Galaxy Brain Strategies for Playoff Best Ball

by Jakob Sanderson · Strategy
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After countless hours of writing, plotting, and drafting, the 2021 regular season of best ball comes to a close next week. I hope you have rooting interests alive in the finals!

If one thing has been made clear from 2021, it’s that no degree of player selection edge can guarantee you results in large field tournaments. The four running backs most advanced in pool play of best ball tournaments were Jonathan Taylor, Leonard Fournette, Austin Ekeler, and James Conner. In the semi-final week, those four combined for 10.8 fantasy points. Chaos is inevitable.

In my summer best ball series, I discussed the importance of building for ceiling, including contingent value rather than median, and ways to manifest that in your drafts. Two of my favourite late round picks – Justin Jackson and Rashaad Penny – came alive when needed most, out-pacing Jonathan Taylor and Saquon Barkley as the highest scoring running backs on my Puppy II finalist team. Now imagine the Chargers made a run to the Super Bowl and Austin Ekeler is out once again. Could Justin Jackson reprise his league winning performance? Not if he goes un-drafted in literally every playoff best ball draft. Whatever the most unforeseeable league winning scenario is, I aim to find it in this article.

In last week’s piece, I laid out general strategy for playoff best ball drafts (below). This piece is all about getting wild, wacky, and outside the box. Let me know what you think. And bring me your most galaxy brained strategies to take down the gauntlet or any other playoff tournament!

Solving the Gauntlet: Top Strategy Tips for Playoff Best Ball

How Playoff Best Ball Tournaments Work: A Reminder

Underdog’s The Gauntlet consists of four rounds. Each of the first two have roughly one-in-six advancement odds; with a one-in-fifteen conference championship round and a final 94 team play down for the grand prize. Your team is 10 players deep. Each week you start one quarterback, one running back, two pass catchers (WR/TE) and a flex. There are several other tournaments such as The Mitten, in which your advance odds are better in round one before narrowing by round two.

Similar to off-season best ball tournaments, the prize pool is extremely top heavy; with 20-percent of the money going to first place and over half awarded in the Super Bowl week. Essentially, in order to make positive expected value lineups, you have to prioritize your equity to make the Super Bowl. And you need to be live to win it all once there.

A General Strategy: Embrace Chaos-19

The pandemic and its fast-spreading omicron variant are a part of fantasy football strategy. You cannot wish it away. I discussed last week the incentives to draft backup running backs like Darrel Williams early in case the starter gets hurt pre-playoffs. The same notion should apply in the case of COVID preparation. The final round of playoff tournaments is sure to be congested. Because those who advance are the most likely to have stacked the teams playing in the Super Bowl, there are only so many combinations available and plenty of stacks will be duplicated.

The best way to cut through the field like a hot knife through butter is by unlocking a unique player with sky-high upside. When assessing your last selections, in particular from teams such as the Chiefs, Buccaneers, or Packers, of which the entrenched skill players are selected early, prioritize contingent value. Essentially, if a player at their position gets COVID, who is most likely to benefit? How great is that benefit? In general, this means prioritizing any backup running back – the position in which touches are least earned and most correlated to fantasy value. One of my favourite un-drafted running backs now is Cincinnati’s Samaje Perine.

But just for fun let’s discuss a few non-running backs to consider;

Trey Lance: The 49ers quarterback will likely make his second start Sunday. What if he wins the last two games to secure the 49ers into the playoffs? Would Kyle Shanahan really turn away from the man he mortgaged his future for? The highest upside version of this team is with Lance unlocking a newfound ceiling; providing elite fantasy production on the ground as San Francisco challenges for a title.

Mitchell Trubisky: The second-best backup quarterback in the playoffs pilots a potential favourite in the AFC. If Josh Allen contracts COVID-19 in the week before the Super Bowl, it’s possible over half the field won’t have a quarterback to play in the final round. Your Trubisky selection could single-handedly win you the tournament.

Ben Skowronek: The Rams rotate wide receivers less than any team in the league. This leaves Skowronek the likely recipient of a near 100-percent route share if any of the Rams three starters don’t play. In a small sample, the seventh-round rookie has actually commanded a 25-percent Target Rate, teasing legitimate contingent upside.

In terms of uniqueness, the straightest path is selecting multiple players from a team with low playoff odds. However, given the uncertainty regarding player availability, focusing on contingent value from top contenders is another.

Running the Numbers

Generating positive EV (expected value) stacks is not as simple as the raw number of players from each team. On the extreme end, if you are taking only two teams, you need not place as much emphasis on roster construction. If you hit on the correct Super Bowl and advance both teams, you have countless opportunities to hit the optimal combination of players in the final. Since this is  the most obvious strategy, let’s run the numbers to determine a base level advance rate.

This team has two main barriers to a win condition;

1. Hitting on the Correct Super Bowl Combatants

2. Advancing Your Team Far Enough for your Correlation Edge to Manifest

The first is simple to estimate. Five-thirty-eight posts updated Super Bowl odds, which provide a useful base. Not including teams favoured for a bye (nearly impossible to employ for a five-five two team stack), the next six most likely Super Bowl contenders have collectively an average of 6.83-percent Super Bowl odds. We can infer their odds of reaching the Super Bowl to be roughly 13-15-percent.

To correctly predict both teams in the Super Bowl is thus a roughly 1 in 50 shot (0.14 x 0.14=0.0196). Of course, if you can reduce your odds in an eight-figure entry tournament to 50:1, you do it every time. So what are the remaining obstacles?

The Importance of Contest Selection

In Round 1, this type of team faces its largest challenge. The later the playoffs go, the more your correlation works in your favour. An entry focused on only two teams is more likely to advance its entire team to each subsequent round than a more spread out roster. Especially as other entries’ teams being to face off in the playoffs. In Round 1, however, this team faces an uphill battle. The odds each individual player selected hits its ceiling alongside the rest of your lineup in a given week diminishes as you over-saturate a roster. As well, the tertiary and quaternary options on your contending teams will project much worse than possible studs available late in drafts on teams with low super bowl odds.

This team construction is quite boom/bust and faces the highest risk of exit early. But should you advance it to the Super Bowl with the correct combination, your odds dwarf any other construction. For this reason, it is critical to consider your contest rules. In The Gauntlet, just one in six advance from Round 1 while in The Mitten, two of six move on. The lower-percentile outcome you need to hit in Round 1, the less your over-correlation hurts. And the better odds you have to advance deep.

The trade off with each alternate build to the five-five is increasing your odds of advancing five-plus starters to the Super Bowl while decreasing your odds of winning once there by reducing your outs to the optimal combination of players in the big game.

Odds of ‘Live Advancement’ By Structure

Below is a very weird looking table full of numbers. In the left side are the current odds of Super Bowl advancement from each seeds 1-7 in both conferences. The bottom portion displays the combined advancement odds of each combination of team; with the header serving as the conditional team in each column. For instance, AFC1 shows the odds of each Super Bowl combination featuring the Chiefs. Because the standings are likely to fluctuate, I formatted the table by seed rather than team,. The baseline odds will remain fairly stable.

The top right portion shows the base advance rate of each team at each stage of The Mitten.

There are two immediate takeaways from this chart – adapted from the base of fivethirtyeight’s odds. First, the teams with byes are just so much more likely to advance to the Super Bowl. Your odds of a Packers-Chiefs Super Bowl are over five times as likely as any combination of non-bye teams. This is the strongest indictment of the five-five stack and creates the largest tension in playoff best ball. Drafting the most players from the teams with byes is your most live win condition, but places you at highest risk of losing in Round 1.

Why Eating the Round 1 Risk may be Worth It

It’s admittedly fun to maximize your sweat by advancing as many teams as possible. However, this may not the most +EV approach. As discussed last time, the bulk of your EV is stored in the top placements of the final round. Thus, there is little inherent benefit to ‘advancement’ equity that sacrifices win equity.

If a roster built around Packers and Chiefs is six times more likely or more to hit the Super Bowl winners, the advancement equity out of Round 1 would have to be at least six times worse from such an entry for the overall odds to be mitigated. As estimated last week, as we draw closer to seeds being made official, I am moving more strongly in favour of stacking the one-seeds and eating the bye.

In general, I would rather reduce my odds at the stage where base advancement is one in three – and where I have most control of my lineup – than do so at the latter stages. There are also three other incentives to stack Chiefs and Packers in your lineup.

Due to early ADPs and fear of early elimination, the Chiefs and Packers will be the least commonly paired combination of teams with high Super Bowl odds despite having the best odds.

The increased likelihood of early elimination from Packers-Chiefs stacks means most of your direct competition should your combination reach the Super Bowl is eliminated before the game ever occurs.

Due to roster constraints, you have virtually no risk any competitor will have a larger than five player game stack in a Chiefs-Packers Super Bowl.

The Packers-Chiefs lineup is like the siege of Blackwater Bay in Game of Thrones. You are assured a high amount of casualties. But any lucky troops you squeeze past the fray will have fantastic odds of seizing the castle.

In the rest of this article, I will outline a few strategies. Each is largely built around the one-seeds which aim to mitigate your Round 1 risk and/or increase your upside.

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Galaxy-Brained Strategies Ready For Lift-Off

WARNING: Each of these strategies are intentionally creative, but will most likely result in your team being dead on arrival. However, since most teams are dead on arrival anyhow, I encourage you to give them some thought! Note: Any and all strategies featuring a stack of teams on bye requires you to select a quarterback of a non-bye team.

1. The Bye-Five

This is not for the faint of heart, and it’s almost certainly -EV. Here you replicate the five-five all-in super bowl stack but use one of the 1-seeds instead. In this case you are reliant entirely on one team to carry you through Round 1. On the plus side, if you somehow survive, you are now assured 10 players advanced to Round 2 and strong relative odds in each subsequent round. You can also modify this approach by converting your team allocation from a full 5*-5 to a 4*-4-1-1 or 4*-4-2 which gives you slightly more breathing room in the opening round without major sacrifices to your win condition.

The goal in any of these cases is to simplify your advancement condition in each later round, while increasing your odds at hitting the correct Super Bowl combination. You also get the added benefit that few lineups will be able to match your firepower should you reach the Super Bowl, owing to the high-risk nature of it in Round 1.

2. The Criss-Cross

If the previous strategy had the most immediate risk, the next is the most robust. This strategy requires a precise set of steps and is difficult to properly pull off.

Select two Quarterbacks from teams in one conference.

Select at least three running backs; each from a different team.

Ensure between your Quarterbacks and Running Backs that four separate teams are accounted for.

Ensure your WR/TEs and Running Backs cumulatively comprise eight players, with two each from four teams.

Following these four rules will guarantee your team has four plausible combinations of Super Bowl matchups involving at least five of your players. Because your quarterbacks are from the same conference (essential), you guarantee one team’s quarterback, plus two Flex players from each Super Bowl combatant. The downside, of course, is that you can’t have any combination higher than five.

In this sense, this strategy is robust in a sense; maximizing combinations of Super Bowl matchups, but is also fragile and sensitive to injuries come Super Bowl. I only recommend this strategy if you are using one or both one-seeds. If you use non-bye week teams, you are far too prone to being out-gunned in the final if your Super Bowl matchup hits. However, if you use both bye teams and it hits, there is no such fear. It is impossible for any entry to build a Super Bowl game stack above five players of both one-seeds without starting an incomplete lineup Round 1. Few will attempt this and few will survive.

3. Cover Your Bases

This strategy involves drafting at least four players from one team, and then taking a smattering of options from the other conference to create several plausible Super Bowl matchups live for your entry. Ideally, by scaling your picks in the opposite conference from contenders early to long shots late you can generate highly-projected Round 1 options across the board.

There are two ways to incorporate attacking the bye-week teams into this strategy. The lower-immediate-risk (and likely more popular) approach is taking two early players from a bye-week team, then building a stack in mid-rounds of a mid-tier contender, followed by pairs of late round options. In this approach you can blend tertiary options from an elite team with primary options from a long shot. Because the NFC is the more consolidate conference with Super Bowl odds packed between the top four teams, I prefer this method with the Cowboys, Rams, or Buccaneers, and using the AFC for my smaller-investment dart throws. The ADP aligns best with Dallas who has been my most drafted team thus far.

The higher-immediate-risk option is to pursue an all-out stack of a bye week team early on, followed by a smattering of players from the opposite conference later. Because your advancement equity really only depends on one conference’s results, you are free to seek out as much immediate upside as possible under this approach. Even if you lose players early, this is by design, so chase those Week 1 points. I’ve gone as extreme as 4*-1*-1-1-1-1-1, although 4*-2-2-2 remains my favourite. This approach is likely the most conservative in terms of advancement, but also carries the lowest win equity in the Super Bowl, as it’s possible you are drawing thinner than teams who stacked deeper on the opposing team.

4. The Game-Stack

Ok, this one is my nominee for ‘most likely to be dumb’ but hear me out. In this scenario I’m taking 4-5 players from a bye week team while designating all or most of my remaining slots to game stacking a Round 1 contest (this is not really workable intentionally until two weeks from now).

While I am resigning myself to two-three lost players, I have built in protection by assuring my bye-week team and the surviving member of the game stack all move on. As well, I’m  counter-acting my lack of firepower in Round 1 with correlation. Once matchups are announced, find a high total game and stack it up at all positions. If the game shoots out you have likely earned back your downside risk from early elimination. Your median result in terms of players advanced is no different than most other discussed strategies even if the ceiling figure is lower.

The Final Word

Have fun drafting your playoff best ball teams! This is a turbulent and exciting format and a great avenue to try new ideas. Sometimes there are hidden edges to counter-intuitive strategies, and sometimes the edge is found inherently in its uniqueness!