It's been a while since I've been able to write much about Magic. I still manage to draft a lot, due in part to mild insomnia that often has me start my day at 4am, but between work and my daughter (who is broken in every format), it's been hard for me to find the time to write.
Speaking of Jade...
When you're a Dad you find that you sing more often than you may have before. I've “written” songs about such things as taking baths and changing diapers, making these tasks easier for Jade when she was younger. Now that she's nearly two she still likes them but she also sings along.
And changes the words.
Take, for example, the rewritten theme song to Hawaii Five-Oh:
She's a naked baby.
She's gonna take a bath.
She's a naked baby,
And she likes to laugh!
This was a big favorite during the early months, but lately Jade has made some modifications. She noted that she showers more often than bathes and that Mommy is a key part of those showers. So now the second line is a bit more accurate at the cost of being a bit off-rhythm: “She's gonna take a shower with Mommy.”
OK, on to Magic.
Anyone who was lucky enough to draft Invasion block knows that there are only two sensible answers to the question, “What is the greatest Draft format ever?” One is Invasion Block. The other is Invasion/Invasion/Planeshift. Kai Budde argued that the full Invasion Block was arguably too random with its mana. It allowed players to take bad risks with potential payouts, some so high a better player might not be able to overcome them. Either way, Invasion drafting (with at least one expansion) is better than any other format before or since. It is filled with an incredible number of decisions at every turn, both in the Draft and during play.
It was also a great time to be a five-color drafter. It's no accident that when I needed to 3-0 my final table at Pro Tour Barcelona I ended up with spells of every color in my deck. Only the resulting power could match up against the Rout/Probe/removal monstrosity drafted by my final-round opponent. Four and five color decks were by no means necessary, but being able to draft them was an incredibly important weapon to have in your arsenal — without it, you really couldn't take full advantage of the Draft.
Now we have Ravnica block — inspired by Invasion, but determined to be different. The base set alone allows 5cG drafting, but it doesn't encourage it. The tools are there but the motivation is missing; the synergy of each guild diminishes the rewards of borrowing from another. Boros Fury-Shield is a wrecking ball in a fast R/W deck but little more than a one-creature Fog in a U/B Millstone strategy — not worth running, let alone splashing.
The Guildmages are a great example of another way Ravnica punishes multi-color strategies. In a two-color deck, a Guildmage is a bear with good special abilities and a cost of two generic mana. That's an amazing deal. In a multi-color Draft the Guildmage's casting cost starts to look a lot more like a gold card, at which point it's still solid but not crazy.
Mark Rosewater said that where Invasion encouraged players to use lots of colors, Ravnica would encourage them to limit their colors. As just noted, this seems to be the case so far. When the full block is in play, however, four- and five-color strategies are likely to dominate. The time to get ready for this is now — or at least, soon.
So why will Rosewater's best efforts fail? Math.
Gold sets essentially add new colors to the mix. Ravnica currently has nine colors — the standard five plus GW, GB, UB and RW. The expansions will each add three gold colors so that the complete set will have new fewer than fifteen colors — three times as many colors as a standard one.
Suppose you draft two of the basic colors. That automatically gives you a third — the gold combination of those two. At the moment that's three colors out of ten, which isn't bad — you may want or need to splash occasionally, but quite often you won't have to... especially if you draft twenty-two or more decent spells.
Now what happens when you're drafting three colors (two basic and one gold) out of fifteen? That's roughly equivalent to drafting a mono-colored deck...something that happens and can be great when it does, but upon which one would hate to rely.
A further problem is that your gold color only exists in one out of three packs. That means you'll have one pack where you've got plenty of picks to choose from and two where you're in trouble. Hardly a recipe for success.
It gets worse. As Rosewater alluded to here, the density of gold colors will be higher in the smaller sets, particularly for Red and Blue, respectively.
The biggest challenge is what I'll call the "double time" problem. You see, in Ravnica three different colors each showed up in two guilds. If you do the math, this means that one of the colors that didn't double up in Ravnica has to show up in two guilds in each of the small sets. So what's the problem? It's what we in R&D call a "number problem." Ravnica was a large set. Guildpact and Dissension are small sets. But Guildpact and Dissension have seventy-five percent of the guild weight (three guilds as opposed to four). But they don't have seventy-five percent of the cards.
The end result is that the double-up color eats up all its allocated space trying to satisfy the needs of two guilds. As such, it has zero space to do any non-guild stuff. It does have a little breathing room at the rare slots, but common and uncommon are stuffed. This is slightly balanced by the fact that Blue and Red, the odd-men-out in the big set, had more mono-colored cards in Ravnica. When Guildpact comes out, check out Red to see what I'm talking about.
This means that a R/W deck isn’t just drafting two out of eight colors in Guildpact (Red and White out of the five base colors, plus three gold), it’s drafting one out of seven because the Red slots are eaten up by the need to supply both RG and RU gold cards! A true R/W deck will have fewer card choices than a mono-colored deck in a non-gold set.
Hopefully I've convinced you that straight two-color drafting is over with. Now what? There are two basic approaches drafters can take to respond to gold colors. One is to draft a three-color deck, ideally with at least one gold color in each set. You could, for example, draft R/W/U, picking up R/W cards in Ravnica, followed by R/U and W/U. It's an open question which three-color sets will have the best synergy.
In addition to the balanced approach, you can try to set yourself up for one strong pack at the expense of one that may be weak. This can be thought of in two ways — both based on signals, and both taking advantage of the small-set and double-guild problems. By owning one of the double-guild base colors (Blue or Red) you can design your draft to do particularly well in that color's double-up set at the cost of having fewer choices in one pack.
If you receive amazing signals that Blue is open on your right, you can reasonably assume that that color and its gold counterparts (in this case U/G and U/W) will be strong in the third pack. If you draft G/W gold cards in Ravnica along with good Blue you'll probably have a modest second pack but should do very well in the third.
The alternative approach to signals would be to force G/R/U. In this case you're taking the weak pack up front in Ravnica where there are still plenty of good non-gold cards for you to choose from. Your goal will be to cut Red hard so that the people to your left aren't looking to go R/U or R/G in Guildpact, giving you the potential for a very rich second pack.
If experience is any guide, three-color drafting will be the default for most players.
The other approach, of course, is to draft all five — really all ten — colors. But why should this approach be better in a ten-color format than in a five-color one? The answer, again, is math.
One of the fundamental realities to Draft is that some cards are flat-out better than others. Getting passed more of these cards is extremely important to maximizing your chances of winning. So how do you do it? By being in the colors that the people feeding you aren't touching. In simple terms, a person who isn't drafting Black is much more likely to pass you a Terror than a person who is. You're much better off drafting Black when none of your neighbors are, than when both of them are.
Woohoo, keen insight, right?
In a five-color format, the person feeding you is probably in two colors, possibly splashing a third. That means that there are two or three “clear” colors — probably two and a half, since he'll take splashable bombs in one of the three. If you're drafting two clear colors, you've already got most of the opportunities for later-than-they-should-be picks. He can open Wrath of God or Kokusho, the Evening Star (or the equivalent), and if he isn't in those colors (and isn't rare-drafting) he's going to take the second-best card and ship you the goods.
In a ten-color format, there are simply more colors a typical person isn't drafting. Let's say he's chosen the three-color route, with one gold color per pack. That means that there are still two untouched colors, but also two or three untouched gold colors where you can obtain late picks.
The comparison gets even better for the five-color drafter as you extend the possible sources of late cards. With so many colors and pseudo-colors available, it's quite common for some extremely powerful cards to go very late. I was passed a third pick/third pack Rith, the Awakener during Invasion/Invasion/Planeshift — and this was at a Pro Tour with the table still in contention for Top 8. Battlemages, Terminates, and all sorts of other gold and semi-gold treats would regularly go late, simply because that particular color — out of the fifteen possible! — wasn't being drafted by any of the X people who saw the pack before you did.
Hopefully I've made my case that 5cG (or sometimes 5cU) is an archetype worth taking seriously — possibly the dominant archetype when the Ravnica colors expand. The question for now is, so what? Specifically, why am I writing about a draft strategy what will become good someday but may or may not be good now?
The answer is simple. Drafting five colors takes practice, so if you want to dominate the Pro Tour Qualifier Top 8s and online drafts, now is the time to start practicing.
Five-color drafting requires a lot of intuitive decisions. Unless you're Zvi —and probably not even then — you can't really do the math on your mana. That, in turn, means that when you have to decide between Farseek and a business spell, experience is the only thing helping you.
Once you've learned how to draft five colors, it's usually pretty easy. I have far fewer mana issues in my typical 5cG deck than I do with, say, Boros. The demands aren't much worse, and I know what tools I need to make it work. I've lost track of how many times someone has commented on how lucky I was to get all my mana, ignoring the fact that I'd gotten it by drawing extra cards and running mana smoothers.
So now is the time. The next step is giving you the basic rules to follow.
1. Have a base color — usually Green but sometimes Blue. I've seen tons of 5cG decks that are all over the place. I've even run a few myself. They can be extremely good, but more often than not they're just awful. You're not running four or five colors just to show off — you're doing it because it makes your deck better. Good spells in your main color(s) are still good spells and are easy to cast. This ties in closely to our next rule...
2. Don't get crushed. Your card pool will be more powerful than that of most opponents but it's easy for a 5cG to get overwhelmed in the early stages when you're finding your mana, especially if you're holding some off-color removal spells. Your plan is to win the long game, so you should generally try to make trades that ensure the long game actually happens.
3. Card drawing spells can be as good as mana smoothing. A better man than I said that Civic Wayfinder is behind only Last Gasp and Faith's Fetters among the top commons, but I'm going to disagree; Compulsive Research gets the nod in the 5cG archetype. I may be wrong here — take a look at rules one and two for why a 2/2 in your base color might be better than a card drawing spell in a secondary color — but in my experience Compulsive Research continues to win game after game. The point is that while card-draw doesn't always let you cast the spell in your hand, it digs up new spells you can play, often including the Wayfinder or Terrarion you need for the spell you're already holding.
4. One mana is a lot easier than two. Even two-color drafters have to be cautious about cards with double-mana requirements. Four and five-color drafters have to be extremely cautious about such spells — even in their base color — unless they have multiple ways of doubling up (e.g. Krosan Restorer). Gold cards aren't nearly as difficult as cards with two of the same color.
5. Run lots of mana in the colors that provide your search and drawing. When people show me their 5cG decks after losing, I often see things like three Mountains to support two or three Red spells, four Plains to support five White spells, one Swamp for a single Black spell and four Islands for four Blue spells. That leaves them just six Forests, even though they are running eighteen lands! Assuming that Green offers three mana-fixers, they would be better starting off with one Mountain, two Plains, two Islands, a Swamp, with up to ten Forests as a base. That's two less lands (adding in two additional spells) and will usually give you a more reliable manabase.
The problem with running off-color lands is that they effectively produce colorless mana unless you happen to draw your off-color spells. A Farseek or Wayfinder, meanwhile, will get you Red when you need Red and Blue when you need Blue. A second Wayfinder doesn't produce the same mana as the first — unless you require it.
6. The earlier you want to cast a spell, the worse it is to have it in your splash colors. Removal can be pretty much any color, but splashing for a cheap creature is usually less effective. With any off-color cards, you should ask yourself how happy you are playing it on turn five or six, even if it only costs two mana.
7. Practice, practice, practice. This is more of a practical rule. Assuming your goal is to win a PTQ Top 8 Draft (or to be in a position to win lots of online Drafts), you should set out now with a goal of building up the requisite experience. Push the envelope as you draft, keeping track of what works and what doesn't. In time, you'll know when you can't afford to run Golgari Brownscale because you won't have double Green available consistently on turn three, or when you can afford to splash the equivalent of Kirtar's Wrath.
As with Invasion Block, you won't always draft five colors. I've outlined some viable three-color strategies and there's nothing wrong with having “only” four colors in your 5cG deck. Being able to draft five colors, however, is a very powerful weapon that is likely to become increasingly important as Ravnica block unfolds. Add it to your arsenal or lose to those that do.
Hugs ‘til next time,