Drafting Sideways

Posted in Latest Developments on December 27, 2013

By Sam Stoddard

Sam Stoddard came to Wizards of the Coast as an intern in May 2012. He is currently a game designer working on final design and development for Magic: The Gathering.

One of the goals for Latest Developments as a column is to showcase some of the strategies that we use when creating sets. One of the articles that best highlighted that this year was the article "Drafting Sideways," about how we try and put different draft strategies into sets.


Earlier this week, Mark Rosewater talked about the creation of Gates and how they fit into the hierarchy of dual lands. Gates in Return to Ravnica are much more than just dual lands, though; they are another example in the long line of sideways draft strategies that we add to sets to increase their depth for Limited game play. These draft strategies come in many shapes and sizes. It can be a large theme like Allies in Zendikar or a single card like Lightning Rift or Astral Slide in Onslaught block. The important part of sideways draft strategies is to add more things for players to do in the Limited environment and to create different kinds of synergies. Creating deep card synergies is important because it means that the power of your draft deck and the cards in the pack is dynamic. The cards you have taken before influence the cards you will take in the pack you are currently looking at, in the next pack, and so on and so forth. If card A is always better than card B, then once you have discovered the relative strengths of each card, there is nothing else to learn in the Limited environment.

Simic Guildgate
Astral Slide

One thing that we have found internally, and seen play out in the real world, is that for many players, Limited is very much about exploration and figuring out what you can do in a card pool. It can be as simple as deciding what the best thing to do with a given sealed deck is, or it could be as all-inclusive as trying to figure out the best things to do in a set for Draft. If players were only expected to draft a set a few times, it would be easy to just put the simple nuts-and-bolts Magic into the set and then layer a few additional themes and mechanics for the current plane on top and call it a day. Our goal during development is to create sets that are fun to draft not just the first, or fifth time, but also the tenth, fifteenth, twentieth time, and beyond.

Keeping Things Interesting

The best way we have found to accomplish this is to make sure there are some sideways draft strategies that exist either for players who have tried all of the main strategies a few times and are looking for something new, or for the players who naturally enjoy winning in a way other than the usual ways. These are decks that rely on synergy rather than individual card power. They are intended to reward the kind of player who would first-pick a Pyroconvergence and then look for Lobber Crews, multicolor creatures, and Faerie Impostors to pick them back up. If you need multiple cards to make the strategy work (like Massive Raid), then they usually show up at common. If you need just one card, and it provides an alternate win condition by itself, it usually shows up at uncommon. We set them at these rarities because we don't want these strategies showing up every single time you draft the format (in which case, they aren't doing the job of being clever sideways things that shake up the pick order, they are just other primary strategies), but we want them coming up enough that, as a player, you will get a chance to do them now and then if you keep drafting the environment.

Faerie Impostor

It's important that these strategies don't overcrowd the raw power level of individual cards such that simply drafting cards that are good in a vacuum is a bad idea. It shouldn't always be the best idea, just not a bad one. During development, we try and strike a balance between synergy and raw power in such a way that each draft you play in will be subtly different, and that you will not only have the opportunity to take the cards you open in one of several directions but that you will play against decks that are different on the other side of the table.

Building Build-Arounds

I asked on Twitter last week about what people's favorite draft-arounds of all time were. The top responses (in no particular order) were:

The thing these strategies had in common was that they were not generally the strongest strategies in their respective blocks, but the decks would play very strongly when you got all the cards you wanted. You also got the satisfaction of winning with cards other people at the tabled passed to you twelfth-pick. I think it is important for the overall Limited game play that these strategies aren't the big dogs in the environment. I think they work better for their purpose when they are just slightly worse, in a vacuum, than going for a more simple strategy. For example, if in Innistrad draft you were presented with a first-pick Brimstone Volley or Spider Spawning, it would be generally correct to take Brimstone Volley. You are far more likely to end up playing Brimstone Volley in your final deck, and it is powerful removal. Spider Spawning has a larger upside in that you can build a deck around maximizing it, but there are more risks to your draft by first-picking it, and chances are, for the average player, your win percentage taking Spider Spawning is just lower. That being said, many players would take Spider Spawning first because they enjoyed the type of deck that it encouraged. By not making Spider Spawning the slam-first-pick for everyone, it increased the likelihood that the person who wanted to draft it could do so without being forced to open it in his or her first pack, since it would travel around the table a bit.

Brimstone Volley
Spider Spawning

One of the benefits of the sideways draft strategy is that it gets a lot of its power from cards that other people don't want very much. That means they will move around the table a lot and get to the person in that archetype. An example of this is the Ethereal Armor deck in triple Return to Ravnica. Once you had a few Ethereal Armors, the kinds of cards you were looking for in your deck included Security Blockade, Sphere of Safety, and Trained Caracal. It's the reward you get for going into this deck—that you will get stronger synergistic cards later in the draft than the other players who are going the primary strategies. Of course, the downside of this is that if you go "all-in" on a strategy too early, you can end up with a real mess of a deck that is relying very heavily on drawing one or two of the "glue" cards in the archetype to make the deck work.

Ethereal Armor
Trained Caracal

When a set moves from design to development, it has a Limited environment that, while not totally balanced, highlights the main themes that design is attempting to do with the set. Each color pair is given a theme (i.e., BG is graveyard, GW is tokens, etc.), and the set is filled up with cards in such a way that all of these color pairs work in Draft. These are the primary draft strategies for the set. Usually, there are at least five more strategies put in, often either monocolor or tri-color decks. These are the secondary draft strategies. The net result coming out of design is that the Limited environment is very loud in getting you to do the things design wants you to do. For the process, that is good. It's clear what design is attempting to accomplish and it is easy for development to take that goal and run with it. But getting the set ready for mass consumption generally means turning the knobs down a bit on what design has handed over, both to make these synergies less obvious to players on their first pass through the set and to make sure the set has enough nuts-and-bolts Magic. Also, making sure that the color pairs work on a level beyond just their "theme." GW tokens was obviously the primary Selesnya strategy in Return to Ravnica draft, but the deck could also just work as an aggressive deck with cards like Brushstrider.


The sideways strategies are sometimes carried through design, and sometimes created in development. Sometimes they come about organically as the remnants of larger strategies, or even mechanics, that were abandoned along the way, and sometimes they are more engineered to fill a void in the set. As Mark mentioned in his article, the Gates fall much more on the engineered end of the spectrum, created to fill a void in the set for common dual lands, and the subtype was added to house a reward system as a result.

Gates Matter

Internally, we talk about strategies being both loud and strong. Any sideways strategy needs a balance between the two. If we just make it loud, but don't put any weight behind it, then we will just trick people into drafting a suboptimal deck, with rewards that don't get anywhere close to meeting expectations. Also, if we make it strong, but not obvious enough, then few players will be able to discover the synergies on their own, and it just generally won't be clear enough at directing people at what to do during the draft.

The most loud of the sideways strategies in Return to Ravnica block was the "Gates matter" subtheme. The idea was to give it some strength in both Return to Ravnica and Gatecrash (you can see it on cards like Ogre Jailbreaker, Crackling Perimeter, and Greenside Watcher), but to make sure that the synergies were loudest with Dragon's Maze. This is where the Gatekeepers came in. While they were scaled down significantly over time (they originally counted the number of Gates), they still accomplished the goal of powerfully rewarding you with something for doing something out of the ordinary, in this case taking Gates higher than most other people in a draft. It was important not to make this theme too powerful, however, since there is an inherent advantage of taking lots of mana fixing in a gold set, in that you get to cast a lot more gold cards than other people. If the Gates matter theme had been too strong, it would've both incentivized people to start off taking Gates too early and meant that the people trying to play the now-primary three-color draft strategies would just have found there wasn't enough mana fixing for decks to work properly.

Ogre Jailbreaker
Crackling Perimeter

The thing about Gates in both Return to Ravnica and Gatecrash was that, as primarily two-color draft environments, Gates weren't super important in Draft. Your Orzhov deck was generally going to be improved by having a few Orzhov Guildgates, but the mana fixing was just less important than in full-block Draft. The inclusion of the Gates-matters cards definitely improved the experience of both triple Return to Ravnica and triple Gatecrash, but I think it most greatly setup the full-block drafting experience. The idea is that sometimes, not every time, someone can go into the draft and start snatching up Gatekeepers and Gates while other people are taking gold cards, and then have enough support through Gatecrash and Return to Ravnica to have a deck that is not only coherent but gets to make different decisions in drafting than most other decks in the format.

All of this discussion on primary, secondary, and sideways strategies, of course, leads up to the next big Draft format—Modern Masters. Unfortunately, that will have to wait until next week. The format does a great job of showing off some of the more interesting themes throughout Magic's history, and I'm excited to play my part in revealing them, as well as continuing this discussion.

Until next week,


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