May 26, 2016

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Drafting with Double-Faced Cards

Along with a return to very popular thematic elements, Shadows Over Innistrad also brought back one of the more controversial mechanics in the form of double-faced cards, or DFCs. While these cards play very well as long as you remember to use opaque sleeves, they add a new dynamic to drafting as you can visibly track them around the table. Unfortunately, with no way to ensure that everyone would have equal access to this public information, Wizards of the Coast made the last-minute decision to sleeve all the cards at the Pro Tour. I agree that there was a problem, but having the rules changed two days before the tournament was very frustrating as it invalidated a lot of the strategies I had developed. Taking advantage of the public information provided by DFCs was instrumental in my success in our team's practice drafts where I posted an excellent record of 24-12 against some of the best players in the world. WotC just announced that, going forward, all cards will be sleeved for all drafts in professional events involving DFCs, but unsleeved DFCs will continue to feature prominently at FNM as well as upcoming RPTQs and other similar events. Rather than have my preparation go to waste, I wanted to share some of these ideas for those who will be drafting Shadows over the next few months.

Green is the New Black

Green is one of the best colours in Shadows Over Innistrad and almost certainly the deepest. With other colours limited to one or two premium commons each, green boasts a wide selection of creatures and spells that represent high picks that you actively want in your deck:

In a normal booster draft, most of these would be snapped up in the first three or four picks of the draft. With DFCs, however, you wouldn't be too excited about taking a fourth pick Byway Courier if you saw the player on your right take a Lambholt Pacifist. As a result, decent green cards tend to go later than usual as people prioritize open colours over simply taking the best card left in the pack.

A further opportunity arises when you examine how the five colours in Magic are typically distributed around the draft table. Assuming no splashes or mono-coloured decks, sixteen colours will be represented in the eight decks of a full draft pod. If each colour features at least three times, one colour will have to be drafted by four players. While green may be the deepest colour, having a full extra person drafting it will certainly bring down the average quality of those decks. With red and green having the most DFCs, and with so many of the green ones being highly desirable, you will often have a situation where the green players signal their intentions early, and everyone else is forced to react.

From the moment DFCs are revealed as players open their first pack, you should begin to think about the layout of the draft and, in particular, which players you think are likely to end up in green. Although I would not advocate an absolute force, I would always look out for opportunities to establish yourself as one of three green drafters spread out roughly evenly around the table. Just as you would sometimes take a worse card for signalling purposes, it's often a good idea to prioritize green DFCs over objectively better cards in order to announce your intentions to the table.

Tip #1: Look for early opportunities to establish yourself as one of three green drafters at the table

Everything Revolves Around Your Focus Point

It should be no secret that you want to avoid drafting the same color as the person on your right. They will get the best cards in Pack 1 and Pack 3, leaving you with lower tier options. What's less obvious is how important some of the other players are to your draft. In particular, I want to consider the player three seats to your right, which, for the sake of simplicity, I'll call your focus point. Adapting to the actions of that player specifically can pay massive dividends and set you up for a successful draft.

Consider the situation where your focus point first picks an Heir of Falkenrath. They have sent a very clear signal to the entire table that they will be drafting black. Players on the other side of the table might not pay much attention, but you can be sure that the player on their left will do whatever they can to avoid taking black cards. The player two seats to their left is directly on your right. Though it won't be set in stone, they'll likely have a preference for avoiding black as well. Given the choice of a first pick black or red card, they'll probably just take the red card. This sets you up perfectly for drafting black. In the example above, if I see the player in my focus point first pick an Heir, I will absolutely take a Dead Weight over Fiery Temper, even if Fiery Temper might be objectively better or in a colour I prefer to draft.

Naysayers will quickly point out the danger of this strategy as you can't be sure the person on your right will care enough about someone two seats away. Drafting is about positioning and anticipation as much as it is about card evaluation or anything else. Put yourself in their shoes. Ok, maybe they're not going to avoid black at all costs, but how much black are they going to see in the rest of the first pack? With your focus point signalling black and likely prioritizing black cards over others of a similar power level, the player on your right will almost certainly become heavily invested in some other colour. They may still take a black card or two, but what are they going to do when you're cutting the black cards in Pack 2? All but the most stubborn drafters will see the writing on the wall and gravitate towards greener pastures, leaving you free to reap the rewards in Pack 3.

Tip #2: Try to draft the same color as the player three seats to your right, in your focus point

Although this strategy is very powerful, it is possible to take things too far. Sticking with the example above, let's say you prioritize black after your focus point takes an early Heir of Falkenrath. Then, five or six picks later, your focus point takes another DFC, this time a Gatstaf Arsonist, signalling BR. Because of other signalling around the table, you expect that this position is fairly stable as they're unlikely to be forced out of either colour. Using the strategy of mirroring your focus point, you might be tempted to take a late Reduce to Ashes and draft the same archetype. This is very risky and likely to backfire. While both colours appear to be open, you need to consider the perspective of the other players around you. The player two seats to your right is being fed by a BR drafter. They'll almost certainly position themselves in some combination of blue, green, and white. For the sake of argument, let's say they end up UG Clues, taking a Solitary Hunter at some point. Now consider the player they're feeding who also happens to be feeding you. In most cases, they will naturally fall into white as it's quite clearly open. They'll need a second colour, however, and, even if they start out WU, the blue will almost certainly dry up, forcing them to consider other options. With the Solitary Hunter taken in front of them, the only two options are black and red. Even if you've signaled your intentions with DFCs, they will likely still prefer to fight with the player on their left rather than the one on the right. Mirroring the exact same archetype as your focus point squeezes the players in between, and will often force the player on your right to move into one of your colours.

Tip #3: Avoid drafting the exact same archetype as the player in your focus point

You're Not Here to Make Friends

The strategies I've discussed so far make describe how to take advantage of the public information provided by DFCs. Knowledge is a powerful tool and, as a rule, you will want as much of it as possible before making any decision. This holds true in a draft, and is especially important during the first few picks as players jockey for position and try to establish themselves in open colours. Although you do have to be careful not to peek at cards other players are holding, you are allowed to look around the table to see if any DFCs have been taken. It should come as no surprise that, all other things being equal, you will want to wait as long as possible before making your selection.

Consider the situation where you open a pack with Rabid Bite and Bound by Moonsilver, while the player on your right opens and reveals a Duskwatch Recruiter, one of the best cards in the set. Most of time, they'll take the Recruiter and you will be much better off with Bound by Moonsilver to avoid fighting over green. What if they also opened a bomb rare, however, or a player in front of them also opens a green DFC? If they decide to pass the Recruiter for whatever reason, you would love to first pick the Rabid Bite and firmly cement yourself as one of the green drafters at the table with two great cards right off the bat. If you had to decide first, nobody would fault you for playing it safe and taking the Bound by Moonsilver. Waiting until they picks, however, opens up the possibility of that dream scenario.

In an untimed draft, waiting a few extra seconds shouldn't cause a problem. Players taking DFCs will usually want to do so quickly in order to signal. If, for some reason, multiple players want to wait to get the most information possible, the official rule is that the feeding player needs to select first. If two players directly across the table both want to wait, the lower seat number has to pick first. I would assume that this also applies to situations where more than two players want to wait.

There are some times when waiting can feel counterproductive, but it's actually still advisable in most cases. Let's say you open a weak pack and plan to take a Kessig Forgemaster, a good card but not something your neighbours would automatically assume you would first pick. Conventional wisdom dictates that you should take this quickly to signal that the players around you should avoid red. Unless doing so allows you to establish yourself as one of three green drafters, you should still wait as long as possible, even if that means risking a fight with the player on your left. Let's examine the worst case scenario where your neighbour is choosing between a Rabid Bite and a Fiery Temper. Thinking they'll likely get the Forgemaster second, they may lean towards taking the red card. On the surface, this might seem like an avoidable disaster, but is that really how it will play out? Once you take the DFC, they are in a tough spot, but you need to trust that players will act in their own best interest. They can stubbornly stick to the plan and make do with whatever red leftovers you pass them, or they can abandon their first pick and make the best of a bad situation. Red really isn't deep enough to support consecutive drafters, so they'll be much better off choosing the latter option and trying to draft a great deck with their remaining 41 picks. Not only will they likely change colours to avoid a fight, but your neighbour will have inadvertently helped you cut red by taking the Fiery Temper away from someone down the line.

Tip #4: Wait to get as much public information as possible before making your selection

The last strategy I want to discuss builds on the previous idea of manipulating the player on your left to help you cut a colour. It's an idea I used successfully in a couple of our Pro Tour practice drafts, but should be used with caution and only when the right situation presents itself. The situation I remember most clearly involved the player on my left opening the draft by taking Hinterland Logger out of a presumably weak pack, while a Solitary Hunter was opened two seats to my right. The safe play would have been to respect the signal and avoid green. With things lined up the way they were, however, I thought there was an even better opportunity. If I was able to more or less cut the green cards and eventually pick up that Solitary Hunter, I could likely force my neighbour out of green and set myself up for a great Pack 2. This worked to perfection. Not only did they abandon the Logger once I signaled green, but the fact that they took an early DFC kept the players on their left out of green as well.

Intentionally moving into your neighbour's colours is not a strategy I would try to implement too often, as the risk can be substantial. You have to pick your spots and look for opportunities where success is likely. If the player on my left had taken a better card like a Duskwatch Recruiter, for example, they may have been more willing to fight. It would also have been more difficult if the packs did not allow me to effectively cut green, or if I wasn't able to third pick Solitary Hunter to demonstrate my intentions. When it does work, however, hijacking your neighbour's colour can be a very effective way to set yourself up in an advantageous colour combination.

Tip #5: Look for opportunities to hijack a colour from the player on your left in order to reap rewards in the second pack

Putting It All Together

As you can see, DFCs add a layer of strategy to the draft experience. Whether this makes it more or less complicated is a matter of opinion, but it's nice to mix things up every once in a while as long as you can do so in a way that's fair to all players. Sadly, the Rules Committee did not foresee a problem even when it was pointed out that there were issues related to both DFC visibility and the timing of the draft. At professional events, you have to assume that players will do everything within the rules to gain an advantage, and the rules need to make sure that all these corner cases are considered and addressed. It wasn't until Jon Finkel tweeted a few days before the Pro Tour about the need for circular tables that WotC finally decided to take action by sleeving all the cards. While this does solve some problems, drastically changing the format of the Pro Tour a few days before the event is a travesty, and one that should not be allowed to repeat.

That said, the format is an interesting and healthy one overall, and I hope this article gives some insight into the strategic considerations of drafting with DFCs. Adding an element of public information rewards planning ahead and provides a feedback mechanism to show you where you went wrong. Drafting is a complicated process and the tips I've presented are not foolproof rules. What do you do when you want to mirror the colour of your focus point but also have an opportunity to identify yourself as one of three green drafters? You will need to weigh the risks and rewards of each course of action and take the path most likely to yield success. Whether you're trying to crush the next RPTQ or just want to get a leg up at your local store, I encourage you to try out these strategies and develop ideas of your own. The theory on drafting with DFCs is largely unexplored and there's a lot of room for innovation. Best of luck!