Limited Lessons — The Dynamics of a Draft Pick

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Last week’s Limited Lessons saw Nick take us through a TPF draft walkthrough pick by pick. One particular early choice saw Nick take an on-color Gemhide Sliver over the more powerful Griffin Guide… and he faced some heat for this in the forums. Such picks, however, are definitely worth examining with the overall draft dynamic in mind. Today’s excellent article begins to explain why abstract picks such as these are never cut and dried, and touches on why parroting picks from ordered lists and published walkthroughs is by no means the path to success…

I’ve wanted to write this article for a long time, but decided to wait and gather good examples for each of these concepts rather than rush the article and make some things less clear. My hope is to realign some of your thinking in terms of making picks in a draft, and offer a refreshing change of pace from the usual strategy articles and walkthroughs.

The Beginning

Alright, so what’s the point of doing a theory piece like this?

When the draft format first came about years ago, it was simply called “pass the trash.” Clearly, we’ve come a long way since then, and I’d say the Magic community as a whole is reasonably competent at Limited nowadays whereas nobody had a clue a few years back. The Internet is certainly the driving force behind the increase in skill the average player possesses. I don’t intend for this to be a historical article, but it makes sense to start at the beginning to show you how you may have become lost along the way.

The underlying premise of this article is that I believe most players who become relatively good at draft nowadays simply shift gears into auto-pilot. They experience some success at the PTQ level, or maybe higher, and figure they can kick back and just keep playing the same that they always have, hoping they will keep finishing well or get better at the game just because they already possess some understanding of it. This may not sound like a big deal if someone is already a solid Magic player, but it is in fact a huge deal if you ever have aspirations of improving your game or taking it to the next level. Not only does auto-pilot squelch any real chances of improvement, but many players gradually become worse overall once they get into this mindset. I can say this with absolute certainty because I too have been down this path, and seen how my overall game slowly eroded and became very sloppy. It begins with small things like seemingly harmless take backs during a friendly game, or making a bad pick in a draft and then stubbornly justifying it in the face of sound reasoning. Who needs reasoning, after all, when the person giving you the correct strategic advice is a lesser player than you are? That’s how a player in this mindset starts to think: “This guy is much worse at Magic than I am… what does he know? Why should I ever give his opinions any weight?” The real pitfall comes when you listen to the other guy’s logic, realize it that it makes perfect sense, and then still disagree or argue with him simply because you know you are a better player and “it doesn’t matter that much anyway.” Or so you say to yourself to rationalize it. Guess what?

It does matter.

Not only does it matter much more than you think, but once you start down this slippery slope of ignorance it is very hard to turn around and climb back up. My goal this week is to have you step back and take a ballpark view of your draft game, and see if you are open-minded about things or if you need someone to peel back your eyelids and show you how things really are.

I want to specifically focus on the process of making draft picks with this column, even though doing things automatically can plague any part of a player’s game. Probably the worst place to go on automatic pilot is when you’re playing an actual game, but that’s also harder to write about since it’s more abstract. Draft picks are something you can quantify and explain, while it is more difficult to detail why one play in a game is better than another without spending a lot of space describing the game state.

Too often, players are closed-minded about making draft picks and unwilling to budge when asked what the correct pick is in a given situation. You may ask them whether it is better to take Fathom Seer or Looter il-Kor, and the majority will respond by saying “Fathom Seer for sure.” They say it with absolute certainty. The funny thing about this is that when you ask them why it is in fact the correct pick, they usually can’t give you a specific reason. Where does this absolute certainty come from if they can’t even back it up with sound reasoning? They simply do it because that’s what they’ve been told in strategy articles. In this particular case, the pick would actually depend on where you were at in the draft. Fathom Seer is indeed the percentage pick if you haven’t drafted any Black cards yet, and the reason is because it is cheap card drawing that is reusable via bounce or something like Tolarian Sentinel, Whitemane Lion, or Dream Stalker. Another reason is that it can take out a 2/2 creature and stay in play after damage has resolved, creating a big swing in card advantage. If, however, you have a Dark Withering in your pile already, I’d strongly suggest taking the Looter. Knowing when to veer off course and make a different pick than you normally would is hard to learn, but also key to becoming an expert drafter. Not only do you have to know when to do it, but more importantly you must know why you are making a non-standard pick.

Making a pick in a draft is the practice of examining a number of variables and then making the choice that will in theory yield the highest win percentage during the actual games. I used italics on the key part of that last sentence because that is the real thing you should be thinking about during a draft. This concept is something that isn’t really discussed in articles today, since it is assumed that players understand it. I’m of the opinion that lots of players, especially on Magic Online, simply read draft walkthroughs and then mimic the picks made by the pro writing the walkthrough. This is a quick fix that only works until you get into situations where the correct pick changes based on power, consistency, longevity, what you’ve already drafted, who is feeding you, or a myriad of other possible variables. You should be making choices to maximize your chances of winning rather than making a pick because Rich Hoaen made the same pick in his walkthrough two days ago. I’m sure Rich made the right pick based on how his draft was going at the time, but that doesn’t mean the same pick will be correct for the draft in which you’re currently involved.

So what if you’re reading this and realize that you too are guilty of overusing Magic’s version of Cliff’s Notes? What does it mean, and what can you do about it? The bad news if you’re reading this and know that you fall into this category is that you’re going to have to wake up and put in some real effort if you ever want to get better at the game. Diet pills never worked, and draft walkthroughs aren’t going to be enough to propel you to a professional level either. You should unquestionably continue to read the strategy articles and the walkthroughs, but while doing so try to keep in mind that they are intended as a helping tool and not a crutch. If you can keep things in perspective, and constantly ask questions and evaluate your game, you should be well on the way to improvement.

Now that I’ve ranted considerably, I want to examine why exactly one draft pick can be deemed better than another, and how you can start to identify variables that influence what card you should be taking.


I’m going to start with the most obvious variable, and that is overall card power. This variable is often very influential in the first few picks of a draft, or in times where you open a ridiculous bomb and decide to switch colors for it. A good example of this would be if you were in Green in pack 1 and leaning towards Green/Red, and then open Damnation and decide to switch out of Red for it. The reason you are sacrificing all of the Red cards you’ve already picked is for card power alone. The card is so good that you are willing to throw away multiple earlier picks just to change color for it. (I want to emphasize that I’m talking about making a pick like this at a Pro Tour or other high level event, where you wouldn’t take the Damnation simply because it was worth $15 and you were rare-drafting it.)

Another simple example I can give involves what I consider to be the best possible card to open in Time Spiral: Disintegrate. If I open Disintegrate, I don’t care what else is in the pack… I’m taking it. That’s card power in its purest form, since the pack could also have Firemaw Kavu, Jaya Ballard, and Sulfurous Blast, and I am still taking Disintegrate. The card strength in this case is so overwhelming that signaling or color preference or any other factor that could come into play just doesn’t matter.

I recently came across a more complex situation involving card quality after opening my Future Sight pack in a TPF draft at the local store. I was solidly in G/R going into the third pack, and opened a booster that contained Sprout Swarm, Thunderblade Charge, and Ghostfire. The only cards that were relevant at all to this pick were the Search for Tomorrow and Evolution Charm that would help fix my mana and make the heavy requirements of the Charge acceptable. Also I already had Rift Bolt, Grapeshot, and Dead/Gone in the removal department, so it wasn’t that I was absolutely desperate and needed to take one of the kill spells here.

How do you solve a complicated problem like this?

The best place to start is to go through the list of variables to see if any can influence the pick in one direction or another. I know I haven’t gone through all of the variables I’m going to talk about in this article, but I’m hoping the wheels are now turning and you can think of most of them on your own. First I threw out any color issues, since all three cards are excellent and my deck could easily support any of them. Consistency wasn’t an issue, since I already had a few removal spells and a good creature suite. I didn’t have any Thallid Germinators or other cards that would make the pick lean more towards Sprout Swarm than normal. I didn’t have any evasive creatures to continually power up the Thunderblade Charge and make it a more attractive pick. Mana Curve or Archetype issues did not come into play here, since these cards are all good enough that they work in any archetype that can cast them and supercede mana curve for the most part. So I’ve basically eliminated all of the factors that influence my pick… right?


What about overall card power?

I think it’s safe to say that Ghostfire can get thrown out immediately, since I can support either Charge or Sprout Swarm and both are recursive effects that are more desirable than a simple kill spell, even if Ghostfire is more efficient than normal. As far as choosing between the Charge and the Swarm, just try to imagine a typical game state, or what types of answers your opponent could have for either card. Charge could be hard to turn on if the board is even or if I’m losing, and would be much more attractive in U/R or W/R, where I would have creatures with evasion. In the average game, I’d say it would be cast from hand once, and cast from the graveyard maybe one more time. Sometimes it will be amazing in G/R, but most of the time it will just be good. Sprout Swarm, on the other hand, is going to be amazing in almost all situations, and is much harder to deal with. It takes almost no effort to get a Sprout Swarm with buyback going, whereas a bunch of things have to go right in order to start casting Thunderblade Charge every turn. Sprout Swarm also overcomes any Wrath effect, most board positions, and powers lots of other cards in G/R.

Maybe you already knew that Sprout Swarm was the right pick here, but that’s not the point. Having a cookbook or “pick order,” as we used to call it, can only get you so far, and you need to be able to do the analysis on your own and understand why one card is better than another… and for what reasons.

In this particular example, card power was the driving factor, and once I identified that I simply tried to envision an average game and decide which card was more likely to contribute to victory. I didn’t take the Thunderblade Charge and say something like “well, it’s rare, it has to be better than Sprout Swarm, which is only a common.”

Consistency and Commitment

A second variable that is readily present in draft selections is consistency. I remember multiple occasions back in RGD where I was drafting G/R aggro and was offered the choice of something big and flashy, like Borborygmos, or something mid-range that wasn’t as exciting, such as Bloodscale Prowler or Burning-Tree Bloodscale. When I was first trying out the archetype, I would often take the large monster and later be disappointed that it would get stuck in my hand or come online too late to matter. The goal of the deck was a quick assault, usually fueled by late-pick Scab-Clan Maulers, and taking something clunky because it had a gold symbol on it just didn’t fit into the plan.

Another side of the coin is taking a card like Stronghold Overseer with your first pick of the draft, as it could invariably screw up the rest of your draft if you are unable to get off of Black when it’s not coming to you. I see this all the time, as someone opens a strong card that is heavy in color commitment and then doesn’t see the writing on the wall when it’s time to jump ship. This is an issue of consistency, and also the reason why I’d usually rather take something like Rift Bolt, Strength in Numbers, or another strong common over the heavy commitment. Yes, if the Overseer works out it is likely to be a better card by a fair margin, but the fact of the matter is that the other cards are still pretty close if you look at how they play out in a normal game, and they don’t have the commitment or consistency issues that plague the big shiny bomb. A lot of things also have to go right for the bomb to even have an impact, as you have to be fed Black in the draft, and then actually draw the card and three Swamps to cast it. Forcing the issue could just give you a bad manabase.

A very recent example of this variable occurred in my draft walkthrough from last week. My first three picks of the draft were Sulfurous Blast, Grapeshot, and Strength in Numbers. For my fourth pick, I narrowed it down to Griffin Guide and Gemhide Sliver rather quickly, and eventually settled on the Sliver. At first I received some criticism in the forums, and it made me realize that some people just don’t understand the consistency principle. Taking Griffin Guide to splash here isn’t a terrible idea. In fact, it’s a very good idea if you consider yourself a mediocre or weak player, as you can randomly win much easier with Griffin Guide, and Gemhide doesn’t offer that luxury. If you’re aspiring to understand the game of Magic though, you should at least make sure you understand why the Gemhide is a perfectly reasonable pick. Take a minute to go back and look over the first four picks of the walkthrough if you haven’t yet.

The first reason that passing the Griffin Guide is okay is because I’ve already shipped Stronghold Overseer and other Black, and I want to cut off Green to get hooked up in Planar Chaos if possible. A second reason is that Gemhide is not only mana acceleration, but it is also fixing, and it has an added small potential of getting better if I end up getting a lot of Slivers. Finally, there are very good splash options in later sets, including Ichor Slick, Death Rattle, or a number of other things. Taking the good mana fixer/accelerator now and then getting the splash card later if I find one is a better alternative to taking the splash card first and then trying to fix it later. The astute reader will now ask why I didn’t just take the Guide and possibly move into W/R. I’ll get to that in a minute, but just to clarify, this pick is a good example of consistency, as I am staying on target in my colors and also preparing for future splash options if they present themselves. To repeat an earlier point, it’s perfectly fine to take Griffin Guide with the intention of splashing, but I think there is a better pick in the name of consistency available, and I believe it carries with it the potential for a better deck that will win more games. Messing up your mana early in a draft is a good way to make life difficult for yourself later in the packs, when you have to decide between a strong card of a mana fixer since you gambled with an earlier pick. Or even worse, a mana fixer may not show up and you’ll just be stuck with bad mana.

Archetype and Color Issues

As I was saying earlier, there was the possibility of taking Griffin Guide with that pick and moving into W/R. The problem I have with this is that I’ve found W/R to generally suck in TPF, and I have a strong preference for G/R. That fact alone played a big role in my decision to pass on the Guide, despite its high power level.

Hopefully, you can see how the variables are starting to intertwine, and how you have to learn to balance or choose between them. In the Griffin Guide pick, I decided that consistency was more important than power, and made the pick that I felt best suited my deck at the time.

Archetypical concerns can come into play and change a card’s value almost entirely depending on what the strengths and weaknesses of the color pair are. For instance, a card like Riddle of Lightning or Shivan Meteor isn’t worth a lot in B/R, where you have lots of Dark Banishing types of effects available to kill large men. Either of these cards is at a premium in G/R or U/R though, as the only other answers available in those archetypes are bounce or attacking past the large man. I’d like to have an answer if possible, instead of being forced into a chump-block and race situation. If you’re smart about things, you can avoid the situation by preparing during the draft and taking that Riddle of Lightning a little higher if you have a shot at it. Lots of draft games are lost before they even begin because the player doesn’t have a well thought-out plan during the draft, or just doesn’t recognize the specific needs of the archetype he was drafting and then adjust his picks accordingly.

As far as color matters are concerned, you are often forced to take a lesser card later in the draft simply because it is in your colors and you need playables. It’s no fun opening Take Possession or Tombstalker in pack 3 when they’re not on color and you have to take Nessian Courser or something equally distant on the power scale. Color issues can also change a pick due to mana requirements even if you are in the said color. If you look back to the Sprout Swarm/Thunderblade Charge example from earlier, imagine if I was instead heavily focused in Green with no real way to support the triple Red ability on the Charge. In that case the pick would be extremely simple, and I’d take the Swarm without much thought. That’s a perfect example of color influencing a pick in one way or another.

Mana Curve

This concept was not very well understood in the earlier days of Limited Magic, and thought mainly to be a Constructed idea. I go over picks in walkthroughs all of the time where the deciding variable in the pick is how my mana curve looks at that point, and which card will fit it better.

A recent example I can think of comes again from my walkthrough last week, where I took Fomori Nomad over Skizzik Surger because I had more top end guys and also a lack of five-drops. If I had nothing above five at that point in the draft, I certainly would’ve taken the Surger since I could afford sacrificing the two lands, and it is a better card when your build can allow for it. In this case, I’m willing to sacrifice a small amount of card quality to make my deck more fluid.

I can’t go into much more detail except to say that this should be something you are always aware of from the middle stages of the draft. It shouldn’t completely dictate a pick, but you need to have some early game as well as late, or you’ll just get run over. A deck with a good curve can easily beat a deck filled with bombs, if the player with all of the bombs has no defense and finds himself facing down three guys before making his first play.

What You Already Have

This concept is pretty easy to understand, and affects every pick of a draft but the first one.

Uktabi Drake gets better if you have Primal Forcemage, Stingscourger or Riftwing Cloudskate improve with Momentary Blink, and even just the run of the mill Deathspore Thallid and Sprout Swarm combination is strong in unison. Later picks in a draft are influenced largely by what you already have in your pile and what direction you are headed. This concept basically encompasses everything, as things like color and mana curve are defined by what you already have and what you need to look for in the remaining picks. It’s for this reason that I can’t correctly answer those late night messages on AIM asking whether someone should take Llanowar Empath or Nessian Courser for their G/R deck. The answer is hinged almost entirely on what else you’ve already drafted.


This principle has some overlap with the consistency principle, since you want to be using your early picks on cards that have strong long-term value. Not that the card will eventually be worth money or eventually used in Constructed, but that it will likely end up making your deck if you don’t get completely pushed out of the color. My favorite card to open in Time Spiral is Strangling Soot, since there is almost no way I will not end up playing it or splashing for it. The Soot has very strong longevity as well as a high power level. Longevity of cards changes as blocks get completed and more sets are added too, and it’s important to pick up on it as early as possible.

I started picking Deathspore Thallid much higher immediately after seeing Sprout Swarm in action. Back in TTT, the Deathspore didn’t have a lot of longevity since Thallids as an archetype was not very good. Now a single Deathspore has enough power to even be splashed if you end up with a Swarm.

The key to this principle is taking cards that are strong and possibly splashable rather than committing to something narrow. I would much rather have Tromp the Domains or Lightning Axe than Pentarch Paladin for these reasons.


I guess I should end here, even though I could cover so much more ground. I hope this article serves as an eye-opener to those of you out there who have been using the walkthroughs as bibles, and I hope it means that you’ll start doing some deeper thinking about the game. Remember that each pick is different and influenced by tons of factors (some of which I didn’t even cover here, like signaling, or color preference). When you start to understand how to balance the factors and decide which should get precedence in a given pick, you will be taking a big step forward to improving your thinking about the game.

Nick Eisel
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