Chatter of the Squirrel — Two Things

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Last week’s piece generated some substantial commotion on the forums. One thing that really stood out from that discussion, though, was that a lot of people didn’t really seem to have a good idea of what it meant to receive a signal in a draft. While most experienced players have figured signaling out, I want to take the time to really spell out what a signal is for some of my readers who might be newer to booster draft.

Last week’s piece generated some substantial commotion on the forums, most emanating from Anton Jonsson’s declaration that my Thrill of the Hunt example was more or less stone wrong. Without beating that horse to death (Neigh! —the horse), I encourage you to check out the forums as there was a good amount of quality argument on both sides.

One thing that really stood out from that discussion, though, was that a lot of people didn’t really seem to have a good idea of what it meant to receive a signal in a draft. Looking back on my own experience, I realized that at Triple Play, my local hobby shop, there’s a lot of conversation about whether or not a player can “read signals,” and it ushers forth a lot of discussion and name-calling when inevitably someone’s deck turns out looking like garbage. “Can’t you see I was putting you into Red?” “How on earth could you have been in Blue?” Etcetera. Inevitably, accusations are levied on both sides, and the end result is that few people end up looking at the draft retroactively to see why they ought to have discerned the things they did. While most experienced players have figured signaling out, I want to take the time to really spell out what a signal is for some of my readers who might be newer to booster draft.

For those of you that “get it,” though, there’s still some relevant content. I attended a PTQ in Nashville that Alex Kim eventually won because the field was more or less him and a bunch of stone duders. I use this term not to demean anybody, but rather because – as you’ll see on this week’s edition of the Magic Show – it’s all I could say at around 1:30am when the tournament concluded, and Richard Feldman thought it was basically the most hysterical turn of phrase ever. Seriously, I was delirious at that point, and good ol’ Evan Erwin decided it’d be a great time to turn on the camera. I cringe when I think about having to review the footage.

The point of that diatribe, in addition to providing an excuse to say “duders” in a somewhat relevant context, was that I witnessed a bunch of plays in the Top 8 that were very interesting from a strategic point of view, as both involved careful planning over the course of several turns. I thought I’d throw a few scenarios out to the audience explain the thought process I believe should have gone into the proper play, and then describe what actually happened. Bear in mind, too, that just because someone makes a bad play or even a sequence of bad plays doesn’t mean I’m trying to rag on them. That tournament stretched into the wee hours of the morning, and I know I myself would not have been a textbook example of Jonathan Q. Magic-style battling deftness. And in case you think I’m playing favorites by saying AKim was head and shoulders above the rest of the pack, believe me, my boy Richie would have impressed NFL scouts with the quality of his punts in the first two rounds. So I’m not trying to cast an unfair light on anyone. I hope rather to frame these scenarios in a way that makes people think, or at least in a way that makes the proper thought processes explicit when otherwise they might have escaped unnoticed.


The most important thing to realize is that, strictly speaking, a “signal” is not a card. It is rather a property derived from the content of the entire known history of a draft’s cardpool.

One time, I had a nightmare about a terrible tentacled medusa with the head of a rabid, flea-bitten cat and the body of Carl from Aqua Teen Hunger Force. That was the most hideous thing I had ever seen – until I reviewed the structure of this paragraph’s preceding sentence. So let’s try to break it down into something, you know, comprehensible. Basically, you cannot look at the cards in any one pack in and of itself and conclude, “here is a signal about what colors I ought to be taking.” Rather, you have to observe the relative strength of a series of cards and realize a tendency for cards of one color to be stronger, on the whole, than cards of another given color.

“But wait,” you say. “If you get an Errant Ephemeron 6th pick, that’s a clear Blue signal, right?” Yes, yes it is. But it’s not the card itself that’s a signal; it’s a whole combination of things. It’s the knowledge that this type of card goes first or second, it’s the difference in power level between this card and the remainder of cards in the pack, it’s the abundance or lack thereof of Blue cards in picks 1-5, etc. If there’s an Errant Ephemeron 6th but also a Sulfurous Blast, you’re getting a signal, but it has nothing to do with who is in what color. The signal is “you’re drafting with a bunch of giant idiots who don’t properly evaluate cards’ power level,” and then your strategy needs to involve just making sure you have enough playables and letting the difference in card quality between your deck and other people’s win games for you. Put another way, if someone ships you a Wrath of God second pick in Tenth Edition draft, you can assume a lot of things: brain damage, illiteracy, exposure to too much polka music, etc., but you can’t assume that they aren’t White. Why? Because they clearly don’t know what is going on, and they’re just as likely to have taken a Ghost Warden first as a Terror, or some other first pick card, and they’re going to force mono-White Soldiers because their cousin bashed them earlier that day at the dinner table with a Field Marshal deck. “I don’t want to draft this card; it kills all my Honor Guards.” You know the drill.

Now, you don’t need to read strategy articles to beat this kind of player. I understand that nobody really drafts like this giant of a donkey. Extrapolate, though, and you’ll see where I am going with this. No matter how powerful a second-pick card is, it really only provides you so much information. Second pick Firemaw Kavu may scream “okay, Red is open,” but they may have taken a Disintegrate. Ditto some other combination of cards like Vesuvan Shapeshifter over Riftwing Cloudskate, or Duskrider Peregrine over Temporal Isolation. The card itself is not a signal.

So, if you get Errant Ephemeron 6th, it’s most likely a Blue signal, yes. But it’s not the card itself that is always going to be a signal to draft Blue cards; it’s the fact that you’re noticing a substantially more powerful card in the pack going much later than it should be, and the only explanation for that is that the people to your right are wed to other non-Blue colors and you’re in a position to reap the rewards of that as a consequence.

How is this relevant to my example from last week? Well, a lot of people in the forums said something to the effect of, “you can’t assume that Thrill of the Hunt is a G/W signal,” or “a strong G/W signal is not reason enough to abandon a card as strong as Sedge Sliver,” or some such claim. Both of these statements miss the point. You take the Thrill not because it’s a signal to go any color, but because it’s the strongest card in the pack, and absent any knowledge of what’s going to come later in the draft it’s going to yield the most expected value.


Top 8: a G/W/R Tarmogoyf Player is playing against Alex in the semifinals. It’s around turn 9 or 10, and he has a 5/6 Tarmogoyf in play (enchantment is what is missing from the yard). Alex has just Damnationed away a Goyf, a Thornweald Archer, and a Saffi, and the G/W/R player put the Goyf back with Saffi. Alex then cast a Careful Consideration – his second of the match – and has also cast and flashed back a single Mystical Teachings earlier on in the game. The Damnation he cast last turn was also the first of the match. He has eight lands, none of which are Urborg or a White source, and a Prismatic Lens. The G/W/R player has Tarmogoyf, Mystic Enforcer, Temporal Isolation in hand, and four lands. After he attacks, Alex is at six life. What is the play here?

Clearly, you cast another Tarmogoyf and pass the turn, even though it’s very likely Alex has another Damnation. To understand why this is the case you have to think ahead several turns in advance. First, of course, is the possibility that Alex doesn’t have a Damnation despite the likelihood that he would. That means that he’s got to dig up or show you spot removal for one of the Goyfs, and you can just attack him to a low life total the next turn hoping to rip Disintegrate. Barring that, you’ll play Mystic Enforcer from your hand and absolutely demand a Damnation at that point. It’s very unlikely Alex is slow-rolling a Damnation here because of the possibility that you could rip Saffi Eriksdotter or simply another random threat and force the Damnation next turn, invoking the same situation but putting Alex at a lower life total. Now, the second possibility is that he doesn’t have Damnation, but he draws into one with Careful Consideration. He’s shown you two CC’s already, but he’s also looked at close to half of his deck so it’s not entirely unreasonable he has access to a third. In this case, though, you’re still pretty pumped because he’s spent an entire turn answering your Tarmogoyfs, and you’ve got Biggie Biggie Biggie Can’t You See coming to town next turn and demanding another Wrath of God. Also, because he’s digging for a Damnation, he doesn’t have as much flexibility in the cards he’s looking at with Careful Con; e.g. he probably understands that you’ve got at least one more guy after the Wrath, and thus needs to keep options open with Urborg/Tendrils or Slaughter Pacts. So, he Damns, you play Enforcer unless you draw a Disintegrate, and you make him show you the third Wrath.

If he doesn’t have to dig for the Wrath, the situation is still much the same. The worst possible thing for you is if he Damnations and then Careful Considerations (I don’t mean “does things in this order” but “already has the Damnation and isn’t digging for it), because he’s able to set himself up optimally for your second wave. At the same time, he doesn’t have mana even with a land drop for Triskelavus or Bogardan Hellkite, nor does he have it for Mystical Teachings/Temporal Isolation on the same turn because his White source is Prismatic Lens. Therefore you still get an extra turn even if he has an answer because he has to answer the Enforcer on his main phase after you cast it, so you have another opening to rip a threat. If he taps low for Triskelavus or Hellkite, you have an Isolation that’ll do the job assuming he doesn’t have another land.

Alternatively, if you just sit on your one Tarmogoyf in play, a lot of things can go wrong. Now, obviously if he rips Urborg and casts Tendrils on your guy you’re just kold, but that’s probably true anyway. The problem is that he’s in a pretty good position to simply take a hit from your Goyf and spend the turn digging for ways to cast Tendrils of Corruption. Specifically, if he has a Mystical Teachings, he can now afford to Teachings for a Careful Con and force you to flip Disintegrate off the top of your deck. There’s the possibility that you’re holding it in your hand and only need to deal two damage, but now you have a one turn window to do it, and anyway Disintegrate isn’t all that common of a card from the G/W/R deck so he’s probably not planning around it. If he has Slaughter Pact, instead of being able to Pact and, say, cast a defensive Triskelavus, all of the sudden Alex gains the initiative by playing a threat. Your Enforcer, instead of demanding an answer, now gets to sit and stare at his Triskelavus because he no longer has to take damage or spend a Triskelavite on the second Tarmogoyf.

Finally, playing an Enforcer is clearly wrong, because he had to show you a Wrath anyway; now you lose your trump card.

As it happened, actually, the guy played correctly. Alex showed him three Damnations, but after the game he was very concerned that dumping two Goyfs was the incorrect play. Fortunately, it was in fact correct, but sometimes the odds get ya. That’s Magic.

With that last story, I just wanted to walk you through the thought process that should be going through your head when you have to make crucial decisions in a game. In that game, either play would have lost. In the other semifinal match, though, a mistake did cost the G/W/R player – and it was easily avoidable!

This situation is much less complicated. Basically, the guy has a threshold Mystic Enforcer out against an empty Relic Control board of lands (one storage land) and artifacts. His hand is Fiery Justice – no idea why he didn’t board this out, incidentally – Kavu Predator, and Saffi Eriksdotter. The Relic player dies in two swings from the Mystic Enforcer.

The clear, obvious, entirely-correct play is to drop Saffi. This protects you against a Wrath, and on the off-chance both of your threats get dealt with it leaves you with Predator and Fiery Justice as a solid post-Damnation play. Instead, the guy cast Predator, the Relic player Damnationed, and the R/W/G player was kold.

It’s mistakes like these that lose matches, yet there are all still “judgment calls.” The key in a PTQ is that you can’t ignore mistakes just because there are a number of possible plays to make. It’s not like all misplays in Magic are punts to on-board tricks or blatantly incorrect attacks. I can’t tell you how many times at this tournament Richard and I heard statements like, “I thought this was supposed to be a good matchup, but I just got run over.” When you subscribe to that mentality, you’re being willfully ignorant. It’s not as if when you have a numerically superior matchup, God Himself is coming down from the heavens to ensure that all things go correctly, and there’s some sort of great statistics-defying wrong being wrought if the other player manages to win the match. No. Good matchups occur because a deck gives you the tools to win, but you have to play correctly – sometimes at a very advanced level – to take advantage of those tools. It’s why, for example, almost all the competent or good Relic players think their deck stomps U/G, and almost all the competent U/G players think their deck bashes Relic. Neither side is composed of idiots, but chances are that their playtesting results reflect a substantial gulf in planning between both sides of the matchup. I know, for example, that when I’m set on Psychatog (or whatever) that I know much more about how to play Tog versus Heartbeat than vice versa, so naturally the more games we play of that matchup the further and further they’re probably going to be skewed towards Tog.

It’s tempting to overemphasize the amount of luck in Magic when you see people around you play terribly and still achieve tournament success. The fact is, though, that it all will equal out in the long run, and most of the time when you make mistakes they cause you to lose games. Also, don’t think for a second that you’re not as much the beneficiary of Magic’s luck element as anyone else. I will be the first to admit it: sometimes, I savagely topdeck. Kai Budde won seven Pro Tours, but the fact is he cut some lucky breaks on a few of them. That’s not to say he isn’t the absolute ridiculous stone nuts; he certainly is. But we all need to realize that the surest way to improving our game is simply to scrutinize every crucial play we make in the manner discussed above – to plot out every possible detail in order to arrive at a correct conclusion.

I’m convinced the single biggest reason people make mistakes isn’t that they have an error in their thought process. It’s that most of the time that thought process hasn’t been activated to begin with.