Last weekend’s World Championship featured Dominaria United Limited. As such, I played more drafts of Dominaria United than I’ve played for any set in recent memory.
My draft deck at Worlds ended up “okay” at best, although I feel pretty good about what I was able to put together given the circumstances. I didn’t see a lot of bombs or premium cards, and simply built a solid mostly-commons version of Izzet Spells.
The defining feature of this deck was a full five copies of Essence Scatter, of which I decided to maindeck four. In one match, I sideboarded lower than that, while in another I brought in the fifth copy, and would’ve been happy with even more than that!
My final record was 1-2, but I made a mistake to lose an extremely tight Match 3, Game 3. I would’ve considered it a success to score two wins with such an unremarkable deck, but alas, on that day I wasn’t quite able to make it happen.
But I didn’t bring you here just to show off my five Essence Scatters; I brought you here to share my personal strategy for Dominaria United Booster Draft. It has nothing to do with any one archetype or color combination (I think the format is pretty balanced, and I’m willing to draft anything). Instead, it’s a general approach to making optimal picks during the draft.
This set is powerful and very deep in playable cards. In all my practice, it basically never happened that I ended the draft short on playables and had to round things out with “bad” cards. Once I realized this, I stopped spending picks on “bad” cards. I also stopped spending picks on “average” cards.
Soaring Drake is a totally fine card. It makes my deck a decent portion of the time, and I’m never disappointed or embarrassed when it does. However, I simply don’t care about it.
That Soaring Drake can become Automatic Librarian, Voda Sea Scavenger, Haunting Figment or Flowstone Kavu and I don’t feel as though it meaningfully changes my deck. These cards are all totally replaceable. As far as I’m concerned, as long as I can get some of them “for free,” then I don’t need to be paying a premium for any of them.
What exactly is an “average” card? It’s a little bit nonspecific, and your definition need not be identical to mine. I recommend asking yourself if you’re likely to miss the card you’re passing. If it’s comparable in power level to Automatic Librarian, then it’s probably pretty average and pretty replaceable. If it has a unique effect on the game, like Urborg Repossession, or if you want as many as you can possibly get, like Argivian Cavalier, then it’s better than average and worth spending picks on.
Instead of taking these “average” cards, Dominaria United draft pays you off for making speculative picks. Instead of taking a replacement level creature for your deck, you can pick something that might be really valuable under the right set of circumstances.
Here are examples of speculative picks you can make.
Say I first pick a Lightning Strike. Second pick, I’ll take Elas il-Kor, Sadistic Pilgrim over Yavimaya Steelcrusher. Steelcrusher is just too weak to ever be worth that high of a pick – I can get one later when I want it.
Elas il-Kor, on the other hand, is quite a strong card. I’m not necessarily planning for Lightning Strike and Elas to both wind up in my final deck (although it’s not impossible). Instead, I’m giving myself two possible paths that I can follow, with a great starting card for whichever one proves to be better in this particular draft.
Lands and Splash Cards
Dual lands are valuable because of splash opportunities, off-color kicker costs and domain payoffs. When drafting U/R, picking up a white dual land is nice so that you can pay the kicker cost on Tolarian Geyser or Hurloon Battle Hymn. This can still be a valuable speculative pick even before you’ve actually drafted a card with a white kicker cost!
Cards for Specific Archetypes
Shield-Wall Sentinel is mostly useless – that is, unless you see a Wingmantle Chaplain, at which point Shield-Wall Sentinel instantly becomes one of your best cards. You can never count on getting Wingmantle Chaplain in pack three, but if you’re not giving up much, you can set yourself up to take advantage of it by picking up some extra defenders here and there. If you’re doing a pod draft, this has another nice side effect of weakening somebody else’s deck if they get Wingmantle Chaplain and you don’t.
Similarly, I consider Heroic Charge to be a bad card, and I don’t put it in my “normal” decks. However, if I do wind up heavy on token synergies, like in W/R or W/B, it’s a card that might suddenly carry a disproportionate amount of weight for me.
If you’re playing Best-of-Three, you can pick up some sideboard cards to help you handle a variety of matchups. You might maindeck Soaring Drake while you won’t maindeck Broken Wings. However, it’s impossible for Soaring Drake to ever wow you, while sideboarding in Broken Wings to take down a Sphinx of Clear Skies can definitely change a loss into a win.
In other words, even though you’ll use Soaring Drake more, the marginal upgrade of any random creature to Soaring Drake is pretty small. The marginal upgrade of any random creature to Broken Wings – in a matchup where Broken Wings is killing otherwise-unanswerable bombs – is very large. By this logic, Broken Wings can be a higher value pick than Soaring Drake.
Making these speculative picks is possible because Dominaria United is so deep in playables. If you try to apply this strategy to formats that are weaker or have a bit more chaff, then you risk winding up short on playables. However, I’m not scared of this at all in Dominaria United draft.
Importantly, there does come a point in the draft where you should start taking your Soaring Drakes and Automatic Librarians. In a typical draft, roughly half way through pack two is when you’ll become certain of your colors and archetype and when you’ll begin to form a picture of your second color. You don’t need to pick Elas il-Kor anymore because you know you’re not going to switch to W/B; you don’t need to pick Heroic Charge anymore because you know you’re not going for a token strategy.
At this point, you start to look at your mana curve and the holes in your deck, and identify the cards you need to fill them. Short on two-drops? Now’s the time for Yavimaya Steelcrusher. Way ahead of schedule on playables? Then keep speculating on lands and sideboard cards.
This approach will help you get the most out of your picks, and set you up to take advantage of more opportunities that might present themselves during the course of a draft.