The Compleat U/R Drafter’s Guide, Part 1: The Preparation And Proper Signaling

When I saw a fifty – fifty! – page article cross my desk, I knew that once again Geordie Tait had come through in spades. And if you want the most utterly-exhausting guide to drafting an archetype people once thought dead, Geordie will provide. Tomorrow, he’ll be discussing the Onslaught picks – but if you want to know how and when to go U/R, he tells you in intensely loving detail that reads like a”Dummies” book.

Life is like a draft. You go into it with high expectations, but sometimes things don’t work out the way you planned.

Hey there, everyone! It was a month in the making, but this article is finally finished – and not a moment too soon. Once Mirrodin hits the shelves, OLS will turn into what OTJ has been for some months now – a set you draft in order to get cards for your Constructed decks. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The bottom line speaks loudest, after all, and the fact that OLS drafts are going to be filled with ticket-hunting privateers might mean that strategy articles on the subject might experience something of a boom. I don’t really know. I just hope that you like this one.

Before things get rolling, I should warn you – this isn’t a”coffee break” guide. It’s very lengthy and covers everything that I thought important. I tried my best to keep the material from becoming stale, and I think I was fairly successful, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t have to set aside a nice chunk of time if you want to read this one from beginning to end.

Drafting is a difficult skill to master, and you can never be a”perfect” Limited player, but if Magic Online has taught me one thing, it’s that practice can make you far, far better than you were. I’m writing this volume in order to share with you the experience I’ve accrued drafting U/R in the OLS format. After some four hundred drafts over the course of the last few months, I’m confident that most players, from the novice to the advanced, will be able to read this series and emerge the better for it.

Using the methods and techniques described herein, I’m sure that you can improve as a player too, and that’s what I’m aiming for. Not everyone has time for four hundred drafts…But you might just have time to read an article! Knowledge is power, right? Well, the first step is as close as the a scroll down!


I fell in love with U/R at the same time as many other players – when it came to the forefront back in the days of triple-Onslaught. Since then, U/R has gone through a number of startling changes while still remaining extremely viable. The color combination is no longer able to depend on the two blisteringly powerful signature commons of the archetype (Lavamancer’s Skill and Sparksmith) to dominate games. Now, building a solid U/R deck is like sculpting a piece of art – you have a lot of tools to work with, and while the outcome may be completely different each time, it will be a success if you know what you’re doing.

Other color combinations have more powerful cards, mostly due to the robust tribal interactions that blue and red are denied. Wizards and Goblins have never been very good tribes in Onslaught Block, and that weakness is thought by some to be so critical a shortcoming that many players have shied away from U/R when the second and third pack of Skills and Sparksmiths, which were so often used to dominate games, exited stage left. The autopilot strategy now belongs to U/W, an archetype typified by unfair Deftblade Elite + Dragon Scales openings, and 5/5 Daru Stingers.

U/R can play a number of different games, and that versatility is the true strength of the archetype in booster draft. I have drafted U/R decks with ten fliers, and U/R decks with no fliers. Both can be successful. Sometimes you can win with a board control strategy, and other times with a tempo strategy. I have drafted removal-heavy decks and removal-light decks with roughly equal success. The color combination that clears the board with Sparksmith and Lavamancer’s Skill today (sending in Frenetic Raptor to finish the job) might shop up in a totally different incarnation tomorrow, a tempo-grabbing demon machine with Ascending Avens and other fliers, backed by Choking Tethers and Essence Fracture.

The U/R deck is like the junkyard dog waiting by the table to pick up leftovers. While the tribal decks are trying to gobble up Gustcloak Harrier, Daru Stinger, and Daru Warchief, it’s no problem to swoop in and pick up less tribally focused, but equally powerful cards like Solar Blast, Echo Tracer and Rush of Knowledge.

Brian Kibler said recently in his Nationals Report that U/R is”a collection of pretty good cards that function pretty well together” – and though that statement seems like an indictment of U/R, it is quite apt. It is certainly true that Zombie, Cleric, and especially Soldier decks benefit far more from backbreakingly powerful tribal interactions. However, while those decks are potentially more powerful, their dominance is a problem that is self-correcting – as an archetype grows in strength, it also becomes overdrafted.

This isn’t too serious a problem at a Rochester table, where you can clearly signal your Soldier-hogging intentions – but when you’re flying blind in a Booster Draft, you run the risk of getting torpedoed by a like-minded drafter in close proximity. U/R, far less popular than it once was an underestimated by pretty much everyone, doesn’t have this liability. What does that mean for you as U/R drafter? It means that while your U/R deck might be slightly underpowered at a cooperative Rochester Draft table, it will always be strong enough to win a Booster Draft. The old dog remains a force to be reckoned with.

The bottom line is, U/R is not an underpowered color combination. It remains extremely viable, and when I draft a good U/R deck I give myself a fair chance to run the table with it, massive Stingers be damned. If you think that U/R is dead, or that the entire archetype only has one real pack, you’ve been doing too much theorizing and not enough actual playing. Sure, in theory, U/R died a long time ago. In practice, well… It’s a far different story.

Excited? You should be! Much like Roman Polanski at the mention of extradition, you’re speeding toward new territory! Read on to find out how to interpret some of the information presented in this guide.


In the sections below, you’ll see some information in the form of many”pick order” lists. The whole of U/R in OLS is a lot to analyze, and for the safety and sanity of all concerned it’s been divided here into three sections (Onslaught, Legions, Scourge) each with three subsections (Common, Uncommon, Rare). In each section, there will be a pick order listing with notations, followed by card-by-card notes with advice and guidelines for each individual choice. These guidelines and notes aren’t just conjecture and theory, they are the result of over one hundred booster drafts worth of experience playing the cards in question.

Q: The cards in the”Uncommon Pick Order” have a number proceeding the card name, but they also have a second number following the card name. So do the rares listed as”Playable.” What is that number for?

In the case of both uncommons and”Playable” rares, the number following the card name is where the card would be listed if it were to be put into the list of”Common” cards of the same color and same set.

For example:

“3. Chain of Plasma (3.5)”

This means that Chain of Plasma, if it were to be compared to the red commons in Onslaught, would be located below the third entry on the list (Shock), but above the fourth entry (Solar Blast). In fact, if you were to add Chain of Plasma to the common pick order, it would look like this:

3. Shock

3.5. Chain Of Plasma

4. Solar Blast

Using these notations, you can compare uncommon cards to common cards and see which are the appropriate picks! In this case you take Shock over Chain of Plasma, but Chain of Plasma over Solar Blast.

Q: I understand the difference between”1″ and”2″ in a pick order, but what is the difference between”8.5″ and”8.6″?

When uncommon cards in a pick order are listed as having the same integer, with only one tenth of a pick differentiating the two, it means that the cards fall between the same two commons on the pick order, but one is still better than the other. For example, Wall of Deceit is listed as (1.5) while Willbender is (1.6). This means that while both cards fall squarely between Echo Tracer (1) and Skirk Marauder (2) as far as power level is concerned, the Wall of Deceit should still be taken over the Willbender, all things being equal, if the choice presents itself.

Q: I see some cards listed with an”X” instead of a number. What does that mean?

Cards listed with an”x” instead of a number in the pick order lists are cards that should never, ever make your deck under any circumstances. If you are playing any of these cards in your U/R draft decks, something is very wrong. Using my pick orders and reading signals correctly, you should never have to play these cards. They really are awful.

Q: Can you explain how the rares are categorized?

The rares are separated into four different categories: TIER 1 ANCHOR CARDS, TIER 2 ANCHOR CARDS, PLAYABLE, and UNPLAYABLE.

  • TIER 1 ANCHOR CARDS are massive, deck anchoring bombs that win games by themselves, often with no skill being involved. These cards are so sickly powerful that even in the hands of a bad player, they are potent. In the hands of a great player, they are insane.

  • TIER 2 ANCHOR CARDS are very powerful, but for whatever reason, be it a massive and unwieldy casting cost or a conditional effect, they are not as powerful as the TIER 1 cards. One distinguishing characteristic of the TIER 2 cards is that you may choose to take a powerful common or uncommon over them – not true of the TIER 1 cards, which are first picks 100% of the time.

  • PLAYABLE CARDS are rares that are strong enough to make your deck. You will sometimes first-pick these, but more often than not there will be a more powerful card for you. Each”PLAYABLE” rare will be accompanied by a number in parenthesis so that you can place it in the overall pick order relative to the commons and uncommons in the same set.

  • UNPLAYABLE CARDS are trash and shouldn’t ever make your deck.

Q: Aren’t you”reinventing the wheel” here? Reviewing Scourge is all well and good, but Onslaught and Legions have been covered and covered by many writers. Do you really have anything new to add?

Card values change as the environment changes. To use the most simple example, a card like Avarax has fallen steadily in value with the exit of each Onslaught pack, and that should be reflected in any review or guide you read. It is placed accordingly in the pick order that you will see below. In addition, this guide contains a lot of information that many other articles don’t touch on, like the valuation of mid-range rares compared to commons.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that despite some of the ground already having been covered (on some occasions by better players than me), there is still a lot out there to explore, especially if you’re an intermediate drafter looking to learn more about what I believe to be the most enjoyable and skill intensive format in Magic – booster draft!


When you pull up a chair with your packs in hand, you have some choices to make before the first booster is even opened. Though you can draft U/R with a single-mindedness usually found only in mules, it works out better to be a jack of all trades – to read the situation and fall into U/R only if and when the time is right. You’ll find that the door is open for a U/R drafter surprisingly often!

The first four or five packs are, incidentally, the most important part of your draft as far as reading and sending signals. If you want to improve your limited game, this is a great place to start. With that in mind, let’s lay out some guidelines and take a look at some sample scenarios. Take a seat.

As soon as you see the crucial first fifteen cards, you’re going to want to do a some basic things. No, don’t just flip to the back of the pack and check the rare. This stuff might not be so glamorous, and letting your eyes wander to check for a”bling bling” card is a temptation that few can control… But careful pack checking has to be done regardless. It’s the legwork that comes with being a better drafter. Don’t go rare-crazy and neglect to take a wide-range look at the composition of the pack.

I’m ashamed to admit that I still have the occasional problem with this. Sometimes when I open an Exalted Angel online, I click on it so fast that my mouse button breaks the sound barrier. Then I have to sit there and wonder”what did I just pass that guy?” Don’t let it happen to you. Just follow these steps!

A. Find your first pick!

Pack 1 is opened and you want to draft U/R. Hands on buzzers. Time for the speed round!

  • What is the most powerful card in the pack?

  • Is that card something that would fit in a U/R deck?

  • If not, what is the most powerful card that would fit in a U/R deck?

  • Is the difference in card quality high enough to justify not playing U/R?

Let’s apply these rules to three different sets of cards, so you can see exactly what we’re trying to determine.

Sample pack 1 notable cards: Slice And Dice, Gustcloak Harrier, Swat, Skirk Commando, Ascending Aven

  • What is the most powerful card in the pack? Slice And Dice.

  • Is that card something that would fit in a U/R deck? Yes.

At this point, the final two questions are not applicable. You take the Slice And Dice and start off down the road to a great deck with red as a solid base.

Sample pack 2 notable cards: Ascending Aven, Nantuko Husk, Venomspout Brackus, Inspirit

  • What is the most powerful card in the pack? Venomspout Brackus

  • Is that card something that would fit in a U/R deck? No.

  • If not, what is the most powerful card that would fit in a U/R deck? Ascending Aven.

  • Is the difference in card quality high enough to justify not playing U/R? It’s close, but no.

The answer to the fourth question changes determines your pick if you’re looking to play U/R. If you’re just taking the best card and”falling into U/R when it comes,” then you take the Brackus – Venomspout Brackus is stronger than Ascending Aven. Still, taking it means playing G/x and suffering through a Scourge pack filled with craptacular platinum duds. Personally, I play an open-ended strategy, and starting off U/x is a lot more agreeable to me than starting off G/x. With the Aven, I can take a black, white, or (preferably) a red card next, and still know that thirty cards down the road, I won’t be first-picking Krosan Drover (patron saint of big, dumb, plodding G/x decks everywhere) and passing Rush of Knowledge.

Sample pack 3 notable cards: Visara the Dreadful, Ascending Aven, Chain of Plasma, Nantuko Husk, Pacifism

  • What is the most powerful card in the pack? Visara the Dreadful

  • Is that card something that would fit in a U/R deck? No.

  • If not, what is the most powerful card that would fit in a U/R deck? Chain of Plasma

  • Is the difference in card quality high enough to justify not playing U/R? Yes.

No matter how much you like U/R, if you’re playing an adaptive style, you take Visara here. You can force your favorite combo some other time – I’m pretty sure any advantage that U/R has over B/x as an archetype is pretty much offset by the fact that you now have a creature that can single-handedly win games. Preferences are fine, but if you draft an archetype at the expense of everything else, you’re going to miss out on some golden opportunities while simultaneously landing yourself in some Godawful drafting positions.

B. The basics of signaling – check to see what you’re passing!

Now hold on, champ – once you’ve decided on your pick, your work isn’t done! You have to put yourself in your neighbor’s shoes and see what he or she is going to see when the second pick is to be made. In this way, you can anticipate what colors the person on your left may end up drafting. This is very useful when you are playing a flexible strategy based around falling into the appropriate archetype for your position. Even is this sounds difficult, I can assure you that it isn’t. Here’s a quick explanation.

If the only four good cards in your pack are Slice And Dice, Cruel Revival, Snarling Undorak, and Elvish Warrior, you’re obviously going to take Slice And Dice…but before you slam down your pack and grab the next, take a look at what the pack looks like after you’ve taken the monster uncommon out of it. Ask yourself, what would you take if you were to see this pack? That’s probably what your neighbor will end up taking.

In this case, the pick is Cruel Revival, and that means you’re one step farther away from turning your R/x into a R/B deck as the packs unfold. It’s still not impossible – nothing is in booster draft – but you’re much farther away from the possibility than you would be if you’d passed, say, Pacifism and Riptide Shapeshifter. Once you understand how to”lean” toward certain archetypes based on what you are passing, you’re set. It’s called sending a signal, the best players are masters of it.

Taking Shock, passing Nantuko Husk and Boneknitter? Stay out of black unless you have a great reason to go to the dark side – you’ll get nothing in pack 2. Taking Riptide Shapeshifter, passing Pacifism and Catapult Squad to the left? Chances are you won’t want to be U/W – no Stingers for you in pack 2. Did you first-pick a Skirk Commando while passing Snarling Undorak and nothing else good? Stay out of green if at all possible – not only will any and all Timberwatch Elves likely be taken from you, but Scourge green is awful.

Make sure you repeat this signal-checking process for the first seven or eight packs at a minimum. Most likely, you’ll start to unconsciously make note of every good card you pass anyhow – I know I do after four hundred drafts. By taking these mental notes on what you’ve passed, and applying that knowledge to the picks you yourself are making, you can find the best color combination to be in, and ride it to victory like the fat man that C. Montgomery Burns used to ride to work.

Once you feel comfortable with the concept of signaling, you can essentially control what colors the player on your left will be drafting. I set myself up in U/R all the time by taking an Ascending Aven out of a pack with no strong red cards and shipping infy (slang for”infinite”) good black and green cards. What a mise, amiright?

C. Pack two and beyond – what’s missing?

Now it’s time to read the signals correctly. The last two steps have shown you how to send the correct signals, now you will make like a telegrammophone machine and receive them.




It all starts with pick 2, pack 1. When you get shipped the fourteen cards, take a good, long look at what is there. Then, take a look at what is missing? Together, these two things tell a whale of a tale, and an experienced drafter knows the ins and outs of the second pack like Don Juan knows the contours of the female form. It’s simple once you know how to do it. Here are some examples.

Sample pack 1: Ascending Aven, Whipcorder, Skirk Commando, Glory Seeker as notable cards, missing a rare.

The rare is missing out of this pack. This gives you no information whatsoever, because there are so many bomb rares in Onslaught. That means your neighbor could have taken anything. I’d take the Ascending Aven here, but it’s really a matter of personal preference – if you like U/W Soldiers more than me, you might take the Whipcorder. Just remember, signals mean almost nothing with a rare missing. While it’s possible that the player on your right remembers what he passed (and in this case he’s likely creating at least a couple of early U/W Soldier drafters on his left, and he may know it), sometimes people just take the rare really fast and have no idea.

Sample pack 2: Cruel Revival, Snarling Undorak as notable cards, missing a common.

A common is missing out of this pack. It is likely that the person on your right took Sparksmith, a soldier like Ascending Aven or Gustcloak Harrier in an effort to force U/W, or maybe even Lavamancer’s Skill. Take the Revival – it’s likely you’re in a good seat for heavy black. This signal says”Go black!” and you’d be foolish not to follow that advice.

Sample pack 3: Riptide Shapeshifter, Inspirit, Wirewood Savage, missing a common.

You know that the player on your right did not take a blue card, because Riptide Shapeshifter is better by far than any Blue common (though granted, some people don’t know this). It is also likely that they didn’t take a green card, as the Savage is probably the best Green common, and taking an Undorak and passing a Savage when you can just cut Blue with Shapeshifter seems like a mispick to me. It is likely that Cruel Revival or Sparksmith was taken. You take the Riptide Shapeshifter here.

Get the idea? You now know all about making a first pick, signaling, and reading signals. Now that you know how to pick, it’s time to learn what to pick. Let’s check out the U/R cards from each set, and put together a comprehensive pick order to draft by.