Counterfactual Thinking: The Secret To Improving At Zendikar Rising Draft

Counterfactual thinking puts the power of “what-if” to work for you. Ryan Saxe applies it by pinpointing where a Zendikar Rising draft went wrong.

Malakir Blood-Priest, illustrated by Scott Murphy

The definition of counterfactual is:

adjective: relating to or expressing what has not happened or is not the case.

noun: a counterfactual conditional statement (e.g. If kangaroos had no tails, they would topple over ).

Google’s English Dictionary Provided by Oxford Language

Why is the secret to improving at Zendikar Rising Draft, or really anything, tied to “what has not happened or is not the case”? Shouldn’t it be the opposite? Shouldn’t improvement be focused on what is the case?

Improvement comes from considering alternative decisions. A game loss is often a consequence of specific decisions, and those decisions aren’t necessarily around the ultimate turns of that game. Reflecting on what is not the case, and how it could have been the case, unlocks an incredible amount of potential for growth. This form of reflection is a concept in psychology called counterfactual thinking.

Historically, green decks are weak to flyers. It’s easy to blame a loss on that weakness, but failure to recognize that there were opportunities to draft Nissa’s Zendikon, Broken Wings, and Tajuru Snarecaster is a significant mistake. Maybe that game would have been winnable with different decisions during the draft. Inquiring if those alternative decisions could have been reasonable is a necessary step towards improvement. This article describes the foundation for how to implement and habitualize counterfactual thinking. I will then go over a Zendikar Rising Draft in which such a counterfactual post-mortem was incredibly valuable.

Nissa's Zendikon Broken Wings Tajuru Snarecaster

Counterfactual thinking is all about narrative.

“Had I taken Into the Roil at Pack 1, Pick 1, would I still take this Roil Eruption over this Bubble Snare?” is an example of real-time dialogue I have during almost every single draft I do. This dialogue is incredibly important and it naturally yields follow-up questions during the draft, “I was just passed a Roost of Drakes in Pack 2 . . . could I have been a blue deck?” followed by “I could have taken Into the Roil to start the draft, and that would have led me down a path where I could capitalize on this Roost of Drakes; do I stand by my first pick?”

This is the most effective way to reevaluate and hone Draft strategy. Maybe I still stand by my first pick, and while I would have a better deck if I had taken that Into the Roil, I would still make the same decision again. Maybe this reflection makes me realize that, while I believe my first pick is a better card than Into the Roil in a vacuum, given additional context that Into the Roil was the only blue card in that pack, the probability of getting passed good blue cards in Pack 2 — like that Roost of Drakes — is high enough to justify taking Into the Roil. Regardless of my conclusion, this type of dialogue facilitates learning and growth. It helps recognize new avenues for improvement, and sheds light on common patterns that can be leveraged in future drafts and games.

Into the Roil Roost of Drakes Bubble Snare

Every single time I have felt a “level-up” in my game, it was the result of counterfactual thinking. Here are a few examples:

  1. It can be correct to take the second-best card out of a pack if you’re confident that a card that goes well with it will wheel. This is because the value of those two cards together is better than the value of the best card in the pack. This came from the question, “Would I have been happier with Call the Bloodline and Twins of Maurer Estate in my pool, or the card I took over Call the Bloodline: Lambholt Pacifist?”
  2. There are hidden strategies in every single format consisting of unpopular commons that work well together. Slither Blade in Amonkhet and Clear the Mind in Ravnica Allegiance are two such examples. In both cases, discovering these strategies often happens through counterfactual thinking: “My Azorius deck is very powerful. I believe I lost due to lacking ways to win the game. I dismissed Clear the Mind during the draft, but would I have won my games if I could recycle my interaction and threats without any fear of running out of cards? Would it have been worth speculating on a strategy like that when I could have picked Clear the Mind?”

Initially, thinking in this manner feels flimsy. Thinking with certainty and objectivity is often held in high regard. However, Magic is not a game of certainty. It’s a game of probability. Of variance. It’s simply impossible to answer every question with certainty and objectivity, and attempting to do so is a waste of time. Instead, spend energy habitualizing counterfactual thinking. It’s the only way to hone a causal understanding of how pieces of this game interact. Through all the uncertainty, this little gem yields quite the reward.

I can provide example after example after example of these questions and introspections, but how do those examples become tangible tools that help you implement counterfactual thinking? It’s hard. It requires quite a lot of practice. And luckily, I have a trick to help you get started. Regret.

Regret is the most natural emotive related to counterfactual thinking. “I should have been blue,” you mumble to yourself in Pack 2 when you see that late Roost of Drakes you can’t justify picking. It’s up to you to take the next step to convert the visceral response of “I should have been blue” to “Could I have been blue?” Once that is natural — once initial feelings of regret facilitate a productive, counterfactual narrative — the rest will fall into place. Pushing that dialogue will become seamless throughout not only the draft but the games, mulligans, sideboarding, and even deckbuilding.

In the draft example that follows, the first few packs were incredibly weak. While I ended up in a solid Rakdos aggro deck, it was clear that Dimir would have been a much better archetype to be in. So I attempted to reflect, and asked myself, “Was there a reasonable way to navigate this particular draft towards Dimir? Did I make any mistakes in which the consequence pushed me towards Rakdos instead of Dimir?”

Pack 1, Pick 2

The Picks So Far:

Fearless Fledgling

The Pack:

Skyclave Sentinel Pressure Point Sneaking Guide Deliberate Resolute Strike Murasa Brute Drana's Silencer Expedition Champion Ghastly Gloomhunter Molten Blast Shadow Stinger Brushfire Elemental Riverglide Pathway Island

The Pick:

My take!

Brushfire Elemental might be the most disappointing card in Zendikar Rising Draft. It seems like Gruul was supposed to be this lean, aggressive landfall strategy with Akoum Hellhounds and Brushfire Elemental. Unfortunately, this deck rarely comes together. The problem is that it’s too inconsistent. It needed another aggressive landfall two-drop at common, but without that, Gruul is just better-suited as a midrange deck with lots of four-, five-, and six-drops.

Skyclave Sentinel is a playable, but nothing exciting. It will arguably never be in the top half of cards in my deck, and hence even out of a weak pack I can’t justify taking the colorless card. This pick of mediocre cards boils down to Shadow Stinger and Expedition Champion, as they are both playable in any on-color combination, and quite strong in their respective guilds.

If I did not reflect on this particular draft, I wouldn’t have recognized that this pick dictated the entirety of the draft. I believe both Champion and Stinger are defensible picks. I took Champion, as I have a preference for red over black, and believe that, while Champion is worse in Boros than Stinger is in Dimir, it’s better in all the other red decks than Stinger is in all the other black decks.

Had I picked Shadow Stinger here, my draft would have been easy. I would have followed it up with Merfolk Windrobber out of an incredibly weak pack and Dimir was wide open. However, upon reflection I don’t believe this is where I made my mistake. While it’s reasonable to take Shadow Stinger here, I stand by my logic and will look elsewhere to understand if I could have drafted Dimir (and I could have).

The next pick is the big mistake. I’ll describe my decision and why I made it. But upon reflection, it was a mistake. I genuinely believe that the very marginal nuanced consequences of this pick tipped that scale.

Pack 1, Pick 5

The Picks So Far:

Fearless Fledgling Expedition Champion Prowling Felidar Feed the Swarm

The Pack:

Might of Murasa Scorch Rider Reclaim the Wastes Teeterpeak Ambusher Inordinate Rage Malakir Blood-Priest Skyclave Sentinel Cascade Seer Malakir Rebirth Allied Assault Forest

The Pick:

My take!

Malakir Rebirth is the best card in this pack; there’s no question about that. But does the context of my current pool incentivize Malakir Blood-Priest over it? Malakir Blood-Priest is extremely impressive in Rakdos, very solid in Orzhov, but mediocre filler in Golgari and Dimir. Given that Fearless Fledgling and Expedition Champion bias me towards the archetypes in which Malakir Blood-Priest is likely better than Malakir Rebirth, I took the Blood-Priest.

This was a mistake.

While Malakir Blood-Priest is better than Malakir Rebirth in those decks, it’s not by a significant margin. And Malakir Rebirth is better than Malakir Blood-Priest in other black decks by a very significant margin. So, even though my current pool is biased towards Orzhov and Rakdos, Dimir and Golgari are still in the question. The pick that I made narrowed my potential paths and meant that I was less likely to be able to capitalize on an open Dimir or Golgari path. Consequentially, I was punished by this.

At Pack 1, Pick 8 in this draft, a Relic Golem was still in the pack. I felt as though I couldn’t speculate on it, because my pool wasn’t particularly tuned for a Dimir deck. If I had made a different decision during this pick, I would have taken the Golem and my deck would have been significantly better. I can’t know exactly what it would have looked like, because with different decisions the entire draft changes, but take a look at the draft log yourself in order to recognize the consequences of this mistake.

This reflection was incredibly fruitful. Not only because I can explain my mistakes, but I could inspect why I made those decisions, and correct my future course.

I had recently been pushing for the best synergistic decks possible, lowering my prioritization of DFCs to do so. This approach is what lead me to focus on the potential synergistic implications of my pool and take Malakir Blood-Priest. I still believe synergy is important for Zendikar Rising Draft. However, this reflection made me realize that I overcorrected. I tunnel-visioned so much on synergy that I missed the opportunity to take a generic good card in all black decks and keep me open to capitalize on late signals, such as that Relic Golem. This kind of reflection will continue to tune my intuition until I get the proper balance of synergy, flexibility, and power to succeed in Zendikar Rising Draft.