Weak Among the Strong: Reading Signals

Last week, we looked at how to send signals in draft. This week we’re going to look at receiving them, both how to do it, and how much you should be swayed by them.

Before I get started, I have something to say. One of the pleasures of writing Magic articles is that you get to rant and rave when you want to. Rants are more popular, but I’m going to rave this time. About a woman I’ve never met. (Fair warning — this is a bit long, has no sex in it whatsoever, and also includes blatant self-promotion, so if you want to skip ahead, I won’t take it personally.)

Kaja Foglio is a first pick in any format.

Now, almost all of you know Phil Foglio, the artist behind Phil & Dixie, XXXenophile, some editions of the Myth books, and a bunch of Magic cards. Kaja is also an accomplished fantasy artist (with Spirit Link and I believe some other Magic cards to her credit), but that’s not why I’m raving about her.

When Rob Dougherty and I neared the end of development and play testing for the board game we’d developed, we started thinking about artists. It’s a serious strategy game, but its flavor is very tongue-in-cheek and we both had the same thought: Phil Foglio. Having agreed with each other, we then asked our playtesters who they thought should do the art. Almost all of them said Phil. So we contacted him, explained the project and he agreed to do it.

Then Phil suggested that we also hire StudioFoglio to do the graphic design work. We were a bit nervous, since they hadn’t done a full board game before, and there was a lot to do – a main board, five player boards, a deck of cards, the rulebook, the box, etc. But we decided to go for it, assuming that if Kaja was doing this instead of art, she must be good at it, and knowing that it would be easier if the artist and graphic designer were under one roof.

Kaja Foglio is a first pick. I’m not talking a first pick like Skullclamp is a first pick. I’m talking, a first pick like Skullclamp would be if, in addition to all its other stuff, it read,”When Skullclamp comes into play, destroy target land.” Don’t get me wrong, we’re over the moon with Phil’s art. It captures the spirit of the game, it’s fun, and when you see it looking up at you from the shelf of your local game store it’s going to whisper,”Hey, this game must be pretty cool.” But the thing is, we knew that would happen. It’s Phil Foglio.

What Kaja has done is to take Phil’s art and bring it to life in every aspect of the game. The card layout, the backgrounds, chips, cropping, all of it. You’ll never know quite how amazing a job she’s done because you’ll only see the final product rather than all the things that led to it, but suffice to say, Kaja is a first pick.

Okay, enough raving about Kaja. And did you notice I snuck in a blatant plug for the first Your Move Game? Hey, I’m shameless, but what do you expect? If you’d just quit work and invested your savings into bringing your own games to life, you’d plug them every chance you got, too!

Anyway, on with the article, lest StarCityGames.com start asking me to pay them for advertising space.

Last week, we looked at how to send signals in draft. This week we’re going to look at receiving them, both how to do it, and how much you should be swayed by them.

If we think about the value of signaling, it basically comes down to one pack for sending and maybe one and a half for receiving. If you put the person to your left into something, they won’t fight you in the second pack, so you have a whole pack of friendliness. If you read the signals you’re getting correctly you can cooperate with the person to your right on what’s left of the first pack (after you’ve gotten the signals), plus the entire third pack. So reading signals properly should, in theory, be even more valuable than sending them. The trick, of course, is that it’s harder and less reliable.

The biggest reason that it’s harder is that the person feeding you may not be trying to send signals. Many drafters will open Loxodon Warhammer and virtually stop thinking about the rest of the pack. The second best card might clearly be Electrostatic Bolt, but they won’t be thinking about how they’re putting you in Red.

And there are more problems. Someone who starts off signaling you into Black may get passed a third-pick Barter in Blood and decide that they are being forced to draft Black. I for one am willing to fight the person on my left for Black if I get to start with a bomb like Barter and know that I’m going to be hooked up in Darksteel. Some Mirrodin drafters will try to take artifacts for their first few picks and wait until they are signaled into a color.

With that as an introduction, let’s look at how to read signals.

First, reread last week’s article. That’s not just a plug, it’s common sense. Receiving signals is the complement to sending them, so a good place to start is thinking about how the person feeding you might be trying to send you signals.

With that in mind for background, here are some guidelines for reading signals:

Find out whether the person feeding you likes to signal. Back when I was on the Pro Tour, it was pretty common that I was the only PT player at a typical YMG Thursday-night draft. Since I was also a draft specialist, that meant I was often regarded as the best drafter at the table. Some people would groan if they found out I was feeding them, but most of the regulars loved being fed by me because they knew that I would signal them and then try to draft friendly. They even knew that in most formats I would signal with removal, since there were so few cards I would take over a good removal spell.

You can’t always find out about your draft neighbors, but most people don’t even try. If you’re drawing in to the top 8 of a PTQ, ask the other players about their preferences and styles. (You should check with the Head Judge of the event as to when this is okay and when it could be considered collusion.) Mention that you believe in active signaling and see if they do, too. That way if you’re feeding them, they’ll look for signals, and if they’re feeding you, you know whether or not to expect clear signals.

Beware the early read. I often hear even fairly experienced drafters talk about a draft that went poorly because they went into a color after getting a great card as a second or third pick and then it dried up. Early picks are signals, but they have to be taken with a grain of salt. It could be that there were two powerful cards in that color and the person feeding you took one, or she might have taken a powerful artifact and then been passed clear signals to enter that color.

I sometimes call this the danger of the third pack, since it is so easy to think you’re definitely getting clear signals when a”first-pick” quality card come third. Since each color has multiple first-pick level cards, it is not that unusual for a pack to have four or five first picks in it. When this happens, people are going to get great cards relatively late. Ideally the cards are split among the colors and everyone is happy. But sometimes it just doesn’t happen that way. I’ve been passed a third-pick Shatter in Mirrodin only to find that the first two picks from the pack were Grab the Reins and Spikeshot Goblin. If that happens to you and you’re convinced that Red is coming, you can end up with a weak deck, as you wonder why you’re getting garbage in Darksteel while passing Chittering Rats and Razor Golems.

Look for ongoing consistency, not just late first picks. It’s great to get a Blinding Beam third, but if there’s also a Skyhunter Patrol in the pack you can be much more confident that the people passing those cards know that you’re in White and are less likely to go into it themselves. Similarly, if you just see Beam third but then keep seeing solid White cards like Skyhunter Cub and Raise the Alarm sixth and seventh, that means that the people feeding you probably aren’t in White.

The next issue you have to deal with is how”obedient” you should be to someone’s signals. That is, how willing should you be to give up your early picks in order to go into the colors you’re being passed? This is a tricky subject, particularly if you’ve passed some of those colors already.

Suppose you start off with Shatter followed by Deconstruct. Then the third pack comes and has no decent Red or Green whatsoever, but has a Blinding Beam and some solid artifacts, like Leonin Scimitar and Goblin War Wagon. What do you do? Beam is the best card, but do you really want to be in three colors after three picks? And what if you take the Beam and then get passed a pack with Neurok Spy as the only good card and maybe a Thoughtcast and a Wizard Replica? Do you fight for your first picks and hope to do well in pack two, or obey the signals and risk wasting one or even two great cards?

It’s a lot harder to give general strategic guidelines here; a lot of this has to come down to practice. However, there are some important things to have in mind as you develop your own style.

Try to minimize the risk of obedience. If the best card in the pack is Barter in Blood and a close second best is an artifact, take the artifact. Same thing if the second best card is colored but doesn’t have a double colored cost like Barter. Removal is better than creatures in part because removal is generally better than creatures but in part because it tends to hurt less if a removal spell sits in your hand for a while. If your first-pick Shatter ends up being your only Red card that’s a lot better than if your first-pick Neurok Spy is your only Blue card.

Similarly, if the third-color card you’re thinking about is a good splash card, that lowers the risk of taking it and then finding out that you’re okay in the colors you started with. In the example above, if your first three picks are Shatter, Deconstruct and Blinding Beam, you have three good splash cards, so you’re in good shape in any of the two colors. Sure, you’d rather it was Shatter, Shatter, Beam, or Deconstruct, Deconstruct, Beam, but it’s a lot better than if it was Fangren Hunter, Rustmouth Ogre, Skyhunter Patrol, in which case one of your picks is surely dead.

Different blocks have different rules. Mirrodin block’s heavy artifact presence means that your odds of getting enough spells for your deck are good even if you fight over your colors. Thus, if you open Grab the Reins and then never see another Red spell, you can often still play it simply because you have, for example, a U/r affinity deck or a W/r Equipment deck.

Onslaught Block was similar. Since you could always fill up your deck with off-color Morphs, if worse came to worse, the risk of defending a Sparksmith pick and fighting for Red was lower.

How good are your early picks? Some cards win games all on their own with a reliability and mana cost that make them worth fighting for. Cabal Patriarch requires a heavy color commitment – the sort most experienced drafters avoid. Let me know if you can find an experienced drafter who ever opened Patriarch in the first set of packs and shipped it. Incredibly powerful and also incredibly durable (not many things in that block could kill a 5/5 Black creature), the Patriarch was worth fighting big battles over.

By contrast, Trained Armodon isn’t worth fighting over. A 3/3 for three is a great card, and if you’re able to draft Green, the Bombadon can dominate the early tempo battle. But it’s not going to win games on its own, and if it comes out on turn 6 or 7 it’s just a vanilla 3/3.

And now, we come to one of the big questions of draft – what to do with a pack that has three (or more!) good cards in a color or archetype.

We’ve all opened packs like this – the best cards in the pack are clearly Blinding Beam, Skyhunter Patrol, and Altar’s Light, or Bolt, Shatter, and Spikeshot Goblin. You know if you take one, there’s a good chance that the player you’re feeding will see two first-pick cards in a color and conclude that you took a different color in order to send a”clear” signal. Worse, there’s a decent chance that the third player will draw a similar conclusion. So what do you do? And what do you do when a pack like this is passed to you?

A lot of the thoughts we’ve discussed before apply here. In the White example, the only card you should consider is Blinding Beam. In my opinion it’s the best card of the three, but even if you value one of the others more highly, you should take the Beam because the risk of wasting the pick is much lower. Unless you’re fed good White in the first set of packs, you pretty much have to abandon White as a color, since you know in advance that you’re not likely to see it in the second set. Any spell with WW in the casting cost that doesn’t say”Destroy all creatures, they can’t be regenerated” is pretty much out of the question. (Yes, I have splashed Kirtar’s Wrath multiple times.)

But what often happens is that the person opening the pack thinks (reasonably enough),”I can’t take one of those three cards or I’ll be screwed in the second set of packs. So I’ll take this instead,” especially if the”this” is even close to a first pick. That means that sometimes you’ll be passed a pack that is overloaded in one color, and it’s not at all unusual for the second person to keep shipping it on.

Naturally, the further down the line you go, the more sense it makes to jump into the over-represented color. If you get it third, for example, that means that the two people feeding you for what’s left of the first set and the entire third set of packs are out of your color. That’s good enough that you shouldn’t be upset about fighting with the person you’re feeding. Moreover, unless you’ve already put them in that color there’s always the chance that you can cut it off for the rest of the first pack, making them see that Skyhunter Patrol as an aberration that they abandon. I will generally take the best card in the third pack no matter what else is in the pack, unless my first two picks have committed me in a way that substantially devalues the card, and it’s very rare that two picks can do that.

Hugs ’til next time,

Chad Ellis

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