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The Fantasy Manager’s Dilemma: Roster Building and Game Theory – Part 2

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. So, it’s quite a luxury that our closest friends often are our enemies in fantasy sports. Understanding their tendencies and preferences is the easiest way to get a leg up in your dynasty league.

By Blair Pierroz

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. So, it’s quite a luxury that our closest friends often are our enemies in fantasy sports. Understanding their tendencies and preferences is the easiest way to get a leg up in your dynasty league. 

The wise Herm Edwards once said, “You play to win the game.”

In the previous article, I discussed focusing on winning trades in every situation. Both Herm and I are going out on a limb with these gems of advice, I know. And while this sounds great in theory, it is much more challenging to achieve in practice. If it were that simple, I wouldn’t need to write another article. How can we go about completing a series of advantageous trades without making too many missteps along the way?

This is where game theory can be used to figure out the more subtle and subjective ways to win the game. There isn’t time to break down all game theory, but some knowledge can be gleaned that can be useful. Most importantly, you must assume that when negotiating a trade with an opponent, they will act rationally and in their best interests. Their objective is to improve their team in some capacity, the same as you. As with most game theory examples, the best results for both parties usually arise with some form of cooperation, but this is difficult to achieve. To reach this, your strategy should be adjusted based on the strategy and actions of your opponents. This means your strategy must be molded to fit your specific league. 

Misconception: When trading, find a partner who can fill your need.

There is a lot to be gained by viewing your opponents in a poker game. It is often said, “Play your opponents, not your cards.” Completing trades and improving your roster can be viewed in the same light. The difference here is that we are not trying to use our opponent’s preferences to defeat them, but to help them. The best results are reached when both parties can cooperate and trust each other. The optimal trade is one where both teams feel they have gotten the better side of the trade. This is subjective, so flexibility is a must. 

Most teams will be alright, giving a little more in exchange for filling a hole. Or a rebuilding team will be fine with giving away a useful veteran for a young prospect with upside. Find a way to profit, while also giving your opponent something in return. Seek these situations out, and then be willing to live with the results.

Poker has taught me not to be results-oriented. Going all-in with pocket aces against pocket kings is always the correct play. Even when a king comes on the river, and you lose everything, game theory states you still made the right play. We need to make the best decisions we can at the moment and adjust later if necessary. Trading for a player and then losing him to injury doesn’t mean we made a bad trade.

Conversely, giving away a risky prospect who ultimately breaks out isn’t a reason to stop trading. All it means is we are secret masochists who repeatedly embarrass ourselves in front of our closest friends playing a game of luck masquerading as a game of skill all in the name of fun. I promise I’m fine. 

You cannot be afraid to make moves that eventually flip and end up not being as good as you initially hoped. Take your profit, and run. I made two of these trades last year that were all but identical at the time, only to end up being quite different by the end of the year. 

In both cases, I stayed as active as I could on the waiver wire. When a quarterback went down, I bid for his backups with no intention of actually playing them. Twice I picked up an opponent’s backup and immediately offered the player and my third-round pick for their second-round pick. A small but meaningful profit that was all but free. They were quick to accept both cases because I was reasonable in my request, and it filled a need for them. Both teams were able to use the quarterback for a few weeks at a low price.

At the time, I had made a profit on both moves and was incredibly happy to get the improved capital. In retrospect, one of these trades was better than the other. One of those backups was David Blough on the Detroit Lions. I would never have used him in my lineup, and he only would have taken up a roster spot. Easy money. 

The other, however, was Teddy Bridgewater on the Saints. At the time, I figured he would fill in for a few games before being relegated to a backup role for the rest of his career. He ended up impressing, signing a three-year deal, and being worth far more than the upgrade from a third to a second in Superflex. But I can’t be results-oriented. This is a rarity, and at the time hanging onto him and hoping he played well enough to get a contract would have taken up a roster spot and probably resulted in me getting no value for him once he returned to the bench. 

I would make both of these trades again in a heartbeat. They were mutually beneficial, easy to execute, and resulted in a profit for me. Even if one of them could have eventually netted me more value, I cannot be upset. Everyone lives by the mantra “buy low and sell high,” and that is what I did. 

It is impossible to predict a player’s peak, so selling at their highest point is often exceedingly difficult. Worse yet, waiting for that peak can result in a missed opportunity. There is another saying in poker: “It is better to win a small pot than lose a big one.” Don’t get cute with your team. Stay disciplined and make moves that improve your team whenever you are able.

Mistake: Refusing to listen, not knowing your opponents, and being emotional.

Executing trades is a tricky business. Game theory states your opponents seek to act in their self-interest, so they will not just give away value in a deal if they are acting rationally. Your opponents probably know what they are doing, don’t insult their intelligence or think you can trick them. There are some negotiating strategies we need to use to help our case. It’s difficult to know what is best in a situation, and sometimes we need to settle for just knowing what to avoid. 

  1. When your opponent tells you something, for the love of God, listen. I have cut off so many trade talks because when I tell an opponent, they aren’t giving me enough in return, they keep arguing that they are or that the player they want is just sitting on my bench anyway. Assume they know what they are talking about and either adjust or acknowledge that a deal might not happen.
  2. Negotiate in good faith. Do not use misleading stats in trying to sway an opponent. I have had opponents quote the PPR stats of their WR and my RB when we play 0.5PPR. Their WR looks a lot better in that light, sure, but I am immediately turned off from further discussions. 
  3. Do not tell your opponent how they are winning the trade. This is so thinly veiled it should come with an NSFW tag. There are win-win scenarios, and you don’t need to just lie to their face. Never is anyone offering a deal they know they are losing.

It is difficult to trade, don’t make it harder on yourself. Your opponents will start to develop a perception toward each player as a trade partner. Being demanding or misleading just means they won’t deal with you in the future. And if you are consistently viewed as the team that “wins” trades, it is difficult to get deals done in the future. This is probably the most important reason not to be too greedy and seek out win-win scenarios. Regularly winning trades can have diminishing returns if you aren’t careful. 

Just as your opponents will start to develop a perception of you, you must begin to develop an accurate understanding of them. In poker, there is a two by two matrix to define the four main types of players. There are two variables to consider: The number of starting hands a player plays and how aggressive their betting patterns are. Generally speaking, the best strategy is to be tight and aggressive (TAG). You are not playing a ton of hands, sticking mostly to the best hands with a few bluffs thrown in for good measure. When you do have a good hand, you bet and don’t try to get too cute. 

How would you classify your opponents? Do they rarely trade? When they do trade, do they only do so if they are getting more value than they should? Are they constantly trading just for fun, even if they don’t get much value? Are they always seeking out value, willing to trade any player but only at the right price? How would you classify yourself? 

Like poker, I would argue the optimal trade strategy is to be TAG, but in reverse. You are aggressive in seeking out several trades, but you should always be getting a good value. Don’t make moves just to make them. 

Finally, don’t get emotional. Don’t overvalue your players because you have become attached to them. I hate to break it to you, but you don’t own these players. You haven’t had a say in their development because you always knew they would end up being a star ever since you grabbed them in the second round. Despite how many times I’ve tried, I can’t get them to run faster if I just yell at my TV louder.

They are just pieces in a game. But your opponents might not agree with me. The most straightforward part of advice is to figure out each of your opponents’ favorite teams. I am a 49ers fan, and actually, actively avoid rostering them if I can help it. Fantasy has already completely warped my perception of the NFL, and I try to keep my team out of it. But most people prefer to have their favorite team’s players on their team. Knowing this small bit of information can help extract just a little more value.

A lesser-known phenomenon is known as the Wisdom of the Crowd. Simply put, humans as a collective are better at figuring things out than individuals. For example, if someone asks you to guess how many jellybeans are in a large jar, the best strategy is to wait until the end and take the median value of everyone who has guessed before you. No one individual has a very high chance of guessing the total, but we can get very close as a group. 

With this in mind, I would warn against deviating too far from ECR. No one expert will be able to make a perfect prediction about player performance, and our best bet is just to take the collective opinion. Now, this is far from perfect, and mistakes are going to happen. If you went somewhat against the grain last year and took Godwin in the middle rounds, your reward was tremendous. But he was also being hyped before the season, flying up draft boards. More importantly, for every one Godwin, there are probably five Dante Pettis types that were just as hyped and flamed out just as impressively. These high-risk, high reward plays are just that, risky. 

Avoid getting too cute with your predictions and trades. You can gamble and win, but if you are always trying to skirt the consensus, more likely than not, you are going to get burned. Find opponents who are higher on your players than most and sell for a profit. It is the accumulation of many small pots that is the most effective strategy, not going all-in every hand and hoping to get lucky. Remember, it is better to win a small pot than lose a big one.

Mistake: Not understanding the overall league market

This idea has nothing to do with poker but does call back the ideas of stock trading and market economies. Not all positions are valued equally, and not all values are consistent amongst all opponents. In my Superflex league, WRs and TEs tend to be less sought after than QBs and RBs. In TE premium, TE’s values are going to go way up. In standard scoring, QBs’ values are going to go way down. Scoring and league perception will mean you will need to study all trades made to find an overall value for each position.

Fortunately, humans are social creatures. We love telling people what we think, especially if they are our friends, and we have an opportunity to mock them. If someone makes a bad trade, you better believe they will hear about it in the chat. Study this. Who thinks they lost the trade, and why? Does everyone agree? Some teams may make fun of a team just to do it, but try to figure it out. Use the information available to you to determine how your opponents value specific players and positions.

Use this information to find pockets of value. If most of the league is set at WR and offers to trade them, find the one team that needs WR. There was one trade this offseason I was most disappointed I wasn’t able to complete, and it was one that the trade calculator I use said I was losing. 

I offered Juju and Darius Slayton for Nick Chubb to a team that needed WRs. The calculator said Juju alone was enough value, and I was losing by adding a high upside prospect on top of that. But in my league, WR is incredibly deep, and RBs come at a premium. My plan was not to roster Chubb but to trade him to another team for an even better WR than Juju. He was in desperate need of RB and had plenty of good WRs to give up. I was attempting to think a few steps ahead, understanding the market, and knowing where I could get the most value. 

This is why constant negotiations are so important. Not only are you always available should a move become possible, but you are at least gathering information along the way. I would even suggest keeping notes on your opponents if you want to be especially proactive. Knowing each teams’ needs allows you the opportunity to get creative and string these trades together. 

We are trying to stay as active as possible, using our opponents’ strategies against them. Knowing their tendencies and staying flexible are the first steps to winning trades. In the final installment of the series, I will discuss what I think is the best way to complete as many of these advantageous trades as possible. This method involved using draft picks, but perhaps not in the way you would think. Staying liquid is the key to dynasty success, be sure to come back for the next one to find out why. Until then, stay safe, and don’t get too cute.

Blair Pierroz – Dynasty/Strategy
Ride or Dynasty

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