The Ultimate Intro Guide to Drafting Magic: the Gathering
Drafting Magic: the Gathering is a great way to play the game, try out new cards, and meet new people all at the same time. Drafting has been a staple of the Magic community for the past 30 years and is one of the best ways for new players to learn the ropes.
Let’s explore what makes drafting Magic: the Gathering one of the most popular ways to play the game and how you can jump into your first draft prepared and ready for action!
WHAT IS DRAFTING?
Let’s start at the beginning. Drafting is a limited format. That means that you don’t need to bring any cards of your own to the event to be able to play.
Decks are built at the beginning of the event out of a limited pool of cards, in the case of a draft, three booster packs.
They are a popular way for players to gradually build their collection and play competitively at the same time. Limited is also a great casual format. A group of players can buy a booster box and spend an afternoon drafting rather than building decks beforehand.
At the beginning of a Draft each player is handed three booster packs. The packs are normally from the most recent set. This is why limited events synergize so well with Standard.
The players are organized into pods of 8 and seated, preferably randomly around a table. The draft starts and each player opens one booster pack. Each player looks at the cards in their pack and chooses one to add to their card pool. The remaining cards are put into a pile and passed to the player on their left. Each player then looks at the next pile of cards in front of them and chooses one of those, placing it into their card pool and passing the rest. This pattern continues until each player has a stack of cards in their card pool and there are no more piles moving around the table.
Then each player opens a second booster pack and continues the same procedure except this time they pass the cards to their right. Once the second pack is completed, the players open the third and pass the cards again to their left.
After each pack is completed the players have a chance to review what cards they have picked but during the draft they are not allowed to look at their card pool. All picks should remain secret and none of the players should be able to see what the others have chosen.
At the end of the third booster pack, you should have 45 cards in your card pool. Each player will then split up and you have some time to build a 40 card deck out of the cards you have chosen.
Basic lands are considered unlimited and are not part of the card pool so as a general rule of thumb, each player chooses 22 or 23 cards that will make up the spells and creatures in their deck and the remaining cards are basic lands.
The players in the event are then matched up against one another and then play their draft decks against each other.
For most Draft events, you keep the cards you’ve picked as well as whatever prizes you’ve won at the end of the night.
Drafts normally use packs from the most recent block but that doesn't always have to be the case. There are many different variations of the format that use packs from older sets, or custom packs of cards.
Cube Draft in particular is a favorite of both casual and competitive Magic players.
Cube drafting involves packs made up out of the most powerful cards in Magic history, or they could be all uncommons. Cube is popular because it can be tailored to each player's preference and once the Cube is built, it can be used over and over again, unlike booster packs that are consumed once they are opened.
WHICH CARDS SHOULD YOU PICK?
There are hundreds of articles written about Draft strategy, but here are the basics that will serve you for every single Draft you play, no matter what set you’re picking from.
Drafting is one of the best environments for reliving the heyday of Magic: the Gathering. You’ve got big flashy Dragons and Angels, splashy spells, and iconic Planeswalkers. Choosing a powerful rare for your deck is always a great choice, as long as you build a deck around it to support it.
Not every card in your deck can be giant flying monsters, because you’ll be run over before you can cast them, but they definitely have a place.
When in doubt, taking removal cards is usually a strong pick. Removal is the shorthand term for cards that remove creatures from the battlefield. They typically say things like “Destroy target creature,” “Exile target creature,” or “Deal X damage to target creature.”
Removal is how you mess with your opponent’s game plan and deal with their big threats, so it’s a vital part of your draft deck. Removal typically goes fast so prioritize it pretty highly and other than powerful game-winning creatures, it should be something you always look for.
Even cards that tap your opponent’s creatures or prevent them from attacking and blocking can be considered removal, so don’t pass those up either.
In a Draft, the back bone of your game plan is going to be getting into the red zone with your creatures which means that the majority of your deck is going to be filled out with them.
When you have the opportunity, you should be prioritizing creatures with abilities that make them harder to block. Abilities like “Flying”, “Unblockable”, or “Menace”.
Since combat is a major component of your Draft strategy, it’s common for the battlefield to get clogged up and this prevents you from attacking profitably. Creatures with evasion allow you to break the stalemate.
Being able to cast your spells is the foundation for success in Magic, and while cards that help you get the mana you need won’t win you the game directly, not being able to cast anything will surely prevent a victory.
Depending on the set being drafted, you will likely end up playing anywhere from one to three colors in your deck, and the more colors you have the more you will need to rely on mana fixing cards to be able to cast your spells when you need to.
Mana fixing can take the form of lands that produce more than one color, artifacts that filter or produce multiple colors of mana, or spells that allow you to search for lands from your deck.
Generally, it’s better to take a card that helps you cast your best spells than it is to take another mediocre creature for your deck.
After splashy game winning creatures, removal spells, evasion, and mana fixing, the rest of your deck is going to be composed of run-of-the-mill creatures.
This is a good place to talk about the idea of a mana curve.
Typically in a Draft, you want to be able to play a spell on turn two, turn three, and turn four, and that means a good portion of your deck should be composed to two mana cards (5-7 total), three mana cards (5-6), and four mana cards (4-5).
This means that a good majority of the picks you choose during a draft are small, but decent, creatures to fill out your mana curve.
As a general rule of thumb, your 40 card Draft deck should have 17-18 lands and 22-23 spells in it. This gives you consistent odds of having access to mana for the crucial first four turns of the game.
One of the worst experiences in Magic is sitting around waiting to draw your lands while your opponent keeps playing spell after spell. It’s a good idea to skew your deck toward the 18 lands build, at least in the beginning, unless your deck has an exceptionally low mana curve or plenty of cheap card drawing spells and mana fixing.
When choosing how many of each color you should have in your deck, you should estimate the ratio of the numbers of different mana symbols you have in your spells. If roughly half your deck is one color, a 50/50 split in your lands is a good bet.
Mana fixing cards and lands that produce more than one color can change the math a bit, but the point is to have enough of each land to give yourself the greatest odds of having the colors you need, when you need them.
THINGS TO AVOID WHEN DRAFTING MAGIC: THE GATHERING
So those are the guidelines for drafting a solid Draft deck. Let’s talk about some common pitfalls that newer players fall for.
YET ANOTHER HIGH COST CARD
Big, splashy, powerful spells are awesome, but if a large portion of your Draft deck is composed of 6 and 7 mana creatures, you’re going to be waiting around to cast them and probably get steamrolled by your opponent’s mediocre two and three mana spells before you can even put up a fight.
THE DEVIL’S MANABASE
An 18 land mana base evenly split between three colors (ex: 6 Plains, 6 Islands and 6 Forests) is a recipe for disaster. The odds simply aren’t in your favor.
Like we explained earlier, being able to play your cards on time consistently is one of the most important and powerful strategies you can employ in a Draft. The six-six-six land mix doesn’t help with that.
In six out of ten games, you’re going to have cards in your hand that you can’t cast on turn three.
It’s almost always better to trim the third color and run a simpler, yet more consistent two color deck, or if you really want to make three colors work, ensure that you prioritize mana fixing highly.
WALLS AND LIFEGAIN
Walls are creatures that can’t attack, often due to the ability “Defender”. Creatures that can’t deal damage to your opponent are not a good choice because the goal of the game is to win, usually by dealing 20 damage to your opponent, and walls only help you avoid losing.
Unless the creature has ways of becoming more than a wall, or your deck has some sort of wall synergy (it’s a thing in some formats!), avoid these cards entirely.
Lifegain spells generally do the same thing. They aren’t proactive and they don’t move you closer to victory, only a bit further away from defeat. You’re usually better off with another random two drop creature than a spell that only gains you life.
Build your deck to win, not to prolong defeat.
Counterspells sound powerful but are often a trap in draft, for the same reason walls and lifegain are a problem. They don’t advance your strategy or put you in a better position to win because they are purely reactive.
In an ideal situation, your opponent attempts to cast their huge game-winning spell and you’re sitting there with mana available and the perfect counterspell in your hand, ready to foil their plans… but unfortunately, that almost never happens.
More often than not, you will hold back on casting your spells in the hopes of catching your opponent off guard with a counter, and they end up casting another two drop instead of a bomb, and you just keep falling behind.
In order for counterspells to be good, you need to leave mana available during your opponent’s turn, and that means you aren’t casting spells during your turn, and generally speaking, the player that spends the most mana during the course of the game has the best odds of winning.
This doesn’t mean that counterspells don’t have their place in a Draft deck, but for the most part you should avoid them until you’re more experienced.
TOO MANY MANA SYMBOLS
Spells with a heavy mana commitment (something like UUU1 is a good example) are challenging to include in a Draft deck. They are generally pretty powerful as a trade-off for the mana cost, but if you can rarely cast it when you need to, it doesn’t really matter.
If you know your opponent is playing a slow deck, that may open up possibilities, but most of your games are going to be determined by who can play their spells consistently and on time, and heavy color requirements make that difficult.
FINAL THOUGHTS AND TIPS
Draft is a great format and an awesome way to enjoy Magic: the Gathering and this guide is a good starting place for jumping into your first event.
Since Magic is a game of choices and compromises, these aren’t hard and fast rules and there are always exceptions. One of the most fun ways to play the game is to experiment and try new strategies!
I’ve seen players take every Rare that comes their way and jam in a few bits of mana fixing to make a five color deck that pummels everyone at the table!
The fun is in trying out new ways to play and meeting new people at the same time.
Come and join us for your next Draft at Vortex Games!