Friday, November 9, 2007

Limited Help Corner: The Draft

In this article, I will analyze the draft in the following parts:
i. Pre-Draft Information
ii. Bombs
iii. Tempo
iv. Removal
v. Utility
vi. Signals
vii. Pack 1
viii. Pack 2
ix. Pack 3
x. Wrap-up
Pre-Draft Information
Pre-Draft information is basically the information you should know about the sets you are drafting. Let’s say you are drafting Ravnica block. You should know that Ravnica is not like the usual block that you draft. Ravnica has a lot of color fixing, so it allows players to include several colors in a draft deck rather than just one or two colors. So, if you are drafting Ravnica block, you should probably take a mental note to pick up signets, karoos, and duals (if you are lucky). Additionally, it is probably better to go three or four colors in Ravnica draft because it gives you more options and, as I said, you will not be set back much by using color fixers.

Another example is in Coldsnap Triple Draft. In Coldsnap draft, it is profitable to most draft decks to have some snow mana-producers to activate certain effects. Therefore, the player will have to take a mental note to take a snow-land or any snow permanent that produces mana to help utilize those effects.

If a block does not have a theme that calls for drafting certain cards (the usual block draft), then you should at least have a mental note of which colors have the most/best playables (in terms of commons). Furthermore, you also have to predict which color would be over-drafted at your table. However, just because a color may be over-drafted at your table, does not mean you should totally ignore that color. You should just be cautious and not end up fighting with the person to your left over one color.

Here’s a topic that causes some debate. The definition of a bomb may differ from player to player. My general definition of a bomb is a card that a) drastically changes the game state when played (such as a mass removal card) and/or b) a card that will win you the game if the opponent does not take care of it quickly. If you are passed a card that, in your definition, is a bomb, then you should probably take it up unless you definitely know you cannot include it in your deck. If the bomb is not in the right color or if it drastically hurts your curve, then you should probably pass it on. An example is Akroma, Angel of Wrath. Obviously, if you are Red-Green, then you won’t pick it up (this example is pertaining to Triple Time Spiral Draft). Additionally, if you are only splashing the color white, then you should pass this card on (unless you are rare-drafting). There is another reason that you should pass a bomb. That reason deals with the next category: Tempo.

I was in a limited discussion chat room and a certain someone, who we will, for the sake of this example, call “mufl0n,” said he would rather take Akroma, Angel of Wrath over Serra Avenger. Most people in this discussion naturally laughed because that is a terrible decision. Why is it a terrible decision? Tempo! Akroma, Angel of Wrath is an eight (8) mana spell, so you would be able to play it around turn eight, which is pretty much late game. Serra Avenger, on the other hand, can be played starting turn four. Furthermore, Serra Avenger is a two (2) mana spell so you can play another two-mana spell on the same turn. Although Serra Avenger is not a bomb, it is a very solid creature. Of course, when has a cheap 3/3 flyer with a weak drawback not been a solid creature? This applies to tempo because this is early pressure on your opponent and tempo usually decides the winner in a match. By turn eight, you may have Akroma, Angel of Wrath in your hand, but if your opponent has been applying early pressure and has tempo advantage, the game might already be over by then.

Tempo Advantage can be obtained by having a smooth curve of cheap creatures or have cards that slows down the opponent. By slowing down the opponent, I mean disrupting his tempo/pressure in any way (it is a plus if you can disrupt opponent’s tempo and speed your own tempo with one card; Riftwing Cloudskate for example). Tempo Advantage is key in a match as you will most likely win the match if you have a clear advantage in tempo. You should be considering this factor even during the draft process.

Removal is something everyone should know about. Removal gets rid of bombs, utility creatures, and it also lightens the opponent’s pressure. Removal cards are better if it can hit any kind of creature (like Putrefy being better than Terror), but even a removal card that has limitations on which creature it can hit is good enough to be used. You can judge which removal cards are better than others by what kind of limitation they have (Terror being better than Assassinate). Oh, I forgot to mention the type of removal. The types of removal are: spot removal (e.g. Putrefy), toughness removal (e.g. Sudden Death), damage removal (e.g. Shivan Meteor), and sacrificial removal (e.g. Cruel Edict). Spot removal is the best type of removal, while sacrificial removal is the lowest. Sacrificial removal is the lowest because most sacrificial removal cards allow the opponent to choose which creature to get rid of. Oh, I almost forgot, there is another type of card for this category. It does not technically remove a creature from the field, but it does remove the chance for the creature to beat down on you. These are “tappers” (e.g. Icy Manipulator). “Tappers” are useful because it can hold the opponent’s best creature at bay and/or clear a blocker when you want to attack.

Spot Removal does not only pertain to creatures. If you know the block you are drafting in has quite a few good artifacts or enchantments, it would be wise for you to draft some type of artifact and enchantment spot removal (e.g. Seed Spark). Some type of removal should always make it into your deck, because you will definitely need ways to deal with certain cards.

Utility cards are cards that do certain effects that help your board position. Utility cards include combat tricks, utility creatures (e.g. Ghost Warden) and cards that help card advantage (like draw cards). These cards are useful because, as I said, it helps board position and a strong board position goes hand-in-hand with tempo, because the stronger board position will win the game.
First, I have to say something. I’m sure most of you know this already, but for those who do not, I will say it: “You cannot draft a winning draft deck without knowing about signals and how to appropriately read and send them!” So, you guys can probably guess that this section is pretty important. Signals, in drafts, are messages sent to your neighbors, telling them that you’re in a certain color. Of course, you cannot just turn to your neighbor and say “Hey, I’m going red, so pass me the red cards,” so you have to send them appropriate non-verbal signals. Additionally, you have to know how to read signals so you do not accidentally end up fighting over a color.

Sending signals is pretty simple. If you are taking the best cards of a certain color, then the person you are passing to should realize pretty quickly what color you are in. Reading signals are equally as simple. You can just take a look at the pack and see which color(s) has an abundance of cards and which color(s) have very few cards. Of course, you can also read signals by noticing how weak the cards, of a certain color, are in the pack.

Let’s say it’s pick three and you get passed the following cards: Durkwood Baloth, Tolarian Sentinel, Traitor’s Clutch, Penumbra Spider, Savage Thallid, Thrill of the Hunt, Basal Sliver, Ground Rift, Children of Korils, Amrou Seekers, Darkness, Fool’s Demise, and Ignite Memories.

You probably can guess that the person on your right has not picked a green card and probably won’t go into green. This is a strong green signal as there are four good, if not decent, green cards. Also, if you were the one who passed this pack on, you are saying to the person you are passing to that you are not going green. Furthermore, you can probably make a guess at which card the person you are passing to will take and if you pass him more green cards, there is a good chance he will go green.

The person being passed this pack probably would not mind going into green at this point because, as I said, this is a strong green signal and a sign that there will be more green cards to come.

Of course, signals are not so simple in general. You may find yourself in a situation where you start off a pack seeing two great cards of one color. At times, if you pick one of those cards, your neighbor will pick the other and you both will start off in that color. However, do not get discouraged. If you are sticking to that color, then your neighbor will be passed very little, if any, quality cards, of that color, as the pack goes on. So your neighbor can either keep that great card he got early on and take the few, low quality cards, of that color that he gets from you or just switch to another color. My guess is that he will pick the latter.

In the end, signals works so well because you can predict what decks both your neighbors are drafting and you can draft your own colors as smoothly as possible without getting into fights over a color. You can predict what the person, you are passing to, is drafting by taking a mental note on the cards you are passing him/her. Also, as explained, you can tell what deck the person, who is passing to you, is drafting. Getting this kind of information early will make your draft run smooth and increase your chances of drafting a grade “A” deck.

The Draft Process – Pack 1
Okay, this is an important pack! You know why? It’s where you start things off! Of course, the two other packs are just as important. Anyway, pack 1 is where you need to put your “thinking cap” on because you need to start gathering information on your neighbors as quickly as possible and this is the place to start.

For the first few picks, you can basically pick the best cards you see. I mean, just because you pick a red card as your first pick does not mean you have to go red. It would be fortunate for the best cards in the first few picks to be within 1 or 2 colors. However, the first few picks in pack 1 are mainly for getting a feel for the packs and take note of what you are being passed and what you are passing. After about the 4th or 5th pick (at the latest), you should start figuring out what color is open.

For example, let’s say for the first three picks, you drafted Errant Ephemeron, then Rift Bolt, then Penumbra Spider. Now these are three good cards. Yes, you just picked three different color cards, but that does not mean you’re in hot water. No matter which route you go, you will have a strong start. Depending on the picks you get after this, you can go into a strong combination. If you got Blue-Red, you have had a strong draft opening with Rift Bolt and Errant. If you go Blue-Green (maybe splash red), you can use all those three cards.

The point I am making is that the first three picks are just basically you taking the best card in the pack. From then on, you need to pay attention on what colors are open. If on pick four, you see some good green cards (like say if you see Gemhide Sliver and Weatherseed Totem), you can probably start to go green and then decide your second color as the pack goes on.

Start taking mental information, based on signals, while you go into an open color. By the late picks, you should definitely know at least one color that your right neighbor (the one passing to you) is drafting.

The Draft Process – Pack 2
Okay, it’s time for round two of the draft. By now, you should know what color(s) you are in, what color the person to your right is in, and have some sort of idea of what color the person on your right is in. Now that you know what color your right neighbor is in, you can feed them the appropriate color. By complying with that factor, you are making sure he does not have a reason to screw you over in the last pack. Also, if you guessed correctly at what color your left neighbor is in, then the cards he passes you should reflect it. Furthermore, if you appropriately sent signals, then your color should come in smoothly.

In pack two, you may be passed a bomb that may call for you to change into a totally new color. If you think that bomb is strong enough and if you think you can handle the color change, then do not be afraid to do so. However, I suggest making the first few picks to be the latest for a color change. You do not want to do a big color change around the late picks of pack two nor anytime during pack three.

For example, let’s say in pack one, you got some good green and red cards, but pick one of pack two is Damnation. You’re not seriously going to pass the damage right? No. Pick it up and if you get some black cards your way, you can start making black one of the two major colors in your deck (either go BGr, BG, RBg, or RB). I mean if you cannot get black into the deck, at least you stopped someone else (who you might play later on in the pod) from having Damnation against you.

Lastly, you should start looking at things such as your mana curve and the amount of quality removal cards that you have drafted. A successful draft deck has a smooth mana curve starting from turn one or two. Furthermore, a few removal/control cards are needed for reasons explained in Part I. If you are lacking in cheap drops or you do not have any removal at all, this is the right time to start drafting those cheap drops and removal/control cards.

Like say you’re G/X, and you do not have as many cheap drops as you’d like. See a Mire Boa? Take it up! It’s 2cc and it regenerates. See an Essence Warden? Perfect! Turn one drop along with life gain! Perfect for limited and both are common in pack two! It’s very important that you get some cheap drops like this because early pressure is always very good.

The Draft Process – Pack 3
Okay, it is time for the final round and it is time to wrap things up. This is your last chance to get playables for your final deck. This is also a chance to be very mean to your left neighbor. Since this is the final pack, you should be aware of what colors both your neighbors are drafting. Furthermore, this is the last round so your left neighbor no longer has a chance to pass to you during this draft, so you can feel free to hate-draft him all you want. Hate-drafting him will take away precious cards that he will need for his deck. Additionally, if your left neighbor was depending on this pack to fix up things such as his mana curve or removal/control card count, then this is a nice chance to screw him over. Of course, you won’t know if he did not fix his mana curve from early on, so you should not hate-draft with that in mind. Taking a bomb that is in his color would be a preferred hate-drafting tactic.

If you know your left neighbor is in black, then take that rare Korlash that showed up. A Tombstalker shows up (also rare), well do not let the black player have it!

If you have not started to do so in pack two, then you should be making sure you draft playables that fit into a smooth mana curve. Playing a draft deck that does not start doing something until turn three or four is not what you want to get. You will lose some serious tempo advantage, unless you’ve drafted a very solid control deck.

The drafting process is quite simple once you sit down and think about it. Once you understand the basics of what you need for a successful draft deck, then the only thing that stands between you getting a solid draft deck is the draft process. The draft process is all about gathering information and being smart about the draft signals. Furthermore, paying attention to your deck needs throughout the whole draft will prevent any problems during the post-draft deckbuilding. Of course, there are other things in a draft that you should know about. By things, I mean established combos (e.g. Martyr-Harvest in Triple Coldsnap or Sentinel-Reality Acid in TS/TS/PLC) and which color-combinations are strong in a particular block draft. I will not go into things such as that in this article as this article is an analysis of “The Draft” in a general sense. Until another time…