The Art of the Side Draft

Posted in NEWS on December 8, 2015

By Wizards of the Coast

Christopher Richter

I work for a small government television station that has grown quite a bit over the years. When I started working there years ago one of my first duties was to work on lighting crews that prepared the lights and set for a studio show that would tape the next day. At that time information on how to light for specific shows was exchanged like an oral tradition. You learned how to light a specific show by working with someone who had worked on that show before. You would find out what quirks each show had and how to troubleshoot them. Eventually you would work with someone else and train him or her on the intricacies of that particular show.

It worked pretty well until I was asked to work on a show that I hadn't before. When that show's producer came down with the flu it was up to me to light the show by myself. I had to go to the tape library, find a few recent tapes of that show and 'reverse engineer' that shows lighting.

If was soon after this incident that I created a series of diagrams that showed how to light each show. It is with these charts and plots that new people now learn how to light specific shows.

It is from this experience that I have learned that writing down information to help complete a task can be very helpful. Even information that seems utterly obvious might not be known by someone and will come in handy sometime.

Learning how to run single elimination drafts, and especially side drafts at a large event, is a lot like how we used to light shows at my job. Often a new judge gets the chance to watch a seasoned judge run a draft, or he watches you do one. After that he is usually left on his own. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes little tidbits of knowledge fall through the cracks. Below is a handful of guidelines and suggestions that will help you run side drafts a lot more smoothly.

Side drafts are interesting in that they are usually the first place where a newer judge runs an event by himself. They are also quite different from the weekly drafts at your local store, here you have to adapt to the environment and you are often competing for space with the main event. You are also very likely to have work with players that you do not know.

If you've run even a few side drafts a lot of what is listed below is going to be familiar. But hopefully there will be something in there you haven't thought of or come across before. And just as the Comprehensive Rules describe exactly what happens in a game, this will break down the various steps you take when running a draft. Keep in mind that some of the information below may vary depending on how you or the Tournament Organizer structures these events.

Before the draft starts

If at all possible try to find out who your players are going to be and whether they have drafted before. Whoever is registering people or collecting money for a side draft may be able to point someone out who commented that he has not drafted before. If you can sit down with him for a few minutes and explain how everything works before the draft starts you will save a lot of time later. I've been able to do this a few times and I was really glad I took the effort to try and help a player out by answering any questions he had before the event started.

Collecting the people involved

Because side drafts do not have scheduled start times and generally begin whenever eight people have signed up, you will almost never get all of them to come to the correct drafting table at the first announcement. Unfortunately chasing down players is often one of your responsibilities.

Start out by making an initial announcement that side draft #X is about to start. Make additional announcements as needed. If after an announcement you have fewer than six of those that have signed up, make another call for that draft. If after any announcement six or more people have shown up, find out who is missing and call those missing players by name. If after several announcements and at least five minutes you are still missing player(s) go to the judges station to find replacement players to fill out the draft.

It can help to ask those already at the table if they know any of the missing players, they may be able to describe them or tell you where they were last seen. Sometimes you can even send one of these players to find his or her friend.

The Draft

Double check that you have all eight people. (Or more specifically double check that you have the correct eight people.) It works best to have each person raise their hand when you call their name.

Sit the players either randomly or according to an assigned chart, depending on how you do it.

Starting a draft can take anywhere from one to ten minutes, depending on how much of the following information you have to say. After running drafts with the same people over the course of a day you shouldn't have to go over everything listed below. But make sure both you and your players are aware of the information below.

Tell them who you are and what you are there to do. A simple, "My name is ___ and I will be judging this draft today. If you have any questions or there are any problems come and see me. This is draft #X, remember that when you report your results to me" will do.

Ask them "Has everyone here booster drafted before? Are they any questions on what happens in a booster draft and what you are expected to do?"

Even if no one has questions for you, be sure to say the following:

"Make sure to count the number of cards in each pack as you open them, there should be eleven Commons, three Uncommons and one Rare. If there is a problem let me know,"

"Pass the first pack to your left, second to your right and the third to your left again."

Tell the players to be mindful of the packs as they pass them. It is very easy for two different packs to get placed on top of each other. The best policy is to have them wait to pass a pack until the previous pack they passed has been picked up.

"The winner of each match has two responsibilities;

  1. Report the win to me and find out who your next opponent is and,
  2. Collect the basic land from your opponent's deck and either give it to me or return it to the basic land box."

Tell players what the prize structure for the draft is. Let them know that they can concede a match at any time and the top two players can draw for a prize split.

After each pack is opened, try to clean up the empty pack wrappers that players will throw in the center. It is very easy for a card or entire pack to disappear underneath this garbage.

After the first and second pack

Make sure that you give the players time in-between packs to look at what they have drafted so far. Some players either don't need to look because they have great memories or are more interested in opening the next pack so they don't wait. Don't let these players rush the draft, especially less experienced players.

Be careful not to let the more experienced drafters rush the draft

Have then count the cards they do have to make sure that everyone has drafted either fifteen or thirty cards before opening the next pack. See the section on correcting problems (below) if there is a card missing.

Remind them which direction to pass this next pack and to count the cards in the pack. Pick up the empty pack wrappers from the newly opened packs.

Also make sure that each player does open his or her next pack. It is far too easy for a player to become distracted and just start by taking the pack passed them. I've caught players accidentally do this on two occasions, and each time it was a regular Pro Tour player.

When drafting is finished

Repeat the two responsibilities that the winner of each match has, (Report the win to you and collect the basic land from opponent.)

Tell them the general area that you want this draft pod to sit in when constructing their decks and when playing their matches,

Show them where they can find the basic land to fill out their decks,

And finally let them know who each player should be playing in this first round.

Common problems that you will eventually have

Incorrect number of cards in pack or incorrect distribution
Unfortunately some booster packs will only have fourteen cards or perhaps will have a common in the place of a rare card. There are a couple of ways to rectify this situation. You can either replace the entire booster or add / replace cards. During the Odyssey Prerelease we opened about five or six boosters that were missing a common card. I would take a pile of random commons and have the player who opened the 14 card booster pick one at random and add it to his pack. If the rare is the missing card you will most likely want to get a new booster.

Players that have too many / too few cards after draft is over.
This can happen because either a player opened an irregular booster and it was not noticed until the end, or a card was misplaced somehow or a player took one card too many. The first step is to look for the missing card on the floor, in a chair etc. If you have found it, then give it the player that needs it. If one player has too many and another has too few, I generally take the last card drafted by the player with too many and give it to the player with 44 cards.

If I can't find the missing card, I usually ask that player if he really needs it. I don't want to give him a random card from the commons I use to correct irregular packs as he may get lucky and pick a really good common. If this player really wants that 45th card I will go through the commons I have and find a few very late pick commons and give him a choice.

Odds are these cards do disappear by accident. If you feel that a player purposely took an extra card, or removed a card from the draft you need to investigate and take appropriate measures as necessary.

Players unable to find opponent
If a player ever comes up to you and states that he can not find his opponent that means you have failed completely and should not be a judge. Kidding! This will happen quite often. Side drafts are generally more casual than other events and players will go to the bathroom, get something to eat or just take a break after the drafting itself or between rounds. The best approach to handle these situations is to take preventative actions. Tell the players to construct their decks and play at one table, or in one area. I know a judge who tries to remember specific characteristics of players so she can track them better. For example Bob was wearing an orange shirt, Jason has curly hair, etc. The best thing you can do is make sure that all players know who you are. Eventually both players in a match will have to find their opponent.

This article is by no means the final word on side drafts. I'm sure there are a lot more tips and tricks that I have left out, or just don't know about. If you have any suggestions on how to run a good side draft, send me an email and let me know. Or better yet write your own article and submit it to the judges' page or post it to the judges' list.

Oh yeah one final tip:

Take the information below and print it on a little index card or a sticker to put on the back of a Magic card. Keep it with you when you judge and use it when you run a draft. It is an abbreviated list of the steps I wrote about in this article. I use things like this all the time. (You should see my Penalty Guideline 'crib notes.')

Before the Draft:

  • Your Name
  • Draft #
  • Ask if there are any Questions?
  • Tell them to count cards
  • Passing order - Left, Right Left
  • 2 Responsibilities of winner
    • Report the win
    • Collect basic land

After the draft:

  • Repeat the 2 Responsibilities of winner
    • Report the win
    • Collect basic land
  • Show them where to go construct / play
  • Show them where to get basic land
  • Tell them who their 1st round opponent is.

Thanks to Ingrid Lind-Jahn for the suggestions for this article and the editing help!