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Three Important Concepts Not To Overlook When Drafting Ikoria

Ryan Saxe draws three advanced lessons in Ikoria Draft from his latest trophy deck. See how small details add up to big results!

Bushmeat Poacher, illustrated by Randy Vargas

Draft navigation is incredibly complex. Pick orders fall apart rapidly after just a few picks. Reading and sending signals, while not required skills, are very important for applying logical tie-breakers in order to build a path towards the best deck a seat presents.

The general consensus is that reading signals is substantially more important than sending signals, but that doesn’t mean the latter should be ignored. Often the marriage between reading and sending signals enables a narrative between a drafter and the people next to them. Strengthening that narrative increases the probability that each drafter ends up in a different archetype, making each deck better. Note that this is not guaranteed. Signals are muddy. And while I won’t get into the weeds about signal-reading-techniques in this article, if you’re interested in that, I wrote about it extensively three years ago.

In the draft below, the architecture of Pack 1, Pick 2 had a significant impact. Let’s take a look at that pack:

An uncommon is missing from the pack above, and there’s a foil rare. Dire Tactics and Emergent Ultimatum are the only black cards in this pack, and I started this draft with Blood Curdle. Normally, no commons of a color is a strong signal that somebody upstream took a card of that color. In this case, a foil rare replaced the black common in the pack. Given that Emergent Ultimatum is both extremely difficult to cast and mediocre, I can decrease the probability anybody downstream drafts a black deck by taking Dire Tactics. It’s in the same color as my first pick, and is the best card in the pack.

This doesn’t mean anything particularly significant. As I’ve stated, signals are muddy. But the accumulation of signal-containing data-points yields that narrative, so it is important to make note when passing a pack that potentially contributes to that narrative. Discerning whether strengthening the narrative by sufficient signalling is worth more than taking a better card is one of the more difficult skills in drafting. And Pack 1, Pick 4 presents exactly that question.

Pack 1, Pick 4

The Picks So Far:

The Pack:

The Pick:

My take!
Rooting Moloch is a powerful card. In my opinion, it is a full tier above Dead Weight. However, it’s still not better than the best removal like Blood Curdle and Fire Prophecy.

If Fire Prophecy were in this pack, I would take it. There’s a fine line where signalling becomes more than just a tie-breaker, and I believe this decision sits right on that line. I wouldn’t fault anybody for going with either option here. However, this is still a crucial and nuanced decision point. If these types of decisions don’t register when drafting, that is an area of improvement to focus on. It’s easy to consider each pack in isolation. In that case, I believe this pick would be a clear Rooting Moloch. But with the context of Pack 1, Pick 2, the whole framework for this decision shifts.

I took Dead Weight for three reasons. First, with three above-par black cards in my pool already, it is very likely I end up black (especially given how splashable the removal spells are). Second, red is considered the best color in Ikoria Draft and I have found it strongly contested of late. Hence, I believe red is the color I am least likely to end up in because I expect each table to have many players attempting to draft red. Third, and most importantly, this sends a signal that corroborates my prior signals, greatly increasing the probability that I see strong black cards in Pack 2. In fact, I was rewarded by a Pack 2, Pick 3 Heartless Act and wheeled multiple good black cards for my deck.

After reviewing the draft log, there appear to have been two other black drafters, and they were likely a couple of seats to my right given how dry black was in Pack 3. Had I known this, I think I would have prioritized Bushmeat Poacher in Pack 3. I remembered that I passed two and thought there was only one other black drafter. I didn’t think they would want a third and hence believed I would wheel it. Regardless, this is an important lesson. Black was closed from the right, but open from the left potentially due to the signalling in Pack 1. White was open in both directions. Even though black was somewhat contested, I believe my deck was better due to boxing out the drafters to my left. There wasn’t another color that presented itself to pair with white, and I was able to draft a very high density of removal spells.

Rather than discussing other picks in this article as I usually do, this trophy deck presents a fascinating discussion surrounding deck building optimized for being on the play versus the draw.

Building this pool presented a couple of challenges. Seven premium removal spells and four non-premium removal spells pose an interesting question: to attack or not to attack. Casting a 3/1 on Turn 2 and killing everything in sight is a surprisingly potent strategy. However, that becomes substantially less consistent on the draw. Playing a slower game going one-for-one and winning by grinding and flyers is a good recipe for success, but likely has an issue with flooding and running out of resources if the opponent has too much card advantage.

So which deck is better?

An important observation about the slower deck is that it can afford to play sixteen lands only when on the draw. Furthermore, it has enough cheap removal that getting run over on the draw isn’t likely, and when on the one-for-one plan, that extra card matters a lot. The deck isn’t bad on the play, just better on the draw, and the aggressive version isn’t bad on the draw, just better on the play. This observation yields the following strategy:

1. Build the slow deck assuming it’s on the draw (e.g. Maned Serval over Savai Sabertooth).

2. Always start the slow deck, since if the opponent wins the die roll, they are very likely to choose the play. This means that I can almost be 100% certain that I will be on the draw in Game 1.

3. Because I believe that the aggressive deck, when on the play, is better than the slower deck, sideboard into it after losses such that I never play with that deck when I am on the draw.

Magic is a game with a lot of variance. The nuances of sending and reading signals yield small edges. The meticulous design of decks differently on the draw versus the play, as well as corresponding sideboard strategies, yields more small edges. But these small edges add up.

Don’t dismiss them.

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