I’m currently flying home from Kansas City after finishing 12th at the Grand Prix. Not a bad finish, though I’d hoped for more after going into round
15 at X-2. Two years ago, I wouldn’t have had the audacity to hope for a Limited Top 16, let alone making the cut to Top 8. I considered myself to be a
Constructed specialist and Limited to be a high-variance, necessary evil. When it became clear I was going to make the train, and that if I wanted to
ever win a Pro Tour, I would have to be good at both halves of every mixed format, I decided it was time to put myself through school. In this article,
I want to discuss some of the biggest things I’ve learned that transformed me from a Limited lightweight to where I am today: drafting an archetype,
experimenting in drafts, drafting open colors, group learning, drafting a sideboard, and contextual evaluation.
I suppose where I want to start is a story about a draft in Singapore. Adam Yurchick wasn’t too concerned about the Constructed portion of PT Nagoya,
but he was worried his Limited game was shaky and wanted to work on it. Raphael Levy, Sam Black, and I all seemed to feel pretty good about where we
were in Limited and were prepared to offer advice.
One day, when Adam started a MODO draft, the three of us all set aside our Constructed deck testing to bird/backseat driver Adam. Adam started his
draft on a few black and white cards that all three of us agreed on, and then an interesting pick came up: Vault Skirge, Lost Leonin, or Gremlin Mine?
Raphael said, “Pick Vault Skirge, go aggro!” Sam said, “Pick Lost Leonin, more infectors will table, and you can have a sick white infect deck!” I
said, “Take Gremlin Mine and go control!” None of us were wrong, but Adam’s draft turned out a little hairy, as he didn’t choose only one of us to
listen to. All of the strategies we suggested were open based on the cards we’d seen so far, but it was time to move in on one plan. I think each of us
advising Adam embodied one of the three basic philosophies in drafting: aggro, niche, and Hron.
Aggressive decks seek to use inexpensive creatures and cheap disruption to beat an opponent before they get to play their more expensive cards to gain
advantage. To be truly great, aggro decks need a plethora of one- and two-drops, and plenty of tricks to keep them bashing through whatever three- and
four-drops slower decks start shoving in the way.
I think on some level everyone knows this, but they often compromise their decks with high-powered cards that are off-plan. Essentially, it is very
easy to let power creep lure an aggressive deck into becoming a midrange deck, which is often its undoing. Once the deck becomes too slow, getting
bogged down in four- and five-drops, it becomes the easy prey of decks with yet more powerful cards, further up the midrange ladder.
I think the ideal cards are one-drops that have a way of “upgrading” later or evasion to continue to influence the game even when bigger creatures hit
the board. In the current format, some great examples are Flayer Husk, Ardent Recruit, Goblin Gaveleer, and Vault Skirge. (I even once heard Raph
complain that someone cut him on a Vector Asp he thought was going to table!) Everyone knows that Kemba’s Skyguard or Leonin Skyhunter are good beats,
but knowing when to use the “bad” cards to aid the beat down is usually the defining line between making it and not making it as an aggro deck.
Raphael Levy drafted almost all 15-Plains white decks that took him to an 11-1 draft record at GP London and PT Nagoya. In addition to rocking little
creatures, he played all the tricks like Apostle’s Blessing, Seize the Initiative, and Fulgent Distraction to allow his beaters to keep attacking into
superior forces. (If you think about Fulgent Distraction, it usually does 2/3s of what people do with a Tumble Magnet, removing two blockers to make a
final push get through; everyone loves Tumble Magnet, yet Fulgent Distraction always goes 10-14th pick and is rarely played.)
Drafting these decks requires absolute focus on drafting cheap, cheap spells that are super-aggressive. The best picks in NPH for this archetype are
Vault Skirge, Spined Thopter, and Porcelain Legionnaire, since they can be played in any color; the life loss hurts an aggro deck not at all; and they
all have abilities that let them matter pretty deep into the game. Blinding Souleater is also pretty sweet, as tappers are consistently performers in
aggro decks. The harder picks are the Suture Priests and the Apostle’s Blessings because you are usually taking them over pretty good-looking spells
from other colors. Yes, that Glissa’s Scorn or Grim Affliction is a much higher quality card, but when you set out to draft mono-white aggro, you have
to sacrifice card quality for synergy.
The payoff for sticking to your guns isn’t bad; playing monocolor allowed Raph to run all the WW guys other people pass in Scars and Besieged and play
them with confidence on curve. In midrange and slower decks, you can afford to play a CC card later in the curve, but when tempo is everything it often
spells death. Fifteen lands meant that he only expected to make his first three land drops; the fourth would often come with a little delay, but he
would have a little more gas than most opponents in exchange for not really playing any cards that cost more than four (and very few of those).
As mentioned above, the main ways these decks go off the rails is when your curve gets too high, or you start to make harder color demands of your
deck. If you wanted to, say, splash a Red Sun’s Zenith, you’re going to need more Mountains than you usually would in a “normal” deck. When your games
are going long, finding one Mountain out of two isn’t a big problem. However, when your guys are all tiny, and you get outclassed by Tangle Mantis or
Molder Beast, you need to put away the game before you suffer too many chump blocks and forced trades.
You could play twelve Plains and three Mountains, and that would probably be okay. However, as soon as you wanted to try to Turn to Slag, you would be
destabilizing your whole mana base, as you’d want at least five Mountains, and then your Plains count would be so low at ten that you’d start missing
your two-drops. Even one very powerful CC card is not worth this sacrifice!
Likewise, anything costing five or mana is extraordinarily suspect. Think about Sensor Splicer for a moment. He looks like a reasonable man for his
cost, but he requires a deck that is going to hit its fourth and fifth land drops pretty early in the game. He’s not very game-breaking late, and he’s
likely to rot in your hand early. What you really want in your expensive cards are things like Pierce Strider or Glimmerpost Stag, which contribute to
your fundamental game plan by burning your opponent or displacing a blocker so your weenies can get in for one more round.
A choice I saw Sam make in one draft epitomizes this discipline: he cut a Life’s Finale from his black aggro deck to keep his curve down. Yes, the card
is nigh unbeatable, but it’s no good when you’re at four land, your opponent is at five, and you just need something fast to close the deal.
Essentially, the lesson I have learned about aggro is that you need to go “balls to the wall,” all out speed over everything. It is not always right,
and not always open, but if you’re going to do it, do it all the way or not at all.
Niche archetypes to me are the hardest to master. In each set, there are usually some cards that are not any good in most decks but can be combined
into some very powerful strategies when assembled together. The first that was consistently powerful and regularly available that I became aware of was
in Rise of the Eldrazi and involved Bloodthrone Vampire, Shared Discovery, and/or Raid Bombardment, combined with lots and lots of cards that made
Sam Black rode these strategies to a 6-0 in draft at PT San Juan, while most people didn’t even know they were passing him the nuts (from his
perspective). In a similar vein, in the current format, Raphael Levy (when white wasn’t available) would frequently draft Vault Skirge, Mortis Dogs,
Caustic Hounds, and hope for Dross Hoppers and Flesh Allergies in the Scars of Mirrodin pack. His decks seemed like ho-hum aggro decks until they burnt
you out for a lot from seemingly nowhere as the Dross Hopper came into play. (While MODOing, he could often be heard muttering, “uhm, so I can burn for
fourteen here, so I just need to get two more through combat…”)
My first (3-0) draft at Kansas City actually took a turn in this direction:
WHO LET THE DOGS OUT?
1 Fume Spitter
1 Vault Skirge
1 Perilous Myr
1 Burn the Impure
1 Spined Thopter
1 Porcelain Legionnaire
1 Blind Zealot
1 Spin Engine
1 Vulshok Replica
2 Mortis Dogs
1 Pierce Strider
1 Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon
2 Caustic Hound
What makes niche decks hard to master is that you need to experiment a lot to find them, or know other people who do. Which brings me to a very, very
important point. Before each time I draft, I ask myself whether my goal is to win, or to learn. When I want to win, I only draft decks that I know work
and cards that I know are good. When I want to learn, I draft things I have not tried before, and cards I have never played.
In general, if it’s not a high-profile event (SCG Open Weekend, Grand Prix, or Pro Tour), I am always in experimental mode. This means losing drafts
and losing cards but gaining a lot of knowledge. I have a rule that if I see a rare I haven’t used before, and it seems even vaguely playable, I have
to draft it and try it.
The payoffs are great. Over the last year I have known to draft Genesis Wave; Ezuri, Renegade Leader; Mindslaver; Blue Sun’s Zenith; and Praetor’s
Grasp, while other people were passing them for whatever reason. Each has won me matches in important tournaments. Though there are a few truly bad
cards in each draft format, more often than not, the cards have a home that you just haven’t figured out yet.
If you do discover the lesser-known decks of the format, you have a huge edge, as some archetypes will be open to you that other people don’t even have
I had never heard of Mike Hron until I spent a weekend drafting in Madison, WI. We were drafting Rise of the Eldrazi, and Brian Kowal and Sam Black
kept describing decks as “mono-Hrons.” I asked, and was told that Hron was possibly the best drafter of all time and always took the most powerful card
from every pack and figured out how to weave it all together later.
These decks would often have no synergy, but make up for the lack of it with the strength of each individual card. (He would approve of the Skithiryx
in my doggie deck.)
In many ways, Ari Lax “Dinosaur” archetype represents this sort of drafting, especially in triple Scars drafts. You would just draft all the white,
black, or red removal, bombs, all the biggest green lizards, and color-fix with Horizon Spellbombs (if you were lucky), Myr, or prayer. These sorts of
decks often smash anything that isn’t very fast or very synergistic because when both decks are just playing a pile of cards, the player with the most
haymakers is the most likely to win. Certainly small synergies get built into this style of deck, but if you were wondering who drafted the Geth, the
Sunblast Angel, and the Red Sun’s Zenith, it was probably this deck.
I’ve been led into this archetype a lot lately, since I have a lot of trouble resisting taking under-drafted removal effects (currently Forced Worship,
Glissa’s Scorn, Blind Zealot, Parasitic Implant, and Gremlin Mine); card advantage (Remember the Fallen); or bombs that I open. I always default to
Hroning unless I see a clearly open aggressive or niche archetype.
Speaking of things being open, I’ve found the strongest factor determining what my record in my pod will be is whether or not I am able to read the
signals from my right. A lot of people have said things about signals, but I think they are hard to read until picks 4-6 in pack 1. Once the three
“best” cards would usually be taken, if there is anything pretty good left, it is fair to think the players to your right are not that interested in
that color. (Though some packs can be stacked.)
When you see a second card of the same color or archetype later than it should go, you get to confirm your notion. My worst drafts are often the
opposite, where I either force a deck that goes along with my first couple picks, or misidentify a signal and move in on a wrong color. (This happens
most often with cards that I value more, and other people value less. Currently Spire Monitor and Forced Worship can be red herrings for me. However,
sometimes it happens when one good card gets through, but there isn’t a confirming card after it.)
This Grand Prix was a particularly delightful example of reading a signal properly and getting paid off for it. In the dog draft I mentioned above, I
first picked a Shrine of Loyal Legions, with the hope of going into mono-white aggro. For my second pick, I had the choice of Volt Charge, Grim
Affliction, or Spined Thopter. I chose Volt Charge since white-red is not a bad place to be, and Charge has some good interactions with the Shrine I’d
Pick 3 offered Porcelain Legionnaire, Grim Affliction, and Parasitic Implant. I decided to stay on target and pick up the Legionnaire. Fourth pick
offered Spined Thopter and Mortis Dogs. I picked Thopter but was noticing little in the white offerings I’d been hoping to see and that black was
strong in every pack so far. When I opened the fifth pack to see another Mortis Dogs and a Blind Zealot, I knew it was time to move in on black with
the Zealot and see what would come back to me.
Eventually I tabled Parasitic Implant (from p1p3) and two Mortis Dogs (admittedly a niche card that probably no one else wanted). Paying attention to
which color was open, and not forcing the white I wanted, had some splendid payoffs in pack 3.
The Grasp of Darkness I got third pick, while the Skithiryx came at a shocking fifth pick! Considering Skithiryx won one round essentially by itself
(in a way none of my other 41 cards would have), I think it’s safe to say that just paying attention to signals won at least one of my matches in that
Generally, if the player to your right shares zero colors with you, and the player two to your right shares one color with you, you’ve probably done it
correctly. I suppose it’s important to say that it’s not just color that is important. You can also tell a lot about which archetypes are open by which
kinds of cards you are seeing in each color. For example, whether the Lost Leonins and Shriek Raptors, the Suture Priests, or the Forced Worships are
missing, you can judge not just whether white is open, but what kind of white might be open.
Just remember, your first pick may be good, but your next ten picks and pack 3 are 95 times out of 100 going to be more important.
I feel I’ve learned the most playing 4v4s with teams randomly selected afterward. The first thing that is good about this configuration is that you get
a fair simulation of a real draft, which I do not think happens in 3v3s because you don’t have enough “bad” cards to support niche archetypes and
because there is significant hate drafting and pass cutting.
The other great thing about this is that you have three other people whose drafts you get to look at, who are motivated to help you build your deck and
give you advice. Additionally, you get to teach them, or learn why they don’t think your input on their deck is a good idea. Essentially, for each
draft done this way, you get almost four drafts worth of learning.
When doing this, I think it is important to actually trade seats and build each other’s decks. It’s one thing to point at a card or two and tell
someone to play or not play them, but another thing entirely when the onus is on you to figure out which cuts to make, which synergies to play for,
Finally, when you play 4v4 teams, you get to play a lot of rounds with your deck, so even if it isn’t good, you get to see what is good and bad about
it. I drafted a ton this way when Rise of the Eldrazi came out when I was in Madison, WI, and they taught me a lot of interesting things.
First of all, they all drafted heavily for their sideboards, and often sideboarded 2-5 cards per match. It wasn’t just stuff like bringing in a Leaf
Arrow to deal with a flier. They would substantially change their curves depending on where their opponent’s curve was or splash even more cards
against a slow enough opponent. I realized that my history of just bringing in a Shatter for an artifact or landwalker against a land type was coming
up pretty short against the gamesmanship going on here.
These days I think a lot about whether I want the “unplayable” Blunt the Assault in case I run into some Concussive Bolt deck, or whether I want this
“terrible” Soul Parry to cheaply “counter” the Untamed Might that inevitably kills you out of a poison deck. Essentially, most cards answer some narrow
circumstance, and on your mid-last picks, it’s worth imagining how your deck loses, and how this card might help. It’s hard to say what other people
will teach you about deckbuilding or sideboarding, but it’s safe to say you’ll always learn more than if you are just playing on your own (whether at a
live tournament or on MODO).
The most surprising thing I learned was recently in Prague during a series of drafts I did with Martin Juza, Lucas Blohon, Shuhei Nakamura, and a gang
of pretty slick Czech players. I was looking at a pack with Victorious Destruction and a Spire Monitor with it, and later asked Martin which one he
would choose. He responded that he didn’t really like Victorious Destruction that much, but even if it were a Grim Affliction, he’d probably take the
Spire Monitor. I asked if it was because Spire Monitor worked like a removal spell for small dudes when it flashed in, and he said that no, a 3/3 flier
was just very good in this format.
I thought about it for a while and realized that I’d been completely locked into drafting cards along the bombs, then removal, then card advantage,
then curve paradigm. In reality, very often I would have to use removal spells on evasive creatures, and in that way a 3/3 flier often taxed an
opponent’s resources exactly the same way a bomb might. It might take a couple turns to force their hand, but it would turn the pressure on either way.
(In fact, every deck I’ve ever seen Jon Finkel play has just been a huge pile of fliers.)
Which is to say that there are quite a few cards with a power level higher than removal spells, not just outright bombs As Martin would answer every
time I asked, “Is X or Y a better card?”, “It depends on what else is in your deck.” Where a controlling deck might love more answers, an answer can be
a dead card in a deck asking a lot of questions, and vice versa.
I hope this article hasn’t been too general or too basic. I think everything in here is common knowledge, and yet it has taken me personally a couple
years to really absorb it and know it in fullness. Ho-hum decks easily go 2-1 all the time, but I think it takes something really special to
consistently go 3-0 in drafts. If there’s one thing I hope someone walks away from this article with, it’s that reading signals is everything. If you
know what all your archetype options are (aggro, niche, Hron), and you know what colors are open, you’ll know what kinds of cards you are going to get.
When you commit to a plan, and that plan is open, you’ll get the best decks available for your seat.
P.S. I am curious how interested people are in draft archetype articles? There used to be a great series published on this site by Nick Eisel, but they
seem to have been replaced mostly by draft walkthroughs. Though watching choices be made in an individual draft are interesting, the blueprints are
usually more important than the building, so to speak. Sharing your thoughts on the subject in the forums would be great.