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.
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!
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!