The Art of Team Draft

One thing that people have tended to ask me a lot about recently is strategies for Team Booster Draft. Team Draft is an incredibly difficult format, but it is definitely one of my all-time favorites. Due to the resurgence of team Grand Prix, there is now some information available about Team Sealed Deck, but very little about Team Draft. In this article I will try to provide an overview of what to think about in a team draft, and how those tactics differ from a normal 8-man draft. I will use M15 cards for the purpose of this article, because it is the current block, but the principles apply to every format, and specific cards should be viewed in the abstract by color and power level.

There are four major concepts to consider when participating in a Team Draft:

1. The quality of our opponents’ decks are of equal importance to the quality of our own deck.

In a normal 8-man draft, if we draft a pretty good deck and pass the player to our left a great deck, that’s okay. In a Team Draft, this is not the right approach. In a normal draft, we only play against three opponents. If we are doing well, it is likely that we’ll play against the other best deck at the table, but still possible that we won’t. Out of the other seven players, we only play against three of them. Although it’s not completely linear, and we will play against the good deck more often than weak decks, if we’re doing well, we wouldn’t expect to play against that person more than half the time.

In a Team Draft, whether it’s a traditional three-round draft, or a one-round draft, as happens in the Top 4 of a Grand Prix, the person’s deck to whom we are passing is going to be responsible for exactly 1/3rd of the opposing result. This means that when we’re passing packs, we want to do everything in our power to make things as difficult on our opponents as possible.

The ultimate goal in team draft is this: Have the opponent to our left be in the same two colors as we are, and therefore get the 2nd best card for his or her deck out of the first and third packs, since presumably we are getting the best card. Have the opponent to our right be in two different colors than us, so that we are still getting the best card for our deck out of those packs, and if not, when that player is spending a draft pick to hate draft a card from our deck, he is also reducing the quality of his teammate’s deck, while not gaining a benefit for his or her own deck.

Obviously, we don’t have control over what the person to our right is drafting. (We can and should pay extra close attention to what colors we are *SEEING* during pack 1 to make an educated guess as to what the person to our right is playing and avoid passing him or her bombs in pack 2, though.) We do, however, have control over what we’re drafting and what the person to our left is drafting. We are never going to know with certainty what the player to our left has first picked, but we can use our best judgement to estimate what they have picked every pick beyond that, at least in packs 1 and 3, when we are passing in their direction.

The dream scenario is when we open a pack with two cards that are miles ahead of the rest in pack in power level, and both are the same color. Imagine a pack with something like Soul of Theros as the rare, a Triplicate Spirits as the best common, no playable uncommons, and no other commons close to the level of Triplicate Spirits. We are going to draft Soul of Theros—one of the best cards in the set, and the player to our left is going to take Triplicate Spirits, no matter what they chose first pick. Triplicate Spirits is powerful enough that we know they are going to attempt to go into white. Just by virtue of making our own deck better to follow up our own white bomb, Soul of Theros, we are going to reduce the quality of our opponent’s deck. Maybe they are aware enough to get away from the Triplicate Spirits and move into other colors, but that isn’t the end of the world either, at least then they’ve wasted their second pick of the draft.

Another somewhat clear scenario would be like in the previous example, but this time replace Soul of Theros with Soul of Shandalar. Now we’re in red, due to our first-pick bomb, and we’re pretty sure that the opponent to our right is going to be in white. At this point, we should start going out of our way to make sure not to pass too many powerful white cards. Another way to think about it is: when we open a pack with two cards that are miles ahead of the rest in power level, we are basically going to start drafting both of those colors, regardless of which one we actually selected for our own deck.

Things get more trickier when we make things more complex. Now imagine a pack with Spectra Ward, Stab Wound, and Lightning Strike as the clear best cards. We are going to take Spectra Ward because it is far and away the best card. Where does that leave the player to our left? Stab Wound and Lightning Strike are so close in power level that if that player chose a card of either of those colors as his or her first pick, he will likely just choose whichever one is in the same color. So now what do we do?

The answer is to proceed with caution. We won’t always be able to decipher the entire draft based on our opening pack. We should always try to process all the information so that we can make the most educated decisions when making future picks. In this instance, we can just be sure that our opponent has either a Stab Wound or a Lightning Strike, and adjust our decisions based on that.

What other information do we have now? Well, based on the texture of the pack, we can conclude with near certainty that our teammate has either Lightning Strike or Stab Wound, whichever our opponent between us didn’t take. That leads us to our next point:

2. The quality of your teammate’s decks are of equal importance to the quality of your own deck.

Now we know that our opponent has either a Lightning Strike or Stab Wound, as we just established. However, we also know that our teammate has either a Lightning Strike or a Stab Wound. Now we have to proceed with extreme caution. It is going to be quite challenging to differentiate when we are going to take a card away from the player to our left, or when we’re going to take a card away from our teammate. Also, we should expect the opponent to our left to be thinking like we are. He or she knows that he or she passed a Stab Wound or Lightning Strike, so that player is going to try to move into that color, to render our teammate’s third pick, which was very powerful, as a wasted pick.

So what are we supposed to do? Do we want to risk taking cards away from our teammate? At this point, it is okay to spend a few picks taking cards for our own deck. Be very careful to judge the texture of the packs. If we are passing substantially more good red cards than black cards or vice versa, it is likely that no matter what the player to our left has chosen, he or she will begin to draft them. At that point, we should do our best to start taking cards of that color. We want to think of everything in terms of risk-reward. Imagine we have a card value system in our heads, placing everything on a scale of 1 to 10. We should do our best to calculate the net total for each team based on what we expect to happen over the course of the next several picks. Imagine there’s a 10 in black, that if we pass, our opponent is very likely to take and play. The best card for our deck is a 5 in white. There’s also a 6 in red that will likely go to our opponent. So if we assume that our opponent to our left is red or black, and our teammate is red or black, then what happens? For the sake of this example, we will assume we think that our opponent to our left and teammate to his left are both 50/50 to be playing black or red, but are extremely unlikely to be playing neither, or both.

Scenario 1: We take the white 5, opponent takes the black 10 (for his deck), teammate takes the red 6 (for his deck). We get a total value of 11, opponents get a total value of 10.

Scenario 2: We take the white 5, opponent takes the black 10 (to take it away from our teammate, now value 0), teammate takes the red 6 (to keep it away from our other opponent, now value 0). We get a total value of 5, opponents get a total value of 0.

Scenario 3: We take the black 10 (to attempt to keep it away from out opponent, now value 0), opponent takes the red 6 (for his deck), teammate takes a random average value 5 card (for his deck). We get a total value of 5, opponents get a total value of 6.

Scenario 4: We take the black 10 (away from our opponent, value 0), opponent takes the red 6 (away from our teammate, value 0), and teammate takes a random average 5 value card (for his deck). We get a total value of 5, opponents get a total value of 0.

So in summary, Scenario 1: +1, Scenario 2: +5, Scenario 3: -1, Scenario 4: +5. (It is no surprise that we are coming out ahead of our opponents overall, because we are spending two draft picks to their one) If we simplify things, still under the assumption that in either case after we make our pick the other two scenarios happen with 50% likelihood: We take the white 5; We average +3. We take the black 10; We average +2. Therefore, in this scenario, our best educated guess is that we should take the white 5.

By no means am I advocating doing complex math problems every time you have a difficult decision in a Team Draft. But I am advocating that you change the way you evaluate cards in draft. Put a value on each pick out of the pack, and the likelihood that it will be made by each team, and the reason. Passing a 10 to your opponents is absolutely fine if you are 95% sure it will have to be hate-drafted. In fact, forcing opponents to spend picks on a hate draft is usually great, but we have to be very sure. Passing opponents a 10 that they will put in their decks is usually an absolute disaster. But particularly in the third pack, we’ve gained a ton of information, and we should be sure to use it all, to the best of our ability, to calculate the risks and rewards.

One issue I wanted to touch on quickly about the quality of our teammate’s decks that we should be aware of is similar to the dream situation listed above. In this case, I’d call it the nightmare scenario. Sometimes a pack is opened that has three cards that are vastly better than the rest of the pack. Imagine a pack with three cards ahead of the pack: Soul of Theros, Flesh to Dust, and Stab Wound. Now what is going to happen? We have to take Soul of Theros, it’s just too much better than the rest of the cards to pass it. But now, our opponent is going to take a black removal spell, and then our teammate is going to take another black removal spell. We’ve done exactly what we don’t want to do and put our teammate in the color of the person who is passing to him.

Dealing with this is not an absolute science. But one strategy I sometimes use is a hard force into the other color. The goal is to completely shut your teammate out from getting cards of that color at all, forcing him or her to abandon the third pick. It stinks to waste a third pick, but we got a Soul of Theros out of the deal. What we don’t want is to keep passing through two mediocre black cards so our teammate gets strung along for the remainder of the draft, and ends up with a poor deck. With a hard force, the goal is that there will still be enough black to string along your opponent, but not enough to string along your teammate, and that will make our team far better positioned.

Those two points are really the major things we need to consider differently when in a team draft as opposed to your run-of-the-mill 8-man, but there are a couple more minor points that we should definitely be aware of.

3. Because there is so much “hate-drafting” going on, decks tend to be slower and less focused, which cause the games to go longer, altering the value of certain cards.

When we spend picks taking cards away from our opponents and they are spending picks taking cards away from us, this has the natural effect of causing the decks to be slower and less focused. Because of that, the games often go longer, and that can change the very texture of how we should think about a format. When we are evaluating cards in Team Draft, a general rule of thumb is that overpriced, very expensive cards tend to be better. A few examples from M15 would be: In Garruk’s Wake, Feral Incarnation, and Stormtide Leviathan.

The disparity is not so big that it would move any of these cards to an instant first pick or anything like that. But the disparity is big enough that we’d generally be pretty happy to take these cards. Of course there are always exceptions, and this doesn’t mean every card that costs 7 or more instantly becomes playable in a Team Draft, but when the effect very often will win you the game, cards do become playable, on average, when they wouldn’t be otherwise in an 8-man.

4. Knowing the cards that you passed in the draft is much more important, due to the fact that your team will be 100% to have to worry about every card in the draft that you don’t own.

Paying attention to what cards we’re passing is a good habit develop no matter what type of draft we’re participating in, but it’s particularly important in Team Drafts. Given that in a Team Draft, every card that isn’t in possession of our team is in the possession of the other team, having all that information available will prove exceptionally valuable during the matches. Typically the first thing I do after finishing a Team Draft, even before constructing my own deck, is to spend a few minutes discussing what I passed with my teammates. This way, the information is fresh in my mind, as well as my teammate’s minds, and we can use that information to figure out what cards our opponents have, and often exactly which opponent has them. Also, we can pinpoint the colors of specific opponents and use that information to make deckbuilding decisions, where applicable.

Team Draft is a unique format that has many levels and many layers. While it’s impossible to teach all of it in one article, hopefully after reading this article, you will feel like you have a good starting point, and a good guide about how to approach Team Draft. The next tournament that I’m certain to be going to is Grand Prix Salt Lake City in a few weeks. It’s possible I’ll decide to go to something before that, but I’m not sure yet. I’ve been to Salt Lake City once before, and I really liked the city, so I’m really looking forward to going back. Hopefully I’ll see you there!


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