Thursday, 16 April 2009

The fundamental rules of drafting - #2

By Jim Marlow

I hope everyone is finished racking their brains over the first couple of rules of drafting, so i thought would move on to the next couple.

I have specifically chosen to write the rules in these separate articles because i think that the rules can be grouped together for people of different play skill.

Rules 1 and 2, covered earlier, are the bare bones of the draft, which i am sure almost all members of Team Leeds has got to grips with.

Rules 6 and 7, covered in the final article, are more general considerations, which i think are sometimes overlooked by people of all playskill, despite being very basic elements of magic (mana base), and so i believe are different to the others.

It is the three rules covered in these articles however, which i believe are arguably the most important to the players of Team Leeds. I believe that it is the perfecting of these skills that will allow people who can generally rely on a 2-1 draft to maybe push and 3-0 every so often, or a person who can consistantly 1-2 to move up to being able to confidently finish in the prizes every week. I know a lot of players in Leeds who have been playing a long time, and although may have won a WNM or two, cant seem to take that small step to becoming one of the more formidable players in Team Leeds; so if you are reading these articles and you think you might be such a player, pay attention.

Rule 3) Signalling

I am really struggling to emphasise how important signalling is in becoming the next level of drafter, because it is in knowing what the people around you are drafting, that makes for you to have a better deck.

Signalling is probably the most potent tool in a magic player's drafting arsenal, and this is a rough guide in how better to both read and recieve signals.

The first thing you need here is of course a good knowledge of the power levels of the cards in the format, because this allows you to recognise that a card in the pack your picking up should not be there, meaning that you are being signalled a shard is open. Likewise, you should know that passing a card that is above the power level of the rest of the pack allows you to guide the player, or players to your left into a particular shard.

Here are some hypotheticals.

You open your first booster of the draft and the notable cards you see are these

- sigil of distinction
- vithian stinger
- jund charm

The pick here is obviously the sigil, but more than this you are almost certain that the player to your left will take one of the other two cards, and possibly that the player the his left will take the other, which is valuable knowlegde.

Of course, you may then get passed these notable cards.

- woolly thoctar
- tidehollow strix
- bone splinters

So what do you take here?

Well, your sigil of distinction means any of these will fit into your deck. I personally would consider the best card to be the thoctar, followed by bone splinters, then strix. Yes, i know i said pick removal above creatures, but i will talk about when to abandon these rules later.

So if the thoctar is the best, do you pick this. I would pick it yes, but not just because it is the best, because the person to your left may be signalling that naya is open. The bone splinters is also a close pick, but using our knowledge that 1 or more of the players on our left is in jund/naya - we can force them further away from our naya shard by passing the bone splinters, and of course we can only hope that the next guy takes the strix and goes grixis with his stinger as well.

Now i know this probably all sounds very familier to most players at Team Leeds, because im sure almost anyone would pick the sigil and then the woolly thoctar, but it is the extra information gained about what other people around the table are playing which can be helpful.

So what other information can be gained about the second pick when we take our woolly thoctar, well we can also begin to deduce what shard the person to our right is in. When you look through the pack, have a look at what card is missing from the pack, and if you have a good knowledge of the power level of the set, you should be able to guess within 2 or 3 cards what is gone, especially when the rare is still in the pack.

When the rare is gone it is a little harder to know what the person to your right has taken, because i have already listed quite a few bombs that you would windmill slam and do a little dance at opening. (i forgot the plainswalkers - take them!!!) So when the rare is gone you may have to rely more on what is left in the pack and the next few picks for this knowledge

However, lets look back at our hypothetical 2nd pick - and a common is missing from the pack

So who can tell me what the person has taken from this pack?

well basically there are only a few cards

- oblivion ring
- resounding thunder
- branching bolt
- sanctum gargoyle

These are just about the only cards that i would think anyone could consider taking over the cards we saw in the pack - however, we can narrow this list down by looking at the pack and thinking of what the person who made the pick might think.

If the person took the resounding thunder or branching bolt, he knows he is sending people in the direction of naya by passing the woolly thoctar, so this is possible, but if it was me i would probably just take the thoctar thus leaving the thunder/bolt and bone splinters in the pack so the people to my left can fight it out over jundish type decks and leave me free.

The sanctum gargoyle is also a possibility if someone had decided to steer clear of all the naya/jund cards in the pack, and may wish to force themselves into a shard by commiting early. Moreover, the other jund/naya card in the pack means the tidehollow strix may even be passed all the way round to me. However, the power of the woolly thoctar cant be denied, as it is a borderline bomb, i believe the card that was taken from the pack is more likely the oblivion ring.

The oblivion ring is by no means a bad pick here, as i discussed it keeps the person open, but pushes me and people to my left towards other shards. Obviously therefore i can assume that the person intends to draft either a bant or esper deck, which is fine by me, because despite both shards containing white, the type of white cards we will be looking to draft are different.

I can use this information to my advantage later in the draft, for example in pick 5 or 6 i may be torn between a hissing iguanar and a steward of valeron. knowing one of the guys to my left is in jund, i may pick the iguanar here and try to table the steward, even though it may be better placed in the aggresive naya deck i hope to be building

To summerise.

In just 2 picks i have been able to put at least 1, if not 2 people to my left in different shards from me, and know that i can be expecting to recieve some good cards for my first couple of picks (especially naya cards).

Also i have been able to deduce that the person feeding me has taken either a sanctum gargoyle or more likely an oblivion ring, and is drafting esper/bant, so i can expect some good picks to continue from the right and in pack 3.

The extra information i have recieved in this draft about my opponants has allowed my to realise which shard i need to be drafting, whether or not this means abonding my first pick bomb or not, and also allows my to guide my next picks because i may pick cards that i know wont table and chance getting other cards back to me.

Obviously being in different shards to your opponants is key, because it means that you all draft better decks, and then the extra knowledge you have about them will be able to give you the edge - for example you may want to pick the 11th pick naturalize in case you get paired against the guy from your right who you know to have a sanctum gargoyle or oblivion ring.

Rule 4) When to abandon the pick order

This rule is not really that complicated, its basically a more complex way of looking at the pick order in a draft, which will hopefully increase your level of drafting and the power of your deck.

My basic pick order, if you dont remember, is this

- bombs
- removal
- mana fixing
- creatures
- combat trick (giant growth etc)
- hate drafting

Any drafter can follow these to a basic level and have a degree of success, but it is adapting the order of picks based upon your deck which can bring you to a higher level of drafting.

Let me give you some examples.

if in your first pack you have drafted some solid black red cards - goblin deathraiders, blightning, hells thunder, vicera dragger your need for mana fixing may go down if you think you are going to continue to draft an aggressive B/R deck.

Therefore you may wish to take more creatures over the mana fixing, for example picking a second vicera dragger over a savage lands.

On the other hand, you may have landed in a 5 colour strategy, with various powerful spells of 3 or more colours. Therefor when faced with the pick between a paragon of the amesha and an armillery sphere, your pick may be dependent on the quality of the mana fixing allready in your deck.

The lesson to learn here is that the pick order changes relative to the previous picks you have made, so for example if you have 5 or 6 quality removal spells but only a couple good creatures, you may wish to pass removal spells in order to take some good creatures, because after all most limited games are won by creatures.

This is not that hard to get to grips with, but the key is looking at each set of cards you pick up and knowing the other cards you have already picked, meaning that the power level of the cards you look at is also relative to the order of picks that the deck you are drafting demands.

I think one of the most important, and definately underused, element of the draft is the review period. I can not stress enough the importance of using the review period wisely. Although it is only a minute, this should be enough to determine the following things.

1) the number of playable cards you have drafter
2) the number of creatues
3) the number of non creatures (in particular removal)
4) are there any gaps in the mana curve.
5) how much mana fixing do i have

By doing this, you can then alter your picking order to draft more creatures, or removal spells, more mana fixing or do i need more 2-3 drops, or do i need to fill in the higher end of my curve with 5+ mana fatties.

By pack 2, you should be fairly set in a shard, as should most players round the table, so it will be not be a problem passing a better card by this stage, it is more important that your deck is the best it can be, so learn to use your review period and alter the order in which you pick certain types of cards and your drafting will certainly improve.

Rule 5) Mana Fixing

This will be pretty short because it is fairly straight forward, but because of the importance of mana fixing in Ala/Ala/Con i thought it deserved its own section.

The importance of mana fixing is huge in any deck, because you can not win without being able to successfully play your spells.

In a format where the better cards are 2 or 3 coloured, therefore, the importance of mana fixing goes up.

You will have seen that i place mana fixing in my order of picks above creatures, this isnt to say to pick a naya panorama above a resounding thunder, but because games can, and often will be, won or lost on the ability to play your 3 colour spells early.

It is very tempting to take other cards over the tri-lands or panoramas, but believe me a 1st pick tri-land is nothing to be ashamed of, because they can simply mean you play your turn 3 woolly thoctar, and bash face whilst your opponant sits across from you not being able to play his removal.

As previously mentioned however, you should be aware of the need for mana fixing in the deck you are drafting, as well as the type of mana fixing that is best for your deck. In an aggressive, low curved deck, i try to steer clear of the obelisks, because the acceleration they offer comes at the wrong time, and i want to playing guys during these earlier turns. On the other hand, the obelisks can be awesome in a 5 colour deck which has lots of multicoloured, high costed spells, or lots of different splashes.


I hope these rules will help people to increase their drafting, even a little, particularly if people begin to take note of signalling and information other than the cards they pick up, because i think this is one of the most advanced drafting skills (and one in which i am pretty bad)

Anyway, hope somebody finds this useful, look out for the final 2 rules after i have taken a large nap, i am pretty tired from writing 2 really loooong articles, and im sure you guys will be bored of reading them, so it may not go up till tomorrow.

Untill then


As always, feel free to comment on anything about this article, or anything unrelated to magic whatsoever. If you would like to contribute to the TLM blog, please email any ideas, articles, pictures or anything else to


  1. I'd just like to add that in SSC drafts the manafixing can be mostly left until the conflux booster. The trilands are insane and should be picked as soon as you see one in a booster, panoramas are fine and obelisks are fail. But the cycle of basic landcyclers and the overall lack of quality commons in conflux means that you can just take a bunch of landcyclers and rupture spires to fill out your deck at this point. Of course, if you draft manafixing early then you can fill out your curve with the crappy Conflux cards :D

  2. In order for signaling to work, general consensus of relative power has to exist, i remember early in ALA i would be passing vithian stingers and hissing iguanas for lesser red stuff possibly giving wrong signal, or misinterpreting signal sent to me. For this reason i created my top 29 of Shards of Alara commons, please take a look in the order and comment on any different approaches you have.

    Cards are valued on their own, their situational qualities have been regarded as a signal sent therefore even though i rated windwright mage very high, i would rarely pick it (only if in esper) hence passing it for another common gives a signal that esper is probably open from my side.

    1. Oblivion Ring (W)
    2. Resounding Thunder (R/ BRG)
    3. Agony Warp (UB)
    4. Executioners Capsule (B)
    5. Branching Bolt (RG)
    6. Sanctum Gargoyle (W)
    7. Windwright Mage (WUB)
    8. Resounding Roar (G/ RGW)
    9. Rakeclaw Gargantuan (RGW)
    10. Bone Splinters (B)
    11. Jungle Weaver (G)
    12. Elvish Visionary (G)
    13. Vithian Stinger (R)
    14. Hissing Iguana (R)
    15. Druid of the Anima (G / RGW)
    16. Sigil Blessing (GW)
    17. Resounding Silence (W / GWU)
    18. Magma Spray (R)
    19. Tideholow Strix (UB)
    20. Couriers Capsule (U)
    21. Bloodpyre Elemental (R)
    22. Esper Panorama (WUB)
    23. Steward of Valeron (WG)
    24. Naya Panorama (RGW)
    25. Grixis Panorama (UBR)
    26. Jund Panorama (BRG)
    27. Ridge Rannet (R)
    28. Blightning (RB)
    29. Excommunicate (W)

    Some position differences are irrelevant, say, Windwright Mage and Rakeclaw Gargantuan since they do not compete for place in a deck, whats significant is this list when faced with choices, in that case more important would be colour based lists, or shard based for example esperlist would be:

    1. Oblivion Ring
    2. Agony Warp
    3. Executioner’s capsule
    4. Sanctum Gargoyle
    5. Windwright Mage
    6. Bone Splinters
    7. Tideholow Strix
    8. Courier’s capsule
    9. Esper Panorama
    10. Grixis Panorama
    11. Bant Panorama
    12. Excommunicate

    The signals are not clear cut mainly because this format is defined by uncommons and it probably would make much more sense to at least add uncommons to the list, but i'm interested to see if your rating of commons differs from mine.

  3. this would be my top shards of alara commons

    1) oblivion ring
    2) Agony warp
    3) Vithian Stinger
    4) resounding thunder
    5) Branching bolt
    6) Sanctum gargoyle
    7) Executioners capsule
    8) Tidehollow Strix
    9) Magma Spray
    10) Bone Splinters

  4. Thats why discussion like this is needed for signaling to work :) I would assume that passing resounding thunder is invitation to join jund, or possible red, while for you vithian stinger is of higher value.

    Also i know your opinion of tricolor cards :) but even though i find myself trying to avoid them early, i think its important to give them credit in a sense that if i passed Windwright mage/ Rakeclaw gargantuan I would avoid Esper/Naya in following picks hoping that signal has been read and invitation accepted.

  5. the 10 i listed are only my opinion of the best commons in a vacuum in the current draft format. Although i some higher than others, it depends on the pack as to whether this order changes.

    i think you rate windwright mage and rakeclaw gargantuan a bit too highly, so i dont know if they really convey a strong signal, because i would expect those cards to be picked around 6th-8th, depending how deep the pack.

    I think the tri-lands are far clearer signal that a shard is open. If i got passed a 2nd or 3rd turn tri-land i would consider this a strong signal to move into that shard, because at least 2 of the colours must be open if it has been passed to me.

  6. Yeah, Windwright Mage isn't all that strong. Rakeclaw Gagantuan is good but I'd only take an 8th pick one as signals. You need to consistently see higher-level cards of one shard than the others to treat it as signal. For example, if you get passed an Agony Warp it's no biggie, but if that is followed by Infest and Grixis Charm then I'd say Grixis is very open.

  7. Agree with Rob regarding windwright mage, also: Bloodpyre Elemental 21st? With so many pump spells above him?

    I think personal pick orders are reflective of playstyle as much as anything else (Robbie loves his tricks)...

  8. It only starts giving singal at 8th pick because a booster is very likely to contain a couple good uncommons and quite often a rare thats why its been unfair to exclude uncommons from list and it starts being misleading and more representative of a hypothetical format. Yet still i don't think there are many commons (in fact ~3) which i would pick above mage if i want esper or above gargantuan if im in naya, nevertheless cards like whooly thoctar and tower gargoyle (and trilands) make this signal irrelevant.

  9. Tower Gargoyle is basically the only card that would make me want to go Esper. And I'd need 2 of them to not take it and play it in 5 colour, so there are no good Esper Signals at all that aren't just not taking 3 consecutive Tower and Sanctum Gargoyles.

  10. Really? I think that esper is probably the strongest shard in S/S/C draft at the moment.