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What Makes Human Drafts Different?

The concept that online Magic (Magic Online and Magic Arena) are fundamentally different gaming experiences is something that has intrigued me for a long time. I wrote this article back in 2019 as well as another article on the subject over the summer that was informed by all of my play shifting from IRL paper play to Magic Online due to COVID-19. 

Through and through, I’m a player who grew up with slinging and collecting cardboard cards, not digital ones. That highly informs my preference and expectation for what I enjoy when I shuffle up as opposed to having an auto-shuffler do it for me. 

I’m sad to say that I haven’t done an actual paper draft in nearly a year now because of how social distancing has impacted my life choices and precautions I’ve made for myself and my family. I dearly miss playing with paper cards at the local game store (LGS) back in Michigan with my friends. I’m just biding my time until the day when I can get back out there and enjoy my hobby the way that I love it – sitting around the draft table with my friends at a game store.

I love a good format. Different formats catch my attention for different reasons at various points in time but the one constant is that I always love to play Limited and specifically I love to draft. I used to do a series of articles at the end of the year where I had players vote for their favorite formats and would rank the formats according to votes. Limited, and drafting in particular, was always a top vote getter in these polls – and I believe it’s one of the fundamental touchstones of playing Magic. It’s crazy to me that there are likely tons of new players who haven’t experienced paper drafting because opportunities to gather and play together in person are diminished due to COVID. Today though, I’ll be laying out a few of the key ways that drafting cardboard is a distinctly different experience from drafting online. 

 

Header - Humans vs Robots

The first huge difference between drafting cardboard versus digital is who you’re actually drafting against. On Magic Arena, for instance you were often drafting against bots that have programmed evaluations of cards that dictate what they will select. In person, you’re drafting against other human beings who are selecting cards based on their own evaluations and preferences. 

One thing I noticed about drafting on Magic Arena was that if you can get a sense of how the bots are programmed to value cards, a savvy player can often “game” these evaluations. For instance, there was a period of time during Guilds of Ravnica/Ravnica Allegiance drafts where the bots undervalued common dual lands (Gates). Since the bots didn’t pick Gates as highly as an experienced player would, a savvy drafter could prioritize “gate payoffs” the first time through a pack. They could then reliably wheel a bunch of Gates to facilitate the strategy because the bots didn’t value them highly enough. 

The issue was eventually fixed so that players who understood this dynamic could no longer force “the nuts” gate deck in this way based on bots being unable to adapt to the situation at the table. They also added human drafts to Arena as well, but bot drafts are still available. Obviously, experienced players can benefit from less experienced human drafters at the table the same way as understanding how bots evaluate cards. The dynamic tends to be more pronounced depending upon the experience level of the human drafters at the table. They also added human drafts to Arena as well, but bot drafts are still available.

 

Header - Open vs Closed Cardpools

For anybody who loves doing paper drafts, and especially experienced drafters who have enjoyed high level drafts at Grand Prix and Pro Tours in the past, they’ll all tell you that there’s nothing quite like it in all of Magic. 

You show up at 8:30 in the morning after performing well in Sealed on day one, wait for the seatings to be posted at 9:00. You make your way to your pod to see which players you’ll be playing with for the upcoming draft and subsequent three rounds of the tournament. Are there ringers in your pod? Friends? People you’ve never met before? You’ve now entered a sub-tournament against these eight players for the next three rounds. 

Whether you’re paper drafting at the Pro Tour, doing a paper side event draft or even running a four against four team draft at a LGS, one of the key differences is that the card pool is a closed set of cards. Let’s talk about what this means. 

I have three packs of cards in front of me. Each of the seven other drafters have three packs of cards in front of them. These 24 sealed packs of Magic: the Gathering cards comprise the entire cardpool that anybody will not only have access to, but also be required to play against. 

In an online draft, it’s typically the case that you draft against either bots or eight random players who have entered the queue at the same time as you. However, you’ll ultimately be playing against other opponents who were likely not in your pod and thus had access to completely different packs of cards to build their decks from. 

For instance, if you were in a paper draft and drafted a UW skies deck, if you were the only person in the pod drafting UW, chances are your deck is very good. If there are two UW decks, chances are they are both less ideal than if there were the only dedicated UW drafter. In paper drafts, if you had the inside track and lock on drafting UW, the chances are that your deck is very good relative to the other seven decks in your pod. You certainly won’t be facing off against a stronger UW deck, and you won’t have to worry about a mirror match of a format and archetype-defining strategy.

However, since you’re paired against other players from outside of our pod online, it’s certainly possible to face off against an even stronger UW deck than yours – despite the fact you had the hard lock over UW cards in your pod. 

In both paper and digital MTG, the objective of a draft is to earn a 3-0 record and go undefeated, the key difference being that in paper you’ll only play against other players who were in your pod. Online, you’ll play against opponents from outside your pod. 

The most tangible way this matters relates to the concept of a closed set of cards dictating the terms of one’s projected matches. In an online draft, since I won’t be playing against my podmates (but rather, random opponents from other pods) there is literally zero downside to passing a bomb or powerful cards in order to select the best possible card for my deck. 

In a paper draft, what you pass matters greatly because you have just shy of a 50 percent chance of having to play against whatever you’re passing in the subsequent three rounds of play. You may or may not play against that deck depending upon how things shake out. In a four against four team draft, anything passed will be played against by all of your teammates in every round. It’s clear in a closed paper system that an experienced player is rewarded for building a deck that will be good relative to the other decks in the pod. Conversely, online drafts tend to reward abstractly building to the most powerful 40 card configuration with little regard for what is being passed. 

I appreciate the nuance created by drafting with actual people and packs of cards, and how it informs decisions and card evaluations as they pertain to passing cards to other players in one’s pod (with the knowledge you’ll have to defeat those cards). It’s just not logistically possible to replicate that experience on Magic Online and Arena since it’s inconvenient to force everybody to play out the entire draft in one sitting. 

Those are just the mechanisms that delineate the difference between the paper and online variants of Magic and change key dynamics such as optimization of deckbuilding and card evaluations. If I know bots will wheel me common duals, I will continue to evaluate them highly in terms of their synergy in my deck but I won’t prioritize picking them highly. 

 

Header - Adaptive Players

Players are adaptive. At a Grand Prix Day 2 (which includes two draft pods and six matches) players typically adapt their draft strategies based on what they learned and observed doing well in the first pod for their second draft. Bots never learn or improve (unless they’re programmed to do something different); they do what they are told to do. Bots are programmed to replicate what an experienced player would do in the abstract, but the most important part of being an experienced player is to be adaptive and learn. 

The formatting of online drafts is catered to an audience that wants to do a draft and then play out matches with their deck at their own convenience. It’s practical and Magic Online and Arena both do a good job of fulfilling this requirement of convenience as best as they can. 

However, in my opinion, nothing beats sitting down with eight other players, cracking 24 packs and everybody being present and engaged to play out the full three rounds. It places heightened importance on staying flexible in paper. For instance, you’ll have to consider passing a bomb to a player you’ll have to play against as opposed to taking a solid card for your deck deck. Online, where I know I won’t have to play against that bomb, taking the solid playable for my deck is an automatic choice. In paper, there’s a lot more information to consider about how passing that card might impact your tournament. 

 

Header - Returning to Paper

If you’re new and have never experienced the joy of sitting down in a pod and cracking packs, oh do you have something exciting to look forward to. It’s incredible and one of my favorite ways to play and experience high level Magic. You’ll also want to keep in mind some of these ideas about how what you pass will ultimately impact your ability to 3-0. 

My favorite drafts are always “casual” ones with highly experienced players who love the game. Obviously, in an actual sanctioned event, everybody observes perfect silence during a draft to respect the integrity of the tournament. I love when experienced players gather to battle outside of a sanctioned setting and get to let loose a little bit and have fun with each other. I love a little bit of good-natured, friendly trash talk and joking around between friends. I love people discussing their picks and various dilemmas about what they passed and what they kept. 

Here’s sort of the clear crystallization of the dynamic I’m describing: 

“Sticking to the colors, shipping the nuts.” 

In a casual draft among experienced players this little sing-song mantra is frequently something said. It means that a pick is selected where the primary concern is the relative value of the card weighed against the downside of passing a powerful card. It’s the same as a player saying something like, “DeMars you’re getting a gift in this pack!” The idea of “shipping the nuts” takes into consideration the fact you’re going to somehow have to beat the powerful bomb you just passed.

Ah, the artform of a paper draft! I miss it and I can’t wait until the day when I can sit down at a table, fan out the cards and hear:

“Will you please pick up the pack labeled: Pack A. Please open Pack A – you have 50 seconds to make a pick.” 

There’s nothing in Magic quite like a paper draft. Nowhere in Magic is there more strategy or decisions crammed into a single hour than participating in a draft and building a 40 card deck to duel your podmates with.

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