As I prepared for Nats last year, I signed up too late for one of Lucas Siow’s M12 practice drafts, and ended up having to sit out the first one scheduled for the night. I decided to go anyways to watch, because there was a lot of talent on display and I had only drafted the set a dozen times or so.
I sat behind Rich Hoaen, one of the world’s best limited players, and watched him third pick a Deathmark (what I considered to be a sideboard card) over a Wring Flesh (a card I always wanted maindeck). My goal was to learn, so afterwards I asked him about it and he told me that giving something -3/-1 was barely a card.
Contrary to where you may think I’m going with this, Rich did not make some kind of sick, next level, mind blowing pick, it was just his first M12 draft and he had no clue how fast M12 was (he still won the draft of course). Had he received the same choice a few weeks later, he would have taken the Wring Flesh.
Anyone’s first draft with a format is interesting, because Magic has a great habit of proving our instincts wrong. It’s impossible to fully envision how a format will play out, what the key turn is, how often games degenerate into races, or how powerful a keyword is that’s never been printed before. Until you’ve played some drafts and got games under your belt, you are going to misevaluate cards. This means you need to alter your style. With Return to Ravnica in full swing, I thought I’d evaluate the best way to attack a new format, from week 1 through week 8.
Week 1: (Prerelease Weekend)
The baptism by fire. You have some loose idea of what is good “oh hey, a Doom Blade!”, but nowhere near enough to know pick orders or read signals.
The best advice for the first ever sealed or draft you do is to find a good balance. You need some degree of a curve, you probably don’t want to mess around with small creatures. The tough thing is that you want to play all of your removal, and your combat tricks are the best they will ever be (nobody has learned how to play around them) but you need to make sure you have enough creatures to win the game.
Have a plan for the late game. Even if it turns out to be a fast format, people will have suboptimal decks, and make mistakes that will lengthen the game. Other than that just practice your card evaluations, and keep track of what cards under or over performed.
Week 2: (Release Weekend)
You’ve had time to see what went wrong last time, and hopefully learned from your mistakes. Now is the best time to start talking to friends about their views, and trying new things. Don’t play the crazy gimmicky decks, but if you see a rare and aren’t sure how good it is, snap it up and give it a shot! Also try sideboarding cards you are unsure about, the more exposure you get the better.
Now is around the time that writers’ articles come out giving their initial thoughts. They have been through this routine dozens of times, and their initial thoughts are probably better than yours. Don’t be offended, just take it in to account and read as much as possible. If you can find recurring themes across multiple writers, you can get a jump on your local players by taking this in to consideration.
Only now are you starting to have intelligent drafts. You no longer get those 8th pick Karoos, and if Silent Departure comes to you 6th pick, it can be taken as a real sign that blue might be open (as opposed to others just having no clue how good it is). You also have more of an idea if this is a format where you can afford to drop your secondary colour for that pack 2 Odric you opened, depending how deep the playables are.
Even weeks into the format people discover different things, since apart from the top 2 or 3 cards in your deck that singlehandedly win the game, it is often hard to identify which mid-level picks are better than others. I unfortunately can’t remember where I saw or heard this, but just last week I heard someone say that they had received 3 Chandra’s Furys in pack one as well as a couple of red cards they had first picked, and wrongly attributed red as open, when really people at the table just didn’t rate Chandra’s Fury as high as the protagonist.
A similar thing happened to their neighbor, who had gotten a bunch of late Krenko’s Commands, and in the end both players fought for red when really neither had any business being in the colour. I believe this story came from the Players Championship, so it’s not like they were bad players either.
By now you should know what you’re doing, so it’s a good time to focus on draft basics in general. It drives me nuts when I see people try to do the “pro” play, when it’s just wrong. If pack 1 you open a Mutilate, Murder, Nighthawk and Centaur Courser, please don’t take the green card.
“But Marc, the next three players will all be in black! I can avoid fighting with my neighbors!”
Nonsense! Even if the next three players do all pick a black card, there is no way all three of them will end up black, and there is always an off chance that one of them is even worse than you, and picks a Turn to Slag or some other garbage under the same pretenses. Just take the best card (Nighthawk), and be happy that two suckers behind you are being hooked.
The only situation where it is appropriate to avoid a colour like that is if all the cards in consideration were of similar power level. If we replace the centaur courser with Flames of the Firebrand or Serra Angel, I would ship the black cards in order to benefit more in pack 2.
This is also a good time to analyze which “golden rules” can be broken, such as whether it might be a 16 land or 18 land format, or how your GW travel preparations deck will need at least 18 creatures, but the grixis burning vengeance deck wants less than 10.
The format is known, and now knowing which cards will wheel leads to new strategies. If nobody ever takes those Mind Sculpts, or Burning Vengeances, or Trumpet Blasts, you can start building some wonky decks that are often quite powerful. The Spider Spawning decks of Innistrad did not start showing up for weeks, but would often 3-0 before others caught on and started hating some of the pieces. That case in particular was very strange, since the deck was so fun to draft there would often be 2 or 3 drafters trying it at one table (which never turned out well).
By now most people have gotten bored of the format, and as a result, way more people are trying those strategies mentioned above. This is your time to strike! If you can be disciplined enough to draft real decks while everyone else is trying to see how far they can squeeze that Gem of Becoming, you can make a real killing. Try to keep these decks in mind during your 11th pick range, as there are often some sweet sideboard cards that can hose some of these strategies.
Congratulations, you are now a master at XYZ format! You can now go attend that Pro Tour you qualified for (thank to my great tips) and blow away the competition. Wait what’s that? Pro Tours are 2 weeks after release? Ok scratch that, there’s a Grand Prix somewhere nearby… wait, day 1 is sealed? Bah, it’s tough being a limited player…