Chaos Drafting: Starting from Scratch

A few months ago I was lucky enough to score an invite to Tristan Shaun Gregson’s Historical Draft at Mythic Games in Santa Cruz, California.  Mythic is a great new store that just opened up and they’ve got a nice space to play.  Maybe 40 seats or so, give or take, with some sweet leather couches and some of the best Pizza in Santa Cruz right across the way at Woodstock’s. TSG, is, well, TSG and I’m very greatful for the opportunity to play in that draft.

The historical draft is essentially a pack of every set Ice Age and forward, and sans Scars block, – essentially a 60 pack Chaos draft.  I’m a pretty huge fan of Chaos Drafting (drafting from random sets as opposed to Block Drafting), so I jumped at the opportunity, and I’ve run my own 50 pack draft since then as well.

If you build it, they will come…

On the drive down to Santa Cruz from San Francisco, my friend Sean asked me if I had any tips for drafting a format where you’re opening such random packs.  You could start with spirit dragons in Kamigawa and end up with a five color disaster in Ravinca.  Do you try to get Rhystic cards from Masques block to work?  What about all the cards you’ve never seen before?  How do you evaluate them in a vacuum?    Was there any strategy to Chaos drafting at all?

Well surprisingly, I actually did have a strategy.  Now, before I move forward I should be honest – I’m not a master drafter.   My limited rating’s in the lower 1700′s, meaning I generally win more than I lose, but I’m not a 3-0 baller and you won’t see me outside of the 4-3-2-2 queues on MTGO.   I’ve also drafted a decent amount of random pack drafts, and the advice I came up with was useful to both Sean and myself, and we finished with pretty solid decks.  I even placed second in the draft (out of 12 players) with a fantastic mono red deck.

One thing to keep in mind is that the historical draft had a larger number of packs going in, (5 packs each) so unlike most chaos drafts where you might be  scouring for value, it actually felt more like a cube where you had an abundance of cards in your pool and the deck building was more about getting down to the right 23.  Despite these differences,  I’m of the opinion that the basic theories that I had for the Historical draft apply to regular chaos drafting as well.

Theory 1: There are less bombs available in a chaos draft than in a block draft.

I came to this conclusion because there are sets with rare bombs that are good only if you could build synergy around them (Mirrodin and Kamigawa block come to mind) or that you’ll have access to mana fixing (Invasion and Shards) In addition, the further you go back, the more likely you are to open sub-par cards in the rare slot – cards that used to be good but have been outclassed (Chronicles comes to mind) .  For example, In Mirrodin block draft you have been VERY happy to see this guy.  In chaos draft, you’ll have to polish very hard before this particular turd will shine.

Corollary:  With less powerful bombs available, creating a consistent deck is more important than a powerful deck.

Having the leisure to draft more than three colors has always been format dependent, and in Chaos I judge it too much of a risk to purposefully draft that way.  It’s far less risky to just try to go with a single strong color base and splash for a second color as needed.  This also means if you start with a mono colored deck that looks a little underwhelming, you stick with it rather than screw up your mana base trying to fit in something that’s marginally more powerful.

I actually put Balance in my mono red and it did win me a game, but I also lost my second game in the finals because I was short a land. – I actually had a fetch in play that was there to get my plains, but with my plains already in play it was a dead card.  If it just been a flush of mountains I would have won with my disintegrate.  But Balance is a pretty loose example – it’s practically Power and you won’t have the opportunity to draft a bomb that solid very often.   (Fireball is one that’s been reprinted enough times to bring up.  And yes, I would splash for that. But that’s an exception, not the rule.)

One of these cards is not like the other….

Corollary: Pick your archetype early, and stay in it.

In short, the basic archetypes for Chaos are:

Aggro (weenies, removal, individual and mass pump, discard if applicable)

Skies (flyers)

Stompy (efficient, undercosted fatties)

Ramp (early elves and mana fixing into huge monsters)

Control (removal, counters, discard, turtles, late game finishers)

Rock (Fatties + removal, with an emphasis on card advantage)

Tempo (usually blue based aggro/control, with an emphasis on bounce or removal – essentially get a creature down, and deny your opponent attack and steps by bouncing, tapping, or killing opposing creatures, so that your creatures can go all the way)

To be honest, I’d be happy with a deck of any single color (even mono green)  as long as the archetype was clear.  But jumping in early and staking your claim is foremost – cutting out a color from a pack if you can goes a long way.  You don’t want to switch colors just to get a slightly better card.  If I’m  already heavily into green and my choice is between a late pick Llanowar Elf and a late Doom Blade, I’d probably stick with the elf –  Taking that Doom Blade might makes your deck better given the cards that you’ve picked, but if you’re clearly passing black and cutting green, you’re that much more likely to end up with more solid green picks (or even a bomb) on the pass back.  I’d  rather have options in my deck building  rather than cobble together a deck that is half decent and half horrible because I sent bad signals.

If, however, there really isn’t a compelling pick for your deck, you’re not going to send a bad signal, or it looks like your original color is drying up, then by all means take Doom Blade.

Theory 2:  Quality at common goes out the window in a chaos draft

… Though it’s not as bad as you might think. It’s not all a bunch of 1/1′s for 3 out there.  Actually it’s for the same reasons as listed above.  There are going to be a ton of creatures at Common that are meant to be role-players in a synergy deck that just get worse when you take their set away.

Yes, there will be uncommons and rares with better stats for their cost but we don’t get as many chances at those. Obviously good cards will almost always get picked, so it’s critical to have a strategy when drafting the Commons – which is:

Corollary:  Hill Giant is king.

Or: the power to toughness ratio vs. casting cost of the creature can be more important than the creature ability.  This a gross oversimplification of draft theory, but a drafter with knowledge reaching back over the years starts to see a pattern – the same creatures always show up in some form or another.

the 2/2 for 2 (the grizzly bear!)
the 2/2 for 2 with a drawback (usually in red or black)
the 2/2 for 3 (the grey ogre or scathe zombie, usually bad enough now to get an ability)
the 1/4 for 3 (the horned turtle)
the 2/2 flyer for 3
the 3/3 for 4 (the Hill Giant)
the 3/3 flyer for 5 (most recently sky-eel school.  But wizards has gotten better at hiding them – in Shadowmoor it was Merrow Wavebreakers- In Dissension it was Helium Squirter, in Lorywn it was Plover Knights.  My personal favorite “flyer” is Elven Riders :D

So why the Hill Giant?  Because at its commonality, it’s consistently the best power and toughness for its cost.  And there are a lot of them out there.    Yes, you’re going to draft creatures of all shapes and sizes and powers and toughnesses, but at Common, which is where the majority of our bread and butter creatures are going to be, toughness and power usually max out at 3 unless you’re Green.  Regardless of what archetype you’re in, stalemates start to occur, (or break down) when you start hitting this size of creature.  If your deck is all speed and gas, you want evasion and removal to get past these monsters.  If you’re the heavy, you want acceleration in order to plop down your big guys and outrace the speedy deck. And if you’re both at the same class and hit a stalemate, you’ll do better if you have more Giants to throw away, vs. waiting for that bomb, removal, or evasion.

Speaking of stalemates:

Corollary: Overcosted removal is still removal, and overcosted evasion is still evasion.

This was my first pick in TSG’s Historical draft.  I can’t really remember much of what else was in the Visions pack, but it wasn’t anything outstanding – there was a single Breezekeeper in the pack if I wanted to cut blue, and evasion is evasion…

But then I realized that this guy would probably make my deck regardless of what archetype I built out – He’d be another flyer to deal with in skies, for example, or an evasiony creature in basically any deck that wanted to attack..  and 59 cards later, he made my main. I think there is tendency to look at this guy and think it’s not worth the pick, because he’s slightly overcosted (we’d expect him to be at least a Wind Drake) but as it turned out, this guy was fine. Given the scope of creature availability in a Chaos draft, he either traded with creatures that posed more of a threat than him, or ate a piece of removal.  The Chimera just added to the overall aggro strategy of my deck and got in some crucial damage, or best of all – they had no answer and he went all the way.

Don’t forget that card draw and filtering is still really good as well – people constantly underestimate looters and draw spells.

A decent start..

Drafting a deck full of removal or evasion is still a great plan, if you can manage it.  But even if you’ve accomplished building a great deck, you need to carry that momentum into the battles themselves.  Which brings us, finally to:

Some Magic Basics:

Misassignment of Role = Game Loss
(A Mike Flores Classic)

In short, know what your role is going into the game.   If you’re the aggro deck, then choose to play first, and try to end the game as quickly as possible.  You generally want to utilize your removal in a way that will maximize damage dealt. If your opponent has a creature that slows you down (like a wall), calculate whether you want to just get it out of the way in exchange for dealing more damage in the long run, or whether you want to save your removal for a true threat.  Can your opponent wrath you?  Maybe you want to get in there asap.  Could your opponent play a big dragon that you can’t deal with?   Maybe you just want to swarm around the wall and save your removal for when it really matters.

If your opponent has the capability to race you, evaluate the board state – given what you’ve seen, can they beat you in a straight race?  Can they kill you before you kill them?  If not, then get your guys in there.  Take whatever they give. Don’t save guys to chump unless you’re about to die. Do the math!  Your chump block could be dealing damage!!

If you’re an aggro deck that’s been outclassed by bigger threats, don’t give up.  We’ll get to that in a sec.

If you’re the “control” deck (i.e. the other deck is more aggro then you), or your deck isn’t consistent, or you don’t have enough information about the other deck to know what to do, choose to draw first – your plan against the other deck is to exhaust them of threats and leave them in topdeck mode while you still have threats.  Your life is a resource.  Don’t chump block unless they’re about to hit you for lethal damage (or might be threatening lethal damage with pump spells or direct damage)

If your path to winning isn’t obvious, that doesn’t mean you’ve lost.

I’ve been watching so many players just sort of give up mentally before they’ve actually lost the game.  At this level or play, they understand how to win and are engaged in the game for as long as they are ahead – but if they reach a stalemate or fall behind they lose interest or just give up “because the game was already over.”

This is usually far from the truth.  Start trading creatures, wear them out, picture what you need to draw in order to stabilize or even win the game.

If you can’t figure out how to beat your opponent, keep a steady head.  Remember that your opponent still needs to figure out how to beat YOU. If you can make that process as difficult as possible, force bad trades, use tricks to win in combat, kill evasive creatures that can go all the way, then you can still win it.

And with that I’ll finish up.  I hope that some of this strategy is useful to whoever reads it.  Questions/comments/vehement disagreement is welcome. ;)

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