CottonRhetoric's picture
By: CottonRhetoric, Cotton Rhetoric
Jun 04 2020 12:00pm

You sit down for a draft, open your first pack, and ask yourself that all-important question: What do I take? A lot goes into the answer. Power rankings, archetypes, metagame, personal tastes, and more. There's one skill I don't see written about much at all though, and it's as crucial as the above: knowing what will wheel.

If you spend much time reading Twitch chats, you'll know that people love announcing what will and won't wheel, and that most people are horrible at it. I don't blame them—it's the kind of skill you only develop very gradually over time, through extensive exposure to a format. Today I'll be reviewing some precepts and strategies to take with you to any format, through the lens of one I am familiar with, Legacy Cube (coming out next week)! 

♦ Theory Time ♦

Why does this matter?

Reason #1 • Double Up

Whatever the format, most early packs have more than one reasonable pick. Sometimes, neither of your highest two picks is coming back to you, and sometimes both of them are, but the rest of the time, only one of them will. If you can identify those crucial moments, and distinguish those two cards, you get to have both of your picks.

    Student of Warfare     Swords to Plowshares

My favorite example is when you're drafting white aggro in cube and see both a Student of Warfare and Swords to Plowshares in the same pack. You want both, and if you're forced to pick between them, Student is the better card for your deck—but you should take Swords for the simple reason that Student usually wheels and Swords usually doesn't.


Reason #2 • Save the Future

Something else goes wrong if you fail to distinguish those two cards. Not only do you lose one of those cards, but whoever took the second one is now more likely to move in on the deck you wanted to build. You'll miss later picks in other packs, too, and before they even come to you.


Reason #3 • Notice What's Open

When you get a good handle on what should wheel, you learn what archetypes are and and aren't open when you see what does wheel. Reusing the above white aggro example, let's say you follow my advice, take the Swords, and pass the Student on faith it will come back to you—then it doesn't come back to you. What do you do in this moment? Do you get angry at Cotton for giving you bad advice? No! You realize that (against all odds) there's another white aggro drafter at the table, and you should switch lanes. In such a table, taking Student in the first place would have backfired for the same reason. (And if you're thinking that you passing Student is what put somebody into the archetype... unlikely.)

Not only do you learn what's closed when low picks don't wheel, you learn what's open when high picks do wheel. If Emry, Lurker of the Loch is the only artifact-matters card in the pack, and you peg it as impossible to wheel, but it comes back to you—consider moving into the artifacts deck. It's likely to be open (pending someone else's decision to switch into it late based on the other artifact cards that are no doubt wheeling).


Reason #4 • Find Holes in the Format

This is the hardest skill yet, so I put it last, but there's another advantage you can gain by getting a feel for how late each card gets picked. Once you get to know a format well enough, you'll find some cards that the community isn't evaluating correctly. They wheel all the time, despite being powerful in a way you see that others don't. This is risky, of course, because YOU might be the one evaluating it wrong, but if you can actually do this correctly, you can exploit it.


My best memory of this is Skullclamp in Vintage Cube. It's so obviously broken to me, and yet I get passed it all the time, so I started building around it, and started getting trophies with it. Everyone else was fighting over the popular "best" strategies, while I was getting everything I needed for this largely overlooked strategy of equal power.


So you're on board and you want to learn this skill. Here are some precepts to help you on your journey.


Precept #1 • Accept Imperfection

You will never, no matter how much you study a format, get to a point where you can reliably predict the exact cards from each pack to return to you. Ever, ever, ever. This is because you are drafting with humans, and humans are erratic. Any number of the people at your table might be:

  • new to the format
  • bad
  • forcing the archetype of their P1P1
  • doing a stipulation draft
  • trying to replicate an unusual deck their favorite streamer just ran
  • acting on bad advice
  • running a weird experiment
  • disconnected and on autopicks

So don't set perfect predictions as your goal. But do set a goal. With enough practice, it's reasonable to average 5 out of 7 wheels from your first pick.


Precept #2 • Practice

It's one thing to say "draft a lot" and "watch a lot of drafts," both of which I obviously agree with, but that's not enough.

Practice predicting, too. Directly. When you see your first pack, and you decide what you want, and you still have 30 seconds left on your clock, don't take the card yet. Decide which cards you think will wheel. Write them down. When the pack comes back to you, see how you did. You'll learn faster this way.

You don't even need to wager 10 tickets on your own draft to practice. Watch someone else draft on Twitch, screenshot their opening pack, and figure it out in the background. Chart your success over time, and notice patterns. No card ALWAYS wheels, but some cards USUALLY wheel. Learn what they are.


Precept #3 • Have a Method

A common method I see on streams is starting at the best card in the pack, then deciding the second best, and third best, and so on, until they've estimated what all 7 tablemates are likely to pick, and then seeing what's left as the wheels.

My preferred favorite is "quick sorting" each card into one of three piles: 90% to get taken, 60% to get taken, and 30% to get taken. Often this naturally leads to a proper sized wheel pile, but you can always fiddle with it by rerating one or two cards as needed.


Precept #4 • Consider Pack Number

Saying "Sneak Attack doesn't often wheel" and "Sneak Attack does often wheel," although opposites, are both incorrect. This is because they don't acknowledge the fact that some cards' likelihood of wheeling varies based on pack number.

Generically powerful, adaptible cards like Mind Stone, Volcanic Island, and Garruk Wildspeaker will get taken at the same rate no matter what pack we're in. Deck-specific cards will not. If a card is the centerpiece of some engine, and can't be shoehorned into anything matching the color requirements, the rules change.

Sneak Attack will almost always get taken early in pack one. It will often get taken late in pack three. Why? It's uncommon for people to switch lanes into a Sneak Attack deck, and it's uncommon for people to preemptively build a Sneak Attack deck before actually opening a Sneak Attack.

If you are one of those people preemptively building Sneak Attack, I am not saying you can RELY on wheeling your pack 3 Sneak Attack. Three seats down might be a UB reanimator deck who decides to splash for it. But the odds are on your side, if that same pack also has something else you'd consider a bomb that has no chance of wheeling.


Precept #5 • Consider Pack Contents

Asking whether Thrun, the Last Troll wheels isn't the right question either, but for a different reason than Sneak Attack. Thrun doesn't change from pack 1 to pack 3—he changes in the context of the other cards he's next to. If Thrun's in the same pack as Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary, yes, you're probably seeing him again. If he's the only green card, no, you're probably not.

A lot of cards (like Rofellos) are high picks no matter what, but when you get to those medium level, go-anywhere cards, context really matters.


Precept #6 • Consider Signals

We're still not done with the Thrun question. Suppose in pack one you do pass both a Rofellos and a Thrun to your neighbors. At this point in time, it's fair to expect to see Thrun again. But then during your next six picks, you notice very few green cards getting passed to you. So few that it feels like there are multiple people already forcing green. In this circumstance, the probability of seeing Thrun again decreases.

The same is true for the signals YOU send with the cards YOU pick. If you spend all of pack one jamming mono black, pack two's mono black cards are more likely to wheel than usual.


I think we're ready to practice togther!


Practice Time

Below are some actual screenshots from the most recent Legacy Cube season (November 2019), and obviously the card list is changing slightly this season, but the idea is generally the same.

These are all from the first pack. I won't ask "what would you pick?" because there are a lot of justifiable picks here, and it's also not this article's purpose. What I'll ask is: What do you think will wheel? Use whaveter method you like (and I have two great ones above). The image can be enlarged with right click > open image in new tab.


I'll add some space here so you don't accidentally gilmpse my thinking before doing your own.


Really, try to map it out before scrolling down!


This is a great practice opportunity. Cheating on it only cheats yourself.


Okay here's Cotton's quick sort.


90% to get taken:

60% to get taken:

  • Council's Judgment: Top tier removal, in a format with a lot of must-answer threats.
  • Sundering Titan: People like doing big dumb things. Most 8+ mana creatures go in the 60% pile.
  • Sword of Feast and Famine: People also like swords, and this is one of the better ones.
  • Hissing Quagmire: Though not one of the better (ie fetchable) duals, it is the only dual in the pack, so I expect it to get taken higher than normal.

30% to get taken:

  • Ramunap Excavator: This is a tough one to sort. In Vintage Cube, he has enough combos and feels rules-bendy enough to lure people more than he's worth. In Legacy Cube, his best combos are gone, but people don't all know that, or perhaps do but still overvalue his rules-bendy nature. I'd imagine that he'll go higher earlier in the cube season, until people realize there's no Strip Mine in legacy and stop taking him as quickly. Eventually he'll settle into this category, although still randomly get taken highly by a late newcomer.
  • Geist of Saint Traft: He has his fans, but for the most part will go late for the main reason that UW aggro isn't a supported archetype. (There's also the reason that he's stymied by any mid-sized blocker, but on the other hand he's nigh-unstoppable by some decks. Even so, I rank him below the other cards mentioned so far. Doesn't mean that every table will.)
  • Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit: Some tables have a white aggro drafter. The majority don't.
  • Blessed Alliance: A fair card, but worse than most white removal spells in the format (including one in this pack).
  • Runaway Steam-Kin: Mono red has more fans than mono white, but this is one of the worst mono red cards in the format. Then again, it is the only possible red aggro card in the pack.... Now you see why I title this the 30% pile and not the 0% pile. Some things you just can't predict.
  • Star of Extinction: Not many decks want a defensive red card, and not many decks want to spend 7 on a Wrath, meaning not many people will take this card in the first 8 picks.
  • Field of Ruin: Can you even think of the last time your opponent played one of these?

So how did I do? And more importantly, how did you do? Here's a screencap of that pack's wheels, but as you look at it, keep in mind the bulleted list of Precept #1 above. Drafting with humans leads to erratic results. (To be fair, so does drafting with bots, as Arena's fans will tell you.)

See! I got two of 'em wrong. I consider 5 out of 7 a success based on my reasoning in Precept #1, BUT LET'S NOT MOVE ON YET. Remember Reason #3 in the "why does this matter" section—we're seeing some unexpected results and should think about them.

  • Sundering Titan came back. That's weird. There's no Tinker or Metalworker in Legacy Cube, but it does still support the artifact deck. Consider taking cards like Grim Monolith, Thran Dynamo, and Urza, Lord High Artificer.
  • Hissing Quagmire came back, but we can't conclude much from that. Saying "black-green is open!" would be a mistake since there were, after all, both black and green cards taken from this pack. Maybe it's a signal you can move into five-color if you want...??
  • Runaway Steam-Kin didn't come back. This is the most important signal here. Very likely, we should not attempt red aggro at this point. (No one data point is a guarantee, but this is a strong indicator. Obviously you should also take into account what else you've been passed in the other picks so far.)

Fun right? AND useful. Let's try another P1P1 from another Legacy Cube draft.


Draft #2

Same question: what will wheel?


This is so hard! But we must push onward.


I'm not going to have as much space this time.


You've been warned!


90% to get taken:

  • Coalition Relic: People go bananas for this card. (Give me a signet, personally, but other people don't say that.)
  • Jace Beleren: He passes the planeswalker test ("is he a planeswalker?") meaning he will not be wheeling.
  • Avacyn's Pilgrim: Not only is it a cheap green ramper, it's the only card in the pack for that archetype, so we can either take it or wave goodbye forever.

60% to get taken:

  • Massacre Wurm: He's good. Not everyone thinks he's good though.
  • Inquisition of Kozilek: In Vintage Cube, this has near bomb levels of power. In Legacy Cube, it's merely good.
  • Oust: The best white card in the pack. Good in defensive decks and, unlike the two white aggro cards in the pack, it's good in white aggro.
  • Grim Lavamancer: Red aggro is popular, he's the only card for it in the pack, and he's even pretty good. (Much better than Steam Kin, and you saw what happened with that in the last draft.)
  • Talrand, Sky Summoner: Although not a great card, Jace will get taken very quickly, meaning most of the table will see this as the only blue card in the pack. And you know what happens to the only blue card in the pack (it gets taken).

30% to get taken:

  • Crucible of Worlds: It's better than Ramunap, but it still falls short for the same reasons. Still, it fools people for the same reasons, so you can never count on it wheeling.
  • Mentor of the Meek: As said, white aggro isn't popular, and even for someone forcing the archetype, this rarely makes the cut.
  • (Ranger Captain of Eos): Same notes. A mediocre card in an unpopular archetype.
  • Sword of War and Peace: Although a sword, it's the worst sword. The BG, UR, or UG ones I'd put in the 60% category. The BW one, probably here as well.
  • Treetop Village: A perfectly playable card. Being next to the elf makes it likely to go later.
  • Hissing Quagmire: Another fine card, but arguably a worse creatureland than Treetop for anyone not already decided on multiple colors.
  • (Prime Speaker Vannifar): Frankly, it's not a good card. A lot of people did watch their favorite streamer get a trophy with it though, so you never know.

And the results:

Another 5 out of 7. Crucible and Quagmire are gone; Talrand and Lavaman are still in.

Can we glean anything from this? From the first two, no, from Talrand maybe, and from Lavaman definitely. This could be a good draft to pick up some red cards!


And I could do another 10 of these, but you get the idea. And the idea is to start doing these yourself. Have fun, good luck, and keep cubing!