This past weekend I participated in a sealed PPTQ at my LGS, made it to the top 8 draft, and lost a really interesting match in the finals to just miss my first RPTQ invite. It was a heartbreaking loss, but it prompted me to reflect on my own experiences learning about draft, how I’ve reached the point I’m at now, and how I can improve further. So today I’m going to walk through the concepts that have given me the greatest leaps in improvement, and present a general process by which I hope you can improve too! Let’s start at the very beginning, with a 20-year-old MrMemeDreme going to a draft with some friends.
The short of it is that I got crushed. Most of my time was spent reading the cards, trying to get enough cards to play in my deck, and all-around making bad decisions. Don’t get me started on how I played in those early games! But this is the struggle we all face as a new player; you need to sort through a lot of information, and don’t have a great sense of what you should be doing. In the face of overwhelming losses, what did I do to improve?
I read set reviews! This is an excellent way to enhance your draft picks significantly by illustrating which cards are often unplayable, which are the best, and which are filler for most decks. This initial stage I will call the Base Power Phase. Here, your drafting is improved because the average quality of cards you pick increases dramatically, leading to higher power decks, which in turn increases your win percentage! This stage had the most visible impact on my drafting, as I went from picking a fair number of awful cards to picking exclusively playable cards, and started to win some matches! This was an exhilarating stage, as it felt like I’d been blind and was suddenly able to see clearly. Of course, I was only seeing a tiny part of the picture, but it sure felt good at the time!
After a while, however, I realized my fellow FNM players were still drafting more powerful, interesting decks than I was, and that even though I was taking playable cards, my average deck quality wasn’t improving anymore. This was the point at which I began to make the most laborious but important shift in drafting: from focusing on Base Power Phase to Contextual Power Phase. This shift represents a change from selecting cards based on isolated power level to choosing cards based on their relative value. The most basic application of picking by context is something everyone does: pick colors! If you’re in pack 3 and open Carnage Tyrant when you’re in RB aggro, even though the base power level of Carnage Tyrant is very high, you can’t pick it because contextual power is 0 because you can’t play it. The process of shifting to contextual evaluations is similar, and involves acknowledging the base power of a card and then adjusting that value based on other factors. The fundamental point is that the base power of a card does not provide sufficient information for you to decide whether it should be in your deck. Instead, you need to use supplementary information to assign it a contextual power valuation based on your knowledge of other factors.
While you likely agree that factors other than the card’s base power level are important for knowing when to draft them, it’s difficult to determine what those factors are. At this point, I was aware that I was missing something about draft, but I wasn’t sure how to improve. Today I’m hoping to make that easier on you by presenting some of those factors I consider most important for improving at draft: understanding the format, analyzing your deck’s composition, and assessing the draft metagame!
Understanding the format can be difficult, and even at the professional level there can be large disparities in opinion about specific cards or even evaluations of the format’s speed! These evaluations encompass several factors, including broad evaluations like the speed of the format and which archetypes are best, and more specific factors like what power and toughness is most relevant and how good combat tricks are. These evaluations help you understand how much you need to prioritize 2-drops, how early to take removal, and which creatures are most important. Signaling also comes into play here; understanding the format means you’ll have a better sense of which cards are strong signals, as well as which archetype they signal most! The best way to improve at your own evaluation of a format is to read as much as possible, and to discuss your own thoughts with other players to figure out whether your evaluation is accurate. Asking yourself questions about how your games have played out helps too; how long did games last, were board stalls common, how important was removal, and did any cards perform better or worse than expected. These questions help adjust your understanding of what qualities to prioritize in the format, and can help you develop an understanding of the format on your own. Achieving a basic understanding of the format helped me improve my drafting relatively quickly, as there were several sources I drew on to learn more about each limited format I played. It was only when I started asking questions about the format on my own, however, that I started to learn how to evaluate formats myself.
A complex understanding of deck composition and how it informs your picks is crucial for drafting well, but takes considerably more time to understand than learning about the format. Understanding the format can help with your evaluations of deck composition, but the archetypes vary enough that knowing which cards your deck needs is a difficult skill to acquire. Understanding how your deck wins is a crucial aspect of evaluating deck composition, and so ensuring your picks match that game plan has a dramatic impact on your deck’s quality. Additionally, it takes time to learn which version of the archetype needs to prioritize combat tricks over removal, or a three drop instead of a two drop. One of the best ways to improve with questions about deck composition is to watch drafts from players like Reid Duke or Ben Stark to see how they vary their picks based on their deck composition. In particular, make sure you pause the video before each pick to see whether your decisions match theirs. This process led to one of the biggest single improvements I’ve seen in my own drafting (and playing!), and is much more valuable than just watching great players draft without analyzing each pick. Over time, you learn general rules for what decks with certain strategies need, and you can then vary that knowledge based on what you know about each new format.
This is something you can utilize in your own FNM’s, and that you’ll see come into play on the Pro Tour! This involves evaluating the skill level and knowledge of the other players in your draft pod, and using this information to your advantage. At the pro level, this doesn’t involve skill level evaluations as much as knowledge about other the other players’ draft preferences, and knowledge of what they think about the format. This shifts their understanding of signals in the draft; if you know the player to your left thinks Shapers’ Sanctuary is a weak card, then you will interpret it being passed to you differently than if you know they think it’s an excellent card. If they think it’s a great card, then getting it is a good signal that the other player is not in green, but if they don’t value it highly then it gives you very little information. At your own FNM’s, you will see the same players pretty often, so over time you can assess what types of decks they play and what cards they value, and use this information to interpret signals more accurately in the draft. Additionally, assessing overall skill level of other players is important for understanding the draft. If you know someone next to you is new to the format, then understanding the signals from them becomes more difficult, as your evaluations of cards will likely be different. A good understanding of the draft environment will be crucial for drafting well in competitive environments, where finding the slightest edges will be important for drafting the best deck you can.
I’m still refining my understanding of each of these topics, working to find more edges to improve my draft skill! And that’s part of what makes the game great, learning over time that allows you to make incremental improvements and enhance your drafting!
What other factors do you think are important for improving at draft? Comment below!