Hi everyone! Flash2351 here with the last article in my introduction to draft series. If you haven’t had a chance, I would highly recommend that you check out the first and second articles in this series. In this article, I will cover the last aspect of draft, playing the deck. While I think the actual gameplay only accounts for 35% of the skills involved in drafting, this is also the hardest 35% to understand and to improve. It’s easy to get help for drafting and deck building by posting screenshots in #draft in the Eternal Discord, but you are almost always on your own when playing. I would also strongly recommend Mann_Und_Mouse’s stream if you want to learn more about playing. He talks through many lines of play and often justifies why he takes a certain line. I definitely attribute a huge chunk of my improvement in draft from the things that I’ve learnt from watching his stream. Also, just a heads-up, this is going to be the longest article of the three so strap yourselves in!
Familiarizing yourself with the Deck
Now, I know that you just finished drafting the cards and constructing the deck and can’t wait to dive into your first game, but hold your horses! Before starting the actual gameplay, it is very important to familiarize yourself with your deck. There are a few important things to take note:
- Cards that require multiple influence
A good habit to have is to note down how many of each color is required for you to cast every single card in your deck. This becomes even more important if you run Seek Power, Amber Acolyte or Amaran Archaeologist to ensure that you fetch the correct sigil.
It’s also important to remember which cards need multiple influences so that you can be prepared to cast them if you draw them. For example, if you had a Spirit Guide in your deck, you would want to have at least 1 Justice influence by turn 2 so that if you draw Spirit Guide off the top of your deck, you can play the second Justice and the Spirit Guide on curve.
Similarly, you should be aware of threshold dependent cards in your deck (namely Champions, Foresworn Stranger, Wandering Wisp) so that you can fetch and play your sigils correctly to ensure you activate them as soon as possible.
- Power distribution in deck
Sometimes, you are required to play your Amber Acolyte or Seek Power before hitting all of your influence thresholds. In such cases, it’s important to know what you are more likely to draw into so that you can fetch for the rarer one. For example, if your deck contains Icaria, the Liberator and you cast Seek Power with FFJJ influence and no Sigils in hand, deciding whether to fetch for a Fire or Justice Sigil would depend on whether you have more Fire sources or Justice sources left in your deck.
- Card distribution in deck
Knowing the distribution of cards in your deck can help you make better decisions in game. For example, if you are running a deck with 9 2-drops and on the draw, you could definitely consider keeping a hand with no turn 2 play since you have a decent chance to draw into a 2-drop. Similarly, you should aggressively trade tricks and removal for your opponent’s units if you know that you are running an aggressive deck that is light on units.
- Deck objectives
As previously mentioned during the drafting phase, it’s important to understand how your deck wants to play out and how your deck is going to win. Knowing the objective and the game plan of your deck would allow you to play your deck the correct way. For example, if you are reasonably confident in your deck’s ability to win out in the late game, you can play more defensively instead of trying to force aggressive trades.
- Bombs and lynchpins
Most importantly, you need to know what are the best cards in your deck and what are the key weaknesses of your deck. You should tailor your plays to enable your bombs and shore up your weaknesses. For example, in a Combrei deck with very few fliers, you should try and conserve my silences for potentially big fliers. In contrast, if you have a Silverwing Commander and a Fourth Tree Elder as the top end of your deck, you should aggressively trade your smaller fliers for your opponent’s small fliers so as to prevent a good double or triple block on your game-ending bombs.
Who’s the Beatdown?
Once a game starts, this is the first, and the most important, question that you need to ask yourself. LightsOutAce wrote a nice article on this previously for constructed play, and I think many of the concepts that he presented is also relevant for draft. I would strongly recommend giving this a read if you haven’t already done so.
Unfortunately, unlike in constructed where you can establish your roles based off a few cards that your opponent has played, it is much more difficult to assess one’s role in draft. As such, you have to use the current board state, the contents of your hand, the relative hand size difference and your deck specifics to determine whether you should be the aggressor.
Assessment of your role is critical for choosing the right line of play and I would estimate that at least 30% of my games were won or lost due to incorrect role assessment by me or my opponent. In one of my recent drafts, I had a Combrei deck with 2 Fourth Tree Elders and a Ceremonial Mask as my topend. In a match against a Xenan deck, I thought I had the better late game and was content to sit back and avoid trades to lock up the ground so that I can aggressively swing and finish the game with my Fourth Tree Elders. Unfortunately, he managed to hit 7 power before I hit 6 and dropped consecutive Pillars of Amar in two turns. I did not have a silence or removal to answer the Pillars and before long, he had a board of 5/5s barreling down towards my face. In retrospect, if I knew he had a better topend than me or when I was stuck at 5 power for 4 turns, I could have reconsidered the situation and determined that I should have taken the beatdown role and aggressively traded my units to try and end the game prior to him playing his pillars.
It is also important to continuously think about whether you should remain in your current role or should you switch to the opposite line. Roles in draft games are generally much more fluid and sometimes a single top deck or bad trade can completely swap the roles. For example, if I was at 8 health with a 6/6 Mistveil Drake in play and my Argenport opponent is at 15 health with a Minotaur Lighthoof in play, I should play as the defender and hold back my Mistveil Drake as I am unable to race him. Upon topdecking a Finest Hour, I realize I have lethal by attacking for 2 turns (i.e. 2 turn lethal) and should switch to being the aggressor by swinging in aggressively. In return, my opponent topdecks an Extract and uses it on my face since he noted the pause on my previous attack. Now, I have to return to the defender’s role as I can no longer outrace my opponent as he has a faster clock on me if we were both attacking.
To mull or not to mull?
This is perhaps the most important decision that you will make for the entire draft game. Throw away a decent hand in hopes of a better one or keeping a slightly lackluster hand can easily cost you the game. It’s hard to come up with a checklist or an overarching principle on when to mulligan because the decision is extremely deck-dependent. However, I’ll give it my best shot.
In general, almost all hands with 1 or more than 4 power is an automatic mulligan. 4 power hands should only be kept if the other 3 cards ensure a smooth curve out. For example, a hand with 4 power, Gorgon Swiftblade, Xenan Destroyer, Blackguard Sidearm would be a definite keep. When on the draw, you can also be slightly greedier with your keeps as you have 1 extra turn to draw the needed card. A good rule of thumb to follow is that you want to have plays to make for turns 2 and 3.
However, you should always tailor such guidelines to your deck. As each deck is different and has different weaknesses and strengths, you should tailor your mulligan according to your deck. For example, if you are playing a deck with steep influence requirements or a high number of splashed sigils, you might also want to keep a subpar hand if it has all the right influence. Similarly, if your deck is running 9 2-drops and you have an amazing hand except that you are missing a 2 drop, you can contemplate keeping the hand on the draw. If you manage to draw your amazing early game bombs, keeping a subpar hand might also be an option. For example, a 4-power hand with double Awakened Student and a Fourth Tree Elder would be a very tempting keep for me despite the fact that I might have no plays for turn 4 and 5. Unit light decks also have to factor that into account before going for a mulligan. For example, if you are running an aggressive deck high on interaction and low on units, you might have to consider keeping a 4-power hand with 3 units to avoid the risk of not drawing any of your units.
For aggressive decks, you generally want to see your aggressive 1 and 2-drops in your opening hand. 4-power hands are much more likely to be mulled, especially if your curve stops at 4 or 5. 2-power hands also become more tempting keeps, especially if you have something like Oni Ronin, 2 Strangers, Rebel Sharpshooter and Thunderhoof Warrior in hand. There is a risk of missing the third power drop, but having guaranteed things to do for your first 3 turns mitigates the risk significantly. With aggressive decks, you can generally mulligan more aggressively since you run a much lower risk of getting stuck with no early units and only your topend in your hand.
The opposite is true for control decks. If you run a deck with a large topend, you would want to mulligan more conservatively because there is an increased risk of missing your first few turns of play. Control decks should also be warier of keeping 2 power hands because missing a power drop can easily make the difference between winning and losing a game.
Knowing when to mulligan and when to keep is undoubtedly one of the most important skills in draft gameplay and I will be doing a more in depth analysis for this in a future article, so keep your eye out for it!
Take your time to plan out your turn
Playing too fast is a trap that I still find myself falling into very often. It is very important to slow down your play and think through each decision carefully. While it is often possible that the most obvious line is the correct line, that is not always true. Careful evaluation of every possible line of play may seem tedious and boring, but it would definitely help improve your play. Remembering the different lines of play can also help you with your post-game evaluation.
When you see a new card, take your time to read the text. Don’t jump to conclusions. Even after playing with set 2 cards for months now, I still manage to learn new things. In one of my recent draft games, my opponent equipped 2 Copperhall Cudgels to an Awakened Sentinel and attacked. I had the option of either ambushing in with a Scorpion Wasp to trade or to use my Teleport. Initially, I thought the Scorpion Wasp line was correct. However, Copperhall Cudgel’s text is actually NOT an entomb effect, it reads “When the wielder dies, play a 2/2 minotaur”. So, I actually think that the correct line was to teleport the Awakened Sentinel. Doing so causes the 2 cudgels to get discarded without triggering the summon effect, effectively denying my opponent 2 free 2/2 minotaurs.
Fast Spells and Blowouts
Your opponents are not idiots. They may have a Bronze badge against their name, or make seemingly weird plays, but you should never, ever assume that they are idiots. If they make an obviously bad attack, e.g. swinging with a 2/2 Stranger into a 2/3 Bold Adventurer, you should assume that they have a trick. Similarly, if you swing with a 2/2 Stranger into 2 3/3 Ravenous Thornbeast with only 1 power open, you should assume that the opponent will double block the Stranger to get a 2-for-1 trade if you play finest hour and a 1-for-0 trade if you elect not to play the finest hour.
It’s important to have a mental list of fast spells available at each power/influence. I’ve listed out all the fast spells below and their respective costs. Bold fast spells indicate commonly played tricks while italicized fast spells indicate spells that are almost never seen in draft but included for completeness. On top of fast spells, an additional blowout potential exists in the form of ambush units. The main ambush units seen in draft are: Storm Lynx, Desert Marshal, Dune Phantom, Scorpion Wasp. Cabal Countess, Hunting Pteriax and Ayan, the Abductor are also powerful ambush units, but much less commonly seen in draft due to their rarity.
Whenever you make an attack or a block, you should always think about what possible tricks and plays your opponent can have. Next, think about how you can attack or block to maximize your value regardless of whether your opponent plays a trick or not. The most interesting situations arise when you can’t maximize value both ways. In such cases, you should play to make the worst outcome as good as possible. For example, your opponent swings with a 3/3 Brightmace Paladin into your 4/4 Striped Araktodon and 2/3 Bold Adventurer with 1 power open. The first instinct would be to block the Brightmace Paladin with just your Striped Araktodon since you don’t want to offer him a Bold Adventurer for free. However, noting that he has 1 power open and is in justice, you should assume that he likely has Finest Hour. In this case, a single block would result in your opponent choosing to trade a Finest Hour for your Striped Araktodon, which is not ideal. A double block however, offers your opponent the option of either trading his Brightmace Paladin for a Bold Adventurer or trading his Brightmace Paladin and a Finest Hour for your Striped Araktodon, both of which are likely better outcomes than the result of a single block. Obviously, this is worse if your opponent has nothing, but as I previously stated, you should never assume your opponent is an idiot.
It is also important to evaluate whether trading a unit for a trick is worth it. For example, if my opponent swings with a 2/2 Stranger into my 2/3 Bold Adventurer, blocking it might be the correct call because I have higher value units in my hand so I would rather my opponent trades his trick for a Bold Adventurer rather than one of the bigger units in my hand. Similarly, when using a trick to blow out an opponent, you should think about whether you should save this trick for a better spot.
Hiding your pauses (or lack thereof)
Of all the opponents that I frequently encounter when drafting, Mann_Und_Mouse is undoubtedly the person I hate to face the most. He is one of the best players in draft at hiding his pauses and making opponents second guess their attacks. I often catch myself hesitating to swing into his board because I am never sure if he has a trick in hand. This is testimony to how effective withholding simple information from your opponent can easily throw them off.
The first rule of thumb is that if you don’t need to have power open when attacking, you shouldn’t. Even if I don’t have a trick, hiding the fact that I don’t have it is equally important. The second rule of thumb is that the first rule of thumb only applies if you are COMPLETELY certain you do not need to hold up the trick. For example, if I am swinging with a 2/2 Stranger into 2 open power, I might want to hold up Finest Hour in case my opponent ambushes in with a Storm Lynx or uses a Lightning Strike.
This concept of hiding tricks should be maintained throughout the game, beginning from the very first power you play. For example, if you were on a Praxis deck, you should always play a Time Sigil or a depleted Banner as my first power if you don’t have a 1 drop. In this way, you can hide the information of whether you have a Torch in hand. In later turns, you should always sequence your plays to withhold as much information as possible. For example, if you wanted to play a Sigil and a 2-drop on turn 3, the correct order (assuming you don’t want to hold up a trick), is to play the 2-drop, swing with 0 power open, and then play the Sigil. As such, your opponent will only be able to figure out if you have a trick when he attacks or at the end of his turn.
Similarly, you should take note of any pauses or lack thereof on the side of your opponent. If your argenport opponent had a pause when there was 2 power open and no pauses when there was only 1 power open, you can guess that he is most likely holding up a Strength of Many or Rapid Shot, and not a Finest Hour. This information would allow you to attack more aggressively if you have a Striped Araktoden against his single Stranger as you know that there is no risk of getting blown out by a Finest Hour. Beside pauses, you should also use information from how your opponent blocks and attacks to try and deduce what trick he has. For example, if your Argenport opponent attacks with 2 Strangers but holds back his Oathkeeper against your Lumen Shephard, you can guess that the trick he has is most likely Rapid Shot. In contrast, if he swings with a single Stranger to get the buff from Oathkeeper, the trick is most likely to be either Finest Hour or Strength of Many.
Playing to your outs
Knowing your outs and playing to them is extremely important. You should always think about how are you going to survive or win the game and what cards could possibly save you. For example, if I have 3 Strangers in play and no card in hand and my opponent is at 5 health with 2 Brightmace Paladin in play and multiple cards in hand, attacking with all my units this turn might be the correct play if I have multiple torches in my deck and no good weapons and tricks left. It seems weird to just throw away 2 Strangers, but by forcing through 2 damage, I now guarantee that drawing a torch would win me the game. Similarly, if my opponent is beating down on me with a Champion of Mystery and I only have a Towering Terrazon in play, not blocking with the Terrazon makes sense if I have Stalwart Shield or other weapons in my deck that could buff the Terrazon to be able to bounce or trade with the Champion of Mystery, even if it means that I might take a lot of damage in the meantime.
I think that after a loss, it’s really easy to say things like “Oh, if I had drawn gas instead of power there, I would have won”, “Oh my opponent drew so much better than me” and so on. However, such thoughts are not productive and may even be counterproductive in blinding you to the shortcomings of your deck. Rather than blaming the bad draws, it’s important to think over what you could have done differently or better. For example, if your opponent stabilized at 2 health, rather than blaming your loss on failing to topdeck a torch, you should think about whether there was a turn where you could have bluffed a trick and swung to get in the extra 2 damage. Or perhaps you could have conserved one of your tricks from an earlier turn so that you could have removed a bigger unit using the trick instead of a Mortar and that Mortar could then have gone face for lethal.
There will definitely be games where you will always lose regardless of how much you change up your play or deck, but that is just the nature of card games. Even so, thinking about alternative lines of play is still beneficial. And more importantly, I think at least 70% of draft games could easily swing the other way if the winner was slightly sloppier in his play or if the loser read the situation better and optimized his play. Thinking about and reflecting on your play maximizes the number of games that you can win in this 70% range.
Even when you’ve won, you should also reflect on what went right and what could have been done better. For example, was there a line that you could take to end the game earlier? Was then a line where you can ensure that you will always win regardless of what your opponent drew? Was there a situation where you took a risky gamble and it paid off? Was that gamble necessary?
It’s also important to remember your deck is not set in stone. After each game, if you felt that some cards did not perform to your expectations while others exceeded, you could consider swapping some cards around. However, remember that 1 game on its own might be an anomaly and that it’s important to play the cards that are generally better across all games.
Phew, that was a long read, wasn’t it? Obviously, there are many more areas and much more complexity to the gameplay in draft that I’ve managed to cover in this article, but hopefully this article has been informative and help provide an overview of important areas to focus on in draft. I will be going more in depth into the different aspects of gameplay in future articles, so stayed tuned for that! Do let me know of any comments and suggestions by either commenting here or on the reddit thread!
May you always outplay your opponent,