The Pack Two Gambit

The concept is very fundamental and doesn’t come into effect until you are drafting a full block – good cases in point being the past two blocks, Odyssey and Onslaught. The idea is that pack two is extremely favorable to one color (or possibly one color combo), and if you force the color and cut it hard enough in pack one, you should be able to reap the rewards of the higher card quality of that color in pack two. But should you try to force a color that ultimately, you may have no control over?

(Editor’s Note: Nick Eisel is currently suspended from playing in sanctioned tournaments. He has not been compensated for this article. The details of his writing arrangement can be found here.)

The other night, something was buggin’ me. For a while, I couldn’t figure out what it was – but once I started thinking about it, it all began to make sense. I’d just finished a draft and was left with a bad taste in my mouth because I realized I’ve been playing the same format structure for two years now. The cards and mechanics may be wildly different, but the core structure is the same – and I think we’re all ready for a change whether we realize it yet or not.

The structure I’m referring is something that I’ll refer to as simply the Pack Two Gambit. The concept is very fundamental and doesn’t come into effect until you are drafting a full block – good cases in point being the past two blocks, Odyssey and Onslaught. The idea is that pack two is extremely favorable to one color (or possibly one color combo), and if you force the color and cut it hard enough in pack one, you should be able to reap the rewards of the higher card quality of that color in pack two.

While this theory is inherently flawed because of a number of variables we can’t control, most of us are still guilty of believing in the illusion that we can force the color hard enough to guarantee rewards in pack two.

The number of things that can go wrong in forcing the beneficial color is so incredibly high that the few times the strategy actually works out don’t seem worthwhile in regard to the amount of effort put in to achieve them. There are common problems, such as the player on our left opening a bomb in your desired color and switching into that color in pack two for the same reason you are forcing it, or someone hatedrafting a top common with a possible switch in mind, or even simply following the same strategy before the draft begins. All of those bring up the question of risk versus reward.

I’m almost positive that this type of structure has existed in the past, but at the moment I want to focus more closely on the two most recent blocks in an attempt to determine the factors required to make the Pack Two Gambit something worth implementing on a regular basis.

With Odyssey Block, the story was all about Black. Black was pretty solid in the first set, with plenty of top guns like Ghastly Demise, Afflict, Morbid Hunger, Patriarch’s Desire, and Dirty Wererat. If that wasn’t reason enough to get into black, then maybe we should add a pack of Torment and see what happens; as I’m sure you all remember, Torment was absolutely ridiculous. Faceless Butcher, Crippling Fatigue, Cabal Torturer, Mesmeric Fiend, and Soul Scourge were the highlights of a bomb-laden, unbalanced set. Not only was this the first time a set was imbalanced in terms of quantity of cards per color, but it was probably one of the most differentiated in terms of card quality (with the possible exceptions of Urza’s Saga and Weatherlight). Before Judgment was released, the format was completely random in terms of whether or not you would get the goods in the Torment pack, because you couldn’t really influence the guy who was feeding it to you in a direct manner. Sure, you had a few things you could pull in the second pack of Odyssey – but overall, you were under his control in terms of whether you got the Torment black or not.

Then Judgment came out, and the black cards in it were the complete opposite of Torment: Utter garbage. Now black became the color of”I need at least twenty playables before Judgment or I might as well pack it in.” To make a long story short, the theory of Pack Two Gambit was in full effect, and it was time to start the analyzing.

Many conclusions were drawn at the end of the Limited season for Odyssey Block, and those who succeeded in the format either went in with a distinct plan or accepted the writing on the wall and adapted accordingly. The fact remained that you were still at the mercy of the player downstream in terms of the black you’d get in Torment. You could force it all day in Odyssey and still be cut simply because the other guy cracked a Butcher and ran the switch. Then again, sometimes it panned out, and sometimes you could still roll with sharing black as long as enough packs were deep enough for the two of you.

As for myself, I had a very distinct plan for that format and still play it occasionally on MODO and implement my old strategy. Everyone knew that Blue was far and away the best color in the block, as it had solid commons and depth in all three sets. I went in looking to draft primarily Blue/Black, which comprised about 85% of my Odyssey/Torment/Judgment draft decks (out of a few thousand drafts). The fallback strategies were Blue/White with a possible splash of red for Arcane Teachings, or aggro Red/White with lots of janky cards like Suntail Hawk and Ember Shot.

The point of all of this is that in Odyssey block, I felt that the cards were powerful enough that it basically warranted an aggressive strategy focusing on forcing Black. Even when I didn’t get the double-Butcher deck full of broken commons and lots of removal, the power level of the Black cards in Odyssey and Torment was high enough that I’d still win most of my matches anyway. There were also very few wasted picks, since I knew what I was going after before the draft even started and went for it regardless of what I opened.

Now we fast-forward to Onslaught Block in an attempt to see if history will repeat itself. First off, I want to say that this same type of thing happened back in triple-Onslaught around the time of Pro Tour: Chicago. It’s a little different in that all three packs are from the same set, but the Blue/Red archetype was so powerful that it was worth forcing in hopes that some of the powerful commons were shipped your way in pack two.

This is an even more specific case, because cards like Lavamancer’s Skill were not easy to switch colors for, and therefore more easily shipped than a powerhouse like Faceless Butcher. Anyway, enough has been said about that format and the dominance of that archetype in the past, and what I want to talk about today is more relevant.

There are actually two colors in question this time – and both for very different reasons. The first, and most relevant to the above Odyssey block example, is Green. The green in Onslaught is a little lower on the power scale in terms of the set overall than the black was in Odyssey – however, there are still plenty of potent commons, with lots of fatties filling in the deep holes, and the top picks (Wirewood Savage and Snarling Undorak) proving to be very effective in the beast-laden environment.

Legions is where things get interesting, as we have everyone’s favorite broken elf, Timberwatch, and plenty of good commons like Krosan Vorine, Needleshot Gourna, Patron of the Wild, Berserk Murlodont, Stonewood Invoker, and the now-incredible Nantuko Vigilante (which is excellent because of the huge amount of enchantments in Scourge… But that’s another article). Timberwatch alone is reason enough to want to force green, as he is absolutely nuts, and probably even better than Sparksmith considering that there are now so many ways to deal with the goblin, and Timby is still very good without another elf in play.

In Scourge, the Green is only mediocre, with green’s landcycler most likely being the top common (not counting Zombie Cutthroat). So we are left with basically the same equation as in Odyssey, but a different set of cards, and slightly different balances between the sets. The only differences are that Judgment Black was completely awful while Scourge’s Green isn’t completely terrible, and Torment Black was insane but Legions Green is simply overpowering.

So the question becomes: Does the theory from Odyssey transfer over in terms of whether or not you should force the color?

If you asked me before I had a good number of drafts in, I would have to say yes – simply because of the power of Timberwatch Elf and Krosan Vorine, and the increased chance of getting them. Now that I have done a ton of drafts, I have to say that green is definitely not the best place you can be anymore, like it was before Scourge was released, and that forcing it is usually a mistake. Even in a two-on-two where I had the nuts deck with two Timberwatch and two Canopy Crawler with ample beasts to support them, along with Seedborn Muse for infinite Elfage, I still only managed to 2-1, losing in the tiebreaker. The problem with forcing green is that the cards are simply not as high quality overall as the black was back in Odyssey.

The real color to force in this block seems to be white, although that may change since it seems like people are catching on. I’m definitely not a huge supporter of this strategy – but it makes sense, seeing as I continually get mopped up by white-based decks when I feel my deck is simply better.

White is the nut low in Onslaught, with only Pacifism to completely save itself from a set of commons otherwise filled with a bunch of janky creatures. In Legions, Daru Stinger goes a huge way towards making the color worth drafting, and Dragon Scales all but seals it in Scourge. The basic theory regarding white is that it is good in the second and third sets, and if you can find a seat where you can get some goods both ways, you are probably on your way.

Even though I don’t like the color, I think if you are getting good signals to go into it, then it is probably a good idea to draft white.

Another fact we have to keep in mind regarding all of these ideas is that sometimes there will simply be no copies of the important commons available, and there’s just nothing you can do about it. That’s what makes draft great, though; no game plan is without its flaws, and you’ve got to always stay on your toes.

As for my recommendations as to what to draft in this block, since I have been getting a number of emails about it, all I can say is that I am pretty reactive – although I tend to draft a lot of Black, Red, and Green. I also find myself splashing more often than I probably should just because it’s so easy in an environment flooded with Morph and Cycling. My current favorite in terms of archetypes, though, would have to be Mono-Black Zombies. This archetype has gained in a great way with the release of Scourge and cards that are often suboptimal in other archetypes are ridiculous here (like Shepherd of Rot, Gempalm Polluter, etc). That’s yet another article though, and I feel I’ve gone on too long here already.

Basically, temptation rides high in the past two blocks, and the decision is yours to determine whether the rewards will outweigh the risks.

Nick Eisel

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Soooooo and ThatsGameBoys on MODO