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What Do You Prefer?

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The letter I!n last week's bonus exercise we opened up our first pack, and it contained:

Magma Spray
Ridge Rannet
Volcanic Submersion
Bloodthorn Taunter
Naturalize
Cloudheath Drake
Excommunicate
Sighted-Caste Sorcerer
Obelisk of Jund
Obelisk of Esper
Infest 
Scavenger Drake
Mighty Emergence
Memory Erosion

First off, let's go over what we should not consider taking from this pack.

Not Yet

We're getting pretty comfortable with the format at this point so I'm not going to go into too much depth about why Mighty Emergence, Volcanic Submersion, Bloodthorn Taunter, Sighted-Caste Sorcerer, Obelisk of Jund, and Obelisk of Esper are not worthwhile first picks in this pack.

Mighty Emergence and Bloodthorn Taunter are only occasionally worth playing. While the Obelisks, Sighted-Caste Sorcerer, and Volcanic Submersion will make it into main decks more often than not, none of these cards are particularly impressive.

Naturalize is a reasonable card to maindeck and an excellent card to have in your sideboard if you get paired up against an Esper deck. But it just isn't worth spending an early pick on.

Ridge Rannet is a fine card that will make the cut in the majority of my red decks, but it's not particularly special. It's worth noting that Ridge Rannet is significantly less appealing than its green counterpart, Jungle Weaver.

In many formats a five-mana 3/3 flier like Cloudheath Drake would be an easy first pick, but that just isn't the case in Shards of Alara Limited. The biggest strike against Cloudheath Drake is of course that it turns on the absolutely devastating Branching Bolt.

Be aware that Cloudheath Drake might go up considerably in value after the release of Conflux and Alara Reborn.

Not as Good as You Might Think

Picture this: You're on the play. You have a turn-one Wild Nacatl and a turn-two Knight of the Skyward Eye, and on turn three you Excommunicate your opponent's two-drop. After that sequence of plays the game is probably yours ....

Excommunicate is excellent when you are ahead, but it doesn't do much if you are already behind. While it will sometimes function as a pseudo–Time Walk, I'll often leave Excommunicate in my sideboard, especially if I have a slower deck.

The short reason for this is because Excommunicate works to preserve the current game state for an additional turn. While you're going to be happy to play it when you're already ahead, it's rarely going to be what you want to do if you're behind.

You don't give up any cards to play Excommunicate, and you don't usually give up mana, but it will rarely get you anywhere that you haven't already gotten to.

The fact that Excommunicate is a sorcery does a lot to hold it back. Repel costs 3 ManaBlue Mana, but it is an excellent card in Limited formats because it has so many tricky potentials to complement its Time Walk–type effect.

Regardless of whether it's an instant or sorcery, a card like Excommunicate, Repel, or Temporal Spring will almost never be as good a pick as an actual removal spell such as Magma Spray.

A lot of people came out in favor of Memory Erosion in the forums last week, which surprised me a bit. The problem is that there just aren't the right cards to complement Memory Erosion. Back in triple Ravnica, players would frequently first-pick a Vedalken Entrancer and then build a very controlling blue-black mill deck around it. This was one of the most successful decks in the format. Rewind another year to Champions of Kamigawa, and former (then future) Limited Information columnist Quentin Martin is busy tearing things up with his creatureless Dampen Thought splice decks.

In Ravnica and in Champions limited, there were plenty of cards to make a mill deck work. Now, other than Memory Erosion and the painfully unimpressive Cathartic Adept, there's just nothing to get your mill deck going.

Not only are there no cards to get your mill deck going, there are also a number of cards in the format that explicitly punish you for milling. While it certainly wouldn't be as bad as going for a mill strategy in the threshold- and flashback-heavy Odyssey block, flipping over unearth creatures could cause you to take a bunch of damage, which often won't be something that your hyper-controlling deck can get past.

There are still slow, removal heavy matchups where Memory Erosion is excellent, but it is likely that you could have gotten nearly the same effect out of an Onyx Goblet gradually chipping away at your opponent's life total.

In the forums I noticed a couple of people suggesting that milling your opponents will affect the likelihood of them drawing the cards that they need. However this just isn't the case.

In the forums, orcishartillery explained why milling random cards doesn't have an effect on your opponent's draws in a very concise manner:

Let's say your opponent has a 40 card deck. Over the course of the game, your opponent draws 15 cards, and you mill 20 cards. What is the probability that your opponent drew their singleton bomb? 15 out of 40.

Now, over the course of another game, your opponent draws 15 cards, and you don't mill any cards. What is the probability that your opponent drew their singleton bomb? Again, 15 out of 40.

If anything, milling your opponent can improve their chances, as it might allow them to regrow their key card with something like Naya Charm or Sanctum Gargoyle.

So, while there are formats where Memory Erosion would be a great pick, this just isn't one of them.

What Do You Prefer?

Scavenger Drake is a very good card, but it can't really compete with Infest or Magma Spray for a first pick. Sure, there are times where I would take Scavenger Drake if this were the second or third pack, such as if I were drafting an aggressive Esper deck, but more often than not you are going to want to have a cheap removal spell over this medium-cost flier.

For me the only two serious considerations from this pack are Infest and Magma Spray, and to be perfectly honest with you I don't think that there is a right answer or a wrong answer between the two of them.

I don't want you to think that this is a copout answer, because it isn't, but right now I would take Magma Spray. Next week, who knows?

At the start of the format I would have taken Infest because it's a more powerful card in the abstract. A couple of weeks later I would have taken Magma Spray because I was having a lot of success drafting aggressive Naya decks. A few weeks after that I would have taken Infest because I was having a lot of success drafting Esper decks. Now, I would take Magma Spray because I feel that Esper, the deck where I would most like to have Infest, is currently being overdrafted by my friends and on Magic Online, so I usually end up in Naya, black-red beatdown (where I would prefer Magma Spray), or four- or five-color control (where I'd slightly prefer Infest).

Infest is a more powerful card than Magma Spray, but Infest is noticeably more difficult to play. If you take the Magma Spray you will almost always be able to play it. If you take Infest, there are times where it will end up in your sideboard because you decided not to draft black as one of your main colors and two black mana is just too much of a splash for your deck to support.

Unless I have a strong preference for Esper at the time, I'm going to take the Magma Spray because the average value that I get out of it tends to outweigh the average value that I get out of Infest.

I'll be curious to see how much this changes once Conflux is released.

It should also be mentioned that after taking Magma Spray, it is likely that the next two picks will be Infest followed by Scavenger Drake. And while it is important not to overestimate the importance of signaling in the first pack, knowing that the two players to your left probably took cards of the same color in their second and third pick respectively give you quite a bit of information. Especially if the next pack you see also contains two good black cards.

By the way, big props to niteayz in the forums for catching almost exactly what I was going for with this exercise.

Personal Deck Preference

The reason why I'd take Magma Spray over Infest is a result of a short-term deck preference.

Personal deck preference is very real, and it isn't something that you have to be embarrassed about—or feel married to. Just because you prefer drafting Jund one week doesn't mean that you have to be a "Jund guy," it just means that you think that you have a really good shot of winning if you draft Jund today.

Your pick might be motivated a positive preference, such as thinking that green-white beatdown is one of the best decks. Or it might be motivated by a negative preference such as thinking that you can never win with Jund.

Then there are preferences that you find yourself sticking with for a long time.

For this example, we're going to have to rewind a couple of years. Back in Ravnica / Guildpact / Dissension Limited, I used to love drafting aggressive decks based around Skarrgan Pit-Skulk, Silhana Ledgewalker, and graft creatures such as Vigean Hydropon. Skarrgan Pit-Skulk was a card that was considered nearly unplayable by many, yet I would often take it pretty early in the pack.


Was I right and everyone else was wrong about Skarrgan Pit-Skulk (or vice-versa)?
Not at all. In fact, the people on both sides of that argument were right, but for different reasons.

If you thought that Skarrgan Pit-Skulk was bad, that just meant that you didn't want to make the sacrifices to draft a deck where it would be good, which is 100% reasonable. But I loved to draft that deck, and I tended to do pretty well with it (in no small part due to the fact that I could get all of the key cards for the deck very late because nobody else wanted them).

Preference is the reason why "What is the best common?" and "What is the common you most want to open?" are two different questions. I think that Oblivion Ring is the best common, but I'd rather open a Vithian Stinger because it fits into more of the decks that I want to draft right now.

Personal Card Preference

Then, of course, there are personal card preferences. A personal card preference can stem from a card being particularly good in the types of decks that you want to draft, or it can stem from the fact that you think a card is generally undervalued (or both).

For example, I think that Algae Gharial is a generally undervalued card that I often see much later in drafts than I should. On the other hand, I'll draft Akrasan Squire earlier than most people will, not because I think it's undervalued, but because I love drafting aggressive green-white decks.

Just because someone (or the majority of people) says that they don't like a card, that doesn't always mean that you shouldn't like it. You should look to understand why a card isn't respected and then decide if you still like it.

For example, you might hear a lot of people say that they don't like Lightning Talons, but if you constantly draft aggressive black-red decks with Goblin Deathraiders, you might find that it's not that bad for you.

Bonus Exercise

Speaking of aggressive green-white decks, let's take a look at a pick that I had the other day. It's pack 3. You're drafting an aggressive green-white deck and so far you have the following cards:

3 Akrasan Squire
1 Steward of Valeron
2 Knight of the Skyward Eye
1 Knight of the White Orchid
1 Sigiled Paladin
1 Elvish Visionary
1 Sigil Blessing
1 Manaplasm
1 Court Archers
1 Oblivion Ring
2 Welkin Guide
1 Jungle Weaver
1 Obelisk of Naya
1 Naturalize
2 Windwright Mage
1 Thoughtcutter Agent
2 Tortoise Formation
1 Dispeller's Capsule
2 Sunseed Nurturer
2 Marble Chalice

You've noticed during the draft that white is being very underdrafted, hence the many excellent white cards, and you've seen very few blue or black cards, but nothing else has really stuck out at you about this particular draft.

You open up your third pack, and it contains:

Obelisk of Bant
Obelisk of Jund
Grixis Panorama
Etherium Sculptor
Blister Beetle
Call to Heel
Tortoise Formation
Knight of the Skyward Eye
Agony Warp
Tower Gargoyle
Sigiled Paladin
Topan Ascetic
Brilliant Ultimatum
Sigiled Paladin (Foil)

What do you take?

Before I go, I'd like to say that I've been really impressed by the forums over the last few weeks. The dialogues that have been taking place have been really great. Even when people are defending points that I might disagree with, they tend to support them with intriguing arguments that force us to articulate why we disagree.

Keep up the great work!

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