Chatter of the Squirrel – Archetypes in Booster Draft

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Wednesday, May 13th – I do not employ hyperbole when I say that the positioning of a Booster Draft deck is one of the least-understood, least appreciated, least talked-about skills in Magic amongst your average PTQ-level players.

I do not employ hyperbole when I say that the positioning of a Booster Draft deck is one of the least-understood, least appreciated, least talked-about skills in Magic amongst your average PTQ-level players.

Overwhelmingly, most of the historical dialogue about archetypes has taken place within the context of Constructed. In many ways, this is understandable; the lines are less blurry, Combo is often well-explored and viable, and you have maximum control over how you want to position your deck within the field. In draft, by contrast, sometimes there just won’t be any Dampen Thoughts or Wild Nacatls or Repulses, and the nature of a certain deck changes wildly as a result.

Still, the single biggest active mistake I see players make in draft is a failure to properly evaluate cards within a given archetype. People understand, usually, how objectively ‘good’ a card is, given enough time. But it’s the failure to understand things like when you need a Vectis Agents over a removal spell, a Court Archers over a Steward of Valeron, a Wretched Banquet over basically anything in the pack, that separate the good from the best. Moreover, beyond demonstrable, objective mistakes, a failure to understand Limited archetypes also accounts for the most missed opportunities amongst mid-to-high level Magic players – not knowing what to value on the wheel, not knowing when a certain class of card ranks much more highly than it normally would, not knowing when a mini-combo (Devoted Druid + Quillspike in Limited, anybody) presents itself as open for the taking.

My goal today is not to enumerate every single possible archetype and analyze the nature of each of them paragraph by paragraph. I think in general we understand that decks tend toward aggro, midrange, or control, and that there are advantages to be had by properly understanding your likely role during the draft. What I want to call attention to specifically is what each of those archetypes needs to be successful, because I think the types of cards to prioritize are drastically misunderstood, in general.


The most common thing I hear when talking with friends about good aggressive decks is something close to the following:

“Man, what a sick curve!”

“Three Wild Nacatls??!”

“Yeah, I’m not even playing these two Cavern Thoctars. Don’t need!”

Clearly, a good curve is important to a successful aggressive strategy. I would argue, however, that it’s not the most important variable at all. Well, I’ll qualify that statement: without a good curve, a deck by definition cannot be aggressive. Furthermore, it’s not very difficult, if you’re trying to land it, to draft a critical mass of two-drops to maximize your potential for a play early in the game.

But the majority of decks tend towards mid-range, or at least contain numerous midrange elements to them, and that reality means you’ll be seeing a lot of four-mana 3/3s or 2/4s standing in your way. Virtually every deck can present a Canyon Minotaur, a Horned Turtle, or your absolute nightmare, something like a Sprouting Thrinax to totally butcher your plans. Nobody is going to sit there and take your beats like a champ. Because of that, I would argue that the single most important element of a good Limited aggro deck is range.

Exalted is insane precisely because it’s an evasion ability that also helps to maximize damage. It also adds tremendous range to a deck, because every single creature is a 5/5 along the most relevant axis of interaction, the combat step. Therefore the expected value of a removal spell is frequently quite low, since (at least) a 4/4 is stepping right up to bat the very next turn. The best Exalted decks are the ones that reach a critical mass of Exalted such that every single card in the deck effectively has haste, and every single creature cannot be interacted with profitably in combat. Even the best one-for-one removal spells are generally terrible against this deck, counterintuitively; while the tempo advantage of hitting the one attacking creature presents a larger-than-average bonus, the vulnerability to a pump spell plus the relative inexpensiveness and quality of the Exalted deck’s creatures mean that frequently you’re forced to trade at a loss of tempo.

What this means is that I usually value something like a Court Archers highly, because it simultaneously contributes to your overall strategy, providing range, while being solid against the best conceivable trump against you – mass removal like Infest, Jund Charm, or Volcanic Fallout.

Beyond the present format, I still witness players systematically undervaluing Giant Growth effects. Clearly you’d rather have a Knight of the Skyward Eye than a Cylian Elf, but frequently you can wheel both a Resounding Roar and a Cylian Elf if you pass the Eye, and I’d rather have a random bear and a Growth than one very good Bear, even one who has a Growth built in. This particular example is actually much closer than others would be, because KotSE is so good, but even in this instance a properly-built aggressive deck is going to be forcing people to kill all its men sooner rather than later, and so the quality of the man doesn’t really matter all that much. Furthermore, the advantage of drafting an aggressive deck is that your opponent only has time to present one or two answers, so you gain a lot of value out of each and every pump spell.

Other range-generating effects like Falters or Lava Axes are also incredibly important for this reason. I loved a Goretusk Firebeast more than was healthy precisely because those guys were absurd in multiples, and because there was virtually nothing the opponent could do once he was in Firebeast range. And while people understand cognitively that Falters are good in aggressive decks, too often I see them getting excited over some kind of objectively ‘better’ card, or taking even things like Shock in a deck that can’t deal with a 4/4, and they forget to shore up their strategic weaknesses.

In the present format, I also see too few players pay attention to mana. A solid, consistent, straightforward manabase is much more important to aggro than it is to any other list. I would say straight three-color Naya aggro typically has ‘worse’ mana than five-color control, because that deck can’t afford to spend its second turn land-fixing and still expect to compete with the five-color deck’s bombs. Five-color, by contrast, has already budgeted the time for Rupture Spires and Yoked Plowbeasts, and doesn’t have the burden of producing a clock. A corollary to this is that you have to look out for the opportunity – yes, the opportunity – to play sixteen or even fifteen lands. When you think of it not in terms of percentages, but instead in terms of starting one card ahead of your opponent every three or four games, you start to realize the tremendous advantages a higher threat density can generate.

Finally, it’s imperative to value one-drops extremely highly. When you play an Akrasan Squire, you’re actually Cascading into a Time Walk along the way, because the overwhelming majority of decks don’t make good use of their first turn. Doing so can really punish a lot of strategies, because if they maintain parity each and every turn after that they are still dead to the creature that gained you initiative.


In truth, this system of classification is a bit of a misnomer because the lines between archetypes are blurry. Most decks are effectively midrange, with the potential to curve out perfectly every once in awhile into an aggro ‘nut-draw,’ but generally don’t have a gameplan that involves pushing through damage with six two-drops. With this kind of strategy, you usually intend to win through tighter play, card advantage, and interaction advantage in the form of better-positioned spells and neutralized classes of interaction (e.g. locking out ground combat as an option for your opponent as early as possible).

The single greatest error I see midrange players make in Booster Draft is a drastic under-utilization of the sideboard. Shard is unique in that, because you a) have to take lands and Borderposts highly and b) have one fewer common in the pack, there aren’t as many playable spells lurking in your board as there used to be back in the day. Still, I’d say your average Shards deck has four cards that are serious options to bring in from the board, and another one or two niche players that can totally be insane under the right circumstances.

Again, I think the whole process of sideboarding in Limited is actually conceptualized completely incorrectly. It’s not that it doesn’t occur to players that they should be using their sideboard as a resource. It’s that they fail to understand the nature of the advantage that the correct approach to sideboarding generates. Frequently people act like it’s a matter of percentages, that over time the gradual advantages gained from swapping out something like a Canyon Minotaur for an Volcanic Awakening against Esper will lead you gently to some CandyLand-like Tier of Higher Play. But that’s not really how Limited works. The thing is, Limited is a format of drastic, immediate advantages, and a little frequently goes a very, very long way. You do something like Branching Bolt two guys and That Just Is. You do everything right, but draw two lands where your opponent draws two spells and you’re dead in very short order. Just earlier today I cycled a Jund Outlander on my opponent’s second-turn Aven Squire and I felt like there was just no way really that I was going to lose based upon the makeup of my hand. And that’s because so much of the format is more or less at parity that little advantages break games wide open.

So it’s within this context that you have to understand the savage, savage value of a well-placed sideboard card. If your opponent’s deck is the type that leads with Goblin Deathraiders into Hissing Iguanar, or you know any number of random X/1 well-ratioed aggro guys, and you nip that in the bud with a turn 1 Tukatongue Thallid, That Yet Again Basically Just Is. If you’re the control mirror and you turn 4 Brainbite your opponent’s best spell, often they are just not going to be able to come back from that advantage. Especially if you lead into something obscene like Blightning. And if your opponent hatches an elaborate plan like Gloryscale Viashino into Leonin Armorguard and Naya Charm your chump blockers, only for you to tap his 10/10 with your sideboarded Esper Outlander that you brought in because of Glorycale and Manaplasm, you actually just won the game right there.

Most of the time, people don’t sideboard drastically enough. If you’re in a matchup where a Court Homunculus is not going to do anything exciting because they’ll be able to block a random 2/2 on turn 3 every time, it’s okay to switch him out for a 15th-pick Dreg Reaver. They’re totally different cards, but sometimes, well, you need totally different cards.

Sideboarding properly applies to every archetype, of course, but it’s frequently the Limited-Midrange decks that can gain the most value out of, in some cases, very radical boarding strategies.


The biggest mistakes I see players make when constructing their Control decks in draft involve mana density, creature quality, and the prioritization of removal.

In Constructed, I have played multiple control decks with as many as thirty-two mana sources, because there’s always something to do with your mana and you have got to ensure that you never miss a land drop early on. But those decks frequently have spells like Mystical Teachings, Careful Consideration, and Molten Disaster, or lands like Ghitu Encampment, Zoetic Cavern, Urza’s Factory, and Kher Keep, that ensure that your extra mana becomes translated into something relevant should you ever start to flood. Occasionally, Limited decks feature cards like Drastic Revelation, Covenant of Minds, Necrogenesis, or Cruel Ultimatum that allow them to do similar things. For these decks, often it becomes correct to play seventeen lands, three Obelisks, and two land-cyclers, because assuming you play lands every turn you can ensure that your deck will produce inevitability, that eventually you will have access to more spells than the opponent.

Too often, however, I see players building ‘five-color control’ decks just to include a bunch of mana fixing and fat, and I wonder what their gameplan is. It’s crucial to understand what kind of sacrifice you’re making when you play a 20-mana-source deck that intends to drag the game out long. Assuming you both reach the point where you have fifteen to twenty cards in your respective libraries, this means that your opponent will on average have seen two spells more than you at this point in time. Everything else being equal, you can cast and activate Courier’s Capsule and still be behind! Because of this, you have got to make sure that your card quality is such that you can make up for this tremendous up-front disadvantage. Otherwise, you’ve got to pay close attention to your mana density, and in many cases allow for a less ambitious manabase.

Related to issues of mana density, actually, are issues of creature quality and quantity, issues of ‘threat density’ (since threats, in Limited, are creatures an overwhelming majority of the time). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen players make poor decisions both because they feel they need to include more creatures in a deck for the sake of including creatures, and because they don’t include actual ways to win actual games in their decks. I myself am very regularly guilty of the last offense.

In reality, both these mistakes arise from a failure to understand the real question, which is: how do you intend to put the game away? The second you possess a realistic answer to that question, you don’t need any more creatures for the sake of having more creatures (yes, creatures frequently play a vital role in creature containment, but I’m arguing from the point of view of a player who has enough options that he’s considering cutting card-drawing or removal for generic, unexciting, but not-terrible filler). If you’ve got sixteen removal spells, two copies of Necrogenesis, and a Broodmate Dragon, you don’t strictly speaking need any more guys just to have more guys – although it is important to understand that something like one or two big Angels or Sphinxes or whatever is rarely enough because your opponent will have, in all likelihood, at least one removal spell, and/or your spell will be low enough in your deck that you can’t actually kill them before you deck yourself. Generally the situation is not so drastic, however. The point is that you have to ask yourself in a realistic game what the opponent is likely to do or have, and whether or not you can overcome what he’s going to throw at you enough to succeed at the actual mechanics of killing him.

When this becomes a problem is when you have plenty of creatures, strictly speaking, but not enough of them to do more than trade – maybe even mildly profitably – and just peter out. This happens a lot of the time when you don’t get any bombs in your five-color deck, or something. I’ll be trying to just get there with a couple Mosstodons and Architects of Will or whatever, and in the process I make all my opponent’s bad cards (like random 2/4s I shouldn’t care about) good against me, and I can’t get the job done. Sometimes, even if it’s for a card like Aven Trailblazer, you have to prioritize ways of actually ending the game if your deck doesn’t presently have any. This is a particularly insidious problem because it often affects insane-looking decks; you’ve got infinite removal, but not a) enough card advantage to make it literally possible to just kill every one of their guys and smash with your Undead Leotau, or b) just very few creatures to begin with.

This is related, actually, to the final major issue, which is a misunderstanding of the role of removal in a control deck. In essence, it amounts to there being some removal (Magma Spray, Dark Temper in five-color but not in Jund or Grixis) that’s apt for keeping you alive, and other removal (Resounding Thunder, Resounding Silence, Oblivion Ring) that’s really excellent at dealing with Problems. You’re frequently in a bad way when you have to O-Ring a fine but medium-value card like Viscera Dragger because you’ve fallen too far behind, because of the relative standing of where you likely took O-Ring versus where they likely good Viscera Dragger (who is a fine, fine man, by the way). Everyone knows this. What’s less well-understood is that the more removal spells you have – and the more you’re saying “OMG 3-0 FOR SURE” because you have DI Resounding Thunders or Bant Charms or whatever, the more the line between the ‘Deal With Problems’ and ‘Keep You Alive’ removal spells becomes blurred, and you have to start using the former for circumstances where the latter would work just as well, and quickly your spells start to depreciate in value. This isn’t to say they are bad – just that there’s a point where “Deal 2 damage” and “Remove a guy from the game forever and ever and ever” are the exact same spell, and you approach that point the more you rely on one-for-one removal for creature control. In fact, because your mana density is higher than your average midrange or aggressive deck, often the hypothetical “twelve O-Ring” deck actually starts to fall behind every time it casts the best common removal spell in the format, because the more it goes strictly one-for-one, the more the other deck’s natural advantage of having one-or-so extra virtual-spell comes into play.

Because that last threat does in fact have a nasty habit of killing you.

Nothing I’ve said here is particularly revolutionary. The simple fact is that too often players forget the cohesive goal of what their deck is ultimately trying to do – often because they are mired in too-rigid definitions of card quality. It is only by paying attention to the particular needs of the deck that a player can achieve maximally-effective drafting habits.