IntoTheAether Versus The Evil Chicken

Posted in Feature on March 15, 2005

By Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar

Drafting online, drafting triple BoK, and the return of Preconstructing Constructed!

I have been avoiding the topic of Drafting online for months.

Why? Primarily because I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a draft expert. I usually draft around the release of new sets, averaging once or twice a month. Admittedly, I'm not a Prismatic, Singleton, Tribal, etc. "expert" either, but casual formats like Prismatic are different animals than Drafts. In Prismatic, what most people need is an introduction to the format and to be reminded of the fun you can have flopping Magic-al cards around. For Draft, the population of people who know the deep intricacies of drafting are legion, and they demand subtle and profound insights to help them win big prizes and get on the Pro Tour. A topic like Draft is pretty intimidating for a happy-go-lucky guy like me.

I've decided not to try and please you Scott Wills, Mike Flores fans out there. Instead, I'm going to speak to two audiences. The first audience is the people who have been afraid to try drafting online because of either the interface or because of those scary draft sharks prowling the AEther. For you folks, I start off with an online draft primer to let you know how drafting online is different from drafting with card stock. The second audience is for those people who like to try oddball drafts every now and again. For you folks, I'm going to talk about the weirdness of drafting with three Betrayers boosters. There's an evil chicken in there for you too, if you hang with me.

What I am not going to do today is explain what drafting is and how to do it, nor am I going to help you get your online Limited rating to 1800. Just so we're clear.

Drafting Online: A Primer

Even if you're used to drafting with friends or at your local store, you may be a little intimidated by online drafting. Draft queues fill up every couple of minutes, and there's so much that's different online, both visually and otherwise. If you've been waiting in the wings, playing Two-Headed Giant or Sealed Leagues and hesitant to give online drafting a try, here are some things to help you on your way. Consider this primer almost a Snippets Part Deux.

Pick Your Packs, Not Your Friends

When you draft at your local store, there's usually only one choice for both what you're drafting (most often the latest set or block) and with whom. Not so with Magic Online. When you enter the Draft room, you have options, baby. Currently, those options include drafting three boosters of Eighth Edition, one booster each of Mirrodin-Darksteel-Fifth Dawn, two boosters of Champions of Kamigawa and one of Betrayers of Kamigawa, and--during the Release Events--three Betrayers boosters (more on this later). Not only that, there are different prize payouts you can choose, as well as usually one Rochester Draft option. Generally speaking, the queues for newer sets fill up faster than the older sets, and the Rochester drafts slower still. But if you're patient, you can draft as your mood dictates.

What you can't do, though, is pick who sits at your table. When you enter a draft queue, you do so anonymously; All you can see is how many people are in the queue. Once eight people or more are in the queue, the Draft is going to start, and soon.

This anonymity is important because it helps prevent high-ranked Limited players scoping out "easy" queues of lower-ranked players, lower-ranked players actively avoiding "hard" queus of higher-ranked players, Clan-mates actively avoiding entering the same drafts, and lots of other strategic behavior. When you enter a draft queue, you do so on faith and luck.

Many clans and groups of friends routinely try "draft rushes." That is, a group of people see a new queue open, announce some dramatic "charge!" action, and all jump into the queue at once. This can offer a lot more predictability to your draft, but isn't a perfect solution. Magic Online picks eight people from the queue for a draft and spits the rest back into the queue (these people are guaranteed to get into the next Draft), so if there are more than eight people who show up, chances are that some of your clannies will be left out in the cold.

4-3-2-2 vs. 8-4

I sat in the Draft room during the Betrayers Release Weekend and I noticed people constantly asking about prize payout. What these people didn't realize is that each draft is labeled with its prize structure. A 4-3-2-2 draft is one that gives four booster packs as the prize for first-place, three boosters for second-place, and two boosters for the third- and fourth-place finishers. In other words, if you can win your first match you are guaranteed a prize. An 8-4 draft, in contrast, pays a whopping eight booster packs for first-place, four for second-place, and that's it. If you want high-risk, high-reward, 8-4 drafts are for you.

As you might expect, the two different prize structures attract different sorts of people. Generally speaking the more skilled drafters play in the 8-4 drafts and the newer or more casual drafters play in the 4-3-2-2. This isn't a perfect predictor, though; On Monday of last week I found myself in a 4-3-2-2 draft where the lowest-rated player other than me was 1740, and I know a number of casual drafters who like to try their hand at 8-4 every now and then. If you're new, though, it's often best to start with 4-3-2-2 and move to 8-4 after some practice.


Once you've made your way through the Draft queues and into an actual draft, the fun obviously begins. Something I've found particularly helpful in online drafts over paper drafts is the ability to see what cards you've picked real-time during the draft. That is, although the default setting when you draft is to see each person's avatar sitting around a table (drafters whose names are in red are selecting cards, drafters whose names are in white are waiting to be passed cards), by pressing the "Picks" button you get a full display of what cards you've drafted so far.

At first, the screen will show what cards you've drafted, in order. But you can sort the cards by rarity, by cost, by card-type, or by color. This information is really helpful if you want to quickly count how many playable creatures you've drafted, or to see your color balance, or to see if your deck is too top-heavy on mana. I frequently re-sort my cards during a draft, making my pick adjustments accordingly. This is far better than paper drafting, where I find myself wracking my brain to remember if I have enough creatures, removal, etc.

Oh, and a word of caution: As the number of cards to select dwindles, so too does your time to select your card. The screen will flash red if you are taking too long, and if you wait any longer Magic Online will pick a random card for you.

After you've drafted all forty-five cards, you have fifteen minutes with which to make your deck. The interface for deckbuilding is the same as the Deck Editor tab, which means you can filter your cards by color, type, cost, etc. At some point you'll need to press the "Add Lands" button, and once you have forty cards you're ready to play. Make the adjustments to your deck now, though, since once all eight players have submitted their decks, the games automatically begin and there's no changing your deck between rounds.

Thanks to last week's article, some people have brought another Draft feature to my attention. As PaulThomas (and countless e-mailers) informed me last week, your Limited decks are saved in .dec files for future review. Just Load from your "decks" folder, go up one folder in the tree, find your "draftdecks" folder, and you can obsess about your card choices and deckbuilding for months. For future reference, this works for your Sealed Deck adventures as well.

On The Clock

Speaking of playing, all competitive Magic Online events are on a strict timer. I know that matches are timed at your local card shop too, but here you're given thirty minutes with which to play your side of the game, and those minutes tick away surprisingly fast. Sealed League timers (where you're given forty-five minutes) are a lot more forgiving than Draft timers. I have frequently lost or won a match because either I or my opponent ran out of time, so it's in your best interests to set your stops wisely and avoid dawdling. Use the bathroom or grab a snack between rounds, not during games.

Single Elimination

Finally, you should be forwarned that all drafts online are single elimination. If you lose in the first round, you're out of the draft. This can be frustrating if you draft a cool deck that is a bit more experimental, because you often don't get enough practice with your deck to learn from the experience. Getting land-shy or color-screwed is no fun in single-elimination either, which is where most of the griping about the shuffler comes from.

Again, this is very elementary stuff, and I don't expect longtime players to have discovered anything new here. For those just starting out, though, I hope I've answered some of your online draft questions and lowered the barrier to jumping into those draft queues. Drafting on Magic Online is insanely popular and there's a reason for it - it's really fun! Hopefully with some of the advice I've given here some of you newer players will take the plunge and discover just why those drafts are always filling up.

Now, let's all cluck like an evil chicken...

Evil Chicken: The Perils of BOK-BOK-BOK

One of the truly fun things about a new set release is drafting it. Smaller sets are often the most fun because, as you probably know (especially if you've tried it), these second- and third-sets of a block aren't designed to be drafted on their lonesome. The first big set (a la Champions of Kamigawa) contains a good balance of mana-fixing, creature elimination, enchantment and artifact removal, etc. In other words, the first sets in a block provide the foundation for any good Limited experience and are designed accordingly. Many of these basics are missing in smaller sets. Imagine a triple-Scourge draft, for example, where two of the dominant themes are Dragons and high-cost cards with One With Nature the only mana acceleration available (Elvish Aberration and Upwelling don't count as reliable mana acceleration). Frozen Solid is actually some of the best common creature removal in Scourge-Scourge-Scourge, and it's easy to draft a decent Scornful Egotist deck. Which is all to say that triple-set drafts with smaller sets can be both fun and utterly bizarre.

I cut my teeth on these weird little draft experiences during Torment and have loved them ever since. As a result, I drafted as much triple-Betrayers (otherwise known as BOK-BOK-BOK, which makes me think of loud, ominous clucking, which makes me think of an evil chicken, which makes me giggle) as often as possible late Sunday night and Monday of last week.

Now, I know that triple-Betrayers is no longer an option for sanctioned Magic Online drafts, so it's almost cruel to, shall we say, crow about it here. Think of it this way: First, hopefully I'll get you excited to try triple-Saviors drafts at the next release weekend (I'm not sure what SOK-SOK-SOK makes me think of, but I feel a little funny saying it). Second, you can always start a Casual Draft in the "Limited Games" room in "Casual Play." Finally, maybe I'll inspire you to try triple-Betrayers with your friends using paper cards... which would be sort of ironic, eh?

So, without further adieu, below are my observations of the fleeting and wacky world of BOK-BOK-BOK (tee hee).

Too... Many... Enchantments...

The first thing I noticed about drafting all Betrayers is that there are a lot of enchantments. Eighteen, actually, and many of them common. With no Cage of Hands available, White is forced to rely on Heart of Light and Ward of Piety as creature removal, the latter of which is quite good for slower decks. Blue decks use Phantom Wings with abandon. I collected a lot of the fairly unplayable Blessing of Leeches and Kumano's Blessing as the packs dwindled. These many enchantments mean that Tallowisp is pretty neat and Aura Barbs isn't a completely unreasonable sideboard card.

A corollary to the rampant use of enchantments is the fact that Genju are pretty much in everyone's deck. Every single one. Genju of the Falls. Genju of the Spires. Genju of the Fens. Genju of the Cedars. Genju of the Fields. They're all there, available for whatever color happens to want them. To give you an idea, on Monday I drafted a four-Genju deck that was just silly.

All of this means that Terashi's Grasp is a vital card for any deck with Plains in it. The Grasp and Scour are Betrayers of Kamigawa's only sure-fire enchantment removal. Not only that, but Terashi's Grasp can kill the often-used Shuko, Ronin Warclub, Neko-Te, and of course Baku Altar, That Which Was Taken, and the almighty Umezawa's Jitte. Because--you guessed it--only the Grasp and Splinter can kill artifacts. It's no wonder that my most successful BOK-BOK-BOK (heh) decks were White alongside some other color.

Beware the Ninja

A viable--and scary--archetype when drafting all Betrayers is a Blue/Black Ninja deck. The deck isn't terribly difficult to draft, as long as you remember to get some quick creatures like Teardrop Kami and Bile Urchin to go along with your Ninja. I played against a deck sporting no less than six Teardrop Kami to support its Ninja, and in one game my opponent utterly dominated me with a constant stream of Mistblade Shinobi, Ninja of the Deep Hours, and Floodbringers. He flashed his hand to me after that game, a hand that included Okiba-Gang Shinobi, Throat Slitter, and Higure, the Still Wind. Ouch.

All of this means that when playing against either a Blue or Black deck, not blocking usually has its consequences. In a normal draft, with only one pack of Betrayers to worry about, you can assume at most two or three Ninja in an opponent's deck. In BOK-BOK-BOK (I'm sorry... heh), however, you can see a dozen or more.

Beware O-Kagachi Too


Final Judgment
Wasn't it comforting in triple-Champions draft, knowing you were immune to mass creature removal as long as you had more than two toughness? I mean, sure there was Hideous Laughter and Earthshaker, but nothing that approximated Wrath of God or Mutilate in its brutality. Well, those days of comfort for your three-toughness fellows are over.

It's not that Betrayers of Kamigawa introduces Final Judgment into the Kamigawa Limited environment, though that is significant if you are drafting CHK-CHK-BOK. In a smaller set with three booster packs, I saw a heck of a lot of Final Judgments floating around. The first time I overextended and walked into my opponent's Final Judgment I was both surprised and decimated. After that I realized that any White player could sweep the board once she hit six mana. I quickly learned to watch for opponents keeping cards in hand while I had control of the board. Even better, I bluffed opponents who were watching for me to do the same. The presence of a massive board-sweeper like Final Judgment is one thing, but its relative frequency in BOK-BOK-BOK (har!) is what's scary.

Meaner Than Shrek

There are only six Ogres in BOK-BOK-BOK (nelly... is it ever not funny?) to go along with a mere three Demons. Forget the Demons for a moment, although all of them are pretty juicy, and know that any Red or Black deck you face will be using Ogres. Why? Because all six Ogres in Betrayers are at the least playable and usually very, very good. The best of the bunch are Heartless Hidetsugu (duh) and Ogre Recluse. The worst is Shinka Gatekeeper, but even he has a good cost-to-mana ratio and fits well into aggressive decks that are good at removing blockers. Ogres are everywhere in triple-Betrayers, and you should be prepared to deal with 3- and 4-toughness monstrosities constantly.

Attack of the Kamilings

On the other end of the power spectrum from the Ogres are the 1/1 Spirits. Almost a quarter of Betrayers' creatures have one toughness, which makes First Volley and Ronin Cliffrider so darned good in triple-Betrayers draft. What is interesting, though, is that those little one-mana, 1/1 Spirits are everywhere. Frostling and Child of Thorns are the most plentiful, but I've already seen more Bile Urchins and Teardrop Kami than I want to ever see again. The format would be more interesting if more Soulshift existed in Betrayers (only three commons have it, and the only playable one is Moonlit Strider), but the existence of so many viable first-turn creatures means that, on the whole, BOK-BOK-BOK (haw!) is faster than many other Limited formats.

Okay, enough evil chicken. If you managed to play BOK-BOK-BOK (sorry, couldn't resist a last hurrah) and have other observations of triple-Betrayers drafts, please share them on the Message Boards.

On a more serious note, good luck to all of you who qualified for the Betrayers of Kamigawa Championship on March 19th. Remember: You're playing not only for a whole lot of booster packs and peer recognition, but also for the original Ink-Eyes artwork. That's right, if you run with the bulls and fly high like a bird, you may end up owning a stealthy rat. You lucky dog, you.

The winds of change. I feel them blowing.

Now that Betrayers is available online, it's time to start another preconstructed deck, morph-o-rama thing! Pick a Precontructed deck and a format, and I'll start a-building. I'm really, really excited to get started on this one, especially since I've hardly looked at the Betrayers theme decks yet. Heck, I'm so excited that I would start a day early next week if they'd let me!

Here are your choices for a starting deck. Keep in mind that I'll spend about three weeks evolving the deck from its initial decklist into a fun, playable deck. Choose whatever deck you'd like to see evolve, using whatever rationale you want to make your choice, and feel free to argue your choice on the Message Boards. You can click on the name below to get a full decklist if you're having trouble deciding.


Next week: A new beginning!


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