Drafting Is A Breeze, Part I: The First Pick

StarCity’s editor (and birthday boy) celebrates his one-year anniversary at SC by writing Serious Stratemgy. Stand back, folks, this could get ugly.

Pop quiz, everybody!

July 3rd is:

  • My birthday

  • The day that I took over editing from Omeed a year ago

  • The last day that I edit Star City before I move to Cleveland, meaning that this site is on autopilot editingwise for the next week or so.

If you answered”all of the above,” then not only are you really bright but you’re a big fat cheater, since”all of the above” wasn’t an option. What a clever boy you are.

And my birthday is a very special day indeed, despite the fact that I was born with a crippling handicap:

I am an only child.

Only children are all, to a man, frightening, grasping bastards. When we grew up, we never had to share, never had to compete for affection, never once got into a fight over toys — and as a result, we all honestly believe that everything is ours and we just haven’t laid claim to it yet. I personally have this deep-seated belief that the Empire State Building could really belong to me if I threw my arms around it and threatened to hold my breath until I turned blue.

As a result, dating an only child is like dating the Blob; all your affections are belong to us. Give us an inch, and we’ll not only take a mile but we’ll kype the measuring tape and complain about the walk.

But if that’s not bad enough, understand that I was not only an only child… But I was the only grandchild in my entire family until I was eight. I swear to God, they took me to the lake for my birthday, and I thought the Fourth of July fireworks were for me. That is what an egotist I am.

As a result, sharing is not a skill I have. And yet, when I draft, I now learn that I have to share. I have to pick well, and I have to cooperate with my neighbors. Sure, occasionally I leap up from the chair and shout,”Somebody has a Spiritmonger at this table and I waaaannnnit!“… But aside from that, drafting is a good skill for an only child to learn.

But oy, is it hard.

Therefore, I figure I’ll give The Pathetic’s Guide to Drafting, take one. Learn what I have learned. Hey, it’s not pro material, but it’s solid stuff for beginners and intermediates.


The First Pick.

This is the tough one, and it’s why they give you the full sixty seconds to decide.

Can You Live Without It? ‘Cause You Might Have To.

Let me give you an example of a truly astounding draft I was handed the other night:

First-pick Nightscape Master. Second-pick Reckless Spite.

Now both of these are gold-certified bombs in Limited play, and I was way happy to see them both waving”hello” at me. That was a strong signal to go black — and by God I did, delving into black with a vengeance. But then the black dried up and I started to get sucko black cards like Scavenged Weaponry and Defiling Tears.

What had happened is that the first player who was feeding me cards wasn’t taking black, and so he handed me the Spite. But the second player, who was passing to him, was taking black — and he sucked all the good black cards right out of my deck. There were probably one or two other players upstream as well, and they were latching onto my black like a remora… And by the end of the draft, I only had managed to pick up six good black cards total, including the Master and the Spite.

Read my lips, pal: There is no way to be sure what people are taking until the fourth or fifth pick.

Now were I a bad player, I would have stubbornly stuck to my first two picks, clinging to that heavy black and taking substandard black cards to fill it out. Instead, I realized that I had made a mistake, and dipped into red for a very nice third-pick Scorching Lava and a fourth-pick Repulse. Sure enough, someone upstream was going black, but the rest of my draft rewarded me with really strong red removal, which in the final deck consisted of that third-pick Lava, a Magma Burst, a Strafe, an Illuminate, and two Singes. Combine that with two Razorfin Hunters from Apocalypse, and I had a deck that was very fast and punished slow starts.

But here’s the thing: Since the black had dried up so completely, even though Nightscape Master and Reckless Spite were both strong and in my colors, I did not play with them. Why? Because they demanded double-black casting costs, and aside from those two strong cards my black was weak. I had no mana fixers or taplands. In the deck that I needed to build, black was a tertiary color — and you never want to splash a color that requires two of a colored mana. I had the choice between putting way too many swamps into the deck and chancing manascrewing myself out of the vital red and blue that I needed, or leaving these two bomb cards out of the deck. (I did sideboard the Spite in on two occasions to handle Voice of Alls, but never saw it anyway. I went 3-0 that day anyway.)

It hurt, but that’s common. Pros do it all the time. A lot of times your first three or four cards are wasted until you finally realize what colors people are throwing you.

(Okay… Technically, those picks weren’t wasted. Even if I didn’t play them, I kept them out of that other black player’s hands… And in light of the fact that there were no other bombs in the packs I opened, I did the best with the information I had. But the cards feel kinda wasted when they’re sitting there in the sideboard, jumping up and down eagerly and muttering,”C’mon, coach! Put me in for the team! I can win this one!”)

Which is not to say that you should always cave in. Some cards are good enough that you will take substandard picks in order to support them — in other words, this card is enough of a bomb that you’re going in that color no matter what. Opening a Rout is generally an indication to do this, as is opening a Dragon. Either card will win you enough games on its own that you can afford to have a slightly janky deck, and you’ll fight people for the colors you need to support it.

But those cards are rare. Generally, take your pick and be prepared to ditch it. Hanging on to a precious, precious card, soothing it and stroking that Nightscape Master like Gollum polishing his ring, could cost you the game.

Can You Splash It?

Now the mistake I made may have been in picking that Nightscape Master in the first place. Since your first couple of picks may well left on the doorstep like yesterday’s Budweiser bottles*, doesn’t it make sense to make your first picks splashable?

Yes it does. Thanks for playing.

Seriously, if you’re stuck between two or three bombs, try to choose the ones that only require one colored mana and are useful late in the game. Let’s take three separate cards and analyze them so you can see what I mean:

  • Tsabo’s Decree. It’s very strong, it only needs one black, and is useful at any time. You can splash it into a deck with a minimal commitment to black, making it an ideal first-pick.

  • Distorting Wake. It is almost the definition of a late-game finisher; for X mana, you can bounce X permanents, guaranteeing that you can swarm in for the kill or at least set back an opponent many, many turns. However, the triple-blue cost means that once you take it you’re going all blue, or you’re not playing it at all. And what if someone else cuts off your blue to your left? Not worth fighting for.

  • Stalking Assassin. A b-to-the-bomb card, certainly… And certainly it can be splashed as a minor color, coming out late in the game. Problem is, if it gets out too late it might not live a turn to start stalking. I’ve found you want to have this bad boy out early as defense to buy you time, since late in the game there are too many ways to neutralize him before he gets active. Thus, splashing him means that a turn-9 Assassin will either come too late to do any good, or he’ll be killed the instant he sets foot on the board. I mean, he’s still a 1/1 and Razorfin Hunters and Singes abound…

Thus, when picking, think about whether you can throw two or three lands in the deck to make this useful, and whether they’ll be useful on turn four or turn fifty-four. The stereotypical first-pick commons and uncommons — Agonizing Demise, Breath of Darigaaz, Probe — all follow this rule to a”T.” If you can’t splash it, think about something else.

Screw Signals; Think Colors.

There’s a lot of talk out there about”sending signals” — handing the right cards to your friend to the left. Why?

Well, it’s simple. Your friend to the left will be handing you the cards come Planeshift… And you don’t want him to think that he can be filching cards in your colors out of those packs. Ideally, you want to encourage him to commit him to colors that are not yours so he’ll be handing you the things you need. This is so incredibly basic that it is, in fact, the first thing you should understand about drafting.

In your first pick, you want to think about what colors you go in. And you want to try to either cut your guy totally off a color, or to mislead him.

Cutting off a color is simple: When all else is equal, pick something that’s the only card of that color in the pack. Let’s take this actual pack, for example:

Rainbow Crow

Kavu Climber


Worldly Counsel

Nomadic Elf

Scavenged Weaponry


Vodalian Zombie

Ravenous Rats

Shimmering Wings

Scorching Lava


Rith’s Attendant


Saproling Symbiosis

Now, there’s basically two choices for first picks here: Repulse and Scorching Lava. (One could argue Nomadic Elf as a first-pick if you’ve decided to go five-color green from the get-go, but we’re trying to be serious here.)

Let’s think color, shall we?

If you choose blue and take the Repulse, you’re still letting the Crow, which is still a pretty good blue card, to float downstream. Somebody will take it in the next few packs, giving them a vested interest in going blue. Furthermore, the Vodalian Zombie is a good, solid card and it’s both black and blue, encouraging some black player to pick up blue as a sidenote. Effectively, you’ve just thrown two solid blue cards to the players on your left, encouraging them to splash some islands (and doesn’t that sound weird?), and they will probably cut you off of blue entirely come Planeshift. I say let everyone else fight over the blue while you slip quietly into another color.

But if you choose red, why… There are no other red cards here! If red is the color you’re handed by your upstairs neighbors, you can count on making sure that no good red cards get by you… And when Planeshift comes you can pick up the good red cards you need.***

(Note for the record that Aaron Forsythe said he would seriously consider picking the Elf, however, so I could be full of crap when I say the Elf isn’t a good first pick. Even if you wanna first-pick it, though, it still sends a clear signal since the only other green is Saproling Symbiosis, and who’s gonna take that?)

(Note also for the record that Matt Vienneau, though he agreed with my logic, said he would still pick the Repulse, mainly because there are too many large creatures in Planeshift and Apocalypse and two damage just doesn’t cut it anymore. Hey, he could be right, too.)

That’s what they mean by signalling. That’s what you’re trying to do with your first pick: Cut off a color right away.

Now I also mentioned misleading your opponents, which is a strategy I have used occasionally and is especially useful for team drafting. For example, recently I opened up a pack with two great cards, both of which were kind of equal considering that I had already told my partners I was planning on going black/blue: Tsabo’s Assassin and Probe.

I picked the Probe, betting that my downstream opponent — who was Sheldon Menery, incidentally — would see the Assassin as a signal that he was supposed to go black and take it, overcommitting him to black in the same way that I overcommitted to a double-black card for my Reckless Spite and Nightscape Master. He did… And then I cut off all of his remaining black cards, weakening his deck while strengthening mine. He played with substandard black cards while I had a nice beefy selection, and I drafted a card or two for my deck to specifically handle Sheldie’s Tsabo’s Assassin when and if it showed up. Made me happy, and I beat him three games out of four.**

Occasionally it’s not a bad idea to send a false signal downstream to try to get your opponent to overcommit to a color you plan on taking. Keep it in mind.

Wow — all of that for your first pick, and we’re not even into the drafting stage, yet! How ridiculous is that? Next week, we’ll take a look at your next fourteen picks, and my advice for Apocalypse drafting. Whee!

Signing off,

The Ferrett

[email protected]

Editor, StarCity Games

Inventor of Peanut Butter And Jelly Sandwiches

Former Member, Team AWWAJALOOM

* – Please do not think that I drink Budweiser. Please shoot me if you see me drinking such a vastly-inferior, godawful beer. I’d rather drink horse urine.

** — I got mana-screwed, but do you hear me complaining? No.

*** — This isn’t entirely true, since red tends to be overdrafted in Planeshift, but at least you don’t have to deal with two players to your right cutting off blue before you see it.