Questions on RGD Draft: Power, Consistency, and Signaling

Jeroen delves deep into the mailbag, and answers some important questions on the subject of RGD Draft. When is it best to ignore a power-pick for a consistent workhorse? What are the benefits of signaling in Magic’s most colorful city? Handy hints and theories, plus the usual questions regarding the Pro Tour Lifestyle…

Since last week, when I replaced my column with a Pro Tour report, I haven’t received many new questions. Most of the questions I got that week were ones regarding Regionals decks that were to be played that weekend, meaning I could never answer them in time to be relevant. Make sure that you send your questions in a timely fashion, as responding to each and every email I receive outside of these articles would be a nine-to-five job.

This means that today I will be cleaning the ol’ inbox, answering questions that haven’t been handled in previous articles due to timing and similar niggles. There’s some interesting stuff here, so let’s go:

The first question is from Sy Johnston. It concerns draft, which is great since Dissension will soon make its presence felt on Magic Online:

How important is it to be flexible with your first picks in a draft, to allow you to read what colors the players to your right are drafting? While I know you should generally take the most powerful cards with your first picks, how much weight does color commitment give your decisions? For example, for your first pick, would you prefer to take a Dimir Guildmage or a Faith’s Fetters? Or if the pack were particularly poor, would you take a first pick Centaur Safeguard or Shambling Shell (the Shell is more powerful, but it immediately commits you to two colors, while the safeguard only commits you to ONE of two colors)? How much does the known draft environment factor into your decision?

The first and most important thing to keep in mind when trying to make this decision is the relative strength of the cards. A card like Shambling Shell is about a hundred times better than Centaur Safeguard, so most of the time you will never ever want to take the Safeguard over the Shell (if you have no color worries). Early in a draft you are most interested in keeping your power level high, so often the Shell will then be the correct pick despite the color concerns.

In later packs, when you are pretty sure what colors you are in, the Guard might be the correct pick… but honestly, the Shell is simply better. As for the first example, the Dimir Guildmage is about the same power level as the Faith’s Fetters… but the Fetters is a better card, making this question rather strange since you will often want to go for the Fetters regardless. Also keep in mind that Dimir Guildmage is essentially a mono-colored creature, as both the Black and Blue halves are very good in their own right, and thus can be played as such.

Generally, the rule is as follows: if two cards are of same power level, take the card that is easiest to cast (like Disembowel over Viashino Fangtail, for instance), but if one card is more powerful than the other, take the more powerful card if it is early in the draft, and try to squeeze it in your deck. Later in the draft, take the more consistent card, as you will have to worry about getting enough playables at that point.

As a follow-up question, Sy had the following:

When you walk into a draft, do you hope to draft a particular archetype or do you try to stay flexible through your first three or four picks to see what is available? What cards do you commonly draft that give you the early flexibility without sacrificing too much power? (Ravnica Guildmages and Faith’s Fetters come to mind).

Once you’re been drafting a particular format for a long time, you’ll develop preferences for color combinations. For instance, in RRG I leaned towards URB all the time. In RGD, I lean heavily towards URG. This means that if two cards are of the same power level, I will take the card that fits my colors best most of the time. It doesn’t mean that I will take an inferior card though, as that strategy can go wrong very quickly (which happened to me in Prague). Early on I will take the most powerful card in each pack, and then after, say, six picks, I will try and figure out the colors to which I will finally commit. This means that most of the time I will not play one of my first six picks, but that is fine as it increases the overall power level of your draft no matter what.

My favorite cards for increasing my flexibility are generally based on enabling an easier splash. Cards like Civic Wayfinder, Karoos, Signets, and Farseeks.

The next questions comes to us by way of Travis Pryor:

This might seem like an easy question, but how do you read signals when drafting? Is it guesswork, or is there some ultimate way to know what the other drafters at the table are drafting? I have looked around for an article about this, but I haven’t seen any. This seems weird, because it sounds like such a simple topic.

Some formats lean themselves toward drafting according to signals. The current format, though, is not one of them. First, let me explain what signals are, and how you can use them.

Is the signal Green?

Signals are little bits of information you can gather from the cards you are passed, in order to deduce what the person next to you is drafting. For example, imagine you’re passed a 4th pick Moldervine Cloak. You have very good information that the person next to you is not drafting Green, and this could mean that you need to move into Green at that point. Based on what you’ve already passed yourself (i.e., the signals you have sent), you will then have to decide to pick the Cloak or pass the Cloak.

I dislike the theory of drafting according to signals, as there are a lot of pitfalls that can trap you. Ravnica is an exceptional example of a format riddled with possible signaling snafus. I’ll list a couple right here:

Getting passed a color in pack one means nothing for pack 2, or even pack 3 in some cases. Say you get passed that 4th pick Cloak in pack 1, and take it thinking you will get lots of Green. What if the person to the left took a first-pick Glare of Subdual, and no matter what he has been passed he will be Green anyway. This means that even though you got that Cloak and two or three more Green bombs from pack 1, you will not get a single Green card as the person to your left will snaffle them up. Then, in pack 2, the guy to your right opened a Burning-Tree Shaman and took it for his RU deck planning, to splash it. This means that the best Green cards in pack 3 will not make it to you either. So you received the correct signal, but during the draft things changed and your deck ends up being a pile.

What if your neighbor took a better card? Sure, you got that Cloak fourth, but what if the guy took a better Green card over it? That signal you thought was there turned out to be no signal at all. He may be wrong on the card’s relative strength… but he did take a Green card after all, leading me to my next point:

Your evaluation is not your opponent’s evaluation. He may have passed a Cloak, and you take this as a signal, but what if, in his mind, Moldervine is not good enough and he took another Green card over it?

Another trap for signalers is the multicolor nature of the block, and the ease of and splashing. It’s so hard to get good signals when everyone is all over the place mana-wise, and getting passed a Moldervine Cloak doesn’t tell you much about your opponent’s color combination. Hell, he could easily be four colors.

Overall, this means that I don’t like looking for Signals, as they can be counter-productive. I like to take the best card each time and not worry about the people next to me. That way you often end up avoiding in your neighbor’s colors anyway, and you get the best, most powerful deck in the long run. Often, people will say signals are a very important part of drafting, but to me it is an overrated concept.

The next question is by Reece Perry:

Regarding the “Beach House” deck at PT Honolulu. You said a couple of times that you thought you’d broken the format with the deck. While I’m not sure how tongue-in-cheek that comment was, it was fairly apparent you really liked your deck. So, what happened? Did you not see certain decks coming? Did you get bad matchups? Was the deck too hard to play over the length of the Pro Tour? It’d be interesting to see your thoughts on the deck, looking back.

Whenever you read a comment like that, the first thing you should do is find out where it came from. Gabe Walls uttered that particular gem, and as many know, he has a knack for exaggeration. We never thought we broke the format, as we felt the format was impossible to break. There were too many decks, and it was impossible to make a deck that could beat all of them. We did think we’d solved the format by making a deck that had very good matchups against what we perceived were the best decks.

The reasons we failed were many, but yes, some of them were a wrong metagame idea, wrong test decks (Zoo decks at the Pro Tour were completely different from the ones we tested), or just plain old dumb luck. You can’t have a hit every time, and at the time we thought it was the best deck to play. Looking back, it wasn’t very good, and we didn’t get the luck we needed to succeed. I still feel it wasn’t that bad, but it could have definitely been better.

Maybe next time, when we aren’t as distracted by the beautiful Hawaiian Islands.

“Secondly, as my email address indicates I’m Australian. With the PT flight Wizards are providing, we’re able to consistently field people on the Pro Tour, with Rhys Gould (22nd) and Justin Cheung (17th) doing well at Honolulu and Prague respectively. So my question is: what do the pros think of the level of competition that Australians provide? 

Well Reece, no offense… but in general, Australia is not thought of as a powerhouse country with great players. I would even say that Pros in general don’t think highly of the level of competition there, and they can underestimate the players. Maybe this will change in the future, but in Magic a player’s / country’s strength is mostly gauged by the number of Top 8s. There, you really fall short as a nation. Hell, Ben Seck doesn’t even play anymore…

The last question is not really strategy based, but more about the upcoming Charleston Pro Tour, sent to me by Greg Vincent:

What kind of pro teams can we expect to see at Charleston this year?  With the event being a few months out, who seems to be partnering with whom? I will not be attending, but I like to keep up with what is happening and I simply wondered if you had heard of some team-ups that you were either surprised to hear of or teams that you think should be really strong.

On a related note about PT Charleston, what do the Pros (such as yourself) think of using this format (Team Block Constructed), and not having an Extended season this year?  As a player on the lower tourney level, I will have to admit that I am not particularly happy with losing the Extended season. 

There are some interesting teams coming up for Charleston, and here are some of the team’s to watch:

Cold as ice

  • Team Antarctica. Jon Finkel is bringing back the OMS brothers for another run at the gold.
  • Karsten and the Ruels. A true powerhouse, which has 3 of the best players in the world on the same team. A heavy favorite, no matter how you look at it.
  • Hatty and the Fatties. Gabriel Nassif chose “Heavy” hitters Eric Froehlich and Gabe Walls as his teammates this year. Efro is one of the best team players in the world, with infinite GP Top 8s in different teams, and Nassif is a Constructed master. Add genius Walls to the mix, and you have a definite contender.
  • My own team, with Ruud Warmenhoven and Terry Soh. We won’t have a lot of time to test together, but who knows.
  • The NY teams. Together with Finkel, you have the old Togit Crew teams (Osyp, Ravitz, and Fiorillo; Krempels, Sonne, X) as well as the Neutral Ground qualifying teams including Deckbuilding genius Mike Flores. Expect them to do well.
  • My favorite team for the event: Gerard Fabiano, Jose Barbero, and Matt Rubin. A swell squad.
  • My former teammates, Jelger (with Siron and Levy) and Kamiel (with Bernardo da Costa Cabral and Tiago Chan). They are awesome, and so are their teams.
  • And finally the team that would win for sure if it was Limited: Rich Hoaen, Anton Jonsson, and Johan Sadegpour. Now, I don’t really know if they will lose every game or win the whole thing… but anything can happen in Magic.

Other than these, you can expect the usual subjects and teams to appear, as this looks to be a fun tournament.

As for the lack of Extended this season, I don’t care that much. Us Pros are usually only playing the next format, so we don’t really care what we have to play and test. Extended seemed to get pretty boring at the end of the last season, and this block format looks like it is a lot of fun, so I am pretty happy with the way things resolved.

That’s it for this week. In closing, I would like to congratulate Steve Golenda on his Top 8 in Regionals. He asked me for help, and though I couldn’t include it in the article anymore I send him a little email response, which he said helped him a lot. You are welcome, sir!

Be sure to send me some new queries, to [email protected], so I can start with all-new fresh material next week. I know I’ll be here, no matter what.