Draft Archetypes, Part II: Practical Application

We’re trying something a little different today, as we bring you practical draft theory from two of the better drafters around. First on the menu today is the practical draft application section of Chad Ellis’s examination of Draft Archetypes, where Chad gives you a series of guidelines 99.9% guaranteed to improve your Limited game.

Two weeks ago we looked at the fundamentals of draft archetypes – what they are, what they do to card valuation and how to think about them generally. This week I’m going to address some practical issues of drafting archetypes and to answer many of the questions people have asked me (either directly or in the forums) about drafting archetypes.

When do you commit?

Probably the most common question I get asked is when should one commit to a particular archetype? Most people have a pretty easy time understanding why a given card’s valuation changes from one archetype to another, but deciding when to start applying those valuations is a lot trickier. While a lot of the answer comes down to judgment and experience, there are some good basic questions to ask and rules to follow, that we’ll discuss below.

Is this archetype particularly deep or open?

Sometimes there are so many good cards for an archetype that you can commit to it very early – even before the draft begins. When Invasion first came out there were a lot of quaint innocents who thought it made sense to draft silly colors like Green and White. Until the vast majority of players had learned that Invasion only had three colors, it was almost always right to draft some combination of U/B/R. Instead of reading signals to figure out which of five colors to draft, you were pretty much just figuring out whether you were U/B (often with a Red splash) or B/R (often with a Blue splash), and it was pretty reasonable to think of it as drafting a single archetype.

Another way an archetype can be open is if most people don’t realize that it exists. The Dampen archetype gained popularity quickly as person after person lost to it and StarCityGames.com and other lesser websites ran articles on it, but for a while most people didn’t even have it on their radar screen. Once you realized that the archetype was good, even if you didn’t get a Dampen it was quite reasonable to commit to it from pick one since you knew the odds were very good that some of your best cards would table. I had particular success drafting 5cG splice control, to the extent that I won a draft in which someone else was drafting straight Dampen!

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A less radical example from CoK is R/W Jank. When the set first came out many people dismissed cards like Akki Avalanchers and Battle-Mad Ronin as “skill testers,” i.e. cards that bad players may not realize are awful. I noted that Akki Avalanchers was a tolerable replacement for Jackal Pup in a Constructed Red Deck, but still considered it chaff for Limited. Lava Spike was naturally interesting if you had enough Glacial Rays or other things to splice onto it, but even that was diminished by it being a Sorcery – you could Spike and Might, but the Might wouldn’t have the same power that it does as a combat trick. Unless you could abuse it, you didn’t want it and you’d probably rather have an arcane spell that cost R and did absolutely nothing if it was an Instant.

I remember the first time someone told me about the Jank archetype. It was a MTGO draft in which a friend (and PT regular) was feeding me. After the draft he asked if I was R/W as he assumed and I said yes. I mentioned that it was one of my favorite color combinations and he said that it used to be his favorite but that lately it was too hard to get Akki Avalanchers or Lava Spikes. It took me a moment to realize he wasn’t joking.

At that time the Jank archetype wasn’t as widely recognized as it eventually came to be, so people who drafted it knew that some of their beaters would table because no one else was likely to be drafting the only archetype in which they were any good. [Most of the credit for the discovery and popularization of this archetype goes to Brian David-Marshall. – Knut]

Do other people misunderstand the archetype?

Once Darksteel and especially Fifth Dawn entered the Mirrodin block, people began to cool on the Affinity archetype. With one (and then two!) fewer pack(s) to get Myr Enforcers and artifact lands, the archetype seemed to have lost its punch – which allowed me to win an awful lot of drafts.

In my view what happened is that people misunderstood what had happened to the archetype. It hadn’t gotten bad, per se, but it had lost some degrees of freedom. In Mirrodin block you could take cards like Neurok Spy in your Affinity deck and still have plenty of the mechanic to make the deck work.

With fewer Mirrodin packs, Affinity drafters had to be more focused on their archetype. I tried to limit myself exclusively to artifact cards and cards with affinity for artifacts, and was happy with every card that met both criteria. Rather than pick up a Gray Ogre with evasion that did nothing for the deck as a whole I limited my Blue creatures to beaters like Quicksilver Behemoth – a wonderful Affinity card that served and protected and could easily beat up anything in its weight class. I would almost always take a good artifact over a “better” spell because I’d learned that the archetype still worked – but only if I was extremely focused. Because I took artifacts so aggressively, over “better” cards, the Behemoth would often be a 5/6 for U with rules text that read, “U: untap Quicksilver Behemoth. Use this ability after smashing your opponent’s face or killing a chump-blocker of your opponent’s choice.”

Another thing that happened is that with fewer people drafting Affinity, I started getting the “archetype cards” later and later. By “archetype cards” I mean anything that is great in your deck – something you’d take high if you had to – but much less valuable in other decks. Frogmites, artifact lands, the aforementioned Behemoth, even former first-picks like Myr Enforcer started coming later and later. It wasn’t uncommon at all for me to open a Darksteel pack with Behemoth and Spire Golem, take the Golem and then get the Behemoth ninth. You know an archetype is working for you when you can get a 4/5 with a special ability and a casting cost of U or 1U as a ninth pick.

In the Affinity example we have a new set weakening an archetype but not as much as most drafters thought, meaning it was still good. The other side to that is when a new set improves an unloved archetype and people haven’t yet caught on.

Green in Champions is deep, but still not terribly strong. There are lots of playable men, but not only are most of them just men they cluster at four mana to such an extent that most Pros consider Sakura-Tribe Elder to be Green’s top pick and consider Orochi Sustainer a high pick as well. Without them you can’t drop Order of the Sacred Bell or Feral Deceiver (or Rootrunner or Sosuke, if you were lucky enough to get one) on turn 3 and if you can’t do that you may not be able to keep up with the struggle for early tempo. Because of this, Green is sometimes underdrafted, and I have been having very good results by letting people signal me into Green beatdown. Let’s see how Betrayers actually made Green beatdown better, against what seems to be most people’s view.

As people look at the top commons in Betrayers, it’s easy to think that Green came off worst. Waxmane Baku is as good as the hype, Horobi’s Whisper is worse but even if you almost never splice it, it’s still a Terror. Shimmering Glasskite is an outstanding flyer and Torrent of Stone is spliced surprisingly frequently and is a fine removal spell. Next to that, Green got a cheap Hill Giant. Two of the rival “best commons” can kill it if needed, a third can tap it down and swing past it and the fourth can’t beat it in a fair fight but doesn’t need to fight fair because it has evasion and near-untargetability.

In my opinion, Gnarled Mass is weaker than any of its rivals in the abstract. I’ll go further and say that Green is at best in the middle in Betrayers in the abstract. Thankfully, we’re talking about archetypes – the whole idea of card power in the abstract just doesn’t matter because it’s meaningless. (Yes, I’m going to keep on saying that.)

Gnarled Mass is a simply lovely card for a Green beatdown deck. Very few three-drops can stand up to it, with only Kitsune Blademaster able to win in a fight, and that’s ignoring the fact that Green has the best combat tricks. It sits in the natural hole in Green’s curve – now instead of desperately needing a mana-ramper on turn 2 so you can play a real threat on turn 3, you’re often able to play a bear on turn 2, a giant on turn 3 and another threat on turn 4. That changes the whole game.

Finally, Gnarled Mass has the advantage of costing 1GG rather than 2G. (Pause, while people debate whether Chad is insane or just mistyped something.) Yes, that’s an advantage – for a Green drafter – because it means that only another heavy-G drafter is going to take it. Remember that I said I was having good results letting people signal me into Green? That means that the people feeding me didn’t start off in Green. I didn’t let them have much, if any, good Green in pack two. So what is the likelihood that they are interested in a 1GG man in pack three? Not much.

Next up are two other commons that go late and are absolutely lovely in Green beatdown: Child of Thorns and Roar of the Jukai. Child of Thorns is almost as good as Frostling. It can’t kill an X/1 as a removal spell and it can’t trade with an X/2, but it makes blocking much more difficult. Game after game I’ve led with Child of Thorns, gotten in a hit or two, and then watched as my other creatures turned sideways and my opponent had no sexy blocks.

Roar of the Jukai is one of those spells that’s hard to understand properly and is very archetype-dependent. It’s naturally okay (but only okay) when it lets one of your creatures beat up one of theirs, but in order to be really good it wants a big brawl, with lots of creatures blocking. Nick Eisel went so far as to say:

When you look at it on the surface, no good player is going to let you two-for-one him with this, so it essentially becomes a much worse Kodama’s Might. It’s still reasonable though, since Green doesn’t have an overwhelming amount of tricks and you’ll usually kill a good blocker with it.

Under Pressure.

This is true for Champions Green, where your game plan may be to have one serious threat on turn 3 after sacrificing an Elder on turn 2, and where your opponent will probably be trying to race. But with Betrayers you can often adopt a higher creature count and a better curve. When you lead with a 1/1 on turn 1, a Bear on turn 2 and a Hill Giant on turn 3, you have a lot of pressure. In my experience, most opponents are forced to block multiple creatures at some point because you’re attacking with four of them and they can’t just take the beats. Roar of the Jukai in those situations turns a tempo advantage into a rout.

Naturally, three commons, even in a small set, don’t make up an entire archetype. But knowing that there are three excellent cards for your archetype that are likely to come late can be a powerful reason to go into it, knowing you’re likely to be rewarded with ongoing hits after you spend your initial picks on Waxmane Baku or Torrent (or just your first Gnarled Mass!).

If you feel that an archetype is sufficiently deep or misevaluated that you’ll be able to draft it almost regardless of how the table plays out, it makes sense to move into it more quickly than you would normally since the risk of locking yourself in too soon and then getting cut off is much lower. Zvi has sometimes referred to “The Rule,” whereby in some sets there is a correct archetype to force unless everyone else already knows about it. Darwin Kastle often forces archetypes as well.

Are there a limited number of archetypes in which you feel comfortable?

My normal philosophy on Magic is pretty straightforward. If you only know how to draft U/W control and aggressive U/B, draft R/G beats. The goal for most people reading this column should be to get better at Magic, which means trying out lots of different archetypes – in the long run, that is how you will get on (and maybe even stay on) the Pro Tour.

That said, sometimes you’re in a draft that you really want to win and you know you’re way more comfortable drafting one or two archetypes. Hopefully they overlap so you can keep some options open (e.g. Glacial Ray or Yamabushi’s Flame are fine picks in any Red archetype), but if you really want to draft U/W and you open a pack with Sosuke and Cage of Hands, you should take the Cage even though Sosuke is the stronger card.

It’s also worth noting that forcing an archetype can be a good learning tool in and of itself. I often force archetypes during non-critical drafts when a new set comes out in order to put my theories to a practical test. For relative beginners, learning the core cards of an archetype (from a more experienced player) and then trying to force it can be a good tool for breaking out of the “pile of cards” draft pattern.

A Cautionary Note on Forcing

Another website recently ran a Premium article on drafting U/W “the right way”. Without getting into a discussion over whether I agree with the author’s ranking of Soratami Mirror-Guard over Teller of Tales, or Ninja of the Deep Hours over both Waxmane Baku and Shimmering Glasskite – he’s drafting a very specific form of U/W – his article reveals how badly things can go wrong when you force an archetype from the start.

His first pick was great – Kabuto Moth over three other good first-pick cards. But his second pick was Kitsune Diviner over Befoul. He took the best card for his archetype, but Diviner is no Befoul. That sort of single-mindedness may be good if you’re writing an article (and getting paid to do so) and just want to illustrate how you would draft an archetype, but in the Top 8 you’re a lot better off being able to play spells that kill things when they’re passed to you.

All Systems Normal

That warning noted, the above considerations can justify moving into an archetype more quickly than normal. But what is “normal”? If I first-pick Sosuke, am I automatically drafting snake beatdown and taking Matsu-Tribe Decoy over Kodama’s Might? (Of course not.) My general draft rules are as follows:

First four picks – take the best card, almost no matter what.

The “almost” typically includes signaling and avoiding painful color commitments. Even if I felt that Befoul was slightly better than Yamabushi’s Flame (I don’t), I would take Flame over Befoul as a first pick because R is less of a commitment than BB and I don’t have a significant preference for either color. If I took Sosuke in the next pack (yes, sometimes you even get passed Sosuke!) I would “round up” the value of any Green or Red cards in the third pack and might take one over a slightly superior card in a third color.

The key here is slightly – if you think the difference in power is clear, you take the more powerful card. Packs three and four are where you’re most likely to be seeing clear signals from the person feeding you. If you’re taking the second-best card in the pack there’s a very good chance that you’re passing the best color for future packs. In other words, you aren’t just making a small sacrifice now – you’re probably locking yourself into making ongoing sacrifices for the rest of the draft.

After the first four packs, you can take stock.

How clear are the signals coming to you? The ideal situation is one in which you get passed a pack with Glacial Ray or Kabuto Moth and a common missing. When that happens you know almost to a certainty that the person feeding you is not in that color. Once you’ve assessed how safe your color(s) seem to be, you should evaluate your cardpool. Let’s imagine the following scenarios for our first four picks:

Draft one: Glacial Ray, Kabuto Moth, Frostwielder, Ghostly Prison

Draft two: Kitsune Blademaster, Yamabushi’s Flame, Samurai of the Pale Curtain, Kami of the Ancient Law

Both drafts have us R/W, but the similarities end there. The first draft has two cards that are good in any R/W archetype (Ray and Moth) and two that are much better in control and much weaker in beatdown. If we start drafting Battle-Mad Ronin and going beatdown, we may essentially abandon two very good cards – thus, we should be thinking more about control.

The second cardpool lends itself nicely to beatdown, but none of the cards in it are bad in a more controlling deck. Moreover, we’re only strongly committed to White, with three cards including a WW bear. We could abandon Red if no more comes (or if we get fed something very strong in a third color) and always have the option to splash the Flame. Thus, while I would be leaning towards R/W beatdown with these first four picks I would still be very open to other archetypes.

If you know you’re in an archetype, start drafting it.

This is a fairly trivial observation, but they key here is whether you know you’re in an archetype. As noted above, quite often after four picks your options are quite open even if nothing is passed to you that makes you think about abandoning any of your picks.

If your options are still open, try to keep them open.

In a rather insane recent draft, I opened a Kabuto Moth and was then passed two more Kabuto Moths. Each of the packs I was passed had Teller of Tales as well, so I was fairly certain that I was putting my neighbor into Blue. I stayed White for most of the first set of packs, picking up a Rend and another decent Black card, and then saw a very late River Kaijin, along with a sideboard-worthy White card.

River Kaijin is a very solid card in U/W. He isn’t as good at his job as Moonlit Strider, Kami of Old Stone or Harsh Deceiver, but he costs one less mana which can make a big difference when your opponent leads with Frostling and Cruel Deceiver. I knew the odds were good that I would see very little Blue in pack two but they were also good that I would see very good Blue in pack three – after all, the people feeding me had shipped two early Tellers, in addition to the late Kaijin. As it happens, the Kaijin pick was “wasted,” but if I’d opened Keiga or a Teller of my own, I’d have been very happy to have my options open. (Instead I opened my fourth Moth. Then I got obliterated in the first round. Frowning on the stack? Frowning resolves.)

Keep an eye on your status, adjusting your picks as your final archetype becomes more certain.

In the Kabuto Moth draft I knew one of two things would happen – either I would take White cards and keep my options open or I would take Black cards and settle into Black/White control. I was leaning towards B/W because U/W would depend heavily on the third set of packs, but in any case my second and third picks were Black removal spells. The second one could theoretically have been a splash if the Blue came but the third was Befoul and at that point both my colors and my archetype were set. Any picks from then on would be evaluated purely for their value in B/W control, whereas until that Befoul there was still a chance I would go another direction.

Archetypes are one of the most important concepts in Draft. Many of the topics discussed here are unavoidably vague because most of the decisions on archetypes depend on experience. Hopefully this article will help you think about archetypes in the right way so you can develop that experience. When all of your drafts fit into archetypes that you understand…I’ll see you at Pro Tour: London.

Hugs ’til next time,