So Many Insane Plays — Drafting Against Kenji

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In last week’s So Many Insane Plays, we left Stephen Menendian at 3-3 heading into the entertaining Winston Draft format. With multiple practice drafts under his belt, Stephen felt confident… but was this confidence enough to post a winning record? As we know, the wheels fell of Stephen’s wagon after his sterling 3-0 Cube performance… with pick-by-pick and play-by-play analysis of his Winston drafts, it’s time to see if we could have done anything different.

As friends, teammates, and other Magic players ask about my Invitational experience, I find myself telling stories, recounting games, and describing the Essen Spiel, Spain, and Germany. But one of the things that I haven’t been able to figure out just yet is exactly how to fit the Invitational into the whole of my experience with Magic. It’s difficult to fully appreciate the Invitational when you are in it. My focus was on each match, and each play, in a never-ending rotation of magical formats, each requiring its own, particular attention. And when you aren’t playing Magic, your focus is the people. One of the reasons that the Invitational is so unique isn’t simply the formats or the players, but the intimacy.

When you spend four straight days with a small cadre of players and Magic developers and coverage staff, you can’t help but come to understand that this is anything but an impersonal tournament. While the raison d’etre is the card game, the glue that provides continuity and flow to the Magic Invitational is social. Every moment has within it the seeds of fraternity, fellowship, and personal bonding. Every conversation in the subway en route from the convention, every chat over a drink or exchange before dinner brings familiarity in a common endeavor, and every step in that direction brings you closer to a feeling of mutuality.

So while I write about the formats being highlighted, I find it impossible not to speak through a lens that focuses on the people playing them.

Last week I wrote about my experience in two of the five Invitational formats, one of which, Auction of the People, is completely irrelevant to anyone but the most ardent Magic enthusiast or future Invitationalists, and the other, the Cube, which was nothing more than a three round tournament report and notes on a draft. Big whoop.

Today, however, I report on and turn my analytic gaze to a format that should be of interest to a much broader segment of Magic players: Limited. And more than merely Limited: I discuss the most relevant set, Lorwyn.

As a player that’s known for Vintage, explaining, as I’m about to do in this article, the ins and outs of Winston draft, is certainly a change of pace. But it’s a change of pace I’ve grown to savor the last few weeks. I’m not a Limited player, but I hope to impart some deep strategy in this article. I hope you enjoy it. And I hope that the Limited experts weigh in and tell me what I could have done better, where I may have gone wrong, or what I did well.

So, what exactly is a Winston draft?

The Winston Draft is one of those things in life that is much more easily understood through demonstration than explanation.

Mark Rosewater will do just that on a brief YouTube clip.

Thanks Mark!

Fun. Why are some things fun and others not? Is it a matter of attitude? Does it have to do with design or appearance? Some things in life are fun for reasons that I can’t begin to explain. Water balloons are a great example. Why would a latex container filled with water that bursts when thrown be as fun as it is? I’m not sure. But I’ve watched children become giddy, their eyes light up, just holding a water balloon in hand with the prospect of someone get splashed still remote. Another thing that people just love is the surprise of opening up a gift during the holidays. I’m not sure why tearing open a present disguised by wrapping paper would be more fun than just getting the gift directly, but it is.

The Winston Draft is like those things. It’s inherently fun. I can’t explain why. It just is. It’s sort of like “Let’s Make a Deal” — you never know what’s lurking in some pile. Part of the fun may come from the surprise of peering under a pile and seeing what’s there. It may also be the anxious uncertainty that comes from wondering if your opponent will take a particular pile or not. It may be the fun of snagging a large pile that has been passed over a few times. I don’t know why exactly. But the format is a lot of fun.

The Winston Draft may actually be the best two-player Limited format ever conceived. It’s less expensive and less luck based (maybe only slightly so) than Sealed Deck. It takes only a brief amount of time once the players are familiar with the draft format. It’s faster than a Solomon draft.

Today, I’m going to go through some of the advanced tactics and strategies for a Winston Lorwyn draft.

Knowing that Winston draft would be one of the Invitational formats, I attended my local Lorwyn pre-release and signed up for a flight hoping, perhaps in vain, to win a box of Lorwyn. I never needed a box of Magic cards so badly. Although my flight featured a decent amount of Pro Tour experience, I somehow managed to get first place and win a box by going 4-0-1 so that I would have a box with which to draft.

Necessity is the mother of invention, I suppose.

Over the next few weeks, I slowly drafted the entire box, practicing the format, learning it with Sam Stoddard, another Columbus Magic player. At the end of all of this testing, I felt that I had achieved a great deal of familiarity with the card pool and experience with the various card interactions, but lacked the finer points of play that make the difference between winning and losing. My overall record against Sam was abysmal. Despite my losing streak, I recognized steady improvement. The problem was that while I was learning the card pool and the ins and outs of the draft, Sam was improving at about the same rate. This ensured the same outcome.

At Pro Tour: Valencia, I had the opportunity to meet Devin Low, the lead developer for Lorwyn.

I walked into an elevator the morning of the Pro Tour and Devin Low joined me on the way down. He was wearing a “Wizards” t-shirt, and I asked him if he worked for Wizards. He answered in the affirmative. When I asked him which department he worked in, he said design and development. I tend to key into phrases like R&D or the DCI, so it took me a moment to realize that this meant he worked for R&D. I quickly introduced myself, and we began talking about Lorwyn all the way to the PT site. I told him that one of the things I enjoyed about the Winston draft is the complexity of the draft. A draft offers many decision trees with many high impact, high opportunity cost choices. In that respect, it features what I enjoy so much about Vintage.

Devin Low struck me, in the short time spent around him, as a unique mixture of intellect and temperament. I imagine he’s not the sort of person that you’d want to engage in an argument, although his temperament might force his intellect into a measured stance. Developing a set as part of a team of developers seemed like a natural fit for Mr. Low.

The bulk of my Lorwyn Winston draft preparation was designed to learn the format, familiarize myself with the cards, and become comfortable with the procedure of the Winston draft. I didn’t approach the format as a scientific inquiry. I was trying to pick up as much experience as possible in a short amount of time. I knew to take piles with Vivid Lands, Twigs, or mana fixers immediately. I knew there were certain cards not to be passed.

Another one of the things I learned from just drafting a lot is that it is almost impossible to play two colors. There simply aren’t enough cards in six packs and 90-91 cards. Even if it is technically possible to play only two colors (especially if your opponent respects your colors — which won’t happen), a third color splash for even one or two cards is almost always going to be a worthwhile move. For example, if you are Green/Red with two Oblivion Rings, a Wanderer’s Twig, Elvish Harbinger, and a Vivid land, it makes sense to cut your weakest Green or Red cards for the two Rings and add a Plains into the mix.

Once we arrived in Europe, however, I decided to try something. I counted several stacks of Winston draft card pools to anecdotally gauge the number of playables in any given stack of 90-91 cards (the additional card is usually the foil addition). Although the definition of “playable” is an uncertain quantity, particularly depending upon the type of deck you are building, we can generally draw lines. Drawing those lines as best I could, I discovered that in any 90-91 card pool drawn from six packs, there were roughly 55 playables, on average. To me, this meant that the format could be “mathematically solved.”

If you drafted each playable you saw as soon as you saw it (with some minor caveats), you should end up with at least 28-33 playables. Out of that pile of playables, it is improbable that you will have an even or relatively even distribution of colors, even if you stick to the plan of taking every playable you see. Most likely, you’ll end up with two or three colors in which you have 8 or more playables, and one color in which you only have a few playables, and the other two colors you’ll have 4-7 playables. From here, you’ll start your deck design with the two strongest and deepest colors, and then you’ll need to decide on which colors to splash.

The design question, once you have identified your two deepest colors, is then primarily one of figuring out which colors to splash and then the manabase land ratios. Answering both of these questions is going to be difficult, but intuition should be your guide. Sometimes you’ll have to go deep into three colors. This makes for suboptimal manabases, but is sometimes necessary. You’ll end up with a manabase like 6 Islands, 5 Mountains, and 4 Plains, and hopefully some other mana fixing. Ideally, you’ll be able to go two dominant colors with a third splash, for two and a half colors.

There is an alternative strategy, however. If you are pickier in the draft, you will inevitably end up with fewer playables, but you may have an overall stronger card pool. By passing up playables, you’ll end up seeing more cards and have a greater card selection. This is a risky, but potentially rewarding strategy. The risk is that you’ll end up with insufficient playables to actually build a deck or an inconsistent manabase to support your array of colors. The reward is that you’ll have an overall higher power level.

I implemented the strategy I’ve outlined above of going for all playables with one caveat. Between halfway and three fourth’s of the way through the draft, you should be paying attention to the colors you’ve drafted by continuously organizing the cards you’ve drafted as you are drafting. By doing this, you should be able to eyeball which colors you have drafted the most of, and therefore deduce at least one of your opponent’s colors. For instance, if you’ve drafted 8 Black cards, 7 Green cards, 6 Red cards, 6 Blue cards, but only 3 White cards, and only 1 White playable, you should be able to guess that your opponent is probably White. If you see a playable, but only modestly playable, White card, it’s at this point that I would consider passing it at this point in search of better cards for your own colors.

Even more powerfully, you should use this information to spot piles that you think your opponent will take. For instance, if you see a playable but not very exciting White card in the first pile, you can pass it, load up the second pile without taking it, take the third pile, and probably get the loaded up second pile for your taking once your opponent snaps up the first pile. Smart drafting tricks and tactics such as that can make the difference between winning and losing.

Winston is a relative format. Your deck only needs to be as good as your opponent’s. For that reason, experienced Winston drafters have little reason to respect colors. While novices will probably pass cards on the upper side of the playable spectrum in search of cards in their colors, more experienced players probably will not. As such, the aggressive strategy makes the most sense. Also, drafting the playables ensures that you don’t mentally push yourself into certain colors too early. You’ll be building for your deck while stealing the best cards you see from your opponent’s deck.

But how much of your opponent’s deck do you see? Contrary to the initial impression you may have of the format, you actually will end up seeing only about 20% of your opponent’s deck. A face-up Winston draft suggested that you only see about one in five of the cards that your opponent gets. A lot of information will be based not upon what your opponent has taken, but about what you deduce they’ve taken from an examination of your card pool.

If both players follow the strategy I’ve outlined, the games should come down to a mixture of small edges: small imperfections in manabase become exploited, a little bit of luck in drafting some awesome commons, or bomb rares or uncommons, setting up draft tricks like the one’s I’ve mentioned, and sheer playskill.

While I think I drafted very good decks against all three of my draft opponents, I think the difference came down to the other factors. Being good at the draft isn’t enough. This is, after all, the Invitational.

Round 7: Antoine Ruel

I was pumped to play against Antoine and happy to get out of the Auction.

Our draft was fairly intense.

A crucial moment came within the first few cards. For my second pick, I flipped over Hearthcage Giant. I stared at it. Eight mana. Should I take it?

In my early testing, Elementals were questionable picks — cards like Guile early on were questioned because they screw up your manabase. If they resolve, it’s generally game over. I tend to take them, but I don’t think they are automatic.

I decided that eight was simply too expensive. Seven? Fine. Oakgnarl Warrior is definitely playable, but eight just seemed too much, especially in Red. I just wasn’t sure that Hearthcage Giant was playable or not.

But as we drafted, my deck kept getting better and better. I kept seeing so many amazing cards. I could have played any of the colors by the end of it. I couldn’t imagine that Antoine’s deck would be as good as mine.

Here’s what I drafted:

7 Island
7 Plains
3 Swamp
1 Runed Stalactite
1 Springleaf Drum
1 Cenn’s Heir
2 Changeling Hero
1 Crib Swap
1 Goldmeadow Harrier
1 Hoofprints of the Stag
1 Kithkin Greatheart
1 Lairwatch Giant
1 Oaken Brawler
1 Wizened Cenn
1 Amoeboid Changeling
2 Fallowsage
1 Mistbind Clique
1 Ringskipper
1 Streambed Aquitects
1 Tideshaper Mystic
1 Moonglove Winnower
1 Nameless Inversion
1 Nectar Faerie
1 Skeletal Changeling

The core of my deck is just amazing: I have three Champions, plenty of good stuff to play them on, and solid support cards.

Hoofprints of Stag was a big mystery to me. I imagined that dropping it on turn 2 would be ludicrous. Topdecking it in the late game would be weak. Nonetheless, it seemed strong enough to include. I’ll let the experts debate.

The tough question for me was whether to make Black or Red my tertiary color. I settled on Black almost entirely because the Changeling and Faerie meant that I could better support my Mistbind Clique. The red cards wouldn’t give me that support. In my draft, I managed to snag four changelings (I also had Changeling Titan) and all but one rare. My deck seemed so strong. I couldn’t imagine how I was going to lose.

I believe he won the die roll, but my memory isn’t exact. I have, however, a rough approximation of how the game played out…

Antoine opens with a Mountain. Unsurprising, especially since I passed him the monstrous Hearthcage Giant and I think I passed, late in the draft, a few decent playable Giants.

I have a relatively quick start. I have a turn 1 Tideshaper Mystic. He has a turn 2 Fire-Belly Changeling. On turn 3 he attacks me for two damage. On turn 4 or sooner (I don’t remember if I had Springleaf Drum down earlier or after), I play Fallowsage. I start to burn mana on his endstep with Springleaf Drum to draw cards with Fallowsage. I can’t remember the details, but I think he played something that addressed my Fallowsage combo.

On his turn 4 he plays Lowland Oaf. However, on turn 5, I have a Changeling Hero on the table.

I start attacking with Hero. I don’t remember the specifics, but he played another creature and was able to make an advantageous block that killed my Hero, but only one of his men. That was okay, however, as I had another Hero in hand. He was pretty surprised when I played it. I think he was getting the drift of the insanity of my deck.

He has one other card in play, a creature that I don’t recall, but it was an Elemental.

With the card advantage I acquired through Fallowsage, my hand is still relatively stacked. On turn 6 I play Ringskipper and Nectar Faerie. He answers with Mulldrifter, drawing two cards. On turn 7 I play Mistbind Clique, removing the Ringskipper, and play Goldmeadow Harrier. Next turn, my plan is to use the Mistbind Clique and the Nectar Faerie to start gaining life in the skies, and using the Harrier and my Changeling Hero on the ground to prevent a ground assault. I’m about to lock this game up. My life is only sixteen, however.

And then it happens. He plays Hearthcage Giant. He declares an attack with his Fire-Belly Changeling and his Lowland Oaf. I look at the board. I realize that he can sacrifice elementals to pump Giants. I focus on the fact that he just got two Elementals for free with the new Giant. I am regretting not taking it. I look at my options and decide just to block the Fire-Belly Changeling. The Lowland Oaf can survive the Changeling Hero’s block if he sacrifices both Elementals to it.

Then he sacrifices his entire board to his Lowland Oaf and I slap my forehead with my hand. It’s not only that he can sacrifice the new Elementals to pump his giants, he can sacrifice all elementals! Mulldrifter and Fire-Belly Changeling are elementals, as is the other creature he had in play. He sacrifices all three and the two new Elementals, and suddenly his Giant is 18/8 attacker. I’m only at sixteen life. I lose.

If I had just blocked with even my Nectar Faerie, next turn I could have locked him down.

I feel so stupid for throwing a won game. This is what happens when you never draft.

Although I mentally try to focus, I’m slowly going on tilt. All of this effort, all of the energy expended to make an excellent draft and then move through the motions of the game wasted on a stupid play mistake. Why didn’t I recognize that the other creatures could be sacrificed?

My mantra is “one game at a time.” So much easier to say than do.

We shuffle up for game 2. I fan my opening hand. One land. Mulligan. I try again. No lands. Mulligan.

Of course. I throw game 1 and then I’m forced to mulligan to five on the play.

I play a land and pass. Antoine’s hand looks enormous.

On turn 3 he plays Stinkdrinker Daredevil. Before taking my turn I think about whether I should Crib Swap it, and I decide on it. He could power out monster giants quickly. Better to get rid of the enabler now, while I can. He makes a big frown at that play.

It doesn’t matter. I play some cards, but it just isn’t enough. By turn 5 and 6 he’s playing Giants. My Ringskipper blocks, but I lose the Clash and pretty soon it’s all over.

I’m dead.

Antoine is a professional about it and consoles me by saying that I’ve probably played in a fiftieth of the drafts he’s done.

Round 8: Kenji Tsumura

Now we turn to the good stuff.

Kenji Tsumura.

Watching the Japanese play Magic for fun was an experience in and of itself. Watching Shota battle Kenji, laughing, smiling, and having a good time… it was fun to see them go at it. They snap cards onto the table so quickly, it’s almost a blur. They yell “attack!” as if it were a war cry. It’s almost as if Magic was designed for the Japanese. You’d have to see it to understand my meaning. Kenji also apparently loves the card Pongify. There must be something oddly alluring in the effect, if not the flavor of the card.

Ultimately, Kenji is one of the most charismatic Magic players I’ve met. He takes his game seriously, but he likes to have a good time. He’s always the most popular man in the crowd. At a dinner I observed Kenji asking Mike Turian if he was responsible for creating Tarmogoyf, only to watch Kenji smack his head incredulously when Turian replied that he was. I thought this interaction was so hilarious that we staged it so Evan could have it on tape.

My first conversation with Kenji consisted in him identifying me as “Vintage Master” with the foreboding warning that he would beat me. I told him that I looked forward to playing him.

Several days later, we take our seats and his demeanor is distinctively different. He’s focused and calm, barely verbal.

He wins the die roll and has me to begin the draft. It dawns on me that this way he hopes to see more cards. Interesting tactic.

I take the second pack. Kenji goes through all three packs and takes a card off the top. I take the first pack. Kenji takes the third pile. And it goes.

It becomes immediately clear that Kenji is being picky. All the while I’m accumulating an incredible number of playables. Barely halfway through the draft I have counted up over 20 playables. I do notice that while I’ve got deep playables in most colors, I’m definitely lightest in White.

Three quarters through the draft, I see a Plover Knights all by itself. I pass it, load up the second pile, and take the third pile. Kenji takes the Plover Knights and I take the second pack. Was it worth it? I’m not so sure.

However, at the end of the draft, which I believe included one foil, I’ve got 54 cards to his 37. I’m just shocked. I’m stupefied. How could Kenji let this happen? Can he actually build a deck on 37 cards?

I take a look and see what I’ve got. My card pool is stacked. I’ve got most of the rares too. I have Timber Protector and Mad Auntie.

I evaluate my card pool and conclude that given the sheer quantity of playables I have, and the very limited card pool Kenji has, he has to be predominately White (I only have 2-3 White playables), and probably has a number of secondary splashes.

As for my deck, this is the closest I had ever been to a two-color deck. I couldn’t believe it. I was so impressed with all of the mana fixing I got.

Here’s the deck I settle on:

8 Forests
7 Swamps
1 Vivid Crag
1 Vivid Meadow
1 Runed Stalactite
1 Neck Snap
1 Boggart Birth Rite
1 Facevaulter
1 Hunter of Eyeblights
1 Mad Auntie
1 Moonglove Winnower
1 Nectar Faerie
1 Nettlevine Blight
1 Quill-Slinger Boggart
1 Spiderwig Boggart
1 Squeaking Pie Sneak
1 Battlewand Oak
1 Bog-Strider Ash
1 Elvish Harbinger
1 Fertile Ground
1 Gilt-Leaf Ambush
1 Gilt-Leaf Seer
1 Kithkin Mourncaller
1 Lys Alana Huntmaster
1 Oakgnarl Warrior
1 Timber Protector
1 Wren’s Run Vanquisher

I know that deck isn’t bomby, but it’s solid. I have plenty of acceleration, a few key bombs, and a lot of middling power. Most importantly, I have a rock solid manabase. I have Vivid lands, Fertile Ground, and Elvish Harbinger.

This is the closest I’ve ever drafted in a Winston draft to two colors. I’m very, VERY happy with my draft deck.

So, with my aggressive strategy of going for all of the playables, and with Kenji’s picky strategy and smaller card pool, what did Kenji end up drafting?

Here’s Kenji’s decklist:

6 Island
7 Plains
4 Swamp
1 Shimmering Grotto
1 Moonglove Extract
1 Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender
1 Changeling Hero
1 Goldmeadow Harrier
1 Kinsbaile Skirmisher
1 Lairwatch Giant
1 Oaken Brawler
1 Oblivion Ring
2 Plover Knights
1 Ethereal Whiskergill
1 Faerie Trickery
1 Glimmerdust Nap
1 Stonybrook Angler
1 Surgespanner
1 Turtleshell Changeling
1 Boggart Loggers
1 Mournwhelk
2 Nameless Inversion

I look at the inclusion of Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender and wonder: with only 37 cards to work with, was Kenji forced to run that card? Or did he think that I was in Red, given the fact that I had such a deep card pool?

Regardless, Kenji managed to get all three colors online with a second turn Shimmering Grotto.

My opening hand only has two lands and plenty of goods, including Elvish Harbinger. Kenji opens with Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender. On turn 3 I find my third land and play Elvish Harbinger. I pick up my deck and look for Elves. My top card was Lys Alana Huntmaster and Goblin Auntie. I debate what to do.

My hand has Oakgnarl Warrior, Quill-Slinger Boggart, Kithkin Mourncaller, and Nettlevine Blight, among other cards. For some reason, I decided to get Moonglove Winnower instead of Lys. Kenji plays a Plover Knights. On turn 4 I play the Winnower. He starts attacking and I start attacking. My life whittles away and he eventually trades my Winnower with, I think, Oaken Brawler. I stupidly put a Vivid land on the bottom of my library. I take a few more hits of three flying damage before I stumble into additional mana. I manage to get a Blight onto his flyer. But no sooner does that happen but he plays another and moves the Blight to his lands. His second flyer finishes me off.

My inability to draw a fourth land killed my tempo game, in combination with the wrong tutor target. and tight plays by Kenji contributed to a loss.

Game 2 was a blowout.

Aaron Forsythe and crew walk over. At this point, I’m actually playing to remain in contention in this tournament. A loss here and I’ll have five losses, and be basically out of finals contention.

We shuffle up and I draw my hand… of one land. I can’t possibly keep it. I shuffle it back. I pile shuffle, side shuffle, and Kenji shuffles and cuts. I fan open my hand of six cards… with five lands.

I sigh but can’t really do anything about it at this point. I keep.

I ply all of my land and am fortunate to draw a three-drop in Spiderwig Boggart, followed by Mad Auntie. He clogs up the ground with Ethereal Whiskergill and Oaken Brawler.

Eventually, we get into a ground stall and I make a bad attack. For some reason I think that my combination of creatures will trump his. I play Nettlevine Blight on his creature and he removes it with Oblivion Ring.

I find Elvish Harbinger holding Neck Snap. Soon his Plover Knights join his Goldmeadow Harrier. He takes the skies, but not before tapping down my Harbinger to cut me off from being able to Neck Snap. A few consistent hits with the Knights, and he takes me down.

I was in disbelief. I thought my deck was amazing, and I thought I had possibly outdrafted Kenji. To take two hard losses like that was very disappointing. I’ll let you be the judge, but even if my deck was better, what does it mean if you have to play it perfectly?

Round 9: Shuhei Nakamura

At this point, I’m actually pretty demoralized. I’ve taken two losses after putting forth a tremendous effort. Rather than recount this frankly irrelevant round, a round I really don’t remember well enough to recount anyway, I’ll show you my decklist:

6 Island
5 Plains
5 Swamp
1 Secluded Glen
1 Springleaf Drum
1 Hillcomber Giant
1 Kinsbaile Skirmisher
2 Kithkin Healer
1 Oaken Brawler
1 Amoeboid Changeling
2 Deeptread Merrow
1 Ego Erasure
1 Faerie Trickery
1 Forced Fruition
1 Glen Elendra Pranksters
1 Stonybrook Angler
1 Streambed Aquitects
1 Zephyr Net
1 Hornet Harasser
1 Hunter of Eyeblights
1 Moonglove Winnower
1 Nameless Inversion
1 Shriekmaw
1 Skeletal Changeling
1 Weed Strangle

There it is: some Limited analysis for you to consider in a format that was so much fun to play.

Next week will be my Invitational wrap up, including a complete overview of Name Your Own Standard – a format that Wizards wants to make a PTQ format – and an analysis of Vintage!

Until next time,

Stephen Menendian