Magical Hack – Six Rounds At Worlds

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Having looked at Standard last week at least through the lens of “something I would be happy playing,” this week I thought I’d take the opportunity to have a deeper look at Lorwyn Limited. I’d noted with some frustration while writing my article last week that the format I’d chosen, following up on the most recent Grand Prix, was choking on the limited information that is always a problem for a Grand Prix you do not yourself attend…

Having looked at Standard last week at least through the lens of “something I would be happy playing,” this week I thought I’d take the opportunity to have a deeper look at Lorwyn Limited. I’d noted with some frustration while writing my article last week that the format I’d chosen, following up on the most recent Grand Prix, was choking on the limited information that is always a problem for a Grand Prix you do not yourself attend. I’m sick of Sealed Deck analysis as the only look I get to take at Lorwyn Limited, and by all appearances it seems that there are plenty out there who’d rather duck away from that starter deck for a third booster instead. With Worlds in just under a week’s time, and Lorwyn booster draft (but not Sealed Deck!) composing the middle six rounds of the event, I figured the time was ripe to have a look at how to draft Lorwyn Limited.

The basic physical mechanism of drafting is already known by anyone who’s ever opened a booster pack in their life, though you kind of have to have an idea about “what is draft” before you start looking through that pack of fifteen cards to see which you’d most want in your draft deck instead of just looking in the back for the rare. Oversimplification on that end is obviously not helpful, so I won’t really bother with explaining “how to draft” Lorwyn. The basic presumption is that you know what drafting is, so I can skip the introduction, and start instead with what makes this format tick in a different way than others. Oversimplification on the other side of things is the “Lorwyn” part; we already know that Lorwyn is all about tribes, so we won’t really be discussing the archetypal decks for each tribe. Nick Eisel has already put in some solid headway on exactly that subject here and discusses such concepts as pick orders by color when you’re drafting a particular tribe. We’re going to start somewhere before “So you picked a tribe…” and after “How do I draft…?” to see what really makes Lorwyn draft tick.

Lorwyn is a difficult beast to handle. We’ve seen beasts like it before, designed by Wizards to twist Magic away from the norm and demand understanding in context rather than in a vacuum. We’ve been spoiled recently by beasts rather unlike it, to the point where some of the key skills of Lorwyn Limited are under-acknowledged perhaps due to the fact that they have not been seen recently. Compare Lorwyn to Ravnica and Time Spiral and we can begin to grasp what I mean by this. Ravnica is a polychromatic world where if you really wanted to try, you could literally play anything passed your way, and Time Spiral an aggressive format that skewed decks likewise towards the aggressive if they wanted to succeed.

In the world of Ravnica, the ability to access literally anything if you wanted it meant there was at least some element of forgiveness during the draft; everyone was all over the place anyway and you could end up with two different plans that later welded together into an actual deck, even if it seemed you got cut off in the middle of the draft. This made signaling very hard in Ravnica draft; other than the incredibly obvious action of “passing really strong cards all in the same guild,” there was little way to gauge who was in what colors because everyone took so many of them. Could you really guarantee you were getting hooked up by the player to your left in pack 2 because they passed you Izzet Chronarch 4th, or could it be they felt that Izzet Boilerworks was more critical to making their strategy work?

Thus, signaling in Ravnica-land was an underused skill, and you had to really know what was going on in order to figure it out. It could be used to some degree, but only if everyone was on the same page; if you saw a bounce-land, that tended to be a good sign that said color combination was being underdrafted by those passing to you that pack, because bounce-lands were really, really good in Ravnica-land. Ravnica often came down to expensive mana costs on powerful bomb spells and card advantage, and the bounce-lands sort of provided both of those things: two mana from a single land helps to get to the high reaches of the mana curve, and a land that counts as two lands was in and of itself a powerful sort of “card advantage.” You could signal in Ravnica-land, but it wasn’t easy… and likewise you could read signals but you couldn’t guarantee they wouldn’t dry up, since anyone anywhere could jump in at any time. Moving to Time Spiral-land we see signaling begin to return, as players jockey for position into color combinations. There was no grander scheme or rule to be applied with Time Spiral draft other than “be aggressive,” because Time Spiral Limited played with time itself as a theme and in many cases the mechanics it bore out in the cards favoring the aggressor.

Signaling in Lorwyn is a different thing, because we aren’t just looking for colors. Time Spiral really was just an example of a “simple” draft format, where things are clear-cut during the draft and you could read a signal and send a signal simply based on your colors. If you pass Lightning Axe, someone immediately next to you will perk up and take Red; if you get passed Errant Ephemeron, chances are good you should try taking Blue cards. Lorwyn is a good deal more complicated because, unlike Time Spiral, you can’t just rely on the colors of cards to tell the tale of what is happening and thus what people downstream of you had best do if they want to thrive in your wake. Unlike Ravnica, almost no one can benefit from the powerful cards that “belong to you” if you read and pass your signals right, because everything is only powerful in context of the tribal theme of the set.

We have seen a fair amount of drafting on the Grand Prix circuit, with three events and thus three Day 2’s worth of drafting. Ultimately the decks ended up tribal-oriented and exhibited certain biases based on what the general consensus was for “the best deck in Lorwyn draft,” meaning most players would rather have an average Faerie deck than the best Kithkin deck available out of 24 packs. But looking at decklists doesn’t tell you how to get to 45 cards in a pile, and thus a 40-card draft deck, from three unopened boosters in front of you. What we’ll be looking at, then, are the various toggles of Lorwyn drafting, to see what plans one can aim to follow during a draft instead of just deciding somehow that a list of pick orders solves the problem.

And unlike last week’s foray into the universe of drafting, raredrafting is not a conceptual option to be considered; we’re presuming the value to be obtained out of packs passing around the table comes ultimately from their ability to win matches and nothing else, no economic concerns, no “but Amoeboid Changeling is so cute!” Also, unlike last week there will be no draft walkthrough. We’ll be discussing concepts that aren’t clearly cut by a single walkthrough, so we won’t bother with such encumbrances in the first place.

The key to distill out of drafting with Lorwyn is that everything comes down to signaling. You can float like a butterfly, or sting like a bee, but either way it comes down to the fact that your success is going to be based solely on your ability to send and receive signals. There are two different signals: the ones you give, and the ones you get. The information you get coming to you from those upstream can inform your decision of what to pick in order to obtain future returns, and the information you give to those downstream can inform them of what you are doing, to best stay out of your way if they want to succeed. To actually draft successfully, you have to at least think about the notion of signaling; if you aren’t reading signals, you’re dismissing key information that can tell you if your stratagem will succeed or fail based on what will dry up when… and if you aren’t conscious of the signals you’re sending, you can’t know what responses will happen downstream, something very relevant to have a clue about as you switch directions between packs.

In a world where you have to be conscious of not just color signals but the vague and more esoteric tribe signals, your work becomes a good deal more complex. Ultimately, it requires experience to know which cards are good enough to warrant a response when you see it in the pack saying “this is a strong signal.” At the start of Lorwyn drafting a few gems like Smokebraider flew entirely under the radar because it “seemed weak” at first glance, but given a few months of experience now it’s pretty common to see a passed Smokebraider as a signal that the Elementals tribe might be available to you. You can obtain this knowledge by reading or you can obtain this knowledge by doing, and whichever of those works for you is probably good enough so long as you put some time in earning the experience that validates the information. Many mages like to learn by doing, and no few require that to get any benefit from their learning attempts. Whatever works the memory into the muscles of your gray matter is fine, but experience is key.

Experience, after all, is what helps to tell you why signaling is important, instead of just reading me tell you that it is. With experience you can put together the finer points of signaling to figure out what works for you, as ultimately there is going to be a risk-assessment game and your personal comfort between the two extremes of floating and forcing will set your style. Let’s talk about these two extremes, then, as applies to Lorwyn draft.

Floating is a simple concept… you want to maximize your first picks to fit into whatever you end up in after reading a signal, so you’ll aim to take easily-splashed cards at the start of the draft or just come into things with a willingness to abandon that which does not work. Rather than exert a personal preference on tribe, your preference is for getting maximum returns out of the cards passed to you, identifying the colors that are under-drafted and which tribes are under-drafted. Your preference is going to change with the signals, and thus you require experience with every tribe to effectively read signals stating that “tribe X is open.”

Forcing is simpler still, because it is exactly what it sounds like: making a square peg fit in a round hole. “Just keep hammering, it’ll fit” is the motto of one who’s come to force their preference at the draft, and that can be for a particular color (in simpler draft climates) or a color combination (presumably one of Lorwyn’s eight tribes). Of course, something so simple rarely works — if you ignore the information coming your way, you can’t take the hints the people passing to you are attempting to get across. I’m sure it’s a wonderful thing if you get to draft Faeries all of the time, but it’s not so wonderful if you always draft Faeries.

It is the game of min-maxing between these two extremes that a profit is derived from; in Lorwyn-land, cards that best overlap into multiple tribes and that are good on their own are the best starting picks. Because of this, you’ll see the list of top commons for each color that is often discussed tends to be things that leave you open overall to whatever might come your way. Silvergill Douser, as the intersect between the Faeries and Merfolk tribes, Nameless Inversion as a powerful removal spell that has synergy with literally any tribe, that sort of stuff. An active drafter forcing their strategy may forego strong early picks to “send their signal,” taking Faeries and passing the nuts downstream because they’d rather have Pestermite than Guile if it means the guy next to you takes your precious Faeries away from you. Look at the draft walkthroughs of Tiago Chan, Nick Eisel, or Quentin Martin, the current “top tier” of Limited theory as currently written on the Internet, and you’ll see common trends: they aim to take versatile picks and read signals to figure out what they should be doing, and they have a class of cards with which they are most comfortable starting the draft.

This is one of the key reasons that Nameless Inversion is considered the top common first-pick first-pack, because it covers the bases of Lorwyn Limited so well. As a Black card, it naturally fits into the most tribe-related strategies… Black can be Faeries, Treefolk, Elves, and Goblins, a full half of the eight strategies effective for Lorwyn play. As a Changeling spell, it gains added utility by being findable with any tribe’s Harbinger, and playing along with any tribe’s themes… you’ll get an Elf out of your Huntmaster, can re-buy your removal spell with Boggart Birth Rite, and other side benefits. Additionally it’ll never be wasted in your deck, as a single-colored spell is easy to splash, and any combination of colors or tribes would be happy to have a card for that effect. When the end goal is to keep as many options as possible open, it’s got a lot going for it.

When choosing a card for your deck, it is key to maximize options early in the draft. The first eight picks or so give the framework of the draft; by the time you get the second pick out of a pack you’ve opened, everyone will have had a chance to dip in and take what they want, maximizing the effective signals you’ll have received. At least within the first eight picks, commitment is likely premature… the “sweet spot” of Lorwyn Limited comes with picks at the end of that series, as you start to note cards that have filtered through numerous players at your table and still gotten to you. The power of a first-pick is clear… you’re taking the best card in the pack… but ultimately it’s that eighth pick that should combine with all the rest of the information collected so far in order to suggest what you should be playing. A first pick is good… but the promised rewards of high-quality cards throughout the later portions of the draft is better still, especially when things present even so late as that can start to suggest that you might receive similar picks even from the opposite direction.

Drafting in this format is an awful lot like painting or sculpture. You have some starting materials but they’re of absolutely no value unless you have some kind of a vision. Some will apply their domineering will to shape reality for them, forcing what they wish to see come out of the draft, exerting a personal preference that suggests they should force a specific tribe regardless of any but the most unusual of conditions out of their starting pack. Most of those will fail, as the people they really need to bend to their will lie upstream of them, not down… but sometimes they’ll succeed, it’s just another way of getting there from here. Going in with a plan, and the flexibility to make a new plan, is key for those who aren’t going to just try and hammer whatever they want from the get-go… because the end result is the only thing that matters.

“Going with the flow,” then, is crucial because your end goal in a Lorwyn draft should be to have 50% or better of all your spells and creatures have some aspect of creature type in common. Most every tribe has numerous ways to take advantage of having a lot of friends like themselves, starting with the commons. Smokebraiders like a lot of Elemental friends to make cheaper, Cenn’s Heirs like a lot of Kithkin friends swinging alongside him, Lys Alana Huntmasters like a lot of Elf spells making tokens. Changelings of course help you to “cheat.” They don’t provide additional benefits for having many of a particular creature type, but they’ll always fit a creature type and can be the glue holding a draft deck together.

When a good guideline is to get to 50% population in a tribe, just to start harnessing the benefits of having a lot of friends who look just like us, Changelings can work both sides and help to bring multiple tribes closer to that vague and admittedly arbitrary guideline in the otherwise “mixed bag” draft decks, like Red-based Goblin/Elemental decks or Blue-based Merfolk/Faerie decks. A Changeling, due to not being a member of a tribe but working with them, is one of those oddities in Lorwyn draft in that they indicate an entire color is available instead of a specific tribe… their changeling nature makes all of them reasonably high picks and thus seeing one going around later can indicate that an entire color might be underdrafted, not just one of the several tribes of that color. They do not, however, count as tribal signals… you can’t see Woodland Changeling and decide it must mean Elves are open, you need to receive more information to really tell you that.

For the most part, however, the goal is not to draft a color but instead a tribe… but it can still be worth noting that such cues are available, as a passed Ghostly Changeling as late as fourth or fifth in pack one will indicate that the entire color of Black is open not just Elves or Goblins, meaning that you might find quality Black removal spells later than average if you wend your way into Black after reading that signal. As signaling devices the Changelings are good to see and important to be mindful of if you really are trying to signal, as they are more powerful signaling devices than the other (non-bomb) cards of a color.

So, how exactly does one send a signal? The idea of sending a signal is to read a pack’s contents and make your selection with the aim of keeping those nearby you downstream away from making a similar choice, pushing those who have accidentally strayed into your territory away due to the absence of what they want while indicating through the consistent presence of other things that elsewhere might be more profitable. You can’t send a signal with just one pack… it’s all well and good that you’re first-picking Pestermite and none of the rest of the cards in the pack have the word Faerie anywhere near them, but one pack can always be an oddity. It is the consistent presence or absence of things that tell the tale; maybe you can weather one pack without the Faeries you so love in them, but three or four and you really have to start thinking of contingency plans besides “well I guess I lose.”

Additionally, high-quality cards send stronger signals. Imperious Perfect is a great signal to go into Green specifically for Elves, because any Elf deck would have to be insane to pass him. He’s better than most Rares of that tribe, and the list of cards you’d take over the Perfect if you were an Elf-drafter starts in the Profane Command / Shriekmaw territory… lofty friends indeed. If you intend to send a signal that something is available, by all means pass the high-quality cards… so long as that’s not your tribe. Likewise, receiving such cards come with a stronger signal… get passed Summon the School or Merrow Reejerey and it’s time to start thinking about taking Merfolk, regardless of what your first few picks have been. Now that we’ve got the concept of signaling down to something we’re at least familiar with, and have looked at how Changelings “work” as a signal, we can look at how reading a signal affects your draft. Sending a signal is great, and by all means try to do that if you can. The people downstream of you will get better decks, and consequently pass you a better deck as well when the time comes because you won’t be fighting each other for critical resources. Receiving a signal, and making your decisions accordingly, can predict the future… and having a solid sense of what to expect later on in the draft is an excellent advantage when it comes to turn those first eight picks into 40 cards in a deck.

Reading a signal requires recognizing a signal, which is where experience with all of the cards comes in. Just by reading the card you might miss its power in context, as so many did when first trying to figure out just how good Smokebraider could be… sure, that’s an incredibly restrictive use on two mana, but what if it’s actually not restrictive at all because everything in your deck can spend Smokebraider mana? Knowing the archetypes and what tends to make them tick is a critical part of signal recognition, and for that at least we can look at some high-value tribe members that aren’t getting quite the “star power” recognition they should be. Seeing these commons can be a hint to you that a tribe is available:

Elves — Elvish Branchbender, Lys Alana Huntmaster. Elves like making a lot of their friends and capitalizing on having done so; this is the most potent way to get a lot of Elves, and the easiest way to turn them directly into damage and thus games won.

Merfolk — Judge of Currents, Silvergill Douser. Merfolk live or die based on their ability to keep the board under control, and that is what Silvergill Douser does in spades. Silvergill Douser is the best Blue common that actually cares about tribe; Mulldrifter and Pestermite are both high-quality but they don’t really have any benefit from having friends along for the ride. Judge of Currents is under-appreciated insofar as having access to Judges is usually the difference between a good Merfolk deck and a bad one, and thus are worth noting as we get in towards the later picks of a pack.

Faeries — Dreamspoiler Witches, Silvergill Douser. Douser is an odd one because it’s a Merfolk that works for another team as well, and acts almost like a Changeling because it indicates the color Blue is available, not just Merfolk or Faeries. Dreamspoiler Witches adds value to every Faerie you play that has Flash, which is a good many of them, and to many removal spells besides… and, like Judge of Currents in the Merfolk deck, this originally unassuming 2/2 flier for 4 might just be the difference between a good Faerie deck and a bad one.

Treefolk — Battlewand Oak. Treefolk are a hard tribe to love, since they have big butts and they cannot lie… but Battlewand Oak turns additional trees played into additional damage, fast, getting past the usual restriction that things that swing like a tree aren’t cheap to cast. This isn’t one of the better tribes, but this is one of the best cards to try and play in it.

Kithkin — Plover Knights, Surge of Thoughtweft. White as a color is generally disliked right now, with most mages trying to pick as little White as possible and treat it like a splash color so they don’t get stuck with drafting Kithkin. Because of this the high-power Plover Knights are a key indicator that you can have all the White that you want, because double-White draws the line between the casual user and the hardcore white-mana addict… and because of the strategy that goes with Kithkin as a whole, Surge of Thoughtweft is a powerful card that works very, very hard towards a Kithkin victory, and seeing them late is an indicator that you might just have all of it if you want it.

Goblins — Mudbutton Torchrunner, Warren Pilferers, Caterwauling Boggart. Pilferers, like a Changeling, have a habit of indicating the color of Black is open rather than specifically the Goblin tribe, since he’s a good man even when played off-tribe… but even at that these can go later than they should, and seeing one fourth or fifth should start to get the gray matter thinking about Goblins as a possibility if he and his friends are going to be plentiful. Mudbutton is another one that can go around far later than it should, since it likewise can fit into any tribe and still get most of the same effectiveness from the card, but it’s clearly true that he prefers friends like Marsh Flitter, Facevaulter, Tar Pitcher, and Lowland Oaf… and seeing Mudbutton going around after the first few picks is an indicator that he and his friends may be coming your way. Caterwauling Boggart can be the nail in the coffin that finishes off the opponent, and the only issue during the draft is that it can signal either Goblins or Elementals since it works equally well on either side of the Red tribes.

Elementals — Smokebraider, Inner-Flame Acolyte, Caterwauling Boggart. Elementals are a hard one to figure, since they only really have one main color, and your “Elemental” deck can be R/W, R/G, R/B or R/U with equal aplomb… though many try for Red-Blue to use Aethersnipe and Mulldrifter off their Smokebraiders. Smokebraider is a super-high-power card in the deck and is a clear signal early on that you can have Elementals if you want them, while Inner-Flame Acolyte is one of the more dangerous cards they can open with that just doesn’t get the respect he should during the draft. Part of the danger that comes from the Elementals is that added bit of haste that can come at you out of nowhere, and the Elemental deck is much happier having two or three of him than zero or one copies. Caterwauling Boggart likewise threatens to decimate an opponent dangling on the edge, as a Falter with legs that really helps push the damage through… the only difficulty really being that he is desired by both Goblin and Elemental drafters.

Giants — Stinkdrinker Daredevil, Blind-Spot Giant. The Giants are a hard tribe to fall behind, like the Treefolk, and for similar reasons… they tend to be expensive and thus unwieldy. Both of these however start to get around their problems, with cheap and efficient beaters or the ability to make expensive bodies like Axegrinder Giant downright affordable. With both somewhat critical for success, seeing either late can be the hint that you can have them if you want them.

There is no one “right” way to draft Lorwyn, but you have to at least be aware of the signaling issues before you decide where on the scale between 100% aggressive (forcing your tribe of choice) and 100% reactive (only taking what you’re being fed) you aim to be. Most are somewhere in between and might not even realize it, taking the cards they think they should out of a starting pack and then ending up in their “preferred tribe” regardless once they start to see a signal saying their favorite flavor might be available. It’s very hard to say any one way of doing it is “wrong,” as there are many ways to get an acceptable end result… it just happens to be that every path has a different deck at the end of it. Sculpting a deck according to a plan, by knowing what your deck needs and how much it should be willing to ‘pay’ to get it (be it a first pick or a fifth pick), makes whatever deck you end up in work, and reading signals as you receive them tell you what tribe your deck should be.

Nothing is ever simple, but experience and planning as always make the difference.

Sean McKeown
s_mckeown @ hotmail.com