Signaling is overrated. In this article I hope to convince you to pay as much attention to it as I do, which is to say very little. Let’s start with the classic dictionary definition: “an indication of a state of affairs” or “a gesture, action or sound that is used to convey information or instructions”. Hmm that actually applies to Magic pretty darn well. In drafting, signaling is the act of reading the patterns in packs being passed to you(“an indication of a state of affairs”), and passing specific cards to influence the drafters receiving your packs(“conveying information or instructions”). The purpose of this is to avoid sharing colors with your neighbors in hopes that they will pass you better cards in your colors than they would have otherwise.
Signaling can be broken up into two parts, sending and receiving. One major problem with signals is that sending and receiving them are almost completely mutually exclusive. Its difficult to both send strong signals and be open to receive signals at the same time. This is because the strongest signals come from forcing a color from pick 1 and the biggest reason to read signals is to switch colors, which don’t work well together.
Also following or giving signals doesn’t even affect the majority of your picks. Sending signals only effects a third of your picks, since the people receiving these signals are only passing to you for pack 2. Receiving them only matters for about a half of your picks(since the first few picks won’t usually have signals and only about the first 8 picks from each pack matter, this leaves approximately 13 of 24 picks that can benefit from reading signals) What this means is that even if you could guarantee perfect signaling, it would probably only be relevant for either a third or a half of your picks. And as we will see perfect signaling is anything but a guarantee.
Sending Signals, or Crossing Your Fingers
There are two major problems with using signals: relying on other drafters rather than your own skill level, and relying on incomplete information. Not only do you not know the skill level of the drafters around you, but you also don’t know the cards they’ve already picked. This takes control out of your own hands, increasing the impact of luck, and the whole point of improving your skill level is to take as much luck out of the game as you can so that your skill level matters more. There’s no way of knowing what the drafter on your left took in the first few picks, and how attached they’ll be. Or they might have a strong preference coming into the format and plan on forcing an archetype, ruining your careful signals. These are the problems with incomplete information, and thus signals.
Now for the classic “one heavy color” example. You open a pack with three great white cards, let’s say Planar Cleansing, Serra Angel, Pacifism, and some mediocre cards spread across the other colors, the best being Tendrils of Corruption. Now its super tempting to just take the black card and send your three neighbors into white, but let’s stop and think about this pick for a second. If you do take the black card you’ll pretty much know that no white will be flowing in pack 2, but that’s all you know. If you are now sent great white cards in pack 1 it sure makes that Tendrils pick look pretty awkward, since you’ll either have to pass all the white or be cut in pack 2. Also the drafter on your left may have opened a black bomb like Royal Assassin and will force WB. The point is that you just don’t know. Now if you take the Serra Angel you’re not only taking the most powerful card, but you might not even be sending bad signals. If the player on your left did take a black card first they’ll snap up the Tendrils, and even if they didn’t they’ll go through the exact same thought process as you, being tempted to pass two good white cards as signals. Unless the power level is much closer than in this example you should almost always just take the most powerful card in these types of packs.
Cutting can sometimes be an effective strategy, but not if you become too caught up in it. After cutting blue from pick 1, in pack 5 you see a Cancel(the only blue card in the pack) and a Cudgel Troll. Don’t force it! The fact that a green card that good is still in the pack is a signal in itself that green is open, and passing the mediocre blue card probably won’t even put anyone in blue. By taking the green card you put yourself in the perfect position of being UG after you cut blue and green seems to be open. In fact, cutting in this way is one of the few signaling strategies I do employ from time to time. Especially if you have a strong color preference coming into a format, it can be good to cut one color hard while paying attention to a secondary color that is being passed to you. In this way you can get the best of both sending and receiving signals.
Where There’s Smoke There Isn’t Necessarily Fire
Receiving signals is slightly more important than sending them simply because it matters for more picks, but it is still difficult to use effectively and meaningfully.
First off if there’s anything but a common missing you can forget about getting signals from that pack. For example you might get passed Tendrils of Corruption third pick and think black is open, only the first two picks made by other drafters were Nightmare and Howling Banshee. Even if all of the uncommons and the rare are still in the pack you never know if the packs are simply deep in one or two colors. That’s the problem with signals: you often just don’t have enough information.
Differences in card evaluations cause more problems with signaling. Let’s say you get passed a pack after first picking Cudgel Troll. A common is missing and Merfolk Looter is in the pack. Its tempting to think “Sweet, blue is totally open” and snap up the Looter assuming you’ll see more of the best color. However, not everyone agrees that Merfolk Looter is a better card than Snapping Drake(even though it is), and they’re even in the same print run, so its very possible that the drafter on your right is indeed blue. Now the Looter might still be the right pick depending on the pack, but the point is you can’t immediately assume it’s a signal that blue is open.
Remember the example with the pack of one heavily weighted color? It gets a lot easier when instead of opening a pack like that, you see it second or third pick. That means that the drafters on your right decided to pass the good stuff in favor of sending good signals. In this situation you should be way more concerned with reading these signals than sending your own. You’re being told to go into white by the players passing you the most cards, and you’ll be taking the most powerful card out of the pack, so hurry up and take the angel!
One last problem with signaling in general is the reliance on balanced packs. Since the goal of signaling is to be passed more and better cards in your colors, you’re relying on the fact that the packs will be balanced power-wise between the colors. However this isn’t always the case, as sometimes the packs are full of great red and black cards while there is no blue to be found. Now obviously this can happen regardless of signals, but if you spent pack 1 forcing a color by taking worse cards, then that color is nowhere to be found in pack 2, you are much worse off than if you had just taken better cards in pack 1. Imbalanced packs happen, so make sure you’re not relying too heavily on signaling to pay off later.
Using Signals Effectively
Signaling may be overrated, but that doesn’t mean it should be ignored completely. Here’s how to use signals effectively while not letting them completely take over your draft.
Receiving signals is much more important than sending them, both because it effects more picks and because its easier to do correctly. However, reading signals usually happens naturally. Let me explain: let’s say for all of pack 1 you take the strictly strongest card out of every pack then go back and look for patterns. You should see a trend starting around pick 4 towards one or two colors. That is what I mean when I say receiving signals happening naturally; if you take the strongest cards keeping in mind what you’ve already taken, your picks should naturally gravitate you towards the open colors. This is why I don’t mind having three different colors as my first three picks, it leaves me naturally open to receiving signals.
Here are a few more quick tips to using signals:
-ignore picks 1-3, signals are almost impossible to read before packs 4-5
-take late cards in your colorsover hatedrafting(another very overrated tactic) in order to send signals. You never know when that 14th Coral Merfolk will push your already blue-heavy neighbor into realizing that blue is open, and the odds that you lose to that card are very, very slim.
-be open to switching colors, but only if the power difference is worth it. Let’s say you first picked Lilliana Vess followed by some good blue stuff, and haven’t seen any other black when you get passed a fifth pick Stormfront Pegasus with a Warpath Ghoul in the pack. Is it really worth it to switch into white hoping you’ll see more in this pack and pack 3? By sticking with black you have a much more powerful card(Lilliana, not Warpath Ghoul) and you might get the hook-up in pack 2 anyways. Now if instead of Lilliana your first pick was Gravedigger I would be much more inclined to switch into white since the power level isn’t so different.
While I concede that signals can certainly be useful, my point is that they mostly happen naturally. Too often drafters will see the right pick then rethink the signals they’re sending/receiving and talk themselves into mispicking. The main thing to remember is that signaling should only be considered in borderline decisions. If you’re having difficulty deciding between two cards of considerably different power level, take the better one regardless of signals!
As usual feedback is much appreciated.
Dylan Pratt (Jester123 on MTGO and Magic-League)