Forcing in Draft



You know how it is with some people. Seldom seen outside each other's company. But if you ask then no, they're not dating. Walking down the street holding hands all the time. No, still not dating. Sleeping in each other's beds seven days a week. No, still not dating. Invited round to Sunday lunch with each other's parents. Still not dating. Shared bank account? Still not dating. Jointly held mortgage, pet cat, voted Hello magazine's cutest couple of the year. Still not dating. You get the idea.

I'm like that with Magic.

Seriously, I don't identify myself as a Magic player. A gamer, definitely. That's very much how I see myself. But Magic is just this one game. Notable for its position in the industry, but nothing I'm particularly attached to. Yes, OK, I happen to have an online collection of cards. And I play more Magic than all the other games I play combined. But I'm not a Magic player. I'm not! We're just good friends who like to sleep together.

As such, I was a bit offended when my other good friend Armada of Furyondy (with whom I do not sleep) described me as retired. Just because I haven't written anything for a month or two... or three... or... Ah, yes, I see his point. Thing is, I was moving house. And in October I returned to work after my year's sabbatical. And I have several other good excuses. But most of all, I just didn't like Coldsnap. On the plus side it joins Ninth Edition as one of the only two Magic sets from which I have ever made a net profit, but in both cases that's due to not playing a single game outside release week.

So it would be fair to say that once release day arrived for Time Spiral online I was as fired with anticipation as Pavlov's dog. But not quite so drooly. Nobody likes a Magic player with drool on his shirt.

I immediately took a dislike to the set for Sealed play. I kept up my tradition of going 4-1 in my online release league, but this time much of the credit had to go to the horrible randomness of the set favouring me over my opponents. That and one of them using his Willbender to redirect my Raspberry-@-you onto my morph in preference to my Durkwood Baloth. I'm not proud, I'll take the free packs.

Initially draft looked to be almost as random, but I gradually started to find it more interesting. Then one day I saw a particularly interesting thread in the Limited forum right here on MTG Salvation. Drafting in the top eight at GP Yamagata, Rich Hoaen first-picked Cancel. Could that really be correct? My own first thought was that he was experimenting, already knowing he was going to concede to Jelger Wiegersma in the first round. Various other forums users sprang to the defence of Cancel as a card, but succeeded only in demonstrating it was playable, not that it was a first pick. In any case, the issue has little to do with the card itself and everything to do with Blue.

In case you didn't get the memo: Blue's rather good in Time Spiral. Blue's so good that you want to draft it every time. Unless everyone else is drafting it too.

You see here the classic paradox of drafting. A color (or, equally, an archetype) can only be good or bad depending on how many players are drafting it. This is a topic well known to most good players, but seldom discussed. And the main reason it isn't discussed is because it's very hard to get enough information about what everyone at a draft table was doing. Particularly since most drafts happen online. I realised if I really wanted to take a closer look at the whole matter of color selection and (by extension) color forcing, I was going to have to analyze a real life draft. With real cards. And real people.

No chance of doing an eight person booster draft with just my cat and my girlfriend (the cat hates drafting anyway). Fortunately at exactly that moment Armada gave me a call asking if I wanted to do some drafting. Since he knows everyone in the entire world, it wasn't too hard to assemble eight people.

At this point I'll fast forward past the bit where Southwest Trains sell me a ticket to a station they can't transport me to. And I'll fast forward past the bit where Armada's girlfriend and I disappear for half an hour and I tell him we've been out to get a curry, which he believes despite the fact the curry place is shut on Sunday mornings. And some other stuff happened too and then there was drafting. Let's talk about the drafting...

First, the draft from my point of view. I won't go into the kind of detail I would in a full walkthrough, because some of the picks involved no real choices and the later cards were often irrelevant.

Players were seated around the table as follows: Cath, Tony, Myself, Holly, Armada, Adam, Tom then Kevan. Of these eight only Cath and Tony were experienced Time Spiral drafters. Ability-wise I wasn't expecting any of those present to be weak players, though. My card evaluation skills were about to be tested!

Pack 1


Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail are
ready to administer savage
beatdown.
Pick 1 I opt for Jaya Ballard over Brine Elemental. As well as being a far more powerful card it seems to me my chances of claiming Blue with the two experienced drafters to my right are lower than usual.
Pick 2 I go for the safety play of Thunder Totem over Cavalry Master and Kaervek the Merciless. I don't like the casting cost on the latter and the double White cost on the former makes me wary. This kind of caution worked well in RGD, but I've heard it said that Time Spiral favours the bold. Until I've experimented more, I'll continue to wear my cowardice with pride!
Pick 3 Here I chose Venser's Sliver from a heavily Green pack. This was probably a wrong pick, but I was keen to avoid Green if I could, having concluded it was really quite bad.
Pick 4 Empty the Warrens - I was keen to find Red cards to support Jaya, but I ended up not using it.
Pick 5 Prismatic Lens - I can't understand why this goes so late... two mana for acceleration is far better than three. Time Spiral's a fast format, so I value these highly.
Pick 6 Durkwood Baloth. By this point I'd seen a lot of Green and was forced to admit it was looking open...
Pick 7 Durkwood Tracker ...wide open. Or is this card not good? I remember Contested Cliffs as being fearsomely good. Is five mana really too much to ask for the capacity to gun down small attackers?
Pick 8 Phyrexian Totem Worth taking in case I find myself with a Strangling Soot I'd want to splash.
Pick 9 Amrou Seekers over a second Empty the Warrens. This seems very late to me.
Pick 10 Another Durkwood Baloth! The amount of Green going round the table is just silly.
Pick 11 And Search for Tomorrow makes the lap from the Green-filled pack.

Pack 2

Pick 1 I happily take Tromp the Domains over Raspberry-@-you and Mangara of Corondor. Most people like Tromp more than me, but I still consider it a fine first pick when I'm already in Green so the debate is fairly moot.
Pick 2 Castle Raptors over Flamecore Elemental. Elemental is one of those horrible cards that wreck me when my opponent has them and also wreck me when I have them. In fact, all Echo cards hate me. Maybe I shouldn't be in Red...
Pick 3 Rift Bolt over Terramorphic Expanse. The Bolt is just better. I know this. But it still takes me forever to commit to this pick. I think I'm addicted to mana fixing.

Tony decides to pass Temporal
Isolation. Wrong!
Pick 4 Forisyan Totem over Penumbra Spider - go go totem theme deck!
Pick 5 A critical pick for all the wrong reasons. I take Thelon of Havenwood over Amrou Seekers, which inclines me to spend the rest of the draft hunting for Thallids. With the benefit of hindsight... he's not even much good. Wrong pick.
Pick 6 Castle Raptors
Pick 7 Chromatic Star over Squall Line. Armada was somewhat critical of this pick, but I later defended myself with the observation that for a typical Green deck Squall Line usually reads "You lose the game" due to the life cost. Now I wish I'd drafted it for my sideboard just to experiment with.
Pick 8 Temporal Isolation! I'm pretty sure this card can only be here as a result of a mispick by (at least) one of the other players, but I'm not complaining.

Later picks included a Gemhide Sliver and a Penumbra Spider - at this rate I could probably have built a mono-green deck if I wanted to. I frowned glumly at my pile of picks... despite some unexpected late power cards the stack wasn't looking too impressive.

Pack 3

Pick 1 Scryb Ranger. Although I could have taken something in Blue or Black this seemed like a potentially useful card even if it ended up in the sideboard.
Pick 2 Stonewood Invocation. And for once I'm happy to be in Green.
Pick 3 Might of Old Krosa over Terramorphic Expanse. Not that it's a close pick. I mention it because it's the second expanse I had to pass and I was by this point officially sulking about it.
Pick 4 Wurmcalling over Ironclaw Buzzardiers. Again possibly wrong? Although I do have quite a bit of mana acceleration so I'm not sure.
Pick 5 Sporesower Thallid - at which point I begin to wonder if I'm the only Green drafter at the table.
Pick 6 Flowstone Channeler - Not at its best in my deck what with my having no Madness cards.
Pick 7 Nantuko Shaman

After that things got a bit less exciting, but I picked up some filler to sort out my curve a bit.

Next, an equally brief run through my matches.

Match 1 vs. Tom


Tom likes to play with dolls.
Game one turned into a horrible stall with me behind on tempo having kept a one-lander due to capacity to cast Search for Tomorrow. We were both playing G/R bases and failed to find any way to deal damage for quite some time. Tom's Stuffy Doll was disabled by my lucky topdeck of Temporal Isolation and I eventually took the game thanks to Amrou Seekers.

Game two was closely fought as an early Seekers from me motivated Tom to race. I looked to have a clear lead in the midgame until two consecutive Bogardan Ragers from Tom forced me onto the defensive. Whilst I wasn't drawing the threats I needed I had drawn an awful lot of pump. An extremely fat Amrou Seekers rescued the game for me.

Despite the 2-0 result this was actually a very close match. It also worried me because my deck seemed to play a lot slower than the format required.

Match 2 vs. Holly


A polar bear with parsley on top is a good
fit for Holly's W/g deck
Game one... I died. Reviewing the CCTV footage of the game in slow motion I could see a number of small, White things beating me up. I Rift Bolted Holly's Cavalry Master, but by then it was far too late - even a single turn of her whole army being essentially unblockable proved too much.

Game two was almost as much of a rout in the other direction. Holly's deck came out of the gates rather slowly and with tempo advantage my creatures were simply bigger.

Game three was one of the closest games of Magic I've ever played. A turn two Benalish Cavalry from Holly started a stream of beatdown quite reminiscent of game one. Knowing perfectly well I was on the ropes I desperately tried to compromise between keeping some kind of board presence and chump blocking to keep my life up. My one hope was Jaya Ballard. If I could get her active and not be forced to chump block with her I could probably win. I thought I was dead, but then my draw for the turn was Might of Old Krosa. This left me able to drop Jaya, block with her and then pump to keep her alive. I stabilized on one life and after a couple of hairy turns my broken rare then established control. I won six turns later.

Match 3 vs. Armada

Game one and I am rapidly facing down two Looter Il-Kor. I have brief hopes that Jaya will once again save the day, but Tendrils of Corruption for two spoils the fun before it begins. Armada's deck plays like a true control deck and I die gradually to Shadow damage long after I'm really out of the game.


Armada grunts in pain as his
domains get tromped.
Game two gets interesting at the point where I swing in for 12 thanks to Tromp the Domains. Armada spent a long time thinking about his blocks here. With 12 damage leaving him on four life and 13 damage leaving him with a stronger board position but on a risky three life the correct play was far from clear. I silently cursed, since in fact I was holding the Rift Bolt he was playing around. I needed two more damage, but he bounced my Amrou Seekers as a Looter dropped me to a worryingly low six life. Fortunately Armada went for Strangling Soot on my replayed Seekers and Might of Old Krosa took the game for me by keeping it alive.

The deciding game was woefully brutal. Not only did Armada get Looter action going again from turn two, but I failed to draw an elegant solution to his turn one suspended Viscerid Deepwalker and it hit me for a distressing eight life over two turns before I dealt with it. I eventually succumbed to the subsequent trickle of damage without dealing a single point.

Hopefully my adventures thus far have sent half my readers off to the forums about the futility of analyzing a draft so early in the season that people's pick orders are way off. Now I'm down to those of you with some kind of attention span, people who've fallen asleep, farm animals and inanimate objects I can get on to the real point of the exercise.

Here's a quick list of all the players around the table, what they played and their results.

Cath: BRw (splashing for Momentary Blink!). Overall result 1-2 (losses to Armada and Tom, win against Kevan).
Tony: Urw (including a Disintegrate and double Errant Ephemeron. Overall result 2-1 (win against Adam, loss to Armada, win against Holly).
Bateleur: Grw (heavy pump, great mana fixing). Overall result 2-1 (see above).
Holly: WG aggro (almost Wg!). Overall result: 1-2 (win against Kevan, losses to Bateleur and Tony).
Armada: UBr (attempted UB Madness theme, but not very successfully). Overall result 3-0 (wins against Cath, Tony and Bateleur).
Adam: BWr (featuring Magus of the Disk, Desolation Giant, Kaervek). Overall result 2-1 (loss to Tony, wins against Kevan and Tom).
Tom: GR (midgame aggro). Overall result 1-2 (loss to Bateleur, win against Cath, loss to Adam).
Kevan: Buw (disastrous mess!). Overall result 0-3 (losses to Holly, Adam and Cath).


Adam claims if you play cards with
sufficient force they're
harder to counter.
Although I played in what would have been the "final" if this were single elimination, in fact I came in third place behind Tony. Looking at the way the matches played out and knowing something about the card pool, the interesting question is: to what extent could each player have influenced their success in the draft?

The two top decks were the two which managed to run Blue as a main color. With Blue being both strong and deep in Time Spiral an eight person draft would normally expect a third Blue drafter. So who should have been in Blue? From talking to the players I already have one other clue to this question. I know that Kevan began by drafting Blue but was forced out of it. Given that I saw no Ephemerons in seat three and Kevan did not pass any either, the source of Tony's Blue strength becomes clearer. His Disintegrate was a first pick, so evidently both the Ephemerons at the table were either opened by him or passed only by Kath.

Next, consider Armada's deck. He had triple Looter Il-Kor and at least three bounce cards (two Snapback and a Wipe Away). Being fed by four non-Blue players (two on each side), this seems reasonable.

So should anyone else have taken on Blue? We can't answer that yet - first we need to look at the other colors...

Let's look at White next. Holly and Adam had the only base-White decks and they're sitting oddly close together. (Not in a "holding hands, playing footsie" kind of way. Try to keep your mind on draft theory please.) This explains why Holly was almost able to draft a mono-White deck. Adam's deck was a more unusual beast. BW is normally a fairly weak colour combination, but in this case he was keen to run some of his more powerful picks and the approach seemed to pay off.


Cath cannot decide which of her two
Firemaw Kavus to play. Life is so
hard.
Next: Red. Here it was Cath who did the best, with double Firemaw Kavu and a variety of other solid Red stuff. I wanted Red as a main color, but it just wasn't happening. No wonder, since Tony was also splashing it to my right (and with a Disintegrate I suppose I can see his point). The other side of the table was no quieter with Armada and Adam both splashing it ahead of Tom, who somehow still managed it as a main color! This doubtless hurt Tom's deck a lot. Overall, Red seems to have been overdrafted at the table.

What about Green? It seemed to be lapping the table like crazy! This happens a lot with weak colors (and Green is weak in Time Spiral draft). If you look at my seemingly ridiculous pack three you'll see the problem. I am passed Stonewood Invocation because Tony doesn't want to move into a fourth color to splash it. Then came the Might, which Tony and Cath were both going to pass for the same reason. Sporesower Thallid has double Green in the cost, so that was never going to be splashed. In view of all this, Holly's Green splash seems like genius... but unfortunately for her she happened to be sitting in the wrong place to fully benefit from it.

Last we come to Black. Again, this was overdrafted here. Drafters always like removal, but Time Spiral Black won't support many drafters as a main color. Having switched away from Blue it was again Kevan who drew the short straw here. By pack two, cards passed by Tom had put him into Black, but Cath was cutting it completely because she wasn't seeing good Red from her left. Armada did well out of all this because a full three seats to his right were clear of Black drafters.

Now we're finally ready to talk about choices the players had. I'll start from the simplest and head towards the tougher ones.

Tony: Probably the best seat to be in for this draft. Taking an early interest in Blue, he never had a reason to switch and could take his time deciding what splash colors he wanted. Finishing in second place suggests this strategy was fine.

Holly: A third pick Cavalry Master suggested the flanking theme that eventually formed the core of her deck. The deck's weakness was a lack of removal. With Red clearly out of the question, should Holly have splashed Black instead of Green? In principle the answer is clearly yes. Her match loss against my Jaya required removal and she would also have defeated Tony had she been able to remove even a single creature. On the other hand it's not clear at what point the decision to add Black could have been made. With no Black coming in pack two it probably didn't look appealing and being averse to WB in pack one makes sense. Overall the deck as drafted was probably the right choice, with the 1-2 scoreline slightly underrating the cards.

Armada: Having established that both his Blue and Black were flowing well, Armada's only difficulties lay in how hard to push the Madness theme he was aiming for. He wisely backed off from it and also made a good choice in risking a Red splash to improve card quality. His 3-0 result was not as emphatic as it might have been since he nearly lost to Cath in his first match. Nonetheless, a win is a win.


Thanks to my inscrutable poker
face, nobody knows if I'm holding
Rift Bolt.
Me: Reading signals paid off here and I ended up with a powerful deck. However, I lost to Armada and very nearly lost to Holly due to a lack of tempo. I either needed more removal or cheaper evasion (I had two Castle Raptors which were simply too slow to make the difference). But then, what draft deck doesn't want more removal and evasion? I'm inclined to conclude I did broadly the right things during the draft. Had Red not been so heavily drafted to my right, 3-0 might have been possible.

Tom: Good work on getting into Green swiftly, which provided the core of a solid deck. I do think Tom probably made one error, however: staying in two colors. Tom's deck had a huge amount of raw power, but was far too vulnerable to stalling. The sparse Red was never going to help with that and even plentiful Green offered few solutions. In our match it was my White splash that provided the edge. Either Blue or White might well have been splash options (hard to say without having seen the cards) and considerably improved the deck's chances.

Adam: This was the deck that most outperformed my expectations, very probably helped by Adam's playing skills. Neither of Adam's colours were particularly open around him. Adam's one match loss was decided in the third game by Tony Disintegrating him for 11 points, which suggests that 3-0 was well within his grasp. As such, although it seems counterintuitive, I'm inclined to conclude Adam did a great job in this draft. Sitting in what could have been a terrible seat he drafted pretty much the strongest possible deck from the tools available.

Kevan: Clearly things all went horribly wrong. The question is, exactly what should Kevan have been doing? At first glance you might say "draft Green", but Kevan was immediately to Tom's left, so that was unlikely to be strong. We know that none of Black, Blue and Red were promising, because Kevan tried those to varying extents during the draft. I can't be certain based on the information I have, but I suspect the answer comes down to signalling. Cath drafted BR immediately to Kevan's left - his two splash colors. Had he not initially been taking Blue cards, almost 2/3 of Cath's cardpool should have been available to him (albeit missing the top picks). However, that's not to say aiming for Blue was wrong. And that's really what this draft demonstrates...

...that sometimes you have to take risks during the draft which can leave your position unsalvageable if they fail. I have talked before about how some decks necessitate taking big risks even before the first card is played when you are considering your mulligans. Here we are simply taking the idea one step further.


Could Kevan avoid his fate?
The choices Kevan made early in the draft could have been right to leave him with a deck very like either of the top two. Failing that he could have ended up with a strong near mono-Black deck. Or possibly BR Madness. As it was, the way the packs were and the structure of the table conspired against him. On the other hand, had he not taken the risk and instead played "safe" into GWb or GWu he would have ended up with a deck with little hope of better than a 1-2 record.

I'm trying to break my record here for how late I can reach the core topic of an article. So... about forcing. Every time a set comes out where one color or one archetype is very good, lots and lots of players talk about how they "force" that archetype to good results. Even very good players have been known make such claims. I hope the analysis above has gone some way towards convincing you that forcing really is a hopeless approach. Even in a cardpool as rich in playables as Time Spiral, forcing anything is very unlikely to pay off. But, there is more to forcing than I once assumed. The good part of that mindset - the aspect of it which works - is understanding that sometimes that you must take risks. It's sometimes correct to commit to a path which may not be viable because you judge that to play for a big win whilst risking a big loss gives you a better result on average than playing things safe.

Epilogue

I don't play a lot of paper Magic, so I like to keep a little souvenir from each game. In this case, we were Rochester drafting our rares, foils and shifties. No problem, I thought, I'll grab Jaya... except Tony first-picked her over Flagstones of Trokair. So began the most strategy-intensive raredraft ever. What I had to do was try to build up a pile of cards sufficiently valuable to Tony that he would agree to trade them for Jaya. Of course I couldn't rely solely on asking him what he wanted, since it might be to his advantage not to tell the truth.

It's not clear whether I did enough, but eventually Tony took pity on me and traded my eclectic haul for my hot girl of choice. She now has pride of place next to my Stormbind and textless Electrolyze.

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