Feature Article – Drafting: Understanding Signals in Draft.

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Friday, March 19th – As a preview for the upcoming release of his Next Level Magic paperback, Patrick Chapin discusses understanding signals in draft. Enjoy!

Today, I would like to talk a little bit about understanding signals in draft. One of the chapters of the upcoming expanded Next Level Magic 420 page full-color paperback discusses this very subject and I would like to share an excerpt from that section.

In 2007, I won the Standard portion of U.S. Nationals with a Tarmogoyf/Mystical Teachings deck, but failed to Top 8 the event on account of my 4-3 record in the Limited portion. I used to be one of the stronger drafters in the game, but had not competed at the higher levels in a few years — and while I was gone, Magic Online had left its mark on the game.

Everyone is so much better than they used to be. I mean, literally the 1,000th best drafter in the world today is much, much better than the 50th best drafter was back in the first year of the Pro Tour. Times change — and in order to thrive in the game today, it takes a lot more understanding and practice than it once did.

I redoubled my efforts. Once Lorwyn came out, I practiced the Limited format heavily. My first opportunity to demonstrate what I had learned came at Grand Prix: Daytona. I had practiced, and practiced more. I thought I was ready to tear it up with the big boys. I had experienced success forcing Black in Urza’s Saga and decided to try forcing that strategy to work in Lorwyn, this time with Blue.

I ended up with a record of 10-4-1, finishing in the money, with most of my losses coming to Kenji Tsumura. But this finish was hardly the tournament-dominating performance I was looking for. It could have been so easy to just be content that I had cashed at all, but I was not about to settle for anything less than perfection.

I sought out some of the best drafters of the day who were in attendance — Mark Herberholz, Gabriel Nassif, Gabe Walls, Rich Hoaen, and Kenji Tsumura — and I asked them for help. I didn’t know it all, but at least I knew enough to know that I didn’t know it all.

They explained to me some of the mistakes they saw I was making and gave me alternative perspectives to consider, above all else suggesting I work on being willing to draft Green (and being willing to not draft Blue) if it isn’t right.

After honestly analyzing my game, using the four perspectives, I took the feedback I had gained and adjusted my drafting and play accordingly.

When the World Championships rolled around that December, I was prepared. This time, I drafted a R/G deck and a B/G deck, using everything that those great players had suggested. My natural style is Blue control — but thanks to this willingness to learn how to draft Green aggro decks, I was able to finish 5-1 in the Limited portion. In turn, that helped carry me to the Top 8 and my eventual second-place finish.

That was the World Championships where Nassif, Herberholz, and I unveiled Mono-Red Dragonstorm. But if not for my honest examination of my Limited game and my willingness to learn from the feedback I was getting, I never would have got to the Top 8, let alone be a part of exciting matches (like the memorable battle with Nassif involving Ignite Memories in the semi-finals)!

Drafting is very interesting for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it is simultaneously very much the same game as Constructed Magic, but also very different. The skill sets used to play Limited overlap in many areas, but different skills are highlighted.

It is almost like the difference between playing point guard or center in basketball. You are playing the same game, but a different set of things is more important. Someone who plays point guard in the NBA could probably play center better than most people not in the NBA, and there are certainly players who can reasonably play both positions. But it is important to realize that anyone can improve their Limited game. All it takes is intelligent practice and honest reflection on your decisions.

When drafting, there are a few factors that point towards who is more likely to be successful and have the highest chance of winning a particularly table.

1) Who has the best strategy and shortcuts for drafting?
2) Who has the best strategy and shortcuts for playing with the cards in this format?
3) Who has the best understanding of the information they are getting with each booster pack they are passed?

Reading and Sending Signals

One of the most interesting elements of a Booster Draft is the flow of information. In a Constructed tournament, you know the possible card pool up front, just the same as you do in a draft. However, you must use an entirely different method of deducing what your opponents are going to be playing.

In a Constructed tournament, experimenting with different ideas, talking with people, reading Magic sites, and looking at past tournaments can give you an idea of the decks you’ll need to build your deck to beat.

In a draft, you are aware of the possible card pool from the gate, but specific cards in the draft are unknown to start with. As a draft progresses, you gain more and more information to help you make future decisions.

You will hear Magic players discussing Draft theory talk about “signals” sent to them by their neighbor. These signals are not some form of illegal collusion between players conspiring together; in fact, signaling is the Magic term for sending information to the players next to you by way of what you are picking (and what you are not picking). This is not only legal, but vital to success at competitive drafting.

In a Booster Draft, it may be every person for themselves, but you do have influence over your neighbors’ available card pool, and they have influence over yours. Your interests are going to be tied together at times, since there will be picks available that may benefit you both at the cost of the rest of the table. Again, this is just standard Draft theory.

The idea is that if you cooperate with your neighbors, both you and they will get better decks compared to the rest of the table. You can’t talk to your neighbor or show him your cards… but you certainly can do things like take a Spidersilk Net (when you are playing R/B aggro) and leave him with an Oran-Rief Survivalist (trying to help cement him into Green).

In this case, you are not passing the Survivalist because you think it is bad. You are not passing it to be a nice guy to your neighbor. You are passing it because you think it is in your selfish best interest. Perhaps you are playing a B/R aggro deck and you want to try to ensure that your opponent ends up with Green as one of his colors, rather than fight you for yours. In this case, you are sending a signal to the person on your left that they should play Green. This is a good thing!

One of the popular misconceptions among novices is that you should hate-draft bombs so that you don’t have to play against them. This is typically very shortsighted. If you can play the bomb, then by all means, knock yourself out. However, if you are passing a Vampire Lacerator to take a Rampaging Baloth when you are drafting a B/R aggro deck, you are probably making a mistake.

The Rampaging Baloth is a stronger card, no question; it is one of the best. However, you are only going to have to play against three of the seven opponents at this table. Even if you face this player, they may not draw it. Even if they draw it, it might not be every game. Even if they draw it every game, you may be able to remove it with Hideous End or Heartstabber Mosquito. Even if you can’t remove it, you may be able to race it, as your deck is very aggressive.

The point is, Vampire Lacerator will help your deck in every match — and even if you take the Baloth, it is not like you have stopped a card or anything. Your opponent will just have to play something else instead. Hate drafting is generally not that good a strategy. (Which is not to say you should never do it; it just shouldn’t be your default.)

Now, a Team Draft is a totally different story. Not only are you much more likely to have to face it — but every round you don’t face it, a teammate will! Since this is the third pack, there isn’t really a value in sending signals… so if there is nothing good in the pack for you, go ahead and hate draft.

The key is that Vampire Lacerator is actually a good card. If we had been talking about Mindless Null, which is hardly that exciting, it would be far easier to justify hate drafting. Keep in mind that the person on your right might not even be Green! What if you pass it and he ends up wasting a pick hate drafting it? Even if he splashes it, now his mana is worse. What if you pull him into Green, causing him to pick Glazing Gladehart or Harrow over a Guul Draz Vampire in pack 3?

In general, pack 1 is the best pack to be friendly in, as your actions set up how things will be in pack 2. It is not so much that you want to help your neighbor as it is that you want to help them be where you are not.

There is also a hidden benefit to friendly drafting. When you develop a reputation for friendly drafting, you will find that other players will be friendlier drafters around you, as they know that you can play nice. If you savagely hate draft a neighbor for little or no gain, you run the risk of someone with a chip on their shoulder the next time you sit next to each other in a draft.

When drafting, make sure to give a little weight to how much a pick leaves your options open or closes them off. For instance, Obsidian Fireheart is a first pick bomb, but pretty much locks you into a mostly Red deck. Trusty Machete, on the other hand, is not quite as powerful, but doesn’t commit you to any color, which might make it a better pick, depending on your style.

Your opening pack doesn’t give you any information about the person to your right (but it does reveal information about the direction the people to your left are likely to go). When you get passed a pack, examine it from the perspective of what is there, as well as what is not there. What rarity is missing? Remember, there is always a chance that a foil that was taken, not a common.

What are the best cards left? What color or colors seem to be missing from this pack? This can give you invaluable information about what is open to draft. If the person to your right passes you a fifth-pick Journey to Nowhere and you had drafted Burst Lightning, Plated Geopede, Vampire Lacerator, and Adventurer’s Gear, maybe you should consider switching to W/R Aggro. Losing the Vampire Lacerator is not a huge loss, but the promise of more White to come both in this pack, as well as pack three makes the signal mean so much more than just a removal spell.

When should you look to switch colors? Well, in Zendikar Draft, I tend to base one of my colors on my first pick or two of the first pack, then pick up my other color when I see what colors are available. I generally did not play Green much, but was pretty flexible otherwise, generally not wanting to commit to a second color unless I get a clear signal that it is open.

With each pack that gets passed to you, ask yourself what the person passing you the pack is saying to you with the cards that are left. If there are five cards left in the pack and they are all Green and Red, that should tell you that Green and Red are probably open. Even though they are all unplayable cards, the person to your right probably took an unplayable card in his color, rather than an unplayable Red or Green card.

If you get passed a pack with only one card missing (a common) and the pack contains Burst Lightning, Plated Geopede, Kor Hookmaster, Kor Skyfisher, Living Tsunami, Windrider Eel, Gigantiform, and Harrow, what does this tell you?

Well, it is possible that there is a foil missing — but in general, that pack would make me think that the person on my right took Hideous End, or some other Black card, such as Disfigure, since there are good cards in each color except Black (despite it being the best color in this set) and Hideous End is just about the only common that would get picked over these cards, other than maybe Disfigure (if the person has a preference for Black).

Remember, the person to your right is not always going to draft the strongest card. In the pack above, there are a number of cards that would often be drafted ahead of Hideous End or Disfigure by many people. But they may prefer the Black removal spell here, so as to avoid conflict with their neighbors. Imagine if they took the Burst Lightning, and you took Plated Geopede, thinking that Red was open…

Almost a year ago, I released the Next Level Magic e-book. The positive feedback I got was overwhelming and many readers asked if and when I was releasing it in print. Eventually the time came when I could set to work constructing a paperback version, but I found myself not just updating terminology and examples, but adding chapters on additional material I wanted to cover as well as sharing even more stories from the Pro Tour.

When all was said and done, the newly expanded Next Level Magic ended up weighing in at 420 pages, as I said, and is a full color (!) paperback that goes on sale here at StarCityGames.com Monday, March 22nd. This extensive Magic strategy guide is the complete blueprint to elevating your game whether you are a PTQ grinder or an FNM competitor. I want to thank everyone that supported the cause and purchased a copy of the Next Level Magic e-book. You will receive a little discount on your copy of the Next Level Magic paperback. It is truly an honor to be a part of Magic culture and to be able to contribute to it in this way. I have rarely been as proud of anything as I am with how the Next Level Magic paperback turned out. Thanks for your time!

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”

PS. Here are a couple previews for the original e-book that you might want to check out if you haven’t already, though the expanded Next Level Magic builds on both of these and goes a little further.

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