the times when I take a powerful card that deviates from the colors or the strategy that I've set myself up with in the first few picks, I don't think that I've "switched colors." Instead, I'll think of it like I have another option. Yes, I could be Esper, yes, I could be Five-Color, and yes, I could simply follow my first couple of picks and be white beatdown.

If you keep your eyes peeled and you don't try to draft too stubbornly, then good things tend to happen to you. But of course, sometimes you open a Woolly Thoctar and you have no choice but to be stubborn ....

Harder Switches

The Tower Gargoyle decision didn't present us with too much difficulty, but things aren't always that easy. Sometimes you'll get passed an Agony Warp and a Knight of the Skyward Eye when you already have a good Naya card (though not necessarily a card as good as Woolly Thoctar) and you won't know whether you should deviate or not because you already have a pick invested.

In that type of situation there isn't necessarily a "right answer," but you're definitely going to know what you should have done after the draft. If you make the choice that turns out to be right, great! If you make the choice that turns out to be wrong, that's unfortunate.

If you have a very close call, you shouldn't think that you made a big mistake if it turns out wrong. Color-changing close calls have a huge impact on your draft, you're rarely going to be indifferent to that time that you switched colors. "Ehh, I switched colors, but it didn't really matter" just isn't a phrase that you hear very often.

Yes, that decision is going to matter, and yes, it might turn out wrong. If a pick is hard, that means it isn't easy.

So yes, it can be a little bit scary that so much of your draft can hinge on a single decision, but remember, even if it doesn't work out it isn't necessarily a reflection on you doing something wrong, and you still have a chance to change back and retake control of the situation.

Another White-Based Beatdown Deck

Darklit Gargoyle

The Tower Gargoyle pick reminded me of an archetype that you might not be familiar with. Brian David-Marshall has had a lot of success recently drafting a white-black beatdown deck that centers around removal, cheap exalted creatures, and Darklit Gargoyle.

White-black is the only two-color white beatdown deck that has access to a reasonable amount of removal (white-red still isn't a viable archetype to the best of my knowledge),
which is a pretty powerful thing in and of itself. But, if you actually get exalted creatures and Darklit Gargoyles, your opponent is going to be in for a world of hurt.

If you have a single exalted guy and a Dark-Lit Gargoyle then your Gargoyle is attacking for 6. If you have two exalted guys, then your Gargoyle can attack for a whopping 9 points of damage. Ouch!

When you get the right cards for this deck, it's awesome. But there are a lot of times where things just won't come together as you're trying to draft a two-color deck that only has one on-color gold card.

So, if you're trying to draft a deck like white-black beatdown, you have to be prepared to switch if things aren't going your way or you could very easily wind up with a miserable deck. The switch might be as easy as moving into Esper, or it might be a little bit more complex and force you to move into white-green or Bant.

If you keep your eyes peeled while your drafting, and you are willing to take the right steps to manage your risks, then there's no reason why you couldn't be winning your next draft with an aggressive white-black deck.

Don't Be Afraid to Lose

One common reason that people choose to make "safe" picks is because they're afraid of things going terribly awry and them suffering humiliating losses as a result. If a pick is right, it's because the rewards outweigh the risks. If you're letting fear dictate your draft, then you're just setting yourself up for something mediocre. Nightmare scenarios should not dissuade you from making the right pick.

If you 3-0 two drafts and 0-3 a third by making "risky" picks, that's at least as good, if not significantly better than going 2-1 in all three of those drafts. If you are playing to win, good things tend to happen to you.

Bonus Exercise

You've just finished constructing the following draft deck:

Bonus Exercise Draft Deck

Download Arena Decklist

Yes this deck is awesome, but the card pool was extremely strong this draft so it's reasonable for you to assume that the other decks at the table are similarly powerful.

It's your first match and you're playing against a player from across the table so you have very little clue what might be in his deck. You win the flip, choose to play and draw your opening hand, which contains:

2 Agony Warp
1 Cancel
1 Zombie Outlander
2 Swamp
1 Mountain

Do you keep or mulligan this hand? Why?

Latest Limited Information Articles


January 6, 2016

A Surge of Support by, Marshall Sutcliffe

Last week we blew your mind with five unreal uncommons from Oath of the Gatewatch. This week we'll be scaling things back a bit. After all, we have to leave you with some surprises from t...

Learn More


December 30, 2015

Five Amazing Threes by, Marshall Sutcliffe

I'm sitting in a cafe in Barcelona, sipping on a freshly squeezed orange juice while I go over the Oath of the Gatewatch preview cards for this column. I almost spit some of said orange j...

Learn More



Limited Information Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All