Let’s play a game to kick off the day. What’s the difference between these cards?
How about these?
Finally, what about these?
At this point, some of you have probably figured out what I’m getting at, but in case you haven’t, let me clear this up:
You upgrade your cards a ton when the Desert clause is active. Nothing new there.
At first, cycling Deserts would consistently wheel. Clearly their draw-smoothing effects, ability to turn on Deserts-matter cards, and the combined power of these two things together were under-appreciated. Over time, though, these Deserts started getting scarcer and scarcer. It’s like the Deserts themselves were becoming the rare oases they hide.
Now when I draft on stream, chat often tells me to first-pick Desert of the Fervent. While they’re half joking, this has become commonplace thinking. If you’re able to assemble enough playables, then every nonbasic land you add to your deck has huge upside. You get an effect without taking up a spell slot in your deck. The cycling Deserts are particularly powerful because they simply draw you to more gas. But the more you pick cycling Deserts highly the less actual good cards you’ll have to draw to.
I don’t think they should be first picks very often. While it’s true they help you include more relevant cards, their ultimate power level is capped at how many Deserts-matter cards they power up, bombs you can draw to, and how much mana you can afford to spend cycling. This means that while they’re above an average common, they aren’t better than what you’d normally first pick. Instead they’re good commons with synergy payoffs, and that type of card typically falls into the 3rd-5th pick range.
When a group of cards becomes overvalued, you end up with an environment that has to be corrected. It creates an opportunity to metagame. In this case, if everyone else values Deserts as highly as I’ve described, then it would benefit you greatly to stay as far away from Desert matters cards as possible. This is actually harder than it sounds, because every color is interested in these payoff cards. If you stay away from these cards though and draft blue decks without Unquenchable Thirsts, R/W exert decks that don’t care about Deserts, or U/B decks that are cycling based, you can gain an edge on the competition by zigging while they zag.
The tricky part is that my argument is only valid as long as this overvalued state is in effect. I firmly believe that there will come a time soon when Deserts will be more appropriately valued and my argument no longer holds water. What’s important to keep in mind is that an edge can be gained from even a slight over or undervaluation because the two are coupled. Draft is self-correcting, so if everyone is drafting Deserts highly it means other good cards become drafted later.
Last week, I discussed Torment of Venom and Torment of Scarabs as a deck archetype, and neither has anything to do with Deserts. They’re also in what’s perceived to be the worst color in the format and will be undervalued for that reason. This means there’s a good chance that you’ll see later Torment of Venoms than you would under normal circumstances, and might be able to hit the critical mass needed for such a strategy to work. This is clearly only a one-deck example, but I think card evaluations are usually thought of in a vacuum. Rather, you should start to think of over and undervaluations as coupled and try to apply those values to Draft strategies and the resulting Draft deck.
Finally, it’s important to remember that over and undervaluations are useful as a broad spectrum approach, because they indicate overall community ideas but are not all that useful as a strict guideline in any one specific Draft. I haven’t given any concrete numbers today—only WotC actually has that data, and I’m speaking from personal experience in the trends I’ve seen—but imagine that 70% of Draft tables experience overvaluations on cycling Deserts, a number that is extraordinarily high and almost assuredly an overestimation. Even in that hypothetical scenario 30% will be unaffected and it’s your job to understand whether you’re in a 70% Draft or a 30% Draft. That means that sometimes it will be right to be in the Desert deck even under the assumptions I’ve laid out, because they aren’t universal truths, but rather observations that can inform better drafting. The practical application of all this is that I’ll draft Deserts lower at the start of the Draft but be ready to move in if they happen to be more open than expected.
This article has been more of a warning than a truism and I don’t want you to leave with the notion that you should never draft Deserts again. Instead, I want to warn against the promise of Sand Strangler and its kin. The promise is a virtual Flametongue Kavu, but if you don’t get a shot at the Deserts to turn it on, you first-picked a Hill Giant. I’m not saying you shouldn’t take Sand Strangler, but I am saying it’s less of a slam-dunk than it was a few weeks ago. You also should be ready to give up on it when you can’t readily draft Deserts. This means it has more of a gold card feel than a single-colored card because of its strict synergy requirements.
Good luck figuring out which type of Draft table you’re at, and remember that flexibility is important. In a few weeks time I think Sand Strangler will be much better than it is today. Pendulums always return back to the center.