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Rogue Report – The Backdraft

 

I just returned from a fun weekend away from Seattle hanging out in a house on Anderson Island. That means I got to spend my whole weekend drafting, which usually leads to some quirky draft formats, one of which I want to talk about today.

However, I first want to say a quick word about Grand Prix Houston and how awesome I am. If you know me you know I have no problem pushing the UB Mannequin deck or even Kiki-Jiki into any conversation. You know, like right now. Less beating around the bush, here’s how I’m awesome:

1) A full 21 people decided to play Scapeshift Zoo in Grand Prix Houston, and I feel safe taking credit for the deck’s popularity. I love when people play my decks because it helps me validate playing out-of-the-box strategies. Sometimes nobody wants to play my deck and I’m sad. For Scapeshift Zoo, though, I finally felt like I had something that could really compete, and I was telling everybody around me to play it. (Usually I’m not shoving my decks into people’s hands.) It’s very gratifying to see my deck near Hypergenesis and Dredge levels. Thanks to everybody that played my deck! It means a lot to me.

2) If you know how much I like seeing people play my decks, then imagine how happy I am when they succeed! The official event coverage has this handy chart that shows the win percentage of every archetype on day one. And you know what that chart says? Scapeshift Zoo has the second highest win percentage out of ALL the decks! That blew my mind. The only deck with a higher win percentage is Thopter/Depths, go figure. I feel even more confident about my deck choice this PTQ season.

But I’m not just here to brag about how awesome I am”¦

Back to Backdraft

So, the first question: what is Backdraft? Very simple. Instead of trying to draft the best deck you can, you try to draft the worst deck you can. You want the deck you draft to lose every match. However, you’re not going to be the one building or playing your deck. After the draft you hand your deck to the member of the other team sitting across from you (as it usually works best in a 3v3 scenario) and they build and play with your deck. (If you want a little more detail on the logistics feel free to ask me. Otherwise it should be pretty straightforward.)

Some formats work better for this than others. You need a format where the decks you draft can actually still win a game. I’ve heard Shadowmoor and Eventide make a good backdraft format because spells are castable. The only format I’ve ever backdrafted though is Cube, and I find it to be a great format.

From a game design perspective it has an awesome decision curve. Normally your first few picks out of a pack are the most important, not to mention your first five cards of the draft. So the weight of your decisions are usually the heaviest at the beginning of the pack, and it slowly peters out until the pack is gone. The last few picks mean little, and depending on the format there can be a drop-off point where even the picks past pick 8 are pretty irrelevant.

For backdraft, though, the curve is the complete opposite, which I think is better for a game. You don’t want a player’s first decision to be their hardest, you want it to slowly build to that moment. In backdraft your first few picks are largely irrelevant as you fill up on [card]Coffin Purge[/card] (for example) or other mostly blank cards. Then, almost magically, the picks get a little harder every time. By the time you’re down to five cards in the pack you’re sweating pretty intensely. Then you get hit with the choice of damnations in the last two cards, and the moment where everybody groans when they see their 15th card.

Tracking a pack is also very rewarding in backdraft and matters on almost every pack, whereas in a normal draft you might not pay attention to each card that will table. When you see the back that you’re going to get the last card out of, you can try to predict what that card will be and try to draft the deck that makes that card worse. The same is true for your 14th pick and 13th pick, or any late pick.

I’ve heard people turn down Cube drafting because it’s “not a relevant format.” These party poopers only want to draft the current Pro Tour draft format and nothing else. While it’s important to practice the relevant format a lot, I find cube drafting has drastically improved my abilities. Backdraft is no exception. While probably not as “productive” as cube, which teaches you how to draft a cohesive deck, backdraft teaches you what it takes for a deck to win.

Heuristics

I’ve gathered a few pieces of advice in my backdrafting experience, and I just want to share with you what’s worked for me. While most of my information is taken from cube backdraft, it’s probably still good information for backdraft in general. In fact, even if you never think you’ll backdraft, I think this is a very useful thought exercise if nothing else. I was worried that writing an article about something as specific as cube backdraft has a small audience, but I find that thinking about Magic in unique ways can help you more than you would think. Heck, even non-Magic things (like other TCGs, or Chess, or track and field, or cooking) can help you with Magic in some way.

Step 1: Take Blanks

It’s pretty easy to be able to tell what cards to take early. The example I keep going back to is Coffin Purge. While the card might be relevant sometimes, it’s probably going to be blank in most matchups. Same for Seat of the Synod. Depending on the cube (or the pack) this is usually your first two or three picks. It’s still worth paying attention to this note, though, because it’s not always easy to tell a blank right away. Since the format is pretty backwards from what you’re used to sometimes a card that was once ok becomes blank in this new light, or a card you think is probably blank might actually be very good. Howling Mine, for example, might look like a blank at first because nobody ever plays it. However, if given the right deck it might actually be awesome. (More about controlling your deck later.)

Step 2: Spread Your Colors

It’s useful to think like you’re drafting a sealed pool, not a deck. The guy who receives your deck is going to be forced to build with whatever he gets, so spreading out the colors you’ve drafted is one of the easiest ways to make their job harder. If you end the draft with an even number of each color you’ve done a pretty good job, though obviously you have to factor in card strength as well.

You’re going to get a 15th pick card that is pretty good. You can kind of predict what’s coming if you pay attention to the packs, but you’re going to get stuck with a few good cards, and maybe even a bomb. For example, say you got stuck with Rite of Replication in the first pack. It’s a card that can win the game on its own pretty easily, so you probably don’t want it to end up in the other guys deck. From that point forward you want to mentally weigh your Blue stack as being heavier. Keeping track of the relative strength of each color pile is important.

One rule we play with to help the backdraft is that you can’t look at your picks except between packs. Normally we let ourselves look if we’re just drafting Zendikar, for example, which may or may be helping us in the long run. In backdraft, though, your picks become much easier when you can just check the strength of your colors at any point, or do a Goblin check if you see a Goblin Matron. By only letting you look at picks between packs it allows for mistakes to be made where you weigh a color a little heavier than you should have. I find this to be a positive thing for the format.

Those are the two easiest pieces of advice, and now my advice is going to be tilted a little more towards what I do and a little less of what is generally accepted as the correct strategy. It’s not the only way to backdraft, but it works well for me.

Avoid Creatures

I very rarely (very, very rarely) take a creature over a non-creature spell. Imagine that you draft 45 non-creature cards. Your opponent is going to have a very hard time winning. Sure, it’s hard to do, but it’s kind of the ideal I shoot for. It’s possible to pass a pool with under 10 creatures in all five colors. At that point they don’t even have the option of going aggressive, so the game is going to go long. You can’t block early, so you’re going to have to try to stay alive using just spells, and you’ll probably loose to a fast start. Then, once you try to win the game, since it’s gone pretty long your opponent is going to see more of their deck. If they draw their powerful card that just happens to be better than the powerful card you were holding out for, then you’ll lose.

This means that I take good spells over even underwhelming creatures. I’ll take a Smother over some random Morph they can’t even flip up. Morphs are good for my opponent because it gives them a 2/2 for three in any of their decks. Smother can’t win a game.

My strategy is a little “all in” though. There’s a big difference between a deck having 4 solid creatures and having 8 solid creatures. There’s a point where if you accidentally get stuck with a few more good creatures than you anticipated your deck goes from bad to almost pretty good. Since I take good spells over creatures, if I get stuck with just enough creatures that are good then my opponent has a deck of good creatures and good spells. Having just enough creatures also activates cards I took expecting to have a low creature count, like Auras. (More on that later.)

So, when you finally are forced to take a creature, there are good ones to take and bad ones to take. Above all you want the easiest creature to answer. A dragon, for example, is much easier for the opponent to answer with a single terror than a Sprout Swarm. Resilience is not your friend, at all. You don’t want them to have a card that can win all on its own in the face of resistance. Stormfront Riders is one of the worst cards I’ve gotten stuck with at the end of a pack because it provides an endless stream of 1/1s.

Even getting stuck with a few good mana-fixing lands at the end, like a Vivid Creek, can activate just enough of the creatures and spells to make your deck good. If things backfire your 0-3 deck could turn into a 3-0 pretty quickly. Which brings me to my next strategy:

Avoid Mana Fixing

No really, avoid it as much as you can. You may think a Seaside Citadel doesn’t actually do anything, but it activates entire portions of your pool. If you take enough mana fixing it doesn’t actually matter than you spread out your colors, they can just cherry pick what they need from each color to win. Especially since the format is slower it gives an awkward manabase enough time to get going. Instead you need to force them to make hard choices by giving them as little options as possible. I would rather they have a Yosei than a Vivid Meadow.

The last backdraft I did the only manafixing I got stuck with was Krosan Tusker, which isn’t that bad. I just made my Green pretty terrible so that if they wanted the fixing they would have to essentially splash for it. Cards you don’t want are cards that any deck can play at any time, like lands or Pilgrim’s Eye.

Similarly, since you’re avoiding mana-fixing, taking cards with double-color casting costs is very good for you. If their pool is full of a bunch of 1RR, 2WW, and UU spells with no manafixing they are going to have problems. I would pick a better 3GG creature higher than a worse 4G creature. (Depending on what I’ve drafted so far, though. If I know they are going to have enough Forests in their deck for the 3GG creature anyway than of course you take the 4G one.) Similarly gold cards can be hard to cast, but that requires careful attention to your color balances.

Take Low-Velocity Cards

Maybe I’m using velocity incorrectly here, but I’ve heard it to mean that as a deck gets going, it keeps going. A high-velocity deck sees a lot of its cards every match. You don’t want that. The more cards your opponent sees every game the more lands they are going to see, so the more colors they can play. The more cards they see the more they draw their good cards, their bombs.

This means avoiding cycling cards, or cards that essentially cycle like Ponder. This is something I need to work on, as it’s hard to balance taking a blank cycler against a crappy creature, and I’m still learning.

It also means that I like taking cards that don’t actually do anything. What I mean is that they don’t really advance your board position and move you closer to winning, and they don’t stop your opponent’s important threats. Example: Excommunicate. By not taking many creatures it’s unlikely that you’ll get much of a benefit from an Excommunicate.

In the same vein, avoid cards that are good at interacting. Bounce spells, for example, do a lot. They can keep you alive, kill auras, and even save your bomb. Sorceries are much more straight-forward than instants, and low interaction is preferable to high-interaction.

Removal

Something you have to come to terms with is that you are going to get good cards. You’re going to have a (figurative) dragon, removal spells, card draw. What you’ve got to do is pick which ones you end up with and make them the most awkward. Like I mentioned before, I don’t mind picking up a Smother, a high-quality removal spell, if it means passing a morph. A Smother can only kill a certain subset of creatures and doesn’t help you win the game.

If you give them enough awkward removal spells than they have a lower chance of drawing the correct removal spell at the time. A spell like Last Gasp is very solid, but it can’t kill a Dragon. Make them have to two-for-one themselves if they want to kill something big.

Avoid Synergies & Draft Anti-synergies

This is very important in a cube that’s high in tribal or other linear mechanics. If you have a chance to pick up Goblin Matron over a real threat, make sure you don’t have a Skirk Marauder in your pool. The worst synergy I’ve been stuck with is getting a 15th pick Murderous Redcap when I’ve already happily picked up a Dragon’s Blood. While you can’t do a lot about your 15th picks, it’s worth noticing these things for when you get the choice between a Redcap and a Cathodian, for example.

Similarly, with my strategy creature enchantments are very bad. I can get something like Griffin Guide to table. I might be willing to take it pretty early, but other people are probably avoiding it. When I have very few creatures, and the creatures I have are pretty good, then Griffin Guide is underwhelming in my pool. The same is true for reanimation spells. Take Betrayal of Flesh. While you would rather they don’t have it as it just straight-up kills a guy, it costs six (which makes it a bit of an awkward removal spell) and it’s hard to get value out of the entwine since you won’t have many creatures to reanimate.

Draft to Lose

And that’s how I backdraft. It’s not a perfect strategy yet, but I don’t get many opportunities to flex my backdrafting muscles. If anybody else has tried the format please sound off in the comments and tell me what works for you. There are a lot of little quirks in the format that are pretty neat. I suggest anybody that hasn’t backdrafted should do so, as it’s actually a very well designed game that flows very well given the right format.

Grats to those who did well in Houston. I wish I could have joined you, but I’m stuck in Seattle for a little while. Double-grats to those playing Scapeshift Zoo. I’ve got one more PTQ with the deck coming up in a few weeks here in Seattle, my last chance to qualify, and I couldn’t be happier with my deck choice.

Now go draft the worst deck you’ve ever drafted.

Thanks for reading,

Jonathon Loucks
Loucksj at gmail
JonLoucks on Twitter
Zygonn on Magic Online

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