Drafting the Metagame
I was going to write an M10 limited review, but it seems like there are already plenty of those, and I probably would’ve spent 90% of the article talking about how red sucks balls. So I decided to focus on a topic that is possibly the most covered topic in all of constructed writing, but is hardly ever touched on in limited: the metagame. There is much to be gained from examining the metagame of both a draft format in its entirety and of an individual draft pod. “How is understanding the metagame useful in a draft?” you almost certainly aren’t asking yourself. Well there are two ways you can draft to beat the metagame: drafting an archetype that beats the most popular archetype, and shoring up your weaknesses against a bad match-up. I’ll break it down into metagaming a format in general and metagaming an individual draft, using mostly examples from M10 with a bit of Shards.
Pick on the popular kid.
There is an old and generally true rule that in any given match-up the slightly slower deck wins and the much faster deck wins. So in a rock-paper-scissor format of midrange-control-aggro, aggro cuts control, midrange smashes aggro and control, umm, covers midrange. While this is may seem like a very basic concept, and it is, I find that often the simplest ideas turn out to be the most useful. I have been in a surprisingly large number of draft pods in which every match was decided by the rock-paper-scissors theory. What this means for drafting is that you can choose an archetype that beats the most popular deck, then take specific cards to shore up your weaknesses against the decks that beat you. Much like constructed, this will improve your overall match percentages.
Paper covers rock.
In M10 I’ve found that by far the most popular deck to draft is midrange. In addition, dedicated aggro decks are hard to come by as there isn’t much support for them, except maybe white Soldiers. This means I try to draft almost exclusively control decks. In particular I’ve found that the great majority of games come down to creature stalls that are decided by evasion, bombs or removal. I know this is a crazy, ingenious idea I’ve got here to prioritize bombs, removal and evasion in drafting but evasion specifically is more important in base sets(including the slightly faster M10), and you can increase your odds of getting these important cards by choosing your colors wisely.
For example green has been getting a lot of love in M10, and while it certainly is solid and has good creatures and the only fixing etc etc, I like blue a bit more simply because it is the color with the best evasion, followed closely by white and black. Even though I agree that blue is weaker on a card-by-card basis overall, I just find I win more with blue fliers than green fatties. I don’t want this to become an M10 drafting article, but if you choose your colors wisely you’ll be much more likely to have an excess of evasion with which to win those creature stalls. That’s why I’m open to drafting green if its coming, but I’m much more likely to draft the other three colors aforementioned, and lean heavily towards control and evasion. Red can suck it.
In Shards block 4-5 color decks were quite popular, which relied heavily on using the 2-3 turns fixing their mana. This opened up a metagame dominated by two color aggro decks capitalizing on opponents stumbling on mana or not having plays until turn 3 or 4. (Sorry if I talk about Shards in the past tense, but I don’t really draft it anymore).
Shoring up your weaknesses.
Once you are in your archetype(I’ll simplify it to aggro, control or midrange) you can generally rely on having an edge on your good match-ups, so you’ll want to take cards that focus on beating your bad ones. For example in M10 if you find yourself drafting a heavy green base and are missing spiders for the blue match-up, you might want to think about taking that Windstorm over a decent maindeck card like Runeclaw Bears. Another major example is all of the walls in M10. Their value fluctuates greatly depending on what kind of deck you’re drafting, and whether you already have a good game vs aggro. I’ve been in drafts where I would push over my own mother for a Horned Turtle, and on other occasions I’ve left them in my sideboard. Lastly when drafting aggro you usually need something to make those weenies relevant against a midrange deck sporting larger creatures, and something like Oakenform can work wonders.
In terms of sideboarding, you can also draft and bring in cards to shift archetypes in order to make a match-up favourable. For instance if you’re white weenie facing a midrange green deck, try bringing in Wall of Faith and higher casting-cost cards in order to improve your late game, since you’ll probably have trouble winning with just a weenie rush. Likewise, if you’re midrange and playing against a slow controlling deck, try lowering your curve to beat them before they can stabilize and win a long game. And when you’re control make sure to have a few cheap defensive cards(if I’m UB I don’t leave home without a couple Weaknesses and Horned Turtles).
A few Shards examples are taking Infest and Vithian Stinger even higher than usual when drafting 5 color in order to have a chance against those exalted decks.
Midrange decks like Naya often had a bad match-up vs control decks such as Esper, so I would take Naturalize and Filigree Fracture quite early in those decks. Lastly, lightning aggro decks such as GW often needed something to maintain their advantage over midrange for as long as possible, so I put more emphasis on cards like Lapse of Certainty and Excommunicate.
One last note on drafting for an overall block metagame is that these strategies come in very handy for people who have a few favourite decks to draft and tend to force them. By paying attention to the metagame and shoring up your weaknesses you can beat the rock-paper-scissors game while also drafting the kind of deck you’re comfortable with. Obviously its ideal to just draft the best deck, but that’s not only nearly impossible to do, it doesn’t take into consideration personal preference, which I think is very important in getting good results(just like if you have a pet deck in constructed). Some people aren’t comfortable with counterspells, while others are bad at swinging for two.
Where have all the Tome Scours gone?
Along with the format metagame, each individual draft has its own specific metagame. There is a limited pool of cards available to each player in a draft with which to construct their decks. While it may seem like a daunting or even useless task, if you can pay close attention to as many playable(and sideboard worthy) cards as possible this can give you a lot of information about the kinds of decks being drafted around the table.
Don’t do what Donny Don’t does.
In general most drafters focus entirely on what the correct pick is out of every pack, which is obviously the most important thing to do, but they are missing out on a great deal of free information. Most players pay attention to what signals they are receiving and sending(a greatly overrated detail in my opinion, but that’s another article), and some do memorize what bombs, sweepers and tricks they pass in order to play around them later. However, there is much to be gained by going one step further and paying attention to *every* playable card you see.
Consider this: There are a total of 24 packs in an 8 man draft, so 336 total nonland cards. While you don’t have perfect information in a non-rochester draft, you actually get to see a surprisingly large amount of these cards. You never see what anyone else opens, and so you’ll usually miss what bombs and top-notch cards are out there, but the mid-picks are just as important to remember. In total, you see 252 of the total 336 cards, or 75%. In general around 70% are playable, making a grand total of 176 cards of note. Now obviously you can’t memorize every single one of these, but if you pay close attention you can get a really good sense of what kind of decks are being drafted around you. And if you know what’s being drafted, you can draft to beat the metagame.
Since you see more cards as the draft goes on, drafting the specific metagame really only starts to apply in the second and third packs. This makes it difficult to change the speed of your deck since you’ve most likely already decided on either aggro, midrange or control. However, you can still substantially adjust your curve in the last half of pack 2 and in pack 3. For example if you’re noticing a lot of weenies going by and your deck has a very high curve you might want to start lowering it more toward midrange. In some drafts the overall quality of cards is much weaker than average, making everyone’s deck weaker and generally resulting in slower games being decided by bombs. You can capitalize on this situation by making sure your deck has a good late game and answers to opposing bombs, such as Cancel or usually poor removal like Coma Veil.
One reason that pick orders are fairly useless is that the power level of certain cards depends greatly on what your deck already looks like. If your curve is high, you probably have to take that Child of Night over Rise From the Grave. Similarly, if its pack three and you’ve already got eight removal spells but no finishers, you’re just gonna have to suck it up and take Zombie Goliath over Assassinate. This relative value applies to specific metagaming in much the same way. If you notice that there is an abundance of a specific type of card and you see something in your colors that beats that type of card, take it. This technique works particularly well in formats where specific, synergistic archetypes are visibly available. Soldiers in M10 comes to mind, which is difficult to combat, but instant removal/bounce can just wreck an opponent relying on an army of smith or pikemaster pumped guys. Similarly in Shards if I saw a lot of exalted in packs 1 and 2 I would happily nab a first pick Wall of Denial or play my instant speed bounce spells. This is also when usually unplayable cards become match winning cards, which is why I like to take cards in my color over hate drafting. You never know when that 11th pick Angel’s Mercy will win you a game vs 6xLavaAxe.dec. Relative value can also have a negative impact on normally excellent cards, like when you’ve seen an abnormally large amount of Windstorms and Razorfoot Griffins, making smaller fliers much lower picks than usual.
This strategy is essentially like pre-sideboarding to gain an advantage over your anticipated match-ups, but you have to pay attention while drafting so that you can actually pick up the cards you need. They will either make your maindeck or be brought in from the sideboard, depending on the card. Here is a short list of cards I’ve noticed from M10 whose relative values change depending on the individual metagame(there are a whole lot more of these, but hopefully you get the point):
-Naturalize or Solemn Offering improve after seeing lots of equipment or auras(and Ice Cage gets significantly worse)
-take Ice cage and Illusionary Servant higher if there is a lack of Blinding Mages, Rod of Ruins
-Angels Mercy and other life gain vs Lava Axes
-Fog and Safe Passage vs Overrun, Sleep and Prized Unicorn(although if you’re taking safe passage below any white common but Pacifism and Blinding Mage YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG)
-Rod of Ruin and Sparkmage Apprentice after seeing a bunch of one toughness guys or Illusionary Servants and Ice Cages
-Glorious Charge and Safe Passage vs Pyroclasm and Earthquake(as a side note I’ve been on the wrong end of a deck running Safe Passages, Pyroclasms and Earthquake together. Oww)
-Burst of Speed vs…umm…nevermind. Red is so bad.
Drafting the metagame may not be as important as drafting the best deck, but if you start thinking about it a little more and adjust your picks accordingly I guarantee you’ll see positive results*.
If you loved, hated or felt indifferent towards my article please gimme some feedback in the forums. But not if you hated it.
Dylan Pratt (Jester123 on MODO and Magic-League)
*positive results not actually guaranteed