The Top 5 Magic: The Gathering Booster Draft Mistakes That You Are Probably Making
This time I wanted to talk about the most common mistakes I see people make when drafting. We are moving back into the simplicity of M14, so your core drafting skills are going to be more important now that all the bells and whistles from the expert level sets have been removed.
These are all small errors on their own, but If you can shore them all up you are going to for sure see a significant improvement in your drafting. I will be using examples from the various Return to Ravnica limited formats as those are the freshest in everyone’s mind, but these are all concepts that can be applied to any format. Without any further ado, let’s dive in!
5. Overestimating The Value Of Sending Signals
I very often see players making weaker picks to send ‘better’ signals. I can’t help but feel those players are dropping real value in favour of potential value. I can only justify using this as a tie-breaker and even then I prefer using other tie-breakers such as deck preference.
Don’t be afraid of competing with the player on your left, you are their boss. If they try and tangle with you by drafting the same colours it’s going to end very poorly for them. While it’s not ideal to get cut in pack two it’s a game of chicken you will always win as they have a lot more incentive to co-operate with you than you do to work with them.
The best signals you can send are the ‘truest’ ones. If you are picking for what you want rather than for what you want them to see, you are usually sending the most consistent and easily understood message.
For example while drafting triple Gatecrash, you might decide to give up a Grisly Spectacle pick, because there was a Killing Glare also present in the pack and go for the slightly weaker pick of Crocanura to cut green.
Basically the Crocanura pick was somewhat of a lie. When you pick a card you are basically saying that ‘this card was the best one in the pack for me’ and in this case Crocanura was not. Just as telling a lie in real life often leads to inconsistencies in your story and constantly trying to remember which lies you told, so too can this happen in a draft.
If it becomes apparent a couple picks down the road that black is open and you need to jump in, it’s going to get very confusing and you may end up fighting with your left hand neighbour. While this is generally worse for them, it’s still not ideal for you.
If however you make the ‘true’ pick of Grisly Spectacle usually only good things can happen. If you continue picking black cards and your neighbour is anywhere near competent at drafting they are going to get the message soon enough and should know not to fight with you.
Now imagine we are instead being offered incentive to get out of black. We have already given a good reason for our neighbour to be in black and passing some more is only going to help solidify them. Both scenarios usually pan out very well.
I should actually mention that I do like sending signals a little more in pack two. Giving your right hand neighbour a couple of offerings can likely solidify them into the right deck for you and give you a nice payoff in pack three. Even then though I do sway on the side of just getting the good cards in my deck. A bird in hand is worth two in the bush and all that.
As a side note, I should point out that even if you disagree with my specific card evaluations in any of my examples, the point remains the same. What I’m really saying is that the best way to send signals to the person on your left is to try to not let it cloud your thinking and concentrate on drafting the cards that you want. Let the truth speak for itself and you can just focus on drafting the best cards for your deck.
I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up how signalling is affected by the unique guild structure of full block Ravnica draft. I don’t want it to cloud the message too much as this article is aimed at improving your transferable skills, so I will link you to my three-part Ravnica series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) where this is discussed in further detail.
4. Underestimating The Value Of Receiving Signals
I probably don’t need to say that it’s very important that you are not in the same deck as the player to your right. Particularly in the triple set Ravnica drafts where there are only really five decks per format, it is very much in your interest to work with your right hand neighbour. If you are constantly scrounging the leftovers, your deck will be underwhelming and your chances of winning the draft plummet.
Just as you are the boss of the player on your left, the player on your right is your boss. Work with them and you will be rewarded, work against them and it’s going to go poorly for you.
Of course you also need to know how to read signals effectively. I feel that a lot of people really want a particular archetype to be open and will jump on any shred of evidence that justifies this. Perhaps your first pick was Advent of the Wurm, which is an excellent, but fairly committing reason to be in Selesnya. Then second you get passed a Kraul Warrior. Selesnya is open! From that point the blinkers are on and never mind the late couple of Tithe Drinker‘s that came after…
In reality, the first few picks can’t tell you very much, there are often multiple good cards in each colour at that point and other players haven’t necessarily fallen into their deck choices yet. Particularly If the rare is missing, the information to be gleamed from the first few picks is next to none. First pick quality rares are often much better than any power uncommon in the set, so don’t start making assumptions if you see a Ghor-Clan Rampager during your second pack.
Remember you need to start with the evidence and then draw a conclusion from that. Do not start with a conclusion and then look for evidence to confirm it.
You need to start taking signals seriously at about fourth pick, any information gained before this is unreliable at best. Remember that any one pick is not a signal. You have to build up a picture over several passes to get an idea of what’s going on. A lone Viashino Firstblade is not a signal, but you should keep it in the back of your mind. If you immediately follow that pick with a Haazda Snare Squad and a couple picks down the road see a late Weapon Surge, only now can we start making some conclusions.
Another important thing to remember is that any signal you receive in pack two, will not affect what you will see in pack three, only what you will see for the rest of pack two. The value you can put on signals from this pack should diminish appropriately to reflect this.
Don’t hang on to hopes of playing a ridiculous bomb if you are being convinced to go elsewhere. I would trade any one card, no matter how single-handedly game winning, if it meant playing a consistent deck with a solid selection of cards.
It does feel like to me that some people don’t have confidence in their ability to win with a bunch of solid, but unexciting cards and want to lean on these big rares to help them win. If this is you, you are probably better than you think and I would recommend trying to value these cards a little lower than you have been in the past and see where it takes you. Try and lose the mentality of ‘well I can’t not play this!’, you can always splash a card if it is truly that unbeatable.
At the moment in most draft formats I am doing well by staying as open as possible for as long as possible. I am literally just picking the best cards for the first 4 or so picks almost regardless of what I currently have in my pool. If two cards are very close in power level then I will go with the one that more closely matches the colours I have already picked, but I only use that as a tie-breaker.
Later on I will pick up a few messages that tell me where to settle down and I will go with it. I’m almost guaranteed to have already picked up a couple great cards that neatly slot in, remember I’ve only been taking the best cards. I can then carry on my draft, confident that I am where I need to be.
This is even more effective in formats with a high density of playables like Modern Masters or Cube where there is no danger of not getting enough cards that make the cut. It also applies to triple set Ravnica formats with a small number of highly defined archetypes where aligning yourself with an open guild is of vital importance.
Other formats are more open in what combination of cards you can draft. Shards of Alara block is one that sticks out in my memory. Those formats don’t come up too often, so it’s usually best to be be flexible when you can and don’t fight the table.
3. Not Drafting Enough Creatures
This is probably the one I have had the most problems with historically. The scenario I often found myself in was I’m really happy with how my draft is going, I’ve got an above average amount of removal, several nice tricks or equipment and maybe even a bomb. Then I get to the end of the picks and I count my creatures… There’s 11 of them. Yuck.
Creatures are so consistent. They attack, they block, they have useful abilities and they don’t lose a lot of value in certain board states like non-creatures tend to do. The vast majority of limited games are decided by creatures. Other spells only ever do what the text on the card says it does.
As a simple example, Ultimate Price is a fantastic card. It will almost always do something great for you. However, lets look at it on turn 3 when you opponent has played a two-drop and a three-drop creature, while you have none. You are going to usually have to pull the trigger on the three-drop, because as I have discussed before in a previous article going two plays behind the opponent for any stretch of time tends to end in defeat.
Now lets assume you simply played a three-drop instead. You are still a little behind if your opponent consistently plays creatures, but every turn that passes without you needing to use up your Ultimate Price is increasing the likelihood that a higher value target will present itself. As long as you can keep playing relevant creatures, the value of Ultimate Price will increase as the game progresses. As soon as you stop playing creatures and your opponent is not stumbling too you are usually forced to cash in your Ultimate Price for it’s current value.
Imagine now an even better scenario, when you can set up a turn where you can play a three-drop and Ultimate Price on the same turn, which will be a great tempo swing in your favour. The more creatures you have, the better all your other spells become. Sometimes they don’t even do anything at all if you don’t have a creature, such as any combat trick or equipment eg. Giant Growth/Civic Sabre. Others like Teleportal go from incredibly underwhelming to game winning depending on your quantity and quality of creatures in play.
So next time you are at the draft table maybe you’ll pick a non-creature card that will probably do some great stuff if you resolve it in the right spot or you can just pick up another solid creature and pretty much improve the quality of all the other spells in your deck. Unless there is a serious disparity in terms of raw power, I know what I’m picking.
2. Not Seeing Cards For What They Are
Card evaluation is a subtle skill. There are so many factors at work and it’s easy to get distracted by resemblances to past cards, preconceptions about certain qualities or abilities or even not taking the environment into account. Wizards even try to distract you with things like guild watermarks and keywords, almost like a stamp saying ‘only use in this archetype’.
Basilica Screecher is very much themed as an Orzhov card, but it is actually a lot more important to the Dimir deck. Dimir is desperate to play cheap evasive guys and often has to settle for Metropolis Sprites and Rakdos Drakes that are not particularly exciting cards in their own right. You will jump at a chance to play a two-mana evasion creature with an ability that makes it an excellent card in any deck with black mana.
Funnily enough Dimir is even set up to use better use extort than Orzhov is, because Cipher can start triggering it multiple times off one spell. If you keep an open mind it will be easier to spot these interactions early in a format’s life span. If you take the stance that extort is only for Orzhov or whatever the format’s equivalent is, you may end up one step behind.
A slightly different example is Pit Fight in Simic. Your creatures start out smaller and grow over time, but the Gruul creatures are more likely to have profitable fights available straight away. From that you can say the actual card Pit Fight is usually a bit stronger in Gruul. However, the Simic deck is so lacking in removal it actually has greater need for the effect than Gruul.
Gruul is able to draw upon red removal such as Annihilating Fire and Mugging, so Pit Fight is nice, but much less necessary. Simic though can’t be fussy and desperately needs any way to stop an active Korozda Guildmage or similar from getting out of hand. You really need to compare the value of a card to it’s next best alternative in your archetype rather than the format as a whole.
Sometimes you need to do something slightly awkward like play a Frilled Oculus in Dimir. Even though it is not likely that you can take full advantage of the card by activating the ability, it’s important to have the presence of mind to pick these cards up just in case you need a Maritime Guard.
It is usually better to take Frilled Oculus over a fully on colour, but not very playable card like Paranoid Delusions as insurance against the possibility of not having enough early plays or have a nice sideboard option against Riot Piker decks.
I even splashed a single Simic Guildgate in a recent draft to activate my Oculus and I was very pleased with the results. Sometimes I beat down with a 3/5 and sometimes I didn’t, but I was always happy to hold back my opponents two-drops. Even if you can’t use all of a card consider the possibility that just some of it is enough for what you want to do.
It’s really important to clear your mind and focus on drafting the best choice for your deck. Don’t go into auto-pilot and only take the cards that are ‘supposed’ to be good or be distracted by irrelevant extra text. Especially don’t think about the flavour. It is surprising how easy it is to let it sub-consciously creep into your decision making.
1. Drafting Expensive Cards Too Highly
It’s so easy to fall into this habit. The expensive cards just look so good. You can imagine all the spots where you slam a big guy to take over the board, but the fact is your cheaper cards really set up the scenario for the game. Adaptive Snapjaw can be really good when it triggers multiple evolves and enables a big attack, whilst being a big threat itself. However, if you are already on your heels you are probably going to have use it to trade down with a creature up to two-mana cheaper.
Sticking with the Simic examples (directed mainly at 3xGTC here), Leyline Phantom is often going to a better card than Greenside Watcher in your deck, but you will usually get a chance to pick one up late and do you really want to have more than one? If you draw two in your starting hand that is almost certainly going to be bad news. There are also cards that will come round late that can be functionally similar, I mean Leyline Phantomis the only one that can do some awesome multiple evolve trigger tricks, but any large creature can do a pretty decent job in this slot.
If you start picking these cards early you often end up seeing them again in later packs that only have one card for you. Then in deck-building you realise you need to trim your top end and you realise that perhaps a pick or two has been wasted. Conversely, you will play almost every decent two-drop you can get your hands on. Cloudfin Raptors need to be evolved on time and Boros/Gruul two-drops need to be traded with.
It’s not that expensive cards aren’t good or that you shouldn’t pick them, it’s just that you can afford to wait a bit to pick them up. Shadow Slice might be a really important card to complete the deck you are drafting, but don’t go overboard and pick it over a nice cheap creature. Trust that spells like these are going to come round eventually and you can spend a much less valuable pick on them.
You might feel like I am specifically picking on five-drops in my examples. Actually I kind of am, but there is a good reason for this. If you keep a standard three land hand there is around a 90% chance of making your fourth land drop on turn four, but there is only about a 65% chance of hitting your fifth land drop on time. It only gets less likely that you’ll hit land drops every turn as you progress through the game. This is based on the 42.5% chance of drawing a land in a standard 17 land 40 card deck and assumes no card draw or ramp. This math is a tad rough, but so close to the correct answer we can use it for decision making.
Essentially, the first time you are facing a significant risk of missing a land drop in a normal game will be on turn five, meaning that you can’t simply assume five-drops will come down on curve. You will miss those four drops occasionally, but you can make a fair assumption that they will show up on time and can build a plan around that.
In my mind I view cards that cost four or less as ‘cheap’ and cards that cost five or more under the general heading of ‘expensive’, because of this tipping point. If you try and look out for this in game you will probably notice quite a tangible distinction between these categories of cards.
Fortunately cheap spells do have utility other than just a high chance to be played on curve. They can also be used to set up tempo swings by playing two spells in a turn, so there is little downside to running lots of them. You shouldn’t be punished for drawing too many of them and will likely even be rewarded for doing so.
I should note that any cheap spell can’t just be thrown in to improve your curve. If you’ve cast a spell or two, but one of them wasn’t particularly relevant to the board state you haven’t really gained any advantage at all.
There is also a very significant difference between the average cheap spells and the good ones. If you switch out your Grim Roustabout plus Rakdos Drake opening for Thrill-Kill Assassin and Dead Reveller the game takes on a very different tone indeed.
On the other hand, later in the game when a player has a large creature and the other one doesn’t, it tends to dominate combat almost no matter which one it is. I have even been happy with real clunkers like Horror of the Dim in removal heavy decks that just need something to finish the opponent with once you have run them out of resources.
Of course legitimate bombs are a different story. If a card is in your colours and it has the potential to win the game on it’s own, by all means it will be worth making a compromise or two for. Otherwise, anything that costs five or more mana has to really impress me to get the nod over anything reasonable that costs four or less.
That’s all I have for you today. Thanks for making it to the end of my article and I hope it has helped plant the seeds to improve your game in some way.
I also love hearing your feedback, so get in touch with me via my twitter to tell me what you think and what you would like to hear about in the future.
See you next time for another Know Your Limits!