Learning How To Draft

Today I want to tell you what I think about Limited formats and how to size them up and be a better drafter. This is for the person picking up their first draft set to those who are proficient but want to improve.

Today’s article is fully inspired from Kelley Diggs’ hilarious but unfortunate Sealed/Draft disaster. The only cash-money I’ve ever made at Magic has been in Limited environments (23rd at GP: Detroit in Kamigawa Block Limited, natch), and I consider myself a very good Limited player. Better than my Constructed efforts, at least.

Today I want to tell you what I think about Limited formats and how to size them up and be a better drafter. This is for the person picking up their first draft set to those who are proficient but want to improve.

1. What sets are included?

This may seem obvious, but there is deep strategy involved with the frequency of cards showing up in formats. Understanding the amount that key cards show up in pack-after-pack is crucial in creating a strategy to win. In Coldsnap this is overblown to an almost ridiculous degree, but remains a good example.

In triple Mirrodin, for instance, it wasn’t crucial to draft Artifact Lands very highly, because you would see three packs of them. Of course you would draft them a bit more aggressively as your deck required them, but at the same times it was “comforting” to know that if you missed out on multiples in packs 1 and 2, you will pick them back up on pack 3.

In addition, each additional set generally increases the power level as each set has its own burn spells, destruction spells, pump spells, and powerful bombs. Depending on the block structure this can vary, but generally speaking the more cards in any given cardpool to draft from, the more powerful the draft will be. So be meticulous when a new set first comes out to find the most powerful new spells and capitalize on their inclusion into your favorite existing archetypes.

2. What colors are the most powerful?

This is a little skewed from block-to-block because of the synergies built for them. Onslaught featured overbearing creature types (Elves, Beasts, Goblins, Zombies), Mirrodin featured an almost colorless strategy, and Kamigawa block made Spiritcraft one of the most interesting Limited environments I’ve seen in a long time. However, Saviors of Kamigawa was such a disaster that it left a bad taste in my mouth. Thank God for the multicolor block…

Ravnica is the oddball when speaking of colors because of its multicolor nature. So with that said, Ravnica makes you focus on what color combinations are powerful, more so than the colors themselves.

To further confuse things, Ravnica: City of Guilds is actually the most important pack from which to pick mono-colored cards, because there are more mono-colored cards in the base set than any other set in the block. The mono-colored cards which are the most powerful in the format – Mark of Eviction, Viashino Fangtail, Brainspoil, Oathsworn Giant, etc – and, as a result, are the most influential on your later packs and guild selections.

These sorts of epiphanies may require more sets to realize (as it took Guildpact and Dissension to be released before City of Guild’s mono-color importance was truly known), and the ability to see these changes coming as the format adapts and grows with each set is crucial to staying above the curve.

3. What are Influential Bombs?

The Three Cornerstones of a “Bomb” card: Effect on Gameplay, Cost, and Efficiency.

Bombs influence every single format, from Extended to Unglued sealed. They are the cards you hope most to draw; they are the cards that influence deckbuilding the most; they can steer a draft plan right into the ditch.

Here are some examples of a bomb in a format:

Mirrodin Block: Sword of Fire and Ice
Kamigawa Block: Meloku the Clouded Mirror
Ravnica Block: Angel of Despair
Unhinged: Frazzled Editor (seriously, read it and think about it)

Older examples would include creatures like Spiritmonger, enchantments such as Pernicious Deed and so on.

Angel of Despair, as noted, is a huge bomb card that almost any player should be excited to open. She’s nigh unkillable at 5/5, has got evasion, is tough to block efficiently and make a good trade, and she gets rid of the most powerful permanent when it enters play. Hard to say that this card could get any better. The only aspect in which she does not excel is her cost, at seven mana (featuring double Black and White, respectively).

The ability to recognize bombs is an essential skill you need. Many bombs, however, are generally pretty easy to spot because they will show up in Standard. Loxodon Hierarch isn’t just great in Ghazi-Glare, he rocks the house in any Draft or Sealed Deck he shows up in. The two formats blur the most at this crucial line.

However, other bombs are tougher to spot. I have certainly been guilty of not recognizing great cards, and the Magic community is no different. Take our favorite whipping boy Vedalken Dismisser. He once struggled in a MagictheGathering.com poll on its Limited effectiveness, and the next thing you know Terry Soh is proclaiming “happy first-picking your Vedalken Dismisser!”

See how the tide turns so quickly? Paying attention to Pro articles and Grand Prix/Pro Tour coverage is paramount to staying ahead of the curve.

4. The Most Important Limited Acronym – BREAD

I first learned of this acronym in Mirrodin, and it has served me well when I wasn’t sure of what to do, or when I drafted a set for the first time. When you look at any given pack of cards, and you’re not familiar with the format, let this roll off in your head:

B – Bombs
R – Removal
E – Efficient Spells (in Mirrodin this was Equipment)
A – Aggro
D – Dregs

For players trying to get a hold on any format, no matter what analysis has already been performed, I would use the above acronym. This lets you pick good cards no matter what, though you do lose quite a bit when not thinking of the “big picture” (such as drafting a certain creature type, play-style, etc), you’ll never end up with a bunch of crappy cards that don’t win games.

Bombs are bombs. We’ve covered these.

Removal is anything that says “Destroy target ___” or cards that can disable or remove permanents in play (such as Faith’s Fetters and/or Vedalken Dismisser). While you may not think of something like Vedalken Dismisser or Man-O’-War as removal, they clear the path for your creatures and buy you time to find an answer to whatever creatures your opponent is threatening you with. (In early Ravnica drafts, Vedalken Dismisser and Vedalken Entrancer actually was a removal combo, but that was more Nifty Cool than it was consistently effective.)

Mark of Eviction is another incredibly powerful card that can be considered both as removal and as a bomb. However, it was a much “larger” bomb in triple Ravnica and RRG Draft due to their influx of “187” (comes into play effect) creatures. This shift in cardpool has caused this card to be re-evaluated, and only by paying attention to top Limited writers can you truly appreciate this flux (thanks to Rich Hoaen for the Mark of Eviction shift lesson).

Efficient Spells are those that work in conjunction to help you win the game. The combo of Peel From Reality and Izzet Chronarch is great – but Peel from Reality is still a great card without the Chronarch hanging around.

Drake Familiar had an interesting aura-based archetype for a while in triple Ravnica, which featured cards like Flight of Fancy and Galvanic Arc – cards that are great on their own merit, but amazing with the Familiar. However, as new sets were released and fewer Auras were present, the Drake Familiar deck faded. But, because of its original influence, it subsequently fueled the “Bloodgraft” strategies in full Ravnica block draft (Blue/Green/Red). See how the powerful cards begin to work together?

Aggressive creatures (1-3 mana) are necessary in virtually every format I can think of. Hitting a second or third turn creature can mean life or death in many games, and no matter how “fast” a format is (Mirrodin), or “slow” it can seem (triple Ravnica Draft), the frequency of the creatures you drop in early turns is very telling of whether you can win a game or not.

Expensive creatures can be more “impressive,” but unless they set us up the bomb when they enter play (e.g. Simic Sky Swallower), you must be careful taking creatures that are too expensive to hit play on a consistent basis (Goliath Spider), but look impressive. I’ve lost many games holding big, expensive creatures to efficient beaters like Veteran Armorer.

Dregs is slang for bad cards. I don’t know how many Street Savvy you have in your collection, but I got a ton of them.

5. Mana Watching

You have to be mindful of your mana curve when you draft. This is even more imposing in real life tournaments where you can’t hide unplayable cards and you can sort by cost and then type. You can’t even look at the cards except during the all-too-short breaks between packs!

Of course, if you’re using Magic Online then this rule is much easier to keep in mind.

The basic idea is that you want to keep a curve that continually shrinks beyond the two-drops and three-drops. If you have a glut of four-drops and five-drops, then you’re going to suffer unless you have a suite of mana fixers/accelerators such as Civic Wayfinder, Rampant Growth, etc.

By the same token, if you have too many cheap spells, you can blow your hand and not have any late game plays. It’s a delicate balance and it takes practice and familiarity with the format to truly master.

As for a few “basic ground rules,” I wouldn’t suggest ever playing with more than one seven Converted Mana Cost (CMC) or higher creature/spell in your deck, unless it has ways of being cheaper (Siege Wurm, Myr Enforcer, Broodstar) or is a huge bomb (Debtors’ Knell).

6. Know Your Archetypes

In mono-colored focused blocks (Onslaught, Kamigawa), this is easier to do: You want to know the most powerful cards in any given archetype. This is also called “pick order” because you want to know what is the best pound-for-pound pick in that archetype at any given time.

In a multicolor format, then archetypes are color combinations. Bloodgraft, or Dimir/Rakdos, or All-American Draft (R/W/U) in RGD. Mirrodin skewed draft heavily due to its artifact-based nature. Most decks were “brown” – as a result, sticking to colors didn’t matter as much.

The easiest way to find archetypes is to look at the cards that share mechanics (Kamigawa Block did this well in the Spiritcraft spells and creatures) and work with them. G/W Spiritcraft was a powerful archetype in CBS, but so was U/B Ninjitsu.

Ravnica spells this out for you using Guilds, but complicates things with guild mana, mana fixers, and powerful spells just out of the reach of your current manabase.

In Coldsnap there is another theme – that of Snow mana. With only the Snow-Covered Lands, Boreal Druid, and Coldsteel Heart at your disposal, with each pack passing a Snow-Covered Land may be more and more detrimental to your draft. Depending on your reliance on snow permanents and snow mana, your archetype can thusly be defined.

Perhaps you’re going Green/White/Blue, which relies very little on Snow cards and permanents. But those going Blue/Black/Red desperately need all of the Snow permanents they can get their hands on, to power cards such as Chilling Shade, regenerate Zombie Musher, and make Rimewind Taskmage as ridiculous as possible.

7. Prerelease Preparation

The first thing that goes through my mind when I look at a card is its Constructed impact, and then its Limited impact. You have to appreciate both the good and bad extremes of card design. No matter how many times Mark Rosewater preaches this some players still can’t get it through their heads: there simply needs to be a great deal of cards in any given set that will not impact Constructed Magic in the slightest.

However, the most overlooked component of any card is its synergy. When you see a new card for the first time, or you crack it open in a prerelease, think of its synergy with the block it’s in (i.e. Spiritcraft, Guild color(s), etc), its raw power-and-toughness-to-mana ratio (a 4/4 for four mana is always great), and its impact on the board when it hits play. Ogre Savant, for example, isn’t breaking any Power/Toughness records at 3/2 for 4R, but returning a creature to its owner’s hand is about as good as it gets in Ravnica Limited tempo, or any Limited format for that matter. Therefore you would know to value that card highly in your Sealed or Draft pool.

Looking even deeper into the new set, you must think about and decide on color combinations, so find two of the many colors that may work together based on what you know of the set so far and try to produce a stronger deck.

8. Practice, Practice, Practice

Now it’s practice time. Crack those Draft packs, purchase those digital objects, and trade away your expensive stuff in the auction room for those precious tickets to get you the Draft goodness you crave. MTGO can be deceptive in its “teachings” when they clearly split the drafters via prize payout:

Remember: 4-3-2-2 Queues don’t help you get better. They also provide less pressure, and are more prone to rare drafters who will skew what you get in subsequent packs. When you get to the high levels of Draft, online or off, you’ll find a completely different environment. 8-4s are tough, and potentially scary, but that added pressure makes you focus, and only through focus, repetition, and close examination can you excel at whatever format you prefer.

For what it’s worth, I hope this helped.

Until next time,

Evan “misterorange” Erwin
dubya dubya dubya dot misterorange dot com
eerwin +at+ gmail +dot+ com
Written while listening to Gomez’s “How We Operate”