The best way to get better at drafting a new Limited format is to follow designer intent by looking at specifically seeded ideas for early instruction. This works for any new Limited format with a design and development team. Cube and new set releases fall in this category, while off-hand formats like Chaos Draft or Winston Draft won’t. Once you’ve explored those basic ideas you can begin to add in iterative approaches, which we’ll discuss today as well.
Each new Limited environment will have focus points that you should pay attention to. Luckily, those are easy to identify thanks to the mechanics in the sets, as well as the designers discussing the goals behind them and what players should be looking for in experiencing them. Mechanics are both the simplest way to break down new archetypes while also being one of the best indicators of what a set is about.
Kaladesh has energy, crew, and fabricate. On a surface level this indicates what you should be looking to do. Energy is spread across all 5 colors, but is really focused in the Temur wedge. Fabricate goes one step closer and is only in the Abzan colors. This differentiation already lets you see what color pairs are trying to achieve. W/B is the most fabricate-centered color pair and that reflects in the very simple breakdown from the mechanic divisions.
This also helps us combat our own preconceived notions. When I first think of U/R, I think of it as a spell-based pair thanks to Izzet, or an artifact pair due to broken artifact-centered cards over the years like Tinker or Goblin Welder. Kaladesh was clearly not a spell-based format at first glance, so my instincts told me, incorrectly, that U/R focused on artifacts. Of course, with no fabricate creatures that ended up not being true and the color combo tends to be more energy-based. Look to the baselines the designers include to help you avoid pitfalls.
U/R’s artifact subtheme adds complexity, utilizing cards like Prophetic Prism and Consulate Skygate to buy time and set up powerful spells like Shrewd Negotiation or Incendiary Sabotage. This type of deck arises with a deeper look into the cards present. Sure, U/R is mostly energy, but it does have artifacts-matter cards. Combining that knowledge with the lack of fabricate leads to one of two possibilities: U/R is simply not an artifact color pair, or drafting that style of U/R requires picking artifacts much more highly than you would in other color pairs. By analyzing the mechanics and where they direct you, you’ll start to understand how you should order your Draft picks better.
Mechanics give a sense of what a set is about, but they don’t clue you in as well as the cards themselves. The easiest place to start is with gold cards. Recently, gold cards have served as a sign post, pointing you to where a 2-color pair is headed within a set. Take U/R again in Kaladesh as an example. Whirler Virtuoso explains a lot. It’s an energy-based card that also makes Thopters, which ties into the sub-theme of U/R artifacts.
G/B is +1/+1-counter-based, W/R cares about Vehicles, and R/G has an aggressive energy creature.
There are some exceptions, though. Restoration Gearsmith is a nice value creature, but does it tell you that W/B is a fabricate-based color combination? Not exactly, but it gives a different sort of clue. Learning that W/B is about Servo tokens and going wide through the mechanics is step one, and Restoration Gearsmith helps fill in a different part of the equation. W/B can be an aggressive color combo that curves out, but it’s also full of value along the way. Trading off a Glint-Sleeve Artisan after making a Servo and then returning it with Restoration Gearsmith is pretty much the dream, and those are the types of plays you can start to envision when first looking at a format.
Next up is the bridge between the mechanics and the cards themselves. Gearshift Ace ties in closely with crew and gives an otherwise absent color identity to Vehicles. Vehicles play much better in aggressive decks that get on the board and use creatures to crew them, and Gearshift Ace is a very obvious sign towards that. Veteran Motorist and Speedway Fanatic are similarly obvious cards, but then there are often more subtle clues like Spireside Infiltrator or Night Market Lookout, which point toward Vehicle subthemes without stating them specifically. The fun part there is exploring those types of cards and seeing whether they actually shine or not. The important thing though is that this exploration is done on top of the baseline approaches. In Draft 1 you might draft R/W focusing on Veteran Motorist and Vehicles, and find out incidentally that Spireside Infiltrator is great. For more niche cards like Night Market Lookout, it’s much more about trial and error as you advance in the format.
Beyond the gold cards and tightly bound mechanical cards like Gearshift Ace, look to build-arounds as a way to inform your Drafts. Gearseeker Serpent is an awesome example of this in Kaladesh. It really scales in its strength depending on how deep you go with it and rewards you more or less on what type of decks you’re drafting. During early Drafts you know to just pair it with artifacts, and in those times it’s important to try to maximize the strength of the card or else you won’t ever know how good it can be at its best. Overshooting and playing bad artifacts early can let you know just how good the Serpent is, and you can quickly adjust evaluations to determine how deep you need to go. It’s the same principle as aiming games like bowling or archery. You learn a lot more by overshooting and adjusting rather than continually undershooting and only moving a little bit closer to your target each time.
The same can be said for rares and mythics too. These cards tend to be very powerful and are worth taking if you’re unsure how good they actually are. The best part is they are sometimes a guide in and of themselves during your early Drafts. Certainly don’t get married to your first pick, but understanding the shape a Draft deck is taking is valuable, and higher rarity cards can help with that path because they reward you more if you can play and maximize them. Some rares like Metalwork Colossus might be more trouble than they’re worth but are often good enough to at least try. Sure, you’ll find that you don’t want to first pick a Colossus again, but you didn’t give up that much by going for it, and using that exploratory principle you’ll find out that Padeem is a pretty fantastic card you’ll be happy to first pick.
Find Connecting Themes
The methods described above work well for approaching new, normal Draft formats, but sometimes you can find more instructions from the designers themselves. Following design and development ideas from the DailyMTG website helps you know what a new set is all about. This is especially useful for crafted sets like Eternal Masters or Cube that are unique experiences and are limited in their release. Thus it’s nice to have a heads up about what the major archetypes and goals are going into your first Draft so that you have a map after your first couple picks.
Before you jump into the most recent Twisted Color Pie Cube, you could first check out the creator Timothy Simonot’s brief explanation of the Cube and have a much better idea about what’s going on. Knowing that W/B is a reanimator color pair would let you draft Solitary Confinement after a Griselbrand when normally those two cards are completely disconnected. Later on you could get an Eternal Dragon because you were looking for cards that connected with what you had, a perfect reanimation target that also locks the game with Solitary Confinement!
As I mentioned earlier, but even more important to keep in mind with early Drafts of crazy formats, is that it’s so important to stay flexible and continue thinking about the directions your cards are pointing. The designers of sets include clues in the cards themselves that sculpt and guide Draft decisions. The tricky part is trying to compile all those directions so that it’s useful. See which synergies seem most open and to go for those plans, or else you’ll have a divisive pile of cards that might not work very well together even if they’re all still within a color pair. Gearseeker Serpent is awesome, but if I just include it in a random blue energy deck with very few artifacts it will underperform.
The last thing to remember is don’t be afraid to pivot. This is one of the hardest points to do well in your first few Drafts of any format, but giving yourself room to move from one archetype to the other early in a Draft will let you escape from a color or color pair when the drafter passing to you is taking the cards you want. Staying flexible all while following designer intent is a lot to keep track of early on, but will lead to the best results when done correctly. Studying a little of what the designers intended and keeping an open mind will give you the best chance to take down your early Drafts!