Kategorie-Archiv: Theros draft

Good Player Bias

I’m done now with my „Analyzing Published Theros Drafts“ series. I got enough positive feedback that I am convinced it was worth writing it, but to keep going I would have needed quite heavy additional encouragement, since this kind of article really takes a lot of time. Still, I feel I cannot leave out a video which shows an at the same time unparalleled disastrous and hilarious, but most importantly insightful draft. It’s also a really good fit for a topic I wanted to write about for some time: Good player bias.

There are many different types of players who tend to possess different preferences (which is actually one of the most useful ways to categorize them), and this leads to them having different biases as well. Naturally, player types overlap a lot, and some categories go together more often than others. This is why you will find certain kinds of biases more often among better players.

Typically, good players prefer control decks over aggro decks. This is because control decks are reactive instead of active, and because they plan for longer games instead of trying to win as fast as possible. Both these approaches translate into more options and thus more decisions during a game, which in turn means that these players can make better use of their playing skill, and that games are more likely decided by good or bad decisions instead of chance. This does emphatically not mean that playing aggressive decks competently requires little skill, but control decks maximize the influence playing skill has on the outcome of games. Notably, aggro mirrors are much more likely to be decided on better draws than control mirors.

This preference goes well with the dynamics of fresh constructed environments. The good aggressive decks in a metagame are usually found out earlier than their control counterparts, because they can focus on how they want to win, while control decks have to figure out what they have to beat. Finding good control decks and correctly playing them is thus both harder and takes more time than finding good aggro decks, although both types continue to evolve with the maturing of a format. This means that any new constructed metagame is likely to look like it’s dominated by aggressive decks in the beginning, but good players know that it is typically just a question of time until strong control decks surface.

This insight, however, leads to a fatal bias when analyzing new limited environments – because here things are actually the other way around! In limited, everyone will identify the means to win longer games soon: Removal, card advantage, single unanswerable threats. Finding the right tools for implementing focussed and synergetic aggressive strategies, however, takes time. In a draft, if you just pick strong cards (abiding to basic rules of deck construction), you will usually end up with a reasonably strong control deck – at least reasonably strong relative to the overall power level of these decks in an environment. To build aggressive decks, you cannot just pick cards, you have to build a focussed, well-rounded deck while drafting, which is much harder!

Good players – and I talk about the actually BEST players in the world here, to whom LSV certainly belongs as a prime example! – tend to have a blind spot for the skills needed to draft good aggressive decks. They are used from their constructed experiences to aggro mainly building itself, so they do not look for ways to improve any aggressive decks they might try out in the beginning, instead focussing on control strategies, just as they do in constructed. Thus, they not only miss out on the true strength of aggressive decks in an environment, they also spend their playtesting time less efficient, because in limited, fine-tuning control decks gives you less reward than in constructed, while fine-tuning aggressive decks leads to a considerably larger increase in win percentage at first – just the opposite to constructed!

This is one of the reasons why some good players actually prefer high-level events to be constructed instead of limited (although nearly every skilled player loves draft more than constructed overall): They’re simply not as good at it before the metagame has settled and the structure of succesful archetypes is well known. (The other reason is that top players tend to be connected very well with playtesting partners, and that efficient playtesting in a still undefined constructed metagame is a much bigger advantage than draft playtesting can ever be.)

There are more reasons why these players often fail to notice how good aggressive strategies in a draft environment actually are: One is convergent groupthink, which I already mentioned in my theoretical analysis of Theros draft. The other is the very fact that they are good players! Their skill allows them to put up better results with control decks against aggressive decks piloted by less skilled players. Moreover, they also tend to play control decks just better than aggro decks (this is inextricably linked with their inability to discover the best way to draft the latter), further warping their playtesting results.

In earlier times, good player bias manifested more often in constructed formats, too, when there were mantras like „You do not play Sligh; you find a way to beat it!“, which backfired when other players concentrated on improving the aggressive decks. Over the last years, though, it has become painfully obvious for anyone willing to actually look that good player bias leads to grave misjudgements of limited environments by many, if not most popular Magic article writers. These spread through a largely uncritical community and take roots which only get wed out irritatingly slowly.

One reason this is unlikely to change is that those very players, skilled as they are overall, are simply not aware of their deficits, and refuse to listen to criticism. On one side, they certainly have good reasons to trust their own opinions – after all, they usually ARE succesful in high-level-Magic, so obviously they do a lot of things right! On the other side, there is often a certain amount of arrogance involved – a trait which correlates somehow with both being succesful and with publishing articles, since it represents excessive confidence, an attribute needed for both. Especially criticism from unknown or less succesful players gets dismissed fast.

Now let us get to that wonderful draft by Simon Görtzen showcasing these unacknowledged deficits. I actually can not claim with authority from personal experience that Simon is, in fact, a really good player – I just watched a few of his draft videos which certainly do not point that way – but I have no doubts about it whatsoever! He has won a Pro Tour, after all, and racked up more than 100 lifetime pro tour points – as much variance as there is in Magic, it does not come anywhere close to allowing for the possibility of Simon not being a very skilled Magic player. That makes his failures here even more remarkable, though!

Note that there are very different ways of making wrong picks. Some are simply disastrously and – with some basic knowledge about the fundamental dynamics of an environment – obviously wrong. Others are really subtle mistakes which come down to choosing between nearly equally attractive cards based on an estimation of the current draft metagame; or they are tiny, seemingly unimportant decisions which nonetheless are not strategically optimized, giving a draft an unfortunate direction, and which are often only clearly recognizable in hindsight. The latter kind of mistakes will with some frequency always happen even to the best drafters. It’s still useful to point them out and analyze them, but they do not indicate a general lack of competence, unless they pile up. The former, though, are a clear sign that a drafter still has a long way to climb up on his learning curve. Most draft errors, of course, fall somewhere in between.

Simon’s very first pick is a Keepsake Gorgon over (at least according to his commentary) Titan of Eternal Fire and Battlewise Hoplite. I don’t think the Titan is seriously in the race here. Let’s assume Simon only mentions it to his readers because it’s the rare. Gorgon over Hoplite is a much more interesting decision, and I don’t think it’s correct, although it is certainly close. That the heroic creature is the stronger card should not be up to debate, but how much should the fact that it is double-colored influence our decision? In a vacuum, this would probably cancel its superior quality out. If you already know a bit about Theros draft, though, you will realize that the Gorgon’s advantage is actually quite a bit lower than it seems as first glance, since the range of good decks you can expect to draft where it fits in is rather narrow. You need to be solidly in Black, and more importantly, it is only really strong in a deck featuring ramp or being extremely lategame-oriented. The former option means explicitly that you go Golgari, and while the latter is doable in any color combination with Black, it’s really hard to make such a deck work in this environment. On the other hand, the Hoplite only goes into Azorius decks, but will be at least good in all interpretations of it (if those are built correctly). I would estimate that the average number of strong decks at one table which would actively want the Gorgon is maybe a little over 2; and that number for the Hoplite around 1. Seeing this, the multicolored creature might actually be the better pick here.

However, the real mistake here is neglecting the Nimbus Naiad! If the nymph was slightly weaker than the Gorgon, everything which spoke for Gorgon over Hoplite would speak for her – she goes in absolutely every blue deck, fast or slow, and works even as a splash (not that you should splash in Theros draft if you can at all avoid it). But since in reality the Naiad is just simply better anyway, this is a clear, even though not spectacular, mispick. Simon thus has been hurting his chances to get a strong deck from the very beginning.

Talking about spectacular mispicks: „I don’t think it wins games on its own…“ says Simon about Tymaret, the Murder King – well, yeah, that is technically correct. Hythonia the Cruel doesn’t win games on its own either – it needs lands. Tymaret needs creatures (and lands). More specifically, it needs to go into an aggressive Rakdos deck. Simon, in a perfect example of good player bias, leaves the option to draft such a deck out of his calculations, believing he is just drafting according to his preferences, but actually failing to realize what is up in Theros draft, heavily handicapping himself because of this. He takes the clumsy Lash of the Whip instead, starting his draft with two defensive picks for 5 mana. (This is a bad omen in any environment except maybe M14!)

3rd pick Baleful Eidolon isn’t exactly bad as a follow-up to Simon’s former picks (note that I always evaluate picks in the context of already made draft decisions), but by eschewing Anthousa, Setessan Hero, Simon once again shows that he shys away from taking cards which require commitment to a certain strategy, always taking the safe „good“ pick instead of trying to go for a synergetic, strong deck. It’s important to realize, though, that taking Anthousa might lead one down the dangerous route of clumsy Golgari, while one at the same time passes in Voyaging Satyr the most important common to make this archetype work. That would probably not end well, either, so taking the rare would require a willingness to possibly abandon the first few picks, which Simon is unlikely to do since he overrates them.

The 4th pick then marks the point where this draft goes from suboptimal to trainwreck. (Simon will even realize his mistake later in the draft.) So, Deathbellow Raider is only real good in aggressive decks, true. However, good BR decks are almost always aggressive, so committing to it just means committing to that color combination, which Simon should have done now at the latest (lamenting the lost opportunity in Tymaret, of course), because it is the best way to go. The alternatives are the three uncommons, all of which just don’t lead into a promising draft strategy: Reverent Hunter requires really heavy Green to be strong, which does not go with the earlier picks and is aditionally hampered by having just passed two excellent green cards – this is a situation similar to that with Anthousa, but we are a crucial additional pick later in now, and Hunter is actually weaker than the legendary hero in a typical 2-color shell. Karametra’s Acolyte has nothing going for it when compared to the Hunter – the same points speak against it (you really need to be seriously Green to make it good), and it is not as strong overall. Sentry of the Underworld goes best with Simon’s already made picks and has quite a high power level, but points to clumsy Orzhov, which as a strategy is inherently so much weaker than fast Rakdos in this environment, that it’s better to avoid the flyer.

Deathbellow Raider would have brought an already misguided draft back on track, allowing to make use of the Eidolon (which is strong in any deck) and the Lash (although you do not want too many expensive removal spells, a couple Lash and Rage of Purphoros are fine), while relegating the Gorgon to a filler which might or might not make the cut in the end. That is still a more promising direction than with the other choices from that pack, but Simon decides against it and takes the Acolyte, overestimating its ability to make clumsy lategame decks work without clear dedication to a ramp strategy.

Dear readers, if your fist four picks look similar to Simon’s first four picks in Theros draft, your alarm bells should be ringing! You are at the same time sporting several high mana cost cards, and missing strong threats. In a slow environment like M14, such a reactive setup might not get punished, but in Theros, it usually will.

Pack five doesn’t make it easy for Simon, I grant that. If one had moved into Rakdos before, Ill-Tempered Cyclops would have been fine, although not stellar, but with no Red in his pool Simon has no real alternative to picking Vaporkin, with nothing better to choose for Black or even Green than an Anvilwrought Raptor (which is okay, but not important enough to miss the opportunity to move into Blue with the much more efficient small flyer, also making an already clumsy setup even clumsier, and thus unlikely to actually find a place in the final deck).

Pack 6 scorns Simon by presenting him with even more excellent Red, and at the same time offering only more clumsy stuff in Green that does not help him at all.

Pharika’s Mender then is definitely the right pick in Simon’s situation, but another Deathbellow Raider shows what an excellent opportunity Simon missed by refusing to go for an aggressive deck. It is now too late for a switch; Simon just has to follow further the not too promising slow Golgari route – unless, of course, he decides to mess up his deck even worse, which he will soon do!

Pick 8 is when Simon finally realizes that he should have been in Red. He overrates Magma Jet, but in the end it doesn’t make a difference if he picks that or Spearpoint Oread, which are the only reasonable choices. (Yes, Unknown Shores is that close to unplayable.)

After Boon of Erebos, Simon is forced to take another red card in Portent of Betrayal, and then grabs a Titan’s Strength. It doesn’t help anymore, though – the end of the first booster round is too late a time to go for a different secondary color, if that color points toward a strategy that doesn’t fit with that of the picks in your primary color. You can generally still replace a color at this point in Theros draft, because its density of playables is very high; but you can not completely start over your deck plan. Asphodel Wanderer would have been the correct pick, sporting at least a small chance to find a place in a BG deck due to its place in the mana curve.

Satyr Rambler is then another futile efort to catch a train which has already left the station. Scourgemark is unlikely to make the cut in the end, I grant that, but it is still possible for the deck to pick up enough black devotion synergies to make it matter. (Staunch-Hearted Warrior is less of a reason, because it just doesn’t fit in slow BG, so the goal at this point must be to craft a deck where it will be left out.)

Another thing is that taking all these red cards which Simon has no hope to play is bad signaling. Since the first booster round went so terrible for him, he cannot afford to lose picks in the second by suddenly depriving drafters behind him of a color he ignored before, making them look for other opportunities which may happen to be in Simon’s colors.

Howver, there is one overarching theme to everything which went wrong with Simon’s deck so far, and that is his erroneous belief that chosing aggression or defense is only a matter of preference in Theros draft. It isn’t: Reactive decks are inherently disadvantaged and thus need an extra promising setup to be the correct way to go. Simon missed the color which was open to him because he rightfully identified that it required an aggressive setup, and then found himself without the fundaments for a working deck. He doesn’t yet realize how precarious his situation actually is, even, since he overrates several cards he took so far and underestimates the dire consequences of a too high curve and the even more dire consequences of possibly going for a third color.

Then Simon makes his first pick from the second booster round, Purphoros’s Emissary, over Anger of the Gods (which is already debatable in his situation), instead of biting the bullet and taking one of the slow black cards, which admittedly don’t fix his most urgent issues, but at least give his defensive deck some hope to set up its lategame shields, and allow him to stay BG.

Now, suddenly Simon considers himself to have moved out of Green for Red, although the Red stuff he has so far, while being more numerous, actually is still less helpful than his Green, because it is too late now to go aggressive. Maybe overstimating Magma Jet had something to do with it. Maybe Simon, who just before had realized that passing on the 2 Deathbellow Raider had been a bad move, simply fails to see that he cannot turn back time. Obviously, he isn’t aware that the single thing that could make a deck out of his heap of cards is picking up a couple of Voyaging Satyr to support his Acolyte and accelerate into his expensive cards.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Red – the color Simon declined to take early enough in the first booster round – dries up afterwards, so Simon returns to Green again. Admittedly, the packs‘ offerings kind of oscillate between Green, Black and Red, but Simon’s own unfocussed drafting in the first booster round might have had a hand into bringing this about, throwing drafters behind him for a loop. So, what he does is switch to his final strategy of going three colors on the back of double Nylea’s Presence. Simon then finally panics over his mana curve, procceding to draft more Guardians of Meletis than I’m likely to maindeck in all my future Theros drafts together, but ignoring the more mana-efficient Bronze Sable.

So, going into the third booster round, Simon’s card pool so far is even more of a mess than after the first – quite the feat! You should know that you are in deep trouble when you plan to go three colors and at the same time believe you desperately need low-quality cards like the Guardians.

Simon is then gifted with the very card his deck needs most, Voyaging Satyr (okay, Sylvan Caryatid would have been even better), but afterwards finally cements the direction his deck is taking with a Rage of Purphoros over the more curve-friendly option of Felhide Minotaur. Here also goes the last, already remote chance of staying in two colors. While picking the removal spell is at least consistent with Simon’s overall approach, as problematic as that is, the Minotaur would have filled the still lacking 3-mana slot with a much better option than the defenders he picked up earlier.

Pick three is another case of Simon taking what he wants over what he needs. If he could count on casting Lightning Strike reliably on his early turns, it would help to shore up his deck’s weaknesses somehow, but since he can’t, the land would be more useful by providing manafixing which isn’t too clumsy. I concede it is a really rare situation where you want Temple of Abandon over the instant, but Simon succesfully managed to manoeuver himself into one of them!

Talking about clumsy manafixers: This is what Burnished Hart and Opaline Unicorn are. I need to go an a short tangent here: 3-drop mana stones are NEVER good in a good deck in all but the slowest draft environments, unless they have a significant additional upside. The Obelisks in Alara weren’t good, and neither were the Cluestones in Dragon’s Maze. You sometimes had to run them, but that was always either a concession that your deck hadn’t turned out quite the way it should have, or simply a mistake. Scuttlemutt, Pristine Talisman, Coalition Relic or the Keyrunes can give you enough extra value sometimes, but are still slow. The difference between two and three mana on an accelerator is HUGE, and if your deck needs a card like Opaline Unicorn, you actually need a better deck.

I think Simon would have been way better off with the Temple before and either Bronze Sable or Agent of Horizons now, but as things stand, he probably has to go for the Unicorn.

Next pick, Traveler’s Amulet is fine, but Simon’s comment is hilarious: „I think our deck is turning out quite nicely…“ Well, yes, if you’re into train wrecks!

At the last possible opportunity, Simon is forced to take a Fleshmad Steed which will actually make the deck later. Wouldn’t it be better, then, to have grabbed those Bronze Sable?

I really hate the pool Simon ends up with. You spend all your early turns sorting out your mana and finding enough lands to play your expensive spells, and even if you survive so far, you are stuck mostly with reactive stuff and no really powerful things to do. I don’t like this kind of approach even in sealed, but in this draft environment it is literally the worst thing you can do!

However, if this is what you have to work with, you need to follow through with it. Simon’s token concessions to a resemblance of a mana curve, Fleshmad Steed and Guardians of Meletis, do not belong in the deck, and neither does Staunch-Hearted Warrior. This deck is busy enough with employing its manafixers and accelerators during its early turns, and then you just have to hope that its high quality cards in conjunction with its answers can take over the game. If it needs to fit a cheap defensive creature into a mana gap, there are three Baleful Eidolon to fulfill that role admirably. Once it starts to spend 4+ mana, it cannot make use of a creature which isn’t impressive by itself like the Warrior. Instead, it has to go for plays strong enough to stand alone, and maximize its chances to have the right removal at hand (especially hard in Theros, but that’s what Simon is in for). I would thus have gone with Fade into Antiquity – providing an effect a reactive deck in Theros cannot dispense with -; March of the Returned for card advantage and to bring back those Eidolons which will likely have died earler on defense duty; and one Viper’s Kiss to stymie early offense and shut down monstrosity, as well as miscellaneous other crucial abilities (like that of an early opposing Voyaging Satyr, or maybe a Two-Headed Cerberus with Dragon Mantle). Even when the chances that your deck works are quite low, you should still aim to maximize them.

Simon also plays too few Forest to bring his green mana cards online reliably. He correctly minimizes Red to use only cards which are still impactful in the lategame, so two Mountain would have been plenty.

The games then continue to be really instructive. In the first game, note how Simon succesfully stops his opponent’s not too fast offense, and seems to be the clear winner after he uses Magma Jet on Wingsteed Rider in response to a bestowed Observant Alseid. He has extreme card advantage on a near empty board and is still on 19 life – what could possibly go wrong? He even gets to have bigger creatures on the board and completely sorts out his mana during his next two turns!

Admittedly, he really is the clear favorite to win the game at this point – but to even my surprise he doesn’t, due to some loose play and the peculiar nature of Theros draft. When Simon makes his Cyclops monstrous, he opens himself up for a large tempo setback if his opponent has Gods Willing (which he does), instead of just adding to his board. Then his opponent shows him what Theros is all about by producing a giant threat out of nowhere, bestowing Heliod’s Emissary. Simon afterwards choses to bestow his Satyr instead of adding an additional creature to the board which would have allowed him to hit back with his Nemesis and chump the bestowed creature – an extremely poor decision, since he takes another 6 damage and suddenly is just dead to the Griffin which comes down thereafter. Simon, in typical good player bias mode, goes for value here by bestowing a creature instead of just playing one, and by taking big chunks of damage instead of chumping and racing. Admittedly, his opponent’s topdecks were very good, but what was really happening here was Simon looking for a way to lose by ignoring all considerations of tempo and board presence, and being succesful with it. Also note how he loses with several manafixers in his hand.

In the second game, Simon is the one to employ the first big unanswered threat, and wins in short order. (By the way, here we see another great example of a Bow of Nylea being practically useless on defense!)

The third game once again is extremely instructive. At first, Simon struggles to sort out his mana – he is succesful with it, but he fails to put up a meaningful board presence in the meantime. Then he ignores the threat of a Wingsteed Rider for exactly that reason, citing that he is already taking too much damage otheriwse, and instead going for his fpfp Gorgon. He gets punished in the most obvious way by another bestowing of Heliod’s Emissary. The additional land he needs to get back into the game shows up exactly one draw too late, and he dies with five cards in hand, three of them being removal which failed to be able to remove the threat he needed to remove. There are a LOT of wrong answers in Theros!

So, overall Simon did practically everything wrong which he could, going for the deck strategy least likely to succeed in Theros draft, not being consistent with it, and then throwing away a game according to his total failure to understand the fundamental dynamics of gameplay in this environment. (I’m not counting his second loss here, since it is highly doubtful that another line of play would have served him better then.)

While this draft video excellently illuminates how good player bias can cause a player to play really badly, it is also a nearly perfect guide to how-not-to in Theros draft. Do not pass up on this opportunity to learn from another player’s mistakes!

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Analyzing published Theros drafts, part 3

To my overview of Theros draft dynamics

To part 1 (about a text-based walkthrough by Kyle Boggemes)

To part 2 (about two videos by LSV and one by Owen Turtenwald)

In this part, I will wrap up the videos on Channelfireball with analyses of a draft by Caleb Durward and of another by Michael Hetrick (possibly better known as ShipItHolla). In part 4, I would get to videos on MTGO Academy by Marshall Sutcliffe and Simon Görtzen, but I’m not sure if this will happen – that depends on the feedback I’ll have gotten then. Just in case that this is the last installment of my series, let me summarize here already: Sutcliffe is largely clueless, but lucky to meet even more clueless players; while Görtzen in his first published draft gives a near-perfect rundown on everything one can do wrong when drafting and deckbuilding (sadly, without acknowledging it in the least), but at least is a better player.

So, about Caleb Durward’s draft:

Caleb had gone on record before describing his approach to Theros draft, and I was very happy to see that he hadn’t fallen for the misconceptions voiced by LSV and Sutcliffe, when I read this:

„…draft is fast, efficient, and focused on synergy“, he wrote – exactly what I had been saying all along (in my twitter feed)!

In that article, Caleb explains how he goes about drafting heroic, and while he is correct about the general dynamics in this environment, and he (and other players) were succesful with this strategy, I’m convinced that his extremely narrow approach will become less recommendable once the format has matured a little more, for the following reasons:

1. He relies on getting a critical number of key cards, which is only possible as long as aggressive white decks are being underdrafted.

2. He is vulnerable to certain effects (bounce, deathtouch), which opponents can exploit once they realize the necessity and the ways to do so.

3. Once the metagame fills with more fast decks, he will get fewer easy wins against clumsy decks, and he is not necessarily ideally set up to win aggro matchups.

I like to draw a comparison to triple Scars of Mirrodin draft here, where dedicated metalcraft and infect decks completely dominated in the beginning, but once the majority of players realized this, became to diluted and hated upon to keep that supremacy up.

Now, if you can get it, the perfect fast heroic combo deck will always be something you want to draft, but going all-in on it from the very beginning will become more and more risky, and you will probably do well to instead go for a more conventional aggressive approach including heroic combo elements, instead of exclusively relying on those. Note that conventional aggressive starts mean that your opponent’s defenses are more likely to be down once you get to your big play, that you still have a good shot at winning if your big play is somehow neutralized, and that you stand a better chance to race another aggressive deck. Theros draft is a mix of Zendikar and Rise of the Eldrazi – it is not like Modern Masters where you had to blindly go for maximum synergy!

About the draft itself:

I cannot find fault with Caleb’s picks until, in pack 8, when already quite likely in WR, he takes a Wavecrash Triton to go with his blue Ordeal instead of a Traveling Philosopher. Of course, the Titan is stronger in the decks it belongs in (either U/x control, or – more importantly – U/x tempo) than the Philosopher (which is essentially replacable by a large number of other 2-drops), but on the other hand, with the Triton Caleb is going at the same time for a color combination he is less likely to end up with (not only because of his former picks, but because heroic comes together much more easily with White than Blue), and for a shell that is not optimallly suited to comprise heroic combos (as I said before, it is better to go over the top in aggro with heroic, than to rely on it as your only way to apply pressure).

Then, I have no idea why he choses Peak Eruption over Ray of Dissolution – that can not be right, no matter what! I’m afraid that Durward is just another drafter who goes on autopilot with his last picks, but even then…

Predictably, he still ends up in Boros instead of Azorius (or even Izzet) – I’m convinced that would have happened even without Anax and Cymede in the first pack of the next booster round – and after several fine decisions is presented with two consecutive choices between Dragon Mantle and Two-Headed Cerberus, while already having 2 Dragon Mantle in his pool. The first time he takes, after some liberation, the Cerberus, which I would have done immediately, but then the third Mantle, which I strongly disagree with!

This is about what I said earlier: I do not like to rely on narrow combos when I can instead go for strong synergies. Dragon Mantle is great in any numbers with heroic creatures, very strong on a Cerberus (the first Mantle only), but at most reasonable otherwise. It’s very rarely a dead draw, since you will almost always be able to at least cycle it (maybe even with the help of an opponent’s creature), but it can still clump your draws somehow as cantrips are wont to do, because they dilute a deck’s density of impact cards (also, even only one mana, especially a colored mana, can slow you down).

Cerberus, on the other hand, is simply excellent with most of the cards your RW heroic deck will be filled with to the brim anyway. Even without a Mantle, an unblocked hound threatens to „combo off“ at any time with a few Titan’s Strength and Battlewise Valor, and it also is a superb bestow target at a good point in your mana curve. It is, at the very least, a creature, and moreover a creature your opponent can never just ignore, requiring them to play in a way which acknowledges the potential threat it presents. A starting hand with 4 lands, two Cerberus and a Mantle is just more likely to win you the game than another with a hound less and a Mantle more (Pharika’s Cure, Viper’s Kiss, Lightning Strike and Last Breath among other cards threaten to leave you without an active creature). In the end, this comes down to my preference for consistency over explosiveness, which I believe is justified in this environment, now that its really wild earliest days are over. Note, though, that I would not necessarily take the Cerberus over the first Mantle, and certainly not if I were still low on enhancers (which isn’t the case at this point for Caleb).

If you do not agree with Caleb’s firstpick from the third booster round – Akroan Crusader over Magma Jet – you’re still far away from understanding this environment! The Jet is good utility, but quite unreliable removal (2 damage is just not enough), while the Crusader is an essential part of the engine which makes yor deck win. In a dedicated RW heroic deck, there is no question at all, but even in a a Boros aggro deck less focussed on heroic, this might be the right choice, depending on your card pool so far. Wheeling the Crusader – an option Caleb mentions in passing – is not something you should rely on now that more and more players learn to ignore the LSV/Sutcliffe conspiracy to declare Theros a slow format.

Picking Heliod’s Emissary over Leonin Snarecaster then again demonstrates Caleb’s preference of going for the narrower combo build instead of the more consistent aggro approach, as does adding a second Chosen by Heliod to his already quite sizable number of enhancers instead of Priest of Iroas (or Lagonna-Band Elder, but a 3-drop isn’t needed as urgently). I like to make sure I have enough early drops to put my Ordeals on, and to pump with the likes of Anax and Cymede, Phalanx Leader or just Dauntless Onslaught. Caleb, on the other hand, instead wants to make sure that his big heroic creatures get REALLY big, and prefers to dig into his deck for combo parts instead of reliably establishing board presence.

When Caleb later picks Ordeal of Purphoros over Lightning Strike, I am completely with him, but I believe that he sells the instant a bit short, which is still a higher pick than most other cards in his pool so far: Yes, he intends to deal damage in big clumps, and he does not plan on defending himself from enemy creatures, but even with that setup, Lightning Strike as removal is important to kill problem creatures (like Sedge Scorpion, or maybe even an Agent of the Fates) or throw off combat math (by removing the last chump blocker; forcing a chump with a bigger creature, or speeding up the clock a turn by going to the dome). The latter is especially important because, given that one’s big threat does not get neutralized (Caleb’s assumption), the only choice the opponent has is to race and chump, making a highly interactive card like this invaluable. In addition to that, there are a million of less likely, but still valid uses (killing the only enemy creature in the mirror to stop the cantrip engine; removing a Xenagos, the Reveler which would produce an endless stream of blockers…) And that is just if you agree with Caleb’s drafting style – in a more conventional aggro build, Lightning Strike is as good as ever (and note the two common red first strikers)! Taking the red Ordeal higher is still correct, because it is absurdly strong in any fast build, but with the white Ordeal, for example, the choice is really close and depends on the exact situation.

It’s funny (and quite inconsistent), that Caleb now takes the generic aggressive Minotaur Skullcleaver over a second Heliod’s Emissary. While I agree the minotaur is very likely to make the cut in the end, here I would have gone for the bestow creature, which is powerful even if only ever played for 4 mana (especially since you plan on getting your one big threat to connect!) If the Snarecaster had been taken earlier, and now the Emissary – wouldn’t that look better? In my book, yes!

With the fourth Dragon Mantle over both Purphoros’s Emissary and Priest of Iroas, Caleb is really pushing his conviction about being able to get away with an incredibly high enhancers to creatures ratio…

Afterwards, Caleb is making a decision which amounts to a clear mistake even following his own philosophy: If you are all about the „build-your-own-monster“-plan, then you HAVE to take that second Gods Willing over the red Emissary! Triggering heroic and pushing through damage are options which make sure that this instant is always useful, but the really important thing is that it prevents you from losing to your opponent’s answers (for a measly single white mana you need to keep open)! Voyage’s End? Griptide? Oh, you blocked with a deathtouch critter? YOU STILL LOSE! Once this type of deck is already set up for the most part, this instant is more likely to make the difference between winning and losing than any other card! (Oh yes, and then it has scry. Want a cookie, too?)

I believe that this pick demonstrates how much Caleb is focussed on his own approach, but neglects to think about how other decks could pose problems for him, and so does the following: He blindly takes a Titan of Eternal Fire, which has no relevance to either his deck or hatepicking, and leaves a Voyaging Satyr in the pack, which is a crucial tool for many green-based decks to keep up with his tempo. Another pick later, Caleb underscores his extreme focus by simply ignoring another Leonin Snarecaster and randomly picking a Feral Invocation instead. Hey, Caleb, that card is a white Goblin Shortcutter, and you could play three copies – is that really not attractive to you?

Still, his card pool in the end is marvelous – I’d take that blindly over any yet-to-be-drafted Theros deck! (This is, though, to a large part because aggressive decks won’t stay as criminally underdrafted as they obviously were in this draft.) Of course, I would have used considerably more creatures than Caleb, and I would have preferred the additional Spearpoint Oread over Minotaur Skullcleaver, and Leonin Snarecaster over Akroan Hoplite, if forced to chose between those – I actually have no idea why Caleb decides exactly the other way, especially given his apporach! Minotaur and Hoplite are generic beaters, while Oread and the leonin lie in the same mana slots and actively support this deck’s main strategy! What was he thinking? Oh, and I would have played more Plains because, you know, I like to play my cards, especially my 1-drops, on time…

About the games: Take a look at Caleb’s very first starting hand, which he admits is close to a mulligan. Now replace on of those Dragon Mantle with a Priest of Iroas. See my point? A very risky, potentially miserable starting hand becomes a blazing gun! But only consistency is consistent…

That Caleb reaches the finals with a couple of slow and/or sketchy hands, and also even a few dubious play decisions, just goes to show how far ahead his understanding of that format was compared to that of his opponents. In the finals, then, he loses the first game to mana screw and a really bad early scoop in a situation he could easily still have drawn out of, and the decider to well-deserved mana flood after a terrible mulligan decision – and also to a bad play which failed to give his opponent the chance to screw up. (Since I have taken to watching draft videos, I still do not believe that I am a better player than I previously thought, but I realized that many other players are a lot worse than I assumed!)

A word about Caleb’s screw and flood issues: Again, the lack of consistency in his narrow deck-building approach has something to do with it. The 16 lands he runs are actually a compromise between too few, if he needs to curve out in the usual way, and too many, if he gets his cantrip engine going. Could he rely on his cantrips, 14 lands would be plenty, but if he cannot and needs to use bestow, 18 lands is what he wants. While every deck has these issues to a certain extent, Caleb’s build exacerbates them.

Now to ShipItHolla’s Draft:

When presented with a fpfp Fleecemane Lion, Michael declines to take it, because he „doesn’t like“ GW and does not want to commit to two colors… The latter would only be a valid point if the power level of the Lion weren’t head and shoulders above the rest of the pack, and the former is just silly, especially as Michael has certainly not enough experience in this format to back this notion up (actually, GW is completely fine, and there really isn’t a color combination you do not want to draft if the packs point its way). He then decides for Purphoros’s Emissary, which is still the inferior choice to Gray Merchant of Asphodel.

See, there is a difference between staying open-minded and being afraid to commit: The former is good, the latter is not. Taking the black card might lead to a broken deck built around it; it might lead to a deck where it is strong to solid, but not overwhelming; and it might in hindsight be a wasted pick, if the draft later takes another direction. The rare is a near broken card which will be very strong in any deck that runs it, although the chance it won’t get used at all is higher. The Emissary is always solid, sometimes really good, and goes in the largest number of possible decks, but still may end up being a wasted pick anyway.

Not going for power with your very first pick is simply wrong, especially in this format. Note that I’m talking REAL power here, not just a slight plus in quality which would be offset by a smaller chance to be usable: I’m talking Fleecemane Lion level power and „strongest-archetype-in-the-environment-if-you-can-get-it“ power! When your fear to „waste“ your firstpick prevents you from using the opportunities it gives you to the fullest extent, you’re not drafting to win; you’re just trying to minimize the number of decisions you might regret later. Don’t fall into this trap! (Disclaimer: No matter how much it might sound that way, this was not meant to be advice for life in general, although I’m not ruling out the possibility that it could be.)

Note that with his (completely correct) 2nd pick Phalanx Leader, Michael is already in a situation where he either has to follow through with a given 2-color combination, or lose either his firstpick or his (in this case, stronger) 2nd pick. Has this minimal delay of commitment been worth forsaking the Lion? If my first two picks in a Theros draft were Lion & Phalanx, I at least would feel like Superman! …and if they were Merchant and Leader, I would still not feel bad, since I’d still have the choice between two very appealing routes (and a less appealing one which makes use of both – unlikely, but not completely out of the question)

Wingsteed Rider over Coordinated Assault is correct in a vacuum (although not in many situations at a later point in a draft) when you’re already RW, and certainly the right choice at this early point, because the Leader is much more important than the Emissary to build a deck around, so it makes sense to strengthen your white base here instead of your red.

Two picks later, after adding a Battlewise Valor to his pool, Michael makes a gross mispick based on a gross misjudgement, chosing Minotaur Skullcleaver (which is his second red card) over Chosen by Heliod. If you have Phalanx Leader, Wingsteed Rider and Battlewise Valor this early, your draft already shows a very clear direction, and additionally considering the red Emissary doesn’t change this at all! I’m certain some players would even argue that the aura is in general better than the haste creature, but when you’re on the way towards Boros (or at least W/x) heroic as clearly as Michael is here, there is no competition.

Regarding the next booster, I like how Michael seriously considers Priest of Iroas vs Ill-Tempered Cyclops! There is a good chance that his deck will, in the end, want the Priest over the Cyclops – but then again, Priest is a card one can hope to get really late and Cyclops isn’t, so unless you are already fairly certain about the exact nature of your deck, Cyclops it is, or at least would be…

…if it wasn’t for Griptide in the same pack! Let us take a look at Michael’s Red so far: He firstpicked the Emissary, and the only other red card in his pool is his (wrongly picked) Minotaur Skullcleaver, which is eminently abandonable if a better opportunity arises – just what seems to happen here! A 7th pick Griptide might be a signal that Blue is open. At the same time, the Cyclops and the Priest are not necessarily indication for Red being open. I wrote about being open-minded vs being afraid to commit just a few paragraphs earlier. Here, as an open-minded drafter, I would test the waters (see what I did there?) by taking Griptide. If Blue continues to flow (okay, I’ll stop that), I will be rewarded with a lot of quality cards for an Azorius archetype with heroic and tempo elements, and if it doesn’t, well, I just lost a Cyclops, which I might not even have wanted over the lowly Priest in that pack.

I’m not saying that losing the monstrous creature did not slightly diminish the quality of our RW card pool, or that it couldn’t happen that this very card sends another drafter behind us into Red – but these are calculable risks one must be willing to take if the chance for such substantial gain presents itself!

Then, I strongly disagree with Lagonna-Band Elder over Portent of Betrayal. 3-drops are usually plenty in all decks, but especially RW which also offers Wingsteed Rider, Observant Alseid, Minotaur Skullcleaver, Spearpoint Oread and Two-Headed Cerberus at common. Since Michael now seems to have finally settled in Boros, there also is no dearth of creatures so far. I don’t value the Elder much – I’ll run it if it fits the curve, but whenever I see a deck with a bulge in the 3-mana slot (which happens a lot), this creature, if present, is probably the first cut I would make. The sorcery, on the other hand, has an unique effect which is especially strong in this environment with its accelerated big threats, and a great option for aggressive decks to finish a game without warning. That it has scry makes it even more maindeckable. Even if Michael believes that he will not run it in the end, he bereaves himself of an interesting option, just to pick up an unexciting run-of-the-mill creature.

It’s remarkable that the later packs still contain Omenspeaker, Lost in a Labyrinth and an 11th (!!!) pick Voyage’s End. Of course, at this point one can not be sure if this shows that Blue is wide open, or rather that this draft table is full of completely clueless morons… Let’s just say that switiching into Blue would not exactly have gotten punished so far.

Beginning the second booster round, Dauntless Onslaught is certainly correct, but I disagree with Spearpoint Oread being the next best choice over Akroan Crusader. I agree, though, that Dragon Mantle doesn’t need to be taken in the second pack, although Caleb certainly would differ; and I also agree that Rage of Purphoros, while one copy will usually make every Boros deck, isn’t in contention. The choice is between Observant Alseid and Flamespeaker Adept, but the tendency is that the final deck will not have enough scry to make the Adept superior, so Michael is probably right here.

Him being right ends, though, when he suddenly picks up Triad of Fates over Ordeal of Heliod. What the… I’m not sure that card is even better! Yes, it can do a million and one funny things once it is online, but it is really slow, not too hard to remove, and it eats mana. An Ordeal, on the other hand, tends to decide games fast, is easy to cast and triggers heroic. There’s being open-minded, and there’s danger of (seemingly) cool things. If the Triad at least fitted the deck’s focus… but being clearly defensive and late-game oriented, it doesn’t at all! It’s the eccentric striker diva bought by the sheik owning a soccer club, who disturbs the fabric of the team and makes it overall worse, even though he’s excellent at what he does. It’s a trap! …and Michael fell for it.

Setessan Griffin over Two-Headed Cerberus makes no sense – either Michael hasn’t yet finally decided against Red, or he has (how silly would that be?), in which case Disciple of Phenax would allow him to embrace his new strategy (and yes, it even comboes with the Triad). Also, while Vanquish the Foul is expensive and does not fit the deck prior to the Triad pick, it is very likely to end up in any deck where the Triad has its place, and still a better option even for an aggressive deck than the 5-mana flyer without the pumping option. Michael’s completely off track by now.

This shows again in Anvilwrought Raptor over Traveling Philosopher & Chosen by Heliod – or even Scholar of Athreos, if the new plan is Orzhov. Michael is so disappointed here not to see cards that he wants that he fails to realize that there are cards which he needs! He then moves into Black once and for all, overrating Cavern Lampad quite a bit, and ignoring a large number of wheeling Akroan Crusader (by the way, the switch to Blue would very likely have paid off in spades).

The third booster round proves that Black is completely superfluous – Michael could have been monowhite, and possibly even with a better deck! In the end, his creation is a little middle-of-the-road-leading-in-no-clear-direction. Michael then proceeds to misbuild it by leaving Traveling Philosopher out – even though his 2-mana slot is rather empty – but cramming both Lagonna-Band Elder in his woefully congested 3-mana slot.

During his games, it becomes very clear how much the Philosopher would have helped the deck – Michael’s draws are slow and clumsy. He still wins his first round because his opponent’s draws are even slower and clumsier.

Michael mulligans a hand he should have kept at the beginning of the second match – I guess he would have kept it if the Elder had been a Philosopher – and deservedly then gets the same hand with one spell less. He loses that one. Let that be a lesson to everyone mulliganing hands which aren’t clearly underaverage!

Second game, Michael puts up reasonable effort to lose via playing his spells at the wrong time, but fails, since his opponent’s suicidal tendencies are even stronger.

Third game, Michael is forced to mulligan again (which is not the same as again being forced to mulligan), has a slow start against a 2-drop, continually misrepresents his role in the defensive/aggressive spectrum in a game where this fluctuates, finally fails a basic math test, and thus deservedly loses. (He might have lost anyway, though.)

Overall, the results of ChannelFireball drafters in their published Theros drafts so far have certainly been less than stellar. I’ll leave it to my readers to judge if that is a commendable sign of honesty, or rather shows a lamentable amount of negligence.

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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


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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