The first time I ever played a Booster Draft with stamped product was on the second day of a Grand Prix. It was my first time playing at Professional Rules Enforcement Level and I was excited and apprehensive. One of the instructions you are given when doing a called draft is to count the pack to ensure it has the right number of cards and when I picked up the pack to do so I found, to my horror, one of the cards was the wrong way round! Those of you who have done these kinds of drafts before will know that this is completely normally and if you watch coverage you’ll see the experienced players casually flip it around before counting face-down. I’d never noticed this, no one had ever told me about it and I certainly didn’t want to gain an unfair advantage so I called a judge, who explained to me it was no big deal and I imagine many of you have seen such situations happen or had similar experiences.
This story serves as an amusing example of one of the minor differences between drafting seriously in paper and drafting at home online, on either Arena or Magic Online. It is something that people take as a given, and don’t typically talk about, and is obviously not important at all, unless you are a nervous first time drafter like I was. However, there are several other more significant and more important differences between paper drafting in a pod and the methods of drafting which are employed by the online clients.
One of the most important things in a Draft is to read the signals you are getting from the player(s) passing to you. If you get passed a card in the middle of the pack which is typically valued as a much higher pick, then that colour is likely not being picked by the players to your right. If you can correctly pick up on these signals and take the cards in an ‘open’ colour, you will end up getting higher quality cards and a better deck.
On Arena this is not a relevant aspect of the drafting process as the drafting is done entirely against automated bots. Even if one were to try to take into account the signals being provided by the bots or attempted to send good signals to the bot you are passing to, you’d be using a suboptimal strategy by not exploiting the weaknesses of the bots. The optimal strategy on Arena is almost always to draft the archetype which is undervalued by the bots. Initially during RNA drafts the ‘gates-matter’ cards were extremely undervalued and it was simply correct to take these cards. After an update they still grossly undervalue some commons such as Grasping Thrull or Sauroform Hybrid. As such the signals one should apply when drafting on Arena are more holistic and rather than looking at individual cards being passed you should look at the trends over a number of drafts to exploit the bots drafting weaknesses.
Magic Online provides a much better experience for drafting based on signals as you are drafting with other humans, within a pod of eight players and the usual signalling rules apply. However, since you do not typically play against the people you draft with, there are certain aspects of the draft league experience which bias towards players attempting to signal even more aggressively than normal on Magic Online. For example it is fairly standard to take a basic land as early as 12th pick in a pack to deliberately send cards of the colours which you would prefer the neighbouring players to be in. This often also applies to taking cards that are completely useless to you in order to pass marginal playables in an attempt to strongly send those signals. This is atypical to a paper draft where players know they will be playing within the pod of players they are drafting with and you would normally simply sweep up those playables at the end to avoid others having access to those cards.
Hate Drafting and Wheeling
The concept of taking cards to avoid people within your pod having access to them is known as hate-drafting or defensive drafting. It is something which is generally not valued that highly by drafters as it is better to improve your own deck than reduce the powerlevel of only a single potential competitor at the table. However, on both Arena and Magic Online it has absolutely no value and thus will not factor into your decisions, nor into those of the people you are drafting with if you are using Magic Online.
In a serious competitive paper draft, when you know you’ll be playing three of the players in your pod, hate drafting becomes a more important aspect of the draft. This doesn’t automatically mean that you take an off-colour bomb in pack three because you don’t want to play against it, although sometimes this might be the case. Rather, it mostly applies to things such as taking out Radiating Lightnings when you are drafting a Saproling deck in Dominaria or picking up some late Naturalizes because you have a bomb Enchantment or Artifact.
More subtly, it tends to mean that in the later stages of the draft once you are solidified in a colour combination and you see a pack which contains very weak cards for your deck, you will take a mid to high value card in a different colour to remove it from your opponents’ potential options. As the signals after a certain point tend to have significant diminishing returns, you can start to reduce the relative powerlevel of the other decks at your table and thereby increase the relative powerlevel of your own deck.
This aspect of drafting, which only applies when playing in a pod draft, means that you will be much less likely to wheel higher value cards in the second and third packs. This information is not something one can pick up from playing online and in fact you’re likely to get the opposite effect as players will happily pass these cards, secure in the knowledge they are very unlikely to face them in their own games.
Building your deck
After you’ve finished drafting you have to decide which cards to include in your deck and which to leave out. Often, most of these decisions will be fairly simple but the last half a dozen or so cards can make a big difference to the performance of a deck. On Arena you might maindeck cards that you consider to be better against the archetype which the bots undervalue, whilst on Magic Online you are likely to keep your cards pretty normalised to play against any viable archetype.
In a paper draft though, you will have seen quite a large portion of the cards that were available at the table. Not only that but you likely have a sense of the archetypes and colours which were especially open or were not open. This can give you an indication as to whether you should make any unusual maindeck inclusions. If you are drafting Ravnica Allegiance and you think you are the only Orzhov drafter and that Green was overdrafted then you should probably include Undercity’s Embrace in your maindeck. Typically, edict effects are not that strong in Limited and especially so in a set with Afterlife but with the knowledge gained during the drafting process you can adjust your deck to suit the decks you will face in your pod. The same is true of other narrow effects or unusual maindeck inclusions, and these decisions can increase your win percentage by a substantial amount if you are able to glean this kind of information during the draft. Once again, this is the kind of skill which won’t even be a consideration when drafting online and indeed shouldn’t be, but is a nuance of pod drafting that players should absolutely be able to take advantage of in a competitive paper draft.
Magic Online always has you draft in a pod of eight players and that is certainly helpful to replicate the experience you will face in a paper draft whilst drafting. However, you do not play the games within your pod, and this means that you miss out on certain important information about the pod dynamics of the draft format.
What I mean by this is that you won’t have the same level of post-draft information with regards to colour distribution around the table or the general powerlevel of your draft pod. The colour distribution is important so that you can learn how many players are supported in specific primary colours or in certain colour combinations. Can Blue support three or more drafters? What happens if you have more than two players drafting Boros Aggro in a GRN pod? If there was only a single Black drafter did their deck end up completely unbeatable or was it still below the powerlevel of other decks at the table? This kind of information is extremely helpful to better understand how pod drafts will typically end up looking and how you can best position yourself in your competitive paper drafts: If you know that a primary colour can support a larger number of drafters then the later signals for that colour don’t hold as much weight or if a colour is underdrafted at a table and the player(s) in that colour still have a weak deck then perhaps it is not a good primary colour in the format.
Drafting and then playing within your pod will also give you an accurate representation of powerlevels of various different archetypes and decks. On both of the online clients, you will tend to only face the higher end examples of decks as people have had both a more friendly drafting environment and you tend to more frequently play against other players on successful records. In contrast if you play out several full pod drafts then you’ll see which archetypes are going 2-1 and which are going 1-2 and what the differences between the decks at 0-3 and 1-2 or at 3-0 and 2-1 tend to be. For instance, the aggressive decks might be the best archetypes in the format, but did the deck with the extremely low curve outperform the deck with the higher card quality or was the slower deck exploited by the midrange decks at the table? Gaining knowledge of and understanding the internal metagames which can develop within pod drafting and draft formats as a whole can often make the difference between emerging from the draft with a good record or a poor one.
Assessment of losses
Magic players will always try to look for the reasons behind their losses and attempt to find any aspects of their game which can be improved upon in future. There are a lot of decision points in any game of Magic and an analysis of these and the discussion of potential options is one of the things which makes the game have such high replayability. When a draft deck does poorly, the most important factor is often the draft itself and whilst you can analyse your drafts from Arena or Magic Online you don’t always have all the information to accurately do so. Frequently in online drafts, your middling decks from a set of weaker packs will lose to much better decks that were drafted from higher powered packs that you simply never had access to. In a pod draft, you can come away with a 2-1 with a weaker deck where you might achieve 0 wins with the same quality of deck online and simply assume that the archetype or your drafting was to blame.
An overarching theme with online drafts is that your opponents will often be bringing to the table a deck which is on the higher end of the quality scale rather than the average powerlevel. This can warp a player’s perception of the format to their detriment if their experience becomes inordinately biased towards the best examples of archetypes or even only towards the best archetype itself. Drafting and playing in a pod will give you a more well-rounded perception of the format and the quality of the cards in their proper context, allowing you to accurately choose the 20th to 23rd cards that you might otherwise overlook or inaccurately value.
I strongly believe that drafting in paper, within an 8 player pod, and then playing within that pod gives players a much faster and deeper understanding of a draft format than online drafting can afford you. Online drafting is still an extremely useful tool for learning the cards and the interactions and obviously has huge advantages in terms of convenience. However, the members of Team Axion Now have been taking a weekend at the start of most Limited formats to have a Draft Camp where we spend the weekend drafting and discussing the format, and I truly believe this is a major factor in some of the successes we’ve had in competitive paper drafts. There is no greater example of this than João Choça’s victory at the M19 Limited Grand Prix Turin in July 2018. Therefore, if you want to succeed in competitive drafts I would strongly encourage you to utilise paper drafts and take advantage of the information and skills these experiences can offer; one paper draft, properly analysed, is worth more than a dozen drafts online.
About George Channing:
George has been playing competitively since 2014 and is a true grinder; with a huge number of competitive events under his belt, his results have been improving year on year. With a Grand Prix Top 8 in Modern and a few Pro Tour appearances, he aspires to become a regular on the biggest stage. George’s role on Team Axion is frequently related to metagame and decklist analysis, whilst also providing a lot of raw testing data. He most enjoys Standard with the speed and frequency of the metagame developments keeping it interesting.