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.