Chatter of the Squirrel – A Far-Reaching Booster Draft Primer

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I’ve learned tons about 40-card Magic in the last month, mostly thanks to chats with Ervin Tormos. Said Ruski planned on writing “the definitive booster draft article,” but instead decided he’d rather just share his knowledge with friends on AIM and save himself the trouble. Well, I’m not so benevolent, and I’ve got a deadline-thumping Brit to impress, so this is going to be my side of the story…

Those of you who know me understand that I’m real bad at keeping promises.

Last week I told you that I’d be getting back to Block Constructed. That was my intention, but now it’s looking like I’ll have to skip San Diego and there’s once again very little reason to devote time to Block testing. Unlike some other writers, I’m not about to wax poetic about some decklist or another without having tested it, so rather than wasting your time I’m just going to postpone the 60-card decks for a bit and venture on to something I’ve been wanting to do for the last month or so.

Rizzo said recently that theory doesn’t matter (more or less). This is interesting to me because, by contrast, I have no idea how I ever would have moved beyond my Kyscu Drake-sporting R/G midrange flying deck without reading theory articles on the Dojo. I theorize and academize everything, and it’s a fair bet that if I’m doing anything Magic-related well it’s because I’ve sat down and thought about it for some ridiculously disproportionate span of time.

I’ve realized, though, that there really isn’t a whole lot of draft theory out there. Part of the reason for that is because most theory articles offer information related to how you ought to compose decklists, and that element is missing from Limited Magic.

Here’s the deal. I’ve learned tons about 40-card Magic in the last month, mostly thanks to chats with Ervin Tormos. Said Ruski planned on writing “the definitive booster draft article,” but instead decided he’d rather just share his knowledge with friends on AIM and save himself the trouble. Well, I’m not so benevolent, and I’ve got a deadline-thumping Brit to impress, so this is going to be my side of the story. A lot of what I’m going to say will be obvious, and a lot of it will spell out things that most of you probably knew already. Hopefully, though, you’ll be able to use this article as a framework, a method of forming a cognitive schema that helps you organize your thoughts about booster draft in a systemized fashion.

If that makes no sense to you, it will. I think.

And now, we begin:

(Pause for trumpet blasts and Angelic chorales.)

The single greatest rush of understanding about how booster draft works came when I thought about what you’re actually trying to do when you sit down at an eight-man table. Basically, your “environment,” your “format,” your “banned and restricted list,” consists of the twenty-four packs of fifteen cards that are about to be opened at your table. Your goal when you sit down is to place the forty-five best possible selections from that entire pool of cards in front of you, and then construct a deck out of twenty-one to twenty-six of them.

Great, Zac. Your draft advice is, “take good cards.” You are a true master. No wonder you made the finals of a Grand Prix.

Chill for a sec.

We’re going to deal with those numbers first, because both of them are crucial to the outcome of your draft. I’m talking about forty-five and twenty-one-to-twenty-six (and for simplicity’s sake, let’s just say “twenty-three.”) The forty-five physical cards in front of you at the end of the draft are your all, your gimme-gimmes, and your Great I Am. They’re all you’ve got to work with when you sit down to make your deck – but perhaps more importantly, they’re what your opponents don’t have to work with, what they can’t use to beat you. When they go into your pile, they’re taken out of the environment. Meanwhile, your twenty-three cards are your boys, your all-stars, your dream team, your squad. Together, you want them to be better than any other hypothetical combination of cards the seven other draftees could throw your way. That might not always work out, of course, but that’s the idea.

I belabor this 23-versus-45 point because of one key fact: you have to draft your cards knowing that almost half of them are not going to make your deck – and that this is okay, even ideal! I’ll put this another way. It sucks… very hard… to have twenty-eight playables. Why? Think for a minute about why, when you’re drafting, you don’t always just take the objective best card out of any pack and windmill it into your pile. You don’t do that because at some point you’re going to have a deck with given mana requirements, and no matter how high the card-quality most non-IBC five-color specials are not going to be able to cast their spells. Therefore, any draft deck involves a compromise between quality and consistency. The process of drafting and color selection inherently acknowledges this. You have to make some sacrifices in order to insure a streamlined deck that actually has some action on every relevant turn of the game. At the same time, the compromise of synergy (and I don’t mean Arcane TeachingsHorseshoe Crab synergy, but rather the more basic Horseshoe CrabIsland synergy, e.g. having many spells of the same color in your deck) at the expense of power only has value up until the point in which you select your twenty-third card.

Hopefully this is beginning to make sense now. Assuming twenty-eight playables.dec is not just the most obscenely bomb-laden pile ever to grace a card table, that means at least five picks did not achieve maximum value. Now, obviously, you’re going to want a couple of relevant sideboard cards that aren’t maindeck material – a way to deal with a Loxodon Warhammer, maybe, or a way to deal with a Sprout Swarm – but the fact remains that at some point you shipped an Assassinate in favor of that second Bogardan Rager, and it might come to bite you in the ass.

Now, I understand that you have to weigh the benefits of a hate-draft against the risk that later on you might not pick up enough playables, and that you get a lot less value out of a hate-draft in single-elimination drafts where you’re not as likely to get paired against the card you passed. At the same time, the notion that hate-drafts gain you little to no value is simply flawed, especially in a format like Nationals where you’ll have to play against three or four people in your pod. In fact, I dislike the term “hate draft” to begin with, because it implies that you’re screwing yourself somehow to screw somebody else. It’s sort of like using “semi-bluff” when you really mean “correct, higher-EV play.” The math isn’t as simple as “well, in order for a ‘hate draft’ to matter you 1) have to play against the player who would have selected the card that you took, and 2) they would have had to draw that card in a given match, and 3) that card would have had to decide the outcome of the game.” Those are all, of course, relevant considerations, but the fact remains that the “hate draft” is still only incorrect if the card actually in your 23 loses you the game whereas the card that would have been there had you not “hated” would have won it for you.

I’ve been really abstract so far, so it’s time to follow up with an example. Watching Ervin draft on Magic Online, the first two picks were Sedge Sliver and Dark Withering, and the third pack comes around featuring Flowstone Channeler and what I quickly assessed to be a bunch of unplayables. I was about to click on the Channeler – good synergy with Withering, a fine if unexciting man in and of himself – when Ervin almost tackles me to prevent what in his eyes is an inexcusable blunder. “Thrill of the Hunt. Not close,” he says.


I take the Thrill. We end up going R/B, 3-0ing the draft. The Thrill pick, I now realize, was easily the correct pick, and Ervin’s right, it’s not even nearly close.

The single most substantial shift between my drafting a year ago and my drafting now is that I settle into colors much, much later than I used to. Ervin’s correct when he says “you have no colors your first four picks, and there’s no such thing as an on-color pick until pick six or seven.”

Again: forty-five total cards, twenty-three playables. Conventional wisdom dictates, more or less, that you’re going to pick up your playables in the first 7-8 picks and be sorting through chaff later. Sometimes that works out, but recently the most significant determinate factor regarding my final color choice has been my fifth-seventh pick out of the first pack. That’s that point in which you’ll start to notice cards there that shouldn’t be in the pack so late, and will know which colors are opened versus which ones are closed. To relate it to the point made at the beginning of the paragraph, there’s really nothing lost by burning your first three picks if you manage to snag playables seventh, eighth, and ninth. Sure, your overall card-quality might be suffering slightly – but only in the first pack. If you blindly stick to your initial choices, you’re going to be paying for it in Future Sight, and any value you might have gained off those first couple of bombs will be mitigated on down the line.

Now, I know most of you reading this understand not to be wed to your first several picks, but I can’t really overestimate how liberal you can be with off-color selections in the first pack of a draft. In fact, I wouldn’t be too worried about not being entrenched in a color until midway through Planar Chaos.

To understand why the Thrill pick is correct, let’s assign an arbitrary numeric value to Thrill versus Flowstone Channeler. I think we can all agree that if Thrill manages to make your deck, it’s probably going to better than the Gray Ogre would be in its respective 23. The thing is, Thrill in a G/W deck is like a 6.5-7, whereas Flowstone Channeler is a 2.5-3. It doesn’t really matter that Thrill is two colors that you’re not playing, because the chance of Channeler actually making your final 23 is also extremely small. Well, that’s not entirely accurate; he is probably about 40% for making the deck, but it’s unlikely that he’s going to be much better than whatever other card would take up that slot in his stead. Meanwhile, supposing the draft shifted in such a fashion that you switched into G/W; all of the sudden, Thrill is going to be one of your deck’s premier superstars. This alone would be reason enough to take Thrill, but you also have to consider the fact that if you ship the Thrill it’s very likely going to go very late to the G/W player, it’s going to be very good in his deck, and it has a reasonable chance of flat-out beating you if you are paired against that player. Bear in mind that because Thrill is essentially a gold card, it very well might give the G/W player a relevant pick much later than people expect to get relevant picks, thereby adding value to his draft.

I hope this thought process is beginning to make sense.

Therefore, the “how to draft” portion of this article in a nutshell: don’t become enamored with any color or combination of colors until later on in a draft, and let your higher-than-average-quality mid-pack cards dictate your eventual colors.

Inevitably, though, you’re going to have to take some fillers. How do you know which ones will add the most value to your draft?

Mana curve, baby.

Yes, I said “baby” as an interjection. Kids, don’t combine Cabernet Sauvignon, Amber Bock, Cuervo, and hundred-dollar roommate’s-birthday-present bourbon with a five-hour-tops sleep if you’re planning to write something the next day. It fills your head with bad, bad ideas.

If I have possessed any sort of skill over the last ten years of my semi-pro Magic career, it’s knowing how to draft a curve. I swear Sam Stein almost ripped my head off when I beat him with Sangrophage in Kobe – but I only had one two-drop at that point, and my Undead Warchiefs were looking for some company. I love me a Grizzly Bear*. Fortunately, most of these beloved creatures wind up lapping the table far more often than they ought to, and coincidentally enough the two-slot is often the most neglected spot on the curve in a given Limited format. It’s never hard to get three- and four-drops, by contrast. So if you have to sift through the chaff, my eye is first and foremost on the top-right-hand corner of a card.

This also ties into another one of Ervin’s theories about mana maximization, which is really just a holdover from the Sligh days but which can often be forgotten. Take something like… Sporesower Thallid. Clearly he’s just nuts at four mana, but he’d probably still be very good, possibly first-pick quality, at five. At six it’d be too much but not unthinkable, but for all intents and purposes we can place his “ideal mana cost” at around 5.2. Now, take a card like Ghost Tactician. He’s not all that tight, right? I’ve played him in decks, and sometimes he gets the job done, but rarely do I windmill slam the man. At the same time, he’d probably be completely nuts at four mana, right? I mean, vanilla 2/4s are often plenty good enough, and five is a much, much bigger butt-number than four. So we can place the Tactician’s ideal mana cost – which we can roughly correspond to its value – at like 4.6. What this means is that he’s generally better than your generic four-drop once he’s on the table by a considerable margin, even though your “average” four-drop – say, a Moorish Cavalry, Pallid Mycoderm (substantially above average, even), or Greater Mossdog rests higher on the pick-order.

How can you glean value from this information? Well, in a normal Limited game you’re probably going to have access to forty or so mana to spend over the course of the game. All things considered, the player who manages to actually spend more of that mana – and notice you have to actually spend it, not die with a grip full of Verdant Forces – is probably going to cast spells of higher total value, meaning he is more likely, all things being equal, to win the game. What that means is that if you’ve already got like three or four four-drops, go ahead and take that Ghost Tactician. He might be a “worse card” but will give you more value in your specific deck.

Cool. So, besides looking at a spell’s mana cost when I’m trying to round out my deck, what do I do? Well, ideally, I search for spells that allow me to gain advantage. These are often defined as “spells that allow you to outplay your opponent,” but that’s not what I am going for either. Basically, I’m looking for blowout (and in Limited, this means “two-for-one”) potential.

This doesn’t just apply to chaff, by the way. It’s how I determine my favorite cards in a set in general. The decision between Gorgon Recluse and Eva Longoria is not close, for example. One swoops in at a billion miles an hour, possesses four-count-‘em-four points of toughness, never ever dies ever, has a year-long lease on the Red Zone (where he has actually erected several of those little green Monopoly houses), and turns sonsab*tches into stone. The other smiles and looks pretty for the camera. I mean. Not close.

But to get to a card that isn’t the best common ever printed in any set across any card game in history, let’s take my favorite man, the Bleb. You know, the one without eyelids. I cannot tell you how many times I have played this guy just because when he’s good he’s the mad booten slimers**. In the best-case scenario you two-for-one a relevant (a.k.a. two-power-or-greater) creature, stack your deck, and allow for the possibility of further deck-stacking in the future. Now, obviously, sometimes you spend six mana to do close to nothing, and that is real loose. But the maxima of what he can be is so high that it’s worth it to take a chance on him.

Finally, I want to talk briefly about how to actually go about playing a game, since I’ve spend so much time on drafting your deck. In a struggle to keep everything down to rudimentary, basic principles, I offer the following pieces of advice:

– Maximize your blowouts.
– Blocking is loose.

Maximizing your blowouts, of course, goes hand in hand with minimizing your opponent’s blowout potential. In general, you want to give yourself as many opportunities as possible to do something devastating. At the most fundamental level this is why people often wait to play removal until the opponent’s turn, because there is a greater opportunity for a two-for-one or a greater opportunity for a botched attack. Note, however, that with the existence of Split Second spells and especially with a lot of conditional Giant Growth effects in the format, you’re going to want to sorcery-speed your burn a lot. I cannot tell you how many times I have shaken my head because a Ghostfire was countered by a Strength in Numbers and resulted in tremendous loss of life. But beyond the obvious “here is how instants work derf derf,” don’t enter into combat phases where plenty of things can go wrong. A general rule is that if you’re winning, think of every possible scenario that could turn your position into a losing one and avoid them, bearing in mind that often doing nothing and letting your opponent topdeck could easily engineer that losing situation. Since it’s usually going to be impossible to downright avoid all these pitfalls, you have to measure which ones are the most and least likely and operate according.

It’s slightly more difficult to explain why blocking is typically loose, and is rarely a winning proposition. Let me delve into what I mean, though. Obviously I don’t mean that you should never put your men in front of theirs; rather, what I want to stress is that if you’re going to enter combat you want to do so when you’re the aggressor. Now, clearly combat itself benefits the defender because they get to choose blocks and have the option of double-blocking, but that’s not as important as you’d think it would be, because nobody is going to attack into a defensive position that causes them to get completely blown out.

First, blocking often indicates a loose situation because it means you’re on the defensive (obviously). When you’re winning a game in Limited, you want it to be over as quickly as possible so that there’s less time for you to start losing that game, and the avenue to victory most often involves a lot of attacking.

The real reason this comes into play, though, is that the overwhelming majority of the time it’s much better to cast tricks offensively rather than defensively. This is because in offensive combat you have the initiative; you’ve drawn the most recent card and untapped all your lands. If somebody ships the turn with D+ mana open, it’s usually going to set off alarm bells. By contrast, when you swing, you could have anything or nothing because you haven’t had to telegraph a play. Most importantly, though, when you use tricks defensively you’re not able to capitalize on the knowledge of that combat phase to make most of your substantive plays.

Alright, I’m getting kicked out of the library by a large security guard, so I think it’s time to vamp. He may or may not be able to read this sentence. Shotgun not.

Hope this article made some sense. Tackling Limited theory is hard, but ultimately I think there’s a lot of untapped material to be explored.


* Except in base set draft, where they are unreal garbage.

** I still have no idea what this means.