Exploration VS Exploitation In Innistrad: Crimson Vow Draft

It’s time to explore Innistrad: Crimson Vow Limited. Ryan Saxe serves up his first picks of the latest MTG Draft season with a reminder that now is the time to learn.

Bloodtithe Harvester, illustrated by Lucas Graciano

While Innistrad: Crimson Vow has not officially released yet, thanks to tools like DraftSim, we can still dig into some early Draft decisions. But, before we do, I’d like to remind you of some important concepts to keep in mind at the beginning of any Draft format:

1. Avoid Confirmation Bias

A few years ago I wrote this article, which digs into confirmation bias: the natural human affinity to look for information that confirms prior beliefs. 

After reading articles, looking at the cards, listening to podcasts, and whatever else to prepare for the upcoming new format, most people have opinions on what cards and archetypes are good. However, almost everybody is going to be wrong about a lot prior to playing with the cards. Hence, if you only look for information that confirms your beliefs, you will never learn what you’re wrong about.

It’s much more beneficial to look for disconfirming information. When an opponent beats you with a card you think is bad, rather than complain and tilt, re-evaluate the card. Maybe you missed something about it. If a card you think is great doesn’t do what you expected it to, don’t dismiss that as variance, and instead consider that you might be wrong.

2. Make Decisions to Learn, Not Win

This is extremely counterintuitive, but it’s something I strongly stand by. This may sound like you’re not maximizing your win rate, but you actually are. In any game, there’s a phenomenon referred to as the “exploration versus exploitation dilemma.” If you know a set of strategies that are good, you can “exploit” that by always pursuing those strategies. However, if you never “explore” other strategies, it’s unlikely you’re playing optimally. Exploitation maximizes your short-term gains, while exploration maximizes your long-term gains. Maximizing your gains over time requires a balance of exploration and exploitation.

The implications of this is that there are many times in which it is actually correct to make picks in a draft that lead you to draft a worse deck in that particular draft in order to learn about specific cards and strategies. This is because the knowledge you gain from that exploration broadens the net of strategies you can exploit in the future, yielding an overall higher win-rate.

Because it’s difficult to “exploit” early on in the format with minimal knowledge, it’s the best time to “explore.” You’re giving up less by exploring early when both you and your opponents don’t know the dynamics of the format yet. Take advantage of that, as it only occurs during the beginning of a format.

With all that in mind, let’s jump into the first few picks of an Innistrad: Crimson Vow Draft!

Pack 1, Pick 1

The Pack:

Sigarda's Summons Distracting Geist Blood Hypnotist Bloodtithe Harvester Toxic Scorpion Daybreak Combatants Scattered Thoughts Syncopate Undying Malice Sanctify Wolf Strike Bloody Betrayal Lacerate Flesh Hookhand Mariner

The Pick:

Sigarda’s Summons is an incredibly powerful rare. In the right deck, it’s completely broken. But in a random white deck, the card is unplayable. Training, the Selesnya mechanic, does lead me to believe that it’s possible to draft a deck that maximizes Sigarda’s Summons. The problem is that decks that maximize this enchantment are likely very aggressive, and a six-mana enchantment is antithetical to that plan. A few weeks into the format, it’ll be pretty obvious whether or not Sigarda’s Summons is a bomb first pick or not, but I would not fault anybody for taking the card in order to explore the bomb potential.

Distracting Geist is a powerful uncommon. When we’ve seen white aggressive creatures that tap a creature when they attack, such as Territorial Hammerskull, they are often among the best cards to have at that point on the curve. While Geist has a worse body than usual, it’s also substantially more annoying. The fact that you can attack with all of your creatures, and then if they kill the Geist you disturb it in order to have a good attack the next turn is powerful. It’s first-pick quality for sure.

If my goal is to take the most flexible card out of this pack, my pick would be Distracting Geist. It’s better than Scattered Thoughts and Lacerated Flesh by a reasonable margin (note: I see a world where Scattered Thoughts is better; I just don’t think that’s the world we live in). And the other options in the pack require specific decks to work.

Blood Hypnotist is a fascinating card that I can see ranging from first-pickable to quite bad. A 3/3 for three that can’t block is a very poor rate. A 3/3 for three that can’t block, but can make another creature not block each turn is significantly above rate for a red aggressive deck. The quality of this card will be determined by the density of Blood tokens red aggressive decks have access to. At the moment, I’m treating this as a Rakdos gold card, which means I don’t think it’s reasonable to take over Bloodtithe Harvester.

I’m quite certain that Bloodtithe Harvester is the card in the pack with the best intersection of powerful and consistent. A 3/2 for two mana is already above par, but it comes with a valuable enters-the-battlefield ability as well as the option to sacrifice it and remove a creature. That’s pretty incredible.

Conceptually, this pick boils down to three options:

1. Sigarda’s Summons. The “explore” option. It has the potential to be a crazy bomb, but it also has the potential to be a complete dud.

2. Distracting Geist. The safe pick. It’ll make almost any white deck and has a relatively high power level.

3. Bloodtithe Harvester. It can’t be a bomb like Sigarda’s Summons. It has a lower probability of making my deck like Distracting Geist. But it will be one of the best cards in my entire deck if I end up Rakdos.

I think all of these options have merit, but I’m going to end up on Bloodtithe Harvester. While I want to explore with Sigarda’s Summons, I think Harvester’s card quality is just too high to pass on.

Pack 1, Pick 2

The Picks So Far:

Bloodtithe Harvester

The Pack:

Sundown Pass Lambholt Raconteur Cartographer's Survey Sawblade Slinger Scattered Thoughts Daybreak Combatants Supernatural Rescue Syphon Essence Bramble Armor Gift of Fangs Evolving Wilds Dawnhart Disciple Ragged Recluse

The Pick:

Lambholt Raconteur is a powerful card for decks slinging spells, but I don’t expect that to be a role Rakdos plays particularly well. And a four-mana 2/4 is pretty below par anyway. While I understand that the Raconteur is incredible at night, I think it’s important not to evaluate the card with the best-case scenario in mind.

There are formats in which Sawblade Slinger would be a top uncommon, but I doubt that’s the world we live in given no artifact theme in the set. It has the potential to be good, and maindeckable Naturalizes are always appreciated, but it’s not a card that pulls me into green.

Evolving Wilds is only an option for the reminder that you always play it. Even in my aggressive decks, I almost always play the first copy. Hence it’s the most flexible pick in this pack. However, I’m not taking it over cards that are more powerful.

Both the mono-black cards in this pack are cards I like a lot. The flip side of Ragged Recluse is a potent threat, and transforming it in a Rakdos deck should not be particularly hard. But Gift of Fangs is also maximized in a Rakdos deck, since it’s an aggressive archetype with a high density of Vampires. I think this comes together for Gift to be better than Recluse, but it’s closer than most people will think. In general, I expect Gift of Fangs to be worse than Dead Weight because Vampires are often the cheap aggressive creatures that are important to kill with cheap removal. That doesn’t mean that it’s a bad card, but it means that more powerful commons are still in contention.

Scattered Thoughts is likely to be a top blue common. With graveyard synergies seeded throughout most blue archetypes, it’s not unreasonable to see Scattered Thoughts as about as valuable as Harmonize, especially once you consider the card selection aspect of the card. I think there’s a reasonable chance that Scattered Thoughts is better than all the black cards in this pack. However, does the bias towards black from Bloodtithe Harvester make it better to take a black card?

I think so. Hence, I believe the correct pick is Gift of Fangs.