Make Every Pack Your First Pack!

I decided to share with you a little game that I play, which I call the First Pick, First Pack Game. Every time I open a pack that I have bought/won, before I add the cards to my collection, I study the pack as though I were in a draft and it was the first pack I opened for that set and I try to decide what my pick would be.

So, I was thinking it was time to write a Limited article, since the degree to which my previous articles mentioned Constructed is kinda out of proportion to the amount that I play with sixty-card decks. Unless States, Regionals, or Nationals are imminent, I actually play more with forty these days.

The problem is, what do I write about? I really dislike some popular types of Limited article, especially the "pick orders" article. I imagine the main reason Tim Aten articles seem so angry is because he has Ted Knutson bugging him to turn in material, thus forcing him to make some kind of decision like whether Floating-Dream Zubera is better or worse than Callous Deceiver when he knows that it simply does not matter one iota. [Somehow I get blamed for everything. – Knut]

That’s right, it doesn’t matter. Even if you could have a list of pick orders right in front of you while you draft – do people do this on MODO? I hope not* – it wouldn’t improve your game. Drafting is not merely about ranking card X above card Y; it’s about studying the pack and deciding which pick will be the best overall decision for your entire draft.

(To be fair, there’s a new type of article going around out there, the so-called "dynamic" pick order article, that is a little bit better in this area. Credit [author name="Ken Krouner"]Ken Krouner[/author] for getting this idea restarted.)

So, I decided to share with you a little game that I play, which I call the First Pick, First Pack Game. Every time I open a pack that I have bought/won, before I add the cards to my collection, I study the pack as though I were in a draft and it was the first pack I opened for that set, and I try to decide what my pick would be (obviously, this is a little more difficult to do with a small expansion; I’ll describe how I do that when Betrayers comes out).

I recently won six packs in a sanctioned draft at the local store. Since most of the team drafts at the store are in the VS System these days, I decided to just open the packs and hope for a Cranial Extraction to add to my collection. I played the First Pick, First Pack Game with all six of them; my pick is in bold. You can play along at home, or in the forums, and I hope that you do.

Pack One: Reach Through Mists, Kami of the Hunt, Gibbering Kami, Kabuto Moth, Soul of Magma, Counsel of the Soratami, Silent-Chant Zubera, Ember-Fist Zubera, Field of Reality, Pull Under, Cage of Hands, Honden of Infinite Rage, Waterveil Cavern, Reito Lantern, Vassal’s Duty

As soon as I saw this pack, I knew I had to write an article, because it deals with the central flaw of the pick order article: a pick order doesn’t help you compare a given color’s commons with the other colors, uncommons, and rares that you’ll find in a given pack. That’s what I try to do by playing the FPFP Game.

For example, let’s say you emulate the younger Aten in all that you do. Then, thanks to this article, you are firmly of the belief that Cage of Hands is the strongest of the White cards in this pack. But as good as that article is, Tim doesn’t tell you if Cage is the pick here over the Red Shrine, the two quality Black spells, or a quality Green man.

It’s not absurd to ship both White spells here, because the other first-pickable cards are important ones for their respective colors – Kami of the Hunt is very strong in base-Green "spiritcraft" decks, Gibbering Kami is a key flier for almost any Black deck you’d want to play, and it’s very hard to pass a reusable damage source as efficient as the Honden.

I would consider first-picking the Honden here. But, I have not had great results with it, and given the odds of having multiple shrines, it usually ends up roughly the same as Frostwielder. As for the Green and Black kami, they’re pretty good, but a level below Cage and Moth, I think.

So, in the end, I take Cage of Hands, because I think it’s the most powerful card in the pack – for example, a Moth can’t stop a Dragon Spirit, and Cage can, derf. But this pick is far from trivial. [This pick is questionable for lots of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the Moth is simply a better card. – Knut, who waits to hear the screams in the forums]

Pack Two: Blessed Breath, Hearth Kami, Soratami Cloudskater, Orochi Sustainer, Distress, Kami of the Painted Road, Psychic Puppetry, Orochi Leafcaller, Rag Dealer, Moss Kami, Rend Flesh, Reciprocate, Hankyu, Nine-Ringed Bo, Takeno, Samurai General

The pick swings around one question: is Takeno a bomb? If he were a bomb, he’d definitely be the pick since the pack is not so great. Personally, I’ve never seen a game where the Samurai General was decisive by himself: he was either a win-more card, or he was useless in the face of opposing fliers. Six mana is a lot for a 3/3 who compels you to force samurai.

As for the Green cards, they kind of split my vote. Moss Kami and Orochi Sustainer are approximately of equal value in your average green draft deck, and neither strikes me as a first pick – I would rather start my pile off with a removal spell than with either of those cards (although if that Sustainer were a Kodama’s Reach instead, I would first-pick it in a second).

So, I would probably close my eyes and take Reciprocate, because it’s cheap, it can target almost anybody, and it gets around graveyard abilities like soulshift and Dragon triggers. But I do not have a lot of confidence in that pick, and would love to hear forum response regarding Takeno, the Green cards, and Rend Flesh.

Pack Three: Soul of Magma, Hisoka’s Defiance, Humble Budoka, Wicked Akuba, Blesssed Breath, Ragged Veins, Quiet Purity, Ember-Fist Zubera, Ronin Houndmaster, Mystic Restraints, Feral Deceiver, Nagao, Bound by Honor, Pinecrest Ridge, Numai Outcast, Reweave

Well, they can’t all be interesting packs; sometimes there’s just only one reasonable pick. If you don’t realize that the best non-rare creature in the set is hanging out here, I don’t know what to tell you.

Just for review, Nagao is completely busted because he’s nigh impossible to kill with blocking, and very tough to race, thus forcing the opponent to have a removal spell or just lose. Even if the guy on your right is drafting mono-White, your deck can still end up very strong thanks to the honor-bound bad boy.

Not much more to say here, except maybe this: Has anyone out there ever won a draft while maindecking Numai Outcast? I mean, ever?

Pack Four: Stone Rain, Sift Through Sands, Vine Kami, Cruel Deceiver, Lantern Kami, Lava Spike, Wear Away, Rag Dealer, Ethereal Haze, Cage of Hands, Yamabushi’s Flame, Nezumi Graverobber, Petals of Insight, Night of Souls’ Betrayal, Numai Outcast (foil)

This is why I specify that the game is always first pick, first pack. Because depending upon what your deck looked like, if you saw this as your second or third pack, your choice might be wildly different.

In those cases, if your deck had any kind of serious White component, Cage of Hands would jump to the top. It works in every White deck, even a U/W creatureless Dampen Thought build. Similarly, if you had any kind of serious Black component to your deck you’d have to look long and hard at the Graverobber, who is nice as a 2/1 for 1B and can be completely unfair if played early enough in the game.

A G/U spiritcraft deck with a Kodama’s Reach or two would be drooling after that Petals of Insight (actually, if you have two Kodama’s Reaches, you can probably just pick any old card you want and splash it). And if your deck was already awesome by the third pack, you might raredraft Night of Souls’ Betrayal, which hates out a lot of decks in Extended.

But, this isn’t second or third pack. It’s first pick, first pack, and as such you can’t go wrong with Yamabushi’s Flame, the second best burn spell in the format. It goes in just about every deck, and can be splashed if that’s your taste. In some cases – such as when your opponent has just resolved Nagao or Teller of Tales – it’s even better than Glacial Ray. It just has to be the pick here.

Pack Five: Sakura-Tribe Elder, Wicked Akuba, Indomitable Will, Brutal Deceiver, Hisoka’s Guard, Peer Through Depths, Dripping-Tongue Zubera, Mystic Restraints, Moss Kami, Pull Under, Squelch, Orbweaver Kumo, Lure, Nature’s Will, Pull Under (foil)

What a weird pack! A crappy rare and a bunch of mediocre uncommons, but almost every common is playable, including a fluke dubs for one of Black’s better removal spells. What to do here?

Well, let’s first give Wicked Akuba and Pull Under their due; both are good cards that I usually take fairly early. But double Pull Under plus Akuba means there will likely be at least three Black drafters at the table, at which point good Black cards become scarce (in my experience, at least). Plus, I just like Tribe Elder and Will better than either black card.

I’m sure Nick Eisel would auto-pick the Tribe Elder; when a draft goes wrong for him, "force green" seems to be the solution. And I’m not saying that’s a bad approach; there’s so much green in this pack that if you take the Rampant Growth-on-a-stick then there is a pretty good chance that a playable card will lap the table for you (although probably not the Moss Kami, which you would prefer).

But I am very tempted to cut off a color completely from the drafter on my left by taking Indomitable Will. Although the signals you send to your left are not of huge importance – as Geordie Tait once said, "You are Michael Jackson, [the guy on your left] is Tito" – the longer you can guarantee playable cards in Pack Two, the stronger your decks will become. Just sending that little signal can be the difference between your 23rd card being a useful creature, or an 18th land.

As for the objective power of the Will, I think a lot of people are underestimating it. I’ve read a lot of articles lately that are down on the Will; Eisel, for example, wrote that it is about the same as Battlegrowth. I don’t really understand that. Well, I understand that Battlegrowth was bad – one +1/+1 counter is not so great when overpowered equipment and spells like Test of Faith are running around.

But, this is a fundamentally different format – I’ve found myself needing combat tricks a lot more often than in the bomb-laden Mirrodin block format. Will fills that necessary role in your Samurai decks – without it you have to try and pick up the overdrafted Kabuto Moth, or settle for situational cards like Blessed Breath and Call to Glory. Plus, Will is obviously not equal to Battlegrowth, thanks to that little "+2".

So, I’m going to try and open up some forum controversy here by saying that while Tribe Elder is slightly more powerful than Will, it’s not so much stronger to make up for the possibility of sending a clear signal to your left. Indomitable Will is definitely the pick. Come and get me.

Pack Six: Blessed Breath, Sokenzan Bruiser, Hisoka’s Guard, Serpent Skin, Nezumi Ronin, Orochi Leafcaller, Ragged Veins, Terashi’s Cry, Mothrider Samurai, Yamabushi’s Flame, Soratami Mirror-Guard, Kashi-Tribe Reaver, Honden of Cleansing Fire, Honden of Life’s Web, Sensei Golden-Tail

This pack is almost the inverse of the last one: all of the uncommons are quality and the rare is at least relevant, but there are only a couple commons that would always be playable.

As in Pack Two, I am not sold on this rare. For me, Golden-Tail has proved to be an okay man with a very slow ability who often ends up trading for a guy much worse than he is. However, he also is a two-power Bushido man for 1W with a decent ability, so he’s definitely better than Takeno. But, as an unquestionable first-pick bomb, Golden-Tail is about 7.5 tails short.

If a Green card is to be picked here, I think it has to be Kashi-Tribe Reaver, who would be playable just as a 3/2 for 3G with a disruptive ability; the regeneration causes him to border on "awesome." In comparison, Honden of Life’s Web is just a little slow and a little weak – sometimes those little punks can become a swarm, but sometimes they are barely more than speed bumps in the damage race.

So, the decision comes down to White Honden, Yamabushi’s Flame, or Kashi-Tribe Reaver. If this were a team draft, there would be no question: you take the Honden because it’s the card you least want the opposing team to have. In an eight-man, it’s a little closer, but I think the raw power of Honden of Cleansing Fire is just too much to ignore.

In closing, I’ll say it again: I highly encourage forum response to this article, and in all future times I play the FPFP game. It’s not like this drafting thing is an exact science.

Until next time, here’s hoping your opens are Honden of Cleansing Fire, Ryusei the Falling Star, and Nagao (as they were for me in a 3-on-3 team draft last week – yeah, I 3-0’ed).

This article written while watching to the Washington Wizards lose to the surprisingly good Phoenix Suns.

mm underscore young at yahoo dot com


* I have a Macintosh, so I don’t – can’t – play Magic Online. I would bitch about this, except I’m told that that adapting MODO to the Mac would be a programming nightmare for Alan Comer and company.