Growing up, I learned to play Magic playing Constructed like most players do. My form of Constructed was simply to pick a couple of colors and jam every card I owned of those colors into a deck, and never remove any cards from my deck as it continued to grow.
It wasn’t until I first started hanging out at a local game store that I learned about Booster Draft and fell in love with Magic all over again. Drafting leads to a series of decisions throughout the course of the Draft, deck building, and game play. To me, Booster Draft is the most skill testing format in Magic. There is a nuance to drafting that gets you small percentage points with each and every decision, and I love being rewarded for understanding and applying small concepts.
Through the years I’ve learned a lot of fundamental skills and tricks to drafting, and I’d like to share a few.
1) The Person to Your Left Does Matter
Players will say that they just ignore the signals they are sending to the left and focus on what the person on their right is doing, as following the signals you’re getting is much more important than sending good ones. While it’s true you should let the person on your right give you signals and use them to the best of your ability, you should also be aware of what’s going on to the left.
You are still being passed 33% of the cards you see in a Draft by the person on your left. Drafting is about trying to obtain a deck advantage versus the opposition, and in order to do that, it’s important for you to try to put yourself into the best combination of colors, allowing you to get passed high quality cards in both directions.
Sometimes you don’t have a secondary color going into pack 2, and it’s important to figure out if there will be another open color during this pack. You may be “backcutting” (a term I use for knowingly moving into the color of the person on your right), but this is one way you can get high quality cards or use ones you’ve already selected.
Let’s say you opened a Winding Constrictor and took it first pick, and noticed that green was very open in pack 1. You pick up a single red card or two, but nothing that’s better than your Winding Constrictor. Black was nowhere to be seen—in fact, you didn’t even pass a remotely playable black card at all. You then open a weak pack, but this pack has a Fatal Push or Daring Demolition in it. You decide to take the removal spell, knowingly moving into black behind a black drafter. The upside of having these two powerful cards, while also likely seeing more black this pack, is higher than spending more picks figuring out what’s open. Surely you can still pick up an additional second color, but knowing you didn’t pass black whatsoever for an entire pack leaves you free to reap the rewards, while also benefiting from how wide open green will be in pack 3.
All information you send and receive can be used in Booster Draft to make the best decisions, and willfully ignoring some information is just shaving percentage points off of your win percentage.
2) Perception vs. Reality: Power Level of Cards
When drafting, you are forced to make some early assessments of cards before you’ve played with them. Generally, we use prior Draft formats as an indication of which cards are supposed to be good. Sometimes cards drastically fluctuate in power level, you discover it early, and quickly change your evaluation. Good for you! The problem is that you need to apply that to how you’re drafting still, while others haven’t necessarily adapted yet.
This difference of perception can lead to awkwardness in a Draft for two reasons. You can think to yourself, “wow, I got this card 6th pick, blue must be open!” And your opponent might think the same of a card you passed that you rate lower than most. An example of this for CFB Ice was Druid of the Cowl. After a bunch of house Drafts, we began to realize that the card we once thought might be the best green common was actually somewhere in the middle of the pack. There aren’t many cards that are too expensive in Aether Revolt Draft, and a lot of the creatures that cost 3 also have 3 power to trade with a good deal of 4-drops. Simply put, there’s just not enough oomph to ramp to and very few mana sinks, making Druid of the Cowl more mediocre than mana creatures have typically been.
A lot of the expensive cards in the set have improvise, so you can get the same effect out of any 2-drop artifact creature as you can out of Druid of the Cowl. A lot of other teams at the Pro Tour were still fairly high on Druid of the Cowl, so if you take a card like Implement of Ferocity over Druid, a pick we endorse, the person on your left might think green is wide open because there’s no other green cards they’d take over it at common.
Sometimes, when the power level is close between cards, I take the one with the higher perception of power than a card I might think is a small percentage better, just to send signals that the person on my left can interpret easily. I won’t give up too much value in card selection for this, but if it is more likely to net me higher power level cards later, it’s a minuscule risk for a potentially huge reward.
If I identify a card is being undervalued by players I generally try to pick it a little higher, but I still don’t want to give up value by taking a card early I’m just going to get later, or potentially even wheel the card if it’s being undervalued enough.
It’s important to have a general pick order in your head, or written out even. Remember that just because your pick order makes sense to you, it may not be the same as others, and there is value in understanding how to apply that pick order appropriately while also being mindful of how other drafters perceive the power level of cards.
3) Check for Missing Rarities Early Pack 1
This is something I noticed some players don’t do enough of early in Drafts. I check the rarity of cards missing in packs up to about pick four or five in pack 1, giving me an indication on how strong the signals I’m receiving from commons in the packs are. Let’s say I get a pick four Daring Demolition, what I consider to be the best common in Aether Revolt Draft. Now if a rare and 2 uncommons are missing from this pack, I know that the signal I’m getting is cloudy. There are plenty of uncommons and rares more powerful than Daring Demolition, and a lot of black cards fall within that range, so it doesn’t necessarily mean black is open.
Now let’s say I get the same pick four Daring Demolition, but there’s a rare missing and 2 commons. The possibility of a foil always remains, but still, this is a much stronger signal to me. Daring Demolition will be one of the best, if not the best common, in most players’ card orders, so the fact that 2 commons have been taken over it means that players on my right are taking worse quality cards to force a color, or that they have no interest in drafting black at all. Both of these pieces of information can be used to my advantage. If a person is willing to fight this hard over a color, this same person will be very unlikely to switch colors later in the draft, meaning it’s much more valuable to me to find the open color and go right down that lane and cooperate.
The rarity of missing cards can tell you a lot more than that the person on your right opened a bomb. Pay attention to the finer details and use the information to your advantage.
4) When Stakes Are High, Understand and Embrace Your Bias
Most of us have a bias toward a specific color combination or color we like. Truly perfect drafters won’t have any biases and will be able to avoid drafting specific colors. I’m not perfect and likely, you aren’t either. Now when I say embrace your bias, I simply mean when a pick is close, lean toward your bias—don’t fight it. This is especially true in Drafts with higher stakes than an MTGO League Draft or a Draft among friends. If you prefer B/U to B/R and have the choice of a red card or blue card early in a Draft after taking a couple of black cards, take the blue card and embrace your bias.
When you’re in a Pro Tour draft, a PTQ Top 8, or a Draft at a Grand Prix, it’s no time to be a hero or work through your shortcomings. Your goal is to win this Draft, and to do so you need to be comfortable. I’m not saying it’s correct to force a color combination, but for some people who haven’t drafted a lot and don’t understand how specific archetypes work, it’s in their best interest to stick with what they know. Obviously you shouldn’t go into a Draft saying “I’ll draft B/R” before the packs are open, open a Ridgescale Tusker, and pass it for a Shock because you prefer B/R. If you have a tendency to Draft a specific color combination and are considering speculating on another color when a pick is close, just stick to what you know because you’re likely to end up leaning that way later in the Draft anyway.
I know several Platinum Pro level players who go to the Pro Tour with the mindset that they will Draft one or two very specific color combinations unless their first few picks dictate otherwise, because they simply prefer these color combinations and want to embrace their bias.
5) Context Matters
Context is important when you’re drafting. Context can mean something as simple as paying attention to your mana curve, or noticing that after five packs every one has had a copy of Decommission, so you’ll anticipate wheeling one instead of taking one earlier.
More importantly, pay attention to the cards you have selected or could be selecting, and what synergies they have with other cards you have access to.
Here’s an example from Aether Revolt. Early in a Draft, I’m drafting B/R, but only have a 2 or 3 black cards and the choice of speculating on a Renegade Wheelsmith or selecting a Defiant Salvagers. I noticed I’ve already passed 2 copies of Wrangle, which I’m likely to wheel. Normally, I don’t like to include Defiant Salvagers in my deck, but the fact that I’m specifically aiming to be B/R gives Defiant Salvagers an added boost because of the potential to pick up Wrangle and Hijack with late picks. Multiple copies of Defiant Salvager, or other sacrifice outlets such as Yahenni, Undying Partisan or even Embraal Gear-Smasher make it much more appealing to play Wrangle. Let’s say I did wheel these 2 copies of Wrangle. The next pack, I’m going to start taking Defiant Salvagers much more highly than I would have. This isn’t necessarily my plan when drafting B/R, but when the opportunity presents itself, you can use your knowledge of the cards you’ve seen and can expect to see later to get some real value out of picks that otherwise could go wasted.
Drafting is and always has been my favorite format in Magic. The incremental advantages you gain throughout the drafting and deck building process are my favorite puzzles within Magic to solve. The fundamentals you learn in Booster Draft carry over to all forms of Magic and have been the foundation of improvement in my game.