Drafting with Style Part 2: What do those pretty symbols in the top right really mean for draft?
Hi everyone! I’m back with my next article on the core concepts behind the style of drafting I use. If you’ve never heard of me before, well I can’t really blame you, but you can find my last article right above this paragraph, where I provide some background on myself while going over the basics of signalling. This time, we’re looking at basic card evaluation: what makes a card good in draft and what to consider when you’re making your next pick. As you might expect, this is a really gigantic topic so this article is only going to cover mana cost and how that relates to card evaluation. I’ve added a glossary at the end explaining a few terms I use in the article to make things a bit clearer.
So clickbait title aside, mana is the most important resource in the game, so it follows that how much mana a card costs and what kind of mana are two of the most important considerations in whether a card is good. First, I’ll be explaining some principles of mana cost in draft and how they relate to card evaluation. Next I’ll talk a bit about mana bases and how card evaluation affects those. Lastly, I’ll be giving some examples and practical applications.
Converted mana cost
The impact the total cost of your cards has on how good they are is probably a simple concept to most of you, but let’s break it down! The converted mana cost (CMC) of cards refers to how much total mana a card costs: a 2GG card costs 4 total mana and that is the earliest turn at which you will normally be able to play that card in draft. The majority of draft cards have vastly varying impact based on what stage of the game they are played at. You want your cards to at least match the power level of the average card your opponents can play on the same turn, so that they have about even impact on the game, and you’re not at a disadvantage. If you’re spending 5 mana to play a vanilla 3/3 then the average common 5 drop in any format will be much better than a vanilla 3/3 and you’ll be at a major disadvantage every time. The strength of your cards must scale with cost.
To give yourself an edge when first drafting a set, look over all the commons and establish a rough baseline for how powerful the average common for each CMC is. Commons are the cards you’re most likely to see in the drafting stage and are most likely to play against in the playing stage, so they set the baseline you want to compare cards to. A sign of a really good rare is it being a card that massively outstrips common cards of the same CMC in terms of the impact it has on the game when played on the same turn. Clearly not all commons are going to be of the same or even similar power levels, but if there are a bunch of 3 mana 3/4s at common in the set, you can discern that a 3 mana 3/3 will not be as good as it ordinarily would be.
That example only takes statline into account, which is a big part of how impactful a card is, but textbox obviously also makes a huge difference and as part of building a curve, you’re only going to want so many creatures of a certain CMC in your deck. So if in the set, there are a few green common 2 mana 2/2s with useful upside in the form of keywords or activated abilities and a green common vanilla 2 mana 2/2, you don’t want to prioritise the vanilla card at all in the drafting stage. You’re only going to have so much space for 2 drops and there are much better options you’re likely to get at common, and the 2 mana 2/2s your opponents will play will naturally be much more impactful than your vanilla 2 mana 2/2. You should only really look at a card like that if the 2 drop slot is a noticeable gap in your curve.
Your curve is life or death in many games. Generally if you have a hand with one 2 drop and then a bunch of clunky 5 drops, you will lose to an opponent playing 2 drop into 3 drop into 4 drop (especially on the draw), so you want a good distribution of cards at each CMC. If you can’t get that, then you want to fill your curve with cards close to the stage of curve you are lacking. For example, if you only have a couple of 3 drops and a lot of 4 drops, you are going to want more 2s than you would ordinarily need since you really don’t want to just be passing the turn on 3. There’s a popular heuristic which states that the player who uses their mana most efficiently in any given magic game will generally be the victor and while it’s a bit of an oversimplification, it certainly contributes significantly to determining the victor in most games.
It’s not that other factors don’t have an impact on curve – importance of certain drops on your curve is also very dependent on speed of format and the kind of deck you are playing – but this article is trying to provide a general overview and this is by far the most important consideration. If you don’t know the format, a good curve baseline to aim for would be five 2 drops, four 3 drops, three or four 4 drops, two or three 5 drops and at most, around two 6+ drops. Adjust this with more 2 drops and less 6 drops in a fast format, and more high end and less 2 drops that are not impactful late in a slow one. In fast or medium speed formats, 8+ drops are mostly unplayable and 7 drops are far worse.
Note that drops usually refers to creatures: spells like murder can act as 3 drops but you don’t really want to count them as such since you want to hold them for the ideal time. If you aren’t that likely to cast the card on curve, do not count it as a drop; splash cards never count to your early-game curve for this reason.
CMC also helps dictate how quickly you can do multiple impactful things (play two cards, activate a useful ability and play a card etc) in a turn which, as there aren’t a lot of cards in draft that can answer multiple things at once, is a very easy way to pull ahead of your opponents.
Coloured mana costs and colour intensiveness
Two-colour formats with non-abundant fixing are the main ones, so we’ll mostly be talking about those in this article. Colour intensiveness (see glossary) is something that’s easy to overlook but you absolutely need to consider and adjust your evaluations of cards (and therefore the picks you end up making in the draft stage) based on, because it has a huge impact on your deck construction and your chances of mana screwing in games.
The harder your spells are to cast, the more awkward your mana base becomes. You want to have a good probability of casting your spells on time and if you have a bunch of double G cards, a bunch of double B cards, a red splash and only a piece or two of fixing, you’re not going to have enough sources in each colour to cast your spells as consistently as you would like. A 1GG card that you can’t cast until turn 4 or 5 is often as bad as it costing 4 or 5 (and the average 3 drop is not going to measure up to the average 5 drop by any means). Sure, sometimes you can cast a 2 drop alongside it on t5 but if that 2 drop requires green mana, then you can’t even do that. You often want to play your most colour-intensive cards first so that you have the potential to double spell in the later game and you won’t have that option if you can’t play the cards on time anyway.
As I’m about to illustrate in the following paragraphs, whether a card costs 3, 4 or 5 is a gigantic difference in how good that card is so in having bad fixing, you are majorly lowering your deck quality, whether the cards are good or not.
So what does this really mean for card evaluation? If you have a bunch of double green cards and not much fixing, double colour cards in your other colour get significantly worse late in the drafting stage. For each one you take, you are hurting your mana base – either you will have to include less green sources or you’ll raise the chances of not being able to cast these new double colour cards in a timely fashion. Clearly, the more double cards you get, the more important fixing is also. However, if you already have a bunch of double green cards then it’s fine to take more – that’s not affecting your mana base in the deck construction stage since ideally, you will already be running a lot of green sources to account for the ones you already have (perhaps a 10/7 split between forests and your second colour, which is a very common mana base if you don’t have fixing or many double colour cards in the second colour).
Late in the draft you know what double
colour cards you can afford to draft, but even early you should evaluate more
mana intensive cards as worse than cards that are of equivalent power level and
less mana intensive and adjust your pick order to reflect that. You don’t
always know if a card is going to be in your main colours and if you’re going
to be able to run enough sources to be able to consistently cast it early; a
card like Thrashing Brontodon is a decently worse p1p1 than Rabid Bite, even if
later in the draft when you have a bunch of double green cards, you might be
able to support it well enough. However, if the picks aren’t close early, still
take the more powerful card.
Okay so that’s colour-intensiveness, but what about if your card just requires 2 colours as opposed to 1? If you read my signalling article in the opening paragraph (shameless plug I know), I touch on this when I talk about openness – if you take a bunch of multicolour cards early, you cannot adjust based on what colours are open and closed in draft because you already have good reason to be in the colours you are in and may well be sacrificing too much in moving. This is not necessarily a bad thing – if the multicolour cards are enough better than the best single colour card in the pack early, then it’s often worth taking them anyway. Some of these cards are splashable (see glossary) and that’s a very useful trait since it means that you’re not wasting your pick if you take them and then don’t end up in precisely those 2 colours. In formats with good fixing, it’s often better to take a splashable two-colour card of similar power level early in the draft than a mana-intensive single colour card since with a splashable card, you can be either of the two colours and splash the other one, which leaves you more open. This is why Risen Reef is a better p1p1 than Chandra’s Outrage in M20, for example – Outrage is not splashable, being double red, and is a major colour commitment whereas you can be blue or green and make good use of Reef (and you can take elementals higher with it).
If the fixing in M20 were really bad, then Outrage might well have been the better early pick since you wouldn’t be able to rely on getting a couple of pieces to enable your splashes. For the rare 3 colour/abundant fixing format, you’re going to have a lot more fixing available and you should be taking it highly, so a good splash card (as in the example above) will be even better as an early pick, compared to a colour-intensive card, since your splashes might well be free (see glossary).
The Centaur Courser Experiment
As a vanilla 3/3 creature, the Courser’s goodness is almost entirely dependent on how much mana it costs and what kind of mana it costs. As it currently stands, he’s a little bit above the baseline for M20 but not by much. So we’re going to mess with some things and see how good Courser is when we warp him a bit! Ordinarily, Courser costs 2G which means you need 3 mana to play it and one of them must be green. At this cost, the card is pretty good in most draft formats but what if it instead cost 3G or 1GG?
The new 3G Courser requires 4 mana to cast and by that point, your opponent is playing a 4 drop. An average 4 drop is significantly better than a vanilla 3/3 – there are other commons in M20 like Octoprophet which is literally the same card but also has scry 2, a powerful and useful ability, tacked on. There is no way you would ever take the new 3G Centaur Courser over that card, assuming you are in both colours. At the uncommon level (and the common level in other formats), there are 4/4s for 4 like Yarok’s Wavecrasher which totally outsize the 3G Courser, and have useful abilities on top. So really, there’s no good reason to pick the Courser anymore – if in playing it on turn 4, there’s a good chance you’re about to lose the exchange, (or even for your card to be immediately invalidated) then you’re usually just going to be better off playing a cheaper card and trying to double spell earlier.
Similarly, a 1G Courser would be a brutal cards for your opponents to play against because that would invalidate almost every 2 drop they could play and threaten to trade up with a lot of 3 drops. What this really amounts to is that you would seize initiative on turn 2 of the game and your opponent would be on the backfoot immediately – there’s a good reason why 2 mana 3/3s are usually either colour-intensive or multicolour cards.
Let’s move onto 1GG Courser. To have a good mana base, I usually recommend that you are at least 80% (and ideally 85) to cast the spells you want to cast on curve at the right times. Assuming the common 9 forest/8 other-colour no fixing mana base, you have a 94% chance to have the green mana to play Courser on t3 (average of play and draw) but if Courser cost 1GG, well you only have a 70% chance to have two green sources on turn 3. That means in 30% of your games, your Courser will effectively cost 4 or 5 mana and by that point, your opponent might well be playing a Thicket Crasher or a Mammoth Spider. As I mentioned before, you might not even be able to double spell with the 1GG Courser on later turns because at least half your deck is going to cost green mana and you would need triple green to play a green 2 drop with the 1GG courser on turn 5. So, in 30% of your games, your 1GG Courser is awful with this very normal mana base and you should adjust strongly downward to reflect that – the difference between 2G and 1GG Courser is gigantic; it’s going from good to mediocre playable and forcing you to draft fixing higher to adjust for it.
This disparity is partly because Courser doesn’t scale as well in the late game as other cards – playing Murder for 4 really is not that bad, since that card is great at any point in the game. If you only have a 70% chance to cast Murder on t3, that’s a much lesser deal because while it’s nice to have the option to cast Murder on t3 sometimes (especially if you have nothing better to do with your mana), it’s not like they’re just going to outclass Murder with Thicket Crasher or Mammoth Spider by the time you can cast it. A clear sign of a great card, the kind of card you’re happy to first pick, is it being good when you play it on curve and yet not losing any lustre at any other point in the game. There are plenty of creatures like this as well – a card like Cloudkin Seer is decent on turn 3, if perhaps a little easy to outrace, and then even better on later turns (since as the game goes on, you will be more likely to answer the ground and the card draw matters more).
I’m going to wrap it up here, but as is my habit when discussing giant topics like this, I don’t feel like I’ve exhausted the topic at all and if there’s interest, I might well do a follow-up. For my next article, I plan to be looking at another crucial area in general card evaluation and as always, I’ll be around to answer all your questions and talk through any feedback you might have! I hope this article was clearer and a bit less jumbled; I definitely think that was an issue with my last one. I know I didn’t talk that much about the specifics of mana base construction, which is an important skill to have when you’re determining how to best adjust for your double colours and such and would take its own entire article, but I would strongly recommend using a hypergeometric calculator and having a look at what gives you the best chance to cast your spells at the right times yourself and I’ll link one below! Thanks for tuning in, everyone, and if you have something you really want me to talk about in the realm of basic card evaluation, please let me know in the comments!
I offer in-person discord coaching! If you’re interested, please private message me/leave a comment on reddit or on the arenazone discord (linked below). Rates are negotiable.
A simplified hypergeometric calculator for magic mana bases: https://www.andrew.cmu.edu/user/kmliu/mtg_calculator.html or you can find more complex ones (and guides for them) all over the internet.
Lola’s and my M20 Tier List: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1VFew8_ybQBhg1R3iQHzztPEtYNH4Ma8T8yM9EH5G688/
Lola’s stream (a good friend of mine and fellow infinite drafter): www.twitch.tv/justlolaman. I’ll be on his stream tomorrow (Sept 24th) to do a Throne early access event so tune in if you’re interested in my first impressions!
The MTG Arena Zone discord: https://discord.gg/SPYMExR . Engage with your favourite arenazone content creators, myself included, there!
Colour Intensiveness – this is what determines how hard your spells are to cast. Vivien, Arkbow Ranger costs 1GGG to cast which means you need three green sources to play her and when you’re trying to juggle two colours with limited fixing, having three in play at once consistently is often easier said than done (in fact, you’re only about 44% to cast Vivien on turn 4 in a deck with the standard 9 green sources). In Vivien’s case, she’s certainly still worth it because she’s still great later in the game but being very colour-intensive does make her significantly worse.
Fixing (thanks to DarkHoleAngel on Reddit for asking this question!) – this is when a land or other card improves your mana base by providing bonus sources. In lands, that usually means it taps for more than one colour of mana i.e. Blossoming Sands can tap for green or white mana so it counts as a source of each. You replace a basic land with Blossoming Sands so you gain one bonus source in that exchange (since a basic land is a source of one colour, and Blossoming Sands is a source for two).
Cards like Gift of Paradise are also fixing and act as bonus sources. You can count Gift of Paradise as an additional source for expensive cards in all your colours except green (since you need green to cast it in the first place) and it will also help you cast double/triple green cards. Gift of Paradise doesn’t count as an extra source for early game cards though, since you can only play it on turn 3.
P1P1 – this is a stage in the drafting process. The first P refers to the pack number you are on and the second refers to the pick number within that pack so P1P1 is Pack One, Pick One (the first pick of the draft) and P3P8 would be Pack Three, Pick Eight (a middle pick in the final pack of the draft).
Splash – this refers to when you include cards in your deck outside your main colours. You will have less sources for these cards and they should be strong to very strong late game cards (depending on how much fixing you have) since you won’t be able to cast these cards on time and you are usually taking a risk in including them in your deck (as they reduce your main source counts unless you have a lot of fixing). You should not splash double colour cards unless you are bordering on 3 colour and have tons of fixing (minimum 7 sources or so). Splashes are free if you have enough fixing that they aren’t impacting your main sources (say you are Dimir, have three Scoured Barrens and are playing one white card) – however, the cost of playing a bunch of taplands is something you’ll need to take into consideration also, even if the splash is free in terms of impact on your mana base.
Vanilla – a term that refers to units which means they don’t have a relevant textbox. How good they are is purely a question of what stats they have for their cost and to a lesser extent, whether they have a useful type. Example: Centaur Courser.