Draft MtG the Smart Way
Drafting is a fun and popular play format to open and play new Magic: the Gathering (MtG) cards. Many of Noble Knight Games’ Magic events are built on the thrill of a draft. If you’ve been thinking of drafting for the first time, or you’re pondering how to improve your draft play, this guide to drafting is a great place to begin!
I started to draft MtG over 25 years ago. I’ve drafted around the kitchen table, at local stores, and at competitive level events. Thousands of drafts. I’ve also run/judged a couple thousands more; at everything from local stores to the World Championships. And a lot of things are true about all those drafts, no matter the set, no matter the rules enforcement level. A draft is a draft.
What is Drafting?
Let’s start simple. An MtG draft involves a small group of players—ideally eight. Each player has three draft booster packs. Everyone opens one pack, chooses their favorite card and passes the rest of the pack to the player on their left. Then you take your newly received cards, choose the best card and pass the rest of the cards to your left. This continues until all the cards are drafted.
Next you do the same thing with the second booster, but passing to the right. Then the third pack goes left again. Each player will end up with a pile of 45 or so cards from which they will build a deck. The decks must be at least 40 cards, including basic lands. You don’t have to draft basic lands—they will be provided.
At Noble Knight Games, you’ll head up to a Land Station to choose land cards to play with. At the end of the night, you’ll keep all the cards you drafted. You can keep the lands too, or return them to the store for the next event’s players.
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Which Cards Should You Pick?
It’s easy to say “take the best card,” but not always easy to know what the best card is. Here’s some basic advice to help you through your first MtG draft—and the following hundred!
Drafting a great creature like Dragonlord Ojutai and playing it is what drafting is all about. Playing a big dragon is fun, and big dragons win games. Ditto regarding Angels and bombs like Citadel Siege and Arcane Bombardment—cards that you can build a synergistic deck around.
By all means, take cool cards, but be sure to draft a deck to support it. Your deck cannot be all huge flying monsters, because your opponent will likely run you over long before you can cast any of them.
Whenever possible, you want to draft removal mechanic cards. Removal cards say things like “Destroy target creature,” “Exile target creature,” or “Deal damage to target creature.” Removal cards get rid of opponent’s creatures that are messing with your game plan.
Even cards that say “Enchanted Creature cannot attack or block,” or “Tap target creature. It does not untap,” can be removal. Your opponent will have some cool cards of their own, and you want to have some removal to deal with them.
Note on Counterspells: Removal needs to deal with things your opponents have already cast. Counterspells have their place, but they are not removal. We’ll talk about them later!
If possible, you want to draft creatures with evasion, meaning abilities like “flying” or “horsemanship” or “unblockable.” Most cards in most draft decks are creatures, and creatures can block. In many cases, masses of creatures on both sides mean no one can profitably attack. Creatures with evasion can get through such quagmires when other creatures cannot. Evasion is good. Even partial evasion, like “Trample” is worth playing.
You need to be able to cast your spells, meaning your mana base has to work. Generally, you want to draft a deck that is just two colors, or maybe two colors plus one or two really good cards in a third color. You also want to draft cards that help fix your mana.
Cards that find basic lands are good, as are artifacts that tap for mana in your colors. Lands that tap for two or more of your colors are always valuable. Modern Magic sets have plenty of playable cards, so it is often worthwhile taking a two-color land over yet another mediocre creature. In modern Magic, you will have plenty of chances to get mediocre creatures.
What we’re talking about here is on-color, on-curve, boring stuff. In MtG drafts, you want to stay ahead of—or at least even with—your opponent. That means you have to play cards—generally creatures—pretty much every turn in the early game. To have those creatures, you have to draft them. At certain times in a draft, you may need to draft a small, mana efficient creature instead of another giant monster or seven-mana cool card.
Keeping up with your opponent in the early game generally means casting:
- A two-casting-cost creature on turn two
- A decent three-casting-cost creature on turn three
- And so forth…
This means your deck needs a lot of two-drops, a fair number of three-drops, and fewer of the more expensive creatures.
Let’s break that down. On turn two, you will have seen 8-9 cards (seven cards in your opening hand, plus your draws). Eight cards is one-fifth of your 40-card deck. To be reasonably sure you will have something to play on turn two, you will need at least five—preferably six or seven—two-drops in your deck. You also want five or six three-drops. By turn four, you will likely have seen a quarter of your deck, so four or five four-drops is likely enough. You want progressively fewer of the more expensive cards.
In most cases, I play 17 lands in my 40 card draft decks. With 17 lands, I can probably play my cards on time. Seventeen lands gives me a 94% chance of having two mana on turn two and a 55% chance of having five mana on turn five. If I play 16 lands, my chance of hitting three mana on turn three drops to 70%, and the odds of having five mana on turn five is just 35%. I will sometimes run 16 lands, but only in special circumstances. Those circumstances are:
- Almost nothing in my deck costs more than three
- I have lots of cards that I can cast on turn two that get me extra mana
- I have lots of cheap card-drawing that lets me find my lands
But be careful: the absolute worst MtG draft experience is sitting there waiting to draw lands while your opponent plays card after card. Don’t let that happen to you—play enough lands.
When choosing lands, you also want to consider which colors you have drafted. If your deck is evenly split between two colors, then you will have to play eight lands of one color and nine of another. At that point, your chance of drawing at least one land of each color by turn two is about 74%. If you splash a third color by changing out three lands, your chance of having both main colors on turn two drops to 67%. These percentages get better for every land you have that taps for two or more of your colors.
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Things To Avoid
We have talked about what to take in your MtG draft, and a bit about how to build your deck. It’s also vital to avoid these common pitfalls.
The Fifth Expensive Card
It’s okay to play a couple of big, expensive, super-cool cards—cards that cost a bazillion mana and do great things. However, you need to avoid playing too many of them, because you really don’t want to draw too many too early. One of the worst opening hands in draft is three lands—with all your colors—and four cards that you cannot cast before turn six or seven at best. You have to mulligan that hand and it feels worse because you saw all those great cards.
The Devil’s Manabase
The “Devil’s Manabase” means 18 lands with six of each land type (ex: 6 Plains, 6 Islands and 6 Forests). If you end up playing this mix your deck has to be an even mix or three colors, but you couldn’t get enough multicolored lands or mana fixing to make that work. With a six-six-six land mix, the chance of drawing any specific color by turn three is just 76%. The odds of drawing all three lands by turn three is only 42%. That means that six out of ten games, you are going to have cards in hand you cannot cast. Avoid this: stick to two colors if you can, or draft mana fixing, or both.
Walls and Lifegain
The classic “wall” is a 0/4 or 0/5 creature with Defender—one that can block but not attack. You really don’t want to play 0/Xs. Having creatures that can block is great, but you want blockers that can at least trade damage with the attackers. If you really want to gum up the ground—for example, if you intend to win with fliers and just need to keep the ground-based attackers away—then something like a 2/3 Defender is infinitely better than a 0/5. Blockers that cannot kill, or at least trade damage with attackers, do not help you win; they just prolong losing.
Lifegain spells (ex: “you gain 4 life”) fall in the same category: you just end up losing a couple turns later than you otherwise would. Build your deck to win, not to lose slowly.
Counterspells (named after the OG Counterspell) are really tempting. In an ideal world, you can counter their threats. However, that only works if you have the counterspell in hand and the mana available when your opponent casts their threat. That situation is really, really rare in draft.
In general, the player who does a better job of using all of their mana every turn wins. This means it can be hard to leave mana unused without falling behind. If your opponent is ahead on board, they can just win without casting anything for you to counter. If you are at parity, then your opponent can just cast marginal cards to make you use up your counterspells, then play their good stuff.
As a general, very basic guideline, don’t play counterspells in draft. As you get more experienced, you will learn when to ignore this rule.
Too Many Mana Pips
I recently drafted a blue-green deck. There was a land that tapped for both colors and a couple cards that let me search for lands, so my mana was pretty good. I also had a Covetous Urge—a really sweet card that cost UUUU in my deck. I didn’t play it. Even with the ability to search for Islands, I didn’t think I could reasonably expect to find four Islands fast enough for it to matter. The card could have been amazing, but I expected to have it rot in my hand while waiting for that fourth Island. Covetous Urge had too many blue mana pips for my deck. Now, if I knew my opponent was playing a really slow deck—slow enough that I would find four Islands—I would have brought it in from the sideboard. But it never happened in that draft.
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Final Thoughts and Tips
This is a draft primer, giving very basic rules to help you enjoy drafting. Obey them, or break them, as you see fit. I have, in the past, broken all of these rules. In every case, I thought I knew what I was doing and why I was doing it. Sometimes I was right, and sometimes I lost as a result. That’s Magic.
MtG drafts are fun and challenging because they are a complex series of choices and compromises: Do I need to take the cheap creature to fill a hole, or the big fat monster? Should I take the removal card or the mana fixing? Does my opponent have the trick or not? These are all judgement calls, and there may be no right answer. The fun is in trying to figure it out, and seeing if you were right.
I have been drafting regularly for 25 years and I still find these questions difficult. That’s one reason I enjoy drafting— that and the fact that I get to play Magic with a lot of interesting and fun people.
Come join us for a draft, or some other popular formats, at Noble Knight Games!
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Written by Pete Jahn
Pete started writing for Magic: the Gathering websites in 1998. He won his first competitive match at a Pro Tour qualifier in 1999, when his Round 5 opponent failed to show up. Since then, he has been to over a hundred Grand Prix, 15 Pro Tours and 5 World Championships, most often as a judge. He played in the first Community Cup against Wizards employees—victoriously—and was a playtester for the Mirrodin card set. About that last thing, Pete would like to apologize for Affinity and say it wasn’t really his fault.