by Alex Shvartsman
Mastering the booster draft format involves a variety of skills. The most obvious is your ability to rate the cards. Some choices are relatively simple - just about everyone realizes that Nomadic Elf is better than Quirion Sentinel, or that Benalish Heralds are far better in a U/W deck than Prison Barricade. Other choices aren't as simple. Is Repulse better than a Wash Out? Do you first-pick Plague Spores or Probe? These are difficult questions that you will find many of the better players disagree upon.
The second most important skill is being able to "read the draft" and adjust your strategy. To oversimplify this, if you get a ninth pick Kavu Chameleon, there is a good chance that green is underdrafted at your table, and you might consider splashing this color or even drafting it heavily.
Even more important is the ability to figure out what colors the player who is passing to you is drafting. If you open Probe, Repulse and Scorching Lava, which do you pick? Arguably Lava is the weakest of the three cards, but if there are no other good red cards in the pack, taking it allows you to send a strong signal to your neighbor that you have not chosen a blue card. This means he will probably draft blue, reducing the probability of the two of you fighting for the same colors.
There is another thing about booster draft that distinguishes it from most other formats. It is far more difficult to teach, or to learn, via an article. Now that the Limited season is in progress, a number of players have written articles presenting their opinions, strategies, and even "Rules" for drafting Invasion. Those do have their uses and can certainly help a player to try and understand this format, but they are not nearly as useful as going out and practicing. Since that is not something I can really help you with, how about the next best thing - following a pair of pro players during an important draft tournament and checking to see how their decks work out.
The tournament is Grand Prix: New Orleans. This is the second round of day 2, table 2. Players with a 2-1-1 or better record at this table can make the top 8, so the stakes are high. The players are Bob Maher and Mike Pustilnik. Maher has been one of the dominant players on the Pro Tour ever since his victory in Chicago '99. Mike Pustilnik has had a great season so far, including a top 8 finish at Pro Tour: Chicago 2000. Maher will be passing to Pustilnik in packs 1 and 3. Maher opens a Tsabo's Decree and snatches it up. He is unable to send a clear signal to Pustilnik since there are several other good black cards in this pack, but Decree is far better than anything else the pack has to offer, and so Maher's choice is clear.
Pustilnik also has a relatively easy choice. Agonizing Demise is the best common in the set, and there are no broken uncommon or rare cards, plus there aren't any other really amazing black cards, so Mike takes it.
Maher has another easy choice in Urborg Emissary. The next best black or blue card in this pack is Recover, which isn't all that special. Pustilnik gets a Recoil out of his pack, also positioning himself into U/B. In the third pack, Pustilnik stays his course by picking a Recover, which he values slightly higher than I do (nor is he wrong, this is more a matter of preference). Maher's choice is no longer simple. He has to decide between a second Urborg Emissary and a Faerie Squadron. Maher picks a Squadron (I agree), and Pustilnik is happy to grab the Emissary from that pack.
At this point in the draft, I do not envy Pustilnik's position. He is competing for both of his colors with the player to his right - the worst possible situation a draft player can find himself in. However, it is by no means his fault. The cards being passed are not allowing Maher to send the right signals, and while Maher is probably suspecting that he is forcing Pustilnik into his own colors, there is little he can do about it for now. Perhaps in the next few packs he can clean up the decent black and blue cards, thus signaling Pustilnik to try and switch into another color combination. This was not to be. Each of the next several packs has a pair of black and/or blue cards of relatively equal quality. Maher drafts Urborg Phantom, passing Cursed Flesh. He then picks up a Sky Weaver, passing Shoreline Raider, and a Recover over Metathran Zombie.
In pack 7, Maher can either pick a Metathran Zombie as the only card in his colors, or take a Pincer Spider. Based on the information gleaned from the last few packs, and the fact that Spider is one of the best green commons in the set, the cards are now tempting Maher to switch into green. He does pick the Spider. Metathran Zombie is unlikely to make the cut into his deck anyway, so he isn't giving up a pick to keep his options open. In the next pack, Maher makes the only choice in this draft that I disagree with totally. He picks Sway of Illusion over Collective Restraint. In my opinion, Restraint is an amazing card if you are playing three colors, and a very solid one if you are playing two. I have first-picked Restraint in packs 2-3 when already dedicated to more than two colors before. Sway of Illusion is a fine card, as it is a cantrip that can counter an Agonizing Demise. A number of other tricks can be played with it. But it is no Collective Restraint.
Pustilnik snatches up the Restraint, as expected. The rest of pack one are mostly poor cards or counterdrafts. Maher picks up a Coastal Tower, Hunting Kavu and Urborg Volcano. Pustilnik ends up with a Prison Barricade and several cards of no consequence such as Savage Offensive.
Now we go into the second pack. This is Pustilnik's big chance to pick up some high quality black and blue cards without being filtered by Maher. The pack Pustilnik opens is not that great. He gets Exotic Curse, and Maher takes Shoreline Raider out of this pack. Maher's own first pick is another Faerie Squadron. The second pack is far more amazing. Pustilnik has a choice between Soul Burn, Repulse and Sleeper's Robe. After some consideration, Pustilnik chooses Repulse. Maher is quite happy with Sleeper's Robe. In a black-red deck, Soul Burn is great, but neither of these two players can utilize it quite as well as the cards they took over it.
The third pack is quite poor. Pustilnik takes a Salt Marsh - which isn't really that bad at all. Tap lands are drafted very highly, especially if the player might be splashing a third color, as they increase the deck's consistency. Maher is stuck picking a Hooded Kavu, as there aren't any good picks in his colors left in that pack. Next few packs are no better, with Pustilnik and Maher drafting Stand/Deliver and Mourning, then Slinking Serpent and Nightscape Apprentice respectively. At this point Pustilnik gets an unexpected gift in form of a Sleeper's Robe, then snatches up Phyrexian Battleflies, Urborg Phantom and Reviving Vapors. Maher is forced to settle for some solid off-color cards like Zap and Razortooth Griffin.
The tenth pick of pack two is crucial to how Pustilnik's draft is going to shape up. He is presented with a choice of Ravenous Rats and Stormscape Apprentice. Rats is a fine card, especially if you get one this late. It fits well into Pustilnik's deck. But is it the right pick for him? Consider the facts available to him. He is being passed a tenth pick Stormscape Apprentoice - a card that should generally go about third pick if not sooner. He knows based on the number of playable white cards he was getting toward the end of pack one that white is generally underdrafted at this table. He just passed a ninth pick Razortooth Griffin to Bob. He has Collective Restraint and Exotic Curse, both of which benefit from splashing a third color. Which card should he pick? I would have taken a Stormscape Apprentice. Mike chooses a Rat. Neither choice is wrong, but both of us are convinced that our choices are correct at this time.
Bob Maher ends up picking the Apprentice, but never follows through with splashing white either (he has less reasons for doing so in either case), as he does not have cards like Curse and Restraint).
To recap the second pack, Pustilnik picks up a number of goodies as expected. Unlike the first pack, black and blue are not as deep, and so Maher is devastated in this pack. He gets two strong cards in his colors, and then it slides into mediocrity for him.
Enter pack three.
Pustilnik picks a Faerie Squadron, passing an Urborg Shambler. Bob Maher is happy to see an Annihilate. He passes Mike a choice of Tower Drake and Phyrexian Slayer. Drake is generally a bit stronger in my opinion, though its pretty close. Pustilnik seems to agree with me, and drafts it. Next pack is weak for both players. Maher drafts a Slinking Serpent - a playable card, but one you might expect to take as an 8th pick or so. Left with no good pick, Pustilnik counterdrafts an Obsidian Acolyte - a card that creates all sorts of trouble for any black mage.
In pack 3 Maher has a choice between Recoil, Soul Burn and Vodalian Zombie. Once again, Soul Burn is passed while Maher gets a Recoil and Pustilnik a Zombie. In the next pack Maher drafts Repulse, giving Pustilnik a Trench Wurm. Maher drafts a Tower Drake from the next pack, passing Pustilnik a Recover and Benalish Heralds. Here is another first-pick quality white-blue card. It is pretty much Pustilnik's last chance to splash white. He refuses this chance yet again, settling for Recover.
Sixth pack is insane. Maher has a choice of two first-pick quality cards: Stormscape Master and Sleeper's Robe! It is a relatively difficult choice, but Maher is convinced that his choice of a second Sleeper's Robe over the Master is correct - in his own words "I can either pay two to deal two damage, or I can deal some damage AND draw cards at the same time." Pustilnik is more than happy to take the Master next. (And by the way, remember that white splash? Guess what color is Stormscape Master's other activated ability is.)
A few cards later, Pustilnik is offered an option of Worldly Counsel or Samite Archer. At this point it was too late for him to take an Archer for any reason other than counterdraft, and he chose to pick Worldly Counsel instead. Of course, it is very easy to sound correct with hindsight. Pustilnik and I did not know cards like Benalish Heralds, Samite Archer and Stormscape Master would come along. However, taking a chance on that Stormscape Apprentice was still something I feel would be the right call even if it did not pay off. As is, Pustilnik and Maher both ended up with solid, though unspectacular, decks.
Later in that tournament, the two faced off, resulting in a very exciting match. The games were close, with both players often ending up in the "top deck" mode. Pustilnik won the match 2-1. This drafts illustrates a situation not uncommon in Invasion draft. Sometimes it is simply impossible to send the right signals. Sometimes a player chooses not to do so outright (for example, one might always force Blue-White or another color combination instead of basing their choices on the first pack). Still following this kind of a draft in particular and watching the better players draft in general is one of the best ways to understand this very complicated format a little better.