Stay open. Read the signals. Adapt, as there are enough playables to change your colors. These are the refrains we hear from the pros again and again about Theros Limited. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't pick most powerful cards early on. And sometimes those first four picks are hard to turn away from. If you are lucky enough to pick two Gray Merchant of Asphodel for the first and second picks, it will be difficult to leave black, which could potentially be a problem if the person to your right opened an Abhorrent Overload, then happily shipped you the merchant. Christian Calcano ran into a similar case in the second draft of the weekend. He second-picked a Gray Merchant and "went for it." His last pack gave him basically a single Pharika's Cure as the only good, playable card.
Other times, your opening pack is a bellwether for the under-picked colors and you can just skate to the finish line. Enter No. 25 Sam Black. Part of Team StarCityGames (who is additionally doing quite well in the Constructed portion), and currently sitting in second place with 24 points, the Midwesterner stayed open, read the signals, but never had to adapt.
"There are very specific rewards for different decks," Black said. Though we weren't talking specifically about the deck he had just drafted, it's hard not to think of his first four picks from Pod 1 (go and check it out on the Draft Viewer). He took a Griptide over Sylvan Caryatid, then went Vaporkin and Voyage's End. There were arguably just as powerful picks in other colors, but the blue seemed to be flowing well enough. And then the first Prophet of Kruphix came. That's right, the first Prophet of Kruphix. Sam said that when he saw that pick, he thought, "Well, clearly no one's going blue-green." So he simply scooped it up, took the next pick Horizon Chimera, and knew he was on his way to a strong blue-green deck.
The powerful gold cards can be just those rewards Sam was talking about. Black specified that you will rarely first-pick gold cards ("except for something like Prophet"), but rather they are the spoils for being open to your surroundings. Rather than a windmill slam on the first pick, they are the slam on fifth pick, while serving as the indicator that your strategy is going to work. When I asked about first-picking one of the good uncommons, like Shipwreck Singer, for example, Black said only out of a really mediocre pack. "The best commons in each color are much better first-picks." Stay open and read the signals.
Sam Black values the gold cards as payoffs for staying open, rather than as powerful first picks.
Black said that this type of strategy of open-with-benefits works in the format is because there's a great "depth of playables." Like Chapin and Rietzl had said yesterday, it's rare that you will wind up without enough cards to build a deck, so you can afford to wait for payoff gold cards. And they're worth their wait in gold.
This strategy ended up giving some fits to the person to his left, David Caplan. After first-picking a Voyaging Satyr out of a mediocre pack, seeing the Sylvan Caryatid gave him a strong sense that his first pick was the right color. But after Sam's first couple multicolored picks, the Team SCG player cut green hard. And due to the large amount of playable cards, especially in green, Caplan wasn't even sure he was cut from the color until pack three. He was able to get a Time to Feed and a Vulpine Goliath from the first pack. And then a sixth pick Nylea's Emissary out of the second pack allowed him to at least use green as a secondary color in his mostly-white heroic deck, but he realized when it just wasn't coming later on that he should have left much earlier.
"I probably should have gotten out of green, but by the third pack, it was way too late." However, when it comes to reading the signals, the Canadian wasn't really the person to ask anyway; Caplan's strategy has been to force an archetype. Bucking the entire convention of the pros, Caplan comes with a specific deck in mind, and he said it's been pretty easy to get...that is, until the rest of his team found out. Since then they've all been doing it or at least reevaluating draft picks. And before you poo-poo the idea, know that Caplan's testing partners were Grand Prix Columbus finalist Lucas Siow and limited super-ultra-master Rich Hoaen. They're not in the bush league.
David Caplan has seen success with his teammates by bucking the trends of Theros Limited and forcing an archetype.
The deck of choice that they have been forcing consists of Flamespeaker Adept and Aqueous Form. An unblockable 4/3 that will scry when it attacks is no joke. That's not counting adding to it some of the amazing enchantments available in blue. Maybe Thassa's Emissary? A blue-red combination, the deck takes advantage of four cards that Caplan saw going much later than they should. Adept, Form, Lost in the Labyrinth, and Spellheart Chimera are all late picks that this deck is more than happy to slam tenth through fifteenth.
The Chimera isn't always great for the deck, as Caplan explained there are two versions. If you wind up with more enchantments like Ordeal of Purphoros and the like, Spellheart isn't that impressive. "You're looking for about 8 or 9 spells that turn it on." And we're not talking just any spells. The weird thing about this deck is it doesn't really like one of the most ubiquitously powerful cards in blue Sea God's Revenge. "It's just a little too expensive."
"The best part is, most of the cards that stop the Adept are in your colors." Lightning Strike andVoyage's End are cards you're taking extremely early anyway. And there's been a lot of talk about Magma Jet being way overvalued in the format (Christian Calcano called it "borderline unplayable" and Gerry Thompson tweeted it's the "biggest trap in Theros"). However this deck loves Magma Jet, so the more the pros eschew it, the better it is for this deck.
But Caplan's view is the minority, and maybe that's what allows it to work. While everyone else is staying open, reading the signals, and adapting, Caplan is hoovering up exactly what he wants. But as evidenced by this last draft, forcing a deck runs the risk of bombing out. And if you don't know how to remain open, and you haven't practiced the format in various ways, it's very hard to salvage a draft gone wrong.
Though I love Caplan's deck, I think the best way to use it is in conjunction with the other pros' methods. If blue and/or red are open, keep it in mind and know the pick orders for the deck (hint: Vaporkin is really good). But always stick to the Theros limited mantra: Stay open; read signals; adapt.