A first look at the fine art of drafting.

Feeling a Draft: An Introduction to 40-Card Decks

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Ted's final Academy article before we transitioned to Jeff Cunningham, this one exemplifies exactly why Academy is so important. Whereas a simple "here's how to actually do a draft" article would seem completely out of place and unsatisfying in one of our normal columns (even the draft column!), in Magic Academy it makes perfect sense. And, now that we've got it, this will become one of the most linked-to articles in the magicthegathering.com archive, because now every time we, or anyone else for that matter, mention draft to an audience that may not be familiar with it, we've got the perfect place to send them. Articles like these are deceptively difficult to write well but Ted made it look easy.

Lastly, while I've got you here: for anyone that would prefer to start their 40-card experience with Sealed Deck (and/or doesn't know what that term even means) make sure to check Jeff Cunningham's archive for the best Sealed Deck introduction series I've ever seen anywhere. Whether you read it before or after the draft intro article, it's a great example of where you'll be seeing Academy go from here in the hands of Cunningham.

Scott Johns, magicthegathering.com Content Manager


This article originally appeared on October 7, 2006

The letter H!ello again, friends. Today is going to be a heart-wrenching after-school special flipped on its head. One of us will confess something shocking. One of us will help the other one get better. Both of us will live until the end of the episode. Aside from that, I ain’t making any promises, and you shouldn’t either.

Today, On A Very Special Blossom...

My name is Ted, and I am an addict.

It’s true. I’ve felt the need to confess this for some time. You see, I– I can’t stop drafting. I’ve tried to quit, but some days it’s all I think about. Not only do I think about it, but... I seek people out. Other drafters, I need them. Man cannot draft alone. You need 8 people, or 6, or at the bare minimum, 4 to get your draft on, or else you are just cracking packs, and nobody wants that. It’s gotten so bad that last time I saw a small child crack three booster backs without drafting them, I broke down in tears and was inconsolable for days. The kid didn’t know what he was doing, but he frivolously threw away hours of entertainment just like that.

I can’t stop drafting. I’ve tried to quit, but some days it’s all I think about.

Drafting is my addiction, my fulfillment, my mistress. I don’t know what my life would be like without it, and long after I have no good reason to play Magic anymore, draft will drag me back, just like it has every other addict in existence. Love is a powerful drug. Draft is stronger.

Many of you might now be wondering why I’m telling you this. I’m not at rock bottom. I don’t plan to change my ways. Heck, I revel in this addiction, feeding it every chance I get. No, friends, I’m not trying to get past it. There’s no quitting this bad boy, and I would hardly wish for it if there were. It’s harsh, but I am of the opinion that, if you aren’t drafting, you aren’t really playing Magic. No, the reason why I am telling you my sad tale as a draft addict is much more insidious...

I need more drafters!

What Is Draft?

Updraft_170Draft is short-hand for picking one card from a pack and then passing it to your neighbor. Draft is considered by pros and novices alike to be the most skill-testing format in Magic, because it forces a player to make dozens of choices about which cards to pick and pass on the fly from packs that he or she has never seen before – all in a limited amount of time. Once all the picking is done, players must also construct their decks within a certain frame of time, maximizing power and consistency from a vastly underpowered card pool when compared to Standard. The lower power level of draft battles usually favors the more skillful player, and draft in general typically features far more attacking and blocking than any other format.

Make no mistake – there is a major learning curve when it comes to drafting, but almost every Magic player I have ever met (and I have met hordes of them from all over the planet) considers the pain to be worth the reward.

The Process

Magic has had various sorts of drafting over the years (Rochester, Team Rochester, Solomon, Cube, etc.), but the most common by far is good old Booster Draft. In order to have a Booster Draft, you need 3 things:

  • 3 Booster Packs per player from the current draft format (As of this writing, that would be 3 Time Spiral packs, but last week it was 3 Coldsnap packs. Once Planar Chaos is released, the format flips to 2 Time Spiral and 1 Planar Chaos, in that order – it changes with the release of each new set.)
  • 8 total players (It’s possible to draft with fewer than 8, but 8 is the number needed for sanctioned Magic drafts, so it’s the number we will use.)
  • A healthy supply of basic lands

Players are seated randomly at the table. Once everyone has found their seats, each player opens his or her first booster pack, chooses one card from the pack, and puts it face-down on the table. Once you’ve done this, pass the rest of the pack to the player on your left. Once everyone has passed their packs, pick up the next pack (located on your right), pick the best card for your deck from that pack and put it in your pile, and again pass it to the neighbor on your left. This process continues until all the cards from the pack have been picked. You then get a review period to look at the cards you have picked and figure out what direction your deck is going (typically this lasts 60 seconds). Once that ends, each player opens his or her next pack, picks a card, and passes the pack to the right (Packs go left, right, left.). This continues as before until all cards from a pack have been chosen, and then you get another review period before opening the final pack, taking a card, and passing to your left again.

One last thing to note about the draft procedure itself: Always keep your eyes on your own pack, and never try to look at what your neighbors might be drafting. This is cheating, and this sort of behavior can get you kicked out of a draft, disqualified from an event, or even banned from the DCI.

Deck and Draft Guidelines

Once you have 45 cards in your pile, it is time to build your deck. Booster Draft rules allow you to add as much basic land as you want to your deck, and require that the deck you end up with be at least 40 cards. The standard number of lands in a draft deck is 17–18. Occasionally some decks will require more, while some formats (or deck archetypes) feature enough mana acceleration and cheap spells that they require less. You’ll learn which way you should go as you become more experienced, but for now it’s probably best to stick with the baseline. Limited manabases typically adhere to similar guidelines to what I laid out in my article on Constructed manabases. If you don’t remember what was said there, I highly recommend reviewing it, but the super short version is that you count your mana symbols, figure out their ratio, and then apply that ratio to the number of lands you plan to play.

One of the things to keep in mind when doing the draft is that you need both creatures and spells to make things work. Just drafting creatures will yield an underpowered and obvious deck, while drafting too many spells will put you in a position where it can be quite difficult to win because you don’t have enough men to deal damage.


The three flavors of removal.

The most valuable spells you can draft are almost universally removal spells, which are at a premium in draft because you only get to play the ones that you can pick up as the packs go around. Removal typically comes in three major categories: Banishing/Kill effects (like Dark Banishing and Enfeeblement), Burn (Volcanic Hammer, Shock), and Pacifism effects (like, uh... Pacifism). These vary in strength in each set, but most decks need some removal spells to function well, and it’s rare that you will end up with a deck that has too much removal.

The most valuable creatures in draft are those with evasion (Wind Drake, Gluttonous Zombie), a high power/toughness to mana cost ratio (Trained Armodon), or both (Shivan Dragon). These creatures are often simply referred to as “efficient” – a short hand way to say that they are good values for their cost. Clever creatures like Anaba Shaman and Master Decoy are also quite useful and typically get drafted pretty early. Seemingly scruffy creatures see a lot of play and win a lot of games in Draft, which is one of the reasons why the format is both challenging and so much fun.

Color, Power, and Synergy

As a newborn cub drafter, there are a couple of ideas to keep in mind that should help you on your way. The first of them is that in most formats (Ravnica excluded), you want to keep your deck to only two colors or perhaps two colors and a small splash into a third. Drafting three, four, or five colors, especially in your early days, is a recipe for color screw and a host of losses. Drafting six colors is strictly verboten. In your early drafts, try to pick one color of cards to draft in your opening pack and stick with that color – provided you are getting passed other good cards in that same color. Then take a look at what cards are being passed in other colors. Are there good cards in a second color that you can take? If so, it may mean that the neighbor on your right is not drafting that color, and it’s probably a good idea to choose that as your second color.

One of the ideas to keep in mind while you are drafting is the concept of signaling. Signaling is the process by which drafters often communicate to other drafters (silently, because talking during the draft is not allowed in sanctioned events) according to which cards and colors they are passing and which colors they are not. It is generally beneficial not to share colors with your neighbors, particularly the one who sits on your right, because he or she will be passing to you for two of the three packs. Therefore, by paying attention to the signals they are sending, you can get a better read on what is taking place in the draft and try to steer your deck in the most beneficial direction. Getting a read on what is being passed to you is often extremely difficult, and it will likely be some time before you become good at it.

Additionally, you will find it important to balance the power of your deck with the consistency and overall synergy. Some cards are obvious bombs that, should they resolve and stay on the board, will dramatically increase your chances of winning the game. However, don’t blow up your entire draft strategy just to try and shoehorn a bomb you receive in pack 3 into your deck.

Need an explanation? Say you are drafting a blue/black deck in Ninth Edition, but in pack 3 you open a pack containing Shivan Dragon, a certified bomb. Up to this point in the draft, however, you have taken zero red cards, making Shivan Dragon’s double-red cost particularly onerous. In that same pack is a Dark Banishing, an excellent piece of removal that fits in your colors. Most of the time, if you are playing to win, you are going to want to just draft the Dark Banishing here. It leaves you with a more consistent deck that is less prone to mana screw, and Banishing is still an excellent card in its own right. In pack 2, however, you might be more willing to shift gears and start drafting red cards in order to make it easier to use the bomb in your deck. Figuring out how to balance the tough choices between power and consistency is just one thing that makes draft so awesome.

It’s rare that you get to draft many bombs, because other players want them, too. Therefore, good drafting is all about figuring out how to make your deck consistent while maximizing your use of the powerful cards. One of the single best tips I can impart to novice drafters is to draft your creatures on a curve. This will make your deck play dramatically better by giving you the best chance to cast a creature that matters every turn of the game. When you review your cards, keep the holes in your curve in mind and choose good creatures that plug holes whenever possible. Still confused about what drafting creatures on a curve means? Allow me to explain some more.

Say you are drafting a deck in which you know you want around 16 creatures (a pretty standard number for most drafts, though one that can vary widely by format and archetype). Most Limited curves start at two mana, because one-mana creatures are quickly made obsolete. Most Limited curves also extend up to six- or seven-mana creatures at the top end, but you don’t want to play too many expensive men or your deck will end up clunky, with cards getting stuck in hand far more than is healthy. Therefore, distributing the creatures into a curve with the hump at three and four mana would look like this:

Two Mana: ■■■
Three Mana: ■■■■
Four Mana: ■■■■■
Five Mana: ■■
Six Mana: ■■

The reason you want to do this is because it provides you with solid chances to hit your two-, three-, and four-drops. This puts a lot of pressure on your opponent to do the same, especially if you are running good creatures. Additionally, it still gives you some heavy hitters in your lineup to break stalemates. As you draft more, you will realize that different deck archetypes work best with the hump of the curve at different points, but in the early days this should be enough to get you by.

There are literally volumes that could be (and have been) written about what constitutes an efficient creature in Limited and how highly you should pick certain cards over others. That sort of material is well beyond the scope of this article, but if you want to draft a lot, I highly recommend reading Limited Information on this very site every week and delving into some of the advanced reading at the end of this article. For now, it’s enough to say that you should do better if you draft good creatures on a curve than if you don’t.

Something else to keep in mind is that Limited Information also covers sealed deck on a regular basis. You can expect an introduction to sealed deck to appear in this column some time in the near future.

Magic Online

Now, if I’ve done a decent job of selling you on the glory that is drafting, you are probably champing at the bit to get started. Thankfully, it doesn’t matter where you are in the world or what time of day or night it happens to be, or even how far away you live from a store that runs regular events – there is one place where you can always find a draft: Magic Online. Magic Online offers a lot of benefits to a Magic player, but finding an opponent or a draft whenever you want is possibly its greatest boon. Download the client from here, grab three packs and two tickets from the store, and get your draft on.

That’s all the material you’ll get from me at Magic Academy for the foreseeable future. I hope you have enjoyed the past 3 months of lessons and that I have helped you learn the game and blossom into a better Magic player along the way. I write regular stuff over at StarCityGames.com, so if you want to see more material from me, check out that site or stop by the Tournaments page for every Pro Tour, where I am part of the event coverage team. Until then, take care of yourselves, good luck, and maybe we will do battle in one of Magic Online’s draft queues.

Advanced Reading

There have been many authors who focused on Limited Magic over the years, but the ones that are listed here were either pioneers in the field or so brilliant and funny that you would be doing yourself a grievous wrong by not reading them.

Gary Wise

Back before magicthegathering.com existed, there was a site (and print magazine) run by Wizards of the Coast called The Sideboard that featured strategy written by some of Magic’s top pros. New Magic Hall of Fame member Gary Wise was one of those writers and his work went a long way toward transforming how the public at large thought about draft. He published his pick orders for draft formats and discussed the ins and outs of the Pro Tour like few before him. While seemingly simple nowadays, what Gary did was groundbreaking at the time, and it sold the public on drafting at a time when the world mostly considered Constructed to be king. Not all of Gary’s stuff is easily available these days, but it’s definitely worth reading.

Geordie Tait

Another cantankerous Canadian, Geordie Tait is one of the most entertaining Limited writers ever to touch a keyboard. Tait’s Pro Tour success never really materialized, but that didn’t impact the popularity of his writing. He recently reemerged in Toronto to post a Top 32 finish at the Grand Prix there, and his report from that particular event (part 1, part 2, and part 3) is an early candidate for article of the year.

Tim Aten

Tim Aten is completely American, has his own Pro Tour Player card, and even appeared in the Magic Invitational largely on the basis of his amazing prowess at writing Magic articles. Aten’s work is caustic, self-deprecating, lingo-intensive, and shockingly funny. He’s also been one of the most reliable sources for Limited opinions in the last few years.

Last but not least (and I know I mentioned it earlier, but it deserves repeating), Limited Information is a column completely about draft and sealed formats that runs weekly on this very site. Seattle resident Noah Weil currently helms the ship, but the archive includes years of columns from various Magic writers, so if you are at all interested in learning more about forty-card formats, I highly suggest you tune in.

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