Hour of Devastation is upon us. Unfortunately for me, I missed the prerelease because I went on vacation. Together with friends from high school, we decided to go on a hiking trip to Norway. For me, it was the perfect opportunity to clear my head before the Pro Tour. Walking up and down the Norwegian hills, I didn't spend much time thinking about Magic, save two exceptions. First, I listened to the excellent Limited Resources Set Review, which I used to familiarize myself with the new cards instead of reading the spoiler. Second, I thought about the article I'd write for this week. With the PT coming up, I'm not really at liberty to discuss Standard or the new Draft format out of loyalty to my teammates. Even if I could, I just spent a week secluded in Norway, so I don't have anything new to share. Instead, I decided to write about a part of Magic that I find the hardest to master—Booster Draft.
I'm an avid reader of Magic article, and when it comes to Limited, one stands out. It was written by Ben Stark 4 years ago and it's called Drafting the Hard Way. He describes two ways to approach the draft—the "easy way" and the "hard way." In the easy way, you pick your colors early on and then you keep drafting them. Sometimes it works well and you spike a 3-0, but sometimes you crash and burn. The hard way is more complicated, but basically it means staying open, reading signals, and being willing to sacrifice early picks. Today I'll try to introduce a strategy that I've been using for quite some time—drafting the medium way.
In the Czech Republic, Draft was always the most popular format. Because of that, we've had some excellent drafters like Martin Juza and Lukas Jaklovsky. I was kind of an exception to this rule. Growing up in a smaller town, I didn't have anyone to draft with. I spent many hours locked in my room playing Constructed online. I was never good at drafting and didn't really enjoy the format, so I didn't feel the need to practice. Until today, I considered myself a pretty bad drafter. I'm bad at reading signals, I have trouble figuring out what colors my neighbors are in, and so on. Still, Draft is an important part of every PT, so I had to find a way to do well. Every single time I would show up for PT testing, I would get crushed in our practice Drafts. Yet at the PT, I've been doing pretty well with more than a 60% win percentage in Draft. Today I will share my secret strategy.
Let's kick it off with a Draft that I consider to be a prime example of this strategy (and also one of the most entertaining Drafts I've ever seen). It's from PT Return to Ravnica and the player to watch is the eventual winner Stanislav Cifka. This Draft has raised many eyebrows on social media and earned Stan the nickname Stanislav "the Draft viewer must be broken" Cifka. Here is the Draft.
Stan starts with a multicolor Golgari card. He then follows it up with a strange pick of Voidwielder over Arrest. He then follows that up with a bunch of puzzling picks and in the end he settles into Izzet. He walks away with pretty great deck while kind of ruining the Draft of poor Tom Martell. So what's this about? Basically, Stan went into this PT with the idea of drafting either Golgari or Izzet. He considered those color combinations to be better than everything else and was set on drafting them. On the other hand, he really didn't want to be in white. It seemed like a weird strategy, but in the end Stan was rewarded. In his second Draft he had a brilliant Golgari deck and he didn't drop a single game in the whole Limited portion!
As of right now, my preparation for PT Drafts goes like this. In the practice Drafts I'm basically trying to figure out which color combinations are stronger than others. I lose more often than not, but in the end I have an idea of what I want to be drafting. Through talking with my teammates and practicing, I become proficient at those strategies. When it comes to the actual tournament, I try to stick to what I have prepared, and more often than not I'm rewarded by a decent result. Basically, you want to thoroughly understand 2-3 archetypes, and when it comes to the actual Draft, you want to find the one that is the most open.
Sometimes it's a case of some archetypes being better than any other. Going into PT Khans of Tarkir, my team, the Cabin Crew, had a special strategy. In Khans Limited, everyone was trying to draft the wedges (Jeskai, Abzan, etc.), but we figured it's much better to go two colors with minimal splash, be aggressive, and go under them. The best two colors were either R/G or U/G. I went 5-1 at this PT drafting both of those color combinations. I went as far as to pick Surrak Dragonclaw over Murderous Cut. I ended up with a decent G/R deck splashing Surrak, and only lost the finals of the draft to my own misplay. On the other hand, the team around the eventual winner Ari Lax figured out that it was better to go over the tricolor strategy and their team was set on drafting 5-color control. It also paid off fairly well for them as a group.
Sometimes, it's not even about drafting the most powerful combination but rather something you're familiar with. I used this to great success at the World Championship two years ago. It was Origins Draft and I was feeling comfortable drafting green in that format. I knew that the popular opinion was that green was kind of mediocre, so I drafted G/B and went 3-0 in a room full of the best players in the game. My deck wasn't great, but I knew the strategy inside and out, and that helped me pick up the important wins.
Another important thing is to not be afraid to ignore a color. Usually, the folks at WoTC are good at balancing Draft formats, but sometimes they slip. A good example of this was green in Battle for Zendikar. It was basically undraftable there. Another example was white in Dragons of Tarkir. It wasn't as bad as green was in BFZ, but I still wouldn't draft white in that format. Going into the PT, I remember saying that I would not hesitate to pick the 3rd best red common over Sunscorch Regent—a great white rare. I thought white was weak, stuck to my guns, and was rewarded with a PT Top 8.
There are obviously downsides to this strategy. The biggest perhaps is when people come to the same conclusions as you, and the strategy becomes over-drafted. I believe this happened to me at the last PT where I was going into the tournament with the idea of drafting a red aggressive deck, which I thought was the best. I got punished in the second Draft by a bunch of weak packs, and 0-3'd my first PT Draft ever. Draft is self correcting, so if you believe certain combination will be over-drafted, you can concentrate on different ones and you should have a better deck. I could have switched into a U/G deck, which is by many considered to be the worst combination, but at our table it was just so open that I would have had a decent deck. The early release of a new set to MTGO definitely exacerbates this problem. People are smart, and with more time they figure out the best strategies more easily.
You can also get punished in different ways. Team MTG Mint Card came up with a brilliant strategy of drafting really low curve decks in the Jeskai color combinations. Unfortunately, this strategy got spoiled by coverage because they posted a deck that Christian Calcano went 3-0 with. This deck consisted of 6(!) Slither Blades, a card that you could usually wheel very easily. The PT adjusted to this, and I think Day 2 was much harder for their team. No more late Slither Blades for you. I'd be pretty upset if I were one of them, this feels like posting your Constructed deck midway the tournament.
Sometimes you just fail to figure out what the optimal strategy should be. That happened to me at PT Oath of the Gatewatch, which was a double shame as we had the most busted Constructed deck in Eldrazi. My Draft record definitely held me back there. This is a similar problem to bringing a bad Constructed deck. It happens on occasion, and there isn't much you can do about it. It feels bad, but you shake it off and hope it gets better next time.
The takeaway: figure out the best combinations, even if they just work for you. Become proficient with them, find the one that's the most open, draft it, and profit. Don't be afraid to ignore a color completely. Be careful when a strategy becomes over-drafted.
I'm not going to claim that my way of drafting is better than Ben's. I would probably argue that it isn't. But his is called the hard way for a reason. My way is easier, and has been working pretty well for me these past couple of years at the PT. I don't really have the time or the ability to learn how to draft the hard way. I'm worried that because of the early MTGO release, it's going to become much harder for me to find a success. It's definitely going to be much harder to draft the strongest color combinations, because people will have it figured out now. But for now, I'll continue drafting the medium way and I hope it will work for me. What about you?