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Attention to Detail #2
by Jordan Kronick
November 14, 2005

Way Down the Line

Hi folks. Welcome back for another exciting installment of Attention to Detail. This week I want to talk about some very elementary stuff. A lot of people reading this are just on the cusp of moving from being a purely casual player to trying their hands at drafting and other tournaments. Well, this week is for you. I want to go over some of the various things you’ll hear about happening during a draft but may not recognize. You might find that some of the most basic drafting skills are things you do already – you just didn’t know it. And for those of you who are already seasoned veterans of the draft queues and Friday Night Magics of the world, it never hurts to brush up on the fundamentals.

As I write this, I’m just coming off of a loss on Magic Online. As such, I’m being extra critical of myself and my drafting abilities. Nothing brings things into clear focus like getting pounded into the dirt, 0-2. There’s always a bright side though. Learning from your mistakes is the only way to improve your game, after all. Nobody gets by without a single error, whether it’s in the draft or in the games. My draft deck today was actually pretty good. It was a Ravnica draft, and I decided to go for a very sharply aggressive Boros deck, managing to get 3 copies of Galvanic Arc. Ordinarily, I would call that a great deck. But today I lost in the second round, completely destroyed by a deck I should have seen coming. How so? I saw all the pieces of it forming during the draft. As I built my Boros machine, I was watching the cards that would make up my opponent’s decks go by. So when my opponent tapped 7 assorted islands and swamps, I knew what was happening. He had drawn the Szadek that I saw pass by while I picked up another Galvanic Arc.

When you’re drafting, it’s very tempting to allow your vision to gravitate only to cards that fit your colors. On Magic Online, it can be extremely easy to just ignore cards that don’t fit your deck and quickly click the card you want. This happens especially often in the first pack. Sometimes you’ll open a really great rare and there’s no question that you’ll be drafting it. But wait – take a moment. The first lesson today is that it’s important to look at the things you’re passing. Before we ever get into talking about the signals your opponents are sending you, we have to talk about the signals you’re sending to them. The easiest way to talk about sending signals is to speak very abstractly. So let’s say you open your first pack of Ravnica – and staring at you in the face is a shiny foil Watery Grave. Now, I haven’t checked the Trading Post in the past couple days, but I’m guessing those have a value somewhere in the range of 30 tix. Unless you’re independently wealthy, there’s no reason to pass this. Even if you win the whole draft, the prizes might not be worth as much as this one land. Now that you’ve decided what you’re going to take, give yourself some time. Look at the rest of the pack. Let’s say that there’s a Vedalken Entrancer in there. This card is very highly valued in Ravnica drafting, and with good reason. It is the cornerstone of the Dimir milling archetype. If you pass that to your opponent, they’ll have a pretty easy time deducing that you’re not going to be playing Blue/Black. They may notice that the missing card is the rare (your Watery Grave), but they’ll have no information about what you took other than its rarity. So, let’s leave the guy next to you to mull over his pick for a moment and go to what’s happening with the rest of your picks.

You’re very excited about your new Watery Grave, but here comes the second pick. Now, let’s say this pack is very wide open. No bombs are standing out, but there are some clearly decent cards. It may be tempting to pick something blue/black, all things considered. After all, that’s the color of your shiny land. However, you need to consider what you sent to the left. If you just passed a Vedalken Entrancer, then you are sending the person next to you a signal that you are not going to be playing Blue/Black. And if they start picking those colors, then you could be getting very poor picks in the second pack (when that person will be passing to you). Now, this is especially dangerous if the first signaling card you passed was extremely potent. Some cards will be a signal that is so strong, even a very poor showing of other cards will not dissuade the person next to you. Vedalken Entrancers can be like that. Suppose the person next to you picked an Entrancer out of their first pack, and now they’ve got a second. They are now firmly entrenched in a Dimir milling strategy. It may not matter to them if the quality of the blue/black cards starts decreasing sharply, because they’ve got a very good start. And by the time they finally recognize that the blue/black is being cut, it may be too late for them to switch to something else.

Confusing? It makes more sense when it’s happening. These are all concepts that we all do automatically. Recognizing the instinctive behavior and shaping it is how you move from just lucking your way through a draft to making your own luck. Let’s go back to the guy to your left and inhabit him for a moment. Let’s say his first pick was not a Vedalken Entrancer, but something more neutral. Let’s say he picked up a Disembowel. It’s a good card that fits into two different guilds and is easily splashable. Now he sees his second pick coming. The rare is missing from the pack, and the best card to his eyes is that Entrancer. Now, when you see a pack come to you and the rare is missing, don’t just say “aww, I wanted another rare” and move on. Take a moment to think about what that means. Look at the rest of the cards in the pack and remember that the rare is not always the best card. What remains can be very telling about what might have been taken. For instance – if there is a Vedalken Entrancer in the pack, then you know a couple things about the rare. Either it is not blue or black, or it is blue or black and of a higher quality than Vedalken Entrancer. Of the Dimir cards which I would pick over an Entrancer, only Circu, Dimir Lobotomist and Glimpse the Unthinkable leap to mind. Of course, there are a few others I would pick on money value or perhaps I’m just not thinking of them, but this gives us a good place to start. Since there are not many Dimir rares that are of a higher quality than the Entrancer (which, as said before, is very important to any Dimir milling deck), there is an excellent chance that your opponent picked something non-Dimir. After all, three quarters of the cards in the set aren’t Dimir. So, if our friend to your left takes the Entrancer here he is setting himself up well. He can guess that the person to his right, who will be feeding him for 2 of the 3 packs in the draft, is not playing the same colors. So the chances of another very decent Dimir card coming through are greatly increased.

That’s the kind of decision making that could be going through your opponent’s mind. So when you pick that Watery Grave, make sure you know what else is happening in the pack. When you take the rare, you’re saying more than you might guess. Of course, if you did take the foil Watery Grave, there’s a good chance everyone knows about it because you may have just typed or said “oh my god I just opened a foil Watery Grave”. In which case, there’s a whole other set of decisions the other players have to make. Like whether or not to jump you in the parking lot when you try to leave.

So – although you may not have known you were doing it, that is signaling. It is at the core of every well-played draft. Sometimes your luck with opening huge bombs can carry you through, but most of the time you need a little help. Baseball fans will know what I mean. Paying attention to signals is playing “small ball” - which is to say that you’re trying to advance runners and get hits. Opening a huge bomb and sweeping the draft with it is playing “long ball” – nothing but home runs and razzle-dazzle. Any good coach will tell you that more games are won with the nuts and bolts than the big hits out of the park. So what are the other nuts and bolts that we need to look at?

Let’s talk basic Ravnica draft deck construction for a moment. I’ve played something in the range of 200 Ravnica-Ravnica-Ravnica drafts since the set was released, a little over a month ago. I’ve won a good deal of those, and I use the same numerical system to construct my deck, every single time. I play 23 spells and 17 lands. Every single time. Now there are a lot of people out there who will say that sometimes a deck only needs 16 lands. I have found it to be my experience in Ravnica drafting that if your deck has such a low mana curve (which so to say the average cost of your spells) that you only need to play 16 lands, you’re probably dead in the water to begin with. Another time when people say 16 lands is appropriate is if you’re running at least two of the guild Signets. I think this is also hogwash. Signets are something which I would almost never run more than one of to begin with, unless my deck had a very high mana curve. And if it has that, then I don’t want to be running 16 land to begin with. I’m sure I’ll get a lot of disagreement on this stance, but it’s how I feel and it’s done well for me.

Another important factor in deck construction after a draft is how many creatures to play. When you’re picking your 23 spells, it’s not just a matter of picking the 23 best ones. If you do that you could end up with way too many or way too few creatures – though way too many is definitely rarer. I like to have something in the range of 14-18 creatures in my Ravnica decks. There is an abundance of good non-creature cards in the set, so it’s unlikely that you’ll ever end up running 20 or more creatures. Sometimes you may need to run a sub-par creature in place of a slightly better spell, just because you need to make up that number. In the end, that strategy will pay off more often.

Lastly is your mana curve. Depending on other mana fixers in your deck (such as Farseek, Elves of Deep Shadow or Signets), the best number for your curve to be thickest is either three or four. This will ensure that you can apply early pressure but your cards will not be completely outclassed in the late game. If your deck has way too many huge casting cost cards, then you’re never going to be able to stop an early attacker before it’s too late. And in a format where Watchwolf is always a turn 2 possibility, it’s important to have a way to deal with it or at least stall it. This is where sub-par creatures can come in. Sometimes you’ll have to pull something big and powerful like a Siege Wurm to throw in a lowly Benevolent Ancestor. The Wurm is going to win you games, but the Ancestor is going to make sure you don’t lose. And balancing between those two is very important, of course. It’s basic offense and defense. You can’t have all of one and none of the other.

That just about wraps up my first lesson on the basics of drafting. I strongly advise anyone who’s interested to give it a shot. It may seem daunting at first, but it’s the most fun you can have with a few packs of cards. And never be afraid to ask for advice, either. If you don’t know where else to turn, try me. The best way to talk to me is to say hello on Magic Online. You can find me under the username ChainMaster. I’m always willing to talk a little about drafting strategy, and eager to hear any feedback you might have.

Before I go, I wanted to cover something that I missed last week. In my exhaustive look at the things that can happen on turn one, I completely forgot about the artifacts. So here’s a quick look at the 1-drop artifacts of Ravnica.

Peregrine Mask – This card is mostly junk. I’ll say that right off the bat. The problem comes with the inability to remove it, sometimes. However there is a deck where it is incredible and you need to be on the lookout for it. I’m talking, of course, about the Concerted Effort draft deck. That one card combined with the Peregrine Mask can turn a bunch of lowly creatures into a vicious army that is very hard to fight. So if your opponent drops a Peregrine Mask using a Plains, it’s a good bet that that’s the way things are going. There are enough first striking and flying white creatures that it is unlikely that they would use a Peregrine Mask without the Concerted Effort.

Terrarion – Some people swear by this Chromatic Sphere wannabe. I dislike it. Even when I’m playing a 3-colored sealed deck in Ravnica, I dislike it. It tells you two possible things when your opponent plays this on turn 1 – either they have a mana base that is unsteady and they feel the need for a little fixing or they needed a 40th card in the their deck. If the first is true, it’s very likely that they are playing 3 colors at least. If so, it can be very hard to predict what will happen next. Between there colors in Ravnica there is a lot of shared ground, and you never know which way the draft leaned for them. If it appears to have been used simply as a 40th card, well that’s alright. It just means you’ve got one less spell to worry about.

Voyager Staff – This card can sometimes be effectively used to stop Auras, but that’s a sideboard function. If your opponent drops this on turn one of the first game, you can be pretty sure that they’ve got some kind of come into play effect to abuse with it. There aren’t many of those in Ravnica, but those that exist can be pretty nasty. If your opponent appears to be playing black/blue, then the Staff could very well mean that Vedalken Dismissers or Keening Banshees are in your future. Either can be very disruptive when reused. The staff is not always a good inclusion in a deck, but I’m becoming more and more a fan of it. I think that as we see more of Ravnica block, it’s value will increase.

That’s all for this week. I hope you learned something, or possibly relearned something. It’s going to get more complex from here on out, but it’s important to start with the basics. Until next time, may your second picks be telling.

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