Rochester Draft Primer

Posted in Feature on January 21, 2005

By Alex Shvartsman

Just about every tournament player is well familiar with the Booster Draft format—and most of those who have tried it like it and often become avid fans. The next step up on the strategy ladder is Rochester Draft. Historically, it has not received as much attention or popularity as the Booster Draft format, though in all fairness it is more strategic and more interesting.

In Rochester Draft, one booster is opened at a time instead of every player opening his or her own pack. Fifteen cards are laid out on the table and players are given about twenty seconds to review their choices. After that, players take turns picking one card at a time to build their decks. So as you can see, the greatest difference between Booster and Rochester formats is the amount of information available to you.

Wrath of God

Although you may still have a hard time playing against a bomb rare, at least you will be aware of its presence in your opponent’s deck and perhaps be able to handle it better. Wrath of God is a perfect example of a card that would almost certainly cost you the game if you are not expecting it in Limited play. If you are aware of it, however, you won’t commit all of your resources to the board. Likewise, you will play out your cards more aggressively against a player who has drafted multiple hand destruction cards.

Most critics cite draft length as Rochester Draft’s greatest problem. Since packs are opened only one at a time, it naturally takes much longer to complete the process. My position is that this is a benefit rather than a disadvantage. Most players draft because it is FUN. It is a fun process to open packs and see what you might snag for your own deck. I do not mind doing so for forty minutes instead of fifteen, because I will enjoy every second of it. And while at the Pro Tour, draft players are not allowed to speak, in casual play, the running commentary and the ever-present verbal ribbing is half the fun.

While length may or may not be a disadvantage, one of the greatest advantages of the format is access to information that allows you to best build your deck. Let’s examine a scenario.

Kabuto Moth

Suppose you open a booster pack featuring Kabuto Moth, Teller of Tales, Kodama’s Might, Kitsune Blademaster, and Ghostly Prison as clearly the best five cards in the pack. Kabuto Moth is the best of these cards overall. In an expert-level Booster Draft, you will most likely pass it though, because there are three very strong white cards and only one of each blue and green first picks. If you were to take Kabuto Moth, it is likely that the next player will take a white card too, and so will the next one. If that happens, your picks from the next pack will be severely weakened. If no player to your immediate right plays white, it is possible to get a third-pick Yosei or another bomb in your color—but you won’t be seeing one if another white mage has a crack at it first. And so you reluctantly pass the best card in the pack and grab Teller of Tales or Kodama’s Might, depending on your draft preference.

Now let’s see what would happen in a Rochester Draft with the same pack. You can now take that Kabuto Moth and feel reasonably certain that the next player over will not pick a white card. This is because they KNOW why there are still two good white cards remaining in the pack. They realize it is because you took a better card in the same color, whereas in Booster Draft they would most likely assume that you are passing on white in favor of some other color. In this scenario, it is extremely likely that the next two players to your left will draft Teller of Tales and Kodama’s Might.

While most deck building strategies of Booster Draft remain valid, the most important adjustment that you will need to make to be successful in the Rochester environment is to become a good neighbor. Optimally, you want to position yourself in such a way that neither of your immediate two neighbors draft the same colors as you. Obviously, this is not always possible—there are only five colors and everyone is going to pick at least two of them. However, it is rewarding to try. If you are forced to share a color with one of your neighbors, pick on the guy to your left. You are passing to him two-thirds of the time, whereas he will only pass to you one-third of the time, limiting the damage your strategy will suffer.

Cage of Hands

Often you may find yourself in a situation where sharing a color with your neighbor is not such a terrible thing. You both might be drafting white, but you are pursuing the Samurai strategy, trying for an ultra-fast blue-white deck, while your neighbor concentrates on the Spirits, drafting white-black control. There will still be conflict, because some cards are just too good not to play as long as they are in your color (such as Cage of Hands, for example), but you will find yourself fighting over fewer picks.

In Booster Draft, “counter-drafting” or “hate-drafting” is a common practice. It means either removing an extremely powerful card you cannot play from the draft by grabbing it early, or simply taking out the strongest remaining card in the pack if you do not have a solid pick for your own deck. In Rochester Draft, simply forget about doing this.

While the extra information makes the format a lot more strategic as discussed above, it also adds a pretty hefty political element to the game. To put it simply, piss off your neighbor enough and he will spend more time plotting to assassinate your draft strategy than developing his own. It is almost always a good idea to help your neighbors by passing along the cards they covet most, because in most cases they will reciprocate.

Usually you will have half a table settle into their own colors and cooperate well, while the other half is fighting over the same colors and generally behaving less courteously toward each other during the draft. Having watched hundreds of drafts, I can tell you with absolute certainty that the cooperating players will almost always have more winning records than their counterparts.

Not every player shares my philosophy on this. Jon Finkel is not kind to his neighbors when it comes to drafting. He believes that they will not retaliate purely out of spite. Most of the time they will have a solid pick of their own and will make it passing along the card Finkel wants, regardless of how he’s been treating them up until that point. A number of other players disagree. They will not only try to punish a counter-drafter by returning the favor at every opportunity, but will often carry the grudge long enough to continue counter-drafting the next time they happen to sit next to each other in a different draft!

Finally, Rochester Draft truly rewards players with great memorization skills. Can you keep track of the other seven players at the table? While you do not need to memorize their entire deck lists, it pays to keep tabs on their top bombs and their best tricks. For example, when facing a green mage, you really want to know how many Kodama’s Might are in his deck. While the actual deck building will not happen in front of you, it is reasonable to believe that he will play every copy of a card this strong that he is able to draft.

Rochester Draft format will be played at Pro Tour: Nagoya toward the end of January. A number of Grand Prix and a round of Pro Tour Qualifiers will follow. Just like any other Magic variant, the best way to excel at this one is to practice. You might improve your game and learn more about Rochester Draft, and you will certainly have a blast.

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