(Metagame Archive) Forcing in Avengers Draft

By Jason Grabher-Meyer

For those who might have missed the coverage back in August, Dave Spears and Michael Jacob dominated $10K Toronto, one of Vs. System’s few Sealed Pack $10Ks. Early on the Saturday of the event, TO local Donald Grant remarked, “This format is all about archetypes. If you can’t draft one, you probably don’t stand a chance.” It was a comment that held true through the weekend.

Now, with Pro Circuit: Los Angeles coming up this weekend, the all-Avengers draft format again rears its head. Due to the short time between the PC and the release of Justice League of America, the powers that be made the wise decision to not include JLA in Day 2’s Draft format competition, meaning that instead a day split between two different sets, competitors that successfully win their way to Day 2 will draft nothing but Avengers, back to back to back.

While we here at Metagame.com have run many articles on drafting tips and guidelines, we’ve rarely touched on the technique that permitted Spears and Jacob to dominate so fully in Toronto: forcing. Nate Price spoke out on the subject in the final installment of his Manual series, but he focused on the pitfalls of forcing rather than the benefits. The points he made about the technique’s various weaknesses are legitimate in most cases, but it just so happens that the Avengers set is something of a rarity. As Grant stated, the Avengers draft format demands deck designs that take advantage of the inherent themes within the expansion, a fact that favors forcing.

To digress for a moment, you may have noticed that virtually every Vs. System expansion has a different flavor when drafted. Man of Steel set the standard with its relatively straightforward mix of teams. The result was a set where drafting plot twists over characters was important, because the teams themselves were fairly interchangeable and most of the significant plot twists were not team stamped. As such, all eight drafters were often competing for the same plot twists, and drafting hard into blue early on was a necessity.

Sets like Green Lantern Corps eased away from this trend. Good plot twists were definitely important, but character synergy was powerful to the point that prioritizing your picks between plot twists and characters was no longer so cut and dry.

Each set drafts somewhat differently, and while forcing might have been a risky idea with relatively low payoff in previous sets, it’s almost a necessity for Avengers. Unless you’ve played other TCGs or been active in online communities lately, you may not know what forcing is, so let’s define it briefly.

Defining Forcing

Traditional draft philosophy dictates that reactivity is the key to success—recognize the trends going on at the table, figure out who’s playing what, and then adapt to what is sent your way to create the best deck possible. It’s a passive technique that, when employed correctly, leaves you with a solid card pool unhindered by the choices of those around you. It’s essentially a defensive strategy that prevents other players from purposely or inadvertently screwing you over. After all, no one can build a good deck with terrible cards.

Forcing is the exact opposite. Instead of being a reactive technique, it’s a proactive one, attempting to set trends, rather than adapting to them. Ideally, you tailor your picks to prevent other players from going after the cards you want, and thus the other drafters give you exactly what you need. In Avengers draft, this would give you a complete archetypal deck, because no one else around you was taking your necessary cards.

So, how do you get your opponents to hand you card after perfect card? Forcing operates on two levels: the theoretical and the practical. The theory of forcing is the same regardless of what expansion, or even what game system, you happen to be playing. The technique itself is static. The practical side, which is more dynamic, is concerned with understanding the set you’re working with, on both the individual card level as well as a deck-by-deck basis. Let’s look at the theoretical process first.

The Theoretical

The first step in forcing is to decide what deck to play. You can do this after you see your first pick from pack one, or you can sit down at the table with a clear goal in your mind before you even crack a single booster. The trick is to pick a strategy and stick with it. For better or for worse, you are locked in to the decision you make.

From here, your goal is to cut off other players from making the same decision as early as possible. Once the competition has committed itself to themes different from yours, they’ll be passing the cards you need. You set this up by identifying the cards essential to your strategy and then taking them so that other players will be deterred from the deck you’re drafting due to the lack of necessary cards. It’s actually a more effective technique against veteran players, as the vets can recognize a lost cause more quickly and give up on drafting it. That leaves all the more for you . . . at least in theory.

If everything goes as planned, it’s basically a two-step process:

1. Decide what you will force

2. Dedicate your picks to that strategy, getting yourself cards you need while denying them to others and thus keeping them off your turf

It’s a little bit more complicated than that, though, so I enlisted some help to enrich my perspective on the issue. I went to Michael Jacob himself, since he’s a three-time $10K champion, an advocate of the technique, and frankly, a lot smarter than I am . . .

He brought up a third step to the theoretical process that really can’t be ignored.

“Forcing is very risky if you don’t know what you are doing. Even if you force an archetype, there are gonna be some packs that hold nothing for you. This means you need to know what to prune to make sure that the rest of the packs fall favorably.” The packs that don’t contain something of immediate use to your deck are just as important as the ones that do. Jacob continued, “To force in drafting, you have to have a very good understanding of the archetype you want to draft and those you want to pass. There is no reason for you to be forcing an archetype and pass one that beats you at the 2-0 table.” While you’re attempting to stock up on your own cards to the extent that others will have to abandon aspirations toward your theme, you also have to stay aware of your strategy’s place within the environment that you’re competing in and act accordingly. The resulting balancing act is one of the finer points of forcing, and it takes skill and practice to get right. Just sitting down at a table and deciding, “I’m gonna build me a killer Faces of Evil deck!” isn’t enough to guarantee a good performance.

Believe me on that one . . . I’ve tried.

The Practical

Emphasizing the importance of hate drafting leads us into the second set of skills and processes needed to force successfully: the practical side of the technique. As much as the concept of forcing remains the same from set to set, the actual information and understanding that you need in order to force effectively changes depending on the card pool.

The first thing you need to know are the enabling cards for your targeted archetype—what cards will allow you to run the deck and will, in their absence, deter opponents from pursuing it themselves. In fact, you should know the top archetypes and the most important enabling cards for each. For practical information I again turned to Jacob, whose experience is possibly the best in the format. He was happy to rattle off some lists for me in an “off the top of my head” fashion, naming key cards for major Avengers archetypes:

Reservist: Heroes in Reserve, Black Panther, Amenhotep, Call Down the Lightning, and Hawkeye, Clinton Barton

Kang: Kang, Rama Tut; Kang, Ultimate Kang; Kang, Lord of Limbo; Time Keepers; and Psyche-Globe

Rush*: Captain America, Steve Rogers; The Wrecking Crew; Speed Demon, Second Chance Speedster; Faces of Evil; and Windstorm

He emphasized that these were off-the-cuff picks, but had the following to say, “You will definitely be successful if you see these key cards in the first seven picks, but you can still hope for pack two. No one on that side of the table will be drafting what you are.”

He went on to detail some hate-picks for each of the three archetypes he identified. “Rush wants to hate Hawkeye; Radioactive Man, Reformed Renegade; and Avengers Disassembled. Reservist wants to hate Stolen Power, and Kang wants to hate Blizzard, Thunder Jet, Justice Like Lightning . . . anything that makes Ultimate Kang any worse than the best 5-drop.”

Jacob emphasized the importance of discipline to the forcing technique. “You have to abandon your strategy of reactive drafting before you start forcing. If you open 6-drop Captain America, take Repulsor Ray over it. You’ll reap the benefits pack two and three.” One of the things that makes forcing a nail-biting process to participate in is that it’s not until the second pack that you’ll start to see enough benefits from your efforts to judge whether or not you were successful. If you were, though, you’ll know it when you start getting handed sweet pick after sweet pick.

Sidenotes and Conclusions

Actually deciding what to force is an underrated part of the process, and it can frequently be key. Very few competitors at $10K Toronto were even considering rush strategies during the Sealed Pack rounds and much of the draft. The focus of many players rested on Avengers curve, Avengers team attack, and Squadron no-hand. Jacob’s choice gave him an inherent advantage right off the bat, as few players were even looking to draft what he was so viciously snapping up. Dave Spears did the same thing by focusing on Kang—he didn’t exactly have to fight a cage match for the cards he wanted.

At the same time, every novice now recognizes the threat of rush decks in the Avengers Sealed Pack environment. Few people are going to be passing you copies of The Wrecking Crew and Faces of Evil, and low-drop characters now look far more threatening. The field is better educated, and the skills needed for successful forcing are even more important now than they were before.

To recap, those skills are as follows:

1. Understand the environment in which you’re playing. You need to know the possible archetypes for the format, the enabling cards for each, tech, and which matchups go in which deck’s favor.

2. Intimately understand the archetype you’re drafting. What are its top picks, and what cards do you want to keep your opponents from having?

3. Be disciplined. It’s not forcing if you change what deck you’re playing in the middle of pack two. It’s also probably not going to help you win. Once you understand your own priorities, you need to stick to them, or risk failing to manipulate the other competitors and suffering the penalties down the line.

4. Make a good initial decision. That first decision you make needs to be an educated one. There are more than three archetypes in the format, and you need to be aware of options like team attack and no-hand even if you deem them technically inferior. Your initial decision will make or break your forcing experience.

Master the above four skills, and you’ll probably do well, whether you’re playing at your local card store or sitting at a table at Day 2 in LA. Forcing is not always a sound concept, but the Avengers-only draft format presents perfect conditions. Give it a shot, and if you stick with it, you’ll have a deadly new weapon in your drafting arsenal.

-Jason Grabher-Meyer

*Notice that Jacob doesn’t tag team names onto the strategies he considers archetypal. It’s important to remember that it’s the themes themselves that are important for this set, more than actual character affiliations. Common threads of synergy weave between many of the teams, and understanding that will prevent you from limiting your own options, or worse yet, forgetting to cut off an opponent’s.

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