How to Rochester Draft
Quite a few years ago, back when Tempest was hot and new, I did my first Rochester draft. It was the top 8 of a PTQ and I was what could be called "a bit behind the knowledge curve" going in. Things did not go well.
Since then I've seen a consistent pattern in every competitive Rochester Draft I've been in - a lot of players who can play well and even Booster Draft well do not know the basics of Rochester. This PTQ season I want to make sure that instead of being one of those people, you're the one who takes advantage of them.
Play Well with Others
Almost everyone knows this rule, to the point that some people may even take it too far. The basic idea is that in Rochester Draft you can "signal" your colors perfectly and thus avoid drafting your neighbor's colors. Anyone who has watched a draft in which three people in a row cooperate while those opposite them hate-draft or fight over colors knows that the likely result is a sweep of those cooperating vs. those who aren't.
Another reason to cooperate is that in a Top 8 draft you won't face your neighbors until the finals, if at all. This means that your chance of facing one of them is much lower than one in seven, and if only one of you cares about the slot you may not play out the match anyway.
So start off being nice early - even before the draft begins! If you're undefeated in the swiss and can afford to lose the last match and still make top 8, you don't play it out against someone who needs a draw to make it in. If he beats you and ends up sitting next to you he may be looking to fight with you, or at least be willing to make some random hate-drafts. In any case, once you sit down at the table say hello to everyone, shake hands, and be a nice guy. You should do this anyway, but in Rochester it's actually important for game reasons as well.
The first step to playing well with others in the draft itself is to stake out your colors early, make sure they are different from the person feeding you (ideally you should have at least one color that neither of your neighbors is taking), and stick with them if possible. Changing colors is much riskier in Rochester than in Booster because it can cause an ugly cascade effect in which the players around you switch their colors in response. (This can also happen if someone avoids choosing a second color for two long, which is why even in Mirrodin experienced players often tried to signal colors.
Staking out your colors properly is often worth making sub-optimal early picks, especially if you're in a late seat (so your first picks aren't so crucial). At a Masques Block top 8 draft (at which I greatly upset Mike Flores by bringing home the Neutral Ground slot to YMG), an experienced player talked to me about the mistake he made. Sitting in the seventh seat, he took the best cards left in the pack (both before and after the bounce) which put him an awkward color combination - both in general and the way the table was breaking. Instead, he should simply have taken a bad Blue card and then wheeled a bad White card. By "wasting" those picks he would have signaled a much stronger color combination. Don't hesitate to pick an unplayable card in order to make the right color signal - the fact that it is unplayable just makes the signal that much stronger.
If you're going to take splash cards, try to take them when you're not hurting a neighbor. In my Champions Top 8 draft I had two Kodama's Reach and two Glacial Rays, so I happily splashed two White Arcane spells. In one case I took it after the pack came through my White-drafting neighbor, and in the other there was another main-deck card for him that was at least as good. I'm not saying you should pass on a Glacial Ray in your arcane-heavy U/G deck, but I certainly would have let go my Otherworldly Journey rather than hurt the guy feeding me.
Okay, so play nice. But what if you get into a fight by accident? And what do you do if someone is trying to push you around?
Tit for Tat
Sometimes you can't play perfectly nice. Someone may counter-draft a card from you, or worse, you may accidentally take a card from them and suddenly find that they are taking revenge.
It's important not to get pushed around in a Rochester draft, both because once you show that you'll play nice even with a bully, you're asking to get bullied, and because the way you act in one draft can carry over into the next one. If you don't win the table you may be Rochestering with the same people again, especially if you're in a region that doesn't have a large pool of top players.
However, it's even more important not to turn one incident into an all-out war. My recommendation is a simple approach that has proved successful even in massive game theory contests. Tit for tat basically means you play friendly until someone does something bad to you. Then you respond to what they do. If they get the hint and play nice again, so do you. If you realize that you started the conflict, you don't respond to their first response - basically, you are acknowledging that their move was legitimate and moving back into peaceful territory if possible.
The way you retaliate depends on the situation. The best retaliation is the least painful - more of a signal that retaliation is possible than an actual hate draft. At the Neutral Ground Top 8 I mentioned above, I was drafting U/B. The player to my left was Red with a touch of Green and was in a good position to go R/G, when a Wall of Distortion came late at the start of the second set of packs. With nothing exciting in either Red or Green, he made the natural Booster Draft pick and took the Wall. That stunk for me, especially since I already had at least one Waterfront Bouncer. (I drafted two, but think I only had one at this point.) But the key thing was to get him out of Black and make him realize that he couldn't take cards from me without consequences.
I let a mediocre Blue card go by and took a Red card and then another when the pack bounced back. Neither Red card was any good, so I wasn't really hurting him, but seeing me suddenly take two Red cards in front of him made him realize that he was risking a fight with the person feeding him if he went into Blue or Black. And since the packs were now going through him, I was able to send the warning and then see what he would do rather than having to make the first "nice" move myself. He quickly went back into R/G and we finished the draft without any further conflict.
Another common retaliation question is how you handle someone trying to work you on the bounce. Let's say you're going to get 8th and 9th pick out of a pack. The person getting 7th and 10th picks sees two cards in the pack that he wants. The best card for him is useless to you, but the second best card is one that both of you want. He may take the second best card, trying to work you by putting you in a position where if you draft friendly, he gets both the cards he wants and you don't get the one you wanted. In this situation, the automatic reaction of every Pro I've ever spoken with is to take the card he's hoping to get back so that he is worse off than if he had played it straight. It's the same idea as tit for tat - you're not trying to start a war, but you always want people to be worse off if they aren't cooperating with you than if they are.
That's not to say that working the bounce isn't a viable strategy. But it's risky, especially if the person you're working is an experienced drafter, and you definitely don't want to let people think they can do it to you.
Know the Metagame
What makes Rochester so fascinating is that you have, in theory, perfect knowledge of the cards in every deck - both during the draft itself (which could influence your picks) and afterwards (which can influence how you build your deck and how you play it).
Two examples of adjusting pick preferences due to the metagame come from a Rochester Draft grand prix tournament (I think it was Grand Prix: Manchester) with all Invasion packs. At one table I drafted a nuts U/B/r deck but still knew I was in trouble against one person at the table because he had three Llanowar Knights and two Armadillo Cloaks, while my three bounce spells were all Recoil. If I'd had a shot at Repulse, I would have taken it over just about anything, because I knew my deck had the edge against everyone else. As it was I went 2-1 at the table, losing to a 4/4 pro-Black trampler with Spirit Link.
Elsewhere in that tournament, I drafted another great B/U deck and shocked most of the table by taking Andradite Leech over Reckless Spite. The reason was simple; the other good decks at the table were all heavy Black - against them the Spite could be a dead card (especially since I already had some other removal that couldn't hit Black creatures), but the Leech was an insane powerhouse. If the best other decks were U/W, I'd have happily taken the Spite. This decision was proven correct in the subsequent rounds as my Leech wreaked havoc against people while the Spite would have been unplayable.
What you can do with your metagame knowledge depends a lot on how much you are capable of remembering, and this is a great thing to practice so you know what you should be aiming for. If you try to remember too much you may find that you lose track of everything. Maybe all you want to try to do is keep track of bombs or mass removal spells. If you can handle a bit more than that, you may want to keep track of "ambush" spells, like Giant Growths or removal spells you can play around, e.g. Second Thoughts. If you think you're going to have trouble remember anything you may just want to concentrate on your first round opponent.
Normally I'm pretty good at remembering the key spells, but in my last article I recounted a dramatic failure that could have cost me the tournament. I forgot that my semi-final opponent had drafted Reciprocate and thus lost complete control of the board by letting him remove Kumano from the game when I shot him for a single point of damage at the end of his turn. If I'd known about the Reciprocate, I would simply have untapped and carefully blown up his team, leaving him with few hopes of recovery and letting him use Reciprocate on some other attacker.
As you get better, you can try to keep track of what basic archetype your opponents are drafting. Colors is a good place to start, but there's a big difference between R/B beats and R/B control. If you know what your opponents are playing each round you can make better mulligan decisions and can also sideboard more effectively even if your first game is quick and thus doesn't reveal too much.
Work the Table
We've already discussed the tactic of working the bounce - a risky but sometimes rewarding strategy. As you get more experienced at drafting, you will sometimes be able to work the entire table - letting a card you really want go past because it will bounce back to you as a very late pick.
As an example, during my Champions Top 8 draft a pack came to me mid-way through the draft with two cards that I wanted - a strong Green creature (I don't remember which) and Time of Need. I already had Sosuke, Son of Seshiro and enough Snake Warriors to make him a potentially dominating force. If I got another powerful legend (hardly unlikely given the nature of the set), Time of Need would be very powerful in my deck. It was definitely the card I wanted most, but I let it go.
The reasons were simple. There were three more players who would get a look at the pack, with only the third in Green. Neither of the first two would want Time of Need at all, and given the pattern of the draft it seemed very unlikely they would hate it from me, even assuming they realized how powerful it was. The Green mage was G/U and there were a large number of solid Blue cards in the pack. Since he hadn't drafted a single Legend yet, the likelihood of him taking it randomly was almost nil - however, if I didn't take the Green creature he would probably have taken it.
If you read my tournament report you know this had a happy ending - I drafted Kumano and with two bomb legends in my deck it was a no-brainer to play Time of Need. (The "proof" is that the only way Time of Need is dead is if I've already drawn both legends, in which case I'm pretty darn happy.) But what makes the play important isn't that it worked (arguably it didn't matter, since I never drew Time of Need!) but that it improved my odds of having a winning deck.
Practice, practice, practice
A common theme to all of this advice is that you have to practice it. Rochester draft is a lot more than booster draft with common knowledge, and no other PTQ format gives you the opportunity to put in substantially more practice than your Top 8 competitors. Constructed Top 8s are just a special continuation of the Swiss, and everyone booster drafts, but many players haven't done many Rochester drafts. Get your team together, convince your local store to hold Rochester events instead of Booster, do whatever it takes to practice what we've talked about here. If you do, the odds are that you'll be the most experienced Rochester drafter at your table, and that can make all the difference.
Hugs 'til next time,