Today we’re going to talk about winning drafts. This topic has been on my mind since Grand Prix Oakland, but this Modern Polymorph deck I have been playing derailed me. That deck is so much fun.
People usually know me as a rogue deckbuilder who sometimes releases smash hits and sometimes puts out mediocre drivel. People usually don’t know me for Limited, but I can play a little bit too.
Time for some stats brags. I was first rated in the 1900s on Magic Online for draft as a 13 year-old in 2003. This was strictly from drafting 8-4s. I have 3-0’d drafts at Pro Tours in Amsterdam and San Juan, and also 3-0’d a draft in Oakland. I’m no Ben Stark, but I have my own ideas, and maybe even the Ben Starks of the world can find something new in this article.
Drafting is fun. Winning drafts is more fun.
Good play is very important to winning in Limited, but so much happens in the draft. It’s rarely straightforward because of how many factors go into the picks. I often hear streams of newer drafters say things like, “what do you think is the pick here?” and, “we have to pick this card.” I don’t think it really works that way.
I think there is rarely a surface level “pick” and rather a card that we decide to pick. There aren’t cards that we have to pick, but again, cards that we decide to pick. It undermines the complexity of options to reduce drafting to something so clear-cut. Sometimes you are going to win more by taking the average common over the bomb rare just because of color preference. I think that’s amazing.
What’s the pick? Err, which of these will we pick?
Well, it depends. So let’s talk about what it depends on.
Drafting for Curve
What’s the pick?
What’s the pick?
Well, one of these creatures is much bigger than the other. It’s more powerful. So it’s better? But the other one is much cheaper. It’s much easier to cast. So it’s better?
Regardless of the draft format, there will be times to take one over the other. So how do you decide?
It’s a matter of curve. If I have no big drops, I might want the big drop. If I have a lot of big drops, I might want the early drops. If I have a lot of early drops and I want redundancy, maybe I want another early drop.
This is probably obvious to the majority, but there’s a lot that goes into this that isn’t obvious. For example, cost sorting. On Magic Online I am going to right-click cost sort from the beginning. This always gives me a clear picture of what our curve looks like and what holes in our curve we are looking to fill. In a paper draft, I am going to cost sort between packs and do nothing else. This way I can know when to prioritize a 4-drop in the next pack, for example.
We know curve is important, but we need to act on it by cost sorting. Otherwise we might end up with the dreaded mono-4-drop deck.
What is a Good Curve?
The curve is somewhat dictated by the format’s metagame. Sometimes there aren’t good 2-drops (or people don’t believe there are good 2-drops) and a superior curve moves everything one slot over to the 3-drop spot. It’s good to know the good early drops and have an understanding of what the majority view is for this.
The idea behind a “curve” or “curving out” is the general theory that the player who spends the most mana wins the game. When we are mana-screwed we don’t get to spend much mana. When we are flooded we don’t get to spend much mana. Make sense?
Thus, our curve is built with the goal of maximizing our mana over the course of the game. We would like to play a land and have the option to use all of our mana for the important turns of the game. This means a good mix of casting costs—maybe on turn 5 we play a 5-drop, maybe we play a 3-drop and a 2-drop, or a 4-drop and a 1-drop.
Expectation of game length is really important here. If there is a chance of a short game, we want 1- and 2-mana options so we can spend our mana in the early and mid turns. If we expect a long game we want to fill our deck with more expensive spells so that on turn 7 we draw a 7-mana spell instead of a 1-mana spell.
When I draft, I am constantly evaluating cards based on cost. One might be much more powerful than the other, but I will be pulled to a card simply by its casting cost.
I might prefer a [card]Giant Spider[/card] to a [card]Shivan Dragon[/card] in my green/red deck if I already have a ton of awesome 6-drops and I really need a 4-drop.
In some of my best drafts, I’ve alternated drafting mono-color in each pack. In pack one I drafted all blue, in pack two I drafted all red, and in pack 3 I drafted all blue, for example. There are lots of situations that this will come up in and it will often lead to an absurd deck.
At Pro Tour Amsterdam I needed to 3-0 my draft in order to advance to Day 2. I opened a [card]Fireball[/card]. Sweet! The next pack had multiple awesome blue cards and no red cards. This continued for all of pack 1.
Red was clearly not “open,” so I found my way into blue. The problem was that blue was so bountiful that I passed a ton of amazing blue cards even while taking the best one out of each pack. I could expect my neighbor to be blue, which meant I wouldn’t see much blue in the next pack. However, since I didn’t pass any red, I could expect to see red.
Maybe this is obvious, but it was important for forecasting my decisions for the rest of the draft. I could write off my Fireball and move into a color that is more “open.” But since I could expect blue to flow again in pack 3, all I need is a color from this one pack, so why not red?
The draft played out exactly that way. I was passed a string of premium red [card]Lightning Bolt[/card]s in the second pack and didn’t see any blue. When the currents alternated the final time, I again received an abundance of blue but didn’t see red, which was fine.
I ended the draft with an amazing blue/red deck that easily got me into the second day of competition, where I employed the same strategy for a 5-1 draft record.
So how is this relevant to future drafts?
This draft strategy is most useful in situations that your primary color is SO abundant, SO rich, SO overflowing that you can expect the player downstream to be in your same color. Say you are picking [card]Shivan Dragon[/card]s over [card]Chandra’s Outrage[/card]s the first couple picks—you can’t expect to get much red in the second pack no matter how hard you try to cut it.
So what was the color that you saw NONE of in pack 1? Since you saw none of the color, you can expect the player downstream to have seen the same, and he/she will be hooking you up in the second pack. After all, you only need a fill in for this next pack and it’s back to all red.
Doing this tends to really screw over the person passing to you, as you probably didn’t see any cards of that color for a reason—they were taking them. And now they don’t get any. Oh well.
Jumping to Another Color
This doesn’t come up that often, but it is absolutely the hardest part of drafting. There will be drafts where you find that things aren’t going that well in your blue/green deck.
A premium red card shows up late in pack 2. Do I jump for red? Or do I stick with this mediocre blue/green deck? You stick with a green card. And then the next pack the same situation occurs. And at some point you are going to wish you were in red.
I think the key here is being mentally present. It’s hard to know whether you are going to make a huge mistake by jumping, and it’s hard to know how the packs shake out. But each time we have to think, “Is NOW the time to jump? Do I jump NOW?” If we instead think, “I wish we had jumped two packs ago,” we are not mentally present and wasting precious memory.
The times to jump are usually those times when the draft is going poorly. Maybe our blue/white deck is so bad that even a pack 3 [card]Decree of Pain[/card] is better than all of our white cards. Maybe it happens earlier, maybe it happens later. Maybe you will win more or less by moving in.
What I can tell you for sure is that it’s unproductive (and feels horrible) to spend two packs thinking, “Man, I wish I were in red.”
Hate drafting is where you pick a card that another player would want when there isn’t a card available that you want. Hate drafting is also taking an excellent card that another player wants over a card you want.
Here’s the deal. When we are drafting, we’re trying to beat all 7 other players. The best way to beat all 7 other players is to produce the best possible deck. When we work to make one player’s deck worse… well, we still have to beat the other 6 guys and we’re farther away from that than before.
Hate drafting is generally sabotage. We sabotage someone else at the table, and we sabotage ourselves. Seriously. If it’s not making our deck better, it’s not going to help us beat the table.
Hate drafting is never something I would do in pack 1 or 2 because of how badly it can backfire. Maybe there is a late [card]Grizzly Bears[/card] coming back around that we know that we will not play. If we let it through, the downstream player will be happy to be green. “Yes, it tabled!” If we hate draft it, the downstream player will be unhappy to be green. “Oh my god, it didn’t come back.”
And if the downstream player isn’t happy, that player might switch into our colors. Hate drafting—or mutual sabotage?
Then there are the times where we open up something solid for us, but there is an off-color planeswalker as well. Sure, we could hate draft the bomb, but there is a great card for us—a card that can help us beat all seven other players. We might not even get paired against the bomb, they might not even draw it, and we can possibly beat it anyway, by making our deck as good as we can—by picking this other card in the pack.
Don’t hate draft. Love draft thy neighbor.
Those are my general thoughts on winning drafts right now. I’m sure new ideas will come to me, and maybe I will revisit this in the future. I hope this helps you win more drafts!
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