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9: Booster Draft
For $10-15, you can try one of the best tests of raw skill.

A booster draft is an event where each player starts with three booster packs, which they open one at a time, taking one card and then passing the pack to the next player. They pick one card from each pack before passing it again, and since drafts usually have 8 players, you will see each pack twice. After drafting three packs you wind up with 42-45 cards.

This technique allows you to gather cards that work well together. You are usually able to focus picks in two or three colors. Beyond this, there are many synergies built into each set that are designed to jump out to skilled drafters. In fact, creating a coherent draft format is the primary goal of the Wizards design and development teams (yep - this is more important to their design than my precious Standard meta-game).

You have at least 30 minutes to build a 40-card deck, which means picking the best 23 or so of those 45 and then adding 17 lands (you can borrow them from the store or friends; they’re not part of what you draft).

Drafting is a ton of fun and it’s a great way to learn some of the strategy and math that help in other formats too. Since you work with such a limited card pool, you use cards that aren’t powerful enough for constructed decks; you have to figure out how to make the most of their slightly-awkward abilities, and which of your opponent’s chumps are enough of a threat to draw the fire of your removal spells.

But booster drafts aren’t just about having unusual cards and playing them well. There are also techniques you can learn to improve your choices when initially picking cards. For instance, when you receive a pack that has had three cards taken out of it and it has zero red cards left, you can be confident that two of the players on your left are playing red (therefore you should prefer other colors because they’ll beat you to the best red cards). Each set drafts differently, so you will slowly learn what you can get away with most cleanly.

I’ve learned a few drafting strategies from the podcast Limited Resources. One important consideration is whether the set you’re drafting is a fast format or a slow one. Battle for Zendikar was very fast; each color had a 3/2 for 2 mana at common, so there were lots of early attacks, not many great ways to block, and games could end after just a few turns. But in a format with a lot of 2/3s, it’s harder to attack early on, and the cards that make a big splash in the later game are more important.

Another advanced drafting strategy is to know which spells are the best removal in the format, and which are the best combat tricks. Then you can think about how cards you might pick will interact with those spells when you, almost inevitably, encounter them during your matches.

In terms of colors you use, it’s typical to use two colors but it’s not uncommon to use three. Certain sets have such good color-fixing that you can use four colors without getting stuck. Others have enough artifacts that you can use just one color and still draft 20 or more powerful spells.

The set Hour of Devastation has enough strategic differentiation between each color pair that a player picking cards for their green-red deck might still pass you lots of green cards that work well with white. Amonkhet as draft format was very fast, but as a sealed deck format (where you open six of your own packs instead of passing around the three) it was considerably slower. These achievements show that R&D deserves a lot of credit for their deft and evolving stewardship of these ways to play. In fact, even the ubiquitous wisdom of using 17 lands has been revisited in 2017, and anywhere from 15 to 19 might be correct.

The format may have evolved so much that the tradition of annotating set reviews with a grade for each card may be less useful and more misleading than ever before. In the past, bad cards were intentionally included in each set so that bad players would pick them and leave more good cards for players who knew the difference. Now the scenario is much closer to one where almost every card can be playable as long as it’s supported by the right strategy. There are still stand-out performers and cards that are longer bets, but trust your own instincts before considering whether YouTubers called the card a B- or a D+.

But becoming a draft expert isn’t the point of this book - the point is how to enjoy Magic cards. By no means should you feel intimidated by the complexities that people have discovered in draft strategies - the formats are still balanced enough that you can win a certain percentage of times. Drafting has several cool strengths. For one thing, you don’t need to own good cards (or any cards) to do it, and you don’t need to bring anything from home (or work, or vacation). You’ll never face a deck that’s so tightly crafted that it’s “degenerate” and can win on turn 3. You rarely have to face decks that destroy literally everything you try to do. And because of that, you’ll make a lot of decisions about how to attack and how to block — which is a stimulating challenge.