Recently, I have had some discussions about getting cards, cost of packs and so forth. One debate has come up again and again — the debate between people who buy packs and just open them and the people who feel that not drafting with any unopened pack is foolish. Both online and off, a very large percentage of all packs produced are simply opened. For most of the people who bust the packs, that is a perfectly rational option.
I don’t want to get into the question of whether it is better to buy packs or singles. Been there, argued about that, go read the old articles. For this article, I just want to look at different types of players who buy packs, and examine whether they would be better off drafting or busting those packs.
Let’s postulate several different types of players. Obviously, differently situated players will have different experiences, and no two will be exactly alike, but for the purposes of this article, we can make some broad generalizations. Although I use some names, these are general categories. For each category of player, I will make some reasonable assumptions about their skills, how often they could draft, their need for cards, etc.
I will also make some assumptions about the cost of cards and the cost of drafts. These vary. If you buy a pack from WalMart, you are paying $3.99 plus tax. This is also true if you buy digital packs from the online store. If you buy cards a booster box at a time (from StarCityGames, of course) you pay roughly $2.25 per pack. If you and your wife both judge a GP, you may wind up with four boxes of boosters for the low price of 20+ hours of work each plus about $300 in expenses. However you cut it, you will end up paying somewhere between $2.00 and $4.25 per pack.
The cost of drafts also vary. I have seen drafts cost anywhere from $15 to $18, with the organizer providing packs. The place I draft at charges $3.00, if the player supplies their own packs. Online, drafts are packs plus 2 TIX. For this article, I am going to assume that a sanctioned draft costs $3.00 plus the cost of the packs. (Some play groups may run unsanctioned, no-prize drafts among themselves. I don’t know whether to consider those drafts as just busting packs, so I’ll ignore them. Feel free to include them either way, depending on which side of the argument you are on. It would take another 2k words to analyze these drafts, so I’ll skip them for now.)
The treatment of the cards opened in sanctioned drafts also varies. In most sanctioned drafts, you simply keep whatever you draft. At FNM drafts, you may keep what you open, or not. Where I draft, all rares and foils are pooled. First place gets first pick, second place second pick, and so on. In more casual team drafts, the winning team gets all the rares and foils.
Sanctioned drafts may also involve prizes and winning packs. Like costs and treatment of rares, the prize payouts vary. The most common payout is 8 packs to the winner and four packs to second place — or six and six if the players draw. That is the payout at most prereleases I have seen, at GenCon, and at the public events at Pro Tours, Worlds and so forth. It also makes for a simple calculation of the cost of drafting. I will assume that the drafters will split in the finals. This means that, if the player wins two straight rounds, they get six packs. The odds of winning two rounds are the odds of winning a single round squared — so the expected prize value of playing a draft is six packs times the odds of making the finals. That means that if a person has a 50% chance of winning a round, then the odds of winning two straight rounds are 25%, so that player can expect, over many drafts, to win 1.5 packs per draft (.5*.5*6). Yes, this does assume that all opponents — even those in round two — have roughly the same skill level. In my experience, that is pretty much true. If you draft a dozen times, the skill level does balance out.
Time to introduce the archetypal players.
Patrick Chapin is a perfect example. These are very serious players. They play often, and well. They play Constructed formats, and draft frequently. They often play with friends of equal skills. They are either on the gravy train or trying hard to get there.
Draft Results: When they are playing with their group of friends, they are likely to win some matches. They draft frequently, become very skilled at the format, and often team draft it. They are likely to win regularly, even when playing other pros. In general pick-up drafts, they have a 75% win rate against the average drafter. This means that they will be in the finals split about 56% of the time, so they will win slightly over 3 packs per draft, over the long haul.
Need for Cards: Although these pros play serious Constructed formats regularly, they generally playtest with proxies, so they don’t need cards for Constructed play. They rarely keep multiple decks — and almost never casual decks — around. Frequently, pros have good relationships with dealers, and often sell any rares or money uncommons, then borrow the cards back for major tournaments.
Will pros bust packs? Short answer, no. They want to draft, and will use packs, won or bought, to draft with. They don’t need the cards as singles, and they generally enjoy drafting. Winning and reselling rares keeps the cost of packs low, and they enjoy the drafts, so the cost of the draft is much less than the entertainment value of the draft.
The Serious Amateur:
This is me, or someone like Abe Sargent. We draft, but we also build a lot of decks and play them both casually and competitively.
Draft Results: When we are playing with their group of friends, or at FNM, we they are likely to win some matches. We draft occasionally to frequently, and are reasonably skilled at the formats. In general pick-up drafts, we have a 40% win rate against the average drafter. (Note: Abe may be better — 40% is me.) This means that we will be in the finals split about 16% of the time, so we will win about one pack per draft, over the long haul. At that percentage, the cost of the prize packs won in a draft is about $3. That is considerably more than the cost of just buying packs, since players like this usually buy booster boxes.
Need for Cards: We play a lot of Constructed, and play real cards. We want playsets — or double playsets — of a lot of different cards. It is not unreasonable for me to have four decks with Treetop Villages, or Wraths of God, all assembled at one time. Cards are important. This can affect drafting: if drafts are keep what you open, we are often torn when we open a solid Constructed rare (e.g. a land) and a good removal spell. Redrafting the rares does not always help, either: unless we win, the money rares (which are also the good Constructed cards) will be gone by the time we get to pick.
Will we bust packs? Short answer, yes. For me, at least, it is impossible to draft up all the product we get — for example, by the time Ingrid gets back from Worlds, we will probably have earned 6-8 booster boxes of Shards, in addition to whatever I win at States, and the prize packs from the Prerelease. That would keep me going for 100 odd drafts — but I actually get to draft maybe once or twice a week. We will bust some.
Note that this changes a bit — but only a bit — when talking about Magic Online. There packs are full price, drafts are packs plus 2 TIX, and you keep what you draft. You can also draft in 4-3-2-2 events — meaning that if you win even a single match, you get two packs. This is great if you love drafting the format, but less good if you want to accumulate cards. For example, I am desperately trying to get dual lands from MEDII packs. I bought 16 packs, to start. I have drafted pretty much whenever I have had time (that’s not as often as you might think.) I have done eight drafts, and have ten packs left. Even with some savage rare-drafting, I have just one Mana Crypt (all I need), one Imperial Recruiter, and one Helm of Possession. I have zero Imperial Seals, zero Necropotence, and have opened zero dual lands. I do have playsets of Demonic Consultation and Elvish Spirit Guide, and most of the commons. I have slightly more rares than I would have if I had just busted 24 packs — and certainly more than if I had just busted the 16 packs I started with. That said, I have spent between 20 and 30 hours in these drafts, and have spent an additional 16 TIX to enter them. I’m not sure that the entertainment factor has been worth it. When I open trash and lose in round one, it is not. Even last night, when I won the draft, I was seriously wondering if this wasn’t a bad use of my precious time.
The Kitchen Table Player:
This used to be Ingrid and I. We played Magic with another couple for a few hours after each D&D session. We were playing multiplayer — usually 2 on 2 teams — with decks we homebrewed each week. We were playing pretty much whatever we owned — and that was very rarely a four-of, unless it was common.
Draft Results: Back in those days, we had no idea what a draft was, or how limited formats worked. If someone had explained drafts to us, we could have picked cards, but drafting removal highly, building a mana curve by memory, etc.: forget it. We would have been lucky to win one match in ten. Given that, such players will almost never win packs in a draft. Drafting merely adds cost to the packs. Buying by the case means that the packs cost about $2.25 a piece, bought from StarCityGames.com. Drafting them means that they cost $3.25 a piece (packs plus $3.00 for drafts), and you have to waste time building a deck and losing a match before you can take your cards and go home.
Need for Cards: All we played was Constructed, and we tried everything. John and Cathy — the couple we played against – had some duals and a few pieces of power, so we knew good cards existed. We were also building lots of theme decks — decks based on movies, Halloween decks full of skeletons, decks built around artists, etc. We wanted cards, cards, and more cards. I even remember buying a booster box of Chronicles, because it was cheaper than Standard cards.
Will these player bust packs? Of course. In fact, when you want and need practically everything, busting packs is often more fun than buying singles. More importantly, when you value all the cards, and drafts aren’t much fun, drafting is just a more costly, more time consuming and less enjoyable way of busting packs.
Timmy and Tommy:
These are the young kids — probably middle school or maybe high school — who play Magic with friends during lunch hour and after school. They may read about formats online, but their formats of choice are usually more determined by what their friends play than by the current PTQ season. These players generally have a much tighter income constraint than people like me.
Draft Results: Such players may understand drafts, and may even draft among themselves. However, their income limitations probably mean that they cannot buy a lot of packs, so drafts are few and far between. In general pick-up drafts, their lack of experience probably drops them into the 35% win rate category, at best. This means that they will be in the finals split maybe one draft in eight — which may well be all the drafts per format they can afford. This works out to winning roughly Â¾ of a pack per draft. If they can buy packs for less than $4.00 per pack, then they will lose money drafting.
Need for Cards: These players generally play what they own — they don’t borrow cards. Depending on the group, they may or may play with proxies. Cards are important, as is trading.
Will these player bust packs? Almost certainly. Trading is often the only way to make decks. That makes foils more valuable. Busting packs with a normal rare and a foil card — better yet, a foil rare — is a big event. I have seen such players upset when they bust a good foil in a draft, because they will only be able to keep one of the two cards. Of course, these kids may draft as well — one local store in Madison has a large percentage of very young drafters.
People vary. Very few people will fit neatly into any give category, especially when there are very few categories. Nonetheless, one thing should be clear.
If you like drafting, draft.
If you like busting packs, bust packs. It is not always better to do something else with them. Drafting may be a lot more expensive than just busting them.
“one million words” on MTGO