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According to Webster – My Limited Strategy

Magic is such a great game and there are many modes and mediums in which to play it. Whether you’re playing a casual multiplayer game of Highlander with some old friends or the Standard portion of a Pro Tour, chances are that you’re probably having fun just because you’re playing Magic. Of the various formats, I’ve found that Draft is the most common at all levels of competitiveness and that there are as many ways to go about drafting as there are cards in the game; but which is the right one? There have to be approaches that are more successful than others because there are people who consistently do well when compared to everyone else. Everyone develops their own particular drafting strategy and today I’ll share the reasoning behind my methods.

How I draft can be broken up into two key ideas: signals and consistency.

1. Signals lead to victory:

Understanding how to read and send signals during a draft is imperative.

Interpreting the contents of a pack in order to determine what has been taken from it is a complicated task that involves recognizing print runs, properly evaluating cards, and understanding the strategies of your fellow drafters. Using these various techniques it becomes easier to determine what colors are being drafted ahead of you.

Figuring out what cards are being taken by the people who are passing to you allows you to not fight over a color in a specific pack. It is often better to take cards from a different color entirely than to fight with a person unless the color is extraordinarily deep (example: Urza’s Saga and black). If you are fighting with the person feeding you your card pool will be much weaker than if you had picked a different color.

Print runs serve as a powerful tool in pattern recognition and help you to quickly identify a specific card that has been taken from a pack in the case of a common or uncommon; they are the most accurate method for figuring out which cards have been taken. However the problem with print runs is that they require a significant amount of data to compile as well as a lot of time spent to memorize them. Print runs don’t help when a mythic/rare is missing and aren’t completely accurate when packs have foils in them.

Card evaluation and comparison is another important skill to help determine what has been taken from a pack and is especially useful when a rare is missing. For example, if I’m in a M11 draft and get my second pick with the rare missing and a Doom Blade still there, I can narrow down the list of cards that I would take over it. From there I can use the short list of possibilities along with the cards that I see in the next few picks to make an educated guess as to where they are color-wise and where I want to be in relation to them.

Another important skill to master is being able to read a draft before it starts; understanding the preferences of other drafters. Knowing what other people tend to draft is important because you can use that to determine what cards to take in close picks. For example, if LSV were passing to me in a Shards/Conflux/Reborn draft and I opened a Wild Nacatl and Tower Gargoyle, I’d be more inclined to take the Wild Nacatl because LSV drafted Esper more than any other archetype in that format. Taking the better Esper card would likely lead to a bad pack one/three for me. Knowing the preferences of other people isn’t a skill that you can learn using traditional methods; it requires playing with the people in question, reading coverage about them, or simply watching them at the tournament to get an understanding of their draft habits.

Understanding how to interpret signals will allow you to determine which colors are open so you can make a reasonable decision as to which color you want to position yourself in based on its strengths and ability to pair with other colors.

Sending a good signal is as important as properly reading the signal that you’re being sent because you want to ensure that the person you’re passing to is not drafting the same colors as you. I will even go as far as to take slightly weaker cards if they send a better signal midway through the pack. For example, let’s say that I’m drafting M11 and it’s pick five of pack one. I am assuredly white and most likely blue as well and I have the option of taking Water Servant or Wild Griffin. I’m going to take Wild Griffin every single time even though it’s a weaker card because I know for a fact that I’m going to be able to stay in white while my second color is still up in the air. By cutting off one color hard, you anchor yourself to it while pushing the people to your left away from it and that gives them fewer opportunities to consider it a viable option and disrupt your draft. It’s less likely that they’ll go into white in pack two if they see less white cards in pack one (obviously?). Thus, pack two tends to be really good especially when a particularly deep color gets cut well. The last thing that I want is for the people to the left to have a myriad of colors in their picks because it means there will be a high amount of uncertainty in the next pack.

My strategy for pack one is very reliant on being able to properly read the signals that are being sent to me so that I can anchor to the proper color. The stronger the anchor is, the more likely that I’ll be able to hold off picking a second color until deeper into the pack when I’ve gotten a lot of information. As a result, I’ll tend to have more flexibility when choosing my second color than most other drafters. There are times when I’ll find that I’m in the wrong secondary color. Generally this happens at the start of pack two and I open/get passed an amazing card or simply a high amount of quality in a different color.

Once I’ve established an anchor color, it’s time to figure out what my secondary color is going to be. There are two directions that a draft will go in at that point. The first is that my anchor is weak and I’ve already leaned on another color for support (during pack one) in which case my deck will tend to be those two colors for the rest of the draft. The other direction is when my anchor is strong and I’ve got a bit of leeway. My secondary color is going to be one of the two other colors that were passed through me, whichever has the best quality of the two. I am setting myself up in that color because I know that it will likely be open in the third pack as well. However, there are also times where I’ll jump into a color that was cut off from me because I opened up a bomb or see a lot of quality and take advantage of the work that the person passing to me went to in order to cut it off (snatching up the premium spells like Blinding Mage). I know full well that I’ll only get a few cards of the color in the third pack, but it doesn’t matter because of my strong anchor color. Jumping into a closed color is dangerous because you run the risk of being cut in the third pack if too much of your anchor color gets passed.

There are definite pitfalls to my drafting strategy. In the top-8 draft of GP: Portland I had a good pack one with lots of black while I fed Martin Juza white and blue, hoping that I’d continue to get shipped more black along with red. I had positioned myself well except for the fact that Martin had opened a Howling Banshee in pack one and cut black after he got cut on blue in pack two. I ended up with next to nothing and my draft fell apart after black also got cut in pack three. My strategy is reliant on the people feeding me to not shift their colors because it looks for a specific color to focus naturally on instead of a pair. In the situations where an unusual amount of shifting takes place, it’s important to notice constant trends that occur later on in the pack (for example, green suddenly being open) and adjust to them.

2. Consistency before power: mulligans, real and virtual:

I remember watching a team draft back when Rise of the Eldrazi came out and saw the pile of cards a pal of mine had. In the games he played I saw Gideon Jura, Lone Missionary, Kargan Dragonlord, Brimstone Mage, Coralhelm Commander, and Deprive. Some people would ask who the idiots who were passing to him are and say that he got especially lucky to have such a busted deck. However, I say that his deck wasn’t good; can you guess why? His deck was terribly inconsistent and despite having a high power-level his mana was atrocious; he went 1-2 in the draft.

Mulligans are so bad; most people understand this. When someone mulligans, they are more likely to lose. That isn’t to say that people should never mulligan because it is certainly right to do so if a hand is unplayable. However, it’s more likely that a player will lose when they mulligan because they have fewer cards to work with to beat their opponent. A less familiar type of mulligan is the “virtual” mulligan. At the end of a game if a blue/white player had four blue cards in their hand and no way to cast them, it was as if they had mulliganed to three. Now the situation leading up to the unfortunate color-screw may have been that the player had kept hand with one Island, two Plains, and one blue spell, was the victim of a Stone Rain, and drew nothing but blue spells afterwards. A more likely scenario is that they had decided to splash a few sweet red removal spells in their deck and had to compromise their manabase with three Mountains in the process. By the way, the Mountain that the player drew on turn three had originally been an Island.

The common trait between virtual and real mulligans is not having the appropriate lands to cast the spells in hand. When a player is forced to use an awkward manabase it becomes necessary to keep hands that have uncastable spells because most of the lands in the deck will not be able to cast the average spell. For example, consider a deck with 23 spells (10 blue, 10 white, and 3 red) and 17 lands (7 Islands, 7 Plains, and 3 Mountains). Assuming the blue and white spells are evenly distributed along the curve and are of equal importance to winning a game, keeping a hand with 2 Plains, 1 Mountain, 2 white spells, and 2 blue spells becomes a necessity because there are just as many Islands left in the deck as non-Islands along with an equal number of blue/non-blue spells. You have to just get lucky and draw the right land. As a result to having a bad manabase it’s much more common that three-color decks can’t mulligan five-land hands (example: 2 Island, 2 Plains, and 1 Mountain). An easy way to reduce the number of mulligans you take is to simply draft two-color decks (I wouldn’t get caught dead splashing an Azami, Lady of Scrolls in my Hideous Laughter/Gnarled Mass deck).

There are many benefits of drafting two-color decks. As I mentioned before, a two-color deck will handle mulligans better in a few regards. It will take fewer mulligans and perform better after taking a mulligan because its colored mana requirements don’t vary as greatly which make more two-land hands acceptable. Another benefit is that you’re given more options with regards to what spells in your hand you can cast at any point in the game. Two-color decks are generally going to be able to cast almost every spell in their deck relatively quickly giving them more options. When a player has more options, they’ll be able to navigate a game with a higher flexibility and be more likely to have access to a line of play that will lead to a win.

Some people will point out that there are formats that benefit playing at least three colors (formats like Shards/Conflux/Alara Reborn and Ravnica/Guildpact/Dissension are good examples), and that by playing two-color decks you miss out on a lot of the better cards in the format. However even in the “gold” formats there are still good viable two-color archetypes. For example, in Shards block, white-based decks (often paired with blue or green) and black-based decks (paired with blue or red) were very competitive. When you stick with a two-color deck, you aren’t forced to fight over the color-fixing that the three-color decks are forced to prioritize. “First-picking Armillary Sphere again, eh? Sure thing buddy. I’ll take my Shambling Remains now. Thanks.”

Another problem with three-color decks is that they suffer from the ramp syndrome. Ramp decks are filled with two groups of spells: acceleration and powerful expensive spells. Just like the ramp decks, the three-color decks are filled with color-fixing and powerful expensive multi-color cards. When the deck draws the proper ratio of fixing/ramp and expensive spells, it’s quite amazing. However, if a draw is too far towards either portion of the deck, whether it is ramp/fixing or expensive spells, it will often lose.

Applying my principles to Scars of Mirrodin:

Alright, so you’ve listened to (or at least skimmed) my crazy ideas on how to navigate through a draft; now what? Well thankfully a new set has just been released: Scars of Mirrodin. Unfortunately for myself, Scars isn’t on MTGO right now which is why I’m writing this instead of … you know … drafting.

Scars is a different type of set and drafting it well using my methods will require a bit of adjusting because it contains a high number of artifacts; 88 to be exact. The increased number of artifacts is going to decrease the ability to and impact of sending color signals. However there are two themes in the set that act as colors in terms of signaling: infect and metalcraft. Most decks are going to be either infect-based, metalcraft-based, or theme decks that didn’t quite come together. Metalcraft decks that didn’t come together are going to be more common than their infect counterpart because the number of creatures with infect is significantly lower than those without. The random decks are going to be clunky and will be filled with a lot of colored spells. Metalcraft decks will play Mountains, Plains, and Islands while infect decks will play Swamps, Forests, and potentially Islands because there is a bit of synergy with blue’s proliferate spells and infect.

Metalcraft is anchored by artifacts, plain and simple; they are the most important piece to the archetype. It’s important to have a lot of artifacts (at least fifteen in a dedicated metalcraft deck) and generally more people are going to be able to play artifacts than anything else which means that everyone is going to be fighting for them. It’s important to focus solely on artifacts in the beginning when drafting a metalcraft deck because the deck won’t function without the proper threshold of them and it’s more likely that you’ll be forced to take non-artifacts as the draft progresses. There are plenty of good colors to support all of the metalcraft drafters. red, blue, and white all have good metalcraft cards but should be ignored (except for removal/bombs) until later in the draft. By the time you have to settle into a color, it should be apparent which are open. Another point to consider about metalcraft decks is that they will have very few slots for colored spells in them and that relieves a lot of pressure when having to decide on which colors to play; it’s not as important to define your color early in a draft compared to other formats.

Infect is different from metalcraft and the most important cards will have “infect” and “proliferate” in their text boxes. Like metalcraft, it’s important to have a high threshold of infect cards because they all contribute towards the goal of poisoning the opponent. What you don’t want is to have a mix of infect/non-infect creatures because they aren’t working towards a common goal. Every pick of the draft should be an infect card. Due to the counter-productive nature of infect/non-infect cards, it’s important to recognize when the archetype isn’t open otherwise you’ll get stuck with an inconsistent 50/50 deck. infect decks are going to be green and black with a smattering of artifacts and it should be easy to tell when the deck is there and when it isn’t.

Drafting is certainly one of the most popular ways to play this difficult game and figuring out how to properly go about it has proven to be one of the biggest pitfalls for most people. Focus and restraint has led to my great personal success. Remember; don’t set yourself up for failure from the start by leaving your headlights off and drafting a deck that can’t cast its spells, a deck that doesn’t let you make decisions, a deck that isn’t consistent.

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