Thursday, August 19, 2010

Rough Drafts #1 - One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, New Fish.

Hello ladies and gentlemen, my name is Nina Illingworth and welcome to another edition of The Cardboard Witch.  As some of you may have guessed by the title of today's entry we're going to talk about basic booster draft theory; specifically how to draft and build better decks.  For those of you who don't know me in real life, I manage a comic and games store here in downtown Toronto called the Hairy Tarantula.  One of the coolest aspects of my job is that I can disguise my complete obsession with Magic the Gather as "work" so long as I'm helping customers while I do it.  Recently this has meant helping a number of new customers get into the game through regularly scheduled booster drafts at both the downtown and north end Hairy T locations.  In my opinion booster draft is the ideal way for a new player to break into magic for 3 major reasons:

A) It requires no previously owned cards to play.

B) It allows a new player to build a collection as he or she goes, adding new cards to their card pool every single time they draft.

C) It's one of the fastest and most reliable ways to teach core Magic playskills.  Learning to squeeze the most out of your cards is *THE* defining skill in limited play and it's application to constructed Magic formats absolutely will improve your win/loss ratios over the long haul.

Unfortunately sometimes being "the new kid on the block" means taking your lumps while learning the lay of the land (read: losing both often and decisively).  This is particularly true in Booster Draft where the combined skills of card selection, deckbuilding and actual game play can be quite daunting for a new player to master. While it's reasonable to expect a certain "learning curve" when taking up any new activity it's also pretty hard to learn anything when your opponents are smashing your face in on turn 5.  These type of "blowout" losses can be both frustrating and expensive; ultimately discouraging new players from continuing with the hobby.  This deprives our Magic communities of fresh faces and new blood, diminishing the experience for everyone involved.  The worst part of it all is that in most cases this problem could be solved through the application of a few basic guidelines during the drafting process itself.  These basic "rules" form the backbone of building competitive draft decks and after a while they become second nature to an experienced drafter; allowing them to focus on the finer points of the game and increase their chances of winning even further.  While it would be silly to suggest that a brand new player can follow a list of rules and consistently beat experienced drafters, it is absolutely true that such a tool can help you stay in the game and avoid fruitless "blowout" losses.  Sometimes the first step towards learning to win really is learning how not to lose first.

It's important to note at this point that only time and effort will help you win your first booster draft; I am not presenting a magic formula for winning Booster Drafts without sufficient practice.  What I *am* talking about is an easy 6 part blueprint to drafting and building better decks at your next Limited event.  While this material may be useful to anyone who plays Booster Draft it is intended for the absolute beginner attempting his or her first few booster drafts.  Additionally I'd like to point out that while I have been drafting for years, nobody is perfect.  These "guidelines" represent my best effort to help new players break into the exciting format of Magic Booster Draft and people can and will disagree with some of the ideas I present here.  Please feel free to take whatever you can use from this article and disregard anything you can't.  It is after all the internet.

Okay, with that out of the way lets get right down to business and talk about how to draft stronger decks the next time you crack open a booster.  First and foremost you must remember that the art of building a good draft deck is about finding or creating value with each and every pick.  While this sounds complicated it really just means "load up on good cards" and "don't overpick a card now when you could obtain it later".   In essence this means evaluating every card you see in a pack according to a personal "pick hierarchy" and then comparing that evaluation to what you think your opponents will choose based on known information (including colors, previous picks and their assumed card rankings).  While this eventually becomes second nature to a seasoned draft veteran it can be incredibly hard for a new player to get an accurate read on what to pick and when until that happens.  So how do we skip all that trashing around in the dark until the light finally turns on?  Simple, we establish a basic pick priority based on TYPES of cards before we sit down to draft and then as those kinds of cards come up we choose them according to their ranking within that pick hierarchy.  In other words:

1) First we draft "Bombs"
2) Then we draft "Removal"
3) Then we draft creatures that are above the "mana curve"
4) We then draft spells that create card advantage or win creature combat
5) Later we draft powerful sideboard cards
6) Finally we'll draft enough "bodies" to consistantly affect board state (14-16 typically)

The beauty of this system of course is that these pick rankings will be rather similar to what your opponents are already doing besides you, thereby ensuring two things:  A) you won't be passing broken cards and creating unstoppable opponents and B) you will be able to immediately jump on any passing mistakes the player handing packs to you makes pretty much automatically.

Before we start getting into exactly what defines each type of pick on our list however I'd like to take a moment to talk about basic color selection in booster draft. Generally speaking Draft formats are designed to be played with two color decks, with friendly colors (adjacent on the color wheel) having higher synergy but not necessarily more power.  Of course some formats are different (Shards of Alara and it's 3-5 color decks come to mind) but this general rule is particularly true in core sets like M11.  Typically I like to have my first (and most important) color decided fairly early into picking through pack 1; 3rd-5th pick at the latest.  Thus I often let the first "bomb" or two I draft dictate one of my two colors almost immediately after I open the pack and I draft accordingly to make sure I can use my "bomb".  I'm quite a bit more fluid about my second color, often simply taking good cards regardless of color for the first pack and then seeing which directions pack 2 wants me to take in the first 3-4 picks.  Once I've chosen my second color however I will rarely if ever change my mind again in a given draft.  It's important to have both a complete deck and a nominal sideboard if you want to do well in a draft and it's awful hard to do that if you're picking cards from all 5 colors.  In fact; for the absolute beginner it's probably a good idea to pick your colors even earlier (by your 7th or 8th pick in pack 1) and attempt to force them from that point forward.  This will always ensure you have enough cards to build a good deck later.  Deny drafting is certainly an advanced concept and likely better left for when you've got a little more experience with booster drafting.

Let's take a detailed look at each card type on our list and a couple of examples of M11 cards to help you identify these type of picks. 

1) Draft Bombs First

One of the easiest ways to win games in Limited formats is to drop a disgusting "bomb" card and then ram it down your opponent's throat until he loses.  In most cases this will be a giant creature with powerful abilities but there are plenty of powerful non-creature cards in the history of Magic that qualify as Limited bombs (most Planeswalkers for example).  The simplest way to identify "bomb" cards is to ask yourself "If I play this and my opponent doesn't have an answer within a very short period of time, will I win the game?"  If the answer to this question is yes, you're probably looking at a "bomb" and should draft it immediately if you have any hope of casting it during actual games.  It's important to note that by a short period of time I generally mean 1-3 turns; it's not fair to call a random 3/3 Flyer a "bomb" just because it'll kill your opponent in 7 turns if it goes unmolested.  It should also be noted that certain control "bombs" don't have to win you the game quickly because they're so strong at preventing your opponent from playing his game.  A good example of this would be M11's Royal Assasin; a card that can lock out entire boards for multiple turns at a time and yet does very little to win you the game immediately.  While there are numerous obvious bombs in M11 (read giant Dragons, Angels and anything that says Titan) there are also some very powerful uncommon cards that function as bomb-like substances in this format.  Good examples include Air Servant (4F, Flying and a control ability?  Sign me up) and even Duskdale Wurm (I've now lost as many games to Duskdale Wurm + Whispersilk Cloak in M11 drafts as I have to Sword of Vengeance; 4).  Even mana heavy options like Stormtide Leviathan can be very powerful if you build your deck to force them out quickly enough (Cultivate, Forsee).

2) Then Draft Removal

Once there are no bombs in your colors left in a given pack it's time to start drafting ways to control your opponent's permanents; namely his creatures.  If you kill, tap down, lock out or otherwise control all of your opponent's "mans" you can win games with even the shoddiest of creatures.  Alternately one of the best ways of dealing with your opponent's "bombs" is to kill or otherwise contain them.  In many ways whipping a Doomblade at your opponent's Protean Hydra is better than casting one yourself since he's already spent more mana to cast the Hydra than you did to kill it.  Of course not all removal is created equally and it's important to be able to tell the difference in value between a Lightning Bolt (excellent) and an Ice Cage (almost not worth drafting ahead of good Creatures or card draw).  Generally you're looking for either permanent effects (Assasinate, Pacifism) or repeatable control effects that work turn after turn (Blinding Mage, Prodical Pyromancer).  Try to avoid over-picking temporary answers like "bounce" effects (Aether Adept, Excomunicate) or cards like Act of Treason.  Of course you could always STEAL your opponent's creature on a long term basis with a card like Mind Control; that's probably the best form of removal of all!  Naturally then your opponent can play his Acidic Slime as removal of his own to destroy your Mind Control and swing board control back to his side.  No matter what form of removal you end up drafting there's simply no substitute for point and click control effects in booster draft.

3) Draft Creatures that are Above the Mana Curve

As a general rule the mana costs for creatures in Magic the Gathering are determined by their power and toughness ratings and/or their printed abilities.  This typically occurs on a 1 to 1 ratio and thus a 2/2 creature will typically cost 2 mana; possibly more depending on it's printed abilities (if any).  Good examples include the purely vanilla  Runeclaw Bear or the slightly more valuable (and costly) Manic Vandal.  Of course Magic would be pretty boring if these ratios never changed and so in every given limited set you will find creatures who's numbers and abilities add up to more (or less) than this ratio.  For example both White and Black Knight are 2/2 bodies for two (albeit color specific) mana.  However unlike the completely blank Silvermane Lion, the Knights get not one but TWO highly relevant abilities (Protection from White/Black and First Strike).  One of the easiest ways to create advantage in Limited Magic is to simply play "better" creatures than your opponent does; therefore you should prioritize "above the curve" creatures right behind "bombs" and "removal" in your pick hierarchy to ensure your monsters are the strongest.  It's important to note that the 1 for 1 mana ratio tends to degrade as you move up the curve; the key here is to remember that everything is relative.  A 5/4 Spined Wurm for 5 mana certainly looks pretty strong compared to Rotting Legion for example.  Additionally really powerful abilities like Flying can often cost just a little more mana and therefore cards like Assault Griffin are absolutely "above the curve" even at 3 Power for 4 mana.  Finally extreme scarcity can sometimes make an ability more valuable than it otherwise would be.  A good example of this in M11 would be the Giant Spider; whose mere 2/4 body for 4 mana is greatly made up for by his rare ability to control flyers with Reach.  If you're building a deck with few other answers to flying, Giant Spider should absolutely be chosen at this point in the draft.  For the ultimate example of a creature that soars above the mana curve one needs to look no further than M11's beloved Serra Angel.  Of course, she's so far above the curve that she's almost a bomb so you'll have to pick her quite early if you want a chance to play with one.


4) Draft Spells that create Card Advantage or win Creature Combat

Once all the "good" creatures have come out of a pack there's very little point in wasting your pick on marginal or "vanilla" bodies at this point in the draft.  You can easily get random "Bears" (2/2 for 2 mana) and "Hill Giants" (3/3 for 4 mana) later in the draft to fill out your ranks.  This means you want to focus on drafting high utility spells that will either help you win the card advantage war or help you win the creature advantage war instead.  These types of cards vary wildly from simple card draw (Jace's Ingenuity), to discard effects (Mind Rot), mana fixing (Sylvan Ranger), stat pumps (Mighty Leap, Giant Growth) and even one shot tap/bounce effects (Aether Adept, Stabbing Pain).  Probably my favorite M11 card in this category is green's Cultivate, which not only helps me fix my mana (twice) but also accelerates an extra land right into play AND generates card advantage by putting another land into my hand.  That's a lot of mileage out of 3 mana common sorcery!

Of course, the sheer variety of these cards provide a wonderful opportunity for creative players to find additional uses for spells their opponents have passed off as marginal.  While it's ultimately true that Doomblade is a better card than Giant Growth that makes for little consolation when your opponent's creature turns into a 5/5 and kills one of yours in combat.  Finding these types of cards is the very definition of making "value" picks and practicing this skill alone will go a long way towards helping you win your first draft or two.   

5) Draft Powerful Sideboard Cards
At this point in a given pack we're starting to reach for playable options.  All the good creatures and spells will likely be gone now and we'll be starring at some rather marginal creatures and situational cards.  The key here is to avoid going on autopilot and to instead try and scrounge for a sideboard card or two.  Playing Blue?  It's highly unlikely you actually need that Merfolk Spy but bringing in a game 2 Flashfreeze could absolutely win you a match later in the draft.  Wondering what to do about the Crystal Ball you passed early in the draft to take a "Money" rare?  If you're in Red try grabbing a late Manic Vandal or even a Demolish.  Even if you don't have a specific idea of what your opponent's might have drafted it's probably a good idea to keep a Naturalize or two lying around in the sideboard; just in case.  Recently I managed to win a match against a strong U/W Flying deck simply by bringing in 2 Wall of Vines from my SB.  Regardless of which specific card we're talking about the theme is always consistant; take marginal cards that won't make your main deck but could win you games out of the sideboard.  This is also an excellent time to start "deny" drafting dangerous sideboard cards that could be played against you!  For example if I'm in Green/White and my opponent's let a Deathmark slip till later in the pack you can pretty much guarantee I'm choosing that over a random creature.  Of course some sideboard cards are so powerful they can occasionally be played as maindeck removal simply on the likely chance it will find a target.  The best M11 example I can think of is probably Combust.


6) Draft enough random "Bodies"

Creatures are the heart and soul of Limited Magic.  The simplest and most effective way to affect the current board state and thus "get in the game" is to cast a creature.  Without one or more of them in play you will find yourself at the mercy of your opponent's creatures and thus losing games quite quickly.  Now obviously you can't cast a creature if you don't have one and thus it becomes very important that your deck have enough creatures to ensure drawing them consistently.  Opinions vary on how many is "enough" and I've seen experienced players do quite well with as few as 11 real "bodies".  I myself however prefer to play around 14-15 creatures and for the true beginner it might be a good idea to try and go even higher than that.  While this doesn't mean you should play marginal creatures over good spells it's much easier to block, attack and control board states with creatures in play.  So long as you wait until the end of the pack there's nothing wrong with spending a few picks on Runeclaw Bears, Goblin Pikers or Nether Horrors just to fill out your lineup.  Occasionally one of these "warm bodies" will combined with other cards in your deck to be quite powerful; for example Bloodthrone Vampire in a deck with a couple Act of Treasons.


Well, for a "simple" list of instructions that certainly took quite a few pages didn't it?  It's 4: 30 AM here in Toronto and I'm pretty much completely out of gas after all that.  Hopefully you've found this basic primer useful and I fully intend to come back to and build on this topic in later "Rough Draft" articles. In particularly I'd like to talk about turning a pile of drafted "options" into a cohesive deck.  Unfortunately that's probably a 5-7 page discussion in it's own right and therefore had no place in this post.  Until next time, thank you for reading and goodnight.


PS - Happy Drafting Everyone!

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