Limited 201: reading signals

Cards, Deck, Game play, Limited, Limited 201, Magic the Gathering, MtG -

Limited 201: reading signals

Today marks the second chapter in the ongoing “Limited 201” strategy series, aimed at helping people think more deeply about limited. Today we’ll be touching on some of the more advanced nuances of reading signals in draft.


The number one mistake I see new players make in draft is to get too attached to their first few picks and ignore all signals from then on. Maybe you opened a sweet red dragon, but red is not open at all and you end up trainwrecking the draft. Maybe you saw a second-pick Flatten and assumed black was open, even when the rest of the packs did not give you that inclination. How can we avoid such situations from arising in the future?

After many years of drafting with players of all skill levels, from FNM to the Pro Tour, I’ve developed a few strategies that have improved the quality of my average draft deck. Sure, sometimes you just ignore all the signals and happen to be in the correct archetype, which will result in an insane deck. By keeping yourself open and reading signals as they come, the ceiling of your decks will decrease slightly, but you will avoid trainwrecks and make all of your decks better on average.

1. For the first 3-4 picks, just take the best card in the pack.

Let’s say we are drafting Modern Masters and open a Wolfbriar Elemental. Not a bad first pick! In our second pack, we are faced with a pack that has a Scatter the Seeds and an Arrest. A novice player might snap up the Scatter the Seeds here, reasoning that while Arrest is probably a better card on average, they want to stick to green in order to play their powerful rare.

I believe this is a mistake. For one, Arrest is a much more powerful card than Scatter the Seeds, and more importantly, it leaves you more open to drafting other strategies down the road. Sure, you might not end up playing both green and white and would therefore have to abandon one of those cards, but the MUCH worse scenario is that green isn’t open and you either wasted your first two picks or your deck is much worse because you weren’t in the open colors. Of course, if the two cards are much closer in power level – say, if it was Arrest vs. Pelakka Wurm – then color preference is a totally fine consideration. Don’t pick a card that you know is much worse just because you want to stay on color.

2. Don’t worry about the signals you are sending.

Let’s assume you are in another MMA2 draft. Let’s also assume you once again have a Wolfbriar Elemental in your first pack – lucky you! But wait…there’s also a Pelakka Wurm, a Cytoplast Root-Kin AND a Nest Invader in the pack! You nervously eye all of the powerful green cards in the pack, as well as a Spectral Procession as the only good white card. You take the Procession with the intention of staying out of the way of all the powerful green cards.

This is also wrong. The problem with this line of thinking is that you control the flow of cards in packs 1 and 3, while the people to your left only do so for pack 2. That means if you pass a lot of green cards and the people behind you move into green, you are the most likely to have the best deck because they get the lower quality green cards behind you. In the above scenario, it’s even MORE likely to work out well for you because you could put more than one person into green and make all of their decks worse while you get the choice pickings!

You should be much more concerned about the signals being passed to you, not the ones you are passing. Maybe you stayed out of green but green ends up being the open color…now you just screwed yourself over and rewarded the guy to your left immensely. Maybe white isn’t even open anyway! This goes hand-in-hand with concept #1 in the early stages of a draft, in that you should just be taking the best cards out of every pack until you find the open archetype.

3. Track the missing commons.

We all know that every pack has 10 commons, 3 uncommons and 1 rare. Use this knowledge to your advantage! Early on it won’t matter much; a missing rare doesn’t give you much information, nor does one or two missing uncommons. You should especially be taking note of when a common goes missing for the first time, because that can give you a gauge to determine what colors the person to your right might be in. For instance, in pack 3, if a rare and a common are missing, you should consider what commons might be taken over the cards that are still in the pack. If you see an Arrest pack 3-4 with a missing common, you can narrow down the possible cards that might have been taken over it…Nameless Inversion, Burst Lightning, and so on. You won’t be able to pinpoint exact colors from this information, but if you track these tiny hints over the course of a few packs, you can start to deduce what your fellow drafters are doing.

4. Pick 4-5 is when specific card signals start to matter.

Getting passed a Nameless Inversion 2nd-3rd pick isn’t necessarily a signal that black is open. Maybe there was just a better black rare in the pack, or two better uncommons. However, I’ve found that pack 4-5 is usually the point at which you should start to consider that a particular card is a signal that a color and/or archetype is open. By that point, you should have an idea of what colors you want to be based on your first few picks. I’ve commonly found myself with four cards of different colors by the time pick five comes along. In our earlier examples, if you committed to green early because of a Wolfbriar Elemental, but pack 5 gives you no good green cards, you’ll be disappointed that you passed on other quality cards in favor of weaker green cards to go along with your first pick.

More importantly, pick 4-5 is crucial because it gives you the best picture of the two people to your right. You can’t determine what the person three to your right is doing because of the potential missing rares and uncommons, but you get a TON of information about your nearest neighbors by the commons that remain, because they had the first real decisions to make from the pack in question. If you see a Burst Lightning pick 4, the person who originally opened the pack could still be red and have taken a red rare, but it is a safe bet that the next two people that passed on the Burst Lightning are not in red, because the 1-2 best cards in the pack were removed and they still didn’t want it. Premium cards like this should catch your eye at this point in the draft as signals to move in to a color or an archetype.

5. Pick 6-7 is when archetype-reliant cards become signals.

Another interesting scenario: you are considering blue and red as potential colors, and you see a fourth-pick Smokebraider. Should you move in? It’s a judgment call, but if there is another good card in the pack that is more flexible and leaves you open to more archetypes, I wouldn’t consider it a strong enough signal yet. It doesn’t tell you that the people to your right are not in the U/R deck, because they might have taken a more flexible card like Burst Lightning or Aethersnipe over it to stay open, and will move in on the narrower cards like Smokebraider later in the pack. I usually wait until pick 6-7 to make the determination that such a card signals that I should move in.

This is, naturally, a huge gray area, and varies wildly on the ceiling potential of the card in question. It also depends heavily on the cards already in your pool, because you might be more inclined to take it if you already have some reasonable Elementals, but that isn’t relevant to the discussion at hand. If you decide you want to remain open in a draft, the goal should be to make the most accurate judgment possible on your neighbors’ colors. Smokebraider may signal an archetype is open, but not a color, per se.

Modern Masters is especially tricky for these sorts of concepts because of how linear and non-fluid the color pairs are, but in most limited formats, you want to steer clear of whatever two colors your neighbors are in without sacrificing serious value for your own deck. Finding the balance can’t be taught with a simple list or any number of Limited 201 articles; it requires practice and a development of your own intuition to figure it out for yourself. I only hope to arm you with the tools to start thinking about these things to improve your own game.


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