If you want to compete at the highest level in this game, you’ve got to work fast.
New sets come and go every 2-3 months and part of being an effective competitive player is being able to quickly jump into new formats. This is especially true for events occurring quickly after release or in split-format events like Pro Tours. Due to the frequent release cycle even invested players will likely only play a one or two events with real stakes of any one Limited format. Therefore you’ve got to make the most of it and have a strategy to get up-to-speed in a format as efficiently as possible.
When I first started playing in the early 2000’s drafting was all my peers wanted to do —but not so much lately. For now nearly every Pro Tour, ahem, Mythic Championship includes a Limited component and they continue to make up roughly a third of the GP circuit. So Limited play still makes up a good portion of my preparation. It remains to be seen with the new pro play changes whether Limited remains a significant portion of professional Magic, but I for one hope it does and we’ll continue to see Limited play as a necessity for any aspiring pro player.
Quickly learning a new format is a skill I believe I excel at and major events shortly after release have been my forte. In this article I’ll go into detail about what I try to do to prepare for an event shortly after the release of a new set using Ultimate Master’s as a case study while preparing for Grand Prix Vancouver.
As Face to Face’s own Kar Yung Tom jokingly summarized here after my appearance on the First Strike podcast “Why does Morgan not draft a lot for his Pro Tour preparation?“. While this quote is taken a bit out of context, I’ll try to expand on that here. It’s not about “not drafting” as much as using time efficiently. Given infinite time, I’d love to just keep drafting as it’s a lot of fun, but I don’t believe that it’s the most effective use of time if your primary goal is to do well at a specific event.
“Practice Smarter, not Harder”
This is something you’ve probably heard before, and it’s something I’ve tried to follow throughout my own life. I take preparing for major events fairly seriously, and consider the effort similar to studying for exams. While studying I always made sure to try different approaches depending on the type of test being given or the subject covered. Learning how to learn was frankly the most important skill I learned during my engineering degree. I made learning how to effectively study my number one priority early in my university career. I knew many people who would always study the same way: summarizing notes or only doing practise problems or just trying to memorize parts of a textbook. I’d try my best to adapt my study habits to the material and constantly quiz myself while studying to attempt to judge my current approach’s effectiveness. Now what does this have to do with Magic? Well, let’s try to generalize for any intellectual domain:
- Phase 1 – Get a general overview of the topic, get familiar with basic concepts.
Attending lectures or skimming through textbooks.
- Phase 2 – Get experience with a breadth of more specific topics
Try some simple practice problems, or work through listed examples.
- Phase 3 – Test and verify quality of experience identifying troublesome topics.
Try more advanced problems and verify only after completion.
- Phase 4 – Focus on problem areas – ask for help!
Ask classmates, TA, Professor, etc or find other sources for info.
- Phase 5 – Final “live” Practice.
Run through a live practice test as close to the real thing as you can get.
Phase 1 – General Overview
When learning a new Limited format my suggestion is to first do a quick skim of the spoiler. Make sure you’re at least aware of what all of the new abilities are and how they might fit together. You don’t have a textbook to just read to tell you which cards are good, but we’ve got to start figuring that out somewhere. I personally like to listen to a podcasts going through the full set review, this allows me to compare my own first impressions against someone else’s to see anything I might have overlooked. I try to mentally focus on the discrepancies, if you agree you’ll just continue to agree until both sides have played some games. The differences are all checkboxes that need to be considered.
I also like to run through one or two Sealed events before touching Draft as you just get to see more cards and it’s easier to build a Sealed deck than to draft right away. You get a chance see the basic interactions in a game before actually trying to put together a deck during a draft with cards you haven’t played with yet.
For UMA this was my first Sealed pool. I found that my pool had a limited amount of synergy so I decided to try playing as many powerful cards as I could. While playing the games I found that most of the synergies I’d seen and heard discussed weren’t really present in my opponent’s decks either and I was able to rattle of an early trophy. I decided I wanted to jump into drafting as I was pretty sure things would be different and that’s where I wanted my focus to be.
Phase 2 – Breadth of Experience
This is the experimental phase. I like to focus on trying as many different things as I can and also watch other people try Draft — either posted on various websites or through Twitch. In general I don’t watch as much Magic content as I used to, but the first couple weeks of a Draft format that changes. At this point the goal is just to try as many things as you can, get a feel for the draft archetypes. You don’t really need to be deciding which are the best or exactly how they should be built, just getting a handle for what things are possible.
This phase of practice can really pay off in a pinch. There’s simply no replacement for having a wide arsenal of draftable archetypes in a format. This is particularly true in formats with niche decks that need rares or build-around cards to work. They don’t come up all that often but if you’re proficient they can lead to that 3-0 you need at the highest level.
I highly recommend taking a quick screenshot of a deck and some basic notes about thoughts you had after running through a league. This doesn’t need to be much, but I find that forcing myself to write the notes helps in the learning process and we can use them when we get to phase three.
For UMA I managed to draft eight times in my first week:
- U/R Spells
- B/G/u Delve
- U/B/g Control
- R/W Heroic
- U/W Heroic
- U/R/b Control
- R/B Madness
- U/R Spells
As you can see I managed a wide range of decks with U/R being the only duplicated colour pairing. My favourite decks at that point were all pretty agressive, and I earned multiple trophies with beatdown decks. This U/W Heroic deck was one of my favourites providing a clean 6-0 3-0 trophy.
Phase 3 – Focused Experience
For this I do a quick retrospective of Phase 2 to consider what things I haven’t tried yet. The consideration here isn’t to try anything you’re missing, mainly just things you have reason to believe could be good. It’s understood that due to you needing to force a draft to try and learn something specific that your deck is likely to end up weaker than usual. This is ok, and it’s perfectly fine to tank your win percentage in order to learn. If you don’t win with a new deck the key is to understand why you were losing. Is the archetype just not very good? Or were there a few specific cards you were missing? If you believe your deck was just missing some cards, then you’ll know what you need to see in a Draft before jumping into the archetype.
The point here is to understand that you’re limited in your testing sample size. And the ability to come to conclusions about the strategies you haven’t tried yet is an important way to cut down on time. Maybe you haven’t tried the U/W Fliers deck, but you think white is the best colour. So, you force a U/W deck to get some practice in, and assume because white is great, that you’d be fine drafting that deck live if you had to.
For UMA I played a variety of aggressive decks and a few Delve midrange decks, but I hadn’t yet tried the non-aggressive white deck, a reanimator strategy or an aggressive green deck. The white decks I’d seen a few people mention and they were clearly using powerful cards and concepts, it was still unclear exactly how to build them but I assumed they could win matches.
With that in mind I decided if it was at all open I wanted to try and force a reanimator deck. I ended up needing to waffle around a fair amount. I was able to pick up the reanimator cards, but the only other white cards were heroic. I didn’t end up with quite as many enablers as I would have wanted and I really needed a couple more removal spells to keep myself alive while digging for my synergies. While I did manage to pull off my “combo” a couple times, it was a bit too inconsistent. I believe I’ll need to try this again before pulling the trigger on it in Vancouver.
Phase 4 – Discover & Work on Problem Areas
Once I’ve done my exploratory drafts I try to talk to anyone else who’s been drafting the format. While talking to others during the earlier phases is of course is still valuable, I like to try to come to some of my own conclusions before comparing with other people. I find I learn better this way and the conversations are more valuable. Not only do you get to hear what other people are thinking, but the discussion generally helps me really internalize what I believe about a format. Luckily a few of my F2F teammates have been doing some drafts. I focused on my heavily positive record with aggressive decks and that my favourite archetypes were white Heroic and U/R spells — while I didn’t like the slower decks as much. While some agreed I had two main takeaways:
- They thought B/R was as good if not better than U/R. This surprised me at first, but I went back and looked at my notes and I realized that B/R was actually both my most played against colour combination AND it was my lowest win-rate. Not much to work on here, but good to keep in mind that I should feel happy to jump into either blue or black if I start red.
- When I explained how much I disliked the slower decks a few people were surprised. They mentioned liking the 3-4c Kodama’s Reach decks focusing on two-for-ones and high quality spells. I’d tried drafting these decks as heavy delve decks which had inconsistency issues without a big payoff. This was an area I definitely needed to work on again.
While I haven’t tried a green based control deck yet, it’s on my list. I did get to draft this nice U/B deck to another trophy right after our conversation. I feel more comfortable trying to draft this style of deck instead of just sticking with aggressive decks. UMA has turned out to be a very wide format with a lot of interesting decks.
Phase 5 – Final Practice
During school, the exam this is the most suspenseful time, you’ve spent all this time studying and now you’re going to really find out if its working. In Magic however this is the most fun time! You’ve spent the time preparing and now you should feel free to simply do what you think gives you the best shot at winning.
If you find that during live drafts you’re really hamstrung by not being able to look at picks like on Magic Online or Arena, then I’d definitely recommend trying to do a couple of drafts without reviewing your picks.
Live drafts would be best if you can get one organized, but you can also just move your MTGO windows around to hide your picks; doing this will also force you to focus more. I would only recommend this once you’ve gotten to this final practise phase, it’s harder to learn a format while memorizing picks and focusing on a specific deck or plan.
I’m not quite into this phase yet, but with Grand Prix Vancouver coming up in a little over a week I’ll be trying to get here soon. I’ll also need to circle back around and try a few Sealed builds, but I’ve always found Draft to be the more interesting format.
Realistically, if you want to have a meaningful Grand Prix finish you really need to nail your drafts while Sealed just feels like the first hurdle. The key to transitioning after doing multiple drafts is doing just enough Sealed to know what the difference is. It’s usually slower, but we need to know how much slower.
I’ve spent most of this article talking about my method for learning UMA. This way we can work on our practice habits togethers. That said, I’ll try to quickly summarize as I both believe its good for my own learning (as discussed in Phase 4), but also to provide a quick take away for anyone wanting to jump into some UMA queues.
I believe all of the colours are playable and fairly balanced. Don’t feel worried about drafting any colour combination or strategy within that combination. My simplest advice is have a plan. A generic pile of good cards is usually fine is masters sets, but UMA is not one of them. You should be able to describe what your deck is trying to do, it might not do that every game, but the good decks in this format should have very high synergy ceilings.
Here are the separate archetypes sorted by my own preferences:
- U/R Spells/Burn – This deck is pretty unique, and really only exists as a U/R deck. It might also have a madness sub-theme, but doesn’t need to. I’ve drafted a fairly controlling deck with multiple Thermo Alchemists and Blast of Genius plus Treasure Cruise.
- U/R/B/G Madness – These are generally aggressive decks which I believe can be almost any of the colour combinations, though I prefer to be in U/R, U/G or B/R. R/G is likely also good, but you likely need to lean pretty heavily on Wild Mongrels for enablers. The U/B and G/B combinations just aren’t aggressive enough and likely lead you to more of a slower, removal heavy approach.
- White Heroic with U, G or R – If you want to be Heroic I’m pretty sure you want to be base-white. Focus on your protection spells and quality Heroic creatures. God’s Willing is the best card in the deck, but also be on the lookout for other protection like Dawn Charm or Eel Umbra.
- 3-4c Midrange/Control – I believe these decks can be any colours, but the deck needs to be open and you need to focus on quality removal and grindy two-for-one cards. I’d try to play as few mopey creatures as possible. Value your fixing highly, while there are a few options they seem to dry-up quickly. This is also where you can achieve an Spider Spawning or Laboratory Maniac deck. I don’t really believe either have the tools to really “go for it” in this set, but they can be a nice way to close games. Just keep your focus on quality spells if you’re going to try and play one of these tough-to-Draft decks.
- W/x/x Reanimator – I imagine this is also a spin off of the 3-4c midrange category. Though, I’ll point this one out because I believe it’s good enough to really go after early, unlike the Spider Spawning or Laboratory Maniac decks. I personally haven’t done it yet, hence its place near the bottom of this list.
- Delve – This is my least favourite strategy — in fact I’m convinced it’s not a real strategy if you’re trying to win. While I’ll happily play one or two of any of the delve spells, I don’t want to focus on it. This should likely only ever be a minor sub-theme within another strategy.
I hope anyone who’s taken the time to read this also can give UMA a try. The format is a ton of fun. Wizards has really nailed the last few Limited formats and while UMA feels quite different it’s great in its own way. As much as I might be concerned about what it looks like organized play is doing to GPs, I’m quite excited to be able to play a GP in this format.
Here’s hoping for a Top 8 to lock up Platinum before it all gets taken away!