How to Draft if You Know How to Draft

Once you’ve been around for a while, your goal is no longer “How do I draft a functional deck?” and more “How do I draft a winning deck?” And I’m going to show you how.

Anyone who has browsed Magic forums has probably seen the “first draft” threads, where someone new to Magic wants to show up to FNM for a draft and has
no idea what to expect. You see the same adages used over and over again:

“Play seventeen lands.”

“Stick to two colors.”

“B.R.E.A.D. First Bombs, then Removal, then Evasive creatures, then whatever those last two stand for because no one actually has a consistent

Cool. You have successfully learned enough to be remotely involved in matches at your first FNM. I’m going to make an assumption here and say most
people reading this article know most of these basics already. I would go as far as to that for most of the people reading this, the goal is no longer
“How do I draft a functional deck?” and more “How do I draft a winning deck?” — whether that deck is in an FNM, an 8-4 queue, or a PTQ.

I’m no Rich Hoaen (or insert other Limited master not known primarily from the last decade), but I’ve had some successes at various draft tables. While
I might not have the secret to 3-0ing every draft, these are the things I’ve found that keep me in the 2-1 or higher range.

Draft is much closer to Constructed than you think

People talk a lot about archetypes in drafting, but the right message often gets lost in the excitement of new cool things. You can do a quick search
and find a 1 to 50 pick order for everything from normal U/W to G/U/B Dredge-Spiders — but what does that actually do? The way most people write pick
orders is not how you should be drafting.

This is the kind of pick order you usually see in an article.

G/W Aggro Commons

1. Bonds of Faith
2. Prey Upon
3. Darkthicket Wolf
4. Travel Preparations
5. Avacynian Priest

This is the kind of pick order that I think means something:

G/W Aggro

1. Top-notch removal
2. Oversized two-drops (this includes Travel Preparations, as it’s essentially two hasty bears in a card)

3. Werewolves and other oversized three- to four-drops

4. Average two-drops (Silverchase Fox comes to mind)

5. A couple of combat tricks, assuming you don’t have a ton of non-creatures already
6. A high drop or two

Your goal when picking cards is to take the best card for your deck — not just to take the absolutely most powerful card. You don’t build a Standard
deck by shoving all the best cards into sixty slots and calling it a day. You start with a template of what you want to do and then fill in the blanks.

Another example from Innistrad draft:

R/B Aggro

1. Bomb uncommons (Falkenrath Noble, Rage Thrower, Moan of the Unhallowed)
2. Top-notch removal
3. The first three two-power two-drops (and Diregraf Ghoul)
4. Any number of Crossway Vampires and your first Nightbird’s Clutches
5. Other three-drops
6. Nightbird’s Clutches two (and three, if you are heavy on guys)
7. A high drop or two

Even if you don’t have a set priority list, you should be starting by aiming for an idealized forty cards. Know what your goal is for all of the major
proportions and weight picks heavily based on it. For example, if you’re playing U/B control in Innistrad draft, you should know you need two to five
ways to end the game (and only two assumes that they are easy wins like Army of the Damned or other rares). If you have only one easy win going into
pack three, you now know you probably need to take that Battleground Geist over a Dead Weight even though pick one, pack one those cards aren’t
remotely close to the same tier.

Your situational spell count needs to be kept as low as possible

Situational spell count is something I usually set a hard cap on in order to make sure my deck has minimal dead top-decks in the late game. The
definition here is relatively loose — but the stereotypical spell I always think of is Mind Rot. Regardless of my deck, I never want to draw a Mind Rot
in the late game, as it does nothing. A random bear on turn 13 can do some good work, but a Mind Rot is probably not going to make them discard
something unless it’s also some situational card they can’t use.

Another common example: Rampant Growth. Once you are past turn 4 or so, a Rampant Growth is just an extra land in your deck.

Typically, the maximum number for a situational spell is two or three per deck, but it varies from format to format. In triple-Scars draft, the number
was very high, as the random garbage cards like Golden Urn made your real cards do double the work. In Zendikar, the number was ideally zero, as a turn
not spent advancing the board meant immediate death. I’ve found Innistrad is closer to the average.

Overloading on situational spells is one of the most common issues I notice in decks I peg as disasters. I’m sure most people have seen the following
occur: you walk up to the table, see the cards laid out, and thirty minutes later you walk back and see them holding Slaughter Cries, full of Fogs, and
dying to a Goblin Piker. This is what happens when you have too many cards that rely on various circumstances to be true without providing great
rewards for those conditions being met.

Don’t fall into this trap. Tricks and the like are great when applied sparingly, but too many and you will be wishing you were just playing those
mediocre Grey Ogres and Durkwood Boars you passed along.

Creatures are secretly removal

This is one that pops up for me time and time again in Sealed. You just stack all your bombs and removal together and you end the event at x-3 having
lost when your bomb didn’t win the game. Sometimes you just don’t draw it or they kill it and you run out of removal for their last threat.

So, let’s solve this with a simple scenario. Which of these is a better answer to a 2/2 and 3/3?

a.) Play an Incinerate and a Shock. You both have nothing.
b.) Play an Incinerate and a 3/3. They have a 2/2 and you have a 3/3.

Hint: The answer is usually b.

Another way to look at this is to think about why removal is actually good in Limited. Removal isn’t good because one-for-one trades are good (though
they might be, given your deck). The reason they are good is that removal lets you trade for your opponent’s best cards, leaving them to win with the
bad ones. People talk about saving removal and this is why. When you don’t have anything to trade with or halt the irrelevant creatures, every one of
them becomes a relevant threat you have to burn a kill spell on.

I usually try to keep myself above a minimum number of relevant bodies. The number ranges depending on archetype and format, but is almost always at
least eleven. Here are some numbers I try to stick to from current Innistrad archetypes:

G/W: Sixteen as a bare minimum, seventeen usually (and typically I don’t cut below eighteen if possible)
R/B aggro: Fifteen
U/B control: Twelve to thirteen

“Relevant bodies” means “creatures that can actually make a relevant contribution in combat,” not just any creature. These are some examples:

Things that are relevant bodies:
Selhoff Occultist, Avacynian Priest, Silvergill Douser, Cunning Sparkmage, Llanowar Elves (Magic 2012), Moan of the

Things that are not:
Brain Weevil, Glory Seeker (Rise of the Eldrazi), Llanowar Elves (Magic 2011), Deranged Assistant (still counts as a guy for
Skaabs, though!)

Card I count as a fraction:
Avacyn’s Pilgrim (more value than Deranged Assistant due to Travel Preparations, and the general aggressiveness of G/W
making a 1/1 getting in a tick or two more relevant).

“Actual creature count” is something that gets glossed over often because there are many exceptions to a generalized rule. Understand in advance what
you want and stick to the plan.

Reading signals is much more important than sending them

People focus way too much on what cards they pass. They don’t realize that even if you pass two red cards early, if you then cut the color and don’t
pass another one then the person you are passing to will likely move out of red. And even if they don’t, what’s the worst that happens? You still get
first dibs on anything coming that way pack three, and still have a secondary color to fall back on in pack two. Sounds good enough to me.

When two players in a row end up in the same color, it leaves the person on the left in the awkward position of only having one pack of cards in one of
their main colors if they want to stick around and fight. This is such a strong disruption to their deck that many people actively do this to win 3v3
drafts (seriously, ask anyone from Florida). Your goal should be to avoid this trap as much as possible. Don’t lock yourself into early picks. Take the
good cards and see what keeps coming around before committing.

Sometimes you will get trapped by deep packs. The person passing to you takes a Dead Weight third and passes you a Diregraf Ghoul, then takes cards in
their second color over a bunch of average things like Walking Corpse mid-pack. You assume black is open, get a solid pack two, and then get cut in
pack three. Such is the nature of random distribution. For every time this happens, realize there was at least one other time you avoided that train
wreck by paying attention to signals.

The one exception to this comes in extremely synergy-dependent formats. In these cases, often the one-pack cut that occurs in pack two is enough to
kill your deck. Color also matters less (at least compared to the benefit of having a complete archetype), which removes the cushion that having
another fifth of the pack to select from provides. In these cases, be much more wary about jumping ship into an archetype you have been passing along.

Forcing an archetype is a lie, but preferences are not

Lots of people have this idea that they can just push their way into the archetype they want from pick one. This is especially true with “gimmick”
archetypes that eschew the expected draft fundamentals for odd synergies, like G/U/B Dredge-Spider Spawning or Burning Vengeance.

This is a lie.

Forcing from the start might work some of the time, but it just turns your draft into a game of roulette — and why do that, when it’s perfectly
reasonable to have favorable odds every time? Sure, there’s the occasional archetype that’s both unknown and easy enough to assemble that your expected
value breaks even with that of normally drafting… but too often people, try to all-in on single-card strategies based around uncommons.

Keeping in line with the last key point about reading signals, I usually have much higher success rates when I decide on an archetype mid-pack one. I
might love B/R aggro to the point I take Diregraf Ghoul over an Ulvenwald Mystics fifth pick… but if I take the Ghoul, then at least I know black is
relatively open and I’ll be able to see the variety of cards I want for my deck.

Similarly, single card strategies work best when you see the card in question mid-pack and realize you can table another important piece or two to lock
up the shell you want. If you really like how one specific deck works, you can end up in a situation where you have the deck as often as it is
reasonable, and not more. The key is realizing your mission statement is “If the cards for this start showing up, I will draft it” and not “I am going
to assume I am drafting this deck every time.”

Don’t be afraid to try new things when it doesn’t matter

If you asked anyone I see on a regular basis how good I am at drafting, you’re going to get a drastically different response than if you asked the
people who I only see at large events. The latter group will likely say I usually have a good idea of what matters in each format before I start
drafting, and am often a good source to ask about unusual archetypes. The other group will comment about how I still owe people a cake because I 0-3,
0-6ed two consecutive team drafts one night.

The reason for this is simple: not every draft is going to be the big game. Most of the time, you’re just playtesting. Don’t be afraid to lose
an FNM because you want to play Raid Bombardments and Brood Birthings, it might just be absurdly good (True Story). If someone tells you that some joke
archetype is actually good, watch them draft it or give it a try yourself before passing judgment. My biggest Magic finishes are on the back of draft
performances using odd archetypes other people suggested to me. In every case I took the opportunity to run a draft alongside them and learned the
ropes. Five of the six drafts at these events I knew the shell I was aiming for, saw that the cards were coming my way, and was rewarded for moving in.
The sixth I just forced it and got cut, but had some dumb rares to bail me out… because justice and logic can’t prevail every time.

Obviously, if it’s time for the top eight of the PTQ or it’s day two of a Grand Prix and you’re drafting for top eight you don’t usually want to move
in on an untested archetype! But the point is, you should be getting these trial runs in ahead of time. Like I said before, Draft is much closer to
Constructed than you think. Targeted playtesting is going to yield very efficient and impressive results compared to just battling a million matches.
If you do this, once you get there you’ll be much better prepared to make key decisions because you’ll know much more about what all the possibilities

Top 4 Magic Goals for 2012

I was going to make this list for myself only, but I figured publicly announcing it puts me in a position where I have to actually do something about
them or have a rational reason to abandon my pursuit of one.

4. Play Eggs at some real life Modern event (not necessarily a major one)

I apologize in advance to the tournament organizer for the time I will waste. My inner troll gets the best of me some times. For some unknown reason I
find this deck amusing, despite wanting to die every time I play the Spiral Tide deck.

3. Bring home a trophy.

I’m fairly sure the last sizable event I won was a PTQ over three years ago. There’s something that inherently sucks about losing in the top eight
after the first few times it happens. You might be up money, but you aren’t victorious. It feels like you aren’t making progress. I always joke about
how much of a dagger it is that second at a Grand Prix is a plaque… but the amount I’m kidding keeps shrinking. I’m not unhappy with what I’ve
accomplished so far, but the point of goals is to give you somewhere to advance to. This seems like a reasonable start.

There’s also the whole subtopic about how certain events have non-first place victories like top four splits, and how that alters psychological factors
going into other events… but I’m not sure how much of that isn’t just garbage. Let’s just say that I’m not going to default to turning down splits, but
my goal is no longer going to be reaching that point.

2. Get better at logically deducing what cards my opponents have left in hand

I suck at this and have known this for a long time. I always put it on the back burner because I had access to amazing things like Thoughtseize and
Vendilion Clique that did the work for me (and because I didn’t play aggro), but now that has changed. I know I spoke out about how doing this is often
a waste of mental energy, but I don’t plan on becoming a master. I just want to focus on it a bit more in testing so I can shortcut things later on.
Once that is done I can proceed from there.

1. Have another Pro Tour high-money finish

I somehow managed to stay on the train for three years despite not making money at a Pro Tour for a two-and-a-half year span in the middle. Not only
does this seem wrong to me, but it’s likely not feasible for much longer given the new point system being so top-heavy and taking away margins from
Grand Prix top eights. Something has to change on my end, and I have four months and two Pro Tours to figure it out before I start to potentially lose
Grand Prix byes and get down to absolute “do or die” time.

In a surprising switch from how I perform at Grand Prix, I’ve been getting relatively wrecked on the Constructed side of things (last three events were
5-4-1, 4-6, and 5-5 if you accurately account for concessions) and doing fine on the Limited one (last three events were 4-2, 4-2, and 5-1). At the
very least, I plan on seeing what some of the experts here have to say before I start working on Hawaii.

As for upcoming events in the start of the new year, I won’t be able to make it to Grand Prix Austin this weekend, but plan on attending Orlando.
Beyond that, I’m currently figuring out what reasonable ways there are to arrive in Lincoln besides driving thirteen hours through snow and the Iowan
tundra, as it appears that options for flying there are scarce at best. Given the fact I have Fridays off from class, I expect to be traveling a lot
the first half of this year. Expect more stories of good times, successes, and failures from the road to come.