Is There a Draft in Here?

Posted in Serious Fun on March 15, 2005

By Anthony Alongi

What your group can gain from Emperor Draft

In the past, I've written once or twice on Emperor Draft format. Draft Week is a great time to revisit the topic and give you a diagnostic tool to determine if Emperor Draft is right for your group.

First, you should know where I stand. I believe if Wizards ever sanctions multiplayer formats, Emperor Draft should be one of the first two or three such formats it sanctions. It's follows a familiar and well-known casual format (emperor), forces players to change how they value many cards, doesn't require much (if any) rethinking in design or development, and dovetails nicely with my ongoing case that Wizards could make a ton of money off of combining the profitability of tournament play with their customers' natural tendency to cluster into teams.

Expect me to push this in the future, even if some of you don't care for the format. I'll gladly spend most weeks talking about crazy pink dinosaur formats; but every once in a while I like to advance my own agenda. Thanks in advance for sharing the ride this time.

Where you sit once you've drafted your decks


Some of this is review from past articles, so we'll move quickly. To know how to do emperor draft, first you need to know how to play emperor. You can find a more involved discussion here, but the basics of the format are as follows:

  1. Play with six players: two teams of three.

  2. The teams sit across from each other, emperor in the middle of each team.

  3. You can only attack an adjacent opponent, assuming a circular shape to the table. So at the beginning of the game, a flank (or "lieutenant") can only attack the opposing flank, and emperors can't attack anyone (since they've got a teammate on either side). Of course, as players die over the course of a game, an emperor may find themselves engaged in combat.

  4. Targeting can vary, but best bet is allow a range of two for all targeted spells, and let global effects hit everyone.

  5. A team that kills the opposing emperor wins.

  6. Generally, a 2-out-of-3 match gives everyone a fair chance to overcome the occasional mana screw and see how their deck truly interacts with everyone else's.

Now that you know what emperor is, how do you draft it?

  1. The six players sit around the table in a very specific "draft formation": assuming a circular table again, an emperor sits across from the opposing emperor, and between the enemy lieutenants. This should result in an A-B-A-B-A-B seating arrangement – you're never passing cards to a teammate.

Where you sit during drafting

What is Booster Draft?

Booster draft is a limited format where players pick cards from a common pool of cards. Each player at the table starts with three unopened booster packs. Instead of just opening your cards and building a deck, you and the other players at the table have to draft the cards for your decks.

At the start of a booster draft, each player opens a pack and picks the card he or she wants from it. (You can't see the cards that the other players draft.) Then each player passes the rest of the pack to his or her left. You pick up the pack that was passed to you, select a card, and pass the rest to your left. This process continues until all the cards have been drafted.

Next, each player opens a second pack, but this time, you pass the pack to your right. After all those cards are drafted, you open the third pack and pass to the left again. At the end of the draft, each player has forty-five cards—and unlimited basic lands—to build a deck with.

  1. Booster draft normally.

  2. After you're done drafting, teams retreat to different corners of the room. While players on a team may not trade cards among decks, they may see what their teammates are doing/building, and help each other with deckbuilding decisions.

  3. Once decks are set, the six players now sit around the table in their "play formation" – the two teams facing each other, emperor flanked by friendly lieutenants, etc. Lieutenants who sat next to each other in draft formation should not face each other in play formation – you play against the lieutenant who sat way across from you.

  4. As in regular emperor, a die roll determines which emperor shall go first.

Laura Mills, a member of our play group and a fairly prolific Internet writer on Magic topics, came up with a nice touch on pre-game decisions. She suggests the two emperors roll off, and the winner can choose either (a) which emperor goes first or (b) who will sit to her left.

The reason this is important? Generally, the player to the emperor's left should be the "hammer" – the player with the fastest deck, built to crush the opposing flank and turn this into a 3-on-2 as quickly as humanly possible. If your team wins the die roll and decides your emperor will go first, that left flank is taking the second turn of the entire game, already has an emperor with a land down, and has some advantage over the opposing flank. Being able to determine who will sit on which side (and therefore where your opponents' flanks will sit) can mean the difference between winning and losing.


There are five cool things about Emperor Draft that keeps our group, and many other players I've heard from, coming back to the format:

Wurmskin ForgerAs an emperor in draft, you get to value cards much differently.
  1. Card choices become more interesting than in a regular draft. There are cards you wouldn't touch in a normal duel draft that would be first picks in an emperor deck. To me, this is huge: you're getting value out of each booster pack that you weren't getting before you tried emperor draft…and you're paying the same price.

  2. Decks are less stale than they can become in constructed Emperor. I often hear from readers who tell me that "everyone plays the same broken decks in our emperor games". In Emperor Draft, you don't have this problem, because every match would see the decks change.

  3. I could possibly stomach 1-1-1 Emperor this way, because broken combos wouldn't exist and land destruction would be acceptable. I'll get quoted on message boards for this so let me make it a good one: the current 1-1-1 Emperor culture in Magic Online is the rare and horrific offspring of two wayward parents: non-interactive combo decks and naïve group think. That said, 1-1-1 emperor could be interesting in a limited format, where no one would have 4x New Frontiers or any of the rest of that silliness. What rich and interesting 1-1-1 games we might have, if Emperor Draft caught on well enough to be a Magic Online format!

  4. Entirely new deck types arise. This goes beyond using a few cards you normally wouldn't. Particularly in the emperor spot, there's a good chance you'll identify a color combination, creature-spell balance, or other deck strategy that's completely foreign to every format except the one you're playing.

  5. It's easy to learn and play. It's a great way to introduce newer casual players to the idea of drafting, as well as to introduce draft tournament fanatics to the idea of multiplayer. It sits right in the intersection of casual and tournament Magic, and the barriers are much lower than learning other formats. If you "hate drafting", try it before you knock it – you've got two teammates to help you figure out how to build your deck. If you're not a big multiplayer fanatic, look for the similarities between this format and team sealed – I've done plenty of both and there's tons. If you don't have a lot of money, use the packs you normally buy with each expansion to play it. If you can't get six people together regularly, save it for special occasions or encourage your local store to try it.


I'm likely to steer you toward "yes", so don't be shocked by the bias. But here are some helpful questions for you or your group to ask yourselves:

Can you put together six people on a regular basis? (Give your group 0 points for "never", 1 point for "sometimes", and 2 points for "almost always".)

Of course, you do need six. If you can't ever pull this off on your own, you'll need to beg around the local store – see if they'll sponsor an event some day and see how it goes. (They have web browsers, so point them to this article.)

Do the players in your group enjoy and play a lot of mono-color decks? (0 points for "yes, lots", 1 point for "sometimes", and 2 points for "almost never")

It's very hard to draft a mono-color deck in emperor draft (or any draft, for that matter). Players who identify strongly with one or two particular colors and/or hate one or two particular colors will sometimes feel frustrated during a draft where they're not getting the colors they want/need.

Have you heard many comments in your group lately about "the same boring decks"? (0 points for "not at all", 1 point for "from a couple of folks", and 2 points for "all the time, it seems")

See my comments in the section above about the benefits of emperor draft. Every night will see different decks, with emperor draft. But if your group is already throwing so many new and creative decks out there every week that you don't need a new format, maybe you can wait a while before picking it up.

Does your group like changing decks every game? (0 points for "yes", 1 point for "no big deal either way", 2 points for "we always play matches, 2 out of 3")

A 2-out-of-3 match is a near-necessity with Emperor Draft, since there's little point to playing a single game after spending all that time drafting and deckbuilding. Therefore, a draft will likely take up at least two hours. People may get stuck for that entire time with a deck they're not crazy about. If your group is particularly fickle, go into this experiment with a clear head.

Do people get aggravated with each other for singling out during chaos games? (0 points for "nah, no one minds", 1 point for "it gets some people on edge", 2 points for "we seem to get upset at each other quite a bit")

Any team format will help salve the egos of those who don't like being singled out for attention. This is also a good way for groups with lots of players across different skill levels to avoid the "beat on the king" phenomenon. Team games play like duels; there's very little potential for politics or hurt feelings.

Do you play the same format every week? (0 points for "no, we change it up constantly", 1 point for "we try something new every month or so", 2 points for "it's always the same format")

If your play group hasn't done anything new in a while, you've got to get out of that rut. Emperor draft can help.

How old is the average person in your group? (0 points for "under 20", 1 point for "twentysomething", 2 points for "thirtysomething")

Now, don't everyone get all bent out of shape here, but there are at least three reasons why older players will enjoy this format more. First, many teenagers don't have nearly the exposure to working as a team player that adults do. Younger players are often more comfortable as "lone wolves", battling in chaos games for pure supremacy. Older players have a richer background in teamwork – a lot of the fun in team play is in pointing out how your teammates are measuring up to standards of, say, a workplace. In emperor draft, the team aspect is there more than in any other format – including constructed emperor. From the moment you bust open your first pack to the last point of damage in game 3, you have to be thinking about what your teammates are doing. Adults, on average, do it better than teenagers. (We still suck at it.)

The second reason requires less controversial stereotyping. Older players generally have more resources than younger players. Emperor draft can become expensive if you want to do it more than, say, once a month. Honestly, all you need in a group is one guy with money who can buy the packs – you can always give the cards back. But the more financially self-sufficient players in your group, the more often you can draft.

Reason #3? I like our play group and wanted them to get 2 free points. (See? I'm a team player. I bet you meddling kids wouldn't have done that.)


If you got 10-14 points, you should absolutely give Emperor Draft a try. In fact, you probably already have!

If you got 6-10 points, you should talk about it in your group. Has your group tried regular drafting yet, or constructed Emperor? That might be a good first step, and then move on to Emperor Draft once you're looking for something new again.

If you got 0-6 points, you're a 1-1-1 stick-in-the-mud who should try Emperor Draft anyway. Get off yer butt and try it, you slugs.

Anthony cannot provide deck help. He is too busy bracing for the barrage of emails from teenaged, slug-loving, 1-1-1 enthusiasts who hate trying new things. Seriously, he's just pulling your chain. Don't flip out, kids. But if you do, by reading this disclaimer you and your parents still agree to hold Wizards of the Coast, Hasbro, and all other Hasbro affiliates and subsidiaries harmless for this crotchety old guy's ramblings. You can still pelt Mark Gottlieb on the boards, though. That's always good sport, and he hates drafting. And mothers. And apple pie.

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