The Beautiful Struggle: When Bad Drafts Attack!

I’ve had bad drafts. Bad drafts are close personal friends of mine. Nick Eisel, that was no bad draft. It might have been close to a bad draft, and it would probably have been a train wreck if someone less experienced were running the show. But Eisel turned his draft around and ended up with a deck that he could turn into some tickets. How did he do it, and how can you do it too? Let’s take a look at what happens … When Bad Drafts Attack!

Since forum response suggests that people didn’t like my First Pick, First Pack Game so much, I figured that for my first paid article, I owed y’all another Limited effort.

Fortunately, I had an idea I was kicking around because of something I read a few weeks back; namely, this [author name="Nick Eisel"]Nick Eisel[/author] article. Sure, it’s typically strong work from the Limited expert, full of insight and self-criticism as his draft goes spiraling out of control. There’s only one problem: after a draft in which he says virtually everything went wrong for him, and his deck had by his own admission “gone wrong,” did you read the article to the end to see what happened?

“No, but he probably lost to Newbie Nooberson in round one, right? Actually, Eisel is good enough to make it one round even with a completely terrible deck, so he must have lost to some Timmy, Power Gamer and his multiple Dragon Spirits…”

Shut up! You’re sooooo wrong.

Eisel won the draft! And he didn’t split in the finals, either; he 3-0’ed that sucker!

Let me tell you something. I don’t care how much of a pile you claim your deck is; if you are able to win the draft anyway, then the deck was at least mediocre. A draft gone wrong doesn’t win you packs – a draft gone wrong leads to you losing to someone who’s not old enough to drive, and yet the first two digits of his rating are no higher than his age.

A draft gone wrong doesn’t see you turning horrible cards into two-for-ones out of sheer playskill (which is what Eisel did in his draft, I’m sure), a draft gone wrong sees you scooping to double Frostwielder because all of your non-two-toughness creatures are already dead.

I’ve had bad drafts. Bad drafts are close personal friends of mine. Nick, that was no bad draft.

It might have been close to a bad draft, and it would probably have been a train wreck if someone less experienced were running the show. But Eisel turned his draft around and ended up with a deck that he could turn into some tickets. How did he do it, and how can you do it too? Let’s take a look at what happens … When Bad Drafts Attack!

(I miss those goofy FOX specials; they killed me. Did anybody who worked on one of those shows actually think that their career was going in the right direction? I can’t believe the Emmys didn’t call us back about “World’s Most Amazing Llama Rampages”!)

Handling Bad Packs

Bad drafts most often start with bad packs, especially if those bad packs come early on. This should be fairly intuitive: when you first-pick a Teller of Tales or Hideous Laughter, you have a great card that you know will make 100% of decks you end up with, and thus you face easier decisions about what to put around that card.

But, when you start out with terrible cards in your pile, your draft is still very much up in the air. Cards such as Mystic Restraints, Kami of Lunacy, and Kitsune Diviner – all of which I have been forced to first-pick out of terrible packs – may be playable in most decks, but they do not necessarily scream out, “draft this color!”

In order to avoid bad drafts you have to recognize that, when you get a terrible pack, there’s no need to get too attached to the cards you get out of it. For example, in a sanctioned 8-man the other day I opened an absolutely wretched first pack in which the only remotely first-pickable card was Mystic Restraints. I second-picked Sakura-Tribe Elder, shipping Kitsune Blademaster and some junk.

I then saw Devouring Greed third. Although the Black/Green color combination has a bad reputation in Champions draft, it’s workable if you can get a ton of spirits and a Greed or two. Also, the fact that a Greed made it to me third suggests that more good Black cards are coming from the right (or that the guys on my right don’t know which Black cards are good and which are bad; in this particular case that was a possibility).

I probably should have picked the Greed and simply kicked the Restraints to the curb. I’ll want to play with that Tribe Elder, but other than that, I have made hardly any commitments at all, and Greed is a card that I wouldn’t mind committing to. Instead, seduced by “staying in my colors” (more on this particular sin later), I picked a mediocre Blue card – Soratami Seer, if I remember right – and my deck ended up a disaster, losing in the second round.

When you see bad packs in the later stages of the draft, things get a little more complicated. You may be seeing bad packs simply because they were terrible to start with, or you may be seeing bad packs because someone next to you is in your colors and is cutting you off. And, it will be really hard to tell the difference: in Eisel’s article he speculates as to why his packs 2 and 3 were just as bad as his pack 1, but he really can’t know the actual cause of the packs’ crappiness.

It’s at this point where you face the really tough decisions: switch colors or no? Abandon those four or five cards I picked in pack one, or stay in my colors? Pick up a splash? I can’t give any hard and fast rules for what to do here. It depends upon your pile and the level of players you’re drafting with. All I can say is, it’s at this point that you’ll have to pay careful attention to the details of your deck, such as your curve. Speaking of which…

Caution: Dangerous Curves Ahead

(I would be amiss if I titled a section like that, and I didn’t give our esteemed editor a chance to {link to boobies as much as you want} have some fun. Go for it, Ted!) [No time, my man. My flight to Japan calls. – Knut]

One thing that often happens in bad drafts is that you end up with really terrible creature curves. This kind of thing happens so quietly that you sometimes don’t even realize it until it’s too late.

For example, in a recent 3-on-3 team draft, I had a young teammate who was a little inexperienced. He had drafted enough to know that Sire of the Storm and Moss Kami are great guys to have in a Blue/Green “spiritcraft” deck, and he was further helped by the fact that his guy on his left passed Sakura-Tribe Elder and Orochi Sustainer in pack 2.

So my teammate’s deck was awesome, right? Not exactly. He was so busy picking up three Sire and two Mossy that the middle part of his curve was, shall we say, neglected. He had a couple of mana-accleration guys and some Zuberas in the two-slot, and five guys in the six-slot, but his three-, four-, and five-slot got hosed so completely that his two most aggressive men in those places were Venerable Kumo and Matsu-Tribe Decoy. He eventually lost to a W/U deck loaded with tappers and Meloku the Clouded Mirror.

You can say that’s just tough luck – lots of great draft decks lose to Meloku also, because she’s so damn broken. But, if my teammate had drafted with an eye toward the middle of his curve, maybe picking up an Order of the Sacred Bell here or a Kami of the Hunt there, that would have improved his chances to get some damage in on the defensive Meloku deck. Then, maybe when Meloku hits the table, she has to worry about blocking or racing instead of just sitting on her butt and recruiting Spirit tokens. That is what a consistent curve gets you: pressure early in the game, which can force the opponent into difficult decisions late in the game.

So, while a pile full of awesome fatties would be nice to have, and maybe with mana acceleration one could get away with lots of six-drops, it will sometimes be good for your deck to pass a great creature in favor of a less-good guy who helps your curve. In my teammate’s case, he probably could have made do with two Sires of the Storm and one Moss Kami, shipping the last copy of each in favor of cheaper guys, or arcane spells, or anything that would have allowed him to get in there for some damage on turns 4 and 5.

One corollary here is that mana acceleration is awesome. I’m sure you already knew that, but you may not have thought about why it’s true: because it allows your curve to skip upward without screwing up your deck. If you are loaded up on Tribe Elders and other mana snakes, then it’s not so bad to be short at the three-slot, since many games will see you playing a mana guy on turn 2 and a four-drop on turn 3. Or, to use the example of my teammate, although he had some mana snakes to help his curve, we would have liked it if he had also seen some Kodama’s Reaches (he didn’t), to clear up his bottleneck at the six-slot.

A second corollary is that your spells should have some sort of curve also. If all of your spot removal and combat tricks are expensive, then opponents may be able to amass more pressure on the board than you will be able to deal with once you get the right amount of mana.

Back when Mirrodin/Darksteel and MD5 were the drafts of choice, I loved to try and force Black. But, I learned the hard way that I shouldn’t end up with too many Essence Drain in my pile. If Drain was all I could do to remove creatures, then by the time I got to five mana, my opponents could use toughness-enhancing equipment to put their guys out of burn range – or, perhaps, they would have drawn Condescend.

So keeping an eye on your curves is very key for avoiding bad drafts. But sometimes even that is not enough…

Keeping Your Deck Consistent

A guy came up to me recently at the local store and complained at length about how he had lost in the first round with the deck he drafted. He fanned open a pile of Kitsune Blademasters, Ronin Houndmasters, a Yamabushi’s Flame, and other assorted aggressive White and Red guys in what seemed to be a terrific curve. “And then, if the fast approach doesn’t work,” he said, “I have these” – displaying Myojin of the Cleansing Fire and Kusari-Gama.

I asked this person what he lost to, and he remarked about how his opponent simply raced him with Sire of the Storm and Uyo, Silent Prophet, and that he never drew the Myojin. Now, that didn’t make much sense to me; even if the opponent doesn’t miss a land drop, a very aggressive White/Red deck should have him back on his heels by the time he can cast his six-drops. But, that’s only contingent upon the drafter knowing what a very aggressive White/Red deck should look like.

If, as Mike Clair suggests, you are drafting a deck full of spiritcraft, Kami of Fire’s Roar, 16 lands, and no creature with casting cost greater than four, then it will be hard for those six-drop 4/4s to beat you. But if you have occupied slots with Myojin and Kusari-Gama, then your deck could be at odds with itself; you’ll find yourself scooping with your hand containing an uncastable Myojin or filled with some of the 18 lands you needed to reliably play said Myojin.

But what if he opened the Myojin in pack 1? Are you saying he shouldn’t take it? That’s stupid! The Myojin is a bomb!

Hey, no argument here. Myojin of Cleansing Fire is a ridiculous bomb, and I would first-pick it every time I opened it in pack 1. But – and this is the central argument I’m trying to make here – you have to build the right deck around him. Drafting aggressive cards around an eight-drop is not going to give you a very consistent deck. But, with a Myojin in your pile, scooping up those Kodama’s Reaches and Sakura-Tribe Elders as first-picks suddenly looks like a very good idea.

And, what’s more, if you have very aggressive Red/White cards after packs 1 and 2, and you open the Myojin and a Kami of Fire’s Roar in pack three, you absolutely should pass the Myojin. I don’t want to belabor this point because Clair touched on it, but the deck you’re trying to draft doesn’t even want games to last eight turns, let alone last long enough for you to draw eight lands. Picking the Myojin would be a move that could easily turn your draft in an ugly direction.

One reason why this happens so often is because people don’t think about their decks, so much as they think about their colors. They scoop up a Myojin in pack 1, and they think “White/Red is a good color combo to work with,” and then they take the best white and red cards that they see, assuming that will give them a good deck. Or conversely, they avoid taking cards that would make their deck more consistent because they think it would lead to a bad color combination (such as taking Green mana acceleration alongside Mr. Cleansing Fire; although White/Green has a bad reputation in Champions draft, I think Myojin.dec would be an exception).

In the same awful Green/Blue draft I referred to earlier, I managed to scoop up some splice cards, including a Glacial Ray that I was planning to splash, and a couple Reach Through Mists. In pack three I opened Honden of Seeing Winds and Hana Kami. After some deliberation, I took the Honden because I thought it was the most powerful card in my colors, and because I had seen earlier signals suggesting that the Kami would circle the table.

This was a clear mistake, born of me becoming a slave to my colors rather than to deck consistency. I cannot hope for Hana Kami to table; I must first-pick it. My deck, which was not great, needed the Kami for added splice consistency, and I regretted not taking it even in the games that I won. When you’re having a bad draft, or when you can see some signs that the draft might be turning against you, always take the card that makes your deck more consistent, even if this leads to you passing a clear bomb in some other color.

Of course, it’s easy for me to say this after the fact. It’s another thing entirely to actually force your hands to pass Kumano, Master Yamabushi in favor of Consuming Vortex (a decision I saw a U/G drafter forced to make the other day). And yet, if you are to avoid bad drafts, these are the decisions you must make. Zvi Moshowitz was seen taking Leonin Bola over Fireball at US Nationals 2004, and people said in the features for the website that he was crazy. But, if you check the “results” portion of the Nationals website, you’ll also see that he scored 6-1 in the draft portion of that event.

In Conclusion

As you might have noted from random jokes and asides in my earlier articles, I’m a fairly liberal guy, politically. One mistake that I think a lot of my liberal friends make is thinking that George W. Bush is just a total idiot. Although I like to make a lot of jokes to that effect, I think that in order to be elected to anything, you have to be at least a little smarter than your average guy on the street.

Now, I’m not trying to start a political flame war in the forums here, I have a Magic-related point: when you’re drafting, your opponents are like George W. Bush. With the proliferation of strategy sites and the possibility of easy draft practice via Magic Online, there are a lot of people out there with slightly more knowledge than John Q. Never-Drafted-Before. Lucky enough to win a game or two, smart enough to win a match or two.

These guys may not be spectacular, they may occasionally do the Magic equivalent of asking, “Is our children learning?” but they also can assemble enough good cards to beat you if you aren’t careful. In order to win a draft these days, you have to beat these people, and you “misunderestimate” them at your own peril. Much like the Democrats with Bush, you can only overcome such opponents by displaying a level of shrewdness and intuition that they cannot.

Thus, one of the most important times that you’ll need these qualities is when you face a potentially bad draft. Your opponents may be able to draft removal spells and strong utility creatures, but if they cannot recognize when their draft is going into the crapper and adjust accordingly, and you can, you’ll crush them ten times out of ten.

One reason why many pros prefer Limited (especially draft) to Constructed is because it is constantly skill-testing. The battle for being more shrewd and intuitive is never-ending, no matter how good you get. And there is no “on” switch that will mean you have learned your lesson; although I have thought enough about this subject to write an article, as you can see from my own mistakes detailed above, “Mark = shrewd” is not a true statement. But, we can always be improving. I hope this article helps you with that.

Until next time, I hope everyone had a happy and safe new year.

The article written while listening to the Kinks’ “Father Christmas.”

mm underscore young at yahoo dot com