Booster Draft is one of the most played Magic formats at every level of competition and casual play. Together with Sealed Deck, it's the Limited format of choice for most tournaments, including Pro Tours, Pro Tour Qualifiers, and Grand Prix. It's popular among occasional players who want to avoid the pressures of maintaining a collection and a Constructed deck. On the other hand, it's equally popular among serious players who enjoy the depth and challenge of the format. Learning Booster Draft should be a priority for any aspiring Magic player.
Booster Draft (or just "Draft") is like Sealed Deck, with the additional preliminary step of drafting the cards. The players—usually eight sitting in a circle—each open a booster pack, pick one card, and pass the pack to the next player, who picks one card and continues to pass it along. Eventually, all of the cards are picked and the players repeat the process with a total of three booster packs. At the end of a Khans of Tarkirdraft, players will have 42 cards (not counting basic lands) with which to build a 40-card deck. Just like Sealed Deck, players may add any number of basic lands to their deck.
Drafting a Deck
In Sealed Deck you open six packs and in Booster Draft you only open three. Nevertheless, the total number of cards that you see in a draft is much higher than in Sealed Deck. Since you have the flexibility of choosing which cards you think will be best for your deck, in a way, your total pool of cards is much larger in a draft than it is in Sealed Deck.
This means that you can expect draft decks to be slightly better, more powerful, faster, and (most importantly) more focused than in Sealed Deck. You can choose all of your cards to work toward one concerted strategy. Things will never be as extreme as Constructed, but your draft decks might fit the mold of an aggro deck or a control deck depending on the choices you make.
Synergy is an important concept for every format in Magic. In particular, though, it should be at the front of your mind during a draft, as it can guide you in the direction of good draft picks and an effective deck. Synergy means cards working especially well together.
Synergy can exist between two cards (sometimes called a combo), as in a case like Alpine Grizzly and Savage Punch. A single card can have synergy with the rest of your deck—say Chief of the Edge in a deck with lots of Warriors. Or, perhaps the best case of all is that synergy is built into your deck on the whole. Let's say your deck features a lot of cheap creatures with prowess and a lot of tempo-based spells like Force Away and Crippling Chill to help you keep attacking. In this case, your deck has a clear plan and all of your cards are working toward this plan. Your spells make your prowess creatures the best they can be, and your cheap creatures make your tempo spells the best they can be.
To continue using Khans of Tarkir as an example, each of the five clans has a signature mechanic associated with it: Abzan—outlast, Jeskai—prowess, Sultai—delve, Mardu—raid, Temur—ferocious. When you're drafting, it's helpful to plan for some synergies based around whatever ability(s) are appropriate for your color combination. If you're drafting Temur, you'll want a healthy number of 4-power creatures in order to make the best use of your ferocious cards. (There's also plenty of overlap between the clans, so your Temur deck is also likely to have some prowess creatures. Plan accordingly!)
An archetype is a recurring strategy with numerous possible variations. The shell or pattern of an archetype remains recognizable despite individual cards changing. We used this term in the context of Constructed—you can build two functionally similar control decks even in formats where different sets are legal—but it also applies to Booster Draft.
An example of an archetype in the context of draft is a Sultai Delve deck. Scout the Borders is a card that goes well in a Sultai Delve deck, but you can still build a Sultai Delve deck without Scout the Borders. The same is true of Hooting Mandrills, Sultai Scavenger, Bitter Revelation, and so on. The recognizable traits of every Sultai Delve deck will be making use of the graveyard, removal spells, card advantage, and good ways to block non-flying creatures (stall the board). If you do a good job drafting Sultai Delve, these features will exist no matter what individual cards you wind up with.
In a perfect world, you would start a booster draft with one or more archetypes in mind. Having a vision for the way you want your deck to end up is extremely helpful. Moreover, like always, practice makes perfect. The first time you draft Sultai Delve or Mardu Warriors, you might, to some extent, be muddling your way through. However, once you've drafted an archetype five times, you'll begin to learn its strengths and its common pitfalls and be able to draft accordingly.
A desire for synergy, or to draft a particular archetype, should never overshadow the basic principles of Magic. As always, foremost in your mind as you draft should be your mana base, mana curve, creature count, removal spells, and card advantage.
A well-built deck with a smooth mana curve and a good mix of creatures and spells will function just fine, even if it doesn't have much synergy. A deck that has a lot of synergy but had a bad mana base and a bad mana curve will still be clunky and awkward. Synergy is good, but it should not come at the expense of what's most important!
Remember also that all cards are not created equal. Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker might not have any special synergy with my Mardu Warriors deck. However, you'd better believe that I'm picking Sarkhan over Rush of Battle, Ponyback Brigade, or virtually any other card you can imagine! After all, this is still Limited Magic and a bomb is a bomb!
Choosing Your Colors
One of the most interesting questions in Booster Draft is how to choose your colors.
The most basic strategy is simply to choose your colors ahead of time, before you even open your packs. This is a completely valid strategy that I often recommend as best for beginners. There's no shame in it! In fact, if you were to employ this strategy at the Pro Tour, so long as you did a good job drafting, building your deck, and playing the games, you'd have a perfectly fine chance to do well.
Even seasoned drafters might employ this strategy under the right circumstances. Say, for example, I had an upcoming Booster Draft tournament using Khans of Tarkir, but I didn't have much time to practice the new set. I might decide that I only have enough time to learn one archetype, so I might do a couple of practice drafts where I go for Jeskai Tempo. When I show up for the tournament, I'll plan to go for Jeskai Tempo.
The complete opposite could also happen. I might spend endless hours, days, or weeks drafting Khans of Tarkirand decide that Jeskai Tempo is hands-down the best archetype! (This is hypothetical, and not my actual opinion.) In this case, I'd also start my draft planning to go for Jeskai Tempo.
Whatever reason you might have, it can be okay to go into a draft planning to go for a certain color, combination, or archetype. Just remember that it's illegal to coordinate with the drafters sitting next to you by telling them what colors you intend to draft or asking them what colors they intend to draft.
A very slightly more advanced strategy is to draft the best cards out of your first couple of packs, regardless of what color they are. Then, you just draft whatever colors your first couple of picks were! This way, you get the potential benefit of opening a premium card in any color but don't have to worry about wavering between colors. You won't waste any picks on cards of a color that doesn't wind up in your deck.
Advanced drafters, however, will be adaptable and let what happens in the draft determine what colors they choose. Sometimes, they won't decide their colors until halfway through the draft! They value the ability to stay open.
Staying open means looking for opportunities. For example, let's say you open Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker in pack two. In the case where you've decided your colors right away, it's completely up to chance whether or not you'll be able to put Sarkhan in your deck. In the case where you've stayed open, you'll be able to jump on the opportunity of opening a bomb card and playing with that color.
Even more importantly is the ability to find an open color. Now let's say that I'm the one who opens the Sarkhan instead of you. I'd decided early in the draft that I was going to be Abzan, and so I pass the Sarkhan right along to you. If you're able to correctly identify that I'm not drafting red, then you have the ability to get that Sarkhan along with every other good red card that I'm going to pass you over the course of the draft.
What the Other Drafters are Doing
What makes Booster Draft so interesting is that it's a dynamic process with lots of moving parts. What you do affects the drafters around you and what they do, in turn, affects you.
Although they'll eventually be your opponents in the tournament, ideally you wouldn't fight for colors with the drafters next to you, because doing so would wind up making both of your decks worse. If you somehow knew for a fact that both players on either side of you were drafting Mardu decks, it would probably be in your best interest to draft either Sultai or Temur, because you'd get passed all of the best blue and green cards that your neighbors didn't want.
When neighboring drafters learn what one another are drafting, they're able to cooperate and will both wind up with better decks. This type of understanding and cooperation can be accomplished through signaling.
Signaling doesn't mean winking, shaking your leg under the table, or tipping your baseball cap three times. It certainly doesn't mean talking about the draft as it's happening. All of these things are strictly illegal. Instead, signaling comes in the form of what cards you pass, receive, do not pass, and do not receive from your neighbors.
The best example of a signal is receiving a very strong card late in the draft. Abzan Charm, for example, is a premium card that any player in the Abzan colors would love to add to his or her deck. To see an Abzan Charm pick sixth means that the five players passing to you all declined to pick it. For each of these five players, it probably means one of two things. Either (A) they picked a stronger card in the Abzan colors (perhaps possible for the player who opened the pack if there was a bomb rare) or (B) they aren't drafting Abzan (more accurate is to say that they weren't drafting Abzan at the time they made the pick).
Seeing a late Abzan Charm is a signal that Abzan might be an open color combination. This means that if you draft Abzan, you have a slightly higher chance of being passed strong cards as the draft progresses, since your neighbors will be less interested in them. Passing an Abzan Charm sends a signal downstream that Abzan might be an open color combination. If you pass an Abzan Charm, it shouldn't come as a great surprise if you later find out that a player you were passing to drafted Abzan.
Signaling is a complicated concept, and an in-depth discussion is a topic for another time (but see Marshall Sutcliffe's "Signals"). For now, let me leave you with the advice that you should simply try your best to be aware of what's going on around you in a draft. Note what strong cards are being passed to you and if any color is noticeably missing. That said, don't go crazy trying to adapt your draft to signals. Sometimes, by the time you know what your neighbors are drafting, it's so late that all the best cards are already gone anyway! The more you switch colors, the more picks you waste and the lower the chances of piecing together an effective deck.
Choose your colors and archetype based on a combination of three factors: what you want to draft, what cards you've already drafted, and what you think might be open. The weights you put on these three factors will change based on the circumstances and as the draft progresses. Generally speaking, though, I don't think that any one is more important than the other two.
Do not counterdraft!
I'm hesitant to mention counterdrafting in Level One because it's a relatively unimportant aspect of Booster Draft. However, I do so in the hope that I can help my readers avoid a common pitfall of beginning drafters, which is that once they learn the concept of counterdrafting, they put far too much emphasis on it.
To counterdraft means to spend a pick simply taking a card out of the draft, so no one else can have it. Return to the example where I'm drafting Abzan and I open Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker. If I were to pick Sarkhan, not with the intention of putting it in my deck, but simply so that you won't get it, then I'm counterdrafting.
Counterdrafting isn't mean or unsportsmanlike; it's simply a strategic decision that's part of the game. The problem is that it's typically a bad strategic decision. In an eight-player booster draft, you have seven potential opponents and should be thinking about how your deck will stack up relative to theirs. A positive addition to your own deck has a relatively great impact. Hurting one of your seven opponents' decks won't greatly increase your chances of beating an opponent at random.
For me to regret passing you the Sarkhan, here's what has to happen: First, we have to get paired (typically, you play against three of your seven opponents). Second, you have to draw your Sarkhan. Third, you have to beat me in a game and match because you had Sarkhan instead of whatever the next-best card would've been. This is possible, but it's not particularly likely.
It's correct for me to counterdraft the Sarkhan if and only if there's nothing I want from the pack. Prioritize your own deck first, and make counterdrafting only an afterthought. If there's a time for counterdrafting, it's usually much later in the pack, once most of the good cards have dried up. Then, if there's nothing for you and a playable card for an opponent, you can feel free to snatch it up.
If you take one lesson from today's article it should be that Booster Draft is as hard as you want to make it. Concepts like signaling and counterdrafting are deep and complex, but the fundamentals are relatively easy. You can go far by just focusing on things like balance, mana curve, and card advantage. If you're new to the Magic, don't be scared to try out Booster Draft. If you're more experienced, then I challenge you to focus on a new aspect of the format that you haven't yet mastered!