(Metagame Archive) Advanced Learning: Reading the Signals

By Doug Tice

I have been anxiously looking forward to writing this article. At the same time, I’m afraid that the topic of reading signals is going to be quite difficult to explain and illustrate completely. I think a lot of readers’ expectations of an article entitled “Reading the Signals” are that the writer will say, “If you see this card passed, that is a signal, and this is how you should react.” While recognizing specific examples is part of reading signals, that knowledge will take you only so far. Reading signals is all about gathering as much information from as many sources as possible and reacting accordingly. I will do my best to highlight a number of other factors that can lead you to read signals more accurately and react more appropriately to them.

First, I’d like to take a look at the most basic signal reading:

Getting passed archetypal cards later than you would expect to see them

Lately, I have been so busy that I hardly find time to read Vs. System articles. I haven’t even kept up with some of my favorite writers. One article that I’m very glad I did find time to read, though, was Alex Brown’s Draft Clinic spotlighting Scott Smith right here on Metagame.

I suggest that you read this entire article, which gives great illustrations of specific card signals. In fact, you should make a habit of reading all of Alex’s Draft Clinic articles if you are looking to improve your drafting. If you don’t have time to read all of Alex’s coverage of Scott’s draft picks, then I suggest that you skip straight to the paragraph related to pack 1, pick 1 and read through pack 1, pick 6. Pay special attention to what Alex points out in his comments about Scott’s sixth pick.

Scott failed to read a signal when the archetypal The Calculator, Evil Oracle was passed to him in an otherwise mediocre pack. Even though he drafted The Calculator, he did not keep an open mind to shifting the focus of his deck.

Which leads me to my second point . . .

Always keep an open mind

What good is reading the signals if you aren’t going to do anything about them? All too often, players who notice a few strong clues that a team is being under-drafted to their right ignore the information they are receiving, because in their minds, they have already committed to one single strategy. Committing to a single strategy works a lot of the time, as does forcing this one strategy from the get-go. Sometimes, picking up on a signal or two that something is not being heavily drafted is still not reason enough to jump right into that team or strategy. All I’m saying is just try to keep an open mind.

Misreading a signal

Sometimes, every drafter to your right takes powerful cards from a loaded pack. In some packs, a card that would go first pick without a doubt will be overshadowed by a number of other equally or more powerful first-pick quality cards. This is the biggest reason that you cannot base your signal reading only on seeing a powerful archetypal card passed later than you would have expected. Maybe what you thought was there just wasn’t there at all. This goes along with keeping an open mind. Don’t look for just one clue to be the green light. Continue to read what is being passed and don’t be afraid to admit that what you thought was a clear signal may not have been anything more than a coincidence.
Evaluation of individual picks

Hardly any two players would agree to the same ranking of all cards from start to finish. Some cards might be more generally accepted as top picks, but even this might not be the case when you sit down at a table full of strangers. You really cannot predict how others will value cards. If your understanding of the set being drafted is as strong as or better than your competition, you should be fine in this area. Sometimes, one or two undervalued cards can mean the world of difference in a draft pod full of stiff competition. As you are drafting with these strangers, the information that they give you throughout the draft by way of the cards they are passing should give you an idea of what cards your competition undervalues and overvalues in comparison with your card evaluations.

It is possible to adjust your value scale during the draft to reflect how you think the table will respond. Maybe one of the commons that you value as a first to third pick just landed in your lap eighth pick, but commons that you would have expected to receive eighth pick or later were nowhere to be seen. Let’s say that in pack 3, you open another copy of that common that you were thinking would never do a lap around the table, but in that pack, you also have the option to take the common that you previously hoped would be passed to you later. Picking the card that is lower on your value scale with hopes of your previously top-ranked common coming back to you as late as ninth pick might just be the right thing to do.
Knowing your competition

The more you know about the players sitting around your draft table, the better chance you have of correctly interpreting the information you receive as packs are being passed. Relating to both this topic and the above evaluation topic, take a look at a quote from Ian Vincent’s look back at his final draft pod at Pro Circuit San Francisco.

“Going into the draft, I was under the impression that a lot of the top players underestimated the X-Men in general and X-Treme Maneuver in particular. I was looking to draft them again.”

Having the opportunity to use two previous same-day drafts’ worth of gathered information is an instance that occurs most often at the Pro Circuit. You might be able to squeeze in three drafts in one day at your store to try to simulate this scenario, but that is not the point. If you know one or two of the players sitting at your table, you should use what you know about their draft preferences to help you read what is being passed.

Going a step further, when you hear other players casually discussing draft strategies, listen up! What you learn from them will also help you. I’m not just saying that if you know player A likes to draft Team X and player B likes to draft Team Y that you should pre-set yourself to draft Team Z. You should look for strong Team Z signals, of course, but you should also be looking for clear indications that the players to your right might be trying something different this time around.
For lack of a better word, instinct

If you have never seen the movie Good Will Hunting, you should probably at least add it to your master “movies to see” list. Please stay with me here. I’ll tie it all to Vs. System in just a moment. The following dialogue is taken from the movie.

Will: “Do you play the piano?”

Skylar: “A bit.”

Will: “Okay, when you look at a piano, you see Mozart, right?”

Skylar: “I see ‘Chopsticks.’”


Will: “Beethoven, okay. He looked at a piano, and it just made sense to him. He could just play.”

Skylar: “So what are you saying? You play the piano?”
Will: “No, not a lick. I mean, I look at a piano, I see a bunch of keys, three pedals, and a box of wood. But Beethoven, Mozart, they saw it, they could just play. I couldn’t paint you a picture, I probably can’t hit the ball out of Fenway, and I can’t play the piano.”

Skylar: “But you can do my o-chem paper in under an hour.”

Will: “Right. Well, I mean when it came to stuff like that . . . I could always just play.”

Even with all of the tools and methods for understanding the signals given above, there is still that “it just makes sense to me” factor that cannot really be explained. Although I do have my hot streaks, excellent plays, and lucky moments, I feel that my strongest skill (at least in Booster Draft formats) is my ability to read the signals from the cards being passed my way. Yes, I do follow the guidelines that I have set out in this article, but sometimes, when those methods break down or when all else fails, the “it just makes sense” factor kicks in and pulls me through a tough draft.

Maybe this factor can be identified as instinct. It seems like instinct is too narrow of a definition, but for the sake of trying to provide some final helpful tips, I will just say, “Trust your instinct.”
Physically signaling during the draft

I just want to take a moment to say that any effort to send or receive physical signals during a draft is nothing short of cheating. Looking to see what card the player to either side of you is about to take is strictly prohibited. Hand gestures, head nods, table tapping, and so forth are all a real quick way to get disqualified from an event and will probably land you a lengthy suspension. So please, focus on honing your signal-reading skills that are fair and appropriate for the game.

I hope you have enjoyed this installment of Advanced Learning. Although it wasn’t officially dubbed the first one, I’d like to call this article about synergy the Advanced Learning pilot episode. These articles’ topics will maintain a more conceptual view but are intended to be most helpful to those players looking to step their game up to the next level. Next week, I will return to Sealed Pack 101 with Part 3 of “The Study.” In Part 2, readers were asked to send submissions of what they would have done with the card pool I received in a recent Pro Circuit Qualifier. I look forward to sharing some interesting results soon.


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