This time, we will get to the videos, and I’ll start with the elephant in the room: Two drafts by LSV from ChannelFireball, which he made together with one or more teammates. While these already seem extremely dated, they were published just at the beginning of this week! To round things up, I will then look at a draft by Owen Turtenwald at the same site.
This draft goes wrong immediately with the very first pick, when LSV choses Nylea’s Emissary over Voyaging Satyr. They even debate this pick, but to no avail. Why is that wrong? Because in this format, green high-end stuff is plentiful and replacable, but the acceleration enabling you to (hopefully) allow you to actually use that stuff before you die is sparse. At the same time, you’re sending a bad signal by leaving the stronger card in the same color in the pack, provided that other players are better at evaluating cards, which here, as unbelievable as it sounds, may actually be the case!
The best card in the pack, by the way, is probably Favored Hoplite, which has been called one of Theros‘ best uncommons by Tom Martell, Kai Budde & Rob Dougherty in the meantime, but since in LSV’s world view not too long ago he would „feel bad“ if he maindecked it, it doesn’t get mentioned at all.
Also note that in a really slow format, like M14, Akroan Horse would be a slamdunk firstpick here! Even in Theros it is actually very strong, with its main issue being that only rather controllish decks really want it. It can stop some kinds of aggression in their tracks, but it does not help your whatever-it-is-synergy which you rely on to win the game; it’s not pro-active enough. If such an excellent defensive card which also gives you inevitability is not even considered great by a group of players explicitly not looking to draft an aggressive deck, it says a lot about the environment (short version: You need to find something really powerful to do really fast to win, because threats are so much better and faster than answers).
Afterwards, LSV goes for a big heap of clumsy green and black cards, but manages to snatch up two Karametra’s Acolyte, which is quite lucky, considering that this card is an uncommon. Of course, an active Acolyte is just what makes the green ramp deck tick! However, to get there, you really want to put it on the board on the third turn with the help of Voyaging Satyr, and early in the third pack, LSV actually takes this very card over a Sip of Hemlock.
It obviously dawned on LSV (with some gentle nagging of, if I got that right, Ben Stark) that he really needed a few lower cost drops, and he is lucky that the boosters from the last booster round provide him with several good quality specimen of those, somehow salvaging a draft which threatened to become a clumsy trainwreck.
The games then demonstrate how punishing active decks in this format can be even if you already have a reasonable-looking board presence. Repeat after me: There are a LOT of wrong answers in Theros! One game, LSV stumbles on his mana curve, another game, he stumbles on mana for his secondary color. One big turn is all it takes for the heroic deck to steal those games (and while Anax and Cymede is a rare, the uncommon Phalanx Leader wouldn’t have been less effective).
Now let’s take a look at the second draft recorded immediately afterwards, now only with Ben Stark as support:
Shipbreaker Kraken as the very first pick is hard to criticize. While it’s slow, it is not glacially slow (like Colossus of Akros), is reasonably strong without monstrosity, and single-handedly takes over a game if it gets there. One has to keep in mind that you need to work hard to get to that point, though!
To my surprise, LSV then takes Leafcrown Dryad over Prescient Chimera, which actually shows consciousness of needing early drops! Third pick is a Gray Merchant of Asphodel then, which I don’t believe supports the firstpick Kraken better than another Chimera in that pack, but is certainly valid to try out in case Black is open. The black Emissary then is acceptable if you want to explore this option, although Wavecrash Triton would fit better with the more controllish approach demanded by the Kraken. 5th pick Ben succesfully talks LSV into taking Returned Phalanx over Horizon Scholar – I guess the frustration over the early exit in the last draft might have something to do with that.
Then comes a pick which doesn’t look like it could be wrong, but possibly is: Time to Feed over Asphodel Wanderer and March of the Returned. How can that be wrong, when the black cards look marginal at best? The answer lies with positioning in an archetype, and drafting consistently. While it makes sense to react to the actual contents in boosters and be willing to abandon earlier picks, Time to Feed has already a few things going against it: The bulk of picks so far lies in Black, with a clear focus on control. This doesn’t go as well with Green as with Blue (which already has the Kraken and, to some extent, the Phalanx going for it). Also, Black will very likely offer better and more reliable removal, making the green sorcery not too vital. Furthermore, the Gray Merchant of Asphodel pick only really made sense if you were willing to earnestly try to go for a deck relying on that card, and while one should not allow oneself to become beholden to that plan, Time to Feed is no urgent reason to abandon it now, either.
It’s also important to note that both black cards can serve a valid role in a black-based deck. The Wanderer can trade early with several 2/1 creatures, can block big ground-based creatures in the lategame, is a good target for Ordeals, and adds extra devotion to the board. The March is not just a source of card advantage in the lategame, but can especially be used to bring back Merchants for an encore. Picks like these can in the end make the difference between critical mass for the monoblack devotion deck and falling just short of it. If Time to Feed was not just a better card, but actually a strong pick, I’d certainly take it, but a very situational removal in a deck most likely to feature the best removal color as its primary just isn’t that strong.
Finding the point where a draft went trainwreck isn’t always easy. Sometimes it’s just plain bad luck. Sometimes, though, the first mistake might have been too subtle to notice without the benefit of reflection in hindsight, and this might be such a case, with a drafter straying from a focussed draft plan for a less then convincing reason.
Two picks later, there is a similar decision: With Fleshmad Steed and Felhide Minotaur in the pack, LSV (or rather, I think, Ben) decides to take Shredding Winds instead. Usually, it makes sense to grab a good sideboard card over a replacable maindeck card, but when you’re still in the market for monoblack devotion, this is just another small deviation which, in the end, may cost you a great deck.
At the end of the first pack, there is a „couldn’t-someone-punch-LSV?“-moment when he takes the 99% unplayable Unknown Shores over Portent of Betrayal without giving Ben time to even make a comment, but whatever – let’s just pretend this was an act of clear signaling. (Admittedly, I’m just a little testy when people recording draft walkthroughs do not give thought to the later picks in a pack.)
The second booster round opened with a really unfortunate pack devoid of any even medium strong black or blue cards. (It would be interesting to analyze what would have happened if LSV had picked up a few of the good late red cards from booster round one just in case – would a switch into Red still have been possible? I doubt it, but it’s something worth mulling over.) This forces picking Karametra’s Acolyte, being a strong incentive, together with the sheer number of green picks, to treat Green as the deck’s primary color now.
Mean as Magic booster packs sometimes can be, the next one offers only good blue cards, so that this color gets another strong pick in Thassa’s Emissary, and then comes the probably pivotal point in this draft: A pack with good Blue and Black – but also a Bow of Nylea! There is no denying of this rare’s power, and it is remarkable that it’s still in here third pick. How can you not take this card when most of your picks already are green?
How indeed. However, if we only look at the top quality cards in Black and Green, this becomes a choice between Leafcrown Dryad, Karametra’s Acolyte & Bow of Nylea versus Gray Merchant of Asphodel, Erebos’s Emissary, Lash of the Whip & Mogis’s Marauder (from this pack). If you insist on counting Time to Feed, I’ll insist on counting Returned Phalanx as well, which isn’t worse at all. Is there really more quality in Green than in Black? And which pool of cards promises to become a more synergetic deck? I’m not sure at all it was correct to take the Bow even now, but consider this: If those two picks in the first booster round I called out for possibly being subtle mistakes had gone the other way, and thus Black would have two playable cards more, and Green two less – how would Black vs Green look then, especially considering Gray Merchant of Asphodel and Mogis’s Marauder as the basis of a black devotion deck?
I feel that with this pick a great card was taken, but a possible great deck was lost. I have stressed the Zendikar component of Theros often enough so far, but let us not forget the Rise of the Eldrazi component: It’s strong synergies which make winning decks in Theros.
Later that pack, LSV durdles away the last chance for a decent deck by taking Triad of Fates, referring to Nylea’s Presence and Unknown Shores in his pool (against Ben’s strong protest even). Consequently, he then firstpicks Xenagos, the Reveler in the third booster round. (I admire Ben for not pulling the plug at this moment! I guess some people call this „entertainment“ – being German, I’m more inclined to use the untranslatable term „Fremdschämen“.) Inconsequently, he then eschews a Temple of Triumph which would have come close to make his intended splashes actually work, not even being consistent in his durdling approach!
During the rest of the draft, LSV is getting undeservedly rewarded with a few really good green cards, including a crucial Voyaging Satyr. The final deck then splashes neither the Triad nor the planeswalker, but has Green as its primary color (mostly on the back of that lucky third booster), Blue as a very sparse secondary color, and Black as little more than a splash.
This time, LSV makes it to round two, crushing a UR opponent with a rather underwhelming deck (except for Thassa, God of the Sea ). There, he meets a monoblack opponent running Felhide Minotaur and Asphodel Wanderer (yup, exactly the cards he did not want to take) – and the Wanderer even stops LSV from winning with a superfatty in the first game! In the end, Abhorrent Overlord and Gray Merchant of Asphodel show him the power of mono-black devotion he declined to aim for. Fair is fair. Admittedly, his opponent had great draws, going a bit beyond what he earned with his consistent approach. The lesson is still the same: You cannot control your games in Theros draft – some big play will find you unprepared. Act, do not react.
To complete the trifecta of unsuccesful drafts on ChannelFireball, let’s jump to a newer draft by Owen Turtenwald (I’ll get to the more succesful draft by Caleb Durward in the next installment of this series):
Contrary to LSV, Owen is not fooling around, but actually trying to draft decently, and giving good explanations for his picks. I agree with his first five picks, but after that I think taking Chosen by Heliod to stay monowhite is a bit too forced when there is a Leafcrown Dryad in the same pack, and Nessian Courser should be picked higher than Centaur Battlemaster (which Owen takes, but has second thoughts about later).
With two Chronicler of Heroes wheeling, there is no real doubt that Owen wants to go Selesnya, although he is a bit heavier in Green than would have been necessary after the first pack.
First pick in the second pack, Owen does exactly what I advocated in a similar situation in LSV’s draft: Take the 2-mana accelerator (here even a manafixer in addition) Sylvan Caryatid over Nylea’s Emissary! Alas, this is a similar, but not the same situation: Since it is already certain that the deck will end up GW, the ramping approach is less attractive – the strength of this color combination lies in a fast beatdown deck going over the top via heroic; not in pumping out monstrous threats. Also, it makes sense to priorize one color over the other in general for more consistent starts, and in this draft specifically White over Green. Thus the Caryatid would not be my first choice – well, not even my second (money considerations ignored): Both Nylea’s Emissary and Savage Surge make more sense in the deck I’d try to sculpt here, and the nod would actually go towards Savage Surge, since combat tricks helping me to punch medium-sized creatures through bigger blockers are crucial to the success of this archetype (also, triggering heroic for 2 mana will usually be more helpful than going for a 6-mana bestow). This is another case of a pick which doesn’t look like it can be wrong, but subtly nudges a draft in a bad direction.
I also disagree with Time to Feed next pick over Traveling Philosopher and Staunch-Hearted Warrior. If I had Savage Surge in my pool, I would be tempted to take the 2-drop here, but the right pick is probably the heroic creature in both cases. Time to Feed is too reactive and situational for the deck I envision.
Afterwards, Owen slams Nemesis of Mortals, but as great as this card is, it’s the wrong choice for a really strong GW deck – Battlewise Valor is better, and Ordeal of Nylea is actually best. In this booster round, Owen is steering towards a way too slow Selesnya version.
Then, Phalanx Leader over Wingsteed Rider is still correct, BUT it also means that it is high time to go for cheap creatures! A few picks later the 3-mana-slot is filled to the brim with quality after two more Wingsteed Rider have shown up, and then Owen picks up a Bronze Sable…and immediately hides it. Ouch! He even gets to wheel the Savage Surge, so the deck could still get back on course.
Starting the third booster round with Dauntless Onslaught is perfect, but then disaster strikes: Owen can not resist Arbor Colossus – completely understandable. A real man, though (okay, a real man who is an excellent drafter) would have passed both Arbor Colossus and Nessian Asp for the lowly Traveling Philosopher, aka as „what the deck actually needs“! Hundred-Handed One next pick also isn’t exactly what the deck needs either, but neither is another 3-drop (Nessian Courser), so it’s alright to go for power with this pick. Owen then proceeds to seal his fate taking a second Nemesis of Mortals over Sedge Scorpion, Time to Feed over Leafcrown Dryad, Traveler’s Amulet over Cavalry Pegasus, and finally Dark Betrayal over Bronze Sable. That’s nothing less than suicide by too high mana curve! (Also, what the heck does he want with Dark Betrayal – splash it after sideboarding? He DOES realize that taking the potentially strongest card is NOT the same as hatepicking – or doesn’t he?)
Owen utters a few times that his deck is great, but that is just not true: His card quality is great (even outstanding), but his deck is a failure, especially after he leaves most of his few 2-drops in the sideboard.
Admittedly, his loss in the first game against Wingsteed Rider + Hopeful Eidolon could likely not have been prevented by drafting a faster deck (well, Leafcrown Dryad might have helped), but these things happen in Theros draft – what you need to do is make sure that, most of the time, YOU make them happen. Trying to prevent them is futile. (This doesn’t mean you should not use reactive cards, just focus on action instead of reaction.)
In the second game, color screw gets Owen, and that is something he likely COULD have prevented by drafting more tightly and ending up with W/g instead of fully blown WG.
One of Owen’s last comments: „I actually thought my hand was absurdly good.“ Well, it wasn’t: The cards in his hand were absurdly good – but they were in his hand, which wasn’t good at all. His opponent’s cards, on the other hand, were on the board, and THAT was good.
To be honest, even if Owen had drafted perfectly, he would have needed excellent starts to beat his opponent’s very strong draws. The point stands, though, that in the first place you have to give your deck the opportunity to produce such draws in Theros, and this he failed to do.