Before You Bust Those Packs...

Posted in Serious Fun on August 5, 2003

By Anthony Alongi

One of the more common things I hear from readers – especially after I do an article that mentions my love for limited formats – is that they “don’t do tournaments”. This assertion comes in varying degrees of defiance, from younger players who just don’t feel they’re good enough yet to grizzled casual veterans who feel some sort of moral imperative.

I don’t judge people’s preference for the tournament atmosphere – if you don’t wanna go, don’t go! – but I do have some advice for any casual player who wants to try something fresh: learn how to play limited formats.

Conspiracy Check

Is this week’s column a sly effort by Wizards of the Coast to get you to spend more money on packs? No, and I’ll do my best to convince you right here: the most recent limited event I attended (the Global Celebration, just last weekend) really got me steamed at the good people of Wizards because they didn’t supply enough promotional product to local stores. As a result, my friends and I, who showed up nearly half an hour before the event started, got no foil Rukh Egg. This annoys me tremendously, so I can claim honestly that I’m not in the mood to drum up extra business for my favorite company today, as much as I love them. You’ll just have to accept that what follows is done out of concern for my readers maximizing their fun with the cards they already possess, and not for Wizards maximizing their profits via cards not yet bought. At least, that's my motivation for this week. Next week, I'll want you to buy cards again. Promise.

- AA


There’s a concept in economics (my undergraduate major) called Pareto optimality. Mr. Pareto, sly glutton that he was, was always looking for ways to increase satisfaction and make himself “better off.” But the fine theorist was also concerned about his fellow man, and so his work revolved around bettering one person’s situation without hurting anyone else. (Take note, foil Rukh Egg misers!)

So let’s say you have a box of Eighth Edition that you haven’t opened yet. (This is hypothetical; we’ll lower the bar in a moment.) You have seven friends. (We’ll lower that one too, if necessary!) In situation A, you could take the box home, rip open all the packs by yourself, and gloat over your rares as you paw at them.

In situation B, you find some game to play with the cards as you open them, with your friends. You still get all of the cards when everyone’s done – or even just all the rares, if that’s all you want to paw. Assuming you don’t care who opens a given pack, your satisfaction should be unchanged from situations A to B.

Now consider what you and your friends gain. You all get to play with the commons and uncommons you open – even what you might consider "suboptimal" ones – instead of just throwing them all in a box and perhaps never even considering them again. You get additional experience playing. You practice for the day when you do want to play in a tournament. And you also get a great chance to experiment with ideas they'll never even consider in tournaments.

Put simply: opening packs with your buds and playing with the contents immediately doesn't hurt you at all, and gives you and your friends the chance to play extra games. Seize the chance.


"Limited" formats are so called because your card pool is limited to a fairly small set of cards that you generally see for the first time at the event. There are as many different limited formats as there are constructed formats; but I'll get you started with six different approaches, and give you the pros and cons of each in casual groups...and some tips on how your group can get the most out of each.

LIMITED FORMAT #1: CONVENTIONAL SEALED AND/OR BOOSTER DRAFT. These are the most popular limited formats you'll find, and they're the ones most people play in Magic Online as well. They're where I recommend you start, until you know what you're doing, because R&D designs much of their sets to balance in these kinds of decks. One of the most beautiful things about Invasion block were the incredible strategic choices you had to make as you opened Invasion, Planeshift, and then (the dreaded!) Apocalypse.

How it works: Sealed gives you a special pack of a large set (e.g., Onslaught), and one booster each of the subsequent two expansions (in this case, Legions and Scourge). Booster draft has each player (recommend 6 or 8) open one pack at a time (Onslaught first), pick one card, and pass to the left (first and third packs...pass right on the second pack). In both cases, you have to build the best 40-card minimum deck you can from whatever you get. (This includes lands; you're really playing your best 22-23 cards.)

There are other places where you can get rules and strategic advice on these formats. Surf the net and learn. The DCI portion of the Wizards site has detailed floor rules for this and the next two formats; and Magic Online also has information in its Help files as well as on its website that goes over the basics.

Pros: Playing the conventional formats gives you the best taste of what R&D had in mind for the set. They prepare you for tournaments, if you're into that sort of thing. And you can more easily integrate additional players into your group, if you're playing formats that they either know already, or can learn about from a wide range of sources.

Cons: Doing the conventional thing over and over again is boring to many people. Also, while sealed will work with just about any number of players, an optimal booster draft requires eight, which you may not have.

Tips for casual groups: If you're comfortable admitting who's more experienced than whom in your group, you might try the following variant on booster draft: in an eight-person group, have the most experienced player draft for the least experienced player, and vice versa. (So you're essentially pairing up seeds 1/8, 2/7, 3/6, and 4/5 as teams.) Teammates may consult with each other as they build with whatever gets handed to them. Set incentives correctly: the first seed gets a point when the eighth seed wins a match, and so on. This is a really nice format where you have a very mixed group, with lots of new players who need to see how a solid deck works and what sorts of cards are in it.

LIMITED FORMAT #2: ROCHESTER DRAFT. This is the upgraded, Pro Tour style of draft. Everyone at the table can see what you're doing – which means that the best players can remember what you've taken, and account for that in their picks. But this doesn't have to be just for Pros – casual players can learn a lot from each other from seeing an entire draft unfold before their eyes.

How it works: It's like a booster draft, but only one pack at a time is opened, spread out before the entire table. So the first guy opens his Onslaught pack, and everyone looks at the 15 cards for a few seconds, and then he makes his first pick, and then it goes left (clockwise) all the way around the table until you reach the player to the first player's immediate right. That player ("the wheel") gets two picks, and then picks continue back in the opposite direction. Once the pack is gone, the guy who had the second (and 15th) pick opens his pack...get the idea?

Of course, once you're done with all the Onslaught, the Legions pack opens and picks in the completely opposite direction...and then Scourge is back to the way Onslaught went.

Pros: Despite its complications, this can become the fastest way to teach newer players what's good in limited, and what isn't. It's an amazing teaching tool.

Cons: It's time-intensive, taking 4-8 times as long as a booster draft. Having eight players is a bit more necessary. It's also complicated to keep track of who's opening the next pack, where the "wheel" is, and so on. I didn't really understand how Rochester drafting worked until I did one, in the Top 8 of a local Pro Tour qualifier. (I don't recommend learning this way; it's terrifying because the judge keeps marking time, 50+ people are watching you, and you know you blew a pick when you hear a chorus of whispers.) The next time a Pro Tour qualifier comes to your area in limited/sealed format, arrange to stay long enough to watch the Top 8 Rochester draft. It's the best way to figure it out.

Tips for casual groups: We keep to a pretty firm clock (about five seconds) for each pick to move things along...and it's still really time-consuming, so you have to start as early as you can! Consider a weekend day, not a weeknight. We also allow three "lifelines," where any drafter can pause the drafting long enough to ask the group's advice. That preserves the friendly, help-me-out nature of the format...and avoids people getting annoyed at each other because someone makes a hasty pick that screws someone else.

LIMITED FORMAT #3: TEAM SEALED/ROCHESTER. I mentioned this in passing in a recent article; this is my favorite limited format.

How it works. You need three players on a team. You get two sealed packs of the large expansion (Onslaught), and two packs each of the two subsequent expansions (Legions, Scourge). From that, you all three huddle and build three decks. You then sit across from another team, and play three individual matches. The team that wins two individual matches wins the team match. In a tournament event, the top two teams will Rochester draft, similar to #2 above (but with six players, and lots of silent hand-signaling...again, it's easier to watch than for me to explain!).

Pros: Many limited events are based in the luck of what cards you get. This format probably does the best job of removing that luck factor, since the card pools are huge and you get to spread goodness over three different decks. Teammates learn from each other, support each other, and have fun together.

Cons: You need exactly six (or twelve, or eighteen, etc.) players. For that reason, local stores don't support it as much as I wish they would. Other than that, honestly, there's very little drawback. This format just rocks.

Tips for casual groups: If you have six players in your group, try to set aside a predictable week each month that's "team sealed" week. That way, people can plan for it and be more likely to show up – no one wants to let the whole group down, once the expectation is set. Switch around the teams from week to week, and have fun with it!

LIMITED FORMAT #4: BACKDRAFT. The first format I've listed here not supported with sanctioned tournaments.

How it works. A perverse variant of normal booster draft, this has each player picking the worst cards possible, rather than the best. (Fifteenth pick Rorix Bladewing? You bet!) After drafting, you randomly assign the decks to players – reselect if you get your own deck. You get points when the deck you drafted loses, as well as when you win with the deck you're stuck with.

Pros: It's really, really funny to watch someone struggle with the pile you picked. Also, since balance doesn't mean as much, having less than eight players isn't such a big deal.

Cons: Perverse pleasures really only work when you indulge infrequently. This isn't the sort of thing you do week-in, week-out. But it's a great change of pace. Also, it's really frustrating when you're trying to draft crappy cards, and you open up these amazing packs that you know you'd never see in an actual tournament, because Mother Fate hates you.

Tips for casual groups: While you're picking the worst card in the pack you opened, take a couple of moments to think about the best card as well. Good practice for when you switch back to a conventional booster draft!

LIMITED FORMAT #5: TWO-ON-TWO DRAFT. This is an excellent format for when you've just got four players. (You can also do it with six, or eight, or any even number.) A couple of really serious tournament players turned me onto it, even though it's not sanctioned by the DCI. (It should be!)

How it works: Teammates sit across from each other. Booster draft normally. You may consult with your teammate as you build after the draft; but you may not mix card pools. Each teammates plays as many opponents in individual matches as they can. The team with the best combined match record wins.

Pros: Four players is a much easier threshold than any other format we've discussed so far. You also get the benefit of team formats, and the speed of normal booster drafting.

Cons: You still need an even number of players. Also, no matter how good you think you are at guessing what your teammate is playing, you almost always have one color wrong. (Or maybe that's just me.)

Tips for casual groups: This is actually the first format I'd recommend, once you're comfortable with regular booster draft. That's because you can integrate it into your group's weekly play, on a moment's notice. All you need is to have the cards handy; maybe someone should make a habit of keeping twelve booster packs in their car or in their backpack. On a night where seven or eleven people show up in your group and people are tired of huge-group chaos, it's nice to be able to split into a draft table and a smaller odd number – that second group will appreciate how much faster their games go!

LIMITED FORMAT #6: PACK WARS. For when it's just you, another freak, and anywhere from two to 36 booster packs.

How it works: You each open one pack. Draft. (Yes, you're just passing the packs back and forth between the two of you. But the pick order is still important, and evens things out a bit when one guy just gets a ridiculous pack.) Then you play with the following rules: no opening hand. You have infinite mana available. When you can't draw a card, reshuffle your graveyard into your library. You may cycle land cards.

Pros: It's fast, it's cheap, and it's startlingly effective at making you think in new ways about old cards. (Slate of Ancestry is stellar, and cards like Crown of Flames or Soul Burn are instant game-winners.) Also, you can simultaneous matches going on at once – so you can do this with four, six, eight players, etc.

Cons: After a few matches with the same 15-card decks, you'll want to redraft with two new boosters. It can get pretty addictive.

Tips for casual groups: This is the easiest format to pick up the skill of memorizing packs. (The two-on-two draft is next easiest.) When you pick a card, try to predict what your opponent will take. Pay attention when the pack comes back – did he or she pick it? Can you tell what they did take? From there, you begin to pick up the skill of modifying your picks based on what you know an opponent has. (For example, if someone took Contested Cliffs or Tribal Golem, you might want to take that Sea's Claim or Naturalize a bit higher.)


No matter which of the above formats you try, consider the following advice and ideas.

  • If only one person owns the cards, return all cards to him or her at the end of the night. Do not be an ass; the cards are not yours. Besides, if someone saw you play a bomb, they're going to expect you to cough it up if you ever want to play in this sort of event again. (On the flip side, whoever owns the cards should use common sense. Try to limit the event to friends you trust. Also, see the next bullet.)
  • Before you start playing, the owner of the cards should decide if he or she wants people to "buy in". Don't wait until after everyone gets to see what the cards are. This doesn't have to be expensive for everyone. Our group shops around and orders all of its boxes at once, pretty cheaply (no, I won't recommend a specific store or site...we're pretty fickle from expansion to expansion), which ends up in a per-pack price is $2 or less. So in a draft, $6 will buy you a place at the "after-draft." What's the "after-draft"? Read on.
  • After-draft, to increase the quality of the draft strategy. Rare-drafting, even if people haven't bought the cards, is always a danger. To discourage this, allow for time at the end of the night (about 30 minutes) to re-draft all of the rares. (You can include uncommons in this, too.) What this means is that you lock the door until all players have coughed up the rares – there should be 24 in a typical eight-player booster draft. Then, keeping with the eight-player model, each player who "bought in" gets to redraft them for permanent ownership... starting with the person who earned the best record that night. There are eight slots in the draft order, and anyone who didn't buy in simply forfeits their pick to the original owner of the cards. (You can even have people "sponsor" someone else at the start of the night, and keep their picks at the end.) You can adjust this model to account for however many players you have, of course; and in team formats, you'll have to decide among your teammates how you'll split your picks.
  • If you play at a local store, ask the manager if you can get packs at discount, if you buy enough. If they've seen you show up week after week and do limited formats over and over again, they ought to follow good business practice and cut some sort of deal with a promising group of customers. It might require buying a load of cards, but by shopping smart and pooling resources, you should be able to save money over what you'd normally spend anyway. Just know what you want, and make sure you spread the commitment across the group as much as possible, so everyone's got a stake in getting their money's worth.
  • You don't have to limit yourself to one block. There's nothing wrong with mixing up expansions when you draft or sealed. Why not a pack of Visions, a pack of Onslaught, and a pack of Alliances? Yes, you'll run into card quantity issues if you pick an early expansion; but as long as you have enough to go around the table once, it doesn't much matter.
  • Don't do limited every week. First of all, it does cost money, no matter how savvy you are. Second, constructed has its own charms. My goal here is not to get everyone playing limited all the time – our group plays far more constructed. But we use limited formats at least once a month to break the monotony, and to even the playing field between friends with vastly different collection sizes.

So there you go. As you buy your Eighth Edition – or Mirrodin, when the time comes – don't run off and bust open all the packs at once by yourself! Get your group involved, and get your money's worth. You'll be glad you did.

You may email Anthony at Unfortunately, he cannot help readers with their decks. Not even if you offer him a foil Rukh Egg.

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