Off Topic: Deciphering Draft

One of the most valuable commodities is information. Quantifying such a nonmaterial resource can be difficult. Even though its exact value cannot be measured, many entities take great lengths to control and hide information. Governments spend large lumps of cash gathering secret intel on foreign nationals. Information equals power. As such, elaborate mechanisms and encryptions are used to prevent the less desirable from attaining it. In World War II the Nazi’s utilized a device called the Enigma machine to encrypt all their communications. The U.S. was a little more creative with the use of code talkers.

Magic thrives on hidden or revealed information. Hundreds at any moment are surfing the Internet for the newest tech and innovations. Fanatics can burn a whole in their wallet to seek the advise of professionals. During a game, we hide valuable data from our opponents within our hands. Draft can be highly cryptic with the compounded amounts of hidden intel. The more difficult aspects of draft are gauging the picks made by our opponents. As much as I love draft, I suck at reading signals. Some days are better than others. Most of it comes down to the simple fact that I don’t practice enough.

Sending Smoke Signals

To me, my card picks are the easiest parts of the draft. The difficult part is trying to figure out what my fellow participants are drafting. Are they drafting red/green or red/black? Comparing the latest set releases, Shards can be extremely difficult to send signals while M10’s simplicity allows for more transparency. Nonetheless, drafts can quickly turn ugly. Misreading the opponent on my right can result in my picks becoming sub par. What would you think if you got passed a Serra Angel? The most likely answer is my passer decided not to go white. What happened if Baneslayer Angel was his/her first pick? Pulling the Serra Angel would eventually lead me down the wrong path. Switching colors later in draft can be a waste. As the choices continue to be made, the most powerful cards are already gone and I am stuck trying to make do with leftovers.
Over the years, I have found some success with pushing colors in an unorthodox manner. If faced with two optimal color choices, I will pick the card with the least amount of good cards in that color. Let’s pretend for a moment that Serra Angel and Howling Banshee are equal. If I was passed these two cards, I analyze the two colors strength in the card pool. If the pack has a lot of good white cards, I will take the Howling Banshee. I want to pass the card pool that will entice him/her to go white. The hope is they will continue to draft white and read the signals properly and the following pack will result in them passing me the black.

In an ideal world, any player could send a clear signal and everybody would get to draft the colors they want if they don’t get blinded by the smoke. My method doesn’t always work. Heck, any method flops at one time or another. I’ve read some interesting articles about various strategies over the years. Many have been enlightening. A large junk of drafting always gravitates towards talk about the strongest colors and strategies of the set. If there were only a better way players could send clearer signals, drafting would be so much simpler?

Creating a Cipher

The trouble with draft is the cards are presented as random bits of data. It can be extremely difficult to grasp the choices being made. Then I got an idea after reading a part from one of CalebD’s articles.

The guy to the right of me passes me a pack with the rare missing. The pack has a Tendrils of Corruption and a Rampant Growth for playables. The Growth is on top, and the Tendril is on the bottom. The rest of the cards haven’t been moved, as the uncommons are clumped together. Obviously, he’s trying to signal me. Unfortunately, I don’t know which way.

It was very subtle. The part that got my mental juices flowing was the ordering of the cards. The thought crossing my mind was that if we took random bits of information and reordered them; a code could be sent to the person I pitch my cards to during a draft. As with all codes, the only way to interpret them was to create a cypher. Without one, my fellow draftees would not understand the messages I am trying to send. My initial thought was to utilize the basic lands in each pack. After somebody politely pointed out the error of my ways, I had to back track. The other problem was land could always be removed some day in the future. This would eliminate the cypher. It finally dawned upon me a cypher already exists in the form of rarities. Unless a drastic event occurs, rares, uncommons, and commons will always exist within a pack.

Utilizing M10’s simple card pool, the idea is I could place a common card of the color I am drafting on the other side of the rares and uncommons. If my first pick was a Bogardan Hellkite, I could take a Lightning Bolt and put it above/below the uncommons. The above or below part doesn’t matter. As long as the common has been separated from the rest of the common card pool, it will transmit the message.

The problem with the idea is few know of the cypher. A solution to this snafu would be to shift all the colors you chose. Instead of just a Lightning Bolt, a Firebreathing, and Lava Axe could be placed along with it. What would you think if all these cards were placed themselves?

As the draft proceeds, cards could be continually shifted. If the person pitching me cards was performing the same function, I could simply add to the shifted cards. I get a pack with shifted green cards. I pull a red card and add shifted red cards to the pile. When I pass the pack, the person to my left knows he will be competing against two people for red and green. He/she also knows I am drafting black since I shifted them in the first pack. Enough talk, lets get to some examples.

The pool below is from the draft viewer. Here is a link if interested.

First Pick: Marlon Egolf's pulls an Ant Queen.

As you can see, the Rampant Growth and Fog was separated from the other commons. It works, but hiding the Rampant Growth and Fog is not a straight in your face kind of method. The advantage to shifting below is there are fewer cards to be moved around.

Second Pick: Marlon Egolf picks a Borderland Ranger.

Shifting cards to the bottom is a more immediate indicator to the opponent. The disadvantage is the uncommons and rares have to be moved along with the shifted color.

Third Pick: Marlon pulls a Merfolk Looter.

Oh no, my method fails. Not really. A card in this case wasn’t shifted because there were no blue cards available. This is when the process of elimination comes into play, or better termed as battlefield. Looking at the cards passed, all other colors besides blue are represented. If an opponent has been sending signals turn one, it can be assumed he/she pulled the last blue card and would have shifted a blue card if one had been present. The rares and uncommons were shifted in this case. Hence, the opponent would still be trying to send a signal. This is the reason I believe moving all shifted cards to the bottom is more beneficial compared to the first example.

As you may gleam, the power of shifting cards gets weaker as the draft proceeds. I believe this is a mute point. The most powerful cards are at the beginning. Usually after the 5th pick, it rarely matters by then. Besides, if you haven’t figured out what people are drafting by then, it might be time to pack up your cards.

Shifting to Shards, multicolored blocks slightly complicate the matter. A first pick Rhox War Monk without another Bant card leaves a player resorting to innovation. Nothing says we can’t shift more than one card per pick. Wild Nacatl, Tortoise Formation, and Akrasan Squire shifted past the cipher have the combined colors to represent Bant. Times will exist were all the colors are not available. In those cases, nothing says all three colors need to be shifted. If only green and white are available, just the two colors can be moved. Not perfect, but it will still send your fellow drafter a signal in the right direction.

Spy Game

Magic is full of gentlemen and ladies. With these individuals, the method would work perfectly. Everyone would decipher signals with pinpoint accuracy. If I were a gentleman, I could leave the packs shifted card from my opponent along with my top card to pass. That way, the person I am pitching cards to would not only understand I am picking white, but the guy/gal to my right is drafting red. The continuation of the cypher could eventually lead to the majority of the table knowing what everyone was drafting.

However, we always have the less civilized amongst us. No rule exists that says I have to let my passee know what is being drafted. I could shift the cards in a way to be detrimental to my opponent I am pitching to during the draft. Even though I am drafting white, I could shift green. Also, I could remove all the shifted cards when they are passed to me. Another way to be untruthful would be to replace the shifted cards passed to me from green to white and so on. There is a multitude of ways to deceive.

Even though the cypher could be used for evil, it is more difficult to utilize in a heinous manner. In Magic, we have five colors. With this in mind, I have a one in five chance of effectively sabotaging my opponent. They have five other colors to decide from. Not to mention, they have the opportunity to splash for additional colors. A good drafter will eventually be able to tell whether your intentions are good with the cards being passed. The opportunities to influence the draft positively outweigh the ability to sway it in a negative way.

Political Espionage

So...what is the point of sending signals? Some players don’t see the benefit of sending signals. There can be advantages. If done properly, the choices in the second pack of the draft will have a higher value of picks. Pushing a player into blue and black ensures green, white and red will be heading your way pack two. It might not seem like much, but getting hosed during the second round makes for very weak pool. Wouldn’t getting a second pick Garruk Wildspeaker be worth the price of forcing your opponent into blue and black? Signals act like a deterrent. People often associate information in the military world as always being top secret. This is not always true. Sometimes it is valuable to let an opposing military force know about the strength of its opponent. Why attack when the enemy will decimate any opposition?

At a recent draft with the Shards block, everyone that night tried to go Bant or Naya to a certain extent. One lucky player went primarily red and black. At the end, he pulled an insane 3 Terminates and 3 Bituminous Blasts. His removal was just ridiculous because no one was competing against him. It would have been great to be in his shoes. The downside was everyone else at the table was competing against each other. This is understandable in the Shards block. It is extremely hard to gauge what everyone is pulling. Proper signaling has the potential to prevent a pod fighting over the same cards.

Ultimately, sending signals is up to the individual. The article today is not entirely about convincing any reader about the advantages or disadvantages of revealing information. What I am simply saying is there is a better way to send signals. Instead of simply taking a card and sending it to the left, cards in the pack could be shifted. The information given could or could not be beneficial, but if a person wanted, a clear signal could be given to his/her fellow drafters. Value of this function is up to the drafter. This is why intelligence agencies analyze intel. The data collected must be determined to be reliable, valuable, practical, and etc. In the end, it is still up to those agencies whether to act upon the information collected or keep it top secret.


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