The Kitchen Table #207 – How to Win While Rare Drafting

Read Abe Sargent every Thursday... at StarCityGames.com!
I’ve done it. You’ve done it. We’ve all done it. Yes, today’s Kitchen Table article takes a trip up from the Casual slot to the Strategy roster, as it touches on that most controversial of Limited strategies, the Rare Draft. Abe, a self-confessed Rare Drafter, takes us through the strategies behind his success, and shows us how we can win even if we’re giving up the first few picks each pack…

I’ve done it so long it’s become an art form. Rare Drafting is my calling card. Let’s face it, we all rare draft.

If you open up a Garruk Wildspeaker in the second pack after going hard Black-Blue faeries in the first pack, do you pass it for Nameless Inversion? You take the Garruk, because it has a high value. That’s rare drafting.

Wait, do you say that you’d take the Nameless Inversion anyway? I doubt it. Outside of a PTQ Top 8 or something, there’s no way you pass up guaranteed money for a good common. What’s if it’s a foil Garruk? Do you pass it up now? That’s what I thought.

Where is that line for you? A ten dollar rare? A five dollar rare? Will you always take a five dollar rare over a good common for your deck? What about a three dollar rare? What about a two dollar uncommon? We all have a line somewhere, but there are dedicated rare drafters, such as myself, who happen to have a lower line than others. We are still drafting, and still trying to win, we just also want to pick up some goodies while we are at it.

What I want to share with you today is something that is not easy to do, and it has taken me years of rare drafting to do it well. I want to give you strategies to turn rare drafting into winning.

No topic I have ever covered is as contentious as rare drafting. Some players really hate me openly discussing and supporting rare drafting. Here are the major arguments against it:

1). You don’t really make money in rare drafting. I will disprove this later. Trust me, I do.

2). It ruins signalling. True and false. First of all, rare drafters trying to win are the best at following signals, as we’ll see in a bit. The last cards are the ones most likely to follow signals, and that’s where a rare drafter builds their deck. Rare drafters make poor signals to others, that’s true. A rare drafter is not good as telling the person downstream what they are doing color wise, but it is typically easy to read that a player is a rare drafter, you just have to read that signal. Once you get that signal, you are clued in with the color thing and ready to move on. Rare drafting adds a dimension to signaling (and again, we’ll get into that in a bit).

3). It’s not pure. First of all, no real draft is pure (team draft is not a real draft format, but I‘d accept it as a counter). Barring an online program with cards that go away after you draft and play with them, pure drafting without any consideration of value doesn’t happen. As I stated above, any player would take the Garruk (alright, the Foil Garruk) over a good common for their deck. Therefore no draft is completely pure. Want proof?

I made Top 8 at a Limited PTQ several years ago and after that cut, we had a draft to see who got the top prize. I was passed a foil Replenish on the second pick, which at the time had a value of around $40. I grabbed a Plated Spider for my deck rather than take the Replenish. The guy next to me rare drafted the Replenish third pick, because of its value, rather than take the best card. Even with a slot to the Pro Tour on the line, someone rare drafted early.

In fact, failure to recognize rare drafting as normal and expected is not pure. Drafting has two elements, not just one, and it is a poor drafter who does not recognize that. You draft cards for your deck AND your collection, and you should always pick with an eye towards both.

I’ve written on this subject before, and people have criticized me for it. Rare drafting makes some dedicated drafters cringe. Well, here’s another.

Why is this appropriate for a column dedicated to the casual? Well, who rare drafts?

There’s your answer.

I want to walk you through some recent rare drafts and teach you how to win and rare draft at the same time. For all examples, I will be using Magic; The Electronic and Lorwyn drafts and cards. It is important that we keep the information fresh and current.

Rare Drafting Theory

Before we hit the details, we need to discuss some theory.

If you are a person who drafts every single rare and then drops from the tournament before playing, you need to stop. This is bad rare drafting, and it gives good rare drafters like me a bad name. It’s also counter productive. You want to win your first match.

Rare drafting is best in the 4-3-2-2 room. In this draft, eight players play, and four packs are distributed to first, three to second, and two each to third and fourth. All you have to do is win your first match, and you get two packs.

In order to play, you need to yield three packs and two tickets, which cost a buck each. It is important to note that online drafts are immensely expensive to do. Three packs have to be purchased at full retail price in addition to two tickets. That’s why you have to win.

If you lose in the first round, then you need to recoup the value of three packs and two tickets. That isn’t likely to happen. Win the first match, and you only have to exceed the value of one pack and two tickets – a much more likely scenario.

Sometimes you will draft to win, and lose in the first match. Sometimes you will rare draft and win. What we need to do is figure out what your chances are of winning the first match when you rare draft or draft to win. We’ll take a look in a moment at my own experience.

We’ll talk at length about knowing when to draft a rare and when not to. However, before we move into the bulk of the article, let’s take a look at some categories of rares. This information is in my first rare draft article, here, in more detail.

High Value Rares – There are five rares high enough in value right now to always take: Sower of Temptation, Thoughtseize, Cryptic Command, Oona’s Prowler, and Garruk Wildspeaker. After that, there are a decent number of rares that have high value and go for several tickets, like Scion of Oona, the other planeswalkers, and so forth. These are cards with a high enough value that you just take them.

A House in Limited, but No Significant Value – This will not wheel. Cards in this include Boggart Mob, Thoughtweft Trio, and so forth. You should always take these as well. They make your deck better, and they won’t come back.

Solid Value, but Not Great in Limited – These are cards that are going for a nice penny but don’t hold much play value. Due to the tribal nature of Lorwyn, there are not many options here. If Thoughtseize keeps falling in value, it will end up here. Gaddock Teeg, after the hype, might be here as well. A classic example of this card from other sets is Coat of Arms, which held practically no draft value and might get passed but could be sold for many tickets. Grab these, because you are rare drafting after all. Someone else will, and they will not wheel. If Thorn of Amethyst increases in value a bit more, it will be here too.

Crap Rares – These are rares that are likely to wheel, because they have little value in draft or elsewhere. Wanderwine Prophets, Horde of Notions, and Howltooth Hollow are good examples. Don’t draft these if there is a card that will make your deck significantly better.

Average Value Rare – These are normal rares. They might have value to a drafter, and they have a decent value online, but nothing special. A perfect example is Dauntless Dourbark, which in Limited is good but treefolk aren’t getting highly drafted as a tribe. You can sell it for around a ticket. Timber Protector is another example. Take these for their value.

Super Special Secret Sixth Rare Category – This is for cards that are not rare but sell better than a crap rare. Imperious Perfect and Shriekmaw are the only two uncommons I’ve sold for at least a ticket. Other examples include an especially good foil common or uncommon that has Constructed value.

Knowing the Market

For you to properly rare draft, you have to have a good idea of the online market. If you get passed a rare, how do you know if you should draft it or not? A bulk rare has little value as a rare draft, but a rare that goes for a ticket or more is a good selection. How can you tell the different between Thoughtweft Trio and Wanderwine Prophets?

This is why you need to know the market. Below I am going to examine six Lorwyn drafts I did, and in the first, I rare drafted Wanderwine Prophets and sold them to a bulk rare bot for a third of a ticket. In my second draft, I picked up another Prophets, but by that time, all of the bots had filled their Wanderwine Prophet quota, and I was unable to sell it to any bot. I eventually traded it in a casual trade for a rare that would sell to a bot for a quarter, but that was a lot of time and effort wasted.

There are bots that buy your rares. Your best chance is to try two-for-one bots that will give you a ticket for every two rares you bring them, but they typically are looking for rares of some trade or play value. Howltooth Hollow is not going to get picked up here.

Then you can move to a three-for-one vendor, and finally a four-for-one vendor. There are also some casual trade bots, and the best will allow you to trade rares they don’t have for rares they have a surplus of in a one for one deal. I traded my second Wanderwine Prophets here.

Know and understand the market. Because of the high expense of drafting online, you need to squeeze every last ticket out of your cards. Don’t be afraid to post your cards in the seller market.

Sell your cards quickly. If you draft Sower of Temptation, and it is going for 8 in the seller room and 6 to buy in the buyer room, don’t sell for 8 in the seller room, as no one will bite for a really long time. However, note that this two ticket difference is very common is higher value cards. Don’t sell for 6 to a merchant, just go into the seller room and post for 7. If it’s a high value rare, you’ll get a buyer in a few minutes.

Knowing your market prevents you from screwing up your sales. On my second draft, early in the EST morning, I grabbed a Thorn of Amethyst. I tried to sell it, but could find no price better than half a ticket in a bot. I believed it was worth more, so I saved it and the following day after draft 3, when I went to sell my cards, I did another search for the Thorn and found a person willing to pay one ticket for each one. By knowing the market, I sold my Thorn for twice what I would have.

Know the market. Do searches on cards and check vendors who have a large numbers of cards to see what they charge. This is how you know when to draft a rare and when to draft a card for your deck.

How to Win Strategy Number One: Drafting Goods Late

In order to win, you need to build powerful decks from the second half of the draft. You need to have a good idea of what is currently being undervalued and go for it.

In my drafts, I found Lignify to be serious underdrafted, so I would regularly grab Lignify in the back half of the draft, then splash a few Green cards including Lignify. In my second draft, I splashed this Green section:

2 Treefolk Harbinger
2 Lignify
1 Timber Protector

That’s a pretty powerful splash. All but the Protector were picked up late in the draft.

As time goes on, different cards made it to the back half of my draft. Six drafts were held over a week, and by the end of the last couple of drafts, the underdrafted cards had changed. I got Adder-Staff Boggarts and Axegrinder Giants late. Both of those are great cards, and powerful additions to your decks.

You will often find that some cards are going late that are not powerful on their own, but together, they have some value. I noticed that Spellstutter Sprite was going between 6-12 in drafts while Nightshade Stinger was going 9-15 and Thieving Sprite was going 8-14. None of these cards are amazingly powerful on their own, like Axegrinder Giant can be. However, imagine an opening of:

Play Nightshade Stinger
Attack for one. Play Spellstutter Sprite to counter their whatever
Attack for two. Play Thieving Sprite with three faeries out to get something good.

That’s a strong opening. You can also grab the Nightshade Stingers as a one-drop in Black/Red and then drop Sprite Chaser on turn 2 for a 2/3 Red flyer. It fits in either deck.

You need to find these late powerful cards. I’ve seen everything from Woodland Changelings to Mudbutton Torchrunners going late, and you need to draft them and use them. Your deck thrives on these cards.

How to Win Strategy Number Two: Prepare for Diversity

In Lorwyn, understand that you will be playing multiple tribes. You are not drafting a deck in 45 cards, you are drafting in in 35. That means your deck may use several tribes. Be prepared for your U/W deck to have strong merfolk and kithkin and faerie components.

That means you will need to look for enablers early. Grab changelings where you can, they’ll help. I have played a deck with three different Harbingers in three different races and still won easily. You can be diverse.

You will also be diverse in color. It is difficult to build a deck in 35 cards with just two colors. You just don’t have the cards to do it every time you shuffle and play.

Why play three colors? First of all, it gives you chances to play good rares you might have drafted early. When I splashed Green in the above example, the Timber Protector that got splashed came from an early pick. Adding Green to my deck gave me a chance to add good rares.

When drafting cards for your deck, you usually have two choices: grab good cards in three colors or grab “okay” cards in two. These choices rule any draft, not just one operated by a dedicated rare drafter. However, when you are limiting yourself to a smaller cardpool that has already been picked over, your choices go from good in three colors or okay in two, to okay in three colors and “meh” in two.

Going to three colors maximizes the power of your deck. Going to multiple tribes maximizes the power of your deck.

Therefore, preparation early is key. For tribes, I talked about changelings earlier. For colors, grab that Shimmering Grotto or Vivid Marsh now, because you’ll likely play it.

Now, this does not mean that you have to play these colors. I won a draft with a two color deck off a rare drafting strategy, but I was lucky that two of my rares were in the same color and theme.

How to Win Strategy Number Three: Calling an Audible

There are times when you need to call an audible and move into another strategy. One is common and the other rare. I pulled off the rare semi-audible in the fourth draft and won the entire thing. I should have done the more common audible in the first draft but I didn’t. Let’s talk about each.

You need to know if there is another rare drafter in the draft. Especially if that person is directly upstream from you (or maybe two upstream).

Suppose you open your first pack and take a decent rare. Maybe a Mistbind Clique. That’s a rare with some value. Then you get passed this pack:

Aquitect’s Will
Goldmeadow Harrier
Hornet Harasser
Nightshade Stinger
Woodland Changeling
Triclopean Sight
Shimmering Grotto
Lowland Oaf
Nath’s Elite
Faerie Harbinger
Vivid Meadow

Okay, what’s going on here?

Is this person a rare drafter simply because the rare is missing? Of course not, it could have been a really valuable rare, or it could have been the best card in the pack.

But there is a way you can tell if it’s the latter. What is the best card in the pack? Shriekmaw. How many rares are better than the splashable, evoke-able elusive Shriekmaw? Not many.

How many rares are money rares that you would default take over Shriekmaw if you are not a dedicated rare drafter? Four? Five? Six? Eight? Again, not many (especially in a larger base set like this).

That gives us three possibilities:

A rare drafter took a rare without regard to playability or money, and will ruin your rare drafting plans; or
A drafter took a money rare and will now look for cards; or
A drafter took the best card and it really was a rare better than Shriekmaw.

Which is most likely? Scenario number one. Be prepared to audible out next pack. Take the Shriekmaw, which still has value on the market and in terms of playability, and move to pack three. If a similar scenario occurs with a missing rare, then screw the rare drafting strategy, and just draft a deck.

You will make more back by drafting a deck and winning packs than you will drafting rares against a competitor.

This is what I mean when I say that rare drafters send signals that they are rare drafting, so if you downstream, you can figure it out. There are numerous other examples, but this is the best one.

There is another time when you need to audible. In my fourth draft, I opened and selected a Sower of Temptation. If I could win the first round, I would have paid for my draft and then some with just this one card, so instead of grabbing rares a lot, I occasionally nibbled a rare when there was no card that would make the cut in my deck. I was passed a Wydwen in the second pack, and grabbed her, making my deck really strong.

I semi-audibled into a real draft, because I still took cards like a Wren’s Run Packmaster instead of a card that may or may not have made my deck. I would have passed it for an Eyeblight‘s Ending or Nameless Inversion or something.

It’s not common, but occasionally you will crack a card so good and valuable that it changes your entire draft strategy. Imagine cracking a Wrath of God in the first pack in a basic set draft, as another example. You go from rare drafting to trying to win it all in seconds.

How to Win Strategy Number Four: Ensure Your Sideboard

Because you are paying extra special attention to the end cards, make sure you grab sideboard cards. Take cards even if you don’t feel that you would use them. In my third draft, I played R/U/B and had a Vivid land in each color. I grabbed a Spring Cleaning. Why? There aren’t many problem enchantments and I wasn’t even playing Green.

In the first match, I was paired against a great merfolk deck, packed with Oblivion Rings, Merrow Commerce, and at least one Glimmerdust Nap. I promptly sided in my Spring Cleaning. I won the second game with a bunch of flyers and then in the third game, my opponent again got his lock against my team. I drew and played Spring Cleaning off a Vivid counter targeting his Merrow Commerce. I missed on the clash, so I didn’t get my Dreamspoiler Witches back off his Oblivion Ring, but I removed his ability to rat-a-tat-tat my deck, and then won in the air again.

The point is very simple, so I won’t belabor it much. Watch what you draft, and how it can be used.

In every draft, after I’ve built my deck and submitted it, I review what cards I have and how I would side them in. Would I bring in Nightshade Stingers or Zephyr Net, for example? In my fourth draft, I was lucky enough to get passed a Shriekmaw and grabbed a Squeaking Pie-Sneaks. I had a decent number of flyers. I then played Mr. Flying in the first round, and he had a cavalcade of flyers, including big ones. Three Plover Knights in the sky at the same time – it was not pretty. I sided in three Zephyr Nets. I would throw them on his nasty flyers, and then sneak hits in with my feared guys. I won the second game on that strategy, and then he took a really long time in the next sideboard. Fearing a counter to my Nets (he was W/G and could have Spring Cleanings for example), I deboarded them. Sure enough, I win the next game and he reveals his hand with the dead Spring Cleaning.

How to Win Strategy Number Five: Counter-Draft When Able

Your last picks are so important that they need to do everything. Sideboard, build your deck, give you options, and finally, counter-draft. If there is nothing that you will play or board in, take the best card available, especially if you think its powerful. Don’t worry about signals or anything. Take the 12th pick Axegrinder Giant when there is nothing else.


You never know when the counter drafted card taken earlier in the draft makes the cut later. I have added a color late, and a good counter drafted card taken earlier now makes the cut. In my sixth and final draft, I took that 12th pick Axegrinder Giant and thought nothing of it until late in the second pack when I picked a Lowland Oaf. Then in the third pack, right after the rares ran out, I smacked myself into a pair of Stinkdrinker Daredevils, Giant Harbinger, Thundercloud Shaman and Crush Underfoot. I played the seven giant-esque cards in my deck and only lost in the first round because I went up against mass removal boy with his Austere Command and multiple Final Revels.

Don’t be afraid to pull the trigger and take an out of color Woodland Changeling over an in color Triclopean Sight. You aren’t playing the Sight, so take the Changeling, just in case.

Make all of your last picks count, no matter what they do.

Lorwyn Examples

I started the week with nine booster packs and six tickets. How long could I keep going?

Draft Number 1: I played G/U/B and drafted just seven rares. There was another rare drafter at the table, and I should have just played to play.

Rares: Chandra Nalaar (kept, not solid, because I want her for my 250 deck); Windbrisk Heights; Wanderwine Prophets; Doran, the Siege Tower; Forced Fruition; Horde of Notions; Knucklebone Witch

Total Number of Tickets from Sales: 6 (4 from Doran, two for the other five)

Comments: Well, I lost in the first round and I didn’t make anything back. I could have sold a Chandra for 4 more to bring my ticket intake to 10, but that would still be short of the 3 packs and 2 tickets (total 14 tickets) that I used to enter. This was my worst performance.

Draft Number 2: I played G/U/B a second time. This is the draft where I splashed those five Green cards. I won in the first round easily, lost in the second. I remember one game where we each had two Lignifies on our creatures.

Rares: Dauntless Dourbark, Wanderwine Prophets, Timber Protector, Scion of Oona, Purity, Thorn of Amethyst, Imperious Perfect (not a rare I know), Horde of Notions, Boggart Mob, Forced Fruition, Ashling’s Prerogative, Colfenor’s Urn, Nettlevine Blight.

Total Number of Tickets from Sales: 12. This includes five cards that I sold for one ticket each and five ticket Scion of Oona.

Comments: Twelve tickets plus two packs was a resounding success. I beat a guy in the first round with an 1875 Limited rating with my rare draft deck. Bet he was upset!

Draft Number 3: This was a U/B/r deck with a small Red splash. The Red splash was exclusively burn, with a Lash Out, Tarfire, and Tar Pitcher my only splashed Red cards. I won in the first round after losing the first game to Merfolk Boy. I then splashed Spring Cleaning to beat him in a later game.

Rares: Boggart Mob, Austere Command, Colfenor’s Plans, Foil Wild Ricochet, Cairn Wanderer, Deathrender, Heat Shimmer, Masked Admirers, Militia’s Pride, Epic Proportions, Thoughtseize

Total Number of Tickets from Sales: 10. I chose to keep Austere Command, Cairn Wanderer, and Masked Admirers for my Prismatic decks. Thoughtseize sold for six, the Mob and foil rare for 1 each.

Comments: Ten tickets plus three rares for my decks, and two packs. That’s a pretty good deal. I am now out of my original packs and tickets. Here is what I have:

38 tickets
4 packs

That’s what I turned nine packs and six tickets into. Note that I also got four rares, uncommons and commons for my decks. Suppose I convert all packs into tickets at the rate of four per. That means I invested forty tickets and in three drafts I got forty-nine tickets. I made money over the course of three drafts. What about the next three?

Draft Number 4: I went U/B I opened a Sower and semi-audibled to a different strategy. I still grabbed rares where I could. Just two rares made the cut. I never drew the Sower, built I still won the draft. My deck was very faerie-centric, with Harbingers, Wydwen, Pestermites, Spellstutters, and more. I also had two Eyeblight’s Endings and a Nameless Inversion. This was a solid deck.

Rares: Sower of Temptation; Wren’s Run Packmaster; Dauntless Dourbark; Wydwen, the Biting Gale; Twinning Glass x2; Shriekmaw

Total Number of Tickets from Sales: This time I did something a little different. I trade my Sower and Packmaster to the second place guy for a Damnation, because he wanted the Sower for his faerie deck. I then sold the Damnation for 10 tickets. Two more for the Dourbark and Wydwen + the glasses. 12. And I didn’t trade the Shriekmaw either.

Comments: Twelve tickets plus four packs turns this draft into a really great draft. The audible worked to perfection, and I was passing rares that could have gotten me a couple of extra tickets all told for good cards that got me a win. I still ended with six rares.

With my four packs and twelve tickets, I now have:

48 tickets
5 packs

I have enough to enter the next draft.

Draft Number 5: In this draft I go W/U, sliding out of my normal comfort zone of U/B. My first pick was a Thoughtweft Trio, and I followed my rare. I played and fell in love with Hoofprints of the Stag. I won in the first match versus Flying Boy, and then lost in the second against double Thundercloud Shaman Boy.

Rares: Thoughtweft Trio; Imperious Perfect (not a rare again); Nettlevine Blight; Rings of Brighthearth; Windbrisk Heights; Sunrise Sovereign; Shapesharer; Thousand-Year Elixir; Vigor; Colfenor’s Plans; Hoofprints of the Stag; Doran, the Siege Tower.

Total Number of Tickets from Sales: 7. Doran dropped in value to just three tickets. I kept the Hoofprints, Heights, and Rings for my own decks.

Comments: Not a lot of tickets here, but I managed to win and got two packs. 7 tickets exceeds two tickets and a pack, so I made a little here, plus I got three rares for my decks. I also drafted a Wizened Cenn but have been unable to sell it for anything.

Now my final totals are at:

53 tickets
4 packs

Draft Number 6: I start out with Boggart Mob, and I grab some good Black/Blue cards, although I ultimately add the Giant section I mentioned above. I lose in the first round despite some sexy changeling giant/goblin action. My deck was very Black heavy, with a lot of Black goblins in addition to Eyeblight’s Endings, Dread, and such.

Rares: Boggart Mob, Dread, Favor of the Mighty, Heat Shimmer, Thousand-Year Elixir, Wild Ricochet, Timber Protector, Arbiter of Knollridge

Total Number of Tickets from Sales: I chose to keep Dread, but I only made 3 tickets total from sales. This was worse than the first draft.

Comments: I didn’t win packs, nor did I do that well the rare section. I passed several unsellable rares, like a Wanderwine Prophets and two hideaway lands. I don’t believe there was another rare drafter, because I grabbed eight and saw another three. If I grab, or have the chance to grab, around half of the rares, I don’t believe there is another rare drafter. The rares were just that bad. It happens in real life, and it occasionally happens in drafts. Had I won in the first round, I could have kept going. As it is, this is the end of the experiment.

Total number of cards and packs after six drafts.

54 tickets
1 pack

I started with 9 packs and 6 tickets. That’s how far I took it using a rare drafting strategy. I nabbed several rares for myself (Chandra Nalaar, Shriekmaw, 2 Windbrisk Heights, Dread, Hoofprints of the Stag, Rings of Brighthearth, Cairn Wanderer, Austere Command, and Masked Admirers) and made a lot more than my initial investment.

This counters the traditional argument that rare drafting doesn’t really work.

Note that this sample size was done shortly after the release of a set online. One could argue that prices will drop in a few weeks, putting the profitability in question. This is certainly true, but note that after the first few weeks, rare drafting also drops, and you can get a lot more rares (I got 18 once, and that’s all but six rares in a block). Note that since foil rares are now in addition to the normal rare, some pods may have 25 or 26 total rares, and that increase the profitability if you get them.

I hope that you leave this article with a new eye towards rare drafting. It’s fun, it gets you cards, and you make out. However, you don’t make out unless you win matches, and that requires clever drafting. Skills in drafting, signaling, card assessment, the card market, and deck building are all needed. If you can’t win enough 8-4 drafts to perpetuate your drafting, maybe you should try a little rare draft.

Until later,
Abe Sargent