Drafting tips for newcomers to drafting

Ahead of this weekend’s release of Modern Masters 2017, I’ve been asked to write an explanatory article of what drafting is and how to navigate the draft portion itself. This won’t help you master the new format – I’ve still not a clue how that’s going to shape up – but will aim to at least clue you in on what it’s all about. Get ready to open your first pack…

This will be split into two key sections: Firstly, we’ll look at exactly what a draft is comprised of, including a few basic tips regarding structure of a deck and management of your picks. Secondly we’ll take a look at some of the key components of successful draft decks and go over some decision points you’ll find yourself making during an actual draft. This won’t make you an expert drafter (that would require an expert drafter to be writing this, for a start) but instead aims to at least orient you enough in the drafting format as to eliminate much of the confusion and mystery typical for newcomers to the draft experience. Draft, draft draft draft. Draft?

What is a draft?

The draft format is the most dynamic, skill-testing and, above all else, fun format in Magic: the Gathering. Each player gets three packs and joins the event in, ideally, pods of exactly eight players. More or less players can be in any one pod, but different numbers screw with the logistics of a draft. We’ll be assuming  full pods of eight for this article.

You will be attempting to assemble a 40-card deck, including about 17-18 lands in a typical 2-3 colour draft deck. Basic lands do not need to be drafted; there will be a ‘land box’ available to pull your basics from. You can play the basics you draft, of course. All ‘fancy lands’, such as dual lands and Evolving Wilds-style lands, must be drafted. The astute reader will already have realised that, with three packs worth of cards and 17-ish lands, you’ll be looking for about 23 spells to be drafted out of 45 cards – the excess picks will comprise your sideboard which is not limited to the 15 cards of a constructed sideboard. That’s not to say you only want to take 23 cards in your colours and the rest won’t be looked at again – you’ll be picking a pool of potential cards with which to form a deck as well as sideboarding options.

The players sit around a table and, together, open their first pack. The first thing to do is remove the token or promotional insert at the back of the pack, as these won’t be drafted, but all other cards, including basic lands or foil cards, remain in the pack. Sometimes drafters will remove the basic land by agreement of the table, but this won’t be relevant in MM2017 as there won’t be a basic land in these packs, each one replaced instead by a foil.

Each player takes a card from that first pack (their ‘pick’), places it face-down in front of them and, in pack one, passes the rest of the pack to the player on their left. That’s correct: you surrender all but one card of the pack you open. Of course, everyone else is doing this also, and you will immediately recieve the pack, minus one card, opened by the player to your right. Each player continues to make one pick from the pack they’ve been handed, adding it to their face-down pile, before passing that pack on to their left. You don’t get to look at those face-down cards whilst a pack is being drafted, so trying to keep track of what you’ve got so far can be a bit challenging, but you will get to check in on them at the end of the pack. This process continues for the entire pack and, as the packs make their way around the table, you will eventually get your first pack back, which should at this point have seven cards remaining. This means that each pack makes it around the table for almost, but not quite, two complete rotations. Eventually everyone will have taken their picks until pack one is depleted, and each player should now have fifteen cards each, face down in a single pile.

There will now be a brief review period where you get a chance to look at your picks and see how your proto-deck is shaping up. Here’s where you get to see how on-colour you are, how your mana curve looks, and what your creature/non-creature mix is like. The general rule of limited magic is that creatures win games, so you’ll be looking for roughly 15-18 creatures and 5-8 non-creature spells by the end of a draft, in a ‘typical’ deck. As such, it’s quite important to take note of how these numbers are shaping up after packs one and two so that you can make corrections to the priorities of what you’re picking before it’s too late.

It’s now time to open pack two, and this will be just like pack one, except for one rather important difference – this time, and for this entire pack, you’ll be passing to the player on your right, which means you’ll be receiving from the player you were previously passing to, from your left. Again, this affects the whole table and for the entire pack. Ready? Draft! Don’t worry if, out of habit, you pass the pack to your left initially. This will normally be realised immediately and even experienced drafters make this mistake on occasion. Try not to do it, though! It can cause some issues if a couple of players make the same mistake and pick their cards faster than players further up the chain though, should this happen, the mistake is easily rectified by returning the top card of your pick pile to the pack it just came from and reversing the direction of the pack.

The single biggest thing to avoid at this time is inadvertently passing the wrong pile of cards! It happens every now and again that a player accidentally picks up and passes their draft deck instead of the pack they’re drafting. It’s almost impossible to correct this if it isn’t spotted immediately. For anyone who has ever sat around the draft table with me wondering why I sleeve my picks immediately – now you know.

At the end of pack two, you’ll have another – slightly longer – review period. Your deck should be taking shape now, with a clear colour combination, hopefully a few really good creatures and a couple of solid removal or other key non-creature spells, and ideally, a smooth mana curve with not too many 5+ converted mana cost spells (hereafter CMC), but neither too few, and not too many one-drops. A reasonable number of two-drop creatures is usually a sound approach to limited decks, with the 3-4 CMC slots where the real action will take place.

Pack three, we’re back to passing to the left. Again, the same process is followed. In pack three you’ll be looking to fill out your deck with key spells at the necessary CMC. It’s often in pack three where quite bonkers cards end up circling the table as they no longer fit people’s decks – here’s where, if you’ve chosen the correct colours and found an open deck archetype, key spells may just come to you. It’s also where, if you’ve judged the rhythm of a draft incorrectly, your deck may fall apart or end up loking somewhat anaemic. It’s near inevitable that this will happen to one or two players at the table, regardless of experience. In the next section, I’ll try to help you minimize the risk of it happening to you.

So, at the end of pack three, we should have 45 cards each, and now a period of about 30 minutes to build the deck out of your pile, grab some basic lands, sleeve the deck, and shuffle it into infinity. Shuffling cannot be understated here – you’ve just slammed about 17 lands, hopefully of two-ish colours, into a deck you’ve probably sorted by CMC and into creature/non-creature spells during the build process. Shuffle. Very. Well.

How to build and play Limited – A crash course

The normal ‘correct’ approach to drafting is, in pack 1, to ‘stay open’ – that is, not to get married to the colours of, or be determined to play your first few picks, but instead to simply pick the best card in each of the first few packs you’re passed. Once your first pack has ‘tabled’ – returned to you after everyone has taken their first pick from the pack – you can start to see which decent cards, and in what colours, have made it round the table. This shows the first hints of what colours, which archetypes and which strategies may be ‘open’, which is to say available as the draft goes on. There’s no guarantee that this will work out at this stage, but by staying open, you reduce the risk of ending up in overdrafted colours, potentially being ‘cut’ by your neighbours. If, instead, you’ve gone all-in on your first pick, regardless of it’s power level, you may find yourself ‘forcing’ colours which just aren’t there for you to build a solid deck around. You may get some payoff in pack two as the players you’ve been cutting hand you a few good on-colour cards for the first few picks, but these will quickly dry up , and then pack three, where you really need to solidify and round out your deck, will be just miserable.

There is some merit in Modern Masters 2017 of going all-in if your first pick is followed up and supported by strong cards in the next few packs, but be prepared to abandon ship if there are suddenly few decent cards coming your way for your chosen strategy after that point. Four good cards do not a good deck make, and all you’ll have managed to do is to have cut your immediate neighbours to the left from that same strategy while hedging them into what may prove to be the next-best thing coming down the line to you, meaning that in pack two, if you haven’t read these drafting ‘signals’ correctly and switched deck, you may be in for a difficult time. Be wary of first-picking gold cards, as these immediately hedge you into certain colour combos which the table simply doesn’t support.

One key thing to look out for here is a sudden run of fairly solid cards in any given colour being passed to you late on in the first pack. This is usually a sign that a given colour is open and, if you pick up on this and jump on it quickly enough, you’ll normally be rewarded throughout packs two and three by getting first option on some great cards, upping the power level of your deck considerably and allowing you to form a game-winning plan ahead of those still durdling around trying to figure out what deck they’re drafting and how it’s going to work.

The worst thing I ever hear a player say at the end of a draft, and which I once said myself in my early days, is this: ‘wow, every pick was on-colour!’ – the exclamation is important, by the way. In maybe 2-3% of cases, this means someone has built a bonkers-good deck. In every other case, it probably means that player has wasted a LOT of important picks on mediocre or just plain bad cards. Colour-bias is often an unfortunate but overcomeable mentality to carry in constructed Magic; in limited formats, it becomes  a serious problem. How this translates is difficult to express as every draft pod runs differently and is very dynamic within itself; it’s not to say you won’t neccessarily have fun with your deck, and that is the important thing, but the player who can see the line between playing fun cards and doing well in the draft is far more likely to have an enjoyable and, importantly, successful time in the actual draft tournament.

Mana fixing is very important in limited; whilst you don’t want to take land over a higher-rarity card which absolutely fits your deck, the longer you leave it the less fixing will be available, and if you leave it too late you’ll have a tougher time getting your eventual deck to run smoothly. The Guildgates, tri-lands and Signets are all quite relevant picks in this format, the urgency of you picking them will depend on how your deck is shaping up. In a particularly bad pack for you, they can often be the overwhelmingly correct pick. First picking one of the five ‘Fetches’ is probably not a good reason to go into those colours, however!

Now, on that note, and as we’re looking at a Masters set here, there’s an important abberation to normal drafting procedures to observe. While ‘money-drafting’ – the process of taking valuable cards for your binder or constructed deck over cards you’ll actually play or are particularly good picks in a draft – happens often in normal limited environments, in Modern Masters 2017 this is going to be rampant. I can’t say it’s wrong to do this as the price of entry is significantly higher than in a regular draft, and many of the cards in this set are absolutely nuts in Modern regardless of rarity, but this will disrupt the drafting environment. If I open a Misty Rainforest of Liliana of the Veil in pack 3, I’ll be taking it, even if there’s a Tandem Lookout or Kor Skyfisher absolutely begging to jump into my deck. So please, take this factor into account for all that follows. Importantly though, as a general rule: realise that Rares aren’t by default better than Commons and Uncommons, and that many of them only support a specific deck which may or may not be draftable.

Probably the most important thing to take into consideration whilst making picks is each card’s CMC. If you take 4 or 5 ‘awesome’ 6+drops, you need to realise that there are very few decks which will be capable of running efficiently with that high a curve, and so you’ve probably just made a few dead picks. Unless a card is the absolute best at what it does and fits into your deck, you need to think carefully about the high-cost cards, particularly early on, as the common and uncommon cards of these costs will often be available as later picks in later packs, and higher rarity does not always mean a better card for your deck. Often, the premium 2-drop may be the correct choice, as any limited deck will both need and want, to a point, as many hyper-efficient low costing creatures or removal spells as you can draft. You also want cards that affect the board state (recently adopting the acronym of CABS) over fancy, but ultimately game-losing ‘do nothing’ enchantments and their ilk. That said, there aren’t many of those in this set, with even normally quite mediocre cards filling a role in the decks they’re best picked for. That noted, the Vampire Nighthawks, Burning-Tree Emmissaries and Flickerwisps in these packs will be drafted and drying up a lost faster than the Ogre Jailbreakers and Fists of Ironwood, frequently ahead of some of the trickier rares like Seance or even straight-up good rares like Call of the Herd. So, where you find yourself having the luxury of ignoring both rarity and value, always try to find the card which adds to your deck’s theme and key mechanics, as a weaker card in a stronger strategy is more valuable than a meaningless value pick or a creature with a high power and toughness but which doesn’t synergise with what you are doing, Always try to find the one which sits best in your curve. Masters sets are again abnormal in this regard, as most of the cards are so well curated for the set that it’s easy to build a ridiculously powerful deck, and still find it beaten by one which is just slightly better focused. You will want one or two big payoff cards though, often called ‘bombs’, to give you some sort of punch with which to finish off an opponent.

craterhoofbehemoth.jpg

Typically most draft decks will find themselves being mainly midrange in strategy, working on a solid creature curve spiced with strong removal and maybe a combat trick or two. But guess what? Modern Masters 2017 throws that completely out of the window! While limited as a format will always favour midrange as a typical strategy, it seems that aggro, control, and even combo may all have a place here. There are specific strategies in the five ‘Ally’ colour-pairs of WU, UB, BR, RG and GW, as well as the five ‘Shards’ of WUB (Esper), UBR (Grixis) BRG (Jund), RGW (Naya) and GWU (Bant) leading to each of those ten archetypes’ strengths. WU has a strong ETB/Creature value theme with lots of ‘Blink’ effects triggering and re-triggering ETB effects. UB has strong Instant and Sorcery synergies, BR has a graveyard dynamic, RG is about going wide and smashy, and GW is a token and Populate strategy. Add to these their relevant third colour, and you can see that far tricksier decks are viable in this format. All these decks still require strong creatures to get the damage through of course, but the ease with which less creature-dense decks can be pulled together should not be ignored in this format. The five enemy colour pairs (WB, UR, BG, RW and GU) do have gold cards in this set and, at a pinch, you could probably draft these or the five ‘wedges’ of three-colour decks -RBW (Mardu), BUG (Sultai), RUG (Temur) WUR (Jeskai) and GWB (Abzan) – but the cards don’t specifically support these deck strategies and anyone drafting them will, in most circumstances, find themselves at a disadvantage against one of the ten ‘supported’ deck archetypes in this set, regardless of how tightly you’ve drafted. If you get a run of enemy-coloured gold cards, you may have something to build around, but always be wary of this in MM2017.

There is, by the way, a handy reference image to demonstrate ally and enemy colour pairs and trios – it’s printed on the back of every Magic card.

Magic_card_back.jpg

In play, using mana efficiently each turn, curving out (casting a 2-drop on two mana, a 3-drop on three, and a 4-drop or two 2-drops on four, etc) and holding removal and tricks to take care of serious threats are the keys to sound draft play. An opponents’ 1- or 2-drop may be annoying and the damage may be adding up, but don’t waste a sweeper of efficient removal spell on them unless you’re out of other options and the damage race has become critical in your opponent’s favour. If your opponent is building a wide board state of x/1s and x/2s but your x/3 is holding them back, wait until they’ve over-commited to the board and depleted their cards in hand before casting Pyroclasm, for instance. 2-for-1’s and better are brilliant in limited Magic, where you expend less resources to deal with your opponent’s threats than they ‘ve commited to produce them in the first place.

pyroclasm.jpg

Holding up mana to get your opponent during their end-step or in response to casting a threat is very satisfying – though holding up mana to represent an answer, or bluffing having something when you could have cast a creature which added to your board state the previous turn, is only good when it works, with unspent mana being to your detriment. Counter-spells are typically weak in limited, though if you manage to assemble the elusive control build, the goalposts have changed. Activating an ability or casting in-hand instants is normally always best done at the last possible moment or when an opponent’s defences ane fully dropped however, as in constructed Magic.

Above all else, have fun drafting Modern Masters 2017! This set looks really great, and I’m getting excited to pass left, right, left. May all your packs contain sick picks, glorious value and enjoyable potential decks – and remember to never, ever Rare-draft value when you’re passing to me :p

I hope this article has helped those who aren’t used to drafting, but please remember that limited Magic carries it’s own deep skill-set, and the only real way to learn is to jump in and try to navigate the draft portion as well as you can! As much as I’ve tried to only hit on key points and keep the lingo relatively straight forward, it’s proven challenging to keep things narrow whilst still imparting the key lessons of draft. As ever, feedback is appreciated. Until next time…

Doug ‘Words’ Greenwood probably should have mentioned the Limited Resources podcast much sooner

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