Kategorie-Archiv: Draft

Analyzing published Theros drafts, part 2

This is the entry which started it all, and here is part 1.

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.

Link to draft video 1

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.

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Analyzing published Theros drafts, part 1

After elaborating on the theory in my last entry – together with a good measure of overdue rambling – I will now get a little closer to the praxis of Theros draft by analyzing published drafts (publishing my own drafts is in the works).

I’ll start with a draft by Kyle Boggemes on Blackborder, because it is in textform (with pictures), lending itself to a detailled analysis where you can easily follow my remarks. I’ll use the opportunity to say a lot of things which shed light on the general nature of Theros drafts, commenting on nearly every pick. When analyzing videos, I will be a lot more brief, since I cannot expect my readers to follow those draft videos while reading my text at the same time.

Kyle’s general approach is already more fitting for the environment than that shown in the newest published LSV draft videos (to be fair, those were recorded before Pro Tour Dublin, but then again, why aren’t there newer ones?) Unfortunately, he isn’t consistent enough with it.

Kyle correctly identifies his first pack as rather weak. I’m glad he doesn’t go for the immensely overrated Psychic Intrusion here, and I kinda agree with his choice of Nessian Courser. Note that I do not consider Lash of the Whip to be the next-best choice, but Akroan Crusader – actually I would have taken the Crusader, but that is a meatagame call: He is better in the decks where you really want him; but Courser is useful in a lot more deck types, and will always be strong. The other commons are all inferior to these choices, but Shipwreck Singer and Sentry of the Underworld deserve a mention: They have the highest power level of all cards in the pack, but Kyle does not consider them for good reasons (I assume). You do not want to splash in this format (if it were actually slow, you would; but it is emphatically not), so these picks are restricted to a specific 2-color combination and thus not too likely to finally make your deck. While splashing the Sentry is not completely out of the question, it is not that much more powerful than the Courser to justify taking it, and the Singer is practically unsplashable.  Note that it is actually thinkable to take the Singer and hope to be able to get into Dimir- the siren is certainly strong enough to tempt you – but right now, as slow decks are still overdrafted and fast decks underdrafted, this is the wrong way to go, especially with the Intrusion in the same pack luring a player behind you into the same colors. When this format will be more widely understood, and other drafters can be expected to look for faster decks and ignore the slow rare, the Singer might become the correct pick, but we’re far from that situation yet.

In pack two, Kyle boldly takes Firedrinker Satyr, and I’m impressed! I can actually not judge yet if the Satyr is really stronger than Deathbellow Raider, but the important thing is that Kyle goes for an aggressive critter in a pack with Observant Alseid and Dissolve (the counter shouldn’t even need to be mentioned here, but I’m certain many drafters would consider it). While this is not wrong, it’s somehow inconsistent. If you pick the Crusader in pack 1, then by all means go for the satyr or the minotaur here. If you started on the centaur, however, I feel the satyr cannot be the best choice, since you did not commit to the all-out aggro plan and have good options now to either stay with a high quality general purpose card (the nymph) or a strong 2-drop (the Raider). Kyle’s 2nd pick is by no means bad, but he isn’t exactly on an optimized strategy either.

3rd pick Titan’s Strength is easy and easily correct.

4th pick Nessian Courser, however, while a strong pick and no real mistake, is once again not strategically optimized. Yes, the Courser is a bit stronger than Spearpoint Oread, but not much, and taking the nymph would keep open Kyle’s options better, since he wouldn’t really commit to Green then yet. Another alternative is Sedge Scorpion, which is actually good in both fast and slow decks – 1-drops which are still relevant in later turns are just what you want! If you already had an Ordeal in your pool, the Scorpion might be the better pick here.

5th pick Minotaur Skullcleaver, then, might be a bit of a result of tunnel vison. I like Skullcleaver more than most, I guess, but Nimbus Naiad simply plays in another league and might be a sign that Blue is open (especially when side-by-side with Sea God’s Revenge). If Kyle’s last pick had been the Oread, taking the minotaur would have been outright wrong, since he would have no real reason to stay with the plan of GR vs UR then. Even with the 2 Coursers, his choice is still doubtful, with Green not being untouchable yet, and Red even less. If you want to commit to Gruul for metagame reasons, this pick is fine and has no competition, but an open-minded drafter has to go for the Naiad here.

6th pick Voyage’s End – correct from any point of view – underscores the missed chance to move into Blue.

7th pick Karametra’s Acolyte is correct, since it is the strongest card and on-color. Even if Kyle will not end up playing it (it is entirely possible to build a Gruul deck too fast to want it), he has to take it for signaling reasons. Also, the next-best choice, Baleful Eidolon, has no realistic chance to be more than a hatepick (and Acolyte is actually the better hatepick anyway).

Then, 8th pick Omenspeaker after Voyage’s End and (missed) Nimbus Naiad once again illustrates the value of staying open-minded. Very probably Kyle misses out on drafting a stronger deck including Blue, even though he takes the scryer here over Fade into Antiquity, which is flatout wrong if he feels he is already committed to Gruul (as he claimed and proved before).

Kyle’s 9th pick, Traveler’s Amulet without a comment, makes no sense at all. If you want to be aggressive GR, you have no use for it. If you consider audibling to Simic-based ramp, where the Amulet might have a place, Aqueous Form or Stymied Hopes still would serve your need better (not the least because of signalling). If you want to hatepick, there’s still that Sentry of the Underworld in the pack. The Amulet is the best pick in a vacuum, but 9th pick is a good step away from drafting in a vacuum.

10th pick Agent of Horizons is correct and once again showing that Simic was a good, but neglected option.

11th pick Benthic Giant actually seems like another statement to be willing to abandon Gruul, because if you plan on gong fast GR, Traveling Philosopher is the better hatepick. (Then again, I’m convinced Kyle simply drafted on autopilot during all later picks.)

There’s nothing important to say about the rest of pack 1, so let’s get to the next one:

Pick 1, Kyle once more demonstrates that he is not consistent in what he does. So, is he seriously exploring Blue or not? If yes, Vaporkin is the pick here, which is just a tad stronger than Leafcrown Dryad (solely on the principle that threats are better than answers). At least he should have mentioned it. Did he even realize that, at this time, he was much closer to Simic than Gruul, and might even still end up in Izzet? Note that my criticism so far was less about the picks themselves and more about Kyle’s overall draft approach.

That changes with the second pick from pack 2. Anger of the Gods is just horrible here! So, do we consider ourselves to be Gruul? Then the sweeper doesn’t fit our strategy at all, and while we might still include it in our deck due to its sheer power, there’s no way we want it over Nemesis of Mortals. That Kyle should have looked to go Simic at this time makes that pick even worse, of course. The final irony is that his bias for Gruul was because he wants to be aggressive, and now he takes a card which just doesn’t work with this approach! Even less sense makes it that Kyle believes his choice is between Anger of the Gods and Ill-Tempered Cyclops – WHAT?

All hopes I had for Kyle then go down with his next pick and his reasoning for it. So, he was on the fence between Blue and Red, okay – but then it’s Magma Jet over Prescient Chimera which decides things for him? The Jet was at first terribly overrated and now starts to become criminally underrated (being called „unplayable“ even!), but in the end it is somewhere of a toss-up between the two cards – certainly not a reason to decide for Red which should already have been behind in the race! But wait, it gets worse: There is a Coordinated Assault in the pack! Unless you’re really dedicated to a ramp strategy (which Kyle undoubtedly is not), that instant is simple the better card in any Gruul deck, and the better, the faster that deck is! That is the second gross mispick.

3rd pick Leafcrown Dryad then is fine. Even for Simic I value it higher than Horizon Chimera. For Gruul, Flamespeaker Adept is actually the closest contender, but as insane as that card can be in Boros or Izzet, it doesn’t shine as much in Gruul, even if Kyle already has one each of Magma Jet and Titan’s Strength.

And now for another gross mispick: 4th pick Vulpine Goliath does not belong in the same deck as Firedrinker Satyr as long as you have any influence on its focus. Actually, it only belongs in ramp decks (but shouldn’t be needed there most of the time, since there are so many better options), is barely tolerable in UG tempo, and unplayble in any really aggressive build. Kyle is not on the way towards ramp, and he has already a few cards working well with Two-Headed Cerberus. Even without the red card in this pack, Anvilwrought Raptor would have served him better.

I lose even more respect for Kyle at pick 5 when he groups together the Cerberus and Pheres-Band Centaurs as „random creatures“. He’s right about the Centaurs, of course, but a 3-drop which can take a game over on turn 4 and win at any time out of nowhere is not „random“ at all! His pick, Time to Feed, looks reasonable, though, simply because he needs that kind of effect. But then again, his deck is not at all well suited to use it: He neither intends to nor has the means to actually go big with his creatures. So, what is he going to do with Time to Feed – kill random 2/2s via Nessian Courser? That doesn’t look as exciting as trying to actively win the game. However, since it is true Kyle isn’t lacking 3-drops so far, and since he isn’t THAT big on synergies with the Cerberus, the removal is probably no bad choice, giving him more deckbuilding options.

Kyle’s 7th pick is the kind of pick that makes me ask why this draft has been accepted by the editor of that site. I, at least, wouldn’t want to feature a writer who isn’t honestly trying his best. Ashen Rider is not even a moneypick! Anvilwrought Raptor is a valuable option, and Prescient Chimera and Leonin Snarecaster are valid hatepicks. (I’d certainly grab the Raptor here.) By picking the Rider without comment Kyle Boggemes is deriding his readership.

8th pick Coordinated Assault is a clear case of undeserved luck. I don’t suppose that will happen very often once Theros has been drafted a while.

9th pick: Vaporkin still in showcases again what kind of chance was missed eschewing Blue. I’m not sure about Wild Celebrants here – Kyle already has a Demolish for his sideboard, which I consider superior, and even if I want a second artifact removal, I just take the second Demolish. Answers are about reliability, and R3 can be cast a lot more reliable than RR3, even though the additional 5/3 creature can lead to a nice blowout. Then again, if you plan to maindeck the Celebrants, this pick makes some sense. I wouldn’t, though. Instead, Prowler’s Helm seems like a nice sideboard option. If you prefer to hatepick instead, Gods Willing would be your choice, since this deck at least has the tools to deal with Vaporkin.

Among the later picks from that booster round, I just want to comment on pick 11: Taking Guardians of Meletis is silly. Kyle will never run them, so a hatepick would have been in order (probably Spellheart Chimera, but actually the Guardians are the worst choice besides Forest).

In the last booster round, it’s hard to argue with Ember Swallower as a 1st pick – but I’ll try: If Kyle were actually on course towards aggressive RG, Arena Athlete might be a better pick! Certainly, if drafting GR aggro goes perfectly according to plan, Arena Athlete is miles stronger in it. But then, things rarely go perfectly according to plan, and especially not this draft. Seeing what a hodgepodge Kyle’s drafted cards are so far, the Swallower is the only correct choice.

Pick 2: Lightning Strike is worse than many thought at first, but a lot better than some thought a little after. If the Ordeal in this pack was the red one, it would have to be taken over the Strike. As for the green one, there are possible decks where this would still be a better choice, but not many, and certainly not if you do not already have a Lightning Strike. Note that in some decks (ramp) an Ordeal would be no competition for the solid burn spell, no matter the color, but in the typical red Theros draft deck the red Ordeal trumps the Strike.

Pick 3: That I agree with Nessian Courser over Satyr Rambler here shows that Kyle’s initial plan has failed. Obviously, the Courser is the clearly stronger card, but if this deck were really aggressive, its quota of 3-drops would already have been fulfilled, while its quota of 2-drops is still sorely lacking. It’s too late to do something about that, though, because it’s not only the curve which is deficient, but also the necessary supporting cards, and there’s no hope of picking up enough of both during the rest of that booster round. If you are unable to cross a minimal threshold for archetype synergy, you just have to go for higher average card quality, so Nessian Courser it is.

Pick 4 is an example, though, of blindly giving up any deck focus. Yes, in a vacuum Voyaging Satyr is by far the strongest RG card in this pack. But it is so not what Kyle’s deck needs! Titan’s Strength would have been a clearly better choice, and Savage Surge undoubtedly the best.

5th pick Kyle notices his own error: Yes, this should have been Titan’s Strength instead of Nylea’s Disciple. Funny how he doesn’t even mention Voyaging Satyr this time!

6th pick: It’s nice and rare to see a Theros drafter pick up Bronze Sable because they realize that they need more 2-drops, but in this special case the card most likely to help Kyle’s deck would have been Portent of Betrayal.

7th pick & 8th pick: Kyle’s deck actually still needs playables fitting his deck better than Karametra’s Acolyte or Anger of the Gods, and this is what he picks up here with the second Bronze Sable and Pheres-Band Centaurs.

9th pick: So, the 2-drops have actually come, after all! Now, if we had a few Feral Invocation & Savage Surge to go with Titan’s Strength and Coordinated Assault, and maybe an Ordeal or two… but we don’t. Still, Satyr Rambler is obviously correct.

My last draft comment goes towards pick 13: Setessan Griffin over Fleshmad Steed is the wrong hatepick, simply because there is no dearth of high-end cards, but a drafter might actually still need the Steed to fill out his curve.

About deckbuilding: The sheer idiocy of secondpicking Anger of the Gods becomes painfully obvious when Kyle – correctly – leaves that card out of his deck. It makes sense to leave out Karametra’s Acolyte as well. It would also have made sense, though, to replace Voyaging Satyr with the second Bronze Sable, or even better with Agent of Horizons. Changing a Mountain to an Island for the Agent wouldn’t be strictly necessary, but is entirely possible.

Other than that, there’s not much to do. Kyle is right to be less than pleased with his concoction: It’s essentially a heap of creatures, although at least with a good curve, but without the necessary synergy to make it a real deck.

Concerning the games, there’s not much to say. I just want to highlight that Yoked Ox getting an Ordeal – doesn’t it remember you of those Kraken Hatchling + Goblin War Paint starts in Zendikar? It should! The real lesson here, though, is that in Theros draft, the first big play is likely to decide the game (as is color screw). This is not a forgiving environment for durdlers. (No wonder LSV is already back to cubedrafting in his ChannelFireball videos!)

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Eliminating misconceptions about Theros draft

From the Theros product page on DailyMTG:

Prerelease Events: September 21-22, 2013
Release Date: September 27, 2013
Magic Online Release: October 7, 2013

So, this set has now been around for a while. It has even been drafted at both a Grand Prix and a Pro Tour already. And yet, publications all over the net are still struggling to come to terms with the fundamental dynamics of this environment, even though a careful analysis of the set’s card pool would have allowed for predicting them even before its first boosters were opened at prerelease tournaments. Sadly, the art of such analysis seems to be lost, since most players prefer practice to theory, which is even true when it comes to reception of content. Tobias Henke, chief editor of PlanetMTG, explicitly told me that his site is no longer interested in theoretical articles addressing limited strategy, because draft videos are immensely more popular; and this very trend has, with a little delay, become obvious on english speaking sites, too. More or less, the only widely popular remnant of text-based analysis of new sets are LSV’s preview articles on ChannelFireball, which embody everything I used to fight against years ago on German sites (even with moderate success): They’re written before the author has any real clue about the environment; they use an impractical and barely meaningful rating system; they are written with the hottest needle available, processing from card to card without any effort to group cards in a sensible manner, to outline important concepts, or to summarize uninteresting and obvious comments; and they take weeks to get from the beginning (invariably the color white) to the end (usually artifacts and lands). Oh, LSV’s stuff is actually even worse, since he idiotically mixes up limited and constructed previews! If any unknown author would dare to offer such pathetic content, they would surely become the target of well deserved, generously dealt out flaming and sneering, and not even an avalanche of puns of (at best) highly variable quality would save them. There are not many people in the world who COULD write a really good limited preview, and if those people decline to do so because they fail to put even the slightest effort into their writing, relying on their household name to gain public approval (which works like a charm each time, since Magic players are really big on hero worshipping), this infuriates me.

However, the negligence of not even trying seems to have fostered the issue of actually no longer being able to! Unless they are misleading their viewers on purpose (and I must confess, I’m really close to believing they actually do), LSV and his teammates – some of the very best players in the world, including proven limited authority Ben Stark –  showcase in their draft videos that they have actually fallen short of grasping the basic nature of this draft environment. If those pros are unable to discover swiftly what’s going on, how should anyone else? Well, several other people were, at the same time, already considerably further ahead on the learning curve; but more importantly, there are basic analytic tools available to gain a good fundament of knowledge about a set’s draft dynamics, which I will explain later in this article.

Let us talk about what has most probably been instrumental in giving many drafters completely wrong ideas about the nature of Theros draft: LSV’s first installement of Theros previews; and Marshall Sutcliffe’s limited column following a few days later (while Marshall is obviously not nearly as much a lauded pro as LSV, he reaches a lot more people since he writes for DailyMTG).

There were two outstanding passages in LSV’s article which made my jaw drop (actually, I was shouting at my screen in disbelief):

Theros is shaping up to be slow enough

and

White… doesn’t look particularly aggressive

Let that sink in for a moment.

What do you say – these are rather vague expressions with little clarity on what „slow enough“ or „particularly aggressive“ means? Well, vagueness is a good reason for criticism in itself, but in this case the context is sharply illuminating the intended meaning. You see, in that review LSV gives both Favored Hoplite and Ordeal of Heliod a 1.0 (according to his own definitions, stated anew at the beginning of every article, this means „I feel bad when this card is in my main deck“). He also gives a rating of 1.5 to both Traveling Philosopher and Silent Artisan. His top 5 commones include Divine Verdict, but not Battlewise Valor. All this makes for an actually VERY clear (and thus, VERY wrong) statement: White does not want cheap drops and efficient creature pump, because you usually can not expect to draft an aggressive white deck.

Now, the reality check: RW is the fastest archetype in the environment (maybe tied with BR). UW can be drafted in every speed in between very slow and very fast – but usually, the faster it gets, the stronger it becomes. GW can either be implemented as fast aggro, or as a kind of midrange deck which tends to win with a sudden burst of speed rivalling that of low-curve aggressive decks in actually slow formats. BW gives you incentives to be a little more controllish, but you will stil win many games on the back of cheap creatures, some evasion and a plethora of combat tricks and good enhancers. Overall, White is probably the fastest color (only real contender is Red) in an environment with a large number of really fast archetypes.

Other than the color combinations with White, there is also BR (which really wants to be fast beatdown), a beatdown version of BG, a beatdown version of GR, and UR and UG, which both lead to very unforgiving tempo decks if drafted correctly. Actually, the only 2-color combination which really wants to be controllish (and does reasonably well with it) is UB, while the other slower archetypes are Mono-Black, Green-based ramp, lategame-oriented UW skies and lategame-oriented UR instery recursion. But even those slower decks tend to employ threats able to win out of nowhere in short time quite early. Putting down consecutive Gray Merchant of Asphodel on turns 5-7 (maybe with the help of a Rescue from the Underworld) is not exactly slow in the way many M14 decks were slow, and neither is going monstrous with Nessian Asp or Nemesis of Mortals on turn 6, or bestowing an Emissary on Benthic Giant on turn 7.

Theros might not be quite as fast as triple-Zendikar was (although some of its archetypes rival the fastest from that environment with their speed, you have a more realistic choice to do something else than go all-out on aggro in Theros), and there is an interesting debate lurking here about how to exactly define the speed of a limited environment, but for the purpose of drafting, building and piloting your deck, you have to be aware that you live in a fast world, where turn 4 kills will actually happen; where stumbling on either early mana or early drops will often already decide a game; and where nearly any opponent can win in the blink of an eye seemingly out of nowhere, even if you believe you have answers ready. (There are a LOT of wrong answers in Theros limited!)

But why is that, when there seemed to be many indications that Theros should be slow, and players like LSV (or, much more relevant here, Ben Stark) fell for it? Allow me now to quote from Sutcliffe’s article (which convinced me that this guy should better not write about limited strategy at all):

The removal in Theros is slow! Very slow. Some of the slowest removal I have seen, in fact. And as I mentioned at the onset of this article: the slower the removal, the slower the format.

Now, do you spot the mistake here? Okay, apart from much of Odyssey-block removal actually being even slower than Theros removal, it is of course the assumption in the end which is faulty: The slower the removal, the slower the format.

Really, can’t that guy write about… I don’t know… maybe, Snakes and Ladders instead? Let me break that down for you: All other things being equal, the slower and more inefficient the removal, the faster the format. This is because the speed of a format lies in its abundance of aggressive cheap creatures, its density of affordable evasive creatures, and in its abundance and efficiency of creature enhancers (including combat tricks). Cheap, efficient removal tends to slow a format down: While both aggressive and defensive decks can make excellent use of it, defensive decks NEED it to answer evasive creatures and to neutralize enhanced creatures. At the same time, such removal makes combat tricks less attractive and enhancers in general an invitation to get blown out, severely hampering aggressive decks‘ abilities to break through opponents‘ defenses.

Now the situation in Theros is this: Most removal is either situational, or expensive, or both. Creature enhancers, on the other hand (this includes auras as well as the heroic and monstrosity mechanics), are stronger than ever before. Combat tricks are cheap, efficient and plentiful. There is no dearth of quality cheap creatures, and there is a very reasonable amount of evasion in the set. All this points to Theros draft being quite a fast format!

Do people not realize how much Theros resembles Zendikar in single cards and mechanics? Vaporkin is Welkin Tern. Leonin Snarecaster is Goblin Shortcutter. Yoked Ox is Kraken Hatchling. Borderland Minotaur is Shatterskull Giant. Fleshmad Steed is a kind of Hedron Scrabbler – you better don’t plan on blocking with it too often. (Minotaur Skullcleaver and Deathbellow Raider, on the other hand, were borrowed from the lightning-fast Boros Archetype in DGR.) Heroic has a similar dynamic as allies. Both monstrosity and landfall allow decks to keep up and even intensify pressure if they hit a clump of lands.

Some things are different, however. Removal in Zendikar was a lot more efficient, but at the same time there also was a lot more evasion. Good defensive creatures are more plentiful in Theros. The latter fact is the biggest trap in evaluating this environment, though, because playing a big creature is unlikely to stem the tide if it is already your last resort after a slow start! Every kind of creature enhancing (which includes the three most prominent set mechanics!) favors per definition the attacker (since he is the one having his mana open in combat); and tempo cards – which are high quality in Theros, unlike straight removal – always punish big creatures on defense. If you are behind on the board, it is really tough (not outright impossible, but unlikely) to come back with a big play.

On the flip side, if you are already applying pressure, all your enhancing tricks are that much better, since you can safely use them when you forced your opponent to tap out. This is why bestow actually makes the format faster, even though it is expensive: It works best if you already have a board presence and your opponent is backpaddling. From that it follows that you want a good curve, including 2-drops (even though they might become irrelevant a few turns later) and even 1-drops (to put your Ordeals on, which apply Steppe Lynx / Plated Geopede level early pressure to your opponent). 2-drops becoming irrelevant in the lategame is actually not a big deal, because a) there will often be no lategame, and b) the lategame is usually won by ONE BIG THREAT, and it doesn’t really make a difference if you chump that ONE BIG THREAT with a lowly Satyr Rambler, or with a reasonably big Borderland Minotaur – well, actually it does: The Rambler is much more likely to be actually on the board to chump!

So, overall, Theros plays like a mixture from Zendikar and Rise of the Eldrazi: You need to be active, you need to be on the board as early as possible, and you need to be able to go big on whatever your chosen synergy (ultra-aggro, heroic, tempo, ramp, devotion) is consistently. Most of this could have been found out quite early by carefully analyzing the spoiler and do a couple mock drafts on LeBestiare or a similar medium – and I actually did (check out my tweets if you don’t believe me!)

So this is what I guess led to the false impression that Theros draft is a „slow format“ (by the only useful definition of allowing you to get to the lategame without substantial concessions to early plays, and enabling you to consistently answer threats with reactive builds; two assumptions which are both dead wrong):

1. Both monstrosity and bestow need a lot of mana, so we can assume we will regularly be able to spend that much mana (this is wrong because bestowing or going monstrous is actually only needed once in most cases to end or – if you’re lucky – turn around a game).

2. Removal is expensive, and you want to play that removal, since you need to deal with monstrous/bestowed creatures, so games will come down to big threats vs expensive removal (this is wrong because games instead often come down to fast threats against uncastable cards or big threats against irrelevant cards, and because removal, even when finally online, cannot reliably remove big threats).

3. Heroic is a niche archetype which is easily hated and not really THAT fast since the best heroic creatures cost 3 mana (this is wrong because heroic becomes unstoppable too fast, and because heroic enablers also go well with more conventional aggro strategies, both preventing them from being hated too easily and allowing them to be used by more drafters).

At least I suppose it must have been something like this (note that it never really occurred to me that Theros could be a particularly slow environment)… but why did the best players in the world, even after several test drafts, not notice that their initial assumptions were wrong? Well, that phenomenon is known as „incestuous playtesting“ (or, more nicely put, convergent groupthink): If no one in a group believes aggro is the way to go, then aggro will not be drafted (at least neither often nor consequently enough). Decks without early pressure will face off against each other, and here, of course, the slower decks will prevail, even strengthening the intial bias.

It happened before. I remember when some pros claimed that Reckless Scholar was the best common in Zendikar draft, because that environment was so slow… no, I’m not making that up – honestly! I ridiculed that opinion immediately, but since it was voiced by pros, and I was not a pro, I was ridiculed back. Steppe Lynx, by the way, got an 1.0 from LSV for limited back then – sounds familiar? And even on the first professional event featuring Zendikar draft, top pros left the Lynx in the sideboard of nominally aggressive white decks. In comparison, misjudgement of Theros is not even quite as egregious, but unfortunately, more persistent!

In my next entries (soon to follow, I hope) I will take a look at a few draft walkthroughs which are available on the net, comment on the drafting which took place, and analyze the games to illustrate my points (while I’m reasonably confident in my ability to predict draft environment dynamics, I do not assume that I could never be wrong, and thus I did a lot of checking up on other players‘ experiences to complement my own experiences and theories).

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