Fun Cubed – Winston Draft Primer


I’d like to start by thanking everybody for their responses to the articles so far. The positive feedback has been energizing to the otherwise laborious process of writing, and as a college dropout sitting down to write has never been an easy task. Everybody out there in cyberspace has already given me a vast pool of questions to draw from for future topics and made me already think about Cube in a different light. So now that that’s been said, this weeks article is direct feedback to what I’ve been hearing about not just from around the store but from around the web. How do you Winston draft, and what are the strategies behind it?


A Winston draft isn’t limited to Cube for starters; in fact I learned to Winston draft with Lorwyn and have enjoyed the differences and interactions that stem not only from a different draft format but from set to set when Winston drafting. Winston is a heads up format, you and a friend need six booster packs or to count out 90 Cube cards in order to play. Shuffle the contents of your card pool together and place it face down in front of you starting with one stack. Of course, for the best experience and to not ruin any surprise, when using sealed product open the packs face down and don’t browse their contents before starting the draft process. This rule applies for Cube as well, since if you’re thumbing through cards picked out for a Winston draft before you start you have the advantage of knowing certain cards are in the pool and this can affect decisions made during the draft.

Once you have your shuffled pile of cards and have removed any rules reminder cards or tokens, sit across the table from your opponent and take the top three cards of the card pool and lay them face down in front of you, starting three different piles. After determining which player gets to pick first, that player picks up the card closest to the draft pool and examines it. The player who picks first is player A. Player A has the option of taking the card in the first pile, at which point he or she will put the card face down in front of him or her and replace the first pile with the top card of the draft pool. If player A doesn’t want the card it will be put back in the first pile and a card from the top of the draft pool will be added to the pile. Player A then moves on to the second pile, examining the card and determining whether he or she wants that card. Repeat the process from above with the second and third piles. If player A doesn’t want the card in either the second or third pile, after adding a card to each pile player A will take the top card of the draft pool and add it to his or her draft. Exercising this option, known as peeling or taking one off the top, is considered a gamble because you might end up with a great card for your eventual deck or a complete swing and miss.

Once player A has made a selection, taking either one of the three piles or taking one off the top, it’s player B’s turn. Player B now examines the first pile; if player A didn’t take that first pile it will now contain two cards. If player B wishes to take the contents of the first pile he or she will take all the cards in the pile and replace the pile with the top card of the draft pool. If player B doesn’t wish to take the first pile, it will be replaced and the top card of the draft pool will be added to the pile as player B moves on to the second pile of cards for consideration. Once again if after examining all three piles player B doesn’t wish to add any of them to his or her draft, after adding a card to the last pile away from the draft pool player B will take the top card of the draft pool and add it to his or her draft. This draft process continues until the entire pile of cards is drafted. When the draft pool is empty and a player examines a pile and doesn’t wish to take it no additional cards will be added to the remanding pile and when a player reaches the last pile he or she will automatically add it to his or her draft pool. Depending on how serious you take your Winston drafting, you may wish to build your deck in secret. Often when playing for fun my friends and I simply turn our respective card pools over once the draft portion is complete to compare who ended up with what cards.

Draft strategy for Winston draft is a complex process of not only deciding what cards and colors you’re playing but being aware of what cards your opponent has picked and adapting your draft accordingly. Remembering that the total card pool you and your opponent are drafting from is only 90 cards is important when evaluating card quality. You can’t be as picky in a heads-up format thinking that you’ll be able to draft a particular draft strategy every time you Winston. White weenie as an example might have all the pieces in a particular Winston pool, but isn’t a guarantee in any particular Winston draft. Since it’s a heads-up format with a very limited card pool, evaluating individual card quality is more important in Winston draft than in Booster Draft. Evaluating any given card’s power level is more important than answering the question “how would his card fit into my deck?”

I’ve done many drafts where I’ve started with a particular color combination or strategy, lets take Red burn for instance, and a third to half of the way into the draft I’ve completely changed gears. I might only end up splashing a few single Red mana symbol cards in my deck, if that. In a normal eight man booster draft, by the end of pack one you’ve found a sense of direction for your deck and can see the avenue you plan on pursuing for the remainder of the draft. While in Winston, thirty cards deep might give you what looks to be a playable two color strategy, but over the course of the next sixty cards you may not find enough cards to finish your desired strategy. Adapting to what cards you’re seeing during a Winston draft is very important to building a winning draft deck.

Say you are taking Red cards early in the draft while passing Blue cards, hoping your opponent will draft Blue and pass all the Red since you’re cutting it. As the draft progresses, you notice more and more quality Blue cards, either from your opponent not biting on all the Blue you’re passing or from a high concentration of that color in this particular pool. This leads you to make the following decision: either start to draft the Blue that appears to be showing up in abundance, or use the opportunity to “stack” your opponent in the draft. The act of “stacking” in Winston is the play of leaving potentially powerful cards of a particular color in an early pile in order to dig deeper into the draft pool and get access to more cards.

The initial advantage to using the stack play is that when you look at the first pile, see a high quality card and pass it, you’re planning on having your opponent take that pile so you’re free to leave other quality cards in the second and third piles for you to return to on a following draft round. While this play can backfire when your opponent leaves the first pile behind, it can still be rewarding by gaining the knowledge that your opponent is willing pass strong cards of a certain color while at the same time giving you an additional opportunity to pick up that first pile along with additional cards attached to it. For example, halfway into a draft I might pick up a single card pile and see a card like [card]Treachery[/card], knowing it’s an extremely high quality pick for a Blue drafter. If I’m not currently playing blue, I’ll replace that pile with full intention of taking advantage of the stack play. Now when I pick up the second pile the card(s) quality will have to be very high in order for me to take that pile since my plan is to have access to that pile again before my opponent does.

To continue with my example, if I were to find a Flame Javelin in that second pile I know I’d love to add that card to my draft but I know that by leaving the Treachery behind I have the opportunity to add an additional card to that pile for me to get as well in the next round of drafting. Those afraid of making this play should also be aware that if it backfires and your opponent doesn’t take the bait now you have access to that Treachery along with two additional cards, and perhaps at that point you should consider finding a way to play Blue. Be aware that when choosing to make the stack play it should be made with cards that have a heavy color or strategy commitment but are also of high enough power level that opponents have to make a difficult decision if they don’t immediately want to take the bait.

Cards like Cryptic Command and Siege-Gang Commanderare great example of cards to stack on. With at least two colored mana symbols and game-breaking power, these cards can tell a lot about your opponent’s card choices when used to stack. Trying to stack your opponent with a dual land or a card that’s easily splashed into most decks doesn’t give much information about your opponent whether or not he or she takes the bait. Trying to stack with cards that fit into most decks take a win/win situation and turn it into a lose/lose play. Now you’re passing a card that you could most likely fit into your draft deck regardless of color or strategy, while at the same time not learning anything about the type of cards your opponent is taking should he or she choose to take that first pile.

You shouldn’t be afraid to switch colors or play multiple color combinations that you wouldn’t otherwise in a Winston draft. Winston lends itself to skilled players as the draft itself often can compare to playing out a game. A chess game of sorts involving draft and counter-draft during a Winston becomes almost as entertaining as playing out the match afterwards. The knowledge of what cards have been added to your own draft while knowing a portion of your opponents picks can greatly vary draft overcomes and decisions on what cards to take and when to take them. Think about how you are in a win/win situation when taking a draft “bomb” that isn’t necessarily in your colors during a Winston draft. First off you’re eliminating a card that your opponent is very likely to play while at the same time increasing the power level of your card pool. With this in mind, assessing mana fixing in Winston is different from most draft formats. Thankfully Shards block has gone a long way to teaching the importance of taking fixing early in a draft, but Cube takes it a step future as fetch lands can get fetch lands or shock lands that might grant you access to that important splash color during a draft.

For Winston draft strategy I can’t stress enough how important it is to take fixing when it’s offered to you. I’m often willing to take a Vivid land by itself in Winston regardless of whether or not it’s on color because I want the consistency of being able to cast my spells every time every game. Mana fixing is often the cornerstone of a winning deck and should always be in the back of your mind when drafting. [card]Coalition Relic[/card] for example is a workhorse in Winston and should never be passed. While functioning as minor acceleration, its ability to provide up to two splash colors on mana on a given turn is a huge advantage. I have a similar stance on [card Tundra]dual lands[/card] and [card Flooded Strand]fetch lands[/card], as drafting them really helps when you find yourself trying to fit that [card]Vindicate[/card] into your black/green deck. A popular draft strategy in Winston is five color, which is normally setup early in a draft when you find access to fixing and then finished in the later portion of the draft when you can pick and choose colored spells and powerful gold spells. If you find yourself with a few multi-colored lands early, a couple of [card Dimir Signet]signets[/card], and/or some mana fixing artifacts like [card]Coldsteel Heart[/card] or [card]Prismatic Lens[/card], you’re generally open to start drafting the five color strategy.

When mana comes together, it really turns on any archetype. Just the other day I drafted a deck that was just the five-color man plan. 17 creatures of various colors and combinations, a few mana artifacts and a couple removal spells won my draft because I could play all my guys consistently. [card]Forgotten Ancient[/card] flanked by [card]Clone[/card] and [card]Whipcorder[/card] with [card]Ghitu Slinger[/card] in hand won me a couple of games the other day.

Now you shouldn’t be worried that when you sit down to Winston draft you won’t be able to draft any archetypes or will get stuck with a draft pool spread evenly over four colors with no fixing. It’s all about knowing what you’ve picked, what you’ve passed, and what you need to find during the draft in order to end up with a 40 card deck. Early in my days of Winston drafting with friends I’d watch as people would turn over their card pool after the draft, spread it out and count to 18 cards for their deck, then wonder where it all went wrong, as they frantically tried to splash just one color to fill the gap and figure out a manabase that would allow them to cast White Knight, Ball Lightning and Silent Specter. Over time I found that this problem stemmed from not being aware of what’s going on during the draft process. If you draft with your blinders on and only concentrate on the pick right in front of you when you’re drafting you miss a lot of opportunities. Picking up that first pile with one card in it and taking it because it’s on color when the second pile has five cards in it is an easy example of how you have to be aware of everything going on during a Winston draft. Of course skill often comes through experience, so go forth and give Winston draft a shot; I’m guessing you’ll enjoy it.

Until next week this is Tristan Gregson hoping your top decks are live and your lethal damage always resolves.

5 thoughts on “Fun Cubed – Winston Draft Primer”

  1. Um shipping your opponent a Treachery level bomb is wrong. Hate drafting in Winston is very important. Shipping your opponent one of the best spells in the cube seems like a way to not win the draft.

  2. Treachery is an extreme example but I felt it was needed to get the point across. You want a card of high enough quality that your opponent won’t pass it back. Of course the card Treachery and its power level in Winston doesn’t lead me to pass it under almost any circumstance.

  3. Hey Shawn. This is Kenny from Reno. I was just wondering why you only write 1 article a month? Is it the restrictions from having a life (I know it’s crazy fellow Magic players…) or just the fact of actually writing in general as you describe in your article?

    Also, did you ever get the list up of your Cube? I got mine in a spreadsheet finally if you’re interested…?

  4. I will have to try some of this out. How good is your memory? I can see myself trying something like the treachery example, but I have a hard time remembering everything my opponents pick.

  5. To Kenny:

    Actually since we’ve launched I’ve only missed one week of articles and it was more due to lack for a formal education than trying to have a life. I plan on making it to publication every week its just a question of whether or not I can make a cohesive column in that time frame.

    My list is published under the “Team Fireball” heading right now, while its up its not the permanent home for the list as it needs to be cleaned up and made easier to read. But at least at the moment its up on the site. You should e-mail me your list at [email protected] I’d like to compare you selections.

    To James:
    The memory game is part of the Winston draft process, the more you play the more you’ll be aware of what you’ve pasted and what cards your opponent has picked up.

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