Weak Among the Strong: What Are You Passing?

Last week, we looked at a three-part rookie mistake I made during the final Swiss draft of Grand Prix: Oakland, where quite possibly my first pick (and its implications for the rest of my draft) cost me a return trip to the Pro Tour. This week, we’ll take a more in-depth look at Booster draft, focusing instead on signaling.

Booster draft is the best Magic format. Okay, technically the best Magic format is Invasion Block booster draft, but you know what I mean. Booster draft is also one of the fundamental skills an aspiring PTQ player must master, because it is often the final hurdle to winning a qualifier.

Last week, we looked at a three-part rookie mistake I made during the final Swiss draft of Grand Prix: Oakland, where quite possibly my first pick (and its implications for the rest of my draft) cost me a return trip to the Pro Tour. This week, we’ll take a more in-depth look at Booster draft, focusing instead on signaling.

The average drafter is a lot better than was the case a few years ago. It used to be that in a given Limited top 8, there was at least one player who had never drafted before and several others who had only drafted a handful of times. These players would inevitably make rookie mistakes (much like Pro Tour veterans who just happen to suck) or even rare-draft, while perhaps as few as three players were serious contenders for the slot.

No longer. Magic Online has made it much easier for typical players to draft, and the results are impressive. I never hear of a complete newbie in top 8 drafts these days, and it’s not unusual for all eight players to be serious contenders to win the draft. This means that you’ve got to be very good if you want to win.

I’m assuming that most readers of StarCityGames.com know the basics of drafting. You know to watch your mana curve, you’re pretty good at assessing the relative strength of cards in draft, and you know the importance of drafting archetypes rather than just good cards. But, if you’re like most solid drafters, you’re better at paying attention to the cards you’re drafting than the ones you’re passing. And that can make the difference between having the best deck at the table and merely having a good one.

I’m going to start with a fairly extreme example. During a PTQ a few months ago, I watched over the shoulders of two Montreal players I didn’t know during a side booster draft. One of the players opened Grab the Reins, took Pyrite Spellbomb second, and then took Vulshok Berserkers for his next two picks out of fairly weak packs. For his fifth pack, he made a very reasonable call of Slith Firewalker over a solid artifact creature or dipping into a second color. The Slith’s RR cost is awkward, but he had already prepared himself to draft heavy Red, and the potential for it to be fairly useless 1/1s is definitely balanced by the possibility of a turn-two Slith winning games on its own. Then he got a gift in the sixth pack – Electrostatic Bolt.

To my amazement, he almost passed the Bolt in favor of a Goblin War Wagon.

Now put aside that the Bolt is simply a superior card to the Wagon, and that he already had two four-drops, so the Wagon is a bad choice for his curve. Pretend that the artifact he’s choosing is of equal strength and equal suitability to his deck… but is still colorless, rather than a first-pick Red card.

It is still crystal-clear that he should take the Bolt.

The reason is simple. Suppose you’re the player to his left. You’ve also made six picks. Unless your first pick was Red, you haven’t seen a single good Red card and you’ve probably abandoned that color, thinking (correctly) that the person feeding you is taking all the good Red and will continue to do so in Darksteel. If he isn’t, it’s probably the case that both of the players to his right are taking Red, since you haven’t yet seen a Shatter, Bolt, or Spikeshot Goblin. Then you get a seventh-pick Bolt, with nothing else exciting in the pack.

Three things happen. First of all, you take the Bolt. There’s nothing else even close in the pack, and Bolt is easily splashed, so there’s a good chance you’ll play it even if you never see another good Red card. Second, you totally reassess your prospects for getting Red in the third pack. If a Bolt is going sixth, there’s no way that there are two people taking Red and there may not be any – the first few packs could simply be unusual. And third, you start thinking about the good Red you’re likely to see in the second set of packs, since unless you opened and passed a good Red card in pack one, you know that the players to your left have seen no Red.

So if you’re the original player, that one pick may very well switch your neighbor from someone who won’t touch Red into one who is looking to draft it. This is particularly dangerous in Mirrodin block, since the high number of artifacts make it more likely that your neighbor hasn’t yet committed to two colors. So instead of getting hooked up in the second set of packs, you’re going to get cut off. Disaster. Thankfully, for him, he finally took the Bolt and got fed excellent Red in the remaining packs, ending up with an amazing deck.

Signaling is a complicated and subtle aspect of drafting. Many players are familiar with the basics, like”this pack has two first-pick Black cards and only one first-pick Blue card, so I’ll take the Blue one (even if the best Black card might be a bit stronger) and signal the player to my left that he should be in Black.” Here are some guidelines for taking your signaling to the next level.

Keep on Signaling

A lot of players signal during the first four or five packs and then start hate-drafting if there’s nothing in a pack for them. While this can be a viable tactic, it is a very risky one as well, one that can even cause an entire draft to go poorly.

Let’s say after opening Grab the Reins and getting passed a Bolt and two Skyhunter Patrols, you’re locked into R/W in the first set of packs. Then the seventh pack arrives with Barter in Blood and nothing in your colors (or good artifacts). You’ve been passing good Black, but decide that you can’t just give him an eight-pick bomb like Barter in Blood, so you take it. After all, you’re trying to make your deck good, not his!

Now what is the effect? If you’d passed the Barter, your lucky neighbor would probably start thinking mono-Black, knowing that he almost has to get hooked up in Darksteel and that so many good Mirrodin and (especially) Darksteel commons reward a heavy-B commitment. That would be great for you, since he’s likely to pass you good R/W cards rather than mess up his mana base. (For example, he might take Irradiate over Shatter or a solid Equipment.) But since you took it, he’s less likely to do that and could choose W or (more likely) R as his second color, cutting you off somewhat in the second set of packs.

Try to signal someone into something, not just out of something.

Cutting off a color or archetype is great, but even better is when you can put someone into a color or archetype. That way you have a much better picture of what they aren’t taking, and can probably avoid fighting over any important cards. This is especially true in recent blocks, where archetypes have less overlapping cards (e.g. tribal archetypes from Onslaught block or Affinity vs. White Equipment now). If you pass a Myr Enforcer to a typical MMD drafter, there’s a good chance that they will start drafting Affinity, allowing your Booster draft cooperation to reach Rochester levels.

Not all colors and archetypes are created equal, with respect to signaling.

Red and Black are both very good in Darksteel, but there is a big difference between them. The best Red commons (Barbed Lightning, Echoing Ruin) are splashable, while two of the best Black commons (Chittering Rats, Grimclaw Bats) are only good if Black is your primary color.

This means two things. First, a clear signal to go into Black is generally worth more than one to go into Red, since the best Red commons might still get taken by someone as a splash if there’s nothing good in their color(s), but a first-pick like Chittering Rats isn’t even good if Black is a minor color (say six or fewer Swamp).

Second, if you signal someone into Black, they are likely to try to go heavy or mono-Black because they know this will power up their commons. If you signal them into Red, they may simply pick up a handful of good cards hoping for a few more in Darksteel… but they may still concentrate on another color when they are feeding you.

The same thing is true of archetypes. An Affinity deck is all about synergy. Every spell that isn’t an artifact hurts your Affinity spells. This means a much higher focus on a specific subset of the available card pool. By comparison, R/W is more flexible – it needs a solid number of creatures, some good Equipment, and some removal, but it will generally take the best R/W or artifact cards in each pack, not worrying that picking Arrest will weaken other cards in the deck.

When Fifth Dawn arrives, cutting off Black may change its dynamic quite radically. Did you ever try to cut someone off of Black in Odyssey in the hopes of getting juicy Torment? In my experience, they were just as likely to use you to make sure they cut off their neighbor, so they got the Torment Black instead! Darksteel is no Torment, but if you do a mediocre job of cutting off someone’s Black (letting through, say, an Irradiate and a Nim Shrieker), you may actually be putting them into it! Meanwhile, if I first-pick a Red card in Mirrodin and never see another, I’ll be quite comfortable taking Red in Darksteel since I know it’s so easy to splash.

Learn what is and isn’t a signal

Every player has his or her own opinion over which cards are the best, and sometimes a card you consider amazing is considered marginal or even unplayable by someone else. I remember back when Windfall was a hot draft pick at YMG after Darwin Kastle wrecked a few of us with it and we started wrecking others. But I knew that outside of our group the card was generally unappreciated – even disdained to the point where it went last-pick in a money draft by some Pros!

Ironically, I was passed Windfall third and fourth in the first set of packs in two top 8 booster drafts. I took it, but couldn’t assume that it was a signal because in all likelihood a Blue drafter to my right would simply have passed it as a marginal or chaff card.

A similar story came from an online draft. I’d gone into Red after getting a third-pick Shatter and pretty good Red follow-up. In round two, I met the person who opened the pack with the Shatter and he told me how he’d”worked” me and the guy between us in the draft by taking Arrest over Bosh and Shatter. Naturally, the second player took Bosh and I got Shatter, and the two of us fought over Red.

Putting aside the general strength of his play, I couldn’t help laughing that both he and the guy between us thought that Bosh was a higher pick than Shatter. I don’t even rate Bosh a high pick, certainly not a reason to draft Red, whereas Shatter is clearly a first-pick card, at least until we’re no longer in the artifact block!

A recent”what would you take” column on the Sideboard revealed that our own Ken Krouner thinks not only that Myr Enforcer is better than Spikeshot Goblin, but quite a bit better! That’s an unusual opinion, and if you know it and get a pack from Ken with a common missing and Spikeshot Goblin still there, you know what he took and what he’s looking to draft. Ken, meanwhile, undoubtedly knows that most Pros disagree with him, and that if he gets passed a pack with both Goblin and Enforcer most people will assume he’s taking the Red card.

Forget for a moment who you agree with in these examples. The point is that unless you know how people rate cards, you can’t know what they will see as a signal! You can signal R/G all you want, but if the cards you send actually put them into U/W with you, the second set of packs is going to be awful.

Read articles about pick order, talk to other players about their favorite commons and uncommons. Make sure that you know the difference between the cards you like and the cards everyone else likes. Then you can both send and read the right signals.

Be aware of commonality

In a recent draft commentary, a PT regular described his decision to go into Blue after receiving a pack with Looming Hoverguard and a common missing. Since the Hoverguard is better than any Blue common, he reasoned, the person feeding him must have taken a non-Blue card.

Although it’s often more important for reading signals, commonality can reinforce (or nullify) your signal. If you take a Rare, it pretty much doesn’t matter what you pass, since they don’t really mean anything. Three of the four best Mirrodin uncommons are artifacts, so a missing uncommon from the pack doesn’t mean too much. Commons are clearer signals, especially if (as in the example above) there is a card remaining in the pack that is better for that color than any common.

It’s not just colors anymore

Several sets ago, draft decks were best described in terms of their colors. Not every U/W deck was the same, but the basics were close enough and, just as importantly, the best cards tended to be the best regardless of sub-archetypes, e.g. U/W and U/B both wanted Cephalid Looter and Blue’s flyers.

That’s changed. In Onslaught Block, we built decks around tribal archetypes rather than colored ones. A soldier deck and a cleric deck could both be base-White, but they were drawing from largely different card pools, especially in terms of high picks.

Now, for example, if you’re drafting U/R Affinity, you have to think carefully about whether to pass a Nim Shrieker to the player you’ve been putting into Black during the first pack. It’s not in your colors, but it is in your archetype, and the more you put him into Affinity the greater the risk that he’ll fight you over Myr Enforcers, artifact lands, etc. I’d never”hate” a Barter in Blood, but I might well hate a Shrieker…

This list is by no means exhaustive, and I’m sure I’ll be talking about draft again. But hopefully it’s enough to provoke some thoughts and discussion about sending signals in Booster draft.

Hugs ’til next time,

Chad Ellis

Your Move Games