Limited Spotlight: Understanding Signals and Gaining the Edge in a Balanced Format
Welcome back folks! I’ve been updating my Zendikar Rising Tier List regularly on the fly; stay tuned for a full written update soon! First though, I wanted to discuss an aspect of strategy I get asked about all the time: people often tend to be really confused about how signals work, and guess what? While they’re crucial to drafting the hard way, the best draft strategy, in general, this is the sort of set where they’re at their most important!
These last few years, draft has experienced a true Renaissance – Wizards has been absolutely killing it in Limited lately, but even in this climate of amazing draft formats, Zendikar Rising is something special. It’s one of the most balanced draft formats I’ve ever played, where every strategy has the tools to succeed and where no colour pair has felt truly awful to me to me – certainly I haven’t drafted some of them as much as others, like say Azorius Party is something I rarely find myself in because Blue has almost no good party payoffs and you really need to get some specific White uncommons for it to be worth it, like multiple copies of Emeria Captain or whatever, but I’ve still drafted it a few times and had decent results. I’ve also found success with weird off-kilter things like White Green Clerics, where the optimal colours to go alongside my synergies aren’t open but I just have good cards and enough of the requirements; check out an example deck later! On the other side, there are lots of strong strategies from Selesnya Counters to Orzhov Clerics to Rakdos Party to Simic Kicker; none of them feel truly oppressive, and even the best cards are amazing but beatable.
I’ll be discussing not only signals, but a few other ways to break the parity and gain a massive advantage over your opponents. Please note that I’ll be referring to my Limited Tier List grades frequently in this article, just because they’re a quick way to refer to how good a card is, so you might want to have that open!
Before we get into the meat of this article, here’s an fyi for a service I perform in addition to all my articles, which has the potential to help many of you: I’ve been coaching students regularly for over a year, giving hands-on advice on what they could adjust to improve their Limited winrates. Please feel free to message me if you’d like to build long-lasting habits in just a few short hours and learn how you individually can best improve in whichever stage of Draft or Sealed you’d like to. While you won’t go into the session a new player and come out a Limited Master, since Magic is a game that fundamentally requires a colossal amount of practice, I have an article here which demonstrates how much learning positive habits and mitigating negative ones can do for your game, and I try to have that consideration at the forefront of my coaching sessions. The idea is that I tell you what you need to focus on, e.g. run you through how I approach the drafting process and give you pointers, and then you remember my advice and apply it to your games, and over time you’ll definitely improve!
You don’t need to be a new player to benefit: I am an infinite drafter with nearly ten years of experience, having made something like 40k gems from it so far. I have made high Mythic frequently across draft formats and, at this point, I am experienced at helping people of highly varying skill levels. My winrate in Zendikar draft is around 72% overall at the time of writing, slightly higher in best-of-three and slightly lower in best-of-one (which is very normal!). My feedback is both verbal and written, and I try to be as encouraging and friendly as I can. I become invested in my students’ success quickly and often go above and beyond for no extra charge – following up with my students, giving written feedback after the session, and answering their questions in-depth for free. If you don’t understand anything I say in this article, you can always ask me questions in the comments, but having me demonstrate it live to you is really the best way to get to grips with some of the more complex aspects I’m about to go over!
How do you break parity in a balanced format?
Signals and staying open
Zendikar being so balanced means that it really rewards good drafting and signal-reading – there isn’t a strategy so strong that you should force it, and being in the open lane is generally the best approach.
If you’re not familiar with signalling, let’s go over what that means – it’s about analysing what cards you see in the packs that go by, and looking out for anomalies. For example, if you’re seeing a stone-cold bomb p1p4 in Red, that’s pretty weird. From it, you can infer that the three people before you are less likely to be drafting Red, because it’s not normal for such a busted Red card to go this late. It’s not an exact science because sometimes they just opened the best uncommons like Roost of Drakes outside of Red but they could still be in it as their second colour, or sometimes they’re just undervaluing the particular bomb you’re seeing, but there are ways to check that’s not the case (count how many uncommons are left in the pack, since if it’s three people then they should all be gone. Zendikar doesn’t have commons that are bomb-tier, so it would be weird for people to take any commons over a bomb – check out my best commons section below!) and it’s useful data nonetheless.
While that’s the most extreme example of a signal and it shouldn’t happen very often, if you’re just seeing the best Red commons and uncommons later than they should be going, like a sixth pick Roil Eruption or an eighth pick Rockslide Sorcerer, then over a few picks, that should give you an image of what’s open in your mind. If you’re not seeing any good cards in the pack in a certain colour at a point when you should still be seeing good cards (like sixth pick or so), then that can indicate the colour isn’t open, but you shouldn’t draw too many conclusions from just one pack – pack power isn’t evenly distributed; while you’re guaranteed to open at least one card of each colour in a pack, it’s easy to open packs with three good Black cards and only one medium Red card, for example. You’re trying to paint a picture and each pack is a few strokes of the brush. The same applies to strategies – if you’re seeing great kicker cards and payoffs later than you would expect to see them, like a sixth pick Vine Gecko, and then you get passed Murasa Sproutling, it’s not hard to infer that the people before you aren’t in a dedicated kicker deck.
Let’s look at how signals change as the draft goes on:
Signals early in the draft
When you see great cards past where they should be in the first half of pack 1, you should usually move in, if you’re not abandoning too much – even if you’ve been taking Rakdos party cards for a few picks, you should still absolutely take that ridiculously late Roost of Drakes, because it’s more than just a pick – it’s a sign that the deck is probably open, and if you pass it along then you’re pushing the person you’re passing to into it. Now that you’ve taken it, it doesn’t mean you’re now Simic Kicker, because Roost of Drakes is so nuts that you can just support it in a Blue deck. If you were drafting Rakdos Party before, you can just see which of your colours is better and plan to drop the weaker colour for Blue because now you have Roost of Drakes and the likelihood of Blue being open (so now you’re a Dimir deck, with some party synergies perhaps), but if you see some really good Simic Kicker cards, then sure, you’re not losing much to move into that because you just haven’t made many picks yet. Always let the best cards lead you early on.
Sometimes it’s correct not to take that Roost of Drakes though, and that’s usually for some mix of these two reasons: a) your start is really busted, and you don’t want to abandon either of your colours or b) there’s a card in one or both of your colours that’s close to Roost of Drakes’s power level, and the cards you have in that colour are good enough to warrant ignoring that power difference.
a is pretty simple and doesn’t come up in that many Drafts because Roost of Drakes is so good – to have a start that busted, you would need rares in both of your colours (and neither can be the same colour as Roost of Drakes obviously!) that are better than Roost of Drakes, but really you need even more than that – you also need a good pick that goes into one of those two colours here, because Roost of Drakes comes with the major data point that Blue is open if you’re seeing it fourth pick. That means you can’t go around taking some replacement-level C+ card over Roost of Drakes here, even if you have those rares – it better be a good removal spell or something, because it’s entirely possible that one of the colours of your rares won’t be open, and if you’re just passing a C+ then you’re not risking very much to speculate on such a powerful card and have insurance if that scenario arises.
Now, b is kind of tough where Roost of Drakes is concerned and it’s not the greatest example for this, because it is far and away the best uncommon. That being said, if you have a great Red rare at about the same power level as Roost of Drakes and there’s a great Red uncommon in the pack, sure – you have to weigh up whether you would rather have those two cards combined or one Roost of Drakes. Where this falls apart is that you get to have two colours, so I’m not kidding around when I say a great Red uncommon – we’re looking at like Rockslide Sorcerer or Thundering Rebuke levels. At that point, it’s safer to take the Red card and commit yourself to just one colour rather than risk not being able to play one of Roost or the Red rare because you start to flail around and one of them ends up not being open or whatever. However, in this spot, signals favour Roost because Roost shouldn’t be here, but you might have first picked the Red rare, so you’re actually comparing the Red rare + this uncommon vs Roost + the major data point that Blue is probably open… so it can be tough to weigh all this stuff up, but what I’m saying is that Roost of Drakes kind of warps this structure by being so powerful! You should be doing this for every good card early though, so once you start using just a good removal spell like Deadly Alliance or Thundering Rebuke, it becomes much easier to say “I have good Green, why would I pass that up for just a good removal spell when I can just take a Joraga Visionary?”.
That being said, I don’t take cards in the C range that highly in general, unless I am already well set-up for them or they perform a specific function for my deck – there are so many C-tier cards in Draft and they’re so interchangeable that even C+s don’t really excite me early on. That means, I’d be way more likely to take a B tier card early on than a C+, even if I had a bunch of stuff in that colour – I’ll probably get another C-tier card to fill that void without too much hassle, it’s early enough that I’m not too worried about my curve yet, and I just want to take the best cards for the most part. So, it would have to be something like Joraga Visionary, which is significantly worse than Thundering Rebuke but still very good, to compel me to take the card in my colours over a card that’s signaling that its colour is open.
Signals in mid/late pack 1
So Zendikar Rising has enough good cards that I’m still very much staying open here: like I said, most of the cards in the C range are interchangeable; I don’t really care about having a specific one so if I see a B-tier card and it’s the best card in the pack, I’ll probably just slam it. That means that even if I have a couple of strong Black cards within a White core and am looking like Orzhov Clerics, I’ll still take Veteran Adventurer over Marauding Blight-Priest – the Priest is good in the Clerics deck, but I don’t feel committed to that plan just yet and it won’t be that good unless I do get the nuts lifegain deck with multiple Kor Celebrants or whatever. If I’ve already picked up a Kor Celebrant, that’s different, especially if I got it late – that indicates to me that Clerics might be open, since Celebrant is a key card for that archetype. Veteran Adventurer vs Kor Celebrant would be harder for me, and probably just a case of reviewing how good my Black cards actually are, but often I would still be taking Adventurer even then – Celebrant isn’t that good if I do end up anywhere but Orzhov Clerics, and it’s still really early and Green is looking open. If you pass the Adventurer, you risk just seeing another good Green card or two after it, and having an easy pivot into Green and having it be super open for pack 3. There’s also the aspect where you’re pushing the person next to you into Green, so it’ll be less likely to be open pack 2 – if you pass the Adventurer and then go into Green anyway, you’ll have a much rougher time.
If I see a card like Relic Vial or a good gold card here, I see that as a good pull into their archetype, but I’ll always make sure there’s not something close in power to them that commits me to a strategy less. I don’t see Relic Vial specifically as a gold card as much as a Clerics payoff – it doesn’t just belong in Orzhov; I’ve had plenty of White decks which just happen to have enough Clerics, and more rarely Black decks. However, a card like Relic Golem, I do see as a pure Dimir Mill card – I think that card is bad unless you’re committed to its synergies.
Signals in pack 2
The first few picks of pack 2 are where I’m really looking to cement what I’m doing – if I’ve been staying open, this is the reward, because this is when I’ll see a bunch of cards that help me define the rest of my Draft. If I just have one strong colour, then I can just take any rare or busted card I open and be really happy. If I just see good cards in that colour, I can pick those up and delay the decision, and be happy with that too.
By around mid-pack 2, I like to have my plan mostly sorted, but I constantly check how strong my second colour actually is – if I just have a couple of Black cards and they’re not that good, I’m not really in Black as far as I’m concerned. Sometimes this backfires and I end up dithering for too long, but really it doesn’t happen very much – like I said, Zendikar Rising is a really high playable format, and if I have to play a card or two in the D+ tier over a C- or C, I’m really not that fussed. This is where cards like Deliberate and Skyclave Sentinel without counter synergies (Skyclave Sentinel is quite good if you do have counter synergies, but weak if you don’t unless you have ramp or a couple of Vine Geckos or Lullmage Familiars – it’s more about the ramp than kicker payoffs for me with that card, since getting a Roost of Drakes trigger on turn 7 is far less exciting) have their place; I’d rather not play them, but if I’ve been angling for the highest upside and my best cards are better as a result then that’s a worthy sacrifice.
Signals in late pack 2/pack 3
At this point, signals are less important because you should be reasonably committed to a plan. This is the stage where you should begin shoring up your deck – taking curve picks a lot higher, snapping up the synergy cards that power it up. This is where I like to pick up Marauding Blight Priest type cards, because if the Clerics deck is open, I should get them pretty late and they’re way above replacement level if you’re set up for them well. Obviously weird things do sometimes happen – if I already have 3 Kor Celebrants, then I’ll take Marauding Blight-Priest well into the B- tier and prioritise it early, but the average case of medium synergy cards isn’t good enough for me to do that unless my deck is unusual in some way.
That being said, as I mentioned above, sometimes you’re still only committed to one colour at this point and nothing is really pulling you into another. Late in pack 2, this is fine, but you should really consider committing to something by a few picks into pack 3, because you can get dicey with playables if you don’t. Still, in pack 3 pick 1 or 2, it’s very easy to just open a good rare and have that reward you for staying open for so long. If you’ve been taking the best cards in the tail end of packs 1 and 2, you might well have support for this new colour you’re venturing into anyway, and then it becomes much easier to justify moving. A lot of players will tell you that you’ve made a mistake if you ever pivot in Pack 3, and I think they’re just plain wrong. Sometimes at the end of the draft, you can even end up with two decks which are close in power but good against different things – like a more controlling Dimir deck and a Golgari midrange creature deck – and if you’re playing best-of-three then at that point you can really play mind games on your opponents and play whichever one is best in each matchup, or just test them each out in best-of-one and increase your learning!
You’re making signals as you go!
One common tiebreaker for all of this stuff, is that you can look back at what you’ve been passing and see what colours you’re pushing people into. If you haven’t passed a lot of good Blue because you’ve been taking it all yourself or you just haven’t opened much, the people you’re passing to are less likely to be in Blue. Where this kind of falls apart (I’m sure you’re getting sick of this line!) is that, because you pass to the person you pass to in pack 3 as well, your signals are much more important to them than their signals are to you – they get two full packs of being subject to your whims to some degree, whereas you only have to worry about pack 2. So the signals you’re making are useful to note but not nearly as important to you as the signals you see, and that’s why I said that they’re mostly tiebreakers – if a decision is close already, this is one small factor you can use to choose one over the other.
Maximise the power of your deck, not of your best cards
When deciding on what synergies to bolster in the deckbuilding phase, you generally want to go where the numbers are. Sometimes you pick up an early Roost of Drakes but that doesn’t mean you should force Simic Kicker – Roost of Drakes is kind of a fake synergy card in that it’s so busted that it doesn’t really need you to be a dedicated kicker deck at all. Blue has enough good kicker cards by itself, and there’s some good options for kicker in every colour, even if Green is the best pairing for it. While it can be worth forcing Simic Kicker if you get more than one early, there’s less reason to plan around your busted cards like Roost of Drakes because they’re going to be great anyway – you want to shore up the weaker cards in your deck, rather than try to eke a little extra value out of your best cards, because you’re more likely to be in good shape if you draw them anyway.
I think this is one of the key differences between drafting and Constructed – the fact that you’re forced to have a big disparity between your best and worst cards in Draft means that one of the key axes on which you can get an advantage other people won’t have is in building your deck to win the games in which things are going wrong. A lot of this is just having a deck without too many weaknesses: a good curve with a reasonably cohesive plan, playing enough lands to avoid screwing and enough spell-lands/mana sinks to avoid flooding, having a plan against aggressive and midrange decks alike, etc etc.
Lots of the best uncommons in Zendikar are like this, from Rockslide Sorcerer to Fearless Fledgling to Scion of the Swarm to Veteran Adventurer; they’re better if you build around them but the baseline is always good. If I have multiples, then I’ll go out of my way a lot more to maximise their power, but if you just have one copy and your weaker cards want different synergies, then it’s usually going to be better to go with quantity rather than quality – after all, you have the same chance to draw any card in your deck, unless you have a bunch of ways to dig (and even if you do have lots of card draw, you still need to set up the right opportunity to play them so you’ll often have to drop some weaker cards before digging for the big finish).
Build to minimise variance, prepare to fall behind
Zendikar Rising is a midrange value-oriented format, like most draft formats. Games are often decided in the mid and late game turns, rather than by early plays. That means you shouldn’t despair just because things aren’t going well for you – draft is very different from Constructed in that the games are often quite forgiving. You can miss land drops, curve plays, flood out a bit, let them draw a couple of cards, and still eventually come back and overwhelm your opponent, because all they have to do is draw bad cards for a little while, or make a bad play or two, or not be as well set up for the late game. This is why I’m high on cards like Bubble Snare, Cunning Geysermage, and Thwart the Grave which are still decent when you’re ahead and then give you a lot of potential for huge plays when you’re behind, and much lower on cards like Practiced Tactics and Thundering Sparkmage – these are cards that reward you for being ahead and are poor when behind.
Being ahead is a state that naturally favours you – if you want to minimise losing to variance, you need to have a good plan for when you’re behind too. A lot of the Simic Kicker decks I see, for example, just don’t plan for the case where the primary plan of Kicker cards into payoffs won’t work well e.g. by skimping on 2-drops or cutting lifegain cards for more medium Kicker cards like Shell Shield. Shell Shield is a card I really dislike in that deck unless I really have a ton of synergy AND a good plan for the decks I’m weak to, like Rakdos Party. Speaking of which, there’s a ton of lifegain in the set, much more so than in most, which gives you massive comeback potential even against Red decks.
It is true that this doesn’t work the same way for every deck – most aggro decks can’t afford to plan for the case where they fall behind as much as other decks, and are less likely to just based on the composition of cards they’re running. That being said, there are things you can do to mitigate that too – you can shore up races by having more creatures and removal in your deck, things that fundamentally change the board state, and less cards like Cliffhaven Kitesail which won’t do anything unless you have a big creature in play already. You can choose not to play Sizzling Barrage, a card that is close to unplayable in my opinion, because you lose a lot of games with it just rotting in your hand and it is only good when you’re already winning (and not really that good; sometimes they just have a Veteran Adventurer and you can’t even kill their creature with 4 damage!). You can choose to play around your opponents’ removal when they have mana up, by not just slamming an expensive equipment onto the one creature you have for maximum damage, and instead playing it more conservatively and just throwing down another creature. A lot of this just comes under playing well, but you get better at it the more you do it!
Finishing up with some Example Lists
Follow me on Twitter for all the latest news or check out all my articles as they come out on mtgazone.com/Drifter (search Limited Spotlight on that page if you’d like to find all my other articles in this series!). I haven’t been doing as much work for the site lately, as I’ve been a bit sick, but I’m mostly recovered now and raring to get back into it! I’ll have my big written Limited Tier List update out later next week, so watch out for that! As I said, I’ve been updating on the fly so do check out some of the changes above.
Note: These lists are a mix of ones I helped my students draft in coaching sessions and my own drafts. I apologise, as some of the screenshots will be poorer quality than others! I don’t really like making my deck analysis all about the scores, because variance is certainly a big factor in how well one or two drafts does, but I’ll post them anyway in case people are interested. I should have put spell-lands I was counting as lands in the land pile, but sadly I wasn’t taking these screenshots with the knowledge that I would be posting them here; I’ll do that next time!
This is one deck where we ended up a bit short on playables, since we got into Rogues late in pack 2 off a late Soaring Thought-Thief, but we still have more than enough even if we have to run a few weaker cards like Deliberate and Cleric of Chill Depths. Deliberate is a bit better here than normal anyway, since there’s quite a few instants we can hold up with it. As you can see, I’m playing 15+3 Spell-Lands; I usually like to play 18 as long as I have at least a few spell-lands. If I had 1 more Spell-Land, I’d have strongly considered playing 19, especially since I have some weak cards in the deck I don’t mind getting rid of. For my full analysis of how to adjust your land base for spell-lands, check out the Zendikar Rising Draft Guide I linked at the top.
The overall card quality is incredibly high here, because we let the draft guide us and mostly stayed Mono Blue until we had a good reason to commit. This was a pretty easy 7-1, with our one loss being to flooding out a bit; this deck could’ve used another Roilmage or another solid kicker card over some of the weak playables for sure.
This deck might look a bit low on early game, but Bubble Snare is just so good that it often makes up for that. Still, I could’ve used another decent 2-drop or two certainly; I usually don’t like playing bad ones like Cleric of Chill Depths since there are a lot of 3/2s in the format which go right through it and it does nothing later on – I believe I had one in the sideboard and still chose not to play it.
This deck’s main issues are that the 5-drops and late game are pretty weak, and I don’t have that many big really high-impact threats. Still, it’s pretty good nonetheless, through the sheer quantity of removal and card draw. It was probably correct to play another land here; I think I was unexcited to do so because Kazuul’s Fury and Song-Mad Treachery are the sort of spell-land you almost always play as lands unless you’re literally going to kill the opponent, but it’s not as though Glacial Grasp was amazing here either. This was a 6-3, but I’m pretty sure we got mana screwed one game so greed was our downfall!
This is just your standard absurd Kicker card, but hey we don’t even have Roost of Drakes! I believe for this draft, we first picked Kazandu Mammoth into Swarm Shambler, and then were Mono Green for almost all of it, until we got our second Bubble Snare and hard-committed. Not too much to learn from this overall, but certainly when you get a bunch of good Green rares early, you should take Green cards higher and try to stay open. Don’t take any big power level hits though; I’m still not going to take cards in the C tier over B tier unless it’s like high C+ vs low B-, or something.
This is a weird but actually pretty powerful deck, which I think shows off well how even when synergies aren’t in their ideal environment, they can still end up performing well. I wasn’t really committed to any of the strategies in this deck, but I ended up having enough clerics to make Relic Vial good, some decent party synergies, good removal, and a bunch of powerful cards. This deck went 5-3, but it played really well and could’ve done better pretty easily I think. This might look like way too many 3-drops, but it’s only 5 3-drop creatures. I think this deck would’ve been better if I had picked up another decent 2 over one of the more medium cards like Tajuru Snarecaster; a Dauntless Survivor would’ve gone a long way, since it would help enable Expedition Healer attacks too.
This is a deck I think is very good, but ended up underperforming a little with 4-3. Still, it has a good beatdown plan, great late game staying power, and some early game. I spent quite a while dithering around looking for a second colour to complement Green, but still got more than enough playables! I will say that I think I should’ve been prioritising good blockers a bit more than I did; most of my cards can’t block that well early and Scythecats aren’t great at that on turn 3, so I am a bit weaker to aggro than I should be.
Cards like Subtle Strike are good for catching up, but don’t always match up well with the really busted Grotag Bug-Catcher draws. It’s possible I should’ve been playing Tajuru Snarecaster over something; I don’t generally like that card, but this is the deck for it, even if it’s still not that good against Expedition Champion and Bug-Catcher itself. Ideally, I would’ve gotten more Blightblades in the draft stage – this is an exceptional format for Blightblade, since it pairs really well with Rabid Bite and there aren’t too many great ping effects other than Rockslide Sorcerer (which is an uncommon) and Subtle Strike (which is bad for you, but that card is capable of killing much bigger things than x/1s so it’s going to get you at some point anyway), so it often ends up trading up on mana.
If you like this sort of analysis, then please let me know. I have a Limited Spotlight article back in Theros which I dedicated fully to analysing some decklists in a lot more depth than this, and would be happy to do so again!