Carrie On – Read Signals and Profit

I often hear people complaining that they can’t read signals in draft. There is no great and powerful secret to this. Anybody can read signals and it doesn’t involve some obscure voodoo based on phases of the moon. Other people might misread your signals, but there is not much we can do about that. But I do have some pointers about signals in draft that I want to share with you today.

1. Pick 1, Pack 1

Where better to start than pick 1, pack 1? While you don’t receive a signal in this pack, you do send a pack down the line to be mulled over by other people. Unfortunately, some people get overly concerned by this and let it influence their pick. Let’s say we opened this imaginary pack:


There are four strong black cards in this pack. I really like [ccProd]Herald of Torment[/ccProd], [ccProd]Shrike Harpy[/ccProd], [ccProd]Asphyxiate[/ccProd], and [ccProd]Servant of Tymaret[/ccProd]. I don’t particularly want to first-pick the Servant but I have first-picked all of the other three and Servant is still a high pick for me. If I take the Herald (in my opinion the strongest of the three first-pickable black cards), I’m still going to be passing three strong black cards. There are some other good picks in here ,but there is a high chance that two out of the four people to my left will also take a black card from this pack. This could result in them also being in black and it will therefore be cut from me in pack 2.

On the other hand, there are some good quality non-black cards here that I would be happy to take. Personally I like [ccProd]Archetype of Courage[/ccProd] quite a lot and [ccProd]Bolt of Keranos[/ccProd] is a nice removal spell. If I take one of these I pass no other strong cards in those colors, which severely limits the chances many people to my left will end up in that color. Additionally, with so many good black cards, they will all fight over black while leaving my color alone.

So, what card do I pick? [ccProd]Herald of Torment[/ccProd], because it is the strongest card. A 3/3 flier for 3 is very strong. Regardless of whether you agree in terms of its strength, change the cards around and I will still take the strongest card regardless of what signals I pass.

When people tell you to consider what signals you are passing that doesn’t mean, “take a weaker card so you don’t send mixed signals.” Remember, you are passing to them in two packs. That means you get first dibs on any sweet cards that come your way. Odds are you will cut black enough in pack 1 to force at least one of those downwind of you out of the color before the end of the pack. Even if you don’t and you see very little black in Pack 2, you are probably seeing cards in your other color, which you can happily pick up before getting more black in pack 3.

Further to this, if I don’t take the strongest card pick 1 due to some strange hang up on signaling, then get passed a whole bunch of great cards in that color and none in the color I did take, I’m going to be very very sad. You do not know what is going to be available to you, so why would you sacrifice power level for any consideration so early? Taking the one white card isn’t going to matter if the four people to your right all take white cards before you get the packs. You don’t get to signal your intent to them. So now you gave up a strong card, sent a meaningless signal, and just want to rage quit.

Pack 1, pick 1 take the strongest card.

Sometimes you can let the signals you will pass influence your decision. If there are two equally powerful cards to choose between then I will lean toward the card which cuts that color better. What if the previous pack had a foil [ccProd]Courser of Kruphix[/ccProd] as well as Herald? I think Herald and Courser are comparable in power level in draft. Not game-ending bombs necessarily, but sweet components to any deck. Herald is a more powerful combat creature but Courser provides card advantage (plus the life gain isn’t irrelevant). I don’t want to get into a big argument about which is better in Limited. My point here is not to discuss relative power levels of particular cards but if I am choosing between two cards I believe to be of roughly equal strength then I can let the color distribution of the rest of the pack influence my pick. However, this is a secondary consideration rather than the first thing I look at when I crack the booster.

2. Interpreting Signals You Receive

I remember when I started playing, I didn’t know what signals were. What people mean by a “signal” is when you get passed strong cards in a particular color. The better the card and the later you see it, the stronger the implication that no one to your immediate right is in that color. This is a signal that that color is not being drafted and is therefore going to be open for you to pick up. The logic being if any of the players who have passed it were in that color then they would have taken it because it is good. It would probably never happen, but if you saw a third-pick Elspeth you wouldn’t need someone to tell you that no one upstream of you is drafting white.

In order to read signals you have to have a grasp on the relative power levels of cards. As do others in your draft. Signals can often be confused by newer players passing strong cards in their colors because they don’t value them correctly and take weaker cards still in that color.

It is also important to remember that each player can only take one card from each pack. Seriously, people forget this. Take my example pack from before. I take Herald ,then the guy to my left takes Shrike Harpy, because they really rate that card highly and think it’s a signal that black is open. After the draft he complains that I signaled to him that black was open and then cut him. As much as I would like to, I can’t take every good black card from every pack. This gets even more awkward if I’m passed two good black cards pick 2 or 3, so I continue to feed good black to my neighbor. There is nothing that can be done about this. I will end up sending a good black signal for at least a few picks if the packs just happen to be dense in that color. It is important to remember this. If I see a few good cards in a color early but then it vanishes, I know it was simply because the players next to me couldn’t cut it all at once. I might remain in the color, depending on how many and which cards I got and what I see in pack 2, but I can also happily move into something else.

It for this reason that I tend simply to take the strongest cards from the first few packs rather than worry about sticking to a particular color. That way I don’t commit to a color that isn’t available to me while passing up on other strong cards. That’s how I managed to draft GW the other day after first-picking a [ccProd]Mogis[/ccProd]. Neither black or red turned out to be open, but I was passed a [ccProd]Reap What is Sown[/ccProd] which I wanted to try out and then a couple of [ccProd]Akroan Skyguard[/ccProd]s and I never even looked back at the Mogis. It’s important not to flit so much you don’t have enough cards at the end, but don’t be afraid to pick up different colors at the beginning.

As well as looking at quality and lateness of cards to see what is open, you must also consider quantity. One good blue card is not a signal but a steady stream of reasonable-to-good blue cards over multiple packs is. Signals are mostly a pack 1 phenomenon but they have implications that extend into pack 2 and give good indications of what to expect in pack 3.

3. Pack 2 – The Case of the Missing Color

When reading signals in pack 1, you should also be paying attention to what you aren’t seeing. Say you first-pick an [ccProd]Ornitharch[/ccProd], but then see no other notable white cards during that pack. You now know that white is being drafted heavily to your right. Importantly, this should mean you will see a heavy stream of White in pack 2 because no one to your left (unless very determined) is going to be in white at this point.

There are two options here for you in pack 2.

The first and most likely is that you should absolutely not touch white. Sure, you’re seeing a bunch of white cards now, but you are going to get NOTHING in pack 3. If you picked up a nice selection of cards in pack 1 in two colors, just carry on with that game plan. It’s often right to switch in pack 1 when you see a stream of cards in one color, but it is rarely correct in pack 2—the reason you are seeing them is that the color is not open in the other direction and you won’t get enough in pack 3 to complete your deck.

Don’t get suckered in to switching to a color that isn’t actually open.

There are situations in which the correct option is actually to move in on this color, despite knowing that it won’t be open for you in pack 3. This generally happens when your main color is very open in pack 1 and you finish the pack with say 8-9 playable cards in this color. If you can get the same number in pack 3, you only need 5-7 cards from pack 2. Now you can afford to pick up an entirely new color in the second pack. If you were more split then you’d have to drop some cards in order to pick up these new ones and then be scrabbling for colors. This also works well in the case that you took a few early strong cards in that color but then got cut. As long as you have firmly settled on only one color after the first pack then you can do this.

I quite enjoy doing this. You draft one color in one direction and a different one in the other. You have to be careful that, by switching gears in pack 2, you don’t pass a good stream of cards which are in your color from pack 2, since this could result in other people picking up those cards and then cutting that color in pack 3. Remember that you can still pick up strong cards in that first color and should probably still put a priority on them to avoid unfortunate switches.

I feel like I could say a million more things about reading the flow of a draft. Maybe I will think about putting together some examples for you another time. One of the reasons I enjoy drafting is for this reason. Seeing the packs go by, watching which cards come and which don’t. Finding that sweet spot that is open and executing a well-timed switch. To be honest, I’m much more interested in the draft process than the matches.

I hope this will help you in your drafts. Feel free to Tweet feedback/comments @onionpixie and I’ll see you next week.

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