We've covered the basics of Booster Draft and we've covered signals in Booster Draft—one of the overarching concepts of the format. Part 3 of the Booster Draft series will feature some tips and techniques that might not occur naturally to beginning drafters. If you've read the previous two Level One articles on the topic, and are starting to get the hang of it, this ought to give you a head start on your way to becoming proficient at Booster Draft.
Prioritizing the Key Pieces of Your Deck
Through everything you learn about Booster Draft—all of the fancy terms and concepts and techniques—the basic principles of Magic will remain the most important weapons at your disposal. Signals, archetypes, counterdrafting, and just about everything else should take a back seat to card advantage, removal spells, and mana base. Let's take a moment to focus on mana curve and creature count in a draft deck.
Here's a framework for what a well-balanced draft deck might look like in a triple-Khans of Tarkir draft. This is a very rough guideline, and things are likely to change substantially based on what colors you're drafting, or what strategy you might be going for.
- 40 total cards in the deck.
- 17–18 total lands. For a two-color deck, 0–2 dual lands. For a three-color deck, 4+ dual lands.
- 5–8 total noncreature spells
- 0–2 combat tricks
- 4–8 removal spells
- 14–17 total creatures
- 0–2 one–drops (one mana creatures)
- 2–4 two–drops
- 5–8 three–drops and morphs
- 2–3 four–drops
- 2 five–drops
- 0–1 six–drop
Your creatures' mana curve should look something like this:
The specifics of Khans of Tarkir cause a small glut at the three-drop slot because of morphs. (Note that I've counted a creature like Snowhorn Rider as a "morph" in the three-drop slot.) There's also less need to play with expensive non-delve creatures because you can spend your later turns turning morphs face up or outlasting your other creatures instead.
Remember that these are only guidelines, not a master formula. It would be a mistake to shoehorn every draft deck into this exact framework. Take note if your draft decks are looking dramatically different from this in one or more ways, but for the most part this is merely a tool for further discussion.
As you can see, there are certain types of cards—namely cheap creatures and removal spells—which are needed in healthy numbers for a well-balanced draft deck. There are other types of cards—expensive creatures; combat tricks; and other noncreature, non-removal spells—that are substantially more dispensable.
The quality, or power level, of a card is not the only factor that determines its value in a Booster Draft. The supply and demand of the particular card type also plays a big role. Tusked Colossodon is a completely respectable creature, but given that you only want zero or one six-mana creature in your deck at all, it would be a mistake to spend a high pick on an unspectacular, expensive creature.
It's like sitting at home and watching those infomercials on TV. It might be a great item! It might be of the finest quality and craftsmanship and somebody out there might really love it. It's just that I really don't need to own a ten-inch, glass Teddy Roosevelt figurine…
In Booster Draft, you should put a premium on the cards that are absolutely crucial to your deck. Pick them early and often, and let the fringe cards fall into place later in the draft. In pack three, when you already have enough two- and three-mana creatures and decide you really want a big guy to cap off your mana curve, that's the time to pick Tusked Colossodon.
The Tier System reflects this. Bombs and premium removal represent the highest tiers because of their quality and their scarcity. If you pass up on a bomb or a premium removal spell, you cannot count on getting another one later in the draft. Beyond that, efficient cheap creatures should be slotted into "strong filler" while unexciting expensive creatures and the bulk of noncreature, non-removal cards should be slotted into either "weak filler" or "mostly useless."
Early in the draft, any time you're in doubt of which card to take, err on the side of taking the cheap creature. After all, you can't really have too many creatures, but you can most definitely have too few. If you quickly wind up with a lot of cheap creatures, that's great! Now you can spend the second half of the draft picking up spells and expensive creatures as you see fit. On the other hand, if you find yourself without enough cheap creatures late in the draft it can be a disaster. Now you have to scramble and pick cheap creatures over stronger cards just to plug the hole in your mana curve.
Choosing Your Colors: Knowing the Archetypes
Sometimes we get an extra layer of complication thrown into our drafts, and this complication can change from set to set. It's the question of good color combinations and bad color combinations.
Sometimes choosing your colors in a draft will come pretty naturally. Maybe you'll first-pick a bomb in a certain color or maybe you'll wind up going where the signals tell you. However, if there are colors that clash with one another and cannot easily combine to make a good deck, then you might be better off steering your ship a little bit against the tides instead of going completely with the flow.
Imagine a fictional and very-simplified draft format. White is a very defensive color—the only white card in the format is Salt Road Patrol. Red is a very aggressive color—the only red card is Valley Dasher. In this format, it makes no sense at all to draft red and white together in the same deck! If your plan is to win a long game by outlasting giant Salt Road Patrols, then Valley Dashers don't contribute. If your plan is to win via a quick rush, Salt Road Patrol is far too slow.
Naturally, in all Magic sets, every color has several dozen cards to choose from. Draft formats will never be this simple, and therefore color combinations will never be this extreme. Nevertheless, there are some formats where particular color combinations are better or worse than others. Sometimes, you might play a draft format a lot and develop your own preferences for how to pair the colors.
Khans of Tarkir is actually a perfect example of good and bad color combinations in part because it features powerful gold (multicolored) cards. In Khans, there are five "clans"—three-color combinations—which are more desirable than other color combinations. If you were to draft, say, green, white, and blue instead of drafting Abzan (white, black, and green), you'd miss out on Abzan Guide, Armament Corps, Abzan Charm, and a ton of other premium gold cards. What a waste!
Khans of Tarkir also has two-color gold cards, but they're all in enemy colors. (For example, white's enemy colors are red and black, and its allied colors are green and blue). Cards like Chief of the Edge and Icefeather Aven are strong incentives to draft enemy-color combinations.
Moreover, I find it convenient to start off a Khans of Tarkir draft with an enemy-color combination. This way you have three options: You can build a two-color deck (enjoying some powerful two-color gold cards), you can move into a clan featuring the two enemy colors, or you can move into the other clan featuring the two enemy colors. In other words, starting off in WB can lead you into Abzan, Mardu, or leave you with a two-color deck.
So in Khans of Tarkir, enemy-color combinations have the advantage over allied-color combinations. If my first pick is a blue card, I'll hope to also second-pick a blue card. If I can't do that, however, then I'd much prefer to pick a green or red card, rather than a white or black card.
Similarly, as you learn a draft format you'll undoubtedly begin to discover particular strategies that come together more nicely than others. You should have these archetypes in mind as you draft.
Sometimes you'll get a very strong but rather unique card and it's important to know how to make the best use of it. For example, let's say you pick Raiders' Spoils early in a draft. It's a mono-black card, leaving you open to a great number of possible color combinations. However, it's good to know that black and white are the colors with the most Warrior creatures, and specifically that WB Warriors is a very strong and reliable archetype. You might sometimes play Raiders' Spoils in a Sultai deck, but the card will only be at a fraction of the power level it would have in a WB Warriors deck.
Similarly, you should recognize that Treasure Cruise is a bit overpriced in an average green-blue aggressive deck, but that it's extremely good in a Sultai Delve deck that has lots of ways to put cards in its graveyard.
Being aware of the powerful archetypes and the other intricacies of the set can inform your decision of what colors to draft.
When Is It Too Late to Switch Colors?
Last time, we discussed using the Tier System as a way to inform your individual draft picks. Then we moved onto signals and how you can use them to find open colors and wind up with a better deck. Generally speaking, both approaches would have you stick to the colors of your first picks when it's convenient, but to pick an off-color card when it's in a tier of its own above the rest of the pack.
I also included an example of when it might be in your best interest to consciously decline a signal in favor of sticking with your first handful of picks.
The deeper you get into a draft, the more you should solidify yourself in your colors. This usually won't be a huge challenge, since you aren't likely to see top-tier cards very late into pack one. The problem, of course, is that if you continue switching between colors throughout the draft, you might wind up without enough playable cards or with some other problem that leads to a weak deck.
"Reading signals is about accumulating information over the course of the draft. Acting on signals, therefore, presents a bit of a conundrum. The longer you wait to act, the more certain you become about what signals you're seeing. However, the longer you wait, the less time remains for you to reap the benefits of finding the open color."
There's a sweet spot for following signals in a Booster Draft. You should be gathering information throughout the whole draft, but the best time to find an open color is between approximately pick two and approximately pick seven of pack one. At this point in the draft, there's still sufficient time to reap the rewards if you can identify a color that the players passing to you are ignoring.
You should have a good idea of what colors you're planning to draft around pick eight or nine of pack one. I'd say the latest time that you can safely switch colors is around pick two or three of pack two. However, there's a special question to consider if you decide to do so.
The Pack-Two Question
There are some times when you should act on signals and other times when you should decline to act on them. However, you should always be paying attention to the signals and considering what their consequences might be.
What happens when you open a bomb in pack two? Say, for example, you're drafting Abzan and you open Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker. The question of whether to stick to Abzan or to change colors into red depends not only on the strength of Sarkhan, but also on what you can expect to happen in the rest of the draft.
Since it's the players on your left passing to you in pack two, the question is what colors are they drafting? You can try to answer this question based on the signals that you sent in pack one. What strong red cards did you pass? (Since we're discussing Khans of Tarkir) what strong Mardu cards did you pass? Did you pass anything so good in other colors that your neighbors would be strongly incentivized to draft something else?
If red was very open in pack one, an understandable mistake would be to take the Sarkhan in pack two hoping that red will remain open. However, if you received a signal in pack one that red was open (meaning you were passed a lot of strong red cards) and you were drafting Abzan, then you probably passed those cards along to the players on your left, signaling them that they ought to be drafting red.
If you were to take the Sarkhan, you might hope to get passed good red in pack three, but in pack two the players on your left are likely to gobble up all the red cards and cut you off. You could switch into red banking on pack three to reward you, but you'd really be playing with fire. It's incredibly dangerous to speculate so far in advance that you start pack three with only a couple cards of one of your main colors! There's a lot that could go wrong.
When you open a bomb in pack two, the question of whether or not to take it depends on the signals that you sent and received in pack one. (In addition, of course, to what other cards are in the pack along with the bomb).
Generally speaking, the earlier you can choose your colors the better off you'll be. However, like most things in Booster Draft, there's a lot to it.