Magic for the Masses: Drafting for Dummies

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A few months back, we covered the basics of Magic: The Gathering. We’ve gone over cheap (and highly upgradable) standard decks. These pre-assembled deck options made for engaging, easy play, but one of the most spontaneous ways to play Magic is the booster draft. As a result, it can also be the most fun‚ and it’s no surprise that drafting is the most popular play type on Magic Online, the PC-based version of Magic: The Gathering.

For starters, drafting requires minimal investment. The lowest you can possibly go in MTG competitive play, probably, unless you’re slapping decks together after inheriting Cousin Timmy’s closet shoebox. In a draft, you’re paying for essentially three booster packs that day, and you’ll almost always walk home with the cards that you pulled. It’s a great way to build up your collection over time, and an even better way to hone your skills on the fly. The local events near me charge between $12 and $10 for a booster draft, depending on the day.

In booster draft—and this can be frustrating for some players—no dollar amount can give you an edge. Similarly, if your draft strategy is no good, it can be a tough round of games. Think of drafting as the Wild West of Magic—but, unlike Walter Sobchak’s time in ‘Nam, rules still apply—and we’ll go over your basic draft strategies as well as some courtesy tips. The point of this column isn’t how to design a perfect draft deck, as we could re-visit this concept with every expansion ever released in Magic. The idea here is to get you through your first draft without looking like a dingus.


The Setup
If you go to your local gaming store, booster drafts almost always include one eight-player pod. Players might be divided up into different sized pods to accommodate that day’s turnout—usually of an equal number—but the ideal number here is eight players. If you happen to set this up among friends, try to get as close to eight (and here’s a good article that explains why). Even though it’s fun to organize for a game night, I do recommend going to an event or giving MTGO drafting a try before you host your own, just to see how some of the local pros work.

To start, you a Magic draft event almost always begins with three booster packs per player. From these boosters (and your opponents’ boosters) you’ll build a set of cards into a 40-card deck that, with any luck, is pretty good. For the opening booster, you’ll pick one card and pass the remaining cards to your left. You’ll pick another card from the next stack of cards. Once the cards have been distributed completely, you’ll repeat the cycle by passing right. And you’ll do it once more! Passing—you guessed it—to the left.

Keep the cards you select face-down during this phase. Neighbors picking up on your strategy can be toxic, though, it’s inevitable that the table will get a feel for what’s being drafted. It’s obvious, but if you’re suddenly light on blue spells, someone ahead of you is pulling blue—and that’s why the passing direction shifts in the middle of the draft. And with the Khans block’s three-color cards, it became pretty evident early on if your neighbor was playing a specific clan, and now two-color formats make for some less-predictable match-ups. Understanding what strategies are being played will give you a good basis for what to include in your 40-card deck.


Etiquette Tips:
1. Some players stack their selections on top of their empty booster pack to avoid confusion. With all of your cards face-down, and just that signature Magic design staring back at you, stuff gets confusing for first-time drafters. If you accidentally pass your deck stack, stuff gets messy. So, if you don’t want the entire table picking apart your strategy as you unsort your picks.
2. Depending on what’s dealt to a given player, making a selection might not be the easiest move. Try to move your picks along in an appropriate amount of time—and you’ll get a feel for what that time is once you’re in your draft seat. And if a player needs some extra time? Unless it’s getting ridiculous, don’t be a dick. In most of my experiences, people go to these events to kick back and enjoy themselves. An extra 15 seconds of toe-tapping does nothing for anyone. Similarly, unless you’re taking a Metallica song worth of time to draft three cards, don’t feel too pressured to make your picks immediately.
3. Check with your table whether you’ll be removing land cards from the draft. In most drafts I’ve been to, you’ll set aside any basic lands—which are different from Khans’ lifegain or fetch lands—and the additional promo card included in booster packs.
4. Lands are the only kinds of cards you’re allowed to pull from an outside source, and you’ll be able to add as many basic lands as you like. Fetch lands, life lands and scry lands are totally off-limits, unless you pulled them in your packs. But before heading to your shop, or your friend’s place, you should know before whether you need to bring your own lands. Most drafting locations supply lands for you to grab, but you’re in for a stressful situation if you come landless and there isn’t a pool for you to draw from.


Developing a Strategy:
With your first pack, you’re going to be looking for sheer power or consistency. Think of usefulness and utility, and think about single cards that could have an entire strategy based around them. The first rotating packs, depending on what you’re getting, could determine the entire strategy you pick, so try to pick with power and consistency in mind. But also, remember that this is a shorter game than normal. Although you start at 20 life, your strategies will not be as consistent, and your deck is also 20 cards lighter than standard play.

Remember, the goal of Magic is to bring your opponent’s life total down to zero. So be thinking of how to do that quickly and efficiently in draft techniques. Long-term control strategies and huge drops (think anything past a converted mana cost of five) might not have a place in your booster draft—and the only thing worse than not having an Ugin, the Spirit Dragon in your hand is having him in your opening hand with no way to play him while you’re pummeled by goblins for eight turns.

Now, I’m not saying if you draw an Ugin, the Spirit Dragon you should pass him along. Keep that card. Put him in the awesome U/B control deck you’re building at home. But playing anything with a mana cost of eight is risky in most deck strategies. But here’s where you’ll start looking for trends—is it time to make a Mardu warrior token deck? Or maybe mono-red aggro will work best. After all, going for the throat in draft is usually a good thing.

Check out a recent Dragons of Tarkir Pro Tour draft, where Jacob Wilson has an insane, easy pick on pack one, pick one.


Cutting the Fat
The next two packs should solidify and enforce your strategy. If your first draws include powerful red and white drops, now isn’t the time to go lusting after Dragonlord Silumgar. Though he is a pretty dragon! Use this time to bulk up strategies within your chosen colors, and also plan on making your mana base as accessible as possible. It’s better to grab one of those taplands, which will improve your mana base considerably, rather than another so-so uncommon card. Once you’ve pulled all of your selections, you’ll want to place your picks in a curve in front of you. Inevitably, you’ve probably acquired some last-minute picks that were completely out of your realm of use, so set those aside.

With everything else, place your cards in a curve, sorted by converted mana cost. With this being a speedy game (most draft games don’t go above nine turns currently), you’ll want to rely heavily on cards that drop between turn one and three, but also make room for a few game-ending finishers. In any deck, there needs to be a card that can effectively end the game—and we’re not always as lucky as Jacob Wilson, from that video up there. In one of my so-so Temur draft, that card turned out to be Supplant Form, and on a particularly rough draft, Sandsteppe Mastodon.

It seems like common sense. Okay—it’s common sense. Hopefully you’ve already developed a common thread between not only your mana sources, but the tasks they’ll be carrying out in the game. Effective strategies right now are often tied to the many Khans clans—through Abzan and Mardu, you can build up a deck with an effective pack mentality. Temur, you can pulverize your opponents (or go mid-range with a heavy dose of blue spells), and you can get a little bit of both with Sultai (delve strategies are great) and Jeskai (prowess/burn spells often kill here). But this will change with every block, so we’re not going to spend time on that here.

Focus on what works well within your curve, and adjust your land accordingly. If you’re burning faces across the board with cards like Wild Slash, pick cards that work with that strategy—you can sort out your situational “safety” cards in your 15-card sideboard. If you’re playing mostly one- to three-drop cards with one or two colors, you’re going to be able to restrict your land to a leaner amount—14 being the lowest for a mono-color build. But as a rule of thumb, I’d stick to anywhere from 16 to 18 lands, depending on what your build requires. Three-color, you’ll need around 18, with as many multi-colored fixing options as you can get. Meet somewhere in the middle for dual-colored. If you’re confidently going past three colors (and winning), you shouldn’t even be reading this!

Gameplay Etiquette
1. Present your deck to be cut at the beginning of each duel. You’re expected to do your own cut, as well.
2. Agree on a random way to determine who goes first. Usually rolling two six-sided die is perfect.
3. Make sure you do everything in the correct order. These games are a step up from the casual matches you might hold with your friends—but, unlike your pals, many drafters won’t be as willing to let you draw a missed card, or untap your land later.
4. Remember, you’re here to have fun. Be a good sport. Play some great games of MTG. And if they’re not always so great, you’re always free to drop from the draft. Worst case scenario, you got some good cards.


You’re probably going to learn a lot about drafting by trial and error. At least, that’s how it worked for me. My first few events were board-spanning losses, provided by people who’d been drafting for years. That’s the environment you’ll be in, so plan on having a good time, but maybe don’t walk in with high hopes for a top-8 win. But drafting is an incredible learning resource—one that forces you to think on your toes and know the game’s rules and cards top-to-bottom.

But Magic is also a community with players who want to spread information. If a match doesn’t go so well, ask what your opponent thought you were doing wrong. Early on, at the end of a few notably short games, I’ve had several opponents point out the weak spots in my shakily constructed decks. And my future construction improved because of it.

So, this Friday (or Wednesday, or Sunday, or whenever your local shop does it), go out and draft! Even if you lose, you’ll probably walk home with some sweet cards and a few new Magic-playing buds.

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