The Secret Lair – The Dirty Art of Rare Drafting

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Friday, November 13th – It’s an M10 draft. You’re solidly in Red-Blue with goodies like Air Elemental, Mind Control, Shivan Dragon, and Goblin Artillery, plus solid commons to give you around fifteen playables. Booster three comes along and, whoa baby, there she is, Baneslayer Angel in all her glory. What do you do?

If you are reading this, it means Writer Craig couldn’t get his regular scheduled article to Editor Craig in time for the usual slot, and Editor Craig had to use the backup article Writer Craig thoughtfully provided him some weeks in advance for just such an occasion. The reason why Writer Craig couldn’t get his regularly scheduled article in on time is because his home internet blew up (again!), Zvi is working him too hard, he’s ill, he’s on holiday or he’s just been arrested for the attempted mass murder of approximately one third of the population of the Netherlands Antilles.

This is the replacement article. You can tell it’s a replacement article by the absence of anything that resembles topical content for the week.

What I’m actually going to talk about this week is drafting.

Are you sure, Prof? I mean it’s not exactly your strong point…

Hey, I do have Top 64 at a Limited Pro Tour.

Would this be the time when, after going 1-2 in the first draft, your 4th round opponent conceded when the game was going to time out, your 5th round opponent picked up a game loss for a deck reg error and your 6th round opponent scooped because he was paired up and already eliminated.

Well, yeah.

But I still won some matches on Day 2.

Actually, as much as I like to joke about it, I’m not completely horrible at drafting. I very rarely lost at my local store in Manchester (hey guys, how you all doin’?), and at one point was 25-0 or something equally ridiculous, but there is a big gulf between being moderately good and the really top players. At that same PT: Prague I had one draft go really well, gifting me a solid deck of one of the stronger archetypes, only to be completely, utterly, and totally dismantled by Yuri Kolomeyko.

This is kind of a digression, but it’s a relevant one. I’m not going to try and teach you how to be top-notch fantastic drafters because… well… I’m not good enough. This is more about using drafts as a means to an end.

Or rather, it’s about applying overall aims to draft choices.

To illustrate, here’s a hypothetical example.

It’s an M10 draft. You’re solidly in Red-Blue with goodies like Air Elemental, Mind Control, Shivan Dragon, and Goblin Artillery, plus solid commons to give you around fifteen playables. Booster three comes along and, whoa baby, there she is, Baneslayer Angel in all her glory.

So what do you do?

(There’s also another Mind Control in the uncommon slot.)

Well, in the abstract, if we’re talking about building the best possible deck, you probably take the best card that fits your colors: Mind Control.

I hope. This is where I wonder if picking a card as warped as Baneslayer Angel as an example was a good idea. Some might just think, ‘Damn the manabase to hell, we’re going with her Bustedness!’ If you’re one of those people, bear with me and imagine that not taking the Baneslayer Angel is the correct decision for a stronger deck.

I’m not assuming you’re wrong or anything. You could be right. I am quite bad at draft after all.

Okay, pretend it’s Garruk Wildspeaker instead!

So if we establish that not taking the Baneslayer Angel is the correct pick…

… hold on, I haven’t told you the context yet.

Abstract is fine, but the real world is not abstract. Where this draft is actually taking place and your overall aims has a great deal of influence on what choice you make.

Scenario 1. You’re drafting online to have fun and build up your card collection.
Pick: Baneslayer Angel.

Yippee, a Baneslayer for my casual angel deck. It makes my draft deck worse, but I don’t really care because I was drafting for fun anyway.

Scenario 2. You’re drafting online to get in practice and also generate a bit of cash.
Pick: Baneslayer Angel.

35 tix (or whatever it is) is 35 tix. It makes your deck worse, but the monetary value from offloading the Angel to a bot afterwards is more than the packs you’d get for winning the draft.

Scenario 3. You’re drafting on the Pro Tour.
Pick: Mind Control.

$35 is small beans when you’re playing for thousands of dollars. Mind Control and 3-0 please.

Scenario 4. You’re drafting in the top 8 of a PTQ.
Pick: Mind Control (maybe)

Same thing. $35 is small potatoes compared to flight and entry to Pro Tour. There is a “maybe” here though, and it depends on how you regard your own abilities. If you crept into the PTQ top 8 on the back of a busted sealed deck, and the top 8 features some of the local top dogs you think you’d struggle to beat under most circumstances, then trousering the $35 rare is understandable.

There is another argument for scenario 4. I’d be very surprised if there isn’t at least one person currently thinking: “Only one person can qualify, so I’m hating this bomb right now so I don’t lose to it.”

This is where I’m thinking Mind Control was a poor example for the alternate card. Sigh.

It’s an example of muddle-headed thinking. Sure, the guy in White to your left doesn’t get his bomb, but you’ve just wasted your first pick on a card that’ll sit in your sideboard (or do unmentionable things to the consistency of your manabase). All that happens is you both lose your quarter-finals to the guys sitting opposite who cooperated a little better.

But you didn’t lose to the Angel. Well done.

Taking Baneslayer Angel over the much better (for the deck) Mind Control is commonly referred to as the Dirty Rare Grab. It also has other names, mostly unprintable, especially back in the day when Rochester Draft made it visible to everyone. Nothing like watching your Nationals dreams turn to ash on the first day as the small child to your right snaffles the rare they can’t play with a “Yay, dragon!”

First there was Draft. Then came Small Child with the thirteen rare sideboard.

Actually, I’ve got a confession.

Online, that Small Child is me.

I’m guessing people draft online with a variety of goals in mind. The obvious one is to have fun. It’s a hobby, an exasperating one sometimes when they topdeck six perfect cards in a row, but we wouldn’t be wasting our time on it if we didn’t enjoy it.

Unless you’re some kind of crazy masochist, but even then you’d be getting some enjoyment out of your non-enjoyment of it. I think. This is into complex sh** territory.

Other than enjoyment people are going to have plenty of other aims.

For the real hardcore, that aim would be to take the cost of playing right down to zero or maybe even flipping it round into profit. That’s not easy. You have to be good. In order for that to happen the average gain from each draft has to be higher than the cost of entry (in most cases 2 tix and 3 boosters). For a single draft it’s not that hard. Make the final and you at least get the boosters back. Then it’s case of making up the 2 tix either through additional booster prizes from winning or the cards you drafted. Do this consistently and you have, in parlance, ‘gone infinite.’ Congratulations, your hobby pays for itself.

If you’re drafting for profit then it’s worth being sensitive to the price of rares. Various EV (Expected Value) considerations will come into play, which I’ll come to later.

Some people might be drafting for ranking. In which case the only value of the card that matters is how good it will be in the deck you’re currently drafting. To that person, winning is more important than turning the biggest profit from the draft

The same applies if there is some kind of bigger reward available. Like Qualifying Points, for example.

Another scenario which might place winning above profit is someone practicing for a major tournament, and having the discipline to force themselves to draft exactly as if they were at that major tournament.

Mostly I’m assuming people are going to weigh up perceived value of cards they open versus chances of winning.

Now onto that EV thing. I suspect there might be a few (or maybe more) that really hate it when those two letters crop up in a Magic article. The nasty hard-nosed math pollutes a casual pastime and sucks all the enjoyment out of a hobby.

Plus it usually means the writer is going to slip in some aside on poker at some point to make themselves look clever.

Poker. Four aces is quite a strong hand, or so I’ve been told.

Okay, now we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get back to Magic.

Personally, I think drafting is a really good way to build up an online collection. Get it right and it’s like paying for three boosters and getting twelve, with each booster containing two rares instead of one. You also get two hours of enjoyment (most of the time) from those three packs instead of a couple of seconds.

Bits of the same argument also apply to real life boosters as well, but try getting people to save their prize boosters to draft with their friends later and see how far that gets you. I know, I know. It’s shiny and MUST BE OPENED NOW. I understand.

Anyway, back to that EV thing, which I’m bound to screw up horribly, and people will take great glee in laughing at in the forums, but onwards anyway.

So it’s an online draft, and you want to grab as much loot for your collection as you can. That’s easy, right? Just grab anything with a gold or red rarity symbol and run off cackling with your loot.

Well, not quite. Yes, you could grab cards like a demented magpie and maybe end the draft with a tally of around 13 rares (unless there’s another Small Child doing the same), but you’re not likely to have anything resembling a deck at the end of it, especially if it’s a set where viable cards run out early. So your chances of winning booster packs from the draft are nearly non-existent.

However, you did get 13 rares. Surely that’s an acceptable trade off.

A lot would depend on the rares. Entry to the tournament already cost 2 tix and 3 boosters. If your haul from the draft was a 2 tix rare and a bunch of 0.1 to 0.5 tix rares, then you’d have been better off, if you really wanted them, buying them straight from a bot. It would be cheaper than the cost of entry to a draft.

Yeah, I did figure that out.


If you are drafting with an eye on external values, either to build up tix or card collections, then a lot of additional factors are going to come into play with each pick. Online a booster is usually worth more than all but the chase rares. Therefore, unless you open a chase money rare, the correct strategy is still to try and win the draft as the boosters will always be worth more. The big problem with going for the win is it isn’t guaranteed.

In this case it gets complicated as the value of the booster prizes is not the actual value of the booster prices, but rather some proportion of that value based upon the likelihood of you actually winning them.

One of the criticisms I’ve seen come up from time to time in the forums of the ‘Drafting with…’ series is when the Pro player yoinks an expensive constructed rare over a much better pick for their deck. “You wouldn’t do that on the Pro Tour!”is the usual complaint.

No they wouldn’t. But they’re not doing this draft on the Pro Tour, or in the top 8 of a PTQ, or on Day 2 of a GP. As I said earlier, draft decisions are tempered by context. The majority of us don’t get to draft in an environment like the PT. The majority of drafts are carried out in shops, at FNMs, and online (I assume). In those environments being able to weigh up the individual value of a card against the reduced probability of winning is a fairly useful skill to have. It will certainly make your tix stretch a lot further online.

Back to those EV letters and a confession. I only play the 4-3-2-2’s online.

Surely that’s terrible EV, you might think. The overall payout is eleven boosters compared to the twelve boosters available for 8-4’s. That would be correct, assuming all players are equal.

The EV calculation only holds if you assume all players are equal. If they are, then the extra booster available in the 8-4’s means more boosters divvied up between the players in the long term.

Players aren’t though, so that’s basically just a nonsense. An important part of working out the EV is gauging your own strength.

If you’re really good, enough to reliably be one of the top two on most tables then the best EV is in the 8-4’s. You’re going to make the finals more often on average and the prizes are much bigger than in the 4-3-2-2’s.

If you’re not quite that good, then 4-3-2-2’s might be better value. The prizes for getting to the final are less, but as you’re less likely to get that far then getting something for winning the first round might give you a larger overall haul in the long term.

Perversely, if you’re really bad, your best EV might be to hit the 8-4’s and either grab every rare in sight, or deliberately go for high risk strategies that demolish a table if the deck comes together.

I play the 4-3-2-2’s. While I don’t think I’m going to be one of the top two players at the table in an 8-4, I’m pretty sure I’m likely to be in the top 4 for a 4-3-2-2. Sure, I’m probably not going to go infinite at this level, but I’m not likely to in 8-4’s either, and at least at this level I can probably make the boosters stretch a while before I need to rebuy.

So why not the Swiss drafts, that might be even better value?

It might, but I find them a little too time consuming. If I draft a stinker, I’d rather a quick mercy killing in the first round rather than waiting two hours or so to see if the other guy at the bottom of the bracket ended up with an even stinkier deck. If you’re new to the game and have the spare time, these are probably the best value.

My aim is to have a bit of laid-back fun as well as build up an online collection to build silly decks out of. 4-3-2-2’s fit that perfectly.

If your aim is just to get good enough at the game to bash your way onto the Pro Tour then the better EV tilts towards the 8-4. Even if your online winnings are less in the long term the experience gained is much more valuable.

Now let’s get back to Filthy Rare Grabbing.

The Baneslayer Angel example is a no-brainer. If the card on its own is worth more than three or four boosters then taking the card is obviously the best value.

What if the card isn’t that expensive? What if it’s still sought after but is in the 2-4 tix range?

Of course this depends on the rest of the pack. Is a 4 tix rare better than a bomb uncommon like Overrun or Fireball? Probably. Yes, the Overrun or Fireball will go a long way to giving you a deck that will win the draft, but it’s not guaranteed. You have to actually draw the bomb and there will also be games where you draw it and it doesn’t turn the game around. In contrast the 4 tix card is 4 tix right in the hand. That’s almost like a free win before you’ve even drawn a card, or even got round to building your deck.

What about the 2 tix card? Now we’re getting closer.

What about a 1 tix card versus a Doom Blade for your black deck?

To be honest I wouldn’t know and wouldn’t even want to get involved with the maths in determining exactly how much a Doom Blade is worth probabilistically when applied against potential winnings. Especially as that value is going to vary a lot depending on which booster we’re in and what we’ve already drafted. Instead I do what our brains are designed to do when confronted with large and complex probabilistic math: I shortcut and estimate.

Here are the rules of thumb I operate under.

First off, my card valuations slide a little. My aims are to build up a collection rather than simply flogging the cards for as much tix as possible once the draft is over. Consequentially I’ll value a rare higher if I don’t have four of it and it looks interesting to play. Once I have four of a card I’ll then value it much lower as I’m basically lazy and can never be bothered to run around trying to flog excess cards.

I’ll take the good constructed rare (4 tix or so) over anything else nearly every time.

In the first booster I’m more likely to make the rare grab over a good uncommon or removal spell. The reasoning being that early on the better draft card has less value to reflect the chance you might get kicked out of that color and not actually get to play it. This is less true for Fireball, but extremely relevant for a card that requires a heavy color commitment, like Overrun. The choice will also be influenced by how much I want the card for any constructed decks. And of course by how playable the rare is. It’s less of a sacrifice if you still get a reasonable card for your draft deck.

The one time I tend to break this rule is if the good draft card is in a color I want to force for that format, e.g. Hideous End or Disfigure in triple Zendikar draft.

For subsequent boosters I tend to weigh up what I’ve picked up already. If my deck is shaping up to look powerful and I open a solid card in my colors, then I’ll probably take the solid card and aim for winning.

If I my deck is shaping up to be a complete pile (this is more relevant for booster three) then I’m more likely to rare-grab as a form of damage limitation.

When it gets to the really cheap rares it will largely depend on whether I have playsets of them already. Sometimes I’ll first pick one. This is largely when you have the misfortune to open one of those boosters that has virtually nothing in your colors. In this case random bad rare I might need for a fun deck has more value to me than random filler creature.

Later in the boosters, especially in pack three, the decision to rare-grab over random filler creature is largely dependent on how many cards I’ve got for my deck already. If I’ve already got a lot a playables then I’ll yoink the rare as the filler card doesn’t add much to the deck.

If I’m short of playables then that unexciting filler card is a lot more valuable. In this case I’ll take the card for my deck.

For me the overall aim is to extract as much value from the boosters (bearing in mind I’m more skewed towards cards that look fun and interesting), while still giving myself a good chance to finish in the prizes, especially in the 4-3-2-2’s where the first win is so important. As I said earlier get it right and it feels like you’ve turned three boosters into nine or twelve, with each containing two or three rares. That’s plenty of incentive even if you’re not a huge draft fan!

There you go, (sort of) math, EV and probability all so you too can justify drafting like a Small Child.

Sad Addendum

This was originally going to be a replacement article, but unfortunately it’s going to be my last article for a while.

I play exclusively online, and at the moment I’m not able to do this. The ‘phantom disconnect’ problem I mentioned a few weeks back has got to the point where Magic Online is virtually unplayable for me.

The final straw came last Saturday when I watched an opponent’s clock tick down from 15:00 to 05:00 after they’d disconnected. The first inkling I had of any problem was when the ‘New cards’ window flashed up. That only appears when you’ve been eliminated from a draft and sure enough I saw I’d been timed out through inactivity. The game window still showed my opponent as disconnected and waiting for their mulligan decision.

A ‘phantom disconnect.’ My opponent had reconnected, but my local client had not updated properly and so had continued to count down my opponent’s clock in blissful ignorance.

Ah, but that’s your dodgy internet connection, Prof.

Yeah, maybe. But while I was waiting for my opponent to come back online or be timed out I was also browsing the internet, watching the random chat in the draft room and messing around with the deck editor. In short there was nothing to make me think I had any problems with my net connection.

It’s not an isolated occurrence. The draft before that I lost the third booster after my local client stopped refreshing and I wasn’t able to get back into the draft after logging off and on again. There are too many games where I have to repeatedly log off and on just to force the game screen to update properly.

To be fair, Wizards is very good with the event compensation when things do go wrong, but I’d rather be able to… you know… play. There are better things I could be doing with my spare time than constantly writing event compensation request emails.

So that will be it from me. For now.

If I can’t play the game, it’s kind of hard to write about it, sadly. I’ll still be around, but not frequently enough to warrant a weekly column.

Many thanks for reading, and good luck.