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Odyssey Rochester Review: Draft 1

Friday, January 18, 2002

This will be the first article in a series that talks about the issues surrounding my four drafts at Pro Tour San Diego in addition to my article on the Top 8 draft. The first draft was about color signaling, choosing and forcing more than anything else, so that will be the main focus. A secondary topic is how to draft white-red, which is generally considered a much worse color combination than it actually is.

1 Zvi Mowshowitz
2 Danny Mandel
3 Scott Johns
4 Steven O'Mahoney Schwartz
5 Dan Burdick
6 Alex Borteh
7 Ferran Vila
8 Reiji Ando

By far the worst position in Rochester Draft is seat 1. I consider all other seats reasonable, but number one has real problems. The reason for this is that the person in seat 1 has to choose his first card before the person to his right takes any cards, which means that he has to decide what to do with a first pick before seeing what colors will be available and which will be cut off. If the person in seat 8 is kind, seat 1 can be very good, with no wasted picks and a good position. Without that help, it can easily turn into a drafter's worst nightmare. That's what happened in my first Pod in San Diego, so I'll use it as an illustration.

In the first pack, there was a bunch of solid cards that I would be happy to pick early. As per my pretournament planning, I took the Hallowed Healer out of the pack, leaving Auramancer as the only other white card. As expected, Danny Mandel in seat 2 took a green card, if I remember correctly it was Elephant Ambush. Scott Johns was in seat 3, and started drafting blue-black. So far, all was going well. The only problem was that Auramancer wasn't enough to tempt Dan Burdick or anyone else across the table from me, but instead it went to Reiji Ando in seat 8, along with a black card. This was very bad.

In the next pack, Reiji took another white card. Danny Mandel was in green and there was green just beyond Reiji on my right, so switching into green meant abandoning white (unless I wanted to continue fighting Reiji for it in order to get what is probably the worst color combination in w-g) so that was out. Reiji took a black card in pack one, but he was taking white and that generally means blue. Red seemed like a relatively safe bet, and looking at me were Pardic Firecat and Barbarian Lunatic. Normally I try not to let what's left in an early pack dictate my actions, since position is more important, but here I was being offered two solid cards of the same color and that color seemed like a relatively good idea at the time. Certainly no one was trying too hard to force it. The problem was that Danny Mandel was already green and behind him was a blue-black mage, so red was looking like his most likely second color even though so far all he had was a pair of green cards.

What effect does my decision to go red have on Mandel? He now knows he has two non-green drafters next to him, which is great, but there's no avoiding fighting for his other color. Most players would probably end up going red, and hoping that the difference between green-red and whatever I end up doing makes us want different red cards. I definitely adjusted my preferences from where they would normally be, passing up both the defensive cards of white and the hyper-aggressive cards of red that I would normally be looking for in those colors. More to the point, what other choice does Mandel have?

What he decided to do was to put off his decision as long as possible. This is one place where it's a big help that the packs kept him from having to make a big sacrifice to stay monogreen for a while. Every now and then he would take a red card when he had nothing else, but not enough to commit him to red. If he'd ever had to face a pack without a good green pick that had a good red card, he'd have to make the choice and would then start taking red cards at the same level as green ones. Instead, he stayed on the fence for a while. Eventually, a Shower of Coals left him no choice and he committed to playing red.

The important strategic question from Mandel's draft is whether there was ever another color he might have chosen. Going into blue or black was certainly possible, although he never had a big reason to do it. The problem was that he was doing his best to be nice to Scott Johns in seat 3. That meant that whenever he had a chance to pick up a reasonable blue or black card, he would have to pass it up. That kept Scott happy, but it ruled out those colors. If he hadn't been good to Scott, he would have had a reasonable shot at a different second color. As it was, he ended up giving me a bunch of red cards I wanted in order to take lower quality green cards, and then went into red anyway.

The lesson here is to always have a plan. There are only five colors in Magic, and so there are only four secondary colors to choose from. Other players can adjust to the situation better if you give them clear signals. Putting off choosing a second color keeps you flexible, but it can also modify your draft and the table in such a way that there is no good second color to choose later, or more often it means the table will choose your second color for you. Once it becomes clear what colors you must be drafting, take those colors as quickly as possible and signal your choice to the other players. Otherwise, all you're doing is damaging your deck and perhaps your position for no gain. It's only when you have a choice that keeping options open is profitable. For example, if you have a lot of blue cards and there are two black and two white drafters at the table, it's worth delaying the decision on your second color if you can do so without paying much of a price. Then if the right bomb comes to you, you can take it. Keeping your options open is only worthwhile if those options are really open, and staying out of red doesn't help if you're staying even more out of black, white and blue.

Other players can adjust to the situation better if you give them clear signals.

Getting back to my position, we have another case of the same problem. A few packs in, I had Anarchist, Pardic Firecat, Barbarian Lunatic and Firebolt but still just Hallowed Healer for white. In the next pack, I had a choice between Barbarian Lunatic and Patrol Hound. I chose the Hound because it's better in white-red, and five seconds later I was kicking myself. There was no real reason for me to be white aside from the Healer, and I had what was a very nice core for a red-black deck. My black position was fine if Reiji wasn't black, so why wasn't I trying to abandon white? In the next pack I thought I got my chance, and with nothing much there for the white-red deck, I picked up a third pick Malevolent Awakening. That many not seem like much, but it's a vital card for the black-red deck. Scott Johns in third position knew right away what was going on, that I was looking to go to black-red. Unfortunately, Reiji didn't realize what was going on and continued taking more black cards. It seemed like he was drafting white-black on purpose, even though it would keep me fighting with him. I couldn't afford to fight for black, and didn't want to damage Scott's draft in seat 3 by taking his black cards, so without a clear opening in the next pack I retreated back into white-red. The rest of my draft was dedicated to what that deck wanted.

It seemed like the moment I gave up on black, so did Reiji. He opened a Cephalid Looter, and he took it! At this point, he had no blue cards, and his late picks were signaling black instead of blue. It turned out my original instincts had been correct, and he had been looking to draft blue with his white the whole time. He had just done a horrible job at telling me what he was looking to do, and it had kept me fighting for white. If he was willing to take that Looter, and while I don't remember exactly what his options were it was far from a dead pack for black-white, then he really was blue all along. Again, why keep your options open or even worse seem to be choosing a different one, when in fact you're virtually committed to doing something else?

This is a good example of a Stealth Color. He was blue all along, he just never had a card worth taking before this. The problem isn't that he was blue, which made a lot of sense, it was that he wasn't signaling. The way a Stealth Color comes up naturally is when someone is more concerned with forcing one color than in establishing or signaling the other. Its most common set of colors is in fact a white player who's really blue, but is concentrating on creating a table with only two white players. On Magic Online, I even had two drafts where I was setting up a table where I was the only white mage! After that, you start taking blue cards. To do this properly, signaling properly is vital, so that the other players can fill in the gaps before you do.

He was blue all along, he just never had a card worth taking before this.

The last player involved in this equation was Dan Burdick. Later in the first pack, he opened and drafted Kirtar's Wrath, one of the top cards in the set. But after that, he still didn't start taking white cards. He was in one of the best positions a white drafter can be without white being underdrafted, and he had one of the best white cards. What I have to assume happened was that he was unwilling to go into white-green or white-black, considering them very poor color combinations. This was actually a large part of the reason I decided to go white at this Pro Tour in the first place, since so many players would refuse to draft it either in general or with other colors. In this case it created a strange situation, since his staying out of white meant that there was no color to switch to. If he had abandoned black for white, I could have abandoned white for black regardless of Reiji if the packs had been even slightly more supportive of the color.

After that, it just came down to how to draft a good white-red deck. Generally, white cards are evaluated in relation to the white-blue archetype. There the focus is in defending on the ground and winning in the air, which makes white's defensive cards very good. The problem is that cards that only defend are highly dangerous. Kirtar's Desire, Angelic Wall and Second Thoughts are very good cards but impossible to turn around and attack with. Kirtar's Desire eventually becomes an exception, but only in a deck that gets threshold quickly. In white-blue and some versions of white-black that's fine, because the deck doesn't intend to attack on the ground and most of the opponent's cards can't be used to defend the air. White-red and white-green are different, because they have to put pressure on the ground.

There's a white-red deck that doesn't put pressure on the opponent and tries to sit back, remove the problem creatures and eventually win. I don't like that deck at all. To succeed with white-red, I feel that the deck must be drafted to be aggressive. Patrol Hound is a vital card, because it can go on the attack early, and in general the deck must come out of the gate fast and back it up. Instead of using burn to get rid of attackers, the deck should be using it to get rid of blockers and other problem creatures. That means that defensive cards are bad for the deck. Otherwise, the opponent will stall the attack while you're putting out Angelic Wall.

Similarly, the deck cannot use super-aggressive cards like red-green does. Without the green, the deck lacks the ability to do so much damage so fast that the opponent doesn't know what hit him – board control is vital and must be maintained. In order to do that, cards like Blazing Salvo have to be kept out of the equation. With white-red, either you have an attack or you don't, and the deck can't give up a card to do damage straight to the head even if it is aggressive overall. It's actually very similar to not being able to afford defensive cards, because it says that everything that cannot help you keep your creatures attacking hurts the deck. I was actually highly worried about having to play Second Thoughts in my deck, but it turned out to be all right.

If there's one thing the deck has to have to succeed, it's definitely burn. Without burn, white-red gets all the disadvantages of the other white archetypes without the corresponding advantages. That's likely going to be a disaster. Firebolt is the best common for white-red, and I don't think it's close. However, once there is enough burn it's also vital to get solid creatures capable of attacking. Red has Ember Beast and Barbarian Lunatic at the three level and white helps you cast things for two mana. Any chance the deck gets to draft a creature that's hard to block, it should take it, with cards like Aven Flock and Mystic Zealot being good not because they block but because when they attack they're hard to kill. Burn can then finish off blockers as necessary. Hallowed Healer and Embolden are also offensive, because they let you attack more aggressively. As usual in Odyssey, you want a good mix of the deck's themes, which in this case are burn and fast attackers that are hard to block and/or kill, but without anything that doesn't help its theme along.

If you want to read about how I did at PT-San Diego, my tournament report will be available at, by the conclusion of this series at the latest.

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