Team Draft

Posted in How to Play Limited on November 8, 2016

By Marshall Sutcliffe

Marshall came back to Magic after discovering Limited and never looked back. He hosts the Limited Resources podcast and does Grand Prix and Pro Tour video commentary.

It's Teams Week here on DailyMTG, which felt like the right time to talk about an often forgotten, criminally underrated, and sometimes notorious way to play Magic: Team Draft.

If you've never heard of or participated in a team draft, don't feel bad; they aren't as common as they used to be. Basically the only way to play one at a sanctioned, pro-level tournament is by making the Top 4 of a Team Limited Grand Prix. That's how things are now, but it wasn't always the case.

History Lesson

People who were around the Pro Tour about ten years ago or so will paint a much different picture of how life outside of the tournament itself was compared to how it is now.

These days, once the tournament rounds are over, most players prefer to meet up with friends, go out to a nice dinner, maybe practice a little for the next day's action, and hit the hay at a reasonable, adult time.

In 2006, this was not the case. After the tournament was over, it was time to team draft. I wasn't around then, but the stories are all the same:

"We stayed up team drafting all night then played Day Two of the Pro Tour."

"We got in early, team drafted all day, then played the Pro Tour and team drafted after it was over until our flight."

"It's Pro Tour Sunday! Where all but eight players get to team draft all day and all night against each other."

It seems that team drafts were an inherent part of the culture back then. Even though team drafts have a much diminished role compared to 10 years ago, they do still exist, and they are still super cool.

Mechanics

Mechanically speaking, team draft is the same as a regular draft, except it's with six players rather than eight. You still open three booster packs, still pass to the left, then right, then left, and still build 40-card decks.

The main difference is that instead of each person playing for themselves, it's a team game. This is very different than what you are used to when you sit down at a regular draft table.

Your incentives at a regular draft table are pretty simple: come away with the best deck you can possibly put together. Strangely, this encourages you to cooperate with your neighbors. If you share colors with your neighbor, you are both likely to have worse decks, and the rest of the table stands to benefit. Not good.

But in Team Draft, you and your two teammates are seated in an alternating pattern with your opponents. Put simply, it's a player from Team A, then Team B, Team A, Team B, Team A, and finally Team B. So when you sit down to do a team draft, you will have players from the other team on your left and your right. How are you going to cooperate with your neighbors if they are on the other team? Wouldn't you still end up with a better deck if you read the signals and stayed out of their way?

The answer to that question requires going a bit deeper into this whole cooperation thing.

Slight Chance Becomes Ironclad Certainty

In a normal draft, I advise against cutting cards from your opponents that aren't in your colors.

You'll see people do this all the time. They open a very strong card in pack three, but it's not in their colors. They have some playables they could pick, or maybe a sideboard card, but they end up "hate drafting" the bomb so that their opponents can't pick it. Why does this logic not hold up? You are giving up relatively little and potentially taking a game-changing card from a potential opponent, right?

Yes, you are. But the real meaty center of the argument is the whole "potential opponent" thing. When you really think about it, a lot of things have to happen for that card to punish you. Those things are:

  1. It has to end up in the hands of a player who can cast it.
  2. You have to be matched up against this person (remembering that there are seven other players in the draft).
  3. They have to draw it.

In practice, this happens rarely. On top of all that, it has to be great against you and you have to have no answer for it.

It's not worth it to cut cards in normal Draft events. You'll better improve your win percentage by having a key sideboard card or the flexibility of another playable card in your deck.

This is where Team Draft is different. Way different.

In Team Draft, you and your teammates will play against each of the other players on the opposing team. That's right: you are guaranteed to play against every player on the other team. So that big bomb that you passed? You and your teammates are much more likely to play against it—to the extent that it's better to just cut it and not let your opponents have it.

Team Draft completely flips the accepted logic in a regular Draft on its ear. Your job goes from drafting the best possible individual deck to trying your hardest to absolutely wreck your opponents' draft while still scrapping together some semblance of a deck for yourself.

Every errant signal, card cut, color change, and direction shift is now zero sum. The worse you make your opponents decks, the better chance your team has to win the draft.

Going Deeper

As you can imagine, the dynamic at a Team Draft table is wholly different than what you normally get. Against less experienced team drafters, you may even try some trickiness like the "Hook and Cut." The Hook and Cut is a tactic where you pass your opponent a really enticing card early in the draft, but then move in on that color and ruthlessly cut it for the rest of the draft. If your opponent is stubborn or reads too much into the early signal, they can be swimming upstream for the whole draft.

These tricks are fun to talk about, even if they don't play out in real team drafts as often as people like to think. But reading the draft table is what drafting has always been about, and it's no different here.

Strategically keeping key cards from your opponents while still building a decent deck is a hallmark of good team drafters. I've even seen a person come away with a complete disaster of a deck yet be thrilled with their performance. Since it's a zero-sum game, if they managed to mess up two of their opponents' decks by sacrificing their own, they will have added to their teams win percentage significantly. And that's the name of the game.

My favorite part about team drafts happens after the draft portion is over, though. This is where the memory capacity and strategic ability of top players is completely on display in a way you just won't see anywhere else.

You see, when you sit down to play against the person who was on your left in the draft, you know a lot about what they drafted. Especially when you remember that the next person down the line is a teammate of yours! You can ask them after the draft if the key white uncommon you passed to the left made it to them. If it didn't, you'll have a darn good idea of what your opponent is playing. And things get really interesting when you can piece together a lot of what each of your opponents' decks look like before the matches even begin.

Take the player on your left, for example. You passed them two packs' worth of cards. Your teammate passed them the other pack. Once you start talking to your teammate after the draft is finished, you should be able to quite accurately sketch out what colors your opponent is playing and even what their deck looks like.

And key to this is that you also get to know about most of the combat tricks, instant-speed removal, counterspells, and even some of the big and powerful late-game spells your opponent could have. Which of course makes many of those cards much worse.

When you start team drafting with and against the same people multiple times, the layers start piling up as well. It's really one of the most fun and complex ways to play Magic, and it's no wonder it was so popular among the game's top players.

The cool part is that you can try it out for yourself. You'll need five other drafters, but I find that six is a great number for a draft anyway. After you draft your decks, you build as a team (yes, you can help each other with your builds) and you play individually against each of the players from the other team.

This really simplifies things because there are nine matches played in total, which is an odd number. This is a good thing because it means that there can't be any ties at the end of the draft—one team wins no matter what. (This isn't true if you try Team Draft with eight players; you'll play four rounds for a total of sixteen matches, which leaves the possibility of an awkward tie at the end of it all.)

The players I play with have a rule that the teammates aren't allowed to actively assist in the actual game, but can help with deck building and mulligan decisions. This was put this in place simply for time reasons; once you allow multiple people to play one game, it slows the pace and prevents draft number two from firing. But you can adjust this as you see fit.

Next time you find yourself with six eager drafters, give Team Draft a shot. It's like regular Draft, but different. In a good way.

Until next time!

@Marshall_LR

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