Statistics, Drafting, and Pride

When drafting with a group of experienced Magic veterans, it pays to play for something more than mere bragging rights. This entertaining article tackles the subject of playing for something more… By collating the statistics behind each draft, and by introducing an interesting system of “pride-bucks,” it is possible to support any bragging with cold, hard facts. Paul also shares some drafting wisdom, with comments on what it’s like to be fed by one Jon Finkel…

About a month ago I sent in an article for the benefit of both you, the reader; and me, the author. My benefit was to be the obvious financial gain, while yours would likely fall somewhere within the range of sweet, I just killed 30 minutes at work to oh my goodness, my entire life has been a sham. Sure sure, ‘twere there statistics on this sort of thing I might expect that the former would garner a larger portion of percentage points. Again to my benefit, no stats are kept. Without hard numbers, I’m left with the option of concluding that it was an even split between the two choices. Half of you who read my latest article were left with mild amusement and perhaps learned a small something. The other half had life-altering paradigm shifts.

You’ve seen nothing from me in two months for a number of reasons (the number is two).

1: There were some technical difficulties that caused the two reports I wrote to no longer be relevant by the time said difficulties were resolved.
2: I was wrapped up in the thrill of summer.

So while you have missed out on my Coldsnap prerelease article and my Pro Tour: Charleston article alike, you shan’t be missing out on those to follow. If you’re truly a hardcore PJ fan (again, no stats. I must assume an even split between “PJ fans” and “hardcore PJ fans”), message me on MTGO (Roc) and I’ll see what I can do.

Back to the topic at hand: statistics. Since I have no concrete numbers, I’m free to make whatever assumptions I want to with regards to the effect of my previous article. While that hardly has a bearing on much of anything, numbers (and the assumptions people make based on them) can have a lasting effect on how we play the game. Pat Chapin recently took a numeric look at how percentages are changed based on deck construction. This article, when coupled with some number-hungry drafters, really got me looking at numbers. Before I delve into this further, let me first make an introduction to how we draft.

The circle of friends in which I draft regularly is highly competitive. We tend to get in 3-12 drafts per week, usually hovering around 5-8. We meet at Jonny Magic’s place at predetermined times. If you’re late, you risk being perm’d. There’s a pretty high level of talent, ranging from above-average PTQ players, to the sometimes-pro (that’s my category, I think), to the obvious best player ever. Drafting has been scientifically proven to be more exciting if the stakes were slightly above those of rares-plus-pride. Now, we would never sink to the level of betting United States Dollars on the outcome of Magical card games. So, we play for pride-bucks*. The rules are as such:

  • Be on time.
  • Teams are random, after the draft. You could be feeding your teammate.
  • Play for any amount of pride-bucks. Standard is 100. If you value your pride and can’t risk it all, you can play for 20. That’s called being the under. If you’re the under, whoever is the over will cover the remaining balance of pride-bucks should your team lose. Of course, should your team win, the over will get the balance as well.
  • No cheating.

There are other rules, mostly pertaining to the calling of table, but these are probably the most important. These drafts have been going on for quite a while before I became involved (living in Maryland for over a year makes the weekday NYC draft a little difficult). I can’t claim knowledge of anything prior to my arrival. Towards the end of July, the competitive nature of everyone led to claims similar to (but not limited to):

“I only lose when you’re on my team, but also always win against you.”
“I’m up twice as many pride-bucks as you.”
“I always win my matches, but my team never wins.”

These statements were, as a whole, unsupportable. The problem was that they were also irrefutable. I could make an outrageous claim like “Finkel loses 75% of his matches against Wang**,” which would garner amusement, sure, but was entirely something I made up. Finkel would have no recourse, as he has no numbers to support his argument that “Wang is easy.” As a group we decided that while we enjoyed mocking our friends with numbers that were based on a true story, we’d prefer the actual story. The need for DraftStats was realized.

There was some discussion about what should and shouldn’t be included, how to present the data, and really how best to visually represent that someone (we’ll just call him Tim McKenna) had lost the most pride-bucks. In the end, the kind folks at Microsoft hooked us up with MS Access to house the data, and Excel for our viewing pleasure. We also have a dry-erase board on order, for added shame value (when you lose, it is winner’s choice who adds your negative pride-bucks to the board).

The result is that we now have a functioning database depicting one’s performance in a number of key performance indicators. The basics are match win percentage, draft win percentage, and earnings. My favorite is DvM% (draft versus match win percentage), which shows the relationship between your performance and your team’s. Julian Levin has a match win percentage of 22%, but his teams win fully half of the time. How lucky. Conversely, Alex Balandin wins 75% of the time but has yet to actually win a draft. Those two haven’t teamed together yet.

While we were at it, we threw in some other fun things, like occupation. I’m at a lofty 85.71% (6-1) versus students, but only 33.33% (2-4) against lawyers. Finance people are at 62.5% against stock traders. Students are at 75% against computer programmers. Crazy fun stuff. It is all still with a relatively small sample size of 17 drafts and 142 matches, so the numbers may seem skewed a little bit (I don’t anticipate Wang’s 3-1 win-loss ratio to stand the test of time against Jon) but as long as we have something, it is quite entertaining.

While all of this is fun and exciting, and has certainly led to a number of people shouting “in the database” at 2am, it doesn’t really describe my point. My point is, simply, I love drafting.

Numbers, statistics, and their ilk have an incredible power. People hear a statistic and take it to heart under the belief that it is a hard lock. If I’m 85.71% against students, then out of the next seven matches against them I’m only going to lose once. No doubt about it, it’s a stone cold fact. Can’t be changed. That’s the attitude that is dangerous. People need to be careful about which stats that read, and more importantly how the interpret the results. If you flip a coin, there’s a 50% chance of it landing on heads, and the same chance of tails. This does not mean that if you flip it ten times you end up with five and five. Statistics do not predict the future. They are a gauge (and yes, at times a very accurate and powerful gauge) of what is likely to happen.

Any time you’re playing the odds, you’re not guaranteed. If you’re at 85.71% versus someone, you have a high likelihood of winning the next match assuming nothing has changed (of course, here, everything has changed, as it would be a different draft. Who knows, maybe I don’t have a Skeletal Vampire this time…. And oh no, maybe they do). When the following match comes along, the same logic applies, disjointed from the previous results. My chances of winning match number two do not change based on what happened in match one. In other words, just because Wang actually does have a 75% match win percentage against Jon, doesn’t mean I’m going to place my valuable pride-bucks on Wang.

Rock wins 1/3 of the time, as do paper and scissors. So if I always put down rock, I win 1/3 of the time. 1/3 of the time I lose, and 1/3 of the time my Roshambo opponent and I feel a little dumb both holding out fists, neither being the victor.

Did you know? Roshambo actually comes from the Old French word, R’eau Shambeaux, meaning "hand contest," and is said to have been invented by Frankish King Clovis I, who needed a method of deciding which regions he would conquer first. Roshambo underwent many changes during those turbulent times, finally becoming the game as we know by the reign of Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, who used it extensively and inadvertently saw to its proliferation across most of western Europe

We all know though, if I always lay down rock, at some point, someone will wise up and I’ll be in for quite a losing streak. So while statistically speaking I should have a 33% win percentage, in all likelihood my results will be close to 0% once people figure it out.

All of this is just to illustrate that while statistics are awesome and powerful, they are not all-powerful. They can give you blueprints for what to expect, but they cannot tell you for sure what will happen.

If you’re still reading this, you’re probably about at the point of frustration where you’re bordering on clicking Back or (gasp) closing your browser all together, since I haven’t really mentioned anything that will help you win your Magical battles. I can’t say for sure this is expected to help you win, but probably more to help temper your losses with understanding. Yes, you had twenty mana sources in your Limited deck. Yes, you only had two in play on turn 8. Yes, that sucks. Yes, that is unlikely. Yes, that is possible. Sorry.

If this article were to end right here, there’s a statistically high chance I’d get an email from Craig saying something along the lines of “sure, that’s cool and such, but really- please just talk about Magic.” I can’t say for sure it would happen, but it is likely. So, to appease the masses (Craig=the masses [Is that a “fat guy” joke? – Craig, the masses.]) I’ll just go through one of my most recent drafts. I’ll even do it old school, without the benefit of DraftCap.

The draft was an 8-man, with Jonny feeding me. This is highly relevant. Jon has a predisposed and public fondness for Blue (see: Ophidian). I have a similar liking for Smurfy-spells. I made a conscious decision to avoid said spells, under the belief that I wouldn’t see enough of them. The first couple of packs were very scattered, with the only visible trend being that people were passing Selesnya. Since Selesnya is horrible, I avoided it and ended up with mostly Green cards, and a smattering of others but no Blue. Pack 2 I shipped a ton of Izzet cards and took mostly Gruul or just solid Green cards. Pack 3 rounded me out with some Rakdos cards. I had decent fixers with a Farseek, Utopia Sprawl, and Starfletcher, in addition to some Signets and two Karoos. I had a lot of fat creatures, particularly at the five-hole. Two guys at 5/6, a 6/4, and a 5/4 Rotwurm. Unfortunately, I only had a Gaze of the Gorgon and a Wrecking Ball as my “tricks,” so I had to focus on blunt force trauma to win.

It is worth noting that Jon was, in fact, in Blue. There was no Simic in pack 3, with the exception of one pack that had about five Simic cards.

Round 1 I played against Dan OMS, who in his own words had “a couple of Ravnica commons I’ve never seen in play before” in his deck. One of his ogres had a belly made out of poison, and he was card # 20 or so. Dan’s deck was sub-optimal. I two-for-one’d him on consecutive turns with my two tricks when he double blocked, and that was game 1. I kept a five-land, Sprawl hand in game 2 on a mulligan; that didn’t go too well. Game 3 saw some more of the first game, where my creatures were just a class or two better than his.

In round 2 I was paired against Hashim “the Dream” Bello. Hashim is fresh off of a hiatus from Magic, and was still reading cards during games. He still had the touch though, and absolutely demolished me after going down a game. He won 1 game when I kept a non-aggressive hand, and the other on an awesome play. He swung in with three guys to my Starfletcher. I blocked his 2/1. He played Carom and sent a damage to my Rotwurm to keep his guy alive. After combat, he Euthanized my Rotwurm. He was my only offence. In retrospect, I probably should not have blocked.

Has anyone noticed that the new players don’t know the history of the game? Case in point: the other day I made some reference to Dave Price. Julian asked the innocent question of “who’s Dave Price?” I almost cried. So this week, when we were drafting, Dave showed up at Jon’s. I pointed to him and told Julian, “that’s Dave Price,” to which he responded, “is that the guy that made out with Mike Flores?”

Until next time,


*Pride-bucks, if you can’t figure it out, is basically a manifestation of the need to play for something. Again, since playing for actual dollars is something every Magician thinks is preposterous, we instituted this faux monetary system. Really it’s just a way to point out how much better or worse people are doing.

**For those of you who don’t know, Matt Wang is the behind the scenes guy of Top8magic.com, home of the top8magic podcast, Michael J Flores’ Deckade and, wait for it, other books to come! Also, for some reason, he refers to himself in the third person a lot, usually with something like smash, boom, or some other Adam Westian onomatopoetic word (e.g. Wang Smash).