And welcome back to The Mercato, a long-form series for Talking League. Readers would have noted that all my pieces for Talking League have had a focus on the classic format. That changes today, as this article will be part of the three-part #MiniMercatoSeries on NRL Fantasy draft.
The main reason that I have steered away from draft content is that it is it difficult to write. In classic format, every player has the potential to acquire any player in the game and therefore is relevant to the reader. Whereas in draft, every player is unique and is only relevant if the player is on the trade block or free agency. Each league is unique due to the different rules, league size and squad structure rules. So, what inspired the exploration of NRL Fantasy Draft?
Well in true rugby league style, I have to give full credit to the boys. And that credit goes to my brothers in The Fantasy Showdown, a 10-team NRL Fantasy Dynasty league that is having its inaugural season in 2024. The league is blend of NRL Fantasy tragics (such as yours truly), experienced campaigners in NFL and/or NBA draft as well as some newcomers to the fantasy scene. With a blend of experiences, I found myself putting a guide together explaining the basics of the draft format; to ensure we all start from a relatively even platform. The topics covered in the guide form the framework of this mini-series.
As for the The Fantasy Showdown, it will feature in The Mercato from time to time during the 2024 season. We’ve just about completed our constitution, which is an absolute necessity for any draft league that has some off-platform activity. The next hardest task is making sure all the boys stay in the good books with their significant others, given our draft day is likely to be proxime to Valentine’s Day.
Why do we love draft?
Draft is arguably the most authentic format of Fantasy Sports across the globe. In the US (where draft is prominent), fantasy draft is often the glue in friend groups during and after school/college, as well as in the workplace. Given Fantasy sports (especially NRL) are nowhere near as prominent in Australia as they are overseas, NRL Fantasy draft probably doesn’t get the love and attention it needs.
For me, Draft format tessellates perfectly with the classic format. In classic, your squad construction is based around identifying and acquiring players with “value”. By “value”, we are referring to the player having the ability to appreciate in price; whether that be their starting price or their purchase price during the season. With such a focus on value, it leaves little room for sentiment to select your favourite players from your NRL team.
In draft there are no player prices, which means the value equation is much more fluid and fun. A player who is priced close to their projected average for the upcoming season can be a superb option in draft. In classic, that same player may be “irrelevant” as they may not aid your quest to rapidly increase your starting squad value. For example, as a Cowboys fan you may love Ben Hunt (too soon?) but have no interest in paying $696k for a player who is likely to stay stagnant in price. In draft, you can pick him up and cheer on one of your beloved Queenslanders as he puts on some nice tries each week for the Red V.
For the trade-aholics amongst us, draft format helps scratch that itch as there is no limits on the amount of moves you can make during the season. Want to dump a CTR in the free agents after a single-digit score with 7 missed tackles? Go for gold! Want to move a bench player on because they have a bye the week you need them to deputise? Fill your boots! In draft, you are under no obligation to retain the squad you started with, although you want to be mindful of your league’s Restricted Free Agent (RFA) rules.
Being a great commissioner
There are number of different rules that can be applied to your draft league. If you happen to be the commissioner of your draft league/s, making sensible choices with the rules and settings is paramount to an enjoyable draft experience for all.
The Tailored Settings
The most notable rule is the team set-up, which can take one of five options:
Squad A – 17 players (default): 13 scoring players, 4 bench players (1-3-2-2-2-3/4)
Squad B – 17 players (alternate): 9 scoring players, 8 bench players (1-2-2-1-1-2/8)
Squad C – 14 players: 9 scoring players, 5 on bench (1-2-2-1-1-2/5)
Squad D – 12 players: 6 scoring players, 6 on bench (1-1-1-1-1-1/6)
Squad E – 25 players: 13 scoring players, 12 on bench (1-3-2-2-2-3/12)
Most leagues will roll with the traditional format of Squad A, which is a safe bet for your standard 8-10 team league. With a league this size, a 17-round draft will require 136-170 picks and take about an hour, leaving a fair supply of Free Agents to acquire after the draft. Retaining 13 scoring players like a major bye round in classic format just feels a bit more authentic. Personally, I would only be exploring methods B, C or D when I have a large number of coaches (12-16) and E when I have a small amount of coaches (4-6).
After the team set-up rule, the next rule with major importance is the Finals scheduling. With restings aplenty in round 27, you want to avoid having your Grand Final in this round unless you want to upset your entire league. Given what we saw in 2023, you may want to even avoid having finals decided in round 26.
In the settings, you decide the round when the finals series starts. The number of weeks that the finals series will take is outlined in 7.1 of the Classic Guidelines:
“The default H2H league finals series format is the same as the NRL finals structure, meaning an eight(8)-team series over four weeks. For leagues of 16-plus players there will be a top 8 and bottom 8 finals series. Smaller leagues will not have a finals series for those finishing outside of the top X teams (where X is the number of teams set by the league administrator).
Other finals series options are a top 6 and top 4. For a top 4 series the structure of the finals will be semis in week 1 (1v4 and 2v3) and a final (winners of semis). A top 6 series will be played over three weeks as follows; week 1 (bye for teams 1 & 2, 3v6 & 4v5), week 2 (teams 1 & 2 play winners from week 1), week 3 (week 2 winners play).”
If you would like your Grand Final to be in round 25 (to avoid rounds 26 and 27), you would schedule the finals series to start in the following rounds:
8-team finals: Round 22
6-team finals: Round 23
4-team finals: Round 24
2-team finals: Round 25
The draft time is also an important setting, as if your draft time elapses the league will commence drafting once the league is full. Until you set the league up properly, set the draft date at a later time (it can be changed later). Ideally, you arrange a time with all the coaches to be available at the same time to enable a live and competitive draft. For the 2024 season, live drafts can start from Thursday 1 February.
The Base Settings
The remaining settings probably don’t have as large of an impact on the draft, but are nonetheless still important:
Play opponents: in most scenarios you will leave this flexible unless you want an exact match of opponents played. Work in conjunction with the “bye rounds” setting; if bye rounds are “on”, leave as “flexible” otherwise use “once” or “twice”.
Bye rounds: As mentioned above, pair it with the “play opponents” slider. The Bye rounds in question are the major bye rounds (13, 16 and 19).
Draft type: Go live, all day every day.
Draft order: unless you’re going dynasty, snake is the fairest way to play.
Draft turn time: No more than 60 seconds, unless you have a lot of time to kill.
Captains: if there’s more than 4 teams in the league, this setting needs to be “off” for competitive balance.
Emergencies: keep it on, reward good planning.
Rolling lockout: keep it on, reward those with their eyes on the pulse.
Restricted Free Agents (RFA): keep it on, reward those who don’t rush into RFA acquisitions.
RFA Time Period: go one day, as any late lockout lifts may cause the RFA period to go into the next round.
RFA Order Policy: “Reverse Ladder Order” is my preference, as it rewards those who don’t rush into RFA acquisitions and may also give them some trade leverage.
RFA Privacy: keep it “Private”, rewards those with their eyes on the pulse and prevents coaches putting in frivolous RFA bids.
Trade Approval Options: “Free for all” if all the coaches are known, otherwise move towards “league approved”.
And that wraps up part one of this three-part Draft #MercatoMiniSeries. Be sure to check out part two, where I go through building up to and preparing for draft day and part three where I go through how to navigate draft day and beyond.
The draft content will continue on Talking League, as Pat and I will go through all things draft in our Draft Special podcast. Plus of course, we’ll be holding the second edition of our famous Talking League Live draft! Held in February, the Talking League draft will be available to watch live on Facebook and on-demand in podcast format. Enjoy the content, and happy drafting!
UPDATE: a spreadsheet of players for draft preparation was requested to help coaches prepare for their drafts. The spreadsheet can be found below.