Draft is widely considered to be the most skill-testing form of Magic. Old school pros will occasionally show up to a Pro Tour after taking a break and dominate draft like they have not missed a beat. Because of the sheer number of variables and decisions faced in a draft people who make superior picks and decisions have their advantage compounded over weaker players. Some commonly-accepted Limited concepts are faulty, but they persist nonetheless.
You should take a slightly weaker card over a stronger card if it sends a better signal.
Understanding signals is a crucial component of draft but it is the signals that you receive rather than the ones you send that really matter. Simply put, in a draft, packs one and three flow clockwise. Pack two, counter-clockwise. Therefore, anticipating what is open on the right is almost always more important than on the left.
Sending signals is one of the least important considerations when deciding on a draft pick. I suspect that this is one of the most controversial drafting myths because I often hear people –including accomplished players—use signaling to justify taking a weaker card over a stronger card. Additionally there are situations wherein the player to your left will draft differently than your expectations despite crystal clear signals either, because he or she opened a bomb rare or is disregarding the signals you are sending. If you open Raise the Alarm, Devouring Light, Triplicate Spirits, and Frost Lynx in an M15 draft, do not take Frost Lynx. Accept the possibility that white will be dry in pack two, count your blessings, and take Triplicate Spirits. Send clear signals when possible, of course, if it’s at a low cost to the power level of your deck.
Your first few picks determine what colors you should commit to.
Whether or not you have commitment issues outside of Magic it’s something that we all struggle with during draft. Should you abandon your first pick and see what other possibilities await or hang on for dear life as you take mediocre card after card to remain loyal? For the first pack of a draft it is important to not become too attached to a particular color and focus on the signals you are receiving. By the first couple of picks of pack two you should solidify yourself into a color combination or risk a potential train wreck.
If you open a nigh-unbeatable bomb in pack one, two, or three like Pack Rat it is acceptable to commit to that color despite signs that it may not be available. Cases in which you should commit to such a card as Pack Rat are few and far between as there are only two or three cards on that level in each set. My normal drafting routine is to keep an open mind for the first pack. Each pack should provide indicators of what colors are available and which are not, try looking for a pattern to cement your commitment to a certain color. In some scenarios I am willing to make an extreme commitment if I am only comfortable with one or two archetypes in a format and in a tournament situation. At Pro Tour Avacyn Restored I took a Fleeting Distraction with my first pick over Silverblade Paladin on the grounds that blue/green was by far the best deck in AVR draft (I 3-0’d the draft).
You should always draft in a mutually beneficial way with the player who is passing to you.
Players tend to enjoy cooperative drafts where players next to each other avoid being in overlapping colors. To clarify I do not mean collusion, rather that people seek to deduce what the adjacent players are drafting and stay away from their colors. There is a myth that if you draft the same color(s) as the player to your right that you will both finish the draft with poor decks. This detrimental conflict can be the case if you overlap with the person passing to you in packs one and three; however if you overlap with the person on your right exclusively in pack two it will likely be beneficial.
Imagine a hypothetical situation:
After pack one of a draft you have eight great white cards supplemented by a couple of average late-pick blue and black cards. In the first pack you see zero powerful red cards, indicating that red is not open in this draft. Your plan is to end up in white with either blue or black. On the surface this may seem like the logical conclusion; however whenever I am in this situation I implement a much different strategy. Because red was not being passed to your left in pack one it is extremely likely that red will be flowing to the right in pack two. In this imaginary scenario I would switch into red for pack two even with the expectation that red will be dry in pack three. Ideally pack two will yield several powerful red cards; pack three, powerful white cards and the final product of the draft will be a fantastic white-based deck splashing red. There is an additional benefit to this strategy in that the person to our right will likely have a terrible deck. We are not guaranteed to play this opponent so this is only a small consideration when deciding to switch colors. In a team draft this strategy is even more beneficial because the person to our right is guaranteed to impact our finish.
If it’s apparent that two colors are open and flowing throughout pack one then I will gladly draft those two colors and cooperate with the people around me. I only like to use this strategy when I am drafting predominantly one color after pack one.
When playing to win a PTQ or Grand Prix it is in your best interest to take risks during the draft to end up with a “3-0” deck.
Hoping to get lucky is certainly necessary sometimes but it is important to remain logical. In a Limited PTQ Top 8 or Grand Prix, players regularly express their interest in drafting a high variance strategy with the goal of simultaneously increasing their chances to go undefeated or winless. If you are fortunate enough to have discovered an under-the-radar strategy then it is worth considering taking the risk regardless of your skill level. The most famous recent wild draft strategy is the Spider Spawning self-mill deck from Innistrad block. Spider Spawning quickly became popularized from draft videos and event coverage, but prior to the general populace becoming aware of its existence players who were in the know had a distinct advantage. But that’s no reason to abandon good strategy. If you have made it to the Top 8 of a PTQ or Day Two of a Grand Prix you must have at least fundamental understandings of how to play Magic well. It’s foolish to add variance to a game that already has plenty. Draft a solid deck and capitalize on good draws or punish bad ones—don’t risk your tournament on poor drafting.
If your deck is aggressive you should play first, if it is controlling you should draw first.
This decision is not so simple, especially in sideboarded games. In a slow controlling deck the decision to play or draw should be based on the specifics of your deck. It may seem intuitive to draw first with a slow deck that aims to win in the late-game. But Limited Magic has evolved over the past five years. Tempo matters more than ever. Control decks remain viable strategies in Limited with the caveat that they have respect for aggressive decks.
If your deck has cheap removal and creatures, yet lacks substantial card advantage, you may draw first. If your deck has card advantage spells similar to Sign in Blood, Divination, or Read the Bones I would almost always play first. One scenario in which I prefer to go second is in sideboarded games between two aggressive decks. An aggro mirror match will usually involve trading resources early and often until the battle of attrition ends in a topdeck. Another factor that influences my decision to draw is that I anticipate my opponent sideboarding in a way that slows down his or her deck—reducing my fear of being punished by going second. With this knowledge I enjoy sideboarding out a land as well. Generally speaking I exclusively choose to play in the first game and then make a more educated decision in sideboarded games.
Drafting is probably closer to a fine art than a hard science although there are plenty of applications for both personal preference and probability calculations. Whether you agree, disagree, have something to add, or have suggestions I look forward to hearing your opinion.
Thank you for reading,