Tips and tricks for drafting that go beyond the basics.

Strategies and Techniques for Booster Draft

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The letter H!ello and welcome to Magic Academy! This week we'll be taking a closer look at Booster Draft.

Three packs of Ninth EditionTed Knutson addressed the basics in his introduction to the format. In Booster Draft, each player at an 8-man table begins with three packs from designated sets in front of them. Each player opens a pack, picks a card, and then passes it to their left, until there are no cards left. The same with the second pack, except players pass to the right. The third pack goes to the left again. Eventually, all players will have selected 45 cards with which to whittle down to a 40 card deck that includes land.

As in most Limited formats (like Sealed Deck), removal, evasion creatures, and bombs are of high priority. Booster Draft decks tend to be more honed than Sealed Decks, and so two-color decks are the norm, with splashing being somewhat irregular. While making picks, it's important to consider the way the specific deck you're drafting is shaping up, and to manage its colors and synergies. You'll try to stick with your colors, analyze what you're being passed, and stay away from the colors your neighbors are playing. You'll also try to balance considerations of power and synergy (like deciding between the good card and the solid card that fits right into your mana-curve).

Beyond this, several strategies and techniques exist for Booster Draft.

Forcing

Brute_Force Forcing is the somewhat extreme strategy of entering a draft with the commitment to draft a certain color or color combination, barring only the most extreme circumstances.

This strategy is adopted when a player considers one color or archetype to be considerably better (or better in their hands) than any others, and worth taking risks to ensure. An additional consideration is if the color(s) can be acquired fairly reliably, having many playable commons.

One upside of forcing is that it sends very strong signals to the player you're passing to, increasing the likelihood of a fruitful second pack. Eschewing powerful cards in the colors you're not forcing, and taking even the weaker cards in the color you are forcing, means that the player you're passing to will get the message loud and clear.

The risk is that the player passing to you will happen to be in your favored colors, passing you mostly dregs, or that you'll miss out on a powerful cards being passed in a color you don't play.

If you're seated beside a player who you know is forcing (it is to their advantage to let you know, so they might tell you if they get a chance), then be wary of dipping into their colors; only the most powerful bombs, if any, will lure them from their desired colors! Of course, if you're the one passing to them, then they're mostly at your whim...

Example: The best card in your pack is Ravenous Baloth. The best black card in your pack is Festering Goblin. As you are forcing black, you'll take the Festering Goblin.

Biasing

Crooked_Scales Biasing is like forcing but to a lesser extent. It refers to entering a draft with strong, but not extreme, preferences.

A player's bias reflects their style and sense of the format of the whole.

Biasing is important as it will inform drafting decisions that otherwise seem fairly equal.

Example: The two best cards in your pack are Sift and Volcanic Hammer. As you prefer blue to red in Ninth Edition Limited, you take the Sift.

Cutting Off

Slice_and_Dice Cutting off is a technique that sees fairly regular employment. When forcing, the player automatically tries to cut off his desired colors. But it is not necessary to be forcing in order to cut off.

To cut a player off is to prevent them from seeing many or any worthwhile cards of a given color. This is generally done by aggressively taking these cards yourself. Sometimes, this will not be possible; there will be too many worthwhile cards of a color in a pack to take. Sometimes, it won't be necessary to take a card of that color, as there won't be any worthwhile ones in the pack. The desired end result is to have the player being passed to, and even ones further down the line, cement themselves in different colors, so that in the second pack they pass you plenty of top cards in the color you cut.

The value of cutting depends heavily on the amount of top commons and uncommons in that color in the second pack.

Intercepting

Foriysian_Interceptor Intercepting is a sneaky technique that is only employed in fairly specific scenarios.

In situations where after the second pack you are mainly only one color, but sense that another color has been cut off in front of you, it is sometimes very profitable to dip into that color, intercepting its fruits from the player who went to the trouble of cutting it off!

The downside is that the other player will go back to taking the best cards in that color from you for the third pack.

Example: The structure of Odyssey-Torment-Judgment Booster Draft made cutting off black a dangerous venture. Black was okay in the first pack, fantastic in the second pack, and terrible in the third pack. A player might cut off black in pack one. The player he cut off, though, despite potentially not having a single black card, could intercept an amazing second pack, without having to worry about not receiving any of Judgment's paltry offerings.

Long-Ranging

Long-ranging refers to making decisions based on cards you think will get back to you during this, or a previous pack's, return trip.

Though these are fringe cards, it is still important to have a sense of what will come back around the table. Knowing a key (but generally unpopular) card will likely come back may allow you to justify taking a solid creature over a different copy of the card a few picks later.

Beyond having a good sense of the table and format, one way to help predict what will come around is by subtracting eight of the higher picks. If there isn't much that is definitively better than the rest, it may be hard to predict what will come around. If there is, it will be safer to make predictions.

Example: An early pack contains both Gemhide Sliver and Scion of the Ur-Dragon. Gemhide Sliver helps facilitate a five-color strategy, and you can probably bank on the Scion coming back around the table.

Noting

Some cards, especially those whose value comes from a surprise factor, such as combat tricks, Wrath of God effects, and Threaten effects, are worth paying special attention to as you pass them.

In some cases, you will be able to predict the player who will end up with them. If you are not playing white, and you pass a Wrath of God, you can be fairly certain that the nearest player you are passing to that is playing white will take it! This means that if you are paired against this player, you can take special care to play around the Wrath.

In other cases, the cards will be of such middling strength that it is difficult to predict just where they will end up. Here, it is good just to have a sense of your table's specific card pool. Consider a format that has two separate medium-strength green combat tricks. If, in a draft, I pass four of one and none of the other, I will know to take special care to play around the first against any geen mage.

In a draft, 360 total cards will be opened. Of these, you will see 276. There is much information to be had.

Example: At Pro Tour–London '05, at 3-0, I was paired against the player I had been passing to during the draft. During the third game, I was devastated by a Blind with Anger I could have played around. Not foreseeing this was a brutal mistake; early in the draft I had taken a blue card over the next best card in the pack—Blind with Anger.

Signaling

Signaling refers to the act of passing, or receiving, a pack with a very clear pick intended.

More elegant and less mechanical than cutting-off, signaling can similarly ensure that the player you're passing to will be in a color that you're not playing, and will pass you top commons in that color in the second pack. However, it is not as effective as deterring players further down the line.

If you are passed a clear signal, know that not taking it is a risk. It is beneficial in Booster Draft to cooperate with your neighbors, and if the player passing to thinks you are in a certain color (since they sent a signal), they will try to avoid playing it.

Though it is rarely justifiable to take an inferior card only to send a good signal, it is a consideration in borderline decisions. The signals you are sending are receiving will give you an idea of what your neighbors are playing, and so will inform picks.

Example: In the second pack you're passed several mediocre cards and a Strangling Soot. In the third pack, you're passed another Strangling Soot. The player passing to you certainly thinks you're in black, and wanting to go black-red, even if the best card they pass you in the next pack is blue.



Planning

Trade_Routes Planning, like forcing and biasing, involves making decisions based on a sense of the format as a whole, and not just the pack at hand. Planning, here, is to make picks with consideration to the general cards in the format (commons usually), typically the ones waiting to come in the second and third packs.

For example, you might deprioritize any five-cost creatures in the first pack while drafting a certain color, knowing that the third pack has an unusual amount of five-cost creatures in this color that tend to go late.

You might also be able to consistently draft a fringe archetype based on knowing that certain key cards are usually available late in the draft.

Part of having a thorough grasp of a format involves knowing its general design and being able to anticipate accordingly.

Example: Even though your deck will need a bit of removal, you can take this efficient creature over some removal now, because you know the third pack (a small set) has three common removal spells in a color of yours you expect to be passed.

Defensive Drafting

D-Drafting (or hate-drafting) refers to the act of taking cards without the intention of playing them, only to prevent another player from using them. For instance, in the case that you open a pack with only a mediocre card for yourself, but a bomb for a player in other colors, or at the end of a pack with no cards for yourself but a card that would be playable for a player in another color, you would be inclined to D-draft.

Gravedigger In general, D-drafting should be discouraged. It is more profitable to make your own deck even a little better than to make someone else's deck worse; everyone else at the table gets to enjoy that advantage, while you foot the bill! Even when it's the end of the first or second pack, it is sometimes worthwhile to pass a playable card while you take nothing. The more cemented your neighbors are in their colors, the more they'll stay out of yours!

However, if the bomb is powerful enough, or specifically powerful against your deck, and there is virtually nothing for yourself, it is sometimes profitable to D-draft.

Example: It's pack three. You're drafting blue-white. There's an Index, a Demystify, an Elvish Berserker, and a Gravedigger in the pack. You take Gravedigger, the only playable card in any color.

Bracketing

While cutting off and signaling are hallmarks of proactive forcing strategies, bracketing reflects a more receptive drafting style. (Drafting is considered a balance of active and reactive decisions—it is possible to err more one way than another.)

To bracket is to make a decision on the grounds that it keeps your options open, rather than sending a clearer signal but confining yourself to certain colors.

The upside is that you give yourself more of a chance to sense the climate of the draft before committing to colors. There is a less of a risk that you will be stuck in one color combination while great cards from another color keep sailing on by. The downside is that more picks will be write-offs, and that the player you're passing to will have less of any idea of what you're doing, sometimes meaning weaker returns in pack 2.

Deciding which way to go can be difficult, and reflects a number of factors.

Example: You first pick a Force of Nature. You second pick a Shock. Third pick, you must choose between a Sift or a Giant Spider. You take the Sift to best keep your options open.

Which strategies and techniques do you regularly apply in your own drafts?

Further Reading:

Randy Buehler – Booster Draft Primer

Quentin Martin – Limited Information

Thanks for reading. See you next week!

Jeff Cunningham

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