The Third Level: How To Draft Like A Poker Player

The more you try to outwit your opponents and get in their heads, the more you can forget the obvious. I see players all the time trying to be like Mike McD in”Rounders,” setting their little traps, doing more acting than Robert De Niro, not realizing how obvious it is that they’re full of BS. You don’t want to be so tricky that you trick yourself. Oftentimes, the easiest play is the best play.

I was reading the Sideboard coverage of Pro Tour: Yokohama the other day, because I’ve been playing a lot of Constructed lately and my draft game could use some work. And there’s no better laboratory to do your studies than the games of people who do this for a living.

As Jon Finkel continued to surprise people with his raw talent and feel for the game, even though he had openly disdained the process of preparation in the past, he obviously became the story of the tournament. So it was only natural that when Brian David-Marshall wrote the Sideboard article on the final draft table, he was standing behind Jonny Magic’s seat. Finkel faced an interesting dilemma when he opened the first pack: Arcanis the Omnipotent and Shock were the best two cards available.

If you were facing that choice down at the local store, which would you take? The cheap, efficient removal, or the late-game bomb? The one that gives you the most utility, or the one that can just straight-up win the game? In many ways it’s an even more difficult question than”Sparksmith vs. Slice and Dice,” because in that case, either way you get a pretty good card that you can build a draft deck around. In the case of”Arcanis vs. Shock,” if you make the wrong pick, your draft could easily turn into a train wreck.

There are reasons for taking either card, but you have to take into account lots of different variables when considering them. And as I was thinking about this, I was also thinking about another card game I play all the time: poker.

The Levels of Poker Thinking

I don’t want to go too much into the rules of all the poker variants, but they’re one thing that most people know about any poker game: There are always face-down cards, and nobody but the guy holding them knows what they are. You don’t know for sure if a poker player has a good hand or if he’s completely bluffing until he turns the cards over at the end. You can deduce, or read your opponent’s”tells,” or just flat-out guess at what his hand is, but you never actually know until you throw in your chips.

(Interlude: Yes, I know that lots of Magic players also play poker, so I may not be saying anything new to many readers. I say lots of stuff in this article that good poker players and good Magic players may already know. I’m going to explain it anyway, for the benefit of those who don’t play poker or Magic very well. If I’m boring you, go read Geordie Tait. Interlude over.)

So poker is what probability and game theorists call”a game of incomplete information.” When you’re playing, you have to make assumptions based upon things that you don’t know. To get by without losing all your chips, you have to think deeply, at different levels. They are:

1) What do I have? Someone thinking at this level says,”Hey, I have a pair of Aces! Time to bet!” and doesn’t do anything else. Obviously, this is the beginner level. I love playing against people who only think at this level.

2) What does he have? Now you take your opponent into account. You ask yourself,”Do I think he has something that beats a pair of Aces?” and make your decisions based upon that.

3) What does he think I have? An advanced level, where you start to assume that your opponent is thinking at level 2 and then outwit him. For example, you might say to yourself,”I want to convince my opponent that I do not have Aces, so that he’ll bet, I’ll raise, and he’ll lose twice as many chips. How do I do that?”

4) Screw this level stuff. The more you try to outwit your opponents and get in their heads, the more you can forget the obvious. I see players all the time trying to be like Mike McD in”Rounders,” setting their little traps, doing more acting than Robert De Niro, not realizing how obvious it is that they’re full of BS. You don’t want to be so tricky that you trick yourself. Oftentimes, the easiest play is the best play.

What I realized, reading BDM’s coverage and asking myself the same”Arcanis or Shock?” question, was that drafting requires you to think in exactly the same way.

The Four Levels of Drafting

Magic is also a game of incomplete information. You never know what’s in your opponent’s deck until you see the decklist, you never know what’s in his hand until he plays the cards (or you Duress him); you never know what’s in his sideboard until he unveils the secret tech.

Booster drafting is the same way: You don’t know what the guy next to you picked. You can deduce, or read his reactions, or just plain guess… But you never actually know unless he shows you his pile. (Yes, I know that these comments do not apply to Rochester draft.) So to solve problems like the one Jonny Magic faced, you have to think at several different levels, and they’re no different that those a poker player faces:

1) What do I have? In this case, you’re just straight-out considering the playability of the cards you have chosen or might choose. Usually, these will be easy calls. Solar Blast is just better than Spy Network. Visara the Dreadful is just better than Reminisce. This is what causes Break Open or Dripping Dead to be the last cards picked out of packs: whether you’re drafting with ten-year-olds or pros, almost everyone can make a level 1 judgment that those cards are just terrible.

In poker it’s easy to think at this level, because the rankings of the hands are set in stone: Aces always beat sevens, three-of-a-kind is always better than a pair, etc. In Magic, even making the right decision at this level can be hard, because power levels are difficult to assess (why else would there be so many”Ranking Scourge” articles out there?). Even color combinations can be hard to judge; some people swore by U/W in Onslaught-Onslaught-Legions draft, and others (like me) wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. It’s not an exact science.

The problem at this level is that it doesn’t really solve the Arcanis/Shock dilemma. Both are very powerful in their own way, in different situations. One wins tempo, the other wins games. As the first pick, I don’t know that I would always want one over the other. So you move to the second level.

2) What does he have? Just like in poker’s level 2, here is where you start to read the signals the opponent is sending about his deck. Sometimes those signals will be body language, or in casual drafts they’ll even say something to you. But for serious drafts, you pretty much have to read the cards.

This was the basis of a terrific Limited Information article by Joe Crosby in the Sideboard a few weeks back. Crosby posed the question: for your second pick, you have just received an Onslaught pack with an uncommon missing. It has a Sparksmith and a Cabal Archon in it. What do you take?

Most amateurs would just take Sparky without thinking. The pros agreed; the majority of those interviewed took him also. He’s just too good. The difference is, the pros are asking the question,”What did that guy take if he was willing to pass me a Sparksmith?” Some took this signal to mean that the first pick from the pack had to be Slice and Dice, meaning this guy would be cutting them off from red for the duration of the draft. That in turn makes a good argument for taking the best non-red card available, the Archon. But regardless of what you take, you at least know to watch out for the guy next to you, because he either has Slice and Dice or he is sending some bizarre signals.

“But, with the Arcanis/Shock thing, Finkel was making his first pick,” you might say.”He had no signals to read.” However, Finkel told BDM that he knew his opponent on the right liked to draft blue. Past behavior can be a signal, too – and if you want to draft with the pros, you have to keep it in mind. However, in cases where there are no signals to read, you have to move to the third level…

3) What does he think I have? In the poker case, when you think at this level you try to practice the art of misdirection. You want to send the opponent a misleading signal, so that he thinks you are weak if your hand is strong, or that you are strong if your hand is weak. This will get him to throw his chips in when he is beaten, or to fold when you are bluffing him.

Magic is funny in that in drafting, you want to do almost the exact opposite. You want to send to the opponent the most precise signal possible about what you are taking, and what he should take, so that you do not find yourselves fighting each other for good cards in the same colors. Nothing in a draft is worse than being in exactly the same colors as your next-door neighbor; it’s a no-win situation in the making.

So, you should always think a step ahead. Draft with an eye as to how your next-door neighbors will think. Some people can do this in their heads, some can’t. What I like to do is this: I separate the card I am thinking about picking, and then pretend that I am the opponent and ask myself,”What will I see when I receive this pack?”

(Of course, I’m not on the Tour, so maybe my method sucks. It warrants mentioning.)

I don’t want to claim that I know what Jonny Magic was thinking at that table, but I would guess that this level was dictating his decision. If he takes Shock, he’s telling his opponent”Finkel will not be blue” by passing Arcanis. Nothing wrong with that; in OOL draft, you can combine red with any other color. But if Finkel took Arcanis, he probably would have wanted to draft blue-red, yet his opponent could have interpreted the passing of the Shock as,”Finkel will not be red”! That could lead to both men fighting for red cards throughout the draft.

So Finkel took the Shock. Dilemma over.

4) Screw this level stuff. As in the poker case, all that thought can sometimes get in the way of the right decision. Just take cards that can give you a winning deck. Don’t over-think.

An associate at a local store recently gave me a good example of this: Let’s say I receive a pack for my second pick with the rare missing and containing Sparksmith and Slice and Dice. There’s a lot to think about there. Which card is stronger? Which would go better with the card I just passed? Will I be sending a signal that I don’t want red? Is the guy I’m passing to smart enough to figure out my signals? Plus, somebody just passed me a pack with Sparky and Slice, so what the hell could he have taken??

<bangs head on desk>

What am I talking about?!

There are plenty of cases where reading signals is important, but my associate understood that this wasn’t one of them. These are two of the best Limited cards in the set; it’s hard to go wrong with either one. No need to get paranoid about what my neighbor might have taken (it was actually Exalted Angel); I’m getting a great card for my deck, and that’s all there is to it. In the end, that’s the whole goal of drafting, remember?

Until next time, here’s hoping you don’t get hit with three Cabal Therapies before your fourth turn (as I did at a Standard tournament last weekend). I can be emailed at [email protected]. Later.