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Fantasy Football: Sun Tzu and the Art of Draft Strategy


Sun Tzu’s famous treatise on battle strategy, The Art of War, has been studied and applied by military leaders for hundreds of years. It offers sage advice, not on specific strategies, but instead on general philosophies to be applied when a leader finds himself (or herself) at war. With draft season upon us, we can look towards The Art of War for advice entering our drafts (snake or auction) this month.

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

All the popular platforms for fantasy football have their experts attached. These experts, in turn, create their personal rankings that in turn become the rankings used by draft clients. Inexperienced fantasy football players will fear to look like they’re doing something “wrong” and will often end up drafting within 5-10 picks of the top of the in-room draft board.

Use their error to your advantage.

I almost never look at website-specific rankings and never look at the specific rankings of one person. Some websites aggregate these rankings (hey, I’m not giving someone else free press!) and they are almost universally the best way to find steals and value picks in your draft. They will also let you know who is likely to be drafted too early out of fear of being “wrong.” In this way you know yourself, you see your enemies, and in the end, you will construct a strong squad at every turn of the draft.

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” 

Prepare, prepare, prepare. Read depth charts, follow beat writers on Twitter. Find out what you don’t know and learn it. Mock drafts are your friend. To this point, I have done countless dozens. In fact, I’m doing one right now while I write this. Don’t go into your mock draft with one set strategy, go into each draft with a different game plan. See what happens, study the permutations. Are players going earlier than you thought they would? Later? Are players you like falling? Use this to your advantage on draft day.

Don’t be the person who drafts the player on IR because you were unprepared. Don’t be the person reaching because you need a tight end when three or four other guys that will produce the same will be available three rounds later.

In live drafts, don’t be the person asking to borrow a cheat sheet.

“Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.” 

AND

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we can attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.” 

It’s almost like Sun Tzu knew about auction strategies when he wrote this. In a snake draft, it is easy to keep your intentions private. You don’t do anything until it is your turn to pick, then you masterfully pick your deep sleeper, and it goes on to the next person. In auction drafts, it goes a little differently.

For those who have not done an auction draft, instead of rotating picks, you rotate nominations. Who you nominate is key. Some people say to nominate people you have no interest in getting, some advocate nominating those you intend to get.

The truth lies in the middle. You need to mix it up, nominate a couple you don’t want, then a couple you do want. As soon as you’ve developed a pattern, switch it up. Personally, I like to nominate high-ticket players that I have no intention of drafting early, and then I start to switch it up. If someone catches on to you, you can get a steal.

Luckily, you can still bid on players that others nominate, so there is no risk to nominating even seemingly at random. The key is to make sure nobody keys in on who you want, preventing them from driving up the price on you.

“There is no instance of a nation benefiting from prolonged warfare.” 

One of the basic tenets of The Art of War that isn’t emphasized is the fact that warfare should be a last resort. This is expanded on by the quote above. If you’re going to war, be prepared to make sure it is a short one. If you get into a bidding war with another player, don’t do it in one-dollar increments, hoping for a deal. Immediately jump it up to $4 or $2 less than you are willing to pay for that player (depending on price). This has three advantages.

First, a “jump bid” can deter some people from continuing the bidding. Perfect, you got the player you wanted at a $4 value. If you had bid in $1 increments from the beginning, your opponent can become “pot-committed,” and they will bid you up. You may end up without the player you covet. If you do a jump bid, this may put a psychological block in their head, which may cause them to back off from a player on which they would otherwise continue bidding.

The second benefit is that you can counter-bid twice and still get the player at your value (assuming you dropped off $4 from your perceived value of the player). The first bid may be enough to get the other player to back off after your jump, showing you mean business. If the first bid doesn’t, the second bid should, nabbing you your player. If it doesn’t, then you get your third benefit of this strategy.

The third benefit of the jump bid is that if your rival for the player bids up again a third time, they will overpay. With two immediate counter-bids, you may even goad them into a mini-jump bid of $3-$5 to ensure they get the player, which causes them to think they won while overpaying for that player’s production.

“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.” 

In other words, zig while others zag. In fantasy sports, there tend to be “runs” at a position. Someone takes a wide receiver, then another, then another. Suddenly, people fear they will miss out on a quality player at that position, and you have a full-fledged run on your hands. You don’t want to be caught towards the end of a run, as runs tend to bleed through tiers, and you get a player at a tier lower than a person drafted three or four positions before. Instead, draft a quality player from another position where you are weak. If there is a wide receiver run in round three (there is), and you already have one, then maybe this is the time you pull the trigger on a second running back, or Aaron Rodgers, or Rob Gronkowski.

By zigging when others are zagging, you can avoid getting caught up in the wave of decreasingly valuable players while getting bargain deals in the process. Keep the meta-game in mind and be cognizant of runs. Avoid being at the tail end of a run at all costs.

And finally: “The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.”

If you have adequately prepared for the draft, utilizing these principles as outlined in The Art of War, then you should come out of the draft with one of the best squads with relative ease. A well-prepared drafter will do this without much effort. Prepare yourself, stay calm, and don’t get caught up in your draft. While it is only the first part of the battle, you should be able to nail it and make the war that much easier.


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Robert D. Cobb
Founder, Publisher and CEO of INSCMagazine. Works have appeared and featured in places such as Forbes, Huffington Post, ESPN and NBC Sports to name a few. Follow me on Twitter at @RobCobb_INSC, email me at [email protected]