Chatter of the Squirrel – How To Win Your Local Drafts

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Wednesday, September 10th – I notice that, in general, not much strategy-article attention is given to local tournaments. We all want the hottest lists for PTQs, sure, but it’s unreal how high your EV is at a local level, even with the smallest edge. If you want to win your local drafts, this is the article for you.

In an effort to salvage some vestiges of Americana, I’m sitting here at a Starbucks, big 5 on a poster in the corner for Starbucks Coffee Malaysia 5th Anniversary Celebration, beats me what the celebration is, but I’m digging the big band in the air and my chai latte and the pair of blonde girls on the couch next to me who just asked, “you’re writing a what article?” after feigning/possessing legitimate interest in the Malaysian Constitutional Law book sitting on the table in front of me. All is right in the world. Except my lack of hot water. And internet. But one step at a time, yeah, and given I have Magic, a great LRT system, money, relative peace, and a friend’s GTA4 one measly phone call away I’d say I’m not too bad off for myself. And not, say, in Bangkok, a la one Sean Colenso-Semple. Good timing.

Managed to play in a few tournaments over the last few days, thankfully. CCEgames is hosting a RM500 draft league, culminating with the Shards of Alara Prerelease, and I figured it’d be a good way to get in some gaming while recouping my costs and amassing a collection for the upcoming season. But it’s also made me reflect upon all the local-store drafts I’ve done over the years – in Memphis, in Madison, here, and everywhere else I’ve traveled. I remember way back at Pro Tour: Prague, Bill Stark and Brandon Scheel made a point to try and play Magic with the locals, to great fanfare, and it inspired me to try and play in a local FNM almost anywhere I go. Being American of course I prefer to draft the booster packs – whoa, you can play 60 cards in a deck? – and it’s helped me to notice several trends that local stores all of the world tend to have in common. While you don’t see these things happening very frequently at the PT level, or even at the team-draft level, I’ve noticed that even in the Top 8 of PTQs very frequently at least 3-4 players at the table are routinely committing the same common errors. This article is an attempt to alleviate those problems.

I notice that, in general, not much strategy-article attention is given to local tournaments. We all want the hottest lists for PTQs, sure, but it’s unreal how high your EV is at a local level, even with the smallest edge. This is particularly true for draft. In Constructed, anyone can netdeck, no matter how “loose” their playing ability. I’m not trying to say even in the slightest that one format or the other is more skill-intensive, because I think the argument is far too complicated – and really, largely irrelevant – to address here. But the reality of the situation is that draft, much more so than in an established Constructed format on a week-to-week basis, allows you to come to the table with a machine that is just leagues beyond your opponent’s, and that means you can frequently power through even truly mind-boggling amounts of bad luck. A small edge, in other words, can lead to disproportionate returns. And before I was playing in PTQs, before I was attending any Grand Prix or Pro Tours or Nationals or man oh man the World Championships, I was tearing up local event after local event simply ecstatic that I didn’t have to pay for boosters anymore because I could count (between Tim Kopcial and myself) on fifteen or so packs every weekend. If you want to win your local drafts and get to that point, this is the article for you.

For my more established readers, some of these points will seem basic. I’m not talking “draft removal highly” basic, but if you’re playing on the Pro Tour you’re going to know a lot of this already. But I do think there is some interesting theory to be found that hasn’t really been examined in full before. If nothing else, this could prove useful when you’re teaching new players or arriving in a new scene because you can see how prevalent many of these trends are in your local area, and set about treating them. But that’s enough of an introduction for now. Let’s roll.

1) Players overvalue one-drops.

Initially, trying to analyze what a local gaming community might look like, I theorized that you might see too much emphasis placed on large creatures, with too little attention paid to mana curve. This, however, has not at all been the case in my experience. What actually happens is that decks are frequently chocked to the brim with the Manaforge Cinders and Nip Gwillions of the world – often two or three in a decklist! Shadowmoor/Eventide compounds this problem by providing the God Auras to frequently justify the inclusion of such cards, even if the value added by access to that particular combination is extremely low. It’s as if people are familiar with the concept of mana curve, but haven’t played enough limited Magic to know how quickly a 1/1 creature becomes invalidated, and how game-swinging it can be to have even one dead card on the table.

This is one of the reasons, incidentally, that Tattermunge Maniac is such a bad Limited card in all but the most aggressive of decks. It does four damage and then is forced to run into something almost all of the time. You’re -1 for very, very little gain, and most of the time that’s enough to cost you right there. The lesson isn’t just as simple as “stick with 2-power-or-better cards,” though, or cards that offer additional benefits like Intimidator Initiate or Duegar Assailant. If you’re playing in this type of environment, you also have to realize that infrequently-triggered Mimics or high power-to-toughness-ratio cards are going to go down in value, because you’ll be forced to get into a trading situation with a one-mana 1/1. The whole problem with those cards is that they are easily rendered irrelevant, so to have an edge you have to play in such a way that they don’t eventually become relevant; if they do, then you’ve lost the quality edge and you’re right back to square one. Consequently, it should be easy to see that cards like Juvenile Gloomwidow or Rustrazor Butcher go up in value, because it’s more likely that they will invalidate multiple cards.

In general, the earmark for how “relevant” a creature is going to be is: does it interact meaningfully with the “typical” creature in a format? For most expansion-level sets, this creature is frequently a Grizzly Bear. This is one of the reasons that a Hobgoblin Dragoon should almost never see play; it doesn’t net you value out of its interaction with any conceivable creature that people should actually be running in their decks. Yet I see it in play a fair amount at the local level. You have to apply this metric and cut the chaff; frequently, you’d be better off running a simple basic land. In formats like triple-8th-Edition or even 10th, usually, the defining creature is a 3/3, and thus there’s almost no reason to ever play cards like Spineless Thug.
We’ll get back to this metric of relevance in a second.

2) Players frequently fail to prioritize their removal properly.

I’ve talked a lot over the course of the last year about how I’ve improved exponentially because of a series of conversations with Ervin Tormos designed at improving my Limited game. I went from considering myself a Constructed deckbuilding specialist to having made Top 16 or Top 8 at the last three Limited GPs I’ve played. But though I learned tons as a result of those conversations, I’d say the most resonant lesson concerned how to play removal. Ervin made a statement that at first glance sounds like hyperbole, but completely revolutionized the way I played a given game. The lesson was this: don’t use removal on a creature unless 1) you’re going to lose if that creature stays alive or 2) you’re going to win if that creature dies.

Take that in for a second.

Only if I’m going to flat-out lose? Only if I’m definitely going to win right there?

This doesn’t mean that the creature will kill you, or that you have to swing for lethal. Just yesterday, I played a third-turn Recumbent Bliss on a Juvenile Gloomwidow to attack for two with my Battlegate Mimic. Is that Widow going to attack me twenty times? Not likely. But in my hand was a Spectral Procession, a Duegar Hedge-mage, the Bliss, and lands. My plan was to get in between four and eight points on the ground and finish with the Procession, and the Widow shut down all my action. But at other points, killing the Widow there will be completely wrong – say, if you have a bunch of 3/3s. And because I don’t have any defensive powerhouses or anything to stall the ground – that Mimic is infinitely better when he’s turned sideways for four. On the other hand, if I kill the Widow, it’s relatively likely that my opponent doesn’t have a three-drop, and I get in for another two – he’s at 16, and I cast Procession. The second he plays a blocker, because I have initiative, I get in for seven (cast the Hedge-Mage) and all of the sudden his back is against the wall; he has three turns to kill me. There are a relatively small amount of cards in the game of Magic that help him come back there, and that’s assuming I draw blanks.

If you notice – and this is the “coming back to” I mentioned a minute ago – both of these trends involve a failure to “focus on what matters.” We’re frequently trying to figure out how to best apply that mantra even today, a mantra that comes so simply to the masters and is yet so difficult for most of us. I’ve found, though, that you can break it down even further, and it becomes much more digestible. See, saying “focus on what matters” implies this “soup,” for lack of a better term, of things, some of which matter and some which do not. The task is to assign a binary value to each one. What’s much easier is instead to apply it to your decisions, one by one. Does this Puncture Bolt I’m holding in my hand right now matter? If not, what has to happen so that it will? If so, on what do I have to play it to make it matter, and conversely on what will it cease to matter if I choose incorrectly? Or someone’s attacking me, and I have a bunch of creatures back. I can block. Does Potential Blocker 1 matter? If so, does the damage? Of course, all damage matters, but you can evaluate where there is a functional difference between 18 and 16, say, if they’re attacking for two. If there is, frequently you can chump. If there isn’t, you have to weigh the likelihood of the creature mattering in the future versus the likelihood of the damage mattering, and the likelihood of your being able to convert that creature into a “bigger” chump-block a couple of turns down the line. So it’s not simple, but simplicity isn’t the point. Correctness is.

Back to the trends:

3) Players commit to colors far too early in a draft.

When I say this, often it’s interpreted as going all-in on a Boartusk Liege, or whatever, but that’s hardly the point either. Of course you shouldn’t commit too severely to your early picks, but we all know that. A lot of the time, though, people make picks that only have value if they commit to a certain archetype or certain color combination. It’s not as simple as color, though for SSE it’s certainly simpler because of the color-matters theme. But, for example, Intimidator Initiate isn’t just Red, it’s RED. The card is really bad if you’re R/x and really good if you’re mono-Red aggro. Ditto something like Cinder Pyromancer. Now, the conventional wisdom is that mono-Red aggro is completely savage, and it is, but the whole reason it’s so good is that you can get very important cards for the archetype later on in a draft. If you’re taking something like Mudbrawler Cohort very early – and I have, and it has worked out, but it doesn’t always do so – you lose a ton of value if you have to change preferences. Something like Ballynock Cohort or Puncture Blast is always going to be great assuming you have some Plains or some Mountains in your deck. In a format like Shadowmoor, it’s only a commitment to W/x or R/x. Something like Intimidator, or Howl of the Night Pack, is a commitment to R or G only. That’s functionally different from R/x or G/x or W/x, and is a lot less flexible. So you open yourself up to things going wrong if you’re taking color, or tribe, or spirit/arcane, or whatever cards higher than you should. It’s not to say you don’t occasionally windmill slam that Jaws of Stone. You just have to be aware of what you’re doing.

The lesson? In this type of environment, remain even more flexible. People are going to be committing, so you may not be able to count on getting hooked up in the second pack even if you cut a color hard. So you’ll get more value, frequently, out of sacrificing raw power and synergy for card quality and consistency, and actively hate-drafting “component” pieces like god auras or the Obsidian Battle-Axes of a format that really enable one archetype you know you’ve been passing.

4) Players frequently hold too many lands in their hand.

This is always mystifying to me. I’ll see players without even a hint of Retrace – say, Lissa’s darling favorite Cenn’s Enlistment – holding three Forests in their hand, the cards just sitting there, as if they’re trying to bluff someone. Then they rip an Elsewhere Flask, draw their six-drop, and feel extremely awkward when they say “go.” The fact is, you should almost never have more than two lands in your hand unless you have some looter-type effects to make use of them. The cost is too risky. Often, maybe you’ll draw a trick like Snakeform and then a creature the next turn and lack the mana to cast both. Other times you’ll draw an Idle Thoughts and be sitting there, yes, extremely idle for entirely too many turns.

What this means is that often a full grip after a turn or two of inaction is more of a tell than a close-to-empty hand. It not only lets you know that your opponent very likely has nothing, it also enables you to set up a situation where a lot of things have to happen at once for your opponent to gain an advantage, and frequently he will be unable to do that.

5) Players will frequently have three to four tremendous bombs in their deck

You can especially expect this to happen the more bad cards you see in play so far. The reason is that very few Magic players are just terrible, just completely devoid of reasoning, just oblivious, etc. People tend to have reasons for what they do, even if those reasons are questionable. So what often happens if someone’s deck is a little on the tragic side is that they went all-in on an Incremental Blight or a Twilight Shepherd or a Knollspine Dragon and the deck didn’t pan out. So if that person’s been sitting at a couple of cards in hand and five mana, playing little dude after little dude and keeping those one or two cards in their hand the whole time while they wait anxiously for a land, for Pete’s sake kill them while you can! You might just be about to get smacked with a Demigod, or have your team wiped to a Mass Calcify, or whatever whatever whatever. Like the Infernal Spawn of Evil, IT’S COMING!!!

It’s very easy to take your draft game from level 2 or 3 to level 6 or 7, just by taking care of a few key issues. In doing so, I think you’ll improve drastically as a Magic player. Conversely, if you’re already at the top of the pack, I hope this article helped you to see how to exploit these trends and avoid throwing away games that you never could have lost otherwise.

Until next week!