Real-Life Drafting: How To Play Magic Online Without Selling Your Grandmother

I don’t have much to contribute on drafting strategy – so this is where the article should end, right? Actually, no; this is where it really begins. A lot of people head straight in, study the cards, make the best pick and start lovingly constructing their forty-card bundle of joy… And that’s really bad strategy, since there are several tricks you can use within Magic Online to shape your optimal drafting strategy.

Are the once-a-week drafts at your local store not satiating your draft addiction? When you close your eyes at night, does your mind start ordering the red commons from Onslaught? Have you argued with your girlfriend for an hour that Green and Black go well together before realizing that she is probably talking about clothes and not Magic?

Then you hear about this computer program on which you can draft any time you want day or night. You spend twenty hours downloading the client over your 56k modem, which eventually finishes about three in the morning on a Tuesday. Despite the fact you have to be up at six for work the following morning, you fire it up for one quick game.

Twenty-six hours later, you are still sitting at the screen. You are unshaven, unwashed, and your room is littered with empty pizza boxes. Your cell phone proudly states that you have seven missed calls (probably from work; you haven’t got round to checking yet). Although you are so tired you fight it in on order to do one more draft. This time you will win, you are sure of it. Just one more draft.

Magic Online has claimed another victim.

The numbers are growing, and credit card companies are rejoicing. Many a tale I have heard of drafters who tear up their local tournaments, only to download Magic Online and find themselves six months later with a $2000 credit card bill desperately trying to sell an Enchantress’s Presence for a ticket so they can play in another draft. This article is not about how to become a better drafter; I don’t know whether Elvish Warrior is better than Krosan Tusker or not. This article is to tell you how to survive some of the nuances of Magic Online drafting, so hopefully you don’t become another victim with the bailiffs at the door.

Getting Started

So you have downloaded the client and set up your account with your own interpretation of a catchy username and are ready to get drafting – so now what?

By far the most popular way to draft on Magic Online is the eight-man, single-elimination drafts and these can be found by going in the”Sanctioned Tournament” section (there are also Swiss drafts, but these don’t start too often). The cost to enter the eight-man drafts is three boosters of the relevant type and two Event Tickets.

Event Tickets are tokens that cost a dollar each from the online store and are also used as kind of an online currency. Note that because you provide the boosters, you can use boosters you won in previous drafts to enter the next one… But I’ll get to that later. There are a number of ways to get your boosters and tickets, but the easiest way is just by buying them from the online store – and to start with, this is what you will probably end up doing.

More enterprising people have discovered that you can buy an Onslaught Tournament Pack from the store and then sell it for twelve tickets at the trading post, then buy three Onslaught Boosters for eleven tickets, netting you a profit of one ticket. If you feel like doing this, then be my guest – although for people who just want to get out there and draft, it’s probably a lot of effort to save a dollar.

The Draft Queues

To join an eight-man draft, you have to join one of the relevant queues. Currently, the following five queues are available:

  • OOL Booster

  • OTJ Booster

  • 777 Booster

  • OOL Rochester

  • OOL Booster 4-3-2-2 payout.

OOL Booster: Your standard booster draft, with two Onslaught boosters and one Legions. The winner receives eight boosters, and second place gets four. These are currently the most popular draft and start every 5-10 minutes (sometimes quicker at peak times).

OTJ Booster: As above, except you’re drafting Odyssey block, with one booster from each set. Sometimes have trouble starting, but you can eventually get eight people – if you are prepared to wait about half an hour under normal circumstances.

777 Booster: Again, the same rules and prizes, but it falls somewhere in between the two in terms of how often they start.

OOL Rochester: Same boosters as OOL Booster above, but this are (obviously) a Rochester draft. These are surprisingly unpopular, and very rarely start unless a group of friends all join at the same time. It’s a shame, really, as they are a lot of fun even if they take a lot longer than regular booster draft.

OOL Booster 4-3-2-2 payout: This is a relatively new addition to the game. It works exactly the same as regular booster draft except the prize structure is 4-3-2-2 instead of 8-4. These start even more regularly than the regular OOL drafts, as this is where most of the scrubs tend to hang out.

Obviously, you need to decide what draft suits you best. For the rest of the article, I will assume you are playing OOL draft, as that is what most people want to play. In reality, OTJ and 777 possibly provide better value for money as the rares you pull will be worth more – but obviously they are of little value if you are trying to practice for big Limited events.

With regards to the flatter payout, this may or may not be for you. On one hand you only have to win one match to be guaranteed at least two boosters as a prize, meaning if you are a bit scrubby it will cost less in the long run. On the other hand, you have to win the whole draft just to cover the cost of entering. In short, if you think you can make the finals regularly the 8-4 queue will be better for you.

The Waiting Room

Whichever queue you choose, once you hit the ‘join’ button (assuming you have the relevant product) you will be taken into a kind of waiting room where you will see who else is waiting to draft. When the queue hits eight people, it will wait a couple of minutes and then start the draft. There is some confusion as to whether it picks the eight people who have been in the queue longest or just picks eight at random, and I know for a fact that this has changed at least three times since the game went live. At the moment, to the best of my knowledge it picks the people who were there first – but don’t shout at me if this has changed by the time this gets published.

At the moment, you can also check the ratings of the people in the queue with you. I won’t dwell on this too much, because this feature is soon to be removed – but the key is to look at each person’s Limited rating. Don’t try to compare these with the equivalent ratings in real life, because that will be inaccurate. Magic Online rating points are more difficult to come by than real life rating points. Use the following guide to determine the likely strength of a player with a given rating.

<1500: Almost certainly a dedicated rare drafter. It is very difficult to get a rating this low by simply being bad.

1500 – 1550: A bad player. Will have very limited or flawed valuations on the strength of individual cards, and will have no real idea of what colors work well together. If you discuss”signals” with them, they will assume you are talking about traffic lights. May also be a raredrafter.

1550 – 1600: Your average scrub. Will have a reasonable idea of what good cards are, but will never really draft optimal decks. May win matches on the strength of bombs or a mana screwed opponent. These kind of players often take rares over commons if it will go well in their collection. Alternatively, this may be a completely new player who has only played in a couple of drafts.

1600 – 1700: A lot of players, myself included, move rapidly up and down this bracket according to their current form. These players will know what cards are good and what color combinations work. They may have ideas about signaling and reading signals, although these are probably under-developed or flawed. A lot lap up every Limited strategy article on the net and aspire to be pros one day, although they currently lack the skill. May also be a relatively new player who has taken to the game very well.

1700 – 1800: Now moving into the ranks of the”good player.” These guys will consistently draft good decks and will rarely make serious play errors. They may also be good at signaling, although they may just force whatever colors they like knowing they will still be able to build a decent deck. They are sometimes very bad sports when you beat them. Another type of player who can fall into this category are those who specialize in drafting 7th or Odyssey block, where there are fewer good players drafting.

1800 – 1900: An excellent drafter who probably spends a lot of time drafting on Magic Online – and probably in paper Magic as well. They normally play for free, insofar as they win enough to cover their entry for subsequent drafts. Pro Tour players who dabble in Magic Online often fall into this category. Rest assured that if your opponent is a player with an 1800-plus rating, you are in for a tough match.

1900+: Will be a Pro Tour-quality drafter who plays a hell of a lot of Magic Online.

So what can we do with this information? If you are playing strictly to win, you can check to see if there are many good players in the queue who may steal your thunder (and your prizes). You can also check to see if there are too many weak players and rare drafters that may distort the result of the draft by passing Sparksmiths around the table. If you don’t like who else is in the queue, you can leave and get a full packs and tickets refund. You will be unpopular if you do this too often, especially if there are exactly eight people in the queue and the draft is about to start – but the option is there if you want it. What is important for now, though, is to remember the names and approximate ratings of as many people as possible, as this will come in useful once the draft starts.

And We’re Off!

After eight people have been in the queue for a while, one of two things will happen: Firstly, eight people will disappear from the queue and a message will appear ‘Draft ###### has started’. If this happens, you were not picked for that draft; you will have to wait for the next one to start. The second thing that may happen is that you and seven others will be whisked off to start a draft. If this happens, a lot of things will happen quickly so you need to act fast.

First of all, you will get a bit of hard disk activity, and then you will be shown a graphic representation of yourself and the seven other drafters sitting round a table. Moments later, the first pack will open and you will see fifteen cards displayed on the screen, waiting like a class of children to be told by you which is the best.

Now, as I have already admitted that I don’t have much to contribute on drafting strategy – so this is where the article should end, right? Actually, no; this is where it really begins. At this point a lot of people head straight in, study the cards, make the best pick and start lovingly constructing their forty-card bundle of joy. I’m not saying this is bad… But there are a few things you can check now that will help you out. Problem is, you have a limited amount of time to make your first pick so you have to act quickly – but not that quickly as fortunately the time limit is quite long.

Before we go any further, let’s recap what we know about eight-man draft tables:

1. First game you, play the person diametrically opposite you (or”four around from you” if it’s easier to think of it that way).

2. If you win, you will play the winner of the two players who are seated two away from you.

3. For two-thirds of the game you will be fed by the person to your right and feed the person to your left. For the remaining third, the reverse will be true.

Now let’s look at what we want to achieve here. Sure, we want to draft, have fun, improve our skills, solve world poverty, and marry Britney Spears… But what would be really nice is if we could win some boosters. Not only does this give us a warm fuzzy glow inside, but it will also finance or part-finance our next draft. If you never win any boosters, you can spend quite a lot of money very quickly on Magic Online. Unless you are playing a draft with a 4-3-2-2 prize split, your goal is to get to the final of the draft. 90% of opponents will agree to the new”prize split” option if you get to the finals, meaning that you will win six boosters. This will finance the next draft and most of the one after, so this is good times. If you are playing a 4-3-2-2 draft, the issue is more polarized. The only way to completely finance the next draft is to win the whole thing. However, if you don’t do this, just getting to the semis will finance over half of the next draft (which can probably be made up by selling some of the cards you just drafted if you want to do that).

Now what we have to do is piece these things together. You know what you have to do, and you know who you have to beat to do it because you can see who your opponent is likely to be in each round. You can check the Limited ratings of every player in the draft at this point, as their names are still listed at the bottom right of the screen but remember you are on the clock. That’s why it is a good idea to memorize as many as you can in the queue. So despite satisfying your curiosity, what will checking the Limited ratings of your various opponents do and what if any should you do different as a result? Let’s take a look in order of importance.

First Round Opponent:

This guy has the potential to end your participation in the draft at the first hurdle and so having a weaker player sat in the seat four away from you will be a big advantage if you are trying to win boosters. Cross-reference their rating with the descriptions given above, and cross reference that with what you perceive your own ability to be to come up with an idea of how easy this first round will be. Sometimes you just have to minimize your losses. If you are clearly gonna be outclassed by your opponent, you might want to try raredrafting or”selective raredrafting” (see below) so that you can at least increase the value of your cards after the draft.


This is the person sitting to your right at the table. They will be feeding you two-thirds of the packs, so it is the person in the draft it is most important to work out what colors they are playing. The reason to look at their rating is to work out what value to place on their signals. If they have a high rating, then they are likely to send good signals. If they have a low rating, though, don’t place too much value on any signals you get from that direction. For example, if you get passed a Sparksmith in the first pack by a good drafter, then that is a strong signal that the person to your right is not playing red. However, if the person has a low rating, it may be he picked up another red card from the booster. By all means, pick the Sparksmith – but be on the look out for more consistent signals and be prepared to switch colors if you find you have been cut off.


Obviously the opposite of your Daddy, this is the person to your left at the table. For the most part, you will be feeding them and, if they are a good player, they will be frantically trying to read your signals. What is not immediately obvious is that it is also possible to signal to a weak player – although you have to approach it differently. Therefore, it is important to know their rating.

If it is high, then feel free to follow all conventional signaling strategy outlined by many better players before me. If it is especially, low then you may want to follow my new (to my knowledge) method of signaling to scrubs. This is quite different to signaling to good players and is based around the following two observed facts:

  • A scrub may be a rare drafter – and even if they are not they often overestimate the power of rares. A scrub will nearly always take a Blistering Firecat over a Sparksmith.

  • A scrub will nearly always stick to the colors he starts drafting unless he pulls a bomb, in which case he may try to switch colors (whether it’s advisable or not).

Therefore you can send fantastic signals to a scrubby bitch simply by leaving a decent rare in the first pack. Chances are, unless you open a bomb, the best card in the pack won’t be a rare anyway. If you do open a bomb, then obviously take it and win. If the rare in the pack is jank, simply ignore signaling altogether. Don’t bother picking an inferior card to send a good signal, if you’re feeding a scrub; it just isn’t worth it.

Your Semifinal Opponent:

This will be the person sitting either two to your left or two to your right depending on who wins that game. It is not that important to know these people’s ratings at this stage (in fact, if you are playing with the 4-3-2-2 prize structure it’s pretty irrelevant) – but if you have some free time, feel free to check it out. Obviously, the lower the rating of these people, the easier your semifinal will be if you get there. This may influence your decision as to whether or not to raredraft.

What to Draft

Okay, so now you have a picture of the ratings of pretty much everyone in the draft – now what? You may have already decided what signals you can or cannot send… But how about raredrafting? Remember, unless you are either mega-rich or have the playing skills to”go infinite,” you will probably want to partially finance your drafts by selling off the cards you draft. That is not to say you should take every rare you see; it just means that you should exercise a bit of discretion when making your picks. Raredrafting is not something you either do or don’t do, but something that you may do to a given extent. I basically see it as a four-way choice:

Card Drafting:

You always take the best card for your deck, regardless of rarity or value. A card in your colors that almost certainly won’t make your deck is better than an off-color rare. This is the way the drafts at big events are done – but I wouldn’t recommend it on Magic Online, even if you are a great player who doesn’t need to sell cards to finance his drafting.

Opportunity Drafting:

Although you try to draft the best deck possible, you are sensible about it. You won’t compromise the quality of your deck for the sake of taking a rare but if there is nothing else in the pack that will make your deck, you may as well grab the rare especially if it is valuable. This type of drafting is recommended by default if you are trying to win the draft.

Selective Raredrafting:

You are still trying to draft a good deck, but you will vary your plan if you see a”money rare,” which will be picked regardless of whether they are playable in your deck or not. “Money rares” are rares that are worth at least couple of dollars on their own and are listed below (for Onslaught, anyway). Also, when there is nothing in the pack that will make your deck you will always take the rare – even if it is a bad one. This type of drafting is recommended if you are facing a difficult time winning anything, but still want to give it a try, or if you think you are good enough to do well anyway even if you miss a few early picks.


Take every rare you see. If the rare is already gone, take the most valuable uncommon. If there is nothing of value in the pack at all, then you might try making a semblance of a deck (especially in the 4-3-2-2 queue, where you can get lucky and fluke a win) but for the most part once you start straight-up raredrafting, it’s not worth thinking about your deck – as it is destined to be rubbish. Bear in mind that when you draft like this, you also won’t learn an awful lot. However it may be worth it if you are low on funds and face a first-round match against Brian Kibler or something. It is also worth it when you start off Selective Rare Drafting and get a lot of money rares very quickly therefore missing too many early picks to really recover.

The Money Cards

Here are the money cards from Onslaught that you should consider picking even if they have no relevance to your draft deck whatsoever. They will all fetch at least two or three dollars in the trade rooms, and some over five. I won’t give exact prices, as these are changing all the time.

Pretty short list, isn’t it? And over half of them are made up of fetchlands. Here is a slightly extended list of those cards that are either on the borderline of the above group or, while currently not of high value, may well rise in the future due to their emergence at Pro Tour: Venice and/or their importance to Block Constructed in general:

Obviously, Legions also has a few chase rares of its own – although at the moment the prices aren’t fully fleshed-out. The market will probably take shape better after Nationals, but for now be on the lookout for the following:

Remember, if I’m right, you heard it here first.

Playing Your Matches

Okay, so you have your deck and let’s assume it’s some kind of playable deck that can win games. There are a few features of Magic Online that may catch the unprepared paper player out. I will list the major ones here.


The only thing that you can undo in Magic Online is the tapping of lands for mana (press Alt + U). There is no handy feature where you can ask your opponent if you can take something back, so don’t waste time looking for one.


Your deck is sorted randomly. You can’t change this and you certainly can’t play fifteen lands in your draft deck and do your”special shuffle”

to make sure you start with three lands and one every three cards after that.

Priority and Stops

In Magic Online, you won’t automatically be prompted for action every time you receive priority. There are things called stops and autoyields, which can be adjusted in your settings. I won’t go into these in detail because there have been a number of good articles written on the Magic Online website (go look in the archive).

One thing that is worth mentioning is that the software will automatically pass priority to your opponent after you play a spell or ability, unless you hold down control while doing so.

Time Limit

If you stall the game, you are only hurting yourself. Each player has an individual clock that counts down only when they have priority. You have thirty minutes on your personal clock per match. If it runs out, you lose. You also receive a game loss if you don’t respond for ten minutes at any time.

Toys Leaving the Pram

Some players you meet are rude and hide behind the anonymity of the internet and are often very insulting – especially when they’re losing. Try not to get too wound up by this. Depending on what kind of person you are, you can trade insults back (this can be quite fun, but can get out of hand), ask them to stop being such an ass (which not normally effective) or just ignore them. There is a”block” feature to use if things get really bad. Once someone is on your block list, you will no longer receive any in-game messages from them. By the same stroke, if you are annoyed for any reason, don’t take it out on your opponent. Typing”your deck sucks, you are a lucky topdecking n00b” at your opponent after you lose will not change the fact that you have just crashed out the draft while he is going on to the next round. You are making their experience worse without making yours any better. In short, you are being a jerk.

Managing Your Cash

This is, of course, where a lot of perfectly sensible people become foolish on Magic Online. Work out how much money you can afford to spend and stick to it. Personally, I tend to allow myself two drafts per week, plus an additional one every time I make the final. Therefore, the most I am going to lose drafting in any given week is $25 – and I feel this is reasonable.

You hear a lot of stories about people”going infinite” on Magic Online, never paying for a draft because they always use their winnings from previous drafts to enter the next one. This is indeed possible… But bear two factors in mind:

1) A lot of extremely good drafters play Magic Online. We’re not just talking about the guy who always beats you at Friday Night Magic; we’re talking most of the Pro Tour. These guys can”go infinite,” probably by beating people like you who can’t.

2) Most of the people who manage to do this do so by selling all the rares they draft in the trading rooms for tickets and then using some of the tickets to buy packs. This is perfectly legitimate, and an excellent idea… If you are only interested in drafting. One day you will probably feel like playing Constructed competitively and will wish you had never drafted all those fetchlands away… But a certain amount of selling is necessary if you want to draft regularly without spending a mint.

A lot of players spend a lot of money by assuming that they will soon get good enough to”go infinite,” but most just end up disappointed having spent a lot of money. Raredrafting to various degrees as describes above will help your funding a lot – but in the end if you are not a great drafter, it will cost you money.


Magic Online is a fantastic drafting tool and has a growing base of addicts. Providing you only spend what you can afford and can get used to the interface it can be just as fulfilling as paper Magic and more so when you realize you have a captive base of drafters available 24/7. Next time you are at a PTQ and sit there staring at your deck waiting for it to shuffle itself, congratulations! You have been added to the army of Magic Online users.

Happy Gaming!


(‘Piemaster‘ on MTGO and on most Magic-related forums)