Every card pool has its ups-and-downs, granted. Maybe Onslaught is fine for sealed and draft, maybe it's the "most random limited format since Rath block." Unclear. Ask 10 people, get 10 different answers.
But what about Rochester draft specifically with Onslaught? Is it a good format, or is it plagued with shortcomings that are capable of invalidating skill? Again, opinions vary.
Zvi Mowshowitz and Kai Budde are two of the biggest names in the "this format stinks" camp. "Most Rochester drafting is forced," said Zvi, "All the roles are determined in pack 1, and then it comes down to being out-opened." Zvi does concede that there is still some room to make better picks than other people at the table, but he says, "90% of a given player's decisions are made as soon as the first few picks are made."
Kai agrees. "If you are at a table with 7 other competent players, it just comes down to choosing of colors and then distributing the cards. Nobody hate-drafts until they have enough cards for their own deck, and that's it," said the German.
The card pool takes most of the blame for their dislike of the format. For example, because of the need to draft black or red, many players feel that if pack one contains Solar Blast, Gustcloak Harrier, and Pinpoint Avalanche as the only three good cards, player two is stuck being white/black, end of story. "There are too many bad color combinations," said Zvi, "You can't be blue/white or blue/green like you could in other formats."
Dave Williams agrees. "You have to be red or black, despite what anyone says. There are creatures you have to be able to remove, like Sparksmith and Wellwisher, and the other three colors can't do it. So if the table is competent, they'll alternate black and red. And red is so much better than black, but if the guy to your right is red, you have to give in."
So is that it? Is the format just a distribution of cards based on an alternating red and black pattern at each table?
Some players disagree. Gary Wise, finalist in the last draft Masters event, says that this is a good format, and that the "red/black thing is an illusion and a myth. I'll respect it if everyone is following it, but I think there are too many people that don't adhere to it, it won't work." Wise even goes so far as to say that blue/white and blue/green are just fine, and he'd play them if that were how things fell in a draft.
Ben Rubin is also on the "this format is good" side of the fence, though just barely. He does admit that the draft itself has problems, but they can be compensated for by play skill. "In three of my four matches, I totally outplayed my opponent. There might not be that many decisions to make in the draft, but there are so many when you're playing that it works out." Wise goes a step further; he thinks there are a significant number of decisions to make when drafting. "In a format based on tempo and card synergy," said Wise, "the good players can pick up on patterns that everyone else can't, and that's the difference."
It seems that most established pros see Rochester as a format of comfort, where the correct plan is to do what everyone else expects you to do. If that's the case, then yes, all the skill has been stripped from the format. But can't it be true that in order to win you need to go against the grain, do the unexpected, steal the bombs from the next guy, consequences be damned?
Mike Turian thinks so. Given the above example of Solar Blast/Gustcloak Harrier/Pinpoint Avalanche, Turian explain that, were he in seat two, he'd, "just not take the white card. I'd take a black or green card, and if there weren't any good ones, I might take the other red card. Sometimes you have to draft the same color right behind someone. It's a little awkward, but it can work." Turian's teammate, Nick Eisel, has made a name for himself in the pro ranks as a hate-drafter, and as a result, many people are gunning for him. But Nick's 4-0 record seems to show that such shenanigans might not be as incorrect as other people paint them.
So maybe the unspoken rule of total cooperation is a little overstated in the pro ranks. Zvi disagrees. "Unlike booster draft, everything you pick is a signal, and the draft settles around it. You can't just switch colors if a good card lands in your lap. You can't do it."
This weekend will tell if Onslaught Rochester is a good format, or simply an exercise in politics and memorization. Will the top players be the ones that just fall into line and open the most Sparksmiths and Pit-Fighter Legends? Or will it be the ones that backstab at the right minute, abandon the familiar symbiotic relationships, and anger the rest of the table? We all know what the dogma is, but will it play out as such?