The common wisdom of drafting is that your goal is to always work towards having the best deck possible, but what does that really mean? Some people
will tell you to always draft towards the most powerful archetype in the format, only deviating when everyone else has the same plan, and others will
tell you to follow what the packs are telling you. In practice, though, things aren’t so simple. Yes, sometimes things just fall into your lap — the
first-pick Rot Wolf is followed up by five more infect cards in pack 1, a second-pick Skithiryx in pack two, and a seventh-pick Plague Stinger in pack
3. That isn’t the norm, though, and you generally have to actually fight for the deck you want throughout the draft.
The times when everything goes their way, though, often lead players to develop blinders and get into the habit of committing very early to not just a
specific archetype, but to a very specific sequence of picks. They get caught up in following a rigid BREAD methodology (Bombs, Removal,
Evasion/Efficient, Aggro, Dregs) and miss the fact that succeeding at draft is about being flexible and knowing when the winds have changed, then
either cutting your losses or even taking advantage of that change.
It’s not that I don’t think that BREAD is an important baseline when learning to draft, but you should learn quickly that there is just too much that
falls between the cracks. The quality of cards is just so tied to the context of the deck they are in. A card like Tempered Steel is a bomb in a
metalcraft deck but only good to passable in the R/W equipment deck, and often unplayable. Part of learning to succeed at a more advanced level in
Limited is knowing not only the individual cards but the make-up of the set, intimately. Learning not just what packs tend to look like when you open
them but how people tend to evaluate cards and what they’re going to look like a few picks down the road. It’s all well and good to take a first-pick
infect creature, but you can’t pass three in a row for removal spells then expect to get them on the wheel. You just aren’t going to get a tenth-pick
creature with infect, and expecting to do so is only going to lead you to making bad decisions.
When drafting, picks one through four in each pack are fairly easy. Yes, there are times when you have to make a hard decision between something like
White Sun’s Zenith, Corrupted Conscience, and Mortarpod, but let’s face it; it’s pretty hard to go too wrong there. No matter what happens, you’re
passing two powerful cards, but you’re getting a good one in return. The real hard part comes around picks five through eight. These are the picks that
really separate the good drafters from the great drafters. These are the picks where you still have lots of options open and often have to choose
between two cards that would both be good in your deck. After pick eight, it becomes less and less likely that you’ll have many real decisions, and the
end of the pack is almost always automatic.
It’s important to remember that you’re drafting more than just a deck; you’re drafting a card pool to make your deck and sideboard. If you think of it
in those terms, it becomes much easier to see all of the options available to you. At the very minimum, you want to have 23-24 cards that you can play
in game one without embarrassing yourself too much. Beyond that, you want to have a deck that has a real curve, doesn’t have too many or too few
creatures, has enough removal, and has a few tricks. Ideally, you even want to have a few cards like Crush, Pistus Strike, or Ezuri’s Archers to board
in against specific archetypes or cards that you know you’ll have a hard time with. The question comes down to how you put this all together out of the
forty-two cards you will see in a draft.
There are very few cards that are good in a vacuum. While I can’t think of a deck where I wouldn’t want a card like Sword of Body and Mind, Bonehoard,
or Wurmcoil Engine, you aren’t generally blessed with having to make that kind of decision. Usually you’ll be faced with a few different cards of
similar power level that each play very different roles in different decks. When you’re staring at an Accorder’s Shield, a Horizon Spellbomb, and a
Trigon of Rage, it’s important to know which of the cards is going to be the strongest in your pool, not which is the best card overall.
Knowing all of the different places those cards fit is important too. Especially early on, you will often be forced to make a pick between cards of
similar power level in an abstract sense but fill very different roles in individual decks. Ogre Resister, as an example, will be a higher-end creature
in a R/W aggro deck or an excellent blocker in a U/R deck or will be either in your R/G Dinosaurs deck. Hero of Oxid Ridge, another creature of similar
power level, doesn’t act as a good blocker but is far more powerful an aggressive strategy due to his haste and battle cry. When deciding between one
or the other early on in a draft, it’s important to weigh how likely you are to actually be in a deck that can best use the strengths and best ignore
the weaknesses of the card. If you decide on the Hero, and your deck drifts into U/R ground-stall/fliers, you have to be mindful that you no longer
have an amazing four-drop blocker. If your deck needs to clog up the ground while winning with blue fliers, then you’re going to need to draft
something else to use in that spot. Hero can still do what he does best, but if that isn’t something your deck is particularly interested in doing,
it’s not going to help you.
For exactly that reason, it’s often right to take cards early that can fill multiple roles in different decks. Switch hitters are the real all-stars of
your early draft picks. Rot Wolf, even though it restricts you to green, can provide you an awesome infect three-drop or a cantrip-wall in non-infect
decks. That alone makes it a safer pick than Cystbearer if you aren’t sure infect is open. This is also the reason why Myr were so good as early picks
in Scars: because their color was fairly irrelevant, and you could put them in any deck from Infect to Dinosaurs, to Furnace Celebration or Metalcraft,
and have them all work well. Even if there was a better card, you rarely, if ever, wasted a pick on a Myr. There’s a lot to be said about being too
safe and ending up with thirty cards of a similar power level but no bombs, but unless you’re trying to play it safe until the middle of pack two, that
doesn’t usually happen.
Avoid Mitigating Future Picks
How many times have you heard someone say this — “I opened (good removal spell or equipment) in pack 3, but I had to pass it because I only had six
creatures so far.” This is a generally a result of trying to draft the most objectively powerful in a pack instead of the card that most helps your
pool. Time and time again, when presented with a choice like a second Turn to Slag or a Copper Myr, they took the removal spell because after all,
removal is harder to come by than creatures. Then, when the third pack came around, they were in a position to force themselves to get up to a good
minimum creature count and hope for some acceleration. They ensured that almost any good non-creature spell they saw would have to be passed in the
hopes they could get enough creatures to make their deck viable.
When attempting to draft towards a strategy, you know generally how many cards of each type you want. Let’s say you’re headed towards a Dinosaurs deck
in MSS draft. You know that you want something around 14-16 creatures (including 3-5 at 6cc), 4-5 removal spells, as well as 3-4 accelerators, and a
few tricks. Those numbers aren’t exact, and a lot of cards like Skinrender, Blisterstick Shaman, living weapons, and the Myr can do double duty, but
you have a general idea of what you’re shooting for. Understand that your goal is to get at least 1-2 removal spells, 4-5 creatures, and 1-2
accelerators a pack.
At the same time, when you have this idea of how many cards you need of any given type, you have to work against your first instincts to fill up your
pool to the exact number you want too quickly. While it’s hard to have too much removal, it’s pretty easy to end up with your desired number of
Dinosaurs or accelerators in the middle of pack 2. If you over-prioritize them and miss out on the middling defensive creatures that you need to make
the deck work, then you’re not only forced to take them over possibly better cards as the draft progresses, but you also risk removing your archetype’s
advantage during the draft. The biggest advantage you can have in any draft (other than opening well) is to maximize how many picks into a pack you’re
getting important cards for your deck. If you can spend your first few picks taking cards that every deck values highly, and then get passed a card
eighth or ninth that you would’ve been happy taking first, then you gain a tremendous amount of value. If you’re forced to take a card first that you
would normally have taken around fourth pick, then your pool loses a lot of potential.
One of the fundamental truths about Limited is that the power level of spells is closely tied to the spell’s mana cost. That’s just how commons work,
and Limited is a format made up mostly of commons. It’s easy to figure out which two- or three-drops are better than each other, but at the same time,
they’ll easily be trumped by most four-drops. If you’re paying eight mana for something, it’s going to have a humongous effect. That means, ideally, as
the game goes on, you want to be doing bigger and better things. Sometimes that means playing enough small creatures and removal that you can overwhelm
a deck with a high curve. Unfortunately, as you can only draw one card a turn naturally, there is a point where that steam will run out. Simply having
ten two-drops isn’t generally enough. Your opponent’s four-, five-, and six-drops will just outclass them to a level where you can’t ever attack again.
There are formats where you can build a deck with enough synergy to overcome the casting cost progression, but those are few and far between.
Generally, you just need to have ways to be constantly making the best use of your mana throughout the game. That means having a curve that gives you
opportunities to have strong plays at every stage of the game, or at least the game you intend on playing. A seven-drop in a deck that has no other way
of winning if the game gets that late will generally not help, nor will filling up a control deck with nothing but cards that quickly clog up the board
with no way to take advantage of it.
It’s important to always have an idea in the back of your mind what you want your curve to look like. Building that piece by piece and filling it up
fairly evenly over time will keep you out of trouble when you get to the last pack. It’s generally correct to take a few marginally worse cards in the
middle of packs 1 and 2 that will almost assuredly make your deck than to chase a decent deck in pack 3.
Let’s say you’re playing R/W aggro. As you’re drafting, you should have an idea of what you want your curve of your deck to be. For me, it would look
something like this.
2-5 four-drops (the more Myr, the higher)
Six-drop bombs only
Your goal with the deck is to go one-drop, two-drop, three-drop, and then either two two-drops or a removal spell/equipment and still have the ability
to play another creature. Having a curve that lets you play towards that ideal opening while constantly attacking should be your goal when you’re
drafting towards the deck. Having higher quality creatures (at least individually) but not being able to cast multiple spells until turn 5 or 6 is just
taking away the main strengths of the R/W aggro archetype.
Halfway through your second pack, you already have two equipment and a few removal spells, and you’re faced with either taking a sixth three-drop
creature (Kemba’s Skyguard) or a third two-drop creature (Sunspear Shikari). In general, the Skyguard is a better card, but you have to ask yourself,
what is the likelihood that you will actually play five three-drops? Or even more-so, six? Your deck definitely wants more two-drops, and you’re
currently under your quota this late in the draft. With so many two-drops in your Scars packs, you can probably get a good number, even with only one
pack left, but what is the opportunity cost going to be?
If you take the three-drop, not only are you going to be forced to overvalue two-drops from this point on (so that your curve isn’t a total disaster),
but any really good three-drop you take from this point on is probably going to knock something out of your deck. It’s always good to upgrade your Gray
Ogre into something slightly better but not before you have a deck that you aren’t embarrassed to battle with.
Beyond just creatures, this rule is even more important with combat tricks. Any deck with more then 3-4 is going to usually end up drawing too many and
having them rot in their hand when they just need more pressure. The truth is there isn’t a giant difference between Untamed Might, Mirran Mettle, and
Unnatural Predation. While there’s a definite hierarchy between them, there’s also no reason to waste valuable picks when there are still spots in your
curve to fill up or sideboard options. Speaking of which….
Be Ready to Sideboard
People tend to not give their sideboards in Limited nearly enough credit. Especially in a set like Scars of Mirrodin that focuses heavily on
archetypes; having either cheap, efficient blockers to slow down the infect decks (Plated Seastrider, Ezuri’s Archers) or good answers for specific
bombs (Pistus Strike, Crush) goes a long way to your success in a draft. If you know what strategies your deck is naturally soft against, and you
expect to see them, take cards to shore up your matchup when you can.
My general rule of thumb for when to take sideboard cards is this: If I have the option of taking a card that I wouldn’t be happy with in my maindeck
(like Bladed Sentinel or Blade-Tribe Berserkers) or a card that I’d be excited to have in my sideboard, I take the card for my sideboard. I find that
being able to bring in a few cards in my bad matchups is far more useful than having a few safe 23rd cards early. You can almost always find cards you
aren’t happy to run but will. It’s much harder to find cards that give you an edge in hard matchups.
At the same time, remember that everyone else is doing the same thing. If you pass five Pistus Strikes, don’t be shocked when your Carnifex Demon
doesn’t survive long against green decks. There’s nothing wrong with taking cards like that when there isn’t much left in the pack, even if you have no
intent of running them. Every card you have in your pool is one that your opponents don’t have access to. When you’re getting down to the dregs, taking
cards that are good against your deck can cut any potential advantage people can gain in their sideboards and help you out with games two and three
throughout the draft.
Always Have an Exit Strategy
I think it was Stephen Stills who once said, “If you can’t draft the deck you love, love the deck you draft.” That may be somewhat paraphrased, but I
think the point gets through. Most everyone has a certain bias towards what they want to draft, if not before the draft starts, then definitely after
the first few picks. After getting a first-pick Tezzeret, it’s hard to not want to end up in a U/B metalcraft deck, any concerns with how good that
color combination is to begin with aside. It’s easy to get yourself trapped in a deck early on and fight over scraps for three packs — all the
meanwhile passing great cards and cursing your luck for not being in a strategy that’s open. If you’re able to take a step back while you’re drafting
and think of your picks as a card pool with multiple possibilities instead of a single deck, you’ll find that this happens a lot less often.
Early on in a draft especially, it’s hard to really say you’re â€˜in a deck’ even if all of your picks are pointing in one direction. Building a card
pool to make a deck and seeding yourself with the tools to take your pool in another direction will give you the ability to succeed even when the cards
you’re being passed don’t agree with your first choice for strategy.
This happened to me at the recent StarCityGames.com Draft Open in Indy. In my Top 8 draft, I first-picked an Inkmoth Nexus, then took a Blightwidow, a
Rot Wolf, a Piston Sledge, and a Mirran Mettle. While it was the start to a good infect deck, that doesn’t get you anywhere if the cards dry up, as
they did for me. Instead of simply trying to force infect, I started taking cards that would be okay in an infect deck but would give me some other
options. After all, Blightwidow and Rot Wolf were Infect all-stars, but they’d work as great defensive creatures in a Dinosaur deck or just a B/G
good-stuff deck. Two Morbid Plunders, a Blisterstick Shaman, a Viridian Emissary, a few pump spells, and a Fangren Marauder later, it was obvious that
the infect plan was on the rocks. When my Scars pack rewarded me with a Wurmcoil Engine and I was passed a Palladium Myr, I was already straight into a
Dinosaur plan, and I already knew where my current card pool fit into that strategy. When the next two packs contained some middling infect cards, I
wasn’t suckered into trying to stick with a deck that was clearly not there. I moved forward and took an Alpha Tyrranax and ended up with a much better
deck for it.
It’s not enough to just be ready with the cards to switch; you also have to be prepared mentally. Knowing where your current pool fits lets you move
naturally into a new strategy without any hiccups. It also lets you stay the course when the inevitable mid-pack card tries to hook you back in.
If you take nothing else from this article, I hope at least that I’ve gotten across the point that there’s a great deal more thought that goes into
drafting than simply following a rigid pick order. One of the most fun parts about the Limited, and what keeps people coming back, is that it’s
constantly evolving. When people first began drafting Scars of Mirrodin, there seemed to only be two decks — Metalcraft and Infect. As people learned
new archetypes and tried out new cards, the pick orders even within the original decks changed dramatically. If you want to succeed at draft, you have
to be constantly evolving with it, trying new things, and being willing to focus on the right pick for the moment, not for yesterday or tomorrow. There
are a hundred different angles to approach a draft with, and the more you’re willing to consider, the more likely you are to find the one that will
work for that draft.