Utter Beatings – The Cadillac of Magic

Aten calls it the Cadillac of Magic. Brian Hacker says it is the purest Magic being played. It is the true format of every Pro Tour and Grand Prix. It is, simply, the 3 on 3.

The links, if you want them:

Tim Aten

Team drafts are similar enough to your traditional eight man. Your card valuations, format knowledge, and playskill carry over perfectly, and are going to be far more important than any skills specific to teams. That said, ignoring the nuances of team drafting would be a mistake, one that is apparently all too common in Magic media, if not in drafts themselves. Thus, a look at some basic strategic differences between individual and team drafts.

Hate drafting is obviously far more common in team drafts, as hurting your opponent’s deck is just as good as improving your deck. However, the nature of the format still makes it difficult to effectively hate draft all that frequently.

How to Hate

The card you hate needs to be significantly better than the next best card in the pack for your opponent. If you hate draft a Terminate, but there is still a Sangrite Backlash in the pack, you aren’t really making your opponent’s deck much worse. There needs to be a wide gap in power between the two best cards for your opponent to even consider hating. This is most often only going to be the case with the biggest and baddest, Lavalanche and Behemoth Sledge level bombs, which are too strong to pretty much ever justify shipping, or when there is only one playable in the pack for your opponent.

Hating can be very costly for you individually, as getting stone nothing out of a pack for your deck is much much worse than getting even a marginal card. Because there is less cooperation and more hating going on in team drafts, it is more difficult to assemble 23 playables. Where in an individual draft, missing out on a marginal card that would have made your deck may not be a big deal, as the next most marginal card you play instead is extremely close in strength, in teams you are much less likely to have such a replacement. The difference between getting a 24th playable that is a slight upgrade, and getting that same card when you otherwise would have had only 22 playables, is enormous. You need to take into account how on course you are to filling out your own deck; there is a pretty low limit to how much hating you can do and still end up with a reasonable deck. (Abandoning trying to have a reasonable deck, and instead drafting strictly to weaken your opponent’s decks as much as possible, is an option, but it is neither popular nor in my opinion profitable.)

Shards block is especially harsh on playable counts, due to a ton of garbage in the first two boosters as well as lots of lands. Consider how many playables you tend to end up with in an individual SCR draft; it is rare to have more than a couple spares. All it takes is a few extra picks lost and you are going to wind up short. Between hate picks you make, hating your opponents do, and general non-cooperation in regards to colors, you can expect a few picks lost being the bare minimum. Cards that you would not normally want to end up playing are thus more important and valuable in teams.

Then you also need to account for how hating affects the rest of the table, not just the player you are passing to. Hating one card makes the pack weaker for the rest of the table, including your teammates, so you need to factor in the damage you do to them as well as to your opponents. Most importantly, or at least most recognizably, how does your hate draft affect what your teammate on your left is going to get out of the pack? Going back to the Terminate and Sangrite Backlash, even if there is absolutely nothing you would play in the pack and the player you are passing to is in RB, it’s probably not right to take the Terminate. If your teammate could play the Backlash, and the difference in strength between the Backlash and the next best card for your teammate is larger than the difference in strength between the Terminate and Backlash, then you should pass both cards. Even when you take the one card your opponent could use, that just means they are going to be hating, and that could be worse for your team than just letting them have the one card.

Uncertainty in what everyone at the table is playing also makes it hard to hate draft. In an individual draft, when you hate a card, you know you are for sure taking it from a potential opponent, but in teams you may well be taking a card from a teammate. You should try to have a pretty good idea what colors your neighbors are in, but that’s not always possible, and you can never be sure, especially early in a draft.

All of this goes to say that outright hating does not come up with alarming frequency. It is still critically important to make your opponent’s decks as bad as possible; hate drafting is just not the most efficient way to do so. What’s much more common is taking cards that may be worse in your deck, but would be better for your opponent. For example, Thopter Foundry may be better for your deck, but if you suspect you are passing to GW, you are definitely going to take Crystallization over it.

What you really want to have happen is for the best card for you in every pack to also be the best card for the opponent you are passing to, which brings us to signaling. Signaling in an eight man is all about cooperation. It is in your and your neighbors best interests to cooperate, and try to stay out of the same colors. You receive and interpret signals indicating what colors are open, and want to send good signals that will help your neighbors do the same. Signaling in team drafts is completely different, as you want to actively be uncooperative. You want to intentionally send bad signals to the opponent on your left; you want them to be in the same colors as you. “Hooking” the player you are passing to, luring them into your colors, is the finest way to derail their draft.


Clearly, then, you cannot interpret signals as you would in an individual draft. This is not to say that all signals are meaningless, or that a strong signal for a color is a trap baiting you into the color, as colors will be under/over-drafted, and signals will still clue you in to that. What teams mostly affect are the significance of early signals – namely, that they have none. You can’t assume that the best card being the same color in picks two and three means that the color is open, nor can you assume that your opponent is going to cut the color. Once everyone has started to settle into their colors by the middle of the first pack, you can start to see what is truly open. It’s always difficult knowing when to commit to an archetype, and team drafts further complicate the issue by more or less removing early signals. Though you can’t really wait until the middle of pack one before committing to colors, it is still a good idea to stay a little more flexible in team drafts.

Signaling gets all the more complicated in teams as there are people in the draft you want to cooperate with, they just aren’t your neighbors. I don’t have any real sage advice on how to send and receive good signals with your team, while doing the opposite to the opposing team, aside from knowing your teammates well. Ideally you will all know each other’s draft preferences and rough pick orders. You can’t plan out who is going to draft what in advance, or expect your teammates to always be certain colors, but knowing that they take Wild Nacatl over Agony Warp or whatever is very useful information. Knowing such preferences will help you figure out where the cards in each pack are going to end up, and what each player is drafting. It is a good idea to have varied draft preferences on a team, as you want to end up in different colors. Being in the exact same colors as both teammates is the surest sign of an impending loss. Team chemistry is definitely relevant, and the more you draft with the same people the better you will do together.

Putting it all together, let’s say you open a pack with Mycoloth, Oblivion Ring, Agony Warp, and trash. Mycoloth and Oblivion Ring are pretty comparable in value as first picks, and regardless of which you would prefer in an individual draft (full bias disclosure: Oblivion Ring, not especially close), I think Oblivion Ring is the clear pick here in a team draft. Your opponent on the left will have little choice but to take the Mycoloth (though a master may get you good by passing it), and starting off with a White card leaves you in good position to cut Green. If you move into Naya, your opponent could at best be in one color you are not if he sticks with the Mycoloth and one shard. Meanwhile, your teammate gets a third pick Agony Warp that he can hopefully take advantage of. You can focus on snapping up White and Green, even if it means shipping a nutty Esper/Grixis deck, as your teammate is most likely the one getting it.

If instead you were to take the Mycoloth and pass the Oblivion Ring, it becomes much harder to cut your opponent, as Oblivion Ring is so much more flexible. You can still move into White, but Oblivion Ring makes such a good splash card that your opponent is unlikely to get sucked in to heavy White if you are cutting it. In the worst case, your opponent would end up in Esper, which your Green deck will be forced to ship through. Even worse, your teammate is likely taking the third pick Agony Warp, and may well find himself getting hooked.

Well I’m off to Kansas City for a weekend of drafting (and Nats too I suppose). A parting piece of advice, sure to keep you cringing until next week: don’t get hooked in team drafts; get hooked on them.

4 thoughts on “Utter Beatings – The Cadillac of Magic”

  1. Except…. your opponent first picked something. He will likely pick the card that best compliments his first pick/draft plan. If he first picked anything esper or grixis he isnt taking mycoloth over warp. also, he may have tried a similar rope-a-dope as you did, taking o ring first passing tower gargoyle to make lefty commit. Not to mention the fact that he knows mycoloth needs more support than warp, and he knows you’ll be attempting to cut that support.

    Here’s hoping we both bust out day 1 at nats.

  2. The whole hatedrafting issue makes it much more strategic to have one team sit on one side of the table. This makes the middle deck the strongest deck and the left-hand deck the “hatedraft” position. I think this additional level of strategy would make team drafting more interesting at the 2v2 and 3v3 levels (more like the old Team Rochester format). Does anyone out there do this?

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