That was my final win rate in professional level Gatecrash Draft.
The words I would use to describe this are "downright embarrassing."
Why was I so bad at this Draft format?
I'm pretty sure it wasn't gameplay. A lot of the typical game patterns of the format played to my strengths and were fairly obvious to see. Make good value trades, don't make bad value ones, try not to lose to tempo discrepancies early if you are control, and try to create them as aggro. If you are a green midrange deck, sequence your early game properly. All very fundamental lines.
I'm also pretty sure it wasn't deckbuilding. This wasn't a format known for its depth there.
Also, as to the above reasons, 10-0 (well, 7-0 with byes) in Sealed should be some sort of evidence to back them. To be fair, my Pittsburgh Sealed deck was definitely a 10-0 pool, but it was that way because it was a fundamentally amazing aggro deck with some rares. I actually had to play Magic at times and make sequencing and combat decisions that mattered.
This definitely isn't a format where I can blame my losses on variance. The format is hardly dominated by bomb rares, and most games are won by understanding how to execute your game plan and then doing so. In fact, I want to say only two of the sixteen games in my Draft match losses were on the back of rares, and even then Urbis Protector would have done the job of the Deathpact Angel in one.
This leaves one option in my mind.
Why was I so bad at drafting this format?
Turns out, the answer is pretty easy to explain.
Exit Strategies: A Definition
Not every draft goes perfectly from pick 1. I would hazard to say very few do. At some point, you will likely have to abandon some of your picks. Maybe it's pick 4, when you realize you haven't seen a white card to match your first pick Serra Angel and should be base green instead. Maybe it's early pack 2, when you recognize that you didn't see any really good red cards to match the one you got third and you should instead move in on the late black signals and this second pick Doom Blade. Or maybe it's even pack 3, when you didn't back out early enough but realize you can wheel some usually unplayable cards to go with what you already have and create a new niche archetype.
These are all examples of an exit strategy.
If you want to break them down, you will find two main types of exit strategy:
A) The audible, where you switch colors. This is the most common exit strategy and usually what people refer to when they try to be open with their early picks.
B) The "scrappy" or salvage strategy, where you use a bunch of cards people pass late as cornerstones of your deck.
Crunching the Numbers
Most Limited decks will need at least 23 playables. Maybe 22 will suffice, but it's usually suboptimal. You have 42 picks to get these cards. Of these 42 picks, you can usually expect the last two of each pack to be completely unplayable at bare minimum. So that's 36 picks, meaning you need to play just under two-thirds of your cards. You only have thirteen picks to waste. If you reasonably say you won't get playables with three cards left and only one pack will have a playable with four left, that's another five picks down.
If you abandon a color in a "normal" draft (i.e., M13 or any other core set), you lose about half of your previous picks. Maybe it's a bit less since you typically abandon a color because it isn't open, meaning you have less picks invested in it. Maybe you still can splash that Searing Spear, but that likely takes other picks used on mana fixing to be ideal.
Let's say we are drafting a normal strategy in a core set draft where you abandon a color after pack one. Using the above metrics, you lose half of your picks from P1P1 to around P1P10, after which you likely won't get playables. You can expect to lose three-to-five picks here. That still gives you a three-to-five pick gap to incinerate before you go below 23 playables.
When your strategy is to use a bunch of cards people don't want, you instead are focused on cheating the assumptions in the above math. If your 13th or 14th pick is playable, you freeroll a bunch of other picks that can be used on other things. Classic examples are the Mono-Red Aggro archetype in Shadowmoor Draft and the B/R Aggro deck in Alara-Conflux Draft. When your Traitor's Roar or Onyx Goblet came around 12th pick, that was a normal time to pick up a playable. In fact, these archetypes took advantage of this by planning to overload on playables, often trying to run fifteen-to-sixteen lands. Of course, those are both niche/gimmick archetypes you commit to early on. Similar things can occur when you obtain unexpected distributions of specific cards in a normal format.
Aside: The fundamental rule of drafting is more or less "make your late picks matter," with late mostly being anything after 7th pick, and it's easy to see why. Six early picks times three packs is only eighteen playables, so you will need to make up the difference somewhere. That also assumes that you actually hit on all your early picks, which is a pretty big leap to make. Basically, somewhere along the line a card that everyone else passed will have to make it into your deck, and you have to figure out how to make that card one that matters.
Audibles in Gatecrash
Gatecrash is not a forgiving format for changing colors. The window to audible is small, and you are punished much harder than normal for doing so.
Let's start with the second.
First of all, as I mentioned last week, Gatecrash is not a format that is splash friendly. You need to curve out too much to sacrifice the mana consistency or untapped land drops to Gates. I splash in the occasional slower, grindy deck, but maybe one out of five decks is in a position where it can splash, let alone even having something it wants to splash.
Most of the good multicolored cards aren't removal but instead are early creatures. The splashable removal at common is much better early game. Mugging wants to target two-drops and generate tempo on turn 3, Executioner's Swing is better when you have the life to expend on taking a hit, and Devour Flesh is best when they don't have a choice due to only having one creature. Even at uncommon, there are few spells I'll splash for.
So, this means that if you switch from Boros into Orzhov, you lose not only your red spells but all of your multicolored ones. It isn't quite the two-third loss as I noted last week, but if you account for the multicolored cards being more likely early picks, you probably lose an extra half a pick by swapping guilds by pick 5 or 6. Again, compare to other formats where you might just splash that first pick Augur Spree or Searing Spear even if you have to switch out of red.
Of course, the big issue is that this increase in picks lost is further magnified the deeper you get into the draft. Switching at the start of pack 2? That's probably an additional two picks lost, meaning instead of the normal three-to-five pick margin you have one-to-three picks to lose, which is a razor thin margin.
This is also a scenario where you are shifting one color. If Boros isn't open, odds are an Orzhov deck in your seat is still getting cut in white, making it even more difficult to get playables. Basically, whenever a guild isn't open in Gatecrash Draft, you are being cut in both colors, and a complete switch losing 100% of your picks is likely one of your best options. Realistically, there is no way to manage this past pick 5 or 6. Being cut in both colors is also significantly more common when there are only five viable combinations instead of seven to ten in normal two-color sets or absurdly more in sets that support two- or three-color decks like Return to Ravnica did.
The gambit of "get white cards in pack 1 and 3, get red cards in pack 2 with some high picks in the other packs" does not work in this format, and that's something I lean heavily on normal formats. There isn't a good workaround for fighting with your neighbors in this format. You just have to dodge.
This format is also poor for the plan of "the best deck is open, move in, and win" that I've used to rack up easy Limited wins at past events. When there are only five possible archetypes, people are less likely to choose things that aren't the best deck. When given more options and a format that rewards following earlier choices, they will steer clear more often. I can list a ton of free 3-0s and 2-1s I've gotten in past Limited formats just by being open to hoping for the best archetype if I see it coming, and in Gatecrash that isn't really an option.
Now you see why the strategy of taking the absolute best card without any prior pick bias is more talked about in this format than any other. If you guess wrong early, your losses are huge. If you stay open, you almost always lose one or two picks but still have wiggle room. If you randomly get passed a bad pack, you aren't suddenly forced to play eighteen lands.
If I go back and look at my personal Draft successes at major events, what do I find? A bunch of the following stories.
- Played black-red based aggro during Alara-Conflux Draft, capitalizing on people Time Walking themselves for mana fixing. Notably 3-0ed a Pro Tour draft where I played four 1/1s for one with marginal abilities and misbuilt by not playing the fifth (for those wondering, it was Goblin Mountaineer #2).
- Found myself with twelve playables going into pack 3 because I forced mono-green at a table with five green drafters. Took all the ramp and wheeled two Terastodons pack 3 and Elephanted people out in a format that was all about aggressive two-drops.
- People decided they would rather take one-mana artifacts that didn't do anything and two-mana 1/1s than six-mana 6/5s. I took all the big green guys and turned them sideways.
- Didn't get two-drops in the aggressive M12 Draft format. Decided to Smallpox people instead for an easy 3-0.
- Wheeled two late Ethereal Armors while figuring out if I should bail out of Azorius. Saw three more early next pack and decided getting eight of them was a better option.
The other solid finishes? Often summarized by "the best deck was open and I moved in."
My strength in Limited is brewing. While not all of the archetypes I described above were my ideas, I am very good at picking up on when niche archetypes are open. I am also very good at making deck-specific card evaluations, both mid-draft and during deck construction.
Unfortunately, Gatecrash is not a format where niche archetypes exist. First of all, the format has very strict requirements about what a deck has to have in order to not just lose. Two-drops and a curve or you will just lose every match in ten minutes. It's much more difficult to brew your way out of a bad deck when your hand is forced.
Beyond that, the cards really don't exist to make this happen. I'm not quite sure what that would entail and am glad the cards are so tightly designed as to make the most playables given the above discussion, but my tendency to draft off-the-wall decks is punished in Gatecrash Draft. One of my 0-3s was an attempt to do so at the Pro Tour that failed miserably. I've pulled off the old six Sage's Row Denizen mill deck, but that deck still just played normal games and incidentally milled people with triggers from a reasonable card.
Another one of my old fallbacks crossed off the list; another way to steal draft wins gone.
Looking back, it's easy to see where I went wrong in this format from a theory perspective. I guess the big question is why am I writing about this now instead of writing about how I made Top 8 of another Grand Prix by fixing this issue?
The explanation here is simple but something I didn't even realize until the point I was writing it. In my haste to emphasize Sealed as its own format, I forgot doing so meant Draft was too. In trying to correct my previous mistake of ignoring the differences in Sealed play, I made the same mistake for Draft—a Draft format that I had previously undertested for the Pro Tour, resulting in my 7-3 Constructed record without prize. I made simple mistakes drafting obvious archetypes and was punished for not knowing the answer ahead of time.
And that, in the end, is why I had terrible records in Gatecrash Draft events.