Stark Reality – Switching Colors

After my last article “Drafting the Hard Way” I received a lot of great feedback. I realized that while my goal remains to teach everyone how to draft well in general and not just a specific format, I would need to elaborate on the 3 main topics. A lot of people understood some of what I was saying, but not enough to be able to apply it on their own.

People had the most trouble with the concept of switching colors, so I’ll start with a more detailed explanation on that. Today I am going to talk about how to read the draft in a draft format where pack 2 and pack 3 aren’t of significantly different value to each other. This is the case the vast majority of the time, like any time you are using three of the same pack or anytime there isn’t some great distortion from pack 2 to pack 3.

An example of a format in which the value difference from pack 2 and 3 was at its greatest would be full-block Return to Ravnica drafting, where if you were a Gatecrash guild, pack 2 has enormous value for you and pack 3 very little; and vice versa if you were a Return to Ravnica guild. Or Torment, which was purposefully insane for black, so it had very little value to you if you weren’t black and immense value if you were.

These formats have to be drafted differently, because it’s extremely important to see certain cards in pack 2 and not particularly important to see anything in pack 3, so in general switching mid-pack 1 into an underdrafted color from your right has way less value, since the reward is seeing it again in pack 3. You’re probably thinking that makes sense, but if pack 2 and 3 are of equal value, why bother switching into what is open? Wouldn’t that only make sense to do that if pack 3 was of more value to you?

This isn’t the case, because you never know what people to your left are drafting. You have some influence on the drafters to your left, but for the most part they are going to draft what they opened and what they think is best. Where as if you are clearly seeing cards and colors, then the people passing to you almost certainly aren’t playing them. Obviously, they sometimes will switch, or the packs will have just been insane, but don’t let outliers prevent you from better draft decks. This concept works, I can assure you. The only way the value would really start to get altered is if everyone drafted as reactively as I do and am telling you to do to, but don’t worry, that’s not going to happen any time soon.

When people watch me draft, the most common pick I’m asked about will be when I take a card early in pack 1 that doesn’t fit with my other cards. I don’t switch into that color but instead continue drafting as though I never took it. That feedback, plus the responses from my previous article, gave me some insight into why people aren’t understanding this part of a booster draft. This is a complicated concept, so if you get confused just reread it and think it over, and of course feel free to ask me questions. If the last article was, “Introduction to Advanced Drafting,” then this will be a higher-level course, delving very deep into the specifics of one of the three topics we covered in the intro class.

What am I talking about? An example of how I draft differently than most people, and how I stay open to position myself to have a good deck in almost every draft (instead of some “10s” and some “1s”), would be with the following type of pick: Let’s say we are drafting M14 and our first 4 picks are [card]Serra Angel[/card], [card]Pacifism[/card], [card]Doom Blade[/card], and [card]Quag Sickness[/card]. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say we didn’t pass anything more or less enticing in any color. Now, 5th pick, if faced with a choice between a mediocre but fine playable from black or white, (like a [card]Deathgaze Cockatrice[/card] or a [card]Charging Griffin[/card]), or a considerably better green card (not a mythic rare or Limited powerhouse) should we end up green, (like a [card]Rumbling Baloth[/card]) in M14 core set draft, most of the people I know would take the mediocre black or white common and wouldn’t even think twice about it.

This is completely wrong.

Here’s why they do it and why it’s completely wrong. I think in many cases they envision what would be a better deck—my current best color, let’s say [card]Serra Angel[/card]/[card]Pacifism[/card] + [card]Rumbling Baloth[/card], and I drop [card]Doom Blade[/card]/[card]Quag Sickness[/card] or [card]Serra Angel[/card]/[card]Pacifism[/card] and this mediocre white card + [card]Quag Sickness[/card]/[card]Doom Blade[/card].

Do you see the flaw in the logic there? What you actually have to ask yourself is- What will be better? My current white cards + [card]Rumbling Baloth[/card] + the rest of the draft or my current white and black cards + this mediocre common + the rest of the draft? That is a HUGE difference. Well over half the time, if we are seeing the best green common 5th pick, the people to our right feeding us the remainder of this pack as well as pack 3 are not going to be in green, furthermore if we aren’t seeing any good white or black commons, there is an above average chance that white and black are being drafted heavily to our right. Also, the opportunity cost in taking the Baloth is much lower than in passing it. When I take the Baloth there then make the switch because I saw a lot of green, people understand what I did and why, and rarely ask me about it. It’s when I then go right back to drafting black and white and don’t switch into green that people often ask me why I took the Baloth.

No one is psychic. “Gut feelings” are either mere hopes about what you want to come, or subconscious information processing the packs you have seen. I don’t make firm choices like, “now I will switch into green,” or, “no that isn’t a good enough sign to switch into green.” I don’t take the [card]Rumbling Baloth[/card] because I’ve decided to switch into green. I don’t pass the Baloth because I’ve decided not to switch into green.

Each pick is simply a decision point, not where we make grandiose decisions deciding our entire draft. When I take the Baloth I’m not committing to green because I know green is going to come or white and/or black aren’t. Sometimes a pack just has 5 good cards and a lot of them are green and Baloth is the third best. If in pick 6 I go back to seeing white and black cards and don’t see any more green cards that pull me into the color, I’ll go right back to drafting my black/white deck, and all that’s lost is a mediocre white or black playable that costs my final deck very little.

Now look at the flip side, where green does keep coming. Crisis averted! Now I can drop whichever I see less of, white or black, or draft a green deck with less powerful stuff and make an overall good deck. I leave myself open to switching should the draft push me in a different direction. I don’t make a firm point for when to switch.

Imagine you took that mediocre white or black card, and the next pack has another good green common and another mediocre but perfectly fine black or white card. You can see that black and white aren’t nearly as open as green is—but now do you switch? You probably still should, but now you are missing a copy of the best common in your color in a deck that you will need, since you had to missed some of your early picks. The opportunity cost is much higher than if you had just taken the green card with the previous pick, even if you only move into green 25 percent of the time in this imaginary draft. The 75 percent of the time you don’t, missing that mediocre card will cost you very little in your good deck anyway, whereas missing that first pick quality card out of your deck when you had to switch will cost you greatly.

In addition, you’re more likely to create an additional green drafter by letting that Baloth through. Far more likely than creating a black or white drafter behind you by passing some mediocre playable that won’t cause anyone to switch colors. Also, are you looking for 2 consecutive good green cards to “decide” to switch? So what if pick 6-8 had mediocre green playables because it’s open? If the packs weren’t that strong and there wasn’t much in the way of black and white cards because they weren’t open and the packs weren’t that strong. Reading the draft isn’t attempting to be psychic. It’s putting yourself in the position to have the highest overall expected value with all possibilities for the rest of the draft.

Remember, once you add in the invisible remainder of the draft, what you already have becomes less important to the overall strength of your deck since you have a few cards and 80-95 percent of your deck will be composed of this “rest of the draft.” This part should be intuitive, but that means the later it is in the draft the less likely you should be to switch into something new. If you have ever seen me draft a format I’m well practiced in, you may have noticed that sometimes I take the full amount of time on some picks during pack 1, but in pack 3 I often pick up the pack and almost instantly pick a card.

Weighing when to take that green card and when to take the worse card in the colors you already have is hard. That’s why I titled the last article Drafting the Hard Way. There is nothing wrong with the drafts where you get to stay the same colors the whole draft, and get to play all your early picks from pack 1. Those will on average be your very best decks. But trying to force that to happen will result in train wrecks. You must always be trying to position yourself to draft the best deck available to you in every draft, whether or not that means ditching your mythic rare first pick or dropping three of your first four picks.

Your goal is to win the most matches possible, not to put together a perfect 10. How you accomplish that is also somewhat counter-intuitive, since putting together a 10 seems like the way you would win the most matches possible. The math here is too complex for me, but a simple way to think about it would be if half your decks were 3-0s and half were 0-3s you would win exactly 50 percent of your matches before play skill. If all of your decks are 2-1s, that is a 66.6 percent win percentage. That’s an super oversimplification, and there is no real math behind those numbers, but that is basically how the concept works. Draft a good deck every time and you will generally have a higher win percentage than if you draft the “10” sometimes and the “1” sometimes.

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