Anatomy of a Draft: A Beginners Guide to MTG Drafting, by Tom Harle

How to Get Better at Magic The Gathering by Tom Harle

Anatomy of a Draft: A Beginners Guide to MTG Drafting by Tom Harle

This week I want to really break down the thought processes that you should be going through during a draft – for some of you this will seem very basic and obvious but sometimes its good to go back and refresh ourselves from first principals, so hopefully there’s something here for everyone!

I’ll probably refer to a few cards from M13 and Return to Ravnica to make examples but really I’m talking about all draft formats in general terms, each format will have slight variations and I’ll try to highlight them where I can but think of this more as a general guide to drafting rather than for a specific format.

The First Pick

So first things first – the first pick. Personally I think people put too much stock in their first pick and I believe this is generally due to the fact that it’s the most discussed pick of any draft format.

Realistically speaking its impractical to talk about non first picks when asking people card comparisons like “Pacifism vs Murder in M13” because there’s just too many other things to factor in in other picks (other cards in the pack, cards passed and already drafted etc.)

In my opinion one of the most common mistakes people make when drafting is to open a good/bomb rare and then force the colour blindly regardless of what signals they’re receiving from their neighbours and ending up with a weaker deck because they were in the wrong colours. So, that aside, what can we say about the first pick – in broad strokes there’s 3 main scenarios that can happen with a first pick – an obvious powerful bomb card, a close pick between 2-3 powerful cards, a bunch of mediocre cards.

Ideally we open a powerful bomb and have a very obvious first pick – cards like Planeswalkers and Mythic Dragons and Angels usually fit this category but there have been formats where the best cards in the format have been commons, such as Sparksmith in Onslaught drafts. In a close choice between powerful cards there are a few things to consider – the power levels which we shall assume are very close else we’re back in scenario 1, the mana costs and the relative colour power in the format.

Given a close pick between 2 cards such as Pacifism and Murder, like I mentioned earlier, I would personally go with the Pacifism as it is just a single White mana to cast and therefore easier to splash, and I think White is better than Black in M13, even though arguably Murder is the slightly more powerful card.

The third case where all the cards are mediocre is unfortunate but the same things apply – power level, mana cost and relative colour power level. Between something like Dragon Whelp and Primal Huntbeast I’m taking the easier to cast Green monster, again for casting cost and colour reasons.

Picks 2 – 4

So we’ve made our first pick and now we get into the really interesting picks – 2 to 4. The most ideal situation is where you have a powerful card and get passed more good cards in the same colour – easy. Keep picking up the goods until you’re forced into taking a second colour by running out of good picks in your main colour, or because a very powerful card in a second colour turns up. Either way the first few picks where you stayed in 1 colour should have given you time to notice what good cards in other colours you have been being passed.

Always try and pay attention to what you’re being passed and passing on. Sometimes you’ll have passed a few good Blue cards while taking White cards, for example, then be given a choice between a good Blue card or a slightly better Black card. The correct choice here is probably the less good Blue card as you’ve been passed better Blue overall and can therefore assume you’ll get better Blue cards than Black in pack 3.

Decisions, Decisions

So what do we do if we’re not passed cards in colours matching our bomb first pick? – well if the new cards are more powerful than the old then that’s usually a pretty good signal to go into that colour. If someone’s passing me a Murder then they’re probably not drafting Black and I probably should.

There’s always the chance that they’ve opened something better in the same colour but pick 2 you shouldn’t worry about that, hopefully it’ll become clear before too late that you’re being cut out of the colour and you’ll have time to switch. If the new cards aren’t as good then we’re back to making our decision based on the old trio of card power, mana cost and relative colour power, although this time we also know what we’ve passed in pack 1 to help us inform our decision.

Let’s continue our example from earlier where we’ve taken Pacifism over Murder pack 1 – what’s the right pick from pack 2 if it contains, say, another Murder and a Searing Spear. Well there’s arguments for the Murder such as we discussed above but personally I think you’re better off with the Spear – the person who’s just been passed 2 Murders is going to be in heavy Black so you’re not going to be fighting for colours with him in pack 2.

I see it quite a lot where people make this mistake – passing a powerful card like Serra Angel in one pick and then getting passed a second and taking it. What you’re actually doing is fighting for your neighbours for colours and making both your decks weaker. Better to coorporate with your neighbours and have the second best deck at the table (assuming the double Serra deck is the best) than fight for colours and have the 5th and 6th best decks at the table.

Read the Signals

So what changes if we start off without a really good card and just have something mediocre. Well if we’re passed things of higher power level then it’s pretty obviously the right pick to take the good cards that our upstream neighbour has already rejected – in that situation we’re the guy being passed the Murder from our example above and we can probably pretty safely assume that the person upstream knows they’ve passed a very good Black card and should stay out of Black in future.

So what if pack 2 is very similar to pack 1 and doesn’t really have anything noteworthy – just another bunch of mediocre cards. Well, assuming the power level is very similar again, I’d be very tempted to take a card of a different colour to the first pick. Our first pick in this scenario wasn’t that great anyway so we’re not that attached to it, and by taking a card of another colour we’re keeping our options open and hopefully a card will come that clearly signals what colour we should be moving into.

It’s not that uncommon in some draft formats to take 3 or even 4 different colour cards in the first 4 picks before finally deciding on your final colours. Remember you’re trying to draft the best deck you can and there’s nothing that says you can’t play all cards from packs 2 and 3 and nothing from pack 1, so don’t get too over attached to your first picks if it’s obvious you should be in a different colour.

This is something that does vary quite a lot from format to format and cards that reward heavy colour commitments usually reward being in the right colours more, and therefore allow for later switching. Shadowmoor for example had a cycle of cards for which basic land mattered (Corrupt, Armoured Ascension, Jaws of Stone etc.) and you could very easily get them very late if you positioned yourself in the right colours for the table. It wasn’t that uncommon to not really make a colour decision until pick 9 when your initial pack came back!

Thinking about how Return to Ravnica is I think it’s going to be similar but not quite as extreme – assuming that most decks will be based around a single guild means there are less possible deck types being drafted and so correctly being in the Golgari seat will reward you more than correctly being in the Black seat would in a normal draft. This is due to the higher relative power level of the gold cards compared to the mono colour cards, and the fact that the good mono cards will be able to go to the Rakdos and Selesna seats. Time will tell if this is true of not!

The Expanding Decision Tree

As the draft goes into pick 3 and beyond the decision tree becomes huge as each pack puts more and more information into what you have to consider. The principals remain the same though and if you keep thinking about what colours your passing and being passed then hopefully somewhere around pick 4-5 you should be settled in your colours and you should have a good idea of what colours your neighbours are in, both from what you’ve passed downstream and what you’ve not been getting passed from upstream. So the rest of the draft should just be taking the best card for your deck based on the colours you’re in and your mana curve.

Well, yes, usually but sometimes there’s a great big bomb rare in pack 2 and you’re tempted to switch colours. This is a very tricky one to work out in the abstract as it very much depends on what else is in the pack and has been drafted etc, but there’s a few key points to consider – firstly is it in a colour that you’ve been passing or in a colour that you’ve just not been passed.

For example if you’ve been shipping Talrand’s Invocations and awesome Blue to your left in pack 1 and then open something very good in Blue in pack 2 (such as a Jace or similar) then you’re probably not going to be getting any other good Blue in pack 2 as the player on your left will be cutting you.

If you’ve not passed anything worth playing in Blue in pack 1 then you’re probably slightly better off switching into Blue for the bomb mythic and taking as much Blue in pack 2 as possible. Now when pack 3 happens hopefully you’re upstream neighbour will have either abandoned Blue but more likely just been forced more into their second colour and you’ll be able to split the good Blue cards.

Obviously like everything about draft it very much depends on what’s already happened and one of the key skills in drafting is recognising the signals from your neighbours and which colours your should be in and when you should switch.

The other key factor in whether you should switch pack 2 in my opinion is how good your deck already is. The better the cards you’re giving up the less likely you should switch, especially if there’s a pretty good card in your colours – remember you’re only going to be playing 3 of the 7 people you’re drafting with so there’s a pretty good chance you won’t ever face the bomb rare anyway.

Neighbours, everybody loves good neighbours

So hopefully that wasn’t too hard to follow and you’ve picked up an idea or two about draft. Basically what it all boils down to is always thinking about how you’re positioned in relation to your neighbours colour wise, thinking about what signals you’re both sending and receiving and balancing between keeping your options open and committing heavily to a colour.

One thing that I do think it’s worth doing occasionally if you can find people is a Rochester draft – for the new players this is where you open a single booster and lay it out face up and draft starting with player 1 and then moving around the table taking 1 card at a time.

When it gets to player 8 they take 2 cards and it goes back around the table 7, then 6, then 5 etc. so everyone but player 1 will get 2 cards. Then player 2 opens his booster and the same thing happens and so on. Pack 2 starts with player 8 and goes the other way around the table and pack 3 is back with player 1 and clockwise.

It’s quite a long winded process, which is why its not supported as a draft format anymore, but it also shows exactly how people are positioning themselves in relation to their neighbours’ colours and might help your learn something about your next booster draft!

Video: Pro Tour Nagoya 2011: Top 8 Booster Draft

Above is a video the Pro Tour Nagoya 2011 top 8 booster draft, featuring some of the best Magic players in the world. This video should help show you how a Booster Draft works.

Thanks for reading, thanks for sharing.

Tom Harle

Anatomy of a Draft: A Beginners Guide to MTG Drafting, by Tom Harle
This week I want to really break down the thought processes that you should be going through during a draft – for some of you this will seem very basic and obvious but sometimes its good to go back and refresh ourselves from first principals, so hopefully there's something here for everyone!

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