Drafting on the Edge

Temporal Extortion
It would be great to be a full-time Magic player. As I’ve mentioned previously, though, this isn’t really practical unless you’re independently wealthy or have a career that revolves around playing Magic. At the height of my Magic career, I managed a game store where the customers were obsessed with Magic, I dated a Magic player, my best friends were obsessed with Magic, and I had few non-Magic expenses. Now I live over an hour from the closest store with big events, I live over two hours from my Magic-playing friends, and aside from writing this column, my work has little to do with Magic. Of course, there are some people who are able to commit several hours every day to Magic, and that includes many of the players who are regulars on the Pro Tour. I try to go to multiple Pro Tours every year, and I’m always looking for an edge against these players since I’m always behind them in sheer hours of preparation.

Let’s be clear: You can’t win a Pro Tour, Grand Prix, or even a large Pro Tour Qualifier without talent, but preparation and practice is crucial to big-time success. When others were attending Gatecrash prereleases, I was working on projects at home rather than risking a long drive in bad winter weather. The next week, my “local” store had a Draft using Gatecrash, and I drove out there to have my first taste before the PT. I lost in the first round, but I learned enough to know that it was unlikely I would be able to master drafting all five guilds in time for the PT given my personal schedule. My next decision was to narrow my focus to two guilds that shared a color and that didn’t necessarily need me to open any good rares to be successful.

I chose Boros and Gruul. They seemed to be the two easiest guilds to master in the time available to me, and they seemed at first glance to be archetypes that could be drafted and played in a similar fashion to each other. While I would be handicapping myself by not having a complete understanding of the guilds some of my opponents would be playing, at least by playing aggressive decks, I could lessen the impact of this.

There are some obvious drawbacks to locking myself into only two guilds in advance:

Ember Beast
  • If I’m in the ideal seat for one of the other guilds, I might be missing out on an incredible 3–0 deck.
  • I might have to take a bad card or even counter-draft with my first pick(s) rather than just take the best card/s available.
  • If the player(s) in front of me is drafting Gruul or Boros, I might have most of the cards I need cut off from me.

While those facts are painful, I was counting on the advantages to outweigh the disadvantages given my short prep time for the format:

  • I would have fewer wasted picks than if I spent several picks trying to determine what colors I should be drafting.
  • I would spend all of my time learning how best to draft and play two archetypes really well instead of just scratching the surface of the learning curve on all of the possible archetypes.

Perhaps the biggest part of my premise in making this choice is that it’s better to have a really well-crafted and really well-played deck with few or no bombs and a shallow sideboard than to have a much better pool of cards and do a mediocre job of building and playing your deck. Obviously, the ideal is to be able to draft and play every archetype with the highest level of expertise, but with a short prep time, this isn’t always possible. I talked to several pros at the event who had spent three to four solid days straight drafting Gatecrash online and felt ready for anything, but not everyone has the ability to set his or her life aside for three to four straight days in addition to the actual trip to the PT—not to mention the time needed to also prepare for Constructed.

Aurelia's Fury
Even with my strategy of narrowing my focus to two guilds helping prevent me from falling behind the more prepared pros, I knew I still needed an edge to help me against pros who were going to be drafting the ideal decks for their seats and building and playing them really well. I decided I needed an even more radical approach to my aggressive strategy.

When Gatecrash became available online, I managed to find time for a half dozen Drafts in the few remaining days leading up to the event. I originally intended to look for Gruul and use Boros as my backup plan. I quickly flip-flopped this plan for two reasons. First and perhaps most importantly, Boros turned out to be slightly more to my preference. Second, I found myself focusing on red picks early as I tried to see whether it was better for me to be in Gruul or Boros, and Boros is a better base-red archetype than Gruul, which usually needs more green than Boros needs white. This was in spite of my first two prerelease Drafts being 2–1 with Gruul and 0–3 with Boros. I made some adjustments to my Boros strategy and 3–0’d a Draft, and I had a couple 2–1 Drafts.

As I drove north toward Canada for the event, I considered the Draft some more. I reflected that it would generally be a lot easier to go 3–0 or even 2–1 online than it would be to accomplish the same feat at the Pro Tour, where the millions of players from around the world would be distilled down to just a few hundred of the best of the best. How could I get an edge?

I began to consider the strengths of each guild and how best to make the strength of Boros trump the strengths of the other guilds:

Prophetic Prism
  • Simic – Their strength is evolution. They spend the first few turns playing small creatures that, over time, become giant monsters.
  • Dimir – Their strength is evasion combined with cipher, card advantage, and decking the opponent. Their early defense can be a bit suspect, but look out when their combos get going.
  • Orzhov – Their strength is extort. The more extort permanents they put into play combined with a lot of mana, the more powerful each successive spell becomes.
  • Gruul – Their strength is fast aggression, much like Boros, but by replacing white with green, they have a higher curve with bigger, scarier creatures and more bloodrush. By focusing more on bloodrush and less on battalion, they focus more on the individual quality of their creatures in play and less on the quantity of creatures in play.

At this point, the path to my edge became much clearer. All four of the other guilds have a better late game than Boros and worse early games, so I needed to start the early game sooner and avoid the late game as much as possible. Realizing this, I looked over at my teammate Rob in the passenger seat and informed him that I was going to make drafting 1-drops a priority with Boros at the PT.

When the Draft kicked off, I took the best Boros/Gruul card in my opening pack: Truefire Paladin. Immediately with my second pick overall, I was faced with a dilemma. There weren’t any “good” cards available for Gruul or Boros. I decided to embrace my new strategy, and I took a second-pick Foundry Street Denizen. Not too surprisingly, I turned out to be in a bad seat for my colors. Had I been drafting a blue guild like Simic or Dimir, I would have been treated to a constant barrage of juicy choices, even late in packs. Instead, I was forced into trying to make lemons into lemonade. This is the pool of cards I drafted:

As I had anticipated when I entered the Draft, my only chance was hyper-aggression. My pool of Boros cards was so shallow that I had very few choices to make during the actual deck building. Just to have enough playables in a two-colored deck, I would have to embrace my four Foundry Street Denizens. This meant that seemingly solid Boros cards such as Boros Keyrune and Boros Guildgate were now of questionable usefulness. While they might improve/speed up the mana of a higher-curve deck, they were likely to slow me down, and they ended up in my sideboard instead. This basically only left me with one hard building choice: whether to play Dutiful Thrull, Basilica Guards, or a seventeenth land. I’m still not sure which of those three cards would have been the best choice, but here is the deck I submitted:

Foundry Street Denizen
With zero rares and zero bombs, I was forced to try to push people off the table with as much alacrity as possible, despite having my deck weighed down by suboptimal cards such as Zarichi Tiger and Dutiful Thrull. With five 1-drops, five 2-drops, and four 3-drops with haste, in many games, I had my opponent down to 12 by turn three—unless he or she wanted to trade a “good” creature for a Foundry Street Denizen or Hellraiser Goblin. At this point, my opponent usually thought he or she was going to stabilize as he or she played a creature that was better than any of my three were, but thanks to Aerial Maneuver, Madcap Skills, Massive Raid, and my two Act of Treasons, I usually had just enough reach to finish the job.

Given the expression on most people’s faces when they looked at my deck and how bad a seat I was in for Boros, I was reasonably happy to finish 2–1 with my deck. One of the most overlooked skills in Draft is to being able to build a powerful deck with cards that most other drafters place little value on. I was reminded of this after the PT when I was on Facebook and I saw a screenshot by Conley Woods from a recent Draft he did online. His opening Gruul hand: two Spire Tracers, Forced Adaptation, Riot Gear, a Mountain, and two Forests. Normally, playing these cards would get most players laughed out of a Magic store after a Draft. Put them all together, and in Conley’s hands, they represented a dangerous and creative threat. Next time you’re drafting, consider this: Do you want to do what everyone else is trying to do, or are you willing to go out on the edge in order to win?