Mistake #1: You Don’t focus on Learning the Things that Matter

If two decisions are very close, then it doesn’t matter which one you make. This is a very important drafting concept that I learned from Ben Stark and Eric Froehlich, two of the best drafters in the game. In my opinion, people focus too much on very small percentage differences and it detracts from the things that actually make a difference.

Take, for example, Shadows over Innistrad, and the discussion between Fiery Temper and Rabid Bite. Most people seem to agree that those are the two best commons, but which one is better? Before the PT, a friend of mine asked something like “Please tell me which of the two is better. I must know. We have a big debate and we don’t know who is right.” The truth? I don’t know. Does it matter? No, not really.

The reason it doesn’t matter is that whether you’re right or wrong, you’re only going to be right or wrong by a very small amount. Even if the cards aren’t identical in value, one is a 7.235 and the other a 7.143—your expected deck is not going to be meaningfully worse or better if you have one or the other. Of course, in practice, one card might be much better than the other (you might be green and not red, in which case Rabid Bite is much better, for example), but there is no way for you to know this when you’re picking the card, so why bother? Having a big debate about which card is better when they are so close to each other is wasting time, and it’s not something that needs “settling”—pick one or pick the other—it makes no difference.

As a team, I think we spend way too much time focusing on small differences. We will agree that a certain card is better than Fiery Temper and worse than Nearheath Chaplain, but then we will spend hours arguing whether it’s exactly between Fiery Temper and Breakneck Rider or whether it’s between Breakneck Rider and Mad Prophet, when in practice it makes no difference.

Draft discussions should not aim to place each card in an exact spot—they should aim to give people an overview of the format and to make sure no one is horribly misevaluating a card. Everyone knows Fiery Temper is good, and there’s no need to know precisely how good to the last decimal, but how about a card like Triskaidekaphobia or Startled Awake? Those are interesting to talk about because people have insanely different evaluations of them. At some point in our house drafts, someone took Triskaidekaphobia over Accursed Witch. At another point, a player left the card in their sideboard. One of those players is making a huge mistake, and it’s important to know which one.

At GP Barcelona, someone asked, “What’s the best card in the set?” and a friend of mine on another team replied, “either Avacyn or Startled Awake.” Startled Awake is a card that I consider to be worse than most good commons, so if it’s in fact the best card in the set, I’m making a huge mistake by not taking it—one that you should look to prevent (and likewise for my friend if it’s not very good). This is a discussion worth having.

More than individual cards, I think draft discussions should be focused on the fundamentals of a format. It’s impossible to memorize every decision you have to make because the context is always different, so it’s much better to try to understand what is going on so that you that can make informed decisions out of the blue. Things I like to learn in a format:

  • Are aggressive decks good? Are defensive decks good?
  • How big are attackers and blockers? How big are the pump spells? Is flying great?
  • How important is it to be able to kill creatures? Are there a lot of utility creatures? Are there a lot of pingers? How fragile are your creatures?
  • Is it possible to draft archetype XYZ if you do not open rares? Should you look to draft them if you do open the rare, or only if it falls into your lap?
  • Is the set synergy-based or power-based? How early should you commit? Should you be reactive or proactive? Is it the kind of set where you will first pick a card and play it regardless of what else happens, like Fate Reforged, or is it the kind of set where you should quickly abandon your first pick if things don’t look like they’re turning out okay, like Battle for Zendikar?
  • Is it a set where you have a lot of ways to splash and often end up in multiple colors? Does that mean you should prioritize gold cards? Or is it a set where you often lack the means to splash, which means committing to 2 colors early is much more costly?

In my opinion, these are the kinds of questions that should be answered if you’re trying to learn the format—it’s more important to know this than to know whether Fiery Temper is better than Rabid Bite, because this information will impact your draft, your deck, and your record a lot more.

Mistake #2: You Don’t Abandon Your First Picks Often Enough

One mistake that people often make is to become married to their first picks. This will result in a great deck when things work out and a horrible deck when they don’t. We’ve all had that draft where you first pick a red card, the best card in the next pack is red, then there’s a pack with nothing but a great blue card, then the next pack has a blue/red rare—those drafts are great! If you get a draft like this, you don’t have to think much—you just follow some semblance of a pick order, stick to those colors, and your deck will turn out awesome. A lot of the time you have drafts like this and you think of yourself as a master drafter, but the reality is that anyone in your spot would have had the same deck because you didn’t really have any decisions—you just got lucky that things worked out your way.

The really hard drafts are the ones where you first pick a red card, second pick a red card, then there’s a pack with nothing but blue, then a pack where the best card is green, and then a pack with a GW rare that is great or a red card that is mediocre. In those drafts, you have to be able to judge how committed you are to a color and whether you can afford to change or at least to remain flexible. This is, in my opinion, the hardest part of drafting, and I think most people err on the side of sticking to their first picks too much. Yes, Always Watching is a great card, but it’s not worth being white for, as it’s better to have a deck full of 7s without it than a deck full of 5s with one Always Watching.

In general, people overvalue their first pick and undervalue their second, third, and fourth picks, which are much more important because those are the cards that the person passing to you did not take. It’s common for someone drafting to first pick a red card and then pass a good green card because “this card is not good in RG” or “RG is not a good combination in this format”—those people act as if they’re already in red because they have 1 or 2 good red cards that they picked super early, but the reality is that they aren’t in red yet, or at least shouldn’t be. If I get passed a card like Dauntless Cathar 7th pick, that is a much stronger argument for “being white” than simply first picking Descend upon the Sinful.

Mistake #3: You Don’t Value Flexibility as Much as You Should Early on

I think that people overvalue cards that are great in one particular strategy while undervaluing cards that are solid all the time. You see this with gold cards or colorless cards. I believe this is a consequence of overvaluing your first pick—if you assume you’re already that color or combination of colors, then this makes sense, but it’s not good to assume that. The big philosophy here is that cards are worth differing amounts, but cards that you do not play in your deck are always worth 0.

Take, for example, a first-pick decision between Arlinn Kord or Mad Prophet. I believe Arlinn Kord is, in a vacuum, the more powerful card, but it’s 2 colors. In this spot, Mad Prophet is a good enough card that I will take it as it’s only 1 color. If you’re assigning values, I’d say Mad Prophet is a 7 and Arlinn Kord is an 8, but Mad Prophet is a 7 that you will play 60% of the time and Arlinn Kord is an 8 that you will only play, say, 40% of the time. If you average those amounts, you get Mad Prophet to be worth 4.2 and Arlinn Kord to be worth 3.2. Even if you really push yourself to RG because you have Arlinn Kord, it’s likely still worth less.

In practice, I believe those numbers to be even lower (40% of all decks are red and around 10% of all decks should be RG, all things equal), but I’m increasing those percentages a little bit to account for color strength in a set and the fact that you’re more likely to be a certain color or combination while already having that card, plus splashes, which you’re more incentivized to do with the more powerful card. The main idea here is that you play Mad Prophet almost twice as much as you play Arlinn Kord, and Arlinn does not add nearly twice as much value to you when you do play it to make up for that.

You can also see this when evaluating cards like Westvale Abbey. I do not think Abbey is a fantastic card—it’s merely good—but I would still first pick it over most things because it goes in any deck. A 6 that I will play in any deck is better than a 7 that I will play 60% of the time by a lot. Most of the people on my team disagreed with this, and found Abbey to be a lower pick for them than it was for me (I would take it over any common, for example, and they would take cards like Temper and Bite over it), which I think reflects a difference in our drafting philosophies.

Mistake #4: You Don’t Gamble at the Right Time

I think people adopt a risky approach when they should be safe, and a safe one when they should be bold. People will gamble with their first picks when the opportunity cost is high, but they will not gamble with their later picks when the benefits are huge and the opportunity costs are low, which is exactly when you should be gambling.

During our draft discussion for PT Shadows of Innistrad, we were evaluating the card Angel of Deliverance. As most 8-mana creatures without an enters-the-battlefield trigger tend to be, it was ranked pretty low—no one would take it over any of the top commons. I think this is correct.

Then most people said they would take mediocre playables over it—say, for example, Strength of Arms. I think this is wrong. The reason for this is that Angel is a high risk, high reward card, and Strength of Arms is replaceable. You will often not play the Angel of Deliverance, but when you have it in your pile, it enables you to draft a sort of slow deck that, without a rare like it, is just not viable. Sure, you don’t want to draft this deck in an ideal world, but you can draft this deck because you took that Angel, and if you somehow do end up in that deck, it will be much better because you have it.

Angel is risky because, even in a lot of white decks, it’s not good—it’s like a gold card. I’d say that you will play it in maybe 20% of all white decks, perhaps even less. When you do play it, though, it’ll most likely be instrumental to your deck. When you sideboard it in, it will be very good. If you assume it’s a 7 in the right deck, it gets an overall grade of 1.4 assuming you are white. Now, let’s take Strength in Arms—it’s a solid combat trick, so it gets a 5. You will play it in, say, 70% of your white decks, which gives it an overall value of 3.5, over twice as much as the Angel.

Yet I pick the Angel. Why?

Because Strength of Arms is replaceable. The choice is not to play Strength of Arms or a red card you can’t cast—it’s to play Strength of Arms or whichever your 24th best card is. A lot of the time, your 25th best card will be a 4.9. In this case, by playing Strength of Arms instead, you’re increasing your deck’s power by only a tiny bit. It’s not adding “5” to your deck’s value, it’s adding “0.1.” The Angel, on the other hand, will be substantially better than your 24th best card in the right deck because it does something that is not emulated by any commons. And, again, having the Angel will let you draft that deck to begin with.

This same train of thought should be used when drafting sideboard cards. It’s usually better to take a good sideboard card over a replacement-level common because the replacement level common is exactly that: replaceable—it will make a marginal impact in your deck as opposed to the next best card you have, whereas the sideboard card will be much better when it is good.

I also like to use this philosophy when deciding if I should stay flexible or not. Take, for example, my second draft at PT BFZ.

The focus here is my 5th pick. I start with Nettle Drone, follow it with Ugin’s Insight, Makindi Sliderunner, and Rising Miasma out of a very weak pack. Then, next pack, I have the choice between a solid red card—Valakut Invoker—or Catacomb Sifter. I took Catacomb Sifter. A lot of people approached me after asking why I had taken that, and the reason was that I thought Valakut Invoker was an acceptable cost for the chance to play Catacomb Sifter.

In my mind, Battle for Zendikar is a synergy-based set—it’s reactive, and you want to position yourself in an open archetype so you can get powerful cards that no one else wants super late (like Kalastria Healer, for example). Green is bad in this format, but BG is a deck that you can draft, especially if you’re the only one drafting it. It’s possible that, in a given draft table, there is a very powerful BG deck to be drafted by exactly one person. What the Catacomb Sifter pick does for me here is make sure that, if such a deck exists, I will be the person drafting it.

At this point in time, I’m not committed to anything. I have a couple of decent cards and that’s it. I have no reason to lock myself into red. Taking the Valakut Invoker would have been the easier way. I’d just take a bunch of red after that and choose a second color, but I believe it would have been the wrong way. If I take the Invoker, I pass on the opportunity draft the BG deck that is perhaps the deck I should be in. Yes, it is overwhelmingly more likely that I end up playing the Invoker than the Catacomb Sifter, but the difference between the Invoker and my 24th best card is small enough that it’s definitely worth gambling with the Sifter. As it turned out, I never took another green or black card again and ended up UR, but my deck still ended up okay, and because I took that Catacomb Sifter, I would have been in a good position to draft the BG deck if things turned out that way.