Drafting 101

For many, Magic: the Gathering starts as a complex game of cards, played on a kitchen table with decks containing a minimum of 60 cards. Depending on the cards used (from which sets), this is typically known as "Constructed" play and is how the game was originally designed to be played. Over time, players have created new formats for play, and "Draft" is a style that I'm particularly fond of. To help new and more seasoned players alike, I'm going to cover some basics of drafting that have helped me over the years.

Drafting 101: How it Works

For those of you that haven't drafted before, it starts with each player getting three booster packs (other formats exist, but this is the official and most-common). When the draft starts, each player opens the first pack and sets aside the wrapper, token (or ad card), and basic land. NOTE: Foil basic lands don't get discarded from the initial pack opening(s), as they take place of a common in the pack. After those are discarded, each player scans the pack and chooses ONE card to draft from that pack. During this time, it's also important to note what other cards are in the pack - to see what other players will likely pick after you, what cards might make it back around the table, etc. (I'll discuss "wheeling" and "reading signals" later in this article).

Once you make the first pick, you past the REST of the cards in the pack to your left. Repeat the process, picking one card from each passed pack, until all cards have been picked. For the second booster pack, repeat the process, but pass the pack to your right. And for the third (and final) booster, pass to the left again. Once all cards from all three booster packs have been drafted, each player has time (typically 15 minutes is enough) to build a minimum 40-card deck. That number includes basic lands, but those are typically provided by the game store or the player hosting - since none (other than foils) were used during the draft. I'll go over deck building for a draft later in this article - but after all decks are built, rounds are played, winners are calculated, etc.

NOTE: There are several different ways to go from here: how you pair the players for rounds, how many rounds you play for the draft, how you do tie-breakers if you setup any kind of prizing system, etc. While the prizing and amount of rounds is up to you, I would recommend using MTGArena for scoring/seating.

Drafting 101: How to Pick

Now that you know how a draft actually works, I'd like to cover some general guidelines as to what cards you should pick while drafting. Keep in mind - some of this section is guided by experience and opinion (so people may disagree with certain things I say, as not every player drafts the same way). Regardless, guidelines for what to draft, and practice, can help make any player become an efficient player in this format.

You may have heard of an acronym called "BREAD" which is what some have used to help new players learn what picks to take - I'm going to follow a similar guideline, to show what cards to pick over others:

1) Bombs. These are the cards that win games. Cards that are so awesome, you can almost feel the power that they possess when you play them on the board. In most cases, these cards are considered "win conditions," which are very important. Some examples:

For both of these creatures, they're powerful and have insanely good abilities, especially in a "Limited" (the category of Magic: the Gathering play that drafting falls under). In the case of Archon of the Triumvirate, his ability locks down your opponents creatures when he attacks, allowing him and your other creatures to get in for massive amounts of damage. Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius, on the other hand, allows you to draw cards when he deals damage to another player - which works well, given his second ability. His activated ability allows you to use mana to "ping" (small amounts of damage) your opponent, which then results in card(s) drawn. And, in case you've never heard, card advantage is VERY important in Magic: the Gathering (it's a game of "limited resources"). Since both creatures have flying, they can also typically attack your opponent, unblocked - getting them closer to zero life.

2) Removal. Typically non-creature spells, this category covers cards that get rid of your opponents creatures. Having a decent amount of removal helps you destroy their best creatures, leaving you with board advantage. And once again, in a game of limited resources, this can directly cause you to win the game.

Now, there are two different types of removal: conditional, and unconditional. Here are two  examples of conditional removal:

Both of these spells only remove creatures during CERTAIN points of the game, or that meet certain conditions. We'll start with Auger Spree - it'll remove most creatures (because of the -4 part of "Target creature gets +4/-4 until end of turn."), but ONLY if the creature has 4 or less toughness. So, for example, if you target a 3/3 Centaur token with Auger Spree, and your opponent casts Giant Growth on it in response, the Centaur token will be a 10/2 creature until the end of turn (the spell was wasted). With Avenging Arrow, the creature you target as to have dealt damage this turn. Both of these cards are great cards in draft, but since they're conditional, they require you to play around those conditions in order to use them effectively. Now, let's take a quick look at two removal cards that are considered unconditional:

Although more rare than conditional removal, cards like Assassin's Strike and Dreadbore say "Destroy target creature," and both happen to have a slight bonus (forcing the controller to discard a card, or being able to target a planeswalker, respectively).

3) Everything Else. This category includes basic creatures and spells, which will end up making up MOST of your deck during draft. These cards aren't amazing, but they're usually something you're more than happy to play. For something to fit in this category, it doesn't have to possess any special abilities or upsides - but if it does, that definitely helps. I'll show you two cards from this category, and talk about which one I would pick, and why:

Centaur Healer. Not only is it a 3/3 for 3 mana, but it has a slight upside. I'm always more than happy to pick and play this card. Heroes' Reunion, on the other hand, sucks. New players might ask, "But why, William? You gain 7 life - and if the point of Magic is to not go to 0 life, isn't more life good?" Well, as I've mentioned a few times, Magic: the Gathering is a game of limited resources. And this means that when you play a card, you want it to do one of these things: affect the board (adding a creature, taking one away, etc) or replace itself (by allowing you to search for or a draw a card). The problem is, Heroes' Reunion does neither of those things. Therefore, don't pick it (unless you have nothing better to pick).

To conclude, if a card doesn't fit on one of those three categories, it sucks. There are also some cards that might be sideboard options in a "Constructed" environment, but are typically useless in draft. Here are some examples:

Now that you know what cards to avoid, just remember to try to focus on drafting a one or two color deck (three, if you're more experienced), and pay attention to signals that you send or receive from the other players. I'll cover it in this next section.

Drafting 101: How to Signal

Signaling is a part of drafting that takes some practice, but can be one of the most effective ways to build the most powerful deck possible. The key is to read the information, try to find out what colors and archetypes the other players are drafting, and build your deck accordingly. Simply put: to send signals, pass cards to the other players that you KNOW they'll grab (but that you don't want/won't play), and to read signals, look at the cards you were passed that WOULD have been high picks (but that the other players don't want). Good example of cards that, if passed to you, mean that the people around you aren't in those colors:


For the case of both of these cards, you MIGHT see them get passed to you after the first pick, but typically not on the first pack. This is because, during the first pack, most of the players are still trying to find out what colors and archetype they're trying to build around. For the second and third packs, a player might pass cards like these if they are definitely not committed to either of the two colors of Detention Sphere, or can't justify splashing white for one card (in the case of Precinct Captain) - especially given double cost. In both cases, these are signals that these colors are open, at least to your immediate left or right. If you receive good cards of a certain color, even after several picks in a particular pack, then it's a good clue that that color is open across the entire table. Reading signals (and the reverse, sending signals) is a great way to not only build a deck, but find out what cards will "wheel" - which I cover in this next section.

Drafting 101: How to Wheel

When you open a pack, there are often a good handful of cards you WISH you could take right away - but, since you're limited to one pick, this is where predicting what will "wheel" comes in handy. Let's say you open a pack with one really awesome white card, one slightly okay white card, three great black cards, a bunch of other mediocre cards (every fresh booster will have 15 cards). To properly signal, you would pass the black cards (since the single white card would be better than any of the individual black cards anyways), take the amazing white card, and hope the slightly okay one makes it's way around the table. Since most drafts are done with 8 players, and there's 15 cards in a pack, you're going to see the pack again - the strategy is trying to determine what card(s) will make their way back around to you. Using this information, you can construct a better deck since you know what cards you're going to be able to pick from future passes. And that takes us to deck building...

Drafting 101: How to Build

As I stated earlier, draft decks need to have a minimum of 40 cards in them. You can have a larger deck, but unless you've built a Battle of Wits deck, I wouldn't recommend it. This 40 card count includes the cards you've drafted (which should be 45, but you're NOT going to use all of them - some of the cards you've drafted probably suck), and the basic lands you're going to put into your deck to make your spells cast-able. The general rule-of-thumb for the ratio of cards to have in your Limited deck is: 17 lands, 23 spells. This can be changed slightly (more land if you have more than two colors, less land if you're only playing a one-color deck, etc), but only if you know what you're doing. The last thing you want to have happen, as a new player, is to be stuck with a grip full of cards and no lands to play those cards with. Keep in mind, also, that non-basic lands like Hallowed Fountain should count towards your land count (even though you drafted it).

On the spell side, most Limited decks want to be comprised MOSTLY of creatures. Out of the 23 spell cards in your deck, you want 15 or more of those to be creatures (some more advanced combo and control decks can run less, but these types of decks are FAR harder for a n00b to draft). From there, the number of lands of the different types you use should be an equal ratio based on the number of cards from each color you're playing. You should also consider what color(s) the low-cost cards in your deck rely on, since you ALWAYS want to play cards early in the game, if possible. If not, it's easy to lose a game due to your opponent flooding the board with creatures. And speaking of low-cost, something to keep in mind when drafting AND building your deck is your mana curve. To play on tempo with your opponent, most decks want to be able to play one or more spells EVERY turn (starting with turn one or two, depending on the archetype of the deck). If your deck plays on tempo and your opponent misses a land drop, or doesn't have a creature to play out, those are games that can easily swing in your favor. Every play, every draw, and every card dropped is important.

Drafting 101: How to Have Fun

Other than that, have fun with it! I've personally been drafting for a few years now, and it's definitely a format that keeps me interested - but I've begun to understand it. Practice doesn't make perfect (at least in Magic: the Gathering), but it definitely helps cut down on play mistakes, and helps you understand the game that much better.

For an insight on how I draft, check out our latest video in the Drinking and Drafting series.


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