You’re sitting down at the draft table. It’s your second Top 8 of the season, but you’re a little nervous. Sealed deck is no problem, and you’ve made so much money on the RGD draft circuit that if you were looking at Karoos and gold spells you’d be halfway through an in-store victory lap with the first verse of “We Are The Champions” lilting joyfully off your tongue. Instead, though, there are all these bearl-esque men and a bunch of snowflakey symbols that seem to be pretty neat but you just can’t pinpoint why. Everybody at the local store hates Coldsnap, seeing it (erroneously) as a shameless moneymaking scheme from Wizards despite their releasing a summer set for three consecutive years now, and as a consequence you just can’t ever get drafts in. Worse, you’re staring at the pack and seven first-pick quality cards are looking you right back in the eyes. What on earth do you do?
Well, boys, it’s good you’ve seen those seven first picks, because with that realization comes the understanding of the entire format. Listen closely, because momma’s got a secret:
Basically… every spell is “good,” at least in the traditional sense of the word.
I first realized something was quirky about the format when I was up at Triple Play observing a Coldsnap draft full of randoms (y’all know who y’all are). Despite my being quite “skeptical” at their ability – Robert “Name My Kids After Liquor” Larrabee, Tony “Birds of Paradise is Bad” Bridgeforth, Andy “What Kind Of Name Is” Tomkins, I’m looking at you guys (<3) – all of them seemed to have insane decks. Eight players. Eight good decks. Hmm.
Now I am a skeptic, and moreover I love to bag on my local boys. So rather than assuming that something drastic seeped in the water from up in St. Louis, I wondered if there was something different about triple CS. It turns out that there is. The best decks have an even higher than average power curve, and you have to figure out how to exploit that.
Before I go any further, I want to point out that you can learn a lot about this Draft format by reading the official Wizards articles about Coldsnap Limited that came out shortly after the set was released. If you haven’t, check those out now.
I don’t want to belabor the point, because I’m sure all of you have heard it already, but it’s so fundamental to understanding my idea of “value drafting” that you really do have to realize that it’s a rare, rare situation to not have enough playables.
So you understand that there are a whole lot of solid cards that can provide above-average filler for your deck. You understand that you’re not going to be scrounging to find the last three playables. But what on earth does that mean?
Assume, for a minute, that you’re drafting Coldsnap like it’s a normal Limited format. Your goals are to get solid removal, a decent curve, and enough Big Monsters or Evasion Dudes to be able to end the game. This is obviously not a bad goal to have. But what you’ll come to realize after several drafts is that you can accumulate a reasonably high number of each of these things – certainly, in other words, a number comparable to typical decks in other formats – by about pick 4 or 5 of pack 3 if all you’re doing is going for the Solid. The problem becomes what to do with the rest of that pack. Sure, you can fill out a few holes in your curve, or replace some of those Kjeldoran Outriders with Boreal Centaurs (or Chill to the Bones with Skreds, or one similar-but-slightly-worse card with a similar-but-slightly-better one, etc), but I am sure you realize the point I’m trying to get at: the value of each subsequent pick begins to peter out very abruptly. In other words, past a certain threshold of playables, it’s difficult to be able to make your deck much better by drafting the same type of cards.
Logically, then, the solution to creating the best possible Coldsnap deck is to be able to go through the draft in such a way that you maximize your ability to keep making your deck better. You do this by overvaluing the enablers I talked about yesterday, as well as the “we get better if you have a bunch of us” spells that everybody knows about and has been blown out by at one point or another.
Let me illustrate this with an example. Suppose you start out taking solid, efficient creatures like the aforementioned Boreal Centaur, and Kjeldoran Outrider, and even onto the top tier of necessary spells like Zombie Musher, Disciple of Tevesh Szat, Simian Grunt, Ohran Yeti, Frozen Solid, Chill to the Bone. Pack 1, your deck’s looking pretty good. You continue the trend onto the middle of pack 2, and by the beginning of pack 3 you’ve got yourself a solid deck. You’ve seen some Sound the Calls, Surging Sentinels, Martyrs of Ashes, and Kjeldoran War Cries at this point, but why on earth would you want to take these near the end of pack 2 and beginning of pack 3; chances are, you couldn’t get more than two or three, and you’d be picking these sub-par spells over creatures that are always good. You also haven’t been able to grab enough snow lands to let you play more than one Rimewind Taskmage, and though your Arctic Nishoba looks really good you had to pass up a second one because you already had two Aurochs Herd and you couldn’t make your deck too top-heavy because you might not get the necessary mana acceleration or two-drops in the last pack. Makes sense, right?
Really sucks round 1 when the guy casts three consecutive Sound the Calls two games in a row and blows your otherwise-solid deck right out of the water.
Now, suppose instead of those random spells – which are very good, mind you – you spend pack 1 taking things like Red Martyr, Into the North/Boreal Druid, and snow lands. You still take removal, Ronom Hulk, Aurochs, Squall Drifter, and the like very high, but you also take things like Surging Sentinels and Kjeldoran War Cry extremely high over everything but the absolute top tier of first-pick spells. Now, it comes around to the second pack and, with two Martyr of Ashes, you see the third staring back at you in the first pack. Hmm. You might be able to start building your deck around this card. There aren’t any more in pack 2, but you start grabbing Icefalls on a hunch and you successfully nab one seventh pick in pack 3, and you’re looking at a semi-Constructed archetype that puts some of the random good-stuff decks to shame. Alternatively, you managed to get two Into the Norths and a Boreal Druid in pack 1, though you had to sacrifice basically all other Green spells of substance except a single Aurochs Herd to get them. Now, pick 2 pack 2, you pick up your second Boreal Druid. All of the sudden you realize that you can slip basically every Hulk, Nishoba, Serpent, or Herd you want into your pool and will beat your opponent by out-gianting him – and you can then draft your deck accordingly.
By drafting your enablers high, you allow yourself more flexibility in your draft strategy packs 2 and 3. Why do I say flexibility? Because if those Surging Sentinels five and six don’t come, you can still draft the same type of deck you were going to draft anyway, potentially playing a few 2/1 first strikers as reasonable filler, and not suffer too much of a loss. But if you do get them, well, it’s probably going to be a blowout. This is exactly what happened at the GP. I wasn’t trying to draft the Surging Sentinel deck, but as I was in White I took them over several slightly more powerful cards just because I knew that if the deck didn’t work out I’d at least have a three drop, and I could make up for those missed picks in the third pack.
This, incidentally, is why I do not like the Surging Might and Krovikan Mist decks. With most of the other “gets better in multiples because you can build your deck around them” spells – the mana acceleration, Red Martyr, Surging Sentinels, Kjeldoran War Cry, Sound the Call etc – it’s absolutely fine to only play a couple of the spell. I’d rather be absolutely sure I can Wrath my opponent’s board on turn 3, so I can construct my deck around my ability to do that. But being able to Wrath on turn 3 some of the time is still nothing to complain about. War Cry, too, is fine because combat tricks are so rare in this format, and the second one will still always be insane even if you don’t draw it until several turns, or even half the game, later. Similarly, Sound the Call fills a hole in the three-slot, and even though you’re not excited to potentially have to play two or three in a deck, it’s not the end of the world. Grey Ogres have usually been fine in Limited, and if you rip copies two and three at any point in time they are going to be above average. With Mists, though, you have to have your multiples right then and there, so the card is usually terrible if you can’t get The Deck to work out. As for Might, well, it’s a creature enchantment. Unless those produce 3/3 elephants, make a man a giant trampling Spirit Linker, gain me control of something, or say “Dredge 2,” I’m usually going to have to pass.
Just remember not to get locked into one plan of action too early on in the draft. Pick up those enablers, but don’t force an archetype if it’s not coming. Pack 2, with three Surging Sentinels in your deck from pack 1, it’s appropriate to take a Sentinel over everything. If it’s pack 3, though, and you still only have those three Sentinels, well, you may have to be less greedy.
The key to the format is that you have to always move forward; you have to be progressive, or your deck will just not be that tight. It won’t be bad, per se, it just won’t get anyone excited, and you won’t have a decisive edge. Keep your options open. Give yourself the potential for something broken in pack 1, and if the brokenness doesn’t come, say “I’m over it” and settle into the more normal type of deck that you’d have to draft anyway.
Another excellent consequence of this style of drafting is that you’re de facto hating cards from other players at the table who might be playing devious and trying to lucksack a broken deck. Picking up even a single Mists or Surging X or Into the North in pack 1 can mean the difference between an opponent’s deck being absolutely ridiculous, and being a complete pile. Obviously this is really critical with Surging Dementia; eight, and it’s actually impossible to lose a game, but seven and you’re going to be whiffing enough to give your opponent a chance (yes, I have drafted eight before). But it’s basically the same thing with all the other Surging Spells, because at six you have a greater than 50% chance to hit, while at five it’s less than 50%. Krovikan Mists and particularly Sound the Call, too, start to look really attractive at five but tend to disappoint at four. As for Into the Norths and Boreal Druids, if you get a few of those in pack 1 then there will be a limit to the number of giant men your opponent can fit into his deck without the requisite acceleration – or, barring that, at least a smaller potential for him to start churning out Aurochs on turn 4. So starting a draft out this way will, if nothing else, usually level the playing field.
I hope that this article has made sense. The concepts I’m trying to articulate are really difficult to explain on paper, so please, if you have any questions, just front-load the forums and I’ll try to address or clarify anything I’ve said that has been unclear. Particularly, I’ve packed the paragraphs with examples of cards across all colors and have mentioned a bunch of strategies in succession that would obviously never all share space in the same deck, so I don’t know if my arguments come out as clean as they appear to me in my head. If something seems completely bone-headed, then (hopefully) the problem is not with the idea but rather with the fact that I am just an inarticulate buffoon.
Tomorrow: I decided to drift away from my initial concept of “player spotlights” in order to cover something that has been given little to no attention apart from a Richard Feldman article that came around post-Honolulu. That is, what are the factors independent of how you play the game that can contribute to your success over the course of a year or so. I’m going to talk about networking, deck design, etc, and I hope that even though it’s something fairly different that y’all will be receptive to it. We’ll see, I suppose. Colon close parenthesis. Less than three.
I did that just for Tim.
… who, yes, does need to write a Nationals report.
P.S. “Katie Douglass.” I tried to be more artful with that one, but sometimes, well, the blunter the better.
P.P.S. This is mostly for Memphis-area folks, but if anyone has a copy of the latest “Rehab” CD they could supply me with, I’d really appreciate it. As far as American radio-bands go, it’s one of the better. I mean, it’s not real music*, but I am still quite a large fan.
* I hate articles that contain music discussions so I’m going to leave it out of this one, but suffice to say that the only musical namedrops I’ve appreciated have by and large been those in Olivier’s Corner. Though yeah, yeah, AFI is amazing. Blah-de blah.