About a month ago, when Modern Masters 2017 had just been spoiled in full, my friend Ryan and I were generating some mock packs and discussing what we would pick out of each one. At some point, we opened a pack that contained both Damnation and Orzhov Signet. The pick was immediately clear to both of us; obviously we would be taking Damnation out of the pack. But as we moved on to the next one, this decision stayed with me. You see, in the four years that I’ve played Magic on MtGO, I’ve done plenty of Vintage Cube drafts, and Signets and board wipe effects are both prominent features of the Vintage Cube. I’m pretty sure I’ve encountered this exact decision before in the cube, and in that format the pick was also not close- but in cube, it was in favor of the Signet!
Now, this seeming incongruity is actually not that surprising if you look at the power levels of the cards in each format. In Vintage Cube, mana rocks are way better than normal because your goal is to power out broken things as fast as possible, and they help you on that mission. In contrast, not as many decks are all that heavy on creatures, so cards like Damnation tend to be less powerful there on average than they are in a typical draft format. But I sensed that power level might not be the only factor affecting this decision, so I spent a lot of time thinking about it and eventually I realized that there are in fact three distinct factors that might affect why you would want to first pick a particular card out of a pack. Here they are:
The first reason, and the most prominent one in the decision above, is power level. Obviously you want to start off every draft with a powerful card, and sometimes first pick bombs can make your deck virtually unbeatable. Power level varies depending on format, as I explained above- so much so that when cards are reprinted in a new set, players are sometimes surprised that their evaluations of those cards are different in the new context. A great example of this is how much better Soul Ransom got in Modern Masters 2017 versus its original home in Gatecrash, a topic which I dove into in an article a few weeks ago.
The only additional point I would make about power is that if a card is in a deeper color, the power level of that card rises within that format. Snapping Gnarlid would have made an excellent common beater in Battle for Zendikar, for example, if it weren’t for the fact that green was so horrendously unplayable that you would often see draft tables where it was completely avoided as a color. As such, Snapping Gnarlid lost a lot of value as a playable card and as a potential first pick.
Another reason to pick a card highly is because it allows you to be flexible. Flexibility can come in a number of forms. Sometimes a card is flexible because it is colorless or mono-colored, versus a multicolor card that locks you into playing multiple specific colors if you want to get any value out of your first pick. For example, a lot of the artifacts in Aether Revolt were very powerful, but they all got boosted in the pick order because they let you stay open when you first picked them.
Cards like Pacification Array and Daredevil Dragster were certainly powerful and they made very solid first picks, but they might have ranked a bit lower in the set if they didn’t have the added bonus of letting you pick your colors later. Similarly, a card that has only one colored mana symbol versus a card that is heavier on a specific color is more flexible because you’re more likely to be able to play that color as a secondary color if you need to, or you can even splash the card if it’s powerful enough.
Cards can be flexible by more than just color. Sometimes, a card is a more valuable first pick because it fits into multiple strategies as well. Modern Masters 2017 showcases this spectrum pretty well. If you look at a card like Burning-Tree Emissary, that card is only good in a dedicated aggro deck where you’re trying to swarm your opponent as fast as possible. Another two drop from the set, Call of the Conclave, finds a loving home both in green-white beatdown decks and in grindy value-populate decks.
As such, Call of the Conclave has a higher flexibility value. Looking way down at the other end of the spectrum, Compulsive Research is nearly the ideal first pick uncommon spell. Not only is it in blue, the best color in the format, but its card draw and filtering is an effect that every deck can make good use of, at a rate that is extremely powerful and efficient on its own.
Power and flexibility are both certainly important, but the biggest revelation I had when considering the Orzhov Signet vs. Damnation pick was that scarcity matters. If you’re confused, look toward Economics 101 and the supply and demand curve. Take an effect that’s reasonably powerful, nothing over the top- but it’s unique. There’s going to be a certain amount of demand for that kind of effect, but since it only appears on a single uncommon or whatever the supply is really low, which means the price people will pay for it is high.
This is another reason why Damnation is a better pick in Modern Masters than in Vintage Cube. In the Cube, you’re likely to see quite a few board wipe effects over the course of a draft, so you can always pick one up if your deck needs one. However, if you crack Damnation in a Modern Masters pack, it’s most likely going to be the only one you see over the course of the entire draft, so you’re heavily incentivized to pick it up now.
You can see the effects of scarcity in other formats as well. Magic Origins featured an enchantment called Sphinx’s Tutelage, which was not spectacular as far as power level was concerned, but it inspired an entire limited archetype on its own. In a weak pack, it was reasonable to first pick the tutelage because if you happened to end up in the durdly mill-control deck, you would want as many copies of the enchantment as you could get your hands on, and sometimes that was hard to do.
As usual with these kinds of things, these three factors aren’t meant to be hard and fast rules, but they can turn out to be useful heuristics for making intelligent first pick decisions. They may also have a broader scientific purpose. Picture a triangle with a different one of them at each of the corners, except the triangle is weighted heavily to favor power, and to a much lesser extent flexibility. You can now use this triangle to graph the first pickability of any card in a given format!
In general, try to remember this theory the next time you crack open a pack and have no idea what to pick out of it. It might just save your draft.
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