Autopsy Of A Draft: Who Won This Draft, And Why?

Drafts containing lower-level players play by a different set of rules than those that take place at Pro Tours and Grand Prixs. I wanted to dissect an amateur draft and try to work out exactly where certain players went wrong. Not top-level drafts – but drafts with players of varying skill, such as those you may take part in at your local store or on Magic Online. In order to do this, I had to talk to the players after the draft and find out what decisions they made and how they affected the draft. Hopefully, the results are worth it; they certainly opened my eyes to a few things.

I often finish drafts and wonder what the hell went wrong. Sometimes none of the colors flow properly; sometimes, I get great picks in a color only for it to dry up. Sometimes I think my deck is good, only for it to get trounced in the first round by a deck packing more bombs than a B52. Sometimes it would be nice if I could go back and find out exactly what went wrong, who picked what colors and who got the shaft as a result.

Magic strategy sites often break down Top 8 drafts from big tournaments, and these are very helpful – but somehow, I feel they are not totally relevant to the kind of drafts in which I regularly indulge. When playing in Grand Prixs, Gary Wise doesn’t have to put up with an upstream raredrafter. Brian Kibler doesn’t wonder if the guy to his left is drafting 5-color green. Anton Jonsson needn’t wonder if the person to his right picked Skirk Prospector over Sparksmith.

Basically, drafts containing lower-level players play by a different set of rules than those that take place at Pro Tours and Grand Prixs. The point of this article is to dissect a draft and try to work out exactly where certain players went wrong. Not top-level drafts – but drafts with players of varying skill, such as those you may take part in at your local store or on Magic Online. Obviously, in order to do this I had to talk to the players after the draft and find out what decisions they made. Hopefully, the results are worth it; they certainly opened my eyes to a few things.

The Draft

I elected a standard OOL booster draft on Magic Online in the 4-3-2-2 queue. I chose this queue because it contains a good mix of players of varying skill levels. I decided I was going to use this draft for the article before I started, so I did not select one where I did deliberately badly or well. Nor did I select one that had any particular nuances. This was just your run-of-the-mill Magic Online draft.

To picture the table, here is a list of the players in the draft, along with their corresponding Limited rating:

Seat 1 – Wizard_Cool (1583)

Seat 2 – RuudWay (1799)

Seat 3 – MrNinja (1654)

Seat 4 – Me (1640. It’s back up to 1674 now, but at the time it was 1640)

Seat 5 – Joinky116 (1730)

Seat 6 – The Legendary Starbolt (1597)

Seat 7 – Crispy (1572)

Seat 8 – Dragonluv (1601)

As you can see, there was a good mix of abilities here. I noticed my first-round opponent was average, while I was feeding a good player (allowing me to signal) and was being fed by a reasonable player (yes, 1654 is actually reasonable on Magic Online – rating points are harder to come by). In an average first pack, I took Wirewood Savage (the only playable green card) over Lavamancer’s Skill, Inspirit, and Pacifism. The rest of the pack was unspectacular.

Second pick, I got a Snarling Undorak; a strong signal that my daddy was not in Green, although the card missing was rare so it was not definitive. I then picked up two decent red cards in Embermage Goblin and Skirk Commando. G/R Beasts was looking very good at this point. I then picked up a Goblin Taskmaster – and then, 6th pick, with no decent red or green available, I took Festering Goblin. From picks 7 onwards, there was strong white and blue but nothing much in any of the other colors, although I picked up a couple of playable black cards including Crown of Suspicion.

So as I headed into pack two, my deck is a bit aimless. I was hoping that the lack of playables in red and green in pack one would mean that the people to my left would have been cut off from these colors and I would then be able to reap the rewards. However, I had the backup plan of B/G or even B/R if not. I assumed Joinky116 to my left would be W/X (possibly even W/U) given the amount of quality white I had shipped; I feared MrNinja to my right must be playing two of G/R/B, and I feared he may also be G/R.

Pack two started very strangely. My first three picks were Nantuko Husk, then another Husk, then Krosan Tusker, then Gluttonous Zombie. There was no red in the packs at all, but I did manage to pick up some more green (including two Symbiotic Elves to go with my Husks) and the black just kept flowing. The Gangrenous Goliath I passed in the first pack even came back to me in 9th! I decided to solidify into B/G and hope I could pick up a couple of Timberwatch Elves and other goodies in pack 3.

Pack 3, I did manage to get a Timberwatch on the first pick and picked up a few other decent cards before the quality dried up completely about pick 6. My deck ended up fairly decent, with the Husk/Symbiotic combo being my best win condition but I had a few flyers, Shepherd of Rots, and Timberwatch Elf as backup plans. Mysteriously, my deck was nearly all creatures, with Tribal Unity as my only non-creature maindecked card.

I will keep the tournament report brief, because it is not the main thrust of the article.

Round 1 Vs Dragonluv (playing B/G)

Game 1 saw us both play a lot of Zombies which resulted in a creature stalemate. Eventually he got a Shepherd of Rot on the table and would have won in two turns, but I managed to force through some damage with a Tribal Unity, which prevented him from activating his Shepherd. Eventually I was able to drop a Shepherd of my own and win.

Game 2, he dropped a Wellwisher and a Shepherd, which he used to dig away at my life total while keeping his intact. However, eventually I established my Timberwatch Elf and took control with Gangrenous Goliath and Nantuko Husk, eventually finishing with a Tribal Unity.

Round 2 Vs Ruudway (playing W/R)

First game was all about Husks and Symbiotic Elf. He came out relatively slowly for a W/R deck, and once the Husk was active I was able to pick off his blockers one by one. I eventually won by swinging with a 14/14 Husk.

Game 2, I had him low on life and was almost in a position to alpha strike. Unfortunately, I was unable to force through enough damage before he could take control of the board, and he eventually beat me down with superior creatures.

Game 3 was a bit anti-climactic, as I was mana flooded and he applied swift beatings. Thus ended my participation in the draft.

Underneath the Hood

Now for the interesting bit (although I accept no responsibility if you don’t find it interesting). Incidentally, the results of the draft by round were as follows

QF: Joinky116 beat Wizard_Cool

QF: Ruudway beat The Legendary Starbolt

QF: MrNinja beat Crispy

QF: I beat Dragonluv

SF: Ruudway beat me

SF: Joinky116 beat MrNinja

FINAL: Joinky116 beat Ruudway

Predictably, it was the two 1700+ rated players that made the finals – and as it worked out, it was also the four lowest-ranked players who were eliminated in the first round. Let’s return to the seating arrangement, however, and have a look at what everyone ended up drafting.

Seat 1 – Wizard_Cool (B/R)

Seat 2 – Ruudway (R/W)

Seat 3 – Mr Ninja (B/G)

Seat 4 – Me (B/G)

Seat 5 – Joinky116 (R/U)

Seat 6 – The Legendary Starbolt (G/W)

Seat 7 – Crispy (R/U)

Seat 8 – Dragonluv (B/G)

Some things are immediately obvious. You can see that I misread the draft horribly and ended up drafting the same color combination as my daddy. The fact that I was fed a lot of good black from my left-hand side is now explained, as I had three seats feeding it to me. Also, the eventual winner of the draft had two people feeding him red and five people feeding him blue from the right, so it’s not difficult to see how his deck ended up pretty immense. However, let’s look a little bit closer at the draft and see if we can find out exactly what went on. Firstly, the number of drafters for each color are shown below.

Black – 4

Blue – 2

Green – 4

Red – 4

White – 2

This is pretty standard for OOL draft. It is also fairly common for white to have one more drafter, normally at the expense of either green or black – and since the introduction of Legions, blue may also have a third drafter. However, this is certainly not an abnormal distribution at any level.

What is slightly more intriguing is the distribution of deck types. Given the above ratios of draft colors, it could be expected that the distribution would be something like this.

2 B/G

2 G/R

2 R/U

2 B/W

Now there are only two-thirds of the number of Lavamancer’s Skills to go around, it is likely that the last four may be swapped around with the second blue drafter picking up black or even white leaving the other deck either R/W or B/R (although the latter is only really likely if the U/W player is to the right of the B/R). Now let’s see what we had in this draft:

3 B/G (fair enough)

2 R/U (fair enough)

1 R/W (again, fine)

1 B/R (slightly unusual)

1 G/W (very unusual)

Now, I’m not saying there is anything inherently wrong with drafting B/R or G/W – it’s just that the circumstances have to be very good for these decks to work. G/W lacks ways to deal with small utility creatures, and B/R is difficult because everyone wants these colors and one Crown of Awe can ruin your day.

Given the above deck types, you would have expected the B/R player to be downstream of the G/W player so at least he has a hook-up from one direction. In fact, when Kai won Pro Tour Chicago with B/R, he drafted the deck because he had a G/W drafter to his right. In this instance, though, it was not the case: Wizard_Cool had a black player to his right, meaning he was getting leftovers for two-thirds draft in that color. (In case you’re wondering, yes, I do realise the irony of this statement given my own predicament.)

Unfortunately, the Onslaught Block draft is a finely-tuned machine. Most of the time, with four red drafters and four black drafters, you would expect the colors to alternate around the table. As soon as you get a B/R drafter in the mix, this is now impossible and as a result the rules all change. At this point I decided to talk to some of the players to find out what had happened. As he seemed a likely catalyst, I decided to start with Wizard_Cool, the B/R player. The following was the conversation I had, paraphrased slightly for ease of reading:

8:19 Piemaster – Hi, would you mind answering a few questions about the draft?

8:20 WIZARD_COOL – ok ask

8:20 Piemaster – Cheers.

8:20 Piemaster – First of all what colors did you play in the draft you just played

8:20 Piemaster – (The one where you lost to Joinky)

8:20 WIZARD_COOL – red black

8:21 Piemaster – Why did you choose B/R? Did you try and force it or try and read signals?

8:34 WIZARD_COOL – Because I can destroy his creatures with these colors and then attack him with mine

8:34 Piemaster – Cool, thanks

I didn’t feel the need to continue the conversation any further, as I had learned what I needed to know. He was a young (or new) player and had gone into the draft with the intention to force B/R. This is where all the drafting articles in the world aren’t going to help you. As soon as you introduce a clearly substandard color choice into the equation, most drafting models fall down. However, this doesn’t explain the G/W drafter. If he was downstream from Wizard_Cool, drafting this deck would be understandable (although probably still suboptimal) however he is seated quite a way away in a seat that should probably be B/W or R/W. Here is the conversation I had with The Legendary Starbolt:

8:39 Piemaster – I understand you played G/W in the last draft

8:39 Piemaster – Did you try and force that combination or were you trying to read signals?

8:39 The Legendary Starbolt – Correct, I forced it

8:40 The Legendary Starbolt – Was hoping for more Stingers and provoke in Legions

8:40 Piemaster – Did those colors flow well or was it tough to force?

8:40 The Legendary Starbolt – It was quite easy, I got about 25-26 playables

8:40 The Legendary Starbolt – Tribal on soldiers

8:41 Piemaster – Did you notice any colors that were particularly over or underdrafted on the whole?

8:42 The Legendary Starbolt: red seemed to be over drafted, and white underdrafted, as usual 🙂

Now, this guy I had a bit more time for. Despite trying to force a weak color combination, he at least had a plan and seems aware of what was going on around him. He noticed white was underdrafted – which was unsurprising, as he had three non-white drafters to his right. His observation of Red being overdrafted was probably more to do with Joinky cutting him off than from there actually being too many Red drafters.

So we had two players forcing suboptimal color combinations at near-opposite ends of the table. Fortunately, they were forcing four different colors. If they had both tried to force B/R for example, chaos could have ensued. As it was, the only result is that the colors did not distribute in a normal way. As we will see, the players who ultimately succeeded in the draft were the ones that managed to read the draft correctly and adapt. Let’s look at the remaining six players in the draft and see how they fared.

Seat 2 – RuudWay (beaten in final by Joinky116)

He had the unenviable task of sitting to the right of the B/R drafter. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to have a decent chat with this guy despite the fact he beat me in the semifinal because the final started straight away and then he disconnected when it finished. He seemed well-positioned, with three people feeding him white. He is sharing red with his daddy, but that is unavoidable and is definitely better than black, which he would have been sharing with both upstream drafters. From the left, he also has three people feeding white – and, importantly, two feeding him red. He probably drafted the optimal colors given his seat and with supply lines like this, there is little surprise he made the final.

Seat 3 – MrNinja (beaten in semi final by Joinky116)

Again, I was unable to speak to this guy after the draft – which is a real shame, as I have a feeling that he may have changed colors late. In the first pack I was getting a fair bit of playable Black late, which is inconsistent with having a black drafter on your right. However, I wasn’t seeing a lot of Green. What I suspect is that he may have tried to cut off Green in pack 1, then chose a second color late. Either that or, like me, he picked Red early but then realised it wasn’t flowing (both people upstream were in red) and then changed to black.

Given what was upstream of him, his most productive color combination would have been G/U. However, this is a questionable color combo and so B/G was probably a good second-best. In fact, had I drafted what I should have drafted to his left (as you’ll see in the next paragraph), he would have been pretty well placed. If you are reading this, Ninja, I apologise.

Seat 4 – Me (beaten in semi-final by RuudWay)

Looking at the table, I had a fairly horrible choice of colors. I was sitting in between the two white players, making that a bad option even though it was underdrafted. This is especially true, given the good white I shipped in pack 1, making it likely that my bitch was playing white.

Now, looking at what those upstream of me ended up drafting, R/U would have been the ideal colors for me to draft. However, I shipped two Lavamancer’s Skills – which meant that in practical terms, this was a bad idea. Joinky116 may have elected to stay in R/U, which would have meant I would have got next to nothing in pack 2. Also, pack 1 was very weak for Red, generally even taking into account that the drafters two and three upstream of me were playing Red. This leads me to believe that maybe I was right about my daddy starting in Red and then quitting.

Intentionally or not, I totally cut black in the first pack, which meant I had three non-black drafters to my right causing an insane amount of black to come flowing my way. Therefore I am going to say that despite having it drafted upstream, I was right to draft black.

What deserves some scrutiny, however, is my second color. I fell into the classic trap of falling in love with my early picks. Green was quite clearly bad. With hindsight, the color I should have been drafting is blue. It sounds strange saying you should have drafted the same color as your neighbor when that is already the weakest color, but consider the following five points:

  • I didn’t know my bitch was playing blue; I thought he was playing White. Therefore white, red and green were all bad alternatives with the information I had.
  • I had four people to my right feeding me blue. That is eight potential first-pick blue cards that I would see.
  • Legions is far deeper in blue than Onslaught, meaning it was my right-hand side that was more important.
  • Because Joinky116 was playing R/U, he would be looking for a different kind of blue than I would. I would happily let him have the Mistform Walls and Sage Avens.
  • I already had a Black hook-up from my left and really needed something to flow from the right. Picks in the second pack were not a problem.

The signs were definitely there. I noticed midway through the pack that blue was underdrafted, but lacked the guts to take the plunge and change. On the other hand, maybe I am operating too much on hindsight here and sticking to my guns was the best thing to do. I’m really not sure – and I guess that’s why I am still scrubbing along on Magic Online and not playing on the Pro Tour.

Seat 5 – Joinky116 (won draft)

This guy had a truly golden seat. Here is an extract from the conversation I had with him after the draft:

11:34 Piemaster – Did you try and force R/U or did it flow?

11:34 Joinky116 – Oh it flowed

11:35 Joinky116 – my first pick was a Solar Blast

11:35 Joinky116 – So I definitely knew I wanted to go R

11:35 Joinky116 – But my 2nd and 3rd picks I got passed 2 skills

11:36 Joinky116 – I mean

11:36 Joinky116 – The guy that passed me 2 skills

11:36 Joinky116 – You’d think he’d be more careful about hooking me up with all that blue

11:37 Joinky116 – I got a Sage Aven 11th pick!

No wonder the colors flowed so well! He had five non-blue drafters to his right and two non-red. I don’t know whether to congratulate him for spotting the underdrafted colors or call him lucky, because the two Skills I passed him for picks 2 and 3 landed him squarely in exactly the right color combination. Despite his accidental insult of my skills (he didn’t remember I was his daddy), I will give him the benefit of the doubt and say well done.

Seat 7 – Crispy (beaten in first round by Mr Ninja)

This was the blue player who got the short end of the stick. I was interested to know how much blue he managed to pick up, as there was only one other blue drafter – but he was two players upstream. Fortunately, he was a nice guy and I had a nice chat with him later that night.

9:55 Piemaster – Did you try and force UR or was it passed to you?

9:56 Crispy – well, it was passed

9:56 Crispy – you know you really want to get a skill

9:56 Crispy – but I hate taking them first

9:56 Crispy – because then you have to force

9:56 Piemaster – Exactly. What was your first pick?

9:56 Crispy – I think my first pick was Butcher Orgg

9:56 Crispy – then Pinpoint Avalanche

9:56 Piemaster – And then the Blue started flowing?

9:57 Crispy – I got an Ascending Aven

9:57 Piemaster – There was one other blue drafter on the table. He was two to your right. You may have found you were getting leftovers

9:57 Crispy – seemed like it

9:58 Piemaster – He won the draft actually

9:58 Crispy – guess he got what I was looking for

At first sight, this seems to be a case of falling in love with your early picks. Indeed, since he took a Butcher Orgg first, this may have been the case. Later on in the conversation, he made a comment that he considered signalling practically non-existent in 4-3-2-2 drafts. This is relevant only so far as it suggests that he wasn’t really looking for signals, and so never saw those that were there. Blue is not very deep in Onslaught, so it is normally fairly obvious when you are getting leftovers. However, saying that, this unfortunate player really did have a lack of options brought on because daddy was playing G/W (proving that too much removal is not always a good thing). Green and White are not really deep enough in Onslaught to support two adjacent drafters, so these were clearly bad choices. Blue, as we previously established, was hampered by another blue drafter two seats upstream. Maybe this is the guy who should have gone B/R. The potential was certainly there, but it takes a lot of guts to start drafting it – especially if you are an inexperienced player. The only other real option was B/U, which may have worked out, as black would have flowed very well from the right and blue from the left.

Seat 8 – Dragonluv (beaten in first round by me)

I have a lot of sympathy for this guy – and not only because he got beaten by yours truly. He seems to have chosen colors well, but then picked sub-optimal cards and put together a deck that, while pretty good, could have been better. This is some of what he had to say after our match.

7:35 Piemaster: Were you passed good cards early for B/G

7:35 DragonLuv: Good early green was passed

7:35 DragonLuv: I think I got Wellwisher 3 or 4 pick

7:35 Piemaster: Later on did you find that your colors dried up or did they keep flowing?

7:35 DragonLuv: they actually kept coming pretty good

7:36 DragonLuv: I was pleased with what I got

As you can see, Dragonluv made the classic rookie error of overvaluing Wellwisher. Although it’s a reasonable card, you shouldn’t be that pleased with picking it 3rd or 4th. What he should have been doing is picking the wealth of black cards that should have been flowing down to him due to three non-black drafters to his right. Our games were very close and could have gone either way – the difference was, my cards were of a slightly higher quality on the whole, even though he was better placed for B/G than me. I recommend a dose of Gary Wise card evaluations for Dragonluv.


So what have I learned from this little exercise? Quite a lot, actually – not only about how other people draft but also about myself. Here are some things you can take away from this article that may help you next time you are playing amongst the lower echelons of players:

  • Be prepared to switch colors, as others often won’t. On many occasions, I have fallen into the trap of not switching colors, fearing that other people will too and leave me in a really bad situation. For example: You pass a Pacifism 5th pick and then get passed another. A switch into white may not be a bad idea.
  • I went into this thoroughly in a previous article, but it is also relevant here: Know who you are passing to and receiving from. Signals from a good player mean something, while those from a not-so-good player probably won’t. In the same way, signalling to a weak player downstream by picking an inferior card may not work.
  • If a color isn’t flowing in the first pack, it almost certainly won’t in the third either. In this draft I made the mistake of playing green because of two good early picks and paid for it when I got next to nothing in the third pack.
  • Sometimes, even with hindsight, it is difficult to see what colors you should have drafted. Being able to get the best possible deck in a tricky situation is one of the things that separates the good players from the also-rans.

Happy drafting!


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