Reading signals is mentioned in many Limited articles, but not often explained or discussed. One issue I see with many players is an inability to understand something as a heuristic as opposed to a ground truth. I have seen players get upset with their peers next to them at a draft table because they ended up in the same color-pair. I hear things like, "You passed me a red bomb rare. You should know to stay out of red when you do that!"
The fact of the matter is that sometimes both players draft their seat perfectly and end up in the same colors. Sometimes it looks like a color is open when it's not. While it doesn't happen all the time, the packs can break in weird ways. But reading a table is a very important skill, and understanding how to do that and what to look for to the best of your ability is a great way to improve your drafting.
There are plenty of ways to go about reading signals. Here are what I view as the most important three.
This is the easiest part of reading signals. Whenever you get passed a pack, note the rarities that are missing. There is information to be gleaned here, but don't take it as gospel. You should use it as a data-point to help navigate the draft. Let me give you some examples:
This is a Pack 1, Pick 2 of an Amonkhet draft. The best card in the pack is Ahn-Crop Crasher. It's very important for this not to be taken as a signal that red is open. Even though you got passed a great red card, look at what type of card is missing: a common. The only common that you could argue is on the level of Ahn-Crop Crasher is Magma Spray.
This means there was either a foil in the pack, or the person to your right took Magma Spray (and there is a foil in approximately every six or seven packs). So this in fact more of a signal that red may not be open, even though you were passed a great red card. It's important to mention that you shouldn't read into it to such an extent that you don't take Ahn-Crop Crasher, but this is data that you can utilize!
This is a Pack 1, Pick 5 of an Hour of Devastationdraft. And that is a pretty late Open Fire! At this point, many players would simply assume that red is wide open, and that is good thinking, but we can go deeper. There are only uncommons and the rare missing from this pack. So while Open Fire is first-pickable, who's to say that the people to your right didn't take Struggle // Survive, Burning-Fist Minotaur, or Sand Strangler?
While it is reasonable to think that red is open, don't just blindly go into forcing red. Don't take a Blur of Blades after because you think you'll get rewarded. Simply make a note that red may be open, and continue to draft with that in mind.
Density of Color
One of the ways that you can get a signal is with a density of colors. One thing you may not be aware of is that packs aren't truly random. There are a number of print runs (nearly too many to track), but they are designed in such a way that there is nearly always a common from each color.
Adding this new information to the "noting of rarities" technique can do some cool things. Here is the same pack that I mentioned in the previous section:
You'll see that there are no red commons in this pack. So now you can almost be certain that the player to your left first-picked Magma Spray. There is still a small chance that there was a foil that happened to replace the only red common in the pack, but the probability of that is the probability of a foil (around 15%) multiplied by selecting the only red common (10%), which would be around 1.5%!
Similarly, you shouldn't ever open a pack with over 50% of one color. This means that, when you see a late pack that is dominated by one color, you can trust that the color is open to some degree.
So just pay attention to the distribution of colors. A pack lacking a color or dominated by a color is information that you can use!
Learning from the Wheel
If you think about what cards can come back, when you see the pack on the wheel, you can extrapolate general information about the whole table. And this gives you the most information when you consider it with the density of colors (and, given that you've already seen the pack, you actually know what that density is). Take a look at this pack:
I would first-pick the Sand Strangler here. Now here is the pack on the wheel:
So what can we learn from this? First off, nobody picked a white card out of this pack. Both Sandblast and Desert of the True are better than many of the other cards that were taken. This is a pretty large signal that white is open and would make me think about speculating on the Desert of the True here if I weren't already in white.
Additionally, three red cards were taken from the pack. Remembering that two of them weren't even that good is important information, since a player should not take those cards unless they were already red. This means that there are at least two other red drafters, and possibly three or four. So if you haven't picked up too much red, moving out and splashing the Sand Strangler is something to think about. But if you've placed your foot in red and already have something like four cards, it'll be okay. Remember that you can still draft a color when it's not open, and oftentimes your seat will still support that.
This technique is harder to get full information from because it isn't easy to remember a whole pack, see it again, and discern all of this information. But if you remember the notable cards and general color distributions, you still can get a lot out of it!
Overall, reading signals is all about the accumulation of data. Every pack, you can look at it in a little bit more depth in order to glean some information. When a couple of packs in a row begin to tell the same story, that is something to capitalize on. Maybe you were able to note that black was very open in Pack 1, but couldn't really move in. Then black cards getting passed to you in Pack 2 become more enticing, as you could be rewarded in Pack 3. There are many ways that this steps up your game, and it's a lot of information to hold in your head, but eventually it becomes habitual!
What Do You Want to Know?
With this new column, it would be great to deliver articles on fundamentals that you want! Here are a couple of options that I could write about next week: