The Cut-Off And The Long-Range

I want to focus on what I feel is the most important aspect to drafting in a three-set format: This concept is called the cut-off. While it is far from a new concept, I believe that in this format it is far more important, as it is the aspect of the draft you can most control, and it will lead to more powerful decks.

I see the light at the end of the tunnel, and it is Scourge. It has been a long time since I have had a handle on a draft format that involved two of the standalone set and one expansion: In fact, the last time I did well in that draft environment was Tempest/Tempest/Stronghold. Onslaught/Onslaught/Legions proved to be no exception – I failed to make day 2 at Pro Tour: Yokohama and I failed to win any drafts on Magic Online. I’m not sure what it is about this type of drafting that seems to vex me. Perhaps it is that it takes me a long time to adjust to a new set and the learning curve isn’t quite as tough to overcome with a third set. Whatever the reason, this draft format is where I shine. A 6-0 at both Nationals’ and Worlds’ draft days last year have me hungry for Scourge.

Back in one of the Dilemma articles around the time Legions was released, I mentioned that I don’t really like talking about the new set until I have drafted and played with it some. I am not planning on going back on what I said. Instead, I want to focus on what I feel is the most important aspect to 1/2/3 drafting (first set, second set, third set): This concept is called the cut-off. While it is far from a new concept, I believe that in this format it is far more important, as it is the aspect of the draft you can most control.

Don’t confuse this idea with long-ranging; long-ranging is a risky maneuver. It involves forcing a color early with the hope that it will pay off in the third pack. The only time I remember this being a worthwhile effort was back in Mirage/Visions/Weatherlight draft. The two most powerful commons in the block were both in Weatherlight and both in white, so it was acceptable (and arguably the best strategy) to force white in hopes of opening one of the two commons in question. Empyrial Armor and Heavy Ballista dominated Limited games. Since Weatherlight was a small set, your odds of busting one of these cards was fairly likely. Imagine if Sparksmith and Slice and Dice were both common and in Scourge, and you can see how this strategy would pan out in this instance.

If you must long-range in the current draft format, do it for black. I think that it will still be underdrafted in the early going and offers the strongest commons in the third pack. In addition to that, many of the bomb rares in the second set are black. I don’t endorse long-ranging, but if you really like doing it, go for black… At least for now.

The cut off can be executed in two different ways: The first method involves having a pre-arranged color to cut off and making sure to gobble up every card you see. Generally, you want this color to be what you believe is the strongest in the set: Plan A.

Plan B doesn’t involve coming to the table with your plan already set up; Plan B is all about detecting which colors are easiest to cut off in your draft.

There are benefits and drawbacks to both plans. Plan A is generally employed when a color in the second set is so powerful that your deck can use pack 2 as a crutch – a perfect example of this was Torment. Black was so powerful in Torment that as long as you could convince the guy on your left to not go black, you would normally end up with a very solid deck. The benefit of this plan is if you pull it off, you get the best of a small set. The drawback is you may find yourself allowing the guy to your left to employ Plan B.

Plan B is done with a quick analysis of your first three or so packs. When a color is scarce in your first pack, you can take a card of that color, letting two potentially stronger cards go by in a different color. The benefit to this is that you are not restricting yourself to a specific color, giving yourself flexibility.

Specific strategies for Onslaught/Legions/Scourge drafts are a little more complex. Let’s begin with Plan A. Generally with Plan A, you want to cut off either the most powerful color in pack 2 (Green) or the color with the best common (Green). Clearly, Green is what you want to cut off, right?

Not necessarily. Green carries a lot of baggage with it. It was overdrafted before, making it difficult to cut off; it is extremely deep in both pack one and pack two, making it difficult to cut off; it is probably the worst color in Scourge; its bomb rares are scarce in a format that relies heavily on rares; the removal in this color is even scarcer, and you need to use early picks on removal, making it difficult to cut off.

Problem 1: Before Scourge, Green was severely overdrafted. The cause of this was that Green was the strongest and deepest color, and that it had appealing aspects to both strong and weak drafters. Strong drafters liked the ability to smooth a curve with cards like Elvish Warrior, Wirewood Elf, and Stonewood Invoker. Weak drafters liked the huge men it offered, like Needleshot Gourna and Treespring Lorian… And of course, the prospect of Timberwatch Elves made everyone drool.

Problem 2: Green is a deep color in Onslaught. To give you an idea, the 8th or 9th best card in the color is Krosan Tusker – and many love this card. This makes it hard to cut off. Frequently, you will have a pack with three or four playable-to-good green cards, sending terrible signals to our left. It is also deep in Legions, making it difficult to assess if you were successful or not, and making it more appealing to other drafter to attempt to cut off.

Problem 3: Scourge offers little in the way of good green commons. Jeff Cunningham noted that Zombie Cutthroat is the most appealing common to draft in the color green. The next-best card is simply a card that ramps you to better cards.

Problem 4: While Green does have bomb rares, they generally aren’t as swingy as the other colors. Silvos is the third-best Pit Fighter. Mythic Proportions can win you the game immediately… Or you can spend seven mana to get two-for-oned. Caller of the Claw is awesome, but not as good as the rares can get in pack 2. Ambush Commander leads the rest of green in the rare department in Scourge, and it’s still merely a 2/2.

Problem 5: You want to be pairing Green with Red or Black – and when you draft these colors, you want your early picks in Onslaught to be removal cards. You need them for your deck and you rarely see them late.

Green is not the color to cut off in the first pack. Green is fine color to be playing, but the cut off strategy is not the way to draft it. It is deep enough to share, and your critical cards are in whatever the other color is that you are drafting.

Cutting off red or black makes little sense, as each only has one good common… And they aren’t even either of the two best commons in the set.

Blue and White offer the best chance to cut off. If you are drafting soldiers, you get one of the most powerful commons in Daru Stinger. If you are in Blue, you get the second-most powerful common in Echo Tracer. But how essential is it to cut these colors off? They are underdrafted as is, and the pick orders tend to be hazy; you can get late Stinger because of tribe issues and you can get late Echo Tracers because people still value Skinthinner and Skirk Marauder over them.

So I seem to have debunked all the colors for cutting off. Where exactly am I going with this? Onslaught is all about tribes. When the set came out, people spent as much time talking about tribal decks as they did colors… And now they may be right. You want to cut off tribes. So what tribes are the best to cut off?

I highly recommend Soldiers. If you are hoarding the soldiers, then you can get the Daru Stingers in the second pack, and the Deftblade Elites and Wingbeat Warriors are rarely taken very high anyway. The soldier cards in the first pack allow you to start cutting off later, and they aren’t among the strongest cards in the set.

Clerics are another great tribe to cut off. Vile Deacons will easily come your way if the guy behind you isn’t Clerics. Also, the clerics go later in the first pack and you get a much clearer signal.

Plan B is far easier to execute. Plan B deals with the other major theme of this block. I am not talking about Cycling or Morph: I am talking about bombs. When you make 50% of the rares in the block off the hook, you alter the Plan B cutoff. This plan now revolves more around the theory Kai imparted to me in Yokohama: Draft around your bomb rares, rather than waiting to see what quality cards are alone in the pack. Just cut off whatever color the bomb you hopefully opened was.

I realize plan B isn’t complex, but it can be very effective, depending on the quality of the bomb. It is rare that you wind up with a deck that doesn’t have enough playables. With all the off-color cycling and morph creatures, you are even more assured of having the necessary twenty-two or twenty-three spells.

Most popular drafting strategies are reactive” Let the guy on your right determine your draft. But if you are tired of sitting back and hoping good things will happen to you, the cut-off is a powerful offensive drafting strategy that can result in decks wielding dominant cards out of pack 2.